A Son of the Sun


(First published in The Saturday Evening Post, v. 184, September 2, 1911: 12-14, 40-41)


No stars showed that night, nor was the sun visible next day. A stuffy, sticky calm obtained, broken by big wind-squalls and heavy downpours. From fear of working too far to windward, the Uncle Toby was hove to, and four days and nights of cloud-hidden sky followed. Never did the sun appear, and on the several occasions that stars broke through they were too dim and fleeting for identification. By this time it was patent to the veriest tyro that the elements were preparing to break loose. Grief, coming on deck from consulting the barometer, which steadfastly remained at 29.9°, encountered Jackie-Jackie, whose face was as brooding and troublous as the sky and air. Jackie-Jackie, a Tongan sailor of experience, served as a sort of bosun and semi-second mate over the mixed Kanaka crew.

"Big weather he come, I think," he said. "I see him just the same before maybe five, six times."

Grief nodded. "Hurricane weather, all right, Jackie-Jackie. Pretty soon barometer go down—bottom fall out."

"Sure," the Tongan concurred. "He goin' to blow like hell."

Ten minutes later Snow came on deck.

"She's started," he said; "29.85, going down and pumping at the same time. It's stinking hot—don't you notice it?" He brushed his forehead with his hands. "It's sickening. I could lose my breakfast without trying."

Jackie-Jackie grinned. "Just the same me. Everything inside walk about. Always this way before big blow. But Uncle Toby all right. He go through anything."

"Better rig that storm-trysail on the main, and a storm-jib," Grief said to the mate. "And put all the reefs into the working canvas before you furl down. No telling what we may need. Put on double gaskets while you're about it."

In another hour, the sultry oppressiveness steadily increasing and the stark calm still continuing, the barometer had fallen to 29. 70. The mate, being young, lacked the patience of waiting for the portentous. He ceased his restless pacing, and waved his arms.

"If she's going to come let her come!" he cried. "There's no use shilly- shallying this way! Whatever the worst is, let us know it and have it! A pretty pickle-lost with a crazy chronometer and a hurricane that won't blow!"

The cloud-mussed sky turned to a vague copper colour, and seemed to glow as the inside of a huge heated caldron. Nobody remained below. The native sailors formed in anxious groups amidships and for'ard, where they talked in low voices and gazed apprehensively at the ominous sky and the equally ominous sea that breathed in long, low, oily undulations.

"Looks like petroleum mixed with castor oil," the mate grumbled, as he spat his disgust overside. "My mother used to dose me with messes like that when I was a kid. Lord, she's getting black!"

The lurid coppery glow had vanished, and the sky thickened and lowered until the darkness was as that of a late twilight. David Grief, who well knew the hurricane rules, nevertheless reread the "Laws of Storms," screwing his eyes in the faint light in order to see the print. There was nothing to be done save wait for the wind, so that he might know how he lay in relation to the fast-flying and deadly centre that from somewhere was approaching out of the gloom.

It was three in the afternoon, and the glass had sunk to 29:45, when the wind came. They could see it on the water, darkening the face of the sea, crisping tiny whitecaps as it rushed along. It was merely a stiff breeze, and the Uncle Toby, filling away under her storm canvas till the wind was abeam, sloshed along at a four-knot gait.

"No weight to that," Snow sneered. "And after such grand preparation!"

"Pickaninny wind," Jackie-Jackie agreed. "He grow big man pretty quick, you see."

Grief ordered the foresail put on, retaining the reefs, and the Uncle Toby mended her pace in the rising breeze. The wind quickly grew to man's size, but did not stop there. It merely blew hard, and harder, and kept on blowing harder, advertising each increase by lulls followed by fierce, freshening gusts. Ever it grew, until the Uncle Toby's rail was more often pressed under than not, while her waist boiled with foaming water which the scuppers could not carry off. Grief studied the barometer, still steadily falling.

"The centre is to the south'ard," he told Snow, "and we're running across its path and into it. Now we'll turn about and run the other way. That ought to bring the glass up. Take in the foresail—it's more than she can carry already—and stand by to wear her around."

The maneuver was accomplished, and through the gloom that was almost that of the first darkness of evening the Uncle Toby turned and raced madly north across the face of the storm.

"It's nip and tuck," Grief confided to the mate a couple of hours later. "The storm's swinging a big curve—there's no calculating that curve—and we may win across or the centre may catch us. Thank the Lord, the glass is holding its own. It all depends on how big the curve is. The sea's too big for us to keep on. Heave her to! She'll keep working along out anyway."

"I thought I knew what wind was," Snow shouted in his owner's ear next morning. "This isn't wind. It's something unthinkable. It's impossible. It must reach ninety or a hundred miles an hour in the gusts. That don't mean anything. How could I ever tell it to anybody? I couldn't. And look at that sea! I've run my Easting down, but I never saw anything like that."

Day had come, and the sun should have been up an hour, yet the best it could produce was a sombre semi-twilight. The ocean was a stately procession of moving mountains. A third of a mile across yawned the valleys between the great waves. Their long slopes, shielded somewhat from the full fury of the wind, were broken by systems of smaller whitecapping waves, but from the high crests of the big waves themselves the wind tore the whitecaps in the forming. This spume drove masthead high, and higher, horizontally, above the surface of the sea.

"We're through the worst," was Grief's judgment. "The glass is coming along all the time. The sea will get bigger as the wind eases down. I'm going to turn in. Watch for shifts in the wind. They'll be sure to come. Call me at eight bells."

By mid-afternoon, in a huge sea, with the wind after its last shift no more than a stiff breeze, the Tongan bosun sighted a schooner bottom up. The Uncle Toby's drift took them across the bow and they could not make out the name; but before night they picked up with a small, round-bottom, double-ender boat, swamped but with white lettering visible on its bow. Through the binoculars, Gray made out: Emily L No. 3.

"A sealing schooner," Grief said. "But what a sealer's doing in these waters is beyond me."

"Treasure-hunters, maybe?" Snow speculated. "The Sophie Sutherland and the Herman were sealers, you remember, chartered out of San Francisco by the chaps with the maps who can always go right to the spot until they get there and don't."

Go Back To: A Little Account With Swithin Hall (III)
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