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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Sea Wolf - Chapter XXVII
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The Sea Wolf - Chapter XXVII Post by :Morningwing Category :Long Stories Author :Jack London Date :April 2011 Read :2700

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The Sea Wolf - Chapter XXVII

Day broke, grey and chill. The boat was close-hauled on a fresh
breeze and the compass indicated that we were just making the
course which would bring us to Japan. Though stoutly mittened, my
fingers were cold, and they pained from the grip on the steering-
oar. My feet were stinging from the bite of the frost, and I hoped
fervently that the sun would shine.

Before me, in the bottom of the boat, lay Maud. She, at least, was
warm, for under her and over her were thick blankets. The top one
I had drawn over her face to shelter it from the night, so I could
see nothing but the vague shape of her, and her light-brown hair,
escaped from the covering and jewelled with moisture from the air.

Long I looked at her, dwelling upon that one visible bit of her as
only a man would who deemed it the most precious thing in the
world. So insistent was my gaze that at last she stirred under the
blankets, the top fold was thrown back and she smiled out on me,
her eyes yet heavy with sleep.

"Good-morning, Mr. Van Weyden," she said. "Have you sighted land
yet?"

"No," I answered, "but we are approaching it at a rate of six miles
an hour."

She made a MOUE of disappointment.

"But that is equivalent to one hundred and forty-four miles in
twenty-four hours," I added reassuringly.

Her face brightened. "And how far have we to go?"

"Siberia lies off there," I said, pointing to the west. "But to
the south-west, some six hundred miles, is Japan. If this wind
should hold, we'll make it in five days."

"And if it storms? The boat could not live?"

She had a way of looking one in the eyes and demanding the truth,
and thus she looked at me as she asked the question.

"It would have to storm very hard," I temporized.

"And if it storms very hard?"

I nodded my head. "But we may be picked up any moment by a
sealing-schooner. They are plentifully distributed over this part
of the ocean."

"Why, you are chilled through!" she cried. "Look! You are
shivering. Don't deny it; you are. And here I have been lying
warm as toast."

"I don't see that it would help matters if you, too, sat up and
were chilled," I laughed.

"It will, though, when I learn to steer, which I certainly shall."

She sat up and began making her simple toilet. She shook down her
hair, and it fell about her in a brown cloud, hiding her face and
shoulders. Dear, damp brown hair! I wanted to kiss it, to ripple
it through my fingers, to bury my face in it. I gazed entranced,
till the boat ran into the wind and the flapping sail warned me I
was not attending to my duties. Idealist and romanticist that I
was and always had been in spite of my analytical nature, yet I had
failed till now in grasping much of the physical characteristics of
love. The love of man and woman, I had always held, was a
sublimated something related to spirit, a spiritual bond that
linked and drew their souls together. The bonds of the flesh had
little part in my cosmos of love. But I was learning the sweet
lesson for myself that the soul transmuted itself, expressed
itself, through the flesh; that the sight and sense and touch of
the loved one's hair was as much breath and voice and essence of
the spirit as the light that shone from the eyes and the thoughts
that fell from the lips. After all, pure spirit was unknowable, a
thing to be sensed and divined only; nor could it express itself in
terms of itself. Jehovah was anthropomorphic because he could
address himself to the Jews only in terms of their understanding;
so he was conceived as in their own image, as a cloud, a pillar of
fire, a tangible, physical something which the mind of the
Israelites could grasp.

And so I gazed upon Maud's light-brown hair, and loved it, and
learned more of love than all the poets and singers had taught me
with all their songs and sonnets. She flung it back with a sudden
adroit movement, and her face emerged, smiling.

"Why don't women wear their hair down always?" I asked. "It is so
much more beautiful."

"If it didn't tangle so dreadfully," she laughed. "There! I've
lost one of my precious hair-pins!"

I neglected the boat and had the sail spilling the wind again and
again, such was my delight in following her every movement as she
searched through the blankets for the pin. I was surprised, and
joyfully, that she was so much the woman, and the display of each
trait and mannerism that was characteristically feminine gave me
keener joy. For I had been elevating her too highly in my concepts
of her, removing her too far from the plane of the human, and too
far from me. I had been making of her a creature goddess-like and
unapproachable. So I hailed with delight the little traits that
proclaimed her only woman after all, such as the toss of the head
which flung back the cloud of hair, and the search for the pin.
She was woman, my kind, on my plane, and the delightful intimacy of
kind, of man and woman, was possible, as well as the reverence and
awe in which I knew I should always hold her.

She found the pin with an adorable little cry, and I turned my
attention more fully to my steering. I proceeded to experiment,
lashing and wedging the steering-oar until the boat held on fairly
well by the wind without my assistance. Occasionally it came up
too close, or fell off too freely; but it always recovered itself
and in the main behaved satisfactorily.

"And now we shall have breakfast," I said. "But first you must be
more warmly clad."

I got out a heavy shirt, new from the slop-chest and made from
blanket goods. I knew the kind, so thick and so close of texture
that it could resist the rain and not be soaked through after hours
of wetting. When she had slipped this on over her head, I
exchanged the boy's cap she wore for a man's cap, large enough to
cover her hair, and, when the flap was turned down, to completely
cover her neck and ears. The effect was charming. Her face was of
the sort that cannot but look well under all circumstances.
Nothing could destroy its exquisite oval, its well-nigh classic
lines, its delicately stencilled brows, its large brown eyes,
clear-seeing and calm, gloriously calm.

A puff, slightly stronger than usual, struck us just then. The
boat was caught as it obliquely crossed the crest of a wave. It
went over suddenly, burying its gunwale level with the sea and
shipping a bucketful or so of water. I was opening a can of tongue
at the moment, and I sprang to the sheet and cast it off just in
time. The sail flapped and fluttered, and the boat paid off. A
few minutes of regulating sufficed to put it on its course again,
when I returned to the preparation of breakfast.

"It does very well, it seems, though I am not versed in things
nautical," she said, nodding her head with grave approval at my
steering contrivance.

"But it will serve only when we are sailing by the wind," I
explained. "When running more freely, with the wind astern abeam,
or on the quarter, it will be necessary for me to steer."

"I must say I don't understand your technicalities," she said, "but
I do your conclusion, and I don't like it. You cannot steer night
and day and for ever. So I shall expect, after breakfast, to
receive my first lesson. And then you shall lie down and sleep.
We'll stand watches just as they do on ships."

"I don't see how I am to teach you," I made protest. "I am just
learning for myself. You little thought when you trusted yourself
to me that I had had no experience whatever with small boats. This
is the first time I have ever been in one."

"Then we'll learn together, sir. And since you've had a night's
start you shall teach me what you have learned. And now,
breakfast. My! this air does give one an appetite!"

"No coffee," I said regretfully, passing her buttered sea-biscuits
and a slice of canned tongue. "And there will be no tea, no soups,
nothing hot, till we have made land somewhere, somehow."

After the simple breakfast, capped with a cup of cold water, Maud
took her lesson in steering. In teaching her I learned quite a
deal myself, though I was applying the knowledge already acquired
by sailing the Ghost and by watching the boat-steerers sail the
small boats. She was an apt pupil, and soon learned to keep the
course, to luff in the puffs and to cast off the sheet in an
emergency.

Having grown tired, apparently, of the task, she relinquished the
oar to me. I had folded up the blankets, but she now proceeded to
spread them out on the bottom. When all was arranged snugly, she
said:

"Now, sir, to bed. And you shall sleep until luncheon. Till
dinner-time," she corrected, remembering the arrangement on the
Ghost.

What could I do? She insisted, and said, "Please, please,"
whereupon I turned the oar over to her and obeyed. I experienced a
positive sensuous delight as I crawled into the bed she had made
with her hands. The calm and control which were so much a part of
her seemed to have been communicated to the blankets, so that I was
aware of a soft dreaminess and content, and of an oval face and
brown eyes framed in a fisherman's cap and tossing against a
background now of grey cloud, now of grey sea, and then I was aware
that I had been asleep.

I looked at my watch. It was one o'clock. I had slept seven
hours! And she had been steering seven hours! When I took the
steering-oar I had first to unbend her cramped fingers. Her
modicum of strength had been exhausted, and she was unable even to
move from her position. I was compelled to let go the sheet while
I helped her to the nest of blankets and chafed her hands and arms.

"I am so tired," she said, with a quick intake of the breath and a
sigh, drooping her head wearily.

But she straightened it the next moment. "Now don't scold, don't
you dare scold," she cried with mock defiance.

"I hope my face does not appear angry," I answered seriously; "for
I assure you I am not in the least angry."

"N-no," she considered. "It looks only reproachful."

"Then it is an honest face, for it looks what I feel. You were not
fair to yourself, nor to me. How can I ever trust you again?"

She looked penitent. "I'll be good," she said, as a naughty child
might say it. "I promise - "

"To obey as a sailor would obey his captain?"

"Yes," she answered. "It was stupid of me, I know."

"Then you must promise something else," I ventured.

"Readily."

"That you will not say, 'Please, please,' too often; for when you
do you are sure to override my authority."

She laughed with amused appreciation. She, too, had noticed the
power of the repeated "please."

"It is a good word - " I began.

"But I must not overwork it," she broke in.

But she laughed weakly, and her head drooped again. I left the oar
long enough to tuck the blankets about her feet and to pull a
single fold across her face. Alas! she was not strong. I looked
with misgiving toward the south-west and thought of the six hundred
miles of hardship before us - ay, if it were no worse than
hardship. On this sea a storm might blow up at any moment and
destroy us. And yet I was unafraid. I was without confidence in
the future, extremely doubtful, and yet I felt no underlying fear.
It must come right, it must come right, I repeated to myself, over
and over again.

The wind freshened in the afternoon, raising a stiffer sea and
trying the boat and me severely. But the supply of food and the
nine breakers of water enabled the boat to stand up to the sea and
wind, and I held on as long as I dared. Then I removed the sprit,
tightly hauling down the peak of the sail, and we raced along under
what sailors call a leg-of-mutton.

Late in the afternoon I sighted a steamer's smoke on the horizon to
leeward, and I knew it either for a Russian cruiser, or, more
likely, the Macedonia still seeking the Ghost. The sun had not
shone all day, and it had been bitter cold. As night drew on, the
clouds darkened and the wind freshened, so that when Maud and I ate
supper it was with our mittens on and with me still steering and
eating morsels between puffs.

By the time it was dark, wind and sea had become too strong for the
boat, and I reluctantly took in the sail and set about making a
drag or sea-anchor. I had learned of the device from the talk of
the hunters, and it was a simple thing to manufacture. Furling the
sail and lashing it securely about the mast, boom, sprit, and two
pairs of spare oars, I threw it overboard. A line connected it
with the bow, and as it floated low in the water, practically
unexposed to the wind, it drifted less rapidly than the boat. In
consequence it held the boat bow on to the sea and wind - the
safest position in which to escape being swamped when the sea is
breaking into whitecaps.

"And now?" Maud asked cheerfully, when the task was accomplished
and I pulled on my mittens.

"And now we are no longer travelling toward Japan," I answered.
"Our drift is to the south-east, or south-south-east, at the rate
of at least two miles an hour."

"That will be only twenty-four miles," she urged, "if the wind
remains high all night."

"Yes, and only one hundred and forty miles if it continues for
three days and nights."

"But it won't continue," she said with easy confidence. "It will
turn around and blow fair."

"The sea is the great faithless one."

"But the wind!" she retorted. "I have heard you grow eloquent over
the brave trade-wind."

"I wish I had thought to bring Wolf Larsen's chronometer and
sextant," I said, still gloomily. "Sailing one direction, drifting
another direction, to say nothing of the set of the current in some
third direction, makes a resultant which dead reckoning can never
calculate. Before long we won't know where we are by five hundred
miles."

Then I begged her pardon and promised I should not be disheartened
any more. At her solicitation I let her take the watch till
midnight, - it was then nine o'clock, but I wrapped her in blankets
and put an oilskin about her before I lay down. I slept only cat-
naps. The boat was leaping and pounding as it fell over the
crests, I could hear the seas rushing past, and spray was
continually being thrown aboard. And still, it was not a bad
night, I mused - nothing to the nights I had been through on the
Ghost; nothing, perhaps, to the nights we should go through in this
cockle-shell. Its planking was three-quarters of an inch thick.
Between us and the bottom of the sea was less than an inch of wood.

And yet, I aver it, and I aver it again, I was unafraid. The death
which Wolf Larsen and even Thomas Mugridge had made me fear, I no
longer feared. The coming of Maud Brewster into my life seemed to
have transformed me. After all, I thought, it is better and finer
to love than to be loved, if it makes something in life so worth
while that one is not loath to die for it. I forget my own life in
the love of another life; and yet, such is the paradox, I never
wanted so much to live as right now when I place the least value
upon my own life. I never had so much reason for living, was my
concluding thought; and after that, until I dozed, I contented
myself with trying to pierce the darkness to where I knew Maud
crouched low in the stern-sheets, watchful of the foaming sea and
ready to call me on an instant's notice.

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