The Voyage of the Mona
THERE was the Mona, Yeo's boat, below the quay wall; but I could not see her owner. The unequal stones of that wall have the weathered appearance of a natural outcrop of rock, for they were matured by the traffic of ships when America was a new yarn among sailors. They are the very stones one would choose to hear speak. Yet the light of early morning in that spacious estuary was so young and tenuous that you could suppose this heavy planet had not yet known the stains of night and evil; and the Mona, it must be remembered, is white without and egg-blue within. Such were the reflections she made, lively at anchor on the swirls of a flood-tide bright enough for the sea-bottom to have been luminous, that I felt I must find Yeo. The white houses of the village, with shining faces, were looking out to sea.
Another man, a visitor from the cities of the plains, was gazing down with appreciation at the Mona. There was that to his credit. His young wife, slight and sad, and in the dress of the promenade of a London park, was with him. She was not looking on the quickness of the lucent tide, but at the end of a parasol, which was idly marking the grits. I had seen the couple about the village for a week. He was big, ruddy, middle-aged, and lusty. His neck ran straight up into his round head, and its stiff prickles glittered like short ends of brass wire. It was easy to guess of him, without knowing him and therefore unfairly, that, if his wife actually confessed to him that she loved another man, he would not have believed her; because how was it possible for her to do that, he being what he was? His aggressive face, and his air of confident possession, the unconscious immodesty of the man because of his important success at some unimportant thing or other, seemed an offence in the ancient tranquillity of that place, where poor men acknowledged only the sea, the sun, and the winds.
I found Yeo at the end of the quay, where round the corner to seaward open out the dunes of the opposite shore of the estuary, faint with distance and their own pallor, and ending in the slender stalk of a lighthouse, always quivering at the vastness of what confronts it. Yeo was sitting on a bollard, rubbing tobacco between his palms. I told him this was the sort of morning to get the Mona out. He carefully poured the grains into the bowl of his pipe, stoppered it, glanced slowly about the brightness of the river mouth, and shook his head. This was a great surprise, and anybody who did not know Yeo would have questioned him. But it was certain he knew his business. There is not a more deceptive and difficult stretch of coast round these islands, and Yeo was born to it. He stood up, and his long black hair stirred in the breeze under the broad brim of a grey hat he insists on wearing. The soft hat and his lank hair make him womanish in profile, in spite of a body to which a blue jersey does full justice, and the sea-boots but when he turns his face to you, with his light eyes and his dark and leathery face, you feel he is strangely masculine and wise, and must be addressed with care and not as most men. He rarely smiles when a foolish word is spoken or when he is contradicted boldly by the innocent. He spits at his feet and contemplates the sea, as though he had heard nothing.
The visitor came up, followed reluctantly by his wife. "Are you Yeo? How are you, Yeo? What about a sail? I want you to take us round to Pebblecombe."
That village is over the bar and across the bay. Yeo looked at the man, and shook his head.
"Why not?" asked the visitor sharply, as though he were addressing the reluctance of the driver of his own car. The sailor pointed a stern finger seawards, to where the bar is shown in charts, but where all we could make out was the flashing of inconstant white lines.
"Well?" questioned the man, who glanced out there perfunctorily. "What of it?"
"Look at it," mildly insisted the sailor, speaking for the first time. "Isn't the sea like a wall?" The man's wife, who was regarding Yeo's placid face with melancholy attention, turned to her husband and placed a hand of nervous deprecation on his arm. He did not look at her.
"Oh, of course, if you don't want to go, if you don't want to go . . ." said the visitor, shaking his head as though at rubbish, and rising several times on his toes. "Perhaps you've a better job," he added, with an unpleasant smile.
"I'm ready to go if you are, sir," said Yeo, "but I shall have to take my friend with me." The sailor nodded my way.
The man did not look at me. I was not there to him. He gave an impatient jerk to his head. "Ready to go? Of course I'm ready to go! Of course. Why do you suppose I asked?"
Yeo went indoors, came out with a bundle of tarpaulins for us, and began moving with deliberation along to the Mona. Something was said by the woman behind us, but so quietly I did not catch it. Her husband made confident noises of amusement, and replied in French that it was always the way with these local folk--always the way. The result, I gathered, of a slow life, though that was hardly the way he put it. Nothing in it, she could be sure. These difficulties were made to raise the price. The morning was beautiful. Still, if she did not want to go . . . . . if she did not want to go. And his tone was that perhaps she would be as absurd as that. I heard no more, and both followed us.
I got out to the Mona, cast off her stern mooring, got in the anchor, and the pull on that brought us to the stone steps of the landing-stage. While I made the seats ready for the voyagers and handed them in, Yeo took two reefs in the lugsail (an act which seemed, I must say, with what wind we felt there, to be carrying his prescience to bold lengths) and hauled the sail to its place. I went forward to lower the centre keel as he came aft with the sheet in his hand. The Mona sidled away, stood out, and then reached for the distant sandhills. The village diminished and concentrated under its hill.
When clear of the shelter of the hill, on the lee foot of which the village shelters from the westerly winds, the Mona went over suddenly in a gust which put her gunwale in the wash and kept it there. The dipper came adrift and rattled over. Yeo eased her a bit, and his uncanny eyes never shifted from their fixed scrutiny ahead. Our passenger laughed aloud, for his wife had grasped him at the unexpected movement and the noise. That's nothing," he assured her. "This is fine."
We cleared the shallows and were in the channel where the weight of the incoming tide raced and climbed. The Mona's light bows, meeting the tide, danced ecstatically, sending over us showers which caught in the foot of the sail. The weather in the open was bright and hard, and the sun lost a little of its warmth in the wind, which was north of west. The dunes, which had been evanescent through distance in the wind and light, grew material and great. The combers, breaking diagonally along that forsaken beach, had something ominous to say of the bar. Even I knew that, and turned to look ahead. Out there, across and above the burnished sea, a regular series of long shadowy walls were forming. They advanced slowly, grew darker, and grew higher; then in their parapets appeared arcs of white, and at once, where those lines of sombre shadows had been, there were plunging strata of white clouds. Other dark bands advanced from seaward continuously. There was a tremor and sound as of the shock and roll of far thunder.
We went about again, steering for the first outward mark of the fairway, the Mullet Buoy. Only the last house of the village was now looking at us remotely, a tiny white cube which frequently sank, on its precarious ledge of earth, beneath an intervening upheaval of the waters. The sea was superior now, as we saw the world from our little boat. The waters moved in from the outer with the ease of certain conquest, and the foundering shores vanished under each uplifted send of the ocean. We rounded the buoy. I could see the tide holding it down aslant with heavy strands of water, stretched and taut. About we went again for the lifeboat-house.
There was no doubt of it now. We should be baling soon. Yeo, with one brown paw on the sheet and the other on the tiller, had not moved, nor even, so he looked, blinked the strange, unfrowning eyes peering from under the brim of his hat. The Mona came on an even keel by the lifeboat-house, shook her wing for a moment as though in delight, and was off again dancing for the Mid Buoy. She was a live, responsive, and happy bird. "Now, Yeo," said the passenger beside the sailor, beaming in proper enjoyment of this quick and radiant experience. "Didn't I tell you so? What's the matter with this?"
There was nothing the matter with that. The sea was blue and white. The frail coast, now far away, was of green and gold. The sky was the assurance of continued good. Our boat was buoyant energy. That bay, when in its uplifted and sparkling mood, with the extent of its liberty and the coloured promise of its romantic adventure, has no hint at all of the startling suddenness of its shadow, that presage of its complex and impersonal malice.
Yeo turned the big features of his impassive face to his passenger, looked at him as he would at a wilful and ill-mannered child, and said, "In five minutes we shall be round the Mid Buoy. Better go back. If you want to go back, say so now. Soon you won't be able to. We may be kept out. If we are, don't blame me."
"Oh, go on, you," the man said, smiling indulgently. He was not going to relinquish the fine gift of this splendid time.
Yeo put his pipe in his mouth and resumed his stare outwards. He said no more. On we went, skimming over in-flowing ridges with exhilarating undulations, light as a sandpiper. It was really right to call that a glorious morning. I heard the curlews fluting among the stones of the Morte Bank, which must then have been almost awash; but I did not look that way, for the nearing view of the big seas breaking ahead of us fixed my mind with the first intentness of anxiety. Though near the top of the flood, the fairway could not be made out. What from the distance had appeared orderly ranks of surf had become a convulsive wilderness of foam, piled and dazzling, the incontinent smother of a heavy ground swell; for after all, though the wind needed watching, it was nothing much. The Mona danced on towards the anxious place. Except the distant hills there was no shore. Our hills were of water now we neared the bar. They appeared ahead with surprising suddenness, came straight at us as though they had been looking for us, and the discovery made them eager; and then, when the head of the living mass was looking over our boat, it swung under us.
We were beyond the bar before we knew it. There were a few minutes when, on either hand of the Mona, but not near enough to be more than an arresting spectacle, ponderous glassy billows ceaselessly arose, projected wonderful curves of translucent parapets which threw shadows ahead of their deliberate advance, lost their delicate poise, and became plunging fields of blinding and hissing snow. We sped past them and were at sea. Yeo's knowledge of his work gives him more than the dexterity which overcomes difficulties as it meets them; it gives him the prescience to avoid them.
The steady breeze carried away from us the noise of that great tumult on the bar, and here was a sunny quietude where we heard nothing but the wing of the Mona when it fluttered. The last of the land was the Bar Buoy, weltering and tolling erratically its melancholy bell in its huge red cage. That dropped astern. The Mona, as though she had been exuberant with joy at the promise of release, had come out with whoops and a fuss, but, being outside, settled down to enjoy liberty in quiet content. The little lady with us, for the first time, appeared not sorry to be there. The boat was dry. The scoured thwarts were even hot to the touch. Our lady held the brim of her big straw hat, looking out over the slow rhythm of the heavy but unbroken seas, the deep suspirations of the ocean, and there was even a smile on her delicate face. She crouched forward no longer, and did not show that timid hesitation between her fear of sudden ugly water, when she would have inclined to her husband's side, and her evident nervousness also of her mate. She sat erect, enjoying the slow uplift and descent of the boat with a responsive body. She gazed overside into the transparent deeps, where large jelly-fish dimmered like sunken moons. I got out my pipe. This suggested something to our other passenger, and he got out his. He fumbled out his pouch and filled up. He then regarded the loaded pipe thoughtfully, but presently put it away, and leaned forward, gazing at the bottom of the boat. I caught Yeo's eye in a very solemn wink.
The Mona, lost in the waste, coursed without apparent purpose. Sometimes for a drowsy while we headed into the great light shining from all the Atlantic which stretched before us to America; and again we turned to the coast, which was low and far beyond mounting seas. By watching one mark ashore, a grey blur which was really the tower of a familiar village church, it was clear Yeo was not making Pebblecombe with any ease. I glanced at him, and he shook his head. He then nodded it towards the western headland of the bay.
That was almost veiled by a dark curtain, though not long before the partitioned fields and colours of its upper slopes were clear as a mosaic; so insidiously, to the uninitiated, do the moods of this bay change. Our lady was at this moment bending solicitously towards her husband, whose head was in his hands. But he shook her off, turning away with a face not quite so proud as it had been, for its complexion had become that of a green canary's. He had acquired an expression of holiness, contemplative and sorrowful. The western coast had disappeared in the murk. "Better have something to eat now," said Yeo, "while there's a chance."
The lady, after a hesitating glance at her husband, who made no sign, his face being hidden in his arms, got out the luncheon-basket. He looked up once with a face full of misery and reproach, and said, forgetting the past with boldness, "Don't you think we'd better be getting back? It's looking very dark over there."
Yeo munched with calm for a while, swallowed, and then remarked, while conning the headland, "It'll be darker yet, and then we shan't go back, because we can't."
The Mona continuously soared upwards on the hills and sank again, often trembling now, for the impact of the seas was sharper. The man got into the bottom of the boat and groaned.
Light clouds, the feathery growth of the threatening obscurity which had hidden the western land, first spread to dim the light of the sun, then grew thick and dark overhead too, leaving us, after one ray that sought us out again and at once died, in a chill gloom. The glassy seas at once became opaque and bleak. Their surface was roughened with gusts. The delicate colours of the world, its hopeful spaciousness, its dancing light, the high blue vault, abruptly changed to the dim, cold, restricted outlook of age. We waited.
As Yeo luffed the squall fell on us bodily with a great weight of wind and white rain, pressing us into the sea. The Mona made ineffective leaps, trying to get release from her imprisonment, but only succeeded in pouring water over the inert figure lying on the bottom boards. In a spasm of fear he sprang up and began to scramble wildly towards his wife, who in her nervousness was gripping the gunwale, but was facing the affair silently and pluckily. "Keep still there!" peremptorily ordered the sailor; and the man bundled down without a word, like a dog, an abject heap of wet rags.
The first weight of the squall was released. The Mona eased. But the rain set in with steadiness and definition. Nothing was in sight but the waves shaping in the murk and passing us, and the blurred outline of a ketch labouring under reduced canvas to leeward. The bundle on the boat's floor sat up painfully and glanced over the gunwale. He made no attempt to disguise his complete defeat by our circumstances. He saw the ketch, saw she was bigger, and humbly and loudly implored Yeo to put him aboard. He did not look at his wife. His misery was in full possession of him. When near to the ketch we saw something was wrong with a flag she was flying. We got round to her lee quarter and hailed the three muffled figures on her deck.
"Can we come aboard?" roared Yeo.
One of the figures came to the ship's side and leaned over. "All right," we heard, "if you don't mind sailing with a corpse."
Yeo put it to his passengers. The woman said nothing. Her pale face, pitifully tiny and appealing within a sailor's tarpaulin hat, showed an innocent mind startled by the brutality of a world she did not know, but a mind controlled and alert. You could guess she expected nothing now but the worst, and had been schooling herself to face it. Her husband, when he knew what was on that ship, repudiated the vessel with horror. Yet we had no sooner fallen slightly away than he looked up again, was reminded once more that she stood so much higher than our boat, and cried, "Yes, yes!"
The two craft imperceptibly approached, as by gravitation. The men of the ketch saw we had changed our minds, and made ready to receive us. On one noisy uplift of a wave we got the lady inboard. Waiting another opportunity, floundering about below the black wall of the ship, presently it came, and we shoved over just anyhow the helpless bulk of the man. He disappeared within the ship like a shapeless sack, and bumped like one. When I got over, I saw the Mona's mast, which was thrusting and falling by the side of the ketch, making wild oscillations and eccentrics, suddenly vanish; and then appeared Yeo, who carried a tow-line aft and made fast.
The skipper of the ketch had been drowned, we were told. They were bringing his body home. The helmsman indicated a form lashed in a sailcloth to the hatch. They were standing on and off, waiting to get in over the bar. Yeo they knew so well that hardly any words passed between them. They were glad to put the piloting in his hands. He took the wheel of the Judy of Padstow.
The substantial deck of the Judy was a great relief after the dizzy gyrations of the aerial Mona; and our lady, with a half-glance at what on the hatch was so grimly indifferent to all that could happen now, even smiled again, perhaps with a new sense of safety. She saw her husband settled in a place not too wet, and got about the venerable boards of the Judy, looking at the old gear with curiosity, glancing, with her head dropped back, into the dark intricacy of rigging upheld by the ponderous mainmast as it swayed back and forth. Every time the men went hurriedly trampling to some point of the running gear she watched what they were at. For hours we beat about, in a great noise of waters, waiting for that opportunity at the entrance to home and comfort. Once Yeo took us as far towards the vague mist of surf as the dismal tolling of the Bar Buoy, but evidently did not like the look of it, and stood out again.
At last, having decided, he shouted orders, there was a burst of activity, and we headed for the bad place. Soon we should know.
The Judy began to plunge alarmingly. The incoming rollers at times swept her along with a rush, and Yeo had his hands full. Her bowsprit yawed, rose and fell hurriedly, the Judy's unsteady dexter pointing in nervous excitement at what was ahead of her. But Yeo held her to it, though those heavy following seas so demoralised the Judy that it was clear it was all Yeo could do to keep her to her course. Columns of spray exploded ahead, driving in on us like shot.
"Look out!" cried Yeo. I looked. Astern was a grey hill, high over us, fast overtaking us, the white turmoil of its summit already streaming down its long slope. It accelerated, as if it could see it would soon be too late. It nearly was, but not quite. A cataract roared over the poop, and Yeo vanished. The Judy, in a panic, made an attempt at a move which would have been fatal then; but she was checked and her head steadied. I could do nothing but hold the lady firm and grasp a pin in its rail. The flood swept us, brawling round the gear, foundering the hatch. For a moment I thought it was a case, and saw nothing but maniacal water. Then the foam subsided to clear torrents which flung about violently with the ship's movement. The men were in the rigging. Yeo was rigid at the wheel, his eyes on the future. I could not see the other passenger till his wife screamed, and then I saw him. Two figures rolled in a flood that was pouring to the canting of the deck, and one of them desperately clutched at the other for aid. But the other was the dead skipper, washed from his place on the hatch.
We were over the bar again, and the deck became level. But it remained the bottom of a shallow well in which floated with indifference the one-time master of the Judy, face downwards, and who presently stranded amidships. Our passenger reclined on the vacated hatch, his eyes wide with childish and unspoken terror, and fixed on his wife, whose ministering hands he fumbled for as does a child for his mother's when he wakes at night after a dream of evil.