In which the "Mollie B" becomes a drifting, rudderless hulk, and carries with it to ruin the happiness and lives of the people to whom it had brought pleasure
WILBUR J. CASH, '22
Just a black rudderless hulk--all that is left of the once proud vessel. The plaything of the waters, it drifts along seemingly driven on and ever onward by the inexorable decree of Fate until presently it lies in the path of a sister ship, hidden by the blackness of the night or the thickness of a fog, and brings disaster to, perhaps, those very souls to whom it once meant happiness.
So it is with men.
When after six months sojourn in the fever swamps of the interior of the Congo I reached the dirty little port of Kabanda and found that the only vessel sailing within three months was a sturdy old three-masted merchantman, I was rather pleased. Worn and weakened as I was by the heat and malaria of the interior, the prospect of a leisurely ocean voyage in a sails vessel was a welcome change.
I hunted up the captain and found him much to my liking and entirely in keeping with his vessel. A jolly, grizzled New Englander he was, with the very breath of Cape Cod about him. He proved to be not averse to carrying a fellow countryman as a passenger even though, as he pointed out, his cargo of rubber was unusually large. My traps were piled into a boat and, as we were rowed out I noted with pleasure the graceful and symmetrical lines of the vessel. As we drew nearer I observed her name, the "Mollie B." painted in raised letters on the side.
Clambering up the ladder and over her side, I was met with a sight that took my breath and left me staring. Before
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me was as pretty a picture as I ever hope to see in this world. Standing with her back to the rail was a mere slip of a girl. With her black-blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and a mass of tangled black hair that blew in little wisps and curls about her she seemed a very sprite of the sea, and for a full minute I hesitated, in doubt as to whether or not I had at last succumbed to the fever and its illusions, staring stupidy all the while. By that time Captain Burdett had climbed up beside me, and noticing my bewilderment and the cause of it he gave vent to a deep-throated laugh and, calling the girl to him, introduced her as his daughter, Mollie. She curtsied and reddened under my stare and, suddenly realizing my rudeness, I hastened to apologize. The captain jocularly informed her that I was a nuisance that he had been forced to bring along in order to save me from the fever or the natives whom, I verily believe, he suspected of being cannibals.
Upon hearing that I had so nearly become the victim of the much dreaded disease, she immediately, with womanly instinct, became all concern. And noting my apparent weakness she promptly took me in charge and ordered me in the sweetest voice imaginable to proceed at once to my stateroom and lie down. There is something quite delightful to a sick man in being petted and ordered about by a pretty woman and I found myself following her obediently as she led the way to the stuffy little stateroom which was located amidship. Left alone, I hastily undressed and, climbing into the bunk, was soon lost in exhausted slumber. When I awoke the next morning the sun was shining in through the open porthole and the tremor of the vessel and the creaking of timbers informed me that we were under way.
It was three days later when I finally summoned strength to
wobble up on deck, and it was then that I first saw Abner Latrop.
He was standing talking to Mollie, whose
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hand rested affectionately on his shoulder. Catching sight of me, she called out cheerily and motioning me to her, introduced the old man. I noted that she addressed him as "Uncle Abner." At first glance, Abner Latrop, with his seamed and wrinkled face half hidden by a scraggy beard, and tousled mass of white hair, and a nondescript garb evidently picked up in all corners of the world, would have served admirably as an example of the typical "old salt." But on closer inspection I was conscious of an impression that there was something about him that marked him as being different. Perhaps it was the haunted look in his faded blue eyes. I could not be sure.
As the old man shuffled off about his duties, my attention was diverted to a blonde young giant, a veritable Viking with sparkling blue eyes and collar open at the throat, who had suddenly appeared and was making his way toward us. When he came up with us I learned that he was the second mate, Richard Darnley. If ever I have seen worship for a woman in a man's eyes it was in his as he spoke to Mollie, and as for the girl, her color had deepened perceptibly, and I was sure that I could detect a softer, more demure light in her downcast eyes. Feeling that my presence was not necessary to their happiness I hastened to mumble an excuse and betook myself below deck.
The next morning I arose early and hurried on deck to find old Abner standing at the wheel with a strange expression on his face as he watched Mollie amid Darnley who were standing with their backs to him absorbed in a conversation that partook of that fierce intensity which only lovers can know. I observed him curiously for a moment and then approached and engaged him in conversation.
"A very pretty pair they make, don't you think?"
I queried. "Yes, yes, that they do, sir," he barked out
as he threw a quick glance at me and fumbled for his pipe. "As
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a couple as ever I've seen in all my sailing," he went
on as he lighted the quaintly carved, stubby old briar, and I
found myself wondering at the joy and pride evident in his voice.
"The girl is your niece, is she not ?" I inquired, remembering that I had heard her address him as "Uncle Abner" the day before.
"No," he said, slowly. "No, that is, not really, sir; but she always had a way of calling me that. You see I have known her since she was a baby. She is much like her mother, sir; much like her mother."
His face had undergone a striking change. The hard lines seemed to have disappeared, and his eyes were luminous. Quite suddenly I was conscious of a feeling that I was treading on sacred ground.
"But the lad is my nephew--my sister's son--and it's a
fine strapping mate he makes, if I do say it," he
volunteered with evident pride.
I nodded my assent to this and for a moment he puffed his pipe in silence.
"I suppose the boy will be master of his own ship before long, will he not?" I ventured.
"Yes, but little happiness that'll bring him unless he has someone to work for," was his bitter rejoinder.
And once more his face settled into its accustomed hard lines, and again I noticed the strangely intent expression with which he regarded the lovers. Till this day that expression haunts me. A strange mixture of love and hate, dread and helpless fear, I have never been quite able to fathom its meaning or to describe it.
"But the girl?" I objected, "I thought--"
He interrupted me with an impatient jerk of his head.
"You were right there, sir. Mollie loves him. But"--and here his voice dropped to an awed whisper--"I seem to know there's a cloud hanging over her, and that it's like to break
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any minute. Something here," and he laid his gnarled and twisted hand over the region of his heart, "tells me that she'll never be his." He fell silent and the look of hopeless terror in his eyes deepened. After a moment he resumed: "It's something that can't he helped; something you can't fight against, sir. It's just as if it had to he that way, and God a'mighty hisself couldn't change it."
He dropped his head into his hands and groaned.
"And the worst of it," he went on in a muffled voice, "is that it must be that way because of me! I should never have allowed myself to love them, a knowing all along that it was sure to end in their ruin."
"But," I broke in impatiently, "I can't see how your love for them could possibly result in their unhappiness!"
He came quite close to me and peered intently into my face.
"No," he sighed, "I guess you wouldn't understand, sir, seeing as you don't know the facts. You see it was this way--"
He broke off suddenly and sniffed the air, and I was sure that I detected the shadow of a nameless fear in his eyes.
"No," he muttered half to me and half to himself, "no, you wouldn't understand."
He turned away from me and all efforts to draw him out further were vain. He replied to my questions in gruff mono-syllables and seemed lost in the clutches of some painful fancy as he sniffed the air incessantly.
Two days passed and I found myself becoming intensely
interested in the old sailor and his premonitions of evil. I saw
him often, sometimes with that haunting terror stamped deep on
his features; sometimes sniffing the gentle breeze that blew from
the calm sea, and once I was sure that I saw him gazing past me
at something with a look of unutterable fury and hatred, but when
I turned there was nothing there.
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But I was not alone in my interest in his forebodings as I soon discovered. It was the second day after my talk with him that I stumbled on Mollie sobbing as if her heart would break. When I pressed her for the cause of this, she confessed that some things old Abner had said to her made her afraid that she was destined to lose her lover.
"I believe," I assured her, "that Abner is wrong in his head. These croakings of his are nothing but the silly notions of an old man. If I were you, I wouldn't worry my head about it."
At that she dried her tears, but an air of quiet sadness seemed to have settled about her. All during that day, at frequent intervals, I observed the girl and Darnley engaged in serious conversation. Once I saw him lean forward and whisper something in her ear. At that moment the two of them and myself were the only persons on that quarter of the deck. And something in the man's face as he bent nearer her caused me to abruptly turn my back on them and feign intense absorption in some object on the distant horizon.
Afterwards I saw them talking to the skipper. Apparently they were pleading for something to which he was violently opposed. But when he grew silent and Mollie stroked his head and softly kissed him, I surmised that they had won their point.
That night at mess the girl was all smiles and, catching an opportunity, she bent near me.
"Everything is all right now, sir," she whispered. We have decided not to wait. We are going to be married this coming Sunday. Father can marry us, you know."
I found her hand and pressed it.
"That is very fine, indeed," I told her, "and I'm sure that everything will be quite all right."
The next day, Thursday, passed without incident. Mollie was in unusually high spirits, and I heard her often with a
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song on her lips as she busied herself about the thousand and one things which a woman can find to do for even the most inelaborate wedding.
There was an unusually beautiful moon that night and, fascinated by the magic of its silver flood upon the waters, I leaned on the rail and lost myself in meditation. Presently I aroused myself to the realization that it was growing late, and turning, with the intention of retiring, I was startled to find that Mollie had silently approached and was standing beside me. A glance showed me that she had been weeping, and I hastened to inquire the cause. She shivered and drew her coat more tightly about her throat.
"Oh, sir," she sighed; "it's Uncle Abner. Today when I told him about Richard and myself, he acted so strange and kept saying to himself that it could never be."
She began to cry softly, and I was groping about for some word with which to comfort her when she burst forth.
"It's true! I feel it! I know it! I've tried to fight against it, but I can't. It's something that can't be reached!"
And with a great sob she turned and left me.
I was thoroughly incensed. This thing had gone far enough I told myself, and I set about looking for the old sailor. I found him again standing his turn at the wheel.
"Look here," I snapped angrily, "why do you insist on making that little girl unhappy with your old-wives' tales! It's a strange way you have of showing love for her!"
He started slightly and stared straight ahead of him with the old strange look growing in his eyes. Then he turned and met my gaze.
"Did you, sir," he asked simply, "ever love anybody so that you would rather tear your heart out than to cause them unhappiness?"
Without waiting for an answer he proceeded slowly.
"Well, that's the way I feel toward Mollie and the lad. Why, only a little while ago I was planning to throw myself
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over the side and end it all. But it's too late. Things have gone too far."
I ripped out an impatient oath, and he raised his hand.
"Wait! You don't understand. You think like the skipper and the rest of them that I'm crazy, and I can't say as I blame you. But you don't know the truth."
"I guess," he proceeded reflectively, "that I may as well tell you so that you'll understand what may come later."
He paused and fumbled at his beard nervously.
"It's a strange story," he began, "and you prob'ly won't believe me, sir. Twenty-six years ago, this ship, the 'Mollie B.,' was on her first voyage, and I shipped aboard her as a second mate. Old Sam Blatchford was her master--and as good a one as ever sailed out of Salem harbor, he was, sir. He was so tickled with his new ship that he was carrying his daughter, Mollie, along--and a pretty lass she was. I guess she was the main reason for my being aboard, and so with Dick Burdett--yes, the captain, sir. It was a pretty fight between us for her, and I had strong hopes of winning. Then we touched at St. Thomas and the first mate went on a week's drunk. Well, the upshot of it was that the skipper fired him and picked up a new man from along the waterfront somewhere. That was where the trouble began. The new mate had spent his life aboard a fisher, I think. Anyhow, he had the sickening smell of fish about him. And his eyes--they were exactly like the eyes of a fish. Round and without any color, they gave you the creeps just to look at 'em."
He fished out a stubby old pipe, essayed to light it with a trembling hand, and without noticing the failure of his efforts, went on in a dull monotone.
"If you've ever seen a man you hated from the first time you saw him, then you know how I felt toward Haslett--that was his name. The first time he laid eyes on Mollie there was a devil's smirk on his face, and when he began to
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pay her attentions I was desperate. The more I hated him the more I began to notice his fish-like look. Time went on, and as I noticed Mollie with him I began to have a queer notion that although she said she hated him, he had a sort of fascination for her--in the same way, I guess it was, sir as landsmen say a snake charms a bird. Pretty soon things happened that made me sure that my notion was right. Always before that Mollie had been laughing and teasing and running about. Now, all of a sudden, she was sad, and I caught her crying several times. Then it was, sir, that I began to plan to kill him. All these days I had been coming to think of him as a giant, slimy, cold-blooded fish. The sight of him sent cold chills up and down my back, and made my fingers itch to be around his throat. I fought against my impulse to kill, at first. I told myself that he was a man, but always those cold eyes and the stench of the fish boat would come back. Coming up on the deck one night, I found him holding her in his arms and laughing in that strange way of his, as she fought and tried to get away."
Shaking as with the ague, he knocked the tobacco from his pipe, quite unconscious, I think, that he had not been smoking it all along.
"Well, sir, I killed him, choked him till the blood in his face was black. Yes, he fought, but I was strong in those days. And as he lay there he looked more like a fish than ever, and I kicked his body into the sea. Perhaps it was brutal--but I hated him. After that Mollie was always afraid of me, and at the end of the voyage she married Dick Burdett. She died when the lass was born."
"That's a very sad story," I admitted, "still, I can't see--"
"But," he broke in, "that isn't all, sir,"
and his voice dropped to an awed whisper. "Since that time I've
never brought anything but trouble to anyone. I've been the
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of three ships. Two of them foundered and one went to pieces off the rocks of Hatteras. I wouldn't have come along on this voyage, but the skipper was short-handed, and I wanted to be close to Mollie and the boy. But I was wrong to come, sir. I've been feeling it lately. That smell is with me all the time and I see those round cold eyes grinning at me from the riggings just as they did that night off Cape Horn when the bunk-mate I thought of as a brother was swept overboard and drowned. It's something that you can't fight, sir, and I'm afraid for the girl."
I was convinced that the old man was out of his head, and feeling rather impatient with him I turned away, leaving him still mumbling to himself.
Friday went by without a single disturbing incident to mar its serenity, and with the coming of Saturday the thing had almost completely passed from my mind. To all appearances Mollie had forgotten her fears. She rushed about, apparently quite taken up with her plans for the next day.
It was about 4 o'clock in the afternoon when a cloud first attracted notice. A moment before it had been a tiny white rift on the horizon. Now it was black and spreading rapidly. Within an hour it had completely covered the sky with an angry frowning canopy, and the ship had taken in sail to the last rag. The air was sullenly calm, and the sea seemed strangely glassy in appearance. The usual jolly smile had gone from the captain's face as he bellowed out orders. Watching my chance I questioned him and discovered that his worry was due to the fact that, according to his reckoning, we were somewhere near a dangerous reef bearing the very cheering name of the "Devil's Tooth." Before I could question him further he turned away to shout some orders, and my attention was attracted to old Abner, who was staring at something in the riggings. I raised my eyes. There was nothing there. Seeing that I was watching him, the old sailor came quite close.
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"Do you see him, sir; the fish-man, you know?"
Then the eager questioning died out of his eyes.
"No," he muttered. "You wouldn't, of course, you wouldn't."
And in response to a loud bellow from the captain, he hurried away. As he went there came to my nostrils the pungent odor of stale fish. And quite suddenly a sense of impending disaster struck me.
A gust of wind laden with rain struck the vessel and hurled her far over on her nose. She reeled drunkenly for a moment and slowly righted herself. There came another gust, which in a moment deepened to a steady blast and the storm was upon us. A huge roller swept the deck, drenching me to the skin, and I hurried below.
The hours that followed were the most miserable that I have ever spent. The vessel creaked and groaned in every timber, and seemed about to go to pieces every minute. Final]y--I suppose it must have been about midnight--I could stand it no longer, and determined to risk the captain's anger and go on deck. As I stepped out the wind nearly lifted me from my feet, but I was glad to find that the rain had ceased. The sails were gone--snatched away by the wind. Broken spars, blocks, and pieces of rope littered the deck, and in the light of the single lantern which was lashed to the mast, it seemed a spectacle of ruin. Nevertheless, I observed that the gale was not blowing quite so violently.
As to the things that happened after that my memory is not very clear--it all came so quickly. I remember a stream of light across the deck as the cabin door was thrown open and the girl, Mollie, came running out with her hair streaming behind her. And I remember that one of the sailors called to her to go back. I didn't understand then, and I don't understand now, why she came rushing out on deck in that strange way. The queer thing about it all was the look
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of terror in her face, and the way she ran, staring back over her shoulder as if she were trying to escape from something.
In my memory also is a picture of Darnley hurling an axe aside and clambering down the tangled riggings at sight of the girl. But the thing that stands out most clearly is the behavior of old Abner. I saw him abruptly leave the wheel and go rushing toward the girl with his eyes fixed, not on her, but on something behind her. Yet, strain my eyes as I might, I could see nothing there. Nevertheless, I felt myself in the grip of a helpless terror. I am not a superstitious man, but I swear to you that the air was suddenly heavy with the repulsive, nauseating odor of rotten fish! Reaching her, Abner grasped her arm in one hand and struck out at the empty air with the other. Then ensued the strangest conflict I have ever seen. Apparently, the girl was trying to break away from him, and yet there was undoubtedly a look of piteous appeal on her frenzied countenance. It was as if she were being dragged away from him against her will by some irresistible force. I will not say that there was anything of the supernatural about it. I have always laughed at such things, and it is altogether possible that the girl might have given some perfectly logical explanation of her actions had things ended otherwise.
The conflict was fated to be short. Left with no hand at her rudder, the ship reeled drunkenly in the jaws of the sea. As Abner struggled with the girl, there came a sudden crash. The vessel hesitated, and then, with a grinding, tearing sound she reeled backward. A great wave struck her and there came another crash as she lurched forward. We were on the reef! Again the vessel reeled backward and again lunged forward, and as she struck for the third time the huge forward mast snapped clean at the deck with a loud report and, wavering for a second, swung downward directly over Abner and the girl. Attracted by the report, the old sailor had
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glanced upward and was trying desperately to drag the girl to safety--but too late. I closed my eyes to shut out the horror of it as the giant timber swept down on them and crashed over the side and into the sea, carrying their bodies with it. There was a noise of the running of many feet and the creaking of the boats which were already being lowered, Then a flying spar struck me and everything went black.
* * * * *
After a miserable day in the boats, we were picked up late the next afternoon by a Norwegian tramp steamer. Standing on its grimy and oily deck I cast a last glance at the "Mollie B.," now a mere spot in the distance, starkly silhouetted against the great red half-disk of the sun. I watched it rise and fall with a heavy, water-logged motion, and even as I looked the wreck drifted out from before the sun. In some way it had broken away from the reef and was drifting, drifting on this waste of waters--a derelict!
(Reprinted from The Wake Forest Student, Vol. XLI, 1922, pp. 403-415. Background image, not part of original printing, is high-contrast version of "Lord Ullin's Daughter", by Albert Pinkham Ryder, ca. 1905.)
Special thanks to Tim C. of the Forsyth County (N.C.) Public Library for providing this site with a copy of this short story from his collection of Cash memorabilia.
For information on the "rocking sea" (or "lake" as the developer prefers) at the top of this page, click on the image.