A Tale of the Sea


A Tale of the Sea was published in Kielland's short story collection, Norse Tales and Sketches (1896), translated by R.L. Cassie. "I hope that each of you will have learnt how dangerous it is to lend an ear to these juvenile agitators, who can never be quiet and let evolution, as the steersman says, pursue its natural course."
A Tale of the Sea
Deck boy at Norwegian merchant ship, 1943

Once there lay in a certain haven a large number of vessels. They had lain there very long, not exactly on account of storm, but rather because of a dead calm; and at last they had lain there until they no longer heeded the weather.

All the captains had gradually become good friends; they visited from ship to ship, and called one another 'Cousin.'

They were in no hurry to depart. Now and then a youthful steersman might chance to let fall a word about a good wind and a smooth sea. But such remarks were not tolerated; order had to be maintained on a ship. Those, therefore, who could not hold their tongues were set ashore.

Matters could not, however, go on thus for ever. Men are not so good as they ought to be, and all do not thrive under law and order.

The crews at length began to murmur a little; they were weary of painting and polishing the cabins, and of rowing the captains to and from the toddy suppers. It was rumoured that individual ships were getting ready for sailing. The sails of some were set one by one in all silence, the anchors were weighed without song, and the ships glided quietly out of the harbour; others sailed while their captains slept. Fighting and mutiny were also heard of; but then there came help from the neighbour captains, the malcontents were punished and put ashore, and all moorings were carefully examined and strengthened.

Nevertheless, all the ships, except one, at last left the harbour. They did not all sail with like fortune; one and another even came in again for a time, damaged. Others were little heard of. The captain of one ship, it was said, was thrown overboard by his men; another sailed with half the crew in irons, none knew where. But yet they were all in motion, each striving after its own fashion, now in storm, now in calm, towards its goal.

As stated, only one ship remained in the harbour, and it lay safe and sound, with two anchors at the bottom and three great cables attached to the quay.

It was a strange little craft. The hull was old, but it had been newly repaired, and they had given it a smart little modern figurehead, which contrasted strangely with the smooth sides and the heavy stern. One could see that the rigging had originally belonged to a large vessel, but had been very hastily adapted to the smaller hull, and this still further increased the want of proportion in the brig's whole appearance. Then it was painted with large portholes for guns, like a man-of-war, and always carried its flag at the main-mast.

The skipper was no common man. He himself had painted the sketch of the brig that hung in the cabin, and, besides, he could sing—both psalms and songs. Indeed, there were those who maintained that he composed the songs himself; but this was most probably a lie. And it was certainly a lie that they whispered in the forecastle: that the skipper had not quite got his sea-legs. Young men always tell such stories to cabin-boys, in order to appear manly. And, besides, there was a steersman on the brig, who could, on a pinch, easily round the headlands alone.

He had sailed as steersman for many years of our Lord, ever since the time of the skipper's late father. He had become as if glued to the tiller, and many could scarcely imagine the old brig with a new steersman.

He had certainly never voyaged in distant waters; but as his trade had always been the same, and as he had invariably been in the company of others, the brig had sailed pretty fortunately, without special damage and without special merit.

Therefore, both he and the skipper had arrived at the conviction that none could sail better than they, and hence they cared little what the others did. They looked up at the sky and shook their heads.

The men felt quite comfortable, for they were not used to better things. Most of them could not understand why the crews of the other ships were in such a hurry to be off; the month went round all the same, whether one lay in port or sailed, and then it was better to avoid work. So long as the skipper made no sign of preparation for sailing, the men might keep their minds easy, for he must surely have the most interest in getting away. And besides, they all knew what sort of fellow the steersman was, and if such a capable and experienced man lay still, they might be quite sure that he had good and powerful reasons.

But a little party among the crew—some quite youthful persons—thought it was a shame to let themselves be thus left astern by everybody. They had, indeed, no special advantage or profit to expect from the voyage, but at last the inaction became intolerable, and they conceived the daring resolve of sending a youth aft to beg the captain to fix a date for sailing.

The more judicious among the crew crossed themselves, and humbly entreated the young man to keep quiet; but the latter was a rash greenhorn, who had sailed in foreign service, and therefore imagined himself to be a 'regular devil of a fellow.' He went right aft and down into the cabin, where the skipper and the steersman sat with their whisky before them, playing cards.

'We would ask if the skipper would kindly set sail next week, for now we are all so weary of lying here,' said the young man, looking the skipper straight in the eyes without winking.

The latter's face first turned pale blue, and then assumed a deep violet tint; but he restrained himself, and said, as was his invariable custom:

'What think you, steersman?'

'H'm,' replied the steersman slowly. More he never used to say at first, when he was questioned, for he did not like to answer promptly. But when he got an opportunity of speaking alone, without being interrupted, he could utter the longest sentences and the very hardest words. And then the skipper was especially proud of him.

However short the steersman's reply might seem, the skipper at once understood its meaning. He turned towards the youth—gravely, but gracefully, for he was an exceedingly well-bred man.

'You cursed young fool! don't you think I understand these things better than you? I, who have thought of nothing but being a skipper since I was knee-high! But I know well enough what you and the like of you are thinking about. You don't care a d—— about the craft, and if you could only get the power from us old ones, you would run her on the first islet you came to, so that you might plunder her of the whisky. But there will be none of that, my young whelp! Here we shall lie, as long as I choose.'

When this decision reached the forecastle, it awoke great indignation among the young and immature, which, indeed, was only to be expected. But even the skipper's friends and admirers shook their heads, and opined that it was a nasty answer; after all, it was only a civil question, which ought not to compromise anybody.

There now arose a growing ill-humour—something quite unheard-of among these peaceable fellows. Even the skipper, who was not usually quick to understand or remark anything, thought he saw many sullen faces, and he was no longer so well pleased with the bearing of the crew when he stepped out upon deck with his genial 'Good-morning, you rogues.'

But the steersman had long scented something, for he had a fine nose and long ears. Therefore, a couple of evenings after the young man's unfortunate visit, it was remarked that something extraordinary was brewing aft.

The cabin-boy had to make three journeys with the toddy-kettle, and the report he gave in the forecastle after his last trip was indeed disquieting.

The steersman seemed to have talked without intermission for two hours; before them on the table lay barometer, chronometer, sextant, journal, and half the ship's library. This consisted of Kingo's hymn-book and an old Dutch 'Kaart-Boikje';[Footnote: Chart-book.] for the skipper could do just as little with the new hymns as the steersman with the new charts.

The skipper now sat prodding the chart with a large pair of compasses, while the steersman talked, using all his longest and hardest words. There was one word in particular that was often repeated, and this the boy learned by heart. He said it over and over again to himself as he went up the cabin stairs and passed along the deck to the forecastle, and the moment he opened the door he shouted:

'Initiative! Mind that word, boys! Write it down—initiative!'

In-i-ti-a-tive was with much difficulty spelt out and written with chalk on the table. And during the boy's long statement all these men sat staring, uneasily and with anxious expectancy, at this long, mystic word.

'And then,' concluded the cabin-boy at last—'then says the steersman: "But we ourselves shall take the—" what is written on the table.'

All exclaimed simultaneously, 'Initiative.'

'Yes, that was it. And every time he said it, they both struck the table and looked at me as if they would eat me. I now think, therefore, that it is a new kind of revolver they intend to use upon us.'

But none of the others thought so; it was surely not so bad as that. But something was impending, that was clear. And the relieved watchman went to his berth with gloomy forebodings, and the middle watch did not get a wink of sleep that night.

At seven o'clock next morning both skipper and steersman were up on deck. No man could remember ever having seen them before so early in the day. But there was no time to stand in amazement, for now followed, in quick succession, orders for sailing.

'Heave up the anchors! Let two men go ashore and slip the cables!'

There was gladness and bustle among the crew, and the preparations proceeded so rapidly that in less than an hour the brig was under canvas.

The skipper looked at the steersman and shook his head, muttering, 'This is the devil's own haste.'

After a few little turns in the spacious harbour, the brig passed the headland and stood out to sea. A fresh breeze was blowing, and the waves ran rather high.

The steersman, with a prodigious twist in his mouth, stood astride the tiller, for such a piece of devil's trumpery as a wheel should never come on board as long as he had anything to say in the matter.

The skipper stood on the cabin stairs, with his head above the companion. His face was of a somewhat greenish hue, and he frequently ran down into the cabin. The old boatswain believed that he went to look at the chart, the young man thought he drank whisky, but the cabin-boy swore that he went below to vomit.

The men were in excellent spirits; it was so refreshing to breathe the sea air, and to feel the ship once again moving under their feet. Indeed, the old brig herself seemed to be in a good humour; she dived as deep down between the seas as she could, and raised much more foam than was necessary.

The young sailors looked out for heavy seas. 'Here comes a whopper,' they shouted; 'if it would only hit us straight!' And it did.

It was a substantial sea, larger than the others. It approached deliberately, and seemed to lie down and take aim. It then rose suddenly, and gave the brig, which was chubby as a cherub, such a mighty slap on the port cheek that she quivered in every timber. And high over the railing, far in upon the deck, dashed the cold salt spray; the captain had scarcely time to duck his head below the companion.

Ah, how refreshing it was! It exhilarated both old and young; they had not had a taste of the cold sea-water for a long time, and with one voice the whole crew broke into a lusty 'Hurrah!'

But at this moment the steerman's stentorian voice rang out: 'Hard to leeward!' The brig luffed up close to the wind, the sails flapped so violently that the rigging shook, and now followed in rapid succession, even quicker than before, orders to anchor. 'Let fall the port anchor! Let go the starboard one too!'

Plump—fell the one; plump—went the other. The old chains rattled out, and a little red cloud of rust rose up on either side of the bowsprit.

The men, accustomed to obey, worked rapidly without thinking why, and the brig soon rode pretty quietly at her two anchors.

But now, after the work was finished, no one could conceal his astonishment at this sudden anchoring, just off the coast, among islets and skerries. And still more extraordinary seemed the behaviour of those in command. For they both stood right forward, with their backs to the weather, leaning over the railing and staring at the port bow. Some had even thought they had heard the captain cry, 'To the pumps, men,' but this point was never cleared up.

'What the devil can they be doing forward?' said the rash young man.

'They think she struck on a reef when we shipped the big sea,' whispered the cabin-boy.

'Hold your jaw, boy!' said the boatswain.

All the same, the cabin-boy's words passed from mouth to mouth; a little chuckle was heard here and there; the men's faces became more and more ludicrously uneasy, and their suppressed laughter was on the point of bursting forth. Then the steersman was seen to nudge the skipper in the side.

'Yes; but then you must whisper to me,' said the latter.

The steersman nodded, and then the skipper turned to the crew and solemnly spoke as follows:

'Yes, this time, fortunately, everything went well; but now I hope that each of you will have learnt how dangerous it is to lend an ear to these juvenile agitators, who can never be quiet and let evolution, as the steersman says, pursue its natural course. I yielded to your wishes this time, it is true, but not because I approved of your insane rashness; it was simply that I might convince you by—by the logic of events. And see—how did things go? Certainly we have, as by a miracle, been spared the worst; but now we lie here, outside our safe haven, our old anchorage, which we have forsaken to be tossed about on the turbulent waters of the unknown and the untried. But, believe me, henceforth you will find both our excellent steersman and your captain at our post, guarding against such crude, immature projects. And if things go badly with us in days to come, you must all remember that it is entirely your own fault; we wash our hands of the matter.'

Thereupon he strode through the men, who respectfully fell back to let him pass. The steersman, who had really whispered, dried his eyes and followed. They both disappeared in the cabin.

There was much strife in the forecastle that day, and it grew worse after.

The brig's happy days were all over. Dissension and discontent, suspicion and obstinacy, converted the narrow limits of the forecastle into a veritable hell.

Only skipper and steersman seemed to thrive well under all this. The general dissatisfaction did not affect them; for they, of course, were not to blame.

None thought of any change. The crew had done what they could, and the skipper, on his part, had also been accommodating.

Now they might keep their minds at rest. The brig lay in a dangerous place, but now she would have to lie—and there she lies to this day.

A Tale of the Sea was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Thu, Aug 16, 2018


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