The tale that is generally told accredits the theft of seaman Shrift’s prodigious courage to a brown bear. I’m here to set the record straight on account of I know that it was actually a much more dangerous and rarer beast that robbed him of his Damascus reserve. In the service you don’t hear talk much of Bravery, for to do that would be to breathe the life of words into its ugly sister, Cowardice.
A seaman doesn’t even think much of these things; what a lubber might think of as Heroic deeds, he does on a daily basis. Hanging from a main tops’l yard in the darkest foul weather seven score feet above the deck is not an act that can be sustained through bravery on a daily basis. Rather it is an act that must be faced without consideration of fear, one way or the other. Likewise, standing with bare horny feet on a blood-slicked pitching deck, facing death in the form of hurtling twenty-four pounders, while methodically ramming home and pitching death back to an unseen foe, is stoically seen as merely another duty to be undertaken. In the life and mind of a seaman, made up of monotonous months at a time without interaction, it is even seen as a preferable station.
But even among such men, there might be recognized those with some finer quality. Perhaps it is defined by some quickness of action under stress, or the quietness that follows some men even into battle, as if they were attending to their toiletries, and not mayhap living the last fragile moments of their lives. Shrift was one of these men, pitched a little higher, forged a little stronger, countenanced a little darker, comported a little quieter than his companions of the main. It would never have occurred to them to define this difference or even to ponder it, but if brought to the crew’s attention, to a man it would be recognized.
I served with Shrift during the last war with the Frogs. (Alas, I fear the term Last War will never be a true one during man’s time on this globe, perhaps for the sake of honesty before our god and country we should banish it by decree and use in its place “Most Recent War.”) We were aboard Commitment, a light frigate serving as part of the Channel blockade. Blockade work consists mostly of unremitting boredom, relieved by occasional bouts of high tension, mostly unwarranted. We had them bottled up better than Mrs. Brown’s Best Cider, and them Frenchies couldn’t risk a firefight with us just for the sake of fighting, seeing as we outnumbered them so and mostly had them pinned to the lee shore. Their only hope was to wait for some unlikely combination of events that might slightly tilt the odds, if not in their favor, at least a trifle to their side. A storm that blew us off station, or some combination of weather, wind, and tide that might allow them to bring the battle to us, unexpected. These were long odds and I didn’t envy them Frogs much, waiting in port for some circumstances, as yet undefined, which might only marginally increase their success. Yet it was a chance that would sooner or later have to be taken, as their rash Emperor had sat at his throne rattling the finger bones of his troops’ fate for nigh on a year and a half now; and we all knew, both sides, that eventually he would pitch them into the pit and have their numbers read. Still, we all looked forward to that day, for while a seaman’s life is waiting and waiting and waiting, it is the moments of action and glory that sustains him through his salt-pork-and-biscuit existence.
We had been on station for one hundred days and were now waiting our rotation to return to port and reship our supplies. Already we were on short rations, incase some unforeseen event kept us out past our due. The weather had turned with lessening of the winter storms and the wind had backed easterly. A dark night like this with an offshore breeze, surely we speculated, from hold to mast, that tonight the Frogs would try to run the ebb tide. Our superiors did not hesitate to back us on our suppositions, and ordered us to stand station at the southern end of the blockade. I admit, the position bewildered me a trifle, for we were the fastest, lightest frigate of the fleet, especially with our stores depleted, and I expected we would remain on station running the Inland route to give first chase and fight to those amphibian devils, should they appear.
No doubt our officers acted on some superior information, for in the darkest depths of night I was awakened by a call to stations. Even in the dark, men poured almost silently up through the hatches each to his appointed station, awaiting further orders. At first I thought that perhaps we were manning stations for foul weather, as the deck heaved and pitched with a vehemence unknown when I had turned in a scant two hours ago. Then the word was passed, a blockade-runner! I don’t think I truly realized how keyed up the monotonous months at sea had made us. The very prospect of a fight actually seemed to relax me and I could feel a grin steal across my face in the dark. I might have been mistaken, but I thought I saw similar flashes of white about me in the black of the gun deck. I must’ve been mistaken; Jonah did not have less light during his tribulations.
We were running silent, attempting to find our quarry by some betraying sight or noise. No single tendon in that ship was less tense than the rigging overhead. Quietly, oh so quietly we hove to on the next tack, working slowly south and west. We kept this course for close on two watches, by my sepulcherian reckoning, then came about again and started to beat upwind. It may have been the dumbest stroke of luck, or those aloft may have had some signal, for just as we came about the waning moon broke its sickly beams out of the cloud cover and there on our port side sat a beautiful French ship of war. From her lines and cut I recognized her immediately as the frigate Force Majeur, a stroke of luck cutting both ways. She was undoubtedly the finest vessel in the blockaded fleet, and would make an excellent prize, but she had us out-gunned, out-manned, and out-canvassed. We would have a keen fight on our hands if she had come looking for one. I barely had time to make these observations when the order was given to open fire.
Simultaneously, the Majeur opened fire on us. Heavy twenty-four pound shot crashed around me and I was vaguely aware of the screams of men and timber in every direction, but the drill of battle was upon me and I could think of nothing but running the guns back and swabbing them out in preparation for another load. Fast as we worked, the deck hands were working faster to bring the boat about, for the Frenchies were running before the wind and did not seem inclined to stand and fight, an indication that they were on a much more important mission. Perhaps their orders were to sail for America to enlist money or other aid.
As we came about, we backed under the wind for just a moment and lay stern on to the Majeur. The Frogs hit us in that brief space with their second cannonade. The ship shuddered soundly and I knew we had taken several hits. When she slewed in the water, my worst fears were realized – the rudder or its rigging had been hit. The ship slowed but continued to come around through a combination of momentum and brute seamanship. As I was at my station on the port side, I was now blind to the battle, but we must’ve scored in our first volley for the order was given for a second broadside and that would not be possible had we not damaged our foe and stayed it from its course. The battle could not have been going on for twenty minutes, yet in that time the storm came upon us full force. The wind doubled and rain came down so heavily that you could not see on deck from stem to stern. A man breathing in such a storm could wonder if he were above or below the sea. The ship was handling heavily and although we should have been attempting to close with our crippled foe, I could tell through inured instinct that we were drifting apart. All guns were loaded, but no order was given to fire, an anyway fruitless task in the dark on running seas, which at best could only give our position to the enemy.
There was a tremendous heaving and the ship shuddered again almost as much as it had under the rain of iron when a tremendous blast of wind took us from the stern. We had a new enemy now, running broken before the storm. All hands were called to deck. I ran to my station in the waist, but my mind had a terrible time correlating what I saw to the ship I once knew so well. Lines were everywhere tangled with masts and yards into an unrecognizable mess, like a fisherman’s net caught in some sunken wreck. Amid the wreckage were men equally wrecked and unrecognizable, the storm washing their blood away as fast as their hearts could expel it. Yet amidst all of this there was a tremendous flash, followed by a boom abaft to our starboard quarter. In that brief moment, two ships could just be seen on the near horizon, fire-tinged phantoms, fighting to the death like water-borne dragons.
A cheer went up as we recognized Archangel, a destroyer holding the next place north in the blockade had come to the fight. If she won, as was likely considering her superiority over her damaged foe, we would be in reckoning for prize money; made possible by being in sight, albeit theoretical in these conditions, at the time of capture.
Cheers were quickly silenced by officers shouting orders about deck. I was called aft to man the pumps. Whatever had damaged the rudder had also caused damage below the waterline. As I struggled aft, a Brobdingnagian crack resounded over my shoulder. Screams resounded over even those demonic winds and lines began to part with cracks like musket shots. I turned in time to see the main mast, still set with sail, topple ever so slowly into the sea to port. Without rudder, the mast would act like a sea anchor, dragging us slowly to port until we lay abeam to the storm. Once in that position, the ship could only be turned against that tremendous leverage with bowsprit and jib, an unlikely event before the unremitting waves overran us and swamped our decks.
A dark form dropped to the deck at my side and grabbed me roughly by my lapel, dragging me wordlessly forward. I could just make our Shrift’s form, and am ashamed to say surprise momentarily stayed my feet. His station was in the main mast rigging and he could only have survived its demise by leaping to the mizzenmast. His descent from there to the deck must have been accomplished at superhuman speeds, even for a navy man, especially with the stays and rigging virtually disintegrating around him. That he was even alive called for odds even greater than those Napoleon sought, and yet he continued forward with a fresh plan and no contemplation of the so recent past. Quickly he grabbed an axe from a rack, and more through gestures than words, outlined his plan to me. Technically, we were committing mutinous acts since no officer had ordered what we were about to accomplish. Further treasonous since I had abandoned my station (Shrift would later argue that his station had abandoned him). But I spared not a thought to mull over punishment, nor did I think of reward except to draw a few more moist breaths.
We plied our blades with a fury that I have never felt even in battle against my fellow man, and by word and deed pressed any able sailor in the waist to our end. A sailor is trained to follow orders without thought, and even though some of these men were undoubtedly our seniors, Shrift’s actions and command were so absolute that not one thought strayed from obeying him. It seemed like hours, but it had to be less than minutes for the final ligament of the wreckage was parted and overboard while we yet remained a quarter to windward. By this time officers were able to take charge and give orders so that the remaining sails and rigging could be secured and used to bring us back before the wind. Again, I was ordered to the aft pumps.
Thus continued the longest night any man on that ship ever endured. The battle with the French was completely forgotten as we ran abreast the mightiest storm I have yet seen. With no rudder and the stern sundered, the sole hope lay in running with the wind. Without the mains and only crude rerigging, the ship relied on the combined skills and efforts of every man merely to crest the next wave, yet alone reach the dawn. As the rudder was useless and deemed non-reparable, the guns and scant remaining supplies were run forward to lighten the keel in the stern. However, it made the boat nose-heavy, so that every wave breached over the bow and subjected the deck to a continuous cold wash, which quickly froze and had to be hacked off. The pumps were manned every hour and we ran before the wind like the harried fox, seeking every scrap of speed to outrun our pursuing fate. In a lighthearted attempt, I heard the captain make an aside to his lieutenant that if we made port, he was going to have the ship recommissioned Committed. Certainly no course was ever maintained with more intent or labour, and yet as I thought about it later I wondered if perhaps he jested at a darker meaning, for didn’t we carry the hopes of madmen bundled about us as our yards carried their tattered remnants of sail?
At dawn the storm did not abate, nor yet at dusk, nor dawn again. By now we were sleeping in shifts at our posts. The wind had backed from due east to the nor’east and we were being pushed inexorably to the Indies. For a week and more we rode that storm. Rations went from short to half and half again. Cold mutton and salt beef was relieved only by weevily biscuit. Only catching rainwater in casks on deck saved us from worse.
After the tenth day, the wind backed again, to the sou’east this time, and unbelievably freshened. Each day brought new challenges as the weakened ship burst new lines or yards, but the men were disciplined and by years at sea almost immune to hardship, so they surmounted each obstacle as it came, much as our bows continued to plow the Atlantic swells. The vagaries of war had determined that Shrift be recognized for his actions, rather than hung, and he now had a temporary commission as a warrant officer, replacing one of the slain. Daily his bravery and resourcefulness were tested and passed. The men followed him, one of their own, with increasing confidence and pride. By now the crew knew there lay only one hope. As so many had done, although under different circumstances, we now pinned our fates on the American shore.
I sometimes smiled at the thought. Like a ghost ship manned by the damned, we would come fresh out of the teeth of a sou’Easter, the only storm feared on the northern seaboard more than the more common nor’Easter. The storm was hurling us like a double-charged cannon shot and without steerage our odyssey might suffer the unglamorously simple end of smashing us against the closest reef. Yet with small triumph over long hardship comes a resolute hope. That after somehow coming so far, you cannot yet fail in completing the journey. This is a catholic human conviction, despite the fact that cold mathematical laws stipulate that the longer you stare into adversity, the less actual chance you maintain of catching it blink. Thoughts were beginning to turn to this question of reining in our caroming horseless chanson when, after a fortnight in a hell storm so thick night could barely be told from day, we sighted land.
Most of our charts and navigational equipment had been lost with the rest of the captain’s effects (including his boat) when his cabin disintegrated with the rest of the stern. A seaman long at sea does not need all of the modern navigational aids to gauge his position, providing he can set course by the sun or stars. We had not seen those in two weeks. To boot, navigating unfamiliar storm waters without charts is tantamount to a drunken lubber playing blind-man’s-bluff in the rigging. The best we could do was dead reckoning based on the nearly steady wind headings and speed we had maintained.
Fortunately, some of the mates had been pressed from the merchant fleet and were more familiar with the American shore that those of us who had been west only to the Indies and had not yet gotten to fight the Yanks in war. The first land sighted was a small group of islands, dead ahead. On our present course we could only hope to find passage through them as we maintained too little steerage to pass them either north or south. Hurriedly, the Captain called back two of the most experienced merchantmen and they had an animated discussion on the cantilevered remains of the poop deck. Apparently resigned, the Captain sent one forward with his Lieutenant to handle necessary orders up front resulting from any small course changes we might attempt, and kept the other, a grizzled and unflappable mate, back with him for advice. Word spread as the lieutenant and companion moved forward that we had made the Isles of Shoals, and if we could thread passage between them, we might make harbor at Portsmouth.
No needle was ever so small and no haystack ever so big as what we were about to accomplish, on top of what we had already done. In fact, it was as if we had thrown a needle and a bobbin into a field with a bolt of cloth, and on harvest had found that they had woven a fine coat in the pile. Oh, it’s a fanciful comparison, but we were giddy from our adventure and deprivations, and now with only two more gauntlets to run, we might yet hoist pints to our adventure. Had we arrived even one watch earlier, we would’ve run upon the islands in the dark and would’ve met or escaped our fate, all unknowing.
The merchantmen knew their business. We came full speed down the throat of the passage twixt the two largest isles with out even a chance to cast lead. Nothing could save us if either of these two misreckoned. As we broached the lee side of the channel, we hoped it might lessen the violence of the storm so that we could spare some headway for maneuvering. As we sped through the channel two boats raced out from the lee harbor. Lookouts waiting for overdue return of some trawler must have noted our coming and condition and sent boats for aid. There is considerable disparagement between those in the service and those who make their way on the water in peaceful means; but like squabbling brothers, in the face of danger, men of the sea will always come together and face their common foe. Without pausing for communication, a fishing-rigged schooner, Sea Dollar, passed close on our bows and tossed a grapple up. The hook caught on the first try. Never have I seen a more beautiful boat more handsomely handled. I was close enough to see the skipper’s bearded face split in a grin as he held his neatly painted blue and white boat close on our bow. He gave off the air of a man yachting on a summer day, not one fighting a hundred-year storm with death held off on any side by the width of good decision and instant reflexes.
I will give credit to our crew that while they may not have lead, instantly they followed the fishermens’ plan. A cable was quickly tied to the line from the schooner and run through the bow. Meanwhile, the other boat, a small green and yellow sloop named Green Flash, had managed a similar maneuver at our stern. On the lee shore of the Isles, with these two boats acting in tandem, they should be able to affect our course to steer us ahead of the wind up river. Almost immediately the Captain ordered our sales reefed and I hope it may be taken as a measure of my exhaustion and overall condition, rather than my born intellect, that at first I did not follow his orders to slow when salvation appeared so close at hand. Yet it rapidly became obvious that while those small boats might be able to give a modicum of control to their behemothic counterpart, they were no more than pilot fish to sharks, and would be ineffective against the retreating tide of the mighty Piscataqua, rumoured to be one of the fastest rivers in the world. So the capstans of our nerves ratcheted back any slack they had momentarily played out. It was dark by the time we reached the river’s mouth, but timed perfectly to catch the ingoing tide. We set our jury-rigged sails just as the harbor light showed we passed between the batteries of Fort Constitution on the port and Fort McClean on the starboard. Never was I so happy to pass under the sights of so many guns.
With the neat handling of the fisher captains, the trip up river was an anticlimactic episode in our journey. As we rounded the last bend in the river under the views of New Hampshire to one side and Maine to the other, the wind died away and the clouds magically parted so that that already famous star-spangled sky shown down on us; as if to show that this fledgling country on this alien continent once seeded with our own blood had such power that it could control the very skies and the gifts they bestowed on humble visitors. If that seems too poetic for a humble sea mate, perhaps there is yet too much time to think when one is lashed to one’s post for a fortnight straight, staring Death straight down and feeling His hoary breath. But no breastwork of mere thought will survive what fate bestows on us, the emotions that well up when you know you have won ashore again; and I do not feel unmanned by giving speech to those feelings.
The time reaching berth had not been wasted. Boats ferried continuously back and forth through the storm, and arrangements were made to take Commitment directly into drydock, so that we did not have to continue to man the pumps throughout the watches in a probably futile attempt to keep her from sinking at moorage. By morning we were all bunked in barracks ashore and I doubt a man awoke before the snuffing of the lanterns outside in the street.
As disciplined as a crew can be at sea, on shore even a good captain can quickly find himself with less than a drunken mob. The situation is doubly dangerous on a neutral foreign shore where pressed men will quickly try to regain their freedom. Certainly the Americans would not prevent this after their own recent escape from the royal yoke. The one hold that the crew of Commitment had was that if they were to return home there would be their share of the prize money from Force Majeur for pressed and enlisted men alike.
The officers did their best to keep the men occupied with the refitting of the ship and the thousand maintenance tasks required on any ship of war when time allowed. Besides fitting new masts and bulwarks, there was splicing and sail mending (those few left intact); stoning the decks and polishing the brightwork; the shipping of supplies; painting of the trim and maintenance of the guns. The officers assigned all of these tasks and more with a will, as they seemed to have no greater pleasure than to see men profitably occupied. Still, the articles of war strictly stipulated that while ashore the men should draw half-pay, and when not on duty were allowed time to spend it.
To a certain degree, this actually helped maintain discipline as men nearly half a year at sea were not apt to run past the nearest tavern or bawdy house while they still had wages to sample the wares within. The men on watch would be pressed into service collecting up their drunken compatriots on leave before they sobered up enough to run. Twelve hours later they would switch places. Such is the base nature of man that you can count on it to set your timepieces and maintain its own order when all logic maintains it should be otherwise. To further enforce this, the Articles allowed the Captain to cancel leave and assert martial law if any mate should desert. This merely meant the problem would be put off until just before the ship sailed, a date the Captain therefore kept only to his own confidence.
And what a town! One of the busiest ports in the world, Portsmouth rivaled only New Delhi for the vice dens it offered. We spent just that perfect amount of time ashore: I had not wearied of its entertainments nor yet begun to yearn for the sea. Part of that was being in this bustling center in a country that felt both distinctly foreign and familiar. The spring was setting up for a perfect summer, the susurrations of wind in the trees at night sounding almost like the sea itself. The boys were fast friends with the locals, free with money they could not spend at sea, and still fresh enough from adventure and hardship to exhibit a certain joie de vie.
I was not surprised when sharing a pipe with Shrift that he mentioned he had met a local girl. Shrift had never struck me as one who would spend his time pandering to his lesser nature – after the first few days of relaxation, which any man needs ashore, of course. He had taken to wandering the town and the surrounding countryside during his leave, even turning out to be a decent hand with a horse. It was at the stables that he had met his sweet heart, Marie. He was going to go for a ride with her and her sister in the morning and asked if I might be interested in joining them.
Easily can I recall sitting on that bench in Hay Market Square, shaded by a lovely maple, staring across at the church. At sea, a man longs for nothing more than a life made of such moments, whereas by his contrary nature ashore he longs for nothing less. I said before that a seaman does not understand fear, and here perhaps I misspoke. The things he understands, the things of the sea, the perils of life and death, do not concern him. These are like the table and chairs in your dining room. But he is an ignorant and mysterious lot, and the things that are not familiar to him are rife subjects for his fear and consternation, though through his lack of experience he might even then be unable to name the emotion which courses through him. Such is his experience with love. Most seamen spend their entire lives, from before beard growth to the very limit of soundness of limb, in the company of other men, far from land and civilization. The fairer sex is a rare and mythical experience, about as common as the sighting of a giant squid or other exotic of the deep. Likely, after his mother and sisters, the next woman he meets will be of the professional type, and although he has bought and paid for her time, yet always it will be with a sense of awe and tribulation, much as one might pay at a fair to pet a tamed and drugged lion or tiger. There is not a woman in the world who, if she cannot state this outright, at least senses deep inside her this truth.
A seaman would rather face being raked with heated grapeshot than willingly fall under the auspices of one of these fragile creatures. Unlike the shot, the consternation she nourishes in him will neither cook nor cool but will rattle around in him from sinew to marrow raising the pitch of his being at a steady rate until he practically sings like the rigging. Love. I know men who would rather face a femur shattered by shot and the promise of the surgeon’s saw without rum’s panacea than be in love. My mind drifted through these thoughts, or perhaps the reactions these thoughts would have brung could I have so stated them at that time.
Part of me stared dreamily at the church while Shrift sang the praises of the older sister, but part of me saw no need to seek the type of contentment he sought, and I begged off of his expedition. Oh, would that I had been a braver man, to see my mate through his time of peril! If I had only the wisdom then that these sad events have since brought to me, perhaps I could’ve prevented seaman Trueworthy Shrift’s unmanning. For no man was named better than he, and he had shown his worth to every one of us a hundred times over, his ambitions during our voyage going beyond our hopes and showing us a way to these distant shores. Although I shiver that I may narrowly have escaped his fate, my conscience dictates that so should I have done that he not undergo his penance alone.
Shrift was to pick the girls up the next day, at nine or so, and he kept his appointment with all of the punctuality of the sea. The three of them, Shrift, Marie and her ever-so-slightly elder sister, Gwen, took a horse and buggy south on the old Post Road, towards Rye, the next quaint little harbor town down coast. The meadows were flush with strawberries (it is not for lack of them that the area was once called Strawbery Banke, after all) and the girls let him in on their plan to turn down a side lane and go picking.
Presently they came to a bridge over a small stream and the sisters implored him to pull over. They wanted to go down the bank and ford the stream on some flat rocks to pick berries on the other side. They would work along the row and come back up on the road and across the bridge to finish their little adventure. Even though the stream was shallow and slow moving, Shrift was inclined to balk from their plan. The truth to tell, he was fonder of one sister over the other merely from the coincidence of meeting her first. It could’ve easily been the other way around, although some dim sense of misguided nobility told him that he had to stick by his first choice, based merely on the order fate had dealt him. Because of this dual affection (which same sense was also plaguing him with guilt), he was in an absolute froth over making sure that nothing should come to pass to either girl, even such a minor inconvenience as a wet toe. The girls, either oblivious to his dilemma, or cruelly aware of it, paid his objects no never mind and jumped out of the carriage almost before he could get it stopped. By the time the horse was secure, they had grabbed their baskets and skipped across the road and down the bank, out of sight.
Shrift chased after them, barely escaping an embarrassing tumble on the muddy bank. The girls stopped on the first course of stones and looking back, held their hands to their mouths as one and giggled. Shrift was totally out of his league in these conditions, and never having learned even the concept of laughing at one’s self, comported himself with all of his dignity, and then some, to the streams’ edge, determined as always to carry forward into battle. The girls had all of the available stones occupied, and seeing no other course of action, he waded into the stream offering a hand the a sister on either side. The girls were still repressing giggles as they took his hand in one hand and held their hems and baskets with the other. The little parade continued across the stream in its mock-dignified manner, the water just lapping over the top of seaman Trueworthy’s boots. If any passerby had crossed the bridge, he would’ve done well to keep the mirth from his voice on wishing the little party good day.
When they got to shore, the girls were immediately for scampering off, while Shrift was once again in a conundrum. Logic dictated that he should go ahead in case of danger; while this confounded new sense told him that the polite thing to do was take up the rear. For all of his years of vigilance and cold training, he still yielded to this new second voice. The girls scampered on ahead while he removed his walking stick from where he it was clamped under his arm and vowed to himself to keep a lookout from the back. Ahead the girls were looking back at poor Trueworthy and whispering behind their hands, both amused and enthralled at their dignified protector. It didn’t seem fair to explain to him that they had done this dozens of times in their young lives without even catching poison ivy. In fact, Gwen encouraged him a little with talk of Indians and the now famous story of the attack on nearby Breakfast Hill.
Shrift stared about him wide-eyed and even more vigilant. The knowledge seamen glean about distant shores is often garbled and in any case elaborated by his fellow men. All Englishmen, in fact, considered America to be one bloody battlefield where the white man on the coast barely held the red savages inshore in check. The Americans, for their part, saw more benefit to further inflating what they considered their over-stuffed English visitors than they did in disabusing them of some of their quainter notions. So the girls cannot really be taken to task for the fact that they failed to point out that the attack they were discussing happened nearly half a century ago and that nobody had gotten hurt as shot was too precious for bringing down game for either side to risk it against a mere enemy.
They were good-hearted children, however, and took pity on Shrift and his white-rimmed eyes. They had gone about one hundred yards along the bank below the roadbed when Marie, in the lead, stopped and turned to let him in on their little joke and ask if he might not let down his guard a little and help them fill the baskets that much faster. She just had time to register the further widening of Shrift’s eyes and the opening of his mouth in a mute scream when a black bear reared up from the berry patch behind her and felled her with a single swat to the head. Shrift leaped into action, already damning himself for his slovenly lollygaging.
He grabbed Gwen by the arm and ripped her back in his direction, before she even had a chance to turn and see what had happened behind her. He then lifted his cane and brought the sharkskin wrapped ironwood shaft down on the bear where it stood over Marie. The bear back-handed him away as it rose on its hind legs, Shrift hitting the ground with an emphasis that knocked the wind out of him. By now Gwen was aware
He ripped the sharkskin scabbard off of his dagger stick and advanced again on the enemy. It would’ve been almost comical, had not the odds been the dearest of any fight he had ever fought. Shrift fenced with the bear, but the bear parried each blow with his paws more expertly than any fencer Shrift had ever faced. Each swat deflected his blade with the power of a recoiling cannon, and each paw contained four times as much lacerating power as he himself wielded. The ridiculous fight continued until the bear wearied of the harassment and wheeled on a back leg to go. Seeing his moment, Shrift dove in and buried his blade to the handle between two ribs in the bear’s chest. The bear turned to him and clubbed him down before giving one last horrendous growl and crawling off less than half a rod’s distance to die.
That’s how a passing farmer found them less than ten minutes later: the bear dead, Gwen screaming in hysterics, Shrift unconscious and bleeding, and Marie with her head crushed like a three minute egg. I was there when they brought the bodies back, Marie in one wagon, the bear in another. Shrift was hailed as a hero, but I could see inside of him what only another seaman could see. He wasn’t suffused with pride for what little he had been able to accomplish, but only with agony for what he had failed. Although I’m quite sure he had no idea what love was and had not yet had a chance to feel it for either of those beautiful sisters, yet that sense inside him told him the moment her saw her struck down that he loved Marie and that he would always love her and would hate himself for letting her die.
I knew then, as sure as I can feel the barometer drop, that there was no saving him. A light had gone out of him and with it, a light went out of our ship. With his eyes turned inward and doubt in his very step, he could not even hold onto his commission. This man who once leapt calmly from main to mizzen and then took on and beat the sea with an axe, would never lead again, for he had given his best instincts away in the face of arguments from a pair of little girls and seen the love of his life struck down as a result. Although he wears the unusual seaman’s talisman of a bear claw on a thong around his neck, it is an ongoing symbol not of his victory, but his defeat.
The men don’t understand this. It is much easier to understand how a mate could be unmanned by a bear, a wild animal entirely outside of their experience and therefore acceptable to fear. But that is only because they do not understand that rarer and wilder beast that can devour a man from inside and destroy him without leaving a mark. In a moment, seaman Trueworthy Shrift met this beast and was consumed by it. Seaman Trueworthy Shrift was unmanned by love.