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Authors: Charles Williams

Dead Calm

BOOK: Dead Calm
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Dead Calm


Charles Williams


Though it had been less than four hours since he’d secured everything on deck and come below, Ingram awoke just at dawn. He turned his head in the faint light inside the cabin and looked at his wife asleep in the opposite bunk. Rae, wearing sleeveless short pajamas of lightweight cotton, was lying on her stomach, her face turned toward him, the mop of tawny hair spread across the pillow encircled by her arms, her legs spread slightly apart and braced, even in sleep, against the motion of the ketch. She never minded, he thought; some people grew irritable and impossible to live with on a sailboat too long becalmed, with its endless rolling and slatting of gear and its annoying and unstoppable noises of objects shifting back and forth in drawers and lockers, but except for an occasional pungent remark when the stove threw something at her she took it uncomplainingly. They weren’t in a hurry, she pointed out, they were on their honeymoon, and they had privacy measurable in millions of square miles.

Without even consciously thinking about it, his mind received, filtered, and evaluated each of the individual sounds in the orchestration of creaks and minute collisions going on about him, oblivious to the total melody but capable of becoming instantly alert at the mere suspicion of a note that was out of place. Nothing was rolling or banging on deck; everything was still secure topside. The metallic bumping just beyond his feet in the galley section of the cabin was the teakettle sliding against the rails that kept it on the stove. The click and intermittent rattle above it were dishes shifting minutely inside their stowage on the bulkhead above the sink. The creaking was only a timber working normally as she swung and swung back; if a boat didn’t have flexibility it would break up against any kind of sea, like a car smashed against a wall. That sound of something rolling back and forth was a pencil loose in a drawer. The clock struck four bells. He stretched luxuriously. Six a.m. Hot. Dead calm. But at least they’d sailed out of yesterday’s grapefruit rinds. They’d had a light southeasterly breeze for six hours last night, which should put them at least another twenty-five miles along their course.

After sliding out of the bunk, he put on water for coffee, moving silently about the galley so as not to disturb Rae. He stripped off his pajamas, picked up a towel, and mounted the companion ladder to the cockpit. Everything on deck was drenched with dew; it stood in great sweaty beads on the brass cover of the binnacle, and the bottoms of the cockpit cushions he’d reversed last night were as wet as if they’d been rained on. It was full daylight now, and the towering escarpments of cloud to the eastward were shot with flame. Not a breath of air stirred; the surface of the Pacific was as unwrinkled as glass except for the heave and surge of the long groundswell running up from the infinite distances of the Southern Hemisphere.

Standing naked in the cockpit, he leaned over and peered into the binnacle from sheer force of habit to check the heading of the ketch as she lay dead in the water except for her rolling. She was lying 290 at the moment, almost abeam to the swell. He turned and looked forward. Everything was secure. Wind or no wind, it was morning, it was beautiful, and it was good to be alive. He was where he wanted to be, at sea with a sound boat and with Rae. They were nineteen days out of the Canal, bound for Tahiti and the islands to the south, tied to no schedule, free of the frustrations and annoyances of life ashore.

He grinned suddenly and made an impatient gesture with his hand. Goofing off. The water for the coffee would be boiling in a few minutes. Reaching inside the companion hatch, he switched off the masthead light, and went forward. Shoved under the lashings of the dinghy atop the deckhouse was a short ladder. He pulled it free, hung it over the port side, stepped over the lifeline, and dived. After coming to the surface, he swam with a powerful crawl stroke up along her side, under the bow, and back down the other side. He turned on his back and floated some fifty feet astern, looking up at her with affection.

was thirty-two feet on the waterline, forty over-all, ketch-rigged. She was mahogany planked over oak frames and had been built less than ten years ago by a New England yard. She wasn’t as fast as some, nor as tall and long-ended and patrician of line, but she was reasonably dry on deck and with her short overhang forward and her deep forefoot she pounded very little in a seaway. Deep-water cruising was what she was built for, he thought, and she was good at it. She’d take you there as fast as you needed to go, and she’d bring you back from anything a sane man would take her into.

He swam back, climbed aboard, and stowed the ladder. In the cockpit he rubbed himself down vigorously with the towel and tied it around his middle. He was a big man, no longer young—he was forty-four—with a flat, windburned face and cool gray eyes. The hair was dark, atrociously cut some five days ago by his wife, graying deeply at the temples, and his shoulders and back were hard and rope-muscled, burned dark by the tropical sun. Along his left hip and in back of his left leg were the slick, hairless whorls of old scar tissue, relic of an explosion and fire aboard a boat when he’d operated a shipyard in Puerto Rico, but the limp was long since gone.

He started below to dress and make the coffee, but paused with one foot on the companion ladder to take a last look around the horizon for squalls. They could make up very fast here in the belt of calms along the Line, even in the early morning. There were no clouds that looked suspicious at the moment— His eyes stopped suddenly and returned to the sector off the starboard bow. He’d seen something. Or had he? Yes, there it was again, a tiny speck almost over the rim of the horizon. It disappeared and came into view again. Without removing his eyes from it, he reached inside the hatch and lifted the big seven-by-fifty binoculars from the rack on the after bulkhead. It was a boat.

At that distance, even with the glasses, he could make out nothing about it except that it appeared to be two-masted and was carrying no sail at the moment. He stepped back to the binnacle and checked the heading. It was bearing about 310 degrees. He looked at it again, but it was impossible to tell whether or not anyone was on deck; it was, in fact, visible at all only when it rose to the crest of a swell. Rae would want to see it, he thought; it was the only sign of life they’d sighted since leaving Panama nearly three weeks ago. Well, it’d still be there after breakfast; nobody was going anywhere until they got some wind.

He went below and pulled on khaki shorts and sneakers. The water was boiling now. He measured out the coffee and poured it. While it was running through he wound the chronometer. He checked the barometer, giving it a little tap with his fingernail. It was steady at 29.91. He entered it in the log, along with the time, and the notation, “Calm. PC to clr. Mod. S’ly swell.”

Rae rolled over and sat up, yawning. She brushed the tawny mane of hair back from her face and grinned. “Hi, Skipper.”

He perched on the side of the bunk and kissed her. “Hi, beautiful.”

She made a deprecating gesture. “Everybody’s beautiful when he first wakes up. It’s called the blotched, rumpled, and bleary-eyed look; beauty shops can’t duplicate it. Mmmmm, I was having a wonderful dream.”

“About what?” he asked.

“Fresh water. There was a sunken tub about the size of Rhode Island, with two hundred pounds of bath salts in it—”

“Miss all that too much?”

She rumpled his still-wet hair. “Silly. Who’d want to be a clean widow when she could be a dirty sailor’s wife?”

“Watch your language, Mate. I just bathed in the Pacific Ocean.”

“God, the English language, at seven o’clock in the morning. I mean the dirty wife of a clean sailor.”

“Okay, Moonbeam McSwine. How about a cup of coffee?”

“Love it.” She swung long bare legs off the bunk and disappeared into the head, which opened off the narrow passageway between the forward and after compartments. She came out a few minutes later, face washed and hair combed, and sat down on the bunk with her legs braced against the one opposite. He handed her the mug of coffee and a lighted cigarette. “We’ve got company.”

“You mean somebody else is using our ocean?”

He nodded. “I just sighted him.”

“Who? Where?”

“Three or four miles away, to the northwest. Looks like a yacht. Yawl or ketch.”

“Where do you suppose he’s going?”

He grinned. “Nowhere at the moment. He’s becalmed too.”

“If we could get together and all whistle for wind at the same time, like a grievance committee, or a delegation—”

“This won’t last much longer. We whittled off another twenty or thirty miles last night. In a few more days we ought to be picking up the Trades.”

“Oh, I’m not complaining. Being becalmed has its points.”

“It does?” he asked. “I can only think of one.”

“That’s the one. Nobody has to be at the wheel.”

“I thought you liked to steer.”

“I do.” She smiled roguishly. “And no further comment, not at this hour of the morning.”

“You’re a hard woman. Look, I intended to run the engine a few minutes today to dry it out; if you want to, after breakfast we could run over and hail our neighbor. You like to gossip awhile, or borrow a cup of sugar?”

“Sure. But could I have a swim first? Or is he within binocular range?”

“Not unless he’s got the Mount Palomar telescope. Anyway, you could wear a suit.”

She sniffed. “Swim suit? Fine pagan you are.”

After they’d cooked and eaten breakfast and washed the dishes, he returned to the cockpit. The sun was up now, glaring brassily on the polished surface of the sea.
had swung around on the swell, but he checked the bearing on the compass and located the other boat without difficulty, using the binoculars. It was off the starboard quarter. Rae came up, wrapped in a terrycloth robe and carrying a towel. “Which way is he?”

He handed her the binoculars and pointed. She searched for a moment. “Mmmmm. There he is. Is he really that small, or just so far away?”

“He’s a long way off.”

She grinned. “Far enough, I think. I can’t even tell if there’s anybody on deck.”

he went forward, hung the ladder over the side, unbelted the robe, and let it drop. She stepped across the lifeline, poised for a moment, dived cleanly, and came to the surface almost immediately with a flip of her head to clear the hair from her eyes. He walked forward along the port side, watching the water around and below her, faintly uneasy as he always was when she was down there. Motion pictures to the contrary, sharks didn’t always travel on the surface with their dorsal fins conveniently showing. “Don’t go too far from the ladder,” he warned.

“I won’t.”

She swam back and forth several times and came back to the ladder. When she had her feet on the bottom rung and the lifeline in her hands, he said, “Wait there a minute.” He turned and ran below, grabbed a saucepan, and pumped a quart of fresh water into it at the sink. She watched, puzzled, as he came hurrying back. He knelt and poured it slowly over her head, washing the salt water out of her hair. She began to laugh, and when he put down the saucepan she sprang the rest of the way up the ladder and threw her arms about him. “It’s because I love you,” he said, as wet now as she was.

She kissed him again, and then broke up into laughter once more with her face against his throat. “I was thinking of that woman the Taj Mahal was built for.”


“When she was alive, I bet even
husband didn’t pour a whole quart of fresh water in her hair.”

“Probably nothing but emeralds.”

“The clod.” She pushed back. “But I’d better get some clothes on. They just might have bigger binoculars over there.”

He went back to the cockpit. She dried herself with the towel, wrapped it about her head, put on the robe, and went below. The engine controls were in the cockpit. He set the choke, switched on the ignition, and turned it over with the starter. It caught on the third or fourth try, coughed once, and settled down to a steady rumble. He let it idle a few minutes to warm up, and shoved the lever ahead. Taking the wheel, he brought her around and steadied up on the approximate bearing of the other craft. Now that they were under way, the rolling lessened almost miraculously, and the slight breeze of their passage felt cool against his face. He reached for the glasses, picked up the boat again, brought
a few degrees to the right to line it up dead ahead, and checked the compass course. Three-fifteen was about right.

“Honey,” he called down the hatch, “when you come up, will you bring me a cigar?”

“Right, Skipper. But don’t get there too fast. If we’re going calling, I’ve got to dress and put on my face.”

“Take your time. It’ll be a half-hour or more.”

She came on deck in about five minutes, dressed in Bermuda shorts and a white blouse. Her still-damp hair was combed back and tied with a scrap of ribbon, and she’d put on lipstick. He lit the cigar she handed him. She picked up the binoculars and turned forward, searching for the other craft. The sun struck coppery highlights in her hair as she swayed with the motion of the ketch, balancing easily on bare feet.

“Still can’t tell whether there’s anybody on deck,” she said.

“She’s a long way off yet,” Ingram replied. “And they could be asleep—” He broke off at a muttered exclamation from Rae. “What is it?”

She spoke without lowering the glasses. “I thought I saw something else. Between here and there.”


“I don’t know. It was just a speck, and it’s gone now—no. Wait. There it was again.”

“Turtle?” he asked.

“No-o. It’d have to be bigger than that; it’s too far away. Here, you take a look.”

He slid over and stood up in the cockpit. She took the wheel and repeated the compass course. “It’s almost dead ahead,” she said. “I only had a couple of quick glimpses of it, but I think it was right in line with the other boat and probably three-quarters of the way over to it.”

He put a knee on the starboard cockpit cushion and leaned to the right to get out of line with the masts as he adjusted the glasses. He picked up the other craft and studied it for a moment. Ketch-rigged, he thought, and probably a little larger than
. There was no one visible on deck. She was almost abeam to the swell and rolling sluggishly. He lowered the glasses a bit and began to search the slickly heaving surface of the sea that lay between.

BOOK: Dead Calm
13.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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