Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
A Storm on Lake Michigan
By Hamlin Garland (1860–1940)
From ‘Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly’

AS the winter deepened, Rose narrowed the circle of conquest. She no longer thought of conquering the world; it came to be the question of winning the approbation of one human soul. That is, she wished to win the approbation of the world in order that Warren Mason might smile and say “Well done!”  1
  She did not reach this state of mind smoothly and easily. On the contrary, she had moments when she rebelled at the thought of any man’s opinion being the greatest good in the world to her. She rebelled at the implied inferiority of her position in relation to him, and also at the physical bondage implied. In the morning, when she was strong, in the midst of some social success, when people swarmed about her and men bent deferentially, then she held herself like a soldier on a tower, defying capture.  2
  But at night, when the lights were all out, when she felt her essential loneliness and weakness and need, when the world seemed cold and cruel and selfish,—then it seemed as if the sweetest thing in the universe would be to have him open his arms and say “Come!”  3
  There would be rest there, and repose. His judgment, his keen wit, his penetrating, powerful influence, made him seem a giant to her; a giant who disdained effort and gave out an appearance of indifference and lassitude. She had known physical giants in her neighborhood, who spoke in soft drawl and slouched lazily in action, but who were invincible when aroused.  4
  She imagined she perceived in Mason a mental giant, who assumed irresolution and weakness for reasons of his own. He was always off duty when she saw him, and bent more upon rest than a display of power. Once or twice she saw him roused, and it thrilled her; that measured lazy roll of voice changed to a quick, stern snarl, the brows lowered, and the big plump face took on battle lines. It was like a seemingly shallow pool, suddenly disclosed to be of soundless depths by a wind of passion.  5
  The lake had been the refuge of the distracted and restless girl. She went to it often in the autumn days, for it rested her from the noise of grinding wheels, and screams, and yells. Its smooth rise and fall, its sparkle of white-caps, its sailing gulls, filled her with delicious pleasure. It soothed her and it roused her also. It gave her time to think.  6
  The street disturbed her, left her purposeless and powerless; but out there where the ships floated like shadows, and shadows shifted like flame, and the wind was keen and sweet,—there she could get her mental breath again. She watched it change to wintry desolation, till it grew empty of vessels and was lonely as the Arctic Sea; and always it was grand and thought-inspiring.  7
  She went out one day in March, when the home longing was upon her and when it seemed that the city would be her death. She was tired of her food, tired of Mary, tired of her room. Her forehead was knotted tensely with pain of life and love—  8
  She cried out with sudden joy, for she had never seen the lake more beautiful. Near the shore a great mass of churned and heaving ice and snow lay like a robe of shaggy fur. Beyond this the deep water spread, a vivid pea-green broken by wide irregular strips of dark purple. In the open water by the wall a spatter of steel blue lay like the petals of some strange flower, scattered upon the green.  9
  Great splendid clouds developed, marvelously like the clouds of June, making the girl’s heart swell with memories of summer. They were white as wool, these mountainous clouds, and bottomed in violet, and as they passed the snow-fields they sent down pink-purple misty shadows, which trailed away in splendor toward the green which flamed in bewildering beauty beyond. The girl sat like one in a dream, while the wind blew the green and purple of the outer sea into fantastic, flitting forms which dazzled her eyes like the stream of mingled banners.  10
  Each form seemed more beautiful than the preceding one; each combination had such unearthly radiance, her heart ached with exquisite sorrow to see it vanish. The girl felt that spring was coming on the wing of the southern wind, and the desire to utter her passion grew almost into pain.  11
  It had other moods, this mighty spread of water. It could be angry, dangerous. Sometimes it rolled sullenly, and convoluted in oily surges beneath its coverlid of snow, like a bed of monstrous serpents. Sometimes the leaden sky shut down over it, and from the desolate northeast a snow-storm rushed, hissing and howling. Sometimes it slumbered for days, quiet as a sleeping boa, then awoke and was a presence and a voice in the night, fit to make the hardiest tremble.  12
  Rose saw it when it was roused, but she had yet to see it in a frenzy. The knowledge of its worst came to her early in May, just before her return to the Coulé.  13
  The day broke with the wind in the northeast. Rose, lying in her bed, could hear the roar of the lake; never before had its voice penetrated so far. She sprang up and dressed, eager to see it in such a mood. Mary responded sleepily to her call, saying the lake would be there after breakfast.  14
  Rose did not regret her eagerness, though it was piercingly cold and raw. The sea was already terrific. Its spread of tawny yellow showed how it had reached down and laid hold on the sand of its bed. There were oily splotches of plum color scattered over it where the wind blew it smooth, and it reached to the wild east sky, cold, desolate, destructive.  15
  It had a fierce, breathing snarl like a monster at meat. It leaped against the sea-wall like a rabid tiger, its sleek and spotted hide rolling. Every surge sent a triangular sheet of foam twenty-five feet above the wall, yellow and white and shadowed with dull blue; and the wind caught it as it rose, and its crest burst into great clouds of spray, which sailed across the streets and dashed along the walk like rain, making the roadway like a river; while the main body of each upleaping wave, falling back astride the wall, crashed like the fall of glass, and the next wave met it with a growl of thunderous rage, striking it with concave palm with a sound like a cannon’s exploding roar.  16
  Out of the appalling obscurity to the north, frightened ships scudded at intervals, with bare masts bending like fire-trimmed pines. They hastened like the homing pigeons, which do not look behind. The helmsmen stood grimly at their wheels, with eyes on the harbor ahead.  17
  The girl felt it all as no one native to the sea can possibly do. It seemed as if the bounds of the flood had been overcome, and that it was about to hurl itself upon the land. The slender trees, standing deep in the swash of water, bowed like women in pain; the wall was half hidden, and the flood and the land seemed mingled in battle.  18
  Rose walked along the shore, too much excited to go back to her breakfast. At noon she ate lunch hurriedly and returned to the shore. There were hundreds of people coming and going along the drive; young girls shrieking with glee, as the sailing clouds of spray fell upon them. Rose felt angry to think they could be so silly in face of such dreadful power.  19
  She came upon Mason, dressed in a thick mackintosh coat, taking notes rapidly in a little book. He did not look up, and she passed him, wishing to speak, yet afraid to speak. Near him a young man was sketching.  20
  Mason stood like a rock in his long, close-fitting rain coat, while she was blown nearly off her feet by the blast. She came back against the wind, feeling her soul’s internal storm rising. It seemed quite like a proposal of marriage to go up and speak to him—yet she could not forego the pleasure.  21
  He did not see her until she came into his lee; then he smiled, extending his hand. She spoke first:—  22
  “May I take shelter here?”  23
  His eyes lightened with a sudden tender humor.  24
  “Free anchorage,” he said, and drew her by the hand closer to his shoulder. It was a beautiful moment to her, and a dangerous one to him. He took refuge in outside matters.  25
  “How does that strike your inland eyes?” He pointed to the north.  26
  “It’s awful. It’s like the anger of God.” She spoke into his bowed ear.  27
  “Please don’t think I’m reporting it,” he explained. “I’m only making a few notes about it for an editorial on the need of harbors.”  28
  Each moment the fury increased, the waves deepened. The commotion sank down amid the sands of the deeper inshore water, and it boiled like milk. Splendid colors grew into it near at hand; the winds tore at the tops of the waves, and wove them into tawny banners, which blurred the air like blown sand. On the horizon the waves leaped in savage ranks, clutching at the sky like insane sea monsters,—frantic, futile.  29
  “I’ve seen the Atlantic twice during a gale,” shouted the artist to a companion, “but I never saw anything more awful than this. These waves are quicker and higher. I don’t see how a vessel could live in it if caught broadside.”  30
  “It’s the worst I ever saw here.”  31
  “I’m going down to the south side: would you like to go?” Mason asked of Rose.  32
  “I would indeed,” she replied.  33
  Back from the lake shore the wind was less powerful but more uncertain. It came in gusts which nearly upturned the street cars. Men and women scudded from shelter to shelter, like beleaguered citizens avoiding cannon shots.  34
  “What makes our lake so terrible,” said Mason in the car, “is the fact that it has a smooth shore—no indentations, no harbors. There is only one harbor here at Chicago, behind the breakwater, and every vessel in mid-lake must come here. Those flying ships are seeking safety here like birds. The harbor will be full of disabled vessels.”  35
  As they left the car, a roaring gust swept around a twenty-story building with such power [that] Rose would have been taken off her feet had not Mason put his arms about her shoulders.  36
  “You’re at a disadvantage,” he said, “with skirts.” He knew she prided herself on her strength, and he took no credit to himself for standing where she fell.  37
  It was precisely as if they were alone together; the storm seemed to wall them in, and his manner was more intimate than ever before. It was in very truth the first time they had been out together, and also it was the only time he had assumed any physical care of her. He had never asserted his greater muscular power and mastery of material things, and she was amazed to see that his lethargy was only a mood. He could be alert and agile at need. It made his cynicism appear to be a mood also; at least, it made her heart wondrously light to think so.  38
  They came upon the lake shore again, near the Auditorium. The refuge behind the breakwater was full of boats, straining at anchor, rolling, pitching, crashing together. Close about the edge of the breakwater, ships were rounding hurriedly, and two broken vessels lay against the shore, threshing up and down in the awful grasp of the breakers. Far down toward the south the water dashed against the spiles, shooting fifty feet above the wall, sailing like smoke, deluging the street, and lashing against the row of buildings across the way.  39
  Mason’s keen eye took in the situation:—  40
  “Every vessel that breaks anchor is doomed! Nothing can keep them from going on shore. Doubtless those two schooners lost anchor—that one there is dragging anchor.” He said suddenly, “She is shifting position, and see that hulk—”  41
  Rose for a moment could not see it. She lay flat on her side, a two-master, her sails flapping and floating on the waves. Her anchor still held, but she had listed her cargo, careened, and so lay helpless.  42
  “There are men on it!” cried some one. “Three men—don’t you see them? The water goes over them every time!”  43
  “Sure enough! I wonder if they are going to let them drown, here in the harbor!”  44
  Rose grew numb with horror. On the rounded side of the floating hulk three men were clinging, looking like pegs of tops. They could only be seen at intervals, for the water broke clear over their heads. It was only when one of them began to move to and fro that the mighty crowd became certainly aware of life still clinging to the hull. It was an awful thing to stand helplessly by and see those brave men battle, but no life-boat or tug could live out there. In the station, men wept and imprecated in their despair; twice they tried to go to the rescue of the beleaguered men, but could not reach them.  45
  Suddenly a flare of yellow spread out on the wave. A cry arose:—  46
  “She’s breaking up!”  47
  Rose seized Mason’s arm in a frenzy of horror.  48
  “O God! can’t somebody help them?”  49
  “They’re out of reach!” said Mason solemnly. And then the throng was silent.  50
  “They are building a raft!” shouted a man with a glass, speaking at intervals for the information of all. “One man is tying a rope to planks;… he is helping the other men;… he has his little raft nearly ready;… they are crawling toward him—”  51
  “Oh, see them!” exclaimed Rose. “Oh, the brave men! There! they are gone—the vessel has broken up.”  52
  On the wave nothing now lived but a yellow spread of lumber; the glass revealed no living thing.  53
  Mason turned to Rose with a grave and tender look.  54
  “You have seen human beings engulfed like flies—”  55
  “No! no! There they are!” shouted a hundred voices, as if in answer to Mason’s thought.  56
  Thereafter the whole great city seemed to be watching those specks of human life, drifting toward almost certain death upon the breakwater of the south shore. For miles the beach was clustered black with people. They stood there, it seemed for hours, watching the slow approach of that tiny raft. Again and again the waves swept over it, and each time that indomitable man rose from the flood and was seen to pull his companions aboard.  57
  Other vessels drifted upon the rocks. Other steamers rolled heavily around the long breakwater, but nothing now distracted the gaze of the multitude from this appalling and amazing struggle against death. Nothing? No; once and only once did the onlookers shift their intent gaze, and that was when a vessel passed the breakwater and went sailing toward the south through the fleet of anchored, straining, agonized ships. At first no one paid much attention to this late-comer till Mason lifted his voice.  58
  “By Heaven, the man is sailing!”  59
  It was true; steady, swift, undeviating, the vessel headed through the fleet. She did not drift nor wander nor hesitate. She sailed as if the helmsman, with set teeth, were saying:—  60
  “By God! If I must die on the rocks, I’ll go to my death the captain of my vessel!”  61
  And so with wheel in his hand and epic oaths in his mouth, he sailed directly into the long row of spiles, over which the waves ran like hell-hounds; where half a score of wrecks lay already churning into fragments in the awful tumult.  62
  The sailing vessel seemed not to waver, nor seek nor dodge—seemed rather to choose the most deadly battle-place of waves and wall.  63
  “God! but that’s magnificent of him!” Mason said to himself.  64
  Rose held her breath, her face white and set with horror.  65
  “Oh, must he die?”  66
  “There is no hope for him. She will strike in a moment—she strikes!—she is gone!”  67
  The vessel entered the gray confusion of the breakers and struck the piles like a battering-ram; the waves buried her from sight; then the recoil flung her back; for the first time she swung broadside to the storm. The work of the helmsman was over. She reeled—resisted an instant, then submitted to her fate, crumbled against the pitiless wall like paper, and thereafter was lost to sight.  68
  This dramatic and terrible scene had held the attention of the onlookers—once more they searched for the tiny raft. It was nearing the lake wall at another furious point of contact. An innumerable crowd spread like a black robe over the shore, waiting to see the tiny float strike.  69
  A hush fell over every voice. Each soul was solemn as if facing the Maker of the world. Out on the point, just where the doomed sailors seemed like to strike, there was a little commotion. A tiny figure was seen perched on one of the spiles. Each wave, as it towered above him, seemed ready to sweep him away, but each time he bowed his head and seemed to sweep through the gray wall. He was a negro, and he held a rope in his hands.  70
  As they comprehended his danger the crowd cheered him, but in the thunder of the surf no human voice could avail. The bold negro could not cry out, he could only motion; but the brave man on the raft saw his purpose—he was alone with the ship-wrecked ones.  71
  In they came, lifted and hurled by a prodigious swell. They struck the wall just beneath the negro and disappeared beneath the waves.  72
  All seemed over, and some of the spectators fell weeping; others turned away.  73
  Suddenly the indomitable commander of the raft rose, then his companions, and then it was perceived that he had bound them all to the raft.  74
  The negro flung his rope and one man caught at it, but it was swept out of reach on a backward-leaping billow. Again they came in, their white, strained, set faces and wild eyes turned to the intrepid rescuer. Again they struck, and this time the negro caught and held one of the sailors, held him while the foam fell away, and the succeeding wave swept him over the spiles to safety. Again the resolute man flung his noose and caught the second sailor, whose rope was cut by the leader, the captain, who was last to be saved.  75
  As the negro came back, dragging his third man over the wall, a mighty cry went up, a strange, faint, multitudinous cry, and the negro was swallowed up in the multitude….  76
  Mason turned to Rose and spoke: “Sometimes men seem to be worth while!”  77

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