THE HUNDREDTH PORT
"Sailing in half an hour," said Captain Flint.
The thin, brown harbourmaster, who had been having a farewell supper in the cabin of the Wild Cat, nodded, and glanced up at the cabin clock. "You'll have the lights to help you out."
"Much easier steering from light to light than trying to pick up the landmarks by day," said Nancy. "We always go out by night if we can."
"You've had plenty of practice," said the harbourmaster, flicking a crumb off his white shirt, flicking it again when it dropped on his white duck trousers.
"Our hundredth port," said Nancy.
"On this voyage," said Roger.
"Glad to leave it?"
They looked at each other and smiled doubtfully.
"Not much sleep," said Nancy.
"We've loved coming to your house," said Titty, "and seeing all those butterflies. But it's not a very quiet harbour."
"No, I suppose it isn't," said the harbourmaster. "I've been fixed here so long I've come not to notice it. But I suppose it must seem noisy to you."
"Well, just listen!" said Nancy.
In the whole harbour perhaps the quietest place was the cabin of the Wild Cat, but even there the noise was deafening. The little green schooner was moored to the quay. Just ahead of her lay a Japanese merchant steamship, and Japanese seamen slung on planks were chipping rust with the noise of a boiler factory. A hundred yards away a steam dredger was at work. A piledriver could be heard further along the quay, rumble, rumble, rumble as it wound up the weight and then CRASH! as the heavy lump of iron dropped on the head of the teak pile. Another steamship seemed to be changing its mind about blowing off steam. There was the rattle of derricks taking cargo out of a third. Trolleys were running to and fro on loosely fastened rails. Stevedores, sailors and dockhands, Chinese, Japanese, Dutchmen, Malays, were yelling orders at each other trying to make themselves heard above the din. Somewhere close by people were hauling on a warp. You could hear the shouts ... "Hey ... la ... Hey ... la...." Coolies were staggering along under heavy burdens. ... "Hi ... ya ... hee ... yo.... Hi ... ya ... hee ... yo...."
"They always seem to think that shouting makes things easier;" said Captain Flint.
"You oughtn't to mind the noise," said the harbourmaster. "You've had enough of it before."
"Good long time ago," said Captain Hint. "Didn't I tell you I've been living in a houseboat on a lake where there's no noise at all ... bar ducks ... unless Cap'n Nancy here starts fooling about with fireworks."
"You'll hear plenty of fireworks if you're going across to the China coast," said the harbourmaster. "They let 'em off whenever a ship comes in."
"Good," said Roger.
"Can't think why you don't make straight for Singapore."
"Oh, look here," said Nancy. "When we're so near. We can't go round the world without just having a look at China...."
"It's a rum place," said the harbourmaster. "And rum people. I'd be sorry if the next I hear of you is a finger in a matchbox and a hint of more to follow."
"Swatow's all right," said Captain Flint. "Treaty port ... and I've got another old friend there."
"Go by steamship and get the visit over," said the harbourmaster.
"Jibbooms and bobstays," exclaimed Nancy. "But what's the fun of that?"
"Well, make good landfall. Don't go and fall foul of Missee Lee."
"Missee Lee?" Everybody looked up with a question.
"Who's Miss Lee?" asked Roger.
"Thought everybody had heard of her," said the harbourmaster. "She's the bogy the Chinese women here frighten their babies with ... just as our great grandfathers' nannies used to keep our respected ancestors quiet by telling them Bony would come for them."
"Where does she hang out?"
"I don't know. And the Chinese say they don't know. On that coast somewhere. It used to be Olo Lee when I first came here thirty years ago. It's Missee Lee now. Pirate of some sort. You know these Chinese. Can't get a word out of them. We'd have had gunboats after her long ago if we knew where she was. But they won't say. Not they. They pay her to leave them alone and not a word to us, of course. Rum people, the Chinese."
"We'll steer clear of her," said Captain Flint, glancing at a sketch chart of the harbour entrance which he had brought with him down into the cabin. "Now look here. Which do you call the best of those two channels?"
The harbourmaster ran the tip of his finger along a dotted line. "That's the best," he said. "Leave the red flash to starboard ... make for the white occulting.... Get the two white fixed lights in line ... and carry right on into clear water.... I suppose you're wanting to speed the parting guest? ..."
"Well," said Captain Flint, "it's been jolly to see you, old chap ... but.. time's up."
"Good-bye, Polly," said the harbourmaster to Titty's green parrot sitting in his cage. "Where's that monkey of yours?"
"Keeping watch," said Roger.
One by one they went up the companion ladder out of the little cabin to meet the full shindy of the harbour as they came on deck. It was already dark. Arc-lights were sputtering overhead. There were lights in the little town beside the quay, lights in the houses dotted about the woods on the hill, lights on the ships anchored off shore, flashing lights of buoys marking the entrance, and far away out at sea the lights of lighthouses on distant rocks and islands.
Under the light of an arc-lamp they saw Gibber, sitting on the rail of the Wild Cat, chattering angrily at a couple of Japanese sailors on the quay above him. Perhaps glad to have allies, he came hopping along to meet the ship's company.
"Sing out when you're ready," said the harbourmaster. "I'll have your ropes cast off for you."
"We're ready now," said Captain Flint. "Not enough wind in here. Going out under power. The engine's all ready, eh, engineer?"
"Aye-aye, sir," said Roger.
"Good-bye then," said the harbourmaster. "Look in on me when you go round the world again."
"Good-bye ... Good-bye ..." He shook hands with each one of them, including Gibber, and ran up a ladder to the top of the quay. He blew a whistle. Men came running and went to the bollards where the Wild Cat's mooring-ropes had been made fast. Aboard the little schooner people had gone to their places. Each one of them knew exactly what he or she had to do. Captain Flint was at the wheel. Roger had disappeared, to start the engine. Already it was throbbing away down below. John and Nancy were on the foredeck. Titty, Peggy and Susan were on the after deck, Titty with a dangling fender, the others ready to haul in on warp or spring.
"Let go forrard," sang out Captain Flint. "Let go aft.... Haul on the spring.... Cast off.... Slow ahead...." The Wild Cat was moving from the quay.
"So long," called the harbourmaster. "Don't run into Missee Lee!"
"Banzai!" shouted the Japanese sailors, stopping their rust-chipping for a moment to watch the little schooner move slowly out from under the lights of the quayside.
"So long!" shouted the hurrying coolies.
Then the deafening noise of rust-chipping started again. The pile-driver and the dredger and the derricks had never stopped. The little schooner moved slowly out towards the dark and quiet of the sea.
* * *
Ropes were being carefully coiled down on deck. Sidelights had, of course, been lit. Captain Flint glanced at the compass card, swinging slowly in the glow of the binnacle lamp, and glanced far ahead at the flashing light buoy and at another beyond it.
"Come on, Peggy," said Susan. "You, too, Titty. Let's get the supper things cleared off before we're out at sea. It won't take five minutes."
John came aft. "All coiled down forrard," he said. "Nancy on look-out."
"Good," said Captain Flint. "You take the wheel, and leave me free to check the buoys as we go out. Keep her as she is. We leave that buoy to starboard...."
He slipped into the deckhouse, half closing the door so that the light should not bother John's eyes, while he ticked off the buoy on the chart. A moment later he was out again, standing by the steersman's side.
Roger climbed up from the engine-room and slipped quickly out of the deckhouse.
"She's running beautifully," he said.
"Good.... You'd better put that monkey to bed.... We'll be making sail later."
Half an hour passed, an hour.... The last of the flashing buoys was left astern.... Far, far ahead, a light on a rock, miles away, was blinking below the horizon. There was a gentle breeze.
"We'll have that mainsail up," said Captain Flint. "You take the wheel for a minute, Titty." With John and Susan to help him, he hauled on the halyards and set the mainsail to help the engine. Nancy hoisted the staysail. Peggy was waiting at the foot of the foremast with the halyards ready for Captain Flint and Susan to help in sending up the foresail. The jibs were already hoisted, in stops, bundled up and tied with wisps of rope yarn, ready to break out the moment there was a pull on the sheets.
"Break out the jibs," called Captain Flint.
Captain Flint went from rope to rope, here easing up a little, here hardening in. The Wild Cat, hardly heeling in the gentle wind, was moving faster. Everybody knew it and rejoiced to be under sail once more.
"What about stopping the little donkey?" asked Titty, when Captain Flint came aft to take the wheel again. "So that we can have it really quiet...."
"We'll keep it running till we pass that light," said Captain Flint. "I'd like to get clear of everything as soon as we can."
"Isn't it lovely to be at sea again," said Titty, "and out of all that noise! I wish we could just sail on and on for ever...."
"Oh, look here," said Nancy. "You have to go into harbours sometimes."
"How soon is the next one?" asked Susan.
"Depends on the wind," said Captain Flint. "But, with luck, we'll have someone at the masthead in four days' time, looking for the coast of China."
"Giminy," said Nancy. "I'm jolly glad you decided not to miss it."
"Look here," said Captain Flint. "We're back at sea. Watches to keep. No good everybody staying up. I'll carry on till we're clear. John and Nancy'll take over at eight bells. They'd better be getting some sleep now. Susan and Peggy stand by till we pass that light. No need for anybody else on deck...."
"I'm not sleepy," said Roger.
"It's the first night at sea," said Titty.
"Right-o," said Captain Flint. "You two can keep a look out forrard until the first yawn. Mind that. The first yawn and off you go. That all right, Susan?"
"So long as they get their eight hours' sleep," said Susan.
* * *
"Roger, you've yawned," said Titty half an hour later.
"Did I?" said Roger.
"Go on. You've done it again."
Roger, in spite of himself, yawned a third time and went off aft to say "Good night" to Captain Flint.
Titty, alone on the foredeck, felt its regular lift and fall beneath her feet, as the Wild Cat moved through the dark sea under a starlit sky. The noises of the harbour and the land had died away. A glimmer in the sky far astern showed where was the hundredth harbour they had left. The lighthouse they had to pass was blinking now high and clear. Beyond it was open sea. And beyond that? The next land they sighted would be the coast of China. Titty thought of willow-pattern plates. Would it be like that? she wondered. Would it be a noisy, crowded port like the harbour they had just left? Would it be like Papeete, with palms and houses on the very edge of the quay? She hoped it would be like Papeete. And she hoped they would be a long time getting there. This wind was just right.... They were moving quite fast enough.... The longer they stayed at sea the better.... And it would be better still as soon as Captain Flint shut off the chug-chugging of the engine.
The blinking light came nearer and nearer. Its flashes lit up the deck every time the light swung round. It was abeam. Somebody in the lighthouse was signalling with a flash-lamp. She looked aft. Yes. Captain Flint was answering, flash, flash ... flash. The flashing stopped. She heard low voices talking by the deckhouse. The Wild Cat changed course. There was nothing ahead now, nothing ... only dark sea and starry sky. Titty yawned, caught herself at it, and went aft.
Peggy was at the wheel with Captain Flint.
"You off?" said Captain Flint. "No need for anyone to stay up now. I'll carry on till John's watch. I'm sending Peggy below in a minute. Susan's gone."
"What about the engine?" said Titty.
"Let's get well away from land," said Captain Flint. "This is a paltry wind."
Titty went below, down the companion, through the saloon where the hurricane lantern hanging from the ceiling was hardly swinging, so easy was the motion of the ship. She found that Susan had left the lamp alight in their cabin. Susan was asleep. Titty undressed and slipped into the lower berth after blowing out the lamp and laying her torch beside her pillow in case of a call for hands on deck during the night.
She could hear the quiet sliding noise of water past the side of the ship. Bother that chugging engine. She lay awake. After all this voyaging, after a hundred passages, she still enjoyed the first night of being at sea. She lay there, thinking back, remembering the noise of the port, the harbourmaster, sitting in his shirt-sleeves at the table in the saloon, his talk of Missee Lee. "Quite possibly no such person," he had said. "Missee Lee ... And Chinese mothers telling their children to be good or Missee Lee ..." Titty fell asleep. She waked much later with the stopping of the engine.... Now there was nothing to listen to but the gentle slap of a rope and the noise of water outside. She fell happily to sleep again.
Excerpted from Missee Lee by Arthur Ransome. Copyright © 1941 by Arthur Ransome. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 1941 Arthur Ransome.
All rights reserved.