The Public Works Department listed her as “No.1909, dredge, dipper-type, five-yard capacity, wooden hull.” The waterfront loafers called her a “drudge”, and that is what she really was. Once she had a name, a beautiful Indian name, Malawaka, but that was painted out when the Department decided to number everything. She was very ugly, but she was well suited to her job of scooping muck out of harbors and rivers so that ships could pass.
A good deal of thought had gone into her conception. An expert had even visited the Panama Canal, which was still being dug in those days (I shall be telling you her age next), and she had come back with the latest in dipper-dredge ideas. And so 1909 was born in a scow-yard up the St. Lawrence with a timber hull ninety-five feet long by forty-five wide, and nine feet deep from deck to bottom. Upon that hull they built a wooden house, square and flatroofed, with doors and windows like a two story dwelling ashore, so that at a distance the whole thing looked like a doll’s house afloat on a herring box.
The house contained quarters for the crew; and house and hull together contained the powerful hoisting machinery, a condenser, an air pressure tank, a sturdy Scotch boiler, a dynamo and so on. But you saw none of that when you stood on the wharf. What took your eye there was the great steel boom, which was fifty feet long and weighed fifteen tons; at the forward end of that boom the six-ton dipper handle and the four-ton dipper bucket. All this forward weight was sustained by three-inch steel cables rigged over a tall steel A-frame and fastened to the hull aft. Not knowing how cunningly the weight of her machinery had been distributed in the hull to balance it, you looked at that ponderous boom and bucket and wondered what kept her from pitching on her nose.
When at work 1909 anchored herself to the river bottom by putting down two long timber legs called spuds; and there she stood like a stork, scooping at the bottom with her beak. She had a third spud which she trailed astern, and by this she steered. When she wished to move ahead for another bite at the mud, she hoisted her legs straight up into the air and dropped the heavy bucket to the bottom, then she hauled herself forward by dragging on the sunken bucket, as a ship warps herself up to an anchor. All this made sailors laugh.
When Johnnie Wister joined 1909 as engineer he was thirty years old and he had worked in dredges since he was a boy. Besides himself the crew consisted of a captain, an oiler, a fireman, three deck hands and a cook. There was a bit of trouble on the first job. The tall girders of the A-frame suddenly toppled back on the house and crushed the trim funnel like a can under a steam roller, and the boom swung wildly and knocked seven bells out of an iron scow loading mud alongside. But that was a little accident of design, a growing pain you might say. They cocked up the A-frame at a sharper angle and after that she behaved properly.
It was a seasonal job, for of course the St. Lawrence river froze every winter and stayed frozen several months. Every Fall 1909 was laid up carefully in one of the river ports, with water drained and pipes disconnected, to suffer the winter and await the spring. And Johnnie was left in charge of her, with a stove set up in his room in the house. The winters were lonely until he met Melisse who lived near the dock where the dredge was moored.
Melisse was not pretty but she was respectable, and twenty-six and she could cook and sew. Johnnie’s courting was awkward, for he spoke French a little worse than Meliise spoke English. They spent a couple of months learning to talk to each other. Soon after the New Year they were married and Melisse came down to live with Johnnie on board the dredge. She fitted up their room with curtains and bits of printed stuff, and they bought new sheets, blankets and a couple of easy chairs. Altogether it was a snug and happy winter, and for the first time Johnnie was sorry when Spring came. But it came, and when the crew arrived, Melisse had to go ashore and stay with her parents. In November, when the dredge returned to the familiar winter berth, her crew departed as usual and Melisse came back aboard–with a baby. In this way her life went on for years. They were married in the early part of the 1914 war, and when the post-war slump fell upon the world in 1921 there were four children, three girls and a boy, all of whom looked and talked like Melisse.
With the slump there was talk of retrenchment, a strange word. Dredging schedules were cut like everything else, and amongst other economies Dredge 1909 was laid, up until further notice. Johnnie’s job remained, for there had to be someone to look after 1909, and he received permission to keep his family on board with him. Men out of work about the docks envied him. He had not only a job but the softest job in the world. But after a soft year or two Johnnie was not so sure. It was strange and disturbing, the summer days and weeks going by in idleness, the dredge silent except for the voices of his children, nothing moving but the family wash fluttering on the line rigged to the funnel. Melisse on the other hand was content. She was living in her own house and close to her own family. She had a husband with a steady job and she had children. What else could any woman want? Every month she put part of Johnnie’s pay in the bank, in her own name, for she had the French-Canadian woman’s careful instinct in such matters and she was the family treasurer.
Years went by like this, like a dream in which everything stood still except the offspring of her marriage. As the children grew the family took over the rest of the sleeping quarters, and Melisse fitted curtains in the other windows, and little pots of geraniums. She was a pious woman and she took the children regularly to church. She was ambitions for them, too, and every weekday morning she bundled them off to school. Her own people lived not far from the dock and there was a great visiting back and forth, with a lively chatter of Quebecois, a language that Johnnie found very difficult. Melisse in her sensible way had learned quite a bit of English for his benefit and she talked to him in his own tongue with a droll mixture of French words that he knew; but amongst her people he might as well have been deaf and dumb. He felt a foreigner in their midst, and although he tried to teach his children English there were times he felt a foreigner amongst them, too.
Following the war the world seemed to be in a very queer state. Sometimes there came sudden flurries, telegrams demanding to know how soon 1909 could be made ready for a dredging job, and Johnnie after much furrowed thinking would wire back “Two weeks” or “Three weeks” according to his state of mind. But nothing came of these affairs until the year 1927. Then at last Dredge 1909 was ordered into commission, a commission at what seemed the end of the earth, a port on the salty coast of Nova Scotia. Johnnie, Melisse, her family, everyone was astounded. “Comment? Nouvelle-Ecosse? Impossible!” But it was possible, they found that out. When the new crew arrived, Melisse moved her children ashore and rented rooms in a tenement close by the home of her people. She kissed Johnnie goodby, in her matter-of-fact way, and the children, seven of them now, stood in a little row beside her and waved their hands.
The dredge and its attendant scows went down the broad river and the gulf, in tow of a tug, a queer little flotilla. It irked Johnnie to see a gang of strangers moving about the rooms which Melisse had made so bright and comfortable with her bits of chintz and home-made rugs. They chaffed him about the curtains and the flowerpots in the windows. But he said nothing. It was good to be doing his proper job again and at full pay after all that penny pinching and scraping. And winter would come again, even in Nova Scotia, and then he could send for Melisse and have his family about him once again. He even cherished a hope that down there on the coast where everyone spoke English, the children might come a little closer to him.
But when winter came and the crew departed, when the dredge was snugly mored to a Nova Scotia wharf, there came a letter from Melisse. Impossible to come all the way down there, she wrote. Seven hundred miles, someone had told her. Too far. Too expensive. Besides there was the children’s schooling, and she did not wish to go far from a church. Although Melisse now spoke English fairly well in her fashion she could not write a word of it, and so the letter was in French. It took Johnnie some time to puzzle out all the words. In the end he shrugged, as a Frenchman might have done, and made the best of a lonely winter in the dredge, seven hundred miles from Melisse and the seven young replicas of her.
The dredge worked in various harbours on the rugged Nova Scotia coast. For two summers she worked at Port Ballard. It was a river mouth with a bar composed mostly of silt dropped by the stream where it met the tide. A mile or two beyond the bar stretched a long concrete mole that guarded the anchorage, for the estuary was exposed to the sweep of the Atlantic. 1909 scooped away at the bar channel swinging the reeking muck into her scows; and a tug dragged the scows out to sea to dump the stuff and bring them back again. Each winter 1909 was laid up, and at Christmas time Johnnie got permission to leave her for a week to visit his family. Port Ballard was a quiet place in winter. It was not a large town and along the waterfront everyone knew everybody else. Before long everyone knew Johnnie Wister. They called him Cap’n, facetiously but pleasantly, and they never failed, to ask him how things were aboard his “ship”. They were a seafaring people and 1909 with its window curtains and geraniums amused them very much.
At the end of the second summer there the crew were laid off as usual. It had been rumored amongst them that 1909 would be returned to the St. Lawrence now that the Port Ballard job was done, and after they had gone a telegram came to Johnnie. He opened it in hope and read it in dismay. Dredge 1909 to be laid up at Port Ballard until further notice. Request you remain caretaker.
And so again the emptiness of seasons that came and went in idleness. From time to time a government inspector appeared, otherwise Johnnie would have felt certain that the Public Works Department had forgotten 1909. His children were strangers now. They wrote to him, rarely and stiffly, evidently at the command of Melisse; always in French. Once or twice at his urging Melisse left her brood and came east by train to stay a year or two with him on the dredge. Her hair was getting grey and her face was worn. It had not been easy, she pointed out, bringing up that large family on a dredge-engineer’s pay. She met his clumsy affection with a stolid indifference, and something inside him was chilled. He yearned to go home with her, not just for Christmas but for long enough to get acquainted with his children once again. But the dredge inspector told him, “Times are hard, Wister. Big slump since ’29–Men out of work everywhere. Government’s cutting expenses like everybody else.–They could hire a watchman cheaper than an engineer like you. In your shoes, I would not call attention to myself, not for a minute. Sit tight, say nothing, take your pay and be thankful. That’s my advice.”
All through the 1930’s people came down to the Port Ballard docks and stopped to gaze at the dredge, pointing out the great boom, the heavy bucket, the thick supporting cables, and smiling at the curtains and the flower pots. 1909 had become a fixture, a permanent show-piece of the salty waterfront. Melisse’s letters became fewer and shorter and more empty as the time went by. Her one cry was dépense. Expense of shoes, of clothes, of schooling, of rent, of everything but the dépense of separation that gnawed at Johnnie’s heart.
He busied himself with painting. The PWD doted on paint as a preservative and the dredge inspector made sure that he got a good supply. Johnnie began aft and worked forward, plying his brush with slow and careful strokes. He painted the hull and topsides a deep yellow and trimmed it with red. The funnel was yellow with a black top, and he renewed the PWD 1909 in clear white letters on the black. The big turntable forward was a bright red, and the same red went on the capstans at each corner of the deck, and on the great steel boom. He clambered about the steep girders of the A-frame painting them the same deep yellow as the hull. The dinghy hanging in its davits, the one nautical touch about 1909, did net escape his notice and his brush.
Then he turned to the interior. The walls of the living quarters he kept a chaste and shining white. The engineroom walls were grey. Black paint went on the engine casings. The fat asbestos jackets of the steam pipes were lemon yellow. As a final touch he painted the big condenser in the aftermost part of the engine room a bright grass green. Altogether, inboard and outboard, above and below, it was a huge expanse for one solitary brush. It took a whole summer to make the round and by the time he was putting the final touches on those absurdly domestic window frames the paint on the hull aft had begun to blister and flake again. And so he painted his way through the seasons, the depressing years of the 1930’s, inch by inch, on foot, on ladders, in boatswain’s-chairs slung by blocks and tackles, with his gaze fixed on the homely surface of 1909 and his back to the wharf and the world.
The owner of the wharf was a man who had rendered some sort of service, nobody knew quite what, to the right party at election time. His wharf was a shaky affair. It was old and tired and it drooped on its rotten piling over the harbor water as if contemplating suicide. No self-respecting schooner would tie up to it. But when 1909 came to Port Ballard the wharf became, for some mysterious reason, the only one suitable for mooring a dredge. The owner received fifty dollars a month for its use, and as the months grew into years, and the years went on one after another, he came quite naturally to regard 1909 as a permanent plum that yielded him six hundred dollars a year.
It was such juicy plum that other eyes became fixed on it. Now and then during the year the government changed at Ottawa, and there were reverberations all the way down to the sea. Whenever this happened, 1909 was moved to another wharf as ramshackle as the first, but owned by a man on the more fortunate side of politics. Thus at intervals of years Johnnie’s floating home, his pride, his job were shifted from the Liberal to the Tory wharf, or from the Tory back to the Liberal wharf; and as the longshoremen fastened the lines again they cried up to his brooding presence on the house, “There! Another voyage, Johnnie boy! Why don’t you blow your horn?”
Inside Johnnie’s heart was sad. But aloud, he insisted that 1909 was kept at Port Ballard for good purpose, and one day they would see. He repeated this one day in 1938 to the dredge inspector, a new man, short and red and blunt of speech. The inspector smiled grimly.
“Wister, let me tell you something. She’s out of date. She was obsolete ten years after she was built. Too expensive to operate–that’s why she’s still laid up. Cheaper nowadays to let out the dredgin’ to private contractors.”
“I don’t believe it” Johnnie cried. “Um,” the inspector grunted. “Well, get this. 1909’s old–old as the Ark. And obsolete, like I said. Takes eight men to operate her, all on wages, government scale. Cheaper, cheaper far to leave her where she is and let out the dredging on contract to some of these nifty new diesel-electric rigs that private owners operate. This thing? Cha! She’ll never dig another yard o’ mud. Should ha’ been junked years ago, tell the truth, and saved all this expense. But I s’pose she’s on the books somewhere for what she cost and they hate to write it off.”
“But,” Johnnie cried, “she’s in good shape. I’ve kept her fine. I’ve painted…” “Ah!” They were standing in the engine room, and the inspector noted the ornamental, gilt stars with which Johnnie had touched off the ends of the pressure tank. “Paint” he said. “IT’s your bloomin’ paint alone that’s holdin’ her together, Wister. That, and a book-keeper’s entry at Ottawa.” As he went ashore he stabbed a thick finger at the tidal flats across the harbor. “That’s where she belongs. Tow her over there and let her rot, if I’d my way. She’s not worth another dollar’s wharfage. If you come to the fine point, Wister, she isn’t worth another day’s pay. Not another lick of your brush. She isn’t worth a damn.”
Long after the man had gone Johnnie Wister stared across the narrow harbor. Gulls drowsed like small whitewashed images in rows along the tidal flats. He tried to imagine 1909 over there, stripped of his paint by suns and frosts and rains, her wooden hull a roost for those feckless birds. Old? The very word was shocking. He went to the chamber where the shreds of Mellisse’s curtains still hung, and stared at himself in the mirror she had left behind. Old! It was true. The proof was right there in the glass. He was old himself. He had passed half his life in this floating tomb, this painted coffin, and it seemed incredible.
He moved about in a trance for days, for weeks, his paint-pots forgotten. Parmentter, the grocer at the head of the dock lane, declared that that old boy had gone queer at last, and no wonder after daubing that old tub round and round, for years and years. He went no more to the post office. He was afraid to go for fear there might be a notice from the P.W.D., remembering him after all these years and writing him off the books with 1909. He stayed on board, mostly lying in his bunk, thinking on Melisse and his children, nearly all grown up now but still somehow under the eternal dépense that took his pay. I must hold on, he thought, I must keep the job, I must hang on to 1909 until they go over the books in Ottawa and decide to give her to the birds.
He was lying there in just that fashion, at the end of the summer of ’39, when the inspector came thumping up the worn gangway, straight from the train. It was raining and the inspector’s bowler shone with wet. The drip from his raincoat made a small pool on Johnnie’s painted floor.
“Wister!” he shouted. “Wister, wake up, man! There’s a job for 1909. Believe or not. By gosh, it took a war …”
“War?” Johnnie said, rising slowly and staring at the man. “War?” The word meant nothing to him except a dim memory of 1914, when he and Melisse had married in the little town beside the St. Lawrence, when he and she and 1909 were young.
“War!” the inspector repeated loudly. “The Germans again. Don’t you ever read the papers? It’s been coming on for months, and now it’s here, and hell’s a-popping. Amongst places the Canadian Navy’s decided to use Port Ballard. They want the bar dredged down another two feet and 1909’s the only thing available. Don’t stare at me like that. Snap out of it, Man!”
“They want 1909?” whispered Johnnie, staring. The inspector regarded a thin, stopped, grey wisp of a man, a ghost of a man, but for all that the engineer of 1909.
“She’s a god-send, Wister, sittin’ right on the spot the way she is. Not a right job for a dipper, mind, not as dredgin’ goes nowadays. To do the job fast and sure they ought to have a suction-dredge, nothin’ less, but try and get one now! The crew’ll be here in a day or two. I just dropped off the train to warn you and take a look around.”
He threw open a club-bag, pulled out a suit of blue denim overalls and drew them over his neat brown serge. Then, regardless of rain, he ran about the deck, squinting at the steel cables stretched over the A-frame, staring at the heavy bull-heads aft as if in some inhuman fashion he could see the cable-ends under the mass of babbitt there. He swarmed up the boom on all fours like a fat blue ape to look at the sheaves. He came down and dived into the engine room. Then he was out on deck again, pulling up the plates of man-holes, rattling down iron rungs, ferreting about inside the hull with a pocket-knife and an electric torch. At last he went away saying fiercely, “I dunno, Wister. T’ain’t in the nature o’things to stand idle all that time and still be fit to run. Not without a thorough overhaul at a shipfitter’s dock. But there y’are. What’s a man to say, and a war on? She’ll do. She s got to do.”
The crew came, a scratch crew picked up in a hurry, and for three weeks the interior of 1909 gave forth sounds of men in struggle with wood and metal. The new captain regarded Johnnie Wister with doubt at first. The engineer looked as old, as crazy as the dredge itself. But the man actually knew where everything was, the parts carefully laid away in grease, all those important nuts and bolts and fittings whose fate in laid up dredges is to disappear.
Port Ballard beheld a phenomenon, 1909 actually moving, not from one political wharf to another but down the harbor itself, towed by a tug and flanked by a pair of iron scows. Her late berth looked naked and forlorn, as if, a large and unusually well-painted part of it had on a sudden floated away. The town, without warning, had lost its best and oldest joke. On the harbor bar 1909 halted, put down her spuds and gripped the bottom. Johnnie went trembling to his levers, praying for his old skill to come back.
It took several working hours, it cost the scows a resounding thump or two as the bucket came down too far or too fast, but the knack returned. Johnnie sweated over the levers, his pale blue eyes anxious in the grey unshaven face, but there was a smile on his lips. He wanted to shout. He wanted to dance. He glanced back towards Port Ballard, that huddle of roofs and wharf-ends where the river entered salt water. He shook his fist. He cried aloud, “Laugh now, damn you, all of you! A war–a war, that’s what she was kept here for. It was the Navy sent for her and put her on the job.”
The captain surveyed him curiously. Cracked, he thought. A good enough engineer, familiar with this bloody museum, but cracked alright, no doubt of it. Oh well, he was no worse than the dredge itself, at that.
The harbor bar was quite narrow and the channel was not wide. Working day and night the old dredge made good progress. The job was almost done, when early one October morning the lightkeeper on Town Point came out of his white wooden dwelling and hoisted a black drum and cone on the yard-arm of the signal mast. It was a fine Fall day. The chimneys of Port Ballard, two miles up the estuary, smoked peacefully in the sunshine.
“Hello,” the captain said, regarding the symbols on the mast ashore. “That’s a storm wannin’, ain’t it?”
“Yes,” Johnnie said. “The cone points down–that means a gale from the east. And the drum means it’s a big one. Better shift up into Port Ballard.”
“Itchin’ to get back to that ol’ wharf ain’t, you?” returned the captain amiably.
“Look,” Johnnie mumbled. “This bay’s wide open to the sou’east.”
“What d’you mean, ‘wide open’? There’s the breakwater, Johnnie. Shelter there. That’s what they built it for. I’ll get the tug to pull us out clear of the bar and into the lee of the breakwater. We can get bottom there with the spuds–I’ve seen the harbor chart–and if it’ll make you feel any safer I’ll put out the anchors too, all four of ’em. There we’ll be, hooked to the bottom like a cat to a carpet, and the breakwater between us and the wind. Then let it blow.” He turned to hail the tug and make these arrangements.
As the tug moved 1909 and the two scows into the lee of the breakwater Johnnie caught the captain’s arm again.
“Moon,” he said. “Moon’s nigh full. Come a sou’easter and a full-moon tide, you’ll see things fly. I know. I ain’t been here in salt water all these years for nothin’.” The captain shrugged. He was looking at the breakwater, long and large between the river mouth and the sea.
“I seen the sea goin’ clean over that, like it wasn’t there, in a sou’easter,” Johnnie said. “And here ’tis Fall, the hurricane season.”
“This ain’t the West Indies,” chuckled the captain. He was a St. Lawrence river man himself and he had a freshwater man’s opinion of saltwater yarns. The breakwater was of reinforced steel and concrete and it reached well into the bay. Moreover it stood twelve feet above ordinary spring tides, and its wide top was a favorite parking place for Port Ballard couples in cars on balmy summer nights.
A low grey scud drew in from the south and covered the autumn sky. Rain fell lightly, stopped for a time, and then came down in a deluge. A low swell began to roll into the estuary. It curled around the end of the breakwater and set up a rocking motion in the tug, the dredge and the scows. 1909 lifted and dropped hard on her studs once or twice, and the captain ordered Johnnie to draw them up clear. She rode comfortably to her anchors then, all four of them. “As safe as a church”, the captain said.
The swell increased, and suddenly a wind came swooping up the bay, lifting spray from the sea as it came and blowing it in a fine mist through the harbor and the town. By the mid-morning the estuary was a shrieking white froth. The growing gale whistled through the high girders of 1909’s A-frame and set up a deep bass moaning in the great steel stays of the boom. But the house and the hull below were sheltered by the solid bulk of the breakwater, and the crew amused themselves with poker, looking up from time to watch the rain cascading down the window panes.
Johnnie remained on the top deck where he could look over the breakwater and watch the sea. The tide was low when the wind began. Finally it turned. As the tidal flow increased so did the gale, piling the sea into the river mouth in steep waves that came quickly on each other’s heels. Borne on the wind Johnnie could hear the dismal clang of the fairway buoy, somewhere in the wet riot to seaward. In Port Ballard by mid-afternoon trees that had stood for centuries were blowing down. At four o’clock the steeple of the Baptist church, the tallest in town, toppled into the graveyard and demolished twenty tombstones at a stroke. At five o’clock the plate glass windows of half a Port Ballard shops blew in and exposed their goods to the cataract of rain and wind. At half-past five the steam laundry lost its tall brick chimney. By that time most of the inhabitants of Port Ballard were huddling in their cellars, feeling the house frames shudder in the gusts, hearing the great wind rushing through the streets like a procession of mad locomotives. It was a hurricane, alright, they said; the worst in fifty years, in a hundred years, in the whole history of the town. All this time the tide was coming in.
At six o’clock the tide had risen close to the breakwater top. The skipper of the tug bawled through a megaphone that he was pulling up his hook and making for the inner harbor. He offered to take the dredge in tow, a brave enough gesture in view of the tumult on the harbor bar. The captain of 1909 looked at the seas on the bar and would have none of it. He was frightened now but it was too late for regrets. He stood on the deck, in the blast of wind and rain, shaking his head to the tug skipper’s offer, and finally waved him off with a hand in which, forgotten, the last deal of poker cards was still firmly clutched. He pinned his faith on the breakwater, the good, long, solid breakwater, and he clung to a belief that the tide and sea could rise no more.
The tug steamed away. As she made the passage of the bar she leaped and plunged like a rodeo pony in the great seas piling up and breaking there, but she made the passage right enough, and disappeared in the spume beyond. The dredge cook, an unimaginative man, had prepared supper in his stolid way and the crew sat down to eat. They kept their eyes on the windward windows and ate uneasily, for with the growing tide, their floating home lifted and exposed itself more and more to the blast coming over the breakwater top. They looked at the shrinking lee of the breakwater incredulously, as if the thing for some preposterous reason were sinking under its own weight into the harbor bottom. Only two nights ago it had stood tall and massive, dotted with the parked cars of spooning couples from Port Ballard. Now it was just a long reef on which heavy seas broke and leaped in white explosions, tossing spray clean across and spalling the dredge-house walls.
The dredge hull had only two feet or so of freeboard, and the seas washing around the end of the breakwater had begun to sweep her deck. But the hull was tight. Johnnie sounded the well and found no water.
“What time’s high tide?” the captain said in a shaken voice.
“Eight o’clock,” Johnnie said coldly.
“The wind’s got to shift soon, eh? These hurricanes–when they get to the worst you’re right in the eye of the storm and the wind comes round the other way that’s right ain’t it? That’ll give us an off-shore wind and blow the sea down, won’t it?”
For an answer Johnnie jerked a thumb at the barometer on the cabin wall. It stood at 29. The captain gave it a rap and the needle flickered a fraction lower.
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Johnnie said.
By seven o’clock the breakwater had disappeared under the enormous tide built up by the maniac wind. Far away to leeward, within the harbor bar, huge broken seas were leaping amongst the trees in the little park on Town Point, washing the green-painted benches before them like bits of driftwood, hurling stones, some as big as footballs, into Park Road itself. At twenty minutes past seven a long green fold of the tortured North Atlantic rose above the now submereged breakwater, towered for a moment, then curled and toppled upon the anchored dredge. It smote the house, smashed every window on-the seaward side, and poured inside a torrent the full width of every window frame.
The crew uttered a chorus of shouts, screams, oaths, prayers. The more active of them seized boards, hammers, nails, and attempted to close the empty frames, standing knee-deep in the cold Atlantic water swashing about inside. Johnnie flew to start his steam pumps. Then, glancing to leeward he saw the town of Port Ballard apparently afloat itself, and moving rapidly towards him. It came to him that the great wave had parted windward anchors of the dredge, and that she was now drifting over the other two. He turned to the captain, mouthing words lost in the uproar of the wind. But already the dredge was over the other anchors, indeed was past them. As the remaining cables came taut, 1909 brought up with a ponderous jerk that parted them both as a grocer snaps his parcel strings. In another moment 1909 was rising and falling on the waves and making straight for the harbor bar.
The wind’s pressure on her vast boom and dipper-bucket swung the dredge stern to the sea, not that it mattered. She was vulnerable from all sides, she was like a raft that bore a riddled box, a still nicely painted box, that drifted rapidly towards the bar, where in the dusk the tide and the incoming seas were tossing up walls of water capped with dirty yellow froth. The crew huddled together in the pilothouse, not crying any more, not fumbling any more with nails and boards, not even looking at the sea, but at the captain and each other. It was dark now, the utter darkness of a foul night in autumn, without a moments twilight. There was not a light in Port Ballard, for its fine old elms and maples falling across the streets, had flung down the electric wires. Only the lighthouse shone, sweeping a futile white arm in the darkness at the shore end of the bar.
Now Johnnie remembered his dynamo and his full head of steam. He threw the big switch and all 1909’s lights came on, including the powerful floodlights over the deck, hung there in clusters for night work. A few bold and curious watchers on the shore saw the dredge sail into the tumult of the bar lit up like a floating Christmas tree. But not for long. The great waves of the Atlantic, running up the estuary, squeezed and shouldered together by its narrowing shores, smote the dredge blow on blow. The deck lights vanished in one sweep. The dinghy went, gripes and all. The funnel went. The two iron scows, moored one each side, broke clear and drifted away into the dark. A flood poured into the engine room and doused the dynamo and everything else. Johnnie and the fireman half swam, half clawed their way to safety in the upper part of the house. A dozen mighty sea-giants, black and enormous in the night, yelling and smiting together, somehow combined to heave the dredge over the bar and into the river mouth where Port Ballard crouched and shuddered in the storm.
In a few minutes 1909 was in Port Ballard, fumbling blindly along the waterfront as if in search of her old wharf. All the wharf sheds loomed indistinctly. They looked very queer. They seemed to be squatting in the water. And they were. The full tide, swollen by the waves heaped into the bottleneck of the harbor, had flooded the whole dockfront of the town. The sea was already above the wharf tops and now was tossing a raffle of fish barrels, herring boxes, tubs, oil drums and rubbish along Dock Street itself.
And now, as if by a homing instinct, 1909 surged in towards a familiar object. It was the shed on the Liberal wharf. There was a great thump and a crunch. 1909 was drawing eight feet of water and as yet the tide over the wharf was only two or three. She thrust her boom through the rotten frame and shingles of the shed, wedged her great bucket firmly inside, and seemed to wait for the next swell.
It came. 1909 lifted with it and her boom tore the whole end out of the shed. She drew off and came in again like a wet and vengeful elephant. The wharf itself shuddered and gave way. Planks and broken sections of piling came to the surface. The shed sagged on its knees and collapsed into the flood.
For perhaps a minute 1909 hung there, wedged on the ruin of the wharf. “Now’s our chancel” cried the captain. He set a bold example by leaping from the end of the great steel boom. The water came to his waist but he found footing for all that, and the crew followed quickly, plunging amongst dim floating objects, scrambling over the ruins of the shed. At the head of Dock Street, where the water was already lapping over the doorsill of Wong Kim the laundryman, they found a little group of citizens, including the editor of the Port Ballard weekly. They told their tale, with cries, with gestures in the windy dark. The editor could see his headline already. Epic Affair of Dredge. Nobody missed Johnny Wister.
And now having shattered the Liberal wharf, 1909 drifted off and surged towards another, a hundred and fifty yards further on. Like the first it was under two or three feet of water but its ancient red shed stood firmly above the flood. It was the Tory wharf. 1909 came heavily out of the darkness and the submerged wharf shook. She drew off and came again, and the wharf’s worm-eaten piling snapped beneath the shock. Again, and Tory wharf melted into the flood. The shed foundered on its side, and the small flagstaff on its peak waved a tipsy farewell in the darkness as 1909, caught now by a shift of the wind, sheered off. She drifted slowly towards the other side of the harbor.
On that side the familiar mud-flats opposite the town were now lost under the flood. The sea had even risen several feet over the marsh beyond and was washing at the railway line. Johnnie Wister, alone in the deserted pilot-house, peered hard in that direction. He could see nothing; but inshore he could hear a terrific clanging and he guessed exactly what it was. One or perhaps both of the runaway scows were there, lifting and falling amongst the boulders by the edge of the railway line and ringing through the storm like gongs.
The storm centre had passed, and now the wind was coming around the other way, blowing as hard as ever. As 1909 sailed over the flooded flats Johnnie made a last attempt to save her. He released the brakes on the bucket cables, heard a shriek and a whirr, felt the jar of tons of dipper-bucket striking bottom. For a minute or two she held, clutching the bottom with her iron fist. Then she lifted on another mighty swell and came down, stiff-armed, on the dipper. The strain of that was too much for the tired old cables over the A-frame, corroded at the bull-heads, eaten out beneath the babbit in all those years of idleness. The A-frame bent forward, drooped, collapsed; and its weight, added to the now unsupported tons of the boom and dipper, tore the turntable clean out of the forward deck. The whole iron mass went overboard into the yeasty sea; and the hull, eased of the burden it had borne so long, bobbed up like a released cork. There was no hope for 1909 now. The wild gusts pressing on the house thrust her over the flats and over the flooded marsh, where the broken waves from the bar were romping freely. And there stood a tooth of Port Ballard granite, waiting for her.
When the sea went down in the morning the old dredge lay high and dry like the Ark on Ararat, with an acre of salt-grass around her and the great granite tooth through her belly. The water had run out of her through the rent in the rotten hull. When the captain and crew and the men from Port Ballard reached her shortly after noon, wading through the marsh pools and the sodden grass, they found what was left of Johnnie Wister on the engine room floor. His hands and mouth were full of sand and across his skinny chest like the sash of a sea-order lay a broad ribbon of kelp.
“Too bad. How did he look?” asked the Port Ballard editor later, busy taking notes.
“Well” the captain said. He tipped up his cap and scratched his head. “You may think it a funny thing to say. But he looked sorta peaceful, no that’s not the word. Satisfied. He looked satisfied.”