THE Negro Boy tavern is known by few people in its own parish, for it is a house with nothing about it to distinguish its fame to those who do not know that a man may say to his friend, when their ships go different ways out of Callao, "I may meet you at the Negro Boy some day." It is in a road which returns to the same point, or near to it, after a fatiguing circuit of the Isle of Dogs. No part of the road is better than the rest. It is merely a long road. That day when I first heard of Bill Purdy I was going to the tavern hoping to meet Macandrew, Chief of the Medea. His ship was in again. But there was nobody about. There was nothing in sight but the walls, old, sad, and discreet, of the yards where ships are repaired. The dock warehouses opposite the tavern offered me their high backs in a severer and apparently an endless obduracy. The Negro Boy, as usual, was lost and forlorn, but resigned to its seclusion from the London that lives, having stood there long enough to learn that nothing can control the ways of changing custom. Its windows were modest and prim in green curtains. Its only adornment was the picture, above its principal door, of what once was a negro boy. This picture now was weathered into a faded plum-coloured suit and a pair of silver shoe-buckles--there was nothing left of the boy himself but the whites of his eyes. The tavern is placed where men moving in the new ways of a busy and adventurous world would not see it, for they would not be there. Its dog Ching was asleep on the mat of the portico to the saloon bar; a Chinese animal, in colour and mane resembling a lion whose dignity has become sullenness through diminution. He could doze there all day, and never scare away a chance customer. None would come. But men who had learned to find him there through continuing to trade to the opposite dock, would address him with some familiar and insulting words, and stride over him.
The tavern is near one of the wicket gates of the irregular intrusion into the city of a maze of dock basins, a gate giving those who know the district a short cut home from the ships and quays; the tavern was sited not altogether without design. And there came Macandrew through that gate, just as I had decided I must try again soon. His second, Hanson, was with him. They crossed to the public-house, and we stooped over the yellow lump of Chinese apathy to talk to him, and went through the swing doors into the saloon. The saloon was excluded from the gaze of the rest of the house by little swinging screens of frosted glass above the bar, for that was where old friends of the landlord met, who had known him all the time their house-flags had been at home in the neighbouring docks; and perhaps had even sailed with him when he himself went to sea. A settee in red plush, salvage from the smoke-room of a liner, ran round the walls, with the very mahogany tables before it which it knew when afloat. Some men in dingy uniforms and dungarees were at the tables. Two men I did not know stood leaning over the bar talking confidentially across it to a woman who was only a laugh, for she was hidden. One of the men turned from the counter to see who had come in.
"Hullo Mac," he cried, in a voice hearty with the abandon of one who, perhaps, had been there long enough; "look here, here's Jessie says she's going to leave us."
A woman's hand, spoiled by many heavy rings, moved across the counter and shook his arm in warning. The youngster merely closed his own hand over it. "Isn't it hard. Really going to forsake us. Won't mix your whiskey or uncork my lemonade any more. What are we going to do when we come home now?"
There was an impatient muttering beyond him, and he made public a soothing and exaggerated apology. All the men in the room, even the group bent over a diagram of a marine engine they had drawn in chalk on their table, looked up in surprise, first at the youngster who had raised his voice, and then to watch the tall shadow of a woman pass quickly down the counter-screen and vanish. Still laughing, the young man, with his uniform cap worn a little too carelessly, nodded to the company, and went out with his companion.
Macandrew stared in contempt at the back of the fellow as he went. "A nice boy that. Too bright and bonny for my ship. What's that he was saying about Jessie?" He tried to see where she was, and lowered his voice. "I know his kind. I saw them together last night, in the Dock Road. What does she have anything to do with him for? We know her of course . . . but even then. . . . She's really not a bad sort. She's like that with all those young dogs. Can't help it, I suppose."
He moved to the bar, a massive figure, beyond the age of a sea-going engineer, but still as light on his feet as a girl. "Where's she gone?" He pushed open one of the little glass screens, and put his petulant face, with its pale eyes set like aquamarines in bronze, into an opening too small to frame it. "Can you see her, Hanson?"
Hanson winked at me, adjusted the spectacles on his nose, and grinned. With that grin, and his spectacles, he was as surprising as a handsome gargoyle. His height compelled him to lean forward and to grin downward, even when speaking to a big man like Macandrew. He turned to his chief now, and both hands went up to his spectacles. In the way the corners of his mouth turned up before he spoke, whimsically wrinkling his nose, and in his intent and amused regard, there was a suggestion of the mockery of a low immortal for beings who are fated earnestly to frustrate themselves. His grin gave you the uncomfortable feeling that it was useless to pretend you were keeping nothing from him.
"Here goes," said Hanson. "Never mind Jessie. I've got something to tell you, Chief. I'm leaving you this voyage."
Macandrew was instantly annoyed. "Going? Dammit, you can't. Look at the crowd I've got now. You mustn't do it."
"I must. They are a thin lot, but you could push the old Medea along with anything. I've got another ship. My reason is very good, from the way I look at it."
Hanson turned his grin to me. He was going to enjoy the privilege of seeing his reasons deemed unreasonable. "Don't think it's a better job I've got. It's worse. It's a very rummy voyage. We may complete it, with luck. It's a boat-running lunacy, and some mining gear. She's called the Cygnet. I've been over her, and we shall call her something different before we see the last of her."
"Then why are you going?" I asked him.
"To see what will happen. .
Macandrew interrupted him. "What? And you next on the list for Chief? You're romantic, young man, and that means you're no engineer. Is there a lot of money in it?"
"There isn't, but there's some life. I want to know what I'm made of. Shall I ever learn it under you? Down below in the Medea is like winding up a clock and going to sleep. Do you know the Cygnet has six inches of freeboard?" He was talking to me, but kept glancing sideways to see what effect this had on Macandrew. But Macandrew's broad back was impassive.
"Six inches of freeboard, barring her false bulwarks of deal boards, and she's going out to--I forget the name of the place, but I could show you where it is within a hundred miles on a map that doesn't give its name. It's up the Pondurucu."
Macandrew made no sign, and Hanson, his humour a little damped, spoke more seriously. "I don't think she'll ever get there, but it will be interesting to see where she stops, and why."
Macandrew heaved round on his junior. "There's drivel. It sounds well from an engineer and a mathematician, doesn't it?" He turned away again. "Supposing," he said, over his shoulder, "supposing you pull this ship through all right, then where will you be? Any better off?"
"I think so," said Hanson. He couldn't talk to Macandrew's back, so he bent over me and pointed a challenging finger at my necktie. "I've never risked anything yet, not even my job. This is where I do it. It'll be nice to attempt something when the odds are that you can't finish it, and there's nothing much in it if you do. "Why," he said, grinning at his Chief's back, "if I were to stay with him I'd become so normal that I'd slip into marriage and safety as a matter of course, and have to give up everything."
"Who's in charge of this lunacy?" asked Macandrew. His voice was a little truculent.
"All right, Chief. I shan't remember his name any the better because you're annoyed with me. I haven't seen the skipper yet. I think I heard him called Purdy."
"Purdy? Bill Purdy?" Macandrew was incredulous. "Do you know what you've let yourself in for? If Purdy's got the job, I know why. Nobody else would take it, and he's the last man, anyway, who ought to have it."
"What, drink?" asked Hanson.
"Lord, no. Not Purdy. No. It's the man himself. I've known him a long time, and I like him, but he'll never do. He can't make up his mind to a course. Don't you remember the Campeachy case? I expect it was before your time. Purdy had her. He was coming up-Channel, and got nervous over the weather, and put into Portland for a pilot. There was no pilot. So he decided to put out again and go on. It never occurred to him that as he was in shelter he'd better stay there till a pilot arrived, because getting out of that was exactly when he'd want one. He put her ashore. That was like Purdy, to play for safety and make a wreck. When he got over the fuss Lloyd's raised about it he refused to take command again for some time. He couldn't even make up his mind whether he wanted a ship at all."
Hanson listened to this with the air of one who was being reassured in a doubtful enterprise.
"You mistake me, Chief," he said. "You are only improving my reasons for going. Not only is the ship crank, but so is her skipper. Now tell me . . . .
Macandrew frowned at his junior, and his curiously pale eyes became distinctly inhuman. I believe he thought his counsel was being laughed at. But the door opened, and he touched Hanson's arm. A little man of middle age stood there, who turned, and actually prevented the doors from swinging together with their usual announcement of another customer. For only a moment he raised his downcast eyes to see who was there, and then nodded sadly to Macandrew. His drooping moustache conformed to the downward lines of his face, which was that of a man who had been long observing life with understanding, and had not a lively opinion of it.
Macandrew's demeanour changed. It was now mild and almost affectionate as he greeted the little man. "Come over here, Purdy, and tell us what you've been doing. Here's Hanson, this young fellow. I hear he's sailing with you. He's your Chief. You'd better know him."
Purdy raised his eyes in a grave and momentary survey, made to shake hands with Hanson, but hesitated, and did so only because Hanson put out his own great fist with decision. Purdy did not speak, except to say to Hanson: "We're signing-on tomorrow. I'll meet you at the shipping office then." He seemed to forget the pair of them, paused, and went to a far vacant corner of the bar. The barmaid, as he got there, returned, and stopped to say something to him.
"Well, I'm damned," muttered Macandrew. "Look here, Jessie," he cried, "here's all us young men been waiting for nearly twenty minutes, and you take no notice of us, but as soon as a captain looks across the counter, there you are. But how did you know he was a captain? That's what I'd like to know. He's only wearing a bowler hat."
The Medea had been ordered unexpectedly to Barry for loading, to take the place of an unready sister-ship; and Macandrew, of whom I have had much experience, would be active, critical of what a dog must put up with in life, and altogether unfit for intimate, amiable, and reminiscent conversation. Yet I wanted to see him again before he left, and went past the Board of Trade Office hoping for signs of the Medea, for I had heard she was assembling a crew that morning. But the marine-store shops, with their tarpaulin suits hanging outside open-armed and oscillating, looked across to the men lounging against the shipping-office railings, and the idlers stared across at the tarpaulins. It did not appear to be a place where anything was destined to happen. It merely looked like rain.
Macandrew might be inside with his crowd of firemen and greasers. Behind the brass grille there a clerk, solitary and absorbed in his duties, bent over a pile of ships' articles, and presented to the seamen in the public space beyond him only the featureless shine of a bald head. The seamen, scattered about in groups, shabby and listless, with a few of their officers among them, were as sombre and subdued as though they had learned life had nothing more to offer them, and they were present only because they might as well use up the salvage of their days. The clerk raised his head and questioned the men before him with a quick, inclusive glance. "Any men here of the Cygnet?" he demanded. His voice, raised in certainty above the casual murmuring of the repressed, made them all as self-conscious and furtive as though discovered in guilt. Hanson's head appeared above the crowd, as he rose from a bench and went to the official. "I'm the engineer of the Cygnet. We're waiting for Captain Purdy."
The clerk complained. He pulled out his watch. "He said he would be ready for me at ten this morning. Now you've lost your turn, and there are three other ships." He turned away in a manner which told every one that Hanson had now become non-existent, pushed aside the Cygnet's papers, and searched the room once more. "Ah, good morning, Captain Hudson. You ready for me? Then I'll take you next." The captain went around to stand beside the official, and his crew clustered on their side of the bars, with their caps in their hands.
"A good start that," said Hanson to me. "Perhaps, after all, we never shall start. Must be a rum chap, that Purdy."
He told me the Medea's crowd was there, but perhaps Macandrew had already signed, and so would not appear. That meant I might not see him for another year; but as I left the office I found him coming up its steps outside, and not as though there were the affairs of a month to be got into two days, but in leisurely abstraction. He might have been making up his mind that, after all, there was no need to call there, for he was studying each step as if he were looking for the bottom of a mystery. His fingers were twirling the little ivory pig he carries as a charm on his watchguard. The pig is supposed to assist him when he is in a difficulty. He raised his eyes.
"Anyhow," he despaired to me with irrelevance, "I can't do anything for him."
I waited for the chance of a clue. "I thought," Macandrew quietly soliloquized, "he knew better than that. He's been a failure, but all the same, he's got a better head than most of us. She's sure to bring him to grief."
"What's all this about?" I ventured.
"I've just been talking to Purdy. You remember what Hanson said of that voyage he's making? Purdy is taking Jessie with him. You don't know Purdy, but I do. And I know Jessie; but that' s nothing."
"Taking her with him?" I asked; "but how. . . ."
"Oh, cook, of course. That'll be it. She'll be steward, naturally. That's reasonable. You've seen her. Jessie's the sort of woman would jump at the chance of such a pleasant trip, as cook."
"I don't understand. . . ."
"Who said you did? Nobody does but the pair of them. I know what another man might see in Purdy. But a woman! He's middle-aged, quiet, and looks tired. That woman is young and lively, and she'll be bored to death with him on such a trip."
"But I thought you said . . . ."
"What have I said? I've said nothing. Jessie's away to sea as cook. Why not? I'm going inside. Are you coming in?"
Crossing the floor of the office, Hanson caught Macandrew's arm. "Your lot are signing-on now." The master of the Medea was round with the official tallying the men by the ship's papers. "I see it," Macandrew answered. "I've signed. I wanted to catch the old man before he began that job."
"We're hung up for Purdy," Hanson told him. "Nobody seems to know where he is." Hanson was amused.
"Yes. Well . . . he'll be here all right . and now this new job which you think so funny, young Hanson. See it goes through. Presently it won't be so funny. Hang on to it then."
Hanson was surprised by this, and a trifle hurt. He was beginning to speak, making the usual preliminary adjustment of his spectacles, when a movement near the door checked him. His hands remained at his glasses, as if aiding his sight to certify the unbelievable.
"What's this?" he murmured. "Here's Purdy. Isn't that the Negro Boy's barmaid with him . . . is she with him?" He continued to watch, apparently for some sign that this coincidence of his captain and a barmaid in a public office was designed. The bent gaze of the master of the Cygnet might have noticed the boots of his engineer, for he took in the room no higher than that. Then he came forward with his umbrella, still in contemplation. It might have been no more than a coincidence. She, too, approached, a little behind him, but obscuring his dull meagreness, for she was a head taller, and a bold and challenging figure. Her blond hair distinguished her even more than the emphasis of her florid hat. Her pallor that morning refined the indubious coarseness of her face, and changed vulgarity into the attractive originality of a spirited character. Many there knew her, but she recognized nobody. She yawned once, in a fair piece of acting, and in her movements and the poise of her head there was a disdain almost plain enough to be insolence. Purdy turned to her, and the strange pair conferred. I heard Hanson say to himself: "What on earth." She left Purdy, bent her head with a gracious but stressed smile to Macandrew, and went to the bench by the wall, where she sat, waiting, with her legs crossed in a way that was a defiance and an attraction in such a place, where a woman is rarely seen. She read a newspaper, perhaps because that acted as a screen, though she turned its pages with a nervous abruptness which betrayed her imitation of indifference.
The Medea and the Cygnet, and the other ships I knew which carried those whose fortunes were some concern of mine, might have sailed over the edge of the world. My only communication was with an occasional familiar name in the reports of the Shipping List. Then Macandrew came home again. But it was difficult to meet him. Mrs. Macandrew told me he was working by his ship in dry-dock. They had had trouble with the engines that voyage, and she herself had seen little of him, except to find him, when she came down of a morning, asleep in the drawing-room. Just flung himself down in the first place, you know. In those greasy overalls, too. He had told her the engine-room looked like a scrap-heap, but the ship had to be ready for sea in ten days. Once he had worked thirty-two hours on end. Think of that, and he had not been home for six months. She would strongly advise any girl not to marry a man who went to sea, and if I met Macandrew I was to bring him home at once. Did I hear?
When I found the Medea it was late in the day, for she was not in the dry-dock that had been named. Her Chief had just gone ashore. There was a chance that he would have called at the Negro Boy, but he had not been seen there. Except for the landlord, who was at a table talking to a stranger, the saloon was empty. A silk hat was on the table before the stranger, beside a tankard, and the hat was surmounted by a pair of neatly folded kid gloves. "Come over here," said the landlord. "Sit here for a bit, Macandrew may come in. This is Dr. Maslin." A monocle fell its length of black cord from the doctor's eye, and he nodded to me.
"The doctor used to be with me when I was running out East," explained the landlord. "Where did you say you had come from now, Doctor? Oh, yes, Tabacol. Funny name. I was never on the South American coast. After I left you sick at Macassar, the last trip we had together--the old Siwalik--I left the sea to younger men. But there you are, Doctor. Still at it. Why don't you give it up?"
The doctor did not answer, except to make a bubbling noise in his tankard. He placed it on the table again delicately and deliberately, and wiped his grizzled moustache with a crimson silk handkerchief. He put up his monocle, and seemed to be intently inspecting a gas globe over the counter. I thought his grimace in this concentration came from an effort to reinforce his will against all curiosity on our part. But it appeared he was really looking at what showed, at an angle, of a portrait on the wall of an inner room. He could just see it, from where he sat. Anyhow, the landlord imagined it was the portrait which had caught his friend's interest. "Looking at that crayon portrait, Doctor? Ah, showy woman, isn't she? Used to be barmaid here. The Lord knows where she is now. Went to sea, like a fool. Stewardess, or something worse. Much more useful here."
The doctor's seamed face, sour and ironic, made it impossible to know whether his expression was one of undisguised boredom, or only his show of conventional politeness. I began to feel I had broken into the intimacy of two men whose minds were dissimilar, but friendly through old associations, and that the doctor's finer wit was reproving me for an intrusion. So I rose, and asked indifferently what sort of a place was Tabacol. Had he been there before?
"Never," said the doctor, "nor is it the kind of place one wishes to see twice. We were kept at Tabacol because so many of our men were down with fever. It is a little distance up the Pondurucu River . . . maybe two hundred miles. Did you say . . .? No. It is not really out of the way. An ocean steamer calls at Tabacol once a month or six weeks. It is only on the edge of what romantic people call the unknown."
It was evident he thought I could be one of the romantic. He looked at me for the first time, twisting the cord of his eyeglass with his finger and thumb in a fastidious way, and I thought his glance was to dissipate some doubt he had that he ought to be speaking to me at all. He dropped the cord suddenly as if letting go his reserve, and said slyly, with a grave smile: "Perhaps the romantic think the unknown is worth looking into because it may be better than what they know. At Tabacol I used to think the unknown country beyond it looked even duller than usual. There was a forest, a river, a silence, and it was either day or night. That was all. If the voice of Nature is the voice of God. . . . .
The landlord was observing in surprise this conversational excursion by his old friend, as if it were altogether new to him. He laughed aloud, and, putting a consoling hand on his friend's shoulder as he rose, he told us he must leave us for a few minutes, for he had business. "Look more cheerful before I get back, Doctor."
The doctor chuckled, and stretched across to give his gloves a more satisfactory position on his hat. "I don't understand what it can be that attracts people to such a place. Young men, maybe yourself even, wish to go there. Isn't that so? Yes. I've met such men in such places. Then they did not give me the impression that they were satisfied with their romance. Impossible, of course. Romance is never in the place unless we put it there, and who would put even a sentimental dream into such a hole as Tabacol? Tropical squalor. Broken people! I've never seen romance in such a place, and don't expect to. .
Several cabs, on their way to a ship outward bound, made an increasing noise in the night, rattled by on the cobbles outside, their occupants roaring a sentimental chorus, and drowned what the doctor was saying.
". . . folly. Worse than folly." He was holding his gloves now, and was lightly flicking the edge of the table with them in place of verbal emphasis. He suddenly regarded me again as if he strongly suspected me of being his antipathy. "Who but a fool would take a woman to such a country as that? Any romantic sentimentalist, I suppose. I forget the name of the ship. There was, you might say, hardly sufficient room to paint a name on her. She was no more than a tug. It was a miracle she survived to get there at all, for she had crossed from England. Crossed the Western ocean in such a craft, and brought a woman with him. Did ever you hear of such folly?" Now I was certain of our whereabouts, and felt a weak inclination to show an elder that I, too, knew something about it; but when I leaned forward eagerly and was about to speak, the doctor screwed in that devastating monocle, and I felt I was only a curious example of the sort of thing he especially disliked. For a minute, in which I wondered if I had quite stopped his guarded flow, he said no more. Then he addressed his eyeglass to a panel of the partition, and flicked his gloves at that.
"I had noticed for some days that little craft lying near us, but gave her no attention. I had sixteen men to attend to with complexions like lemons, and one died. There was no time to bother with other folk's troubles. Our skipper, one breakfast-time, told me there was a woman aboard that little thing, and he'd been asked whether I'd go over. She was ill.
"I've seen some queer packets of misery at sea, but never one that touched that ship. Her skipper seemed a regular fool. I had to ask him to speak up, for he mumbled like a boy who has been caught out, and knows it is useless to pretend. I learned from him that he was only just beginning his voyage. You understand? He was just beginning it, there. He was going up-river, to a point not on the chart. I cannot make. out now whether he wanted to put that woman ashore to get home in comfort at the first opportunity, or whether . . . it's impossible to say. One would sooner believe the best of another man, with half a chance. After all," said the doctor bitterly, "as long as the woman survived I suppose she was some consolation in misery.
"I scrambled over the deck lumber. There was hardly room to move. I found her in a cabin where she could get little seclusion from the crew. Hardly any privacy at all, I should say. As soon as I saw her I could make a guess . . . however, I told the fellow afterwards what I thought, and he gave me no answer. He even turned his back on me. He must have known well enough that that river was no place for any sort of white woman. He was condemning her perhaps to death just to make an ugly job more attractive.
"I admit," said the doctor, with a sly glance, "that she could make it attractive, for a sort of man. She was wrapped in a rosy dressing-gown. She held it together with her hands. I noticed them. . . anybody might. . . they were covered with rings. She had character, too. She made me feel, the way she looked at me, that I was indiscreet in asking personal questions. I could see what was wrong with her. It was debility, but all the same the beginning of an end not far off, in that country.
"'You'll have to get out of this,' I told her.
"'Can't be done, Doctor,' she said coolly.
"'It can. A liner for England will be here in another week, and you must take it.'
"'I don't,' she said. She was quiet enough, but she seemed a very wilful woman. 'I've got my job here.'
"I told her that the skipper of her ship would never carry out his orders, because they could not be carried out. I told her, what was perfectly true, that their craft would rot on a sandbar, or find cataracts, or that they'd all get eaten by cannibals, or die of something nasty. I admit I tried to frighten her.
"'It's no good, Doctor,' she said. 'You can't worry me. I've got my work to do in this ship, like the others.'
"'Pooh!' I said to her. 'Cooking and that. Anybody could do it. Let the men do it. It's not a woman's job.'
"'You're wrong,' she said. 'It's mine. You don't know.'
"I began to get annoyed with this stubborn creature. I told her she would die, if she didn't leave the working of that ship to those who ought to do it.
"'Who ought?' she asked me, in a bit of a temper. 'I know what I have to do. I'm going through with it. It's no good talking. I'll take my chance, like the rest.'
"So I had to tell her that I was there because the master of her ship had sent for me to give my advice. My business was to say what she ought to do.
"'I don't want to be told. I know,' she said. 'The captain sent for you. Talk to him.'
"My temper was going, and I told her that it was something to know the captain himself had enough sense to send for me.
"'Look here,' she told me. 'I've had enough of this. I want to be alone. Thank you for troubling to come over.'"
The doctor lifted his shoulders, and made a wry face, that might have been disdain or pity.
"I was leaving her, but she called to me, and I went back. She held out her hand. 'I do thank you for troubling about me. Of course I do. But I want to stay on here--I must.'
"'Well, you know the penalty,' I said. 'I was bound to tell you that.'
"'What of it?' she said, and laughed at me. 'We musn't bother about penalties. Good-bye!'
"I must say she made me feel that if the skipper of that ship had been of different metal, she might almost have pulled him through. But what a man. What a man! I saw his miserable little figure standing not far from where my boat was when I was going. He made as if he were coming to me, and then stopped. I was going to take no notice of him, but went up and explained a thing or two. I'll bet he'll remember them. All he said was: 'I was afraid you'd never change her mind,' and turned away. What a man! There was a pair for you. I could understand him, but what could have been in her mind? Whatever made her talk like that? That's the way of it. There's your romance of the tropics, and your squalid Garden of Eden, when you know it. A monotonous and dreary job, and a woman."
The landlord returned. The monocle fixedly and significantly regarded me. "Have another, Doctor," said the landlord, pointing to the empty tankard. "How long were you in Macassar?" The doctor turned briskly to his old friend, and began some chaff.
Ferguson, who had just come into port with a damaged propeller shaft, was telling us how it was. This was his first expansive experience, and there could be no doubt the engine-room staff of the Torrington had behaved very well. The underwriters had recognized that, and handsomely, at a special meeting at Cornhill. Though Ferguson was young for a chief engineer, his professional elders, who were listening to him, showed some critical appreciation of the way he solved his problem. He was sitting at a table of the Negro Boy, drawing a diagram on it, and they stood round.
"There. That was where it was. You see what we had to do. It would not have been so bad in calm weather, but we were labouring heavily, all the way from Savannah. Our old man did not think it possible to do it. But it was no good waiting for something worse to happen."
The matter grew too technical for me. There was cargo jettisoned, and ballast tanks emptied aft. The stern of the Torrington was lifted so that her propeller at intervals was clear. Ferguson then went overside on life-lines. When he was not submerged, he was trying to put his ship right again; and when he became exhausted, one of his colleagues took his place, to see whether, while escaping drowning, he could continue the work of salvation. They all escaped, and the Torrington put back to Tampa for repairs, which her own engineers accomplished.
The demonstration was over, and Ferguson's story was lapsing into general gossip. The party of men began to dissolve.
"Who do you think I saw at Tampa?" Ferguson asked Macandrew. "Old Purdy."
"What?" cried Macandrew. "Is he alive?"
Ferguson laughed. "Just about. What's he been doing? I thought he had chucked the sea. It was in the Customs Office. I'd been there to make a declaration, and in one of those long corridors there he stood, all alone, with his hat in his hand, perhaps cooling his head. I hardly knew him. He's more miserable than ever.
"Did he say anything?" asked Macandrew.
"About as much as usual. I didn't know him at first. He seemed rather ill. The temples of that high forehead of his were knotted with veins. It nearly gave me a headache to look at him."
Several of us were impelled to ask a number of questions, but Ferguson was listening now, with the detachment of youth, to the end of a bawdy story that two men were laughing over. This had already displaced Purdy in his mind.
"Didn't he say anything at all? Didn't he mention Hanson?" we asked Ferguson.
"Eh? What, old Purdy? I don't think so. I don't remember. Now you mention it, I think I did hear somewhere that Hanson was with Purdy. But I don't believe he said anything about him. I was just going to ask him to come and have a drink, when he said good-bye. All I know is I saw him standing there like a sorrowful saint. Then he walked off slowly down the corridor. He's a sociable beggar. I couldn't help laughing at him."
There was a notice in the window of the Negro Boy, and I discovered that the tavern was under Entirely New Management. The picture sign over the principal door had been renewed. The mythical little figure which had given the public-house its name was no longer lost in the soot of half a century. He was now an obvious negro boy, resplendent in a golden coat. The reticence of the green window-curtains had become a bright vacancy of mirrors, and the tavern was modern within. Reform had destroyed the exclusiveness of the saloon bar; instead of privacy, distant mirrors astonished you with glimpses of your own head which were incredible and embarrassing in their novelty. The table-tops were of white marble supported on gilded iron. The prints and lithographs of ships had gone from the walls, and were replaced by real pictures converted to the advertisement of various whiskies--pictures of battleships, bull-dogs, Scotsmen, and figures in armour tempted from their ancient posts in baronial halls, after midnight, to finish the precious drink forgotten by the guests. In accordance with this transformation the young lady in attendance at the bar was in neat black and white, with her hair as compact and precise as a resolution at a public meeting which had been passed even by the women present. She was severe and decisive, and without recognition of anything there but the tariff of the house, and sold her refreshments as in a simple yet exacting ritual which she despised, but knew to be righteous.
It was many months since I had been there. Macandrew was no nearer than Rotterdam, and perhaps would not see London that voyage. There had been a long period in which change had been at work at the docks, even to their improvement, but through it all not one of my old friends had returned home. They had approached no nearer than Falmouth, the Hartlepools, or Antwerp, with a slender chance that they would come to the Thames, and next we heard of them when they were bound outwards once more, and for a period known not even to their wives. The new Negro Boy had not the appearance of a place where I could expect to find a friend, and I was leaving it again, instantly, when a tall figure rose in a corner waving a reassuring hand. I did not recognize the man, but thought I knew his smile, which made me look at him in dawning hope. The grin, evidently knowing its power, was maintained till I saw it indubitably as Hanson's. He made a remembered gesture with his spectacles. "I was just about sick of this place," he said. "I've waited here for an hour hoping somebody would turn up. Where's Macandrew now?"
"In Rotterdam. I don't think he will be home this voyage.
"And what's happened to this house? Where's the old man?"
"You know all I know about it. I haven't been here for nearly a year. We must expect progress to make things better than they were. Where have you come from?"
"I'm running between Liverpool and Baltimore now, in the Planets. They're comfortable ships, but I don't admire the Western ocean. It's too savage and cold. How is Macandrew? I came up from Liverpool because I felt I must see him again. I heard he was here."
From the way he talked, I thought he preferred those subjects requiring the least effort for a casual occasion. "Now and then," I had to tell him, "some of us have wondered what happened to the Cygnet."
Hanson's smile became effulgent. My remark might have reminded him of a most enjoyable joke, but he made no sign, while enjoying it privately, that he intended to share it with me at any time.
"There was a Cygnet, wasn't there?" he asked, when my patience had nearly gone. "I should like somebody to confirm it. The reason I came to this house tonight, to be candid, was just to see this room again, to settle a doubt I had. Didn't Macandrew stand over there, and show concern because a fair, plump woman wasn't quick enough with his beer?"
I admitted this, as an encouragement. "But when I got here tonight," continued Hanson, "the change made me feel my mind had lost hold. I must say it's a relief to see you."
"Has this anything to do with the Cygnet?" I asked.
"Everything. I had the time of my life. I wouldn't have missed it for anything. But somehow, now and then, I want to be quite sure I had it myself, and not some other fellow." He beamed with the very remembrance of the experience, and nodded his head at me. He leaned over the table to me in confidence. "Have you ever been to the tropics? I don't mean calling at Colombo or Rio. I mean the back of things where there's a remarkable sun experimenting with low life and hardly anybody looking on. If ever you get the chance, you take it. It alters all your ideas of time and space. You begin to learn what stuff life is made of when you see a tropical forest, and see nothing else for months. On the other hand," he said, "you become nothing. You see it doesn't matter to others what happens to you, and you don't care much what happens to others."
"You don't care? It doesn't matter?" I said in doubt to this young mathematician and philosopher, who had been experimenting with life. "Isn't that merely romantic?"
"Romance--romance be damned! I got down to the facts."
"Well, get me down to them. I should like the facts. I want to hear what this strange voyage was like."
"As you know," Hanson assured me, "I went out merely to see what would happen to myself, in certain circumstances. I knew I was going to be scared, and I was. There is a place called Tabacol on the river, and we anchored there after our ocean passage for more than a week. I don't know why, and it was no use asking Purdy. Probably he didn't know. I had made up my mind to make the engines move and stop, whenever ordered, and then see where we are. Anyway, after the racket of the sea voyage, when the engines stopped at Tabacol the utter silence was as if something which had been waiting there for you at once pounced. The quiet was of an awful weight. I could hardly breathe, and chanced to look at the thermometer. It stood at 132 degrees. I don't know how I got outside, but when I came to I was on my back on deck, and Jessie was looking after me. I remember wondering then how a big, fleshy woman like her could stand it, and felt almost as sorry for her as I did for myself."
"Did she look ill?"
"Jessie? Oh, I don't know. She looked as if she might have been having a merrier time. Well, we left Tabacol, and I felt we were leaving everything we knew behind us. I got the idea, in the first day on the river, that we were quite lost, and were only pushing the old Cygnet along to keep up our spirits. We crawled close under the walls of the forest. Our vessel looked about as large and important as a leaf adrift. That place is so immense that I saw we were going to make no impression on it. It wouldn't matter to anybody but ourselves if it swallowed us up. On the first day I saw a round head and two yellow eyes in it, watching us go by. The thought went through my mind: 'a jaguar.' The watching face vanished on the instant, and I always felt afterwards that the forest knew all about us, but wouldn't let us know anything. I got the idea that it wasn't of the least use going on, unless we didn't intend to treat the job seriously. If we were serious about it then it was evident we ought to turn back."
"Didn't the skipper ever say what he thought of it?"
"What could Purdy think, or do? There was that river, and the forest on both sides of it, and the sun over us. Nothing else but the quiet; and we didn't know where our destination was. We anchored every evening, close to the bank. One evening, as we anchored, a shower of arrows clattered about us. There was just one shower, out of the trees, or out of the clouds."
"What was Jessie doing all this time?" I ventured to ask him.
"Why, what was any one doing? She wasn't an anxiety of my department. I suppose she was there for the only reason I had--because she asked for it. It was the same next day, except that instead of more arrows we found a python in the bunkers. Came aboard over the hawsers, I suppose. We were a lively lunatic asylum below while killing it with fire-shovels and crowbars. That was what the voyage was like. The whole lot of it was the same, and you knew quite well that the farther you went the less anything mattered. There were slight variations each day of snakes, mosquitoes, and fevers, to keep you from feeling dead already."
"I've often wondered," I confessed, thinking to bring Hanson to something I wanted to hear, "what happened to your company. Once we had a word of Purdy, but never of Jessie or of you."
"Well, now I'm telling you. But you'd have been past wondering if you'd been with us. Purdy wasn't companionable. He'd tell me it was hot. And it was. You could feel that yourself. Jessie cooked our meals. Her galley could have been only a shade better than the engine-room. She began to look rather faded. At last I was the only one who hadn't been down with fever. We crawled on and on, and the only question was where we ourselves would end, for the forest and the river were never going to. But you didn't care. I'd never been better in my life, and here was the thing I'd always wanted to see. I could have gone on for ever like that, wondering what we should see round the next corner.
"Our big troubles were to come. Up to then, we hadn't run into anything really drastic after turning a corner. I suppose we had had about a month of it, and God knows where we were, but we had nobody to ask; and then we ran on a sandbar. The jungle met overhead. We were in what was only a dark drain through the forest. So this, I thought, is where we throw in our hand. We might as well have been in another planet for all the chance we had of getting away from that place. We were aground for two days; the river then rose a foot, and we came off. The men were complaining among themselves by then. I heard them talking to each other about chucking it. It was bound to come. This day they went aft in a body to Purdy. There stood Purdy, a little object in white against the gloom of the forest, and he looked about as futile as the last match in a wind at night. He stood fingering a beard he had grown. One of the men was beginning to talk truculently at him. Just then Jessie appeared from below, between me and the group. She had been down with fever for some days, and she surprised me as much as a ghost. She looked rather like one, too. She stood watching Purdy, without moving. He didn't look at her, though he must have known she was there. I'm pretty sure we had to thank her for what happened to us afterwards, for it was then that Purdy began shaking his finger at that big stoker who was shouting. I'd never seen him with such an expression before. As near as he could be wild, he was. 'We're going on,' said Purdy to them very distinctly. 'This ship continues her voyage. If you want to leave her here, I'll put you ashore.' He walked away some paces, and came back to the men. Then he said something more in his usual voice. 'Do you men tell me you're afraid of the job? I don't believe it. It can be done. We'll do it. We'll do it. Mr. Hanson,' he called out, 'we are ready to get under way. Would you please stand by?'
"The men never said another word. They went for'ard. It was very curious, but after that they behaved as though they had another skipper. Yet they were properly frightened by what they thought was ahead of them. My lot below were always asking me about it, and I handed them the usual ornamental and soothing lies, in which they believed long enough to keep the steam up. What more could you ask of human nature? So we kept her plugging along, getting nearer and nearer nowhere. We turned another of those dramatic corners, later on, though I forget how much later, and ahead of us the river was piled high with rocks, and was tumbling from above. The Cygnet had had her fair share of luck, but luck could not get her over that. We were all looking at the white water ahead, and feeling--at least I was--that we were being laughed at, when I heard Purdy call me, and turned round. He was hurrying towards me round the gear, and I thought from the look of him that this complete frustration had turned his mind. He signed for me to follow him, and I did it, wondering what we should do with a lunatic added to all the rest of it. I followed him into his cabin. 'What can I do?' he said, and bent over his berth, 'what can I do?'
"Jessie was curled up on her side in his berth, and there was nothing anyone could do. I didn't know she was alive. But she half opened her eyes, without looking up, and her hand began moving towards Purdy. 'That you, Bill?' she said. Purdy flopped down beside her. I got out.
"So I took over for a bit--the mate was no good--and waited for the next thing. That affair disheartened the men a lot, and I took it for granted, from their faces as they stood round that figure in a tarpaulin under a tree in the forest, that we were witnessing the end. There was Purdy, too . . . you couldn't expect much from him after a funeral."
Hanson bent over the table, and began tapping it with a finger, and spoke slowly through a surprise he still felt. "Old Purdy came to me the following morning, and told me what he intended to do. What do you think? He reckoned that, though we were still a hundred miles from the headquarters of the consignees, an outpost was probably no farther than just above the falls. He himself was going to prospect, for there should be a native trail through the woods, past the rapids; and he left me in charge.
"Macandrew was all wrong about that fellow. In two days he was back. He had found an outpost, four miles above, but nobody was there, so we could get no help. He was going to land our cargo of a ton and a half of machinery, and place it on the company's territory above the falls. 'You can see for yourself,' Purdy said to me pathetically, 'that I can't deliver the Cygnet there. But I think I am right in making her secure and leaving her here, and reporting it. What else can I do? They ought to give me a clean receipt.'
"It was funny enough, that anxiety about a ship and machinery where there was nothing but monkeys and parrots, but I agreed with him, and we got to work landing those packages of mining gear, which only an expert could understand, in a place where nothing was likely to happen till the Last Day. The way we sweated over it! And then warped the stuff with snatch blocks through four miles of jungle. Yes; and buried two men of our company on the way. But we did get the cargo on to the company's damned land at last, and a nice lot of half-naked scarecrows we looked, with nothing to fill our hollow cheeks but whiskers. There the name of the place was all right, 'Tres Irmaos,' painted over a shed. The shed was falling to pieces. There was nobody about. Nothing but a little open space, and the forest around, and the sun blazing down at us.
"We pushed on for headquarters, Purdy leading us. A hundred miles to go! I don't know how we did it. Three more died, including the mate, but we didn't bury those. Purdy kept on the move. He told me, after an eternity, that it was just ahead of us, and at last we did come to some other men. They were Colombians. We astonished them, but nothing could astonish us any more. Purdy learned that he had got to our ultimate destination all right. Then some fellow appeared, in a gaudy uniform and a sword, who spoke English. When Purdy asked to be taken to the manager of the company, this gay chap laughed fiercely, and kept looking at Purdy in triumph. 'Him?' he shouted, when he had got enough fun out of it, 'him? He's dead. We execute him. All those people--they go. No more company. All finish. No good.' He was very bright about it.
"Purdy never said a word. All he did was to turn to me, and then stare beyond me with big eyes at something which couldn't possibly have been there."