Not in the Almanac
IT was an unlucky Friday morning; "and, what's more," the chief officer stopped on the gangway to call down to me on the quay, "a black cat crossed my path when I left home this morning, and a very nice black cat it was." The gangway was hauled up. The tugs began to move the big steamer away from us, a process so slow that the daylight between us and the ship increased imperceptibly.
On my way home I paused by the shop which sells such antiques as old spring mattresses, china dogs, portable baths, dumb-bells, and even the kind of bedroom furniture which one would never have supposed was purchasable at second-hand. But lower, much lower in the shopkeeper's estimate than even such commodities--thrown into a bin because they were rubbish, and yet not quite valueless--was a mass of odd volumes. The First Principles of Algebra, Acts Relating to Pawnbrokers, and Jessica's First Prayer, were discovered in that order. The next was Superstitions of the Sea.
I am not superstitious. I have never met a man who was. And look at the ships in dock today, without figure-heads, with masts that are only the support of derricks and the aerials of wireless, and with science and an official certificate of competency even in the galley! Could anything happen in such ships to bring one to awe and wonder? The dark of the human mind is now lighted, one may say, with electricity. We have no shadows to make us hesitate. That book of sea superstitions was on my table, some weeks later, and a sailor, who gave up trading to the East to patrol mine-fields for three years, and who has never been known to lose any time when in doubt through wasting it on a secret propitiatory gesture, picked up the book, smiling a little superciliously, lost his smile when examining it, and then asked if he might borrow it.
We are not superstitious, now we are sure a matter may be mysterious only when we have not had the leisure to test it in the right way, but we have our private reservations. There is a ship's doctor, who has been called a hard case by those who know him, for he has grown grey and serious in watching humanity from the Guinea Coast to the South Seas. He only smiles now when listening to a religious or a political discussion, and might not be supposed to have any more regard for the mysteries than you would find in the Cold Storage Gazette. When he is home again we go to the British Museum. He always takes me there. It is one of his weaknesses. I invited him, when last we were there, to let us search out a certain exhibit from Egypt about which curious stories are whispered. "No you don't," he exclaimed peremptorily. He gave me no argument, but I gathered that it is very well to be funny about such coincidences, yet that one never certainly knows, and that it is better to regard the unexplored dark with a well-simulated respect till one can see through it. He had, he said, known of affairs in the East, and they were not provided for in the books; he had tried to see through them from all points, but not with the satisfaction he desired. For that reason he never invited trouble unless he knew it was not there.
Another man, very like him, a master mariner, and one who knew me well enough for secrets, was bringing me from the French coast for Barry at full speed, in a fog. He was a clever, but an indiscreet navigator. I was mildly rebuking him by the door of his chart-room for his foolhardiness, but he laughed quietly, said he intended to make a good passage, which his owners expected, and that when the problem was straightforward he used science, but that when it was all a fog he trusted mainly to his instinct, or whatever it might be, to inform him in time. I was not to be alarmed. We should have the Lizard eight miles on the starboard beam in another hour and a half. By this time we were continuing our talk in the chart-room. An old cap of his was on the floor, upside down. I faced him there, in rebuke of this reliance on instinct, but he was staring at the cap, a little startled. Then he dashed past me without a word for the bridge. While following him at leisure I heard the telegraph ring. Outside I could see nothing but the pallor of a blind world. The flat sea was but the fugitive lustre of what might have been water; but all melted into nothing at a distance which could have been anywhere. The tremor of the ship lessened, and the noise of the wash fell, for the speed had slackened. We might have become hushed, and were waiting, listening and anxious, for something that was invisible, but threatening. Then I heard the skipper's voice, quick but quiet, and arrived on the bridge in time to see the man at the wheel putting it hard over. Something had been sighted ahead of us, and now was growing broad on the starboard bow--a faint presentment of land, high and unrelated, for there was a luminous void below it. It was a filmy and coloured ghost in the sky, with a thin shine upon it of a sun we could not see. It grew more material as we watched it, and brighter, a near and indubitable coast. "I know where I am now," said the skipper. "Another minute or two, and we should have been on the Manacles."
Smiling a little awkwardly, he explained that he had seen that old cap on the floor before, without knowing how it could have got there, and at the same time he had felt very nervous, without knowing why. The last time was when, homeward bound in charge of a fine steamer, he hoped Finisterre was distant, but not too far off. Just about there, as it were; and that his dead reckoning was correct. The weather had been dirty, the seas heavy, and the sun invisible. He went on, to find nothing but worse weather. He did sight, however, two other steamers, on the same course as himself, evidently having calculated to pass Ushant in the morning; his own calculation. He would be off Ushant later, for his speed was less than theirs. There they were, a lucky and unexpected confirmation of his own reasoning. His chief officer, an elderly man full of doubt, smiled again, and smacked his hands together. That was all right. My friend then went into the chart-room, and underwent the strange experience we know. He wondered a little, concluded it was just as well to be on the safe side, and slightly altered his course. Early next morning he sighted Ushant. There was nothing to spare. He was, indeed, cutting it fine. The seas were great, and piled up on the rocks of that bad coast were the two steamers he had sighted the day before.
Why had not the other two masters received the same nudge from Providence before it was too late? That is what the unfortunate, who cannot genuinely offer solemn thanks like the lucky, will never know, though they continually ask. It is the darkest and most unedifying part of the mystery. Moreover, that side of the question, as a war has helped us to remember, never troubles the lucky ones. Yet I wish to add that later, my friend, when in waters not well known, in charge of a ship on her maiden voyage--for he always got the last and best ship from his owners, they having recognized that his stars were well-assorted--was warned that to attempt a certain passage, in some peculiar circumstances, was what a wise man would not lightly undertake. But my friend was young, daring, clever, and fortunate. That morning his cap was not on the floor. At night his valuable ship with her exceptionally valuable cargo was fast for ever on a coral reef.
What did that prove? Apart from the fact that if the young reject the experience of their elders they may regret it, just as they may regret if they do pay heed to it, his later misfortune proves nothing; except, perhaps, that the last thing on which a man should rely, unless he must, is the supposed favour of the gods of whom he knows nothing but, say, a cap unreasonably on the floor; yet gods, nevertheless, whose existence even the wise and dubious cannot flatly deny.
It may have been for a reason of such a sort that I did not lend my book to my young sailor friend who wished to borrow it. I should never have had it back. Men go to sea, and forget us. Our world has narrowed and has shut out Vanderdecken for ever. But now that everything private and personal about us which is below the notice even of the Freudian professor is pigeon-holed by officials at the Town Hall, I enjoy reading the abundant evidence for the Extra Hand, that one of the ship's company who cannot be counted in the watch, but is felt to be there. And now that every Pacific dot is a concession to some registered syndicate of money-makers, the Isle-of-No-Land-At-All, which some lucky mariners profess to have sighted, is our last chance of refuge. We cannot let even the thought of it go.