FOR weeks our London days had been handmade with gas and oil. It was a winter of the kind when the heaven of the capital is a brown obscurity not much above the highest reached by the churches, and a December more years before the War then it would be amusing to count. There was enough of the sun in that morning to light my way down Mark Lane, across Great Tower Street to Billingsgate. I was on my way to sea for the first time, but that fortune was as incredible to me as the daylight. And as to the daylight, the only certainty in it was its antiquity. It was a gloom that was not only because the year was exhausted, but because darkness was falling at the end of an epoch. It was not many years before the War, to be a little more precise, though then I was unaware of the reason of the darkness, except common fog.
Besides, why should a Londoner, and even an East-Ender whose familiar walls are topped by mastheads, believe in the nearness of the ocean? We think of the shipping no more than we do of the paving stones or of the warnings of the pious. It is an event of the first importance to go for a first voyage, though mine was to be only by steam-trawler to the Dogger Bank; yet, as the event had come to me so late, I had lost faith in the omens of London's foreshore, among which, at the bottom of Mark Lane, was an Italian baking chestnuts over a coke fire. The fog, and the slops, and the smell by Billingsgate, could have been tokens of no more than a twopenny journey to Shepherd's Bush. I had believed in the signs so little that I had left my bag at a railway station, miles away.
Three small steamers, the size of tugs, but with upstanding bows and a sheer suggesting speed and buoyancy, were lying off the fish market, and mine, the Windhover, had the outside berth. I climbed over to her. Blubber littered her iron deck, and slime drained along her gutters. Black grits showered from her stack. The smell from her galley, and the heat from her engine-room casing, were challenging to a stranger. It was no place for me. The men and porters tramping about their jobs knew that, and did not order me out of their way. This was Billingsgate, and there was a tide to be caught. They hustled me out of it. But the skipper had to be found, for I must know when I had to come aboard. A perpendicular iron ladder led to her saloon from a hatch, and through unintelligence and the dark I entered that saloon more precipitously than was a measure of my eagerness, picked myself up with a coolness which I can only hope met with the approval of some silent men, watching me, who sat at a table there, and offered my pass to the man nearest me.
It was the mate. He scrutinized the simple document at unnecessary length, and with a gravity that was embarrassing. He turned up slowly a large and weather-beaten sadness, with a grizzled moustache that curled tightly into his mouth from under a long, thin nose which pointed at me like a finger. His heavy eyes might have been melancholy or only tired, and they regarded me as if they sought on my face what they could not find on my document. I thought he was searching me for the proof of my sanity. Presently he spoke: "Have you got to come?" he said, and in a gentle voice that was disconcerting from a figure so masculine. While I was wondering what was hidden in this question, the ship's master entered the saloon briskly. He was plump and light. His face was a smooth round of unctuous red, without a beard, and was mounted upon many folds of brown woollen scarf, like an attractive pudding on a platter. He looked at me with amusement, as I have no doubt those lively eyes, with their brows of arched interest, looked at everything; and his thick grey hair was curved upwards in a confusion of interrogation marks.
He chuckled. "This is not a passenger ship," he said. "That will have to be your berth." He pointed to a part of the saloon settee which was about six feet forward and above the propeller. "A sou'-wester washed out our only spare cabin, comin' in. There you are." He began to climb the ladder out of it again, but stopped, and put his rosy face under the lintel of the door. "You've got twenty minutes now. Get your luggage aboard."
My bag was where it could not be reached in twenty minutes. Roughing it may have its humours, but to suffer through it, as I was aware I must, if I stayed, would more than outweigh the legitimate interest of a first voyage, except for heroic youth with its gift of eternal life. Simple ignorance, as usual, made me heroic. I went on deck, and found the steward sitting on a box, with a bucket of sprats before him, tearing off their heads, and then throwing the bodies contemptuously into another bucket. The ends of his fingers and thumbs were pink and bright, and were separated from the remainder of his dark hands by margins of glittering scales. He compared to me, as he beheaded the fish, the girls of Hull and London. But what I knew of the girls of but one city was so meagre in comparison that I could only listen to his particulars in silent surprise. It was notable that a man like that, who pulled the heads and guts of fish like that, should have acquired a knowledge so peculiar, so personal, of the girls of two cities. While considering whether what at first looked like the mystery of this problem might not be in reality its clue, I became aware of another listener. Its lean and dismal length was disproportionate to that small ship. It had on but dungarees and a singlet, and the singlet, because of the length of the figure, was concave at the stomach, where, having nothing to rest upon, it was corrugated through the weight of a head made brooding by a heavy black beard. Hairy wrists were thrust deeply into the pockets to hold up the trousers. The dome of its head was as bald and polished as yellow metal. The steward introduced me to the Chief Engineer. "Yon's a dirty steward," returned the Chief simply.
"Clean enough for this ship," said the steward.
"Aye," sighed the engineer, "aye!"
"Have you been to the Queen's Hall lately?" asked the Chief of me. "I should like to hear some Beethoven or Mozart tonight. Aye, but we're awa'. It'll be yon sprats." He sighed his affirmative again in resignation, and stood regarding the steward bending over the pails on the deck. "What make ye," he asked, "of this war between the Japs and Russia? Come awa' doon, and have a bit talk. I canna' look at that man's hands and argue reasonable. It'd no be fair to ye."
We could not have that argument then, for I had so little time to go ashore and purchase what necessaries could be remembered while narrowly watching the clock. I was astride the bulwarks again when the Windhover was free of her moorings. There was a lack of deliberation and dignity in this departure which gave it the appearance of improvisation, of not being the real thing. I could not believe it mattered whether I went or not. My first voyage had, that is, those common circumstances which always make our crises incredible when they face us, as if they had met us by accident, in mistake for some one else. The bascules of the Tower Bridge went up, this time to let out me. Yet that significant gesture, obviously made to my ship, was watched with an indifference which was little better than cynicism. What was this city, past which we moved? In that haze it was only the fading impress of what once was there, of what once had overlooked the departure of voyagers, when on memorable journeys, in famous ships. Now it had almost gone. It had seen its great days. There was nothing more to watch upon its River, and so it was going. And was an important voyage ever made by one who had forgotten his overcoat? The steward rose, raised his bucket of fish offal, emptied it overboard, and went below. It was not easy to believe that such a voyage could come to anything, for London itself was intangible, and when we got past those heavier shades which were the city, and were running along the Essex marshes, though there was more light, there was nothing to be seen, not even land substantial enough to be a shadow. There was only the length of our own ship. Our pilot left us, and we felt our way to the Lower Hope, a place I could have accepted if it had not been on the chart, and anchored.
Night came, and drove me below to the saloon, where we made five who sat with the sprats, now fried, and mugs of tea before us. The saloon was the hollow stern, a triangle with a little fireplace in its base, and four bunks in its sides. Its centre was filled with a triangular table, over which, pendent from the skylight, was an oil-lamp in chains. A settee ran completely round the sides, and on that one sat for meals, and used it as a step when climbing into a bunk. The skipper cheerily hailed me. "As you're in for it, make yourself comfortable. Sorry we can't do more than give you the seat to sleep on. But the chief thing in this ship is fish. Try some sprats."
"Aye, try yon sprats," invited the Chief. "Ye'll get to like them well, in time." After the fish there was cards, in which I took no hand, but regarded four bent heads, so intent they might have been watching a ritual of magic which might betray their fate; and, above those heads, motionless blue cirrus clouds of tobacco smoke wreathing the still lamp. The hush was so profound that we could have been anchored beyond the confines of this life.
What the time was next morning when I woke I do not know, for the saloon was too dark to show the clock over the fireplace. But the skylight was a pale cube of daylight, and through it I could see a halyard quivering and swaying, apparently in a high wind. My bench was in a continuous tremor.
We were off again. Somebody appeared at the doorway, a pull of cotton waste in his hand, and turned a negroid face, made lugubrious by white lines which sweat had channelled downwards through its coal dust. It looked at me, this spectre with eyes brilliant yet full of unutterable reproach, saw that I was awake, and winked slowly. It was the second engineer. He said it was a clear morning. We had been under way an hour. He had got sixty revolutions now. He then receded into the gloom beyond; but materialized again, or, to be exact, the white stare of two disembodied eyes appeared, and the same voice said that it had won seventeen and sixpence last night, but there was something funny about the way the skipper shuffled cards.
Feeling as though I were in one piece, I got up, made my joints bend again, and went on deck. Our ship, tilting at the immobile world, might have upset the morning, which was pouring a bath of cold air over us. The overcoat of the skipper, who was pacing the bridge, flapped in this steady current. A low coast was dim on either hand, hardly superior to the flawless glass of the Thames. By the look of it, we were the first ever to break the tranquillity of that stream. We ourselves made scarcely a sound; we could have been attempting a swift, secret and, so far, an unchallenged escape. The shores unfolded in a panorama without form. Once we spun past an anchored ship, or what had been a ship before the world congealed to this filmed crystal, but now it was a frail ghost shrouded in the still folds of diaphanous night, its riding lights following us like eyes. In the horny light of that winter dawn we overhauled, one after another, the lamps of the Thames estuary, the Chapman, the Nore, and the Mouse, and dropped them astern. We made a course east by north to where the red glints of the Maplin and Gunfleet lights winked in their iron gibbets. Above the shallows of the Burrows Shoal the masts projected awry of the wreck of a three-masted schooner, and they could have been the fingers of the drowned making a last clutch at nothing.
We got abreast of Orfordness, and went through the gate of the North Channel upon a wide grey plain. We were fairly at sea. We were out. The Windhover, being free, I suppose, began to dance. The sun came up. The seas were on the march. Just behind us was London, asleep and unsuspecting under the brown depression of its canopy; and as to this surprise of light and space so near to that city, so easily entered, yet for so long merely an ancient rumour, an old tale of our streets to which the ships and the wharves gave credence--how shall the report of it sound true? Not at all, except to those who still hold to a faith, through all foul times, in the chance hints of a better world.
A new time was beginning in such a world. There was a massive purple battlement on the sea, at a great distance, the last entrenchment of night; but a multitude of rays had stormed it, poured through clefts and chasms in the wall, and escaped to the Windhover on a broad road that was newly laid from the sky to this planet. The sun was at one end of the road, and we were at the other. There were only the two of us on that road. On our port beam the shadow which was East Anglia became suddenly that bright shore which is sometimes conjectured, but is never reached.
The Windhover drove athwart the morning, and her bows would ride over the horizon to divide it, and then the skyline joined again as she sank below it. We were beginning to live. I did not know what the skipper would think of it, so I did not cheer. Sometimes the sea did this for me, making a loud applause as it leaped over the prow. The trawler was a good ship; you could feel that. She was as easy and buoyant as a thoroughbred. She would take a wave in a stride. I liked her start of surprise when she met a wave of unexpected speed and strength, and then leaped at it, and threw it, white and shouting, all around us. It was that part of a first voyage when you feel you were meant to be a navigator. To stand at the end of the bridge, rolling out over the cataracts roaring below, and to swing back, and out again, watching the ship's head decline into a hollow of the seas, and then to clutch the saddle as she reared with a sudden twist and swing above the horizon, and in such a vast and illuminated theatre, was to awake to a new virtue in life. We were alone there. There were only comets of smoke on the bright wall of the sky, of steamers out of sight.
At sunset we made Smith's Knoll Light, and dropped the land. The cluster of stars astern, which was a fleet of Yarmouth herring boats at work, went out in the dark. I had, for warmth and company in the wheel-house on the bridge, while listening to the seas getting up, only signals from Orion and the Great Bear, the glow of the pipe of the silent fellow at the wheel, and the warm shaft of light which streamed from somewhere in the ship's body and isolated the foremast as a column of gold. There was the monody, confident but subdued, the most ancient song in the world, of invisible waters. Sometimes there was a shock when she dropped into a hollow, and a vicious shower whipped across the glass of the wheel-house. I then got the sad feeling, much too soon, that the inhospitable North was greeting us. It is after sundown at sea, when looking through the dark to the stars, listening to sounds that are as though ancient waters were still wandering under a. sky in which day has not been kindled, seeking coasts not yet formed, it is in such nights that one's thoughts are of destiny, and then the remembrance of our late eager activities brings a little smile. There being no illumination in the wheel-house but the restricted glow from the binnacle, this silent comment of mine on man and his fate caused the helmsman no amusement. "I hope you are bringing us luck this trip," said the sailor to me. "Last trip we got a poor catch. I don't know where the fish have got to." Somewhere, north-east about two hundred miles, was the fleet which, if I were the right sort of mascot to the Windhover, we should pick up on the evening of the next day.
When I left the wheel-house to go below, it was near midnight. As I opened the heavy door of the house the night howled aloud at my appearance. The night smelt pungently of salt and seaweed. The hand-rail was cold and wet. The wind was like ice in my nose, and it tasted like iron. Sometimes the next step was at a correct distance below my feet; and then all that was under me would be swept away. I descended into the muffled saloon, which was a little box enclosing light and warmth partially submerged in the waters. There it smelt of hot engine-oil and stale clothes. I got used to the murmuring transit of something which swept our outer walls in immense bounds, and the flying grind of the propeller, and the bang-clang of the rudder when it was struck . . . and must have gone to sleep. .
When I woke, it was because the saloon in my dreams had gone mad. Perhaps it had been going mad for some time. Really I was not fully awake--it was four in the morning, the fire was out, and violent draughts kept ballooning the blanket over me--and in another minute I might have become quite aware that I had gone to sea for the first time. It was my bench which properly woke me. It fell away from me, and I, of course, went after it, and my impression is that I met it halfway on its return journey, for then there came the swooning sensation one feels in the immediate ascent of a lift. When the bench was as high as it could go it overbalanced, canting acutely, and, grabbing my blanket, I left diagonally for a corner of the saloon, accompanied by some sea-boots I met under the table. As I was slowly and carefully climbing back, the floor reversed, and I stopped falling when my head struck a panel. The panel slid gently along, and the mate's severe countenance regarded me from inside the bunk. I expected some remonstrance from a tired man who had been unfairly awakened too soon. "Hurt yourself?" he asked. "It's getting up outside. Dirty weather. Take things easy."
I took them as easily as perhaps should be expected of a longshoreman. There was no more sleep, though no more was wanted. By putting out my hand to the table I managed to keep where I was, even when, in those moments of greatest insecurity, the screw was roaring in mid-air. Our fascinating hanging lamp would perform the impossible, hanging acutely out of plumb; and then, when I was watching this miracle, rattle its chain and hang the other way. A regiment of boots on the floor--I suppose it was boots--would tramp to one corner, remain quiet for a while, and then clatter elsewhere in a body. Towards daybreak the skipper appeared in shining oilskins, tapped the barometer, glanced at me, and laughed because my pillow--which was a linen bag stuffed with old magazines-- at that moment became lower than my heels, and the precipitous rug tried to smother me. I enjoyed that laugh.
Later still, I saw that our dark skylight was beginning to regain its sight. Light was coming through. Our lunatic saloon lamp was growing wan. I ventured on deck. When my face was no more than out of the hatch, what I saw was our ship's stern upturned before me, with our boat lashed to it. It dropped out of view instantly, and exposed the blurred apparition of a hill in pursuit of us--the hill ran in to run over us--and in that very moment of crisis the slope of wet deck appeared again, and the lashed boat. The cold iron was wet and slippery, but I grasped it firmly, as though that were an essential condition of existence in such a place.
The Windhover, too, looked so small. She was diminished. She did not bear herself as buoyantly as yesterday. Often she was not quick enough to escape a blow. She looked a forlorn trifle, and there was no aid in sight. I cannot say those hills, alive and deliberate on all sides, were waves. They were the sea. The dawn astern was a narrow band of dead white, an effort at daybreak suddenly frustrated by night, but not altogether expunged. The separating black waters bulked above the dawn in regular upheavals, shutting out its pallor, and as incontinently collapsed again to release it to make the Windhover plainer in her solitude.
The skipper waddled briskly aft, and stood beside me. He put his nose inside the galley. "I smell coffee," he said. His charge reared, and pitched him against the bulwarks. "Whoa, you bitch," he cried cheerfully. "Our fleet ought not to be far off," he explained. "Ought to see something of them soon." He glanced casually round the emptinesss of the dawn. He might have been looking for some one with whom he had made an appointment at Charing Cross. He then backed into the hatch and went below. The big mate appeared, yawned, stooped to examine a lashed spar, did not give the sunrise so much as a glance, did not allow the ocean to see that he was even aware of its existence, but went forward to the bridge.
The clouds lowered during the morning, and through that narrowed space between the sea and the sky the wind was forced at a greater pace, dragging rain over the waters. Our fleet might have been half a mile away, and we could have gone on, still looking for it. The day early surrendered its light, a dismal submission to conditions that had made its brief existence a failure. It had nearly gone when we sighted another trawler. She was the Susie. She was smaller than the Windhover. We went close enough to hail the men standing knee-deep in the wash on her deck. It would not be easy to forget the Susie. I shall always see her, at the moment when our skipper began to shout through his hands at her. She was poised askew, in that arrested instant, on a glassy slope of water, with its crest foaming above her. Surge blotted her out amidships, and her streaming forefoot jutted clear. She plunged then into the hollow between us, showing us the plan of her deck, for her funnel was pointing at us. Her men bawled to us. They said the Susie had sighted nothing.
Our engine-bell rang for us to part company. Our little friend dropped astern. She seemed a poor little thing, with a squirt of steam to keep her alive in that stupendous and hurrying world. A man on her raised his arm to us in salute, and she vanished.
The talk of our skipper, who began to be preoccupied and abrupt, veered to the subject of Jonah. We should now have been with our fleet, but were alone in the wilderness, and any course we took would be as likely as another. "This hasn't happened to me for years," he apologized. He stared about him, tapping the weather-dodger with his fingers, and whistled reflectively. He turned to the man at the wheel. "Take her east for an hour, and then north for an hour," and went below.
Day returned briefly at sunset. It was an astonishing gift. The clouds rapidly lifted and the sky cleared, till the sea extended far to a bright horizon, hard and polished, a clear separation of our planet and heaven. The waves were still ponderous. The Windhover laboured heavily. We rolled over the bright slopes aimlessly. She would rear till the forward deck stuck up in front of us, then drop over, flinging us against the dodger, and the shock would surround her with foam that was an eruption of greenish light.
The sun was a cold rayless ball halved by the dark sea. The wall of heaven above it was flushed and translucent marble. There was a silver paring of moon in a tincture of rose. When the sun had gone, the place it had left was luminous with saffron and mauve, and for a brief while we might have been alone in a vast hall with its crystalline dome penetrated by a glow that was without. The purple waters took the light from above and the waves turned to flames. The fountains that mounted at the bows and fell inboard came as showers of gems. (I heard afterwards it was still foggy in London.) And now, having made all I can of sunset and ocean, and a spray of amethysts, jacinths, emeralds, zircons, rubies, peridots, and sapphires, it is no longer possible for me to avoid the saloon, the thought of which, for an obscure reason, my mind loathed.
And our saloon, compared with the measure of the twilight emptiness now about us, was no bigger than the comfort a man feels amid mischance when he remembers that he is still virtuous. The white cloth on its table, I noticed, as I sat down, was contaminated by a long and sinful life. But the men round it were good and hearty. I took my share of ham and fish on the same plate, and began to feel not so hungry as before. I was informed that ashore we are too particular about trifles, because we have the room for it, but on a trawler there is not much room. You have to squeeze together, and make do with what is there, because fish is the most important passenger. My hunk of bread was placed where the cloth bore the imprint of a negro's hand. The mugs of tea were massive, and sweetish (I could smell that) with condensed milk. Did I want my tea? I noticed there were two men between me and the exit, and no room to pass. The room was hot. The bench was rising and falling. My soul felt pale and faintly apprehensive, compelling me, now I was beset, to take hold of it firmly, and to tell it that this was not the time to be a miserable martyr, but a coarse brute; and that, whether it liked it or not, I was going to feed at once on fish, ham, and sickly liquor, and heaven help us if it failed me before these sailors. It made no response, being a thin nonconformist soul, so I had to leave it, and alone I advanced on the food. As so often happens, the conquest was a little less hard than it appeared to be. I progressed, though slowly, and at last was sufficiently disengaged from my task to count the minutes moving at their funeral pace to the end of the meal. The heat of the room mounted. The movements of the ship continued to throw my stomach against the edge of the table.
My companions, however, were in no hurry to move. They discussed, among other things, Hull, and its unfortunate system of sanitation. While this gossip, which was explicit with exuberant detail, was engaging us, I summoned my scientific mind, which is not connected with my soul, to listen to what was being said, and the rest of me was deaf. They went on to tell each other about other trawlers and other crews. Other ships and men, I heard, had most of the luck. "The fish follow some of 'em about," complained the skipper. "I should like to know how it's done."
"They ought to follow us," replied the second engineer. "When I went down to take over this morning, Mac was singing Scotch songs. What more could we do below?"
"It's a grand life," nodded his superior s polished bald head. "Aye, there's guid reason for singing. Sing to yon codfish, y'ken."
The skipper looked at the engineer in doubtful innocence. "Well, I wish singing would do it," he said gravely. "I don't know. How do you account for some fellows getting most of the luck? Their ships are the same, and they don't know any more."
Mac shook his head. "The owners think they do. There's their big catches, y'ken. Ye'll no convince owners that the sea bottom isna' wet and onsairten."
The rosy face of the skipper became darker, and there was a spark in his eyes. This was unfair. "But dammit, man, you don't mean to say the owners are right? Do these chaps know any more? Look at old Rumface, old Billy Higgs. Got enough women to make him hate going into any port. Can't be happy ashore unless he's too drunk to know one woman from another. What does he do? Can't go to sea without taking his trawler right over all the fish there is. Is that his sense? Ain't God good to him? Shows him the fish every time."
The engineer stood up, bending his head beneath a beam, crooking an elbow to consider one hairy arm. "Ah weel, I wouldna call it God. Ye canna tell. Man Billy has his last trip to make. Likely he'll catch fish that'd frighten Hull. Aye."
The skipper moved impatiently, made noises in his throat, rose, and both went out. The mate, who had been chewing and looking at nothing all the time, chuckled.
The mate pulled off his big boots, and climbed into his bunk. The steward cleared the table. I had the saloon to myself, and tried to read from a magazine I extracted from my pillow. The first story was rollicking of the sea, and I have never seen more silly or such dreary lies in print. And the others were about women, magazine women, and the land, that magazine land which is not of this earth. The bench still heaved, and there was a new smell of sour pickles. I think a jar had upset in a store cupboard. Perhaps I should feel happier in the wheel-house. It was certain the wheel-house would not smell of vinegar, boots, and engine oil. It would have its own disadvantages--it would be cold and damp--and the wind and seas on the lively deck had to be faced on the way to it. The difficulty there is in placing the second course on London's cosy dinner-tables began to surprise me.
Our wooden shelter, the wheel-house, is ten feet above the deck, with windows through which I could look at the night, and imagine the rest. I had, to support me, the monosyllabic skipper and a helmsman with nothing to say. I saw one of them when, drawing hard on his pipe, its glow outlined a bodyless face. The wheel chains rattled in their channels. There was a clang when a sea wrenched the rudder. I clung to a window-strap, flung back to look upwards through a window which the ship abruptly placed above my head, then thrown forward to see wreaths of water speeding below like ghosts. The stars jolted back and forth in wide arcs. There were explosions at the bows, and the ship trembled and hesitated. Occasionally the skipper split the darkness with a rocket, and we gazed round the night for an answer. The night had no answer to give. We were probably nearing the North Pole. About midnight, the silent helmsman put away his pipe, as a preliminary to answering a foolish question of mine, and said, "Sometimes it happens. It's bound to. You can see for ye'self. They're little things, these trawlers. Just about last Christmas-- wasn't it about Christmas-time, Skipper?-- the Mavis left the fleet to go home. Boilers wrong. There was one of our hands, Jim Budge, who was laid up, and he reckoned he'd better get home quick. So he joined her. We were off the Tail of the Dogger, and it blew that night. Next morning Jim's mate swore Jim's bunk had been laid in. It was wet. He said the Mavis had gone. I could see the bunk was wet all right, but what are ventilators for? Chance it, the Mavis never got home. A big sea to flood the engine-room, and there she goes."
After the next daybreak time stood still--or rather, I refused to note its passage. For that morning I made out the skipper, drenched with spray, and his eyes bloodshot, no doubt through weariness and the weather, watching me from the saloon doorway. I did not ask any questions, but pretended I was merely turning in my sleep. It is probably better not to ask the man who has succeeded in losing you where you are, particularly when his eyes are bloodshot and he is wondering what the deuce he shall do about it. And greater caution still is required when his reproachful silence gives you the idea that he thinks you a touch of ill-luck in his enterprise. My companions, I believe, regretted I had not been omitted. I tried, therefore, to be inconspicuous, and went up to seclude myself at the back of the boat on the poop, there to understudy a dog which is sorry it did it. Not adverse fate itself could show a more misanthropic aspect than the empty overcast waste around us. It was useless to appeal to it. It did vouchsafe us one ship that morning, a German trawler with a fir tree lashed to her deck, ready for Christmas morning, I suppose, when perhaps they would tie herrings to its twigs. But she was no good to us. And the grey animosity granted us three others during the afternoon, and they were equally useless, for they had not sighted our fleet for a week. All that interested me was the way the lookout on the bridge picked out a mark, which I could not see, for it was obscured where sea and sky were the same murk, and called it a ship. Long before I could properly discern it, the look-out behaved as though he knew all about it. But it was never the sign we wanted. We had changed our course so often that I was beginning to believe that nobody aboard could make a nearer guess at our position than the giddy victim in blindman's-buff. A sextant was never used. Apparently these fishermen found their way about on a little mental arithmetic compounded of speed, time, and the course. That leaves a large margin for error. So if they felt doubtful they got a plummet, greased it, and dipped it overboard. When it was hauled up they inspected whatever might be sticking to the tallow, and at once announced our position. At first I felt sceptical. It was as though one who had got lost with you in London might pick up a stone in an unknown thoroughfare, and straightway announce the name of that street. That would be rather clever. But I discovered my fishermen could do something like it.
Our skipper no longer appeared at meals. He was on the bridge day and night. He acted quite well a pose of complete indifference, and said no more than: "This has not happened to me for years." He repeated this slowly at reasonable intervals. But he had lost the nimble impulse to chat about little things, and also his look of peering and innocent curiosity. As now he did not come to our table, the others spoke of Billingsgate carriers, such as ours, which had driven about the Dogger till there was no more in the bunkers than would take them to Hull to get more coal. From the way they spoke I gathered they would crawl into port, in such circumstances, without flags, and without singing. This gave my first trip an appearance I had never expected. Imagination, which is clearly of little help in geography, had always pictured the Dogger as a sea where you could hail another trawler as you would a cab in London. A vessel might reasonably expect to find there a fish-trunk it had left behind. But here we were with our ship plunging round the compass merely expectant of luck, and each wave looking exactly like the others. But at last we had them. We spoke a rival fleet of trawlers. Their admiral cried through a speaking-trumpet that he had left "ours" at six that morning twenty miles NNE., steaming west. It was then eleven o'clock. Hopefully the Windhover put about. We held on for three hours at full speed, but saw nothing but the same waves. The skipper then rather violently addressed the Dogger, and said he was going below. The mate asked what course he should steer. "Take the damned ship where you like," said the skipper. "I'm going to sleep." He was away ten minutes. He reappeared, and resumed his silent parade of the bridge. The helmsman grinned at the mate. By then the wind had fallen, the seas were more deliberate; there came a suffusion of thin sunlight, insufficient and too late to expand our outlook, for the night began to fill the hollows of the Dogger almost at once, and soon there was nothing to be seen but the glimmer of breaking waves.
There is nothing to be done with an adventure which has become a misprise than to enjoy it that way instead. What did I care when they complained at breakfast of the waste of rockets the night before? What did that matter to me when the skylight above our morning coffee was open at last, really open? Fine weather for December! Across that patch of blue, which was a peep into eternity, I saw drift a bird as white as sanctity. And did it matter if the imprints on our tablecloth of negroes' thumbs were more numerous and patent than ever, in such a light? Not in the least. For I myself had long since given up washing, as a laborious and unsatisfactory process, and was then cutting up cake tobacco with the rapture of an acolyte preparing the incense. If this was what was meant by getting lost on the Dogger, then the method, if only its magic could be formulated. would make the fortunes of the professional fakirs of happiness in the capitals of the rich. Yet mornings of such a quality cannot be purchased, nor even claimed as the reward of virtue.
On deck it was a regal day, leisurely, immense, and majestic. The wind was steady and generous. The warm sunlight danced. I should not have been surprised to have seen Zeus throned on the splendid summit of the greatest of those rounded clouds, contemplative of us, finger on cheek, smiling with approval of the scene below--melancholy approval, for we would remind him of those halcyon days whose refulgence turned pale and sickly when Paul, that argumentative zealot, came to provide a world, already thinking more of industry and State politics than of the gods, with a hard-wearing theology which would last till Manchester came. For the Windhover had drifted into a time and place as innocent of man's highest achievements as is joy of death. The wind and sea were chanting. The riding of the ship kept time to that measure. The vault was turquoise, and the moving floor was cobalt. The white islands of the Olympians were in the sky.
Hour after hour our lonely black atom moved over that vast floor, with nothing in sight, of course, in a day that had been left over from earth's earlier and more innocent time, till a little cloud formed in the north. That cloud did not rise. It blew towards us straight over the seas, rigid and formless; becoming at last a barque under full sail, heading east of south of us. She was, when at a distance, a baffling mass of canvas, from which a square-sail occasionally heliographed. She got abeam of us. Before the clippers have quite gone, it is proper to give grace for the privilege of having seen one, superlative as the ship of romance, and in such a time and place. She was a cloud that, when it mounted the horizon like the others, instead of floating into the meridian, moved over the seas to us, an immutable billow of luminous mist blown forward on the wind. She might have risen at any moment. Her green hull had the sheer of a sea hollow. Her bows pressed continually onward, like the crest of a wave curving forward to break, but held, as though enchanted. Sometimes, when her white mass heeled from us under the pressure of the wind, a red light flashed from her submerged body. She passed silently, a shining phantom, and at last vanished, as phantoms do.
When the boots, exploded on the saloon floor by the petulant mate, woke me, it was three of a morning which, for my part, was not in the almanac. "We're bewitched," the mate said, climbing over me into his cupboard. "I never thought I should want to see our fleet so much."
"Aye," remarked the chief engineer, who came shuffling in then for some sleep, "ye'll find that fleet quick, or the stokers are giving orders. D'ye think a ship is driven by the man at the wheel? No' that I want to smell Hull."
A kick of the ship overturned the fire-shovel, and I woke again to look with surprise at so small a cause of a terrible sound, and was leaving the shovel to its fate when it came to life, and began to crawl stealthily over the floor. It was an imperative duty to rise and imprison it. When that was forgotten the steward arrived, and roused me to watch the method of setting a breakfast-table at sea; but I had seen all that before, and climbed out of the saloon. There are moments in a life afloat when the kennel and chain of the house-dog appear to have their merits. The same wash was still racing past outside, and the ship moving along. The halyards were shaking in the cold. The funnel was still abruptly rocking. A sailor was painting the starboard stanchions. A stoker was going forward off duty, in his shirt and trousers, in different to the cruel wind which bulged and quivered his thin rags. The skipper was on the bridge, his hands in the pockets of his flapping overcoat, still searching the distance for what was not there. A train of gulls was weaving about over our wake. A derelict fish-trunk floated close to us, with a great black-backed gull perched on it. He cocked up one eye at me when he drew level, crouched for flight, but perhaps saw on my face the reason why I prefer working to-morrow, and contemptuously stayed where he was. Then I noticed the skipper looking back at the bird. He nodded to it, and cried: "There goes a milestone. The fleet is about somewhere." I danced with caution along the treacherous deck, where one day that voyage a sea picked up two men and stranded them on top of the engine-room casing, and got up with the master. He had just ordered the ship to be put over to a trawler in sight. With the seas so swift and ponderous I completely forgot the cold wind in watching the two lively ships being manoeuvred till they were within earshot. When the engines were stopped the steering had to be nicely calculated, or erratic waves brought them dangerously close, or else took them out of call. Our new friend had not seen "our lot," but had left a fleet with an unknown house-flag ten miles astern. We surged forward again.
We steamed for two hours, and then the pattern of a trawler's smoke was seen ahead traced on a band of greenish brilliance which divided the sea from the sky. Almost at once other faint tracings multiplied there. In a few minutes we could make out plainly within that livid narrow outlet between the sea and the heavy clouds a concourse of midget ships.
"There they are," breathed the skipper, after a quick inspection through his glasses.
In half an hour we were in the midst of a fleet of fifty little steamers, just too late to take our place as carrier to them for London's daily market. As we steamed in, another carrier, which had left London after us, hoisted her signal pennant, and took over that job.
While still our ship was under way, boats put out from the surrounding trawlers, and converged on us for our outward cargo, the empty fish-trunks. That intense band of light which had first betrayed the smoke of the fleet eroded upwards into the low, slaty roof of nimbus till the gloom was dissolved to the zenith. The incubus vanished; the sun flooded us. At last only white feathers were left in the sky. I felt I had known and loved these trawlers for years. All round us were ships' boats, riding those sweeping seas in a gyrating and delirious lunacy; and in each were two jovial fishermen, who shouted separate reasons to our skipper for "the week off" he had taken.
These boats came at us like a swarm of assailants, swooping downhill on us, swerving, recoiling, and falling away, rising swiftly above us again for a charge, and then careering at us with abandon on the next declivity of glass. A boat would hesitate above us, poised and rocking on the snowy ridge of an upheaval, and vanish as the Windhover canted away. Then we rolled towards her, and there she was below us, in a smooth and transient hollow. Watching for their chances, snatched out of luck by skill and audacity, our men fed the clamorous boats with Empties; the boxes often fell just at the moment when the open boat was snatched away, and then were swept off. The shouted jokes were broadened and strengthened to fit that riot and uproar. This sudden robust life, following the routine of our subdued company on its lonely and disappointed vigils in a deserted sea, the cheery men countering and mocking aloud the sly tricks of their erratic craft, a multitude of masts and smoking funnels around us swaying in various arcs against a triumphant sky, the clamorous desperation of clouds of wheeling kittiwakes, herring-gulls, black-backed gulls and gannets, and all in that pour of hard and crystalline northern sunlight, was as though the creative word had been spoken only five minutes before. We, and all this, had just come. I wanted to laugh and cheer.
There is, we know, a pleasure more refined to be got from looking at a chart than from any impeccable modern map. Maps today are losing their attraction, for they permit of no escape, even to fancy. Maps do not allow us to forget that there are established and well-ordered governments up to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, waiting to restrict, to tax, and to punish us, and that their police patrol the tropical forests. But consider the legends on a chart even of the North Sea, of the world beneath the fathoms--the Silver Pits, the Dowsing Ground, the Leman Bank, the Great Fisher Ground, the Horn Reef, the Witch Ground, and the Great Dogger Bank! Strange, that indefinable implication of a word! I remember that, when a child, I was awake one night listening to a grandfather's clock talking quietly to itself in its long box, and a brother sat up in bed and whispered: "Look, the Star in the East." I turned, and one bright eye of the night was staring through the window. Heaven knows into what profundity of ancestral darkness my brother's whisper had fallen, nor what it stirred there, but an awe, or a fear, was wakened in me which was not mine, for I remember I could not explain it, even though, at the time, the anxious direct question was put to me. Nor can I now. It would puzzle a psycho-analyst most assured of the right system for indexing secret human motives to disengage one shadow from another in an ancestral darkness. That is why I merely put down here the names to be found on a chart of the North Sea, and say no more about it, being sure they will mean nothing except to those to whom they mean something. Those words, like certain moonbeams, which stir in us that not ourselves which makes for righteousness, or lunacy, combine only by chance. The combination which unlocks the secret cannot be stated, or it would not work. When there is a fortuitous coincidence of the magic factors, the result is as remarkable to us as it is to those who think they know us. When I used to stand on London's foreshore, gazing to what was beyond our street lamps, the names on the chart had a meaning for me which is outside the usual methods of human communication. The Dogger Bank!
Here then it was, yet still to be seen only by faith. It was like Mrs. Harris. I had the luck to discover that I should lose nothing through my visit; and every traveller knows how much he gains when the place he has wished to visit allows him to take away from it no less than what he brought with him. The Bank was twenty fathoms under us. We saw it proved at times when a little fine white sand came up, or fleshy yellow fingers, called sponge by the men, which showed we were over the pastures of the haddock. That was all we saw of a foundered region of prehistoric Europe, where once there was a ridge in the valley of that lost river to which the Rhine and Thames were tributaries. Our forefathers, prospecting that attractive and remunerative plateau of the Dogger, on their pilgrimage to begin making our England what it is, caught deer where we were netting cod. I almost shuddered at the thought, as though even then I felt the trawl of another race of men, who had strangely forgotten all our noble deeds and precious memories, catching in the ruin of St. Stephen's Tower, and the strangers, unaware of what august relic was beneath them, cursing that obstruction to their progress. Anyhow, we should have the laugh of them there; but these æons of time are desperate waters into which to sink one's thought. It sinks out of sight. It goes down to dark nothing.
Well, it happened to be the sun of my day just then, and our time for catching cod, with the reasonable hope, too, that we should find the city still under St. Stephen's Tower when we got back, as a place to sell our catch.
Our empty boxes were discharged. Led by the admiral, the Windhover--with the rest of the fleet--lowered her trawl, and went dipping slowly and quietly over the hills, towing her sunken net. The admiral of a fishing-fleet is a great man. All is in his hands. He chooses the grounds. Our admiral, it was whispered to me, was the wizard of the north. The abundant fish-pastures were revealed to him in his dreams. It was my last evening on the Bank. The day had been wonderfully fine for winter and a sea that is notoriously evil. At twilight the wind dropped, the heave of the waters decreased. The scattered fleet, gliding through the hush, carried red, green, and white planets. The ships which lay in the western glow were black and simple shapes. Those to the east of us were remarkable with a chromatic prominence, and you thought, while watching them, that till that moment you had not really seen them. Presently the moon cleared the edge of the sea, a segment of frozen light, and moored to our stern with a quivering, ghostly line.
Coloured rockets sailed upwards from the admiral when he changed his mind and his course, and then the city of mobile streets altered its plan, and rewove its constellation. At midnight white flares burned forward on all the boats.. The trawls were to be hauled. Our steam-winch began to bang its cogs in the heavy work of lifting the net. All hands assembled to see what would be our luck. The light sent a silver lane through the night, and men broke through the black walls of that brilliant separation of the darkness, and vanished on the other side. Leaning overside, I could see the pocket of our trawl drawing near, still some fathoms deep, a phosphorescent and flashing cloud. It came inboard, and was suspended over the deck, a bulging mass, its bottom was unfastened, and out gushed our catch, slithering over the deck, convulsive in the scuppers. The mass of blubber and plasm pulsed with an elfish glow.
We were homeward bound. The flat sea was dazzling with reflected sunshine, and a shade had to be erected over the binnacle for the man at the wheel. It might have been June, yet we had but few days to Christmas. The noon ceiling was a frail blue, where gauze was suspended in motionless loops and folds. The track of the sun was incandescent silver. A few sailing vessels idled in the North Channel, their sails slack; but we could not see a steamer in what is one of the world's busiest fairways. We ran on a level keel, and there was no movement but the tremor of the engines. We should catch the tide at the Shipwash, and go up on it to Billingsgate and be home by midnight. How foolish it is to portion your future, at sea!
It was when I was arranging what I should do in the later hours of that day, when we were at Billingsgate, that the skipper, staring round the North Channel, said to me: "It looks as though London had been wiped out since we left it. Where's the ships?"
The Maplin watched us pass with its red eye. We raised all the lights true and clear. I went below, and we were talking of London, and the last trains, when the engine-room telegraph gave us a great shock. "Stop her!" we heard the watch cry below.
I don't know how we got on deck. There were too many on the companion ladder at the same time. While we were struggling upwards we heard that frantic bell ring often enough to drive the engine-room people distracted. I got to the ship's side in time to see a liner's bulk glide by. She would have been invisible but for her strata of lights. She was just beyond our touch. A figure on her, high over us, came to her rail, distinct in the blur of the light of a cabin behind him, and shouted at us. I remember very well what he said, but it is forbidden to put down such words here. The man at our wheel paid no attention to him, that danger being now past, and so of no importance. He continued to spin the spokes desperately, because, though we could not see the ships about us, we could hear everywhere the alarm of their bells. We had run at eleven knots into a bank of fog which seemed full of ships. The moon was looking now over the top of the wall of fog, yet the Windhover, which, with engines reversed, seemed to be going ahead with frightful velocity, drove into an opacity in which there was nothing but the warning sounds of a great fear of us. I imagined in the dark the loom of impending bodies, and straining overside in an effort to make them out, listening to the murmur of the stream, nervously fanned the fog with my hat in a ridiculous effort to clear it. Twice across our bows perilous shadows arose, sprinkled with stars, yet by some luck they drifted silently by us, and the impact we expected and were braced for was not felt.
I don't know how long it was before the Windhover lost way, but we anchored at last, and our own bell began to ring. When our unseen neighbours heard the humming of our exhaust, their frantic appeal subsided, and only now and then they gave their bells a shaking, perhaps to find whether we answered from the same place. There was an absolute silence at last, as though all had crept stealthily away, having left us, lost and solitary, in the fog. We felt confident there would be a clearance soon, so but shrouded our navigation lights. But the rampart of fog grew higher, veiled the moon, blotted it out, expunged the last and highest star. We were imprisoned. We lay till morning, and there was only the fog, and ourselves, and a bell-buoy somewhere which tolled dolefully.
And morning was but a weak infiltration into our prison. A steadfast inspection was necessary to mark even the dead water overside. The River was the same colour as the fog. For a fortnight we had been without rest. We had become used to a little home which was unstable, and sometimes delirious, and a sky that was always falling, and an earth that rose to meet the collapse. Here we were on a dead level, still and silent, with the men whispering, and one felt inclined to reel with giddiness. We were fixed to a dumb, unseen river of a world that was blind.
There was one movement. It was that of the leisurely motes of the fog. We watched them--there was nothing else to do--for a change of wind. A change did not seem likely, for the rigging was hoar with frost, and ice glazed our deck.
Sometimes the fog would seem to rise a few feet. It was a cruel deception to play on the impatient. A mere cork, a tiny dark object like that, drifting along some distance out, would make a focal point in the fog, and would give the illusion of a clearance. Once, parading the deck as the man on watch, giving an occasional shake to the bell, I went suddenly happy with the certainty that I was now to be the harbinger of good tidings to those below playing cards. A vague elevated line appeared to starboard. I watched it grow into definition, a coast showing through a haze that was now dissolving. Up they all tumbled at my shout. They stared at the wonder hopefully and silently. The coast became higher and darker, and the skipper was turning to give orders--and then our hope turned into a wide path on the ebbing River made by cinders moving out on the tide. The cinders passed. We re-entered our silent tomb. There had been no sign of our many neighbours of the night before, but suddenly we heard some dreadful moans, the tentative efforts of a body surprised by pain, and these sounds shaped, hilariously lachrymose, into a steam hooter playing "Auld Lang Syne," and then "Home, Sweet Home." There followed an astonishing amount of laughter from a hidden audience. The prisoners in the neighbouring cells were there after all, and were even jolly. The day thereafter was mute, the yellow walls at evening deepened to ochre, to umber, and became black, except where our riding lights made luminous circles. Each miserable watcher who came down to the saloon that night, muffled and sparkling with frost, to get a drink of hot coffee, just drank it, and went on deck again without a word.
The motes next morning went drifting leisurely on the same light air, interminable. Our prison appeared even narrower. Then once again a clearance was imagined. Our skipper thought he saw a lane along the River, and up-anchored. The noise of our cable awoke a tumult of startled bells.
Ours was a perishable cargo. We were much overdue. Our skipper was willing to take any risk--what a good master mariner would call a reasonable risk--to get home; and so, when a deck hand, on the third morning, with the thawing fog dripping from his moustache, appeared in the saloon with the news that it was clearing a little, the master decided he would go.
I then saw, from the deck of the Windhover, so strange a vision that it could not be related to this lower sphere of ours. It could be thought that dawn's bluish twilight radiated from the Windhover. We were the luminary, and our faint aura revealed, through the melting veil, an outer world that had no sky, no plane, no bounds. It was void. There was no River, except that small oval of glass on which rested our ship, like a model.
The universe, which that morning had only begun to form in the void, was grouped about us. This was the original of mornings. We were its gravitational point. It was inert and voiceless. It was pregnant with unawakened shapes, dim surprising shadows, the suggestions of forms. Those near to us more nearly approached the shapes we knew in another life. Those beyond, diminishing and fainting in the obscurity of the dawn, were beyond remembrance and recognition. The Windhover alone was substantial and definite. But placed about us, suspended in a night that was growing translucent, were the shadows of what might once have been ships, perhaps were ships to be, but were then steamers and sailers without substance, waiting some creative word, shrouded spectres that had left the wrecks of their old hulls below, their voyages finished, and were waiting to begin a new existence, having been raised to our level in a new world boundless and serene, with unplumbed deeps beneath them. There, on our level, we maintained them in their poise with our superior gravity and our certain body, giving them light, being what sun there was in this new system in another sky. Above them there was nothing, and around them was blind distance, and below them the abyss of space. Their lights gathered to our centre, an incoming of delicate and shining mooring lines.
It was all so silent, too. But our incoming cable shattered the spell, and when our siren warned them that we were moving, a wild pealing commenced which accompanied us on the long drift up to Gravesend. There were eight miles of ships: barges, colliers, liners, clippers, cargo steamers, ghost after ghost took form ahead, and then went astern. More than once the fog thickened again, but the skipper never took way off her while he could make out a ship ahead of us. We drifted stern first on the flood, with half-turns of the propeller for steering purchase, till a boatman, whom we hailed, cried that we were off Gravesend. And was there any one for the shore?
There was. I took no more risks. I had been looking for that life-boat. And what a thing it was to have solid paving-stones under one's feet again. There were naphtha flares in the fog, dingy folk in muddy ways, and houses that kept to one place. There was a public-house, too. Outside that place I remembered the taste of everlasting fried fish, and condensed milk in weak tea; and so entered, and corrected the recollection with a glass of port--several glasses, to make sure of it--and that great hunk of plum-cake which I had occasionally seen in a dream. Besides, this was Christmas Eve.