THOUGH it is easier, and perhaps far better, not to begin at all, yet if a beginning is made it is there that most care is needed. Everything is inherent in the genesis. So I have to record the simple genesis of this affair as a winter morning after rain. There was more rain to come. The sky was waterlogged and the grey ceiling, overstrained, had sagged and dropped to the level of the chimneys. If one of them had pierced it! The danger was imminent.
That day was but a thin solution of night. You know those November mornings with a low, corpse-white east where the sunrise should be, as though the day were still-born. Looking to the dayspring, there is what we have waited for, there the end of our hope, prone and shrouded. This morning of mine was such a morning. The world was very quiet, as though it were exhausted after tears. Beneath a broken gutterspout the rain (all the night had I listened to its monody) had discovered a nest of pebbles in the path of my garden in a London suburb. It occurs to you at once that a London garden, especially in winter, should have no place in a narrative which tells of the sea and the jungle. But it has much to do with it. It is part of the heredity of this book. It is the essence of this adventure of mine that it began on the kind of day which so commonly occurs for both of us in the year's assortment of days. My garden, on such a morning, is a necessary feature of the narrative, and much as I should like to skip it and get to sea, yet things must be taken in the proper order, and the garden comes first. There it was: the blackened dahlias, the last to fall, prone in the field where death had got all things under his feet. My pleasaunce was a dark area of soddened relics; the battalions of June were slain, and their bodies in the mud. That was the prospect in life I had. How was I to know the Skipper had returned from the tropics? Standing in the central mud, which also was black, surveying that forlorn end to devoted human effort, what was there to tell me the Skipper had brought back his tramp steamer from the lands under the sun? I knew of nothing to look forward to but December, with January to follow. What should you and I expect after November, but the next month of winter? Should the cultivators of London backs look for adventures, even though they have read old Hakluyt? What are the Americas to us, the Amazon and the Orinoco, Barbadoes and Panama, and Port Royal, but tales that are told? We have never been nearer to them, and now know we shall never be nearer to them, than that hill in our neighbourhood which gives us a broad prospect of the sunset. There is as near as we can approach. Thither we go and ascend of an evening, like Moses, except for our pipe. It is all the escape vouchsafed us. Did we ever know the chain to give? The chain has a certain length--we know it to a link--to that ultimate link, the possibilities of which we never strain. The mean range of our chain, the office and the polling booth. What a radius! Yet it cannot prevent us ascending that hill which looks, with uplifted and shining brow, to the far vague country whence comes the last of the light, at dayfall.
It is necessary for you to learn that on my way to catch the 8.35 that morning--it is always the 8.35--there came to me no premonition of change. No portent was in the sky but the grey wrack. I saw the hale and dominant gentleman, as usual, who arrives at the station in a brougham drawn by two grey horses. He looked as proud and arrogant as ever, for his face is as a bull's. He had the usual bunch of scarlet geraniums in his coat, and the stationmaster assisted him into an apartment, and his footman handed him a rug; a routine as stable as the hills, this. If only the solemn footman would, one morning, as solemnly as ever, hurl that rug at his master, with the umbrella to crash after it! One could begin to hope then. There was the pale girl in black who never, between our suburb and the city, lifts her shy brown eyes, benedictory as they are at such a time, from the soiled book of the local public library, and whose umbrella has lost half its handle, a china nob. (I think I will write this book for her.) And there were all the others who catch that train, except the young fellow with the cough. Now and then he does miss it, using for the purpose, I have no doubt, that only form of rebellion against its accursed tyranny which we have yet learned, physical inability to catch it. Where that morning train starts from is a mystery; but it never fails to come for us, and it never takes us beyond the city, I well know.
I have a clear memory of the newspapers as they were that morning. I had a sheaf of them, for it is my melancholy business to know what each is saying. I learned there were dark and portentous matters, not actually with us, but looming, each already rather larger than a man's hand. If certain things happened, said one half the papers, ruin stared us in the face. If those thing did not happen, said the other half, ruin stared us in the face. No way appeared out of it. You paid your half-penny and were damned either way. If you paid a penny you got more for your money. Boding gloom, full-orbed, could be had for that. There was your extra value for you. I looked round at my fellow passengers, all reading the same papers, and all, it could be reasonably presumed, with foreknowledge of catastrophe. They were indifferent, every one of them. I suppose we have learned, with some bitterness, that nothing ever happens but private failure and tragedy, unregarded by our fellows except with pity. The blare of the political megaphones, and the sustained panic of the party tom-toms, have a message for us, we may suppose. We may be sure the noise means something. So does the butcher's boy when the sheep want to go up a side turning. He makes a noise. He means something, with his warning cries. The driving uproar has a purpose. But we have found out (not they who would break up side turnings, but the people in the second class carriages of the morning train) that now, though our first instinct is to start in a panic, when we hear another sudden warning shout, there is no need to do so. And perhaps, having attained to that more callous mind which allows us to stare dully from the carriage window though with that urgent din in our cars, a reasonable explanation of the increasing excitement and flushed anxiety of the great Statesmen and their fuglemen may occur to us, in a generation or two. Give us time! But how they wish they were out of it, they who need no more time, but understand.
I put down the papers with their calls to social righteousness pitched in the upper register of the tea-tray, their bright and instructive interviews with flat earthers, and with the veteran who is topically interesting because, having served one master fifty years, and reared thirteen children on fifteen shillings a week, he has just begun to draw his old age pension. (There's industry, thrift, and success, my little dears!) One paper had a column account of the youngest child actress in London, her toys and her philosophy, initialed by one of our younger brilliant journalists. All had a society divorce case, with sanitary elisions. Another contained an amusing account of a man working his way round the world with a barrel on his head. Again, the young prince, we were credibly informed in all the papers of that morning, did stop to look in at a toy-shop window in Regent Street the previous afternoon. So like a boy, you know, and yet he is a prince of course. The matter could not be doubted. The report was carefully illustrated. The prince stood on his feet outside the toy shop, and looked in.
To think of the future as a modestly long series of such prone mornings, dawns unlit by heaven's light, new days to which we should be awakened always by these clamant cockcrows bringing to our notice what the busyness of our fellows had accomplished in nests of intelligent and fruitful china eggs, was enough to make one stand up in the carriage, horrified, and pull the communication cord. So I put down the papers and turned to the landscape. Had I known the Skipper was back from below the horizon--but I did not know. So I must go on to explain that that morning train did stop, with its unfailing regularity, and not the least hint of reprieve, at the place appointed in the Schedule. Soon I was at work, showing, I hope, the right eager and concentrated eye, dutifully and busily climbing the revolving wheel like the squirrel; except, unluckier than that wild thing so far as I know, I was clearly conscious, whatever the speed, the wheel remained forever in the same place. Looking up to sigh through the bars after a long spin there was the Skipper smiling at me.
I saw an open door. I got out. It was as though the world had been suddenly lighted, and I could see a great distance.
We stood in Fleet Street later, interrupting the tide. The noise of the traffic came to me from afar, for the sailor was telling me he was sailing soon, and that he was taking his vessel an experimental voyage though the tropical forests of the Amazon. He was going to Para, and thence up the main stream as far as Manaos, and would then attempt to reach a point on the Madeira river near Bolivia, 800 miles above its junction with the greater river. It would be a noble journey. They would see Obydos and Santarem, and the foliage would brush their rigging at times, so narrow would be the way, and where they anchored at night the jaguars would come to drink. This to me, and I have read Humboldt, and Bates, and Spruce, and Wallace. As I listened my pipe went out.
It was when we were parting that the sailor, who is used to far horizons and habitually deals with affairs in a large way because his standards in his own business are the skyline and the meridian, put to me the most searching question I have had to answer since the city first caught and caged me. He put it casually when he was striking a match for a cigar, so little did he himself think of it.
"Then why," said he, "don't you chuck it?"
What, escape? I had never thought of that. It is the last solution which would have occurred to me concerning the problem of captivity. It is a credit to you and to me that we do not think of our chains so disrespectfully as to regard them as anything but necessary and indispensable, though sometimes, sore and irritated, we may bite at them. As if servitude fell to our portion like squints, parents poor in spirit, green fly, reverence for our social superiors, and the other consignments from the stars. How should we live if not in bonds? I have never tried. I do not remember, in all the even and respectable history of my family, that it has ever been tried. The habit of obedience, like our family habit of noses, is bred in the bone. The most we have ever done is to shake our fists at destiny; and I have done most of that.
"Give it up," said the Skipper, "and come with me."
With a sad smile I lifted my foot heavily and showed him what had me round the ankle. "Poo," he said. "You could berth with the second mate. There's room there. I could sign you on as purser. You come."
I stared at him. The fellow meant it. I laughed at him.
"What," I asked conclusively, "shall I do about all this?" I waved my arm round Fleet Street, source of all the light I know, giver of my gift of income tax, limit of my perspective. How should I live when withdrawn from the smell of its ink, the urge of its machinery?
"That," he said. "Oh, damn that!"
. . . . .
It was his light tone which staggered me and not what he said. The sailor's manner was that of one who would be annoyed if I treated him like a practical man, arranging miles of petty considerations and exceptions before him, arguing for hours along rows of trifles, and hoping the harvest of difficulties of no consequence at the end of the argument would convince him. Indeed I know he is always impatient for the next step in any business, and not, like most of us, for more careful consideration. "Look there," said the sailor, pointing to Ludgate Circus, "see that Putney 'bus? If it takes up two more passengers before it passes this spot then you've got to come."
That made the difficulty much clearer. I agreed. The 'bus struggled off, and a man with a bag ran at it and boarded it. One! Then it had a clear run--it almost reached us--in another two seconds! --I began to breathe more easily; the danger of liberty was almost gone. Then the sailor jumped for the 'bus before it was quite level, and as he mounted the steps, turned, and held up two fingers with a grin.
Thus was a voyage of great moment and adventure settled for me.
When I got home that night I referred to the authorities for the way to begin an enterprise on the deep. What said Hakluyt? According to him it is as easy as this: "Master John Hawkins, with the Jesus of Lubeck, a ship of 700 tunnes, and the Solomon, a ship of seven score, the Tiger, a barke of 50, and the Swalow of 30 Tunnes, being all well furnished with men to the number of one hundred threescore and ten; as also with ordnance and vituall requisite for such a voyage, departed out of Plinmouth the 18 day of October in the yeere of our Lord 1564, with a prosperous wind."
But we all know such things were done far better in that century. Yet Master John Hawkins, who seems to have handled a fleet with greater facility than I do this pen now I am so anxious to scratch it across preliminaries and get it to sea, did not come to a decision by the number of passengers on a Putney 'bus. So I turned to a modern authority. Yet Bates, I found, is worse than old John Hawkins, Bates actually arrives at his destination in the first sentence. He steps across in thirty-eight words from England to the Amazon. "I embarked at Liverpool with Mr. Wallace, in a small trading vessel, on the 26th day of April 1848; and, after a swift passage from the Irish Channel to the equator arrived on the 26th of May off Salinas."
Well, I did not. I say it is a gross deception. Voyaging does not get accomplished in that off-hand fashion. It is a mockery to captives like ourselves to pretend bondage is puffed away in that airy manner. It is not so easily persuaded to disencumber us. Indeed, with this and that, I found the initial step in the pursuit of the sunset red a heavy weight, and hardly suited to the constitution of men who have worked into a deep rut; but that high resolution and a faith equal to belief in the liquefaction of St. Januarius' blood are needed to drop the protective routine of years, to sheer off the dear and warm entanglements of home and friendships; to shut the front door one bleak winter evening when the house smells comfortable and secure, and the light on the hearth, under such circumstances, is ironic in its bright revelation of years of ease and stability till then not fully appraised; and so depart in the dusk for an unknown Welsh coaling port, there to board a tramp steamer for a voyage that has some serious doubts about it, though its landfall shall be near the line, and have palms in it. The door slammed, I noticed, in a chill and penetrating minor, an incident of travel I have never seen recorded.
Now do I come at last, O Liberty, my loved and secret divinity! Your passionate pilgrim is here, late, though still young and eager eyed; yet with his coat collar up-turned for the present. Allons! the Open Road is before him. But how the broad and empty prospects of his freedom shudder with the dire sounds and cries of the milk churns on Paddington Station!
And next I remember black night--it was, I think, about three a.m.--and a calamitous rain, and a Welsh railway station where I had alighted, faint with a famine, a kit bag soon to increase in weight and drag, and a pair of numbed feet. There was a porter who bore himself as though it were the last day and he knew the worst, a dying station light, the wind and rain, and me. Outside was the dark, and one of the greatest coaling ports in the world. As I could not see the coal in great bulk I could not admire it. The railway man turned out the light, conducted me politely into a puddle, set my course for the docks in uncharted night with a dexter having no convictions, and left me. I began to hate the land of the wild bard in which I found myself for the first time, and felt a savage satisfaction in being nearly a pure blooded London Saxon; and as I surveyed my prospects in that country, not even the fact that I had a grandparent named Hughes would have prevented me striking Wales with my umbrella, for it is only a cheap one; but I had left it in the train.
It had never occurred to me (any more than it did to you when you got this book to learn about the tropic sea and the jungle) that the Open Road, where the chains fall from us, would include Swansea High Street four hours before sunrise in a steady winter downpour. But there I discovered that trade wind seas by moonlight, flying fish, Indians, and forests and palms, cannot be compelled. They come in their turn. They are mixed with litter and dead stuff, like prizes in a bran tub. Going down the drear and aqueous street it was clear that if there are exalted moments in travel, as on the instant when we discover we really may prepare to go, yet exaltation implies the undistinguished flats from which, for a while, we are translated. This is a travel book for honest men. I am still on the flat. It will be to-morrow presently.
My chief fear was that my waterproof, rattling in the wind, would alarm silent and sleeping Swansea. I found a policeman standing at a street corner, holding out his cape to help away the rain. He could give me no hope. He knew where the dock was, but the way thither was difficult and tortorous. I had better follow the tram lines, and ask again, if I saw anybody. Therefore the tram lines I followed till my portable estate, by compound interest, had increased to untold tons; but the empty tram way went on for ever down the rows of frozen and desolate lamps, so that I surrendered all my chances of the seas of the tropics and the jungle of the Brazils, and turned aside from the course which the policeman said led to ships and the deep, entered the dark portico of a shop, where it was only half wet, and lit my pipe, there to wait for the shy gods to turn my luck. Hesitating footsteps fumbled to where I was hidden, and stopped at the flash of my match. "Could yer 'blige with a light, mister?"
He was a little elderly seaman in yellow oilskins and a so'wester. He was rather drunk. His oilskins gathered the reflected street shine, so that he looked phosphorescent, an old man risen wet and shining from the ocean. He was looking for Buenos Aires, he explained, and hadn't got any matches. Now he, for the Plate, and I, for ultimate Amazonas, set off down the Swansea tram lines. And the wind whined through overhead wires, and a lost dog followed us along the empty thoroughfare where the only sound was of waterspouts, and the elderly mariner sang bold and improper songs, so that I wondered there was not an irruption of nightcaps at upper Swansea windows to witness this disturbance of their usual peace.
We came at length to abandoned lagoons, where spectral ships were moored down the marges, and round the wide waters was the loom of uncertain monsters and buildings. Railway metals waylaid us and caught us by the feet. There were many electric moons swaying in the gale, and they spilled showers of broken light, which melted on the black water, and betrayed to us our loneliness in outer night. The call of a vessel's syren across that inhospitable space was heard by us as the prolonged moan of the lost.
The old man of the sea took me under a stack of timber to light his pipe. He borrowed my box of matches, and malicious spurts of wind extinguished each match, steadily, as mine ancient struck them. It was now 4 a.m. He threw each bit of dead wood down, without irritation, as though it were the fate of man to strike lights for the gods to douse, but yet was he uplifted now beyond the hurt of cosmic mockery. The matches were not wasted. At least they lighted up his sorrowful face as he talked to me. I would not have had him any the less drunk, for it but softened his facial integument, which I could see had been hardened and set by bitter experience, masking the man; but now his jaded life, warmed by emotion, though much of the emotion was artificial and of the pewter born, was quick in his face again, and made him a human responsive to his kind, instead of a sober and warped shellback with a sour remembrance of his hardships, and of the futility of his endurance, and of the distance away of his masters with their bowels of iron.
He had seven children, and the sea was a weary place. Had I any children?--and God keep them if I had. He was a troublesome old man ("that's another light gone") but he had just left his kids ("ah, to hell wi' the wind") and he had to talk to someone about them, and that was my rotten luck, said he. We got to the fifth child, and I heard something about her, when the wind reached round the wood stack at us, and snatched the last glim. So it was in the dark that I heard about the other two and the wife, while one of my pockets filled with rain. Only Milly, he said, was at work, and what was four pound a month for the rest? And he was sick of the sea and chief mates, and did I think a chap stood for a better time when he died, if he kept off drink and did his bit without grousing, like some of the parson fellers said? Then he indicated my ship, and disappeared in the dark. He is still waiting an answer to his last question, which I have saved for you to give him.
For me, I was in no mood to discuss whether balm is to be got in Gilead, when we come to the place; but stumbling among the lumber on the deserted deck of the s.s. "Capella," I found a cabin, fell into it, and remember nothing more but the smell of hot bread, eggs and bacon, and coffee, which visited me in a beautiful dream. Then I woke to the reveille of a tin whistle, which the chief engineer was playing in my ear; and it was daylight. The jumble of recollections of the night before were but dark insanities. But the smell of that aromatic food, I give grace, did not pass with the awakening, for next door I heard lively sizzling in the galley. Already Fleet Street was hull down.
. . . . .
If you are used only to the methods of passenger steamers and regular routes, then you know little of travel. You are but carried about. Insistent clocks and schedules keep that way, and the upholstered but rigid routine is a soporific. You never see the hither side of the hedge. The granite countenance of fortune, her eyes filmed like frozen pools, which keeps alert and bright the voyager who is unprotected from her unscheduled and unmoral acts except by his own ready buckler, is watched for you by others. You are never surprised into fear by the unlucky position of the planets, nor moved to sing Laus Deo, when now and then, the stars are propitious. I had been brought hastily to the "Capella," for it was said she was sailing instantly. This morning I learned at breakfast that nobody knew when she could sail. Our steamer sat two feet higher than her capacity. There was some galvanised iron to come from Glascow, some machinery from Sheffield; and owing to labour difficulties we were short of several hundred tons of coal. A little mob of us, all strangers, shuffled after the Skipper's spry heels that morning to the Board of Trade offices, where an official mumbled over the ship's articles, to our shut ears, and we signed where we were told. A more glum and unromantic group of voyagers, each man twirling his shabby hat in his hands as he waited his turn for the corroded pen, was never seen this side of the Elizabethan era. I became the purser of the "Capella," with my wages lawfully recorded at a shilling per month.
I was committed. There was no withdrawal now but desertion. And desertion, at times, I seriously considered, because for a week more the cargo dribbled down to us, while I endured as a moucher about those winter docks with their coal tips, and the muddy streets with their sailors' slop marts, marine stores, and pawnshops having a cankered display of chronometers, telescopes, and other flotsam of marine failure and wreckage. Daily the quays and the dismal waterside ways with their cheap shops were still more depressed by additional snow mush and, drives of sleet; and it was no warmth for this idler that he saw the tradesmen, because of the season, putting holly among their oranges and wreathing beer bottles with chains of coloured paper. The iron decks and cabins of my new home were as chill and unfriendly as the empty grate, the marble tables, and the tin advertisements of chemical slops of a temperance hotel. Am I plain? Such are the conditions which compass the wayward traveller. This is what chills one's rapid pulse when pursuing at last the rosy visions of boyhood. The deplorable littoral of our island kingdom is part of a life on the ocean wave, and should help you in coming to a decision when next you see a friendless and bestial sailorman. It becomes necessary to declare that we shall really get down to the tropics presently; have the courage to wait, like the crew of the "Capella." Our ship did sail, when she was ready.
It was the afternoon before we sailed, and having listened long enough to my messmates, who, after dinner, weighed the probabilities of malaria, yellow fever and other alien disasters into our coming strange voyage, that I went into the town to take my last look round a book shop, and to get some marine soap, dungarees, and things. Here was I at last with my heart's desire. On the very next day I should sail, I myself, and no other hero, veritably Me at last, for a place not on the chart, because the place we should find, at the journey's end, the map described with those words of magic: "Forest" and "Unexplored." I made my way round crates and barrels on that untidy deck, which had a thick mud of coal dust and snow, to the ladder overside. Coal dust and melting snow! But where was the uplifted heart, the radiant anticipation, as of one to whom the future was big with treasures to be born, which are the privilege of a young pilgrim, released from his usual obligations to pursue far horizons in the Spanish main, while his envious fellows in the city still cast ledgers under gas lamps? Here was another swindle of the romanticists. You may search their warm and golden pages in vain for coal tips, melting ice, delays, and steam heaters that will not work for cold cabins. Down they go here, though. These gallant affairs, I thought, as I descended the wet and gritty ladder, are much better done before the fire at home, in your slippers; for the large scale map, as you traverse its alluring blank areas, leaves out the conditions which now, when I am on the actual business, precipitate as frozen spicules, as would north winds, my warm, aerial, and cloudy enthusiasms that were wont to be dyed such wonderful hues by sunsets, poems, and tales of old travel. Another of these congealing draughts was now to catch me unbuttoned. Because of our unusual destination, and the wild stories that were told of it, we were a point of interest in Swansea docks, and had many interviewers and curious visitors. Some of them were on the quay then, inspecting our steamer, and as I stepped off the ladder one turned to me.
"Mister," he whispered, "are you going in her?"
"I am," I said.
"O gord," said he.
That night I met a number of my grave fellow shipmates in the town. The question was, Should we then go back to the ship?
"What," burst out one of us in surprise--his gold-laced cap was already resting on his right eyebrow--"Now? Not me. Boys, don't freeze the Carnival. Follow me!"
We followed him. The rest of the evening is more easily given in dumb show. There was a mechanical piano in a saloon bar, and it steadily devoured pennies, and returned to us automatic joy, fortissimo, over which our conversation strenuously high-stepped and vaulted. Later, there was a search for cabs, and an engineer carried with him everywhere two geese by their necks and sometimes trod on their loose feet. When he did this he snatched a goose from his own grasp, and then roundly abused us for our post-dated frivolity. We learned our steamer was now moored in mid-dock. We found a quay wall, and at the bottom of it, at a great depth in the dark, the level of the water was seen only because shreds of lamp-shine floated there. We understood a boat was below, and found it was, and we loaded it till the water brimmed at the gunwale. As we mounted the "Capella's" rope-ladder only one goose fell back into the dock.
. . . . .
The "Capella" started in her sleep, and she woke me. She was still trembling. Resting my hand on her I felt her heart begin to throb, though faintly. We were off.
It was a bright morning, early and keen. Those habitual quays now were moving past us. The decks Were cleared, the carpenter and some sailors were fixing the hatches, and the pilot, muffled in a thick white shawl, was on the bridge with the Skipper. We stopped in the outer lock, the exhaust humming impatiently while a pier-head jumper--for we were a sailor short--was examined by our doctor. The Skipper had some short words for an official who had mounted the bridge, because the third mate had deserted, and had taken his half pay; and the official, who had volunteered to get us a substitute, had failed. There were now but two mates for our big tramp steamer going a long and arduous voyage which included the navigation for some months of narrow inland waterways in the tropics. Our first mate, passing amidships where the Purser was leaning overside, stopped to tell me what this meant for him and the second mate. I was mighty glad it was not the purser's fault. I have never heard a short speech more passionate; and his eyes were feral. Yet it became increasingly clear to me, as the voyage lengthened, that his eyes no more than met the case.
Out we drove at last. It was December, but by luck we found a halcyon morning which had got lost in the year's procession. It was a Sunday morning, and it had not been ashore. It was still virgin, bearing a vestal light. It had not been soiled yet by any suspicion of this trampled planet, this muddy star, which its innocent and tenuous rays had discovered in the region of night. I thought it still was regarding us as a lucky find there. Its light was tremulous, as if with joy and eagerness. I met this discovering morning as your ambassador while you still slept, and betrayed not, I hope, any greyness and bleared satiety of ours to its pure, frail, and lucid regard. That was the last good service I did before leaving you quite. I was glad to see how well our old earth did meet such a light, as though it had no difficulty in looking day in the face. The world was miraculously renewed. It rose, and received the new-born of Aurora in its arms. There was clouds of pearl above hills of chrysoprase. The sea ran in volatile flames. The shadows on the bright deck shot to and fro as we rolled. The breakfast bell rang not too soon. This was a right beginning.
The pilot was dropped, and a course was shaped to pass between Lundy and Hartland. A strong northwester and its seas caught us beyond the Mumbles, and the quality of the sunshine thinned to a flickering stuff which cast only grey shadows. The "Capella" became quarrelsome, and began to strike the seas heavily. You may know the "Capella" when you see her. She is a modern three-thousand-ton freighter, with derrick supports fore and aft, and a funnel; and the three of them are so fearful of seeming rakish that they overdo the effect of stern utility, and appear to lean ahead. She is a three-island ship, the amidships section carrying the second mate's cabin, and the cabins of the four engineers, all of them, excepting the Chief's cabin, looking outwards overseas across a narrow sheltered alleyway; and on a narrower athwartship's alleyway there, and opening astern, are the Chief's place, and the cook's galley, the entrance to the engine-room, and the engineers' messroom. Above this structure is the boat deck. You may reach the poop, which contains the master's and chief mate's quarters, the doctor's and steward's berths, and the saloon, by descending a perpendicular iron ladder to the long main deck, or else, as all did at sea, by a flying trestle bridge, which is dismantled when in port. Her black funnel is relieved by a cryptic design in white, and her bows are so bluff that, as the chief mate put it, "her belly begins there." She might not take your eye, but a shipowner would see her points. She carries a large cargo on a comparatively low registered tonnage. The money that built her went mostly in hull and engines, and the latter do their work as sweetly as an eight-day clock, giving ten and a half knots, weather permitting, on a low coal consumption. There was not much money left, therefore, for balm in the cabins, and that is the reason we do not find it there.
At sundown the sky cleared. The wind, increased in violence, had swept it of the last feather. Lundy was over our starboard bow, a small dark blot in a clear yellow light which poured, with the gale and the rising seas, from the west. The glass was falling. Now, the Skipper has often told me how his "Capella" had faced hurricanes off Cape Hatteras, when laden with ore, and had kept her decks dry. There are other stories about her surprising buoyancy, when deeply laden, and I have heard them all at home, and they are fine stories. But what lies they are! For there below me, with Lundy not even passed, and the Bay of Biscay to come (Para not to be thought of yet) were tons and tons of salt wash that could not get time to escape by the scuppers, but plunged wearily amongst the hatches and winches.
"I've never seen her as dirty as this," grumbled the chief engineer apologetically, peeping from his cabin at cold green water lopping over casually on to the after deck. "It's that patent fuel--its stowed wrong. Now she'll roll--you can feel it--the cat she is, she's never going to stop. It's that patent fuel and her new load line."
Certainly she sat close to the sea. I had never seen so much lively water so close. She wallowed, she plunged, she rolled, she sank heavily to its level. I looked out from the round window of the Chief's cabin, and when she inclined those green mounds of the swell swinging under us and away were superior, in apparition, to my outlook.
"Listen to it," said the Chief. He stopped triturating some shavings of hard tobacco between his huge palms, and sat quietly, hands clasped, as though in prayer. The surge mourned over the deck. The day, too, was growing towards the dusky hours of retrospection. That sombre monody outside was like the tremor and boom of the drums funebre. "That chap some of you talk about--Lloyd George!"--said the Chief, suddenly rubbing his tobacco again with energy. (Good God, I thought, and here we are at sea too. Now what has the misguided man done.) "If I had him here I'd hold him down in that wash on deck till it cleared. Then he'd know. He put it there, to break sailors' legs. This steamer, she had dry decks till her load line was altered. She carries more now than she was built for, two hundred tons more. If I had him here--but there you are! Popularity! There's a fine popular noise for you, isn't it? Sailors growled for better food. 'What about this improved fool scale?' says Mr. Lloyd George to the shipowners. 'Oh,' said they, 'we'll give 'em better food, the drunken insubordinate dogs, if you'll make overloading legal.' 'Why,' says Lord George, 'then it wouldn't be illegal, would it?' So it was done. What does the public know about a ship's buoyancy? Nothing. But it understands food. So the clever man heightens the Plimsoll mark, adds a million or so to shipowners' capital by dipping his pen in the ink, and gives Jack more jam. What you want ashore," the Chief added bitterly, "is not more voters, as some say, but more lunatic asylums."
Though I had left politics at home, to be settled by others, like the trouble with the drains, the dog licence, and the dispute about the garden fence, I glanced with interest at the Chief. I know him well. Not only is he a kindly man, but he himself is also a philosophic rebel. But his eye was hard, and he still ground the tobacco with forgetful energy, as though an objectionable thing were between his strong hands. Then impatiently he threw the tobacco loose on his log book, which was open on his deck, paused, and said, "Ah, maybe the man thought a little freeboard the less didn't matter. God give him grace," and picked his flute out of a bookshelf which was fastened above his bunk; sat down over the steam heater, and broke out like a blackbird. Yet was it a well-remembered air he fluted so well. I listened so long as respect for the artist demanded, then rose, filled my pipe from the fragrant grains on the log book, and left him. Presently I would listen to such airs; but this was too soon.
I repeat I had confidence in the "Capella" to gain. I went forward to get it, mounting the bridge, where my cabin mate, the youthful second officer, was in charge, in his oilskins. A cheerful sight he looked. "I think," said he briskly, "we're going to catch it." He was puckering his face over our course. Lundy was looming large--even Rat Island was plain--but it looked so frail in that flood of seas, wind, and wild yellow light streaming together from the evening west, that I looked for the unsubstantial island to spring suddenly from its foundations, and to come down on us a stretched wisp of thinned and ragged smoke. The sea was adrift from its old confines. The flood was pouring past, and the wind was the drainage of interstellar space. Lundy was the last delicate fragment of land. It still fronted the upheaval and rush of the ungoverned elements, but one looked for it to be swept away.
Yet that wild and scenic west, of such pallor and clarity that one shrank from facing its inhospitable spaciousness, with each shape of a wave there, black against the light as it reared ahead, a distinct individual foe in the host moving to the attack, was but the prelude. Night and the worst were to come. Just then, while the last of the light was shining on the officer's oilskins, I was only surprised that our bulk was such a trifle after all. Our loaded vessel looked so bluff and massive when in dock. She began to attempt, off Lundy, the spring and jauntiness of a trawler. The bows sank to the rails in an acre of white, and the spume flew past the bridge like rain. The black bows lifted and swayed, buoyant on submarine upheavals, to cut out segments of the sunset; then sank again into dark hollows where the foam was luminous. The cold and wind were bitter dolours.
We rolled. I grasped the rail of the weather cloth, in the drive of wind and spume, and rode down on our charger like a valiant man; like a valiant man who is uncertain of his seat. Something like a valiant man. We advanced to the attack, masts and funnel describing great arcs, and steadily our bows shouldered away the foe. I think sailors deserve large monies. Being the less valiant--for the longer I watched, the more grew I wet and cold--it came to my mind that where we were, but a few weeks before, another large freighter had her hatches opened by the seas, and presently was but a trace of oil and cinders on the waters. You will remember I am on my first long voyage. The officer was quite cheerful and asked me if I knew Forest Gate. There were, he said, some fine girls at Forest Gate.
We rounded Hartland. It was dusk, the weather was now directly on our starboard beam, and the waves were coming solidly inboard. The main deck was white with plunging water. We rolled still more.
"I can't make out why you left London when you didn't have to," said the grinning sailor. "I'd like to be on the Stratford tram, going down to Forest Gate."
This was nearly as bad as the Chief's flute. I held up two fingers over those hatches of ours, called silently on blessed Saint Anthony, who loves sailors, and went down the ladder; for night had come, and the prospect from the "Capella" was not the less apprehensive to the mind of a landsman because the enemy could not be seen, except as flying ghosts. The noises could be heard all right.
I shut my heavy teak door amidships, shut out the daunting uproar of floods, and the sensation that the night was collapsing round our heaving ship. There was a home light far away, on some unseen Cornish headland, rising and falling like a soaring but tethered star. Nor did I want the lights of home.
"I love the sea," a beautiful woman once said to me. (We, then, stood looking out over it from a height, and the sea was but the sediment of the still air, the blue precipitation of the sky, for it was that restful time, early October. I also loved it then.)
I was thinking of this, when the concrete floor of the cabin nearly became a wall, and I fell absurdwise, striking nearly every item in the cabin. Was this the way to greet a over? Sitting on a sea-chest, and swaying to and fro because the ship compelled me to a figure of woe, I began to consider whether it was only the books about the sea which I had loved hitherto, and not the sea itself. Perhaps it is better not to live with it, if you would love it. The sea is at its best at London, near midnight, when you are within the arms of a capacious chair, before a glowing fire, selecting phases of the voyages you will never make. It is wiser not to try to realise your dreams. There are no real dreams. For as to the sea itself, love it you cannot. Why should you? I will never believe again the sea was ever loved by anyone whose life was married to it. It is the creation of Omnipotence, which is not of human kind and understandable, and so the springs of its behaviour are hidden. The sea does not assume its royal blue to please you. Its brute and dark desolation is not raised to overwhelm you; you disappear then because you happen to be there. It carries the lucky foolish to fortune, and drags the calculating wise to the strewn bones. Yet, thought I, that night off Cornwall, if I pray now as one of the privileged and lucky foolish, this very occasion may prove to be set apart for the sole use of the calculating wise. Because that is the way things happen at sea. What else may we expect from It, the nameless thing, new-born with each dawn, but as old as the night? Now for me had it degenerated into its mood of old night, behaving as it did in the lightless days, before poetry came to change it with flattery. It was again as inhuman as when the poet was merely a wonderfully potential blob on a warm mudbank.
Here, you see, is the whole trouble in appealing to Omnipotence. Picture me entering the wide western ocean at night, an inconspicuous but self-important morsel sitting on a sea-chest, at a time when it was perhaps ordained that hundreds of ships should have anxious passages. (Afterwards I learned very many ships did have anxious passages.) How could I expect to be spared, even though somewhere the hairs of my head were all numbered? It is plain that to spare me would be to extend beneficence to all. There only remained to me my liberty to hope that our particular steamer might miss all seventh waves, by luck. I was free to do that.
I turned up the dull and stinking oil lamp, and tried to read; but that fuliginous glim haunted the pages. That black-edged light too much resembled my own thoughts made manifest. There were some bunches of my cabin mate's clothes hanging from hooks, and I watched their erratic behaviour instead. The water in the carafe was also interesting, because quite mad, standing diagonally in the bottle, and then reversing. A lump of soap made a flying leap from the washstand, and then slithered about the floor like something hunted and panic-stricken. I listened to numerous little voices. There was no telling their origins. There was a chorus in the cabin, rustlings, whispers, plaints, creaks, wails, and grunts; but they were foundered in the din when the spittoon, which was an empty meat tin, got its lashings loose, and began a rioting fandango on the concrete. Over the clothes chest, which was also our table and a cabin fixture, was a portrait of the mate's sweetheart, and on its frame was one of my busy little friends the cockroaches; for the mate and I do not sleep alone in this cabin, not by hundreds. The cockroach stood in thought, waving his hands interrogatively, as one who talks to himself nervously. The ship at that moment received a seventh wave, lurched, and trembled. The cockroach fell. I rose, listening. I felt sure a new clamour would begin at once, showing we had reached another and critical stage of the fight. But no; the brave heart of her was beating as before. I could feel its steady pulse throbbing in our table. We were alive and strong, though labouring direfully.
It was when I was thinking whether bed would be, as I have so often found it, the best answer to doubt, that I heard a boatswain's pipe.
I fought one side of the door, and the wind fought the other. My hurry to open the door was great, but the obstinate wind jammed it firmly. Without warning the wind released its hold, the ship fell over to windward, the door flew open, and forth I went, clutching at the driving dark. Then up sailed my side of the ship, and the door shut with the sound of gunfire. I had never experienced such insensate violence. These were the unlawful noises and movements of chaos. Hanging to a rail, I was puzzling out which was the fore and which the rear of the ship, when a flying lump of salt water struck me in the face just as a figure (I thought it was the chief officer) hurried past me bawling "All hands."
The figure came back. "That you, purser? Number three hatch has gone," it said, and disappeared instantly.
So. Then this very thing had come to me, and at night! Our hatches were adrift. It was impossible. Why, we had only just left Swansea. It could not be true; it was absurdly unfair. This was my first long voyage, and it had only just begun. I stood like the cricketer who is out for a duck.
If I could tell you how I felt, I would. Somebody was shouting somewhere, but his words were cut off at once by the wind and blown away. I felt my way along a wet and dark iron alleyway which was giddily unstable, pressing hard against my feet, and then falling from under me. I got round by the engine-room entrance. Small gleams, shavings of light, were escaping from seams in the unseen structure, but they showed nothing, except a length of wet rail or a scrap of wet deck. The ship itself was a shade, manned by voices.
I could not see that anything was being done. Were they allowing her to fill up like an open barge? I became aware my surcharged feelings were escaping by my knees, which kept knocking in their tremors against a lower rail. I tried to stop this trembling by hardening my muscles, but my fearful legs had their own way. Yet it is plain there was nothing to fear. I told my legs so. Had we not but that day left Swansea? Besides, I had already commenced a letter which was to be posted at Para. The letter would have to be posted. They were waiting for it at home.
Somewhere below me a heavy mass of water plunged monstrously, and became a faintly luminous cloud over all the main deck aft, actually framing the rectangular form of the deck in the night. It was unreasonable. I was not really one of the crew either, though on the articles. I was there by chance. No advantage should be taken of that. A torrent poured down the athwartships alleyway, and nearly swept me from my feet.
One could not watch what was happening. That was another cruel injustice. The wind and sea could be heard, and the ship could be felt. But how could I be expected to know what to do in the dark in such circumstances? There ought to be a light. This should have happened in the daytime. My garrulous knees struck the lower rail violently in their excitement. I leaned over the rail, shading my eyes. I grew savagely indignant with something having no name and no shape. I cannot even now give a name to the thing that angered me, but can just discern, in the twilight which shrouds the undiscovered, a vast calm face the rock of which no human emotion can move, with eyes that stare but see nothing, and a mouth that never speaks, and ears from which assailing cries and questions fall as mournful echoes, ironic repetitions. This flung stone falls from it, as unavailing as your prayers; but we shall never cease to pray and fling stones, alternately, up there into the twilight.
Nevertheless, when the chief, with his hurricane lamp, found me, he says I was smiling. The youth who was our second mate ran up and stood by us, the better to shout to the deck below. He shouted, bending over the rail, till he was screaming through hoarseness. He turned to us abruptly. "They don't understand a word I say," he cried in despair. "There isn't a sailor or an Englishman in the crowd, the ---- German farmers." This, I found afterwards, was nearly true. These men had been signed on at a Continental port. It was really our Dutch cook who saved us that night. It was the cook who first saw the hatch covers going.
The ship's head had been put to the seas to keep the decks as clear as possible, and being now more accustomed to the gloom I could make out the men below busy at the hatch. Most conspicuous among them was the cook, who had taken charge there, and he, with three languages, bludgeoned into surprising activity the inexperienced youngsters who were learning for the first time what happens to a ship when the carpenter's chief job on leaving port has its defects discovered by exceptional weather. They were wading through swirling waters as they worked, and once a greater wave sprang bodily over them, and when the hatch showed through the foam again some of the men had gone as though dissolved. But it was found they had kept the right side of the bulwarks, and the elderly carpenter, whose leg had got wedged in a winch, was the only one damaged.
If you ask me when I shall be pleased to allow the necessary sun to rise upon this narrative to give it a little warmth, then I must tell you it cannot be done till we have fastened down the "Capella's" number two hatch, at least. That hatch has gone now, and if hatches one and four give way while number two is getting attention from the weary, soaked, and frozen crowd which has just had an hour's desperate work at number three, then I fear the sun will never rise on this narrative. (How Bates got over to his wonderful blue butterflies in those forest paths under a tropical sun in thirty-eight words I do not know. He must have been thinking of nothing but his butterflies. I cannot do it, with the seas and the ship keeping my mind so busy.)
Luckily, the other hatches kept staunch. We were watertight again. When the Old Man, the Chief, the Doctor, and the Purser, gathered late that night in the Chief's cabin to see what it was he had secreted in his cupboard, and boasted of, we sat where we could, being comfortably crowded, and I never knew tobacco could taste like that. I felt as if never before had I found such large leisure for extracting its full flavour. From being suddenly confined within a space which gave me a short outlook of a few hours, I was presently released into the open again and of what might remain to me of the usual gift of ample years. I had all that time to smoke in. Never did a pipe taste so sweet. It is idle for good and serious souls to think me graceless here with this talk of tobacco immediately after such a release. Let me tell them my sacrificial smoke rose up straight and accepted. Looking through the smoke I saw clearly how worthy, kind, and lovable were the faces of my comrades. I warmed to this voyage for the first time; as though, after a test, I had been initiated. This was the place for me, with men like these about me, and such great affairs to be met. I revelled in the thought of our valorous bluff, insignificant as we were in that malign desolation, sundered from our kind.
"Chief," said the Old Man, "it was my department that time. None of your old engines did it."
"You've got a good cook," said the Chief, "I saw that." Then the Chief, remembering something, turned in his seat to the picture hanging above his desk of a smiling and handsome matron. "Here's luck, old girl," he said, holding up his glass; "you can still send me some letters."
The Chief, in case of an emergency, slept in his clothes that night on the settee, and I climbed into his bunk. What a comfortable outline the man had, as he lay on his broad back, mildly snoring. There was a tangle of tense hair over a square copper coloured forehead. A long experience of such nights was written in many lines on that brow, and was shown in that indifferent snoring while chaos was without. The nose sprang out of the big face like an ejaculation, and beneath it was a moustache clipped short to show the red of the upper lip. The jaw was powerful, but its curves made it friendly. His body and limbs hid the settee and had a margin over. I quite believed what I had been told of his successful way with refractory stokers. There was confidence to be got from a mere look at that slumbering Jovian form. The storm assailed its hairy and fleshy ears in vain. I braced my knees against the bulkhead to keep myself still, the rolling was so violent, and went to sleep . . . waking to find us on a level keel; and was deceived into thinking the parallel lines of grey and gold in the upper air, seen as a picture framed by the port, were the heights about a harbour into which we had run for shelter; but it was only cloudland over the western ocean. The stillness, too, was but a short reprieve. The wind was merely making a detour, to spring at us from another quarter.
The sun died at birth. The wind we had lost we found again as a gale from the south-east. The waters quickly increased again, and by noon the saloon was light and giddy with the racing of the propeller. I moved about like an infant learning to walk. We were 201 miles from the Mumbles, course S.W.1/2W.; it was cold, and I was still looking for the pleasures of travel. The Doctor came to introduce himself, like a good man, and tried me with such things as fevers, Shaw, Brazilian entomology, the evolution of sex, the medical profession under socialism, the sea and the poets. But my thoughts were in retreat, with the black dog in full cry. It was too cold and damp to talk even of sex. When my oil lamp began to throw its rays of brown smell, the Doctor, tired of the effort to exalt the sour dough which was my mind, left me. It was night. 0, the sea and the poets!
By next morning the gale, now from the southwest, like the seas, was constantly reinforced with squalls of hurricane violence. The Chief put a man at the throttle. In the early afternoon the waves had assumed serious proportions. They soared by us in broad sombre ranges, with hissing white ridges, an inhospitable and subduing sight. They were a quite different tribe of waves from the volatile and malicious natives of the Bristol Channel. Those channel waves had no serried ranks in the attack; they were but a horde of undisciplined savages, appearing to assault without design or plan, but getting at us as they could, depending on their numbers. The waves in the channel were smaller folk, but more athletic, and very noisy; they appeared to detach themselves from the sea, and to leap at us, shouting.
These western ocean waves had a different character. They were the sea. We did not have a multitude of waves in sight, but the sea floor itself might have been undulating. The ocean was profoundly convulsed. Our outlook was confined to a few heights and hollows, and the moving heights were swift, but unhurried and stately. Your alarm, as you saw a greater hill appear ahead, tower, and bear down, had no time to get more than just out of the stage of surprise and wonder when the "Capella's" bows were pointing skyward on a long upslope of water, the broken summit of which was too quick for the "Capella"--the bows disappeared in a white explosion, a volley of spray, as hard as shot, raked the bridge, the foredeck filled with raging water, and the wave swept along our run, dark, severe, and immense; with so little noise too; with but a faint hissing of foam, as in a deliberate silence. The "Capella" then began to run down a valley.
The engines were reduced to half speed; it would have been dangerous to drive her at such seas. Our wet and slippery decks were bleak, wind-swept, and deserted. The mirror of water on the iron surfaces, constantly renewed, reflected and flashed the wild lights in the sky as she rolled and pitched, and somehow those reflections from her polish made the steamer seem more desolate and forlorn. Not a man showed anywhere on the vessel's length, except merely to hurry from one vantage to another--darting out of the ship's interior, and scurrying to another hole and vanishing abruptly, like a rabbit.
The gale was dumb till it met and was torn in our harsh opposition, shouting and moaning then in anger and torment as we steadily pressed our iron into its ponderable body. You could imagine the flawless flood of air pouring silently express till it met our pillars and pinnacles, and then flying past rift, the thousand punctures instantly spreading into long shrieking lacerations. The wounds and mouths were so many, loud, and poignant, that you wondered you could not see them. Our structure was full of voices, but the weighty body which drove against our shrouds and funnel guys, and kept them strongly vibrating, was curiously invisible. The hard jets of air spurted hissing through the winches. The sound in the shrouds and stays began like that of something tearing, and rose to a high keening. The deeper notes were amidships, in the alleyways and round the engine-room casing; but there the ship itself contributed a note, a metallic murmur so profound that it was felt as a tremor rather than heard. It was almost below human hearing. It was the hollow ship resonant, the steel walls, decks, and bulkheads quivering under the drumming of the seas, and the regular throws of the crank-shaft far below.
It was on this day the "Capella" ceased to be a marine engine to me. She was not the "Capella" of the Swansea docks, the sea waggon squatting low in the water, with bows like a box, and a width of beam which made her seem a wharf fixture. To-day in the Atlantic her bluff bows rose to meet the approaching bulk of each wave with such steady honesty, getting up heavily to meet its quick wiles, it is true, but often with such success that we found ourselves perched at a height above the gloom of the hollow seas, getting more light and seeing more world; though sometimes the hill-top was missed; she was not quick enough, and broke the inflowing ridge with her face. She behaved so like a brave patient thing that now her portrait, which I treasure, is to me that of one who has befriended me, a staunch and homely body who never tired in faithful well-doing. She became our little sanctuary, especially near dayfall, with those sombre mounts close round us bringing twilight before its time.
Your glance caught a wave passing amidships as a heaped mass of polished obsidian, having minor hollows and ridges on its slopes, conchoidal fractures in its glass: It rose directly and acutely from your feet to a summit that was awesome because the eye travelled to it over a long and broken up-slope; this hill had intervened suddenly to obscure thirty degrees of light; and the imagination shrank from contemplating water which overshadowed your foothold with such high dark bulk toppling in collapse. The steamer leaning that side, your face was quite close to the beginning of the bare mobile down, where it swirled past in a vitreous flux, tortured lines of green foam buried far but plain in its translucent deeps. It passed; and the light released from the sky streamed over the "Capella" again as your side of her lifted in the roll, the sea falling down her iron wall as far as the bilge. The steamer spouted violently from her choked valve, as it cleared the sea, like a swimmer who battles, and then gets his mouth free from a smother.
Her task against those head seas and the squalls was so hard and continuous that the murmur of her heart, which I fancied grew louder almost to a moaning when her body sank to the rails, the panic of her cries when the screw raced, when she lost her hold, her noble and rhythmic labourings, the sense of her concentrated and unremitting power given by the smoke driving in violence from her swaying funnel, the cordage quivering in tense curves, the seas that burst in her face as clouds, falling roaring inboard then to founder half her length, she presently to raise her heavy body slowly out of an acre of foam, the cascades streaming from her in veils,--all this was like great music. I learned why a ship has a name. It is for the same reason that you and I have names. She has happenings according to her own weird. She shows perversities and virtues her parents never dreamed into the plans they laid for her. Her heredity cannot be explained by the general chemics of iron and steel and the principles of the steam engine; but something counts in her of the moods of her creators, both of the happy men and the sullen men whose bright or dark energies poured into her rivets and plates as they hammered, and now suffuse her body. Something of the "Capella" was revealed to me, "our" ship. She was one for pride and trust. She was slow, but that slowness was of her dignity and size; she had valour in her. She was not a light yacht. She was strong and hard, taking heavy punishment, and then lifting her broad face over the seas to look for the next enemy. But was she slow? She seemed but slow. The eye judged by those assailing hills, so vast and whelmingly quick. The hills were so dark, swift, and great, moving barely inferior to the clouds which travelled with them, the collapsing roof which fell over the seas, flying with the same impulse as the waters. There was the uplifted ocean, and pressing down to it, sundered from it only by the gale--the gale forced, them apart--the foundered heavens, a low ceiling which would have been night itself but that it was thinned in patches by some solvent day. And our "Capella," heavy as was her body, and great and swift as were the hills, never failed to carry us up the long slopes, and over the white summits which moved down on us like the marked approach of catastrophe. If one of the greater hills but hit us, I thought--
One did. Late that afternoon the second mate, who was on watch, saw such a wave bearing down on us. It was so dominantly above us that instinctively he put his hand in his pocket for his whistle. It was his first voyage in an ocean steamer; he was not long out of his apprenticeship in "sails," and so he did not telegraph to stop the engines. The Skipper looked up through the chart-room window, saw the high gloom of this wave over us, and jumped out for the bridge ladder to get at the telegraph himself. He was too late.
We went under. The wave stopped us with the shock of a grounding, came solid over our forelength, and broke on our structure amidships. The concussion itself scattered things about my cabin. When the "Capella" showed herself again the ventilators had gone, the windlass was damaged, and the iron ends of the drum on the forecastle head, on which a steel hawser was wound, had been doubled on themselves, like tinfoil.
By day these movements of water on a grand scale, the harsh and deep noises of gale and breaking seas, and the labouring of the steamer, no more than awed me. At least, my sight could escape. But courage went with the light. At dusk, the eye, which had the liberty during the hours of light to range up the inclines of the sea to distant summits, and note that these dangers always passed, was imprisoned by a dreadful apparition. When there was more night than day in the dusk you saw no waves. You saw, and close at hand, only vertical shadows, and they swayed noiselessly without progressing on the fading sky high over you. I could but think the ocean level had risen greatly, and was see-sawing much superior to us all round. The "Capella" remained then in a precarious nadir of the waters. Looking aft from the Chief's cabin I could see of our ship only the top of our mainmast, because that projected out of the shadow of the hollow into the last of the day overhead; and often the sheer apparitions oscillating around us swung above the truck of it, and the whole length vanished. The sense of onward movement ceased because nothing could be seen passing, us. At dusk the steamer appeared to be rocking helplessly in a narrow sunken place which never had an outlet for us; the shadows of the seas erect over us did not move away, but their ridges pitched at changing angles.
You know the Sussex chalk hills at evening, just at that time when, from the foot of them, they lose all detail but what is on the skyline, become an abrupt plane before you of unequal height. That was the view from the "Capella," except that the skyline moved. And when we passed a barque that evening it looked as looks a solitary bush far on the summit of the downs. The barque did not pass us; we saw it fade, and the height it surmounted fade, as shadows do when all light has gone. But where we saw it last a green star was adrift and was ranging up and down in the night.
This was the dark time when, struggling from amidships to the poop, you knew there was something organised and coherent under you, still a standing place in chaos, only because you could feel it there. And this was the time to seek your fellows in the saloon, where there was light, warmth, sane and familiar things, and dinner. The "Capella's" saloon was fairly large, and the Skipper's pride. It was panelled in maple and oak, with a long settee at the foreward end upholstered in red velvet, the velvet protected by a calico cover. A brass oil lamp with an opaline shade hung over the table from a beam beneath the skylight. There was a closed American stove, with a rigorously polished brass flue running up through the deck. On two oak sideboards in corners of the saloon some artificial plants blossomed; from single stems each plant blossomed into flowers of aniline dyes and of different species. One of these plants, an imitation palm, and a better imitation of life than the others, was carefully watered throughout the voyage by the steward till it wilted into corruption and an offence, and became a count against the steward which the skipper never forgave, for he thought his floral ornaments lovely. When a pretty Brazilian lady visitor at Itacoatiara admired the magenta rays of one blossom, he culled it for her (five earnest minutes with a sharp knife, for there was wire behind the green bark) more as a sacrifice and a hard duty than a joy, and often spoke of it afterwards, shaking his head regretfully.
Ah! that saloon. I remember it first, shiny, cold, and repellent, with a handful of fire to its wide capacity for draughts, in the northern seas. It had curious marine odours then, with which I was not friendly till long after, odours that lamps, burnished brass, newly polished wood, food, and the steward's storeroom behind it, never fully accounted for; and I remember it as I found it in the still heat of the Amazon, when it had the air of an oven; when, writing in it, the sweat ran off the fingers to soil the paper, strange insects crawling everywhere on its green baize table cover, and banging against its lamp. I remember it assiduously now, every trivial feature of it, and the men, now scattered over all the world, thrown together in it then for a spell to make the most of each other. It has the indelible impress of a room of that house where first the interest in existence awakened in us.
The Skipper, with stove behind him, took his seat before the soup tureen at the head of the table. You would as soon think of altering the chart-room clock, even were it wrong, as of touching the soup tureen without the Skipper's orders. It is his duty and his right to serve the soup, and to call the steward to inform him the density of the vegetables in it is too heavy. We have no market garden on board, you know.
The Doctor was on the Skipper's right hand, and the Purser next to the Doctor, and on the opposite side, the chief mate. There was the plump and bald-headed German steward, in white apron, the lid of one eye heavier than the other, serving us in his shirt sleeves, sometimes sucking his teeth with a noticeable click when he knew a dish deserved our approval. You kept the soup in the plate by holding it off the table and watching its tides. When her stern sailed up, and the screw raced, the glass shade of the lamp, being a misfit, took our eyes to watch the coming smash; the soup then poured over you, and trying to push your chair back from the mess, you found the chair was a fixture on the floor. This last fact was never remembered. I should try to push my "Capella" chair back now, if I were sitting in it.
The Doctor, who had been long enough tinkering careless bodies to have grown a little worn and grizzled, was often removed from us by a faint but impervious hauteur, though maybe he was only a little better and differently dressed. He was a patient listener, but his eyes could be droll. The Doctor's chuckle, escaping from his thoughts while he was unguarded, would sometimes make the captain look up from a narrative with question and a trace of resentment in his glance. The captain was a great traveller, but he was puzzled to find the memory of our surgeon following him to the most remote and unfamiliar strands. "Now how did that fellow come to be at a place like that?" the captain would whisper to me afterwards. "Can't make him out. Who is he?" The surgeon had a bottomless fund of short stories, to which he would sometimes go about the time when we were pushing away the banana skins and nutshells. He had an elisive and stimulating method with them. He knew his work. At the end of one the captain would explain the fun to the seriously interested mate (who had leaned forward to learn), placing spoons and crumbs to demonstrate the main points. Then the mate, too, would join us with his happy laugh. The late and giddy laughter of the mate, when he also arrived, became a welcome feature of a yarn by the surgeon. We expected it. The mate's own stories were usually bawdy; he always prefaced them with some unmanageable hilarity, which impeded his start.
MATE (pushing over his plate for soup). That big wave washed out the men's berths, sir.
CAPTAIN. Then it did some good. The dirty brutes.
MATE. Heard the men grumbling to-night. Said we'll never get the hawsers to run out with them bugs in the hawse pipes. Say the bugs don't belong to them, sir--ship's property.
DOCTOR. Any this end of the ship, captain? Good Lord!
CAPTAIN. Not a bug. And if there'-s any for'ard the men brought 'em. No bugs in my ship. Never saw one in my cabin.
MATE (making a confused effort to master his emotion, not to spill his soup, and to be respectful). Te-he! you will, sir, Te-he! (Realises he may not laugh, but suffers internally.)
CAPTAIN (indicates an interrogation with frightful eyes and guttural noises).
MATE (controls himself by concentrating on a fork). Well, sir--I'm just telling you--I heard it said the men annoyed with bugs--some of 'em said seem's believin'--said they had enough for everybody. (His voice breaks into a stifled falsetto) So they emptied a match--match--they emptied a match box full down your ventilator this morning.
The captain would frequently keep his seat in the saloon after dinner till he had finished his cigar, and in the vein, would put a leg over the arm of his chair, which he had pushed back (his chair was cushioned, and was not a fixture), and frowning at his cigar, as if for defects, would voyage again his early seas. I suppose a sailor would call our skipper a hard case. He was an elderly man, tall, spare, and meagrely bearded. His eyes were set close into a knife-like nose, and they were opaque and bright, like two blue stones under a forehead which narrowed and tightened into a small shiny cranium. There were tufts of grey wool above his temples. No light came through his eyes to make them limpid, except when he was fondling Tinker, the dog. They shone from the surface, giving him a look of peering and intent suspicion. The skin of his face, neck and hands, now worked a little loose, was so steeped in the tincture of sunshine that it had preserved an unctious child-like quality. His dress and habits betrayed an appreciation of his own person. He kept his own medicines.
I guessed he would have a ruthless process in an emergency; he would identify the success and safety of the ship with his own. He laughed from his mouth only, throwing his head back, showing surprisingly perfect teeth, and laughter did not change the crystalline glitter of his eyes. There was something alien and startling in his merriment. As though his own mind were too cold for him at times he would seek out me, or the chief, to find warmth in an argument. He would irritate us into a disputation; and though he was a choleric man, quick at opposition, yet his vocabulary then was flinty and sparse. It stuck, and was delivered with pain. You could think of him labouring at his views of men and affairs with a creaking slate pencil. He set one's teeth. But he was a sailor, cautious and bold, with a knowledge of ships and the sea that was a mine to me. Let me say that, during the voyage, I found him busy making a canvas cot. He sat on the poop and worked there, bent and patient as a seamstress, for days. With a judgment made too readily I believed he was, naturally, making it for his own comfort, against the heat of the river. When it was finished he was rolling up his ball of yarn, surveying his job, and he said, mumbling and shy, that the cot was for me.
The Skipper, on this day that our decks were swept, swore about the men and the bugs during dinner, muttered with foreboding about the glass, which was still falling, and the coals, which were being burnt to no purpose. We were hardly doing more than holding our place on our course. The saloon was delirious, and when she flung up her heels, the varied noises rose with the racing propeller to a crescendo of furious castenets. The mate let us. The Skipper sat glooming, eyeing his cigar resentfully, his leg over the arm of his chair. The Doctor was swaying with the ship, weary and forlorn. Tinker had an appeal in his eyes, and made timorous noises. The Purser wondered why he was there at all, and blamed his silly dreams. The night boomed without. What a night!
SKIPPER. If this southerly wind goes round to the west and north, look out. I saw porpoises today too.
DOCTOR. When are we due at Para?
SKIPPER. Huh! What's this talk of Para? You wait. All this talk about when we shall get there's no good. . . . Now in those Newfoundland schooners where I served my time--I wouldn't have no talk in them about getting anywhere. Seems as if somebody heard. You always run into it. There was the "Lizzie Polwith." She was about 80 tons. Those west country schooners in the fish trade are never more than 100 tons, else they'd have to carry more than a master and one mate. I was her master, and a kid of eighteen. We left Falmouth for Cadiz. Now look what happened. My mate was old Tregenna. He was a regular misery. I never knew such a dead homer, not so much as he was, always wanting to talk about his wife. I say, when you've cast off, it's best not to have a home. The ship wants all you can give her. Tregenna, he looked back a lot. You know what I mean. Couldn't keep his mind on his job, but wished he was through with it. There he'd be cutting bread at dinner, and it '-ud remind him, and he'd be wishing he was cutting it at home. When things began to go stiff, he'd say, "who wouldn't sell his little farm to go to sea?" Used to figure out on paper how long we'd be before we'd be back. Why, you never know when you'll get back.
See what happened. We left Cadiz that year on the first of January, and got things just right. The winds chased us over. There were big following seas, but you know those schooners ride like ducks. Up and over they go. Never a drop did we ship. Though they're lively enough to bruise and sicken all but good sailors. And old Tregenna was rubbing his hands and making out his figures better and better.
We arrived off St. Johns in a bit more than three weeks. I reckon I'd done it all right, being such a young chap too. Well, I was turning in that night, and just as I got into the companion a man said, "There goes a lump of ice." I jumped out again. Why, there was ice all round us. The sea was full of it as far as I could see into the night. "This is all along of your figuring," I sang out to Tregenna. "But you'll have a lot of time to reckon it up afresh," I said.
So he had. Do you know when we got in? We got in on April 15. We were two months and a half getting in. And we came over in three weeks. There's something in that Jonah story. Always some fool who can't keep his mouth shut and his mind on his job.
We did have a time. Two and a half months, and our provisions ran out. We were living on a little meal and dried peas. The ice chafed the "Lizzie" till the rudder was worn down to the stock. It roughed up her wooden sides till they looked as if they were covered with long coarse hair. We were a sight when we got in. You wouldn't have known us, hardly. We looked as if we'd come up from the bottom. . . . Don't ask me when we shall get to Para. Wait till we're out of this. Listen to that dog. Shut up, you Tinker. Making that noise, sir! Go and lie down.
The Skipper clapped on his cap aggressively and went out. The Doctor had a long and eloquent silence. Then he turned to me. "This beats all," he said. "Come and have a drop of gin, old dear." He led the way to his berth, which smelt of varnish and of lamp, and we swayed in chorus as the ship rolled, and had a heartening mourn together. But for its accidental compensations travel would not be worth the trouble. In proof of that there is the entry in my diary some days after:
"December 22. Awoke at four a.m. with the ship rolling as brutally as ever. A great noise of waters and things banging. The seas huge at sunrise, when the light came over their tops. Depressing sight. The sky was blue at first, but was soon overcast with squalls. The horizon ahead gets slate coloured, and low clouds underneath, like ragged bales of dirty wool, come towards us heavy and fast. Then the squall and waves rush down on us express, and the ship buries herself. Constantly hearing engine-room bell sounded from bridge to slacken speed as a big sea appears. The captain popped in his head as I was deciding whether to get up or stay where I was. He gazed sternly at me and said he was looking for Jonah. I half believe he means it too. Everybody is weary of this. The men have been in oilskins since the start.
"Noon to-day, Lat. 42.6 N. Long. 11.10 W. Miles by engines since noon yesterday 222. Knots by revolutions 9.2. But the slip is 49.2 per cent. So actual distance 112 miles only, and knots 4.6. Bad going. Wind southly. Engines racing and engineer still at throttle.
"Night, and a full moon tearing past cloud openings. The ship occasionally shows like a pale ghost, the black shadows of the funnel guys and stanchions oscillating on the white paint-work as she rolls. I went into Chief's cabin, and from its open door--for it was sensibly milder--looked out astern over the way we had come. Up and down, this side and that, went the steamer, and the Great Bear, in a wind clear patch of sky, was dancing on our wake. Polaris was making eccentric orbits round the main masthead light. Then the Skipper came in. He sat gazing astern. The look of his face was enough. It was quite plain he would like to be offended tonight, and attack anybody about anything. Presently he started intently as he looked astern, and jumped from his seat crying the ultimate anathema on the chap at the wheel; and ran out. The Chief glanced astern and laughed. 'The old man comes in here because it's uncommon handy for watching the wake. Look at it. Somebody on the bridge writing letters on the ocean. Thinking of his sweetheart, and her name is Sue.' We gave the Skipper's voice time to reach the wheelhouse, and then saw the wake visibly tauten out.
"I went aft, balancing like a man learning the tight rope, along the trestle bridge. The moon was still falling precipitously through the broken sky, and areas of the great seas, where the sweeping searchlight of the moon showed monsters shaping and slowly vanishing, were frightful. There were sudden expansions of vivid green lightnings in the north and east. I found the Doctor in the chief mate's cabin. I sang some songs in a riving minor, accompanied by the mate on an accordion, for the doctor's amusement, and discovered why sailors always use the accordion, previously a mystery to me. It has a sad and reflective note, suited to men with memories when alone on the ocean. It ought to fit Celtic bards better than the harp. It has a fine expiring moan. The mate gave an imitation of a dying man with it.
"To bed at 11. Tried to read Henry James. My cockroach came out to wave his derisive hands at me. No wonder. The light was very bad, and I was pitched from side to side of the bunk. Nearly thrown out once. I might just as well have attempted to read the Bhagavad-Gita in the original. So I read the last letters from home instead and then fell asleep as a little child."
. . . . .
There was something of leisure in her movements next morning. I felt sure the glass must be rising at last. The air felt lighter and more expansive. A peep through the port showed me the ceiling had gone up considerably in the night. There was little wind, for the waves, though as great as ever, had lost their white ridges. Their summits were rounded and smooth. We were running south out of it, though the residue of the dreary northern seas was still washing about the decks. It was December yesterday, but April to-day. The engineers' messroom boy, with bare fat arms, went by the cabin, singing.
At breakfast we heard that Chips, who had retired to his bunk for some days past to mend a leg damaged when the hatches were in danger, had met with a still more serious misfortune. We fell into a mood of silent and respectful compassion. There was nothing to be said. Chips had lost his Victoria Cross. He was an old hero in trouble. The few of us who were British there--true, most of us were Germans, Dutchmen, Scandinavians, and Portuguese--felt we represented The Country. Chips limped about the forecastle with reproach in his face, and we felt we were petty in noticing his face was also dirty, though it certainly was difficult to avoid seeing that too, perhaps because, and this can be said for us, the dirt was of longer standing than the reproach. Then again it is common knowledge that Chips sleeps in straw, having no mattress.
Chips' story we knew. It had been whispered about the ship. He was at the Siege of Alexandria, and a shell fell near a group of men on his ship. Chips picked it up and dropped it overboard before the fuse was finished. The Doctor and I felt especially responsible, for a reason I cannot easily explain, it is so vague, and we told Chips we would help him in his search for his lost treasure. This took us to Chips' sea-chest, and amid a group of mask-like faces--for how could foreigners guess what this mattered to us?--we hunted carefully for Chips his aureole. We found--but I suppose even Victoria Cross heroes must dirty their socks. There were other things also. Yet it was out of one of these very other things, which were, I think, shirts, that there dropped, when the Doctor picked up the garment, a little package wrapped in newspaper. Chips, from his berth, gave a cry of joy. The Doctor and I, smiling too, looked upon the old man feeling that we had acted for you all. Chips, secretive with his sacrosanct emblem, was putting the little packet under his coverlet, when a low foreign sailor snatched it from him. The Cross fell to the deck. I recovered it from the feet instantly in a white passion, and chanced to look at it. It confirmed that one, who is named Chips here, was something in the Royal and Ancient Order of Buffaloes.
Coming back from the fo'castle, suddenly I felt as the man of the suburbs does when, bowed with months of black winter and work in a city alley, he is, without any warning, transfigured on his own doorstep one morning. There as before is his familiar shrub, dripping with rain. Yet is it as before? It points a black finger at him. But the finger has a polished green nail.
He is translated. His ears are opened, and there comes for the first time that year the silver whistle of the starlings. A touch of South is in the air. His burden falls.
The cloudy sky was not grey now, but pearly, for it was translucent to the sun. More than day had come; life was born. There was ichor in the day. They were not dark northern waves that baffled us, but we were shoved and rocked by the send of a long nacreous ocean swell, firm but kind, from the south-west. The iron ship which had been repulsive to the touch, for its face had been glassy and cold, was now drying a warm rust red, like earth of Devon in spring, and was responsive. You could rest against its iron body and feel yourself grow. I saw the Chief outside his cabin in his shirt sleeves, gazing overseas between the stanchions of the boat deck, smoking in the evident luxury of full comfort and release. Involuntarily, he danced the two-step as she rolled. "Got anything to read?" he asked.
Now that reminded me. We have no library, of course, but we have a circulation of books on board. There are no common shelves; but the book you left thoughtlessly on the skylight five minutes ago, while you went to find some matches, is gone when you return. And you, if you see a book lying open and unprotected in a cabin, glance round warily, dash in, and take it; very often only to discover to your bitter disappointment that it is one of your own, and not an adventurous and unread stranger. The Chief's question reminded me that the day we left Swansea a lady (and a friend of poor Jack, the public is well aware) sent us a bale of literature. We blessed her when we saw its bulk, looking at it as oxen might look at a truss of hay, for that was its size and shape. Though it proved to be shavings and a cruel blow to the animals, as you shall hear.
Here was the very day to get at that bale, and impatiently I rolled it into the open. It was trussed with great care, so I tore away a corner of the wrappings, dived in a hand, and hauled out a copy of "Joy Bells for Young Christians," the November number of 1899.
Well. Anyhow, it was a clean copy, and I put it by as the portion of our baldheaded German steward.
This disappointment made me pause, though. Here was going to be a long job for the Purser, sorting out this. Supposing there was anything nutritious in the bale I did not mind the labour of the unpacking and the distribution; but if the bulk of the consignment was hailed, so to speak, by "Joy Bells," then it would be better to call a deck hand and get the package overside before the ship was littered with too much of this joy. A Brazilian stoker, as he passed, saw me standing in thought, and I suppose imagined--for he could not ask--that I wanted to cut the string, but had no knife. Before I could stop him, he, smiling a knowing and friendly smile, whipped out a blade from his rear; and at once we stood ankle-deep in literature. There was a landslide near me of Infant Methodists (dates unknown) and I gave the Brazilian an armful for his kindness.
Our dear unknown friend at Swansea, with her eye on our sailor-like but yet immortal souls, had heard, no doubt, at the annual meeting of the Society for the Succor of Seamen, at Caxton Hall, Westminster (held on the 29th of every February), what simple and barbarous and yet, in the main, considering our origins and circumstances, what worthy fellows we were. But she was not told at the meeting that the wealthy shipowners, subscribers to the society, and whose presence there made Caxton Hall seem nautical, have a way of signing on crews at continental ports because wages rule lower there; and that consequently not one of our men was moved by Christian English, but only by mates English, and then not so very quickly. The officers and engineers were English, and there the sailors' friend was right in her surmise; but I do not see how she could have done more to put in awful jeopardy the soul of our wise and spectacled chief engineer, for instance, than by approaching him with a winning and philanthropic smile, under the impulse to do him good with a statement of her religion in words of one syllable. He would have met her politely, I know; but after she had gone--
Let her try to imagine her own feelings if our Chief, uninvited and blankly unmindful, invaded the exclusive inner circle of Swansea society, and approached her in the midst of her own with the childish notion of instructing her in the first principles of his pronounced Pyrrhonism; or say he went to her as a colporteur of the Society for Instructing the Intelligence and Manners of Leisured Folk. But I must say for our chief that this cannot be even supposed. He would never offer the lowliest being such an indignity.
We pulled and dragged at the escaped mass of periodicals, looking for something good, but found no pearls had been cast before us. There were parish magazines and temperance monthlies, there were religious almanacs for the years we have lost; by some sporting chance there were even a few back numbers of the "Monumental Mason." It is plain the latter could be considered an added grievance, even though they were put in as a kindly reminder of our narrow lease here. It was an aggravation of the original offence to sailors who, when their short term here closes, have to make shift with some firebars at their heels. What is Aberdeen granite and indelible gold lettering to such men but a hint of the hardships which follow them even beyond the end?
So overboard went the lot--I may as well tell the whole truth, overboard also went the evangelical hymn books, new though they were. I will only suppress the advice cried to the gulls astern as the literature went floating and flying in their direction. We had to rely for our reading on what had been brought aboard by our crowd, a collection which gradually revealed itself in single books and magazines.
There was, for example, the "Morphology of the Cryptogamia," an exhaustive work which gave me much pleasure in wondering how it got aboard at all. The chief mate used it as a wedge between his open door and the bulkhead, to prevent the miserable knocking as the ship lolled about. He would not lend me that book, because it jammed into the opening nicely; but I borrowed from him "Three Fingered Jack, the Terror of the Antilles," and I made him a complete gift in return of "Robert Elsmere" which I found marooned on a bunker hatch as I came along. There you see the delightful chance and hazardous character of our literature.
I prided myself on the select reading I had brought aboard with me. But what devilish black art the sea air worked on those choice volumes, however, I cannot explain. I have no means of knowing. But there they are, their covers bitten by cockroaches, and the words inside bleached and sterilised of all meaning. There they will stop; Henry James, too. For what is the use of him when big seas are running? He would be a magician indeed who could capture our minds then. You get the right amplitude of leisure and the flat undistracting circumstances he demands, the emptiness and the immobility necessary, when you are waiting for cargo long in coming at a low seaboard. I suppose we want the representation of life only when we are not very much alive. In heavy weather there is no doubt old newspapers make the best reading, especially if they have good bold advertisements. For I know it requires the same courage and concentration needed ashore for reading Another Great Speech by the Premier; indeed, the steel blue quality of deadly resolution used only by men of letters who write biographies and spin literary causeries, to manage even novels when great billows are moving. The mind is inclined to absent itself then. Then it is you put all reading aside with a promise of a long and leisurely festival of books when the ship is steaming uniformly down the unvarying "trades."
But when you get near the neighbourhood of the constant sun, during the day you fall asleep over "Three Fingered Jack" and the old magazines which you had on your knees while musing on the colours of the sea and the mounting architecture of the clouds; and beyond sundown listen to the mate's accordion or the engineer's flute. Perhaps, moved by the hu-s-s-h of the waves, the silky and purple dark, and the loneliness of your little company under the mid-ocean stars, tentatively (though your shipmates are very forgiving) lift a ballad yourself; for something is expected of you, and singing seems right.
Of all the books aboard the "Capella" I got most out of the Skipper's sailing directories and his charts. Talk of romance! There was that chart-room under the bridge, across its open doors on either side creaming waves going by in the moonlight, and the steamer inclining each side alternately, and the shadows of the rigging sliding back and forth on the pale deck. You cannot know what romance is till you are in seas you have never sailed before, where the marks will be few when landfall comes; that ocean where the Skipper is to find his own way by his lore of the sea, and may even ask your opinion about alternatives; and there read sailing directories. The romance of these books cannot be translated or quoted. It would leave them, as though a glimmer went out, if you attempted to take them from that chart-room where pendant things are swaying leisurely, where you can hear the bells tell the watches, and the skipper's gold-laced cap is on the mahogany table. The South Atlantic Sailing Directions, our own guide, is fine, especially when it gets down to the uninhabited islands in far southern latitudes. I do not think this noble volume is included in the best hundred books, but I know it can release the mind from the body.
But what's this talk of landfalls? as the old man would say. There will be no landfall yet for us; and this is Christmas Eve. I knew it was an auspicious occasion of some kind, for the steward just went aft with two big plum cakes cuddled in his apron. That made me look at the calendar. We are now 800 miles out, and the steamer has reached six knots. This was the best night we had yet found. The steamer was on an even keel, with but occasional spasms of sharp rolling, for there was no sea, but only old ocean breathing deeply and regularly in its sleep, and sometimes making a slight movement. The light of the full moon was the shining ghost of noon. The steamer was distinct but immaterial, saliently accentuated, as a phantom. A deep shadow would have detached the forecastle head but for a length of luminous bulwark which still held it, and some quiet voices of men who were within the shadow, yarning. The line of bulwark and the murmuring voices held us together. The prow as it dipped sank into drifts of lambent snow. The snow fled by the steamer s sides, melting and musical. Two engineers off duty leaned on the rails amidships, smoking, looking into the vacancy in which the moonlight laid a floor of troubled silver. As if drawn by its light a few little clouds were poised near the moon, grouped round the bright heart of the night. There was the moon and its small company of clouds, and ourselves below in our own defined allotment of sea. The only thing outside and far was Sirius, burning independently in the east, looking unwinking through the wall of night into our world.
On such a night and with Christmas morning but sixty minutes away it would have been wasting life to go to bed. I glanced expectantly at the door of the Chief's cabin, and saw indeed it was open, a yellow rectangle within which was the profile of the Chief beneath his lamp, talking to somebody. The Doctor was there, and he made room for me on the settee. Then the captain joined us, and I perched myself on the wash-stand. "Well, we can undress to-night when we turn in," said the Chief. (None of us had, so far.) In a long silence which filled the cabin with tobacco smoke I could hear the engines below uplifted in confident song.
"Now they're walking round," said the Skipper, nodding his head. "Now she feels it."
. . . . .
When we met thus, between the hours of nine and midnight, as was our irregular habit, the talk first was always desultory, and about our own ship and our own circumstances, for the concerns of our little world strangely occupied our minds, as you would think, and the large affairs of that great world we had left, of which we heard now no sound nor rumour, had lessened in the mind, faded and vanished, all the huge consequence and loud clangour of it, so that now there was an empty horizon astern, and nothing between us and that void but a few gulls, like small and pursuing recollections. Our little microcosm, afloat and sundered in the wastes, was occupied in its own polity. We talked of the carpenter's bad leg; complained of the cook's bread; heard that Tinker the dog, being young, had the habit at night, while honest folk slept, of eating the saloon mats; grumbled that the ship's tobacco was mouldy. The deck was getting dry, the Skipper said, and now we could get the men chipping it, and then it could be tarred.
"That donkeyman," said the Skipper, "that man wastes the fresh water. I'll have a lock put on the pump handle. He works it as if we were laid out to the main. I spoke to him about it this morning." The fresh water is a vital affair with us. We may not drink the water of the country to which we are bound, so eighty tons of Welsh mountain spring is in our cleansed and whitewashed tanks. Woe to the man caught overflowing his can, if an officer sees him. "The handle can't be locked," said the Chief, "because its next to the galley. The cook wants it all day long."
"Well, let me catch anyone wasting it. We'd look all right with a lot of dysentery, drinking that river water out there."
This common meeting-place of ours, the Chief's cabin, is on a highway of the ship, being on the direct route from the poop to the bridge, and so it is a hostel, for the Chief is a kindly and popular man, big and robust in body and mind; though he has a knack, at odd and unexpected times, of being candid in a way that shocks, treading on corns without ruth, the Skipper's particularly, when their two departments are at a difference.
This cabin was one which I always visited first, for, especially in the morning when other folk had not rubbed the night out of their eyes, and so looked darkly upon their fellows, my friend the Chief had the early eye of a child and the soaring spirit of the lark. I never met him when he had got out of bed on the wrong side. His cabin became a refuge to me, for, unlike the Doctor's and my own place (we both were birds of passage, therefore our cabins were cold and stark), the Chief's was comfortable with settled furniture, cosy and habitable, like a fixed home. There was a wicker chair, with cushions, and a writing-desk where the engineer's log lay handy and bearing some plug tobacco, freshly cut, on its cover, and a pipe rack above the desk carrying a most foul assortment waiting their turns again for favour. Portraits of the Chief's family were on the walls, smiling boys and girls, with their mother in a chief place, looking upon daddy by proxy. There was a book-shelf bearing some engineering manuals, a few novels and magazines, a tape measure, some gauge glasses, some tin whistles, a flute, and a palm leaf fan. Above the wash-stand was a rack with glasses and a carafe. A settee ran along one side, and his bunk upon the other side. There we sat on Christmas Eve, while the wicker chair bent and complained with the Skipper's weight as he swayed to the leisurely rocking of the ship. The tobacco smoke floated in coils and blue smears in the room. A bottle of Hollands rested for security on the bed, and we held our glasses on our knees.
The pallid and puffy face of the steward, a very honest man secretly free with his small store of apples on my account because I am green and my palate not yet used to the flatness of tinned provisions, looked in on us from the right. "Vhere is der dog, sir? I haf not seen der dog." "Must be about," we cried. "We had seen him," we said, "nosing about the poop for rats, or asleep on the saloon mat, or padding round the casing looking for friends." "But no, I haf looked. He is not found. Vhere is der dog?" A hole in our little community, it was apparent from our intent looks, could not be thought of with equanimity. Tinker's importance became quite large. The second engineer passed the door, caught the drift of our anxious converse, and turned to say the dog was then asleep in his room. "Ach! zat is all right." We struck matches for our pipes again.
"That dog, I shouldn't like to lose him," said the Skipper, stroking his beard. "There's no luck in that. I shot a dog once on a ship; and first we ran into a blow and lost a lot of gear, and then the mate got his hand smashed, and then everything got cross-grained till I'd have paid, ah, fifty pounds to have had the brute back again, and an ugly customer he was. Ah, you can smile, Doctor, but there it is. I'm not superstitious and never was. But you can't tell me. Look at the things that happen. When I was a youngster, my ship was off Rio, and I dreamt my father was dead. I took my bearings and the time. I dreamt my father died in a red brick house with a laylock tree by the door and that tree was in blossom plain enough to smell. I didn't know the house. There was a path of clean red bricks leading up to the porch, through a garden. I didn't see my father. But you know what dreams are like--no sense in them--there the house was and not a soul in sight. I knew he was dying inside it." "How do you account for that? Have you got it down in your books? I lay you haven't. I forgot all about that dream. Long after I was at Cape Town and met my brother. That reminded me. After a bit I said to him, 'Father's dead.' 'Yes,' he said, 'but how did you know?' Said I, 'Was the house like this?' and I told him. 'Yes,' he said, 'it was like that. A place he was staying at in Essex. But how did you know?' I didn't tell him. What's the good? He wouldn't have believed it. People don't." All through the anxious time when we were being soused and buffeted I noticed how our company, every man of them, even the Pyrrhonist, saw omens in all the chance variety of the vast menace under the frown of which we huddled in our iron box; porpoises alongside; one of Mother Cary's dark brood accompanying us, glancing about the vagaries of the flowing hills with swift precision; the form of a cloud; a loom far out, as though day were there at least. The fall of a portrait in the Chief's room once set him wondering and melancholy. Again, when the dog whined and moped, the Skipper eyed the animal narrowly, as though the creature had prescience but could tell us what it knew only by drooping and quivering its hind quarters. You might have thought that Fate, dumb and cruel, but a little relenting for something inevitably to come to our mishap, were trying to stretch a point, and so induced the Skipper to put his shirt on inside out one morning, after dreaming he saw drowned rats, in case the horse were not too blind to see both the nod and the wink. The Sphinx makes subtle dumb motions, as it were, when closely regarded. I do not wonder if it does. Sometimes in those dark days I thought I got a hint or two. I cannot tell you what they were. The weather grew brighter afterwards and I forgot them. From our narrow and weltering security, where the wind searched through us like the judgment eye, I know, looking out upon the wilderness in turmoil where was no help, and no witness of our undoing, where the gleams were fleeting as though the very day were riven and tumbling, that I saw the filmy shapes of those things which darken the minds of primitives. While the sky is changeful, and there are storms at sea when our fellows are absent, and mischance and death are veiled but here, we shall have gods and ghosts. The sharp-sighted collectors of old brain-lumber and such curios may still keep busy, and tie up their dry bundles of mythology and religions; but I myself could make plenty more. So it was my shipmates' yarns were most of the dire kind, with some dim warning precedent. I do not recall a story that was gay, except those of the wanton sort. They were of close calls and of women, as, I suppose, have been those of all hard livers, from the cave men on. Eight bells were rung on the bridge, and, like a faint echo in a higher pitch, answered from the fo'castle. Christmas morning! By my pocket compass we toasted the folk at home. We had heard a good many stories of wreck this night, and the Chief was now at his contribution to the unseasonable memories. ("I've had enough of it. Here goes," said the Doctor; and he went.) "Don't leave us. It lets in the draught. Well, the compliments to you. This typhoon--I had had four others--but this one made me think it was good-bye. She was a small steamer, that 'Samuel Plimsoll,' and old, but well-behaved. But her light nearly went out in that blow. It was that dark you could find nothing but the noise, and we were just the same as a chunk of wood under a waterfall, because the Lord knows how many feet of water were in the engine-room, for she was rolling so. Her fires were out. She had a list of 22 degrees to port. She simply lay in it, and it went over her. Every time she rolled over on the deep side, thinks I, this is the last of her. All this, mind you, went on for two days, and the skipper was in the chart-room, waiting. I've found that when the danger is not much you get excited, but when there seems no chance you get cool and cunning and try to make one. One time I thought she seemed easier, and I was able to get the donkey engine going. I felt better as soon as I heard the steam, even though it was only in the donkey. Thinks I, there's power, and it's mine--a canful of steam to a typhoon. It was a chance to laugh at. Then I took the other engineers with me and we went below. The water there, full of cinders and trash, pouring through the gear as she turned from side to side, made it look a pretty poor show. You see, the donkey wouldn't work the pumps, for the coal and muck were sucked in. So I took a basket and got into the tank, holding the basket under the pump. The water was up to my neck, and every time she rolled I was ducked. But the dodge worked, and that list of hers to port was a bit of luck in its way, for it helped us to get the starboard boiler going. When I saw the throws moving, and the wash angry when it splashed on the hot metal, I said, 'So much for your old typhoon.' We were not counted out then. We crawled under the lee of an island, and lay for four days repairing her. The funny thing was when we got to Hong Kong the papers were full of our loss. '"Samuel Plimsoll" lost with all hands.' It was funny to see a bill like that. I met the placard as it came running round a corner, and it made me stand and shuffle my feet on the ground to see if the earth was all right. I knew the editor of that paper, and I was then going up to give him something good. And here he was making money out of us like that. He stood at the door of his office and saw me coming. I went up laughing, waving his paper in my hand. He looked quite surprised. His mouth was wide open. 'You're a nice sort of chap,' I said."
. . . . .
Christmas Day. In case it has become necessary for me to show again the symbols of verity, as this is a book of travel, here they are: "Lat. 87.2 N., long. 14.14 W. Light wind and moderate swell from S.W. Vessel rolling heavily at intervals. 961 miles out. Miles by engines 226. Actual distance travelled (because of the swell on our starboard bow) 197 miles." I cannot see that these particulars do more than help me out with the book, but as they have been considered essential in narratives of voyaging, here they are, and much good may they do anybody. Thoreau, in one of his quaintly superior moods when speaking of travel, said,--"It is not worth while going round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar." In nearly every book of travel this is proved to be true. They show it was not worth the while, seeing it was either to shoot cats or to count degrees of latitude. (As for me, I have no reason whatever for being at sea.) Consider Arctic travel. I have read long rows of books on that, but recall few emotional moments. The finest passage in any book of Arctic travel is in Warburton Pikes' "Barren Grounds," where he quotes what the Indian said to the missionary who had been speaking of heaven. The Indian asked, "And is it like the land of the Musk-ox in summer, when the mist is on the lakes, and the loon cries very often?"
You feel at once that the country the Indian saw around him would be easily missed by us, even when in the midst of it. For taking the bearings of such a land, the sextant, and the miles already travelled, would not be factors to help much. Now the Indian knew nothing of artificial horizons and the aids to discovering where they are which strangers use. But in summer the mists of his lakes were but the vapour of his musings, the penumbra of the unfathomed deeps of his mind whereon he paddled his own canoe; and when the wild-fowl called, it was his memory heard; it was his thought become vocal then while he dreamed on. I myself learned that the treasures found in travel, the chance rewards of travel which make it worth while, cannot be accounted beforehand, and seldom are matters a listener would care to hear about afterwards; for they have no substance. They are no matter. They are untranslatable from their time and place; and like the man who unwittingly lies down to sleep on the tumulus where the little people dance on midsummer night, and dreams that in the place where man has never been his pockets were filled with fairy gold, waking to find pebbles there instead, so the traveller cannot prove the dreams he had, showing us only pebbles when he tries. Such fair things cannot be taken from the magic moment. They are but filmy, high in the ceiling of your thoughts then, rosy and sunlit by the chance of the light, transitory, melting as you watch. You come down to your lead again. These occasions are not on your itinerary. They are like the Indian's lakes in summer. They have no names. They cannot be found on the best maps. Not you nor any other will ever discover them again. Nor do they fill the hunger which sent you travelling; they are not provender for notebooks. They do not come to accord with your mood, but they come unaware to compel, and it is your own adverse and darkling atoms that are changed, at once dancing in accord with the rare incidence of that unreasonable and transcendent moment of your world, the rhythm of which you feel, as you would the beat of drums.
And what are these things?--but how can we tell? A strip of coral beach, as once I saw it, which was as all other coral beaches; but the ship passed close in, and by favour of the hour and the sun this strand did not glare, but was resplendent, and the colours of the sea, green, gold, and purple, were not its common virtues, but the emotional and passing attar of those hues. There was the long, slow labouring of our burdened tramp in the Atlantic storm. Or one April, and a wild cherry-tree in blossom by an, English hedge, a white cloud tinctured with rose, and in it moving a dozen tropical chaffinches; the petals were on the grass.
And now, this is Christmas morning. I am in the Chief's bunk, and he still sleeps on the settee. We fell asleep where we lay yarning on our backs after midnight. I wake at the right moment, opening my eyes with the serene and secure conviction that things are very well. The slow rocking of the ship is perfect rest. There is no sound but the faint tap-tap of something loose on the desk and responding to the ship's movements. The cabin is strangely illuminated to its deepest corner by an extraordinary light, as though the intense glow of a rare dawn had penetrated even our ironwork. On the white top of the cabin a bright moon quivers about, the shine from live waters sent up through the round of our port. When we lean over, the port shows first the roof of the alleyway dappled with bright reflections; then a circle of sky, which the horizon soon halves; and then the dazzling white and blue of the near waves; we reverse.
This is life. This is what I have come for. I do not repose merely in a bunk. I am prone and easy in the deepest assurance of good. This conviction has penetrated even the unconsciousness of the Chief; he snores in profound luxury. If in a ship you are brought sometimes too cruelly close to the scrutiny of the terms of your narrow tenure, expecting momentarily to see the document torn across by invisible fingers, yet nowhere else do you feel those terms to be so suddenly expanded in the sun. And nowhere else is got such release, secure and absolute, from the nudging of insistent trifles. There is nothing between your eyes and the confines of your own place. Empty day is all round. In the entire circle there is not the farthest impertinent interruption--through all the degrees there is not one fool standing in the light; and you yourself are on nobody's horizon. No history stains that place. There is not a black doubt anywhere. It is the first day again, and no need yet for a rubbish heap.
Yet when, singing to myself, I went outside to matins, I found Sandy our third engineer with the toothache. So much of truth is got from being a gymnosophist and regarding your own toes with aloof abstraction on a sunny Christmas morning. I became Sandy's courage for him instead, took his arm firmly, and led him aft to the doctor. We would start a rubbish heap for a pristine world with a decayed tooth. Something to be going on with.
Seeing we were almost off Madeira we had some amount of right to the July sun under which we had run. For the first time since the Mumbles our decks were quite dry, and cherry red with rust. There were glittering crusts of salt in odd places. At eight bells (midday) the captain ordered a general holiday, except for the routine duties; and the donkey-man appeared to startle us as the apparition of a stranger on the ship, for he had a clean face, though his eyes still were dark and spectral, and he wore a suit of new dungarees, stiff and creased from a paper parcel, but just opened, out of a Swansea slop shop. His mates were some seconds realising him. Then they made derisive signs, and the boldest some ribald cries. I thought their resentment was really aroused by Donkey's new shirt; it was that touch which pushed matters too far, and made him unfriendly. He saw this himself. Soon he changed the new shirt for one that had been rendered neutral in the stoke-hold and the bucket.
There was something neutral, like Donkey's old shirt, about most of our crowd. Each one of the mob which gathered with mess kits a little before midday about the galley door seemed reduced, was faded in a noticeable measure from the sharp and strong pattern of a man. Their conversation about the galley was always in subdued mutterings, not direct, but out of the mouth corners, sideways. Their only independence was in the negligence of their attitudes. They might have been keeping in mind an austere and invisible presence, whose swift words from nowhere might at any time cleave their soft babble. If I made to pass through them the babble ceased, and from limp poses they sprang upright in the narrow way to let me pass, their eyes cast down. A man who had not seen me coming, but still sprawled on the rail, talking quietly, would be nudged by his neighbour. It struck me this attitude would change when they knew us better; but it never did. These deckhands and firemen were mostly youngsters, steadied by a few older hands. Chips and Donkey were the veterans. In that crowd the boatswain was the admirable figure. He was a young Britisher, tall, upright, and weighty, with a smiling, respectful eye in which sometimes, I thought, there was a faint hint of mockery. He had an easy balance and confidence in his movements which made him worth watching when about his business. Clean shaven when he came aboard, he now had a tawny beard which caught gold lights, and it was singularly good on his weather-darkened face. He seldom wore a cap, for it could have added little protection to the taut vigour of his hair, and would have spoilt, as perhaps he himself guessed, that proper flourish and climax to the poise of his head.
Donkey was an Irishman, and he was the huge frame of what, maybe thirty years before, had been a powerful man. This morning his big cadaverous face, white only on the bony ridges surrounding the depressions of the temples, the cheeks, and the dark pits of the eyes, and with the shadowy hollow of the mouth which gaped through the weight of the massive jaw, would have resembled, from a little distance, that of a skeleton head of one of the monsters in a geological gallery, but for the dewlap sustained by sinews running from his chin down his throat. Donkey was a silent man, and never caught your glance as you passed him, but lumbered along with so much of the surprising celerity of a gaunt elephant that you thought you might hear the rasp of his loose clothes. He was a simple and docile fellow. I never heard him speak, but he used to come to the Chief, fill the door with his massive front, his small eyes which expressed nothing and were but sparks of life, looking nowhere in particular, and make guttural sounds; and the Chief, being used to him, understood. At sea Donkey did his small duties like a plain but cumbersome mechanism that had somewhere in it an obscure point of rationality. When ashore, though, he was said to go mad, and to roll trampling and trumpeting through the squalid littoral of the world; being brought aboard afterwards an enormity of lax bones and flesh, with the cogitating glim in his bulk quite doused.
Of the others, there was a Teutonic bunch of lads, deck-hands, which I never succeeded in segregating, they looked so much alike. They had pimpled, idle faces, and neutral eyes, cast down when they sidled by one, thin down on their chins, and grimy raiment which, by the look of it, was an integument never cast after we left port. One name would have covered that lot, and frequently I heard the mates use it. But Olsen, the Norwegian with a blond moustache which covered his mouth like a fog-protector, and stern blue eyes, was a sailor. The firemen made a better bunch. There was among them a swarthy Brazilian, whose constant smile seemed ever on the point of breaking into song, but that he was always chewing the end of a sweat rag he wore twisted round his neck. The happy feature of our firemen was a Dutchman, whose hollow face was full of silent woe and endurance. He was our chief joy. When once we found the sun, he then appeared in a single garment, trousers and braces cut in one piece of brown canvas, hauled up well under his arms, leaving his slab feet remote and forlorn. His torso was bare, a dancing girl in red and blue tattooed on his chest. He wore a bowler hat without a brim.
We will get Christmas over. It was a pagan festival. Looking back at it, I see--with the astonishment of the sedate who is native to a geometrical suburb where the morning train follows the night and every numbered house shelters a moral agnostic--I see a dancing baccanal with free gestures who fades, as I look back intently, doubting my senses, in a roseous haze. The lawless movements of that wild, bright and laughing figure, its exultant blasphemy, its confident mockery, are remembered by me as though once I had been admitted to the green room of heaven. Surely I have seen a god whose deathless knowledge derides the solemn gods, behind the curtain. It was Christmas night, and our little "Capella," our point of night shine, a star moving through the void to its dark destiny, filled the vault with its song, while its fellows in the heavens stood round. Christmas is over.
. . . . .
The day following was Sunday, a grey day of penance, the men soberly washing their shirts in buckets under the forecastle head, smoking moody pipes. The garments were tied to any convenient gear where they could hang free. The sky was leaden. This grey day was distinguished by the strange phenomenon of an horizon which was almost level; the skyline and the clouds did not slant first this way, then that. The swell had almost gone. Already I began to feel the large patience and tranquillity of a mind losing its shadows, and contemplating the light and space of a long voyage in which the same men do the same things in the same place daily under the centre of the empty sky. Sitting on a hatch with the Doctor, smoking, we confessed, with ease at the heart, and with minds in which nervous vibrations had ceased, that we must have reached the place that was nowhere, and that now time was not for us. We had escaped you all. We were free. There was not anything to engage us. There was nothing to do, and nobody who wanted us. Never before had I felt so still and conscious of myself. I realised, with a little start of surprise, that it was Me who felt the warm air, and who looked at the slow pulse of the waters, and the fulgent breaks in the roof, and heard the droning of the wake, and not that mere skin, eyes and ears which, as in London, break in upon our preoccupied minds with agitating sensations; and I took in this newly-discovered world of ocean and cloudland and my own sure identity centred therein with the complacency of an immortal who will see all the things which do not matter pass away. When we left England we were tense, and sometimes white (though there were others who went red) about a Great Crisis in our Country's History. The Doctor and I arrived on board, detached from the opposing armies in the impending conflict, and at first put our hands swiftly to our swords every ten minutes or so during meals. Of that crisis only one small gull now was left, and he was following us astern with a melancholy cry at intervals, of which we took no more notice. (And that gull departed, I see by my diary, the very next day.)
So ended the Great Crisis. I did not even note the ship's position at the time, though I can see now that was a serious fault for which future historians may blame me. I can but state vaguely that it was about sixty miles north-west of the Fortunate Isles. The change in the quality of the sun and air became most marked; I remember that. The horizon expanded to a surprising distance. According to letters from home, sent about that date, which I received long afterwards, I am unable to find that similar phenomena were witnessed in England. Probably they were but local. These manifestations in the heavens filled the few of us privileged to witness them with awe, and a new faith in the power and compassion of God. Nothing further of note occurred on this day, except that Chips, as a further miracle, suddenly was raised whole from where he lay in his bunk with a useless leg. His leg, you may remember, was damaged in the gale off Cornwall. The Doctor, going his rounds, was surprised to find Chips dancing the hoola-hoola in the forecastle, and a stoker, with a cut eye, wailing for a lost half bottle of gin taken from his box while he was on duty. Thereafter Chips returned to work, his leg becoming halt again only when he knew we saw him stepping it too blithely.
. . . . .
"Decr. 27. Distance run for past 24 hours to midday 219. Total distance 1177 miles. Fine weather. Glass rising."
Have you ever heard of the monotony of a long voyage? The same sky you know, the same waters, the same deck; and now I can see it should be added, the same old self, dismayed by the contemplation of its features daily, week after week, within that spacious empty hall, where is no escape from the bright stare overhead which reveals your baldness and blemishes without ruth. You get found out. You want to mix with the mob again, to get lost in the sameness of your fellows. He who goes travelling should leave his self at home, or as much of it as is not wanted on the voyage. It is surprising to find how little you want of yourself. The ideal traveller would venture out merely as a disembodied thought, or, at most, as an eye.
A mere eye would see no monotony, for the sky may be the same sky, but its moods are like those of the same woman; and the ocean, though young as the morning, is older than Asia--you never know what to expect from that profound enigma. As for the sunny deck, I see the Doctor sitting on a spare spar, waiting for someone to sit beside him. The Chief is filing a piece of small gear outside his cabin. The Skipper is overlooking, with a hard frown, a group of men busy repairing his chart-room, which is just foreward of the engine-room casing (I could get a job from him at once for the asking, though I shall not ask). The first mate is trying to be in three places at once. The second mate patrols the bridge. The German steward, who tells curious stories in a Teutonised dialect of Shadwell, is hanging mattresses and bed clothes over a boom. The men are chipping and tarring the deck; and the boatswain, bare-legged, wildly bearded, a sheath knife on his hams, looks like a fine pirate brought to menial tasks.
I have watched this day's monotonous sky onwards from the dawn. We are in the neighbourhood of the Hesperides. For some early hours of the morning it was grey. But the grey roof soon broke with the incumbent weight of light, letting sunshine through narrow fractures to the sea, far out. There were partitions of thin gold in the dim hall. The moving floor was patterned in day and night. The low ceiling was fused where the day poured through, became a candent vapour, volatilised. We had over us before breakfast the ultimate blue, where a few cirrus clouds showed its great height.
Then it was August. The sea ran in broad heavy mounds, blue-black and vitreous, which hardly moved our bulk. In the afternoon, the ocean, a short distance from the ship, grew filmed and opaque, a milky blue shot with purple shadows. Its surface, though heaving, was smooth and flawless. No light entered its deeps, but the radiant heat was mirrored on it as on the pallor of fluid lava. The water ploughed up by the bows did not break, but rolled over viscidly. The sun dropped behind the sea about a point west of our course. Night was near. Yet still the high dome with its circular floor the sea was magically illuminated, as by the proximity of a wonderful presence. We, solitary and privileged in the theatre, waited expectant. The doors of glory were somewhere ajar. The western wall was clear, shining and empty, enclosed by a proscenium of amber flames. In the north-east, astern of us, were some high fair-weather clouds, like a faint host of little cherubs, and from their superior galleries they watched a light invisible to us; it made their faces bright. Beneath them the glazed sea was coral pink. Even our own prosaic iron gear was sublimated; our ship became lustrous and strange. We were the Argonauts, and our world was bright with the veritable self-radiance of a world of romance where the things that would happen were undreamed of, and we watched for them from our argosy's side, calm and expectant; my fellows were transfigured, looked huge, were rosy and awful, immortals in that light no mortal is given to see.
Now had been given me fellowship with the ship and her men; we were one body. I had been absorbed by our enterprise. For a long while our steamer was a harsh and foreign thing to me, unfriendly to the eye, difficult to understand. But now she had become intelligible and proper. She and her men were all my world, and I could find my way about that world in the dark. Getting used to a ship has the process of the growth of a lasting friendship. Chance begins it. You regard your luck askance, as you accept a new acquaintance with no joy, to make the best of him. But presently, to put the matter at its lowest, you arrive at an understanding. You have learned your friend's worth. Familiarity would breed contempt only in the mouse-hearted. You never have to account him afresh, or he is no comrade; there can be no surprises again, no encounters with a stranger in him. His value, at the least reckoning, is that you know his value. Any hour of the day or night you can guess with assurance where his mind would be found. And here my "Capella" has no strange doors and startling declivities and traps for me any more. I know her. She is not exactly all she should be, but I apprehend exactly what she is. If I hurt myself against her it is my own fault. She is as familiar to me as home now. I should resent any alteration. Having learned to know her faults I like her as she is; the trestle bridge with its sagging hand-ropes and wobbling stanchions (look out, you, when she rolls) which crosses the main deck aft on the port side from the amidships section, where I live, to the poop, where the Doctor lives. The two little streets of three doors each, to port and starboard of her amidships, the doors that open out under the shade of the boat deck to sea. There, amidships also, are the Chief's room and the galley, the engineers' messroom, and the engine-room entrance; but these last do not open overside, but look aft, from a connecting alley which runs across the ship to join the side alleyways. Forward of these cabins is the engine-room casing, where the 'midship deck broadens, but is cumbered with bunker hatches (mind your feet, at night, there); and beyond, again, is the chart-room, and over the chart-room the bridge and the wheel-house, from which is a sheer long drop to the main deck foreward. At the finish of that deck is an iron wall, with the entrance to the mysterious forecastle in its centre; and over that is the uplifted head of our world watching our course, a bleak windswept place of rails, cable chains, and windlass. The poop has a timber deck, and there in fine weather the deck chairs are. The poop is a place needing exact navigation at night. Long boxes enclosing the rudder chains are on either side of it. In the centre is the saloon skylight, the companion, the steward's ice chest, and the hand-steering gear. Also there are two boats. I gained my night knowledge of the poop deck by assault, and retained my gains with sticking plaster. I am really proud of the privilege which has been given me to roam now this rolling shadow at night, this little dark cloud blowing between the stars and the deep, the unseen abyss below as with its profound reverberations, and the height above with its scattered lights as remote as the sounds in the deeps. With calm faith in our swaying shadow I place my feet where nothing shows, sure that my angel will bear me up. I put out my hands and a support comes to them; the pitfalls have ladders for me, and by touching at some places in the black shadow, as by magic, a lighted and comfortable room at once materialises for my rest in the void.
I think I liked her better as a formless shadow after sundown. Whether it was then a noise in my head, my tranquil thoughts murmuring in their sleep, or whether the sound I heard was the deep humming of the world's speed, I don't know; whatever it was, it was the only sound. Our mainmasthead light was but a nearer star of the host. I was not surprised to see one of the stars so close. I was within the luminous porch of the Milky Way.
It was midnight. In that silence, where I was alone in space, adrift on a night cloud in the constellations, the stars were really my familiars; once, when in London, though they had been named to me and were constant there, they were far in the place to which one lifts one's eyes from the dust and traffic, nothing to do with London and with me. But now there was no more dust and traffic. I was among them at last. Splendid Orion was near and vast in his hunting. The Pleiades no longer dimmered on the very limit of vision, but were separate points of delicate light. The night moved with diamond fire.
I was so far absent from the body that a human voice beside me was like a surprising concussion with something invisible in space. Turning, there was the glow of Sandy's pipe. Sandy is an elderly man, and an engineer. He was leaning over the rail, cooling after his watch below. The magic of the star shine had got into his mind too. He began with guesses about the things which are not known, parrying doubt with, "Ah--but it's hard to say; there are things--"; and, "you bright young fellers don't know everything"; and, "somebody told me a queer thing now."
"There was a bright young feller, same as yourself, and he was first mate of the 'Abertawe,' out of Cardiff. Jack Driscoll was his name. It was a funny thing happened to him. I heard about it afterwards.
"All the girls thought Jack Driscoll was so nice. One of the girls was his owner's daughter, and she was the best of the bunch, anyway, for she was an only child, and her father would have given her the earth. He was a good owner, was her father, as things go in Cardiff. Do you know Cardiff? Well, a little goes a long way on the Welsh coast. Jack was a smart sailor, with the first chance of the next new boat, if he watched out. I reckon Jack was a fool. Why, he needn't have gone to sea any more. But what did he do?
"Jack was one of them fellers who think if they put a gold-laced cap saucy over one ear, and laugh with the eyes, they can whistle up a duchess. And I daresay Jack could in summer, in his white suit, when he'd just shaved. He was a bit of all right was Jack. He was a proper tall lad, and the way he carried himself-- It was a treat to see him move about a ship. His black hair was like one of the big fiddler chap's, and his smile would take in one of his pals.
"Well, it was happy days for Jack. He got good things to come to him. He didn't have to look for 'em, like me and you. He knew his work, too. He was a good sailor. He could get off the mark, at the first word, like a bird, and he never left a job while there was a loose bit to it. Sometimes when there was nothing doing it was pretty rotten, Jack would say, to be stuck there in a Welsh tramp with a crowd of dagoes, and drink coffee essence and condensed milk out of a pint mug, and never go to a music hall only once in six months. Jack reckoned it would be fine to be brass-bound always, in one of the liners, and have a deck like a skating rink, and a lot of lady passengers who wanted a chap like him to talk to them.
"He could tell stories, too, on the quiet, could Jack. They were pretty blue, though. Sailor stories. They were all about himself in the West Coast ports. Do you know the Chili coast? Well, it's mind your eye there, and no half larks. They're pretty handy with knives out there. But when Jack was out for fun you couldn't stop him. He was like all you young chaps. He wouldn't listen to sense.
"The 'Abertawe' went light ship to Barry, one trip, from Buenos Aires, and Jack saw her snug, and told all the men to be at the shipping office early and sober in the morning, because they got in on a Sunday, and Jack saw the old man safe on his way to Cardiff, and then shaved, and sang while he was shaving. He got himself up west-end style, new yellow boots and all, and tied his red tie Spanish fashion. And he went down the quay, looking for anything that was about, and he felt like the best man on the Welsh coast.
"But Barry is a dull place. Do you know Barry? Well, it's a one-eyed God-forsaken town, made out of odds and ends stuck down anywhere, all new houses, docks, coal tips, and railway sidings, and nowhere to go. It's best to stay aboard, in Barry. Jack began to feel like the only bird on a mud-bank. He got out of the town, and walked along a road till he came to an old woman sitting in the hedge, with her back up against a telegraph post. Her face was brown and wrinkled, and she had an orange-coloured handkerchief round her face, and tied under her chin. She was smoking a pipe, and looking at her blucher boots. As Jack came along, she said, 'Tell your fortune, pretty gentleman?' Jack laughed, and told her his face was his fortune.
"'What do you see when you look in the glass?' said she.
"Now that was dead easy to Jack, because he knew as well as the girls; and he told her. There was none of your silly modesty about Jack. Then the old woman laughed; but I reckon Jack thought she was only pleased with him, because he made it a point to make the mothers and the grandmothers smile, the same as the girls.
"'What do you see in this glass?' said she to Jack. She was fumbling in her dress, and hauls out a mirror like you see in the old-fashion shops, a mirror made of silver, and it had a frame of ebony. She polished it on her skirt, and gave it to him, and told him to pass a bit of silver with the other hand. Well, Jack saw sport, and he could always pay for that, and he did what she said. But he only saw himself in the mirror.
"'Hi,' said Jack, 'here, what's your little game now? None of your larks now,' he said, 'or I'll ask a policeman what he can see in this tin glass of yours.'
"'You and your policeman,' she said. 'Look now, my dandy boy, and see more than your money's worth.' And she rubbed the glass again. Then Jack took another look. It was a dull day, but that mirror was bright with sunshine. There was something funny about that mirror. He saw a fine place in it, all cool and white and gold, like you see out East. It was a palace, I reckon. There was a fountain in the middle, and some girls with not a lot on, like some of the Amsterdam postcard girls, were lying around, just anyhow. And there was Jack's own self among 'em, and they were laughing and talking to him. It was fine. Jack turned his head, just like you would do, to see if the real place was behind him. But, of course, there was the funnels and topmasts of Barry, and the sky looked like rain. I bet it gave him a shock.
"'Now you've seen what'll be your luck, honey, if you're not careful,' said the old woman. 'Mind your eye,-' she said, 'mind your eye, you with the saucy face. What's more,' she called after him, 'don't you speak to the girl with the odd eyes in Cardiff, though I know you will, and sorry you'll be.'
"'Go to the devil,' said Jack.
"He was just like all you young chaps. Thought she was an artful old shark who'd got his money dead easy. That's what you always think. If you don't understand anything, then there's nothing in it.
You call in at the next pub and chatter to the barmaid. What happened? Why, the very next day the Skipper came back, and told him the new boat was near ready, and the owner wanted to see him. Jack went, and forgot about everything, except that he was going to be the handsome boy all right with the owner's own daughter to look at him. A pretty girl she was too. I saw her once, holding up her skirts off the deck while she looked round. The Skipper introduced me. 'Good morning, Mr. Brown,' she said to me.
"Coming out of the Great Western Station at Cardiff Jack saw a place he'd never noticed before. It wasn't Cardiff style. 'It's a new place,' Jack thinks to himself, 'and a ripping good place it looks,' for he was thirsty, and there was plenty of time. 'It must have been run up since I was here last,' says Jack to himself, 'though that's queer, for I reckon it'd take years to rig up a dandy show of this sort.' But in he went.
"He was surprised, when he got in, and so would you have been. It was like the place I saw on the stage at London once. It was in Aladdin, at a place in the Mile End Road. You know what those things are like, when the curtain goes up. You can see a long way, but you can't see all the way. You expect something to happen there. It was full of pillars, all white and gold, in a pink light. There was a lot of ladies and gentlemen sitting on sofas full of cushions, talking, and they were too grand to even notice Jack as he stood there looking round for a chair. But it took a lot to get on Jack's nerves. There was one girl in a white silk dress, with red roses in her golden belt, and she had a white hat with red roses in that, and she looked like a summer day. Jack was glad to see that the only vacant chair was at a table where she sat alone. Of course, over there goes Jack. The place was as quiet as a church before the service begins. There was only a faint whispering. He got to where the girl sat, as if she was waiting for him. She looked up and smiled at Jack. Jack sat down beside her and said what a fine day it was. She had a face the colour of moonlight, and her eyes were odd. But there wasn't a girl who could make Jack wonder if his tie was straight, in those days, and he began to order things, and talk.
"Once he took a look round, leaning back in his chair, feeling pretty large, and he noticed the other people were looking at him artful-like, out of the corners of their eyes, as if he was talking too loud. But Jack thought he'd jolly well talk as he liked, and he'd got just the best girl in that room or anywhere else. He looked at his watch. It was near twelve o'clock. He had to be at his owner's by one. There was plenty of time.
"The drink had a funny taste, but it was the best liquor he'd ever had. He marked down that place. He didn't know there was a show like that in Cardiff. He caught hold of the girl's hand, which he noticed was white, and very cold, and pretended he wanted to look at her ring. There was a stone in the ring, just like a bit of soda. She asked him to try it on his own finger, because the stone changed colour then, but Jack couldn't get the ring off till he'd placed her finger to his lips, to moisten the ring. He was the boy, was Jack, to see things didn't drag along. When he got the ring on his finger the stone was full of red fire. So the time went; but he forgot all about time, and the owner, and the owner's daughter, and everything. The girl's hair was scented, too, and it was close to him.
"Presently he looked up, and saw what he'd never noticed before. He could see further into the building than ever. There seemed to be a garden beyond, full of sunshine, and all the men and women were walking that way, talking loud, and laughing. His own girl got up too, and said, 'Come along, Jack Driscoll,' and he never even wondered how she knew his name, nor why her face was like snow by moonlight, nor why she smiled like that.
"No. Not Jack. All he thought was what a ripping garden that was, with palms, and marble courts, like you see in the East. There was music far away, two notes and a drum, like you hear in a native dance, before the dancers come. It made Jack feel like a millionaire or a lord, able to do anything, but just then only wanting a good time. Then he noticed they were alone in the garden, which was full of trees in blossom. All the other people had gone. There was only that music. The place was very quiet. He could hear water tinkling in a fountain, and he reckoned he would stay there till closing time. The girl talked to him in whispers, and he put his arm around her. I don't know how long he stayed there, but he kept telling the girl she was the best girl he'd ever had, and he'd never had such a good time in his life.
"It was funny the way he got out. Jack reckoned in there that the world would never come to an end, like young fellers do, when they're enjoying themselves proper. But once he took her ring off his finger, to have another look at it. Then he was in the street again, looking up at a building which had its doors shut, and Jack only thought he was looking there for a number he wanted.
"It had started to rain. He looked at his watch. It was just twelve o'clock. He didn't know what he wanted with an address in that street, so he started off in a hurry for his owner's house, feeling pretty stiff, as if he'd been sleeping rough. When he got to his owner's house, he rang the bell.
"The owner's daughter came to the door, and looked at him like she didn't know him, and was a bit afraid of him. 'No, thank you,' she said kindly, 'not to-day.' And shut the door at once.
"What puzzled Jack was that he didn't feel surprised and angry. He turned and went down those steps again, and down the street, thinking it over. He looked back at the house. Yes, that was the house all right. And that was Annie all right. Well, what the devil was the matter with him? There was a public-house at the corner, and he stopped there, thinking things over, and staring at the window. Then he saw his face in a mirror, and shouted so that the barman came and ordered him out of that, sharp now. But he kept looking at the glass, not believing his eyes. He knew his own face again, but only just knew it. His eyes were dull and red and gummy, same as those old men have who've lived too long, and his face was puffed and pimpled, and he had a lousy white beard."
. . . . .