Thursday, November 8, 2007


End of the Tether by Joseph Conrad

End of the Tether
by Joseph Conrad
For a long time after the course of the steamer Sofala
had been altered for the land, the low swampy coast had
retained its appearance of a mere smudge of darkness
beyond a belt of glitter. The sunrays seemed to fall
violently upon the calm sea--seemed to shatter themselves
upon an adamantine surface into sparkling dust,
into a dazzling vapor of light that blinded the eye and
wearied the brain with its unsteady brightness.
Captain Whalley did not look at it. When his
Serang, approaching the roomy cane arm-chair which
he filled capably, had informed him in a low voice that
the course was to be altered, he had risen at once and
had remained on his feet, face forward, while the head
of his ship swung through a quarter of a circle. He
had not uttered a single word, not even the word to
steady the helm. It was the Serang, an elderly, alert,
little Malay, with a very dark skin, who murmured the
order to the helmsman. And then slowly Captain
Whalley sat down again in the arm-chair on the bridge
and fixed his eyes on the deck between his feet.
He could not hope to see anything new upon this lane
of the sea. He had been on these coasts for the last
three years. From Low Cape to Malantan the distance
was fifty miles, six hours' steaming for the old ship with
the tide, or seven against. Then you steered straight
for the land, and by-and-by three palms would appear
on the sky, tall and slim, and with their disheveled heads
in a bunch, as if in confidential criticism of the dark
mangroves. The Sofala would be headed towards the
somber strip of the coast, which at a given moment, as
the ship closed with it obliquely, would show several
clean shining fractures--the brimful estuary of a river.
Then on through a brown liquid, three parts water and
one part black earth, on and on between the low shores,
three parts black earth and one part brackish water, the
Sofala would plow her way up-stream, as she had
done once every month for these seven years or more,
long before he was aware of her existence, long before
he had ever thought of having anything to do with her
and her invariable voyages. The old ship ought to have
known the road better than her men, who had not been
kept so long at it without a change; better than the
faithful Serang, whom he had brought over from his
last ship to keep the captain's watch; better than he
himself, who had been her captain for the last three
years only. She could always be depended upon to
make her courses. Her compasses were never out. She
was no trouble at all to take about, as if her great age
had given her knowledge, wisdom, and steadiness. She
made her landfalls to a degree of the bearing, and almost
to a minute of her allowed time. At any moment,
as he sat on the bridge without looking up, or lay sleepless
in his bed, simply by reckoning the days and the
hours he could tell where he was--the precise spot of the
beat. He knew it well too, this monotonous huckster's
round, up and down the Straits; he knew its order and
its sights and its people. Malacca to begin with, in at
daylight and out at dusk, to cross over with a rigid
phosphorescent wake this highway of the Far East.
Darkness and gleams on the water, clear stars on a black
sky, perhaps the lights of a home steamer keeping her
unswerving course in the middle, or maybe the elusive
shadow of a native craft with her mat sails flitting by
silently--and the low land on the other side in sight
at daylight. At noon the three palms of the next place
of call, up a sluggish river. The only white man residing
there was a retired young sailor, with whom he
had become friendly in the course of many voyages.
Sixty miles farther on there was another place of call,
a deep bay with only a couple of houses on the beach.
And so on, in and out, picking up coastwise cargo here
and there, and finishing with a hundred miles' steady
steaming through the maze of an archipelago of small
islands up to a large native town at the end of the beat.
There was a three days' rest for the old ship before
he started her again in inverse order, seeing the same
shores from another bearing, hearing the same voices in
the same places, back again to the Sofala's port of registry
on the great highway to the East, where he would
take up a berth nearly opposite the big stone pile of
the harbor office till it was time to start again on the
old round of 1600 miles and thirty days. Not a very
enterprising life, this, for Captain Whalley, Henry
Whalley, otherwise Dare-devil Harry--Whalley of the
Condor, a famous clipper in her day. No. Not a very
enterprising life for a man who had served famous firms,
who had sailed famous ships (more than one or two of
them his own); who had made famous passages, had
been the pioneer of new routes and new trades; who had
steered across the unsurveyed tracts of the South Seas,
and had seen the sun rise on uncharted islands. Fifty
years at sea, and forty out in the East ("a pretty thorough
apprenticeship," he used to remark smilingly), had
made him honorably known to a generation of shipowners
and merchants in all the ports from Bombay clear
over to where the East merges into the West upon the
coast of the two Americas. His fame remained writ,
not very large but plain enough, on the Admiralty
charts. Was there not somewhere between Australia
and China a Whalley Island and a Condor Reef? On
that dangerous coral formation the celebrated clipper
had hung stranded for three days, her captain and crew
throwing her cargo overboard with one hand and with
the other, as it were, keeping off her a flotilla of savage
war-canoes. At that time neither the island nor the reef
had any official existence. Later the officers of her
Majesty's steam vessel Fusilier, dispatched to make a
survey of the route, recognized in the adoption of these
two names the enterprise of the man and the solidity of
the ship. Besides, as anyone who cares may see, the
"General Directory," vol. ii. p. 410, begins the description
of the "Malotu or Whalley Passage" with the
words: "This advantageous route, first discovered in
1850 by Captain Whalley in the ship Condor," &c.,
and ends by recommending it warmly to sailing vessels
leaving the China ports for the south in the months
from December to April inclusive.
This was the clearest gain he had out of life. Nothing
could rob him of this kind of fame. The piercing of the
Isthmus of Suez, like the breaking of a dam, had let
in upon the East a flood of new ships, new men, new
methods of trade. It had changed the face of the Eastern
seas and the very spirit of their life; so that his
early experiences meant nothing whatever to the new
generation of seamen.
In those bygone days he had handled many thousands
of pounds of his employers' money and of his own; he
had attended faithfully, as by law a shipmaster is expected
to do, to the conflicting interests of owners,
charterers, and underwriters. He had never lost a ship
or consented to a shady transaction; and he had lasted
well, outlasting in the end the conditions that had gone
to the making of his name. He had buried his wife (in
the Gulf of Petchili), had married off his daughter to
the man of her unlucky choice, and had lost more than
an ample competence in the crash of the notorious Travancore
and Deccan Banking Corporation, whose downfall
had shaken the East like an earthquake. And he
was sixty-five years old.
His age sat lightly enough on him; and of his ruin
he was not ashamed. He had not been alone to believe
in the stability of the Banking Corporation. Men whose
judgment in matters of finance was as expert as his seamanship
had commended the prudence of his investments,
and had themselves lost much money in the great
failure. The only difference between him and them was
that he had lost his all. And yet not his all. There
had remained to him from his lost fortune a very pretty
little bark, Fair Maid, which he had bought to occupy
his leisure of a retired sailor--"to play with," as he expressed
it himself.
He had formally declared himself tired of the sea the
year preceding his daughter's marriage. But after the
young couple had gone to settle in Melbourne he found
out that he could not make himself happy on shore. He
was too much of a merchant sea-captain for mere yachting
to satisfy him. He wanted the illusion of affairs;
and his acquisition of the Fair Maid preserved the continuity
of his life. He introduced her to his acquaintances
in various ports as "my last command." When
he grew too old to be trusted with a ship, he would
lay her up and go ashore to be buried, leaving directions
in his will to have the bark towed out and scuttled
decently in deep water on the day of the funeral. His
daughter would not grudge him the satisfaction of
knowing that no stranger would handle his last command
after him. With the fortune he was able to leave her,
the value of a 500-ton bark was neither here nor there.
All this would be said with a jocular twinkle in his eye:
the vigorous old man had too much vitality for the sentimentalism
of regret; and a little wistfully withal, because
he was at home in life, taking a genuine pleasure
in its feelings and its possessions; in the dignity of his
reputation and his wealth, in his love for his daughter,
and in his satisfaction with the ship--the plaything of
his lonely leisure.
He had the cabin arranged in accordance with his
simple ideal of comfort at sea. A big bookcase (he was
a great reader) occupied one side of his stateroom; the
portrait of his late wife, a flat bituminous oil-painting
representing the profile and one long black ringlet of
a young woman, faced his bedplace. Three chronometers
ticked him to sleep and greeted him on waking with
the tiny competition of their beats. He rose at five every
day. The officer of the morning watch, drinking his
early cup of coffee aft by the wheel, would hear through
the wide orifice of the copper ventilators all the splashings,
blowings, and splutterings of his captain's toilet.
These noises would be followed by a sustained deep
murmur of the Lord's Prayer recited in a loud earnest
voice. Five minutes afterwards the head and shoulders
of Captain Whalley emerged out of the companionhatchway.
Invariably he paused for a while on the
stairs, looking all round at the horizon; upwards at the
trim of the sails; inhaling deep draughts of the fresh
air. Only then he would step out on the poop, acknowledging
the hand raised to the peak of the cap with a
majestic and benign "Good morning to you." He
walked the deck till eight scrupulously. Sometimes, not
above twice a year, he had to use a thick cudgel-like
stick on account of a stiffness in the hip--a slight touch
of rheumatism, he supposed. Otherwise he knew nothing
of the ills of the flesh. At the ringing of the breakfast
bell he went below to feed his canaries, wind up the
chronometers, and take the head of the table. From
there he had before his eyes the big carbon photographs
of his daughter, her husband, and two fat-legged babies
--his grandchildren--set in black frames into the maplewood
bulkheads of the cuddy. After breakfast he dusted
the glass over these portraits himself with a cloth, and
brushed the oil painting of his wife with a plumate kept
suspended from a small brass hook by the side of the
heavy gold frame. Then with the door of his stateroom
shut, he would sit down on the couch under the
portrait to read a chapter out of a thick pocket Bible
--her Bible. But on some days he only sat there for
half an hour with his finger between the leaves and the
closed book resting on his knees. Perhaps he had remembered
suddenly how fond of boat-sailing she used
to be.
She had been a real shipmate and a true woman too.
It was like an article of faith with him that there never
had been, and never could be, a brighter, cheerier home
anywhere afloat or ashore than his home under the poopdeck
of the Condor, with the big main cabin all white
and gold, garlanded as if for a perpetual festival with
an unfading wreath. She had decorated the center of
every panel with a cluster of home flowers. It took her
a twelvemonth to go round the cuddy with this labor
of love. To him it had remained a marvel of painting,
the highest achievement of taste and skill; and as to
old Swinburne, his mate, every time he came down to
his meals he stood transfixed with admiration before the
progress of the work. You could almost smell these
roses, he declared, sniffing the faint flavor of turpentine
which at that time pervaded the saloon, and (as he confessed
afterwards) made him somewhat less hearty than
usual in tackling his food. But there was nothing of
the sort to interfere with his enjoyment of her singing.
"Mrs. Whalley is a regular out-and-out nightingale,
sir," he would pronounce with a judicial air after listening
profoundly over the skylight to the very end of the
piece. In fine weather, in the second dog-watch, the two
men could hear her trills and roulades going on to the
accompaniment of the piano in the cabin. On the very
day they got engaged he had written to London for the
instrument; but they had been married for over a year
before it reached them, coming out round the Cape.
The big case made part of the first direct general cargo
landed in Hongkong harbor--an event that to the men
who walked the busy quays of to-day seemed as hazily
remote as the dark ages of history. But Captain Whalley
could in a half hour of solitude live again all his
life, with its romance, its idyl, and its sorrow. He had
to close her eyes himself. She went away from under
the ensign like a sailor's wife, a sailor herself at heart.
He had read the service over her, out of her own prayerbook,
without a break in his voice. When he raised his
eyes he could see old Swinburne facing him with his cap
pressed to his breast, and his rugged, weather-beaten,
impassive face streaming with drops of water like a
lump of chipped red granite in a shower. It was all
very well for that old sea-dog to cry. He had to read
on to the end; but after the splash he did not remember
much of what happened for the next few days. An
elderly sailor of the crew, deft at needlework, put together
a mourning frock for the child out of one of
her black skirts.
He was not likely to forget; but you cannot dam up
life like a sluggish stream. It will break out and flow
over a man's troubles, it will close upon a sorrow like
the sea upon a dead body, no matter how much love has
gone to the bottom. And the world is not bad. People
had been very kind to him; especially Mrs. Gardner, the
wife of the senior partner in Gardner, Patteson, & Co.,
the owners of the Condor. It was she who volunteered
to look after the little one, and in due course took her
to England (something of a journey in those days,
even by the overland mail route) with her own girls to
finish her education. It was ten years before he saw her
As a little child she had never been frightened of bad
weather; she would beg to be taken up on deck in the
bosom of his oilskin coat to watch the big seas hurling
themselves upon the Condor. The swirl and crash of the
waves seemed to fill her small soul with a breathless delight.
"A good boy spoiled," he used to say of her in
joke. He had named her Ivy because of the sound of
the word, and obscurely fascinated by a vague association
of ideas. She had twined herself tightly round his
heart, and he intended her to cling close to her father as
to a tower of strength; forgetting, while she was little,
that in the nature of things she would probably elect
to cling to someone else. But he loved life well enough
for even that event to give him a certain satisfaction,
apart from his more intimate feeling of loss.
After he had purchased the Fair Maid to occupy his
loneliness, he hastened to accept a rather unprofitable
freight to Australia simply for the opportunity of seeing
his daughter in her own home. What made him dissatisfied
there was not to see that she clung now to somebody
else, but that the prop she had selected seemed on
closer examination "a rather poor stick"--even in the
matter of health. He disliked his son-in-law's studied
civility perhaps more than his method of handling the
sum of money he had given Ivy at her marriage. But
of his apprehensions he said nothing. Only on the day
of his departure, with the hall-door open already, holding
her hands and looking steadily into her eyes, he
had said, "You know, my dear, all I have is for you and
the chicks. Mind you write to me openly." She had
answered him by an almost imperceptible movement of
her head. She resembled her mother in the color of her
eyes, and in character--and also in this, that she understood
him without many words.
Sure enough she had to write; and some of these letters
made Captain Whalley lift his white eye-brows. For
the rest he considered he was reaping the true reward of
his life by being thus able to produce on demand whatever
was needed. He had not enjoyed himself so much
in a way since his wife had died. Characteristically
enough his son-in-law's punctuality in failure caused him
at a distance to feel a sort of kindness towards the man.
The fellow was so perpetually being jammed on a lee
shore that to charge it all to his reckless navigation
would be manifestly unfair. No, no! He knew well
what that meant. It was bad luck. His own had been
simply marvelous, but he had seen in his life too many
good men--seamen and others--go under with the sheer
weight of bad luck not to recognize the fatal signs. For
all that, he was cogitating on the best way of tying up
very strictly every penny he had to leave, when, with a
preliminary rumble of rumors (whose first sound reached
him in Shanghai as it happened), the shock of the big
failure came; and, after passing through the phases of
stupor, of incredulity, of indignation, he had to accept
the fact that he had nothing to speak of to leave.
Upon that, as if he had only waited for this catastrophe,
the unlucky man, away there in Melbourne, gave
up his unprofitable game, and sat down--in an invalid's
bath-chair at that too. "He will never walk again,"
wrote the wife. For the first time in his life Captain
Whalley was a bit staggered.
The Fair Maid had to go to work in bitter earnest now.
It was no longer a matter of preserving alive the memory
of Dare-devil Harry Whalley in the Eastern Seas, or
of keeping an old man in pocket-money and clothes, with,
perhaps, a bill for a few hundred first-class cigars
thrown in at the end of the year. He would have to
buckle-to, and keep her going hard on a scant allowance
of gilt for the ginger-bread scrolls at her stem and
This necessity opened his eyes to the fundamental
changes of the world. Of his past only the familiar
names remained, here and there, but the things and the
men, as he had known them, were gone. The name of
Gardner, Patteson, & Co. was still displayed on the
walls of warehouses by the waterside, on the brass plates
and window-panes in the business quarters of more than
one Eastern port, but there was no longer a Gardner
or a Patteson in the firm. There was no longer for Captain
Whalley an arm-chair and a welcome in the private
office, with a bit of business ready to be put in the way
of an old friend, for the sake of bygone services. The
husbands of the Gardner girls sat behind the desks in
that room where, long after he had left the employ, he
had kept his right of entrance in the old man's time.
Their ships now had yellow funnels with black tops,
and a time-table of appointed routes like a confounded
service of tramways. The winds of December and June
were all one to them; their captains (excellent young
men he doubted not) were, to be sure, familiar with
Whalley Island, because of late years the Government
had established a white fixed light on the north end (with
a red danger sector over the Condor Reef), but most of
them would have been extremely surprised to hear that
a flesh-and-blood Whalley still existed--an old man
going about the world trying to pick up a cargo here
and there for his little bark.
And everywhere it was the same. Departed the men
who would have nodded appreciatively at the mention
of his name, and would have thought themselves bound
in honor to do something for Dare-devil Harry Whalley.
Departed the opportunities which he would have known
how to seize; and gone with them the white-winged flock
of clippers that lived in the boisterous uncertain life of
the winds, skimming big fortunes out of the foam of
the sea. In a world that pared down the profits to an
irreducible minimum, in a world that was able to count
its disengaged tonnage twice over every day, and in
which lean charters were snapped up by cable three
months in advance, there were no chances of fortune for
an individual wandering haphazard with a little bark
--hardly indeed any room to exist.
He found it more difficult from year to year. He suffered
greatly from the smallness of remittances he was
able to send his daughter. Meantime he had given up
good cigars, and even in the matter of inferior cheroots
limited himself to six a day. He never told her of his
difficulties, and she never enlarged upon her struggle
to live. Their confidence in each other needed no explanations,
and their perfect understanding endured
without protestations of gratitude or regret. He would
have been shocked if she had taken it into her head to
thank him in so many words, but he found it perfectly
natural that she should tell him she needed two hundred
He had come in with the Fair Maid in ballast to look
for a freight in the Sofala's port of registry, and her
letter met him there. Its tenor was that it was no use
mincing matters. Her only resource was in opening a
boarding-house, for which the prospects, she judged,
were good. Good enough, at any rate, to make her tell
him frankly that with two hundred pounds she could
make a start. He had torn the envelope open, hastily,
on deck, where it was handed to him by the shipchandler's
runner, who had brought his mail at the moment
of anchoring. For the second time in his life he
was appalled, and remained stock-still at the cabin door
with the paper trembling between his fingers. Open a
boarding-house! Two hundred pounds for a start! The
only resource! And he did not know where to lay his
hands on two hundred pence.
All that night Captain Whalley walked the poop of
his anchored ship, as though he had been about to close
with the land in thick weather, and uncertain of his
position after a run of many gray days without a sight
of sun, moon, or stars. The black night twinkled with
the guiding lights of seamen and the steady straight
lines of lights on shore; and all around the Fair Maid
the riding lights of ships cast trembling trails upon the
water of the roadstead. Captain Whalley saw not a
gleam anywhere till the dawn broke and he found out
that his clothing was soaked through with the heavy
His ship was awake. He stopped short, stroked his
wet beard, and descended the poop ladder backwards,
with tired feet. At the sight of him the chief officer,
lounging about sleepily on the quarterdeck, remained
open-mouthed in the middle of a great early-morning
"Good morning to you," pronounced Captain Whalley
solemnly, passing into the cabin. But he checked
himself in the doorway, and without looking back, "By
the bye," he said, "there should be an empty wooden
case put away in the lazarette. It has not been broken
up--has it?"
The mate shut his mouth, and then asked as if dazed,
"What empty case, sir?"
"A big flat packing-case belonging to that painting in
my room. Let it be taken up on deck and tell the
carpenter to look it over. I may want to use it before
The chief officer did not stir a limb till he had heard
the door of the captain's state-room slam within the
cuddy. Then he beckoned aft the second mate with his
forefinger to tell him that there was something "in the
When the bell rang Captain Whalley's authoritative
voice boomed out through a closed door, "Sit down and
don't wait for me." And his impressed officers took their
places, exchanging looks and whispers across the table.
What! No breakfast? And after apparently knocking
about all night on deck, too! Clearly, there was
something in the wind. In the skylight above their
heads, bowed earnestly over the plates, three wire cages
rocked and rattled to the restless jumping of the hungry
canaries; and they could detect the sounds of their "old
man's" deliberate movements within his state-room. Captain
Whalley was methodically winding up the chronometers,
dusting the portrait of his late wife, getting
a clean white shirt out of the drawers, making himself
ready in his punctilious unhurried manner to go ashore.
He could not have swallowed a single mouthful of food
that morning. He had made up his mind to sell the
Fair Maid.
Just at that time the Japanese were casting far and
wide for ships of European build, and he had no difficulty
in finding a purchaser, a speculator who drove a
hard bargain, but paid cash down for the Fair Maid,
with a view to a profitable resale. Thus it came about
that Captain Whalley found himself on a certain afternoon
descending the steps of one of the most important
post-offices of the East with a slip of bluish paper in his
hand. This was the receipt of a registered letter enclosing
a draft for two hundred pounds, and addressed
to Melbourne. Captain Whalley pushed the paper into
his waistcoat-pocket, took his stick from under his arm,
and walked down the street.
It was a recently opened and untidy thoroughfare with
rudimentary side-walks and a soft layer of dust cushioning
the whole width of the road. One end touched the
slummy street of Chinese shops near the harbor, the other
drove straight on, without houses, for a couple of miles,
through patches of jungle-like vegetation, to the yard
gates of the new Consolidated Docks Company. The
crude frontages of the new Government buildings alternated
with the blank fencing of vacant plots, and the
view of the sky seemed to give an added spaciousness to
the broad vista. It was empty and shunned by natives
after business hours, as though they had expected to
see one of the tigers from the neighborhood of the New
Waterworks on the hill coming at a loping canter down
the middle to get a Chinese shopkeeper for supper. Captain
Whalley was not dwarfed by the solitude of the
grandly planned street. He had too fine a presence for
that. He was only a lonely figure walking purposefully,
with a great white beard like a pilgrim, and with a thick
stick that resembled a weapon. On one side the new
Courts of Justice had a low and unadorned portico of
squat columns half concealed by a few old trees left in
the approach. On the other the pavilion wings of the
new Colonial Treasury came out to the line of the street.
But Captain Whalley, who had now no ship and no
home, remembered in passing that on that very site
when he first came out from England there had stood a
fishing village, a few mat huts erected on piles between
a muddy tidal creek and a miry pathway that went
writhing into a tangled wilderness without any docks or
No ship--no home. And his poor Ivy away there had
no home either. A boarding-house is no sort of home
though it may get you a living. His feelings were
horribly rasped by the idea of the boarding-house. In
his rank of life he had that truly aristocratic temperament
characterized by a scorn of vulgar gentility and
by prejudiced views as to the derogatory nature of certain
occupations. For his own part he had always preferred
sailing merchant ships (which is a straightforward
occupation) to buying and selling merchandise,
of which the essence is to get the better of somebody in a
bargain--an undignified trial of wits at best. His father
had been Colonel Whalley (retired) of the H. E. I. Company's
service, with very slender means besides his pension,
but with distinguished connections. He could remember
as a boy how frequently waiters at the inns, country
tradesmen and small people of that sort, used to "My
lord" the old warrior on the strength of his appearance.
Captain Whalley himself (he would have entered the
Navy if his father had not died before he was fourteen)
had something of a grand air which would have suited
an old and glorious admiral; but he became lost like a
straw in the eddy of a brook amongst the swarm of
brown and yellow humanity filling a thoroughfare, that
by contrast with the vast and empty avenue he had left
seemed as narrow as a lane and absolutely riotous with
life. The walls of the houses were blue; the shops of
the Chinamen yawned like cavernous lairs; heaps of
nondescript merchandise overflowed the gloom of the
long range of arcades, and the fiery serenity of sunset
took the middle of the street from end to end with a
glow like the reflection of a fire. It fell on the bright
colors and the dark faces of the bare-footed crowd, on
the pallid yellow backs of the half-naked jostling coolies,
on the accouterments of a tall Sikh trooper with a
parted beard and fierce mustaches on sentry before the
gate of the police compound. Looming very big above
the heads in a red haze of dust, the tightly packed car
of the cable tramway navigated cautiously up the human
stream, with the incessant blare of its horn, in the
manner of a steamer groping in a fog.
Captain Whalley emerged like a diver on the other
side, and in the desert shade between the walls of closed
warehouses removed his hat to cool his brow. A certain
disrepute attached to the calling of a landlady of a
boarding-house. These women were said to be rapacious,
unscrupulous, untruthful; and though he contemned no
class of his fellow-creatures--God forbid!--these were
suspicions to which it was unseemly that a Whalley
should lay herself open. He had not expostulated with
her, however. He was confident she shared his feelings;
he was sorry for her; he trusted her judgment; he considered
it a merciful dispensation that he could help her
once more,--but in his aristocratic heart of hearts he
would have found it more easy to reconcile himself to the
idea of her turning seamstress. Vaguely he remembered
reading years ago a touching piece called the "Song of
the Shirt." It was all very well making songs about
poor women. The granddaughter of Colonel Whalley,
the landlady of a boarding-house! Pooh! He replaced
his hat, dived into two pockets, and stopping a moment
to apply a flaring match to the end of a cheap cheroot,
blew an embittered cloud of smoke at a world that could
hold such surprises.
Of one thing he was certain--that she was the own
child of a clever mother. Now he had got over the
wrench of parting with his ship, he perceived clearly
that such a step had been unavoidable. Perhaps he had
been growing aware of it all along with an unconfessed
knowledge. But she, far away there, must have had
an intuitive perception of it, with the pluck to face that
truth and the courage to speak out--all the qualities
which had made her mother a woman of such excellent
It would have had to come to that in the end! It was
fortunate she had forced his hand. In another year or
two it would have been an utterly barren sale. To keep
the ship going he had been involving himself deeper
every year. He was defenseless before the insidious work
of adversity, to whose more open assaults he could present
a firm front; like a cliff that stands unmoved the
open battering of the sea, with a lofty ignorance of the
treacherous backwash undermining its base. As it was,
every liability satisfied, her request answered, and owing
no man a penny, there remained to him from the proceeds
a sum of five hundred pounds put away safely. In
addition he had upon his person some forty odd dollars
--enough to pay his hotel bill, providing he did not
linger too long in the modest bedroom where he had
taken refuge.
Scantily furnished, and with a waxed floor, it opened
into one of the side-verandas. The straggling building
of bricks, as airy as a bird-cage, resounded with the
incessant flapping of rattan screens worried by the wind
between the white-washed square pillars of the sea-front.
The rooms were lofty, a ripple of sunshine flowed over
the ceilings; and the periodical invasions of tourists from
some passenger steamer in the harbor flitted through the
wind-swept dusk of the apartments with the tumult of
their unfamiliar voices and impermanent presences, like
relays of migratory shades condemned to speed headlong
round the earth without leaving a trace. The babble
of their irruptions ebbed out as suddenly as it had arisen;
the draughty corridors and the long chairs of the verandas
knew their sight-seeing hurry or their prostrate
repose no more; and Captain Whalley, substantial and
dignified, left wellnigh alone in the vast hotel by each
light-hearted skurry, felt more and more like a stranded
tourist with no aim in view, like a forlorn traveler without
a home. In the solitude of his room he smoked
thoughtfully, gazing at the two sea-chests which held all
that he could call his own in this world. A thick roll of
charts in a sheath of sailcloth leaned in a corner; the
flat packing-case containing the portrait in oils and
the three carbon photographs had been pushed under
the bed. He was tired of discussing terms, of assisting
at surveys, of all the routine of the business. What to
the other parties was merely the sale of a ship was to
him a momentous event involving a radically new view of
existence. He knew that after this ship there would
be no other; and the hopes of his youth, the exercise of
his abilities, every feeling and achievement of his manhood,
had been indissolubly connected with ships. He
had served ships; he had owned ships; and even the
years of his actual retirement from the sea had been made
bearable by the idea that he had only to stretch out his
hand full of money to get a ship. He had been at
liberty to feel as though he were the owner of all the
ships in the world. The selling of this one was weary
work; but when she passed from him at last, when he
signed the last receipt, it was as though all the ships
had gone out of the world together, leaving him on the
shore of inaccessible oceans with seven hundred pounds
in his hands.
Striding firmly, without haste, along the quay, Captain
Whalley averted his glances from the familiar roadstead.
Two generations of seamen born since his first day at
sea stood between him and all these ships at the anchorage.
His own was sold, and he had been asking himself,
What next?
From the feeling of loneliness, of inward emptiness,
--and of loss too, as if his very soul had been taken
out of him forcibly,--there had sprung at first a desire
to start right off and join his daughter. "Here are the
last pence," he would say to her; "take them, my dear.
And here's your old father: you must take him too."
His soul recoiled, as if afraid of what lay hidden at
the bottom of this impulse. Give up! Never! When
one is thoroughly weary all sorts of nonsense come into
one's head. A pretty gift it would have been for a poor
woman--this seven hundred pounds with the incumbrance
of a hale old fellow more than likely to last for years
and years to come. Was he not as fit to die in harness
as any of the youngsters in charge of these anchored
ships out yonder? He was as solid now as ever he had
been. But as to who would give him work to do, that
was another matter. Were he, with his appearance and
antecedents, to go about looking for a junior's berth,
people, he was afraid, would not take him seriously; or
else if he succeeded in impressing them, he would maybe
obtain their pity, which would be like stripping yourself
naked to be kicked. He was not anxious to give
himself away for less than nothing. He had no use
for anybody's pity. On the other hand, a command--
the only thing he could try for with due regard for
common decency--was not likely to be lying in wait for
him at the corner of the next street. Commands don't
go a-begging nowadays. Ever since he had come ashore
to carry out the business of the sale he had kept his
ears open, but had heard no hint of one being vacant
in the port. And even if there had been one, his successful
past itself stood in his way. He had been his
own employer too long. The only credential he could
produce was the testimony of his whole life. What
better recommendation could anyone require? But
vaguely he felt that the unique document would be
looked upon as an archaic curiosity of the Eastern
waters, a screed traced in obsolete words--in a half-forgotten
Revolving these thoughts, he strolled on near the railings
of the quay, broad-chested, without a stoop, as
though his big shoulders had never felt the burden of
the loads that must be carried between the cradle and
the grave. No single betraying fold or line of care
disfigured the reposeful modeling of his face. It was
full and untanned; and the upper part emerged, massively
quiet, out of the downward flow of silvery hair,
with the striking delicacy of its clear complexion and
the powerful width of the forehead. The first cast of
his glance fell on you candid and swift, like a boy's;
but because of the ragged snowy thatch of the eyebrows
the affability of his attention acquired the character of
a dark and searching scrutiny. With age he had put
on flesh a little, had increased his girth like an old tree
presenting no symptoms of decay; and even the opulent,
lustrous ripple of white hairs upon his chest seemed an
attribute of unquenchable vitality and vigor.
Once rather proud of his great bodily strength, and
even of his personal appearance, conscious of his worth,
and firm in his rectitude, there had remained to him,
like the heritage of departed prosperity, the tranquil
bearing of a man who had proved himself fit in every
sort of way for the life of his choice. He strode on
squarely under the projecting brim of an ancient Panama
hat. It had a low crown, a crease through its whole
diameter, a narrow black ribbon. Imperishable and a
little discolored, this headgear made it easy to pick him
out from afar on thronged wharves and in the busy
streets. He had never adopted the comparatively modern
fashion of pipeclayed cork helmets. He disliked the
form; and he hoped he could manage to keep a cool
head to the end of his life without all these contrivances
for hygienic ventilation. His hair was cropped close,
his linen always of immaculate whiteness; a suit of thin
gray flannel, worn threadbare but scrupulously brushed,
floated about his burly limbs, adding to his bulk by the
looseness of its cut. The years had mellowed the goodhumored,
imperturbable audacity of his prime into a
temper carelessly serene; and the leisurely tapping of
his iron-shod stick accompanied his footfalls with a selfconfident
sound on the flagstones. It was impossible to
connect such a fine presence and this unruffled aspect
with the belittling troubles of poverty; the man's whole
existence appeared to pass before you, facile and large,
in the freedom of means as ample as the clothing of his
The irrational dread of having to break into his five
hundred pounds for personal expenses in the hotel disturbed
the steady poise of his mind. There was no
time to lose. The bill was running up. He nourished
the hope that this five hundred would perhaps be the
means, if everything else failed, of obtaining some work
which, keeping his body and soul together (not a matter
of great outlay), would enable him to be of use to his
daughter. To his mind it was her own money which he
employed, as it were, in backing her father and solely
for her benefit. Once at work, he would help her with
the greater part of his earnings; he was good for many
years yet, and this boarding-house business, he argued
to himself, whatever the prospects, could not be much of
a gold-mine from the first start. But what work? He
was ready to lay hold of anything in an honest way so
that it came quickly to his hand; because the five hundred
pounds must be preserved intact for eventual use.
That was the great point. With the entire five hundred
one felt a substance at one's back; but it seemed to him
that should he let it dwindle to four-fifty or even foureighty,
all the efficiency would be gone out of the money,
as though there were some magic power in the round
figure. But what sort of work?
Confronted by that haunting question as by an uneasy
ghost, for whom he had no exorcising formula, Captain
Whalley stopped short on the apex of a small bridge
spanning steeply the bed of a canalized creek with
granite shores. Moored between the square blocks a seagoing
Malay prau floated half hidden under the arch
of masonry, with her spars lowered down, without a sound
of life on board, and covered from stem to stern with a
ridge of palm-leaf mats. He had left behind him the
overheated pavements bordered by the stone frontages
that, like the sheer face of cliffs, followed the sweep
of the quays; and an unconfined spaciousness of orderly
and sylvan aspect opened before him its wide plots of
rolled grass, like pieces of green carpet smoothly pegged
out, its long ranges of trees lined up in colossal porticos
of dark shafts roofed with a vault of branches.
Some of these avenues ended at the sea. It was a terraced
shore; and beyond, upon the level expanse, profound
and glistening like the gaze of a dark-blue eye,
an oblique band of stippled purple lengthened itself indefinitely
through the gap between a couple of verdant
twin islets. The masts and spars of a few ships far
away, hull down in the outer roads, sprang straight from
the water in a fine maze of rosy lines penciled on the
clear shadow of the eastern board. Captain Whalley
gave them a long glance. The ship, once his own, was
anchored out there. It was staggering to think that it
was open to him no longer to take a boat at the jetty
and get himself pulled off to her when the evening came.
To no ship. Perhaps never more. Before the sale was
concluded, and till the purchase-money had been paid,
he had spent daily some time on board the Fair Maid.
The money had been paid this very morning, and now,
all at once, there was positively no ship that he could
go on board of when he liked; no ship that would need
his presence in order to do her work--to live. It seemed
an incredible state of affairs, something too bizarre to
last. And the sea was full of craft of all sorts. There
was that prau lying so still swathed in her shroud of
sewn palm-leaves--she too had her indispensable man.
They lived through each other, this Malay he had never
seen, and this high-sterned thing of no size that seemed
to be resting after a long journey. And of all the ships
in sight, near and far, each was provided with a man,
the man without whom the finest ship is a dead thing,
a floating and purposeless log.
After his one glance at the roadstead he went on, since
there was nothing to turn back for, and the time must
be got through somehow. The avenues of big trees ran
straight over the Esplanade, cutting each other at diverse
angles, columnar below and luxuriant above. The
interlaced boughs high up there seemed to slumber; not
a leaf stirred overhead: and the reedy cast-iron lampposts
in the middle of the road, gilt like scepters,
diminished in a long perspective, with their globes of
white porcelain atop, resembling a barbarous decoration
of ostriches' eggs displayed in a row. The flaming sky
kindled a tiny crimson spark upon the glistening surface
of each glassy shell.
With his chin sunk a little, his hands behind his back,
and the end of his stick marking the gravel with a faint
wavering line at his heels, Captain Whalley reflected
that if a ship without a man was like a body without
a soul, a sailor without a ship was of not much more
account in this world than an aimless log adrift upon the
sea. The log might be sound enough by itself, tough
of fiber, and hard to destroy--but what of that! And
a sudden sense of irremediable idleness weighted his feet
like a great fatigue.
A succession of open carriages came bowling along the
newly opened sea-road. You could see across the wide
grass-plots the discs of vibration made by the spokes.
The bright domes of the parasols swayed lightly outwards
like full-blown blossoms on the rim of a vase; and
the quiet sheet of dark-blue water, crossed by a bar of
purple, made a background for the spinning wheels and
the high action of the horses, whilst the turbaned heads
of the Indian servants elevated above the line of the sea
horizon glided rapidly on the paler blue of the sky. In
an open space near the little bridge each turn-out trotted
smartly in a wide curve away from the sunset; then pulling
up sharp, entered the main alley in a long slowmoving
file with the great red stillness of the sky at
the back. The trunks of mighty trees stood all touched
with red on the same side, the air seemed aflame under
the high foliage, the very ground under the hoofs of the
horses was red. The wheels turned solemnly; one after
another the sunshades drooped, folding their colors like
gorgeous flowers shutting their petals at the end of the
day. In the whole half-mile of human beings no voice
uttered a distinct word, only a faint thudding noise went
on mingled with slight jingling sounds, and the motionless
heads and shoulders of men and women sitting in
couples emerged stolidly above the lowered hoods--as if
wooden. But one carriage and pair coming late did not
join the line.
It fled along in a noiseless roll; but on entering the
avenue one of the dark bays snorted, arching his neck
and shying against the steel-tipped pole; a flake of
foam fell from the bit upon the point of a satiny shoulder,
and the dusky face of the coachman leaned forward
at once over the hands taking a fresh grip of the
reins. It was a long dark-green landau, having a dignified
and buoyant motion between the sharply curved
C-springs, and a sort of strictly official majesty in its
supreme elegance. It seemed more roomy than is usual,
its horses seemed slightly bigger, the appointments a
shade more perfect, the servants perched somewhat
higher on the box. The dresses of three women--two
young and pretty, and one, handsome, large, of mature
age--seemed to fill completely the shallow body of the
carriage. The fourth face was that of a man, heavy
lidded, distinguished and sallow, with a somber, thick,
iron-gray imperial and mustaches, which somehow had
the air of solid appendages. His Excellency--
The rapid motion of that one equipage made all the
others appear utterly inferior, blighted, and reduced to
crawl painfully at a snail's pace. The landau distanced
the whole file in a sort of sustained rush; the features
of the occupant whirling out of sight left behind an
impression of fixed stares and impassive vacancy; and
after it had vanished in full flight as it were, notwithstanding
the long line of vehicles hugging the curb at
a walk, the whole lofty vista of the avenue seemed to lie
open and emptied of life in the enlarged impression of
an august solitude.
Captain Whalley had lifted his head to look, and his
mind, disturbed in its meditation, turned with wonder
(as men's minds will do) to matters of no importance.
It struck him that it was to this port, where he had
just sold his last ship, that he had come with the very
first he had ever owned, and with his head full of a plan
for opening a new trade with a distant part of the
Archipelago. The then governor had given him no end
of encouragement. No Excellency he--this Mr. Denham--
this governor with his jacket off; a man who
tended night and day, so to speak, the growing prosperity
of the settlement with the self-forgetful devotion
of a nurse for a child she loves; a lone bachelor who
lived as in a camp with the few servants and his three
dogs in what was called then the Government Bungalow:
a low-roofed structure on the half-cleared slope of a
hill, with a new flagstaff in front and a police orderly
on the veranda. He remembered toiling up that hill
under a heavy sun for his audience; the unfurnished
aspect of the cool shaded room; the long table covered
at one end with piles of papers, and with two guns, a
brass telescope, a small bottle of oil with a feather stuck
in the neck at the other--and the flattering attention
given to him by the man in power. It was an undertaking
full of risk he had come to expound, but a twenty
minutes' talk in the Government Bungalow on the hill
had made it go smoothly from the start. And as he
was retiring Mr. Denham, already seated before the
papers, called out after him, "Next month the Dido
starts for a cruise that way, and I shall request her
captain officially to give you a look in and see how
you get on." The Dido was one of the smart frigates on
the China station--and five-and-thirty years make a big
slice of time. Five-and-thirty years ago an enterprise
like his had for the colony enough importance to be
looked after by a Queen's ship. A big slice of time.
Individuals were of some account then. Men like himself;
men, too, like poor Evans, for instance, with his
red face, his coal-black whiskers, and his restless eyes,
who had set up the first patent slip for repairing small
ships, on the edge of the forest, in a lonely bay three
miles up the coast. Mr. Denham had encouraged that
enterprise too, and yet somehow poor Evans had ended
by dying at home deucedly hard up. His son, they said,
was squeezing oil out of cocoa-nuts for a living on some
God-forsaken islet of the Indian Ocean; but it was from
that patent slip in a lonely wooded bay that had sprung
the workshops of the Consolidated Docks Company, with
its three graving basins carved out of solid rock, its
wharves, its jetties, its electric-light plant, its steampower
houses--with its gigantic sheer-legs, fit to lift the
heaviest weight ever carried afloat, and whose head could
be seen like the top of a queer white monument peeping
over bushy points of land and sandy promontories, as
you approached the New Harbor from the west.
There had been a time when men counted: there were
not so many carriages in the colony then, though Mr.
Denham, he fancied, had a buggy. And Captain Whalley
seemed to be swept out of the great avenue by the
swirl of a mental backwash. He remembered muddy
shores, a harbor without quays, the one solitary wooden
pier (but that was a public work) jutting out crookedly,
the first coal-sheds erected on Monkey Point, that caught
fire mysteriously and smoldered for days, so that
amazed ships came into a roadstead full of sulphurous
smoke, and the sun hung blood-red at midday. He remembered
the things, the faces, and something more
besides--like the faint flavor of a cup quaffed to the
bottom, like a subtle sparkle of the air that was not
to be found in the atmosphere of to-day.
In this evocation, swift and full of detail like a flash
of magnesium light into the niches of a dark memorial
hall, Captain Whalley contemplated things once important,
the efforts of small men, the growth of a great
place, but now robbed of all consequence by the greatness
of accomplished facts, by hopes greater still; and
they gave him for a moment such an almost physical
grip upon time, such a comprehension of our unchangeable
feelings, that he stopped short, struck the ground
with his stick, and ejaculated mentally, "What the devil
am I doing here!" He seemed lost in a sort of surprise;
but he heard his name called out in wheezy tones once,
twice--and turned on his heels slowly.
He beheld then, waddling towards him autocratically,
a man of an old-fashioned and gouty aspect, with hair
as white as his own, but with shaved, florid cheeks, wearing
a necktie--almost a neckcloth--whose stiff ends projected
far beyond his chin; with round legs, round arms,
a round body, a round face--generally producing the
effect of his short figure having been distended by means
of an air-pump as much as the seams of his clothing
would stand. This was the Master-Attendant of the
port. A master-attendant is a superior sort of harbormaster;
a person, out in the East, of some consequence
in his sphere; a Government official, a magistrate for
the waters of the port, and possessed of vast but illdefined
disciplinary authority over seamen of all classes.
This particular Master-Attendant was reported to consider
it miserably inadequate, on the ground that it
did not include the power of life and death. This was
a jocular exaggeration. Captain Eliott was fairly satisfied
with his position, and nursed no inconsiderable sense
of such power as he had. His conceited and tyrannical
disposition did not allow him to let it dwindle in his
hands for want of use. The uproarious, choleric frankness
of his comments on people's character and conduct
caused him to be feared at bottom; though in conversation
many pretended not to mind him in the least, others
would only smile sourly at the mention of his name, and
there were even some who dared to pronounce him "a
meddlesome old ruffian." But for almost all of them
one of Captain Eliott's outbreaks was nearly as distasteful
to face as a chance of annihilation.
As soon as he had come up quite close he said, mouthing
in a growl--
"What's this I hear, Whalley? Is it true you're selling
the Fair Maid?"
Captain Whalley, looking away, said the thing was
done--money had been paid that morning; and the other
expressed at once his approbation of such an extremely
sensible proceeding. He had got out of his trap to
stretch his legs, he explained, on his way home to dinner.
Sir Frederick looked well at the end of his time. Didn't
Captain Whalley could not say; had only noticed the
carriage going past.
The Master-Attendant, plunging his hands into the
pockets of an alpaca jacket inappropriately short and
tight for a man of his age and appearance, strutted
with a slight limp, and with his head reaching only to
the shoulder of Captain Whalley, who walked easily,
staring straight before him. They had been good comrades
years ago, almost intimates. At the time when
Whalley commanded the renowned Condor, Eliott had
charge of the nearly as famous Ringdove for the same
owners; and when the appointment of Master-Attendant
was created, Whalley would have been the only other
serious candidate. But Captain Whalley, then in the
prime of life, was resolved to serve no one but his own
auspicious Fortune. Far away, tending his hot irons,
he was glad to hear the other had been successful. There
was a worldly suppleness in bluff Ned Eliott that would
serve him well in that sort of official appointment. And
they were so dissimilar at bottom that as they came
slowly to the end of the avenue before the Cathedral, it
had never come into Whalley's head that he might have
been in that man's place--provided for to the end of
his days.
The sacred edifice, standing in solemn isolation amongst
the converging avenues of enormous trees, as if to put
grave thoughts of heaven into the hours of ease, presented
a closed Gothic portal to the light and glory of
the west. The glass of the rosace above the ogive glowed
like fiery coal in the deep carvings of a wheel of stone.
The two men faced about.
"I'll tell you what they ought to do next, Whalley,"
growled Captain Eliott suddenly.
"They ought to send a real live lord out here when
Sir Frederick's time is up. Eh?"
Captain Whalley perfunctorily did not see why a lord
of the right sort should not do as well as anyone else.
But this was not the other's point of view.
"No, no. Place runs itself. Nothing can stop it now.
Good enough for a lord," he growled in short sentences.
"Look at the changes in our time. We need a lord
here now. They have got a lord in Bombay."
He dined once or twice every year at the Government
House--a many-windowed, arcaded palace upon a hill
laid out in roads and gardens. And lately he had been
taking about a duke in his Master-Attendant's steamlaunch
to visit the harbor improvements. Before that
he had "most obligingly" gone out in person to pick
out a good berth for the ducal yacht. Afterwards he
had an invitation to lunch on board. The duchess herself
lunched with them. A big woman with a red face.
Complexion quite sunburnt. He should think ruined.
Very gracious manners. They were going on to
Japan. . . .
He ejaculated these details for Captain Whalley's edification,
pausing to blow out his cheeks as if with a
pent-up sense of importance, and repeatedly protruding
his thick lips till the blunt crimson end of his nose seemed
to dip into the milk of his mustache. The place ran
itself; it was fit for any lord; it gave no trouble except
in its Marine department--in its Marine department he
repeated twice, and after a heavy snort began to relate
how the other day her Majesty's Consul-General in
French Cochin-China had cabled to him--in his official
capacity--asking for a qualified man to be sent over
to take charge of a Glasgow ship whose master had died
in Saigon.
"I sent word of it to the officers' quarters in the Sailors'
Home," he continued, while the limp in his gait seemed
to grow more accentuated with the increasing irritation
of his voice. "Place's full of them. Twice as many
men as there are berths going in the local trade. All
hungry for an easy job. Twice as many--and--What
d'you think, Whalley? . . ."
He stopped short; his hands clenched and thrust deeply
downwards, seemed ready to burst the pockets of his
jacket. A slight sigh escaped Captain Whalley.
"Hey? You would think they would be falling over
each other. Not a bit of it. Frightened to go home.
Nice and warm out here to lie about a veranda waiting
for a job. I sit and wait in my office. Nobody. What
did they suppose? That I was going to sit there like
a dummy with the Consul-General's cable before me?
Not likely. So I looked up a list of them I keep by
me and sent word for Hamilton--the worst loafer of
them all--and just made him go. Threatened to instruct
the steward of the Sailors' Home to have him
turned out neck and crop. He did not think the berth
was good enough--if--you--please. 'I've your little
records by me,' said I. 'You came ashore here eighteen
months ago, and you haven't done six months' work
since. You are in debt for your board now at the Home,
and I suppose you reckon the Marine Office will pay in
the end. Eh? So it shall; but if you don't take this
chance, away you go to England, assisted passage, by
the first homeward steamer that comes along. You are
no better than a pauper. We don't want any white
paupers here.' I scared him. But look at the trouble
all this gave me."
"You would not have had any trouble," Captain Whalley
said almost involuntarily, "if you had sent for
Captain Eliott was immensely amused; he shook with
laughter as he walked. But suddenly he stopped laughing.
A vague recollection had crossed his mind. Hadn't
he heard it said at the time of the Travancore and Deccan
smash that poor Whalley had been cleaned out completely.
"Fellow's hard up, by heavens!" he thought;
and at once he cast a sidelong upward glance at his
companion. But Captain Whalley was smiling austerely
straight before him, with a carriage of the head inconceivable
in a penniless man--and he became reassured.
Impossible. Could not have lost everything. That ship
had been only a hobby of his. And the reflection that
a man who had confessed to receiving that very morning
a presumably large sum of money was not likely to
spring upon him a demand for a small loan put him
entirely at his ease again. There had come a long pause
in their talk, however, and not knowing how to begin
again, he growled out soberly, "We old fellows ought
to take a rest now."
"The best thing for some of us would be to die at the
oar," Captain Whalley said negligently.
"Come, now. Aren't you a bit tired by this time of
the whole show?" muttered the other sullenly.
"Are you?"
Captain Eliott was. Infernally tired. He only hung
on to his berth so long in order to get his pension on the
highest scale before he went home. It would be no better
than poverty, anyhow; still, it was the only thing between
him and the workhouse. And he had a family.
Three girls, as Whalley knew. He gave "Harry, old
boy," to understand that these three girls were a source
of the greatest anxiety and worry to him. Enough to
drive a man distracted.
"Why? What have they been doing now?" asked
Captain Whalley with a sort of amused absent-mindedness.
"Doing! Doing nothing. That's just it. Lawntennis
and silly novels from morning to night. . . ."
If one of them at least had been a boy. But all three!
And, as ill-luck would have it, there did not seem to be
any decent young fellows left in the world. When he
looked around in the club he saw only a lot of conceited
popinjays too selfish to think of making a good woman
happy. Extreme indigence stared him in the face with
all that crowd to keep at home. He had cherished the
idea of building himself a little house in the country--
in Surrey--to end his days in, but he was afraid it was
out of the question, . . . and his staring eyes rolled
upwards with such a pathetic anxiety that Captain Whalley
charitably nodded down at him, restraining a sort of
sickening desire to laugh.
"You must know what it is yourself, Harry. Girls
are the very devil for worry and anxiety."
"Ay! But mine is doing well," Captain Whalley pronounced
slowly, staring to the end of the avenue.
The Master-Attendant was glad to hear this. Uncommonly
glad. He remembered her well. A pretty girl
she was.
Captain Whalley, stepping out carelessly, assented as
if in a dream.
"She was pretty."
The procession of carriages was breaking up.
One after another they left the file to go off at a trot,
animating the vast avenue with their scattered life and
movement; but soon the aspect of dignified solitude returned
and took possession of the straight wide road.
A syce in white stood at the head of a Burmah pony harnessed
to a varnished two-wheel cart; and the whole thing
waiting by the curb seemed no bigger than a child's toy
forgotten under the soaring trees. Captain Eliott
waddled up to it and made as if to clamber in, but refrained;
and keeping one hand resting easily on the
shaft, he changed the conversation from his pension, his
daughters, and his poverty back again to the only other
topic in the world--the Marine Office, the men and the
ships of the port.
He proceeded to give instances of what was expected
of him; and his thick voice drowsed in the still air like
the obstinate droning of an enormous bumble-bee. Captain
Whalley did not know what was the force or the
weakness that prevented him from saying good-night
and walking away. It was as though he had been too
tired to make the effort. How queer. More queer than
any of Ned's instances. Or was it that overpowering
sense of idleness alone that made him stand there and
listen to these stories. Nothing very real had ever
troubled Ned Eliott; and gradually he seemed to detect
deep in, as if wrapped up in the gross wheezy rumble,
something of the clear hearty voice of the young captain
of the Ringdove. He wondered if he too had changed to
the same extent; and it seemed to him that the voice of
his old chum had not changed so very much--that the
man was the same. Not a bad fellow the pleasant, jolly
Ned Eliott, friendly, well up to his business--and always
a bit of a humbug. He remembered how he used to
amuse his poor wife. She could read him like an open
book. When the Condor and the Ringdove happened to
be in port together, she would frequently ask him to
bring Captain Eliott to dinner. They had not met often
since those old days. Not once in five years, perhaps.
He regarded from under his white eyebrows this man
he could not bring himself to take into his confidence
at this juncture; and the other went on with his intimate
outpourings, and as remote from his hearer as though
he had been talking on a hill-top a mile away.
He was in a bit of a quandary now as to the steamer
Sofala. Ultimately every hitch in the port came into
his hands to undo. They would miss him when he was
gone in another eighteen months, and most likely some
retired naval officer had been pitchforked into the appointment--
a man that would understand nothing and
care less. That steamer was a coasting craft having a
steady trade connection as far north as Tenasserim; but
the trouble was she could get no captain to take her
on her regular trip. Nobody would go in her. He
really had no power, of course, to order a man to take
a job. It was all very well to stretch a point on the
demand of a consul-general, but . . .
"What's the matter with the ship?" Captain Whalley
interrupted in measured tones.
"Nothing's the matter. Sound old steamer. Her
owner has been in my office this afternoon tearing his
"Is he a white man?" asked Whalley in an interested
"He calls himself a white man," answered the Master-
Attendant scornfully; "but if so, it's just skin-deep
and no more. I told him that to his face too."
"But who is he, then?"
"He's the chief engineer of her. See THAT, Harry?"
"I see," Captain Whalley said thoughtfully. "The
engineer. I see."
How the fellow came to be a shipowner at the same
time was quite a tale. He came out third in a home
ship nearly fifteen years ago, Captain Eliott remembered,
and got paid off after a bad sort of row both
with his skipper and his chief. Anyway, they seemed
jolly glad to get rid of him at all costs. Clearly a mutinous
sort of chap. Well, he remained out here, a perfect
nuisance, everlastingly shipped and unshipped, unable
to keep a berth very long; pretty nigh went
through every engine-room afloat belonging to the
colony. Then suddenly, "What do you think happened,
Captain Whalley, who seemed lost in a mental effort
as of doing a sum in his head, gave a slight start. He
really couldn't imagine. The Master-Attendant's voice
vibrated dully with hoarse emphasis. The man actually
had the luck to win the second prize in the Manilla lottery.
All these engineers and officers of ships took
tickets in that gamble. It seemed to be a perfect mania
with them all.
Everybody expected now that he would take himself
off home with his money, and go to the devil in his own
way. Not at all. The Sofala, judged too small and
not quite modern enough for the sort of trade she was
in, could be got for a moderate price from her owners,
who had ordered a new steamer from Europe. He
rushed in and bought her. This man had never given
any signs of that sort of mental intoxication the mere
fact of getting hold of a large sum of money may produce--
not till he got a ship of his own; but then he
went off his balance all at once: came bouncing into the
Marine Office on some transfer business, with his hat
hanging over his left eye and switching a little cane in
his hand, and told each one of the clerks separately that
"Nobody could put him out now. It was his turn.
There was no one over him on earth, and there never
would be either." He swaggered and strutted between
the desks, talking at the top of his voice, and trembling
like a leaf all the while, so that the current business
of the office was suspended for the time he was in there,
and everybody in the big room stood open-mouthed
looking at his antics. Afterwards he could be seen
during the hottest hours of the day with his face as
red as fire rushing along up and down the quays to look
at his ship from different points of view: he seemed
inclined to stop every stranger he came across just to
let them know "that there would be no longer anyone
over him; he had bought a ship; nobody on earth could
put him out of his engine-room now."
Good bargain as she was, the price of the Sofala took
up pretty near all the lottery-money. He had left himself
no capital to work with. That did not matter so
much, for these were the halcyon days of steam coasting
trade, before some of the home shipping firms had
thought of establishing local fleets to feed their main
lines. These, when once organized, took the biggest
slices out of that cake, of course; and by-and-by a squad
of confounded German tramps turned up east of Suez
Canal and swept up all the crumbs. They prowled on
the cheap to and fro along the coast and between the
islands, like a lot of sharks in the water ready to snap
up anything you let drop. And then the high old times
were over for good; for years the Sofala had made no
more, he judged, than a fair living. Captain Eliott
looked upon it as his duty in every way to assist an
English ship to hold her own; and it stood to reason
that if for want of a captain the Sofala began to miss
her trips she would very soon lose her trade. There was
the quandary. The man was too impracticable. "Too
much of a beggar on horseback from the first," he explained.
"Seemed to grow worse as the time went on.
In the last three years he's run through eleven skippers;
he had tried every single man here, outside of the regular
lines. I had warned him before that this would not
do. And now, of course, no one will look at the Sofala.
I had one or two men up at my office and talked to
them; but, as they said to me, what was the good of
taking the berth to lead a regular dog's life for a
month and then get the sack at the end of the first trip?
The fellow, of course, told me it was all nonsense; there
has been a plot hatching for years against him. And
now it had come. All the horrid sailors in the port had
conspired to bring him to his knees, because he was an
Captain Eliott emitted a throaty chuckle.
"And the fact is, that if he misses a couple more trips
he need never trouble himself to start again. He won't
find any cargo in his old trade. There's too much competition
nowadays for people to keep their stuff lying
about for a ship that does not turn up when she's expected.
It's a bad lookout for him. He swears he will
shut himself on board and starve to death in his cabin
rather than sell her--even if he could find a buyer. And
that's not likely in the least. Not even the Japs would
give her insured value for her. It isn't like selling
sailing-ships. Steamers DO get out of date, besides getting
"He must have laid by a good bit of money though,"
observed Captain Whalley quietly.
The Harbor-master puffed out his purple cheeks to
an amazing size.
"Not a stiver, Harry. Not--a--single--sti-ver."
He waited; but as Captain Whalley, stroking his
beard slowly, looked down on the ground without a
word, he tapped him on the forearm, tiptoed, and said
in a hoarse whisper--
"The Manilla lottery has been eating him up."
He frowned a little, nodding in tiny affirmative jerks.
They all were going in for it; a third of the wages
paid to ships' officers ("in my port," he snorted) went
to Manilla. It was a mania. That fellow Massy had
been bitten by it like the rest of them from the first;
but after winning once he seemed to have persuaded
himself he had only to try again to get another big
prize. He had taken dozens and scores of tickets for
every drawing since. What with this vice and his ignorance
of affairs, ever since he had improvidently
bought that steamer he had been more or less short of
This, in Captain Eliott's opinion, gave an opening
for a sensible sailor-man with a few pounds to step in
and save that fool from the consequences of his folly.
It was his craze to quarrel with his captains. He had
had some really good men too, who would have been
too glad to stay if he would only let them. But no. He
seemed to think he was no owner unless he was kicking
somebody out in the morning and having a row with
the new man in the evening. What was wanted for him
was a master with a couple of hundred or so to take
an interest in the ship on proper conditions. You don't
discharge a man for no fault, only because of the fun
of telling him to pack up his traps and go ashore, when
you know that in that case you are bound to buy back
his share. On the other hand, a fellow with an interest
in the ship is not likely to throw up his job in a huff
about a trifle. He had told Massy that. He had said:
"'This won't do, Mr. Massy. We are getting very
sick of you here in the Marine Office. What you must
do now is to try whether you could get a sailor to join
you as partner. That seems to be the only way.' And
that was sound advice, Harry."
Captain Whalley, leaning on his stick, was perfectly
still all over, and his hand, arrested in the act of stroking,
grasped his whole beard. And what did the fellow
say to that?
The fellow had the audacity to fly out at the Master-
Attendant. He had received the advice in a most impudent
manner. "I didn't come here to be laughed at,"
he had shrieked. "I appeal to you as an Englishman
and a shipowner brought to the verge of ruin by an
illegal conspiracy of your beggarly sailors, and all you
condescend to do for me is to tell me to go and get a
partner!" . . . The fellow had presumed to stamp
with rage on the floor of the private office. Where was
he going to get a partner? Was he being taken for
a fool? Not a single one of that contemptible lot ashore
at the "Home" had twopence in his pocket to bless
himself with. The very native curs in the bazaar knew
that much. . . . "And it's true enough, Harry," rumbled
Captain Eliott judicially. "They are much more
likely one and all to owe money to the Chinamen in
Denham Road for the clothes on their backs. 'Well,'
said I, 'you make too much noise over it for my taste,
Mr. Massy. Good morning.' He banged the door after
him; he dared to bang my door, confound his cheek!"
The head of the Marine department was out of breath
with indignation; then recollecting himself as it were,
"I'll end by being late to dinner--yarning with you
here . . . wife doesn't like it."
He clambered ponderously into the trap; leaned out
sideways, and only then wondered wheezily what on
earth Captain Whalley could have been doing with
himself of late. They had had no sight of each other
for years and years till the other day when he had seen
him unexpectedly in the office.
What on earth . . .
Captain Whalley seemed to be smiling to himself in his
white beard.
"The earth is big," he said vaguely.
The other, as if to test the statement, stared all round
from his driving-seat. The Esplanade was very quiet;
only from afar, from very far, a long way from the seashore,
across the stretches of grass, through the long
ranges of trees, came faintly the toot--toot--toot of
the cable car beginning to roll before the empty peristyle
of the Public Library on its three-mile journey to the
New Harbor Docks.
"Doesn't seem to be so much room on it," growled the
Master-Attendant, "since these Germans came along
shouldering us at every turn. It was not so in our
He fell into deep thought, breathing stertorously, as
though he had been taking a nap open-eyed. Perhaps
he too, on his side, had detected in the silent pilgrimlike
figure, standing there by the wheel, like an arrested
wayfarer, the buried lineaments of the features belonging
to the young captain of the Condor. Good fellow--
Harry Whalley--never very talkative. You never
knew what he was up to--a bit too off-hand with people
of consequence, and apt to take a wrong view of a fellow's
actions. Fact was he had a too good opinion of
himself. He would have liked to tell him to get in and
drive him home to dinner. But one never knew. Wife
would not like it.
"And it's funny to think, Harry," he went on in a
big, subdued drone, "that of all the people on it there
seems only you and I left to remember this part of the
world as it used to be . . ."
He was ready to indulge in the sweetness of a sentimental
mood had it not struck him suddenly that Captain
Whalley, unstirring and without a word, seemed
to be awaiting something--perhaps expecting . . . He
gathered the reins at once and burst out in bluff, hearty
"Ha! My dear boy. The men we have known--the
ships we've sailed--ay! and the things we've done . . ."
The pony plunged--the syce skipped out of the way.
Captain Whalley raised his arm.
The sun had set. And when, after drilling a deep hole
with his stick, he moved from that spot the night had
massed its army of shadows under the trees. They
filled the eastern ends of the avenues as if only waiting
the signal for a general advance upon the open spaces
of the world; they were gathering low between the deep
stone-faced banks of the canal. The Malay prau, halfconcealed
under the arch of the bridge, had not altered
its position a quarter of an inch. For a long time Captain
Whalley stared down over the parapet, till at last
the floating immobility of that beshrouded thing seemed
to grow upon him into something inexplicable and
alarming. The twilight abandoned the zenith; its reflected
gleams left the world below, and the water of the
canal seemed to turn into pitch. Captain Whalley
crossed it.
The turning to the right, which was his way to his
hotel, was only a very few steps farther. He stopped
again (all the houses of the sea-front were shut up, the
quayside was deserted, but for one or two figures of
natives walking in the distance) and began to reckon the
amount of his bill. So many days in the hotel at so
many dollars a day. To count the days he used his
fingers: plunging one hand into his pocket, he jingled a
few silver coins. All right for three days more; and
then, unless something turned up, he must break into
the five hundred--Ivy's money--invested in her father.
It seemed to him that the first meal coming out of that
reserve would choke him--for certain. Reason was of
no use. It was a matter of feeling. His feelings had
never played him false.
He did not turn to the right. He walked on, as if
there still had been a ship in the roadstead to which
he could get himself pulled off in the evening. Far
away, beyond the houses, on the slope of an indigo
promontory closing the view of the quays, the slim
column of a factory-chimney smoked quietly straight
up into the clear air. A Chinaman, curled down in the
stern of one of the half-dozen sampans floating off the
end of the jetty, caught sight of a beckoning hand.
He jumped up, rolled his pigtail round his head swiftly,
tucked in two rapid movements his wide dark trousers
high up his yellow thighs, and by a single, noiseless, finlike
stir of the oars, sheered the sampan alongside the
steps with the ease and precision of a swimming
"Sofala," articulated Captain Whalley from above;
and the Chinaman, a new emigrant probably, stared
upwards with a tense attention as if waiting to see the
queer word fall visibly from the white man's lips.
"Sofala," Captain Whalley repeated; and suddenly his
heart failed him. He paused. The shores, the islets, the
high ground, the low points, were dark: the horizon had
grown somber; and across the eastern sweep of the shore
the white obelisk, marking the landing-place of the
telegraph-cable, stood like a pale ghost on the beach
before the dark spread of uneven roofs, intermingled
with palms, of the native town. Captain Whalley began
"Sofala. Savee So-fa-la, John?"
This time the Chinaman made out that bizarre sound,
and grunted his assent uncouthly, low down in his bare
throat. With the first yellow twinkle of a star that appeared
like the head of a pin stabbed deep into the
smooth, pale, shimmering fabric of the sky, the edge
of a keen chill seemed to cleave through the warm air
of the earth. At the moment of stepping into the sampan
to go and try for the command of the Sofala Captain
Whalley shivered a little.
When on his return he landed on the quay again Venus,
like a choice jewel set low on the hem of the sky, cast
a faint gold trail behind him upon the roadstead, as
level as a floor made of one dark and polished stone.
The lofty vaults of the avenues were black--all black
overhead--and the porcelain globes on the lamp-posts
resembled egg-shaped pearls, gigantic and luminous,
displayed in a row whose farther end seemed to sink
in the distance, down to the level of his knees. He put
his hands behind his back. He would now consider
calmly the discretion of it before saying the final word
to-morrow. His feet scrunched the gravel loudly--the
discretion of it. It would have been easier to appraise
had there been a workable alternative. The honesty of
it was indubitable: he meant well by the fellow; and
periodically his shadow leaped up intense by his side on
the trunks of the trees, to lengthen itself, oblique and
dim, far over the grass--repeating his stride.
The discretion of it. Was there a choice? He seemed
already to have lost something of himself; to have given
up to a hungry specter something of his truth and dignity
in order to live. But his life was necessary. Let
poverty do its worst in exacting its toll of humiliation.
It was certain that Ned Eliott had rendered him, without
knowing it, a service for which it would have been
impossible to ask. He hoped Ned would not think there
had been something underhand in his action. He supposed
that now when he heard of it he would understand
--or perhaps he would only think Whalley an eccentric
old fool. What would have been the good of telling
him--any more than of blurting the whole tale to that
man Massy? Five hundred pounds ready to invest. Let
him make the best of that. Let him wonder. You want
a captain--I want a ship. That's enough. B-r-r-r-r.
What a disagreeable impression that empty, dark,
echoing steamer had made upon him. . . .
A laid-up steamer was a dead thing and no mistake;
a sailing-ship somehow seems always ready to spring
into life with the breath of the incorruptible heaven;
but a teamer, thought Captain Whalley, with her fires
out, without the warm whiffs from below meeting you on
her decks, without the hiss of steam, the clangs of iron
in her breast--lies there as cold and still and pulseless as
a corpse.
In the solitude of the avenue, all black above and
lighted below, Captain Whalley, considering the discretion
of his course, met, as it were incidentally, the
thought of death. He pushed it aside with dislike and
contempt. He almost laughed at it; and in the unquenchable
vitality of his age only thought with a kind
of exultation how little he needed to keep body and soul
together. Not a bad investment for the poor woman
this solid carcass of her father. And for the rest--in
case of anything--the agreement should be clear: the
whole five hundred to be paid back to her integrally
within three months. Integrally. Every penny. He
was not to lose any of her money whatever else had
to go--a little dignity--some of his self-respect. He
had never before allowed anybody to remain under any
sort of false impression as to himself. Well, let that
go--for her sake. After all, he had never SAID anything
misleading--and Captain Whalley felt himself
corrupt to the marrow of his bones. He laughed a little
with the intimate scorn of his worldly prudence.
Clearly, with a fellow of that sort, and in the peculiar
relation they were to stand to each other, it would not
have done to blurt out everything. He did not like the
fellow. He did not like his spells of fawning loquacity
and bursts of resentfulness. In the end--a poor devil.
He would not have liked to stand in his shoes. Men
were not evil, after all. He did not like his sleek hair,
his queer way of standing at right angles, with his nose
in the air, and glancing along his shoulder at you. No.
On the whole, men were not bad--they were only silly
or unhappy.
Captain Whalley had finished considering the discretion
of that step--and there was the whole long night
before him. In the full light his long beard would
glisten like a silver breastplate covering his heart; in
the spaces between the lamps his burly figure passed less
distinct, loomed very big, wandering, and mysterious.
No; there was not much real harm in men: and all the
time a shadow marched with him, slanting on his left
hand--which in the East is a presage of evil.
. . . . . . .
"Can you make out the clump of palms yet, Serang?"
asked Captain Whalley from his chair on the bridge of
the Sofala approaching the bar of Batu Beru.
"No, Tuan. By-and-by see." The old Malay, in a
blue dungaree suit, planted on his bony dark feet under
the bridge awning, put his hands behind his back and
stared ahead out of the innumerable wrinkles at the
corners of his eyes.
Captain Whalley sat still, without lifting his head to
look for himself. Three years--thirty-six times. He
had made these palms thirty-six times from the southward.
They would come into view at the proper time.
Thank God, the old ship made her courses and distances
trip after trip, as correct as clockwork. At last he murmured
"In sight yet?"
"The sun makes a very great glare, Tuan."
"Watch well, Serang."
"Ya, Tuan."
A white man had ascended the ladder from the deck
noiselessly, and had listened quietly to this short colloquy.
Then he stepped out on the bridge and began
to walk from end to end, holding up the long cherrywood
stem of a pipe. His black hair lay plastered in
long lanky wisps across the bald summit of his head;
he had a furrowed brow, a yellow complexion, and a
thick shapeless nose. A scanty growth of whisker did
not conceal the contour of his jaw. His aspect was of
brooding care; and sucking at a curved black mouthpiece,
he presented such a heavy overhanging profile
that even the Serang could not help reflecting sometimes
upon the extreme unloveliness of some white men.
Captain Whalley seemed to brace himself up in his
chair, but gave no recognition whatever to his presence.
The other puffed jets of smoke; then suddenly--
"I could never understand that new mania of yours
of having this Malay here for your shadow, partner."
Captain Whalley got up from the chair in all his imposing
stature and walked across to the binnacle, holding
such an unswerving course that the other had to
back away hurriedly, and remained as if intimidated,
with the pipe trembling in his hand. "Walk over me
now," he muttered in a sort of astounded and discomfited
whisper. Then slowly and distinctly he
"I--am--not--dirt." And then added defiantly, "As
you seem to think."
The Serang jerked out--
"See the palms now, Tuan."
Captain Whalley strode forward to the rail; but his
eyes, instead of going straight to the point, with the
assured keen glance of a sailor, wandered irresolutely
in space, as though he, the discoverer of new routes, had
lost his way upon this narrow sea.
Another white man, the mate, came up on the bridge.
He was tall, young, lean, with a mustache like a
trooper, and something malicious in the eye. He took
up a position beside the engineer. Captain Whalley,
with his back to them, inquired--
"What's on the log?"
"Eighty-five," answered the mate quickly, and nudged
the engineer with his elbow.
Captain Whalley's muscular hands squeezed the iron
rail with an extraordinary force; his eyes glared with
an enormous effort; he knitted his eyebrows, the perspiration
fell from under his hat,--and in a faint voice
he murmured, "Steady her, Serang--when she is on
the proper bearing."
The silent Malay stepped back, waited a little, and
lifted his arm warningly to the helmsman. The wheel
revolved rapidly to meet the swing of the ship. Again
the made nudged the engineer. But Massy turned upon
"Mr. Sterne," he said violently, "let me tell you--
as a shipowner--that you are no better than a confounded
Sterne went down smirking and apparently not at
all disconcerted, but the engineer Massy remained on
the bridge, moving about with uneasy self-assertion.
Everybody on board was his inferior--everyone without
exception. He paid their wages and found them in
their food. They ate more of his bread and pocketed
more of his money than they were worth; and they had
no care in the world, while he alone had to meet all the
difficulties of shipowning. When he contemplated his
position in all its menacing entirety, it seemed to him
that he had been for years the prey of a band of parasites:
and for years he had scowled at everybody connected
with the Sofala except, perhaps, at the Chinese
firemen who served to get her along. Their use was
manifest: they were an indispensable part of the machinery
of which he was the master.
When he passed along his decks he shouldered those
he came across brutally; but the Malay deck hands had
learned to dodge out of his way. He had to bring himself
to tolerate them because of the necessary manual
labor of the ship which must be done. He had to
struggle and plan and scheme to keep the Sofala afloat
--and what did he get for it? Not even enough respect.
They could not have given him enough of that if all
their thoughts and all their actions had been directed
to that end. The vanity of possession, the vainglory
of power, had passed away by this time, and there remained
only the material embarrassments, the fear of
losing that position which had turned out not worth
having, and an anxiety of thought which no abject subservience
of men could repay.
He walked up and down. The bridge was his own
after all. He had paid for it; and with the stem of
the pipe in his hand he would stop short at times as
if to listen with a profound and concentrated attention
to the deadened beat of the engines (his own engines)
and the slight grinding of the steering chains upon the
continuous low wash of water alongside. But for these
sounds, the ship might have been lying as still as if
moored to a bank, and as silent as if abandoned by every
living soul; only the coast, the low coast of mud and
mangroves with the three palms in a bunch at the back,
grew slowly more distinct in its long straight line, without
a single feature to arrest attention. The native
passengers of the Sofala lay about on mats under the
awnings; the smoke of her funnel seemed the only sign
of her life and connected with her gliding motion in a
mysterious manner.
Captain Whalley on his feet, with a pair of binoculars
in his hand and the little Malay Serang at his elbow,
like an old giant attended by a wizened pigmy, was taking
her over the shallow water of the bar.
This submarine ridge of mud, scoured by the stream
out of the soft bottom of the river and heaped up far
out on the hard bottom of the sea, was difficult to get
over. The alluvial coast having no distinguishing
marks, the bearings of the crossing-place had to be
taken from the shape of the mountains inland. The
guidance of a form flattened and uneven at the top like
a grinder tooth, and of another smooth, saddle-backed
summit, had to be searched for within the great unclouded
glare that seemed to shift and float like a dry
fiery mist, filling the air, ascending from the water,
shrouding the distances, scorching to the eye. In this
veil of light the near edge of the shore alone stood
out almost coal-black with an opaque and motionless
solidity. Thirty miles away the serrated range of the
interior stretched across the horizon, its outlines and
shades of blue, faint and tremulous like a background
painted on airy gossamer on the quivering fabric of an
impalpable curtain let down to the plain of alluvial soil;
and the openings of the estuary appeared, shining
white, like bits of silver let into the square pieces snipped
clean and sharp out of the body of the land bordered
with mangroves.
On the forepart of the bridge the giant and the pigmy
muttered to each other frequently in quiet tones. Behind
them Massy stood sideways with an expression of
disdain and suspense on his face. His globular eyes
were perfectly motionless, and he seemed to have forgotten
the long pipe he held in his hand.
On the fore-deck below the bridge, steeply roofed with
the white slopes of the awnings, a young lascar seaman
had clambered outside the rail. He adjusted quickly
a broad band of sail canvas under his armpits, and
throwing his chest against it, leaned out far over the
water. The sleeves of his thin cotton shirt, cut off close
to the shoulder, bared his brown arm of full rounded
form and with a satiny skin like a woman's. He swung
it rigidly with the rotary and menacing action of a
slinger: the 14-lb. weight hurtled circling in the air,
then suddenly flew ahead as far as the curve of the bow.
The wet thin line swished like scratched silk running
through the dark fingers of the man, and the plunge of
the lead close to the ship's side made a vanishing silvery
scar upon the golden glitter; then after an interval the
voice of the young Malay uplifted and long-drawn declared
the depth of the water in his own language.
"Tiga stengah," he cried after each splash and pause,
gathering the line busily for another cast. "Tiga
stengah," which means three fathom and a half. For
a mile or so from seaward there was a uniform depth
of water right up to the bar. "Half-three. Halfthree.
Half-three,"--and his modulated cry, returned
leisurely and monotonous, like the repeated call of a
bird, seemed to float away in sunshine and disappear in
the spacious silence of the empty sea and of a lifeless
shore lying open, north and south, east and west, without
the stir of a single cloud-shadow or the whisper of
any other voice.
The owner-engineer of the Sofala remained very still
behind the two seamen of different race, creed, and
color; the European with the time-defying vigor of
his old frame, the little Malay, old, too, but slight and
shrunken like a withered brown leaf blown by a chance
wind under the mighty shadow of the other. Very
busy looking forward at the land, they had not a glance
to spare; and Massy, glaring at them from behind,
seemed to resent their attention to their duty like a personal
slight upon himself.
This was unreasonable; but he had lived in his own
world of unreasonable resentments for many years. At
last, passing his moist palm over the rare lanky wisps
of coarse hair on the top of his yellow head, he began
to talk slowly.
"A leadsman, you want! I suppose that's your correct
mail-boat style. Haven't you enough judgment
to tell where you are by looking at the land? Why,
before I had been a twelvemonth in the trade I was up
to that trick--and I am only an engineer. I can point
to you from here where the bar is, and I could tell you
besides that you are as likely as not to stick her in the
mud in about five minutes from now; only you would
call it interfering, I suppose. And there's that written
agreement of ours, that says I mustn't interfere."
His voice stopped. Captain Whalley, without relaxing
the set severity of his features, moved his lips to ask
in a quick mumble--
"How near, Serang?"
"Very near now, Tuan," the Malay muttered rapidly.
"Dead slow," said the Captain aloud in a firm tone.
The Serang snatched at the handle of the telegraph.
A gong clanged down below. Massy with a scornful
snigger walked off and put his head down the engineroom
"You may expect some rare fooling with the engines,
Jack," he bellowed. The space into which he stared was
deep and full of gloom; and the gray gleams of steel
down there seemed cool after the intense glare of the
sea around the ship. The air, however, came up clammy
and hot on his face. A short hoot on which it would
have been impossible to put any sort of interpretation
came from the bottom cavernously. This was the way
in which the second engineer answered his chief.
He was a middle-aged man with an inattentive manner,
and apparently wrapped up in such a taciturn concern
for his engines that he seemed to have lost the use
of speech. When addressed directly his only answer
would be a grunt or a hoot, according to the distance.
For all the years he had been in the Sofala he had never
been known to exchange as much as a frank Good-morning
with any of his shipmates. He did not seem aware
that men came and went in the world; he did not seem
to see them at all. Indeed he never recognized his ship
mates on shore. At table (the four white men of the
Sofala messed together) he sat looking into his plate
dispassionately, but at the end of the meal would jump
up and bolt down below as if a sudden thought had impelled
him to rush and see whether somebody had not
stolen the engines while he dined. In port at the end of
the trip he went ashore regularly, but no one knew
where he spent his evenings or in what manner. The
local coasting fleet had preserved a wild and incoherent
tale of his infatuation for the wife of a sergeant in an
Irish infantry regiment. The regiment, however, had
done its turn of garrison duty there ages before, and
was gone somewhere to the other side of the earth, out
of men's knowledge. Twice or perhaps three times in
the course of the year he would take too much to drink.
On these occasions he returned on board at an earlier
hour than usual; ran across the deck balancing himself
with his spread arms like a tight-rope walker; and
locking the door of his cabin, he would converse and
argue with himself the livelong night in an amazing
variety of tones; storm, sneer, and whine with an inexhaustible
persistence. Massy in his berth next door,
raising himself on his elbow, would discover that his
second had remembered the name of every white man
that had passed through the Sofala for years and years
back. He remembered the names of men that had died,
that had gone home, that had gone to America: he
remembered in his cups the names of men whose connection
with the ship had been so short that Massy had
almost forgotten its circumstances and could barely recall
their faces. The inebriated voice on the other side
of the bulkhead commented upon them all with an extraordinary
and ingenious venom of scandalous inventions.
It seems they had all offended him in some way,
and in return he had found them all out. He muttered
darkly; he laughed sardonically; he crushed them one
after another; but of his chief, Massy, he babbled with
an envious and naive admiration. Clever scoundrel!
Don't meet the likes of him every day. Just look at
him. Ha! Great! Ship of his own. Wouldn't catch
HIM going wrong. No fear--the beast! And Massy,
after listening with a gratified smile to these artless
tributes to his greatness, would begin to shout, thumping
at the bulkhead with both fists--
"Shut up, you lunatic! Won't you let me go to
sleep, you fool!"
But a half smile of pride lingered on his lips; outside
the solitary lascar told off for night duty in harbor,
perhaps a youth fresh from a forest village, would stand
motionless in the shadows of the deck listening to the
endless drunken gabble. His heart would be thumping
with breathless awe of white men: the arbitrary and
obstinate men who pursue inflexibly their incomprehensible
purposes,--beings with weird intonations in the
voice, moved by unaccountable feelings, actuated by inscrutable
For a while after his second's answering hoot Massy
hung over the engine-room gloomily. Captain Whalley,
who, by the power of five hundred pounds, had kept
his command for three years, might have been suspected
of never having seen that coast before. He seemed unable
to put down his glasses, as though they had been
glued under his contracted eyebrows. This settled
frown gave to his face an air of invincible and just
severity; but his raised elbow trembled slightly, and
the perspiration poured from under his hat as if a
second sun had suddenly blazed up at the zenith by the
side of the ardent still globe already there, in whose
blinding white heat the earth whirled and shone like a
mote of dust.
From time to time, still holding up his glasses, he
raised his other hand to wipe his streaming face. The
drops rolled down his cheeks, fell like rain upon the
white hairs of his beard, and brusquely, as if guided
by an uncontrollable and anxious impulse, his arm
reached out to the stand of the engine-room telegraph.
The gong clanged down below. The balanced vibration
of the dead-slow speed ceased together with every
sound and tremor in the ship, as if the great stillness
that reigned upon the coast had stolen in through her
sides of iron and taken possession of her innermost recesses.
The illusion of perfect immobility seemed to
fall upon her from the luminous blue dome without a
stain arching over a flat sea without a stir. The faint
breeze she had made for herself expired, as if all at
once the air had become too thick to budge; even the
slight hiss of the water on her stem died out. The narrow,
long hull, carrying its way without a ripple,
seemed to approach the shoal water of the bar by
stealth. The plunge of the lead with the mournful,
mechanical cry of the lascar came at longer and longer
intervals; and the men on her bridge seemed to hold
their breath. The Malay at the helm looked fixedly
at the compass card, the Captain and the Serang stared
at the coast.
Massy had left the skylight, and, walking flat-footed,
had returned softly to the very spot on the bridge he
had occupied before. A slow, lingering grin exposed
his set of big white teeth: they gleamed evenly in the
shade of the awning like the keyboard of a piano in a
dusky room.
At last, pretending to talk to himself in excessive astonishment,
he said not very loud--
"Stop the engines now. What next, I wonder?"
He waited, stooping from the shoulders, his head
bowed, his glance oblique. Then raising his voice a
"If I dared make an absurd remark I would say that
you haven't the stomach to . . ."
But a yelling spirit of excitement, like some frantic
soul wandering unsuspected in the vast stillness of the
coast, had seized upon the body of the lascar at the lead.
The languid monotony of his sing-song changed to a
swift, sharp clamor. The weight flew after a single
whir, the line whistled, splash followed splash in haste.
The water had shoaled, and the man, instead of the
drowsy tale of fathoms, was calling out the soundings
in feet.
"Fifteen feet. Fifteen, fifteen! Fourteen, fourteen
. . ."
Captain Whalley lowered the arm holding the glasses.
It descended slowly as if by its own weight; no other
part of his towering body stirred; and the swift cries
with their eager warning note passed him by as though
he had been deaf.
Massy, very still, and turning an attentive ear, had
fastened his eyes upon the silvery, close-cropped back
of the steady old head. The ship herself seemed to be
arrested but for the gradual decrease of depth under
her keel.
"Thirteen feet . . . Thirteen! Twelve!" cried the
leadsman anxiously below the bridge. And suddenly
the barefooted Serang stepped away noiselessly to steal
a glance over the side.
Narrow of shoulder, in a suit of faded blue cotton, an
old gray felt hat rammed down on his head, with a hollow
in the nape of his dark neck, and with his slender limbs,
he appeared from the back no bigger than a boy of
fourteen. There was a childlike impulsiveness in the
curiosity with which he watched the spread of the
voluminous, yellowish convolutions rolling up from below
to the surface of the blue water like massive clouds
driving slowly upwards on the unfathomable sky. He
was not startled at the sight in the least. It was not
doubt, but the certitude that the keel of the Sofala must
be stirring the mud now, which made him peep over the
His peering eyes, set aslant in a face of the Chinese
type, a little old face, immovable, as if carved in old
brown oak, had informed him long before that the ship
was not headed at the bar properly. Paid off from
the Fair Maid, together with the rest of the crew, after
the completion of the sale, he had hung, in his faded
blue suit and floppy gray hat, about the doors of the
Harbor Office, till one day, seeing Captain Whalley
coming along to get a crew for the Sofala, he had put
himself quietly in the way, with his bare feet in the dust
and an upward mute glance. The eyes of his old commander
had fallen on him favorably--it must have
been an auspicious day--and in less than half an hour
the white men in the "Ofiss" had written his name on
a document as Serang of the fire-ship Sofala. Since
that time he had repeatedly looked at that estuary, upon
that coast, from this bridge and from this side of the
bar. The record of the visual world fell through his
eyes upon his unspeculating mind as on a sensitized
plate through the lens of a camera. His knowledge was
absolute and precise; nevertheless, had he been asked
his opinion, and especially if questioned in the downright,
alarming manner of white men, he would have
displayed the hesitation of ignorance. He was certain
of his facts--but such a certitude counted for little
against the doubt what answer would be pleasing.
Fifty years ago, in a jungle village, and before he was
a day old, his father (who died without ever seeing
a white face) had had his nativity cast by a man of
skill and wisdom in astrology, because in the arrangement
of the stars may be read the last word of human
destiny. His destiny had been to thrive by the favor
of various white men on the sea. He had swept the
decks of ships, had tended their helms, had minded their
stores, had risen at last to be a Serang; and his placid
mind had remained as incapable of penetrating the simplest
motives of those he served as they themselves were
incapable of detecting through the crust of the earth
the secret nature of its heart, which may be fire or may
be stone. But he had no doubt whatever that the Sofala
was out of the proper track for crossing the bar at
Batu Beru.
It was a slight error. The ship could not have been
more than twice her own length too far to the northward;
and a white man at a loss for a cause (since it
was impossible to suspect Captain Whalley of blundering
ignorance, of want of skill, or of neglect) would
have been inclined to doubt the testimony of his senses.
It was some such feeling that kept Massy motionless,
with his teeth laid bare by an anxious grin. Not so the
Serang. He was not troubled by any intellectual mistrust
of his senses. If his captain chose to stir the mud
it was well. He had known in his life white men indulge
in outbreaks equally strange. He was only genuinely
interested to see what would come of it. At last, apparently
satisfied, he stepped back from the rail.
He had made no sound: Captain Whalley, however,
seemed to have observed the movements of his Serang.
Holding his head rigidly, he asked with a mere stir of
his lips--
"Going ahead still, Serang?"
"Still going a little, Tuan," answered the Malay.
Then added casually, "She is over."
The lead confirmed his words; the depth of water increased
at every cast, and the soul of excitement departed
suddenly from the lascar swung in the canvas
belt over the Sofala's side. Captain Whalley ordered
the lead in, set the engines ahead without haste,
and averting his eyes from the coast directed the
Serang to keep a course for the middle of the entrance.
Massy brought the palm of his hand with a loud smack
against his thigh.
"You grazed on the bar. Just look astern and see
if you didn't. Look at the track she left. You can see
it plainly. Upon my soul, I thought you would! What
made you do that? What on earth made you do that?
I believe you are trying to scare me."
He talked slowly, as it were circumspectly, keeping his
prominent black eyes on his captain. There was also a
slight plaintive note in his rising choler, for, primarily,
it was the clear sense of a wrong suffered undeservedly
that made him hate the man who, for a beggarly five
hundred pounds, claimed a sixth part of the profits
under the three years' agreement. Whenever his resentment
got the better of the awe the person of Captain
Whalley inspired he would positively whimper with
"You don't know what to invent to plague my life
out of me. I would not have thought that a man of
your sort would condescend . . ."
He paused, half hopefully, half timidly, whenever
Captain Whalley made the slightest movement in the
deck-chair, as though expecting to be conciliated by a
soft speech or else rushed upon and hunted off the
"I am puzzled," he went on again, with the watchful
unsmiling baring of his big teeth. "I don't know what
to think. I do believe you are trying to frighten me.
You very nearly planted her on the bar for at least
twelve hours, besides getting the engines choked with
mud. Ships can't afford to lose twelve hours on a trip
nowadays--as you ought to know very well, and do
know very well to be sure, only . . ."
His slow volubility, the sideways cranings of his neck,
the black glances out of the very corners of his eyes,
left Captain Whalley unmoved. He looked at the deck
with a severe frown. Massy waited for some little time,
then began to threaten plaintively.
"You think you've got me bound hand and foot in
that agreement. You think you can torment me in any
way you please. Ah! But remember it has another
six weeks to run yet. There's time for me to dismiss
you before the three years are out. You will do yet
something that will give me the chance to dismiss you,
and make you wait a twelvemonth for your money before
you can take yourself off and pull out your five hundred,
and leave me without a penny to get the new boilers for
her. You gloat over that idea--don't you? I do believe
you sit here gloating. It's as if I had sold my
soul for five hundred pounds to be everlastingly damned
in the end. . . ."
He paused, without apparent exasperation, then continued
". . . With the boilers worn out and the survey hanging
over my head, Captain Whalley-- Captain
Whalley, I say, what do you do with your money? You
must have stacks of money somewhere--a man like you
must. It stands to reason. I am not a fool, you know,
Captain Whalley--partner."
Again he paused, as though he had done for good.
He passed his tongue over his lips, gave a backward
glance at the Serang conning the ship with quiet whispers
and slight signs of the hand. The wash of the
propeller sent a swift ripple, crested with dark froth,
upon a long flat spit of black slime. The Sofala had
entered the river; the trail she had stirred up over the
bar was a mile astern of her now, out of sight, had disappeared
utterly; and the smooth, empty sea along the
coast was left behind in the glittering desolation of sunshine.
On each side of her, low down, the growth of
somber twisted mangroves covered the semi-liquid banks;
and Massy continued in his old tone, with an abrupt
start, as if his speech had been ground out of him, like
the tune of a music-box, by turning a handle.
"Though if anybody ever got the best of me, it is you.
I don't mind saying this. I've said it--there! What
more can you want? Isn't that enough for your pride,
Captain Whalley. You got over me from the first. It's
all of a piece, when I look back at it. You allowed me
to insert that clause about intemperance without saying
anything, only looking very sick when I made a point
of it going in black on white. How could I tell what
was wrong about you. There's generally something
wrong somewhere. And, lo and behold! when you
come on board it turns out that you've been in the
habit of drinking nothing but water for years and
His dogmatic reproachful whine stopped. He brooded
profoundly, after the manner of crafty and unintelligent
men. It seemed inconceivable that Captain
Whalley should not laugh at the expression of disgust
that overspread the heavy, yellow countenance. But
Captain Whalley never raised his eyes--sitting in his
arm-chair, outraged, dignified, and motionless.
"Much good it was to me," Massy remonstrated
monotonously, "to insert a clause for dismissal for intemperance
against a man who drinks nothing but water.
And you looked so upset, too, when I read my draft in
the lawyer's office that morning, Captain Whalley,--
you looked so crestfallen, that I made sure I had gone
home on your weak spot. A shipowner can't be too
careful as to the sort of skipper he gets. You must
have been laughing at me in your sleeve all the blessed
time. . . . Eh? What are you going to say?"
Captain Whalley had only shuffled his feet slightly.
A dull animosity became apparent in Massy's sideways
"But recollect that there are other grounds of dismissal.
There's habitual carelessness, amounting to incompetence--
there's gross and persistent neglect of
duty. I am not quite as big a fool as you try to make
me out to be. You have been careless of late--leaving
everything to that Serang. Why! I've seen you letting
that old fool of a Malay take bearings for you,
as if you were too big to attend to your work yourself.
And what do you call that silly touch-and-go manner
in which you took the ship over the bar just now? You
expect me to put up with that?"
Leaning on his elbow against the ladder abaft the
bridge, Sterne, the mate, tried to hear, blinking the
while from the distance at the second engineer, who had
come up for a moment, and stood in the engine-room
companion. Wiping his hands on a bunch of cotton
waste, he looked about with indifference to the right
and left at the river banks slipping astern of the
Sofala steadily.
Massy turned full at the chair. The character of his
whine became again threatening.
"Take care. I may yet dismiss you and freeze to your
money for a year. I may . . ."
But before the silent, rigid immobility of the man
whose money had come in the nick of time to save him
from utter ruin, his voice died out in his throat.
"Not that I want you to go," he resumed after a silence,
and in an absurdly insinuating tone. "I want
nothing better than to be friends and renew the agreement,
if you will consent to find another couple of hundred
to help with the new boilers, Captain Whalley.
I've told you before. She must have new boilers; you
know it as well as I do. Have you thought this over?"
He waited. The slender stem of the pipe with its
bulky lump of a bowl at the end hung down from his
thick lips. It had gone out. Suddenly he took it from
between his teeth and wrung his hands slightly.
"Don't you believe me?" He thrust the pipe bowl
into the pocket of his shiny black jacket.
"It's like dealing with the devil," he said. "Why
don't you speak? At first you were so high and mighty
with me I hardly dared to creep about my own deck.
Now I can't get a word from you. You don't seem to
see me at all. What does it mean? Upon my soul, you
terrify me with this deaf and dumb trick. What's going
on in that head of yours? What are you plotting
against me there so hard that you can't say a word?
You will never make me believe that you--you--don't
know where to lay your hands on a couple of hundred.
You have made me curse the day I was born. . . ."
"Mr. Massy," said Captain Whalley suddenly, without
The engineer started violently.
"If that is so I can only beg you to forgive me."
"Starboard," muttered the Serang to the helmsman;
and the Sofala began to swing round the bend into the
second reach.
"Ough!" Massy shuddered. "You make my blood
run cold. What made you come here? What made you
come aboard that evening all of a sudden, with your
high talk and your money--tempting me? I always
wondered what was your motive? You fastened yourself
on me to have easy times and grow fat on my life blood,
I tell you. Was that it? I believe you are the greatest
miser in the world, or else why . . ."
"No. I am only poor," interrupted Captain Whalley,
"Steady," murmured the Serang. Massy turned away
with his chin on his shoulder.
"I don't believe it," he said in his dogmatic tone.
Captain Whalley made no movement. "There you sit
like a gorged vulture--exactly like a vulture."
He embraced the middle of the reach and both the
banks in one blank unseeing circular glance, and left the
bridge slowly.
On turning to descend Massy perceived the head of
Sterne the mate loitering, with his sly confident smile,
his red mustaches and blinking eyes, at the foot of the
Sterne had been a junior in one of the larger shipping
concerns before joining the Sofala. He had thrown up
his berth, he said, "on general principles." The promotion
in the employ was very slow, he complained, and
he thought it was time for him to try and get on a bit
in the world. It seemed as though nobody would ever
die or leave the firm; they all stuck fast in their berths
till they got mildewed; he was tired of waiting; and he
feared that when a vacancy did occur the best servants
were by no means sure of being treated fairly. Besides,
the captain he had to serve under--Captain Provost--
was an unaccountable sort of man, and, he fancied, had
taken a dislike to him for some reason or other. For
doing rather more than his bare duty as likely as not.
When he had done anything wrong he could take a
talking to, like a man; but he expected to be treated
like a man too, and not to be addressed invariably as
though he were a dog. He had asked Captain Provost
plump and plain to tell him where he was at fault, and
Captain Provost, in a most scornful way, had told him
that he was a perfect officer, and that if he disliked the
way he was being spoken to there was the gangway--
he could take himself off ashore at once. But everybody
knew what sort of man Captain Provost was. It was no
use appealing to the office. Captain Provost had too
much influence in the employ. All the same, they had
to give him a good character. He made bold to say
there was nothing in the world against him, and, as he
had happened to hear that the mate of the Sofala had
been taken to the hospital that morning with a sunstroke,
he thought there would be no harm in seeing
whether he would not do. . . .
He had come to Captain Whalley freshly shaved, redfaced,
thin-flanked, throwing out his lean chest; and
had recited his little tale with an open and manly assurance.
Now and then his eyelids quivered slightly,
his hand would steal up to the end of the flaming mustache;
his eyebrows were straight, furry, of a chestnut
color, and the directness of his frank gaze seemed to
tremble on the verge of impudence. Captain Whalley
had engaged him temporarily; then, the other man having
been ordered home by the doctors, he had remained
for the next trip, and then the next. He had now attained
permanency, and the performance of his duties
was marked by an air of serious, single-minded application.
Directly he was spoken to, he began to smile
attentively, with a great deference expressed in his
whole attitude; but there was in the rapid winking
which went on all the time something quizzical, as
though he had possessed the secret of some universal
joke cheating all creation and impenetrable to other
Grave and smiling he watched Massy come down step
by step; when the chief engineer had reached the deck
he swung about, and they found themselves face to face.
Matched as to height and utterly dissimilar, they confronted
each other as if there had been something between
them--something else than the bright strip of
sunlight that, falling through the wide lacing of two
awnings, cut crosswise the narrow planking of the deck
and separated their feet as it were a stream; something
profound and subtle and incalculable, like an unexpressed
understanding, a secret mistrust, or some sort
of fear.
At last Sterne, blinking his deep-set eyes and sticking
forward his scraped, clean-cut chin, as crimson as the
rest of his face, murmured--
"You've seen? He grazed! You've seen?"
Massy, contemptuous, and without raising his yellow,
fleshy countenance, replied in the same pitch--
"Maybe. But if it had been you we would have been
stuck fast in the mud."
"Pardon me, Mr. Massy. I beg to deny it. Of course
a shipowner may say what he jolly well pleases on his
own deck. That's all right; but I beg to . . ."
"Get out of my way!"
The other had a slight start, the impulse of suppressed
indignation perhaps, but held his ground. Massy's
downward glance wandered right and left, as though the
deck all round Sterne had been bestrewn with eggs that
must not be broken, and he had looked irritably for
places where he could set his feet in flight. In the end
he too did not move, though there was plenty of room
to pass on.
"I heard you say up there," went on the mate--"and
a very just remark it was too--that there's always
something wrong. . . ."
"Eavesdropping is what's wrong with YOU, Mr.
"Now, if you would only listen to me for a moment,
Mr. Massy, sir, I could . . ."
"You are a sneak," interrupted Massy in a great
hurry, and even managed to get so far as to repeat, "a
common sneak," before the mate had broken in argumentatively--
"Now, sir, what is it you want? You want . . ."
"I want--I want," stammered Massy, infuriated and
astonished--"I want. How do you know that I want
anything? How dare you? . . . What do you
mean? . . . What are you after--you . . ."
"Promotion." Sterne silenced him with a sort of
candid bravado. The engineer's round soft cheeks quivered
still, but he said quietly enough--
"You are only worrying my head off," and Sterne
met him with a confident little smile.
"A chap in business I know (well up in the world
he is now) used to tell me that this was the proper way.
'Always push on to the front,' he would say. 'Keep
yourself well before your boss. Interfere whenever you
get a chance. Show him what you know. Worry him
into seeing you.' That was his advice. Now I know
no other boss than you here. You are the owner, and
no one else counts for THAT much in my eyes. See, Mr.
Massy? I want to get on. I make no secret of it that
I am one of the sort that means to get on. These are
the men to make use of, sir. You haven't arrived at
the top of the tree, sir, without finding that out--I
dare say."
"Worry your boss in order to get on," mumbled
Massy, as if awestruck by the irreverent originality of
the idea. "I shouldn't wonder if this was just what the
Blue Anchor people kicked you out of the employ for.
Is that what you call getting on? You shall get on in
the same way here if you aren't careful--I can promise
At this Sterne hung his head, thoughtful, perplexed,
winking hard at the deck. All his attempts to enter into
confidential relations with his owner had led of late
to nothing better than these dark threats of dismissal;
and a threat of dismissal would check him at once into
a hesitating silence as though he were not sure that
the proper time for defying it had come. On this occasion
he seemed to have lost his tongue for a moment, and
Massy, getting in motion, heavily passed him by with
an abortive attempt at shouldering. Sterne defeated it
by stepping aside. He turned then swiftly, opening
his mouth very wide as if to shout something after the
engineer, but seemed to think better of it.
Always--as he was ready to confess--on the lookout
for an opening to get on, it had become an instinct with
him to watch the conduct of his immediate superiors for
something "that one could lay hold of." It was his
belief that no skipper in the world would keep his command
for a day if only the owners could be "made to
know." This romantic and naive theory had led him
into trouble more than once, but he remained incorrigible;
and his character was so instinctively disloyal that
whenever he joined a ship the intention of ousting his
commander out of the berth and taking his place was
always present at the back of his head, as a matter of
course. It filled the leisure of his waking hours with
the reveries of careful plans and compromising discoveries--
the dreams of his sleep with images of lucky
turns and favorable accidents. Skippers had been
known to sicken and die at sea, than which nothing
could be better to give a smart mate a chance of showing
what he's made of. They also would tumble overboard
sometimes: he had heard of one or two such cases.
Others again . . . But, as it were constitutionally, he
was faithful to the belief that the conduct of no single
one of them would stand the test of careful watching
by a man who "knew what's what" and who kept his
eyes "skinned pretty well" all the time.
After he had gained a permanent footing on board
the Sofala he allowed his perennial hope to rise high.
To begin with, it was a great advantage to have an old
man for captain: the sort of man besides who in the
nature of things was likely to give up the job before
long from one cause or another. Sterne was greatly
chagrined, however, to notice that he did not seem anyway
near being past his work yet. Still, these old men
go to pieces all at once sometimes. Then there was the
owner-engineer close at hand to be impressed by his zeal
and steadiness. Sterne never for a moment doubted the
obvious nature of his own merits (he was really an excellent
officer); only, nowadays, professional merit alone
does not take a man along fast enough. A chap must
have some push in him, and must keep his wits at work
too to help him forward. He made up his mind to
inherit the charge of this steamer if it was to be done
at all; not indeed estimating the command of the
Sofala as a very great catch, but for the reason that,
out East especially, to make a start is everything, and
one command leads to another.
He began by promising himself to behave with great
circumspection; Massy's somber and fantastic humors
intimidated him as being outside one's usual sea experience;
but he was quite intelligent enough to realize almost
from the first that he was there in the presence of
an exceptional situation. His peculiar prying imagination
penetrated it quickly; the feeling that there was
in it an element which eluded his grasp exasperated his
impatience to get on. And so one trip came to an end,
then another, and he had begun his third before he saw
an opening by which he could step in with any sort of
effect. It had all been very queer and very obscure;
something had been going on near him, as if separated
by a chasm from the common life and the working
routine of the ship, which was exactly like the life and
the routine of any other coasting steamer of that class.
Then one day he made his discovery.
It came to him after all these weeks of watchful observation
and puzzled surmises, suddenly, like the longsought
solution of a riddle that suggests itself to the
mind in a flash. Not with the same authority, however.
Great heavens! Could it be that? And after remaining
thunderstruck for a few seconds he tried to shake
it off with self-contumely, as though it had been the
product of an unhealthy bias towards the Incredible,
the Inexplicable, the Unheard-of--the Mad!
This--the illuminating moment--had occurred the trip
before, on the return passage. They had just left a
place of call on the mainland called Pangu; they were
steaming straight out of a bay. To the east a massive
headland closed the view, with the tilted edges of the
rocky strata showing through its ragged clothing of
rank bushes and thorny creepers. The wind had begun
to sing in the rigging; the sea along the coast, green
and as if swollen a little above the line of the horizon,
seemed to pour itself over, time after time, with a slow
and thundering fall, into the shadow of the leeward
cape; and across the wide opening the nearest of a
group of small islands stood enveloped in the hazy
yellow light of a breezy sunrise; still farther out the
hummocky tops of other islets peeped out motionless
above the water of the channels between, scoured
tumultuously by the breeze.
The usual track of the Sofala both going and returning
on every trip led her for a few miles along this reefinfested
region. She followed a broad lane of water,
dropping astern, one after another, these crumbs of the
earth's crust resembling a squadron of dismasted hulks
run in disorder upon a foul ground of rocks and shoals.
Some of these fragments of land appeared, indeed, no
bigger than a stranded ship; others, quite flat, lay
awash like anchored rafts, like ponderous, black rafts
of stone; several, heavily timbered and round at the
base, emerged in squat domes of deep green foliage that
shuddered darkly all over to the flying touch of cloud
shadows driven by the sudden gusts of the squally season.
The thunderstorms of the coast broke frequently
over that cluster; it turned then shadowy in its whole
extent; it turned more dark, and as if more still in the
play of fire; as if more impenetrably silent in the peals
of thunder; its blurred shapes vanished--dissolving utterly
at times in the thick rain--to reappear clear-cut
and black in the stormy light against the gray sheet of
the cloud--scattered on the slaty round table of
the sea. Unscathed by storms, resisting the work of
years, unfretted by the strife of the world, there it lay
unchanged as on that day, four hundred years ago,
when first beheld by Western eyes from the deck of
a high-pooped caravel.
It was one of these secluded spots that may be found
on the busy sea, as on land you come sometimes upon the
clustered houses of a hamlet untouched by men's restlessness,
untouched by their need, by their thought, and
as if forgotten by time itself. The lives of uncounted
generations had passed it by, and the multitudes of seafowl,
urging their way from all the points of the horizon
to sleep on the outer rocks of the group, unrolled the
converging evolutions of their flight in long somber
streamers upon the glow of the sky. The palpitating
cloud of their wings soared and stooped over the pinnacles
of the rocks, over the rocks slender like spires, squat
like martello towers; over the pyramidal heaps like fallen
ruins, over the lines of bald bowlders showing like a wall
of stones battered to pieces and scorched by lightning--
with the sleepy, clear glimmer of water in every breach.
The noise of their continuous and violent screaming
filled the air.
This great noise would meet the Sofala coming up from
Batu Beru; it would meet her on quiet evenings, a pitiless
and savage clamor enfeebled by distance, the
clamor of seabirds settling to rest, and struggling for
a footing at the end of the day. No one noticed it
especially on board; it was the voice of their ship's unerring
landfall, ending the steady stretch of a hundred
miles. She had made good her course, she had run her
distance till the punctual islets began to emerge one by
one, the points of rocks, the hummocks of earth . . .
and the cloud of birds hovered--the restless cloud emitting
a strident and cruel uproar, the sound of the familiar
scene, the living part of the broken land beneath,
of the outspread sea, and of the high sky without a
But when the Sofala happened to close with the land
after sunset she would find everything very still there
under the mantle of the night. All would be still, dumb,
almost invisible--but for the blotting out of the low
constellations occulted in turns behind the vague masses
of the islets whose true outlines eluded the eye amongst
the dark spaces of the heaven: and the ship's three lights,
resembling three stars--the red and the green with the
white above--her three lights, like three companion
stars wandering on the earth, held their unswerving
course for the passage at the southern end of the group.
Sometimes there were human eyes open to watch them
come nearer, traveling smoothly in the somber void; the
eyes of a naked fisherman in his canoe floating over a
reef. He thought drowsily: "Ha! The fire-ship that
once in every moon goes in and comes out of Pangu
bay." More he did not know of her. And just as he
had detected the faint rhythm of the propeller beating
the calm water a mile and a half away, the time would
come for the Sofala to alter her course, the lights would
swing off him their triple beam--and disappear.
A few miserable, half-naked families, a sort of outcast
tribe of long-haired, lean, and wild-eyed people, strove
for their living in this lonely wilderness of islets, lying
like an abandoned outwork of the land at the gates of
the bay. Within the knots and loops of the rocks the
water rested more transparent than crystal under their
crooked and leaky canoes, scooped out of the trunk of
a tree: the forms of the bottom undulated slightly to
the dip of a paddle; and the men seemed to hang in the
air, they seemed to hang inclosed within the fibers of a
dark, sodden log, fishing patiently in a strange, unsteady,
pellucid, green air above the shoals.
Their bodies stalked brown and emaciated as if dried
up in the sunshine; their lives ran out silently; the
homes where they were born, went to rest, and died--
flimsy sheds of rushes and coarse grass eked out with
a few ragged mats--were hidden out of sight from the
open sea. No glow of their household fires ever kindled
for a seaman a red spark upon the blind night of the
group: and the calms of the coast, the flaming long
calms of the equator, the unbreathing, concentrated
calms like the deep introspection of a passionate nature,
brooded awfully for days and weeks together over the
unchangeable inheritance of their children; till at last
the stones, hot like live embers, scorched the naked sole,
till the water clung warm, and sickly, and as if thickened,
about the legs of lean men with girded loins, wading
thigh-deep in the pale blaze of the shallows. And
it would happen now and then that the Sofala, through
some delay in one of the ports of call, would heave in
sight making for Pangu bay as late as noonday.
Only a blurring cloud at first, the thin mist of her
smoke would arise mysteriously from an empty point on
the clear line of sea and sky. The taciturn fishermen
within the reefs would extend their lean arms towards
the offing; and the brown figures stooping on the tiny
beaches, the brown figures of men, women, and children
grubbing in the sand in search of turtles' eggs, would
rise up, crooked elbow aloft and hand over the eyes, to
watch this monthly apparition glide straight on, swerve
off--and go by. Their ears caught the panting of that
ship; their eyes followed her till she passed between the
two capes of the mainland going at full speed as though
she hoped to make her way unchecked into the very
bosom of the earth.
On such days the luminous sea would give no sign of
the dangers lurking on both sides of her path. Everything
remained still, crushed by the overwhelming power
of the light; and the whole group, opaque in the sunshine,--
the rocks resembling pinnacles, the rocks resembling
spires, the rocks resembling ruins; the forms of
islets resembling beehives, resembling mole-hills, the
islets recalling the shapes of haystacks, the contours of
ivy-clad towers,--would stand reflected together upside
down in the unwrinkled water, like carved toys of ebony
disposed on the silvered plate-glass of a mirror.
The first touch of blowing weather would envelop the
whole at once in the spume of the windward breakers,
as if in a sudden cloudlike burst of steam; and the clear
water seemed fairly to boil in all the passages. The
provoked sea outlined exactly in a design of angry foam
the wide base of the group; the submerged level of
broken waste and refuse left over from the building of
the coast near by, projecting its dangerous spurs, all
awash, far into the channel, and bristling with wicked
long spits often a mile long: with deadly spits made of
froth and stones.
And even nothing more than a brisk breeze--as on
that morning, the voyage before, when the Sofala left
Pangu bay early, and Mr. Sterne's discovery was to
blossom out like a flower of incredible and evil aspect
from the tiny seed of instinctive suspicion,--even such
a breeze had enough strength to tear the placid mask
from the face of the sea. To Sterne, gazing with indifference,
it had been like a revelation to behold for the
first time the dangers marked by the hissing livid
patches on the water as distinctly as on the engraved
paper of a chart. It came into his mind that this was
the sort of day most favorable for a stranger attempting
the passage: a clear day, just windy enough for
the sea to break on every ledge, buoying, as it were,
the channel plainly to the sight; whereas during a calm
you had nothing to depend on but the compass and the
practiced judgment of your eye. And yet the successive
captains of the Sofala had had to take her
through at night more than once. Nowadays you could
not afford to throw away six or seven hours of a
steamer's time. That you couldn't. But then use is
everything, and with proper care . . . The channel
was broad and safe enough; the main point was to hit
upon the entrance correctly in the dark--for if a man
got himself involved in that stretch of broken water
over yonder he would never get out with a whole ship--
if he ever got out at all.
This was Sterne's last train of thought independent
of the great discovery. He had just seen to the securing
of the anchor, and had remained forward idling
away a moment or two. The captain was in charge on
the bridge. With a slight yawn he had turned away
from his survey of the sea and had leaned his shoulders
against the fish davit.
These, properly speaking, were the very last moments
of ease he was to know on board the Sofala. All the
instants that came after were to be pregnant with purpose
and intolerable with perplexity. No more idle,
random thoughts; the discovery would put them on the
rack, till sometimes he wished to goodness he had been
fool enough not to make it at all. And yet, if his
chance to get on rested on the discovery of "something
wrong," he could not have hoped for a greater stroke
of luck.
The knowledge was too disturbing, really. There was
"something wrong" with a vengeance, and the moral
certitude of it was at first simply frightful to contemplate.
Sterne had been looking aft in a mood so idle,
that for once he was thinking no harm of anyone. His
captain on the bridge presented himself naturally to
his sight. How insignificant, how casual was the
thought that had started the train of discovery--like an
accidental spark that suffices to ignite the charge of a
tremendous mine!
Caught under by the breeze, the awnings of the foredeck
bellied upwards and collapsed slowly, and above
their heavy flapping the gray stuff of Captain Whalley's
roomy coat fluttered incessantly around his arms and
trunk. He faced the wind in full light, with his great
silvery beard blown forcibly against his chest; the eyebrows
overhung heavily the shadows whence his glance
appeared to be staring ahead piercingly. Sterne could
just detect the twin gleam of the whites shifting under
the shaggy arches of the brow. At short range these
eyes, for all the man's affable manner, seemed to look
you through and through. Sterne never could defend
himself from that feeling when he had occasion to speak
with his captain. He did not like it. What a big
heavy man he appeared up there, with that little
shrimp of a Serang in close attendance--as was usual
in this extraordinary steamer! Confounded absurd custom
that. He resented it. Surely the old fellow could
have looked after his ship without that loafing native
at his elbow. Sterne wriggled his shoulders with disgust.
What was it? Indolence or what?
That old skipper must have been growing lazy for
years. They all grew lazy out East here (Sterne was
very conscious of his own unimpaired activity); they
got slack all over. But he towered very erect on the
bridge; and quite low by his side, as you see a small
child looking over the edge of a table, the battered soft
hat and the brown face of the Serang peeped over the
white canvas screen of the rail.
No doubt the Malay was standing back, nearer to the
wheel; but the great disparity of size in close association
amused Sterne like the observation of a bizarre fact
in nature. They were as queer fish out of the sea as
any in it.
He saw Captain Whalley turn his head quickly to
speak to his Serang; the wind whipped the whole white
mass of the beard sideways. He would be directing the
chap to look at the compass for him, or what not. Of
course. Too much trouble to step over and see for himself.
Sterne's scorn for that bodily indolence which
overtakes white men in the East increased on reflection.
Some of them would be utterly lost if they hadn't all
these natives at their beck and call; they grew perfectly
shameless about it too. He was not of that sort, thank
God! It wasn't in him to make himself dependent for
his work on any shriveled-up little Malay like that. As
if one could ever trust a silly native for anything in
the world! But that fine old man thought differently,
it seems. There they were together, never far apart;
a pair of them, recalling to the mind an old whale attended
by a little pilot-fish.
The fancifulness of the comparison made him smile.
A whale with an inseparable pilot-fish! That's what
the old man looked like; for it could not be said he
looked like a shark, though Mr. Massy had called him
that very name. But Mr. Massy did not mind what he
said in his savage fits. Sterne smiled to himself--and
gradually the ideas evoked by the sound, by the imagined
shape of the word pilot-fish; the ideas of aid, of
guidance needed and received, came uppermost in his
mind: the word pilot awakened the idea of trust, of
dependence, the idea of welcome, clear-eyed help brought
to the seaman groping for the land in the dark: groping
blindly in fogs: feeling their way in the thick weather
of the gales that, filling the air with a salt mist blown
up from the sea, contract the range of sight on all
sides to a shrunken horizon that seems within reach of
the hand.
A pilot sees better than a stranger, because his local
knowledge, like a sharper vision, completes the shapes
of things hurriedly glimpsed; penetrates the veils of
mist spread over the land by the storms of the sea; defines
with certitude the outlines of a coast lying under
the pall of fog, the forms of landmarks half buried in a
starless night as in a shallow grave. He recognizes because
he already knows. It is not to his far-reaching
eye but to his more extensive knowledge that the pilot
looks for certitude; for this certitude of the ship's position
on which may depend a man's good fame and the
peace of his conscience, the justification of the trust
deposited in his hands, with his own life too, which is
seldom wholly his to throw away, and the humble lives
of others rooted in distant affections, perhaps, and made
as weighty as the lives of kings by the burden of the
awaiting mystery. The pilot's knowledge brings relief
and certitude to the commander of a ship; the Serang,
however, in his fanciful suggestion of a pilot-fish attending
a whale, could not in any way be credited with
a superior knowledge. Why should he have it? These
two men had come on that run together--the white and
the brown--on the same day: and of course a white man
would learn more in a week than the best native would
in a month. He was made to stick to the skipper as
though he were of some use--as the pilot-fish, they say,
is to the whale. But how--it was very marked--how?
A pilot-fish--a pilot--a . . . But if not superior
knowledge then . . .
Sterne's discovery was made. It was repugnant to his
imagination, shocking to his ideas of honesty, shocking
to his conception of mankind. This enormity affected
one's outlook on what was possible in this world: it was
as if for instance the sun had turned blue, throwing a
new and sinister light on men and nature. Really in
the first moment he had felt sickish, as though he had
got a blow below the belt: for a second the very color
of the sea seemed changed--appeared queer to his wandering
eye; and he had a passing, unsteady sensation in
all his limbs as though the earth had started turning
the other way.
A very natural incredulity succeeding this sense of
upheaval brought a measure of relief. He had gasped;
it was over. But afterwards during all that day sudden
paroxysms of wonder would come over him in the midst
of his occupations. He would stop and shake his head.
The revolt of his incredulity had passed away almost as
quick as the first emotion of discovery, and for the next
twenty-four hours he had no sleep. That would never
do. At meal-times (he took the foot of the table set
up for the white men on the bridge) he could not help
losing himself in a fascinated contemplation of Captain
Whalley opposite. He watched the deliberate upward
movements of the arm; the old man put his food to his
lips as though he never expected to find any taste in
his daily bread, as though he did not know anything
about it. He fed himself like a somnambulist. "It's an
awful sight," thought Sterne; and he watched the long
period of mournful, silent immobility, with a big brown
hand lying loosely closed by the side of the plate, till
he noticed the two engineers to the right and left looking
at him in astonishment. He would close his mouth
in a hurry then, and lowering his eyes, wink rapidly at
his plate. It was awful to see the old chap sitting
there; it was even awful to think that with three words
he could blow him up sky-high. All he had to do was
to raise his voice and pronounce a single short sentence,
and yet that simple act seemed as impossible to attempt
as moving the sun out of its place in the sky. The old
chap could eat in his terrific mechanical way; but Sterne,
from mental excitement, could not--not that evening,
at any rate.
He had had ample time since to get accustomed to the
strain of the meal-hours. He would never have believed
it. But then use is everything; only the very potency
of his success prevented anything resembling elation.
He felt like a man who, in his legitimate search for a
loaded gun to help him on his way through the world,
chances to come upon a torpedo--upon a live torpedo
with a shattering charge in its head and a pressure of
many atmospheres in its tail. It is the sort of weapon
to make its possessor careworn and nervous. He had
no mind to be blown up himself; and he could not get
rid of the notion that the explosion was bound to damage
him too in some way.
This vague apprehension had restrained him at first.
He was able now to eat and sleep with that fearful
weapon by his side, with the conviction of its power
always in mind. It had not been arrived at by any
reflective process; but once the idea had entered his
head, the conviction had followed overwhelmingly in a
multitude of observed little facts to which before he had
given only a languid attention. The abrupt and faltering
intonations of the deep voice; the taciturnity put
on like an armor; the deliberate, as if guarded, movements;
the long immobilities, as if the man he watched
had been afraid to disturb the very air: every familiar
gesture, every word uttered in his hearing, every sigh
overheard, had acquired a special significance, a confirmatory
Every day that passed over the Sofala appeared to
Sterne simply crammed full with proofs--with incontrovertible
proofs. At night, when off duty, he would
steal out of his cabin in pyjamas (for more proofs) and
stand a full hour, perhaps, on his bare feet below the
bridge, as absolutely motionless as the awning stanchion
in its deck socket near by. On the stretches of easy
navigation it is not usual for a coasting captain to remain
on deck all the time of his watch. The Serang
keeps it for him as a matter of custom; in open water,
on a straight course, he is usually trusted to look after
the ship by himself. But this old man seemed incapable
of remaining quietly down below. No doubt he could
not sleep. And no wonder. This was also a proof.
Suddenly in the silence of the ship panting upon the
still, dark sea, Sterne would hear a low voice above him
exclaiming nervously--
"You are watching the compass well?"
"Yes, I am watching, Tuan."
"The ship is making her course?"
"She is, Tuan. Very straight."
"It is well; and remember, Serang, that the order
is that you are to mind the helmsmen and keep a lookout
with care, the same as if I were not on deck."
Then, when the Serang had made his answer, the low
tones on the bridge would cease, and everything round
Sterne seemed to become more still and more profoundly
silent. Slightly chilled and with his back aching a little
from long immobility, he would steal away to his room
on the port side of the deck. He had long since parted
with the last vestige of incredulity; of the original
emotions, set into a tumult by the discovery, some trace
of the first awe alone remained. Not the awe of the
man himself--he could blow him up sky-high with six
words--rather it was an awestruck indignation at the
reckless perversity of avarice (what else could it be?),
at the mad and somber resolution that for the sake of a
few dollars more seemed to set at naught the common
rule of conscience and pretended to struggle against
the very decree of Providence.
You could not find another man like this one in the
whole round world--thank God. There was something
devilishly dauntless in the character of such a deception
which made you pause.
Other considerations occurring to his prudence had
kept him tongue-tied from day to day. It seemed to
him now that it would yet have been easier to speak out
in the first hour of discovery. He almost regretted not
having made a row at once. But then the very monstrosity
of the disclosure . . . Why! He could hardly
face it himself, let alone pointing it out to somebody
else. Moreover, with a desperado of that sort one never
knew. The object was not to get him out (that was
as well as done already), but to step into his place.
Bizarre as the thought seemed he might have shown
fight. A fellow up to working such a fraud would have
enough cheek for anything; a fellow that, as it were,
stood up against God Almighty Himself. He was a
horrid marvel--that's what he was: he was perfectly
capable of brazening out the affair scandalously till he
got him (Sterne) kicked out of the ship and everlastingly
damaged his prospects in this part of the East.
Yet if you want to get on something must be risked. At
times Sterne thought he had been unduly timid of taking
action in the past; and what was worse, it had come to
this, that in the present he did not seem to know what
action to take.
Massy's savage moroseness was too disconcerting. It
was an incalculable factor of the situation. You could
not tell what there was behind that insulting ferocity.
How could one trust such a temper; it did not put
Sterne in bodily fear for himself, but it frightened him
exceedingly as to his prospects.
Though of course inclined to credit himself with exceptional
powers of observation, he had by now lived
too long with his discovery. He had gone on looking
at nothing else, till at last one day it occurred to him
that the thing was so obvious that no one could miss
seeing it. There were four white men in all on board
the Sofala. Jack, the second engineer, was too dull to
notice anything that took place out of his engine-room.
Remained Massy--the owner--the interested person--
nearly going mad with worry. Sterne had heard and
seen more than enough on board to know what ailed him;
but his exasperation seemed to make him deaf to cautious
overtures. If he had only known it, there was the
very thing he wanted. But how could you bargain with
a man of that sort? It was like going into a tiger's den
with a piece of raw meat in your hand. He was as
likely as not to rend you for your pains. In fact, he
was always threatening to do that very thing; and the
urgency of the case, combined with the impossibility of
handling it with safety, made Sterne in his watches below
toss and mutter open-eyed in his bunk, for hours, as
though he had been burning with fever.
Occurrences like the crossing of the bar just now were
extremely alarming to his prospects. He did not want
to be left behind by some swift catastrophe. Massy being
on the bridge, the old man had to brace himself up
and make a show, he supposed. But it was getting very
bad with him, very bad indeed, now. Even Massy had
been emboldened to find fault this time; Sterne, listening
at the foot of the ladder, had heard the other's
whimpering and artless denunciations. Luckily the
beast was very stupid and could not see the why of all
this. However, small blame to him; it took a clever man
to hit upon the cause. Nevertheless, it was high time to
do something. The old man's game could not be kept
up for many days more.
"I may yet lose my life at this fooling--let alone my
chance," Sterne mumbled angrily to himself, after the
stooping back of the chief engineer had disappeared
round the corner of the skylight. Yes, no doubt--he
thought; but to blurt out his knowledge would not advance
his prospects. On the contrary, it would blast
them utterly as likely as not. He dreaded another
failure. He had a vague consciousness of not being
much liked by his fellows in this part of the world; inexplicably
enough, for he had done nothing to them.
Envy, he supposed. People were always down on a
clever chap who made no bones about his determination
to get on. To do your duty and count on the gratitude
of that brute Massy would be sheer folly. He was a bad
lot. Unmanly! A vicious man! Bad! Bad! A brute!
A brute without a spark of anything human about him;
without so much as simple curiosity even, or else surely
he would have responded in some way to all these hints
he had been given. . . . Such insensibility was almost
mysterious. Massy's state of exasperation seemed to
Sterne to have made him stupid beyond the ordinary
silliness of shipowners.
Sterne, meditating on the embarrassments of that stupidity,
forgot himself completely. His stony, unwinking
stare was fixed on the planks of the deck.
The slight quiver agitating the whole fabric of the
ship was more perceptible in the silent river, shaded and
still like a forest path. The Sofala, gliding with an
even motion, had passed beyond the coast-belt of mud
and mangroves. The shores rose higher, in firm sloping
banks, and the forest of big trees came down to the
brink. Where the earth had been crumbled by the
floods it showed a steep brown cut, denuding a mass of
roots intertwined as if wrestling underground; and in
the air, the interlaced boughs, bound and loaded with
creepers, carried on the struggle for life, mingled their
foliage in one solid wall of leaves, with here and there
the shape of an enormous dark pillar soaring, or a
ragged opening, as if torn by the flight of a cannonball,
disclosing the impenetrable gloom within, the
secular inviolable shade of the virgin forest. The
thump of the engines reverberated regularly like the
strokes of a metronome beating the measure of the vast
silence, the shadow of the western wall had fallen across
the river, and the smoke pouring backwards from the
funnel eddied down behind the ship, spread a thin
dusky veil over the somber water, which, checked by
the flood-tide, seemed to lie stagnant in the whole
straight length of the reaches.
Sterne's body, as if rooted on the spot, trembled slightly
from top to toe with the internal vibration of the ship;
from under his feet came sometimes a sudden clang of
iron, the noisy burst of a shout below; to the right the
leaves of the tree-tops caught the rays of the low sun,
and seemed to shine with a golden green light of their
own shimmering around the highest boughs which stood
out black against a smooth blue sky that seemed to
droop over the bed of the river like the roof of a tent.
The passengers for Batu Beru, kneeling on the planks,
were engaged in rolling their bedding of mats busily;
they tied up bundles, they snapped the locks of wooden
chests. A pockmarked peddler of small wares threw his
head back to drain into his throat the last drops out of
an earthenware bottle before putting it away in a roll
of blankets. Knots of traveling traders standing about
the deck conversed in low tones; the followers of a small
Rajah from down the coast, broad-faced, simple young
fellows in white drawers and round white cotton caps
with their colored sarongs twisted across their bronze
shoulders, squatted on their hams on the hatch, chewing
betel with bright red mouths as if they had been tasting
blood. Their spears, lying piled up together within the
circle of their bare toes, resembled a casual bundle of
dry bamboos; a thin, livid Chinaman, with a bulky
package wrapped up in leaves already thrust under his
arm, gazed ahead eagerly; a wandering Kling rubbed
his teeth with a bit of wood, pouring over the side a
bright stream of water out of his lips; the fat Rajah
dozed in a shabby deck-chair,--and at the turn of every
bend the two walls of leaves reappeared running
parallel along the banks, with their impenetrable solidity
fading at the top to a vaporous mistiness of countless
slender twigs growing free, of young delicate branches
shooting from the topmost limbs of hoary trunks, of
feathery heads of climbers like delicate silver sprays
standing up without a quiver. There was not a sign
of a clearing anywhere; not a trace of human habitation,
except when in one place, on the bare end of a low
point under an isolated group of slender tree-ferns, the
jagged, tangled remnants of an old hut on piles appeared
with that peculiar aspect of ruined bamboo walls
that look as if smashed with a club. Farther on, half
hidden under the drooping bushes, a canoe containing
a man and a woman, together with a dozen green cocoanuts
in a heap, rocked helplessly after the Sofala had
passed, like a navigating contrivance of venturesome
insects, of traveling ants; while two glassy folds of
water streaming away from each bow of the steamer
across the whole width of the river ran with her up
stream smoothly, fretting their outer ends into a brown
whispering tumble of froth against the miry foot of
each bank.
"I must," thought Sterne, "bring that brute Massy
to his bearings. It's getting too absurd in the end.
Here's the old man up there buried in his chair--he
may just as well be in his grave for all the use he'll ever
be in the world--and the Serang's in charge. Because
that's what he is. In charge. In the place that's mine
by rights. I must bring that savage brute to his bearings.
I'll do it at once, too . . ."
When the mate made an abrupt start, a little brown
half-naked boy, with large black eyes, and the string
of a written charm round his neck, became panic-struck
at once. He dropped the banana he had been munching,
and ran to the knee of a grave dark Arab in flowing
robes, sitting like a Biblical figure, incongruously,
on a yellow tin trunk corded with a rope of twisted
rattan. The father, unmoved, put out his hand to pat
the little shaven poll protectingly.
Sterne crossed the deck upon the track of the chief
engineer. Jack, the second, retreating backwards down
the engine-room ladder, and still wiping his hands,
treated him to an incomprehensible grin of white teeth
out of his grimy hard face; Massy was nowhere to be
seen. He must have gone straight into his berth.
Sterne scratched at the door softly, then, putting his
lips to the rose of the ventilator, said--
"I must speak to you, Mr. Massy. Just give me a
minute or two."
"I am busy. Go away from my door."
"But pray, Mr. Massy . . ."
"You go away. D'you hear? Take yourself off altogether--
to the other end of the ship--quite away . . ."
The voice inside dropped low. "To the devil."
Sterne paused: then very quietly--
"It's rather pressing. When do you think you will
be at liberty, sir?"
The answer to this was an exasperated "Never"; and
at once Sterne, with a very firm expression of face,
turned the handle.
Mr. Massy's stateroom--a narrow, one-berth cabin--
smelt strongly of soap, and presented to view a swept,
dusted, unadorned neatness, not so much bare as barren,
not so much severe as starved and lacking in humanity,
like the ward of a public hospital, or rather (owing to
the small size) like the clean retreat of a desperately
poor but exemplary person. Not a single photograph
frame ornamented the bulkheads; not a single article of
clothing, not as much as a spare cap, hung from the
brass hooks. All the inside was painted in one plain
tint of pale blue; two big sea-chests in sailcloth covers
and with iron padlocks fitted exactly in the space under
the bunk. One glance was enough to embrace all the
strip of scrubbed planks within the four unconcealed
corners. The absence of the usual settee was striking;
the teak-wood top of the washing-stand seemed hermetically
closed, and so was the lid of the writing-desk,
which protruded from the partition at the foot of the
bed-place, containing a mattress as thin as a pancake
under a threadbare blanket with a faded red stripe, and
a folded mosquito-net against the nights spent in harbor.
There was not a scrap of paper anywhere in sight, no
boots on the floor, no litter of any sort, not a speck of
dust anywhere; no traces of pipe-ash even, which, in
a heavy smoker, was morally revolting, like a manifestation
of extreme hypocrisy; and the bottom of the old
wooden arm-chair (the only seat there), polished with
much use, shone as if its shabbiness had been waxed.
The screen of leaves on the bank, passing as if unrolled
endlessly in the round opening of the port, sent a wavering
network of light and shade into the place.
Sterne, holding the door open with one hand, had thrust
in his head and shoulders. At this amazing intrusion
Massy, who was doing absolutely nothing, jumped up
"Don't call names," murmured Sterne hurriedly. "I
won't be called names. I think of nothing but your
good, Mr. Massy."
A pause as of extreme astonishment followed. They
both seemed to have lost their tongues. Then the mate
went on with a discreet glibness.
"You simply couldn't conceive what's going on on
board your ship. It wouldn't enter your head for a
moment. You are too good--too--too upright, Mr.
Massy, to suspect anybody of such a . . . It's enough
to make your hair stand on end."
He watched for the effect: Massy seemed dazed, uncomprehending.
He only passed the palm of his hand
on the coal-black wisps plastered across the top of his
head. In a tone suddenly changed to confidential audacity
Sterne hastened on.
"Remember that there's only six weeks left to
run . . ." The other was looking at him stonily . . .
"so anyhow you shall require a captain for the ship
before long."
Then only, as if that suggestion had scarified his flesh
in the manner of red-hot iron, Massy gave a start and
seemed ready to shriek. He contained himself by a
great effort.
"Require a captain," he repeated with scathing slowness.
"Who requires a captain? You dare to tell me
that I need any of you humbugging sailors to run my
ship. You and your likes have been fattening on me
for years. It would have hurt me less to throw
my money overboard. Pam--pe--red us--e--less
f-f-f-frauds. The old ship knows as much as the best
of you." He snapped his teeth audibly and growled
through them, "The silly law requires a captain."
Sterne had taken heart of grace meantime.
"And the silly insurance people too, as well," he said
lightly. "But never mind that. What I want to ask
is: Why shouldn't _I_ do, sir? I don't say but you could
take a steamer about the world as well as any of us
sailors. I don't pretend to tell YOU that it is a very
great trick . . ." He emitted a short, hollow guffaw,
familiarly . . . "I didn't make the law--but there it
is; and I am an active young fellow! I quite hold with
your ideas; I know your ways by this time, Mr. Massy.
I wouldn't try to give myself airs like that--that--er
lazy specimen of an old man up there."
He put a marked emphasis on the last sentence, to
lead Massy away from the track in case . . . but he
did not doubt of now holding his success. The chief
engineer seemed nonplused, like a slow man invited to
catch hold of a whirligig of some sort.
"What you want, sir, is a chap with no nonsense about
him, who would be content to be your sailing-master.
Quite right, too. Well, I am fit for the work as much
as that Serang. Because that's what it amounts to.
Do you know, sir, that a dam' Malay like a monkey is
in charge of your ship--and no one else. Just listen
to his feet pit-patting above us on the bridge--real
officer in charge. He's taking her up the river while
the great man is wallowing in the chair--perhaps asleep;
and if he is, that would not make it much worse either--
take my word for it."
He tried to thrust himself farther in. Massy, with
lowered forehead, one hand grasping the back of the
arm-chair, did not budge.
"You think, sir, that the man has got you tight in
his agreement . . ." Massy raised a heavy snarling
face at this . . . "Well, sir, one can't help hearing
of it on board. It's no secret. And it has been the
talk on shore for years; fellows have been making bets
about it. No, sir! It's YOU who have got him at your
mercy. You will say that you can't dismiss him for
indolence. Difficult to prove in court, and so on. Why,
yes. But if you say the word, sir, I can tell you something
about his indolence that will give you the clear
right to fire him out on the spot and put me in charge
for the rest of this very trip--yes, sir, before we leave
Batu Beru--and make him pay a dollar a day for his
keep till we get back, if you like. Now, what do you
think of that? Come, sir. Say the word. It's really
well worth your while, and I am quite ready to take
your bare word. A definite statement from you would
be as good as a bond."
His eyes began to shine. He insisted. A simple statement,--
and he thought to himself that he would manage
somehow to stick in his berth as long as it suited
him. He would make himself indispensable; the ship
had a bad name in her port; it would be easy to scare
the fellows off. Massy would have to keep him.
"A definite statement from me would be enough,"
Massy repeated slowly.
"Yes, sir. It would." Sterne stuck out his chin
cheerily and blinked at close quarters with that unconscious
impudence which had the power to enrage Massy
beyond anything.
The engineer spoke very distinctly.
"Listen well to me, then, Mr. Sterne: I wouldn't--
d'ye hear?--I wouldn't promise you the value of two
pence for anything YOU can tell me."
He struck Sterne's arm away with a smart blow, and
catching hold of the handle pulled the door to. The
terrific slam darkened the cabin instantaneously to his
eye as if after the flash of an explosion. At once he
dropped into the chair. "Oh, no! You don't!" he
whispered faintly.
The ship had in that place to shave the bank so close
that the gigantic wall of leaves came gliding like a
shutter against the port; the darkness of the primeval
forest seemed to flow into that bare cabin with the odor
of rotting leaves, of sodden soil--the strong muddy smell
of the living earth steaming uncovered after the passing
of a deluge. The bushes swished loudly alongside;
above there was a series of crackling sounds, with a
sharp rain of small broken branches falling on the
bridge; a creeper with a great rustle snapped on the
head of a boat davit, and a long, luxuriant green twig
actually whipped in and out of the open port, leaving
behind a few torn leaves that remained suddenly at rest
on Mr. Massy's blanket. Then, the ship sheering out
in the stream, the light began to return but did not
augment beyond a subdued clearness: for the sun was
very low already, and the river, wending its sinuous
course through a multitude of secular trees as if at the
bottom of a precipitous gorge, had been already invaded
by a deepening gloom--the swift precursor of
the night.
"Oh, no, you don't!" murmured the engineer again.
His lips trembled almost imperceptibly; his hands too,
a little: and to calm himself he opened the writing-desk,
spread out a sheet of thin grayish paper covered with
a mass of printed figures and began to scan them attentively
for the twentieth time this trip at least.
With his elbows propped, his head between his hands,
he seemed to lose himself in the study of an abstruse
problem in mathematics. It was the list of the winning
numbers from the last drawing of the great lottery
which had been the one inspiring fact of so many years
of his existence. The conception of a life deprived of
that periodical sheet of paper had slipped away from
him entirely, as another man, according to his nature,
would not have been able to conceive a world without
fresh air, without activity, or without affection. A
great pile of flimsy sheets had been growing for years
in his desk, while the Sofala, driven by the faithful
Jack, wore out her boilers in tramping up and down the
Straits, from cape to cape, from river to river, from
bay to bay; accumulating by that hard labor of an
overworked, starved ship the blackened mass of these
documents. Massy kept them under lock and key like
a treasure. There was in them, as in the experience
of life, the fascination of hope, the excitement of a halfpenetrated
mystery, the longing of a half-satisfied
For days together, on a trip, he would shut himself
up in his berth with them: the thump of the toiling
engines pulsated in his ear; and he would weary his
brain poring over the rows of disconnected figures, bewildering
by their senseless sequence, resembling the
hazards of destiny itself. He nourished a conviction
that there must be some logic lurking somewhere in the
results of chance. He thought he had seen its very
form. His head swam; his limbs ached; he puffed at
his pipe mechanically; a contemplative stupor would
soothe the fretfulness of his temper, like the passive
bodily quietude procured by a drug, while the intellect
remains tensely on the stretch. Nine, nine, aught, four,
two. He made a note. The next winning number of
the great prize was forty-seven thousand and five. These
numbers of course would have to be avoided in the future
when writing to Manilla for the tickets. He mumbled,
pencil in hand . . . "and five. Hm . . . hm." He
wetted his finger: the papers rustled. Ha! But what's
this? Three years ago, in the September drawing, it
was number nine, aught, four, two that took the first
prize. Most remarkable. There was a hint there of
a definite rule! He was afraid of missing some recondite
principle in the overwhelming wealth of his material.
What could it be? and for half an hour he would remain
dead still, bent low over the desk, without twitching a
muscle. At his back the whole berth would be thick
with a heavy body of smoke, as if a bomb had burst
in there, unnoticed, unheard.
At last he would lock up the desk with the decision of
unshaken confidence, jump and go out. He would
walk swiftly back and forth on that part of the foredeck
which was kept clear of the lumber and of the bodies of
the native passengers. They were a great nuisance, but
they were also a source of profit that could not be disdained.
He needed every penny of profit the Sofala
could make. Little enough it was, in all conscience!
The incertitude of chance gave him no concern, since
he had somehow arrived at the conviction that, in the
course of years, every number was bound to have his
winning turn. It was simply a matter of time and of
taking as many tickets as he could afford for every
drawing. He generally took rather more; all the earnings
of the ship went that way, and also the wages he
allowed himself as chief engineer. It was the wages he
paid to others that he begrudged with a reasoned and
at the same time a passionate regret. He scowled at
the lascars with their deck brooms, at the quartermasters
rubbing the brass rails with greasy rags; he
was eager to shake his fist and roar abuse in bad Malay
at the poor carpenter--a timid, sickly, opium-fuddled
Chinaman, in loose blue drawers for all costume, who
invariably dropped his tools and fled below, with streaming
tail and shaking all over, before the fury of that
"devil." But it was when he raised up his eyes to the
bridge where one of these sailor frauds was always
planted by law in charge of his ship that he felt almost
dizzy with rage. He abominated them all; it was an
old feud, from the time he first went to sea, an unlicked
cub with a great opinion of himself, in the
engine-room. The slights that had been put upon him.
The persecutions he had suffered at the hands of skippers--
of absolute nobodies in a steamship after all.
And now that he had risen to be a shipowner they were
still a plague to him: he had absolutely to pay away
precious money to the conceited useless loafers:--As if
a fully qualified engineer--who was the owner as well--
were not fit to be trusted with the whole charge of a
ship. Well! he made it pretty warm for them; but it
was a poor consolation. He had come in time to hate
the ship too for the repairs she required, for the coalbills
he had to pay, for the poor beggarly freights she
earned. He would clench his hand as he walked and hit
the rail a sudden blow, viciously, as though she could
be made to feel pain. And yet he could not do without
er; he needed her; he must hang on to her tooth and
nail to keep his head above water till the expected flood
of fortune came sweeping up and landed him safely on
the high shore of his ambition.
It was now to do nothing, nothing whatever, and have
plenty of money to do it on. He had tasted of power,
the highest form of it his limited experience was aware
of--the power of shipowning. What a deception!
Vanity of vanities! He wondered at his folly. He had
thrown away the substance for the shadow. Of the
gratification of wealth he did not know enough to excite
his imagination with any visions of luxury. How could
he--the child of a drunken boiler-maker--going
straight from the workshop into the engine-room of a
north-country collier! But the notion of the absolute
idleness of wealth he could very well conceive. He
reveled in it, to forget his present troubles; he imagined
himself walking about the streets of Hull (he knew their
gutters well as a boy) with his pockets full of sovereigns.
He would buy himself a house; his married
sisters, their husbands, his old workshop chums, would
render him infinite homage. There would be nothing
to think of. His word would be law. He had been out
of work for a long time before he won his prize, and he
remembered how Carlo Mariani (commonly known as
Paunchy Charley), the Maltese hotel-keeper at the
slummy end of Denham Street, had cringed joyfully
before him in the evening, when the news had come.
Poor Charley, though he made his living by ministering
to various abject vices, gave credit for their food to
many a piece of white wreckage. He was naively overjoyed
at the idea of his old bills being paid, and he
reckoned confidently on a spell of festivities in the
cavernous grog-shop downstairs. Massy remembered
the curious, respectful looks of the "trashy" white men
in the place. His heart had swelled within him. Massy
had left Charley's infamous den directly he had realized
the possibilities open to him, and with his nose in the air.
Afterwards the memory of these adulations was a great
This was the true power of money,--and no trouble
with it, nor any thinking required either. He thought
with difficulty and felt vividly; to his blunt brain the
problems offered by any ordered scheme of life seemed
in their cruel toughness to have been put in his way
by the obvious malevolence of men. As a shipowner
everyone had conspired to make him a nobody. How
could he have been such a fool as to purchase that accursed
ship. He had been abominably swindled; there
was no end to this swindling; and as the difficulties of his
improvident ambition gathered thicker round him, he
really came to hate everybody he had ever come in contact
with. A temper naturally irritable and an amazing
sensitiveness to the claims of his own personality had
ended by making of life for him a sort of inferno--a
place where his lost soul had been given up to the torment
of savage brooding.
But he had never hated anyone so much as that old
man who had turned up one evening to save him from
an utter disaster,--from the conspiracy of the wretched
sailors. He seemed to have fallen on board from the
sky. His footsteps echoed on the empty steamer, and
the strange deep-toned voice on deck repeating interrogatively
the words, "Mr. Massy, Mr. Massy there?"
had been startling like a wonder. And coming up from
the depths of the cold engine-room, where he had been
pottering dismally with a candle amongst the enormous
shadows, thrown on all sides by the skeleton limbs of machinery,
Massy had been struck dumb by astonishment
in the presence of that imposing old man with a beard
like a silver plate, towering in the dusk rendered lurid
by the expiring flames of sunset.
"Want to see me on business? What business? I am
doing no business. Can't you see that this ship is laid
up?" Massy had turned at bay before the pursuing
irony of his disaster. Afterwards he could not believe
his ears. What was that old fellow getting at? Things
don't happen that way. It was a dream. He would
presently wake up and find the man vanished like a
shape of mist. The gravity, the dignity, the firm and
courteous tone of that athletic old stranger impressed
Massy. He was almost afraid. But it was no dream.
Five hundred pounds are no dream. At once he became
suspicious. What did it mean? Of course it was an
offer to catch hold of for dear life. But what could
there be behind?
Before they had parted, after appointing a meeting
in a solicitor's office early on the morrow, Massy was
asking himself, What is his motive? He spent the night
in hammering out the clauses of the agreement--a
unique instrument of its sort whose tenor got bruited
abroad somehow and became the talk and wonder of the
Massy's object had been to secure for himself as many
ways as possible of getting rid of his partner without
being called upon at once to pay back his share. Captain
Whalley's efforts were directed to making the money
secure. Was it not Ivy's money--a part of her fortune
whose only other asset was the time-defying body of her
old father? Sure of his forbearance in the strength of
his love for her, he accepted, with stately serenity,
Massy's stupidly cunning paragraphs against his incompetence,
his dishonesty, his drunkenness, for the sake
of other stringent stipulations. At the end of three
years he was at liberty to withdraw from the partnership,
taking his money with him. Provision was made
for forming a fund to pay him off. But if he left the
Sofala before the term, from whatever cause (barring
death), Massy was to have a whole year for paying.
"Illness?" the lawyer had suggested: a young man
fresh from Europe and not overburdened with business,
who was rather amused. Massy began to whine unctuously,
"How could he be expected? . . ."
"Let that go," Captain Whalley had said with a
superb confidence in his body. "Acts of God," he
added. In the midst of life we are in death, but he
trusted his Maker with a still greater fearlessness--his
Maker who knew his thoughts, his human affections, and
his motives. His Creator knew what use he was making
of his health--how much he wanted it . . . "I trust
my first illness will be my last. I've never been ill that
I can remember," he had remarked. "Let it go."
But at this early stage he had already awakened
Massy's hostility by refusing to make it six hundred
instead of five. "I cannot do that," was all he had said,
simply, but with so much decision that Massy desisted
at once from pressing the point, but had thought to
himself, "Can't! Old curmudgeon. WON'T! He must
have lots of money, but he would like to get hold of a
soft berth and the sixth part of my profits for nothing
if he only could."
And during these years Massy's dislike grew under the
restraint of something resembling fear. The simplicity
of that man appeared dangerous. Of late he had
changed, however, had appeared less formidable and
with a lessened vigor of life, as though he had received
a secret wound. But still he remained incomprehensible
in his simplicity, fearlessness, and rectitude. And when
Massy learned that he meant to leave him at the end of
the time, to leave him confronted with the problem of
boilers, his dislike blazed up secretly into hate.
It had made him so clear-eyed that for a long time now
Mr. Sterne could have told him nothing he did not
know. He had much ado in trying to terrorize that
mean sneak into silence; he wanted to deal alone with
the situation; and--incredible as it might have appeared
to Mr. Sterne--he had not yet given up the desire
and the hope of inducing that hated old man to
stay. Why! there was nothing else to do, unless he were
to abandon his chances of fortune. But now, suddenly,
since the crossing of the bar at Batu Beru things
seemed to be coming rapidly to a point. It disquieted
him so much that the study of the winning numbers
failed to soothe his agitation: and the twilight in the
cabin deepened, very somber.
He put the list away, muttering once more, "Oh, no,
my boy, you don't. Not if I know it." He did not
mean the blinking, eavesdropping humbug to force his
action. He took his head again into his hands; his immobility
confined in the darkness of this shut-up little
place seemed to make him a thing apart infinitely removed
from the stir and the sounds of the deck.
He heard them: the passengers were beginning to
jabber excitedly; somebody dragged a heavy box
past his door. He heard Captain Whalley's voice
"Stations, Mr. Sterne." And the answer from somewhere
on deck forward--
"Ay, ay, sir."
"We shall moor head up stream this time; the ebb
has made."
"Head up stream, sir."
"You will see to it, Mr. Sterne."
The answer was covered by the autocratic clang on the
engine-room gong. The propeller went on beating
slowly: one, two, three; one, two, three--with pauses as
if hesitating on the turn. The gong clanged time after
time, and the water churned this way and that by the
blades was making a great noisy commotion alongside.
Mr. Massy did not move. A shore-light on the other
bank, a quarter of a mile across the river, drifted, no
bigger than a tiny star, passing slowly athwart the circle
of the port. Voices from Mr. Van Wyk's jetty answered
the hails from the ship; ropes were thrown and
missed and thrown again; the swaying flame of a torch
carried in a large sampan coming to fetch away in state
the Rajah from down the coast cast a sudden ruddy
glare into his cabin, over his very person. Mr. Massy
did not move. After a few last ponderous turns the
engines stopped, and the prolonged clanging of the
gong signified that the captain had done with them. A
great number of boats and canoes of all sizes boarded
the off-side of the Sofala. Then after a time the tumult
of splashing, of cries, of shuffling feet, of packages
dropped with a thump, the noise of the native passengers
going away, subsided slowly. On the shore, a
voice, cultivated, slightly authoritative, spoke very
close alongside--
"Brought any mail for me this time?"
"Yes, Mr. Van Wyk." This was from Sterne, answering
over the rail in a tone of respectful cordiality.
"Shall I bring it up to you?"
But the voice asked again--
"Where's the captain?"
"Still on the bridge, I believe. He hasn't left his
chair. Shall I . . ."
The voice interrupted negligently.
"I will come on board."
"Mr. Van Wyk," Sterne suddenly broke out with an
eager effort, "will you do me the favor . . ."
The mate walked away quickly towards the gangway.
A silence fell. Mr. Massy in the dark did not move.
He did not move even when he heard slow shuffling
footsteps pass his cabin lazily. He contented himself
to bellow out through the closed door--
The footsteps came back without haste; the door
handle rattled, and the second engineer appeared in the
opening, shadowy in the sheen of the skylight at his
back, with his face apparently as black as the rest of
his figure.
"We have been very long coming up this time," Mr.
Massy growled, without changing his attitude.
"What do you expect with half the boiler tubes
plugged up for leaks." The second defended himself
"None of your lip," said Massy.
"None of your rotten boilers--I say," retorted his
faithful subordinate without animation, huskily. "Go
down there and carry a head of steam on them yourself--
if you dare. I don't."
"You aren't worth your salt then," Massy said. The
other made a faint noise which resembled a laugh but
might have been a snarl.
"Better go slow than stop the ship altogether," he
admonished his admired superior. Mr. Massy moved
at last. He turned in his chair, and grinding his
"Dam' you and the ship! I wish she were at the
bottom of the sea. Then you would have to starve."
The trusty second engineer closed the door gently.
Massy listened. Instead of passing on to the bathroom
where he should have gone to clean himself, the
second entered his cabin, which was next door. Mr.
Massy jumped up and waited. Suddenly he heard the
lock snap in there. He rushed out and gave a violent
kick to the door.
"I believe you are locking yourself up to get drunk,"
he shouted.
A muffled answer came after a while.
"My own time."
"If you take to boozing on the trip I'll fire you out,"
Massy cried.
An obstinate silence followed that threat. Massy
moved away perplexed. On the bank two figures appeared,
approaching the gangway. He heard a voice
tinged with contempt--
"I would rather doubt your word. But I shall certainly
speak to him of this."
The other voice, Sterne's, said with a sort of regretful
"Thanks. That's all I want. I must do my duty."
Mr. Massy was surprised. A short, dapper figure
leaped lightly on the deck and nearly bounded into him
where he stood beyond the circle of light from the gangway
lamp. When it had passed towards the bridge,
after exchanging a hurried "Good evening," Massy
said surlily to Sterne who followed with slow steps--
"What is it you're making up to Mr. Van Wyk for,
"Far from it, Mr. Massy. I am not good enough for
Mr. Van Wyk. Neither are you, sir, in his opinion, I
am afraid. Captain Whalley is, it seems. He's gone
to ask him to dine up at the house this evening."
Then he murmured to himself darkly--
"I hope he will like it."
Mr. Van Wyk, the white man of Batu Beru, an exnaval
officer who, for reasons best known to himself, had
thrown away the promise of a brilliant career to become
the pioneer of tobacco-planting on that remote part of
the coast, had learned to like Captain Whalley. The
appearance of the new skipper had attracted his attention.
Nothing more unlike all the diverse types he had
seen succeeding each other on the bridge of the Sofala
could be imagined.
At that time Batu Beru was not what it has become
since: the center of a prosperous tobacco-growing district,
a tropically suburban-looking little settlement of
bungalows in one long street shaded with two rows of
trees, embowered by the flowering and trim luxuriance
of the gardens, with a three-mile-long carriage-road for
the afternoon drives and a first-class Resident with a
fat, cheery wife to lead the society of married estatemanagers
and unmarried young fellows in the service
of the big companies.
All this prosperity was not yet; and Mr. Van Wyk
prospered alone on the left bank on his deep clearing
carved out of the forest, which came down above and
below to the water's edge. His lonely bungalow faced
across the river the houses of the Sultan: a restless and
melancholy old ruler who had done with love and war,
for whom life no longer held any savor (except of evil
forebodings) and time never had any value. He was
afraid of death, and hoped he would die before the white
men were ready to take his country from him. He
crossed the river frequently (with never less than ten
boats crammed full of people), in the wistful hope of
extracting some information on the subject from his
own white man. There was a certain chair on the
veranda he always took: the dignitaries of the court
squatted on the rugs and skins between the furniture:
the inferior people remained below on the grass plot
between the house and the river in rows three or four
deep all along the front. Not seldom the visit began at
daybreak. Mr. Van Wyk tolerated these inroads. He
would nod out of his bedroom window, tooth-brush or
razor in hand, or pass through the throng of courtiers in
his bathing robe. He appeared and disappeared humming
a tune, polished his nails with attention, rubbed
his shaved face with eau-de-Cologne, drank his early
tea, went out to see his coolies at work: returned, looked
through some papers on his desk, read a page or two
in a book or sat before his cottage piano leaning back
on the stool, his arms extended, fingers on the keys, his
body swaying slightly from side to side. When absolutely
forced to speak he gave evasive vaguely soothing
answers out of pure compassion: the same feeling perhaps
made him so lavishly hospitable with the aerated
drinks that more than once he left himself without sodawater
for a whole week. That old man had granted him
as much land as he cared to have cleared: it was neither
more nor less than a fortune.
Whether it was fortune or seclusion from his kind that
Mr. Van Wyk sought, he could not have pitched upon
a better place. Even the mail-boats of the subsidized
company calling on the veriest clusters of palm-thatched
hovels along the coast steamed past the mouth of Batu
Beru river far away in the offing. The contract was
old: perhaps in a few years' time, when it had expired,
Batu Beru would be included in the service; meantime
all Mr. Van Wyk's mail was addressed to Malacca,
whence his agent sent it across once a month by the
Sofala. It followed that whenever Massy had run short
of money (through taking too many lottery tickets),
or got into a difficulty about a skipper, Mr. Van Wyk
was deprived of his letter and newspapers. In so far
he had a personal interest in the fortunes of the Sofala.
Though he considered himself a hermit (and for no
passing whim evidently, since he had stood eight years
of it already), he liked to know what went on in the
Handy on the veranda upon a walnut etagere (it had
come last year by the Sofala--everything came by the
Sofala) there lay, piled up under bronze weights, a pile
of the Times' weekly edition, the large sheets of the
Rotterdam Courant, the Graphic in its world-wide
green wrappers, an illustrated Dutch publication without
a cover, the numbers of a German magazine with
covers of the "Bismarck malade" color. There were
also parcels of new music--though the piano (it had
come years ago by the Sofala in the damp atmosphere
of the forests was generally out of tune. It was vexing
to be cut off from everything for sixty days at a stretch
sometimes, without any means of knowing what was the
matter. And when the Sofala reappeared Mr. Van Wyk
would descend the steps of the veranda and stroll over
the grass plot in front of his house, down to the waterside,
with a frown on his white brow.
"You've been laid up after an accident, I presume."
He addressed the bridge, but before anybody could
answer Massy was sure to have already scrambled ashore
over the rail and pushed in, squeezing the palms of his
hands together, bowing his sleek head as if gummed all
over the top with black threads and tapes. And he
would be so enraged at the necessity of having to offer
such an explanation that his moaning would be positively
pitiful, while all the time he tried to compose
his big lips into a smile.
"No, Mr. Van Wyk. You would not believe it. I
couldn't get one of those wretches to take the ship out.
Not a single one of the lazy beasts could be induced,
and the law, you know, Mr. Van Wyk . . ."
He moaned at great length apologetically; the words
conspiracy, plot, envy, came out prominently, whined
with greater energy. Mr. Van Wyk, examining with
a faint grimace his polished finger-nails, would say,
"H'm. Very unfortunate," and turn his back on him.
Fastidious, clever, slightly skeptical, accustomed to the
best society (he had held a much-envied shore appointment
at the Ministry of Marine for a year preceding
his retreat from his profession and from Europe), he
possessed a latent warmth of feeling and a capacity for
sympathy which were concealed by a sort of haughty,
arbitrary indifference of manner arising from his early
training; and by a something an enemy might have
called foppish, in his aspect--like a distorted echo of
past elegance. He managed to keep an almost military
discipline amongst the coolies of the estate he had
dragged into the light of day out of the tangle and
shadows of the jungle; and the white shirt he put
on every evening with its stiff glossy front and high
collar looked as if he had meant to preserve the decent
ceremony of evening-dress, but had wound a thick crimson
sash above his hips as a concession to the wilderness,
once his adversary, now his vanquished companion.
Moreover, it was a hygienic precaution. Worn wide
open in front, a short jacket of some airy silken stuff
floated from his shoulders. His fluffy, fair hair, thin
at the top, curled slightly at the sides; a carefully arranged
mustache, an ungarnished forehead, the gleam
of low patent shoes peeping under the wide bottom of
trowsers cut straight from the same stuff as the gossamer
coat, completed a figure recalling, with its sash, a
pirate chief of romance, and at the same time the elegance
of a slightly bald dandy indulging, in seclusion,
a taste for unorthodox costume.
It was his evening get-up. The proper time for the
Sofala to arrive at Batu Beru was an hour before sunset,
and he looked picturesque, and somehow quite correct
too, walking at the water's edge on the background
of grass slope crowned with a low long bungalow with
an immensely steep roof of palm thatch, and clad to the
eaves in flowering creepers. While the Sofala was being
made fast he strolled in the shade of the few trees left
near the landing-place, waiting till he could go on
board. Her white men were not of his kind. The old
Sultan (though his wistful invasions were a nuisance)
was really much more acceptable to his fastidious taste.
But still they were white; the periodical visits of the
ship made a break in the well-filled sameness of the
days without disturbing his privacy. Moreover, they
were necessary from a business point of view; and
through a strain of preciseness in his nature he was
irritated when she failed to appear at the appointed
The cause of the irregularity was too absurd, and
Massy, in his opinion, was a contemptible idiot. The
first time the Sofala reappeared under the new agreement
swinging out of the bend below, after he had
almost given up all hope of ever seeing her again, he
felt so angry that he did not go down at once to the
landing-place. His servants had come running to him
with the news, and he had dragged a chair close against
the front rail of the veranda, spread his elbows out,
rested his chin on his hands, and went on glaring at
her fixedly while she was being made fast opposite his
house. He could make out easily all the white faces on
board. Who on earth was that kind of patriarch they
had got there on the bridge now?
At last he sprang up and walked down the gravel path.
It was a fact that the very gravel for his paths had
been imported by the Sofala. Exasperated out of his
quiet superciliousness, without looking at anyone right
or left, he accosted Massy straightway in so determined
a manner that the engineer, taken aback, began to
stammer unintelligibly. Nothing could be heard but
the words: "Mr. Van Wyk . . . Indeed, Mr. Van
Wyk . . . For the future, Mr. Van Wyk"--and by the
suffusion of blood Massy's vast bilious face acquired an
unnatural orange tint, out of which the disconcerted
coal-black eyes shone in an extraordinary manner.
"Nonsense. I am tired of this. I wonder you have
the impudence to come alongside my jetty as if I had
it made for your convenience alone."
Massy tried to protest earnestly. Mr. Van Wyk was
very angry. He had a good mind to ask that German
firm--those people in Malacca--what was their name?--
boats with green funnels. They would be only too glad
of the opening to put one of their small steamers on
the run. Yes; Schnitzler, Jacob Schnitzler, would in a
moment. Yes. He had decided to write without delay.
In his agitation Massy caught up his falling pipe.
"You don't mean it, sir!" he shrieked.
"You shouldn't mismanage your business in this
ridiculous manner."
Mr. Van Wyk turned on his heel. The other three
whites on the bridge had not stirred during the scene.
Massy walked hastily from side to side, puffed out his
cheeks, suffocated.
"Stuck up Dutchman!"
And he moaned out feverishly a long tale of griefs.
The efforts he had made for all these years to please
that man. This was the return you got for it, eh?
Pretty. Write to Schnitzler--let in the green-funnel
boats--get an old Hamburg Jew to ruin him. No,
really he could laugh. . . . He laughed sobbingly. . . .
Ha! ha! ha! And make him carry the letter in his own
ship presumably.
He stumbled across a grating and swore. He would
not hesitate to fling the Dutchman's correspondence
overboard--the whole confounded bundle. He had
never, never made any charge for that accommodation.
But Captain Whalley, his new partner, would not let
him probably; besides, it would be only putting off the
evil day. For his own part he would make a hole in the
water rather than look on tamely at the green funnels
overrunning his trade.
He raved aloud. The China boys hung back with the
dishes at the foot of the ladder. He yelled from the
bridge down at the deck, "Aren't we going to have any
chow this evening at all?" then turned violently to
Captain Whalley, who waited, grave and patient, at
the head of the table, smoothing his beard in silence
now and then with a forbearing gesture.
"You don't seem to care what happens to me. Don't
you see that this affects your interests as much as mine?
It's no joking matter."
He took the foot of the table growling between his
"Unless you have a few thousands put away somewhere.
I haven't."
Mr. Van Wyk dined in his thoroughly lit-up bungalow,
putting a point of splendor in the night of his
clearing above the dark bank of the river. Afterwards
he sat down to his piano, and in a pause he became aware
of slow footsteps passing on the path along the front.
A plank or two creaked under a heavy tread; he swung
half round on the music-stool, listening with his fingertips
at rest on the keyboard. His little terrier barked
violently, backing in from the veranda. A deep voice
apologized gravely for "this intrusion." He walked out
At the head of the steps the patriarchal figure, who
was the new captain of the Sofala apparently (he had
seen a round dozen of them, but not one of that sort),
towered without advancing. The little dog barked unceasingly,
till a flick of Mr. Van Wyk's handkerchief
made him spring aside into silence. Captain Whalley,
opening the matter, was met by a punctiliously polite
but determined opposition.
They carried on their discussion standing where they
had come face to face. Mr. Van Wyk observed his
visitor with attention. Then at last, as if forced out of
his reserve--
"I am surprised that you should intercede for such a
confounded fool."
This outbreak was almost complimentary, as if its
meaning had been, "That such a man as you should
intercede!" Captain Whalley let it pass by without
flinching. One would have thought he had heard nothing.
He simply went on to state that he was personally
interested in putting things straight between them.
Personally . . .
But Mr. Van Wyk, really carried away by his disgust
with Massy, became very incisive--
"Indeed--if I am to be frank with you--his whole
character does not seem to me particularly estimable or
trustworthy . . ."
Captain Whalley, always straight, seemed to grow an
inch taller and broader, as if the girth of his chest had
suddenly expanded under his beard.
"My dear sir, you don't think I came here to discuss
a man with whom I am--I am--h'm--closely associated."
A sort of solemn silence lasted for a moment. He was
not used to asking favors, but the importance he attached
to this affair had made him willing to try. . . .
Mr. Van Wyk, favorably impressed, and suddenly mollified
by a desire to laugh, interrupted--
"That's all right if you make it a personal matter;
but you can do no less than sit down and smoke a cigar
with me."
A slight pause, then Captain Whalley stepped forward
heavily. As to the regularity of the service, for the
future he made himself responsible for it; and his name
was Whalley--perhaps to a sailor (he was speaking to
a sailor, was he not?) not altogether unfamiliar. There
was a lighthouse now, on an island. Maybe Mr. Van
Wyk himself . . .
"Oh yes. Oh indeed." Mr. Van Wyk caught on at
once. He indicated a chair. How very interesting.
For his own part he had seen some service in the last
Acheen War, but had never been so far East. Whalley
Island? Of course. Now that was very interesting.
What changes his guest must have seen since.
"I can look further back even--on a whole halfcentury."
Captain Whalley expanded a bit. The flavor of a
good cigar (it was a weakness) had gone straight to his
heart, also the civility of that young man. There was
something in that accidental contact of which he had
been starved in his years of struggle.
The front wall retreating made a square recess furnished
like a room. A lamp with a milky glass shade,
suspended below the slope of the high roof at the end
of a slender brass chain, threw a bright round of light
upon a little table bearing an open book and an ivory
paper-knife. And, in the translucent shadows beyond,
other tables could be seen, a number of easy-chairs of
various shapes, with a great profusion of skin rugs
strewn on the teakwood planking all over the veranda.
The flowering creepers scented the air. Their foliage
clipped out between the uprights made as if several
frames of thick unstirring leaves reflecting the lamplight
in a green glow. Through the opening at his
elbow Captain Whalley could see the gangway lantern
of the Sofala burning dim by the shore, the shadowy
masses of the town beyond the open lustrous darkness
of the river, and, as if hung along the straight edge
of the projecting eaves, a narrow black strip of the
night sky full of stars--resplendent. The famous cigar
in hand he had a moment of complacency.
"A trifle. Somebody must lead the way. I just
showed that the thing could be done; but you men
brought up to the use of steam cannot conceive the
vast importance of my bit of venturesomeness to
the Eastern trade of the time. Why, that new route
reduced the average time of a southern passage by
eleven days for more than half the year. Eleven days!
It's on record. But the remarkable thing--speaking
to a sailor--I should say was . . ."
He talked well, without egotism, professionally. The
powerful voice, produced without effort, filled the
bungalow even into the empty rooms with a deep and
limpid resonance, seemed to make a stillness outside;
and Mr. Van Wyk was surprised by the serene quality
of its tone, like the perfection of manly gentleness.
Nursing one small foot, in a silk sock and a patent
leather shoe, on his knee, he was immensely entertained.
It was as if nobody could talk like this now, and the
overshadowed eyes, the flowing white beard, the big
frame, the serenity, the whole temper of the man, were
an amazing survival from the prehistoric times of the
world coming up to him out of the sea.
Captain Whalley had been also the pioneer of the early
trade in the Gulf of Pe-tchi-li. He even found occasion
to mention that he had buried his "dear wife" there
six-and-twenty years ago. Mr. Van Wyk, impassive,
could not help speculating in his mind swiftly as to
the sort of woman that would mate with such a man.
Did they make an adventurous and well-matched pair?
No. Very possible she had been small, frail, no doubt
very feminine--or most likely commonplace with domestic
instincts, utterly insignificant. But Captain
Whalley was no garrulous bore, and shaking his head
as if to dissipate the momentary gloom that had settled
on his handsome old face, he alluded conversationally to
Mr. Van Wyk's solitude.
Mr. Van Wyk affirmed that sometimes he had more
company than he wanted. He mentioned smilingly
some of the peculiarities of his intercourse with "My
Sultan." He made his visits in force. Those people
damaged his grass plot in front (it was not easy to
obtain some approach to a lawn in the tropics, and the
other day had broken down some rare bushes he had
planted over there. And Captain Whalley remembered
immediately that, in 'forty-seven, the then Sultan, "this
man's grandfather," had been notorious as a great protector
of the piratical fleets of praus from farther East.
They had a safe refuge in the river at Batu Beru. He
financed more especially a Balinini chief called Haji
Daman. Captain Whalley, nodding significantly his
bushy white eyebrows, had very good reason to know
something of that. The world had progressed since
that time.
Mr. Van Wyk demurred with unexpected acrimony.
Progressed in what? he wanted to know.
Why, in knowledge of truth, in decency, in justice, in
order--in honesty too, since men harmed each other
mostly from ignorance. It was, Captain Whalley concluded
quaintly, more pleasant to live in.
Mr. Van Wyk whimsically would not admit that Mr.
Massy, for instance, was more pleasant naturally than
the Balinini pirates.
The river had not gained much by the change. They
were in their way every bit as honest. Massy was less
ferocious than Haji Daman no doubt, but . . .
"And what about you, my good sir?" Captain
Whalley laughed a deep soft laugh. "YOU are an improvement,
He continued in a vein of pleasantry. A good cigar
was better than a knock on the head--the sort of welcome
he would have found on this river forty or fifty
years ago. Then leaning forward slightly, he became
earnestly serious. It seems as if, outside their own seagypsy
tribes, these rovers had hated all mankind with
an incomprehensible, bloodthirsty hatred. Meantime
their depredations had been stopped, and what was the
consequence? The new generation was orderly, peaceable,
settled in prosperous villages. He could speak
from personal knowledge. And even the few survivors
of that time--old men now--had changed so much, that
it would have been unkind to remember against them
that they had ever slit a throat in their lives. He had
one especially in his mind's eye: a dignified, venerable
headman of a certain large coast village about sixty
miles sou'west of Tampasuk. It did one's heart good
to see him--to hear that man speak. He might have
been a ferocious savage once. What men wanted was
to be checked by superior intelligence, by superior
knowledge, by superior force too--yes, by force held in
trust from God and sanctified by its use in accordance
with His declared will. Captain Whalley believed a disposition
for good existed in every man, even if the
world were not a very happy place as a whole. In the
wisdom of men he had not so much confidence. The disposition
had to be helped up pretty sharply sometimes,
he admitted. They might be silly, wrongheaded, unhappy;
but naturally evil--no. There was at bottom
a complete harmlessness at least . . .
"Is there?" Mr. Van Wyk snapped acrimoniously.
Captain Whalley laughed at the interjection, in the
good humor of large, tolerating certitude. He could
look back at half a century, he pointed out. The smoke
oozed placidly through the white hairs hiding his kindly
"At all events," he resumed after a pause, "I am
glad that they've had no time to do you much harm as
This allusion to his comparative youthfulness did not
offend Mr. Van Wyk, who got up and wriggled his
shoulders with an enigmatic half-smile. They walked
out together amicably into the starry night towards
the river-side. Their footsteps resounded unequally on
the dark path. At the shore end of the gangway the
lantern, hung low to the handrail, threw a vivid light
on the white legs and the big black feet of Mr. Massy
waiting about anxiously. From the waist upwards he
remained shadowy, with a row of buttons gleaming up
to the vague outline of his chin.
"You may thank Captain Whalley for this," Mr. Van
Wyk said curtly to him before turning away.
The lamps on the veranda flung three long squares
of light between the uprights far over the grass. A bat
flitted before his face like a circling flake of velvety
blackness. Along the jasmine hedge the night air
seemed heavy with the fall of perfumed dew; flowerbeds
bordered the path; the clipped bushes uprose in
dark rounded clumps here and there before the house;
the dense foliage of creepers filtered the sheen of the
lamplight within in a soft glow all along the front;
and everything near and far stood still in a great immobility,
in a great sweetness.
Mr. Van Wyk (a few years before he had had occasion
to imagine himself treated more badly than anybody
alive had ever been by a woman) felt for Captain
Whalley's optimistic views the disdain of a man who
had once been credulous himself. His disgust with the
world (the woman for a time had filled it for him completely)
had taken the form of activity in retirement,
because, though capable of great depth of feeling, he
was energetic and essentially practical. But there was
in that uncommon old sailor, drifting on the outskirts
of his busy solitude, something that fascinated his
skepticism. His very simplicity (amusing enough) was
like a delicate refinement of an upright character. The
striking dignity of manner could be nothing else, in a
man reduced to such a humble position, but the expression
of something essentially noble in the character.
With all his trust in mankind he was no fool; the serenity
of his temper at the end of so many years, since it
could not obviously have been appeased by success, wore
an air of profound wisdom. Mr. Van Wyk was amused
at it sometimes. Even the very physical traits of the
old captain of the Sofala, his powerful frame, his reposeful
mien, his intelligent, handsome face, the big
limbs, the benign courtesy, the touch of rugged severity
in the shaggy eyebrows, made up a seductive personality.
Mr. Van Wyk disliked littleness of every kind,
but there was nothing small about that man, and in
the exemplary regularity of many trips an intimacy had
grown up between them, a warm feeling at bottom under
a kindly stateliness of forms agreeable to his fastidiousness.
They kept their respective opinions on all worldly
matters. His other convictions Captain Whalley never
intruded. The difference of their ages was like another
bond between them. Once, when twitted with the uncharitableness
of his youth, Mr. Van Wyk, running his
eye over the vast proportions of his interlocutor, retorted
in friendly banter--
"Oh. You'll come to my way of thinking yet. You'll
have plenty of time. Don't call yourself old: you look
good for a round hundred."
But he could not help his stinging incisiveness, and
though moderating it by an almost affectionate smile,
he added--
"And by then you will probably consent to die from
sheer disgust."
Captain Whalley, smiling too, shook his head. "God
He thought that perhaps on the whole he deserved
something better than to die in such sentiments. The
time of course would have to come, and he trusted to
his Maker to provide a manner of going out of which
he need not be ashamed. For the rest he hoped he
would live to a hundred if need be: other men had been
known; it would be no miracle. He expected no miracles.
The pronounced, argumentative tone caused Mr. Van
Wyk to raise his head and look at him steadily. Captain
Whalley was gazing fixedly with a rapt expression,
as though he had seen his Creator's favorable decree
written in mysterious characters on the wall. He kept
perfectly motionless for a few seconds, then got his vast
bulk on to his feet so impetuously that Mr. Van Wyk
was startled.
He struck first a heavy blow on his inflated chest: and,
throwing out horizontally a big arm that remained
steady, extended in the air like the limb of a tree on
a windless day--
"Not a pain or an ache there. Can you see this shake
in the least?"
His voice was low, in an awing, confident contrast with
the headlong emphasis of his movements. He sat down
"This isn't to boast of it, you know. I am nothing,"
he said in his effortless strong voice, that seemed to
come out as naturally as a river flows. He picked up the
stump of the cigar he had laid aside, and added peacefully,
with a slight nod, "As it happens, my life is
necessary; it isn't my own, it isn't--God knows."
He did not say much for the rest of the evening, but
several times Mr. Van Wyk detected a faint smile of
assurance flitting under the heavy mustache.
Later on Captain Whalley would now and then consent
to dine "at the house." He could even be induced to
drink a glass of wine. "Don't think I am afraid of it,
my good sir," he explained. "There was a very good
reason why I should give it up."
On another occasion, leaning back at ease, he remarked,
"You have treated me most--most humanely, my dear
Mr. Van Wyk, from the very first."
"You'll admit there was some merit," Mr. Van Wyk
hinted slyly. "An associate of that excellent Massy.
. . . Well, well, my dear captain, I won't say a word
against him."
"It would be no use your saying anything against
him," Captain Whalley affirmed a little moodily. "As
I've told you before, my life--my work, is necessary, not
for myself alone. I can't choose" . . . He paused,
turned the glass before him right round. . . . "I have
an only child--a daughter."
The ample downward sweep of his arm over the table
seemed to suggest a small girl at a vast distance. "I
hope to see her once more before I die. Meantime it's
enough to know that she has me sound and solid, thank
God. You can't understand how one feels. Bone of my
bone, flesh of my flesh; the very image of my poor wife.
Well, she . . ."
Again he paused, then pronounced stoically the words,
"She has a hard struggle."
And his head fell on his breast, his eyebrows remained
knitted, as by an effort of meditation. But generally his
mind seemed steeped in the serenity of boundless trust
in a higher power. Mr. Van Wyk wondered sometimes
how much of it was due to the splendid vitality of the
man, to the bodily vigor which seems to impart something
of its force to the soul. But he had learned to
like him very much.
This was the reason why Mr. Sterne's confidential communication,
delivered hurriedly on the shore alongside
the dark silent ship, had disturbed his equanimity. It
was the most incomprehensible and unexpected thing
that could happen; and the perturbation of his spirit
was so great that, forgetting all about his letters, he ran
rapidly up the bridge ladder.
The portable table was being put together for dinner
to the left of the wheel by two pig-tailed "boys," who
as usual snarled at each other over the job, while another,
a doleful, burly, very yellow Chinaman, resembling Mr.
Massy, waited apathetically with the cloth over his arm
and a pile of thick dinner-plates against his chest. A
common cabin lamp with its globe missing, brought up
from below, had been hooked to the wooden framework
of the awning; the side-screens had been lowered all
round; Captain Whalley filling the depths of the wickerchair
seemed to sit benumbed in a canvas tent crudely
lighted, and used for the storing of nautical objects; a
shabby steering-wheel, a battered brass binnacle on a
stout mahogany stand, two dingy life-buoys, an old cork
fender lying in a corner, dilapidated deck-lockers with
loops of thin rope instead of door-handles.
He shook off the appearance of numbness to return
Mr. Van Wyk's unusually brisk greeting, but relapsed
directly afterwards. To accept a pressing invitation to
dinner "up at the house" cost him another very visible
physical effort. Mr. Van Wyk, perplexed, folded his
arms, and leaning back against the rail, with his little,
black, shiny feet well out, examined him covertly.
"I've noticed of late that you are not quite yourself,
old friend."
He put an affectionate gentleness into the last two
words. The real intimacy of their intercourse had never
been so vividly expressed before.
"Tut, tut, tut!"
The wicker-chair creaked heavily.
"Irritable," commented Mr. Van Wyk to himself; and
aloud, "I'll expect to see you in half an hour, then," he
said negligently, moving off.
"In half an hour," Captain Whalley's rigid silvery
head repeated behind him as if out of a trance.
Amidships, below, two voices, close against the engineroom,
could be heard answering each other--one angry
and slow, the other alert.
"I tell you the beast has locked himself in to get
"Can't help it now, Mr. Massy. After all, a man has
a right to shut himself up in his cabin in his own time."
"Not to get drunk."
"I heard him swear that the worry with the boilers
was enough to drive any man to drink," Sterne said
Massy hissed out something about bursting the door
in. Mr. Van Wyk, to avoid them, crossed in the dark
to the other side of the deserted deck. The planking
of the little wharf rattled faintly under his hasty feet.
"Mr. Van Wyk! Mr. Van Wyk!"
He walked on: somebody was running on the path.
"You've forgotten to get your mail."
Sterne, holding a bundle of papers in his hand, caught
up with him.
"Oh, thanks."
But, as the other continued at his elbow, Mr. Van
Wyk stopped short. The overhanging eaves, descending
low upon the lighted front of the bungalow, threw
their black straight-edged shadow into the great body
of the night on that side. Everything was very still.
A tinkle of cutlery and a slight jingle of glasses were
heard. Mr. Van Wyk's servants were laying the table
for two on the veranda.
"I'm afraid you give me no credit whatever for my
good intentions in the matter I've spoken to you about,"
said Sterne.
"I simply don't understand you."
"Captain Whalley is a very audacious man, but he
will understand that his game is up. That's all that
anybody need ever know of it from me. Believe me, I
am very considerate in this, but duty is duty. I don't
want to make a fuss. All I ask you, as his friend, is
to tell him from me that the game's up. That will be
Mr. Van Wyk felt a loathsome dismay at this queer
privilege of friendship. He would not demean himself
by asking for the slightest explanation; to drive the
other away with contumely he did not think prudent--
as yet, at any rate. So much assurance staggered him.
Who could tell what there could be in it, he thought?
His regard for Captain Whalley had the tenacity of
a disinterested sentiment, and his practical instinct coming
to his aid, he concealed his scorn.
"I gather, then, that this is something grave."
"Very grave," Sterne assented solemnly, delighted at
having produced an effect at last. He was ready to add
some effusive protestations of regret at the "unavoidable
necessity," but Mr. Van Wyk cut him short--very
civilly, however.
Once on the veranda Mr. Van Wyk put his hands in his
pockets, and, straddling his legs, stared down at a
black panther skin lying on the floor before a rockingchair.
"It looks as if the fellow had not the pluck
to play his own precious game openly," he thought.
This was true enough. In the face of Massy's last
rebuff Sterne dared not declare his knowledge. His
object was simply to get charge of the steamer and
keep it for some time. Massy would never forgive him
for forcing himself on; but if Captain Whalley left
the ship of his own accord, the command would devolve
upon him for the rest of the trip; so he hit upon the
brilliant idea of scaring the old man away. A vague
menace, a mere hint, would be enough in such a brazen
case; and, with a strange admixture of compassion, he
thought that Batu Beru was a very good place for
throwing up the sponge. The skipper could go ashore
quietly, and stay with that Dutchman of his. Weren't
these two as thick as thieves together? And on reflection
he seemed to see that there was a way to work the
whole thing through that great friend of the old man's.
This was another brilliant idea. He had an inborn
preference for circuitous methods. In this particular
case he desired to remain in the background as much
as possible, to avoid exasperating Massy needlessly.
No fuss! Let it all happen naturally.
Mr. Van Wyk all through the dinner was conscious
of a sense of isolation that invades sometimes the closeness
of human intercourse. Captain Whalley failed
lamentably and obviously in his attempts to eat something.
He seemed overcome by a strange absentmindedness.
His hand would hover irresolutely, as if
left without guidance by a preoccupied mind. Mr. Van
Wyk had heard him coming up from a long way off in
the profound stillness of the river-side, and had noticed
the irresolute character of the footfalls. The toe of his
boot had struck the bottom stair as though he had come
along mooning with his head in the air right up to the
steps of the veranda. Had the captain of the Sofala
been another sort of man he would have suspected the
work of age there. But one glance at him was enough.
Time--after, indeed, marking him for its own--had
given him up to his usefulness, in which his simple
faith would see a proof of Divine mercy. "How could
I contrive to warn him?" Mr. Van Wyk wondered, as
if Captain Whalley had been miles and miles away, out
of sight and earshot of all evil. He was sickened by
an immense disgust of Sterne. To even mention his
threat to a man like Whalley would be positively indecent.
There was something more vile and insulting in
its hint than in a definite charge of crime--the debasing
taint of blackmailing. "What could anyone bring
against him?" he asked himself. This was a limpid
personality. "And for what object?" The Power
that man trusted had thought fit to leave him nothing
on earth that envy could lay hold of, except a bare crust
of bread.
"Won't you try some of this?" he asked, pushing a
dish slightly. Suddenly it seemed to Mr. Van Wyk that
Sterne might possibly be coveting the command of the
Sofala. His cynicism was quite startled by what looked
like a proof that no man may count himself safe from
his kind unless in the very abyss of misery. An intrigue
of that sort was hardly worth troubling about,
he judged; but still, with such a fool as Massy to deal
with, Whalley ought to and must be warned.
At this moment Captain Whalley, bolt upright, the
deep cavities of the eyes overhung by a bushy frown,
and one large brown hand resting on each side of his
empty plate, spoke across the tablecloth abruptly--
"Mr. Van Wyk, you've always treated me with the
most humane consideration."
"My dear captain, you make too much of a simple
fact that I am not a savage." Mr. Van Wyk, utterly
revolted by the thought of Sterne's obscure attempt,
raised his voice incisively, as if the mate had been hiding
somewhere within earshot. "Any consideration I have
been able to show was no more than the rightful due
of a character I've learned to regard by this time with
an esteem that nothing can shake."
A slight ring of glass made him lift his eyes from the
slice of pine-apple he was cutting into small pieces on
his plate. In changing his position Captain Whalley
had contrived to upset an empty tumbler.
Without looking that way, leaning sideways on his
elbow, his other hand shading his brow, he groped
shakily for it, then desisted. Van Wyk stared blankly,
as if something momentous had happened all at once.
He did not know why he should feel so startled; but he
forgot Sterne utterly for the moment.
"Why, what's the matter?"
And Captain Whalley, half-averted, in a deadened,
agitated voice, muttered--
"And I may add something more," Mr. Van Wyk,
very steady-eyed, pronounced slowly.
"Hold! Enough!" Captain Whalley did not
change his attitude or raise his voice. "Say no more!
I can make you no return. I am too poor even for that
now. Your esteem is worth having. You are not a
man that would stoop to deceive the poorest sort of devil
on earth, or make a ship unseaworthy every time he
takes her to sea."
Mr. Van Wyk, leaning forward, his face gone pink
all over, with the starched table-napkin over his knees,
was inclined to mistrust his senses, his power of comprehension,
the sanity of his guest.
"Where? Why? In the name of God!--what's this?
What ship? I don't understand who . . ."
"Then, in the name of God, it is I! A ship's unseaworthy
when her captain can't see. I am going blind."
Mr. Van Wyk made a slight movement, and sat very
still afterwards for a few seconds; then, with the
thought of Sterne's "The game's up," he ducked under
the table to pick up the napkin which had slipped off
his knees. This was the game that was up. And at
the same time the muffled voice of Captain Whalley
passed over him--
"I've deceived them all. Nobody knows."
He emerged flushed to the eyes. Captain Whalley,
motionless under the full blaze of the lamp, shaded his
face with his hand.
"And you had that courage?"
"Call it by what name you like. But you are a humane
man--a--a--gentleman, Mr. Van Wyk. You may
have asked me what I had done with my conscience."
He seemed to muse, profoundly silent, very still in his
mournful pose.
"I began to tamper with it in my pride. You begin
to see a lot of things when you are going blind. I
could not be frank with an old chum even. I was not
frank with Massy--no, not altogether. I knew he took
me for a wealthy sailor fool, and I let him. I wanted
to keep up my importance--because there was poor Ivy
away there--my daughter. What did I want to trade
on his misery for? I did trade on it--for her. And
now, what mercy could I expect from him? He would
trade on mine if he knew it. He would hunt the old
fraud out, and stick to the money for a year. Ivy's
money. And I haven't kept a penny for myself. How
am I going to live for a year. A year! In a year there
will be no sun in the sky for her father."
His deep voice came out, awfully veiled, as though he
had been overwhelmed by the earth of a landslide, and
talking to you of the thoughts that haunt the dead in
their graves. A cold shudder ran down Mr. Van Wyk's
"And how long is it since you have . . .?" he
"It was a long time before I could bring myself to
believe in this--this visitation." Captain Whalley
spoke with gloomy patience from under his hand.
He had not thought he had deserved it. He had begun
by deceiving himself from day to day, from week to
week. He had the Serang at hand there--an old
servant. It came on gradually, and when he could no
longer deceive himself . . .
His voice died out almost.
"Rather than give her up I set myself to deceive
you all."
"It's incredible," whispered Mr. Van Wyk. Captain
Whalley's appalling murmur flowed on.
"Not even the sign of God's anger could make me
forget her. How could I forsake my child, feeling my
vigor all the time--the blood warm within me? Warm
as yours. It seems to me that, like the blinded Samson,
I would find the strength to shake down a temple upon
my head. She's a struggling woman--my own child
that we used to pray over together, my poor wife and I.
Do you remember that day I as well as told you
that I believed God would let me live to a hundred for
her sake? What sin is there in loving your child? Do
you see it? I was ready for her sake to live for ever.
I half believed I would. I've been praying for death
since. Ha! Presumptuous man--you wanted to
live . . ."
A tremendous, shuddering upheaval of that big frame,
shaken by a gasping sob, set the glasses jingling all
over the table, seemed to make the whole house tremble
to the roof-tree. And Mr. Van Wyk, whose feeling of
outraged love had been translated into a form of struggle
with nature, understood very well that, for that man
whose whole life had been conditioned by action, there
could exist no other expression for all the emotions; that,
to voluntarily cease venturing, doing, enduring, for his
child's sake, would have been exactly like plucking his
warm love for her out of his living heart. Something
too monstrous, too impossible, even to conceive.
Captain Whalley had not changed his attitude, that
seemed to express something of shame, sorrow, and
"I have even deceived you. If it had not been for
that word 'esteem.' These are not the words for me.
I would have lied to you. Haven't I lied to you?
Weren't you going to trust your property on board this
very trip?"
"I have a floating yearly policy," Mr. Van Wyk said
almost unwittingly, and was amazed at the sudden cropping
up of a commercial detail.
"The ship is unseaworthy, I tell you. The policy
would be invalid if it were known . . ."
"We shall share the guilt, then."
"Nothing could make mine less," said Captain
He had not dared to consult a doctor; the man would
have perhaps asked who he was, what he was doing;
Massy might have heard something. He had lived on
without any help, human or divine. The very prayers
stuck in his throat. What was there to pray for? and
death seemed as far as ever. Once he got into his cabin
he dared not come out again; when he sat down he dared
not get up; he dared not raise his eyes to anybody's
face; he felt reluctant to look upon the sea or up to
the sky. The world was fading before his great fear
of giving himself away. The old ship was his last
friend; he was not afraid of her; he knew every inch
of her deck; but at her too he hardly dared to look, for
fear of finding he could see less than the day before.
A great incertitude enveloped him. The horizon was
gone; the sky mingled darkly with the sea. Who was
this figure standing over yonder? what was this thing
lying down there? And a frightful doubt of the reality
of what he could see made even the remnant of sight
that remained to him an added torment, a pitfall always
open for his miserable pretense. He was afraid to
stumble inexcusably over something--to say a fatal Yes
or No to a question. The hand of God was upon him,
but it could not tear him away from his child. And,
as if in a nightmare of humiliation, every featureless
man seemed an enemy.
He let his hand fall heavily on the table. Mr. Van
Wyk, arms down, chin on breast, with a gleam of white
teeth pressing on the lower lip, meditated on Sterne's
"The game's up."
"The Serang of course does not know."
"Nobody," said Captain Whalley, with assurance.
"Ah yes. Nobody. Very well. Can you keep it up
to the end of the trip? That is the last under the agreement
with Massy."
Captain Whalley got up and stood erect, very stately,
with the great white beard lying like a silver breastplate
over the awful secret of his heart. Yes; that was the
only hope there was for him of ever seeing her again,
of securing the money, the last he could do for her,
before he crept away somewhere--useless, a burden, a
reproach to himself. His voice faltered.
"Think of it! Never see her any more: the only
human being besides myself now on earth that can remember
my wife. She's just like her mother. Lucky
the poor woman is where there are no tears shed over
those they loved on earth and that remain to pray not
to be led into temptation--because, I suppose, the
blessed know the secret of grace in God's dealings with
His created children."
He swayed a little, said with austere dignity--
"I don't. I know only the child He has given me."
And he began to walk. Mr. Van Wyk, jumping up,
saw the full meaning of the rigid head, the hesitating
feet, the vaguely extended hand. His heart was beating
fast; he moved a chair aside, and instinctively advanced
as if to offer his arm. But Captain Whalley
passed him by, making for the stairs quite straight.
"He could not see me at all out of his line," Van Wyk
thought, with a sort of awe. Then going to the head
of the stairs, he asked a little tremulously--
"What is it like--like a mist--like . . ."
Captain Whalley, half-way down, stopped, and turned
round undismayed to answer.
"It is as if the light were ebbing out of the world.
Have you ever watched the ebbing sea on an open
stretch of sands withdrawing farther and farther away
from you? It is like this--only there will be no flood
to follow. Never. It is as if the sun were growing
smaller, the stars going out one by one. There can't be
many left that I can see by this. But I haven't had the
courage to look of late . . ." He must have been able
to make out Mr. Van Wyk, because he checked him by
an authoritative gesture and a stoical--
"I can get about alone yet."
It was as if he had taken his line, and would accept no
help from men, after having been cast out, like a presumptuous
Titan, from his heaven. Mr. Van Wyk, arrested,
seemed to count the footsteps right out of earshot.
He walked between the tables, tapping smartly
with his heels, took up a paper-knife, dropped it after
a vague glance along the blade; then happening upon
the piano, struck a few chords again and again, vigorously,
standing up before the keyboard with an attentive
poise of the head like a piano-tuner; closing it, he
pivoted on his heels brusquely, avoided the little terrier
sleeping trustfully on crossed forepaws, came upon the
stairs next, and, as though he had lost his balance on
the top step, ran down headlong out of the house. His
servants, beginning to clear the table, heard him mutter
to himself (evil words no doubt) down there, and then
after a pause go away with a strolling gait in the direction
of the wharf.
The bulwarks of the Sofala lying alongside the bank
made a low, black wall on the undulating contour of the
shore. Two masts and a funnel uprose from behind it
with a great rake, as if about to fall: a solid, square
elevation in the middle bore the ghostly shapes of white
boats, the curves of davits, lines of rail and stanchions,
all confused and mingling darkly everywhere; but low
down, amidships, a single lighted port stared out on
the night, perfectly round, like a small, full moon,
whose yellow beam caught a patch of wet mud, the
edge of trodden grass, two turns of heavy cable
wound round the foot of a thick wooden post in the
Mr. Van Wyk, peering alongside, heard a muzzy
boastful voice apparently jeering at a person called
Prendergast. It mouthed abuse thickly, choked; then
pronounced very distinctly the word "Murphy," and
chuckled. Glass tinkled tremulously. All these sounds
came from the lighted port. Mr. Van Wyk hesitated,
stooped; it was impossible to look through unless he
went down into the mud.
"Sterne," he said, half aloud.
The drunken voice within said gladly--
"Sterne--of course. Look at him blink. Look at
him! Sterne, Whalley, Massy. Massy, Whalley,
Sterne. But Massy's the best. You can't come over
him. He would just love to see you starve."
Mr. Van Wyk moved away, made out farther forward
a shadowy head stuck out from under the awnings as
if on the watch, and spoke quietly in Malay, "Is the
mate asleep?"
"No. Here, at your service."
In a moment Sterne appeared, walking as noiselessly
as a cat on the wharf.
"It's so jolly dark, and I had no idea you would be
down to-night."
"What's this horrible raving?" asked Mr. Van Wyk,
as if to explain the cause of a shudder than ran over
him audibly.
"Jack's broken out on a drunk. That's our second.
It's his way. He will be right enough by to-morrow
afternoon, only Mr. Massy will keep on worrying up
and down the deck. We had better get away."
He muttered suggestively of a talk "up at the house."
He had long desired to effect an entrance there, but Mr.
Van Wyk nonchalantly demurred: it would not, he
feared, be quite prudent, perhaps; and the opaque
black shadow under one of the two big trees left at the
landing-place swallowed them up, impenetrably dense,
by the side of the wide river, that seemed to spin into
threads of glitter the light of a few big stars dropped
here and there upon its outspread and flowing stillness.
"The situation is grave beyond doubt," Mr. Van Wyk
said. Ghost-like in their white clothes they could not
distinguish each others' features, and their feet made
no sound on the soft earth. A sort of purring was
heard. Mr. Sterne felt gratified by such a beginning.
"I thought, Mr. Van Wyk, a gentleman of your sort
would see at once how awkwardly I was situated."
"Yes, very. Obviously his health is bad. Perhaps
he's breaking up. I see, and he himself is well aware--
I assume I am speaking to a man of sense--he is well
aware that his legs are giving out."
"His legs--ah!" Mr. Sterne was disconcerted, and
then turned sulky. "You may call it his legs if you
like; what I want to know is whether he intends to clear
out quietly. That's a good one, too! His legs!
"Why, yes. Only look at the way he walks." Mr.
Van Wyk took him up in a perfectly cool and undoubting
tone. "The question, however, is whether your
sense of duty does not carry you too far from your true
interest. After all, I too could do something to serve
you. You know who I am."
"Everybody along the Straits has heard of you, sir."
Mr. Van Wyk presumed that this meant something
favorable. Sterne had a soft laugh at this pleasantry.
He should think so! To the opening statement, that
the partnership agreement was to expire at the end of
this very trip, he gave an attentive assent. He was
aware. One heard of nothing else on board all the
blessed day long. As to Massy, it was no secret that he
was in a jolly deep hole with these worn-out boilers.
He would have to borrow somewhere a couple of hundred
first of all to pay off the captain; and then he
would have to raise money on mortgage upon the ship
for the new boilers--that is, if he could find a lender at
all. At best it meant loss of time, a break in the trade,
short earnings for the year--and there was always the
danger of having his connection filched away from him
by the Germans. It was whispered about that he had
already tried two firms. Neither would have anything
to do with him. Ship too old, and the man too well
known in the place. . . . Mr. Sterne's final rapid winking
remained buried in the deep darkness sibilating with
his whispers.
"Supposing, then, he got the loan," Mr. Van Wyk
resumed in a deliberate undertone, "on your own showing
he's more than likely to get a mortgagee's man
thrust upon him as captain. For my part, I know that
I would make that very stipulation myself if I had to
find the money. And as a matter of fact I am thinking
of doing so. It would be worth my while in many ways.
Do you see how this would bear on the case under discussion?"
"Thank you, sir. I am sure you couldn't get anybody
that would care more for your interests."
"Well, it suits my interest that Captain Whalley
should finish his time. I shall probably take a passage
with you down the Straits. If that can be done, I'll be
on the spot when all these changes take place, and in a
position to look after YOUR interests."
"Mr. Van Wyk, I want nothing better. I am sure
I am infinitely . . ."
"I take it, then, that this may be done without any
"Well, sir, what risk there is can't be helped; but
(speaking to you as my employer now) the thing is
more safe than it looks. If anybody had told me of it
I wouldn't have believed it, but I have been looking on
myself. That old Serang has been trained up to the
game. There's nothing the matter with his--his--
limbs, sir. He's got used to doing things himself in a
remarkable way. And let me tell you, sir, that Captain
Whalley, poor man, is by no means useless. Fact.
Let me explain to you, sir. He stiffens up that old
monkey of a Malay, who knows well enough what to do.
Why, he must have kept captain's watches in all sorts of
country ships off and on for the last five-and-twenty
years. These natives, sir, as long as they have a white
man close at the back, will go on doing the right thing
most surprisingly well--even if left quite to themselves.
Only the white man must be of the sort to put starch
into them, and the captain is just the one for that.
Why, sir, he has drilled him so well that now he needs
hardly speak at all. I have seen that little wrinkled
ape made to take the ship out of Pangu Bay on a
blowy morning and on all through the islands; take
her out first-rate, sir, dodging under the old man's
elbow, and in such quiet style that you could not have
told for the life of you which of the two was doing the
work up there. That's where our poor friend would be
still of use to the ship even if--if--he could no longer
lift a foot, sir. Provided the Serang does not know
that there's anything wrong."
"He doesn't."
"Naturally not. Quite beyond his apprehension.
They aren't capable of finding out anything about us,
"You seem to be a shrewd man," said Mr. Van Wyk
in a choked mutter, as though he were feeling sick.
"You'll find me a good enough servant, sir."
Mr. Sterne hoped now for a handshake at least, but
unexpectedly, with a "What's this? Better not to be
seen together," Mr. Van Wyk's white shape wavered,
and instantly seemed to melt away in the black air under
the roof of boughs. The mate was startled. Yes.
There was that faint thumping clatter.
He stole out silently from under the shade. The
lighted port-hole shone from afar. His head swam with
the intoxication of sudden success. What a thing it
was to have a gentleman to deal with! He crept aboard,
and there was something weird in the shadowy stretch
of empty decks, echoing with shouts and blows proceeding
from a darker part amidships. Mr. Massy was
raging before the door of the berth: the drunken voice
within flowed on undisturbed in the violent racket of
"Shut up! Put your light out and turn in, you
confounded swilling pig--you! D'you hear me, you
The kicking stopped, and in the pause the muzzy
oracular voice announced from within--
"Ah! Massy, now--that's another thing. Massy's
"Who's that aft there? You, Sterne? He'll drink
himself into a fit of horrors." The chief engineer appeared
vague and big at the corner of the engineroom.
"He will be good enough for duty to-morrow. I would
let him be, Mr. Massy."
Sterne slipped away into his berth, and at once had
to sit down. His head swam with exultation. He got
into his bunk as if in a dream. A feeling of profound
peace, of pacific joy, came over him. On deck all was
Mr. Massy, with his ear against the door of Jack's
cabin, listened critically to a deep stertorous breathing
within. This was a dead-drunk sleep. The bout was
over: tranquilized on that score, he too went in, and
with slow wriggles got out of his old tweed jacket. It
was a garment with many pockets, which he used to put
on at odd times of the day, being subject to sudden
chilly fits, and when he felt warmed he would take it off
and hang it about anywhere all over the ship. It would
be seen swinging on belaying-pins, thrown over the
heads of winches, suspended on people's very doorhandles
for that matter. Was he not the owner? But
his favorite place was a hook on a wooden awning
stanchion on the bridge, almost against the binnacle.
He had even in the early days more than one tussle on
that point with Captain Whalley, who desired the
bridge to be kept tidy. He had been overawed then.
Of late, though, he had been able to defy his partner
with impunity. Captain Whalley never seemed to
notice anything now. As to the Malays, in their awe
of that scowling man not one of the crew would dream
of laying a hand on the thing, no matter where or what
it swung from.
With an unexpectedness which made Mr. Massy jump
and drop the coat at his feet, there came from the next
berth the crash and thud of a headlong, jingling, clattering
fall. The faithful Jack must have dropped to
sleep suddenly as he sat at his revels, and now had
gone over chair and all, breaking, as it seemed by the
sound, every single glass and bottle in the place. After
the terrific smash all was still for a time in there, as
though he had killed himself outright on the spot. Mr.
Massy held his breath. At last a sleepy uneasy groaning
sigh was exhaled slowly on the other side of the
"I hope to goodness he's too drunk to wake up now,"
muttered Mr. Massy.
The sound of a softly knowing laugh nearly drove
him to despair. He swore violently under his breath.
The fool would keep him awake all night now for certain.
He cursed his luck. He wanted to forget his
maddening troubles in sleep sometimes. He could detect
no movements. Without apparently making the slightest
attempt to get up, Jack went on sniggering to himself
where he lay; then began to speak, where he had
left off as it were--
"Massy! I love the dirty rascal. He would like to
see his poor old Jack starve--but just you look where
he has climbed to." . . . He hiccoughed in a superior,
leisurely manner. . . . "Ship-owning it with the best.
A lottery ticket you want. Ha! ha! I will give you
lottery tickets, my boy. Let the old ship sink and the
old chum starve--that's right. He don't go wrong--
Massy don't. Not he. He's a genius--that man is.
That's the way to win your money. Ship and chum
must go."
"The silly fool has taken it to heart," muttered Massy
to himself. And, listening with a softened expression
of face for any slight sign of returning drowsiness, he
was discouraged profoundly by a burst of laughter full
of joyful irony.
"Would like to see her at the bottom of the sea! Oh,
you clever, clever devil! Wish her sunk, eh? I should
think you would, my boy; the damned old thing and
all your troubles with her. Rake in the insurance money
--turn your back on your old chum--all's well--gentleman
A grim stillness had come over Massy's face. Only
his big black eyes rolled uneasily. The raving fool.
And yet it was all true. Yes. Lottery tickets, too.
All true. What? Beginning again? He wished he
wouldn't. . . .
But it was even so. The imaginative drunkard on
the other side of the bulkhead shook off the deathlike
stillness that after his last words had fallen on the dark
ship moored to a silent shore.
"Don't you dare to say anything against George
Massy, Esquire. When he's tired of waiting he will do
away with her. Look out! Down she goes--chum and
all. He'll know how to . . ."
The voice hesitated, weary, dreamy, lost, as if dying
away in a vast open space.
". . . Find a trick that will work. He's up to it--
never fear . . ."
He must have been very drunk, for at last the heavy
sleep gripped him with the suddenness of a magic spell,
and the last word lengthened itself into an interminable,
noisy, in-drawn snore. And then even the snoring
stopped, and all was still.
But it seemed as though Mr. Massy had suddenly come
to doubt the efficacy of sleep as against a man's troubles;
or perhaps he had found the relief he needed in the
stillness of a calm contemplation that may contain the
vivid thoughts of wealth, of a stroke of luck, of long
idleness, and may bring before you the imagined form
of every desire; for, turning about and throwing his
arms over the edge of his bunk, he stood there with his
feet on his favorite old coat, looking out through the
round port into the night over the river. Sometimes
a breath of wind would enter and touch his face, a cool
breath charged with the damp, fresh feel from a vast
body of water. A glimmer here and there was all he
could see of it; and once he might after all suppose he
had dozed off, since there appeared before his vision,
unexpectedly and connected with no dream, a row of
flaming and gigantic figures--three naught seven one
two--making up a number such as you may see on a
lottery ticket. And then all at once the port was no
longer black: it was pearly gray, framing a shore
crowded with houses, thatched roof beyond thatched
roof, walls of mats and bamboo, gables of carved teak
timber. Rows of dwellings raised on a forest of piles
lined the steely band of the river, brimful and still, with
the tide at the turn. This was Batu Beru--and the
day had come.
Mr. Massy shook himself, put on the tweed coat, and,
shivering nervously as if from some great shock, made
a note of the number. A fortunate, rare hint that.
Yes; but to pursue fortune one wanted money--ready
Then he went out and prepared to descend into the
engine-room. Several small jobs had to be seen to, and
Jack was lying dead drunk on the floor of his cabin,
with the door locked at that. His gorge rose at the
thought of work. Ay! But if you wanted to do nothing
you had to get first a good bit of money. A
ship won't save you. He cursed the Sofala. True, all
true. He was tired of waiting for some chance that
would rid him at last of that ship that had turned out
a curse on his life.
The deep, interminable hoot of the steam-whistle had,
in its grave, vibrating note, something intolerable,
which sent a slight shudder down Mr. Van Wyk's back.
It was the early afternoon; the Sofala was leaving Batu
Beru for Pangu, the next place of call. She swung in
the stream, scantily attended by a few canoes, and, gliding
on the broad river, became lost to view from the
Van Wyk bungalow.
Its owner had not gone this time to see her off. Generally
he came down to the wharf, exchanged a few
words with the bridge while she cast off, and waved his
hand to Captain Whalley at the last moment. This day
he did not even go as far as the balustrade of the
veranda. "He couldn't see me if I did," he said to
himself. "I wonder whether he can make out the house
at all." And this thought somehow made him feel more
alone than he had ever felt for all these years. What
was it? six or seven? Seven. A long time.
He sat on the veranda with a closed book on his knee,
and, as it were, looked out upon his solitude, as if the
fact of Captain Whalley's blindness had opened his
eyes to his own. There were many sorts of heartaches
and troubles, and there was no place where they could
not find a man out. And he felt ashamed, as though
he had for six years behaved like a peevish boy.
His thought followed the Sofala on her way. On the
spur of the moment he had acted impulsively, turning
to the thing most pressing. And what else could he
have done? Later on he should see. It seemed necessary
that he should come out into the world, for a time
at least. He had money--something could be arranged;
he would grudge no time, no trouble, no loss
of his solitude. It weighed on him now--and Captain
Whalley appeared to him as he had sat shading his
eyes, as if, being deceived in the trust of his faith, he
were beyond all the good and evil that can be wrought
by the hands of men.
Mr. Van Wyk's thoughts followed the Sofala down the
river, winding about through the belt of the coast forest,
between the buttressed shafts of the big trees, through
the mangrove strip, and over the bar. The ship crossed
it easily in broad daylight, piloted, as it happened, by
Mr. Sterne, who took the watch from four to six, and
then went below to hug himself with delight at the prospect
of being virtually employed by a rich man--like
Mr. Van Wyk. He could not see how any hitch could
occur now. He did not seem able to get over the feeling
of being "fixed up at last." From six to eight, in the
course of duty, the Serang looked alone after the ship.
She had a clear road before her now till about three in
the morning, when she would close with the Pangu
group. At eight Mr. Sterne came out cheerily to take
charge again till midnight. At ten he was still chirruping
and humming to himself on the bridge, and
about that time Mr. Van Wyk's thought abandoned the
Sofala. Mr. Van Wyk had fallen asleep at last.
Massy, blocking the engine-room companion, jerked
himself into his tweed jacket surlily, while the second
waited with a scowl.
"Oh. You came out? You sot! Well, what have
you got to say for yourself?"
He had been in charge of the engines till then. A
somber fury darkened his mind: a hot anger against
the ship, against the facts of life, against the men for
their cheating, against himself too--because of an inward
tremor of his heart.
An incomprehensible growl answered him.
"What? Can't you open your mouth now? You yelp
out your infernal rot loud enough when you are drunk.
What do you mean by abusing people in that way?--
you old useless boozer, you!"
"Can't help it. Don't remember anything about it.
You shouldn't listen."
"You dare to tell me! What do you mean by going
on a drunk like this!"
"Don't ask me. Sick of the dam' boilers--you would
be. Sick of life."
"I wish you were dead, then. You've made me sick
of you. Don't you remember the uproar you made last
night? You miserable old soaker!"
"No; I don't. Don't want to. Drink is drink."
"I wonder what prevents me from kicking you out.
What do you want here?"
"Relieve you. You've been long enough down there,
"Don't you George me--you tippling old rascal, you!
If I were to die to-morrow you would starve. Remember
that. Say Mr. Massy."
"Mr. Massy," repeated the other stolidly.
Disheveled, with dull blood-shot eyes, a snuffy, grimy
shirt, greasy trowsers, naked feet thrust into ragged
slippers, he bolted in head down directly Massy had
made way for him.
The chief engineer looked around. The deck was
empty as far as the taffrail. All the native passengers
had left in Batu Beru this time, and no others had
joined. The dial of the patent log tinkled periodically
in the dark at the end of the ship. It was a dead calm,
and, under the clouded sky, through the still air that
seemed to cling warm, with a seaweed smell, to her slim
hull, on a sea of somber gray and unwrinkled, the ship
moved on an even keel, as if floating detached in empty
space. But Mr. Massy slapped his forehead, tottered
a little, caught hold of a belaying-pin at the foot of
the mast.
"I shall go mad," he muttered, walking across the deck
unsteadily. A shovel was scraping loose coal down below--
a fire-door clanged. Sterne on the bridge began
whistling a new tune.
Captain Whalley, sitting on the couch, awake and fully
dressed, heard the door of his cabin open. He did not
move in the least, waiting to recognize the voice, with
an appalling strain of prudence.
A bulkhead lamp blazed on the white paint, the crimson
plush, the brown varnish of mahogany tops. The
white wood packing-case under the bed-place had remained
unopened for three years now, as though Captain
Whalley had felt that, after the Fair Maid was
gone, there could be no abiding-place on earth for his
affections. His hands rested on his knees; his handsome
head with big eyebrows presented a rigid profile
to the doorway. The expected voice spoke out at
"Once more, then. What am I to call you?"
Ha! Massy. Again. The weariness of it crushed his
heart--and the pain of shame was almost more than he
could bear without crying out.
"Well. Is it to be 'partner' still?"
"You don't know what you ask."
"I know what I want . . ."
Massy stepped in and closed the door.
". . . And I am going to have a try for it with you
once more."
His whine was half persuasive, half menacing.
"For it's no manner of use to tell me that you are
poor. You don't spend anything on yourself, that's
true enough; but there's another name for that. You
think you are going to have what you want out of me
for three years, and then cast me off without hearing
what I think of you. You think I would have submitted
to your airs if I had known you had only a beggarly
five hundred pounds in the world. You ought to have
told me."
"Perhaps," said Captain Whalley, bowing his head.
"And yet it has saved you." . . . Massy laughed
scornfully. . . . "I have told you often enough
"And I don't believe you now. When I think how
I let you lord it over my ship! Do you remember how
you used to bullyrag me about my coat and YOUR bridge?
It was in his way. HIS bridge! 'And I won't be a
party to this--and I couldn't think of doing that.'
Honest man! And now it all comes out. 'I am poor,
and I can't. I have only this five hundred in the world.'"
He contemplated the immobility of Captain Whalley,
that seemed to present an inconquerable obstacle in
his path. His face took a mournful cast.
"You are a hard man."
"Enough," said Captain Whalley, turning upon him.
"You shall get nothing from me, because I have nothing
of mine to give away now."
"Tell that to the marines!"
Mr. Massy, going out, looked back once; then the door
closed, and Captain Whalley, alone, sat as still as before.
He had nothing of his own--even his past of honor,
of truth, of just pride, was gone. All his spotless life
had fallen into the abyss. He had said his last good-by
to it. But what belonged to HER, that he meant to save.
Only a little money. He would take it to her in his own
hands--this last gift of a man that had lasted too long.
And an immense and fierce impulse, the very passion of
paternity, flamed up with all the unquenched vigor of
his worthless life in a desire to see her face.
Just across the deck Massy had gone straight to his
cabin, struck a light, and hunted up the note of the
dreamed number whose figures had flamed up also with
the fierceness of another passion. He must contrive
somehow not to miss a drawing. That number meant
something. But what expedient could he contrive to
keep himself going?
"Wretched miser!" he mumbled.
If Mr. Sterne could at no time have told him anything
new about his partner, he could have told Mr. Sterne
that another use could be made of a man's affliction than
just to kick him out, and thus defer the term of a difficult
payment for a year. To keep the secret of the
affliction and induce him to stay was a better move. If
without means, he would be anxious to remain; and that
settled the question of refunding him his share. He did
not know exactly how much Captain Whalley was disabled;
but if it so happened that he put the ship ashore
somewhere for good and all, it was not the owner's fault
--was it? He was not obliged to know that there was
anything wrong. But probably nobody would raise
such a point, and the ship was fully insured. He had
had enough self-restraint to pay up the premiums. But
this was not all. He could not believe Captain Whalley
to be so confoundedly destitute as not to have some more
money put away somewhere. If he, Massy, could get
hold of it, that would pay for the boilers, and everything
went on as before. And if she got lost in the
end, so much the better. He hated her: he loathed the
troubles that took his mind off the chances of fortune.
He wished her at the bottom of the sea, and the insurance
money in his pocket. And as, baffled, he left
Captain Whalley's cabin, he enveloped in the same
hatred the ship with the worn-out boilers and the man
with the dimmed eyes.
And our conduct after all is so much a matter of outside
suggestion, that had it not been for his Jack's drunken
gabble he would have there and then had it out with this
miserable man, who would neither help, nor stay, nor
yet lose the ship. The old fraud! He longed to kick
him out. But he restrained himself. Time enough for
that--when he liked. There was a fearful new thought
put into his head. Wasn't he up to it after all? How
that beast Jack had raved! "Find a safe trick to get
rid of her." Well, Jack was not so far wrong. A very
clever trick had occurred to him. Aye! But what of
the risk?
A feeling of pride--the pride of superiority to common
prejudices--crept into his breast, made his heart
beat fast, his mouth turn dry. Not everybody would
dare; but he was Massy, and he was up to it!
Six bells were struck on deck. Eleven! He drank a
glass of water, and sat down for ten minutes or so to
calm himself. Then he got out of his chest a small
bull's-eye lantern of his own and lit it.
Almost opposite his berth, across the narrow passage
under the bridge, there was, in the iron deck-structure
covering the stokehold fiddle and the boiler-space, a
storeroom with iron sides, iron roof, iron-plated floor,
too, on account of the heat below. All sorts of rubbish
was shot there: it had a mound of scrap-iron in a corner;
rows of empty oil-cans; sacks of cotton-waste, with a
heap of charcoal, a deck-forge, fragments of an old hencoop,
winch-covers all in rags, remnants of lamps, and
a brown felt hat, discarded by a man dead now (of a
fever on the Brazil coast), who had been once mate of
the Sofala, had remained for years jammed forcibly behind
a length of burst copper pipe, flung at some time
or other out of the engine-room. A complete and imperious
blackness pervaded that Capharnaum of forgotten
things. A small shaft of light from Mr. Massy's
bull's-eye fell slanting right through it.
His coat was unbuttoned; he shot the bolt of the door
(there was no other opening), and, squatting before the
scrap-heap, began to pack his pockets with pieces of
iron. He packed them carefully, as if the rusty nuts,
the broken bolts, the links of cargo chain, had been so
much gold he had that one chance to carry away. He
packed his side-pockets till they bulged, the breast
pocket, the pockets inside. He turned over the pieces.
Some he rejected. A small mist of powdered rust began
to rise about his busy hands. Mr. Massy knew something
of the scientific basis of his clever trick. If you
want to deflect the magnetic needle of a ship's compass,
soft iron is the best; likewise many small pieces in the
pockets of a jacket would have more effect than a few
large ones, because in that way you obtain a greater
amount of surface for weight in your iron, and it's surface
that tells.
He slipped out swiftly--two strides sufficed--and in
his cabin he perceived that his hands were all red--red
with rust. It disconcerted him, as though he had found
them covered with blood: he looked himself over hastily.
Why, his trowsers too! He had been rubbing his rusty
palms on his legs.
He tore off the waistband button in his haste, brushed
his coat, washed his hands. Then the air of guilt left
him, and he sat down to wait.
He sat bolt upright and weighted with iron in his
chair. He had a hard, lumpy bulk against each hip,
felt the scrappy iron in his pockets touch his ribs at
every breath, the downward drag of all these pounds
hanging upon his shoulders. He looked very dull too,
sitting idle there, and his yellow face, with motionless
black eyes, had something passive and sad in its quietness.
When he heard eight bells struck above his head, he
rose and made ready to go out. His movements seemed
aimless, his lower lip had dropped a little, his eyes
roamed about the cabin, and the tremendous tension of
his will had robbed them of every vestige of intelligence.
With the last stroke of the bell the Serang appeared
noiselessly on the bridge to relieve the mate. Sterne
overflowed with good nature, since he had nothing more
to desire.
"Got your eyes well open yet, Serang? It's middling
dark; I'll wait till you get your sight properly."
The old Malay murmured, looked up with his worn
eyes, sidled away into the light of the binnacle, and,
crossing his hands behind his back, fixed his eyes on the
"You'll have to keep a good look-out ahead for
land, about half-past three. It's fairly clear, though.
You have looked in on the captain as you came
along--eh? He knows the time? Well, then, I am
At the foot of the ladder he stood aside for the captain.
He watched him go up with an even, certain tread, and
remained thoughtful for a moment. "It's funny," he
said to himself, "but you can never tell whether that
man has seen you or not. He might have heard me
breathe this time."
He was a wonderful man when all was said and done.
They said he had had a name in his day. Mr. Sterne
could well believe it; and he concluded serenely that
Captain Whalley must be able to see people more or less
--as himself just now, for instance--but not being certain
of anybody, had to keep up that unnoticing silence
of manner for fear of giving himself away. Mr. Sterne
was a shrewd guesser.
This necessity of every moment brought home to Captain
Whalley's heart the humiliation of his falsehood.
He had drifted into it from paternal love, from incredulity,
from boundless trust in divine justice meted
out to men's feelings on this earth. He would give his
poor Ivy the benefit of another month's work; perhaps
the affliction was only temporary. Surely God would
not rob his child of his power to help, and cast him
naked into a night without end. He had caught at
every hope; and when the evidence of his misfortune
was stronger than hope, he tried not to believe the manifest
In vain. In the steadily darkening universe a sinister
clearness fell upon his ideas. In the illuminating moments
of suffering he saw life, men, all things, the whole
earth with all her burden of created nature, as he had
never seen them before.
Sometimes he was seized with a sudden vertigo and an
overwhelming terror; and then the image of his daughter
appeared. Her, too, he had never seen so clearly before.
Was it possible that he should ever be unable to do
anything whatever for her? Nothing. And not see
her any more? Never.
Why? The punishment was too great for a little presumption,
for a little pride. And at last he came to
cling to his deception with a fierce determination to carry
it out to the end, to save her money intact, and behold
her once more with his own eyes. Afterwards--what?
The idea of suicide was revolting to the vigor of his
manhood. He had prayed for death till the prayers had
stuck in his throat. All the days of his life he had
prayed for daily bread, and not to be led into temptation,
in a childlike humility of spirit. Did words mean
anything? Whence did the gift of speech come? The
violent beating of his heart reverberated in his head--
seemed to shake his brain to pieces.
He sat down heavily in the deck-chair to keep the pretense
of his watch. The night was dark. All the nights
were dark now.
"Serang," he said, half aloud.
"Ada, Tuan. I am here."
"There are clouds on the sky?"
"There are, Tuan."
"Let her be steered straight. North."
"She is going north, Tuan."
The Serang stepped back. Captain Whalley recognized
Massy's footfalls on the bridge.
The engineer walked over to port and returned, passing
behind the chair several times. Captain Whalley
detected an unusual character as of prudent care in this
prowling. The near presence of that man brought with
it always a recrudescence of moral suffering for Captain
Whalley. It was not remorse. After all, he had done
nothing but good to the poor devil. There was also
a sense of danger--the necessity of a greater care.
Massy stopped and said--
"So you still say you must go?"
"I must indeed."
"And you couldn't at least leave the money for a term
of years?"
"Can't trust it with me without your care, eh?"
Captain Whalley remained silent. Massy sighed
deeply over the back of the chair.
"It would just do to save me," he said in a tremulous
"I've saved you once."
The chief engineer took off his coat with careful
movements, and proceeded to feel for the brass hook
screwed into the wooden stanchion. For this purpose he
placed himself right in front of the binnacle, thus hiding
completely the compass-card from the quartermaster
at the wheel. "Tuan!" the lascar at last murmured
softly, meaning to let the white man know that
he could not see to steer.
Mr. Massy had accomplished his purpose. The coat
was hanging from the nail, within six inches of the
binnacle. And directly he had stepped aside the quartermaster,
a middle-aged, pock-marked, Sumatra Malay,
almost as dark as a negro, perceived with amazement
that in that short time, in this smooth water, with no
wind at all, the ship had gone swinging far out of her
course. He had never known her get away like this
before. With a slight grunt of astonishment he turned
the wheel hastily to bring her head back north, which
was the course. The grinding of the steering-chains,
the chiding murmurs of the Serang, who had come over
to the wheel, made a slight stir, which attracted Captain
Whalley's anxious attention. He said, "Take
better care." Then everything settled to the usual quiet
on the bridge. Mr. Massy had disappeared.
But the iron in the pockets of the coat had done its
work; and the Sofala, heading north by the compass,
made untrue by this simple device, was no longer making
a safe course for Pangu Bay.
The hiss of water parted by her stem, the throb of her
engines, all the sounds of her faithful and laborious life,
went on uninterrupted in the great calm of the sea joining
on all sides the motionless layer of cloud over the
sky. A gentle stillness as vast as the world seemed to
wait upon her path, enveloping her lovingly in a supreme
caress. Mr. Massy thought there could be no
better night for an arranged shipwreck.
Run up high and dry on one of the reefs east of
Pangu--wait for daylight--hole in the bottom--out
boats--Pangu Bay same evening. That's about it. As
soon as she touched he would hasten on the bridge, get
hold of the coat (nobody would notice in the dark),
and shake it upside-down over the side, or even fling
it into the sea. A detail. Who could guess? Coat been
seen hanging there from that hook hundreds of times.
Nevertheless, when he sat down on the lower step of the
bridge-ladder his knees knocked together a little. The
waiting part was the worst of it. At times he would
begin to pant quickly, as though he had been running,
and then breathe largely, swelling with the intimate
sense of a mastered fate. Now and then he would hear
the shuffle of the Serang's bare feet up there: quiet, low
voices would exchange a few words, and lapse almost
at once into silence. . . .
"Tell me directly you see any land, Serang."
"Yes, Tuan. Not yet."
"No, not yet," Captain Whalley would agree.
The ship had been the best friend of his decline. He
had sent all the money he had made by and in the
Sofala to his daughter. His thought lingered on the
name. How often he and his wife had talked over the
cot of the child in the big stern-cabin of the Condor; she
would grow up, she would marry, she would love them,
they would live near her and look at her happiness--it
would go on without end. Well, his wife was dead, to
the child he had given all he had to give; he wished he
could come near her, see her, see her face once, live in
the sound of her voice, that could make the darkness of
the living grave ready for him supportable. He had
been starved of love too long. He imagined her tenderness.
The Serang had been peering forward, and now and
then glancing at the chair. He fidgeted restlessly, and
suddenly burst out close to Captain Whalley--
"Tuan, do you see anything of the land?"
The alarmed voice brought Captain Whalley to his feet
at once. He! See! And at the question, the curse of
his blindness seemed to fall on him with a hundredfold
"What's the time?" he cried.
"Half-past three, Tuan."
"We are close. You MUST see. Look, I say. Look."
Mr. Massy, awakened by the sudden sound of talking
from a short doze on the lowest step, wondered why he
was there. Ah! A faintness came over him. It is one
thing to sow the seed of an accident and another to see
the monstrous fruit hanging over your head ready to
fall in the sound of agitated voices.
"There's no danger," he muttered thickly.
The horror of incertitude had seized upon Captain
Whalley, the miserable mistrust of men, of things--of
the very earth. He had steered that very course thirtysix
times by the same compass--if anything was certain
in this world it was its absolute, unerring correctness.
Then what had happened? Did the Serang lie? Why
lie? Why? Was he going blind too?
"Is there a mist? Look low on the water. Low down,
I say."
"Tuan, there's no mist. See for yourself."
Captain Whalley steadied the trembling of his limbs
by an effort. Should he stop the engines at once and
give himself away. A gust of irresolution swayed all
sorts of bizarre notions in his mind. The unusual had
come, and he was not fit to deal with it. In this passage
of inexpressible anguish he saw her face--the face of
a young girl--with an amazing strength of illusion.
No, he must not give himself away after having gone
so far for her sake. "You steered the course? You
made it? Speak the truth."
"Ya, Tuan. On the course now. Look."
Captain Whalley strode to the binnacle, which to him
made such a dim spot of light in an infinity of shapeless
shadow. By bending his face right down to the
glass he had been able before . . .
Having to stoop so low, he put out, instinctively, his
arm to where he knew there was a stanchion to steady
himself against. His hand closed on something that
was not wood but cloth. The slight pull adding to the
weight, the loop broke, and Mr. Massy's coat falling,
struck the deck heavily with a dull thump, accompanied
by a lot of clicks.
"What's this?"
Captain Whalley fell on his knees, with groping hands
extended in a frank gesture of blindness. They trembled,
these hands feeling for the truth. He saw it. Iron
near the compass. Wrong course. Wreck her! His
ship. Oh no. Not that.
"Jump and stop her!" he roared out in a voice not
his own.
He ran himself--hands forward, a blind man, and
while the clanging of the gong echoed still all over the
ship, she seemed to butt full tilt into the side of a
It was low water along the north side of the strait.
Mr. Massy had not reckoned on that. Instead of running
aground for half her length, the Sofala butted the
sheer ridge of a stone reef which would have been
awash at high water. This made the shock absolutely
terrific. Everybody in the ship that was standing was
thrown down headlong: the shaken rigging made a great
rattling to the very trucks. All the lights went out:
several chain-guys, snapping, clattered against the
funnel: there were crashes, pings of parted wire-rope,
splintering sounds, loud cracks, the masthead lamp flew
over the bows, and all the doors about the deck began
to bang heavily. Then, after having hit, she rebounded,
hit the second time the very same spot like a batteringram.
This completed the havoc: the funnel, with all
the guys gone, fell over with a hollow sound of thunder,
smashing the wheel to bits, crushing the frame of the
awnings, breaking the lockers, filling the bridge with
a mass of splinters, sticks, and broken wood. Captain
Whalley picked himself up and stood knee-deep in
wreckage, torn, bleeding, knowing the nature of the
danger he had escaped mostly by the sound, and holding
Mr. Massy's coat in his arms.
By this time Sterne (he had been flung out of his
bunk) had set the engines astern. They worked for a
few turns, then a voice bawled out, "Get out of the
damned engine-room, Jack!"--and they stopped; but
the ship had gone clear of the reef and lay still, with a
heavy cloud of steam issuing from the broken deckpipes,
and vanishing in wispy shapes into the night.
Notwithstanding the suddenness of the disaster there
was no shouting, as if the very violence of the shock
had half-stunned the shadowy lot of people swaying
here and there about her decks. The voice of the Serang
pronounced distinctly above the confused murmurs--
"Eight fathom." He had heaved the lead.
Mr. Sterne cried out next in a strained pitch--
"Where the devil has she got to? Where are we?"
Captain Whalley replied in a calm bass--
"Amongst the reefs to the eastward."
"You know it, sir? Then she will never get out
"She will be sunk in five minutes. Boats, Sterne.
Even one will save you all in this calm."
The Chinaman stokers went in a disorderly rush for
the port boats. Nobody tried to check them. The
Malays, after a moment of confusion, became quiet,
and Mr. Sterne showed a good countenance. Captain
Whalley had not moved. His thoughts were darker
than this night in which he had lost his first ship.
"He made me lose a ship."
Another tall figure standing before him amongst the
litter of the smash on the bridge whispered insanely--
"Say nothing of it."
Massy stumbled closer. Captain Whalley heard the
chattering of his teeth.
"I have the coat."
"Throw it down and come along," urged the chattering
voice. "B-b-b-b-boat!"
"You will get fifteen years for this."
Mr. Massy had lost his voice. His speech was a mere
dry rustling in his throat.
"Have mercy!"
"Had you any when you made me lose my ship? Mr.
Massy, you shall get fifteen years for this!"
"I wanted money! Money! My own money! I will
give you some money. Take half of it. You love
money yourself."
"There's a justice . . ."
Massy made an awful effort, and in a strange, half
choked utterance--
"You blind devil! It's you that drove me to it."
Captain Whalley, hugging the coat to his breast,
made no sound. The light had ebbed for ever from the
world--let everything go. But this man should not
escape scot-free.
Sterne's voice commanded--
"Lower away!"
The blocks rattled.
"Now then," he cried, "over with you. This way.
You, Jack, here. Mr. Massy! Mr. Massy! Captain!
Quick, sir! Let's get--
"I shall go to prison for trying to cheat the insurance,
but you'll get exposed; you, honest man, who has been
cheating me. You are poor. Aren't you? You've
nothing but the five hundred pounds. Well, you have
nothing at all now. The ship's lost, and the insurance
won't be paid."
Captain Whalley did not move. True! Ivy's money!
Gone in this wreck. Again he had a flash of insight.
He was indeed at the end of his tether.
Urgent voices cried out together alongside. Massy
did not seem able to tear himself away from the bridge.
He chattered and hissed despairingly--
"Give it up to me! Give it up!"
"No," said Captain Whalley; "I could not give it up.
You had better go. Don't wait, man, if you want to
live. She's settling down by the head fast. No; I shall
keep it, but I shall stay on board."
Massy did not seem to understand; but the love of life,
awakened suddenly, drove him away from the bridge.
Captain Whalley laid the coat down, and stumbled
amongst the heaps of wreckage to the side.
"Is Mr. Massy in with you?" he called out into the
Sterne from the boat shouted--
"Yes; we've got him. Come along, sir. It's madness
to stay longer."
Captain Whalley felt along the rail carefully, and,
without a word, cast off the painter. They were expecting
him still down there. They were waiting, till
a voice suddenly exclaimed--
"We are adrift! Shove off!"
"Captain Whalley! Leap! . . . pull up a little . . .
leap! You can swim."
In that old heart, in that vigorous body, there was,
that nothing should be wanting, a horror of death that
apparently could not be overcome by the horror of
blindness. But after all, for Ivy he had carried his
point, walking in his darkness to the very verge of a
crime. God had not listened to his prayers. The light
had finished ebbing out of the world; not a glimmer. It
was a dark waste; but it was unseemly that a Whalley
who had gone so far to carry a point should continue
to live. He must pay the price.
"Leap as far as you can, sir; we will pick you up."
They did not hear him answer. But their shouting
seemed to remind him of something. He groped his
way back, and sought for Mr. Massy's coat. He could
swim indeed; people sucked down by the whirlpool of
a sinking ship do come up sometimes to the surface, and
it was unseemly that a Whalley, who had made up his
mind to die, should be beguiled by chance into a
struggle. He would put all these pieces of iron into his
own pockets.
They, looking from the boat, saw the Sofala, a black
mass upon a black sea, lying still at an appalling cant.
No sound came from her. Then, with a great bizarre
shuffling noise, as if the boilers had broken through the
bulkheads, and with a faint muffled detonation, where
the ship had been there appeared for a moment something
standing upright and narrow, like a rock out of
the sea. Then that too disappeared.
When the Sofala failed to come back to Batu Beru at
the proper time, Mr. Van Wyk understood at once that
he would never see her any more. But he did not know
what had happened till some months afterwards, when,
in a native craft lent him by his Sultan, he had made
his way to the Sofala's port of registry, where already
her existence and the official inquiry into her loss was
beginning to be forgotten.
It had not been a very remarkable or interesting case,
except for the fact that the captain had gone down with
his sinking ship. It was the only life lost; and Mr. Van
Wyk would not have been able to learn any details had
it not been for Sterne, whom he met one day on the quay
near the bridge over the creek, almost on the very spot
where Captain Whalley, to preserve his daughter's five
hundred pounds intact, had turned to get a sampan
which would take him on board the Sofala.
From afar Mr. Van Wyk saw Sterne blink straight at
him and raise his hand to his hat. They drew into the
shade of a building (it was a bank), and the mate related
how the boat with the crew got into Pangu Bay
about six hours after the accident, and how they had
lived for a fortnight in a state of destitution before they
found an opportunity to get away from that beastly
place. The inquiry had exonerated everybody from all
blame. The loss of the ship was put down to an unusual
set of the current. Indeed, it could not have been
anything else: there was no other way to account for
the ship being set seven miles to the eastward of her
position during the middle watch.
"A piece of bad luck for me, sir."
Sterne passed his tongue on his lips, and glanced aside.
"I lost the advantage of being employed by you, sir.
I can never be sorry enough. But here it is: one man's
poison, another man's meat. This could not have been
handier for Mr. Massy if he had arranged that shipwreck
himself. The most timely total loss I've ever
heard of."
"What became of that Massy?" asked Mr. Van Wyk.
"He, sir? Ha! ha! He would keep on telling me
that he meant to buy another ship; but as soon as he
had the money in his pocket he cleared out for Manilla
by mail-boat early in the morning. I gave him chase
right aboard, and he told me then he was going to make
his fortune dead sure in Manilla. I could go to the
devil for all he cared. And yet he as good as promised
to give me the command if I didn't talk too much."
"You never said anything . . ." Mr. Van Wyk
"Not I, sir. Why should I? I mean to get on, but
the dead aren't in my way," said Sterne. His eyelids
were beating rapidly, then drooped for an instant.
"Besides, sir, it would have been an awkward business.
You made me hold my tongue just a bit too long."
"Do you know how it was that Captain Whalley remained
on board? Did he really refuse to leave? Come
now! Or was it perhaps an accidental . . .?"
"Nothing!" Sterne interrupted with energy. "I tell
you I yelled for him to leap overboard. He simply
MUST have cast off the painter of the boat himself. We
all yelled to him--that is, Jack and I. He wouldn't even
answer us. The ship was as silent as a grave to the last.
Then the boilers fetched away, and down she went.
Accident! Not it! The game was up, sir, I tell you."
This was all that Sterne had to say.
Mr. Van Wyk had been of course made the guest of
the club for a fortnight, and it was there that he met
the lawyer in whose office had been signed the agreement
between Massy and Captain Whalley.
"Extraordinary old man," he said. "He came into
my office from nowhere in particular as you may say,
with his five hundred pounds to place, and that engineer
fellow following him anxiously. And now he is gone out
a little inexplicably, just as he came. I could never
understand him quite. There was no mystery at all
about that Massy, eh? I wonder whether Whalley refused
to leave the ship. It would have been foolish.
He was blameless, as the court found."
Mr. Van Wyk had known him well, he said, and he
could not believe in suicide. Such an act would not
have been in character with what he knew of the man.
"It is my opinion, too," the lawyer agreed. The general
theory was that the captain had remained too long
on board trying to save something of importance. Perhaps
the chart which would clear him, or else something
of value in his cabin. The painter of the boat had
come adrift of itself it was supposed. However, strange
to say, some little time before that voyage poor Whalley
had called in his office and had left with him a sealed
envelope addressed to his daughter, to be forwarded to
her in case of his death. Still it was nothing very unusual,
especially in a man of his age. Mr. Van Wyk
shook his head. Captain Whalley looked good for a
hundred years.
"Perfectly true," assented the lawyer. "The old
fellow looked as though he had come into the world fullgrown
and with that long beard. I could never, somehow,
imagine him either younger or older--don't you
know. There was a sense of physical power about that
man too. And perhaps that was the secret of that something
peculiar in his person which struck everybody who
came in contact with him. He looked indestructible by
any ordinary means that put an end to the rest of us.
His deliberate, stately courtesy of manner was full of
significance. It was as though he were certain of having
plenty of time for everything. Yes, there was
something indestructible about him; and the way he
talked sometimes you might have thought he believed
it himself. When he called on me last with that letter
he wanted me to take charge of, he was not depressed at
all. Perhaps a shade more deliberate in his talk and
manner. Not depressed in the least. Had he a presentiment,
I wonder? Perhaps! Still it seems a miserable
end for such a striking figure."
"Oh yes! It was a miserable end," Mr. Van Wyk said,
with so much fervor that the lawyer looked up at him
curiously; and afterwards, after parting with him, he
remarked to an acquaintance--
"Queer person that Dutch tobacco-planter from Batu
Beru. Know anything of him?"
"Heaps of money," answered the bank manager. "I
hear he's going home by the next mail to form a company
to take over his estates. Another tobacco district
thrown open. He's wise, I think. These good times
won't last for ever."
In the southern hemisphere Captain Whalley's daughter
had no presentiment of evil when she opened the
envelope addressed to her in the lawyer's handwriting.
She had received it in the afternoon; all the boarders
had gone out, her boys were at school, her husband sat
upstairs in his big arm-chair with a book, thin-faced,
wrapped up in rugs to the waist. The house was still,
and the grayness of a cloudy day lay against the panes
of three lofty windows.
In a shabby dining-room, where a faint cold smell of
dishes lingered all the year round, sitting at the end of
a long table surrounded by many chairs pushed in with
their backs close against the edge of the perpetually laid
table-cloth, she read the opening sentence: "Most profound
regret--painful duty--your father is no more--
in accordance with his instructions--fatal casualty--
consolation--no blame attached to his memory. . . ."
Her face was thin, her temples a little sunk under the
smooth bands of black hair, her lips remained resolutely
compressed, while her dark eyes grew larger, till at last,
with a low cry, she stood up, and instantly stooped to
pick up another envelope which had slipped off her
knees on to the floor.
She tore it open, snatched out the inclosure. . . .
"My dearest child," it said, "I am writing this while
I am able yet to write legibly. I am trying hard to
save for you all the money that is left; I have only kept
it to serve you better. It is yours. It shall not be lost:
it shall not be touched. There's five hundred pounds.
Of what I have earned I have kept nothing back till
now. For the future, if I live, I must keep back some--
a little--to bring me to you. I must come to you. I
must see you once more.
"It is hard to believe that you will ever look on these
lines. God seems to have forgotten me. I want to see
you--and yet death would be a greater favor. If you
ever read these words, I charge you to begin by thanking
a God merciful at last, for I shall be dead then, and
it will be well. My dear, I am at the end of my tether."
The next paragraph began with the words: "My sight
is going . . ."
She read no more that day. The hand holding up the
paper to her eyes fell slowly, and her slender figure in
a plain black dress walked rigidly to the window. Her
eyes were dry: no cry of sorrow or whisper of thanks
went up to heaven from her lips. Life had been too
hard, for all the efforts of his love. It had silenced her
emotions. But for the first time in all these years its
sting had departed, the carking care of poverty, the
meanness of a hard struggle for bread. Even the image
of her husband and of her children seemed to glide away
from her into the gray twilight; it was her father's
face alone that she saw, as though he had come to see
her, always quiet and big, as she had seen him last, but
with something more august and tender in his aspect.
She slipped his folded letter between the two buttons
of her plain black bodice, and leaning her forehead
against a window-pane remained there till dusk, perfectly
motionless, giving him all the time she could
spare. Gone! Was it possible? My God, was it possible!
The blow had come softened by the spaces of the
earth, by the years of absence. There had been whole
days when she had not thought of him at all--had no
time. But she had loved him, she felt she had loved
him, after all.

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