Printer Friendly

PART I--THE DAMSEL-CHAPTER ONE--YOUNG POWELL AND HIS CHANCE (Page 2)


'Charles.' He did. And I detected him taking a hasty squint at my certificate just before, because clearly till he did so he was not sure of my christian name. "Now then come round in front of the desk, Charles," says he in a loud voice.

"Charles! At first, I declare to you, it didn't seem possible that he was addressing himself to me. I even looked round for that Charles but there was nobody behind me except the thin-necked chap still hard at his writing, and the other three Shipping Masters who were changing their coats and reaching for their hats, making ready to go home. It was the industrious thin-necked man who without laying down his pen lifted with his left hand a flap near his desk and said kindly:

"Pass this way."

I walked through in a trance, faced Mr. Powell, from whom I learned that we were bound to Port Elizabeth first, and signed my name on the Articles of the ship Ferndale as second mate--the voyage not to exceed two years.

"You won't fail to join--eh?" says the captain anxiously. "It would cause no end of trouble and expense if you did. You've got a good six hours to get your gear together, and then you'll have time to snatch a sleep on board before the crew joins in the morning."

"It was easy enough for him to talk of getting ready in six hours for a voyage that was not to exceed two years. He hadn't to do that trick himself, and with his sea-chest locked up in an outhouse the key of which had been mislaid for a week as I remembered. But neither was I much concerned. The idea that I was absolutely going to sea at six o'clock next morning hadn't got quite into my head yet. It had been too sudden.

"Mr. Powell, slipping the Articles into a long envelope, spoke up with a sort of cold half-laugh without looking at either of us.

"Mind you don't disgrace the name, Charles."

"And the skipper chimes in very kindly:

"He'll do well enough I dare say. I'll look after him a bit."

"Upon this he grabs the Articles, says something about trying to run in for a minute to see that poor devil in the hospital, and off he goes with his heavy swinging step after telling me sternly: "Don't you go like that poor fellow and get yourself run over by a cart as if you hadn't either eyes or ears."

"Mr. Powell," says I timidly (there was by then only the thin-necked man left in the office with us and he was already by the door, standing on one leg to turn the bottom of his trousers up before going away). "Mr. Powell," says I, "I believe the Captain of the Ferndale was thinking all the time that I was a relation of yours."

"I was rather concerned about the propriety of it, you know, but Mr. Powell didn't seem to be in the least.

"Did he?" says he. "That's funny, because it seems to me too that I've been a sort of good uncle to several of you young fellows lately. Don't you think so yourself? However, if you don't like it you may put him right--when you get out to sea." At this I felt a bit queer. Mr. Powell had rendered me a very good service:- because it's a fact that with us merchant sailors the first voyage as officer is the real start in life. He had given me no less than that. I told him warmly that he had done for me more that day than all my relations put together ever did.

"Oh, no, no," says he. "I guess it's that shipment of explosives waiting down the river which has done most for you. Forty tons of dynamite have been your best friend to-day, young man."

"That was true too, perhaps. Anyway I saw clearly enough that I had nothing to thank myself for. But as I tried to thank him, he checked my stammering.

"Don't be in a hurry to thank me," says he. "The voyage isn't finished yet."

Our new acquaintance paused, then added meditatively: "Queer man. As if it made any difference. Queer man."

"It's certainly unwise to admit any sort of responsibility for our actions, whose consequences we are never able to foresee," remarked Marlow by way of assent.

"The consequence of his action was that I got a ship," said the other. "That could not do much harm," he added with a laugh which argued a probably unconscious contempt of general ideas.

But Marlow was not put off. He was patient and reflective. He had been at sea many years and I verily believe he liked sea-life because upon the whole it is favourable to reflection. I am speaking of the now nearly vanished sea-life under sail. To those who may be surprised at the statement I will point out that this life secured for the mind of him who embraced it the inestimable advantages of solitude and silence. Marlow had the habit of pursuing general ideas in a peculiar manner, between jest and earnest.

"Oh, I wouldn't suggest," he said, "that your namesake Mr. Powell, the Shipping Master, had done you much harm. Such was hardly his intention. And even if it had been he would not have had the power. He was but a man, and the incapacity to achieve anything distinctly good or evil is inherent in our earthly condition. Mediocrity is our mark. And perhaps it's just as well, since, for the most part, we cannot be certain of the effect of our actions."

"I don't know about the effect," the other stood up to Marlow manfully. "What effect did you expect anyhow? I tell you he did something uncommonly kind."

"He did what he could," Marlow retorted gently, "and on his own showing that was not a very great deal. I cannot help thinking that there was some malice in the way he seized the opportunity to serve you. He managed to make you uncomfortable. You wanted to go to sea, but he jumped at the chance of accommodating your desire with a vengeance. I am inclined to think your cheek alarmed him. And this was an excellent occasion to suppress you altogether. For if you accepted he was relieved of you with every appearance of humanity, and if you made objections (after requesting his assistance, mind you) it was open to him to drop you as a sort of impostor. You might have had to decline that berth for some very valid reason. From sheer necessity perhaps. The notice was too uncommonly short. But under the circumstances you'd have covered yourself with ignominy."

Our new friend knocked the ashes out of his pipe.

"Quite a mistake," he said. "I am not of the declining sort, though I'll admit it was something like telling a man that you would like a bath and in consequence being instantly knocked overboard to sink or swim with your clothes on. However, I didn't feel as if I were in deep water at first. I left the shipping office quietly and for a time strolled along the street as easy as if I had a week before me to fit myself out. But by and by I reflected that the notice was even shorter than it looked. The afternoon was well advanced; I had some things to get, a lot of small matters to attend to, one or two persons to see. One of them was an aunt of mine, my only relation, who quarrelled with poor father as long as he lived about some silly matter that had neither right nor wrong to it. She left her money to me when she died. I used always to go and see her for decency's sake. I had so much to do before night that I didn't know where to begin. I felt inclined to sit down on the kerb and hold my head in my hands. It was as if an engine had been started going under my skull. Finally I sat down in the first cab that came along and it was a hard matter to keep on sitting there I can tell you, while we rolled up and down the streets, pulling up here and there, the parcels accumulating round me and the engine in my head gathering more way every minute. The composure of the people on the pavements was provoking to a degree, and as to the people in shops, they were benumbed, more than half frozen--imbecile. Funny how it affects you to be in a peculiar state of mind: everybody that does not act up to your excitement seems so confoundedly unfriendly. And my state of mind what with the hurry, the worry and a growing exultation was peculiar enough. That engine in my head went round at its top speed hour after hour till eleven at about at night it let up on me suddenly at the entrance to the Dock before large iron gates in a dead wall."

These gates were closed and locked. The cabby, after shooting his things off the roof of his machine into young Powell's arms, drove away leaving him alone with his sea-chest, a sail cloth bag and a few parcels on the pavement about his feet. It was a dark, narrow thoroughfare he told us. A mean row of houses on the other side looked empty: there wasn't the smallest gleam of light in them. The white-hot glare of a gin palace a good way off made the intervening piece of the street pitch black. Some human shapes appearing mysteriously, as if they had sprung up from the dark ground, shunned the edge of the faint light thrown down by the gateway lamps. These figures were wary in their movements and perfectly silent of foot, like beasts of prey slinking about a camp fire. Powell gathered up his belongings and hovered over them like a hen over her brood. A gruffly insinuating voice said:

"Let's carry your things in, Capt'in! I've got my pal 'ere."

He was a tall, bony, grey-haired ruffian with a bulldog jaw, in a torn cotton shirt and moleskin trousers. The shadow of his hobnailed boots was enormous and coffinlike. His pal, who didn't come up much higher than his elbow, stepping forward exhibited a pale face with a long drooping nose and no chin to speak of. He seemed to have just scrambled out of a dust-bin in a tam-o'shanter cap and a tattered soldier's coat much too long for him. Being so deadly white he looked like a horrible dirty invalid in a ragged dressing gown. The coat flapped open in front and the rest of his apparel consisted of one brace which crossed his naked, bony chest, and a pair of trousers. He blinked rapidly as if dazed by the faint light, while his patron, the old bandit, glowered at young Powell from under his beetling brow.

"Say the word, Capt'in. The bobby'll let us in all right. 'E knows both of us."

"I didn't answer him," continued Mr. Powell. "I was listening to footsteps on the other side of the gate, echoing between the walls of the warehouses as if in an uninhabited town of very high buildings dark from basement to roof. You could never have guessed that within a stone's throw there was an open sheet of water and big ships lying afloat. The few gas lamps showing up a bit of brick work here and there, appeared in the blackness like penny dips in a range of cellars--and the solitary footsteps came on, tramp, tramp. A dock policeman strode into the light on the other side of the gate, very broad-chested and stern.

"Hallo! What's up here?"

"He was really surprised, but after some palaver he let me in together with the two loafers carrying my luggage. He grumbled at them however and slammed the gate violently with a loud clang. I was startled to discover how many night prowlers had collected in the darkness of the street in such a short time and without my being aware of it. Directly we were through they came surging against the bars, silent, like a mob of ugly spectres. But suddenly, up the street somewhere, perhaps near that public-house, a row started as if Bedlam had broken loose: shouts, yells, an awful shrill shriek-- and at that noise all these heads vanished from behind the bars.

"Look at this," marvelled the constable. "It's a wonder to me they didn't make off with your things while you were waiting."

"I would have taken good care of that," I said defiantly. But the constable wasn't impressed.

"Much you would have done. The bag going off round one dark corner; the chest round another. Would you have run two ways at once? And anyhow you'd have been tripped up and jumped upon before you had run three yards. I tell you you've had a most extraordinary chance that there wasn't one of them regular boys about to-night, in the High Street, to twig your loaded cab go by. Ted here is honest . . . You are on the honest lay, Ted, ain't you?"

"Always was, orficer," said the big ruffian with feeling. The other frail creature seemed dumb and only hopped about with the edge of its soldier coat touching the ground.

"Oh yes, I dare say," said the constable. "Now then, forward, march

. . . He's that because he ain't game for the other thing," he confided to me. "He hasn't got the nerve for it. However, I ain't going to lose sight of them two till they go out through the gate. That little chap's a devil. He's got the nerve for anything, only he hasn't got the muscle. Well! Well! You've had a chance to get in with a whole skin and with all your things."

"I was incredulous a little. It seemed impossible that after getting ready with so much hurry and inconvenience I should have lost my chance of a start in life from such a cause. I asked:

"Does that sort of thing happen often so near the dock gates?"

"Often! No! Of course not often. But it ain't often either that a man comes along with a cabload of things to join a ship at this time of night. I've been in the dock police thirteen years and haven't seen it done once."

"Meantime we followed my sea-chest which was being carried down a sort of deep narrow lane, separating two high warehouses, between honest Ted and his little devil of a pal who had to keep up a trot to the other's stride. The skirt of his soldier's coat floating behind him nearly swept the ground so that he seemed to be running on castors. At the corner of the gloomy passage a rigged jib boom with a dolphin-striker ending in an arrow-head stuck out of the night close to a cast iron lamp-post. It was the quay side. They set down their load in the light and honest Ted asked hoarsely:

"Where's your ship, guv'nor?"

"I didn't know. The constable was interested at my ignorance.

"Don't know where your ship is?" he asked with curiosity. "And you the second officer! Haven't you been working on board of her?"

"I couldn't explain that the only work connected with my appointment was the work of chance. I told him briefly that I didn't know her at all. At this he remarked:

"So I see. Here she is, right before you. That's her."

"At once the head-gear in the gas light inspired me with interest and respect; the spars were big, the chains and ropes stout and the whole thing looked powerful and trustworthy. Barely touched by the light her bows rose faintly alongside the narrow strip of the quay; the rest of her was a black smudge in the darkness. Here I was face to face with my start in life. We walked in a body a few steps on a greasy pavement between her side and the towering wall of a warehouse and I hit my shins cruelly against the end of the gangway. The constable hailed her quietly in a bass undertone 'Ferndale there!' A feeble and dismal sound, something in the nature of a buzzing groan, answered from behind the bulwarks.

"I distinguished vaguely an irregular round knob, of wood, perhaps, resting on the rail. It did not move in the least; but as another broken-down buzz like a still fainter echo of the first dismal sound proceeded from it I concluded it must be the head of the shipkeeper. The stalwart constable jeered in a mock-official manner.

"Second officer coming to join. Move yourself a bit."

"The truth of the statement touched me in the pit of the stomach(you know that's the spot where emotion gets home on a man) for it was borne upon me that really and truly I was nothing but a second officer of a ship just like any other second officer, to that constable. I was moved by this solid evidence of my new dignity. Only his tone offended me. Nevertheless I gave him the tip he was looking for. Thereupon he lost all interest in me, humorous or otherwise, and walked away driving sternly before him the honest Ted, who went off grumbling to himself like a hungry ogre, and his horrible dumb little pal in the soldier's coat, who, from first to last, never emitted the slightest sound.

"It was very dark on the quarter deck of the Ferndale between the deep bulwarks overshadowed by the break of the poop and frowned upon by the front of the warehouse. I plumped down on to my chest near the after hatch as if my legs had been jerked from under me. I felt suddenly very tired and languid. The shipkeeper, whom I could hardly make out hung over the capstan in a fit of weak pitiful coughing. He gasped out very low 'Oh! dear! Oh! dear!' and struggled for breath so long that I got up alarmed and irresolute.

"I've been took like this since last Christmas twelvemonth. It ain't nothing."

"He seemed a hundred years old at least. I never saw him properly because he was gone ashore and out of sight when I came on deck in the morning; but he gave me the notion of the feeblest creature that ever breathed. His voice was thin like the buzzing of a mosquito. As it would have been cruel to demand assistance from such a shadowy wreck I went to work myself, dragging my chest along a pitch-black passage under the poop deck, while he sighed and moaned around me as if my exertions were more than his weakness could stand. At last as I banged pretty heavily against the bulkheads he warned me in his faint breathless wheeze to be more careful.

"What's the matter?" I asked rather roughly, not relishing to be admonished by this forlorn broken-down ghost.

"Nothing! Nothing, sir," he protested so hastily that he lost his poor breath again and I felt sorry for him. "Only the captain and his missus are sleeping on board. She's a lady that mustn't be disturbed. They came about half-past eight, and we had a permit to have lights in the cabin till ten to-night."

"This struck me as a considerable piece of news. I had never been in a ship where the captain had his wife with him. I'd heard fellows say that captains' wives could work a lot of mischief on board ship if they happened to take a dislike to anyone; especially the new wives if young and pretty. The old and experienced wives on the other hand fancied they knew more about the ship than the skipper himself and had an eye like a hawk's for what went on. They were like an extra chief mate of a particularly sharp and unfeeling sort who made his report in the evening. The best of them were a nuisance. In the general opinion a skipper with his wife on board was more difficult to please; but whether to show off his authority before an admiring female or from loving anxiety for her safety or simply from irritation at her presence--nobody I ever heard on the subject could tell for certain.

"After I had bundled in my things somehow I struck a match and had a dazzling glimpse of my berth; then I pitched the roll of my bedding into the bunk but took no trouble to spread it out. I wasn't sleepy now, neither was I tired. And the thought that I was done with the earth for many many months to come made me feel very quiet and self- contained as it were. Sailors will understand what I mean."

Marlow nodded. "It is a strictly professional feeling," he commented. "But other professions or trades know nothing of it. It is only this calling whose primary appeal lies in the suggestion of restless adventure which holds out that deep sensation to those who embrace it. It is difficult to define, I admit."

"I should call it the peace of the sea," said Mr. Charles Powell in an earnest tone but looking at us as though he expected to be met by a laugh of derision and were half prepared to salve his reputation for common sense by joining in it. But neither of us laughed at Mr. Charles Powell in whose start in life we had been called to take a part. He was lucky in his audience.

"A very good name," said Marlow looking at him approvingly. "A sailor finds a deep feeling of security in the exercise of his calling. The exacting life of the sea has this advantage over the life of the earth that its claims are simple and cannot be evaded."

"Gospel truth," assented Mr. Powell. "No! they cannot be evaded."

That an excellent understanding should have established itself between my old friend and our new acquaintance was remarkable enough. For they were exactly dissimilar--one individuality projecting itself in length and the other in breadth, which is already a sufficient ground for irreconcilable difference. Marlow who was lanky, loose, quietly composed in varied shades of brown robbed of every vestige of gloss, had a narrow, veiled glance, the neutral bearing and the secret irritability which go together with a predisposition to congestion of the liver. The other, compact, broad and sturdy of limb, seemed extremely full of sound organs functioning vigorously all the time in order to keep up the brilliance of his colouring, the light curl of his coal-black hair and the lustre of his eyes, which asserted themselves roundly in an open, manly face. Between two such organisms one would not have expected to find the slightest temperamental accord. But I have observed that profane men living in ships like the holy men gathered together in monasteries develop traits of profound resemblance. This must be because the service of the sea and the service of a temple are both detached from the vanities and errors of a world which follows no severe rule. The men of the sea understand each other very well in their view of earthly things, for simplicity is a good counsellor and isolation not a bad educator. A turn of mind composed of innocence and scepticism is common to them all, with the addition of an unexpected insight into motives, as of disinterested lookers-on at a game. Mr. Powell took me aside to say,

"I like the things he says."

"You understand each other pretty well," I observed.

"I know his sort," said Powell, going to the window to look at his cutter still riding to the flood. "He's the sort that's always chasing some notion or other round and round his head just for the fun of the thing."

"Keeps them in good condition," I said.

"Lively enough I dare say," he admitted.

"Would you like better a man who let his notions lie curled up?"

"That I wouldn't," answered our new acquaintance. Clearly he was not difficult to get on with. "I like him, very well," he continued, "though it isn't easy to make him out. He seems to be up to a thing or two. What's he doing?"

I informed him that our friend Marlow had retired from the sea in a sort of half-hearted fashion some years ago.

Mr. Powell's comment was: "Fancied had enough of it?"

"Fancied's the very word to use in this connection," I observed, remembering the subtly provisional character of Marlow's long sojourn amongst us. From year to year he dwelt on land as a bird rests on the branch of a tree, so tense with the power of brusque flight into its true element that it is incomprehensible why it should sit still minute after minute. The sea is the sailor's true element, and Marlow, lingering on shore, was to me an object of incredulous commiseration like a bird, which, secretly, should have lost its faith in the high virtue of flying.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters