Falk - A Reminiscence (Page 5)
"I have not said anything to her yet," Hermann observed quietly. And Falk dismissed this by a "That's all right. Certainly. Very proper." There was a necessity for perfect frankness--in marrying, especially. Hermann seemed attentive, but he seized the first opportunity to ask us into the cabin. "And by-the-by, Falk," he said innocent ly, as we passed in, "the timber came to no less than forty-seven dollars and fifty cents."
Falk, uncovering his head, lingered in the pas sage. "Some other time," he said; and Hermann nudged me angrily--I don't know why. The girl alone in the cabin sat sewing at some distance from the table. Falk stopped short in the doorway. Without a word, without a sign, without the slight est inclination of his bony head, by the silent in tensity of his look alone, he seemed to lay his her culean frame at her feet. Her hands sank slowly on her lap, and raising her clear eyes, she let her soft, beaming glance enfold him from head to foot like a slow and pale caress. He was very hot when he sat down; she, with bowed head, went on with her sewing; her neck was very white under the light of the lamp; but Falk, hiding his face in the palms of his hands, shuddered faintly. He drew them down, even to his beard, and his uncovered eyes as tonished me by their tense and irrational expres sion--as though he had just swallowed a heavy gulp of alcohol. It passed away while he was binding us to secrecy. Not that he cared, but he did not like to be spoken about; and I looked at the girl's marvellous, at her wonderful, at her regal hair, plaited tight into that one astonishing and maidenly tress. Whenever she moved her well shaped head it would stir stiffly to and fro on her back. The thin cotton sleeve fitted the irreproach able roundness of her arm like a skin; and her very dress, stretched on her bust, seemed to palpitate like a living tissue with the strength of vitality ani mating her body. How good her complexion was, the outline of her soft cheek and the small convo luted conch of her rosy ear! To pull her needle she kept the little finger apart from the others; it seemed a waste of power to see her sewing--eter nally sewing--with that industrious and precise movement of her arm, going on eternally upon all the oceans, under all the skies, in innumerable har bours. And suddenly I heard Falk's voice declare that he could not marry a woman unless she knew of something in his life that had happened ten years ago. It was an accident. An unfortunate ac cident. It would affect the domestic arrangements of their home, but, once told, it need not be alluded to again for the rest of their lives. "I should want my wife to feel for me," he said. "It has made me unhappy." And how could he keep the knowledge of it to himself--he asked us--perhaps through years and years of companionship? What sort of companionship would that be? He had thought it over. A wife must know. Then why not at once? He counted on Hermann's kindness for presenting the affair in the best possible light. And Her mann's countenance, mystified before, became very sour. He stole an inquisitive glance at me. I shook my head blankly. Some people thought, Falk went on, that such an experience changed a man for the rest of his life. He couldn't say. It was hard, awful, and not to be forgotten, but he did not think himself a worse man than before. Only he talked in his sleep now, he believed. . . . At last I began to think he had accidentally killed some one; perhaps a friend--his own father may be; when he went on to say that probably we were aware he never touched meat. Throughout he spoke English, of course of my account.
He swayed forward heavily.
The girl, with her hands raised before her pale eyes, was threading her needle. He glanced at her, and his mighty trunk overshadowed the table, bringing nearer to us the breadth of his shoulders, the thickness of his neck, and that incongruous, an chorite head, burnt in the desert, hollowed and lean as if by excesses of vigils and fasting. His beard flowed imposingly downwards, out of sight, be tween the two brown hands gripping the edge of the table, and his persistent glance made sombre by the wide dilations of the pupils, fascinated.
"Imagine to yourselves," he said in his ordinary voice, "that I have eaten man."
I could only ejaculate a faint "Ah!" of com plete enlightenment. But Hermann, dazed by the excessive shock, actually murmured, "Himmel! What for?"
"It was my terrible misfortune to do so," said Falk in a measured undertone. The girl, uncon scious, sewed on. Mrs. Hermann was absent in one of the state-rooms, sitting up with Lena, who was feverish; but Hermann suddenly put both his hands up with a jerk. The embroidered calotte fell, and, in the twinkling of an eye, he had rum pled his hair all ends up in a most extravagant manner. In this state he strove to speak; with every effort his eyes seemed to start further out of their sockets; his head looked like a mop. He choked, gasped, swallowed, and managed to shriek out the one word, "Beast!"
From that moment till Falk went out of the cab in the girl, with her hands folded on the work lying in her lap, never took her eyes off him. His own, in the blindness of his heart, darted all over the cabin, only seeking to avoid the sight of Hermann's raving. It was ridiculous, and was made almost terrible by the stillness of every other person pres ent. It was contemptible, and was made appalling by the man's overmastering horror of this awful sincerity, coming to him suddenly, with the confes sion of such a fact. He walked with great strides; he gasped. He wanted to know from Falk how dared he to come and tell him this? Did he think himself a proper person to be sitting in this cabin where his wife and children lived? Tell his niece! Expected him to tell his niece! His own brother's daughter! Shameless! Did I ever hear tell of such impudence?--he appealed to me. "This man here ought to have gone and hidden himself out of sight instead of . . ."
"But it's a great misfortune for me. But it's a great misfortune for me," Falk would ejaculate from time to time.
However, Hermann kept on running frequently against the corners of the table. At last he lost a slipper, and crossing his arms on his breast, walked up with one stocking foot very close to Falk, in or der to ask him whether he did think there was any where on earth a woman abandoned enough to mate with such a monster. "Did he? Did he? Did he?" I tried to restrain him. He tore himself out of my hands; he found his slipper, and, endeavour ing to put it on, stormed standing on one leg- and Falk, with a face unmoved and averted eyes, grasped all his mighty beard in one vast palm.
"Was it right then for me to die myself?" he asked thoughtfully. I laid my hand on his shoul der.
"Go away," I whispered imperiously, without any clear reason for this advice, except that I wished to put an end to Hermann's odious noise. "Go away."
He looked searchingly for a moment at Hermann before he made a move. I left the cabin too to see him out of the ship. But he hung about the quar ter-deck.
"It is my misfortune," he said in a steady voice.
"You were stupid to blurt it out in such a man ner. After all, we don't hear such confidences every day."
"What does the man mean?" he mused in deep undertones. "Somebody had to die--but why me?"
He remained still for a time in the dark--silent; almost invisible. All at once he pinned my elbows to my sides. I felt utterly powerless in his grip, and his voice, whispering in my ear, vibrated.
"It's worse than hunger. Captain, do you know what that means? And I could kill then--or be killed. I wish the crowbar had smashed my skull ten years ago. And I've got to live now. Without her. Do you understand? Perhaps many years. But how? What can be done? If I had allowed myself to look at her once I would have carried her off before that man in my hands--like this."
I felt myself snatched off the deck, then suddenly dropped--and I staggered backwards, feeling bewildered and bruised. What a man! All was still; he was gone. I heard Hermann's voice de claiming in the cabin, and I went in.
I could not at first make out a single word, but Mrs. Hermann, who, attracted by the noise, had come in some time before, with an expression of surprise and mild disapproval, depicted broadly on her face, was giving now all the signs of profound, helpless agitation. Her husband shot a string of guttural words at her, and instantly putting out one hand to the bulkhead as if to save herself from falling, she clutched the loose bosom of her dress with the other. He harangued the two women ex traordinarily, with much of his shirt hanging out of his waistbelt, stamping his foot, turning from one to the other, sometimes throwing both his arms to gether, straight up above his rumpled hair, and keeping them in that position while he uttered a passage of loud denunciation; at others folding them tight across his breast--and then he hissed with indignation, elevating his shoulders and pro truding his head. The girl was crying.
She had not changed her attitude. From her steady eyes that, following Falk in his retreat, had remained fixed wistfully on the cabin door, the tears fell rapid, thick, on her hands, on the work in her lap, warm and gentle like a shower in spring. She wept without grimacing, without noise--very touching, very quiet, with something more of pity than of pain in her face, as one weeps in compassion rather than in grief--and Hermann, before her, declaimed. I caught several times the word "Mensch," man; and also "Fressen," which last I looked up afterwards in my dictionary. It means "Devour." Hermann seemed to be requesting an answer of some sort from her; his whole body swayed. She remained mute and perfectly still; at last his agitation gained her; she put the palms of her hands together, her full lips parted, no sound came. His voice scolded shrilly, his arms went like a windmill--suddenly he shook a thick fist at her. She burst out into loud sobs. He seemed stupefied.
Mrs. Hermann rushed forward babbling rap dly. The two women fell on each other's necks, and, with an arm round her niece's waist, she led her away. Her own eyes were simply streaming, her face was flooded. She shook her head back at me negatively, I wonder why to this day. The girl's head dropped heavily on her shoulder. They dis appeared.
Then Hermann sat down and stared at the cabin floor.
"We don't know all the circumstances," I ven tured to break the silence. He retorted tartly that he didn't want to know of any. According to his ideas no circumstances could excuse a crime--and certainly not such a crime. This was the opinion generally received. The duty of a human being was to starve. Falk therefore was a beast, an ani mal; base, low, vile, despicable, shameless, and de ceitful. He had been deceiving him since last year. He was, however, inclined to think that Falk must have gone mad quite recently; for no sane person, without necessity, uselessly, for no earthly reason, and regardless of another's self-respect and peace of mind, would own to having devoured human flesh. "Why tell?" he cried. "Who was asking him?" It showed Falk's brutality because after all he had selfishly caused him (Hermann) much pain. He would have preferred not to know that such an unclean creature had been in the habit of caressing his children. He hoped I would say noth ing of all this ashore, though. He wouldn't like it to get about that he had been intimate with an eater of men--a common cannibal. As to the scene he had made (which I judged quite unnecessary) he was not going to inconvenience and restrain himself for a fellow that went about courting and upsetting girls' heads, while he knew all the time that no decent housewifely girl could think of mar rying him. At least he (Hermann) could not con ceive how any girl could. Fancy Lena! . . . No, it was impossible. The thoughts that would come into their heads every time they sat down to a meal. Horrible! Horrible!
"You are too squeamish, Hermann," I said.
He seemed to think it was eminently proper to be squeamish if the word meant disgust at Falk's con duct; and turning up his eyes sentimentally he drew my attention to the horrible fate of the victims --the victims of that Falk. I said that I knew nothing about them. He seemed surprised. Could not anybody imagine without knowing? He--for instance--felt he would like to avenge them. But what if--said I--there had not been any? They might have died as it were, naturally--of starva tion. He shuddered. But to be eaten--after death! To be devoured! He gave another deep shudder, and asked suddenly, "Do you think it is true?"
His indignation and his personality together would have been enough to spoil the reality of the most authentic thing. When I looked at him I doubted the story--but the remembrance of Falk's words, looks, gestures, invested it not only with an air of reality but with the absolute truth of primitive passion.
"It is true just as much as you are able to make it; and exactly in the way you like to make it. For my part, when I hear you clamouring about it, I don't believe it is true at all."
And I left him pondering. The men in my boat lying at the foot of Diana's side ladder told me that the captain of the tug had gone away in his gig some time ago.
I let my fellows pull an easy stroke; because of the heavy dew the clear sparkle of the stars seemed to fall on me cold and wetting. There was a sense of lurking gruesome horror somewhere in my mind, and it was mingled with clear and grotesque images. Schomberg's gastronomic tittle-tattle was responsible for these; and I half hoped I should never see Falk again. But the first thing my anchor-watchman told me was that the captain of the tug was on board. He had sent his boat away and was now waiting for me in the cuddy.
He was lying full length on the stern settee, his face buried in the cushions. I had expected to see it discomposed, contorted, despairing. It was nothing of the kind; it was just as I had seen it twenty times, steady and glaring from the bridge of the tug. It was immovably set and hungry, dominated like the whole man by the singleness of one instinct.
He wanted to live. He had always wanted to live. So we all do--but in us the instinct serves a complex conception, and in him this instinct existed alone. There is in such simple development a gi gantic force, and like the pathos of a child's naive nd uncontrolled desire. He wanted that girl, and the utmost that can be said for him was that he wanted that particular girl alone. I think I saw then the obscure beginning, the seed germinating in the soil of an unconscious need, the first shoot of that tree bearing now for a mature mankind the flower and the fruit, the infinite gradation in shades and in flavour of our discriminating love. He was a child. He was as frank as a child too. He was hungry for the girl, terribly hungry, as he had been terribly hungry for food.
Don't be shocked if I declare that in my belief it was the same need, the same pain, the same tor ture. We are in his case allowed to contemplate the foundation of all the emotions--that one joy which is to live, and the one sadness at the root of the innumerable torments. It was made plain by the way he talked. He had never suffered so. It was gnawing, it was fire; it was there, like this! And after pointing below his breastbone, he made a hard wringing motion with his hands. And I as sure you that, seen as I saw it with my bodily eyes, it was anything but laughable. And again, as he was presently to tell me (alluding to an early inci dent of the disastrous voyage when some damaged meat had been flung overboard), he said that a time soon came when his heart ached (that was the expression he used), and he was ready to tear his hair out at the thought of all that rotten beef thrown away.
I had heard all this; I witnessed his physical struggles, seeing the working of the rack and hear ing the true voice of pain. I witnessed it all pa tiently, because the moment I came into the cuddy he had called upon me to stand by him--and this, it seems, I had diplomatically promised.
His agitation was impressive and alarming in the little cabin, like the floundering of a great whale driven into a shallow cove in a coast. He stood up; he flung himself down headlong; he tried to tear the cushion with his teeth; and again hug ging it fiercely to his face he let himself fall on the couch. The whole ship seemed to feel the shock of his despair; and I contemplated with wonder the lofty forehead, the noble touch of time on the un covered temples, the unchanged hungry character of the face--so strangely ascetic and so incapable of portraying emotion.
What should he do? He had lived by being near her. He had sat--in the evening--I knew?- all his life! She sewed. Her head was bent--so. Her head--like this--and her arms. Ah! Had I seen? Like this.
He dropped on a stool, bowed his powerful neck whose nape was red, and with his hands stitched the air, ludicrous, sublimely imbecile and compre hensible.
And now he couldn't have her? No! That was too much. After thinking too that . . . What had he done? What was my advice? Take her by force? No? Mustn't he? Who was there then to kill him? For the first time I saw one of his fea tures move; a fighting teeth-baring curl of the lip.
. . . "Not Hermann, perhaps." He lost himself in thought as though he had fallen out of the world.
I may note that the idea of suicide apparently did not enter his head for a single moment. It oc curred to me to ask:
"Where was it that this shipwreck of yours took place?"
"Down south," he said vaguely with a start.
"You are not down south now," I said. "Vio lence won't do. They would take her away from you in no time. And what was the name of the ship?"
"Borgmester Dahl," he said. "It was no ship wreck."
He seemed to be waking up by degrees from that trance, and waking up calmed.
"Not a shipwreck? What was it?"
"Break down," he answered, looking more like himself every moment. By this only I learned that it was a steamer. I had till then supposed they had been starving in boats or on a raft--or per haps on a barren rock.
"She did not sink then?" I asked in surprise. He nodded. "We sighted the southern ice," he pronounced dreamily.
"And you alone survived?"
He sat down. "Yes. It was a terrible misfor tune for me. Everything went wrong. All the men went wrong. I survived."
Remembering the things one reads of it was diffi cult to realise the true meaning of his answers. I ought to have seen at once--but I did not; so diffi cult is it for our minds, remembering so much, in structed so much, informed of so much, to get in touch with the real actuality at our elbow. And with my head full of preconceived notions as to how a case of "cannibalism and suffering at sea" should be managed I said--"You were then so lucky in the drawing of lots?"
"Drawing of lots?" he said. "What lots? Do you think I would have allowed my life to go for the drawing of lots?"
Not if he could help if, I perceived, no matter what other life went.
"It was a great misfortune. Terrible. Awful," he said. "Many heads went wrong, but the best men would live."
"The toughest, you mean," I said. He consid ered the word. Perhaps it was strange to him, though his English was so good.
"Yes," he asserted at last. "The best. It was everybody for himself at last and the ship open to all."
Thus from question to question I got the whole story. I fancy it was the only way I could that night have stood by him. Outwardly at least he was himself again; the first sign of it was the re turn of that incongruous trick he had of drawing both his hands down his face--and it had its mean ing now, with that slight shudder of the frame and the passionate anguish of these hands uncovering a hungry immovable face, the wide pupils of the intent, silent, fascinating eyes.
It was an iron steamer of a most respectable ori gin. The burgomaster of Falk's native town had built her. She was the first steamer ever launched there. The burgomaster's daughter had christened her. Country people drove in carts from miles around to see her. He told me all this. He got the berth as what we should call a chief mate. He seemed to think it had been a feather in his cap; and, in his own corner of the world, this lover of life was of good parentage.
The burgomaster had advanced ideas in the ship-owning line. At that time not every one would have known enough to think of despatching a cargo steamer to the Pacific. But he loaded her with pitch-pine deals and sent her off to hunt for her luck. Wellington was to be the first port, I fancy. It doesn't matter, because in latitude 44 d south and somewhere halfway between Good Hope and New Zealand the tail shaft broke and the pro peller dropped off.
They were steaming then with a fresh gale on the quarter and all their canvas set, to help the en gines. But by itself the sail power was not enough to keep way on her. When the propeller went the ship broached-to at once, and the masts got whipped overboard.
The disadvantage of being dismasted consisted in this, that they had nothing to hoist flags on to make themselves visible at a distance. In the course of the first few days several ships failed to sight them; and the gale was drifting them out of the usual track. The voyage had been, from the first, neither very successful nor very harmonious. There had been quarrels on board. The captain was a clever, melancholic man, who had no unusual grip on his crew. The ship had been amply pro visioned for the passage, but, somehow or other, several barrels of meat were found spoiled on open ing, and had been thrown overboard soon after leaving home, as a sanitary measure. Afterwards the crew of the Borgmester Dahl thought of that rotten carrion with tears of regret, covetousness and despair.
She drove south. To begin with, there had been an appearance of organisation, but soon the bonds of discipline became relaxed. A sombre idleness succeeded. They looked with sullen eyes at the hori zon. The gales increased: she lay in the trough, the seas made a clean breach over her. On one frightful night, when they expected their hulk to turn over with them every moment, a heavy sea broke on board, deluged the store-rooms and spoiled the best part of the remaining provisions. It seems the hatch had not been properly secured. This in stance of neglect is characteristic of utter discour agement. Falk tried to inspire some energy into his captain, but failed. From that time he retired more into himself, always trying to do his utmost in the situation. It grew worse. Gale succeeded gale, with black mountains of water hurling them selves on the Borgmester Dahl. Some of the men never left their bunks; many became quarrelsome. The chief engineer, an old man, refused to speak at all to anybody. Others shut themselves up in their berths to cry. On calm days the inert steamer rolled on a leaden sea under a murky sky, or showed, in sunshine, the squalor of sea waifs, the dried white salt, the rust, the jagged broken places. Then the gales came again. They kept body and soul together on short rations. Once, an English ship, scudding in a storm, tried to stand by them, heaving-to pluckily under their lee. The seas swept her decks; the men in oilskins clinging to her rigging looked at them, and they made des perate signs over their shattered bulwarks. Sud denly her main-topsail went, yard and all, in a ter rific squall; she had to bear up under bare poles, and disappeared.
Other ships had spoken them before, but at first they had refused to be taken off, expecting the as sistance of some steamer. There were very few steamers in those latitudes then; and when they desired to leave this dead and drifting carcase, no ship came in sight. They had drifted south out of men's knowledge. They failed to attract the atten tion of a lonely whaler, and very soon the edge of the polar ice-cap rose from the sea and closed the southern horizon like a wall. One morning they were alarmed by finding themselves floating amongst detached pieces of ice. But the fear of sinking passed away like their vigour, like their hopes; the shocks of the floes knocking against the ship's side could not rouse them from their apathy: and the Borgmester Dahl drifted out again un harmed into open water. They hardly noticed the change.
The funnel had gone overboard in one of the heavy rolls; two of their three boats had disap peared, washed away in bad weather, and the davits swung to and fro, unsecured, with chafed rope's ends waggling to the roll. Nothing was done on board, and Falk told me how he had often listened to the water washing about the dark engine-room where the engines, stilled for ever, were decaying slowly into a mass of rust, as the stilled heart de cays within the lifeless body. At first, after the loss of the motive power, the tiller had been thor oughly secured by lashings. But in course of time these had rotted, chafed, rusted, parting one by one: and the rudder, freed, banged heavily to and fro night and day, sending dull shocks through the whole frame of the vessel. This was dangerous. Nobody cared enough to lift a little finger. He told me that even now sometimes waking up at night, he fancied he could hear the dull vibrating thuds. The pintles carried away, and it dropped off at last.
The final catastrophe came with the sending off of their one remaining boat. It was Falk who had managed to preserve her intact, and now it was agreed that some of the hands should sail away into the track of the shipping to procure assistance. She was provisioned with all the food they could spare for the six who were to go. They waited for a fine day. It was long in coming. At last one morning they lowered her into the water.
Directly, in that demoralised crowd, trouble broke out. Two men who had no business there had jumped into the boat under the pretence of unhooking the tackles, while some sort of squabble arose on the deck amongst these weak, tottering spectres of a ship's company. The captain, who had been for days living secluded and unapproach able in the chart-room, came to the rail. He or dered the two men to come up on board and men aced them with his revolver. They pretended to obey, but suddenly cutting the boat's painter, gave a shove against the ship's side and made ready to hoist the sail.
"Shoot, sir! Shoot them down!" cried Falk- "and I will jump overboard to regain the boat." But the captain, after taking aim with an irreso lute arm, turned suddenly away.
A howl of rage arose. Falk dashed into his cabin for his own pistol. When he returned it was too late. Two more men had leaped into the water, but the fellows in the boat beat them off with the oars, hoisted the boat's lug and sailed away. They were never heard of again.
Consternation and despair possessed the remain ing ship's company, till the apathy of utter hope lessness re-asserted its sway. That day a fireman committed suicide, running up on deck with his throat cut from ear to ear, to the horror of all hands. He was thrown overboard. The captain had locked himself in the chart-room, and Falk, knocking vainly for admittance, heard him recit ing over and over again the names of his wife and children, not as if calling upon them or commend ing them to God, but in a mechanical voice like an exercise of memory. Next day the doors of the chart-room were swinging open to the roll of the ship, and the captain had disappeared. He must during the night have jumped into the sea. Falk locked both the doors and kept the keys.
The organised life of the ship had come to an end. The solidarity of the men had gone. They became indifferent to each other. It was Falk who took in hand the distribution of such food as re mained. They boiled their boots for soup to eke out the rations, which only made their hunger more intolerable. Sometimes whispers of hate were heard passing between the languid skeletons that drifted endlessly to and fro, north and south, east and west, upon that carcase of a ship.
And in this lies the grotesque horror of this som bre story. The last extremity of sailors, overtaking a small boat or a frail craft, seems easier to bear, because of the direct danger of the seas. The con fined space, the close contact, the imminent menace of the waves, seem to draw men together, in spite of madness, suffering and despair. But there was a ship--safe, convenient, roomy: a ship with beds, bedding, knives, forks, comfortable cabins, glass and china, and a complete cook's galley, pervaded, ruled and possessed by the pitiless spectre of star vation. The lamp oil had been drunk, the wicks cut up for food, the candles eaten. At night she floated dark in all her recesses, and full of fears. One day Falk came upon a man gnawing a splinter of pine wood. Suddenly he threw the piece of wood away, tottered to the rail, and fell over. Falk, too late to prevent the act, saw him claw the ship's side desperately before he went down. Next day another man did the same thing, after uttering hor rible imprecations. But this one somehow man aged to get hold of the broken rudder chains and hung on there, silently. Falk set about trying to save him, and all the time the man, holding with both hands, looked at him anxiously with his sunken eyes. Then, just as Falk was ready to put his hand on him, the man let go his hold and sank like a stone. Falk reflected on these sights. His heart revolted against the horror of death, and he said to himself that he would struggle for every pre cious minute of his life.
One afternoon--as the survivors lay about on the after deck--the carpenter, a tall man with a black beard, spoke of the last sacrifice. There was nothing eatable left on board. Nobody said a word to this; but that company separated quickly, these listless feeble spectres slunk off one by one to hide in fear of each other. Falk and the car penter remained on deck together. Falk liked the big carpenter. He had been the best man of the lot, helpful and ready as long as there was anything to do, the longest hopeful, and had preserved to the last some vigour and decision of mind.
They did not speak to each other. Henceforth no voices were to be heard conversing sadly on board that ship. After a time the carpenter tot tered away forward; but later on, Falk going to drink at the fresh-water pump, had the inspiration to turn his head. The carpenter had stolen upon him from behind, and, summoning all his strength, was aiming with a crowbar a blow at the back of his skull.
Dodging just in time, Falk made his escape and ran into his cabin. While he was loading his re volver there, he heard the sound of heavy blows struck upon the bridge. The locks of the chart room doors were slight, they flew open, and the car penter, possessing himself of the captain's revolver, fired a shot of defiance.
Falk was about to go on deck and have it out at once, when he remarked that one of the ports of his cabin commanded the approaches to the fresh water pump. Instead of going out he remained in and secured the door. "The best man shall sur vive," he said to himself--and the other, he rea soned, must at some time or other come there to drink. These starving men would drink often to cheat the pangs of their hunger. But the carpen ter too must have noticed the position of the port. They were the two best men in the ship, and the game was with them. All the rest of the day Falk saw no one and heard no sound. At night he strained his eyes. It was dark--he heard a rustling noise once, but he was certain that no one could have come near the pump. It was to the left of his deck port, and he could not have failed to see a man, for the night was clear and starry. He saw nothing; towards morning another faint noise made him suspicious. Deliberately and quietly he unlocked his door. He had not slept, and had not given way to the horror of the situation. He wanted to live.
But during the night the carpenter, without at all trying to approach the pump, had managed to creep quietly along the starboard bulwark, and, unseen, had crouched down right under Falk's deck port. When daylight came he rose up suddenly, looked in, and putting his arm through the round brass framed opening, fired at Falk within a foot. He missed--and Falk, instead of attempting to seize the arm holding the weapon, opened his door unexpectedly, and with the muzzle of his long re volver nearly touching the other's side, shot him dead.
The best man had survived. Both of them had at the beginning just strength enough to stand on their feet, and both had displayed pitiless resolu tion, endurance, cunning and courage--all the qualities of classic heroism. At once Falk threw overboard the captain's revolver. He was a born monopolist. Then after the report of the two shots, followed by a profound silence, there crept out into the cold, cruel dawn of Antarctic regions, from various hiding-places, over the deck of that dismantled corpse of a ship floating on a grey sea ruled by iron necessity and with a heart of ice- there crept into view one by one, cautious, slow, ea ger, glaring, and unclean, a band of hungry and livid skeletons. Falk faced them, the possessor of the only fire-arm on board, and the second best man --the carpenter--was lying dead between him and them.
"He was eaten, of course," I said.
He bent his head slowly, shuddered a little, draw ing his hands over his face, and said, "I had never any quarrel with that man. But there were our lives between him and me."
Why continue the story of that ship, that story before which, with its fresh-water pump like a spring of death, its man with the weapon, the sea ruled by iron necessity, its spectral band swayed by terror and hope, its mute and unhearing heaven?- the fable of the Flying Dutchman with its conven tion of crime and its sentimental retribution fades like a graceful wreath, like a wisp of white mist. What is there to say that every one of us cannot guess for himself? I believe Falk began by going through the ship, revolver in hand, to annex all the matches. Those starving wretches had plenty of matches! He had no mind to have the ship set on fire under his feet, either from hate or from despair. He lived in the open, camping on the bridge, com manding all the after deck and the only approach to the pump. He lived! Some of the others lived too--concealed, anxious, coming out one by one from their hiding-places at the seductive sound of a shot. And he was not selfish. They shared, but only three of them all were alive when a whaler, re turning from her cruising ground, nearly ran over the water-logged hull of the Borgmester Dahl, which, it seems, in the end had in some way sprung a leak in both her holds, but being loaded with deals could not sink.
"They all died," Falk said. "These three too, afterwards. But I would not die. All died, all! under this terrible misfortune. But was I too to throw away my life? Could I? Tell me, captain? I was alone there, quite alone, just like the others. Each man was alone. Was I to give up my re volver? Who to? Or was I to throw it into the sea? What would have been the good? Only the best man would survive. It was a great, terrible, and cruel misfortune."
He had survived! I saw him before me as though preserved for a witness to the mighty truth of an unerring and eternal principle. Great beads of perspiration stood on his forehead. And sud denly it struck the table with a heavy blow, as he fell forward throwing his hands out.
"And this is worse," he cried. "This is a worse pain! This is more terrible."
He made my heart thump with the profound con viction of his cries. And after he had left me alone I called up before my mental eye the image of the girl weeping silently, abundantly, patiently, and as if irresistibly. I thought of her tawny hair. I thought how, if unplaited, it would have covered her all round as low as the hips, like the hair of a siren. And she had bewitched him. Fancy a man who would guard his own life with the in flexibility of a pitiless and immovable fate, being brought to lament that once a crowbar had missed his skull! The sirens sing and lure to death, but this one had been weeping silently as if for the pity of his life. She was the tender and voiceless siren of this appalling navigator. He evidently wanted to live his whole conception of life. Nothing else would do. And she too was a servant of that life that, in the midst of death, cries aloud to our senses. She was eminently fitted to interpret for him its feminine side. And in her own way, and with her own profusion of sensuous charms, she also seemed to illustrate the eternal truth of an unerring prin ciple. I don't know though what sort of principle Hermann illustrated when he turned up early on board my ship with a most perplexed air. It struck me, however, that he too would do his best to survive. He seemed greatly calmed on the sub ject of Falk, but still very full of it.
"What is it you said I was last night? You know," he asked after some preliminary talk. "Too--too--I don't know. A very funny word."
"Squeamish?" I suggested.
"Yes. What does it mean?"
"That you exaggerate things--to yourself. Without inquiry, and so on."
He seemed to turn it over in his mind. We went on talking. This Falk was the plague of his life. Upsetting everybody like this! Mrs. Hermann was unwell rather this morning. His niece was crying still. There was nobody to look after the children. He struck his umbrella on the deck. She would be like that for months. Fancy carrying all the way home, second class, a perfectly useless girl who is crying all the time. It was bad for Lena too, he observed; but on what grounds I could not guess. Perhaps of the bad example. That child was already sorrowing and crying enough over the rag doll. Nicholas was really the least sentimental person of the family.
"Why does she weep?" I asked.
"From pity," cried Hermann.
It was impossible to make out women. Mrs. Her mann was the only one he pretended to understand. She was very, very upset and doubtful.
"Doubtful about what?" I asked.
He averted his eyes and did not answer this. It was impossible to make them out. For instance, his niece was weeping for Falk. Now he (Her mann) would like to wring his neck--but then . . . He supposed he had too tender a heart. "Frank ly," he asked at last, "what do you think of what we heard last night, captain?"
"In all these tales," I observed, "there is always a good deal of exaggeration."
And not letting him recover from his surprise I assured him that I knew all the details. He begged me not to repeat them. His heart was too tender. They made him feel unwell. Then, looking at his feet and speaking very slowly, he supposed that he need not see much of them after they were married. For, indeed, he could not bear the sight of Falk. On the other hand it was ridiculous to take home a girl with her head turned. A girl that weeps all the time and is of no help to her aunt.
"Now you will be able to do with one cabin only on your passage home," I said.
"Yes, I had thought of that," he said brightly, almost. "Yes! Himself, his wife, four children --one cabin might do. Whereas if his niece went . . ."
"And what does Mrs. Hermann say to it?" I inquired.
Mrs. Hermann did not know whether a man of that sort could make a girl happy--she had been greatly deceived in Captain Falk. She had been very upset last night.
Those good people did not seem to be able to re tain an impression for a whole twelve hours. I assured him on my own personal knowledge that Falk possessed in himself all the qualities to make his niece's future prosperous. He said he was glad to hear this, and that he would tell his wife. Then the object of the visit came out. He wished me to help him to resume relations with Falk. His niece, he said, had expressed the hope I would do so in my kindness. He was evidently anxious that I should, for though he seemed to have forgotten nine-tenths of his last night's opinions and the whole of his in dignation, yet he evidently feared to be sent to the right-about. "You told me he was very much in love," he concluded slyly, and leered in a sort of bu colic way.
"As soon as he had left my ship I called Falk on board by signal--the tug still lying at the anchor age. He took the news with calm gravity, as though he had all along expected the stars to fight for him in their courses.
I saw them once more together, and only once- on the quarter-deck of the Diana. Hermann sat smoking with a shirt-sleeved elbow hooked over the back of his chair. Mrs. Hermann was sewing alone. As Falk stepped over the gangway, Her mann's niece, with a slight swish of the skirt and a swift friendly nod to me, glided past my chair.
They met in sunshine abreast of the mainmast. He held her hands and looked down at them, and she looked up at him with her candid and unseeing glance. It seemed to me they had come together as if attracted, drawn and guided to each other by a mysterious influence. They were a complete couple. In her grey frock, palpitating with life, generous of form, olympian and simple, she was in deed the siren to fascinate that dark navigator, this ruthless lover of the five senses. From afar I seemed to feel the masculine strength with which he grasped those hands she had extended to him with a womanly swiftness. Lena, a little pale, nursing her beloved lump of dirty rags, ran to wards her big friend; and then in the drowsy si lence of the good old ship Mrs. Hermann's voice rang out so changed that it made me spin round in my chair to see what was the matter.
"Lena, come here!" she screamed. And this good-natured matron gave me a wavering glance, dark and full of fearsome distrust. The child ran back, surprised to her knee. But the two, stand ing before each other in sunlight with clasped hands, had heard nothing, had seen nothing and no one. Three feet away from them in the shade a seaman sat on a spar, very busy splicing a strop, and dipping his fingers into a tar-pot, as if utterly unaware of their existence.
When I returned in command of another ship, some five years afterwards, Mr. and Mrs. Falk had left the place. I should not wonder if Schom berg's tongue had succeeded at last in scaring Falk away for good; and, indubitably, there was a tale still going about the town of a certain Falk, owner of a tug, who had won his wife at cards from the captain of an English ship.