Part One: Chapter I (Page 2)
I began to pity him profoundly. And in a tone which I tried to make as little sarcastic as possible I said that I was glad he had found something to occupy his morning hours.
With his disarming simplicity he made me ob- serve, as if it were a matter of some consequence, how strange it was that he should have spent the morning indoors at all. He generally was out before tiffin, visiting various offices, seeing his friends in the harbour, and so on. He had felt out of sorts somewhat on rising. Nothing much. Just enough to make him feel lazy.
All this with a sustained, holding stare which, in conjunction with the general inanity of the discourse, conveyed the impression of mild, dreary lunacy. And when he hitched his chair a little and dropped his voice to the low note of mystery, it flashed upon me that high professional reputa- tion was not necessarily a guarantee of sound mind.
It never occurred to me then that I didn't know in what soundness of mind exactly con- sisted and what a delicate and, upon the whole, unimportant matter it was. With some idea of not hurting his feelings I blinked at him in an interested manner. But when he proceeded to ask me mysteriously whether I remembered what had passed just now between that Steward of ours and "that man Hamilton," I only grunted sourly assent and turned away my head.
"Aye. But do you remember every word?" he insisted tactfully.
"I don't know. It's none of my business," I snapped out, consigning, moreover, the Steward and Hamilton aloud to eternal perdition.
I meant to be very energetic and final, but Captain Giles continued to gaze at me thought- fully. Nothing could stop him. He went on to point out that my personality was involved in that conversation. When I tried to preserve the semblance of unconcern he became positively cruel. I heard what the man had said? Yes? What did I think of it then?--he wanted to know.
Captain Giles' appearance excluding the sus- picion of mere sly malice, I came to the conclusion that he was simply the most tactless idiot on earth. I almost despised myself for the weakness of attempting to enlighten his common understand- ing. I started to explain that I did not think anything whatever. Hamilton was not worth a thought. What such an offensive loafer . . . "Aye! that he is," interjected Captain Giles
. . . thought or said was below any decent man's contempt, and I did not propose to take the slightest notice of it.
This attitude seemed to me so simple and ob- vious that I was really astonished at Giles giving no sign of assent. Such perfect stupidity was almost interesting.
"What would you like me to do?" I asked, laughing. "I can't start a row with him because of the opinion he has formed of me. Of course, I've heard of the contemptuous way he alludes to me. But he doesn't intrude his contempt on my notice. He has never expressed it in my hearing. For even just now he didn't know we could hear him. I should only make myself ridiculous."
That hopeless Giles went on puffing at his pipe moodily. All at once his face cleared, and he spoke.
"You missed my point."
"Have I? I am very glad to hear it," I said.
With increasing animation he stated again that I had missed his point. Entirely. And in a tone of growing self-conscious complacency he told me that few things escaped his attention, and he was rather used to think them out, and generally from his experience of life and men ar- rived at the right conclusion.
This bit of self-praise, of course, fitted excel- lently the laborious inanity of the whole conversa- tion. The whole thing strengthened in me that obscure feeling of life being but a waste of days, which, half-unconsciously, had driven me out of a comfortable berth, away from men I liked, to flee from the menace of emptiness . . . and to find inanity at the first turn. Here was a man of recognized character and achievement disclosed as an absurd and dreary chatterer. And it was probably like this everywhere--from east to west, from the bottom to the top of the social scale.
A great discouragement fell on me. A spiritual drowsiness. Giles' voice was going on compla- cently; the very voice of the universal hollow conceit. And I was no longer angry with it. There was nothing original, nothing new, star- tling, informing, to expect from the world; no op- portunities to find out something about oneself, no wisdom to acquire, no fun to enjoy. Every- thing was stupid and overrated, even as Captain Giles was. So be it.
The name of Hamilton suddenly caught my ear and roused me up.
"I thought we had done with him," I said, with the greatest possible distaste.
"Yes. But considering what we happened to hear just now I think you ought to do it."
"Ought to do it?" I sat up bewildered. "Do what?"
Captain Giles confronted me very much sur- prised.
"Why! Do what I have been advising you to try. You go and ask the Steward what was there in that letter from the Harbour Office. Ask him straight out."
I remained speechless for a time. Here was something unexpected and original enough to be altogether incomprehensible. I murmured, as- tounded:
"But I thought it was Hamilton that you . . ."
"Exactly. Don't you let him. You do what I tell you. You tackle that Steward. You'll make him jump, I bet," insisted Captain Giles, waving his smouldering pipe impressively at me. Then he took three rapid puffs at it.
His aspect of triumphant acuteness was inde- scribable. Yet the man remained a strangely sympathetic creature. Benevolence radiated from him ridiculously, mildly, impressively. It was irritating, too. But I pointed out coldly, as one who deals with the incomprehensible, that I didn't see any reason to expose myself to a snub from the fellow. He was a very unsatisfactory steward and a miserable wretch besides, but I would just as soon think of tweaking his nose.
"Tweaking his nose," said Captain Giles in a scandalized tone. "Much use it would be to you."
That remark was so irrelevant that one could make no answer to it. But the sense of the ab- surdity was beginning at last to exercise its well- known fascination. I felt I must not let the man talk to me any more. I got up, observing curtly that he was too much for me--that I couldn't make him out.
Before I had time to move away he spoke again in a changed tone of obstinacy and puffing nervously at his pipe.
"Well--he's a--no account cuss--anyhow. You just--ask him. That's all."
That new manner impressed me--or rather made me pause. But sanity asserting its sway at once I left the verandah after giving him a mirthless smile. In a few strides I found myself in the dining room, now cleared and empty. But during that short time various thoughts occurred to me, such as: that Giles had been making fun of me, expecting some amusement at my expense; that I probably looked silly and gullible; that I knew very little of life. . . .
The door facing me across the dining room flew open to my extreme surprise. It was the door inscribed with the word "Steward" and the man himself ran out of his stuffy, Philistinish lair in his absurd, hunted-animal manner, making for the garden door.
To this day I don't know what made me call after him. "I say! Wait a minute." Perhaps it was the sidelong glance he gave me; or possibly I was yet under the influence of Captain Giles' mysterious earnestness. Well, it was an impulse of some sort; an effect of that force somewhere within our lives which shapes them this way or that. For if these words had not escaped from my lips (my will had nothing to do with that) my existence would, to be sure, have been still a sea- man's existence, but directed on now to me utterly inconceivable lines.
No. My will had nothing to do with it. In- deed, no sooner had I made that fateful noise than I became extremely sorry for it. Had the man stopped and faced me I would have had to retire in disorder. For I had no notion to carry out Captain Giles' idiotic joke, either at my own expense or at the expense of the Steward.
But here the old human instinct of the chase came into play. He pretended to be deaf, and I, without thinking a second about it, dashed along my own side of the dining table and cut him off at the very door.
"Why can't you answer when you are spoken to?" I asked roughly.
He leaned against the lintel of the door. He looked extremely wretched. Human nature is, I fear, not very nice right through. There are ugly spots in it. I found myself growing angry, and that, I believe, only because my quarry looked so woe-begone. Miserable beggar!
I went for him without more ado. "I under- stand there was an official communication to the Home from the Harbour Office this morning. Is that so?"
Instead of telling me to mind my own business, as he might have done, he began to whine with an undertone of impudence. He couldn't see me anywhere this morning. He couldn't be expected to run all over the town after me.
"Who wants you to?" I cried. And then my eyes became opened to the inwardness of things and speeches the triviality of which had been so baffling and tiresome.
I told him I wanted to know what was in that letter. My sternness of tone and behaviour was only half assumed. Curiosity can be a very fierce sentiment--at times.
He took refuge in a silly, muttering sulkiness. It was nothing to me, he mumbled. I had told him I was going home. And since I was going home he didn't see why he should. . . .
That was the line of his argument, and it was irrelevant enough to be almost insulting. Insult- ing to one's intelligence, I mean.
In that twilight region between youth and maturity, in which I had my being then, one is peculiarly sensitive to that kind of insult. I am afraid my behaviour to the Steward became very rough indeed. But it wasn't in him to face out anything or anybody. Drug habit or solitary tippling, perhaps. And when I forgot myself so far as to swear at him he broke down and began to shriek.
I don't mean to say that he made a great out- cry. It was a cynical shrieking confession, only faint--piteously faint. It wasn't very coherent either, but sufficiently so to strike me dumb at first. I turned my eyes from him in righteous indig- nation, and perceived Captain Giles in the ve- randah doorway surveying quietly the scene, his own handiwork, if I may express it in that way. His smouldering black pipe was very noticeable in his big, paternal fist. So, too, was the glitter of his heavy gold watch-chain across the breast of his white tunic. He exhaled an atmosphere of virtu- ous sagacity serene enough for any innocent soul to fly to confidently. I flew to him.
"You would never believe it," I cried. "It was a notification that a master is wanted for some ship. There's a command apparently going about and this fellow puts the thing in his pocket."
The Steward screamed out in accents of loud despair: "You will be the death of me!"
The mighty slap he gave his wretched forehead was very loud, too. But when I turned to look at him he was no longer there. He had rushed away somewhere out of sight. This sudden disappear- ance made me laugh.
This was the end of the incident--for me. Captain Giles, however, staring at the place where the Steward had been, began to haul at his gor- geous gold chain till at last the watch came up from the deep pocket like solid truth from a well. Solemnly he lowered it down again and only then said:
"Just three o'clock. You will be in time--if you don't lose any, that is."
"In time for what?" I asked.
"Good Lord! For the Harbour Office. This must be looked into.
Strictly speaking, he was right. But I've never had much taste for investigation, for showing people up and all that no doubt ethically meri- torious kind of work. And my view of the episode was purely ethical. If any one had to be the death of the Steward I didn't see why it shouldn't be Captain Giles himself, a man of age and standing, and a permanent resident. Whereas, I in com- parison, felt myself a mere bird of passage in that port. In fact, it might have been said that I had already broken off my connection. I muttered that I didn't think--it was nothing to me. . . .
"Nothing!" repeated Captain Giles, giving some signs of quiet, deliberate indignation. "Kent warned me you were a peculiar young fellow. You will tell me next that a command is nothing to you --and after all the trouble I've taken, too!"
"The trouble!" I murmured, uncomprehending. What trouble? All I could remember was being mystified and bored by his conversation for a solid hour after tiffin. And he called that taking a lot of trouble.
He was looking at me with a self-complacency which would have been odious in any other man. All at once, as if a page of a book had been turned over disclosing a word which made plain all that had gone before, I perceived that this matter had also another than an ethical aspect.
And still I did not move. Captain Giles lost his patience a little. With an angry puff at his pipe he turned his back on my hesitation.
But it was not hesitation on my part. I had been, if I may express myself so, put out of gear mentally. But as soon as I had convinced my- self that this stale, unprofitable world of my dis- content contained such a thing as a command to be seized, I recovered my powers of locomo- tion.
It's a good step from the Officers' Home to the Harbour Office; but with the magic word "Com- mand" in my head I found myself suddenly on the quay as if transported there in the twinkling of an eye, before a portal of dressed white stone above a flight of shallow white steps.
All this seemed to glide toward me swiftly. The whole great roadstead to the right was just a mere flicker of blue, and the dim cool hall swallowed me up out of the heat and glare of which I had not been aware till the very moment I passed in from it.
The broad inner staircase insinuated itself under my feet somehow. Command is a strong magic. The first human beings I perceived distinctly since I had parted with the indignant back of Captain Giles were the crew of the harbour steam-launch lounging on the spacious landing about the cur- tained archway of the shipping office.
It was there that my buoyancy abandoned me. The atmosphere of officialdom would kill anything that breathes the air of human endeavour, would extinguish hope and fear alike in the supremacy of paper and ink. I passed heavily under the curtain which the Malay coxswain of the harbour launch raised for me. There was nobody in the office except the clerks, writing in two industrious rows. But the head Shipping-Master hopped down from his elevation and hurried along on the thick mats to meet me in the broad central passage.
He had a Scottish name, but his complexion was of a rich olive hue, his short beard was jet black, and his eyes, also black, had a languishing ex- pression. He asked confidentially:
"You want to see Him?"
All lightness of spirit and body having departed from me at the touch of officialdom, I looked at the scribe without animation and asked in my turn wearily:
"What do you think? Is it any use?"
"My goodness! He has asked for you twice to- day."
This emphatic He was the supreme authority, the Marine Superintendent, the Harbour-Master --a very great person in the eyes of every single quill-driver in the room. But that was nothing to the opinion he had of his own greatness.
Captain Ellis looked upon himself as a sort of divine (pagan) emanation, the deputy-Neptune for the circumambient seas. If he did not actually rule the waves, he pretended to rule the fate of the mortals whose lives were cast upon the waters.
This uplifting illusion made him inquisitorial and peremptory. And as his temperament was choleric there were fellows who were actually afraid of him. He was redoubtable, not in virtue of his office, but because of his unwarrantable assump- tions. I had never had anything to do with him before.
I said: "Oh! He has asked for me twice. Then perhaps I had better go in."
"You must! You must!"
The Shipping-Master led the way with a mincing gait around the whole system of desks to a tall and important-looking door, which he opened with a deferential action of the arm.
He stepped right in (but without letting go of the handle) and, after gazing reverently down the room for a while, beckoned me in by a silent jerk of the head. Then he slipped out at once and shut the door after me most delicately.
Three lofty windows gave on the harbour. There was nothing in them but the dark-blue sparkling sea and the paler luminous blue of the sky. My eye caught in the depths and distances of these blue tones the white speck of some big ship just arrived and about to anchor in the outer road- stead. A ship from home--after perhaps ninety days at sea. There is something touching about a ship coming in from sea and folding her white wings for a rest.
The next thing I saw was the top-knot of silver hair surmounting Captain Ellis' smooth red face, which would have been apoplectic if it hadn't had such a fresh appearance.
Our deputy-Neptune had no beard on his chin, and there was no trident to be seen standing in a corner anywhere, like an umbrella. But his hand was holding a pen--the official pen, far mightier than the sword in making or marring the fortune of simple toiling men. He was looking over his shoulder at my advance.
When I had come well within range he saluted me by a nerve-shattering: "Where have you been all this time?"
As it was no concern of his I did not take the slightest notice of the shot. I said simply that I had heard there was a master needed for some vessel, and being a sailing-ship man I thought I would apply. . . .
He interrupted me. "Why! Hang it! YOU are the right man for that job--if there had been twenty others after it. But no fear of that. They are all afraid to catch hold. That's what's the matter."
He was very irritated. I said innocently: "Are they, sir. I wonder why?"
"Why!" he fumed. "Afraid of the sails. Afraid of a white crew. Too much trouble. Too much work. Too long out here. Easy life and deck-chairs more their mark. Here I sit with the Consul-General's cable before me, and the only man fit for the job not to be found anywhere. I began to think you were funking it, too. . . ."
"I haven't been long getting to the office," I remarked calmly.
"You have a good name out here, though," he growled savagely without looking at me.
"I am very glad to hear it from you, sir," I said.
"Yes. But you are not on the spot when you are wanted. You know you weren't. That stew- ard of yours wouldn't dare to neglect a message from this office. Where the devil did you hide yourself for the best part of the day?"
I only smiled kindly down on him, and he seemed to recollect himself, and asked me to take a seat. He explained that the master of a British ship having died in Bangkok the Consul-General had cabled to him a request for a competent man to be sent out to take command.
Apparently, in his mind, I was the man from the first, though for the looks of the thing the notifica- tion addressed to the Sailors' Home was general. An agreement had already been prepared. He gave it to me to read, and when I handed it back to him with the remark that I accepted its terms, the deputy-Neptune signed it, stamped it with his own exalted hand, folded it in four (it was a sheet of blue foolscap) and presented it to me--a gift of ex- traordinary potency, for, as I put it in my pocket, my head swam a little.
"This is your appointment to the command," he said with a certain gravity. "An official appoint- ment binding the owners to conditions which you have accepted. Now--when will you be ready to go?"
I said I would be ready that very day if neces- sary. He caught me at my word with great alacrity. The steamer Melita was leaving for Bangkok that evening about seven. He would request her captain officially to give me a passage and wait for me till ten o'clock.
Then he rose from his office chair, and I got up, too. My head swam, there was no doubt about it, and I felt a certain heaviness of limbs as if they had grown bigger since I had sat down on that chair. I made my bow.
A subtle change in Captain Ellis' manner became perceptible as though he had laid aside the trident of deputy-Neptune. In reality, it was only his official pen that he had dropped on getting up.Next