THE first thing I saw down there was the upper part of a man's body projecting backward, as it were, from one of the doors at the foot of the stairs. His eyes looked at me very wide and still. In one hand he held a dinner plate, in the other a cloth.
"I am your new Captain," I said quietly.
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he had got rid of the plate and the cloth and jumped to open the cabin door. As soon as I passed into the saloon he vanished, but only to reappear instantly, buttoning up a jacket he had put on with the swiftness of a "quick-change" artist.
"Where's the chief mate?" I asked.
"In the hold, I think, sir. I saw him go down the after-hatch ten minutes ago."
"Tell him I am on board."
The mahogany table under the skylight shone in the twilight like a dark pool of water. The side- board, surmounted by a wide looking-glass in an ormulu frame, had a marble top. It bore a pair of silver-plated lamps and some other pieces-- obviously a harbour display. The saloon itself was panelled in two kinds of wood in the excellent simple taste prevailing when the ship was built.
I sat down in the armchair at the head of the table--the captain's chair, with a small tell-tale compass swung above it--a mute reminder of un- remitting vigilance.
A succession of men had sat in that chair. I be- came aware of that thought suddenly, vividly, as though each had left a little of himself between the four walls of these ornate bulkheads; as if a sort of composite soul, the soul of command, had whispered suddenly to mine of long days at sea and of anxious moments.
"You, too!" it seemed to say, "you, too, shall taste of that peace and that unrest in a searching intimacy with your own self--obscure as we were and as supreme in the face of all the winds and all the seas, in an immensity that receives no impress, preserves no memories, and keeps no reckoning of lives."
Deep within the tarnished ormulu frame, in the hot half-light sifted through the awning, I saw my own face propped between my hands. And I stared back at myself with the perfect detachment of distance, rather with curiosity than with any other feeling, except of some sympathy for this latest representative of what for all intents and purposes was a dynasty, continuous not in blood indeed, but in its experience, in its training, in its conception of duty, and in the blessed simplicity of its traditional point of view on life.
It struck me that this quietly staring man whom I was watching, both as if he were myself and some- body else, was not exactly a lonely figure. He had his place in a line of men whom he did not know, of whom he had never heard; but who were fashioned by the same influences, whose souls in relation to their humble life's work had no secrets for him.
Suddenly I perceived that there was another man in the saloon, standing a little on one side and look- ing intently at me. The chief mate. His long, red moustache determined the character of his physiognomy, which struck me as pugnacious in
(strange to say) a ghastly sort of way.
How long had he been there looking at me, ap- praising me in my unguarded day-dreaming state? I would have been more disconcerted if, having the clock set in the top of the mirror-frame right in front of me, I had not noticed that its long hand had hardly moved at all.
I could not have been in that cabin more than two minutes altogether. Say three. . . . So he could not have been watching me more than a mere fraction of a minute, luckily. Still, I re- gretted the occurrence.
But I showed nothing of it as I rose leisurely (it had to be leisurely) and greeted him with perfect friendliness.
There was something reluctant and at the same time attentive in his bearing. His name was Burns. We left the cabin and went round the ship together. His face in the full light of day ap- peared very pale, meagre, even haggard. Some- how I had a delicacy as to looking too often at him; his eyes, on the contrary, remained fairly glued on my face. They were greenish and had an ex- pectant expression.
He answered all my questions readily enough, but my ear seemed to catch a tone of unwillingness. The second officer, with three or four hands, was busy forward. The mate mentioned his name and I nodded to him in passing. He was very young. He struck me as rather a cub.
When we returned below, I sat down on one end of a deep, semi-circular, or, rather, semi-oval settee, upholstered in red plush. It extended right across the whole after-end of the cabin. Mr. Burns motioned to sit down, dropped into one of the swivel-chairs round the table, and kept his eyes on me as persistently as ever, and with that strange air as if all this were make-believe and he expected me to get up, burst into a laugh, slap him on the back, and vanish from the cabin.
There was an odd stress in the situation which began to make me uncomfortable. I tried to react against this vague feeling.
"It's only my inexperience," I thought.
In the face of that man, several years, I judged, older than myself, I became aware of what I had left already behind me--my youth. And that was indeed poor comfort. Youth is a fine thing, a mighty power--as long as one does not think of it. I felt I was becoming self-conscious. Almost against my will I assumed a moody gravity. I said: "I see you have kept her in very good order, Mr. Burns."
Directly I had uttered these words I asked my- self angrily why the deuce did I want to say that? Mr. Burns in answer had only blinked at me. What on earth did he mean?
I fell back on a question which had been in my thoughts for a long time--the most natural ques- tion on the lips of any seaman whatever joining a ship. I voiced it (confound this self-consciousness) in a degage cheerful tone: "I suppose she can travel --what?"
Now a question like this might have been an- swered normally, either in accents of apologetic sorrow or with a visibly suppressed pride, in a "I don't want to boast, but you shall see," sort of tone. There are sailors, too, who would have been roughly outspoken: "Lazy brute," or openly de- lighted: "She's a flyer." Two ways, if four manners.
But Mr. Burns found another way, a way of his own which had, at all events, the merit of saving his breath, if no other.
Again he did not say anything. He only frowned. And it was an angry frown. I waited. Nothing more came.
"What's the matter? . . . Can't you tell after being nearly two years in the ship?" I ad- dressed him sharply.
He looked as startled for a moment as though he had discovered my presence only that very mo- ment. But this passed off almost at once. He put on an air of indifference. But I suppose he thought it better to say something. He said that a ship needed, just like a man, the chance to show the best she could do, and that this ship had never had a chance since he had been on board of her. Not that he could remember. The last captain. . . . He paused.
"Has he been so very unlucky?" I asked with frank incredulity. Mr. Burns turned his eyes away from me. No, the late captain was not an unlucky man. One couldn't say that. But he had not seemed to want to make use of his luck.
Mr. Burns--man of enigmatic moods--made this statement with an inanimate face and staring wilfully at the rudder casing. The statement itself was obscurely suggestive. I asked quietly:
"Where did he die?"
"In this saloon. Just where you are sitting now," answered Mr. Burns.
I repressed a silly impulse to jump up; but upon the whole I was relieved to hear that he had not died in the bed which was now to be mine. I pointed out to the chief mate that what I really wanted to know was where he had buried his late captain.
Mr. Burns said that it was at the entrance to the gulf. A roomy grave; a sufficient answer. But the mate, overcoming visibly something within him --something like a curious reluctance to believe in my advent (as an irrevocable fact, at any rate), did not stop at that--though, indeed, he may have wished to do so.
As a compromise with his feelings, I believe, he addressed himself persistently to the rudder-casing, so that to me he had the appearance of a man talking in solitude, a little unconsciously, however.
His tale was that at seven bells in the forenoon watch he had all hands mustered on the quarter- deck and told them they had better go down to say good-bye to the captain.
Those words, as if grudged to an intruding per- sonage, were enough for me to evoke vividly that strange ceremony: The bare-footed, bare-headed seamen crowding shyly into that cabin, a small mob pressed against that sideboard, uncomfortable rather than moved, shirts open on sunburnt chests, weather-beaten faces, and all staring at the dying man with the same grave and expectant expression.
"Was he conscious?" I asked.
"He didn't speak, but he moved his eyes to look at them," said the mate.
After waiting a moment, Mr. Burns motioned the crew to leave the cabin, but he detained the two eldest men to stay with the captain while he went on deck with his sextant to "take the sun." It was getting toward noon and he was anxious to obtain a good observation for latitude. When he returned below to put his sextant away he found that the two men had retreated out into the lobby. Through the open door he had a view of the captain lying easy against the pillows. He had "passed away" while Mr. Burns was taking this observa- tion. As near noon as possible. He had hardly changed his position.
Mr. Burns sighed, glanced at me inquisitively, as much as to say, "Aren't you going yet?" and then turned his thoughts from his new captain back to the old, who, being dead, had no authority, was not in anybody's way, and was much easier to deal with.
Mr. Burns dealt with him at some length. He was a peculiar man--of sixty-five about--iron gray, hard-faced, obstinate, and uncommunicative. He used to keep the ship loafing at sea for inscrutable reasons. Would come on deck at night sometimes, take some sail off her, God only knows why or wherefore, then go below, shut himself up in his cabin, and play on the violin for hours--till day- break perhaps. In fact, he spent most of his time day or night playing the violin. That was when the fit took him. Very loud, too.
It came to this, that Mr. Burns mustered his courage one day and remonstrated earnestly with the captain. Neither he nor the second mate could get a wink of sleep in their watches below for the noise. . . . And how could they be ex- pected to keep awake while on duty? He pleaded. The answer of that stern man was that if he and the second mate didn't like the noise, they were wel- come to pack up their traps and walk over the side. When this alternative was offered the ship hap- pened to be 600 miles from the nearest land.
Mr. Burns at this point looked at me with an air of curiosity. I began to think that my predecessor was a remarkably peculiar old man.
But I had to hear stranger things yet. It came out that this stern, grim, wind-tanned, rough, sea- salted, taciturn sailor of sixty-five was not only an artist, but a lover as well. In Haiphong, when they got there after a course of most unprofitable peregrinations (during which the ship was nearly lost twice), he got himself, in Mr. Burns' own words, "mixed up" with some woman. Mr. Burns had had no personal knowledge of that affair, but positive evidence of it existed in the shape of a photograph taken in Haiphong. Mr. Burns found it in one of the drawers in the captain's room.
In due course I, too, saw that amazing human document (I even threw it overboard later). There he sat, with his hands reposing on his knees, bald, squat, gray, bristly, recalling a wild boar somehow; and by his side towered an awful mature, white female with rapacious nostrils and a cheaply ill-omened stare in her enormous eyes. She was disguised in some semi-oriental, vulgar, fancy costume. She resembled a low-class medium or one of those women who tell fortunes by cards for half a crown. And yet she was striking. A pro- fessional sorceress from the slums. It was incom- prehensible. There was something awful in the thought that she was the last reflection of the world of passion for the fierce soul which seemed to look at one out of the sardonically savage face of that old seaman. However, I noticed that she was holding some musical instrument--guitar or mandoline-- in her hand. Perhaps that was the secret of her sortilege.
For Mr. Burns that photograph explained why the unloaded ship had kept sweltering at anchor for three weeks in a pestilential hot harbour with- out air. They lay there and gasped. The cap- tain, appearing now and then on short visits, mumbled to Mr. Burns unlikely tales about some letters he was waiting for.
Suddenly, after vanishing for a week, he came on board in the middle of the night and took the ship out to sea with the first break of dawn. Daylight showed him looking wild and ill. The mere getting clear of the land took two days, and somehow or other they bumped slightly on a reef. However, no leak developed, and the captain, growling "no matter," informed Mr. Burns that he had made up his mind to take the ship to Hong-Kong and dry- dock her there.
At this Mr. Burns was plunged into despair. For indeed, to beat up to Hong-Kong against a fierce monsoon, with a ship not sufficiently ballasted and with her supply of water not completed, was an in- sane project.
But the captain growled peremptorily, "Stick her at it," and Mr. Burns, dismayed and enraged, stuck her at it, and kept her at it, blowing away sails, straining the spars, exhausting the crew-- nearly maddened by the absolute conviction that the attempt was impossible and was bound to end in some catastrophe.
Meantime the captain, shut up in his cabin and wedged in a corner of his settee against the crazy bounding of the ship, played the violin--or, at any rate, made continuous noise on it.
When he appeared on deck he would not speak and not always answer when spoken to. It was obvious that he was ill in some mysterious manner, and beginning to break up.
As the days went by the sounds of the violin be- came less and less loud, till at last only a feeble scratching would meet Mr. Burns' ear as he stood in the saloon listening outside the door of the cap- tain's state-room.
One afternoon in perfect desperation he burst into that room and made such a scene, tearing his hair and shouting such horrid imprecations that he cowed the contemptuous spirit of the sick man. The water-tanks were low, they had not gained fifty miles in a fortnight. She would never reach Hong- Kong.
It was like fighting desperately toward destruc- tion for the ship and the men. This was evident without argument. Mr. Burns, losing all restraint, put his face close to his captain's and fairly yelled: "You, sir, are going out of the world. But I can't wait till you are dead before I put the helm up. You must do it yourself. You must do it now!"
The man on the couch snarled in contempt. "So I am going out of the world--am I?"
"Yes, sir--you haven't many days left in it," said Mr. Burns calming down. "One can see it by your face."
"My face, eh? . . . Well, put up the helm and be damned to you."
Burns flew on deck, got the ship before the wind, then came down again composed, but resolute.
"I've shaped a course for Pulo Condor, sir," he said. "When we make it, if you are still with us, you'll tell me into what port you wish me to take the ship and I'll do it."
The old man gave him a look of savage spite, and said those atrocious words in deadly, slow tones.
"If I had my wish, neither the ship nor any of you would ever reach a port. And I hope you won't."
Mr. Burns was profoundly shocked. I believe he was positively frightened at the time. It seems, however, that he managed to produce such an effective laugh that it was the old man's turn to be frightened. He shrank within himself and turned his back on him.
"And his head was not gone then," Mr. Burns assured me excitedly. "He meant every word of it."
"Such was practically the late captain's last speech. No connected sentence passed his lips afterward. That night he used the last of his strength to throw his fiddle over the side. No one had actually seen him in the act, but after his death Mr. Burns couldn't find the thing anywhere. The empty case was very much in evidence, but the fiddle was clearly not in the ship. And where else could it have gone to but overboard?"
"Threw his violin overboard!" I exclaimed.
"He did," cried Mr. Burns excitedly. "And it's my belief he would have tried to take the ship down with him if it had been in human power. He never meant her to see home again. He wouldn't write to his owners, he never wrote to his old wife, either--he wasn't going to. He had made up his mind to cut adrift from everything. That's what it was. He didn't care for business, or freights, or for making a passage--or anything. He meant to have gone wandering about the world till he lost her with all hands."
Mr. Burns looked like a man who had escaped great danger. For a little he would have ex- claimed: "If it hadn't been for me!" And the transparent innocence of his indignant eyes was underlined quaintly by the arrogant pair of moustaches which he proceeded to twist, and as if extend, horizontally.
I might have smiled if I had not been busy with my own sensations, which were not those of Mr. Burns. I was already the man in command. My sensations could not be like those of any other man on board. In that community I stood, like a king in his country, in a class all by myself. I mean an hereditary king, not a mere elected head of a state. I was brought there to rule by an agency as remote from the people and as inscrutable almost to them as the Grace of God.
And like a member of a dynasty, feeling a semi- mystical bond with the dead, I was profoundly shocked by my immediate predecessor.
That man had been in all essentials but his age just such another man as myself. Yet the end of his life was a complete act of treason, the betrayal of a tradition which seemed to me as imperative as any guide on earth could be. It appeared that even at sea a man could become the victim of evil spirits. I felt on my face the breath of unknown powers that shape our destinies.
Not to let the silence last too long I asked Mr. Burns if he had written to his captain's wife. He shook his head. He had written to nobody.
In a moment he became sombre. He never thought of writing. It took him all his time to watch incessantly the loading of the ship by a rascally Chinese stevedore. In this Mr. Burns gave me the first glimpse of the real chief mate's soul which dwelt uneasily in his body.
He mused, then hastened on with gloomy force.
"Yes! The captain died as near noon as pos- sible. I looked through his papers in the afternoon. I read the service over him at sunset and then I stuck the ship's head north and brought her in here. I--brought--her--in."
He struck the table with his fist.
"She would hardly have come in by herself," I observed. "But why didn't you make for Singa- pore instead?"
His eyes wavered. "The nearest port," he muttered sullenly.
I had framed the question in perfect innocence, but his answer (the difference in distance was in- significant) and his manner offered me a clue to the simple truth. He took the ship to a port where he expected to be confirmed in his temporary com- mand from lack of a qualified master to put over his head. Whereas Singapore, he surmised justly, would be full of qualified men. But his naive reasoning forgot to take into account the telegraph cable reposing on the bottom of the very Gulf up which he had turned that ship which he imagined himself to have saved from destruction. Hence the bitter flavour of our interview. I tasted it more and more distinctly--and it was less and less to my taste.
"Look here, Mr. Burns," I began very firmly. "You may as well understand that I did not run after this command. It was pushed in my way. I've accepted it. I am here to take the ship home first of all, and you may be sure that I shall see to it that every one of you on board here does his duty to that end. This is all I have to say--for the present."
He was on his feet by this time, but instead of taking his dismissal he remained with trembling, indignant lips, and looking at me hard as though, really, after this, there was nothing for me to do in common decency but to vanish from his outraged sight. Like all very simple emotional states this was moving. I felt sorry for him--almost sympa- thetic, till (seeing that I did not vanish) he spoke in a tone of forced restraint.
"If I hadn't a wife and a child at home you may be sure, sir, I would have asked you to let me go the very minute you came on board."
I answered him with a matter-of-course calmness as though some remote third person were in question.
"And I, Mr. Burns, would not have let you go. You have signed the ship's articles as chief officer, and till they are terminated at the final port of discharge I shall expect you to attend to your duty and give me the benefit of your experience to the best of your ability."
Stony incredulity lingered in his eyes: but it broke down before my friendly attitude. With a slight upward toss of his arms (I got to know that gesture well afterward) he bolted out of the cabin.
We might have saved ourselves that little pas- sage of harmless sparring. Before many days had elapsed it was Mr. Burns who was pleading with me anxiously not to leave him behind; while I could only return him but doubtful answers. The whole thing took on a somewhat tragic complexion.
And this horrible problem was only an extrane- ous episode, a mere complication in the general problem of how to get that ship--which was mine with her appurtenances and her men, with her body and her spirit now slumbering in that pestilential river--how to get her out to sea.
Mr. Burns, while still acting captain, had hastened to sign a charter-party which in an ideal world without guile would have been an excellent document. Directly I ran my eye over it I fore- saw trouble ahead unless the people of the other part were quite exceptionally fair-minded and open to argument.
Mr. Burns, to whom I imparted my fears, chose to take great umbrage at them. He looked at me with that usual incredulous stare, and said bitterly:
"I suppose, sir, you want to make out I've acted like a fool?"
I told him, with my systematic kindliness which always seemed to augment his surprise, that I did not want to make out anything. I would leave that to the future.
And, sure enough, the future brought in a lot of trouble. There were days when I used to remem- ber Captain Giles with nothing short of abhor- rence. His confounded acuteness had let me in for this job; while his prophecy that I "would have my hands full" coming true, made it appear as if done on purpose to play an evil joke on my young innocence.
Yes. I had my hands full of complications which were most valuable as "experience." People have a great opinion of the advantages of experience. But in this connection experience means always something disagreeable as opposed to the charm and innocence of illusions.
I must say I was losing mine rapidly. But on these instructive complications I must not enlarge more than to say that they could all be resumed in the one word: Delay.
A mankind which has invented the proverb, "Time is money," will understand my vexation. The word "Delay" entered the secret chamber of my brain, resounded there like a tolling bell which maddens the ear, affected all my senses, took on a black colouring, a bitter taste, a deadly meaning.
"I am really sorry to see you worried like this. Indeed, I am. . . ."
It was the only humane speech I used to hear at that time. And it came from a doctor, ap- propriately enough.
A doctor is humane by definition. But that man was so in reality. His speech was not professional. I was not ill. But other people were, and that was the reason of his visiting the ship.
He was the doctor of our Legation and, of course, of the Consulate, too. He looked after the ship's health, which generally was poor, and trembling, as it were, on the verge of a break-up. Yes. The men ailed. And thus time was not only money, but life as well.
I had never seen such a steady ship's company. As the doctor remarked to me: "You seem to have a most respectable lot of seamen." Not only were they consistently sober, but they did not even want to go ashore. Care was taken to expose them as little as possible to the sun. They were employed on light work under the awnings. And the humane doctor commended me.
"Your arrangements appear to me to be very judicious, my dear Captain."
It is difficult to express how much that pro- nouncement comforted me. The doctor's round, full face framed in a light-coloured whisker was the perfection of a dignified amenity. He was the only human being in the world who seemed to take the slightest interest in me. He would generally sit in the cabin for half an hour or so at every visit.
I said to him one day:
"I suppose the only thing now is to take care of them as you are doing till I can get the ship to sea?"
He inclined his head, shutting his eyes under the large spectacles, and murmured:
"The sea . . . undoubtedly."
The first member of the crew fairly knocked over was the steward--the first man to whom I had spoken on board. He was taken ashore (with choleric symptoms) and died there at the end of a week. Then, while I was still under the startling impression of this first home-thrust of the climate, Mr. Burns gave up and went to bed in a raging fever without saying a word to anybody.
I believe he had partly fretted himself into that illness; the climate did the rest with the swiftness of an invisible monster ambushed in the air, in the water, in the mud of the river-bank. Mr. Burns was a predestined victim.
I discovered him lying on his back, glaring sul- lenly and radiating heat on one like a small furnace. He would hardly answer my questions, and only grumbled. Couldn't a man take an afternoon off duty with a bad headache--for once?
That evening, as I sat in the saloon after dinner, I could hear him muttering continuously in his room. Ransome, who was clearing the table, said to me:
"I am afraid, sir, I won't be able to give the mate all the attention he's likely to need. I will have to be forward in the galley a great part of my time."
Ransome was the cook. The mate had pointed him out to me the first day, standing on the deck, his arms crossed on his broad chest, gazing on the river.
Even at a distance his well-proportioned figure, something thoroughly sailor-like in his poise, made him noticeable. On nearer view the intelligent, quiet eyes, a well-bred face, the disciplined in- dependence of his manner made up an attractive personality. When, in addition, Mr. Burns told me that he was the best seaman in the ship, I ex- pressed my surprise that in his earliest prime and of such appearance he should sign on as cook on board a ship.
"It's his heart," Mr. Burns had said. "There's something wrong with it. He mustn't exert him- self too much or he may drop dead suddenly."
And he was the only one the climate had not touched--perhaps because, carrying a deadly enemy in his breast, he had schooled himself into a systematic control of feelings and movements. When one was in the secret this was apparent in his manner. After the poor steward died, and as he could not be replaced by a white man in this Oriental port, Ransome had volunteered to do the double work.
"I can do it all right, sir, as long as I go about it quietly," he had assured me.
But obviously he couldn't be expected to take up sick-nursing in addition. Moreover, the doctor peremptorily ordered Mr. Burns ashore.
With a seaman on each side holding him up under the arms, the mate went over the gangway more sullen than ever. We built him up with pil- lows in the gharry, and he made an effort to say brokenly:
"Now--you've got--what you wanted--got me out of--the ship."
"You were never more mistaken in your life, Mr. Burns," I said quietly, duly smiling at him; and the trap drove off to a sort of sanatorium, a pavilion of bricks which the doctor had in the grounds of his residence.
I visited Mr. Burns regularly. After the first few days, when he didn't know anybody, he re- ceived me as if I had come either to gloat over an enemy or else to curry favour with a deeply wronged person. It was either one or the other, just as it happened according to his fantastic sick- room moods. Whichever it was, he managed to convey it to me even during the period when he ap- peared almost too weak to talk. I treated him to my invariable kindliness.
Then one day, suddenly, a surge of downright panic burst through all this craziness.
If I left him behind in this deadly place he would die. He felt it, he was certain of it. But I wouldn't have the heart to leave him ashore. He had a wife and child in Sydney.
He produced his wasted forearms from under the sheet which covered him and clasped his fleshless claws. He would die! He would die here. . . .
He absolutely managed to sit up, but only for a moment, and when he fell back I really thought that he would die there and then. I called to the Bengali dispenser, and hastened away from the room.
Next day he upset me thoroughly by renewing his entreaties. I returned an evasive answer, and left him the picture of ghastly despair. The day after I went in with reluctance, and he attacked me at once in a much stronger voice and with an abundance of argument which was quite startling. He presented his case with a sort of crazy vigour, and asked me finally how would I like to have a man's death on my conscience? He wanted me to promise that I would not sail without him.
I said that I really must consult the doctor first. He cried out at that. The doctor! Never! That would be a death sentence.
The effort had exhausted him. He closed his eyes, but went on rambling in a low voice. I had hated him from the start. The late captain had hated him, too. Had wished him dead. Had wished all hands dead. . . .
"What do you want to stand in with that wicked corpse for, sir? He'll have you, too," he ended, blinking his glazed eyes vacantly.
"Mr. Burns," I cried, very much discomposed, "what on earth are you talking about?"
He seemed to come to himself, though he was too weak to start.
"I don't know," he said languidly. "But don't ask that doctor, sir. You are I are sailors. Don't ask him, sir. Some day perhaps you will have a wife and child yourself."
And again he pleaded for the promise that I would not leave him behind. I had the firmness of mind not to give it to him. Afterward this stern- ness seemed criminal; for my mind was made up. That prostrated man, with hardly strength enough to breathe and ravaged by a passion of fear, was irresistible. And, besides, he had happened to hit on the right words. He and I were sailors. That was a claim, for I had no other family. As to the wife and child (some day) argument, it had no force. It sounded merely bizarre.
I could imagine no claim that would be stronger and more absorbing than the claim of that ship, of these men snared in the river by silly commercial complications, as if in some poisonous trap.
However, I had nearly fought my way out. Out to sea. The sea--which was pure, safe, and friendly. Three days more.
That thought sustained and carried me on my way back to the ship. In the saloon the doctor's voice greeted me, and his large form followed his voice, issuing out of the starboard spare cabin where the ship's medicine chest was kept securely lashed in the bed-place.
Finding that I was not on board he had gone in there, he said, to inspect the supply of drugs, bandages, and so on. Everything was completed and in order.
I thanked him; I had just been thinking of asking him to do that very thing, as in a couple of days, as he knew, we were going to sea, where all our troubles of every sort would be over at last.
He listened gravely and made no answer. But when I opened to him my mind as to Mr. Burns he sat down by my side, and, laying his hand on my knee amicably, begged me to think what it was I was exposing myself to.
The man was just strong enough to bear being moved and no more. But he couldn't stand a re- turn of the fever. I had before me a passage of sixty days perhaps, beginning with intricate navi- gation and ending probably with a lot of bad weather. Could I run the risk of having to go through it single-handed, with no chief officer and with a second quite a youth? . . .
He might have added that it was my first com- mand, too. He did probably think of that fact, for he checked himself. It was very present to my mind.
He advised me earnestly to cable to Singapore for a chief officer, even if I had to delay my sailing for a week.
"Never," I said. The very thought gave me the shivers. The hands seemed fairly fit, all of them, and this was the time to get them away. Once at sea I was not afraid of facing anything. The sea was now the only remedy for all my troubles.
The doctor's glasses were directed at me like two lamps searching the genuineness of my resolution. He opened his lips as if to argue further, but shut them again without saying anything. I had a vision so vivid of poor Burns in his exhaustion, helplessness, and anguish, that it moved me more than the reality I had come away from only an hour before. It was purged from the drawbacks of his personality, and I could not resist it.
"Look here," I said. "Unless you tell me officially that the man must not be moved I'll make arrangements to have him brought on board to- morrow, and shall take the ship out of the river next morning, even if I have to anchor outside the bar for a couple of days to get her ready for sea."
"Oh! I'll make all the arrangements myself," said the doctor at once. "I spoke as I did only as a friend--as a well-wisher, and that sort of thing."
He rose in his dignified simplicity and gave me a warm handshake, rather solemnly, I thought. But he was as good as his word. When Mr. Burns ap- peared at the gangway carried on a stretcher, the doctor himself walked by its side. The programme had been altered in so far that this transportation had been left to the last moment, on the very morn- ing of our departure.
It was barely an hour after sunrise. The doctor waved his big arm to me from the shore and walked back at once to his trap, which had followed him empty to the river-side. Mr. Burns, carried across the quarter-deck, had the appearance of being absolutely lifeless. Ransome went down to settle him in his cabin. I had to remain on deck to look after the ship, for the tug had got hold of our tow- rope already.
The splash of our shore-fasts falling in the water produced a complete change of feeling in me. It was like the imperfect relief of awakening from a nightmare. But when the ship's head swung down the river away from that town, Oriental and squalid, I missed the expected elation of that striven-for moment. What there was, un- doubtedly, was a relaxation of tension which trans- lated itself into a sense of weariness after an in- glorious fight.
About midday we anchored a mile outside the bar. The afternoon was busy for all hands. Watching the work from the poop, where I re- mained all the time, I detected in it some of the languor of the six weeks spent in the steaming heat of the river. The first breeze would blow that away. Now the calm was complete. I judged that the second officer--a callow youth with an unpromising face--was not, to put it mildly, of that invaluable stuff from which a commander's right hand is made. But I was glad to catch along the main deck a few smiles on those seamen's faces at which I had hardly had time to have a good look as yet. Having thrown off the mortal coil of shore affairs, I felt myself familiar with them and yet a little strange, like a long-lost wanderer among his kin.
Ransome flitted continually to and fro between the galley and the cabin. It was a pleasure to look at him. The man positively had grace. He alone of all the crew had not had a day's illness in port. But with the knowledge of that uneasy heart within his breast I could detect the restraint he put on the natural sailor-like agility of his movements. It was as though he had something very fragile or very explosive to carry about his person and was all the time aware of it.
I had occasion to address him once or twice. He answered me in his pleasant, quiet voice and with a faint, slightly wistful smile. Mr. Burns appeared to be resting. He seemed fairly comfortable.
After sunset I came out on deck again to meet only a still void. The thin, featureless crust of the coast could not be distinguished. The darkness had risen around the ship like a mysterious emana- tion from the dumb and lonely waters. I leaned on the rail and turned my ear to the shadows of the night. Not a sound. My command might have been a planet flying vertiginously on its appointed path in a space of infinite silence. I clung to the rail as if my sense of balance were leaving me for good. How absurd. I failed nervously.
"On deck there!"
The immediate answer, "Yes, sir," broke the spell. The anchor-watch man ran up the poop ladder smartly. I told him to report at once the slightest sign of a breeze coming.
Going below I looked in on Mr. Burns. In fact, I could not avoid seeing him, for his door stood open. The man was so wasted that, in this white cabin, under a white sheet, and with his diminished head sunk in the white pillow, his red moustaches captured their eyes exclusively, like something arti- ficial--a pair of moustaches from a shop exhibited there in the harsh light of the bulkhead-lamp without a shade.
While I stared with a sort of wonder he asserted himself by opening his eyes and even moving them in my direction. A minute stir.
"Dead calm, Mr. Burns," I said resignedly.
In an unexpectedly distinct voice Mr. Burns be- gan a rambling speech. Its tone was very strange, not as if affected by his illness, but as if of a differ- ent nature. It sounded unearthly. As to the matter, I seemed to make out that it was the fault of the "old man"--the late captain--ambushed down there under the sea with some evil intention. It was a weird story.
I listened to the end; then stepping into the cabin I laid my hand on the mate's forehead. It was cool. He was light-headed only from extreme weakness. Suddenly he seemed to become aware of me, and in his own voice--of course, very feeble --he asked regretfully:
"Is there no chance at all to get under way, sir?"
"What's the good of letting go our hold of the ground only to drift, Mr. Burns?" I answered.
He sighed and I left him to his immobility. His hold on life was as slender as his hold on sanity. I was oppressed by my lonely responsibilities. I went into my cabin to seek relief in a few hours' sleep, but almost before I closed my eyes the man on deck came down reporting a light breeze. Enough to get under way with, he said.
And it was no more than just enough. I ordered the windlass manned, the sails loosed, and the top- sails set. But by the time I had cast the ship I could hardly feel any breath of wind. Neverthe- less, I trimmed the yards and put everything on her. I was not going to give up the attempt.Next