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Chapter 7

Sterne went down smirking and apparently not at all disconcerted, but
the engineer Massy remained on the bridge, moving about with uneasy
self-assertion. Everybody on board was his inferior--everyone without
exception. He paid their wages and found them in their food. They ate
more of his bread and pocketed more of his money than they were worth;
and they had no care in the world, while he alone had to meet all the
difficulties of shipowning. When he contemplated his position in all its
menacing entirety, it seemed to him that he had been for years the
prey of a band of parasites: and for years he had scowled at everybody
connected with the Sofala except, perhaps, at the Chinese firemen
who served to get her along. Their use was manifest: they were an
indispensable part of the machinery of which he was the master.

When he passed along his decks he shouldered those he came across
brutally; but the Malay deck hands had learned to dodge out of his way.
He had to bring himself to tolerate them because of the necessary manual
labor of the ship which must be done. He had to struggle and plan and
scheme to keep the Sofala afloat--and what did he get for it? Not even
enough respect. They could not have given him enough of that if all
their thoughts and all their actions had been directed to that end. The
vanity of possession, the vainglory of power, had passed away by this
time, and there remained only the material embarrassments, the fear
of losing that position which had turned out not worth having, and an
anxiety of thought which no abject subservience of men could repay.

He walked up and down. The bridge was his own after all. He had paid
for it; and with the stem of the pipe in his hand he would stop short at
times as if to listen with a profound and concentrated attention to the
deadened beat of the engines (his own engines) and the slight grinding
of the steering chains upon the continuous low wash of water alongside.
But for these sounds, the ship might have been lying as still as if
moored to a bank, and as silent as if abandoned by every living soul;
only the coast, the low coast of mud and mangroves with the three palms
in a bunch at the back, grew slowly more distinct in its long straight
line, without a single feature to arrest attention. The native
passengers of the Sofala lay about on mats under the awnings; the smoke
of her funnel seemed the only sign of her life and connected with her
gliding motion in a mysterious manner.

Captain Whalley on his feet, with a pair of binoculars in his hand and
the little Malay Serang at his elbow, like an old giant attended by a
wizened pigmy, was taking her over the shallow water of the bar.

This submarine ridge of mud, scoured by the stream out of the soft
bottom of the river and heaped up far out on the hard bottom of the sea,
was difficult to get over. The alluvial coast having no distinguishing
marks, the bearings of the crossing-place had to be taken from the shape
of the mountains inland. The guidance of a form flattened and uneven
at the top like a grinder tooth, and of another smooth, saddle-backed
summit, had to be searched for within the great unclouded glare that
seemed to shift and float like a dry fiery mist, filling the air,
ascending from the water, shrouding the distances, scorching to the eye.
In this veil of light the near edge of the shore alone stood out almost
coal-black with an opaque and motionless solidity. Thirty miles away
the serrated range of the interior stretched across the horizon, its
outlines and shades of blue, faint and tremulous like a background
painted on airy gossamer on the quivering fabric of an impalpable
curtain let down to the plain of alluvial soil; and the openings of the
estuary appeared, shining white, like bits of silver let into the square
pieces snipped clean and sharp out of the body of the land bordered with
mangroves.

On the forepart of the bridge the giant and the pigmy muttered to each
other frequently in quiet tones. Behind them Massy stood sideways with
an expression of disdain and suspense on his face. His globular eyes
were perfectly motionless, and he seemed to have forgotten the long pipe
he held in his hand.

On the fore-deck below the bridge, steeply roofed with the white slopes
of the awnings, a young lascar seaman had clambered outside the rail.
He adjusted quickly a broad band of sail canvas under his armpits,
and throwing his chest against it, leaned out far over the water. The
sleeves of his thin cotton shirt, cut off close to the shoulder,
bared his brown arm of full rounded form and with a satiny skin like a
woman's. He swung it rigidly with the rotary and menacing action of a
slinger: the 14-lb. weight hurtled circling in the air, then suddenly
flew ahead as far as the curve of the bow. The wet thin line swished
like scratched silk running through the dark fingers of the man, and
the plunge of the lead close to the ship's side made a vanishing silvery
scar upon the golden glitter; then after an interval the voice of the
young Malay uplifted and long-drawn declared the depth of the water in
his own language.

"Tiga stengah," he cried after each splash and pause, gathering the line
busily for another cast. "Tiga stengah," which means three fathom and a
half. For a mile or so from seaward there was a uniform depth of water
right up to the bar. "Half-three. Half-three. Half-three,"--and his
modulated cry, returned leisurely and monotonous, like the repeated
call of a bird, seemed to float away in sunshine and disappear in the
spacious silence of the empty sea and of a lifeless shore lying
open, north and south, east and west, without the stir of a single
cloud-shadow or the whisper of any other voice.

The owner-engineer of the Sofala remained very still behind the two
seamen of different race, creed, and color; the European with the
time-defying vigor of his old frame, the little Malay, old, too, but
slight and shrunken like a withered brown leaf blown by a chance wind
under the mighty shadow of the other. Very busy looking forward at the
land, they had not a glance to spare; and Massy, glaring at them from
behind, seemed to resent their attention to their duty like a personal
slight upon himself.

This was unreasonable; but he had lived in his own world of unreasonable
resentments for many years. At last, passing his moist palm over the
rare lanky wisps of coarse hair on the top of his yellow head, he began
to talk slowly.

"A leadsman, you want! I suppose that's your correct mail-boat style.
Haven't you enough judgment to tell where you are by looking at the
land? Why, before I had been a twelvemonth in the trade I was up to that
trick--and I am only an engineer. I can point to you from here where the
bar is, and I could tell you besides that you are as likely as not to
stick her in the mud in about five minutes from now; only you would call
it interfering, I suppose. And there's that written agreement of ours,
that says I mustn't interfere."

His voice stopped. Captain Whalley, without relaxing the set severity of
his features, moved his lips to ask in a quick mumble--

"How near, Serang?"

"Very near now, Tuan," the Malay muttered rapidly.

"Dead slow," said the Captain aloud in a firm tone.

The Serang snatched at the handle of the telegraph. A gong clanged down
below. Massy with a scornful snigger walked off and put his head down
the engineroom skylight.

"You may expect some rare fooling with the engines, Jack," he bellowed.
The space into which he stared was deep and full of gloom; and the gray
gleams of steel down there seemed cool after the intense glare of the
sea around the ship. The air, however, came up clammy and hot on his
face. A short hoot on which it would have been impossible to put any
sort of interpretation came from the bottom cavernously. This was the
way in which the second engineer answered his chief.

He was a middle-aged man with an inattentive manner, and apparently
wrapped up in such a taciturn concern for his engines that he seemed
to have lost the use of speech. When addressed directly his only answer
would be a grunt or a hoot, according to the distance. For all the years
he had been in the Sofala he had never been known to exchange as much
as a frank Good-morning with any of his shipmates. He did not seem aware
that men came and went in the world; he did not seem to see them at all.
Indeed he never recognized his ship mates on shore. At table (the four
white men of the Sofala messed together) he sat looking into his plate
dispassionately, but at the end of the meal would jump up and bolt down
below as if a sudden thought had impelled him to rush and see whether
somebody had not stolen the engines while he dined. In port at the end
of the trip he went ashore regularly, but no one knew where he spent
his evenings or in what manner. The local coasting fleet had preserved
a wild and incoherent tale of his infatuation for the wife of a sergeant
in an Irish infantry regiment. The regiment, however, had done its turn
of garrison duty there ages before, and was gone somewhere to the other
side of the earth, out of men's knowledge. Twice or perhaps three times
in the course of the year he would take too much to drink. On these
occasions he returned on board at an earlier hour than usual; ran
across the deck balancing himself with his spread arms like a tight-rope
walker; and locking the door of his cabin, he would converse and argue
with himself the livelong night in an amazing variety of tones; storm,
sneer, and whine with an inexhaustible persistence. Massy in his berth
next door, raising himself on his elbow, would discover that his second
had remembered the name of every white man that had passed through the
Sofala for years and years back. He remembered the names of men that had
died, that had gone home, that had gone to America: he remembered in his
cups the names of men whose connection with the ship had been so short
that Massy had almost forgotten its circumstances and could barely
recall their faces. The inebriated voice on the other side of the
bulkhead commented upon them all with an extraordinary and ingenious
venom of scandalous inventions. It seems they had all offended him in
some way, and in return he had found them all out. He muttered darkly;
he laughed sardonically; he crushed them one after another; but of his
chief, Massy, he babbled with an envious and naive admiration. Clever
scoundrel! Don't meet the likes of him every day. Just look at him. Ha!
Great! Ship of his own. Wouldn't catch _him_ going wrong. No fear--the
beast! And Massy, after listening with a gratified smile to these
artless tributes to his greatness, would begin to shout, thumping at the
bulkhead with both fists--

"Shut up, you lunatic! Won't you let me go to sleep, you fool!"

But a half smile of pride lingered on his lips; outside the solitary
lascar told off for night duty in harbor, perhaps a youth fresh from
a forest village, would stand motionless in the shadows of the deck
listening to the endless drunken gabble. His heart would be thumping
with breathless awe of white men: the arbitrary and obstinate men who
pursue inflexibly their incomprehensible purposes,--beings with weird
intonations in the voice, moved by unaccountable feelings, actuated by
inscrutable motives.


Joseph Conrad

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