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Chapter 8

For a while after his second's answering hoot Massy hung over the
engine-room gloomily. Captain Whalley, who, by the power of five hundred
pounds, had kept his command for three years, might have been suspected
of never having seen that coast before. He seemed unable to put down his
glasses, as though they had been glued under his contracted eyebrows.
This settled frown gave to his face an air of invincible and just
severity; but his raised elbow trembled slightly, and the perspiration
poured from under his hat as if a second sun had suddenly blazed up at
the zenith by the side of the ardent still globe already there, in whose
blinding white heat the earth whirled and shone like a mote of dust.

From time to time, still holding up his glasses, he raised his other
hand to wipe his streaming face. The drops rolled down his cheeks, fell
like rain upon the white hairs of his beard, and brusquely, as if guided
by an uncontrollable and anxious impulse, his arm reached out to the
stand of the engine-room telegraph.

The gong clanged down below. The balanced vibration of the dead-slow
speed ceased together with every sound and tremor in the ship, as if the
great stillness that reigned upon the coast had stolen in through
her sides of iron and taken possession of her innermost recesses. The
illusion of perfect immobility seemed to fall upon her from the luminous
blue dome without a stain arching over a flat sea without a stir. The
faint breeze she had made for herself expired, as if all at once the air
had become too thick to budge; even the slight hiss of the water on her
stem died out. The narrow, long hull, carrying its way without a ripple,
seemed to approach the shoal water of the bar by stealth. The plunge of
the lead with the mournful, mechanical cry of the lascar came at longer
and longer intervals; and the men on her bridge seemed to hold their
breath. The Malay at the helm looked fixedly at the compass card, the
Captain and the Serang stared at the coast.

Massy had left the skylight, and, walking flat-footed, had returned
softly to the very spot on the bridge he had occupied before. A slow,
lingering grin exposed his set of big white teeth: they gleamed evenly
in the shade of the awning like the keyboard of a piano in a dusky room.

At last, pretending to talk to himself in excessive astonishment, he
said not very loud--

"Stop the engines now. What next, I wonder?"

He waited, stooping from the shoulders, his head bowed, his glance
oblique. Then raising his voice a shade--

"If I dared make an absurd remark I would say that you haven't the
stomach to . . ."

But a yelling spirit of excitement, like some frantic soul wandering
unsuspected in the vast stillness of the coast, had seized upon the body
of the lascar at the lead. The languid monotony of his sing-song changed
to a swift, sharp clamor. The weight flew after a single whir, the line
whistled, splash followed splash in haste. The water had shoaled, and
the man, instead of the drowsy tale of fathoms, was calling out the
soundings in feet.

"Fifteen feet. Fifteen, fifteen! Fourteen, fourteen . . ."

Captain Whalley lowered the arm holding the glasses. It descended slowly
as if by its own weight; no other part of his towering body stirred; and
the swift cries with their eager warning note passed him by as though he
had been deaf.

Massy, very still, and turning an attentive ear, had fastened his eyes
upon the silvery, close-cropped back of the steady old head. The ship
herself seemed to be arrested but for the gradual decrease of depth
under her keel.

"Thirteen feet . . . Thirteen! Twelve!" cried the leadsman anxiously
below the bridge. And suddenly the barefooted Serang stepped away
noiselessly to steal a glance over the side.

Narrow of shoulder, in a suit of faded blue cotton, an old gray felt hat
rammed down on his head, with a hollow in the nape of his dark neck, and
with his slender limbs, he appeared from the back no bigger than a boy
of fourteen. There was a childlike impulsiveness in the curiosity with
which he watched the spread of the voluminous, yellowish convolutions
rolling up from below to the surface of the blue water like massive
clouds driving slowly upwards on the unfathomable sky. He was not
startled at the sight in the least. It was not doubt, but the certitude
that the keel of the Sofala must be stirring the mud now, which made him
peep over the side.

His peering eyes, set aslant in a face of the Chinese type, a little old
face, immovable, as if carved in old brown oak, had informed him long
before that the ship was not headed at the bar properly. Paid off from
the Fair Maid, together with the rest of the crew, after the completion
of the sale, he had hung, in his faded blue suit and floppy gray hat,
about the doors of the Harbor Office, till one day, seeing Captain
Whalley coming along to get a crew for the Sofala, he had put himself
quietly in the way, with his bare feet in the dust and an upward mute
glance. The eyes of his old commander had fallen on him favorably--it
must have been an auspicious day--and in less than half an hour the
white men in the "Ofiss" had written his name on a document as Serang of
the fire-ship Sofala. Since that time he had repeatedly looked at that
estuary, upon that coast, from this bridge and from this side of the
bar. The record of the visual world fell through his eyes upon his
unspeculating mind as on a sensitized plate through the lens of a
camera. His knowledge was absolute and precise; nevertheless, had he
been asked his opinion, and especially if questioned in the downright,
alarming manner of white men, he would have displayed the hesitation of
ignorance. He was certain of his facts--but such a certitude counted for
little against the doubt what answer would be pleasing. Fifty years ago,
in a jungle village, and before he was a day old, his father (who died
without ever seeing a white face) had had his nativity cast by a man of
skill and wisdom in astrology, because in the arrangement of the stars
may be read the last word of human destiny. His destiny had been to
thrive by the favor of various white men on the sea. He had swept the
decks of ships, had tended their helms, had minded their stores, had
risen at last to be a Serang; and his placid mind had remained as
incapable of penetrating the simplest motives of those he served as they
themselves were incapable of detecting through the crust of the earth
the secret nature of its heart, which may be fire or may be stone. But
he had no doubt whatever that the Sofala was out of the proper track for
crossing the bar at Batu Beru.

It was a slight error. The ship could not have been more than twice her
own length too far to the northward; and a white man at a loss for a
cause (since it was impossible to suspect Captain Whalley of blundering
ignorance, of want of skill, or of neglect) would have been inclined to
doubt the testimony of his senses. It was some such feeling that kept
Massy motionless, with his teeth laid bare by an anxious grin. Not so
the Serang. He was not troubled by any intellectual mistrust of his
senses. If his captain chose to stir the mud it was well. He had known
in his life white men indulge in outbreaks equally strange. He was only
genuinely interested to see what would come of it. At last, apparently
satisfied, he stepped back from the rail.

He had made no sound: Captain Whalley, however, seemed to have observed
the movements of his Serang. Holding his head rigidly, he asked with a
mere stir of his lips--

"Going ahead still, Serang?"

"Still going a little, Tuan," answered the Malay. Then added casually,
"She is over."

The lead confirmed his words; the depth of water increased at every
cast, and the soul of excitement departed suddenly from the lascar swung
in the canvas belt over the Sofala's side. Captain Whalley ordered the
lead in, set the engines ahead without haste, and averting his eyes from
the coast directed the Serang to keep a course for the middle of the
entrance.

Massy brought the palm of his hand with a loud smack against his thigh.

"You grazed on the bar. Just look astern and see if you didn't. Look at
the track she left. You can see it plainly. Upon my soul, I thought you
would! What made you do that? What on earth made you do that? I believe
you are trying to scare me."

He talked slowly, as it were circumspectly, keeping his prominent black
eyes on his captain. There was also a slight plaintive note in his
rising choler, for, primarily, it was the clear sense of a wrong
suffered undeservedly that made him hate the man who, for a beggarly
five hundred pounds, claimed a sixth part of the profits under the three
years' agreement. Whenever his resentment got the better of the awe
the person of Captain Whalley inspired he would positively whimper with
fury.

"You don't know what to invent to plague my life out of me. I would not
have thought that a man of your sort would condescend . . ."

He paused, half hopefully, half timidly, whenever Captain Whalley made
the slightest movement in the deck-chair, as though expecting to be
conciliated by a soft speech or else rushed upon and hunted off the
bridge.

"I am puzzled," he went on again, with the watchful unsmiling baring of
his big teeth. "I don't know what to think. I do believe you are trying
to frighten me. You very nearly planted her on the bar for at least
twelve hours, besides getting the engines choked with mud. Ships can't
afford to lose twelve hours on a trip nowadays--as you ought to know
very well, and do know very well to be sure, only . . ."

His slow volubility, the sideways cranings of his neck, the black
glances out of the very corners of his eyes, left Captain Whalley
unmoved. He looked at the deck with a severe frown. Massy waited for
some little time, then began to threaten plaintively.

"You think you've got me bound hand and foot in that agreement. You
think you can torment me in any way you please. Ah! But remember it has
another six weeks to run yet. There's time for me to dismiss you before
the three years are out. You will do yet something that will give me the
chance to dismiss you, and make you wait a twelvemonth for your money
before you can take yourself off and pull out your five hundred, and
leave me without a penny to get the new boilers for her. You gloat over
that idea--don't you? I do believe you sit here gloating. It's as if I
had sold my soul for five hundred pounds to be everlastingly damned in
the end. . . ."

He paused, without apparent exasperation, then continued evenly--

". . . With the boilers worn out and the survey hanging over my head,
Captain Whalley--Captain Whalley, I say, what do you do with your
money? You must have stacks of money somewhere--a man like you must. It
stands to reason. I am not a fool, you know, Captain Whalley--partner."

Again he paused, as though he had done for good. He passed his tongue
over his lips, gave a backward glance at the Serang conning the ship
with quiet whispers and slight signs of the hand. The wash of the
propeller sent a swift ripple, crested with dark froth, upon a long flat
spit of black slime. The Sofala had entered the river; the trail she had
stirred up over the bar was a mile astern of her now, out of sight, had
disappeared utterly; and the smooth, empty sea along the coast was left
behind in the glittering desolation of sunshine. On each side of her,
low down, the growth of somber twisted mangroves covered the semi-liquid
banks; and Massy continued in his old tone, with an abrupt start, as if
his speech had been ground out of him, like the tune of a music-box, by
turning a handle.

"Though if anybody ever got the best of me, it is you. I don't mind
saying this. I've said it--there! What more can you want? Isn't that
enough for your pride, Captain Whalley. You got over me from the first.
It's all of a piece, when I look back at it. You allowed me to insert
that clause about intemperance without saying anything, only looking
very sick when I made a point of it going in black on white. How could
I tell what was wrong about you. There's generally something wrong
somewhere. And, lo and behold! when you come on board it turns out that
you've been in the habit of drinking nothing but water for years and
years."

His dogmatic reproachful whine stopped. He brooded profoundly, after
the manner of crafty and unintelligent men. It seemed inconceivable
that Captain Whalley should not laugh at the expression of disgust that
overspread the heavy, yellow countenance. But Captain Whalley never
raised his eyes--sitting in his arm-chair, outraged, dignified, and
motionless.

"Much good it was to me," Massy remonstrated monotonously, "to insert a
clause for dismissal for intemperance against a man who drinks nothing
but water. And you looked so upset, too, when I read my draft in
the lawyer's office that morning, Captain Whalley,--you looked so
crestfallen, that I made sure I had gone home on your weak spot. A
shipowner can't be too careful as to the sort of skipper he gets. You
must have been laughing at me in your sleeve all the blessed time. . . .
Eh? What are you going to say?"

Captain Whalley had only shuffled his feet slightly. A dull animosity
became apparent in Massy's sideways stare.

"But recollect that there are other grounds of dismissal. There's
habitual carelessness, amounting to incompetence--there's gross and
persistent neglect of duty. I am not quite as big a fool as you try to
make me out to be. You have been careless of late--leaving everything
to that Serang. Why! I've seen you letting that old fool of a Malay
take bearings for you, as if you were too big to attend to your work
yourself. And what do you call that silly touch-and-go manner in which
you took the ship over the bar just now? You expect me to put up with
that?"

Leaning on his elbow against the ladder abaft the bridge, Sterne, the
mate, tried to hear, blinking the while from the distance at the second
engineer, who had come up for a moment, and stood in the engine-room
companion. Wiping his hands on a bunch of cotton waste, he looked about
with indifference to the right and left at the river banks slipping
astern of the Sofala steadily.

Massy turned full at the chair. The character of his whine became again
threatening.

"Take care. I may yet dismiss you and freeze to your money for a year. I
may . . ."

But before the silent, rigid immobility of the man whose money had come
in the nick of time to save him from utter ruin, his voice died out in
his throat.

"Not that I want you to go," he resumed after a silence, and in an
absurdly insinuating tone. "I want nothing better than to be friends
and renew the agreement, if you will consent to find another couple of
hundred to help with the new boilers, Captain Whalley. I've told you
before. She must have new boilers; you know it as well as I do. Have you
thought this over?"

He waited. The slender stem of the pipe with its bulky lump of a bowl at
the end hung down from his thick lips. It had gone out. Suddenly he took
it from between his teeth and wrung his hands slightly.

"Don't you believe me?" He thrust the pipe bowl into the pocket of his
shiny black jacket.

"It's like dealing with the devil," he said. "Why don't you speak? At
first you were so high and mighty with me I hardly dared to creep about
my own deck. Now I can't get a word from you. You don't seem to see me
at all. What does it mean? Upon my soul, you terrify me with this deaf
and dumb trick. What's going on in that head of yours? What are you
plotting against me there so hard that you can't say a word? You will
never make me believe that you--you--don't know where to lay your hands
on a couple of hundred. You have made me curse the day I was born. . . ."

"Mr. Massy," said Captain Whalley suddenly, without stirring.

The engineer started violently.

"If that is so I can only beg you to forgive me."

"Starboard," muttered the Serang to the helmsman; and the Sofala began
to swing round the bend into the second reach.

"Ough!" Massy shuddered. "You make my blood run cold. What made you come
here? What made you come aboard that evening all of a sudden, with your
high talk and your money--tempting me? I always wondered what was your
motive? You fastened yourself on me to have easy times and grow fat on
my life blood, I tell you. Was that it? I believe you are the greatest
miser in the world, or else why . . ."

"No. I am only poor," interrupted Captain Whalley, stonily.

"Steady," murmured the Serang. Massy turned away with his chin on his
shoulder.

"I don't believe it," he said in his dogmatic tone. Captain Whalley
made no movement. "There you sit like a gorged vulture--exactly like a
vulture."

He embraced the middle of the reach and both the banks in one blank
unseeing circular glance, and left the bridge slowly.


Joseph Conrad

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