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Chapter 3


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 sideboard, 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
unremitting vigilance.

A succession of men had sat in that chair. I became 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 somebody 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 looking 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, appraising 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 regretted 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 appeared very pale, meagre,
even haggard. Somehow 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 expectant 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 myself 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 question on the lips of any seaman whatever
joining a ship. I voiced it (confound this self-consciousness) in a
degaged cheerful tone: "I suppose she can travel--what?"

Now a question like this might have been answered 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 delighted: "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 addressed him sharply.

He looked as startled for a moment as though he had discovered my
presence only that very moment. 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 quarterdeck and told them they had better go down to say
good-bye to the captain.

Those words, as if grudged to an intruding personage, 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 observation. 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 daybreak 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 expected 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 welcome to pack up their traps and walk over
the side. When this alternative was offered the ship happened 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 professional sorceress from the slums. It was
incomprehensible. 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
without air. They lay there and gasped. The captain, 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 drydock 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 insane
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 became 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 captain'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 destruction 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 exclaimed: "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 semimystical 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 possible. 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 Singapore 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 insignificant) 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 command 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
sympathetic, 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 passage 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 extraneous 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 foresaw 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 remember Captain Giles with nothing short of
abhorrence. 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, appropriately 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 pronouncement 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 sullenly 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 independence
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 expressed 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 himself 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 pillows 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 received 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
sickroom moods. Whichever it was, he managed to convey it to me even
during the period when he appeared 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
sternness 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 return of the fever. I had before me a passage of sixty
days perhaps, beginning with intricate navigation 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 command, 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
tomorrow, 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
appeared 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 morning 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 towrope 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, undoubtedly, was a relaxation
of tension which translated itself into a sense of weariness after an
inglorious 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 remained 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 emanation 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 artificial--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 began a rambling speech. Its
tone was very strange, not as if affected by his illness, but as if of
a different 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 topsails set. But by the time I had cast the ship
I could hardly feel any breath of wind. Nevertheless, I trimmed the
yards and put everything on her. I was not going to give up the attempt.

Joseph Conrad

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