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Chapter 5

I heard the clatter of the scissors escaping from his hand, noted the
perilous heave of his whole person over the edge of the bunk after them,
and then, returning to my first purpose, pursued my course on the deck.
The sparkle of the sea filled my eyes. It was gorgeous and barren,
monotonous and without hope under the empty curve of the sky. The sails
hung motionless and slack, the very folds of their sagging surfaces
moved no more than carved granite. The impetuosity of my advent made the
man at the helm start slightly. A block aloft squeaked incomprehensibly,
for what on earth could have made it do so? It was a whistling note like
a bird's. For a long, long time I faced an empty world, steeped in an
infinity of silence, through which the sunshine poured and flowed for
some mysterious purpose. Then I heard Ransome's voice at my elbow.

"I have put Mr. Burns back to bed, sir."

"You have."

"Well, sir, he got out, all of a sudden, but when he let go the edge of
his bunk he fell down. He isn't light-headed, though, it seems to me."

"No," I said dully, without looking at Ransome. He waited for a moment,
then cautiously, as if not to give offence: "I don't think we need lose
much of that stuff, sir," he said, "I can sweep it up, every bit of
it almost, and then we could sift the glass out. I will go about it at
once. It will not make the breakfast late, not ten minutes."

"Oh, yes," I said bitterly. "Let the breakfast wait, sweep up every bit
of it, and then throw the damned lot overboard!"

The profound silence returned, and when I looked over my shoulder,
Ransome--the intelligent, serene Ransome--had vanished from my side.
The intense loneliness of the sea acted like poison on my brain. When I
turned my eyes to the ship, I had a morbid vision of her as a floating
grave. Who hasn't heard of ships found floating, haphazard, with their
crews all dead? I looked at the seaman at the helm, I had an impulse to
speak to him, and, indeed, his face took on an expectant cast as if he
had guessed my intention. But in the end I went below, thinking I
would be alone with the greatness of my trouble for a little while.
But through his open door Mr. Burns saw me come down, and addressed me
grumpily: "Well, sir?"

I went in. "It isn't well at all," I said.

Mr. Burns, reestablished in his bed-place, was concealing his hirsute
cheek in the palm of his hand.

"That confounded fellow has taken away the scissors from me," were the
next words he said.

The tension I was suffering from was so great that it was perhaps just
as well that Mr. Burns had started on his grievance. He seemed very sore
about it and grumbled, "Does he think I am mad, or what?"

"I don't think so, Mr. Burns," I said. I looked upon him at that moment
as a model of self-possession. I even conceived on that account a sort of
admiration for that man, who had (apart from the intense materiality of
what was left of his beard) come as near to being a disembodied spirit
as any man can do and live. I noticed the preternatural sharpness of the
ridge of his nose, the deep cavities of his temples, and I envied him.
He was so reduced that he would probably die very soon. Enviable man!
So near extinction--while I had to bear within me a tumult of suffering
vitality, doubt, confusion, self-reproach, and an indefinite reluctance
to meet the horrid logic of the situation. I could not help muttering:
"I feel as if I were going mad myself."

Mr. Burns glared spectrally, but otherwise wonderfully composed.

"I always thought he would play us some deadly trick," he said, with a
peculiar emphasis on the _He_.

It gave me a mental shock, but I had neither the mind, nor the heart,
nor the spirit to argue with him. My form of sickness was indifference.
The creeping paralysis of a hopeless outlook. So I only gazed at him.
Mr. Burns broke into further speech.

"Eh! What! No! You won't believe it? Well, how do you account for this?
How do you think it could have happened?"

"Happened?" I repeated dully. "Why, yes, how in the name of the infernal
powers did this thing happen?"

Indeed, on thinking it out, it seemed incomprehensible that it should
just be like this: the bottles emptied, refilled, rewrapped, and
replaced. A sort of plot, a sinister attempt to deceive, a thing
resembling sly vengeance, but for what? Or else a fiendish joke. But Mr.
Burns was in possession of a theory. It was simple, and he uttered it
solemnly in a hollow voice.

"I suppose they have given him about fifteen pounds in Haiphong for that
little lot."

"Mr. Burns!" I cried.

He nodded grotesquely over his raised legs, like two broomsticks in the
pyjamas, with enormous bare feet at the end.

"Why not? The stuff is pretty expensive in this part of the world, and
they were very short of it in Tonkin. And what did he care? You have
not known him. I have, and I have defied him. He feared neither God, nor
devil, nor man, nor wind, nor sea, nor his own conscience. And I believe
he hated everybody and everything. But I think he was afraid to die. I
believe I am the only man who ever stood up to him. I faced him in that
cabin where you live now, when he was sick, and I cowed him then. He
thought I was going to twist his neck for him. If he had had his way we
would have been beating up against the Nord-East monsoon, as long as he
lived and afterward, too, for ages and ages. Acting the Flying Dutchman
in the China Sea! Ha! Ha!"

"But why should he replace the bottles like this?" . . . I began.

"Why shouldn't he? Why should he want to throw the bottles away? They
fit the drawer. They belong to the medicine chest."

"And they were wrapped up," I cried.

"Well, the wrappers were there. Did it from habit, I suppose, and as
to refilling, there is always a lot of stuff they send in paper parcels
that burst after a time. And then, who can tell? I suppose you didn't
taste it, sir? But, of course, you are sure. . . ."

"No," I said. "I didn't taste it. It is all overboard now."

Behind me, a soft, cultivated voice said: "I have tasted it. It seemed a
mixture of all sorts, sweetish, saltish, very horrible."

Ransome, stepping out of the pantry, had been listening for some time,
as it was very excusable in him to do.

"A dirty trick," said Mr. Burns. "I always said he would."

The magnitude of my indignation was unbounded. And the kind, sympathetic
doctor, too. The only sympathetic man I ever knew . . . instead of
writing that warning letter, the very refinement of sympathy, why didn't
the man make a proper inspection? But, as a matter of fact, it was
hardly fair to blame the doctor. The fittings were in order and the
medicine chest is an officially arranged affair. There was nothing
really to arouse the slightest suspicion. The person I could never
forgive was myself. Nothing should ever be taken for granted. The seed
of everlasting remorse was sown in my breast.

"I feel it's all my fault," I exclaimed, "mine and nobody else's. That's
how I feel. I shall never forgive myself."

"That's very foolish, sir," said Mr. Burns fiercely.

And after this effort he fell back exhausted on his bed. He closed his
eyes, he panted; this affair, this abominable surprise had shaken him
up, too. As I turned away I perceived Ransome looking at me blankly. He
appreciated what it meant, but managed to produce his pleasant, wistful
smile. Then he stepped back into his pantry, and I rushed up on deck
again to see whether there was any wind, any breath under the sky, any
stir of the air, any sign of hope. The deadly stillness met me again.
Nothing was changed except that there was a different man at the wheel.
He looked ill. His whole figure drooped, and he seemed rather to cling
to the spokes than hold them with a controlling grip. I said to him:

"You are not fit to be here."

"I can manage, sir," he said feebly.

As a matter of fact, there was nothing for him to do. The ship had no
steerage way. She lay with her head to the westward, the everlasting
Koh-ring visible over the stern, with a few small islets, black spots
in the great blaze, swimming before my troubled eyes. And but for those
bits of land there was no speck on the sky, no speck on the water,
no shape of vapour, no wisp of smoke, no sail, no boat, no stir of
humanity, no sign of life, nothing!

The first question was, what to do? What could one do? The first thing
to do obviously was to tell the men. I did it that very day. I wasn't
going to let the knowledge simply get about. I would face them. They
were assembled on the quarterdeck for the purpose. Just before I stepped
out to speak to them I discovered that life could hold terrible moments.
No confessed criminal had ever been so oppressed by his sense of
guilt. This is why, perhaps, my face was set hard and my voice curt and
unemotional while I made my declaration that I could do nothing more
for the sick in the way of drugs. As to such care as could be given them
they knew they had had it.

I would have held them justified in tearing me limb from limb. The
silence which followed upon my words was almost harder to bear than the
angriest uproar. I was crushed by the infinite depth of its reproach.
But, as a matter of fact, I was mistaken. In a voice which I had
great difficulty in keeping firm, I went on: "I suppose, men, you have
understood what I said, and you know what it means."

A voice or two were heard: "Yes, sir. . . . We understand."

They had kept silent simply because they thought that they were not
called to say anything; and when I told them that I intended to run into
Singapore and that the best chance for the ship and the men was in the
efforts all of us, sick and well, must make to get her along out of
this, I received the encouragement of a low assenting murmur and of
a louder voice exclaiming: "Surely there is a way out of this blamed
hole."


* * * * * * *

Here is an extract from the notes I wrote at the time.

"We have lost Koh-ring at last. For many days now I don't think I have
been two hours below altogether. I remain on deck, of course, night and
day, and the nights and the days wheel over us in succession, whether
long or short, who can say? All sense of time is lost in the monotony of
expectation, of hope, and of desire--which is only one: Get the ship to
the southward! Get the ship to the southward! The effect is curiously
mechanical; the sun climbs and descends, the night swings over our
heads as if somebody below the horizon were turning a crank. It is
the prettiest, the most aimless! . . . and all through that miserable
performance I go on, tramping, tramping the deck. How many miles have
I walked on the poop of that ship! A stubborn pilgrimage of sheer
restlessness, diversified by short excursions below to look upon Mr.
Burns. I don't know whether it is an illusion, but he seems to become
more substantial from day to day. He doesn't say much, for, indeed, the
situation doesn't lend itself to idle remarks. I notice this even with
the men as I watch them moving or sitting about the decks. They don't
talk to each other. It strikes me that if there exists an invisible
ear catching the whispers of the earth, it will find this ship the most
silent spot on it. . . .

"No, Mr. Burns has not much to say to me. He sits in his bunk with
his beard gone, his moustaches flaming, and with an air of silent
determination on his chalky physiognomy. Ransome tells me he devours all
the food that is given him to the last scrap, but that, apparently, he
sleeps very little. Even at night, when I go below to fill my pipe,
I notice that, though dozing flat on his back, he still looks very
determined. From the side glance he gives me when awake it seems as
though he were annoyed at being interrupted in some arduous mental
operation; and as I emerge on deck the ordered arrangement of the stars
meets my eye, unclouded, infinitely wearisome. There they are: stars,
sun, sea, light, darkness, space, great waters; the formidable Work of
the Seven Days, into which mankind seems to have blundered unbidden.
Or else decoyed. Even as I have been decoyed into this awful, this
death-haunted command. . . ."


* * * * * * *

The only spot of light in the ship at night was that of the
compass-lamps, lighting up the faces of the succeeding helmsmen; for the
rest we were lost in the darkness, I walking the poop and the men lying
about the decks. They were all so reduced by sickness that no watches
could be kept. Those who were able to walk remained all the time on
duty, lying about in the shadows of the main deck, till my voice raised
for an order would bring them to their enfeebled feet, a tottering
little group, moving patently about the ship, with hardly a murmur, a
whisper amongst them all. And every time I had to raise my voice it was
with a pang of remorse and pity.

Then about four o'clock in the morning a light would gleam forward in
the galley. The unfailing Ransome with the uneasy heart, immune,
serene, and active, was getting ready for the early coffee for the men.
Presently he would bring me a cup up on the poop, and it was then that I
allowed myself to drop into my deck chair for a couple of hours of real
sleep. No doubt I must have been snatching short dozes when leaning
against the rail for a moment in sheer exhaustion; but, honestly, I was
not aware of them, except in the painful form of convulsive starts that
seemed to come on me even while I walked. From about five, however,
until after seven I would sleep openly under the fading stars.

I would say to the helmsman: "Call me at need," and drop into that chair
and close my eyes, feeling that there was no more sleep for me on earth.
And then I would know nothing till, some time between seven and eight,
I would feel a touch on my shoulder and look up at Ransome's face, with
its faint, wistful smile and friendly, gray eyes, as though he were
tenderly amused at my slumbers. Occasionally the second mate would come
up and relieve me at early coffee time. But it didn't really matter.
Generally it was a dead calm, or else faint airs so changing and
fugitive that it really wasn't worth while to touch a brace for them.
If the air steadied at all the seaman at the helm could be trusted for
a warning shout: "Ship's all aback, sir!" which like a trumpet-call would
make me spring a foot above the deck. Those were the words which it
seemed to me would have made me spring up from eternal sleep. But this
was not often. I have never met since such breathless sunrises. And if
the second mate happened to be there (he had generally one day in three
free of fever) I would find him sitting on the skylight half senseless,
as it were, and with an idiotic gaze fastened on some object near by--a
rope, a cleat, a belaying pin, a ringbolt.

That young man was rather troublesome. He remained cubbish in his
sufferings. He seemed to have become completely imbecile; and when the
return of fever drove him to his cabin below, the next thing would be
that we would miss him from there. The first time it happened Ransome
and I were very much alarmed. We started a quiet search and ultimately
Ransome discovered him curled up in the sail-locker, which opened
into the lobby by a sliding door. When remonstrated with, he muttered
sulkily, "It's cool in there." That wasn't true. It was only dark there.

The fundamental defects of his face were not improved by its uniform
livid hue. The disease disclosed its low type in a startling way. It was
not so with many of the men. The wastage of ill-health seemed to idealise
the general character of the features, bringing out the unsuspected
nobility of some, the strength of others, and in one case revealing an
essentially comic aspect. He was a short, gingery, active man with
a nose and chin of the Punch type, and whom his shipmates called
"Frenchy." I don't know why. He may have been a Frenchman, but I have
never heard him utter a single word in French.

To see him coming aft to the wheel comforted one. The blue dungaree
trousers turned up the calf, one leg a little higher than the other, the
clean check shirt, the white canvas cap, evidently made by himself, made
up a whole of peculiar smartness, and the persistent jauntiness of his
gait, even, poor fellow, when he couldn't help tottering, told of his
invincible spirit. There was also a man called Gambril. He was the only
grizzled person in the ship. His face was of an austere type. But if
I remember all their faces, wasting tragically before my eyes, most of
their names have vanished from my memory.

The words that passed between us were few and puerile in regard of the
situation. I had to force myself to look them in the face. I expected to
meet reproachful glances. There were none. The expression of suffering
in their eyes was indeed hard enough to bear. But that they couldn't
help. For the rest, I ask myself whether it was the temper of their
souls or the sympathy of their imagination that made them so wonderful,
so worthy of my undying regard.

For myself, neither my soul was highly tempered, nor my imagination
properly under control. There were moments when I felt, not only that I
would go mad, but that I had gone mad already; so that I dared not open
my lips for fear of betraying myself by some insane shriek. Luckily I
had only orders to give, and an order has a steadying influence upon him
who has to give it. Moreover, the seaman, the officer of the watch, in
me was sufficiently sane. I was like a mad carpenter making a box. Were
he ever so convinced that he was King of Jerusalem, the box he would
make would be a sane box. What I feared was a shrill note escaping me
involuntarily and upsetting my balance. Luckily, again, there was no
necessity to raise one's voice. The brooding stillness of the world
seemed sensitive to the slightest sound, like a whispering gallery. The
conversational tone would almost carry a word from one end of the ship
to the other. The terrible thing was that the only voice that I ever
heard was my own. At night especially it reverberated very lonely
amongst the planes of the unstirring sails.

Mr. Burns, still keeping to his bed with that air of secret
determination, was moved to grumble at many things. Our interviews
were short five-minute affairs, but fairly frequent. I was everlastingly
diving down below to get a light, though I did not consume much tobacco
at that time. The pipe was always going out; for in truth my mind was
not composed enough to enable me to get a decent smoke. Likewise,
for most of the time during the twenty-four hours I could have struck
matches on deck and held them aloft till the flame burnt my fingers. But
I always used to run below. It was a change. It was the only break in
the incessant strain; and, of course, Mr. Burns through the open door
could see me come in and go out every time.

With his knees gathered up under his chin and staring with his greenish
eyes over them, he was a weird figure, and with my knowledge of the
crazy notion in his head, not a very attractive one for me. Still, I had
to speak to him now and then, and one day he complained that the ship
was very silent. For hours and hours, he said, he was lying there, not
hearing a sound, till he did not know what to do with himself.

"When Ransome happens to be forward in his galley everything's so still
that one might think everybody in the ship was dead," he grumbled. "The
only voice I do hear sometimes is yours, sir, and that isn't enough to
cheer me up. What's the matter with the men? Isn't there one left that
can sing out at the ropes?"

"Not one, Mr. Burns," I said. "There is no breath to spare on board this
ship for that. Are you aware that there are times when I can't muster
more than three hands to do anything?"

He asked swiftly but fearfully:

"Nobody dead yet, sir?"

"No."

"It wouldn't do," Mr. Burns declared forcibly. "Mustn't let him. If he
gets hold of one he will get them all."

I cried out angrily at this. I believe I even swore at the disturbing
effect of these words. They attacked all the self-possession that was
left to me. In my endless vigil in the face of the enemy I had been
haunted by gruesome images enough. I had had visions of a ship drifting
in calms and swinging in light airs, with all her crew dying slowly
about her decks. Such things had been known to happen.

Mr. Burns met my outburst by a mysterious silence.

"Look here," I said. "You don't believe yourself what you say. You
can't. It's impossible. It isn't the sort of thing I have a right to
expect from you. My position's bad enough without being worried with
your silly fancies."

He remained unmoved. On account of the way in which the light fell on
his head I could not be sure whether he had smiled faintly or not. I
changed my tone.

"Listen," I said. "It's getting so desperate that I had thought for a
moment, since we can't make our way south, whether I wouldn't try to
steer west and make an attempt to reach the mailboat track. We could
always get some quinine from her, at least. What do you think?"

He cried out: "No, no, no. Don't do that, sir. You mustn't for a moment
give up facing that old ruffian. If you do he will get the upper hand of
us."

I left him. He was impossible. It was like a case of possession. His
protest, however, was essentially quite sound. As a matter of fact, my
notion of heading out west on the chance of sighting a problematical
steamer could not bear calm examination. On the side where we were we
had enough wind, at least from time to time, to struggle on toward the
south. Enough, at least, to keep hope alive. But suppose that I had used
those capricious gusts of wind to sail away to the westward, into some
region where there was not a breath of air for days on end, what then?
Perhaps my appalling vision of a ship floating with a dead crew
would become a reality for the discovery weeks afterward by some
horror-stricken mariners.

That afternoon Ransome brought me up a cup of tea, and while waiting
there, tray in hand, he remarked in the exactly right tone of sympathy:

"You are holding out well, sir."

"Yes," I said. "You and I seem to have been forgotten."

"Forgotten, sir?"

"Yes, by the fever-devil who has got on board this ship," I said.

Ransome gave me one of his attractive, intelligent, quick glances and
went away with the tray. It occurred to me that I had been talking
somewhat in Mr. Burns' manner. It annoyed me. Yet often in darker
moments I forgot myself into an attitude toward our troubles more fit
for a contest against a living enemy.

Yes. The fever-devil had not laid his hand yet either on Ransome or on
me. But he might at any time. It was one of those thoughts one had
to fight down, keep at arm's length at any cost. It was unbearable to
contemplate the possibility of Ransome, the housekeeper of the ship,
being laid low. And what would happen to my command if I got knocked
over, with Mr. Burns too weak to stand without holding on to his
bed-place and the second mate reduced to a state of permanent
imbecility? It was impossible to imagine, or rather, it was only too
easy to imagine.

I was alone on the poop. The ship having no steerage way, I had sent the
helmsman away to sit down or lie down somewhere in the shade. The men's
strength was so reduced that all unnecessary calls on it had to be
avoided. It was the austere Gambril with the grizzly beard. He went away
readily enough, but he was so weakened by repeated bouts of fever,
poor fellow, that in order to get down the poop ladder he had to turn
sideways and hang on with both hands to the brass rail. It was just
simply heart-breaking to watch. Yet he was neither very much worse nor
much better than most of the half-dozen miserable victims I could muster
up on deck.

It was a terribly lifeless afternoon. For several days in succession low
clouds had appeared in the distance, white masses with dark convolutions
resting on the water, motionless, almost solid, and yet all the time
changing their aspects subtly. Toward evening they vanished as a rule.
But this day they awaited the setting sun, which glowed and smouldered
sulkily amongst them before it sank down. The punctual and wearisome
stars reappeared over our mastheads, but the air remained stagnant and
oppressive.

The unfailing Ransome lighted the binnaclelamps and glided, all shadowy,
up to me.

"Will you go down and try to eat something, sir?" he suggested.

His low voice startled me. I had been standing looking out over the
rail, saying nothing, feeling nothing, not even the weariness of my
limbs, overcome by the evil spell.

"Ransome," I asked abruptly, "how long have I been on deck? I am losing
the notion of time."

"Twelve days, sir," he said, "and it's just a fortnight since we left
the anchorage."

His equable voice sounded mournful somehow. He waited a bit, then added:
"It's the first time that it looks as if we were to have some rain."

I noticed then the broad shadow on the horizon, extinguishing the low
stars completely, while those overhead, when I looked up, seemed to
shine down on us through a veil of smoke.

How it got there, how it had crept up so high, I couldn't say. It had an
ominous appearance. The air did not stir. At a renewed invitation from
Ransome I did go down into the cabin to--in his own words--"try and eat
something." I don't know that the trial was very successful. I suppose
at that period I did exist on food in the usual way; but the memory is
now that in those days life was sustained on invincible anguish, as a
sort of infernal stimulant exciting and consuming at the same time.

It's the only period of my life in which I attempted to keep a diary.
No, not the only one. Years later, in conditions of moral isolation, I
did put down on paper the thoughts and events of a score of days. But
this was the first time. I don't remember how it came about or how the
pocketbook and the pencil came into my hands. It's inconceivable that I
should have looked for them on purpose. I suppose they saved me from the
crazy trick of talking to myself.

Strangely enough, in both cases I took to that sort of thing in
circumstances in which I did not expect, in colloquial phrase, "to come
out of it." Neither could I expect the record to outlast me. This shows
that it was purely a personal need for intimate relief and not a call of
egotism.

Here I must give another sample of it, a few detached lines, now
looking very ghostly to my own eyes, out of the part scribbled that very
evening:


* * * * * * *

"There is something going on in the sky like a decomposition; like a
corruption of the air, which remains as still as ever. After all, mere
clouds, which may or may not hold wind or rain. Strange that it should
trouble me so. I feel as if all my sins had found me out. But I suppose
the trouble is that the ship is still lying motionless, not under
command; and that I have nothing to do to keep my imagination from
running wild amongst the disastrous images of the worst that may befall
us. What's going to happen? Probably nothing. Or anything. It may be a
furious squall coming, butt end foremost. And on deck there are five
men with the vitality and the strength, of say, two. We may have all our
sails blown away. Every stitch of canvas has been on her since we broke
ground at the mouth of the Mei-nam, fifteen days ago . . . or fifteen
centuries. It seems to me that all my life before that momentous day is
infinitely remote, a fading memory of light-hearted youth, something on
the other side of a shadow. Yes, sails may very well be blown away.
And that would be like a death sentence on the men. We haven't strength
enough on board to bend another suit; incredible thought, but it is
true. Or we may even get dismasted. Ships have been dismasted in squalls
simply because they weren't handled quick enough, and we have no
power to whirl the yards around. It's like being bound hand and foot
preparatory to having one's throat cut. And what appals me most of all
is that I shrink from going on deck to face it. It's due to the ship,
it's due to the men who are there on deck--some of them, ready to put
out the last remnant of their strength at a word from me. And I am
shrinking from it. From the mere vision. My first command. Now I
understand that strange sense of insecurity in my past. I always
suspected that I might be no good. And here is proof positive. I am
shirking it. I am no good."


* * * * * * *

At that moment, or, perhaps, the moment after, I became aware of Ransome
standing in the cabin. Something in his expression startled me. It had a
meaning which I could not make out. I exclaimed: "Somebody's dead."

It was his turn then to look startled.

"Dead? Not that I know of, sir. I have been in the forecastle only ten
minutes ago and there was no dead man there then."

"You did give me a scare," I said.

His voice was extremely pleasant to listen to. He explained that he had
come down below to close Mr. Burns' port in case it should come on to
rain. "He did not know that I was in the cabin," he added.

"How does it look outside?" I asked him.

"Very black, indeed, sir. There is something in it for certain."

"In what quarter?"

"All round, sir."

I repeated idly: "All round. For certain," with my elbows on the table.

Ransome lingered in the cabin as if he had something to do there, but
hesitated about doing it. I said suddenly:

"You think I ought to be on deck?"

He answered at once but without any particular emphasis or accent: "I
do, sir."

I got to my feet briskly, and he made way for me to go out. As I passed
through the lobby I heard Mr. Burns' voice saying:

"Shut the door of my room, will you, steward?" And Ransome's rather
surprised: "Certainly, sir."

I thought that all my feelings had been dulled into complete
indifference. But I found it as trying as ever to be on deck. The
impenetrable blackness beset the ship so close that it seemed that
by thrusting one's hand over the side one could touch some unearthly
substance. There was in it an effect of inconceivable terror and of
inexpressible mystery. The few stars overhead shed a dim light upon
the ship alone, with no gleams of any kind upon the water, in detached
shafts piercing an atmosphere which had turned to soot. It was something
I had never seen before, giving no hint of the direction from which any
change would come, the closing in of a menace from all sides.

There was still no man at the helm. The immobility of all things was
perfect. If the air had turned black, the sea, for all I knew, might
have turned solid. It was no good looking in any direction, watching
for any sign, speculating upon the nearness of the moment. When the time
came the blackness would overwhelm silently the bit of starlight falling
upon the ship, and the end of all things would come without a sigh,
stir, or murmur of any kind, and all our hearts would cease to beat like
run-down clocks.

It was impossible to shake off that sense of finality. The quietness
that came over me was like a foretaste of annihilation. It gave me a
sort of comfort, as though my soul had become suddenly reconciled to an
eternity of blind stillness.

The seaman's instinct alone survived whole in my moral dissolution. I
descended the ladder to the quarter-deck. The starlight seemed to die
out before reaching that spot, but when I asked quietly: "Are you there,
men?" my eyes made out shadow forms starting up around me, very few,
very indistinct; and a voice spoke: "All here, sir." Another amended
anxiously:

"All that are any good for anything, sir."

Both voices were very quiet and unringing; without any special character
of readiness or discouragement. Very matter-of-fact voices.

"We must try to haul this mainsail close up," I said.

The shadows swayed away from me without a word. Those men were the
ghosts of themselves, and their weight on a rope could be no more than
the weight of a bunch of ghosts. Indeed, if ever a sail was hauled up
by sheer spiritual strength it must have been that sail, for, properly
speaking, there was not muscle enough for the task in the whole ship let
alone the miserable lot of us on deck. Of course, I took the lead in the
work myself. They wandered feebly after me from rope to rope, stumbling
and panting. They toiled like Titans. We were half-an-hour at it at
least, and all the time the black universe made no sound. When the last
leech-line was made fast, my eyes, accustomed to the darkness, made
out the shapes of exhausted men drooping over the rails, collapsed on
hatches. One hung over the after-capstan, sobbing for breath, and I
stood amongst them like a tower of strength, impervious to disease and
feeling only the sickness of my soul. I waited for some time fighting
against the weight of my sins, against my sense of unworthiness, and
then I said:

"Now, men, we'll go aft and square the mainyard. That's about all we can
do for the ship; and for the rest she must take her chance."


Joseph Conrad

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