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Chapter 6

As we all went up it occurred to me that there ought to be a man at the
helm. I raised my voice not much above a whisper, and, noiselessly, an
uncomplaining spirit in a fever-wasted body appeared in the light aft,
the head with hollow eyes illuminated against the blackness which had
swallowed up our world--and the universe. The bared forearm extended
over the upper spokes seemed to shine with a light of its own.

I murmured to that luminous appearance:

"Keep the helm right amidships."

It answered in a tone of patient suffering:

"Right amidships, sir."

Then I descended to the quarter-deck. It was impossible to tell
whence the blow would come. To look round the ship was to look into a
bottomless, black pit. The eye lost itself in inconceivable depths.

I wanted to ascertain whether the ropes had been picked up off the
deck. One could only do that by feeling with one's feet. In my cautious
progress I came against a man in whom I recognized Ransome. He possessed
an unimpaired physical solidity which was manifest to me at the contact.
He was leaning against the quarter-deck capstan and kept silent. It was
like a revelation. He was the collapsed figure sobbing for breath I had
noticed before we went on the poop.

"You have been helping with the mainsail!" I exclaimed in a low tone.

"Yes, sir," sounded his quiet voice.

"Man! What were you thinking of? You mustn't do that sort of thing."

After a pause he assented: "I suppose I mustn't." Then after another
short silence he added: "I am all right now," quickly, between the
tell-tale gasps.

I could neither hear nor see anybody else; but when I spoke up,
answering sad murmurs filled the quarter-deck, and its shadows seemed to
shift here and there. I ordered all the halyards laid down on deck clear
for running.

"I'll see to that, sir," volunteered Ransome in his natural, pleasant
tone, which comforted one and aroused one's compassion, too, somehow.

That man ought to have been in his bed, resting, and my plain duty was
to send him there. But perhaps he would not have obeyed me; I had not
the strength of mind to try. All I said was:

"Go about it quietly, Ransome."

Returning on the poop I approached Gambril. His face, set with hollow
shadows in the light, looked awful, finally silenced. I asked him how he
felt, but hardly expected an answer. Therefore, I was astonished at his
comparative loquacity.

"Them shakes leaves me as weak as a kitten, sir," he said, preserving
finely that air of unconsciousness as to anything but his business a
helmsman should never lose. "And before I can pick up my strength that
there hot fit comes along and knocks me over again."

He sighed. There was no reproach in his tone, but the bare words were
enough to give me a horrible pang of self-reproach. It held me dumb for
a time. When the tormenting sensation had passed off I asked:

"Do you feel strong enough to prevent the rudder taking charge if she
gets sternway on her? It wouldn't do to get something smashed about the
steering-gear now. We've enough difficulties to cope with as it is."

He answered with just a shade of weariness that he was strong enough to
hang on. He could promise me that she shouldn't take the wheel out of
his hands. More he couldn't say.

At that moment Ransome appeared quite close to me, stepping out of the
darkness into visibility suddenly, as if just created with his composed
face and pleasant voice.

Every rope on deck, he said, was laid down clear for running, as far as
one could make certain by feeling. It was impossible to see anything.
Frenchy had stationed himself forward. He said he had a jump or two left
in him yet.

Here a faint smile altered for an instant the clear, firm design
of Ransome's lips. With his serious clear, gray eyes, his serene
temperament--he was a priceless man altogether. Soul as firm as the
muscles of his body.

He was the only man on board (except me, but I had to preserve my
liberty of movement) who had a sufficiency of muscular strength to trust
to. For a moment I thought I had better ask him to take the wheel. But
the dreadful knowledge of the enemy he had to carry about him made me
hesitate. In my ignorance of physiology it occurred to me that he might
die suddenly, from excitement, at a critical moment.

While this gruesome fear restrained the ready words on the tip of my
tongue, Ransome stepped back two paces and vanished from my sight.

At once an uneasiness possessed me, as if some support had been
withdrawn. I moved forward, too, outside the circle of light, into
the darkness that stood in front of me like a wall. In one stride I
penetrated it. Such must have been the darkness before creation. It had
closed behind me. I knew I was invisible to the man at the helm. Neither
could I see anything. He was alone, I was alone, every man was alone
where he stood. And every form was gone, too, spar, sail, fittings,
rails; everything was blotted out in the dreadful smoothness of that
absolute night.

A flash of lightning would have been a relief--I mean physically. I
would have prayed for it if it hadn't been for my shrinking apprehension
of the thunder. In the tension of silence I was suffering from it seemed
to me that the first crash must turn me into dust.

And thunder was, most likely, what would happen next. Stiff all over and
hardly breathing, I waited with a horribly strained expectation. Nothing
happened. It was maddening, but a dull, growing ache in the lower part
of my face made me aware that I had been grinding my teeth madly enough,
for God knows how long.

It's extraordinary I should not have heard myself doing it; but I
hadn't. By an effort which absorbed all my faculties I managed to keep
my jaw still. It required much attention, and while thus engaged I
became bothered by curious, irregular sounds of faint tapping on the
deck. They could be heard single, in pairs, in groups. While I wondered
at this mysterious devilry, I received a slight blow under the left
eye and felt an enormous tear run down my cheek. Raindrops. Enormous.
Forerunners of something. Tap. Tap. Tap. . . .

I turned about, and, addressing Gambrel earnestly, entreated him to
"hang on to the wheel." But I could hardly speak from emotion. The
fatal moment had come. I held my breath. The tapping had stopped
as unexpectedly as it had begun, and there was a renewed moment of
intolerable suspense; something like an additional turn of the racking
screw. I don't suppose I would have ever screamed, but I remember my
conviction that there was nothing else for it but to scream.

Suddenly--how am I to convey it? Well, suddenly the darkness turned into
water. This is the only suitable figure. A heavy shower, a downpour,
comes along, making a noise. You hear its approach on the sea, in the
air, too, I verily believe. But this was different. With no preliminary
whisper or rustle, without a splash, and even without the ghost
of impact, I became instantaneously soaked to the skin. Not a very
difficult matter, since I was wearing only my sleeping suit. My hair
got full of water in an instant, water streamed on my skin, it filled
my nose, my ears, my eyes. In a fraction of a second I swallowed quite a
lot of it.

As to Gambril, he was fairly choked. He coughed pitifully, the broken
cough of a sick man; and I beheld him as one sees a fish in an aquarium
by the light of an electric bulb, an elusive, phosphorescent shape. Only
he did not glide away. But something else happened. Both binnaclelamps
went out. I suppose the water forced itself into them, though I wouldn't
have thought that possible, for they fitted into the cowl perfectly.

The last gleam of light in the universe had gone, pursued by a low
exclamation of dismay from Gambril. I groped for him and seized his arm.
How startlingly wasted it was.

"Never mind," I said. "You don't want the light. All you need to do
is to keep the wind, when it comes, at the back of your head. You

"Aye, aye, sir. . . . But I should like to have a light," he added

All that time the ship lay as steady as a rock. The noise of the water
pouring off the sails and spars, flowing over the break of the poop, had
stopped short. The poop scuppers gurgled and sobbed for a little
while longer, and then perfect silence, joined to perfect immobility,
proclaimed the yet unbroken spell of our helplessness, poised on the
edge of some violent issue, lurking in the dark.

I started forward restlessly. I did not need my sight to pace the poop
of my ill-starred first command with perfect assurance. Every square
foot of her decks was impressed indelibly on my brain, to the very
grain and knots of the planks. Yet, all of a sudden, I fell clean over
something, landing full length on my hands and face.

It was something big and alive. Not a dog--more like a sheep, rather. But
there were no animals in the ship. How could an animal. . . . It was an
added and fantastic horror which I could not resist. The hair of my
head stirred even as I picked myself up, awfully scared; not as a man
is scared while his judgment, his reason still try to resist, but
completely, boundlessly, and, as it were, innocently scared--like a
little child.

I could see It--that Thing! The darkness, of which so much had just
turned into water, had thinned down a little. There It was! But I did
not hit upon the notion of Mr. Burns issuing out of the companion on all
fours till he attempted to stand up, and even then the idea of a bear
crossed my mind first.

He growled like one when I seized him round the body. He had buttoned
himself up into an enormous winter overcoat of some woolly material, the
weight of which was too much for his reduced state. I could hardly feel
the incredibly thin lath of his body, lost within the thick stuff, but
his growl had depth and substance: Confounded dump ship with a craven,
tiptoeing crowd. Why couldn't they stamp and go with a brace? Wasn't
there one Godforsaken lubber in the lot fit to raise a yell on a rope?

"Skulking's no good, sir," he attacked me directly. "You can't slink
past the old murderous ruffian. It isn't the way. You must go for him
boldly--as I did. Boldness is what you want. Show him that you don't
care for any of his damned tricks. Kick up a jolly old row."

"Good God, Mr. Burns," I said angrily. "What on earth are you up to?
What do you mean by coming up on deck in this state?"

"Just that! Boldness. The only way to scare the old bullying rascal."

I pushed him, still growling, against the rail. "Hold on to it," I said
roughly. I did not know what to do with him. I left him in a hurry, to
go to Gambril, who had called faintly that he believed there was some
wind aloft. Indeed, my own ears had caught a feeble flutter of wet
canvas, high up overhead, the jingle of a slack chain sheet. . . .

These were eerie, disturbing, alarming sounds in the dead stillness
of the air around me. All the instances I had heard of topmasts being
whipped out of a ship while there was not wind enough on her deck to
blow out a match rushed into my memory.

"I can't see the upper sails, sir," declared Gambril shakily.

"Don't move the helm. You'll be all right," I said confidently.

The poor man's nerves were gone. Mine were not in much better case.
It was the moment of breaking strain and was relieved by the abrupt
sensation of the ship moving forward as if of herself under my feet.
I heard plainly the soughing of the wind aloft, the low cracks of
the upper spars taking the strain, long before I could feel the least
draught on my face turned aft, anxious and sightless like the face of a
blind man.

Suddenly a louder-sounding note filled our ears, the darkness started
streaming against our bodies, chilling them exceedingly. Both of us,
Gambril and I, shivered violently in our clinging, soaked garments of
thin cotton. I said to him:

"You are all right now, my man. All you've got to do is to keep the wind
at the back of your head. Surely you are up to that. A child could steer
this ship in smooth water."

He muttered: "Aye! A healthy child." And I felt ashamed of having been
passed over by the fever which had been preying on every man's strength
but mine, in order that my remorse might be the more bitter, the feeling
of unworthiness more poignant, and the sense of responsibility heavier
to bear.

The ship had gathered great way on her almost at once on the calm water.
I felt her slipping through it with no other noise but a mysterious
rustle alongside. Otherwise, she had no motion at all, neither lift nor
roll. It was a disheartening steadiness which had lasted for eighteen
days now; for never, never had we had wind enough in that time to raise
the slightest run of the sea. The breeze freshened suddenly. I thought
it was high time to get Mr. Burns off the deck. He worried me. I looked
upon him as a lunatic who would be very likely to start roaming over the
ship and break a limb or fall overboard.

I was truly glad to find he had remained holding on where I had left
him, sensibly enough. He was, however, muttering to himself ominously.

This was discouraging. I remarked in a matter-of-fact tone:

"We have never had so much wind as this since we left the roads."

"There's some heart in it, too," he growled judiciously. It was a remark
of a perfectly sane seaman. But he added immediately: "It was about time
I should come on deck. I've been nursing my strength for this--just for
this. Do you see it, sir?"

I said I did, and proceeded to hint that it would be advisable for him
to go below now and take a rest.

His answer was an indignant "Go below! Not if I know it, sir."

Very cheerful! He was a horrible nuisance. And all at once he started to
argue. I could feel his crazy excitement in the dark.

"You don't know how to go about it, sir. How could you? All this
whispering and tiptoeing is no good. You can't hope to slink past a
cunning, wide-awake, evil brute like he was. You never heard him talk.
Enough to make your hair stand on end. No! No! He wasn't mad. He was
no more mad than I am. He was just downright wicked. Wicked so as to
frighten most people. I will tell you what he was. He was nothing
less than a thief and a murderer at heart. And do you think he's any
different now because he's dead? Not he! His carcass lies a hundred
fathom under, but he's just the same . . . in latitude 8 d 20' north."

He snorted defiantly. I noted with weary resignation that the breeze had
got lighter while he raved. He was at it again.

"I ought to have thrown the beggar out of the ship over the rail like a
dog. It was only on account of the men. . . . Fancy having to read the
Burial Service over a brute like that! . . . 'Our departed brother' . . .
I could have laughed. That was what he couldn't bear. I suppose I am
the only man that ever stood up to laugh at him. When he got sick it
used to scare that . . . brother. . . . Brother. . . . Departed. . . .
Sooner call a shark brother."

The breeze had let go so suddenly that the way of the ship brought the
wet sails heavily against the mast. The spell of deadly stillness had
caught us up again. There seemed to be no escape.

"Hallo!" exclaimed Mr. Burns in a startled voice. "Calm again!"

I addressed him as though he had been sane.

"This is the sort of thing we've been having for seventeen days, Mr.
Burns," I said with intense bitterness. "A puff, then a calm, and in a
moment, you'll see, she'll be swinging on her heel with her head away
from her course to the devil somewhere."

He caught at the word. "The old dodging Devil," he screamed piercingly
and burst into such a loud laugh as I had never heard before. It was a
provoking, mocking peal, with a hair-raising, screeching over-note of
defiance. I stepped back, utterly confounded.

Instantly there was a stir on the quarter-deck; murmurs of dismay. A
distressed voice cried out in the dark below us: "Who's that gone crazy,

Perhaps they thought it was their captain? Rush is not the word that
could be applied to the utmost speed the poor fellows were up to; but
in an amazing short time every man in the ship able to walk upright had
found his way on to that poop.

I shouted to them: "It's the mate. Lay hold of him a couple of
you. . . ."

I expected this performance to end in a ghastly sort of fight. But
Mr. Burns cut his derisive screeching dead short and turned upon them
fiercely, yelling:

"Aha! Dog-gone ye! You've found your tongues--have ye? I thought
you were dumb. Well, then--laugh! Laugh--I tell you. Now then--all
together. One, two, three--laugh!"

A moment of silence ensued, of silence so profound that you could have
heard a pin drop on the deck. Then Ransome's unperturbed voice uttered
pleasantly the words:

"I think he has fainted, sir--" The little motionless knot of men
stirred, with low murmurs of relief. "I've got him under the arms. Get
hold of his legs, some one."

Yes. It was a relief. He was silenced for a time--for a time. I could
not have stood another peal of that insane screeching. I was sure of it;
and just then Gambril, the austere Gambril, treated us to another vocal
performance. He began to sing out for relief. His voice wailed pitifully
in the darkness: "Come aft somebody! I can't stand this. Here she'll be
off again directly and I can't. . . ."

I dashed aft myself meeting on my way a hard gust of wind whose approach
Gambril's ear had detected from afar and which filled the sails on the
main in a series of muffled reports mingled with the low plaint of
the spars. I was just in time to seize the wheel while Frenchy who had
followed me caught up the collapsing Gambril. He hauled him out of the
way, admonished him to lie still where he was, and then stepped up to
relieve me, asking calmly:

"How am I to steer her, sir?"

"Dead before it for the present. I'll get you a light in a moment."

But going forward I met Ransome bringing up the spare binnacle lamp.
That man noticed everything, attended to everything, shed comfort around
him as he moved. As he passed me he remarked in a soothing tone that
the stars were coming out. They were. The breeze was sweeping clear the
sooty sky, breaking through the indolent silence of the sea.

The barrier of awful stillness which had encompassed us for so many days
as though we had been accursed, was broken. I felt that. I let myself
fall on to the skylight seat. A faint white ridge of foam, thin, very
thin, broke alongside. The first for ages--for ages. I could have
cheered, if it hadn't been for the sense of guilt which clung to all my
thoughts secretly. Ransome stood before me.

"What about the mate," I asked anxiously. "Still unconscious?"

"Well, sir--it's funny," Ransome was evidently puzzled. "He hasn't
spoken a word, and his eyes are shut. But it looks to me more like sound
sleep than anything else."

I accepted this view as the least troublesome of any, or at any rate,
least disturbing. Dead faint or deep slumber, Mr. Burns had to be left
to himself for the present. Ransome remarked suddenly:

"I believe you want a coat, sir."

"I believe I do," I sighed out.

But I did not move. What I felt I wanted were new limbs. My arms and
legs seemed utterly useless, fairly worn out. They didn't even ache. But
I stood up all the same to put on the coat when Ransome brought it up.
And when he suggested that he had better now "take Gambril forward," I

"All right. I'll help you to get him down on the main deck."

I found that I was quite able to help, too. We raised Gambril up between
us. He tried to help himself along like a man but all the time he was
inquiring piteously:

"You won't let me go when we come to the ladder? You won't let me go
when we come to the ladder?"

* * * * * * *

The breeze kept on freshening and blew true, true to a hair. At daylight
by careful manipulation of the helm we got the foreyards to run square
by themselves (the water keeping smooth) and then went about hauling
the ropes tight. Of the four men I had with me at night, I could see now
only two. I didn't inquire as to the others. They had given in. For a
time only I hoped.

Our various tasks forward occupied us for hours, the two men with me
moved so slow and had to rest so often. One of them remarked that "every
blamed thing in the ship felt about a hundred times heavier than its
proper weight." This was the only complaint uttered. I don't know what
we should have done without Ransome. He worked with us, silent, too,
with a little smile frozen on his lips. From time to time I murmured to
him: "Go steady"--"Take it easy, Ransome"--and received a quick glance
in reply.

When we had done all we could do to make things safe, he disappeared
into his galley. Some time afterward, going forward for a look round, I
caught sight of him through the open door. He sat upright on the locker
in front of the stove, with his head leaning back against the bulkhead.
His eyes were closed; his capable hands held open the front of his
thin cotton shirt baring tragically his powerful chest, which heaved in
painful and laboured gasps. He didn't hear me.

I retreated quietly and went straight on to the poop to relieve Frenchy,
who by that time was beginning to look very sick. He gave me the course
with great formality and tried to go off with a jaunty step, but reeled
widely twice before getting out of my sight.

And then I remained all alone aft, steering my ship, which ran before
the wind with a buoyant lift now and then, and even rolling a little.
Presently Ransome appeared before me with a tray. The sight of food made
me ravenous all at once. He took the wheel while I sat down of the after
grating to eat my breakfast.

"This breeze seems to have done for our crowd," he murmured. "It just
laid them low--all hands."

"Yes," I said. "I suppose you and I are the only two fit men in the

"Frenchy says there's still a jump left in him. I don't know. It can't
be much," continued Ransome with his wistful smile. "Good little man
that. But suppose, sir, that this wind flies round when we are close to
the land--what are we going to do with her?"

"If the wind shifts round heavily after we close in with the land she
will either run ashore or get dismasted or both. We won't be able to do
anything with her. She's running away with us now. All we can do is to
steer her. She's a ship without a crew."

"Yes. All laid low," repeated Ransome quietly. "I do give them a look-in
forward every now and then, but it's precious little I can do for them."

"I, and the ship, and every one on board of her, are very much indebted
to you, Ransome," I said warmly.

He made as though he had not heard me, and steered in silence till I was
ready to relieve him. He surrendered the wheel, picked up the tray, and
for a parting shot informed me that Mr. Burns was awake and seemed to
have a mind to come up on deck.

"I don't know how to prevent him, sir. I can't very well stop down below
all the time."

It was clear that he couldn't. And sure enough Mr. Burns came on deck
dragging himself painfully aft in his enormous overcoat. I beheld him
with a natural dread. To have him around and raving about the wiles of
a dead man while I had to steer a wildly rushing ship full of dying men
was a rather dreadful prospect.

But his first remarks were quite sensible in meaning and tone.
Apparently he had no recollection of the night scene. And if he had he
didn't betray himself once. Neither did he talk very much. He sat on
the skylight looking desperately ill at first, but that strong breeze,
before which the last remnant of my crew had wilted down, seemed to blow
a fresh stock of vigour into his frame with every gust. One could almost
see the process.

By way of sanity test I alluded on purpose to the late captain. I was
delighted to find that Mr. Burns did not display undue interest in the
subject. He ran over the old tale of that savage ruffian's iniquities
with a certain vindictive gusto and then concluded unexpectedly:

"I do believe, sir, that his brain began to go a year or more before he

A wonderful recovery. I could hardly spare it as much admiration as it
deserved, for I had to give all my mind to the steering.

In comparison with the hopeless languour of the preceding days this was
dizzy speed. Two ridges of foam streamed from the ship's bows; the wind
sang in a strenuous note which under other circumstances would have
expressed to me all the joy of life. Whenever the hauled-up mainsail
started trying to slat and bang itself to pieces in its gear, Mr. Burns
would look at me apprehensively.

"What would you have me to do, Mr. Burns? We can neither furl it nor set
it. I only wish the old thing would thrash itself to pieces and be done
with it. That beastly racket confuses me."

Mr. Burns wrung his hands, and cried out suddenly:

"How will you get the ship into harbour, sir, without men to handle

And I couldn't tell him.

Well--it did get done about forty hours afterward. By the exorcising
virtue of Mr. Burns' awful laugh, the malicious spectre had been laid,
the evil spell broken, the curse removed. We were now in the hands of a
kind and energetic Providence. It was rushing us on. . . .

I shall never forget the last night, dark, windy, and starry. I steered.
Mr. Burns, after having obtained from me a solemn promise to give him
a kick if anything happened, went frankly to sleep on the deck close
to the binnacle. Convalescents need sleep. Ransome, his back propped
against the mizzen-mast and a blanket over his legs, remained perfectly
still, but I don't suppose he closed his eyes for a moment. That
embodiment of jauntiness, Frenchy, still under the delusion that there
was a "jump" left in him, had insisted on joining us; but mindful of
discipline, had laid himself down as far on the forepart of the poop as
he could get, alongside the bucket-rack.

And I steered, too tired for anxiety, too tired for connected thought.
I had moments of grim exultation and then my heart would sink awfully at
the thought of that forecastle at the other end of the dark deck, full
of fever-stricken men--some of them dying. By my fault. But never mind.
Remorse must wait. I had to steer.

In the small hours the breeze weakened, then failed altogether. About
five it returned, gentle enough, enabling us to head for the roadstead.
Daybreak found Mr. Burns sitting wedged up with coils of rope on the
stern-grating, and from the depths of his overcoat steering the ship
with very white bony hands; while Ransome and I rushed along the decks
letting go all the sheets and halliards by the run. We dashed next up on
to the forecastle head. The perspiration of labour and sheer nervousness
simply poured off our heads as we toiled to get the anchors cock-billed.
I dared not look at Ransome as we worked side by side. We exchanged curt
words; I could hear him panting close to me and I avoided turning my
eyes his way for fear of seeing him fall down and expire in the act of
putting forth his strength--for what? Indeed for some distinct ideal.

The consummate seaman in him was aroused. He needed no directions. He
knew what to do. Every effort, every movement was an act of consistent
heroism. It was not for me to look at a man thus inspired.

At last all was ready and I heard him say:

"Hadn't I better go down and open the compressors now, sir?"

"Yes. Do," I said.

And even then I did not glance his way. After a time his voice came up
from the main deck.

"When you like, sir. All clear on the windlass here."

I made a sign to Mr. Burns to put the helm down and let both anchors go
one after another, leaving the ship to take as much cable as she wanted.
She took the best part of them both before she brought up. The loose
sails coming aback ceased their maddening racket above my head. A
perfect stillness reigned in the ship. And while I stood forward feeling
a little giddy in that sudden peace, I caught faintly a moan or two and
the incoherent mutterings of the sick in the forecastle.

As we had a signal for medical assistance flying on the mizzen it is a
fact that before the ship was fairly at rest three steam launches from
various men-of-war were alongside; and at least five naval surgeons had
clambered on board. They stood in a knot gazing up and down the empty
main deck, then looked aloft--where not a man could be seen, either.

I went toward them--a solitary figure, in a blue and gray striped
sleeping suit and a pipe-clayed cork helmet on its head. Their disgust
was extreme. They had expected surgical cases. Each one had brought
his carving tools with him. But they soon got over their little
disappointment. In less than five minutes one of the steam launches was
rushing shoreward to order a big boat and some hospital people for the
removal of the crew. The big steam pinnace went off to her ship to bring
over a few bluejackets to furl my sails for me.

One of the surgeons had remained on board. He came out of the forecastle
looking impenetrable, and noticed my inquiring gaze.

"There's nobody dead in there, if that's what you want to know," he said
deliberately. Then added in a tone of wonder: "The whole crew!"

"And very bad?"

"And very bad," he repeated. His eyes were roaming all over the ship.
"Heavens! What's that?"

"That," I said, glancing aft, "is Mr. Burns, my chief officer."

Mr. Burns with his moribund head nodding on the stalk of his lean neck
was a sight for any one to exclaim at. The surgeon asked:

"Is he going to the hospital, too?"

"Oh, no," I said jocosely. "Mr. Burns can't go on shore till the
mainmast goes. I am very proud of him. He's my only convalescent."

"You look--" began the doctor staring at me. But I interrupted him

"I am not ill."

"No. . . . You look queer."

"Well, you see, I have been seventeen days on deck."

"Seventeen! . . . But you must have slept."

"I suppose I must have. I don't know. But I'm certain that I didn't
sleep for the last forty hours."

"Phew! . . . You will be going ashore presently I suppose?"

"As soon as ever I can. There's no end of business waiting for me

The surgeon released my hand, which he had taken while we talked, pulled
out his pocket-book, wrote in it rapidly, tore out the page and offered
it to me.

"I strongly advise you to get this prescription made up for yourself
ashore. Unless I am much mistaken you will need it this evening."

"What is it, then?" I asked with suspicion.

"Sleeping draught," answered the surgeon curtly; and moving with an air
of interest toward Mr. Burns he engaged him in conversation.

As I went below to dress to go ashore, Ransome followed me. He begged my
pardon; he wished, too, to be sent ashore and paid off.

I looked at him in surprise. He was waiting for my answer with an air of

"You don't mean to leave the ship!" I cried out.

"I do really, sir. I want to go and be quiet somewhere. Anywhere. The
hospital will do."

"But, Ransome," I said. "I hate the idea of parting with you."

"I must go," he broke in. "I have a right!" . . . He gasped and a look
of almost savage determination passed over his face. For an instant he
was another being. And I saw under the worth and the comeliness of
the man the humble reality of things. Life was a boon to him--this
precarious hard life, and he was thoroughly alarmed about himself.

"Of course I shall pay you off if you wish it," I hastened to say. "Only
I must ask you to remain on board till this afternoon. I can't leave Mr.
Burns absolutely by himself in the ship for hours."

He softened at once and assured me with a smile and in his natural
pleasant voice that he understood that very well.

When I returned on deck everything was ready for the removal of the
men. It was the last ordeal of that episode which had been maturing and
tempering my character--though I did not know it.

It was awful. They passed under my eyes one after another--each of them
an embodied reproach of the bitterest kind, till I felt a sort of revolt
wake up in me. Poor Frenchy had gone suddenly under. He was carried
past me insensible, his comic face horribly flushed and as if swollen,
breathing stertorously. He looked more like Mr. Punch than ever; a
disgracefully intoxicated Mr. Punch.

The austere Gambril, on the contrary, had improved temporarily.
He insisted on walking on his own feet to the rail--of course with
assistance on each side of him. But he gave way to a sudden panic at the
moment of being swung over the side and began to wail pitifully:

"Don't let them drop me, sir. Don't let them drop me, sir!" While I kept
on shouting to him in most soothing accents: "All right, Gambril. They
won't! They won't!"

It was no doubt very ridiculous. The bluejackets on our deck were
grinning quietly, while even Ransome himself (much to the fore in
lending a hand) had to enlarge his wistful smile for a fleeting moment.

I left for the shore in the steam pinnace, and on looking back beheld
Mr. Burns actually standing up by the taffrail, still in his enormous
woolly overcoat. The bright sunlight brought out his weirdness
amazingly. He looked like a frightful and elaborate scarecrow set up on
the poop of a death-stricken ship, set up to keep the seabirds from the

Our story had got about already in town and everybody on shore was most
kind. The Marine Office let me off the port dues, and as there happened
to be a shipwrecked crew staying in the Home I had no difficulty in
obtaining as many men as I wanted. But when I inquired if I could
see Captain Ellis for a moment I was told in accents of pity for my
ignorance that our deputy-Neptune had retired and gone home on a
pension about three weeks after I left the port. So I suppose that my
appointment was the last act, outside the daily routine, of his official

It is strange how on coming ashore I was struck by the springy step,
the lively eyes, the strong vitality of every one I met. It impressed me
enormously. And amongst those I met there was Captain Giles, of course.
It would have been very extraordinary if I had not met him. A prolonged
stroll in the business part of the town was the regular employment of
all his mornings when he was ashore.

I caught the glitter of the gold watch-chain across his chest ever so
far away. He radiated benevolence.

"What is it I hear?" he queried with a "kind uncle" smile, after shaking
hands. "Twenty-one days from Bangkok?"

"Is this all you've heard?" I said. "You must come to tiffin with me. I
want you to know exactly what you have let me in for."

He hesitated for almost a minute.

"Well--I will," he said condescendingly at last.

We turned into the hotel. I found to my surprise that I could eat quite
a lot. Then over the cleared table-cloth I unfolded to Captain Giles
the history of these twenty days in all its professional and emotional
aspects, while he smoked patiently the big cigar I had given him.

Then he observed sagely:

"You must feel jolly well tired by this time."

"No," I said. "Not tired. But I'll tell you, Captain Giles, how I feel.
I feel old. And I must be. All of you on shore look to me just a lot of
skittish youngsters that have never known a care in the world."

He didn't smile. He looked insufferably exemplary. He declared:

"That will pass. But you do look older--it's a fact."

"Aha!" I said.

"No! No! The truth is that one must not make too much of anything in
life, good or bad."

"Live at half-speed," I murmured perversely. "Not everybody can do

"You'll be glad enough presently if you can keep going even at that
rate," he retorted with his air of conscious virtue. "And there's
another thing: a man should stand up to his bad luck, to his mistakes,
to his conscience and all that sort of thing. Why--what else would you
have to fight against."

I kept silent. I don't know what he saw in my face but he asked

"Why--you aren't faint-hearted?"

"God only knows, Captain Giles," was my sincere answer.

"That's all right," he said calmly. "You will learn soon how not to be
faint-hearted. A man has got to learn everything--and that's what so
many of them youngsters don't understand."

"Well, I am no longer a youngster."

"No," he conceded. "Are you leaving soon?"

"I am going on board directly," I said. "I shall pick up one of my
anchors and heave in to half-cable on the other directly my new crew
comes on board and I shall be off at daylight to-morrow!"

"You will," grunted Captain Giles approvingly, "that's the way. You'll

"What did you think? That I would want to take a week ashore for a
rest?" I said, irritated by his tone. "There's no rest for me till she's
out in the Indian Ocean and not much of it even then."

He puffed at his cigar moodily, as if transformed.

"Yes. That's what it amounts to," he said in a musing tone. It was as
if a ponderous curtain had rolled up disclosing an unexpected Captain
Giles. But it was only for a moment, just the time to let him add,
"Precious little rest in life for anybody. Better not think of it."

We rose, left the hotel, and parted from each other in the street with
a warm handshake, just as he began to interest me for the first time in
our intercourse.

The first thing I saw when I got back to the ship was Ransome on the
quarter-deck sitting quietly on his neatly lashed sea-chest.

I beckoned him to follow me into the saloon where I sat down to write a
letter of recommendation for him to a man I knew on shore.

When finished I pushed it across the table. "It may be of some good to
you when you leave the hospital."

He took it, put it in his pocket. His eyes were looking away from
me--nowhere. His face was anxiously set.

"How are you feeling now?" I asked.

"I don't feel bad now, sir," he answered stiffly. "But I am afraid of
its coming on. . . ." The wistful smile came back on his lips for a
moment. "I--I am in a blue funk about my heart, sir."

I approached him with extended hand. His eyes not looking at me had a
strained expression. He was like a man listening for a warning call.

"Won't you shake hands, Ransome?" I said gently.

He exclaimed, flushed up dusky red, gave my hand a hard wrench--and
next moment, left alone in the cabin, I listened to him going up the
companion stairs cautiously, step by step, in mortal fear of starting
into sudden anger our common enemy it was his hard fate to carry
consciously within his faithful breast.


Joseph Conrad

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