A heavy atmosphere of oppressive quietude pervaded the ship. In the
afternoon men went about washing clothes and hanging them out to dry
in the unprosperous breeze with the meditative languor of disenchanted
philosophers. Very little was said. The problem of life seemed too
voluminous for the narrow limits of human speech, and by common consent
it was abandoned to the great sea that had from the beginning enfolded
it in its immense grip; to the sea that knew all, and would in time
infallibly unveil to each the wisdom hidden in all the errors, the
certitude that lurks in doubts, the realm of safety and peace beyond the
frontiers of sorrow and fear. And in the confused current of impotent
thoughts that set unceasingly this way and that through bodies of men,
Jimmy bobbed up upon the surface, compelling attention, like a black
buoy chained to the bottom of a muddy stream. Falsehood triumphed.
It triumphed through doubt, through stupidity, through pity, through
sentimentalism. We set ourselves to bolster it up from compassion,
from recklessness, from a sense of fun. Jimmy's steadfastness to
his untruthful attitude in the face of the inevitable truth had
the proportions of a colossal enigma--of a manifestation grand and
incomprehensible that at times inspired a wondering awe; and there was
also, to many, something exquisitely droll in fooling him thus to the
top of his bent. The latent egoism of tenderness to suffering
appeared in the developing anxiety not to see him die. His obstinate
non-recognition of the only certitude whose approach we could watch from
day to day was as disquieting as the failure of some law of nature. He
was so utterly wrong about himself that one could not but suspect him of
having access to some source of supernatural knowledge. He was absurd
to the point of inspiration. He was unique, and as fascinating as only
something inhuman could be; he seemed to shout his denials already from
beyond the awful border. He was becoming immaterial like an apparition;
his cheekbones rose, the forehead slanted more; the face was all
hollows, patches of shade; and the fleshless head resembled a
disinterred black skull, fitted with two restless globes of silver in
the sockets of eyes. He was demoralising. Through him we were becoming
highly humanised, tender, complex,' excessively decadent: we understood
the subtlety of his fear, sympathised with all his repulsions,
shrinkings, evasions, delusions--as though we had been over-civilised,
and rotten, and without any knowledge of the meaning of life. We had the
air of being initiated in some infamous mysteries; we had the profound
grimaces of conspirators, exchanged meaning glances, significant short
words. We were inexpressibly vile and very much pleased with ourselves.
We lied to him with gravity, with emotion, with unction, as if
performing some moral trick with a view to an eternal reward. We made a
chorus of affirmation to his wildest assertions, as though he had been
a millionaire, a politician, or a reformer--and we a crowd of ambitious
lubbers. When we ventured to question his statements we did it after
the manner of obsequious sycophants, to the end that his glory should be
augmented by the flattery of our dissent. He influenced the moral tone
of our world as though he had it in his power to distribute honours,
treasures, or pain; and he could give us nothing but his contempt. It
was immense; it seemed to grow gradually larger, as his body day by
day shrank a little more, while we looked. It was the only thing about
him--of him--that gave the impression of durability and vigour. It lived
within him with an unquenchable life. It spoke through the eternal pout
of his black lips; it looked at us through the impertinent mournfulness
of his languid and enormous stare. We watched him intently. He seemed
unwilling to move, as if distrustful of his own solidity. The slightest
gesture must have disclosed to him (it could not surely be otherwise)
his bodily weakness, and caused a pang of mental suffering. He was chary
of movements. He lay stretched out, chin on blanket, in a kind of
sly, cautious immobility. Only his eyes roamed over faces: his eyes
disdainful, penetrating and sad.
It was at that time that Belfast's devotion--and also his
pugnacity--secured universal respect. He spent every moment of his spare
time in Jimmy's cabin. He tended him, talked to him; was as gentle as
a woman, as tenderly gay as an old philanthropist, as sentimentally
careful of his nigger as a model slave-owner. But outside he was
irritable, explosive as gunpowder, sombre, suspicious, and never more
brutal than when most sorrowful. With him it was a tear and a blow:
a tear for Jimmy, a blow for any one who did not seem to take a
scrupulously orthodox view of Jimmy's case. We talked about nothing
else. The two Scandinavians, even, discussed the situation--but it was
impossible to know in what spirit, because they quarrelled in their
own language. Belfast suspected one of them of irreverence, and in this
incertitude thought that there was no option but to fight them both.
They became very much terrified by his truculence, and henceforth
lived amongst us, dejected, like a pair of mutes. Wamibo never spoke
intelligibly, but he was as smileless as an animal--seemed to know much
less about it all than the cat--and consequently was safe. Moreover,
he had belonged to the chosen band of Jimmy's rescuers, and was above
suspicion. Archie was silent generally, but often spent an hour or so
talking to Jimmy quietly with an air of proprietorship. At any time of
the day and often through the night some man could be seen sitting
on Jimmy's box. In the evening, between six and eight, the cabin was
crowded, and there was an interested group at the door. Every one stared
at the nigger.
He basked in the warmth of our interest. His eye gleamed ironically,
and in a weak voice he reproached us with our cowardice. He would say,
"If you fellows had stuck out for me I would be now on deck." We hung
our heads. "Yes, but if you think I am going; to let them put me in
irons just to show you sport.... Well, no.... It ruins my health, this
lying-up, it does. You don't care." We were as abashed as if it had
been true. His superb impudence carried all before it. We would not have
dared to revolt. We didn't want to, really. We wanted to keep him alive
till home--to the end of the voyage.
Singleton as usual held aloof, appearing to scorn the insignificant
events of an ended life. Once only he came along, and unexpectedly
stopped in the doorway. He peered at Jimmy in profound silence, as if
desirous to add that black image to the crowd of Shades that peopled
his old memory. We kept very quiet, and for a long time Singleton stood
there as though he had come by appointment to call for some one, or to
see some important event. James Wait lay perfectly still, and apparently
not aware of the gaze scrutinising him with a steadiness full of
expectation. There was a sense of a contest in the air. We felt the
inward strain of men watching a wrestling bout. At last Jimmy with
perceptible apprehension turned his head on the pillow.--"Good evening,"
he said in a conciliating tone.--"H'm," answered the old seaman,
grumpily. For a moment longer he looked at Jimmy with severe fixity,
then suddenly went away. It was a long time before any one spoke in
the little cabin, though we all breathed more freely as men do after an
escape from some dangerous situation. We all knew the old man's ideas
about Jimmy, and nobody dared to combat them. They were unsettling, they
caused pain; and, what was worse, they might have been true for all
we knew. Only once did he condescend to explain them fully, but the
impression was lasting. He said that Jimmy was the cause of head winds.
Mortally sick men--he maintained--linger till the first sight of land,
and then die; and Jimmy knew that the very first land would draw his
life from him. It is so in every ship. Didn't we know it? He asked
us with austere contempt: what did we know? What would we doubt next?
Jimmy's desire encouraged by us and aided by Wamibo's (he was a
Finn--wasn't he? Very well!) by Wamibo's spells delayed the ship in the
open sea. Only lubberly fools couldn't see it. Whoever heard of ouch
a run of calms and head winds? It wasn't natural.... We could not deny
that it was strange. We felt uneasy. The common saying, "More days, more
dollars," did not give the usual comfort because the stores were running
short. Much had been spoiled off the Cape, and we were on half allowance
of biscuit. Peas, sugar and tea had been finished long ago. Salt meat
was giving out. We had plenty of coffee but very little water to make
it with. We took up another hole in our belts and went on scraping,
polishing, painting the ship from morning to night. And soon she looked
as though she had come out of a band-box; but hunger lived on board of
her. Not dead starvation, but steady, living hunger that stalked about
the decks, slept in the forecastle; the tormentor of waking moments, the
disturber of dreams. We looked to windward for signs of change. Every
few hours of night and day we put her round with the hope that she would
come up on that tack at last! She didn't. She seemed to have forgotten
the way home; she rushed to and fro, heading northwest, heading east;
she ran backwards and forwards, distracted, like a timid creature at
the foot of a wall. Sometimes, as if tired to death, she would wallow
languidly for a day in the smooth swell of an unruffled sea. All up the
swinging masts the sails thrashed furiously through the hot stillness
of the calm. We were weary, hungry, thirsty; we commenced to believe
Singleton, but with unshaken fidelity dissembled to Jimmy. We spoke
to him with jocose allusiveness, like cheerful accomplices in a clever
plot; but we looked to the westward over the rail with longing eyes for
a sign of hope, for a sign of fair wind; even if its first breath should
bring death to our reluctant Jimmy. In vain! The universe conspired
with James Wait. Light airs from the northward sprang up again; the sky
remained clear; and round our weariness the glittering sea, touched by
the breeze, basked voluptuously in the great sunshine, as though it had
forgotten our life and trouble.
Donkin looked out for a fair wind along with the rest. No one knew the
venom of his thoughts now. He was silent, and appeared thinner, as if
consumed slowly by an inward rage at the injustice of men and of fate.
He was ignored by all and spoke to no one, but his hate for every man
dwelt in his furtive eyes. He talked with the cook only, having somehow
persuaded the good man that he--Donkin--was a much calumniated and
persecuted person. Together they bewailed the immorality of the ship's
company. There could be no greater criminals than we, who by our lies
conspired to send the unprepared soul of a poor ignorant black man
to everlasting perdition. Podmore cooked what there was to cook,
remorsefully, and felt all the time that by preparing the food of such
sinners he imperilled his own salvation. As to the Captain--he had
sailed with him for seven years, now, he said, and would not have
believed it possible that such a man... "Well. Well... There it was...
Can't get out of it. Judgment capsized all in a minute... Struck in all
his pride... More like a sudden visitation than anything else." Donkin,
perched sullenly on the coal-locker, swung his legs and concurred. He
paid in the coin of spurious assent for the privilege to sit in the
galley; he was disheartened and scandalised; he agreed with the cook;
could find no words severe enough to criticise our conduct; and when in
the heat of reprobation he swore at us, Podmore, who would have liked to
swear also if it hadn't been for his principles, pretended not to
hear. So Donkin, unrebuked, cursed enough for two, cadged for matches,
borrowed tobacco, and loafed for hours, very much at home, before the
stove. From there he could hear us on the other side of the bulkhead,
talking to Jimmy. The cook knocked the saucepans about, slammed the oven
door, muttered prophesies of damnation for all the ship's company;
and Donkin, who did not admit of any hereafter (except for purposes of
blasphemy) listened, concentrated and angry, gloating fiercely over
a called-up image of infinite torment--as men gloat over the accursed
images of cruelty and revenge, of greed, and of power....
On clear evenings the silent ship, under the cold sheen of the dead
moon, took on a false aspect of passionless repose resembling the winter
of the earth. Under her a long band of gold barred the black disc of
the sea. Footsteps echoed on her quiet decks. The moonlight clung to her
like a frosted mist, and the white sails stood out in dazzling cones
as of stainless snow. In the magnificence of the phantom rays the ship
appeared pure like a vision of ideal beauty, illusive like a tender
dream of serene peace. And nothing in her was real, nothing was distinct
and solid but the heavy shadows that filled her decks with their
unceasing and noiseless stir: the shadows darker than the night and more
restless than the thoughts of men.
Donkin prowled spiteful and alone amongst the shadows, thinking that
Jimmy too long delayed to die. That evening land had been reported from
aloft, and the master, while adjusting the tubes of the long glass, had
observed with quiet bitterness to Mr. Baker that, after fighting our way
inch by inch to the Western Islands, there was nothing to expect now
but a spell of calm. The sky was clear and the barometer high. The light
breeze dropped with the sun, and an enormous stillness, forerunner of
a night without wind, descended upon the heated waters of the ocean.
As long as daylight lasted, the hands collected on the forecastle-head
watched on the eastern sky the island of Flores, that rose above the
level expanse of the sea with irregular and broken outlines like a
sombre ruin upon a vast and deserted plain. It was the first land seen
for nearly four months. Charley was excited, and in the midst of general
indulgence took liberties with his betters. Men strangely elated without
knowing why, talked in groups, and pointed with bared arms. For the
first time that voyage Jimmy's sham existence seemed for a moment
forgotten in the face of a solid reality. We had got so far anyhow.
Belfast discoursed, quoting imaginary examples of short homeward runs
from the Islands. "Them smart fruit schooners do it in five days,"
he affirmed. "What do you want?--only a good little breeze." Archie
maintained that seven days was the record passage, and they disputed
amicably with insulting words. Knowles declared he could already smell
home from there, and with a heavy list on his short leg laughed fit to
split his sides. A group of grizzled sea-dogs looked out for a time in
silence and with grim absorbed faces. One said suddenly--"'Tain't far
to London now."--"My first night ashore, blamme if I haven't steak and
onions for supper... and a pint of bitter," said another.--"A barrel ye
mean," shouted someone.--"Ham an' eggs three times a day. That's the way
I live!" cried an excited voice. There was a stir, appreciative murmurs;
eyes began to shine; jaws champed; short, nervous laughs were heard.
Archie smiled with reserve all to himself. Singleton came up, gave a
careless glance, and went down again without saying a word, indifferent,
like a man who had seen Flores an incalculable number of times. The
night travelling from the East blotted out of the limpid sky the purple
stain of the high land. "Dead calm," said somebody quietly. The murmur
of lively talk suddenly wavered, died out; the clusters broke up; men
began to drift away one by one, descending the ladders slowly and with
serious faces as if sobered by that reminder of their dependence upon
the invisible. And when the big yellow moon ascended gently above
the sharp rim of the clear horizon it found the ship wrapped up in a
breathless silence; a fearless ship that seemed to sleep profoundly,
dreamlessly on the bosom of the sleeping and terrible sea.
Donkin chafed at the peace--at the ship--at the sea that stretching away
on all sides merged into the illimitable silence of all creation. He
felt himself pulled up sharp by unrecognised grievances. He had been
physically cowed, but his injured dignity remained indomitable, and
nothing could heal his lacerated feelings. Here was land already--home
very soon--a bad pay-day--no clothes--more hard work. How offensive all
this was. Land. The land that draws away life from sick sailors. That
nigger there had money--clothes--easy times; and would not die. Land
draws life away.... He felt tempted to go and see whether it did.
Perhaps already.. It would be a bit of luck. There was money in
the beggar's chest. He stepped briskly out of the shadows into the
moonlight, and, instantly, his craving, hungry face from sallow became
livid. He opened the door of the cabin and had a shock. Sure enough,
Jimmy was dead! He moved no more than a recumbent figure with clasped
hands, carved on the lid of a stone coffin. Donkin glared with avidity.
Then Jimmy, without stirring, blinked his eyelids, and Donkin had
another shock. Those eyes were rather startling. He shut the door behind
his back with gentle care, looking intently the while at James Wait
as though he had come in there at a great risk to tell some secret of
startling im-portance. Jimmy did not move but glanced languidly out of
the corners of his eyes.--"Calm?" he asked.--"Yuss," said Donkin, very
disappointed, and sat down on the box.
Jimmy was used to such visits at all times of night of day. Men
succeeded one another. They spoke in clear voices, pronounced cheerful
words, repeated old jokes, listened to him; and each, going out, seemed
to leave behind a little of his own vitality, surrender some of his own
strength, renew the assurance of life--the indestructible thing! He did
not like to be alone in his cabin, because, when he was alone, it seemed
to him as if he hadn't been there at all. There was nothing. No pain.
Not now. Perfectly right--but he couldn't enjoy his healthful repose
unless some one was by to see it. This man would do as well as anybody.
Donkin watched him stealthily:--"Soon home now," observed Wait.--"Vy
d'yer whisper?" asked Donkin with interest, "can't yer speak up?"
Jimmy looked annoyed and said nothing for a while; then in a
lifeless, unringing voice:--"Why should I shout? You ain't deaf that I
know."--"Oh! I can 'ear right enough," answered Donkin in a low tone,
and looked down. He was thinking sadly of going out when Jimmy spoke
again.--"Time we did get home... to get something decent to eat... I am
always hungry." Donkin felt angry all of a sudden.--"What about me,"
he hissed, "I am 'ungry too an' got ter work. You, 'ungry!"--"Your work
won't kill you," commented Wait, feebly; "there's a couple of biscuits
in the lower bunk there--you may have one. I can't eat them." Donkin
dived in, groped in the corner and when he came up again his mouth
was full. He munched with ardour. Jimmy seemed to doze with open eyes.
Donkin finished his hard bread and got up.--"You're not going?" asked
Jimmy, staring at the ceiling.--"No," said Donkin, impulsively, and
instead of going out leaned his back against the closed door. He looked
at James Wait, and saw him long, lean, dried up, as though all his flesh
had shrivelled on his bones in the heat of a white furnace; the meagre
fingers of one hand moved lightly upon the edge of the bunk playing an
endless tune. To look at him was irritating and fatiguing; he could last
like this for days; he was outrageous--belonging wholly neither to death
nor life, and perfectly invulnerable in his apparent ignorance of both.
Donkin felt tempted to enlighten him.--"What are yer thinkin' of?" he
asked, surlily. James Wait had a grimacing smile that passed over the
deathlike impassiveness of his bony face, incredible and frightful as
would, in a dream, have been the sudden smile of a corpse.
"There is a girl," whispered Wait.... "Canton Street girl.------She
chucked a third engineer of a Rennie boat------for me. Cooks
oysters just as I like... She says------she would chuck------any
Donkin could hardly believe his ears. He was scandalised--"Would she?
Yer wouldn't be any good to 'er," he said with unrestrained disgust.
Wait was not there to hear him. He was swaggering up the East India
Dock Road; saying kindly, "Come along for a treat," pushing glass
swing-doors, posing with superb assurance in the gaslight above a
mahogany counter.--"D'yer think yer will ever get ashore?" asked Donkin,
angrily. Wait came back with a start.--"Ten days," he said, promptly,
and returned at once to the regions of memory that know nothing of time.
He felt untired, calm, and safely withdrawn within himself beyond the
reach of every grave incertitude. There was something of the immutable
quality of eternity in the slow moments of his complete rest-fulness. He
was very quiet and easy amongst his vivid reminiscences which he mistook
joyfully for images of an undoubted future. He cared for no one. Donkin
felt this vaguely like a blind man feeling in his darkness the fatal
antagonism of all the surrounding existences, that to him shall for ever
remain irrealisable, unseen and enviable. He had a desire to assert
his importance, to break, to crush; to be even with everybody for
everything; to tear the veil, unmask, expose, leave no refuge--a
perfidious desire of truthfulness! He laughed in a mocking splutter and
"Ten days. Strike me blind if lever!... You will be dead by this time
to-morrow p'r'aps. Ten days!" He waited for a while. "D'ye 'ear me?
Blamme if yer don't look dead already."
Wait must have been collecting his strength, for he said almost
aloud--"You're a stinking, cadging liar. Every one knows you." And
sitting up, against all probability, startled his visitor horribly. But
very soon Donkin recovered himself. He blustered, "What? What? Who's a
liar? You are--the crowd are--the skipper--everybody. I ain't! Putting
on airs! Who's yer?" He nearly choked himself with indignation. "Who's
yer to put on airs," he repeated, trembling. "'Ave one--'ave one, says
'ee--an' cawn't eat 'em 'isself. Now I'll 'ave both. By Gawd--I will!
He plunged into the lower bunk, rooted in there and brought to light
another dusty biscuit. He held it up before Jimmy--then took a bite
"What now?" he asked with feverish impudence. "Yer may take one--says
yer. Why not giv' me both? No. I'm a mangy dorg. One fur a mangy dorg.
I'll tyke both. Can yer stop me? Try. Come on. Try."
Jimmy was clasping his legs and hiding his face on the knees. His shirt
clung to him. Every rib was visible. His emaciated back was shaken in
repeated jerks by the panting catches of his breath.
"Yer won't? Yer can't! What did I say?" went on Donkin, fiercely. He
swallowed another dry mouthful with a hasty effort. The other's silent
helplessness, his weakness, his shrinking attitude exasperated him.
"Ye're done!" he cried. "Who's yer to be lied to; to be waited on 'and
an' foot like a bloomin' ymperor. Yer nobody. Yer no one at all!" he
spluttered with such a strength of unerring conviction that it shook him
from head to foot in coming out, and left him vibrating like a released
James Wait rallied again. He lifted his head and turned bravely at
Donkin, who saw a strange face, an unknown face, a fantastic and
grimacing mask of despair and fury. Its lips moved rapidly; and hollow,
moaning, whistling sounds filled the cabin with a vague mutter full of
menace, complaint and desolation, like the far-off murmur of a
rising wind. Wait shook his head; rolled his eyes; he denied, cursed,
threatened--and not a word had the strength to pass beyond the sorrowful
pout of those black lips. It was incomprehensible and disturbing;
a gibberish of emotions, a frantic dumb show of speech pleading for
impossible things, promising a shadowy vengeance. It sobered Donkin into
a scrutinising watchfulness.
"Yer can't oller. See? What did I tell yer?" he said, slowly, after a
moment of attentive examination. The other kept on headlong and unheard,
nodding passionately, grinning with grotesque and appalling flashes
of big white teeth. Donkin, as if fascinated by the dumb eloquence and
anger of that black phantom, approached, stretching his neck out with
distrustful curiosity; and it seemed to him suddenly that he was looking
only at the shadow of a man crouching high in the bunk on the level with
his eyes.--"What? What?" he said. He seemed to catch the shape of some
words in the continuous panting hiss. "Yer will tell Belfast! Will yer?
Are yer a bloomin' kid?" He trembled with alarm and rage, "Tell yer
gran'mother! Yer afeard! Who's yer ter be afeard more'n any one?" His
passionate sense of his own importance ran away with a last remnant of
caution. "Tell an' be damned! Tell, if yer can!" he cried. "I've been
treated worser'n a dorg by your blooming back-lickers. They 'as set me
on, only to turn aginst me. I am the only man 'ere. They clouted me,
kicked me--an' yer laffed--yer black, rotten incumbrance, you! You will
pay fur it. They giv' yer their grub, their water--yer will pay fur it
to me, by Gawd! Who axed me ter 'ave a drink of water? They put their
bloomin' rags on yer that night, an' what did they giv' ter me--a clout
on the bloomin' mouth--blast their... S'elp me!... Yer will pay fur it
with yer money. I'm goin' ter 'ave it in a minyte; as soon has ye're
dead, yer bloomin' useless fraud. That's the man I am. An' ye're a
thing--a bloody thing. Yah--you corpse!" He flung at Jimmy's head the
biscuit he had been all the time clutching hard, but it only grazed, and
striking with a loud crack the bulkhead beyond burst like a hand-grenade
into flying pieces. James Wait, as if wounded mortally, fell back on the
pillow. His lips ceased to move and the rolling eyes became quiet
and stared upwards with an intense and steady persistence. Donkin was
surprised; he sat suddenly on the chest, and looked down, exhausted
and gloomy. After a moment, he began to mutter to himself, "Die, you
beggar--die. Somebody'll come in... I wish I was drunk... Ten days...
oysters..." He looked up and spoke louder. "No... No more for yer... no
more bloomin' gals that cook oysters... Who's yer? It's my turn now... I
wish I was drunk; I would soon giv' you a leg up. That's where yer bound
to go. Feet fust, through a port... Splash! Never see yer any more.
Overboard! Good 'nuff fur yer." Jimmy's head moved slightly and he
turned his eyes to Donkin's face; a gaze unbelieving, desolated and
appealing, of a child frightened by the menace of being shut up alone
in the dark. Donkin observed him from the chest with hopeful eyes; then,
without rising, tried the lid. Locked. "I wish I was drunk," he muttered
and getting up listened anxiously to the distant sound of footsteps on
the deck. They approached--ceased. Some one yawned interminably just
outside the door, and the footsteps went away shuffling lazily. Donkin's
fluttering heart eased its pace, and when he looked towards the bunk
again Jimmy was staring as before at the white beam.--"'Ow d'yer feel
now?" he asked.--"Bad," breathed out Jimmy.
Donkin sat down patient and purposeful. Every half-hour the bells spoke
to one another ringing along the whole length of the ship. Jimmy's
respiration was so rapid that it couldn't be counted, so faint that it
couldn't be heard. His eyes were terrified as though he had been looking
at unspeakable horrors; and by his face one could see that he was
thinking of abominable things. Suddenly with an incredibly strong and
heartbreaking voice he sobbed out:
"Overboard!... I!... My God!" Donkin writhed a little on the box.
He looked unwillingly. James Wait was mute. His two long bony hands
smoothed the blanket upwards, as though he had wished to gather it all
up under his chin. A tear, a big solitary tear, escaped from the corner
of his eye and, without touching the hollow cheek, fell on the pillow.
His throat rattled faintly.
And Donkin, watching the end of that hateful nigger, felt the anguishing
grasp of a great sorrow on his heart at the thought that he himself,
some day, would have to go through it all--just like this--perhaps! His
eyes became moist. "Poor beggar," he murmured. The night seemed to go
by in a flash; it seemed to him he could hear the irremediable rush of
precious minutes. How long would this blooming affair last? Too long
surely. No luck. He could not restrain himself. He got up and approached
the bunk. Wait did not stir. Only his eyes appeared alive and his
hands continued their smoothing movement with a horrible and tireless
industry. Donkin bent over.
"Jimmy," he called low. There was no answer, but the rattle stopped.
"D'yer see me?" he asked, trembling. Jimmy's chest heaved. Donkin,
looking away, bent his ear to Jimmy's lips, and heard a sound like the
rustle of a single dry leaf driven along the smooth sand of a beach. It
"Light... the lamp... and... go," breathed out Wait.
Donkin, instinctively, glanced over his shoulder at the brilliant flame;
then, still looking away, felt under the pillow for a key. He got it
at once and for the next few minutes remained on his knees shakily but
swiftly busy inside the box. When he got up, his face--for the first
time in his life--had a pink flush--perhaps of triumph.
He slipped the key under the pillow again, avoiding to glance at Jimmy,
who had not moved. He turned his back squarely from the bunk, and
started to the door as though he were going to walk a mile. At his
second stride he had his nose against it. He clutched the handle
cautiously, but at that moment he received the irresistible impression
of something happening behind his back. He spun round as though he had
been tapped on the shoulder. He was just in time to see Wait's eyes
blaze up and go out at once, like two lamps overturned together by a
sweeping blow. Something resembling a scarlet thread hung down his chin
out of the corner of his lips--and he had ceased to breathe.
Donkin closed the door behind him gently but firmly. Sleeping men,
huddled under jackets, made on the lighted deck shapeless dark mounds
that had the appearance of neglected graves. Nothing had been done all
through the night and he hadn't been missed. He stood motionless and
perfectly astounded to find the world outside as he had left it; there
was the sea, the ship--sleeping men; and he wondered absurdly at it, as
though he had expected to find the men dead, familiar things gone for
ever: as though, like a wanderer returning after many years, he had
expected to see bewildering changes. He shuddered a little in the
penetrating freshness of the air, and hugged himself forlornly. The
declining moon drooped sadly in the western board as if withered by
the cold touch of a pale dawn. The ship slept. And the immortal sea
stretched away immense and hazy, like the image of life, with a
glittering surface and lightless depths. Donkin gave it a defiant
glance and slunk off noiselessly as if judged and cast out by the august
silence of its might.
Jimmy's death, after all, came as a tremendous surprise. We did not know
till then how much faith we had put in his delusions. We had taken his
chances of life so much at his own valuation that his death, like the
death of an old belief, shook the foundations of our society. A
common bond was gone; the strong, effective and respectable bond of
a sentimental he. All that day we mooned at our work, with suspicious
looks and a disabused air. In our hearts we thought that in the matter
of his departure Jimmy had acted in a perverse and unfriendly manner.
He didn't back us up, as a shipmate should. In going he took away with
himself the gloomy and solemn shadow in which our folly had posed, with
humane satisfaction, as a tender arbiter of fate. And now we saw it was
no such thing. It was just common foolishness; a silly and ineffectual
meddling with issues of majestic import--that is, if Podmore was right.
Perhaps he was? Doubt survived Jimmy; and, like a community of banded
criminals disintegrated by a touch of grace, we were profoundly
scandalised with each other. Men spoke unkindly to their best chums.
Others refused to speak at all. Singleton only was not surprised.
"Dead--is he? Of course," he said, pointing at the island right abeam:
for the calm still held the ship spell-bound within sight of Flores.
Dead--of course. _He_ wasn't surprised. Here was the land, and there,
on the fore-hatch and waiting for the sailmaker--there was that corpse.
Cause and effect. And for the first time that voyage, the old seaman
became quite cheery and garrulous, explaining and illustrating from the
stores of experience how, in sickness, the sight of an island (even a
very small one) is generally more fatal than the view of a continent.
But he couldn't explain why.
Jimmy was to be buried at five, and it was a long day till then--a day
of mental disquiet and even of physical disturbance. We took no interest
in our work and, very properly, were rebuked for it. This, in our
constant state of hungry irritation, was exasperating. Donkin worked
with his brow bound in a dirty rag, and looked so ghastly that Mr.
Baker was touched with compassion at the sight of this plucky
suffering.--"Ough! You, Donkin! Put down your work and go lay-up this
watch. You look ill."--"I am bad, sir--in my 'ead," he said in a subdued
voice, and vanished speedily. This annoyed many, and they thought the
mate "bloomin' soft to-day." Captain Allistoun could be seen on the poop
watching the sky to the southwest, and it soon got to be known about
the decks that the barometer had begun to fall in the night, and that a
breeze might be expected before long. This, by a subtle association
of ideas, led to violent quarrelling as to the exact moment of Jimmy's
death. Was it before or after "that 'ere glass started down?" It was
impossible to know, and it caused much contemptuous growling at one
another. All of a sudden there was a great tumult forward. Pacific
Knowles and good-tempered Davis had come to blows over it. The watch
below interfered with spirit, and for ten minutes there was a noisy
scrimmage round the hatch, where, in the balancing shade of the sails,
Jimmy's body, wrapped up in a white blanket, was watched over by the
sorrowful Belfast, who, in his desolation, disdained the fray. When the
noise had ceased, and the passions had calmed into surly silence, he
stood up at the head of the swathed body, lifting both arms on
high, cried with pained indignation:--"You ought to be ashamed of
yourselves!..." We were.
Belfast took his bereavement very hard. He gave proofs of
unextinguishable devotion. It was he, and no other man, who would help
the sailmaker to prepare what was left of Jimmy for a solemn surrender
to the insatiable sea. He arranged the weights carefully at the feet:
two holystones, an old anchor-shackle without its pin, some broken links
of a worn-out stream cable. He arranged them this way, then that. "Bless
my soul! you aren't afraid he will chafe his heel?" said the sailmaker,
who hated the job. He pushed the needle, purring furiously, with his
head in a cloud of tobacco smoke; he turned the flaps over, pulled at
the stitches, stretched at the canvas.--"Lift his shoulders.... Pull
to you a bit.... So--o--o. Steady." Belfast obeyed, pulled, lifted,
overcome with sorrow, dropping tears on the tarred twine.--. "Don't
you drag the canvas too taut over his poor face, Sails," he entreated,
tearfully.--"What are you fashing yourself for? He will be comfortable
enough," assured the sailmaker, cutting the thread after the last
stitch, which came about the middle of Jimmy's forehead. He rolled up
the remaining canvas, put away the needles. "What makes you take on so?"
he asked. Belfast looked down at the long package of grey sailcloth.--"I
pulled him out," he whispered, "and he did not want to go. If I had sat
up with him last night he would have kept alive for me... but something
made me tired." The sailmaker took vigorous draws at his pipe and
mumbled:--"When I... West India Station... In the _Blanche_ frigate...
Yellow Jack... sewed in twenty men a week... Portsmouth-Devon-port
men--townies--knew their fathers, mothers, sisters--the whole boiling of
'em. Thought nothing of it. And these niggers like this one--you don't
know where it comes from. Got nobody. No use to nobody. Who will miss
him?"--"I do--I pulled him out," mourned Belfast dismally.
On two planks nailed together and apparently resigned and still under
the folds of the Union Jack with a white border, James Wait, carried
aft by four men, was deposited slowly, with his feet pointing at an open
port. A swell had set in from the westward, and following on the roll of
the ship, the red ensign, at half-mast, darted out and collapsed again
on the grey sky, like a tongue of flickering fire; Charley tolled the
bell; and at every swing to starboard the whole vast semi-circle of
steely waters visible on that side seemed to come up with a rush to the
edge of the port, as if impatient to get at our Jimmy. Every one was
there but Donkin, who was too ill to come; the Captain and Mr. Creighton
stood bareheaded on the break of the poop; Mr. Baker, directed by the
master, who had said to him gravely:--"You know more about the prayer
book than I do," came out of the cabin door quickly and a little
embarrassed. All the caps went off. He began to read in a low tone, and
with his usual harmlessly menacing utterance, as though he had been for
the last time reproving confidentially that dead seaman at his feet. The
men listened in scattered groups; they leaned on the fife rail, gazing
on the deck; they held their chins in their hands thoughtfully, or, with
crossed arms and one knee slightly bent, hung their heads in an attitude
of upright meditation. Wamibo dreamed. Mr. Baker read on, grunting
reverently at the turn of every page. The words, missing the unsteady
hearts of men, rolled out to wander without a home upon the heartless
sea; and James Wait, silenced for ever, lay uncritical and passive under
the hoarse murmur of despair and hopes.
Two men made ready and waited for those words that send so many of our
brothers to their last plunge. Mr. Baker began the passage. "Stand by,"
muttered the boatswain. Mr. Baker read out: "To the deep," and paused.
The men lifted the inboard end of the planks, the boatswain snatched
off the Union Jack, and James Wait did not move.--"Higher," muttered
the boatswain angrily. All the heads were raised; every man stirred
uneasily, but James Wait gave no sign of going. In death and swathed up
for all eternity, he yet seemed to cling to the ship with the grip of
an undying fear. "Higher! Lift!" whispered the boatswain, fiercely.--"He
won't go," stammered one of the men, shakily, and both appeared ready
to drop everything. Mr. Baker waited, burying his face in the book, and
shuffling his feet nervously. All the men looked profoundly disturbed;
from their midst a faint humming noise spread out--growing louder....
"Jimmy!" cried Belfast in a wailing tone, and there was a second of
"Jimmy, be a man!" he shrieked, passionately. Every mouth was wide open,
not an eyelid winked. He stared wildly, twitching all over; he bent
his body forward like a man peering at an horror. "Go!" he shouted, and
sprang out of the crowd with his arm extended. "Go, Jimmy!--Jimmy, go!
Go!" His fingers touched the head of the body, and the grey package
started reluctantly to whizz off the lifted planks all at once, with the
suddenness of a flash of lightning. The crowd stepped forward like one
man; a deep Ah--h--h! came out vibrating from the broad chests. The ship
rolled as if relieved of an unfair burden; the sails flapped. Belfast,
supported by Archie, gasped hysterically; and Charley, who anxious to
see Jimmy's last dive, leaped headlong on the rail, was too late to see
anything but the faint circle of a vanishing ripple.
Mr. Baker, perspiring abundantly, read out the last prayer in a deep
rumour of excited men and fluttering sails. "Amen!" he said in an
unsteady growl, and closed the book.
"Square the yards!" thundered a voice above his head. All hands gave a
jump; one or two dropped their caps; Mr. Baker looked up surprised.
The master, standing on the break of the poop, pointed to the westward.
"Breeze coming," he said, "Man the weather braces." Mr. Baker crammed
the book hurriedly into his pocket. "Forward, there--let go the
foretack!" he hailed joyfully, bareheaded and brisk; "Square the
foreyard, you port-watch!"--"Fair wind--fair wind," muttered the men
going to the braces.--"What did I tell you?" mumbled old Singleton,
flinging down coil after coil with hasty energy; "I knowed it--he's
gone, and here it comes."
It came with the sound of a lofty and powerful sigh. The sails filled,
the ship gathered way, and the waking sea began to murmur sleepily of
home to the ears of men.
That night, while the ship rushed foaming to the Northward before a
freshening gale, the boatswain unbosomed himself to the petty officers'
berth:--"The chap was nothing but trouble," he said, "from the moment
he came aboard--d'ye remember--that night in Bombay? Been bullying all
that softy crowd--cheeked the old man--we had to go fooling all over a
half-drowned ship to save him. Dam' nigh a mutiny all for him--and now
the mate abused me like a pickpocket for forgetting to dab a lump of
grease on them planks. So I did, but you ought to have known better,
too, than to leave a nail sticking up--hey, Chips?"
"And you ought to have known better than to chuck all my tools overboard
for 'im, like a skeary greenhorn," retorted the morose carpenter.
"Well--he's gone after 'em now," he added in an unforgiving tone.--"On
the China Station, I remember once, the Admiral he says to me..." began
A week afterwards the _Narcissus_ entered the chops of the Channel.
Under white wings she skimmed low over the blue sea like a great tired
bird speeding to its nest. The clouds raced with her mastheads; they
rose astern enormous and white, soared to the zenith, flew past, and
falling down the wide curve of the sky, seemed to dash headlong into the
sea--the clouds swifter than the ship, more free, but without a home.
The coast to welcome her stepped out of space into the sunshine. The
lofty headlands trod masterfully into the sea; the wide bays smiled in
the light; the shadows of homeless clouds ran along the sunny plains,
leaped over valleys, without a check darted up the hills, rolled down
the slopes; and the sunshine pursued them with patches of running
brightness. On the brows of dark cliffs white lighthouses shone in
pillars of light. The Channel glittered like a blue mantle shot with
gold and starred by the silver of the capping seas. The _Narcissus_
rushed past the headlands and the bays. Outward-bound vessels crossed
her track, lying over, and with their masts stripped for a slogging
fight with the hard sou'wester. And, inshore, a string of smoking
steamboats waddled, hugging the coast, like migrating and amphibious
monsters, distrustful of the restless waves.
At night the headlands retreated, the bays advanced into one unbroken
line of gloom. The lights of the earth mingled with the lights of
heaven; and above the tossing lanterns of a trawling fleet a great
lighthouse shone steadily, like an enormous riding light burning above
a vessel of fabulous dimensions. Below its steady glow, the coast,
stretching away straight and black, resembled the high side of an
indestructible craft riding motionless upon the immortal and unresting
sea. The dark land lay alone in the midst of waters, like a mighty ship
bestarred with vigilant lights--a ship carrying the burden of millions
of lives--a ship freighted with dross and with jewels, with gold and
with steel. She towered up immense and strong, guarding priceless
traditions and untold suffering, sheltering glorious memories and base
forgetfulness, ignoble virtues and splendid transgressions. A great
ship! For ages had the ocean battered in vain her enduring sides; she
was there when the world was vaster and darker, when the sea was great
and mysterious, and ready to surrender the prize of fame to audacious
men. A ship mother of fleets and nations! The great flagship of the
race; stronger than the storms! and anchored in the open sea.
The _Narcissus_, heeling over to off-shore gusts, rounded the South
Foreland, passed through the Downs, and, in tow, entered the river.
Shorn of the glory of her white wings, she wound obediently after the
tug through the maze of invisible channels. As she passed them the
red-painted light-vessels, swung at their moorings, seemed for an
instant to sail with great speed in the rush of tide, and the next
moment were left hopelessly behind. The big buoys on the tails of banks
slipped past her sides very low, and, dropping in her wake, tugged at
their chains like fierce watchdogs. The reach narrowed; from both sides
the land approached the ship. She went steadily up the river. On the
riverside slopes the houses appeared in groups--seemed to stream down
the declivities at a run to see her pass, and, checked by the mud of the
foreshore, crowded on the banks. Further on, the tall factory chimneys
appeared in insolent bands and watched her go by, like a straggling
crowd of slim giants, swaggering and upright under the black plummets
of smoke, cavalierly aslant. She swept round the bends; an impure breeze
shrieked a welcome between her stripped spars; and the land, closing in,
stepped between the ship and the sea.
A low cloud hung before her--a great opalescent and tremulous cloud,
that seemed to rise from the steaming brows of millions of men. Long
drifts of smoky vapours soiled it with livid trails; it throbbed to the
beat of millions of hearts, and from it came an immense and lamentable
murmur--the murmur of millions of lips praying, cursing, sighing,
jeering--the undying murmur of folly, regret, and hope exhaled by the
crowds of the anxious earth. The _Narcissus_ entered the cloud; the
shadows deepened; on all sides there was the clang of iron, the sound
of mighty blows, shrieks, yells. Black barges drifted stealthily on the
murky stream. A mad jumble of begrimed walls loomed up vaguely in the
smoke, bewildering and mournful, like a vision of disaster. The
tugs backed and filled in the stream, to hold the ship steady at the
dock-gates; from her bows two lines went through the air whistling, and
struck at the land viciously, like a pair of snakes. A bridge broke in
two before her, as if by enchantment; big hydraulic capstans began to
turn all by themselves, as though animated by a mysterious and unholy
spell. She moved through a narrow lane of water between two low walls
of granite, and men with check-ropes in their hands kept pace with her,
walking on the broad flagstones. A group waited impatiently on each side
of the vanished bridge: rough heavy men in caps; sallow-faced men in
high hats; two bareheaded women; ragged children, fascinated, and with
wide eyes. A cart coming at a jerky trot pulled up sharply. One of the
women screamed at the silent ship--"Hallo, Jack!" without looking at
any one in particular, and all hands looked at her from the forecastle
head.--"Stand clear! Stand clear of that rope!" cried the dockmen,
bending over stone posts. The crowd murmured, stamped where they
stood.--"Let go your quarter-checks! Let go!" sang out a ruddy-faced old
man on the quay. The ropes splashed heavily falling in the water, and
the _Narcissus_ entered the dock.
The stony shores ran away right and left in straight lines, enclosing
a sombre and rectangular pool. Brick walls rose high above the
water!--soulless walls, staring through hundreds of windows as troubled
and dull as the eyes of over-fed brutes. At their base monstrous iron
cranes crouched, with chains hanging from their long necks, balancing
cruel-looking hooks over the decks of lifeless ships. A noise of wheels
rolling over stones, the thump of heavy things falling, the racket of
feverish winches, the grinding of strained chains, floated on the air.
Between high buildings the dust of all the continents soared in short
flights; and a penetrating smell of perfumes and dirt, of spices and
hides, of things costly and of things filthy, pervaded the space, made
for it an atmosphere precious and disgusting. The _Narcissus_ came
gently into her berth; the shadows of soulless walls fell upon her, the
dust of all the continents leaped upon her deck, and a swarm of strange
men, clambering up her sides, took possession of her in the name of the
sordid earth. She had ceased to live.
A toff in a black coat and high hat scrambled with agility, came up to
the second mate, shook hands, and said:--"Hallo, Herbert." It was his
brother. A lady appeared suddenly. A real lady, in a black dress and
with a parasol. She looked extremely elegant in the midst of us, and as
strange as if she had fallen there from the sky. Mr. Baker touched his
cap to her. It was the master's wife. And very soon the Captain, dressed
very smartly and in a white shirt, went with her over the side. We
didn't recognise him at all till, turning on the quay, he called to Mr.
Baker:--"Don't forget to wind up the chronometers to-morrow morning."
An underhand lot of seedy-looking chaps with shifty eyes wandered in and
out of the forecastle looking for a job--they said.--"More likely for
something to steal," commented Knowles, cheerfully. Poor beggars. Who
cared? Weren't we home! But Mr. Baker went for one of them who had given
him some cheek, and we were delighted. Everything was delightful.--"I've
finished aft, sir," called out Mr. Creighton.--"No water in the well,
sir," reported for the last time the carpenter, sounding-rod in hand.
Mr. Baker glanced along the decks at the expectant group of sailors,
glanced aloft at the yards.--"Ough! That will do, men," he grunted. The
group broke up. The voyage was ended.
Rolled-up beds went flying over the rail; lashed chests went sliding
down the gangway--mighty few of both at that. "The rest is having a
cruise off the Cape," explained Knowles enigmatically to a dock-loafer
with whom he had struck a sudden friendship. Men ran, calling to one
another, hailing utter strangers to "lend a hand with the dunnage,"
then with sudden decorum approached the mate to shake hands before going
ashore.--"Good-bye, sir," they repeated in various tones. Mr. Baker
grasped hard palms, grunted in a friendly manner at every one, his eyes
twinkled.--"Take care of your money, Knowles. Ough! Soon get a nice wife
if you do." The lame man was delighted.--"Good-bye, sir," said Belfast,
with emotion, wringing the mate's hand, and looked up with swimming
eyes. "I thought I would take 'im ashore with me," he went on,
plaintively. Mr. Baker did not understand, but said kindly:--"Take
care of yourself, Craik," and the bereaved Belfast went over the rail
mourning and alone.
Mr. Baker, in the sudden peace of the ship, moved about solitary and
grunting, trying door-handles, peering into dark places, never done--a
model chief mate! No one waited for him ashore. Mother dead; father and
two brothers, Yarmouth fishermen, drowned together on the Dogger Bank;
sister married and unfriendly. Quite a lady. Married to the leading
tailor of a little town, and its leading politician, who did not think
his sailor brother-in-law quite respectable enough for him. Quite a
lady, quite a lady, he thought, sitting down for a moment's rest on the
quarter-hatch. Time enough to go ashore and get a bite and sup, and a
bed somewhere. He didn't like to part with a ship. No one to think about
then. The darkness of a misty evening fell, cold and damp, upon the
deserted deck; and Mr. Baker sat smoking, thinking of all the successive
ships to whom through many long years he had given the best of a
seaman's care. And never a command in sight. Not once!--"I haven't
somehow the cut of a skipper about me," he meditated, placidly, while
the shipkeeper (who had taken possession of the galley), a wizened
old man with bleared eyes, cursed him in whispers for "hanging about
so."--"Now, Creighton," he pursued the unenvious train of thought,
"quite a gentleman... swell friends... will get on. Fine young fellow...
a little more experience." He got up and shook himself. "I'll be back
first thing to-morrow morning for the hatches. Don't you let them touch
anything before I come, shipkeeper," he called out. Then, at last, he
also went ashore--a model chief mate!
The men scattered by the dissolving contact of the land came together
once more in the shipping office.---"The _Narcissus_ pays off," shouted
outside a glazed door a brass-bound old fellow with a crown and the
capitals B. T. on his cap. A lot trooped in at once but many were late.
The room was large, white-washed, and bare; a counter surmounted by a
brass-wire grating fenced off a third of the dusty space, and behind the
grating a pasty-faced clerk, with his hair parted in the middle, had
the quick, glittering eyes and the vivacious, jerky movements of a caged
bird. Poor Captain Allistoun also in there, and sitting before a little
table with piles of gold and notes on it, appeared subdued by his
captivity. Another Board of Trade bird was perching on a high stool near
the door: an old bird that did not mind the chaff of elated sailors. The
crew of the _Narcissus_, broken up into knots, pushed in the corners.
They had new shore togs, smart jackets that looked as if they had
been shaped with an axe, glossy trousers that seemed made of crumpled
sheet-iron, collarless flannel shirts, shiny new boots. They tapped on
shoulders, button-holed one another, asked:--> "Where did you sleep last
night?" whispered gaily, slapped their thighs with bursts of subdued
laughter. Most had clean, radiant faces; only one or two turned up
dishevelled and sad; the two-young Norwegians looked tidy, meek, and
altogether of a promising material for the kind ladies who patronise
the Scandinavian Home. Wamibo, still in his working clothes, dreamed,
upright and burly in the middle of the room, and, when Archie came in,
woke up for a smile. But the wide-awake clerk called out a name, and the
paying-off business began.
One by one they came up to the pay-table to get the wages of their
glorious and obscure toil. They swept the money with care into broad
palms, rammed it trustfully into trousers' pockets, or, turning their
backs on the table, reckoned with difficulty in the hollow of their
stiff hands.--"Money right? Sign the release. There--there," repeated
the clerk, impatiently. "How stupid those sailors are!" he thought.
Singleton came up, venerable--and uncertain as to daylight; brown
drops of tobacco juice hung in his white beard; his hands, that never
hesitated in the great light of the open sea, could hardly find the
small pile of gold in the profound darkness of the shore. "Can't write?"
said the clerk, shocked. "Make a mark, then." Singleton painfully
sketched in a heavy cross, blotted the page. "What a disgusting old
brute," muttered the clerk. Somebody opened the door for him, and the
patriarchal seaman passed through unsteadily, without as much as a
glance at any of us.
Archie displayed a pocket-book. He was chaffed. Belfast, who looked
wild, as though he had already luffed up through a public-house or two,
gave signs of emotion and wanted to speak to the Captain privately. The
master was surprised. They spoke through the wires, and we could hear
the Captain saying:--"I've given it up to the Board of Trade." "I should
've liked to get something of his," mumbled Belfast. "But you can't,
my man. It's given up, locked and sealed, to the Marine Office,"
expostulated the master; and Belfast stood back, with drooping mouth and
troubled eyes. In a pause of the business we heard the master and the
clerk talking. We caught: "James Wait--deceased--found no papers of
any kind--no relations--no trace--the Office must hold his wages then."
Donkin entered. He seemed out of breath, was grave, full of business.
He went straight to the desk, talked with animation to the clerk, who
thought him an intelligent man. They discussed the account, dropping h's
against one another as if for a wager--very friendly. Captain Allistoun
paid. "I give you a bad discharge," he said, quietly. Donkin raised his
voice:--"I don't want your bloomin' discharge--keep it. I'm goin' ter
'ave a job ashore." He turned to us. "No more bloomin' sea fur me," he
said, aloud. All looked at him. He had better clothes, had an easy air,
appeared more at home than any of us; he stared with assurance, enjoying
the effect of his declaration. "Yuss. I 'ave friends well off. That's
more'n you got. But I am a man. Yer shipmates for all that. Who's comin
fur a drink?"
No one moved. There was a silence; a silence of blank faces and stony
looks. He waited a moment, smiled bitterly, and went to the door. There
he faced round once more. "You won't? You bloomin' lot of yrpocrits. No?
What 'ave I done to yer? Did I bully yer? Did I 'urt yer? Did I?... You
won't drink?... No!... Then may ye die of thirst, every mother's son
of yer! Not one of yer 'as the sperrit of a bug. Ye're the scum of the
world. Work and starve!"
He went out, and slammed the door with such violence that the old Board
of Trade bird nearly fell off his perch.
"He's mad," declared Archie. "No! No! He's drunk," insisted Belfast,
lurching about, and in a maudlin tone. Captain Allistoun sat smiling
thoughtfully at the cleared pay-table.
Outside, on Tower Hill, they blinked, hesitated clumsily, as if blinded
by the strange quality of the hazy light, as if discomposed by the view
of so many men; and they who could hear one another in the howl of gales
seemed deafened and distracted by the dull roar of the busy earth.--"To
the Black Horse! To the Black Horse!" cried some. "Let us have a
drink together before we part." They crossed the road, clinging to one
another. Only Charley and Belfast wandered off alone. As I came up I saw
a red-faced, blowsy woman, in a grey shawl, and with dusty, fluffy hair,
fall on Charley's neck. It was his mother. She slobbered over him:--"O,
my boy! My boy!"--"Leggo of me," said Charley, "Leggo, mother!" I
was passing him at the time, and over the untidy head of the blubbering
woman he gave me a humorous smile and a glance ironic, courageous, and
profound, that seemed to put all my knowledge of life to shame. I nodded
and passed on, but heard him say again, good-naturedly:--"If you leggo
of me this minyt--ye shall 'ave a bob for a drink out of my pay." In
the next few steps I came upon Belfast. He caught my arm with tremulous
enthusiasm.--"I couldn't go wi' 'em," he stammered, indicating by a nod
our noisy crowd, that drifted slowly along the other sidewalk. "When
I think of Jimmy... Poor Jim! When I think of him I have no heart for
drink. You were his chum, too... but I pulled him out... didn't I? Short
wool he had.... Yes. And I stole the blooming pie.... He wouldn't
go.... He wouldn't go for nobody." He burst into tears. "I never touched
him--never--never!" he sobbed. "He went for me like... like ... a lamb."
I disengaged myself gently. Belfast's crying fits generally ended in
a fight with some one, and I wasn't anxious to stand the brunt of
his inconsolable sorrow. Moreover, two bulky policemen stood near by,
looking at us with a disapproving and incorruptible gaze.--"So long!" I
said, and went on my way.
But at the corner I stopped to take my last look at the crew of the
_Narcissus_. They were swaying irresolute and noisy on the broad
flagstones before the Mint. They were bound for the Black Horse, where
men, in fur caps with brutal faces and in shirt sleeves, dispense out
of varnished barrels the illusions of strength, mirth, happiness; the
illusion of splendour and poetry of life, to the paid-off crews of
southern-going ships. From afar I saw them discoursing, with jovial eyes
and clumsy gestures, while the sea of life thundered into their ears
ceaseless and unheeded. And swaying about there on the white stones,
surrounded by the hurry and clamour of men, they appeared to be
creatures of another kind--lost, alone, forgetful, and doomed; they were
like castaways, like reckless and joyous castaways, like mad castaways
making merry in the storm and upon an insecure ledge of a treacherous
rock. The roar of the town resembled the roar of topping breakers,
merciless and strong, with a loud voice and cruel purpose; but overhead
the clouds broke; a flood of sunshine streamed down the walls of grimy
houses. The dark knot of seamen drifted in sunshine. To the left of them
the trees in Tower Gardens sighed, the stones of the Tower gleaming,
seemed to stir in the play of light, as if remembering suddenly all the
great joys and sorrows of the past, the fighting prototypes of these
men; press-gangs; mutinous cries; the wailing of women by the riverside,
and the shouts of men welcoming victories. The sunshine of heaven fell
like a gift of grace on the mud of the earth, on the remembering and
mute stones, on greed, selfishness; on the anxious faces of forgetful
men. And to the right of the dark group the stained front of the Mint,
cleansed by the flood of light, stood out for a moment dazzling and
white like a marble palace in a fairy tale. The crew of the _Narcissus_
drifted out of sight.
I never saw them again. The sea took some, the steamers took others,
the graveyards of the earth will account for the rest. Singleton has
no doubt taken with him the long record of his faithful work into the
peaceful depths of an hospitable sea. And Donkin, who never did a decent
day's work in his life, no doubt earns his living by discoursing with
filthy eloquence upon the right of labour to live. So be it! Let the
earth and the sea each have its own.
A gone shipmate, like any other man, is gone for ever; and I never met
one of them again. But at times the spring-flood of memory sets with
force up the dark River of the Nine Bends. Then on the waters of the
forlorn stream drifts a ship--a shadowy ship manned by a crew of Shades.
They pass and make a sign, in a shadowy hail. Haven't we, together
and upon the immortal sea, wrung out a meaning from our sinful lives?
Good-bye, brothers! You were a good crowd. As good a crowd as ever
fisted with wild cries the beating canvas of a heavy foresail; or
tossing aloft, invisible in the night, gave back yell for yell to a