The Shadow Line
Part 2 out of 3
"I hope you don't expect any supper," he burst
out. "This isn't a boarding-house afloat. You are
the first passenger I ever had in my life and I hope
to goodness you will be the last."
I made no answer to this hospitable communi-
cation; and, indeed, he didn't wait for any, bolting
away on to his bridge to get his ship under way.
For the three days he had me on board he did not
depart from that half-hostile attitude. His ship
having been delayed three hours on my account he
couldn't forgive me for not being a more distin-
guished person. He was not exactly outspoken
about it, but that feeling of annoyed wonder was
peeping out perpetually in his talk.
He was absurd.
He was also a man of much experience, which he
liked to trot out; but no greater contrast with Cap-
tain Giles could have been imagined. He would
have amused me if I had wanted to be amused.
But I did not want to be amused. I was like a
lover looking forward to a meeting. Human hos-
tility was nothing to me. I thought of my un-
known ship. It was amusement enough, torment
enough, occupation enough.
He perceived my state, for his wits were suffi-
ciently sharp for that, and he poked sly fun at my
preoccupation in the manner some nasty, cynical
old men assume toward the dreams and illusions of
youth. I, on my side, refrained from questioning
him as to the appearance of my ship, though I
knew that being in Bangkok every fortnight or so he
must have known her by sight. I was not going to
expose the ship, my ship! to some slighting
He was the first really unsympathetic man I had
ever come in contact with. My education was far
from being finished, though I didn't know it. No!
I didn't know it.
All I knew was that he disliked me and had some
contempt for my person. Why? Apparently
because his ship had been delayed three hours on
my account. Who was I to have such a thing done
for me? Such a thing had never been done for him.
It was a sort of jealous indignation.
My expectation, mingled with fear, was wrought
to its highest pitch. How slow had been the days
of the passage and how soon they were over. One
morning, early, we crossed the bar, and while the
sun was rising splendidly over the flat spaces of the
land we steamed up the innumerable bends, passed
under the shadow of the great gilt pagoda, and
reached the outskirts of the town.
There it was, spread largely on both banks, the
Oriental capital which had as yet suffered no white
conqueror; an expanse of brown houses of bamboo,
of mats, of leaves, of a vegetable-matter style of
architecture, sprung out of the brown soil on the
banks of the muddy river. It was amazing to think
that in those miles of human habitations there was
not probably half a dozen pounds of nails. Some
of those houses of sticks and grass, like the nests of
an aquatic race, clung to the low shores. Others
seemed to grow out of the water; others again
floated in long anchored rows in the very middle of
the stream. Here and there in the distance, above
the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered
great piles of masonry, King's Palace, temples,
gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the
vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, al-
most palpable, which seemed to enter one's breast
with the breath of one's nostrils and soak into one's
limbs through every pore of one's skin.
The ridiculous victim of jealousy had for some
reason or other to stop his engines just then. The
steamer drifted slowly up with the tide. Oblivious
of my new surroundings I walked the deck, in anx-
ious, deadened abstraction, a commingling of
romantic reverie with a very practical survey of
my qualifications. For the time was approaching
for me to behold my command and to prove my
worth in the ultimate test of my profession.
Suddenly I heard myself called by that imbe-
cile. He was beckoning me to come up on his
I didn't care very much for that, but as it
seemed that he had something particular to say I
went up the ladder.
He laid his hand on my shoulder and gave me a slight turn,
pointing with his other arm at the same time.
"There! That's your ship, Captain," he said.
I felt a thump in my breast--only one, as if my
heart had then ceased to beat. There were ten or
more ships moored along the bank, and the one
he meant was partly hidden away from my sight by her
next astern. He said: "We'll drift abreast her in
What was his tone? Mocking? Threatening?
Or only indifferent? I could not tell. I suspected
some malice in this unexpected manifestation of
He left me, and I leaned over the rail of the
bridge looking over the side. I dared not raise my
eyes. Yet it had to be done--and, indeed, I could
not have helped myself. I believe I trembled.
But directly my eyes had rested on my ship all
my fear vanished. It went off swiftly, like a bad
dream. Only that a dream leaves no shame be-
hind it, and that I felt a momentary shame at my
Yes, there she was. Her hull, her rigging filled
my eye with a great content. That feeling of life-
emptiness which had made me so restless for the
last few months lost its bitter plausibility, its evil
influence, dissolved in a flow of joyous emotion.
At first glance I saw that she was a high-class
vessel, a harmonious creature in the lines of her
fine body, in the proportioned tallness of her spars.
Whatever her age and her history, she had pre-
served the stamp of her origin. She was one of
those craft that, in virtue of their design and com-
plete finish, will never look old. Amongst her com-
panions moored to the bank, and all bigger than
herself, she looked like a creature of high breed--
an Arab steed in a string of cart-horses.
A voice behind me said in a nasty equivocal tone:
"I hope you are satisfied with her, Captain." I
did not even turn my head. It was the master of
the steamer, and whatever he meant, whatever he
thought of her, I knew that, like some rare women,
she was one of those creatures whose mere existence
is enough to awaken an unselfish delight. One
feels that it is good to be in the world in which she
has her being.
That illusion of life and character which charms
one in men's finest handiwork radiated from her.
An enormous bulk of teak-wood timber swung over
her hatchway; lifeless matter, looking heavier and
bigger than anything aboard of her. When they
started lowering it the surge of the tackle sent a
quiver through her from water-line to the trucks up
the fine nerves of her rigging, as though she had
shuddered at the weight. It seemed cruel to load
her so. . . .
Half an hour later, putting my foot on her deck
for the first time, I received the feeling of deep
physical satisfaction. Nothing could equal the
fullness of that moment, the ideal completeness of
that emotional experience which had come to me
without the preliminary toil and disenchantments
of an obscure career.
My rapid glance ran over her, enveloped, ap-
propriated the form concreting the abstract senti-
ment of my command. A lot of details perceptible
to a seaman struck my eye, vividly in that instant.
For the rest, I saw her disengaged from the material
conditions of her being. The shore to which she
was moored was as if it did not exist. What were
to me all the countries of the globe? In all the
parts of the world washed by navigable waters our
relation to each other would be the same--and
more intimate than there are words to express in
the language. Apart from that, every scene and
episode would be a mere passing show. The very
gang of yellow coolies busy about the main hatch
was less substantial than the stuff dreams are made
of. For who on earth would dream of Chinamen? . . .
I went aft, ascended the poop, where, under the
awning, gleamed the brasses of the yacht-like
fittings, the polished surfaces of the rails, the glass
of the skylights. Right aft two seamen, busy
cleaning the steering gear, with the reflected ripples
of light running playfully up their bent backs, went
on with their work, unaware of me and of the al-
most affectionate glance I threw at them in passing
toward the companion-way of the cabin.
The doors stood wide open, the slide was pushed
right back. The half-turn of the staircase cut off
the view of the lobby. A low humming ascended
from below, but it stopped abruptly at the sound of
my descending footsteps.
THE first thing I saw down there was the upper part
of a man's body projecting backward, as it were,
from one of the doors at the foot of the stairs. His
eyes looked at me very wide and still. In one hand
he held a dinner plate, in the other a cloth.
"I am your new Captain," I said quietly.
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he had
got rid of the plate and the cloth and jumped to
open the cabin door. As soon as I passed into the
saloon he vanished, but only to reappear instantly,
buttoning up a jacket he had put on with the
swiftness of a "quick-change" artist.
"Where's the chief mate?" I asked.
"In the hold, I think, sir. I saw him go down
the after-hatch ten minutes ago."
"Tell him I am on board."
The mahogany table under the skylight shone in
the twilight like a dark pool of water. The side-
board, surmounted by a wide looking-glass in an
ormulu frame, had a marble top. It bore a pair of
silver-plated lamps and some other pieces--
obviously a harbour display. The saloon itself
was panelled in two kinds of wood in the excellent
simple taste prevailing when the ship was built.
I sat down in the armchair at the head of the
table--the captain's chair, with a small tell-tale
compass swung above it--a mute reminder of un-
A succession of men had sat in that chair. I be-
came aware of that thought suddenly, vividly, as
though each had left a little of himself between the
four walls of these ornate bulkheads; as if a sort of
composite soul, the soul of command, had whispered
suddenly to mine of long days at sea and of anxious
"You, too!" it seemed to say, "you, too, shall
taste of that peace and that unrest in a searching
intimacy with your own self--obscure as we were
and as supreme in the face of all the winds and all
the seas, in an immensity that receives no impress,
preserves no memories, and keeps no reckoning of
Deep within the tarnished ormulu frame, in the
hot half-light sifted through the awning, I saw my
own face propped between my hands. And I
stared back at myself with the perfect detachment
of distance, rather with curiosity than with any
other feeling, except of some sympathy for this
latest representative of what for all intents and
purposes was a dynasty, continuous not in blood
indeed, but in its experience, in its training, in its
conception of duty, and in the blessed simplicity of
its traditional point of view on life.
It struck me that this quietly staring man whom
I was watching, both as if he were myself and some-
body else, was not exactly a lonely figure. He had
his place in a line of men whom he did not know, of
whom he had never heard; but who were fashioned
by the same influences, whose souls in relation to
their humble life's work had no secrets for him.
Suddenly I perceived that there was another man
in the saloon, standing a little on one side and look-
ing intently at me. The chief mate. His long,
red moustache determined the character of his
physiognomy, which struck me as pugnacious in
(strange to say) a ghastly sort of way.
How long had he been there looking at me, ap-
praising me in my unguarded day-dreaming state?
I would have been more disconcerted if, having the
clock set in the top of the mirror-frame right in
front of me, I had not noticed that its long hand
had hardly moved at all.
I could not have been in that cabin more than
two minutes altogether. Say three. . . . So
he could not have been watching me more than a
mere fraction of a minute, luckily. Still, I re-
gretted the occurrence.
But I showed nothing of it as I rose leisurely (it
had to be leisurely) and greeted him with perfect
There was something reluctant and at the same
time attentive in his bearing. His name was
Burns. We left the cabin and went round the ship
together. His face in the full light of day ap-
peared very pale, meagre, even haggard. Some-
how I had a delicacy as to looking too often at him;
his eyes, on the contrary, remained fairly glued on
my face. They were greenish and had an ex-
He answered all my questions readily enough,
but my ear seemed to catch a tone of unwillingness.
The second officer, with three or four hands, was
busy forward. The mate mentioned his name and
I nodded to him in passing. He was very young.
He struck me as rather a cub.
When we returned below, I sat down on one end
of a deep, semi-circular, or, rather, semi-oval settee,
upholstered in red plush. It extended right across
the whole after-end of the cabin. Mr. Burns
motioned to sit down, dropped into one of the
swivel-chairs round the table, and kept his eyes on
me as persistently as ever, and with that strange air
as if all this were make-believe and he expected me
to get up, burst into a laugh, slap him on the back,
and vanish from the cabin.
There was an odd stress in the situation which
began to make me uncomfortable. I tried to react
against this vague feeling.
"It's only my inexperience," I thought.
In the face of that man, several years, I judged,
older than myself, I became aware of what I had
left already behind me--my youth. And that was
indeed poor comfort. Youth is a fine thing, a
mighty power--as long as one does not think of
it. I felt I was becoming self-conscious. Almost
against my will I assumed a moody gravity. I
said: "I see you have kept her in very good order,
Directly I had uttered these words I asked my-
self angrily why the deuce did I want to say that?
Mr. Burns in answer had only blinked at me. What
on earth did he mean?
I fell back on a question which had been in my
thoughts for a long time--the most natural ques-
tion on the lips of any seaman whatever joining a
ship. I voiced it (confound this self-consciousness)
in a degage cheerful tone: "I suppose she can travel
Now a question like this might have been an-
swered normally, either in accents of apologetic
sorrow or with a visibly suppressed pride, in a "I
don't want to boast, but you shall see," sort of
tone. There are sailors, too, who would have been
roughly outspoken: "Lazy brute," or openly de-
lighted: "She's a flyer." Two ways, if four
But Mr. Burns found another way, a way of his
own which had, at all events, the merit of saving
his breath, if no other.
Again he did not say anything. He only
frowned. And it was an angry frown. I waited.
Nothing more came.
"What's the matter? . . . Can't you tell
after being nearly two years in the ship?" I ad-
dressed him sharply.
He looked as startled for a moment as though he
had discovered my presence only that very mo-
ment. But this passed off almost at once. He
put on an air of indifference. But I suppose he
thought it better to say something. He said that a
ship needed, just like a man, the chance to show the
best she could do, and that this ship had never had
a chance since he had been on board of her. Not
that he could remember. The last captain. . . .
"Has he been so very unlucky?" I asked with
frank incredulity. Mr. Burns turned his eyes away
from me. No, the late captain was not an unlucky
man. One couldn't say that. But he had not
seemed to want to make use of his luck.
Mr. Burns--man of enigmatic moods--made
this statement with an inanimate face and staring
wilfully at the rudder casing. The statement itself
was obscurely suggestive. I asked quietly:
"Where did he die?"
"In this saloon. Just where you are sitting
now," answered Mr. Burns.
I repressed a silly impulse to jump up; but upon
the whole I was relieved to hear that he had not
died in the bed which was now to be mine. I
pointed out to the chief mate that what I really
wanted to know was where he had buried his late
Mr. Burns said that it was at the entrance to the
gulf. A roomy grave; a sufficient answer. But
the mate, overcoming visibly something within him
--something like a curious reluctance to believe in
my advent (as an irrevocable fact, at any rate), did
not stop at that--though, indeed, he may have
wished to do so.
As a compromise with his feelings, I believe, he
addressed himself persistently to the rudder-casing,
so that to me he had the appearance of a man
talking in solitude, a little unconsciously, however.
His tale was that at seven bells in the forenoon
watch he had all hands mustered on the quarter-
deck and told them they had better go down to say
good-bye to the captain.
Those words, as if grudged to an intruding per-
sonage, were enough for me to evoke vividly that
strange ceremony: The bare-footed, bare-headed
seamen crowding shyly into that cabin, a small
mob pressed against that sideboard, uncomfortable
rather than moved, shirts open on sunburnt chests,
weather-beaten faces, and all staring at the dying
man with the same grave and expectant expression.
"Was he conscious?" I asked.
"He didn't speak, but he moved his eyes to look
at them," said the mate.
After waiting a moment, Mr. Burns motioned
the crew to leave the cabin, but he detained the two
eldest men to stay with the captain while he went
on deck with his sextant to "take the sun." It
was getting toward noon and he was anxious to
obtain a good observation for latitude. When he
returned below to put his sextant away he found
that the two men had retreated out into the lobby.
Through the open door he had a view of the captain
lying easy against the pillows. He had "passed
away" while Mr. Burns was taking this observa-
tion. As near noon as possible. He had hardly
changed his position.
Mr. Burns sighed, glanced at me inquisitively,
as much as to say, "Aren't you going yet?" and then
turned his thoughts from his new captain back to
the old, who, being dead, had no authority, was not
in anybody's way, and was much easier to deal with.
Mr. Burns dealt with him at some length. He
was a peculiar man--of sixty-five about--iron gray,
hard-faced, obstinate, and uncommunicative. He
used to keep the ship loafing at sea for inscrutable
reasons. Would come on deck at night sometimes,
take some sail off her, God only knows why or
wherefore, then go below, shut himself up in his
cabin, and play on the violin for hours--till day-
break perhaps. In fact, he spent most of his time
day or night playing the violin. That was when
the fit took him. Very loud, too.
It came to this, that Mr. Burns mustered his
courage one day and remonstrated earnestly with
the captain. Neither he nor the second mate
could get a wink of sleep in their watches below for
the noise. . . . And how could they be ex-
pected to keep awake while on duty? He pleaded.
The answer of that stern man was that if he and the
second mate didn't like the noise, they were wel-
come to pack up their traps and walk over the side.
When this alternative was offered the ship hap-
pened to be 600 miles from the nearest land.
Mr. Burns at this point looked at me with an air
of curiosity. I began to think that my predecessor
was a remarkably peculiar old man.
But I had to hear stranger things yet. It came
out that this stern, grim, wind-tanned, rough, sea-
salted, taciturn sailor of sixty-five was not only an
artist, but a lover as well. In Haiphong, when
they got there after a course of most unprofitable
peregrinations (during which the ship was nearly
lost twice), he got himself, in Mr. Burns' own
words, "mixed up" with some woman. Mr. Burns
had had no personal knowledge of that affair, but
positive evidence of it existed in the shape of a
photograph taken in Haiphong. Mr. Burns found
it in one of the drawers in the captain's room.
In due course I, too, saw that amazing human
document (I even threw it overboard later).
There he sat, with his hands reposing on his knees,
bald, squat, gray, bristly, recalling a wild boar
somehow; and by his side towered an awful mature,
white female with rapacious nostrils and a cheaply
ill-omened stare in her enormous eyes. She was
disguised in some semi-oriental, vulgar, fancy
costume. She resembled a low-class medium or
one of those women who tell fortunes by cards for
half a crown. And yet she was striking. A pro-
fessional sorceress from the slums. It was incom-
prehensible. There was something awful in the
thought that she was the last reflection of the world
of passion for the fierce soul which seemed to look
at one out of the sardonically savage face of that old
seaman. However, I noticed that she was holding
some musical instrument--guitar or mandoline--
in her hand. Perhaps that was the secret of her
For Mr. Burns that photograph explained why
the unloaded ship had kept sweltering at anchor
for three weeks in a pestilential hot harbour with-
out air. They lay there and gasped. The cap-
tain, appearing now and then on short visits,
mumbled to Mr. Burns unlikely tales about some
letters he was waiting for.
Suddenly, after vanishing for a week, he came on
board in the middle of the night and took the ship
out to sea with the first break of dawn. Daylight
showed him looking wild and ill. The mere getting
clear of the land took two days, and somehow or
other they bumped slightly on a reef. However,
no leak developed, and the captain, growling "no
matter," informed Mr. Burns that he had made up
his mind to take the ship to Hong-Kong and dry-
dock her there.
At this Mr. Burns was plunged into despair. For
indeed, to beat up to Hong-Kong against a fierce
monsoon, with a ship not sufficiently ballasted and
with her supply of water not completed, was an in-
But the captain growled peremptorily, "Stick
her at it," and Mr. Burns, dismayed and enraged,
stuck her at it, and kept her at it, blowing away
sails, straining the spars, exhausting the crew--
nearly maddened by the absolute conviction that
the attempt was impossible and was bound to end
in some catastrophe.
Meantime the captain, shut up in his cabin and
wedged in a corner of his settee against the crazy
bounding of the ship, played the violin--or, at any
rate, made continuous noise on it.
When he appeared on deck he would not speak
and not always answer when spoken to. It was
obvious that he was ill in some mysterious manner,
and beginning to break up.
As the days went by the sounds of the violin be-
came less and less loud, till at last only a feeble
scratching would meet Mr. Burns' ear as he stood
in the saloon listening outside the door of the cap-
One afternoon in perfect desperation he burst
into that room and made such a scene, tearing his
hair and shouting such horrid imprecations that he
cowed the contemptuous spirit of the sick man.
The water-tanks were low, they had not gained fifty
miles in a fortnight. She would never reach Hong-
It was like fighting desperately toward destruc-
tion for the ship and the men. This was evident
without argument. Mr. Burns, losing all restraint,
put his face close to his captain's and fairly
yelled: "You, sir, are going out of the world. But
I can't wait till you are dead before I put the helm
up. You must do it yourself. You must do it
The man on the couch snarled in contempt.
"So I am going out of the world--am I?"
"Yes, sir--you haven't many days left in it,"
said Mr. Burns calming down. "One can see it by
"My face, eh? . . . Well, put up the helm
and be damned to you."
Burns flew on deck, got the ship before the wind,
then came down again composed, but resolute.
"I've shaped a course for Pulo Condor, sir," he
said. "When we make it, if you are still with us,
you'll tell me into what port you wish me to take
the ship and I'll do it."
The old man gave him a look of savage spite,
and said those atrocious words in deadly, slow
"If I had my wish, neither the ship nor any of
you would ever reach a port. And I hope you
Mr. Burns was profoundly shocked. I believe
he was positively frightened at the time. It seems,
however, that he managed to produce such an
effective laugh that it was the old man's turn to be
frightened. He shrank within himself and turned
his back on him.
"And his head was not gone then," Mr. Burns
assured me excitedly. "He meant every word of it."
"Such was practically the late captain's last
speech. No connected sentence passed his lips
afterward. That night he used the last of his
strength to throw his fiddle over the side. No one
had actually seen him in the act, but after his
death Mr. Burns couldn't find the thing anywhere.
The empty case was very much in evidence, but
the fiddle was clearly not in the ship. And where
else could it have gone to but overboard?"
"Threw his violin overboard!" I exclaimed.
"He did," cried Mr. Burns excitedly. "And
it's my belief he would have tried to take the ship
down with him if it had been in human power. He
never meant her to see home again. He wouldn't
write to his owners, he never wrote to his old wife,
either--he wasn't going to. He had made up his
mind to cut adrift from everything. That's what
it was. He didn't care for business, or freights, or
for making a passage--or anything. He meant to
have gone wandering about the world till he lost her
with all hands."
Mr. Burns looked like a man who had escaped
great danger. For a little he would have ex-
claimed: "If it hadn't been for me!" And the
transparent innocence of his indignant eyes was
underlined quaintly by the arrogant pair of
moustaches which he proceeded to twist, and as if
I might have smiled if I had not been busy with
my own sensations, which were not those of Mr.
Burns. I was already the man in command. My
sensations could not be like those of any other man
on board. In that community I stood, like a king
in his country, in a class all by myself. I mean an
hereditary king, not a mere elected head of a state.
I was brought there to rule by an agency as remote
from the people and as inscrutable almost to them
as the Grace of God.
And like a member of a dynasty, feeling a semi-
mystical bond with the dead, I was profoundly
shocked by my immediate predecessor.
That man had been in all essentials but his age
just such another man as myself. Yet the end of
his life was a complete act of treason, the betrayal
of a tradition which seemed to me as imperative as
any guide on earth could be. It appeared that
even at sea a man could become the victim of evil
spirits. I felt on my face the breath of unknown
powers that shape our destinies.
Not to let the silence last too long I asked Mr.
Burns if he had written to his captain's wife. He
shook his head. He had written to nobody.
In a moment he became sombre. He never
thought of writing. It took him all his time to
watch incessantly the loading of the ship by a
rascally Chinese stevedore. In this Mr. Burns
gave me the first glimpse of the real chief mate's
soul which dwelt uneasily in his body.
He mused, then hastened on with gloomy
"Yes! The captain died as near noon as pos-
sible. I looked through his papers in the afternoon.
I read the service over him at sunset and then I
stuck the ship's head north and brought her in
He struck the table with his fist.
"She would hardly have come in by herself," I
observed. "But why didn't you make for Singa-
His eyes wavered. "The nearest port," he
I had framed the question in perfect innocence,
but his answer (the difference in distance was in-
significant) and his manner offered me a clue to the
simple truth. He took the ship to a port where he
expected to be confirmed in his temporary com-
mand from lack of a qualified master to put over his
head. Whereas Singapore, he surmised justly,
would be full of qualified men. But his naive
reasoning forgot to take into account the telegraph
cable reposing on the bottom of the very Gulf up
which he had turned that ship which he imagined
himself to have saved from destruction. Hence
the bitter flavour of our interview. I tasted it
more and more distinctly--and it was less and less
to my taste.
"Look here, Mr. Burns," I began very firmly.
"You may as well understand that I did not run
after this command. It was pushed in my way.
I've accepted it. I am here to take the ship home
first of all, and you may be sure that I shall see
to it that every one of you on board here does his
duty to that end. This is all I have to say--for
He was on his feet by this time, but instead of
taking his dismissal he remained with trembling,
indignant lips, and looking at me hard as though,
really, after this, there was nothing for me to do in
common decency but to vanish from his outraged
sight. Like all very simple emotional states this
was moving. I felt sorry for him--almost sympa-
thetic, till (seeing that I did not vanish) he spoke
in a tone of forced restraint.
"If I hadn't a wife and a child at home you may
be sure, sir, I would have asked you to let me go the
very minute you came on board."
I answered him with a matter-of-course calmness
as though some remote third person were in question.
"And I, Mr. Burns, would not have let you go.
You have signed the ship's articles as chief officer,
and till they are terminated at the final port of
discharge I shall expect you to attend to your duty
and give me the benefit of your experience to the
best of your ability."
Stony incredulity lingered in his eyes: but it
broke down before my friendly attitude. With a
slight upward toss of his arms (I got to know that
gesture well afterward) he bolted out of the
We might have saved ourselves that little pas-
sage of harmless sparring. Before many days had
elapsed it was Mr. Burns who was pleading with
me anxiously not to leave him behind; while I could
only return him but doubtful answers. The whole
thing took on a somewhat tragic complexion.
And this horrible problem was only an extrane-
ous episode, a mere complication in the general
problem of how to get that ship--which was mine
with her appurtenances and her men, with her body
and her spirit now slumbering in that pestilential
river--how to get her out to sea.
Mr. Burns, while still acting captain, had
hastened to sign a charter-party which in an ideal
world without guile would have been an excellent
document. Directly I ran my eye over it I fore-
saw trouble ahead unless the people of the other
part were quite exceptionally fair-minded and open
Mr. Burns, to whom I imparted my fears, chose
to take great umbrage at them. He looked at me
with that usual incredulous stare, and said bitterly:
"I suppose, sir, you want to make out I've acted
like a fool?"
I told him, with my systematic kindliness which
always seemed to augment his surprise, that I did
not want to make out anything. I would leave
that to the future.
And, sure enough, the future brought in a lot of
trouble. There were days when I used to remem-
ber Captain Giles with nothing short of abhor-
rence. His confounded acuteness had let me in
for this job; while his prophecy that I "would have
my hands full" coming true, made it appear as if
done on purpose to play an evil joke on my young
Yes. I had my hands full of complications which
were most valuable as "experience." People have
a great opinion of the advantages of experience.
But in this connection experience means always
something disagreeable as opposed to the charm
and innocence of illusions.
I must say I was losing mine rapidly. But on
these instructive complications I must not enlarge
more than to say that they could all be resumed in
the one word: Delay.
A mankind which has invented the proverb,
"Time is money," will understand my vexation.
The word "Delay" entered the secret chamber of
my brain, resounded there like a tolling bell which
maddens the ear, affected all my senses, took on a
black colouring, a bitter taste, a deadly meaning.
"I am really sorry to see you worried like this.
Indeed, I am. . . ."
It was the only humane speech I used to hear at
that time. And it came from a doctor, ap-
A doctor is humane by definition. But that man
was so in reality. His speech was not professional.
I was not ill. But other people were, and that was
the reason of his visiting the ship.
He was the doctor of our Legation and, of course,
of the Consulate, too. He looked after the ship's
health, which generally was poor, and trembling,
as it were, on the verge of a break-up. Yes. The
men ailed. And thus time was not only money,
but life as well.
I had never seen such a steady ship's company.
As the doctor remarked to me: "You seem to have
a most respectable lot of seamen." Not only were
they consistently sober, but they did not even
want to go ashore. Care was taken to expose
them as little as possible to the sun. They were
employed on light work under the awnings. And
the humane doctor commended me.
"Your arrangements appear to me to be very
judicious, my dear Captain."
It is difficult to express how much that pro-
nouncement comforted me. The doctor's round,
full face framed in a light-coloured whisker was the
perfection of a dignified amenity. He was the only
human being in the world who seemed to take the
slightest interest in me. He would generally sit in
the cabin for half an hour or so at every visit.
I said to him one day:
"I suppose the only thing now is to take care of
them as you are doing till I can get the ship to
He inclined his head, shutting his eyes under the
large spectacles, and murmured:
"The sea . . . undoubtedly."
The first member of the crew fairly knocked over
was the steward--the first man to whom I had
spoken on board. He was taken ashore (with
choleric symptoms) and died there at the end of a
week. Then, while I was still under the startling
impression of this first home-thrust of the climate,
Mr. Burns gave up and went to bed in a raging
fever without saying a word to anybody.
I believe he had partly fretted himself into that
illness; the climate did the rest with the swiftness
of an invisible monster ambushed in the air, in the
water, in the mud of the river-bank. Mr. Burns
was a predestined victim.
I discovered him lying on his back, glaring sul-
lenly and radiating heat on one like a small furnace.
He would hardly answer my questions, and only
grumbled. Couldn't a man take an afternoon off
duty with a bad headache--for once?
That evening, as I sat in the saloon after dinner,
I could hear him muttering continuously in his
room. Ransome, who was clearing the table, said
"I am afraid, sir, I won't be able to give the mate
all the attention he's likely to need. I will have
to be forward in the galley a great part of my
Ransome was the cook. The mate had pointed
him out to me the first day, standing on the deck,
his arms crossed on his broad chest, gazing on the
Even at a distance his well-proportioned figure,
something thoroughly sailor-like in his poise, made
him noticeable. On nearer view the intelligent,
quiet eyes, a well-bred face, the disciplined in-
dependence of his manner made up an attractive
personality. When, in addition, Mr. Burns told
me that he was the best seaman in the ship, I ex-
pressed my surprise that in his earliest prime and of
such appearance he should sign on as cook on board
"It's his heart," Mr. Burns had said. "There's
something wrong with it. He mustn't exert him-
self too much or he may drop dead suddenly."
And he was the only one the climate had not
touched--perhaps because, carrying a deadly
enemy in his breast, he had schooled himself into a
systematic control of feelings and movements.
When one was in the secret this was apparent in his
manner. After the poor steward died, and as he
could not be replaced by a white man in this
Oriental port, Ransome had volunteered to do the
"I can do it all right, sir, as long as I go about it
quietly," he had assured me.
But obviously he couldn't be expected to take up
sick-nursing in addition. Moreover, the doctor
peremptorily ordered Mr. Burns ashore.
With a seaman on each side holding him up
under the arms, the mate went over the gangway
more sullen than ever. We built him up with pil-
lows in the gharry, and he made an effort to say
"Now--you've got--what you wanted--got me
out of--the ship."
"You were never more mistaken in your life,
Mr. Burns," I said quietly, duly smiling at him;
and the trap drove off to a sort of sanatorium, a
pavilion of bricks which the doctor had in the
grounds of his residence.
I visited Mr. Burns regularly. After the first
few days, when he didn't know anybody, he re-
ceived me as if I had come either to gloat over an
enemy or else to curry favour with a deeply
wronged person. It was either one or the other,
just as it happened according to his fantastic sick-
room moods. Whichever it was, he managed to
convey it to me even during the period when he ap-
peared almost too weak to talk. I treated him to
my invariable kindliness.
Then one day, suddenly, a surge of downright
panic burst through all this craziness.
If I left him behind in this deadly place he would
die. He felt it, he was certain of it. But I
wouldn't have the heart to leave him ashore. He
had a wife and child in Sydney.
He produced his wasted forearms from under the
sheet which covered him and clasped his fleshless
claws. He would die! He would die here. . . .
He absolutely managed to sit up, but only for a
moment, and when he fell back I really thought
that he would die there and then. I called to the
Bengali dispenser, and hastened away from the
Next day he upset me thoroughly by renewing
his entreaties. I returned an evasive answer, and
left him the picture of ghastly despair. The day
after I went in with reluctance, and he attacked me
at once in a much stronger voice and with an
abundance of argument which was quite startling.
He presented his case with a sort of crazy vigour,
and asked me finally how would I like to have a
man's death on my conscience? He wanted me to
promise that I would not sail without him.
I said that I really must consult the doctor first.
He cried out at that. The doctor! Never! That
would be a death sentence.
The effort had exhausted him. He closed his
eyes, but went on rambling in a low voice. I had
hated him from the start. The late captain had
hated him, too. Had wished him dead. Had
wished all hands dead. . . .
"What do you want to stand in with that wicked
corpse for, sir? He'll have you, too," he ended,
blinking his glazed eyes vacantly.
"Mr. Burns," I cried, very much discomposed,
"what on earth are you talking about?"
He seemed to come to himself, though he was too
weak to start.
"I don't know," he said languidly. "But don't
ask that doctor, sir. You are I are sailors. Don't
ask him, sir. Some day perhaps you will have a
wife and child yourself."
And again he pleaded for the promise that I
would not leave him behind. I had the firmness of
mind not to give it to him. Afterward this stern-
ness seemed criminal; for my mind was made up.
That prostrated man, with hardly strength enough
to breathe and ravaged by a passion of fear, was
irresistible. And, besides, he had happened to hit
on the right words. He and I were sailors. That
was a claim, for I had no other family. As to the
wife and child (some day) argument, it had no force.
It sounded merely bizarre.
I could imagine no claim that would be stronger
and more absorbing than the claim of that ship, of
these men snared in the river by silly commercial
complications, as if in some poisonous trap.
However, I had nearly fought my way out. Out
to sea. The sea--which was pure, safe, and
friendly. Three days more.
That thought sustained and carried me on my
way back to the ship. In the saloon the doctor's
voice greeted me, and his large form followed his
voice, issuing out of the starboard spare cabin
where the ship's medicine chest was kept securely
lashed in the bed-place.
Finding that I was not on board he had gone in
there, he said, to inspect the supply of drugs,
bandages, and so on. Everything was completed
and in order.
I thanked him; I had just been thinking of
asking him to do that very thing, as in a couple of
days, as he knew, we were going to sea, where
all our troubles of every sort would be over at
He listened gravely and made no answer. But
when I opened to him my mind as to Mr. Burns he
sat down by my side, and, laying his hand on my
knee amicably, begged me to think what it was I
was exposing myself to.
The man was just strong enough to bear being
moved and no more. But he couldn't stand a re-
turn of the fever. I had before me a passage of
sixty days perhaps, beginning with intricate navi-
gation and ending probably with a lot of bad
weather. Could I run the risk of having to go
through it single-handed, with no chief officer and
with a second quite a youth? . . .
He might have added that it was my first com-
mand, too. He did probably think of that fact, for he
checked himself. It was very present to my mind.
He advised me earnestly to cable to Singapore
for a chief officer, even if I had to delay my sailing
for a week.
"Never," I said. The very thought gave me the
shivers. The hands seemed fairly fit, all of them,
and this was the time to get them away. Once at
sea I was not afraid of facing anything. The sea
was now the only remedy for all my troubles.
The doctor's glasses were directed at me like two
lamps searching the genuineness of my resolution.
He opened his lips as if to argue further, but shut
them again without saying anything. I had a
vision so vivid of poor Burns in his exhaustion,
helplessness, and anguish, that it moved me more
than the reality I had come away from only an
hour before. It was purged from the drawbacks of
his personality, and I could not resist it.
"Look here," I said. "Unless you tell me
officially that the man must not be moved I'll make
arrangements to have him brought on board to-
morrow, and shall take the ship out of the river
next morning, even if I have to anchor outside the
bar for a couple of days to get her ready for sea."
"Oh! I'll make all the arrangements myself,"
said the doctor at once. "I spoke as I did only as a
friend--as a well-wisher, and that sort of thing."
He rose in his dignified simplicity and gave me a
warm handshake, rather solemnly, I thought. But
he was as good as his word. When Mr. Burns ap-
peared at the gangway carried on a stretcher, the
doctor himself walked by its side. The programme
had been altered in so far that this transportation
had been left to the last moment, on the very morn-
ing of our departure.
It was barely an hour after sunrise. The doctor
waved his big arm to me from the shore and walked
back at once to his trap, which had followed him
empty to the river-side. Mr. Burns, carried across
the quarter-deck, had the appearance of being
absolutely lifeless. Ransome went down to settle
him in his cabin. I had to remain on deck to look
after the ship, for the tug had got hold of our tow-
The splash of our shore-fasts falling in the water
produced a complete change of feeling in me. It
was like the imperfect relief of awakening from a
nightmare. But when the ship's head swung down
the river away from that town, Oriental and
squalid, I missed the expected elation of that
striven-for moment. What there was, un-
doubtedly, was a relaxation of tension which trans-
lated itself into a sense of weariness after an in-
About midday we anchored a mile outside the
bar. The afternoon was busy for all hands.
Watching the work from the poop, where I re-
mained all the time, I detected in it some of the
languor of the six weeks spent in the steaming heat
of the river. The first breeze would blow that
away. Now the calm was complete. I judged
that the second officer--a callow youth with an
unpromising face--was not, to put it mildly, of that
invaluable stuff from which a commander's right
hand is made. But I was glad to catch along the
main deck a few smiles on those seamen's faces at
which I had hardly had time to have a good look as
yet. Having thrown off the mortal coil of shore
affairs, I felt myself familiar with them and yet a
little strange, like a long-lost wanderer among his
Ransome flitted continually to and fro between
the galley and the cabin. It was a pleasure to
look at him. The man positively had grace. He
alone of all the crew had not had a day's illness in
port. But with the knowledge of that uneasy
heart within his breast I could detect the restraint
he put on the natural sailor-like agility of his
movements. It was as though he had something
very fragile or very explosive to carry about his
person and was all the time aware of it.
I had occasion to address him once or twice. He
answered me in his pleasant, quiet voice and with a
faint, slightly wistful smile. Mr. Burns appeared
to be resting. He seemed fairly comfortable.
After sunset I came out on deck again to meet
only a still void. The thin, featureless crust of the
coast could not be distinguished. The darkness
had risen around the ship like a mysterious emana-
tion from the dumb and lonely waters. I leaned
on the rail and turned my ear to the shadows of the
night. Not a sound. My command might have
been a planet flying vertiginously on its appointed
path in a space of infinite silence. I clung to the
rail as if my sense of balance were leaving me for
good. How absurd. I failed nervously.
"On deck there!"
The immediate answer, "Yes, sir," broke the
spell. The anchor-watch man ran up the poop
ladder smartly. I told him to report at once the
slightest sign of a breeze coming.
Going below I looked in on Mr. Burns. In fact,
I could not avoid seeing him, for his door stood
open. The man was so wasted that, in this white
cabin, under a white sheet, and with his diminished
head sunk in the white pillow, his red moustaches
captured their eyes exclusively, like something arti-
ficial--a pair of moustaches from a shop exhibited
there in the harsh light of the bulkhead-lamp
without a shade.
While I stared with a sort of wonder he asserted
himself by opening his eyes and even moving them
in my direction. A minute stir.
"Dead calm, Mr. Burns," I said resignedly.
In an unexpectedly distinct voice Mr. Burns be-
gan a rambling speech. Its tone was very strange,
not as if affected by his illness, but as if of a differ-
ent nature. It sounded unearthly. As to the
matter, I seemed to make out that it was the fault
of the "old man"--the late captain--ambushed
down there under the sea with some evil intention.
It was a weird story.
I listened to the end; then stepping into the
cabin I laid my hand on the mate's forehead. It
was cool. He was light-headed only from extreme
weakness. Suddenly he seemed to become aware
of me, and in his own voice--of course, very feeble
--he asked regretfully:
"Is there no chance at all to get under way, sir?"
"What's the good of letting go our hold of the
ground only to drift, Mr. Burns?" I answered.
He sighed and I left him to his immobility. His
hold on life was as slender as his hold on sanity. I
was oppressed by my lonely responsibilities. I
went into my cabin to seek relief in a few hours'
sleep, but almost before I closed my eyes the man
on deck came down reporting a light breeze.
Enough to get under way with, he said.
And it was no more than just enough. I ordered
the windlass manned, the sails loosed, and the top-
sails set. But by the time I had cast the ship I
could hardly feel any breath of wind. Neverthe-
less, I trimmed the yards and put everything on
her. I was not going to give up the attempt.
WITH her anchor at the bow and clothed in canvas
to her very trucks, my command seemed to stand
as motionless as a model ship set on the gleams and
shadows of polished marble. It was impossible
to distinguish land from water in the enigmatical
tranquillity of the immense forces of the world.
A sudden impatience possessed me.
"Won't she answer the helm at all?" I said
irritably to the man whose strong brown hands
grasping the spokes of the wheel stood out lighted
on the darkness; like a symbol of mankind's claim
to the direction of its own fate.
He answered me.
"Yes, sir. She's coming-to slowly."
"Let her head come up to south."
"Aye, aye, sir."
I paced the poop. There was not a sound but
that of my footsteps, till the man spoke again.
"She is at south now, sir."
I felt a slight tightness of the chest before I gave
out the first course of my first command to the
silent night, heavy with dew and sparkling with
stars. There was a finality in the act commit-
ting me to the endless vigilance of my lonely task.
"Steady her head at that," I said at last. "The
course is south."
"South, sir," echoed the man.
I sent below the second mate and his watch and
remained in charge, walking the deck through the
chill, somnolent hours that precede the dawn.
Slight puffs came and went, and whenever they
were strong enough to wake up the black water the
murmur alongside ran through my very heart in a
delicate crescendo of delight and died away swiftly.
I was bitterly tired. The very stars seemed weary
of waiting for daybreak. It came at last with a
mother-of-pearl sheen at the zenith, such as I had
never seen before in the tropics, unglowing, almost
gray, with a strange reminder of high latitudes.
The voice of the look-out man hailed from for-
"Land on the port bow, sir."
Leaning on the rail I never even raised my eyes.
The motion of the ship was imperceptible. Pres-
ently Ransome brought me the cup of morning
coffee. After I had drunk it I looked ahead, and in
the still streak of very bright pale orange light I
saw the land profiled flatly as if cut out of black
paper and seeming to float on the water as light as
cork. But the rising sun turned it into mere dark
vapour, a doubtful, massive shadow trembling in
the hot glare.
The watch finished washing decks. I went be-
low and stopped at Mr. Burns' door (he could not
bear to have it shut), but hesitated to speak to him
till he moved his eyes. I gave him the news.
"Sighted Cape Liant at daylight. About fifteen
He moved his lips then, but I heard no sound
till I put my ear down, and caught the peevish
comment: "This is crawling. . . . No luck."
"Better luck than standing still, anyhow," I
pointed out resignedly, and left him to whatever
thoughts or fancies haunted his awful immobility.
Later that morning, when relieved by my second
officer, I threw myself on my couch and for some
three hours or so I really found oblivion. It was so
perfect that on waking up I wondered where I was.
Then came the immense relief of the thought: on
board my ship! At sea! At sea!
Through the port-holes I beheld an unruffled,
sun-smitten horizon. The horizon of a windless
day. But its spaciousness alone was enough to
give me a sense of a fortunate escape, a momentary
exultation of freedom.
I stepped out into the saloon with my heart
lighter than it had been for days. Ransome was at
the sideboard preparing to lay the table for the first
sea dinner of the passage. He turned his head, and
something in his eyes checked my modest elation.
Instinctively I asked: "What is it now?" not ex-
pecting in the least the answer I got. It was given
with that sort of contained serenity which was
characteristic of the man.
"I am afraid we haven't left all sickness behind
"We haven't! What's the matter?"
He told me then that two of our men had been
taken bad with fever in the night. One of them
was burning and the other was shivering, but he
thought that it was pretty much the same thing.
I thought so, too. I felt shocked by the news.
"One burning, the other shivering, you say? No.
We haven't left the sickness behind. Do they look
"Middling bad, sir." Ransome's eyes gazed
steadily into mine. We exchanged smiles. Ran-
some's a little wistful, as usual, mine no doubt grim
enough, to correspond with my secret exasperation.
"Was there any wind at all this morning?"
"Can hardly say that, sir. We've moved all the
time though. The land ahead seems a little nearer."
That was it. A little nearer. Whereas if we
had only had a little more wind, only a very little
more, we might, we should, have been abreast of
Liant by this time and increasing our distance from
that contaminated shore. And it was not only the
distance. It seemed to me that a stronger breeze
would have blown away the contamination which
clung to the ship. It obviously did cling to the
ship. Two men. One burning, one shivering. I
felt a distinct reluctance to go and look at them.
What was the good? Poison is poison. Tropical
fever is tropical fever. But that it should have
stretched its claw after us over the sea seemed to
me an extraordinary and unfair license. I could
hardly believe that it could be anything worse than
the last desperate pluck of the evil from which we
were escaping into the clean breath of the sea. If
only that breath had been a little stronger. How-
ever, there was the quinine against the fever. I
went into the spare cabin where the medicine chest
was kept to prepare two doses. I opened it full of
faith as a man opens a miraculous shrine. The
upper part was inhabited by a collection of bottles,
all square-shouldered and as like each other as
peas. Under that orderly array there were two
drawers, stuffed as full of things as one could im-
agine--paper packages, bandages, cardboard boxes
officially labelled. The lower of the two, in one
of its compartments, contained our provision of
There were five bottles, all round and all of a
size. One was about a third full. The other four
remained still wrapped up in paper and sealed.
But I did not expect to see an envelope lying on top
of them. A square envelope, belonging, in fact, to
the ship's stationery.
It lay so that I could see it was not closed down,
and on picking it up and turning it over I perceived
that it was addressed to myself. It contained a
half-sheet of notepaper, which I unfolded with a
queer sense of dealing with the uncanny, but with-
out any excitement as people meet and do ex-
traordinary things in a dream.
"My dear Captain," it began, but I ran to the
signature. The writer was the doctor. The date
was that of the day on which, returning from my
visit to Mr. Burns in the hospital, I had found the
excellent doctor waiting for me in the cabin; and
when he told me that he had been putting in
time inspecting the medicine chest for me. How
bizarre! While expecting me to come in at any
moment he had been amusing himself by writing
me a letter, and then as I came in had hastened to
stuff it into the medicine-chest drawer. A rather
incredible proceeding. I turned to the text in
In a large, hurried, but legible hand the good,
sympathetic man for some reason, either of kind-
ness or more likely impelled by the irresistible de-
sire to express his opinion, with which he didn't
want to damp my hopes before, was warning me
not to put my trust in the beneficial effects of a
change from land to sea. "I didn't want to add to
your worries by discouraging your hopes," he
wrote. "I am afraid that, medically speaking, the
end of your troubles is not yet." In short, he ex-
pected me to have to fight a probable return of
tropical illness. Fortunately I had a good pro-
vision of quinine. I should put my trust in that,
and administer it steadily, when the ship's health
would certainly improve.
I crumpled up the letter and rammed it into my
pocket. Ransome carried off two big doses to the
men forward. As to myself, I did not go on deck as
yet. I went instead to the door of Mr. Burns'
room, and gave him that news, too.
It was impossible to say the effect it had on him.
At first I thought that he was speechless. His head
lay sunk in the pillow. He moved his lips enough,
however, to assure me that he was getting much
stronger; a statement shockingly untrue on the
face of it.
That afternoon I took my watch as a matter of
course. A great over-heated stillness enveloped
the ship and seemed to hold her motionless in a
flaming ambience composed in two shades of blue.
Faint, hot puffs eddied nervelessly from her sails.
And yet she moved. She must have. For, as the
sun was setting, we had drawn abreast of Cape
Liant and dropped it behind us: an ominous re-
treating shadow in the last gleams of twilight.
In the evening, under the crude glare of his lamp,
Mr. Burns seemed to have come more to the surface
of his bedding. It was as if a depressing hand had
been lifted off him. He answered my few words
by a comparatively long, connected speech. He
asserted himself strongly. If he escaped being
smothered by this stagnant heat, he said, he was
confident that in a very few days he would be able
to come up on deck and help me.
While he was speaking I trembled lest this effort
of energy should leave him lifeless before my eyes.
But I cannot deny that there was something com-
forting in his willingness. I made a suitable
reply, but pointed out to him that the only thing
that could really help us was wind--a fair wind.
He rolled his head impatiently on the pillow.
And it was not comforting in the least to hear him
begin to mutter crazily about the late captain, that
old man buried in latitude 8 d 20', right in our way
--ambushed at the entrance of the Gulf.
"Are you still thinking of your late captain, Mr.
Burns?" I said. "I imagine the dead feel no animos-
ity against the living. They care nothing for them."
"You don't know that one," he breathed out
"No. I didn't know him, and he didn't know
me. And so he can't have any grievance against
"Yes. But there's all the rest of us on board," he
I felt the inexpugnable strength of common sense
being insidiously menaced by this gruesome, by
this insane, delusion. And I said:
"You mustn't talk so much. You will tire yourself."
"And there is the ship herself," he persisted in a whisper.
"Now, not a word more," I said, stepping in and
laying my hand on his cool forehead. It proved to
me that this atrocious absurdity was rooted in the
man himself and not in the disease, which, ap-
parently, had emptied him of every power, mental
and physical, except that one fixed idea.
I avoided giving Mr. Burns any opening for con-
versation for the next few days. I merely used to
throw him a hasty, cheery word when passing his
door. I believe that if he had had the strength he
would have called out after me more than once.
But he hadn't the strength. Ransome, however,
observed to me one afternoon that the mate
"seemed to be picking up wonderfully."
"Did he talk any nonsense to you of late?" I
"No, sir." Ransome was startled by the direct
question; but, after a pause, he added equably:
"He told me this morning, sir, that he was sorry he
had to bury our late captain right in the ship's
way, as one may say, out of the Gulf."
"Isn't this nonsense enough for you?" I asked,
looking confidently at the intelligent, quiet face on
which the secret uneasiness in the man's breast
had thrown a transparent veil of care.
Ransome didn't know. He had not given a
thought to the matter. And with a faint smile he
flitted away from me on his never-ending duties,
with his usual guarded activity.
Two more days passed. We had advanced a
little way--a very little way--into the larger space
of the Gulf of Siam. Seizing eagerly upon the
elation of the first command thrown into my lap,
by the agency of Captain Giles, I had yet an uneasy
feeling that such luck as this has got perhaps to be
paid for in some way. I had held, professionally, a
review of my chances. I was competent enough
for that. At least, I thought so. I had a general
sense of my preparedness which only a man pur-
suing a calling he loves can know. That feeling
seemed to me the most natural thing in the world.
As natural as breathing. I imagined I could not
have lived without it.
I don't know what I expected. Perhaps nothing
else than that special intensity of existence which is
the quintessence of youthful aspirations. What-
ever I expected I did not expect to be beset by
hurricanes. I knew better than that. In the Gulf
of Siam there are no hurricanes. But neither did I
expect to find myself bound hand and foot to the
hopeless extent which was revealed to me as the
days went on.
Not that the evil spell held us always motionless.
Mysterious currents drifted us here and there, with
a stealthy power made manifest only by the chang-
ing vistas of the islands fringing the east shore of
the Gulf. And there were winds, too, fitful and
deceitful. They raised hopes only to dash them
into the bitterest disappointment, promises of
advance ending in lost ground, expiring in sighs,
dying into dumb stillness in which the currents
had it all their own way--their own inimical
The island of Koh-ring, a great, black, up-
heaved ridge amongst a lot of tiny islets, lying
upon the glassy water like a triton amongst min-
nows, seemed to be the centre of the fatal circle. It
seemed impossible to get away from it. Day after
day it remained in sight. More than once, in a
favourable breeze, I would take its bearings in the
fast-ebbing twilight, thinking that it was for the
last time. Vain hope. A night of fitful airs would
undo the gains of temporary favour, and the rising
sun would throw out the black relief of Koh-ring
looking more barren, inhospitable, and grim than ever.
"It's like being bewitched, upon my word," I
said once to Mr. Burns, from my usual position in
He was sitting up in his bed-place. He was
progressing toward the world of living men; if he
could hardly have been said to have rejoined it yet.
He nodded to me his frail and bony head in a
wisely mysterious assent.
"Oh, yes, I know what you mean," I said.
"But you cannot expect me to believe that a dead
man has the power to put out of joint the meteor-
ology of this part of the world. Though indeed
it seems to have gone utterly wrong. The land and
sea breezes have got broken up into small pieces.
We cannot depend upon them for five minutes to-
"It won't be very long now before I can come up
on deck," muttered Mr. Burns, "and then we shall
Whether he meant this for a promise to grapple
with supernatural evil I couldn't tell. At any rate,
it wasn't the kind of assistance I needed. On the
other hand, I had been living on deck practically
night and day so as to take advantage of every
chance to get my ship a little more to the south-
ward. The mate, I could see, was extremely weak
yet, and not quite rid of his delusion, which to me
appeared but a symptom of his disease. At all
events, the hopefulness of an invalid was not to be
discouraged. I said:
"You will be most welcome there, I am sure, Mr.
Burns. If you go on improving at this rate you'll
be presently one of the healthiest men in the ship."
This pleased him, but his extreme emaciation
converted his self-satisfied smile into a ghastly
exhibition of long teeth under the red moustache.
"Aren't the fellows improving, sir?" he asked
soberly, with an extremely sensible expression of
anxiety on his face.
I answered him only with a vague gesture and
went away from the door. The fact was that
disease played with us capriciously very much as
the winds did. It would go from one man to an-
other with a lighter or heavier touch, which always
left its mark behind, staggering some, knocking
others over for a time, leaving this one, returning
to another, so that all of them had now an invalid-
ish aspect and a hunted, apprehensive look in their
eyes; while Ransome and I, the only two com-
pletely untouched, went amongst them assiduously
distributing quinine. It was a double fight. The
adverse weather held us in front and the disease
pressed on our rear. I must say that the men were
very good. The constant toil of trimming yards
they faced willingly. But all spring was out of
their limbs, and as I looked at them from the poop
I could not keep from my mind the dreadful im-
pression that they were moving in poisoned air.
Down below, in his cabin, Mr. Burns had ad-
vanced so far as not only to be able to sit up, but
even to draw up his legs. Clasping them with
bony arms, like an animated skeleton, he emitted
deep, impatient sighs.
"The great thing to do, sir," he would tell me on
every occasion, when I gave him the chance, "the
great thing is to get the ship past 8 d 20' of latitude.
Once she's past that we're all right."
At first I used only to smile at him, though, God
knows, I had not much heart left for smiles. But
at last I lost my patience.
"Oh, yes. The latitude 8 d 20'. That's where
you buried your late captain, isn't it?" Then with
severity: "Don't you think, Mr. Burns, it's about
time you dropped all that nonsense?"
He rolled at me his deep-sunken eyes in a glance
of invincible obstinacy. But for the rest he only
muttered, just loud enough for me to hear, some-
thing about "Not surprised . . . find . . .
play us some beastly trick yet. . . ."
Such passages as this were not exactly whole-
some for my resolution. The stress of adversity
was beginning to tell on me. At the same time, I
felt a contempt for that obscure weakness of my
soul. I said to myself disdainfully that it should
take much more than that to affect in the smallest
degree my fortitude.
I didn't know then how soon and from what un-
expected direction it would be attacked.
It was the very next day. The sun had risen
clear of the southern shoulder of Koh-ring, which
still hung, like an evil attendant, on our port
quarter. It was intensely hateful to my sight.
During the night we had been heading all round the
compass, trimming the yards again and again, to
what I fear must have been for the most part im-
aginary puffs of air. Then just about sunrise we
got for an hour an inexplicable, steady breeze, right
in our teeth. There was no sense in it. It fitted
neither with the season of the year nor with the
secular experience of seamen as recorded in books,
nor with the aspect of the sky. Only purposeful
malevolence could account for it. It sent us
travelling at a great pace away from our proper
course; and if we had been out on pleasure sailing
bent it would have been a delightful breeze, with
the awakened sparkle of the sea, with the sense of
motion and a feeling of unwonted freshness. Then,
all at once, as if disdaining to carry farther the
sorry jest, it dropped and died out completely in
less than five minutes. The ship's head swung
where it listed; the stilled sea took on the polish of a
steel plate in the calm.
I went below, not because I meant to take some
rest, but simply because I couldn't bear to look at
it just then. The indefatigable Ransome was busy
in the saloon. It had become a regular practice
with him to give me an informal health report in
the morning. He turned away from the sideboard
with his usual pleasant, quiet gaze. No shadow
rested on his intelligent forehead.
"There are a good many of them middling bad
this morning, sir," he said in a calm tone.
"What? All knocked out?"
"Only two actually in their bunks, sir, but--"
"It's the last night that has done for them. We
have had to pull and haul all the blessed time."
"I heard, sir. I had a mind to come out and
help only, you know. . . ."
"Certainly not. You mustn't. . . . The
fellows lie at night about the decks, too. It isn't
good for them."
Ransome assented. But men couldn't be looked
after like children. Moreover, one could hardly
blame them for trying for such coolness and such
air as there was to be found on deck. He himself,
of course, knew better.
He was, indeed, a reasonable man. Yet it
would have been hard to say that the others were
not. The last few days had been for us like the
ordeal of the fiery furnace. One really couldn't
quarrel with their common, imprudent humanity
making the best of the moments of relief, when the
night brought in the illusion of coolness and the
starlight twinkled through the heavy, dew-laden
air. Moreover, most of them were so weakened
that hardly anything could be done without every-
body that could totter mustering on the braces.
No, it was no use remonstrating with them. But I
fully believed that quinine was of very great use
I believed in it. I pinned my faith to it. It
would save the men, the ship, break the spell by
its medicinal virtue, make time of no account,
the weather but a passing worry and, like a magic
powder working against mysterious malefices, se-
cure the first passage of my first command against
the evil powers of calms and pestilence. I looked
upon it as more precious than gold, and unlike gold,
of which there ever hardly seems to be enough any-
where, the ship had a sufficient store of it. I went
in to get it with the purpose of weighing out doses.
I stretched my hand with the feeling of a man
reaching for an unfailing panacea, took up a fresh
bottle and unrolled the wrapper, noticing as I did
so that the ends, both top and bottom, had come
unsealed. . . .
But why record all the swift steps of the appal-
ling discovery? You have guessed the truth al-
ready. There was the wrapper, the bottle, and the
white powder inside, some sort of powder! But it
wasn't quinine. One look at it was quite enough.
I remember that at the very moment of picking up
the bottle, before I even dealt with the wrapper, the
weight of the object I had in my hand gave me an
instant premonition. Quinine is as light as feath-
ers; and my nerves must have been exasperated
into an extraordinary sensibility. I let the bottle
smash itself on the floor. The stuff, whatever it
was, felt gritty under the sole of my shoe. I
snatched up the next bottle and then the next.
The weight alone told the tale. One after another
they fell, breaking at my feet, not because I threw
them down in my dismay, but slipping through my
fingers as if this disclosure were too much for my
It is a fact that the very greatness of a mental
shock helps one to bear up against it by producing
a sort of temporary insensibility. I came out of
the state-room stunned, as if something heavy had
dropped on my head. From the other side of the
saloon, across the table, Ransome, with a duster in
his hand, stared open-mouthed. I don't think that
I looked wild. It is quite possible that I appeared
to be in a hurry because I was instinctively hasten-
ing up on deck. An example this of training be-
come instinct. The difficulties, the dangers, the
problems of a ship at sea must be met on deck.
To this fact, as it were of nature, I responded
instinctively; which may be taken as a proof that
for a moment I must have been robbed of my
I was certainly off my balance, a prey to im-
pulse, for at the bottom of the stairs I turned and
flung myself at the doorway of Mr. Burns' cabin.
The wildness of his aspect checked my mental dis-
order. He was sitting up in his bunk, his body
looking immensely long, his head drooping a little
sideways, with affected complacency. He flour-
ished, in his trembling hand, on the end of a fore-
arm no thicker than a walking-stick, a shining
pair of scissors which he tried before my very eyes
to jab at his throat.
I was to a certain extent horrified; but it was
rather a secondary sort of effect, not really strong
enough to make me yell at him in some such man-
ner as: "Stop!" . . . "Heavens!" . . .
"What are you doing?"
In reality he was simply overtaxing his returning
strength in a shaky attempt to clip off the thick
growth of his red beard. A large towel was spread
over his lap, and a shower of stiff hairs, like bits of
copper wire, was descending on it at every snip of
He turned to me his face grotesque beyond the
fantasies of mad dreams, one cheek all bushy as if
with a swollen flame, the other denuded and
sunken, with the untouched long moustache on
that side asserting itself, lonely and fierce. And
while he stared thunderstruck, with the gaping
scissors on his fingers, I shouted my discovery at
him fiendishly, in six words, without comment.
I HEARD the clatter of the scissors escaping from
his hand, noted the perilous heave of his whole
person over the edge of the bunk after them, and
then, returning to my first purpose, pursued my
course on the deck. The sparkle of the sea filled
my eyes. It was gorgeous and barren, monotonous
and without hope under the empty curve of the
sky. The sails hung motionless and slack, the
very folds of their sagging surfaces moved no more
than carved granite. The impetuosity of my ad-
vent made the man at the helm start slightly. A
block aloft squeaked incomprehensibly, for what
on earth could have made it do so? It was a
whistling note like a bird's. For a long, long time
I faced an empty world, steeped in an infinity of
silence, through which the sunshine poured and
flowed for some mysterious purpose. Then I heard
Ransome's voice at my elbow.
"I have put Mr. Burns back to bed, sir."
"Well, sir, he got out, all of a sudden, but when
he let go the edge of his bunk he fell down. He
isn't light-headed, though, it seems to me."
"No," I said dully, without looking at Ransome.
He waited for a moment, then cautiously, as if not
to give offence: "I don't think we need lose much
of that stuff, sir," he said, "I can sweep it up, every
bit of it almost, and then we could sift the glass out.
I will go about it at once. It will not make the
breakfast late, not ten minutes."
"Oh, yes," I said bitterly. "Let the breakfast
wait, sweep up every bit of it, and then throw
the damned lot overboard!"
The profound silence returned, and when I
looked over my shoulder, Ransome--the intelli-
gent, serene Ransome--had vanished from my
side. The intense loneliness of the sea acted like
poison on my brain. When I turned my eyes to the
ship, I had a morbid vision of her as a floating
grave. Who hasn't heard of ships found floating,
haphazard, with their crews all dead? I looked at
the seaman at the helm, I had an impulse to speak
to him, and, indeed, his face took on an expectant
cast as if he had guessed my intention. But in the
end I went below, thinking I would be alone with
the greatness of my trouble for a little while. But
through his open door Mr. Burns saw me come down,
and addressed me grumpily: "Well, sir?"
I went in. "It isn't well at all," I said.
Mr. Burns, reestablished in his bed-place, was
concealing his hirsute cheek in the palm of his
"That confounded fellow has taken away the
scissors from me," were the next words he said.
The tension I was suffering from was so great
that it was perhaps just as well that Mr. Burns had
started on his grievance. He seemed very sore
about it and grumbled, "Does he think I am mad,
"I don't think so, Mr. Burns," I said. I looked
upon him at that moment as a model of self-
possession. I even conceived on that account a
sort of admiration for that man, who had (apart
from the intense materiality of what was left of his
beard) come as near to being a disembodied spirit
as any man can do and live. I noticed the pre-
ternatural sharpness of the ridge of his nose, the
deep cavities of his temples, and I envied him. He
was so reduced that he would probably die very
soon. Enviable man! So near extinction--while
I had to bear within me a tumult of suffering
vitality, doubt, confusion, self-reproach, and an in-
definite reluctance to meet the horrid logic of the
situation. I could not help muttering: "I feel as
if I were going mad myself."
Mr. Burns glared spectrally, but otherwise
"I always thought he would play us some deadly trick,"
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