The Shadow Line
Part 3 out of 3
he said, with a peculiar emphasis on the HE.
It gave me a mental shock, but I had neither the
mind, nor the heart, nor the spirit to argue with
him. My form of sickness was indifference. The
creeping paralysis of a hopeless outlook. So I
only gazed at him. Mr. Burns broke into further
"Eh! What! No! You won't believe it? Well,
how do you account for this? How do you think it
could have happened?"
"Happened?" I repeated dully. "Why, yes,
how in the name of the infernal powers did this
Indeed, on thinking it out, it seemed incompre-
hensible that it should just be like this: the bottles
emptied, refilled, rewrapped, and replaced. A sort
of plot, a sinister attempt to deceive, a thing re-
sembling sly vengeance, but for what? Or else a
fiendish joke. But Mr. Burns was in possession of
a theory. It was simple, and he uttered it solemnly
in a hollow voice.
"I suppose they have given him about fifteen
pounds in Haiphong for that little lot."
"Mr. Burns!" I cried.
He nodded grotesquely over his raised legs, like
two broomsticks in the pyjamas, with enormous
bare feet at the end.
"Why not? The stuff is pretty expensive in this
part of the world, and they were very short of it in
Tonkin. And what did he care? You have not
known him. I have, and I have defied him. He
feared neither God, nor devil, nor man, nor wind,
nor sea, nor his own conscience. And I believe he
hated everybody and everything. But I think he
was afraid to die. I believe I am the only man
who ever stood up to him. I faced him in that
cabin where you live now, when he was sick, and I
cowed him then. He thought I was going to twist
his neck for him. If he had had his way we would
have been beating up against the Nord-East mon-
soon, as long as he lived and afterward, too, for ages
and ages. Acting the Flying Dutchman in the
China Sea! Ha! Ha!"
"But why should he replace the bottles like
this?" . . . I began.
"Why shouldn't he? Why should he want to
throw the bottles away? They fit the drawer.
They belong to the medicine chest."
"And they were wrapped up," I cried.
"Well, the wrappers were there. Did it from
habit, I suppose, and as to refilling, there is always
a lot of stuff they send in paper parcels that burst
after a time. And then, who can tell? I suppose
you didn't taste it, sir? But, of course, you are
sure. . . ."
"No," I said. "I didn't taste it. It is all over-
Behind me, a soft, cultivated voice said: "I have
tasted it. It seemed a mixture of all sorts, sweet-
ish, saltish, very horrible."
Ransome, stepping out of the pantry, had been
listening for some time, as it was very excusable
in him to do.
"A dirty trick," said Mr. Burns. "I always
said he would."
The magnitude of my indignation was un-
bounded. And the kind, sympathetic doctor, too.
The only sympathetic man I ever knew . . .
instead of writing that warning letter, the very re-
finement of sympathy, why didn't the man make a
proper inspection? But, as a matter of fact, it was
hardly fair to blame the doctor. The fittings were
in order and the medicine chest is an officially ar-
ranged affair. There was nothing really to arouse
the slightest suspicion. The person I could never
forgive was myself. Nothing should ever be taken
for granted. The seed of everlasting remorse was
sown in my breast.
"I feel it's all my fault," I exclaimed, "mine and
nobody else's. That's how I feel. I shall never
"That's very foolish, sir," said Mr. Burns fiercely.
And after this effort he fell back exhausted on
his bed. He closed his eyes, he panted; this affair,
this abominable surprise had shaken him up, too.
As I turned away I perceived Ransome looking at
me blankly. He appreciated what it meant, but
managed to produce his pleasant, wistful smile.
Then he stepped back into his pantry, and I rushed
up on deck again to see whether there was any
wind, any breath under the sky, any stir of the air,
any sign of hope. The deadly stillness met me
again. Nothing was changed except that there
was a different man at the wheel. He looked ill.
His whole figure drooped, and he seemed rather to
cling to the spokes than hold them with a controll-
ing grip. I said to him:
"You are not fit to be here."
"I can manage, sir," he said feebly.
As a matter of fact, there was nothing for him to do.
The ship had no steerage way. She lay with her
head to the westward, the everlasting Koh-ring
visible over the stern, with a few small islets, black
spots in the great blaze, swimming before my
troubled eyes. And but for those bits of land there
was no speck on the sky, no speck on the water, no
shape of vapour, no wisp of smoke, no sail, no boat,
no stir of humanity, no sign of life, nothing!
The first question was, what to do? What could
one do? The first thing to do obviously was to tell
the men. I did it that very day. I wasn't going
to let the knowledge simply get about. I would
face them. They were assembled on the quarter-
deck for the purpose. Just before I stepped out to
speak to them I discovered that life could hold
terrible moments. No confessed criminal had ever
been so oppressed by his sense of guilt. This is
why, perhaps, my face was set hard and my voice
curt and unemotional while I made my declaration
that I could do nothing more for the sick in the way
of drugs. As to such care as could be given them
they knew they had had it.
I would have held them justified in tearing me
limb from limb. The silence which followed upon
my words was almost harder to bear than the
angriest uproar. I was crushed by the infinite
depth of its reproach. But, as a matter of fact, I
was mistaken. In a voice which I had great diffi-
culty in keeping firm, I went on: "I suppose, men,
you have understood what I said, and you know
what it means."
A voice or two were heard: "Yes, sir. . . . We
They had kept silent simply because they
thought that they were not called to say anything;
and when I told them that I intended to run into
Singapore and that the best chance for the ship
and the men was in the efforts all of us, sick and
well, must make to get her along out of this, I re-
ceived the encouragement of a low assenting mur-
mur and of a louder voice exclaiming: "Surely
there is a way out of this blamed hole."
Here is an extract from the notes I wrote at the time.
"We have lost Koh-ring at last. For many days
now I don't think I have been two hours below al-
together. I remain on deck, of course, night and
day, and the nights and the days wheel over us in
succession, whether long or short, who can say?
All sense of time is lost in the monotony of ex-
pectation, of hope, and of desire--which is only
one: Get the ship to the southward! Get the ship
to the southward! The effect is curiously me-
chanical; the sun climbs and descends, the night
swings over our heads as if somebody below the
horizon were turning a crank. It is the prettiest,
the most aimless! . . . and all through that
miserable performance I go on, tramping, tramp-
ing the deck. How many miles have I walked on
the poop of that ship! A stubborn pilgrimage of
sheer restlessness, diversified by short excursions
below to look upon Mr. Burns. I don't know
whether it is an illusion, but he seems to become
more substantial from day to day. He doesn't say
much, for, indeed, the situation doesn't lend itself
to idle remarks. I notice this even with the men as
I watch them moving or sitting about the decks.
They don't talk to each other. It strikes me that
if there exists an invisible ear catching the whispers
of the earth, it will find this ship the most silent
spot on it. . . .
"No, Mr. Burns has not much to say to me. He
sits in his bunk with his beard gone, his moustaches
flaming, and with an air of silent determination on
his chalky physiognomy. Ransome tells me he
devours all the food that is given him to the last
scrap, but that, apparently, he sleeps very little.
Even at night, when I go below to fill my pipe, I
notice that, though dozing flat on his back, he
still looks very determined. From the side glance
he gives me when awake it seems as though he were
annoyed at being interrupted in some arduous
mental operation; and as I emerge on deck the
ordered arrangement of the stars meets my eye, un-
clouded, infinitely wearisome. There they are:
stars, sun, sea, light, darkness, space, great waters;
the formidable Work of the Seven Days, into which
mankind seems to have blundered unbidden. Or
else decoyed. Even as I have been decoyed into
this awful, this death-haunted command. . . ."
The only spot of light in the ship at night was
that of the compass-lamps, lighting up the faces of
the succeeding helmsmen; for the rest we were lost
in the darkness, I walking the poop and the men
lying about the decks. They were all so reduced
by sickness that no watches could be kept. Those
who were able to walk remained all the time on
duty, lying about in the shadows of the main deck,
till my voice raised for an order would bring them
to their enfeebled feet, a tottering little group, mov-
ing patently about the ship, with hardly a mur-
mur, a whisper amongst them all. And every
time I had to raise my voice it was with a pang of
remorse and pity.
Then about four o'clock in the morning a light
would gleam forward in the galley. The unfailing
Ransome with the uneasy heart, immune, serene,
and active, was getting ready for the early coffee for
the men. Presently he would bring me a cup up
on the poop, and it was then that I allowed myself
to drop into my deck chair for a couple of hours of
real sleep. No doubt I must have been snatching
short dozes when leaning against the rail for a mo-
ment in sheer exhaustion; but, honestly, I was not
aware of them, except in the painful form of con-
vulsive starts that seemed to come on me even
while I walked. From about five, however, until
after seven I would sleep openly under the fading
I would say to the helmsman: "Call me at
need," and drop into that chair and close my eyes,
feeling that there was no more sleep for me on
earth. And then I would know nothing till, some
time between seven and eight, I would feel a touch
on my shoulder and look up at Ransome's face,
with its faint, wistful smile and friendly, gray
eyes, as though he were tenderly amused at my
slumbers. Occasionally the second mate would
come up and relieve me at early coffee time. But
it didn't really matter. Generally it was a dead
calm, or else faint airs so changing and fugitive
that it really wasn't worth while to touch a brace
for them. If the air steadied at all the seaman at
the helm could be trusted for a warning shout:
"Ship's all aback, sir!" which like a trumpet-
call would make me spring a foot above the deck.
Those were the words which it seemed to me would
have made me spring up from eternal sleep. But
this was not often. I have never met since such
breathless sunrises. And if the second mate hap-
pened to be there (he had generally one day in
three free of fever) I would find him sitting on the
skylight half senseless, as it were, and with an
idiotic gaze fastened on some object near by--a
rope, a cleat, a belaying pin, a ringbolt.
That young man was rather troublesome. He
remained cubbish in his sufferings. He seemed to
have become completely imbecile; and when the re-
turn of fever drove him to his cabin below, the next
thing would be that we would miss him from there.
The first time it happened Ransome and I were
very much alarmed. We started a quiet search
and ultimately Ransome discovered him curled up
in the sail-locker, which opened into the lobby by a
sliding door. When remonstrated with, he mut-
tered sulkily, "It's cool in there." That wasn't
true. It was only dark there.
The fundamental defects of his face were not im-
proved by its uniform livid hue. The disease dis-
closed its low type in a startling way. It was not
so with many of the men. The wastage of ill-
health seemed to idealise the general character of
the features, bringing out the unsuspected nobility
of some, the strength of others, and in one case re-
vealing an essentially comic aspect. He was a
short, gingery, active man with a nose and chin of
the Punch type, and whom his shipmates called
"Frenchy." I don't know why. He may have
been a Frenchman, but I have never heard him
utter a single word in French.
To see him coming aft to the wheel comforted
one. The blue dungaree trousers turned up the
calf, one leg a little higher than the other, the clean
check shirt, the white canvas cap, evidently made
by himself, made up a whole of peculiar smartness,
and the persistent jauntiness of his gait, even, poor
fellow, when he couldn't help tottering, told of his
invincible spirit. There was also a man called
Gambril. He was the only grizzled person in the
ship. His face was of an austere type. But if I re-
member all their faces, wasting tragically before my
eyes, most of their names have vanished from my
The words that passed between us were few and
puerile in regard of the situation. I had to force
myself to look them in the face. I expected to
meet reproachful glances. There were none. The
expression of suffering in their eyes was indeed
hard enough to bear. But that they couldn't help.
For the rest, I ask myself whether it was the temper
of their souls or the sympathy of their imagination
that made them so wonderful, so worthy of my un-
For myself, neither my soul was highly tempered,
nor my imagination properly under control. There
were moments when I felt, not only that I would go
mad, but that I had gone mad already; so that I
dared not open my lips for fear of betraying myself
by some insane shriek. Luckily I had only orders
to give, and an order has a steadying influence upon
him who has to give it. Moreover, the seaman,
the officer of the watch, in me was sufficiently sane.
I was like a mad carpenter making a box.
Were he ever so convinced that he was King of
Jerusalem, the box he would make would be a sane
box. What I feared was a shrill note escaping me
involuntarily and upsetting my balance. Luckily,
again, there was no necessity to raise one's voice.
The brooding stillness of the world seemed sensitive
to the slightest sound, like a whispering gallery.
The conversational tone would almost carry a
word from one end of the ship to the other. The
terrible thing was that the only voice that I ever
heard was my own. At night especially it reverber-
ated very lonely amongst the planes of the un-
Mr. Burns, still keeping to his bed with that air
of secret determination, was moved to grumble at
many things. Our interviews were short five-
minute affairs, but fairly frequent. I was everlast-
ingly diving down below to get a light, though I did
not consume much tobacco at that time. The pipe
was always going out; for in truth my mind was not
composed enough to enable me to get a decent
smoke. Likewise, for most of the time during the
twenty-four hours I could have struck matches on
deck and held them aloft till the flame burnt my
fingers. But I always used to run below. It was
a change. It was the only break in the incessant
strain; and, of course, Mr. Burns through the open
door could see me come in and go out every time.
With his knees gathered up under his chin and
staring with his greenish eyes over them, he was a
weird figure, and with my knowledge of the crazy
notion in his head, not a very attractive one for me.
Still, I had to speak to him now and then, and one
day he complained that the ship was very silent.
For hours and hours, he said, he was lying there, not
hearing a sound, till he did not know what to do
"When Ransome happens to be forward in his
galley everything's so still that one might think
everybody in the ship was dead," he grumbled.
"The only voice I do hear sometimes is yours, sir,
and that isn't enough to cheer me up. What's the
matter with the men? Isn't there one left that can
sing out at the ropes?"
"Not one, Mr. Burns," I said. "There is no
breath to spare on board this ship for that. Are
you aware that there are times when I can't muster
more than three hands to do anything?"
He asked swiftly but fearfully:
"Nobody dead yet, sir?"
"It wouldn't do," Mr. Burns declared forcibly.
"Mustn't let him. If he gets hold of one he will
get them all."
I cried out angrily at this. I believe I even
swore at the disturbing effect of these words.
They attacked all the self-possession that was left
to me. In my endless vigil in the face of the enemy
I had been haunted by gruesome images enough. I
had had visions of a ship drifting in calms and
swinging in light airs, with all her crew dying slowly
about her decks. Such things had been known to
Mr. Burns met my outburst by a mysterious
"Look here," I said. "You don't believe your-
self what you say. You can't. It's impossible.
It isn't the sort of thing I have a right to expect
from you. My position's bad enough without
being worried with your silly fancies."
He remained unmoved. On account of the way
in which the light fell on his head I could not be
sure whether he had smiled faintly or not. I
changed my tone.
"Listen," I said. "It's getting so desperate
that I had thought for a moment, since we can't
make our way south, whether I wouldn't try to
steer west and make an attempt to reach the mail-
boat track. We could always get some quinine
from her, at least. What do you think?"
He cried out: "No, no, no. Don't do that, sir.
You mustn't for a moment give up facing that old
ruffian. If you do he will get the upper hand of
I left him. He was impossible. It was like a
case of possession. His protest, however, was
essentially quite sound. As a matter of fact, my
notion of heading out west on the chance of sight-
ing a problematical steamer could not bear calm
examination. On the side where we were we had
enough wind, at least from time to time, to struggle
on toward the south. Enough, at least, to keep
hope alive. But suppose that I had used those
capricious gusts of wind to sail away to the west-
ward, into some region where there was not a
breath of air for days on end, what then? Perhaps
my appalling vision of a ship floating with a dead
crew would become a reality for the discovery
weeks afterward by some horror-stricken mariners.
That afternoon Ransome brought me up a cup
of tea, and while waiting there, tray in hand, he re-
marked in the exactly right tone of sympathy:
"You are holding out well, sir."
"Yes," I said. "You and I seem to have been
"Yes, by the fever-devil who has got on board
this ship," I said.
Ransome gave me one of his attractive, intelli-
gent, quick glances and went away with the tray.
It occurred to me that I had been talking some-
what in Mr. Burns' manner. It annoyed me. Yet
often in darker moments I forgot myself into an
attitude toward our troubles more fit for a contest
against a living enemy.
Yes. The fever-devil had not laid his hand yet
either on Ransome or on me. But he might at any
time. It was one of those thoughts one had to
fight down, keep at arm's length at any cost. It
was unbearable to contemplate the possibility of
Ransome, the housekeeper of the ship, being laid
low. And what would happen to my command if
I got knocked over, with Mr. Burns too weak to
stand without holding on to his bed-place and the
second mate reduced to a state of permanent im-
becility? It was impossible to imagine, or rather,
it was only too easy to imagine.
I was alone on the poop. The ship having no
steerage way, I had sent the helmsman away to sit
down or lie down somewhere in the shade. The
men's strength was so reduced that all unnecessary
calls on it had to be avoided. It was the austere
Gambril with the grizzly beard. He went away
readily enough, but he was so weakened by re-
peated bouts of fever, poor fellow, that in order to
get down the poop ladder he had to turn sideways
and hang on with both hands to the brass rail. It
was just simply heart-breaking to watch. Yet he
was neither very much worse nor much better than
most of the half-dozen miserable victims I could
muster up on deck.
It was a terribly lifeless afternoon. For several
days in succession low clouds had appeared in the
distance, white masses with dark convolutions rest-
ing on the water, motionless, almost solid, and yet
all the time changing their aspects subtly. To-
ward evening they vanished as a rule. But this
day they awaited the setting sun, which glowed and
smouldered sulkily amongst them before it sank
down. The punctual and wearisome stars re-
appeared over our mastheads, but the air remained
stagnant and oppressive.
The unfailing Ransome lighted the binnacle-
lamps and glided, all shadowy, up to me.
"Will you go down and try to eat something,
sir?" he suggested.
His low voice startled me. I had been standing
looking out over the rail, saying nothing, feeling
nothing, not even the weariness of my limbs, over-
come by the evil spell.
"Ransome," I asked abruptly, "how long have I
been on deck? I am losing the notion of time."
"Twelve days, sir," he said, "and it's just a
fortnight since we left the anchorage."
His equable voice sounded mournful somehow.
He waited a bit, then added: "It's the first time
that it looks as if we were to have some rain."
I noticed then the broad shadow on the horizon,
extinguishing the low stars completely, while those
overhead, when I looked up, seemed to shine down
on us through a veil of smoke.
How it got there, how it had crept up so high, I
couldn't say. It had an ominous appearance. The
air did not stir. At a renewed invitation from
Ransome I did go down into the cabin to--in his
own words--"try and eat something." I don't
know that the trial was very successful. I sup-
pose at that period I did exist on food in the usual
way; but the memory is now that in those days life
was sustained on invincible anguish, as a sort of
infernal stimulant exciting and consuming at the
It's the only period of my life in which I at-
tempted to keep a diary. No, not the only one.
Years later, in conditions of moral isolation, I did
put down on paper the thoughts and events of a
score of days. But this was the first time. I don't
remember how it came about or how the pocket-
book and the pencil came into my hands. It's in-
conceivable that I should have looked for them on
purpose. I suppose they saved me from the crazy
trick of talking to myself.
Strangely enough, in both cases I took to that
sort of thing in circumstances in which I did not ex-
pect, in colloquial phrase, "to come out of it."
Neither could I expect the record to outlast me.
This shows that it was purely a personal need for
intimate relief and not a call of egotism.
Here I must give another sample of it, a few de-
tached lines, now looking very ghostly to my own
eyes, out of the part scribbled that very evening:
"There is something going on in the sky like
a decomposition; like a corruption of the air,
which remains as still as ever. After all, mere
clouds, which may or may not hold wind or rain.
Strange that it should trouble me so. I feel as if all
my sins had found me out. But I suppose the
trouble is that the ship is still lying motionless, not
under command; and that I have nothing to do to
keep my imagination from running wild amongst
the disastrous images of the worst that may befall
us. What's going to happen? Probably nothing.
Or anything. It may be a furious squall coming,
butt end foremost. And on deck there are five
men with the vitality and the strength, of say, two.
We may have all our sails blown away. Every
stitch of canvas has been on her since we broke
ground at the mouth of the Mei-nam, fifteen days
ago . . . or fifteen centuries. It seems to me
that all my life before that momentous day is in-
finitely remote, a fading memory of light-hearted
youth, something on the other side of a shadow.
Yes, sails may very well be blown away. And that
would be like a death sentence on the men. We
haven't strength enough on board to bend another
suit; incredible thought, but it is true. Or we may
even get dismasted. Ships have been dismasted in
squalls simply because they weren't handled quick
enough, and we have no power to whirl the yards
around. It's like being bound hand and foot pre-
paratory to having one's throat cut. And what
appals me most of all is that I shrink from going on
deck to face it. It's due to the ship, it's due to the
men who are there on deck--some of them, ready
to put out the last remnant of their strength at a
word from me. And I am shrinking from it. From
the mere vision. My first command. Now I
understand that strange sense of insecurity in my
past. I always suspected that I might be no good.
And here is proof positive. I am shirking it. I
am no good."
At that moment, or, perhaps, the moment after,
I became aware of Ransome standing in the cabin.
Something in his expression startled me. It had a
meaning which I could not make out. I exclaimed:
It was his turn then to look startled.
"Dead? Not that I know of, sir. I have been in
the forecastle only ten minutes ago and there was
no dead man there then."
"You did give me a scare," I said.
His voice was extremely pleasant to listen to.
He explained that he had come down below to close
Mr. Burns' port in case it should come on to rain.
"He did not know that I was in the cabin," he added.
"How does it look outside?" I asked him.
"Very black, indeed, sir. There is something in
it for certain."
"In what quarter?"
"All round, sir."
I repeated idly: "All round. For certain," with
my elbows on the table.
Ransome lingered in the cabin as if he had some-
thing to do there, but hesitated about doing it. I
"You think I ought to be on deck?"
He answered at once but without any particular
emphasis or accent: "I do, sir."
I got to my feet briskly, and he made way for me
to go out. As I passed through the lobby I heard
Mr. Burns' voice saying:
"Shut the door of my room, will you, steward?"
And Ransome's rather surprised: "Certainly, sir."
I thought that all my feelings had been dulled
into complete indifference. But I found it as try-
ing as ever to be on deck. The impenetrable black-
ness beset the ship so close that it seemed that by
thrusting one's hand over the side one could touch
some unearthly substance. There was in it an
effect of inconceivable terror and of inexpressible
mystery. The few stars overhead shed a dim light
upon the ship alone, with no gleams of any kind
upon the water, in detached shafts piercing an at-
mosphere which had turned to soot. It was some-
thing I had never seen before, giving no hint of the
direction from which any change would come, the
closing in of a menace from all sides.
There was still no man at the helm. The im-
mobility of all things was perfect. If the air had
turned black, the sea, for all I knew, might have
turned solid. It was no good looking in any di-
rection, watching for any sign, speculating upon
the nearness of the moment. When the time came
the blackness would overwhelm silently the bit of
starlight falling upon the ship, and the end of all
things would come without a sigh, stir, or murmur
of any kind, and all our hearts would cease to beat
like run-down clocks.
It was impossible to shake off that sense of
finality. The quietness that came over me was
like a foretaste of annihilation. It gave me a sort
of comfort, as though my soul had become suddenly
reconciled to an eternity of blind stillness.
The seaman's instinct alone survived whole in
my moral dissolution. I descended the ladder to
the quarter-deck. The starlight seemed to die out
before reaching that spot, but when I asked
quietly: "Are you there, men?" my eyes made out
shadow forms starting up around me, very few,
very indistinct; and a voice spoke: "All here, sir."
Another amended anxiously:
"All that are any good for anything, sir."
Both voices were very quiet and unringing; with-
out any special character of readiness or discour-
agement. Very matter-of-fact voices.
"We must try to haul this mainsail close up," I said.
The shadows swayed away from me without a
word. Those men were the ghosts of themselves,
and their weight on a rope could be no more than
the weight of a bunch of ghosts. Indeed, if ever a
sail was hauled up by sheer spiritual strength it
must have been that sail, for, properly speaking,
there was not muscle enough for the task in the
whole ship let alone the miserable lot of us on deck.
Of course, I took the lead in the work myself.
They wandered feebly after me from rope to rope,
stumbling and panting. They toiled like Titans.
We were half-an-hour at it at least, and all the time
the black universe made no sound. When the last
leech-line was made fast, my eyes, accustomed to
the darkness, made out the shapes of exhausted
men drooping over the rails, collapsed on hatches.
One hung over the after-capstan, sobbing for
breath, and I stood amongst them like a tower of
strength, impervious to disease and feeling only the
sickness of my soul. I waited for some time fight-
ing against the weight of my sins, against my sense
of unworthiness, and then I said:
"Now, men, we'll go aft and square the mainyard.
That's about all we can do for the ship; and for the
rest she must take her chance."
AS WE all went up it occurred to me that there
ought to be a man at the helm. I raised my voice
not much above a whisper, and, noiselessly, an un-
complaining spirit in a fever-wasted body appeared
in the light aft, the head with hollow eyes illumi-
nated against the blackness which had swallowed
up our world--and the universe. The bared fore-
arm extended over the upper spokes seemed to
shine with a light of its own.
I murmured to that luminous appearance:
"Keep the helm right amidships."
It answered in a tone of patient suffering:
"Right amidships, sir."
Then I descended to the quarter-deck. It was
impossible to tell whence the blow would come. To
look round the ship was to look into a bottomless,
black pit. The eye lost itself in inconceivable
I wanted to ascertain whether the ropes had been
picked up off the deck. One could only do that by
feeling with one's feet. In my cautious progress I
came against a man in whom I recognized
Ransome. He possessed an unimpaired physical
solidity which was manifest to me at the contact.
He was leaning against the quarter-deck capstan
and kept silent. It was like a revelation. He was
the collapsed figure sobbing for breath I had no-
ticed before we went on the poop.
"You have been helping with the mainsail!" I
exclaimed in a low tone.
"Yes, sir," sounded his quiet voice.
"Man! What were you thinking of? You
mustn't do that sort of thing."
After a pause he assented: "I suppose I
mustn't." Then after another short silence he
added: "I am all right now," quickly, between the
I could neither hear nor see anybody else; but
when I spoke up, answering sad murmurs filled the
quarter-deck, and its shadows seemed to shift here
and there. I ordered all the halyards laid down on
deck clear for running.
"I'll see to that, sir," volunteered Ransome in
his natural, pleasant tone, which comforted one
and aroused one's compassion, too, somehow.
That man ought to have been in his bed, resting,
and my plain duty was to send him there. But
perhaps he would not have obeyed me; I had not
the strength of mind to try. All I said was:
"Go about it quietly, Ransome."
Returning on the poop I approached Gambril.
His face, set with hollow shadows in the light,
looked awful, finally silenced. I asked him how
he felt, but hardly expected an answer. There-
fore, I was astonished at his comparative loquac-
"Them shakes leaves me as weak as a kitten,
sir," he said, preserving finely that air of uncon-
sciousness as to anything but his business a helms-
man should never lose. "And before I can pick
up my strength that there hot fit comes along and
knocks me over again."
He sighed. There was no reproach in his tone,
but the bare words were enough to give me a hor-
rible pang of self-reproach. It held me dumb for a
time. When the tormenting sensation had passed
off I asked:
"Do you feel strong enough to prevent the rud-
der taking charge if she gets sternway on her? It
wouldn't do to get something smashed about the
steering-gear now. We've enough difficulties to
cope with as it is."
He answered with just a shade of weariness that
he was strong enough to hang on. He could
promise me that she shouldn't take the wheel out
of his hands. More he couldn't say.
At that moment Ransome appeared quite close
to me, stepping out of the darkness into visibility
suddenly, as if just created with his composed face
and pleasant voice.
Every rope on deck, he said, was laid down clear
for running, as far as one could make certain
by feeling. It was impossible to see anything.
Frenchy had stationed himself forward. He said
he had a jump or two left in him yet.
Here a faint smile altered for an instant the
clear, firm design of Ransome's lips. With his
serious clear, gray eyes, his serene temperament--
he was a priceless man altogether. Soul as firm
as the muscles of his body.
He was the only man on board (except me, but I
had to preserve my liberty of movement) who had
a sufficiency of muscular strength to trust to. For
a moment I thought I had better ask him to take
the wheel. But the dreadful knowledge of the
enemy he had to carry about him made me hesi-
tate. In my ignorance of physiology it occurred
to me that he might die suddenly, from excitement,
at a critical moment.
While this gruesome fear restrained the ready
words on the tip of my tongue, Ransome stepped
back two paces and vanished from my sight.
At once an uneasiness possessed me, as if some
support had been withdrawn. I moved forward,
too, outside the circle of light, into the darkness
that stood in front of me like a wall. In one stride
I penetrated it. Such must have been the dark-
ness before creation. It had closed behind me. I
knew I was invisible to the man at the helm.
Neither could I see anything. He was alone, I was
alone, every man was alone where he stood. And
every form was gone, too, spar, sail, fittings, rails;
everything was blotted out in the dreadful smooth-
ness of that absolute night.
A flash of lightning would have been a relief--I
mean physically. I would have prayed for it if it
hadn't been for my shrinking apprehension of the
thunder. In the tension of silence I was suffering
from it seemed to me that the first crash must turn
me into dust.
And thunder was, most likely, what would hap-
pen next. Stiff all over and hardly breathing,
I waited with a horribly strained expectation.
Nothing happened. It was maddening, but a dull,
growing ache in the lower part of my face made me
aware that I had been grinding my teeth madly
enough, for God knows how long.
It's extraordinary I should not have heard my-
self doing it; but I hadn't. By an effort which
absorbed all my faculties I managed to keep my
jaw still. It required much attention, and while
thus engaged I became bothered by curious, ir-
regular sounds of faint tapping on the deck. They
could be heard single, in pairs, in groups. While
I wondered at this mysterious devilry, I received
a slight blow under the left eye and felt an enor-
mous tear run down my cheek. Raindrops.
Enormous. Forerunners of something.
Tap. Tap. Tap. . . .
I turned about, and, addressing Gambrel
earnestly, entreated him to "hang on to the wheel."
But I could hardly speak from emotion. The fatal
moment had come. I held my breath. The tap-
ping had stopped as unexpectedly as it had begun,
and there was a renewed moment of intolerable sus-
pense; something like an additional turn of the
racking screw. I don't suppose I would have ever
screamed, but I remember my conviction that
there was nothing else for it but to scream.
Suddenly--how am I to convey it? Well, sud-
denly the darkness turned into water. This is the
only suitable figure. A heavy shower, a down-
pour, comes along, making a noise. You hear its
approach on the sea, in the air, too, I verily believe.
But this was different. With no preliminary
whisper or rustle, without a splash, and even with-
out the ghost of impact, I became instantaneously
soaked to the skin. Not a very difficult matter,
since I was wearing only my sleeping suit. My
hair got full of water in an instant, water streamed
on my skin, it filled my nose, my ears, my eyes.
In a fraction of a second I swallowed quite a lot
As to Gambril, he was fairly choked. He
coughed pitifully, the broken cough of a sick man;
and I beheld him as one sees a fish in an aquarium
by the light of an electric bulb, an elusive, phos-
phorescent shape. Only he did not glide away.
But something else happened. Both binnacle-
lamps went out. I suppose the water forced itself
into them, though I wouldn't have thought that
possible, for they fitted into the cowl perfectly.
The last gleam of light in the universe had gone,
pursued by a low exclamation of dismay from
Gambril. I groped for him and seized his arm.
How startlingly wasted it was.
"Never mind," I said. "You don't want the
light. All you need to do is to keep the wind,
when it comes, at the back of your head. You
"Aye, aye, sir. . . . But I should like to have
a light," he added nervously.
All that time the ship lay as steady as a rock.
The noise of the water pouring off the sails and
spars, flowing over the break of the poop, had
stopped short. The poop scuppers gurgled and
sobbed for a little while longer, and then perfect
silence, joined to perfect immobility, proclaimed
the yet unbroken spell of our helplessness, poised
on the edge of some violent issue, lurking in the
I started forward restlessly. I did not need my
sight to pace the poop of my ill-starred first com-
mand with perfect assurance. Every square foot
of her decks was impressed indelibly on my brain,
to the very grain and knots of the planks. Yet, all
of a sudden, I fell clean over something, landing
full length on my hands and face.
It was something big and alive. Not a dog--
more like a sheep, rather. But there were no
animals in the ship. How could an animal. . . .
It was an added and fantastic horror which I could
not resist. The hair of my head stirred even as I
picked myself up, awfully scared; not as a man is
scared while his judgment, his reason still try to
resist, but completely, boundlessly, and, as it were,
innocently scared--like a little child.
I could see It--that Thing! The darkness, of
which so much had just turned into water, had
thinned down a little. There It was! But I did not
hit upon the notion of Mr. Burns issuing out of the
companion on all fours till he attempted to stand
up, and even then the idea of a bear crossed my
He growled like one when I seized him round the
body. He had buttoned himself up into an enor-
mous winter overcoat of some woolly material, the
weight of which was too much for his reduced state.
I could hardly feel the incredibly thin lath of his
body, lost within the thick stuff, but his growl had
depth and substance: Confounded dump ship with
a craven, tiptoeing crowd. Why couldn't they
stamp and go with a brace? Wasn't there one God-
forsaken lubber in the lot fit to raise a yell on a
"Skulking's no good, sir," he attacked me
directly. "You can't slink past the old murderous
ruffian. It isn't the way. You must go for him
boldly--as I did. Boldness is what you want.
Show him that you don't care for any of his
damned tricks. Kick up a jolly old row."
"Good God, Mr. Burns," I said angrily.
"What on earth are you up to? What do you
mean by coming up on deck in this state?"
"Just that! Boldness. The only way to scare
the old bullying rascal."
I pushed him, still growling, against the rail.
"Hold on to it," I said roughly. I did not know
what to do with him. I left him in a hurry, to go
to Gambril, who had called faintly that he believed
there was some wind aloft. Indeed, my own ears
had caught a feeble flutter of wet canvas, high up
overhead, the jingle of a slack chain sheet. . . .
These were eerie, disturbing, alarming sounds in
the dead stillness of the air around me. All the
instances I had heard of topmasts being whipped
out of a ship while there was not wind enough on
her deck to blow out a match rushed into my
"I can't see the upper sails, sir," declared
"Don't move the helm. You'll be all right," I
The poor man's nerves were gone. Mine were
not in much better case. It was the moment of
breaking strain and was relieved by the abrupt
sensation of the ship moving forward as if of her-
self under my feet. I heard plainly the soughing
of the wind aloft, the low cracks of the upper spars
taking the strain, long before I could feel the least
draught on my face turned aft, anxious and sight-
less like the face of a blind man.
Suddenly a louder-sounding note filled our ears,
the darkness started streaming against our bodies,
chilling them exceedingly. Both of us, Gambril
and I, shivered violently in our clinging, soaked
garments of thin cotton. I said to him:
"You are all right now, my man. All you've got
to do is to keep the wind at the back of your head.
Surely you are up to that. A child could steer this
ship in smooth water."
He muttered: "Aye! A healthy child." And I
felt ashamed of having been passed over by the
fever which had been preying on every man's
strength but mine, in order that my remorse might
be the more bitter, the feeling of unworthiness more
poignant, and the sense of responsibility heavier to
The ship had gathered great way on her almost
at once on the calm water. I felt her slipping
through it with no other noise but a mysterious
rustle alongside. Otherwise, she had no motion at
all, neither lift nor roll. It was a disheartening
steadiness which had lasted for eighteen days
now; for never, never had we had wind enough in
that time to raise the slightest run of the sea. The
breeze freshened suddenly. I thought it was high
time to get Mr. Burns off the deck. He worried
me. I looked upon him as a lunatic who would be
very likely to start roaming over the ship and break
a limb or fall overboard.
I was truly glad to find he had remained holding
on where I had left him, sensibly enough. He was,
however, muttering to himself ominously.
This was discouraging. I remarked in a matter-
"We have never had so much wind as this since
we left the roads."
"There's some heart in it, too," he growled
judiciously. It was a remark of a perfectly sane
seaman. But he added immediately: "It was
about time I should come on deck. I've been
nursing my strength for this--just for this. Do
you see it, sir?"
I said I did, and proceeded to hint that it would
be advisable for him to go below now and take a
His answer was an indignant "Go below! Not if
I know it, sir."
Very cheerful! He was a horrible nuisance. And
all at once he started to argue. I could feel his
crazy excitement in the dark.
"You don't know how to go about it, sir. How
could you? All this whispering and tiptoeing is no
good. You can't hope to slink past a cunning,
wide-awake, evil brute like he was. You never
heard him talk. Enough to make your hair stand
on end. No! No! He wasn't mad. He was no
more mad than I am. He was just downright
wicked. Wicked so as to frighten most people. I
will tell you what he was. He was nothing less
than a thief and a murderer at heart. And do you
think he's any different now because he's dead?
Not he! His carcass lies a hundred fathom under,
but he's just the same . . . in latitude 8 d 20'
He snorted defiantly. I noted with weary resig-
nation that the breeze had got lighter while he
raved. He was at it again.
"I ought to have thrown the beggar out of the
ship over the rail like a dog. It was only on ac-
count of the men. . . . Fancy having to read the
Burial Service over a brute like that! . . . 'Our
departed brother' . . . I could have laughed.
That was what he couldn't bear. I suppose I am
the only man that ever stood up to laugh at him.
When he got sick it used to scare that . . .
brother. . . . Brother. . . . Departed.
. . . Sooner call a shark brother."
The breeze had let go so suddenly that the way
of the ship brought the wet sails heavily against the
mast. The spell of deadly stillness had caught
us up again. There seemed to be no escape.
"Hallo!" exclaimed Mr. Burns in a startled
voice. "Calm again!"
I addressed him as though he had been sane.
"This is the sort of thing we've been having for
seventeen days, Mr. Burns," I said with intense
bitterness. "A puff, then a calm, and in a mo-
ment, you'll see, she'll be swinging on her heel with
her head away from her course to the devil some-
He caught at the word. "The old dodging
Devil," he screamed piercingly and burst into such
a loud laugh as I had never heard before. It was a
provoking, mocking peal, with a hair-raising,
screeching over-note of defiance. I stepped back,
Instantly there was a stir on the quarter-deck;
murmurs of dismay. A distressed voice cried out
in the dark below us: "Who's that gone crazy,
Perhaps they thought it was their captain?
Rush is not the word that could be applied to the
utmost speed the poor fellows were up to; but in
an amazing short time every man in the ship able
to walk upright had found his way on to that poop.
I shouted to them: "It's the mate. Lay hold of
him a couple of you. . . ."
I expected this performance to end in a ghastly
sort of fight. But Mr. Burns cut his derisive
screeching dead short and turned upon them
"Aha! Dog-gone ye! You've found your
tongues--have ye? I thought you were dumb.
Well, then--laugh! Laugh--I tell you. Now then
--all together. One, two, three--laugh!"
A moment of silence ensued, of silence so pro-
found that you could have heard a pin drop on the
deck. Then Ransome's unperturbed voice uttered
pleasantly the words:
"I think he has fainted, sir--" The little
motionless knot of men stirred, with low murmurs
of relief. "I've got him under the arms. Get
hold of his legs, some one."
Yes. It was a relief. He was silenced for a
time--for a time. I could not have stood another
peal of that insane screeching. I was sure of it;
and just then Gambril, the austere Gambril, treated
us to another vocal performance. He began to
sing out for relief. His voice wailed pitifully in
the darkness: "Come aft somebody! I can't
stand this. Here she'll be off again directly and I
can't. . . ."
I dashed aft myself meeting on my way a hard
gust of wind whose approach Gambril's ear had
detected from afar and which filled the sails on the
main in a series of muffled reports mingled with the
low plaint of the spars. I was just in time to seize
the wheel while Frenchy who had followed me
caught up the collapsing Gambril. He hauled him
out of the way, admonished him to lie still where he
was, and then stepped up to relieve me, asking
"How am I to steer her, sir?"
"Dead before it for the present. I'll get you a
light in a moment."
But going forward I met Ransome bringing up
the spare binnacle lamp. That man noticed
everything, attended to everything, shed comfort
around him as he moved. As he passed me he re-
marked in a soothing tone that the stars were com-
ing out. They were. The breeze was sweeping
clear the sooty sky, breaking through the indolent
silence of the sea.
The barrier of awful stillness which had encom-
passed us for so many days as though we had been
accursed, was broken. I felt that. I let myself
fall on to the skylight seat. A faint white ridge of
foam, thin, very thin, broke alongside. The first for
ages--for ages. I could have cheered, if it hadn't
been for the sense of guilt which clung to all
my thoughts secretly. Ransome stood before me.
"What about the mate," I asked anxiously.
"Well, sir--it's funny," Ransome was evidently
puzzled. "He hasn't spoken a word, and his eyes
are shut. But it looks to me more like sound sleep
than anything else."
I accepted this view as the least troublesome of
any, or at any rate, least disturbing. Dead faint
or deep slumber, Mr. Burns had to be left to him-
self for the present. Ransome remarked sud-
"I believe you want a coat, sir."
"I believe I do," I sighed out.
But I did not move. What I felt I wanted were
new limbs. My arms and legs seemed utterly use-
less, fairly worn out. They didn't even ache. But
I stood up all the same to put on the coat when
Ransome brought it up. And when he suggested
that he had better now "take Gambril forward," I
"All right. I'll help you to get him down on the
I found that I was quite able to help, too. We
raised Gambril up between us. He tried to help
himself along like a man but all the time he was in-
"You won't let me go when we come to the lad-
der? You won't let me go when we come to the
The breeze kept on freshening and blew true,
true to a hair. At daylight by careful manipula-
tion of the helm we got the foreyards to run square
by themselves (the water keeping smooth) and
then went about hauling the ropes tight. Of the
four men I had with me at night, I could see now
only two. I didn't inquire as to the others. They
had given in. For a time only I hoped.
Our various tasks forward occupied us for hours,
the two men with me moved so slow and had to
rest so often. One of them remarked that "every
blamed thing in the ship felt about a hundred times
heavier than its proper weight." This was the
only complaint uttered. I don't know what we
should have done without Ransome. He worked
with us, silent, too, with a little smile frozen on his
lips. From time to time I murmured to him:
"Go steady"--"Take it easy, Ransome"--and re-
ceived a quick glance in reply.
When we had done all we could do to make
things safe, he disappeared into his galley. Some
time afterward, going forward for a look round, I
caught sight of him through the open door. He
sat upright on the locker in front of the stove, with
his head leaning back against the bulkhead. His
eyes were closed; his capable hands held open the
front of his thin cotton shirt baring tragically
his powerful chest, which heaved in painful and
laboured gasps. He didn't hear me.
I retreated quietly and went straight on to the
poop to relieve Frenchy, who by that time was be-
ginning to look very sick. He gave me the course
with great formality and tried to go off with a
jaunty step, but reeled widely twice before getting
out of my sight.
And then I remained all alone aft, steering my
ship, which ran before the wind with a buoyant lift
now and then, and even rolling a little. Presently
Ransome appeared before me with a tray. The
sight of food made me ravenous all at once. He
took the wheel while I sat down of the after grating
to eat my breakfast.
"This breeze seems to have done for our crowd,"
he murmured. "It just laid them low--all hands."
"Yes," I said. "I suppose you and I are the
only two fit men in the ship."
"Frenchy says there's still a jump left in him. I
don't know. It can't be much," continued Ran-
some with his wistful smile. Good little man that.
But suppose, sir, that this wind flies round when
we are close to the land--what are we going to do
"If the wind shifts round heavily after we close
in with the land she will either run ashore or get
dismasted or both. We won't be able to do any-
thing with her. She's running away with us now.
All we can do is to steer her. She's a ship without a
"Yes. All laid low," repeated Ransome quietly.
"I do give them a look-in forward every now and
then, but it's precious little I can do for them."
"I, and the ship, and every one on board of her,
are very much indebted to you, Ransome," I said
He made as though he had not heard me, and
steered in silence till I was ready to relieve him. He
surrendered the wheel, picked up the tray, and for a
parting shot informed me that Mr. Burns was awake
and seemed to have a mind to come up on deck.
"I don't know how to prevent him, sir. I can't
very well stop down below all the time."
It was clear that he couldn't. And sure enough
Mr. Burns came on deck dragging himself painfully
aft in his enormous overcoat. I beheld him with a
natural dread. To have him around and raving
about the wiles of a dead man while I had to steer a
wildly rushing ship full of dying men was a rather
But his first remarks were quite sensible in mean-
ing and tone. Apparently he had no recollection
of the night scene. And if he had he didn't betray
himself once. Neither did he talk very much. He
sat on the skylight looking desperately ill at first,
but that strong breeze, before which the last rem-
nant of my crew had wilted down, seemed to blow a
fresh stock of vigour into his frame with every gust.
One could almost see the process.
By way of sanity test I alluded on purpose to the
late captain. I was delighted to find that Mr.
Burns did not display undue interest in the sub-
ject. He ran over the old tale of that savage
ruffian's iniquities with a certain vindictive gusto
and then concluded unexpectedly:
"I do believe, sir, that his brain began to go a
year or more before he died."
A wonderful recovery. I could hardly spare it
as much admiration as it deserved, for I had to give
all my mind to the steering.
In comparison with the hopeless languour of the
preceding days this was dizzy speed. Two ridges
of foam streamed from the ship's bows; the wind
sang in a strenuous note which under other cir-
cumstances would have expressed to me all the joy
of life. Whenever the hauled-up mainsail started
trying to slat and bang itself to pieces in its gear,
Mr. Burns would look at me apprehensively.
"What would you have me to do, Mr. Burns?
We can neither furl it nor set it. I only wish the
old thing would thrash itself to pieces and be done
with it. That beastly racket confuses me."
Mr. Burns wrung his hands, and cried out sud-
"How will you get the ship into harbour, sir,
without men to handle her?"
And I couldn't tell him.
Well--it did get done about forty hours after-
ward. By the exorcising virtue of Mr. Burns'
awful laugh, the malicious spectre had been laid,
the evil spell broken, the curse removed. We were
now in the hands of a kind and energetic Provi-
dence. It was rushing us on. . . .
I shall never forget the last night, dark, windy,
and starry. I steered. Mr. Burns, after having
obtained from me a solemn promise to give him a
kick if anything happened, went frankly to sleep on
the deck close to the binnacle. Convalescents
need sleep. Ransome, his back propped against
the mizzen-mast and a blanket over his legs, re-
mained perfectly still, but I don't suppose he
closed his eyes for a moment. That embodiment
of jauntiness, Frenchy, still under the delusion that
there was a "jump" left in him, had insisted on
joining us; but mindful of discipline, had laid him-
self down as far on the forepart of the poop as he
could get, alongside the bucket-rack.
And I steered, too tired for anxiety, too tired for
connected thought. I had moments of grim ex-
ultation and then my heart would sink awfully
at the thought of that forecastle at the other end
of the dark deck, full of fever-stricken men--some
of them dying. By my fault. But never mind.
Remorse must wait. I had to steer.
In the small hours the breeze weakened, then
failed altogether. About five it returned, gentle
enough, enabling us to head for the roadstead.
Daybreak found Mr. Burns sitting wedged up with
coils of rope on the stern-grating, and from the
depths of his overcoat steering the ship with very
white bony hands; while Ransome and I rushed
along the decks letting go all the sheets and hal-
liards by the run. We dashed next up on to the
forecastle head. The perspiration of labour and
sheer nervousness simply poured off our heads as
we toiled to get the anchors cock-billed. I dared
not look at Ransome as we worked side by side.
We exchanged curt words; I could hear him panting
close to me and I avoided turning my eyes his way
for fear of seeing him fall down and expire in the
act of putting forth his strength--for what? In-
deed for some distinct ideal.
The consummate seaman in him was aroused.
He needed no directions. He knew what to do.
Every effort, every movement was an act of con-
sistent heroism. It was not for me to look at a man
At last all was ready and I heard him say:
"Hadn't I better go down and open the compressors now, sir?"
"Yes. Do," I said.
And even then I did not glance his way. After a
time his voice came up from the main deck.
"When you like, sir. All clear on the windlass here."
I made a sign to Mr. Burns to put the helm
down and let both anchors go one after another,
leaving the ship to take as much cable as she
wanted. She took the best part of them both be-
fore she brought up. The loose sails coming aback
ceased their maddening racket above my head. A
perfect stillness reigned in the ship. And while I
stood forward feeling a little giddy in that sudden
peace, I caught faintly a moan or two and the in-
coherent mutterings of the sick in the forecastle.
As we had a signal for medical assistance flying
on the mizzen it is a fact that before the ship was
fairly at rest three steam launches from various
men-of-war were alongside; and at least five naval
surgeons had clambered on board. They stood in
a knot gazing up and down the empty main deck,
then looked aloft--where not a man could be seen,
I went toward them--a solitary figure, in a blue
and gray striped sleeping suit and a pipe-clayed cork
helmet on its head. Their disgust was extreme.
They had expected surgical cases. Each one had
brought his carving tools with him. But they soon
got over their little disappointment. In less than
five minutes one of the steam launches was rushing
shoreward to order a big boat and some hospital
people for the removal of the crew. The big
steam pinnace went off to her ship to bring over a
few bluejackets to furl my sails for me.
One of the surgeons had remained on board. He
came out of the forecastle looking impenetrable,
and noticed my inquiring gaze.
"There's nobody dead in there, if that's what
you want to know," he said deliberately. Then
added in a tone of wonder: "The whole crew!"
"And very bad?"
"And very bad," he repeated. His eyes were
roaming all over the ship. "Heavens! What's
"That," I said, glancing aft, "is Mr. Burns, my
Mr. Burns with his moribund head nodding on
the stalk of his lean neck was a sight for any one
to exclaim at. The surgeon asked:
"Is he going to the hospital, too?"
"Oh, no," I said jocosely. "Mr. Burns can't go
on shore till the mainmast goes. I am very proud
of him. He's my only convalescent."
"You look--" began the doctor staring at me.
But I interrupted him angrily:
"I am not ill."
"No. . . . You look queer."
"Well, you see, I have been seventeen days on deck."
"Seventeen! . . . But you must have slept."
"I suppose I must have. I don't know. But I'm certain
that I didn't sleep for the last forty hours."
"Phew! . . . You will be going ashore presently I suppose?"
"As soon as ever I can. There's no end of
business waiting for me there."
The surgeon released my hand, which he had
taken while we talked, pulled out his pocket-book,
wrote in it rapidly, tore out the page and offered
it to me.
"I strongly advise you to get this prescription
made up for yourself ashore. Unless I am much
mistaken you will need it this evening."
"What is it, then?" I asked with suspicion.
"Sleeping draught," answered the surgeon
curtly; and moving with an air of interest toward
Mr. Burns he engaged him in conversation.
As I went below to dress to go ashore, Ransome
followed me. He begged my pardon; he wished,
too, to be sent ashore and paid off.
I looked at him in surprise. He was waiting for
my answer with an air of anxiety.
"You don't mean to leave the ship!" I cried
"I do really, sir. I want to go and be quiet some-
where. Anywhere. The hospital will do."
"But, Ransome," I said. "I hate the idea of
parting with you."
"I must go," he broke in. "I have a right!"
. . . He gasped and a look of almost savage de-
termination passed over his face. For an instant
he was another being. And I saw under the worth
and the comeliness of the man the humble reality
of things. Life was a boon to him--this precarious
hard life, and he was thoroughly alarmed about
"Of course I shall pay you off if you wish it," I
hastened to say. "Only I must ask you to remain
on board till this afternoon. I can't leave Mr.
Burns absolutely by himself in the ship for hours."
He softened at once and assured me with a smile
and in his natural pleasant voice that he under-
stood that very well.
When I returned on deck everything was ready
for the removal of the men. It was the last ordeal
of that episode which had been maturing and tem-
pering my character--though I did not know it.
It was awful. They passed under my eyes one
after another--each of them an embodied reproach
of the bitterest kind, till I felt a sort of revolt wake
up in me. Poor Frenchy had gone suddenly under.
He was carried past me insensible, his comic
face horribly flushed and as if swollen, breathing
stertorously. He looked more like Mr. Punch than
ever; a disgracefully intoxicated Mr. Punch.
The austere Gambril, on the contrary, had im-
proved temporarily. He insisted on walking on
his own feet to the rail--of course with assistance
on each side of him. But he gave way to a sudden
panic at the moment of being swung over the side
and began to wail pitifully:
"Don't let them drop me, sir. Don't let them
drop me, sir!" While I kept on shouting to him in
most soothing accents: "All right, Gambril.
They won't! They won't!"
It was no doubt very ridiculous. The blue-
jackets on our deck were grinning quietly, while
even Ransome himself (much to the fore in lending
a hand) had to enlarge his wistful smile for a fleet-
I left for the shore in the steam pinnace, and on
looking back beheld Mr. Burns actually standing
up by the taffrail, still in his enormous woolly over-
coat. The bright sunlight brought out his weird-
ness amazingly. He looked like a frightful and
elaborate scarecrow set up on the poop of a death-
stricken ship, set up to keep the seabirds from the
Our story had got about already in town and
everybody on shore was most kind. The Marine
Office let me off the port dues, and as there hap-
pened to be a shipwrecked crew staying in the
Home I had no difficulty in obtaining as many men
as I wanted. But when I inquired if I could see
Captain Ellis for a moment I was told in accents of
pity for my ignorance that our deputy-Neptune
had retired and gone home on a pension about
three weeks after I left the port. So I suppose that
my appointment was the last act, outside the
daily routine, of his official life.
It is strange how on coming ashore I was struck
by the springy step, the lively eyes, the strong
vitality of every one I met. It impressed me
enormously. And amongst those I met there was
Captain Giles, of course. It would have been very
extraordinary if I had not met him. A prolonged
stroll in the business part of the town was the
regular employment of all his mornings when he
I caught the glitter of the gold watch-chain
across his chest ever so far away. He radiated
"What is it I hear?" he queried with a "kind
uncle" smile, after shaking hands. "Twenty-one
days from Bangkok?"
"Is this all you've heard?" I said. "You must
come to tiffin with me. I want you to know ex-
actly what you have let me in for."
He hesitated for almost a minute.
"Well--I will," he said condescendingly at last.
We turned into the hotel. I found to my sur-
prise that I could eat quite a lot. Then over the
cleared table-cloth I unfolded to Captain Giles the
history of these twenty days in all its professional
and emotional aspects, while he smoked patiently
the big cigar I had given him.
Then he observed sagely:
"You must feel jolly well tired by this time."
"No," I said. "Not tired. But I'll tell you,
Captain Giles, how I feel. I feel old. And I must
be. All of you on shore look to me just a lot of
skittish youngsters that have never known a care
in the world."
He didn't smile. He looked insufferably ex-
emplary. He declared:
"That will pass. But you do look older--it's a
"Aha!" I said.
"No! No! The truth is that one must not make
too much of anything in life, good or bad."
"Live at half-speed," I murmured perversely.
"Not everybody can do that."
"You'll be glad enough presently if you can keep
going even at that rate," he retorted with his air of
conscious virtue. "And there's another thing: a
man should stand up to his bad luck, to his mis-
takes, to his conscience and all that sort of thing.
Why--what else would you have to fight against."
I kept silent. I don't know what he saw in my
face but he asked abruptly:
"Why--you aren't faint-hearted?"
"God only knows, Captain Giles," was my sin-
"That's all right," he said calmly. "You will
learn soon how not to be faint-hearted. A man has
got to learn everything--and that's what so many
of them youngsters don't understand."
"Well, I am no longer a youngster."
"No," he conceded. "Are you leaving soon?"
"I am going on board directly," I said. "I shall
pick up one of my anchors and heave in to half-
cable on the other directly my new crew comes on
board and I shall be off at daylight to-morrow!"
"You will," grunted Captain Giles approvingly.
"that's the way. You'll do."
"What did you think? That I would want to
take a week ashore for a rest?" I said, irritated by
his tone. "There's no rest for me till she's out
in the Indian Ocean and not much of it even
He puffed at his cigar moodily, as if transformed.
"Yes. That's what it amounts to," he said in a
musing tone. It was as if a ponderous curtain had
rolled up disclosing an unexpected Captain Giles.
But it was only for a moment, just the time to let
him add, "Precious little rest in life for anybody.
Better not think of it."
We rose, left the hotel, and parted from each
other in the street with a warm handshake, just as
he began to interest me for the first time in our
The first thing I saw when I got back to the ship
was Ransome on the quarter-deck sitting quietly
on his neatly lashed sea-chest.
I beckoned him to follow me into the saloon
where I sat down to write a letter of recommenda-
tion for him to a man I knew on shore.
When finished I pushed it across the table. "It
may be of some good to you when you leave the
He took it, put it in his pocket. His eyes were
looking away from me--nowhere. His face was
"How are you feeling now?" I asked.
"I don't feel bad now, sir," he answered stiffly.
"But I am afraid of its coming on. . . ." The
wistful smile came back on his lips for a mo-
ment. "I--I am in a blue funk about my heart,
I approached him with extended hand. His
eyes not looking at me had a strained expres-
sion. He was like a man listening for a warning
"Won't you shake hands, Ransome?" I said
He exclaimed, flushed up dusky red, gave my
hand a hard wrench--and next moment, left alone
in the cabin, I listened to him going up the com-
panion stairs cautiously, step by step, in mortal
fear of starting into sudden anger our common
enemy it was his hard fate to carry consciously
within his faithful breast.
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