To-day, twenty-eight days out, in the early morning, while I was drinking my coffee, still carrying the north-east trade, we crossed the line. And Charles Davis signalized the event by murdering O’Sullivan. It was Boney, the lanky splinter of a youth in Mr. Mellaire’s watch, who brought the news. The second mate and I had just arrived in the hospital room, when Mr. Pike entered.
O’Sullivan’s troubles were over. The man in the upper bunk had completed the mad, sad span of his life with the marlin-spike.
I cannot understand this Charles Davis. He sat up calmly in his bunk, and calmly lighted his pipe ere he replied to Mr. Mellaire. He certainly is not insane. Yet deliberately, in cold blood, he has murdered a helpless man.
“What’d you do it for?“ Mr. Mellaire demanded.
“Because, sir,“ said Charles Davis, applying a second match to his pipe, “because“—puff, puff—“he bothered my sleep.“ Here he caught Mr. Pike’s glowering eye. “Because“—puff, puff—“he annoyed me. The next time“—puff, puff—“I hope better judgment will be shown in what kind of a man is put in with me. Besides“—puff, puff—“this top bunk ain’t no place for me. It hurts me to get into it“—puff, puff—“an’ I’m gem’ back to that lower bunk as soon as you get O’Sullivan out of it.“
“But what’d you do it for?“ Mr. Pike snarled.
“I told you, sir, because he annoyed me. I got tired of it, an’ so, this morning, I just put him out of his misery. An’ what are you goin’ to do about it? The man’s dead, ain’t he? An’ I killed ’m in self-defence. I know the law. What right’d you to put a ravin’ lunatic in with me, an’ me sick an’ helpless?“
“By God, Davis!“ the mate burst forth. “You’ll never draw your pay-day in Seattle. I’ll fix you out for this, killing a crazy lashed down in his bunk an’ harmless. You’ll follow ’m overside, my hearty.“
“If I do, you’ll hang for it, sir,“ Davis retorted. He turned his cool eyes on me. “An’ I call on you, sir, to witness the threats he’s made. An’ you’ll testify to them, too, in court. An’ he’ll hang as sure as I go over the side. Oh, I know his record. He’s afraid to face a court with it. He’s been up too many a time with charges of man-killin’ an’ brutality on the high seas. An’ a man could retire for life an live off the interest of the fines he’s paid, or his owners paid for him—“
“Shut your mouth or I’ll knock it out of your face!“ Mr. Pike roared, springing toward him with clenched, up-raised fist.
Davis involuntarily shrank away. His flesh was weak, but not so his spirit. He got himself promptly in hand and struck another match.
“You can’t get my goat, sir,“ he sneered, under the shadow of the impending blow. “I ain’t scared to die. A man’s got to die once anyway, an’ it’s none so hard a trick to do when you can’t help it. O’Sullivan died so easy it was amazin’. Besides, I ain’t goin’ to die. I’m goin’ to finish this voyage, an’ sue the owners when I get to Seattle. I know my rights an’ the law. An’ I got witnesses.“
Truly, I was divided between admiration for the courage of this wretched sailor and sympathy for Mr. Pike thus bearded by a sick man he could not bring himself to strike.
Nevertheless he sprang upon the man with calculated fury, gripped him between the base of the neck and the shoulders with both gnarled paws, and shook him back and forth, violently and frightfully, for a full minute. It was a wonder the man’s neck was not dislocated.
“I call on you to witness, sir,“ Davis gasped at me the instant he was free.
He coughed and strangled, felt his throat, and made wry neck-movements indicative of injury.
“The marks’ll begin to show in a few minutes,“ he murmured complacently as his dizziness left him and his breath came back.
This was too much for Mr. Pike, who turned and left the room, growling and cursing incoherently, deep in his throat. When I made my departure, a moment later, Davis was refilling his pipe and telling Mr. Mellaire that he’d have him up for a witness in Seattle.
* * * * *
So we have had another burial at sea. Mr. Pike was vexed by it because the Elsinore, according to sea tradition, was going too fast through the water for a proper ceremony. Thus a few minutes of the voyage were lost by backing the Elsinore’s main-topsail and deadening her way while the service was read and O’Sullivan was slid overboard with the inevitable sack of coal at his feet.
“Hope the coal holds out,“ Mr. Pike grumbled morosely at me five minutes later.
* * * * *
And we sit on the poop, Miss West and I, tended on by servants, sipping afternoon tea, sewing fancy work, discussing philosophy and art, while a few feet away from us, on this tiny floating world, all the grimy, sordid tragedy of sordid, malformed, brutish life plays itself out. And Captain West, remote, untroubled, sits dreaming in the twilight cabin while the draught of wind from the crojack blows upon him through the open ports. He has no doubts, no worries. He believes in God. All is settled and clear and well as he nears his far home. His serenity is vast and enviable. But I cannot shake from my eyes that vision of him when life forsook his veins, and his mouth slacked, and his eyelids closed, while his face took on the white transparency of death.
I wonder who will be the next to finish the game and depart with a sack of coal.
“Oh, this is nothing, sir,“ Mr. Mellaire remarked to me cheerfully as we strolled the poop during the first watch. “I was once on a voyage on a tramp steamer loaded with four hundred Chinks—I beg your pardon, sir—Chinese. They were coolies, contract labourers, coming back from serving their time.
“And the cholera broke out. We hove over three hundred of them overboard, sir, along with both bosuns, most of the Lascar crew, and the captain, the mate, the third mate, and the first and third engineers. The second and one white oiler was all that was left below, and I was in command on deck, when we made port. The doctors wouldn’t come aboard. They made me anchor in the outer roads and told me to heave out my dead. There was some tall buryin’ about that time, Mr. Pathurst, and they went overboard without canvas, coal, or iron. They had to. I had nobody to help me, and the Chinks below wouldn’t lift a hand.
“I had to go down myself, drag the bodies on to the slings, then climb on deck and heave them up with the donkey. And each trip I took a drink. I was pretty drunk when the job was done.“
“And you never caught it yourself?“ I queried. Mr. Mellaire held up his left hand. I had often noted that the index finger was missing.
“That’s all that happened to me, sir. The old man’d had a fox-terrier like yours. And after the old man passed out the puppy got real, chummy with me. Just as I was making the hoist of the last sling-load, what does the puppy do but jump on my leg and sniff my hand. I turned to pat him, and the next I knew my other hand had slipped into the gears and that finger wasn’t there any more.
“Heavens!“ I cried. “What abominable luck to come through such a terrible experience like that and then lose your finger!“
“That’s what I thought, sir,“ Mr. Mellaire agreed.
“What did you do?“ I asked.
“Oh, just held it up and looked at it, and said ‘My goodness gracious!’ and took another drink.“
“And you didn’t get the cholera afterwards?“
“No, sir. I reckon I was so full of alcohol the germs dropped dead before they could get to me.“ He considered a moment. “Candidly, Mr. Pathurst, I don’t know about that alcohol theory. The old man and the mates died drunk, and so did the third engineer. But the chief was a teetotaller, and he died, too.“
* * * * *
Never again shall I wonder that the sea is hard. I walked apart from the second mate and stared up at the magnificent fabric of the Elsinore sweeping and swaying great blotting curves of darkness across the face of the starry sky.
Something has happened. But nobody knows, either fore or aft, except the interested persons, and they will not say anything. Yet the ship is abuzz with rumours and guesses.
This I do know: Mr. Pike has received a fearful blow on the head. At table, yesterday, at midday, I arrived late, and, passing behind his chair, I saw a prodigious lump on top of his head. When I was seated, facing him, I noted that his eyes seemed dazed; yes, and I could see pain in them. He took no part in the conversation, ate perfunctorily, behaved stupidly at times, and it was patent that he was controlling himself with an iron hand.
And nobody dares ask him what has happened. I know I don’t dare ask him, and I am a passenger, a privileged person. This redoubtable old sea-relic has inspired me with a respect for him that partakes half of timidity and half of awe.
He acts as if he were suffering from concussion of the brain. His pain is evident, not alone in his eyes and the strained expression of his face, but by his conduct when he thinks he is unobserved. Last night, just for a breath of air and a moment’s gaze at the stars, I came out of the cabin door and stood on the main deck under the break of the poop. From directly over my head came a low and persistent groaning. My curiosity was aroused, and I retreated into the cabin, came out softly on to the poop by way of the chart-house, and strolled noiselessly for’ard in my slippers. It was Mr. Pike. He was leaning collapsed on the rail, his head resting on his arms. He was giving voice in secret to the pain that racked him. A dozen feet away he could not be heard. But, close to his shoulder, I could hear his steady, smothered groaning that seemed to take the form of a chant. Also, at regular intervals, he would mutter:
“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.“ Always he repeated the phrase five times, then returned to his groaning. I stole away as silently as I had come.
Yet he resolutely stands his watches and performs all his duties of chief officer. Oh, I forgot. Miss West dared to quiz him, and he replied that he had a toothache, and that if it didn’t get better he’d pull it out.
Wada cannot learn what has happened. There were no eye-witnesses. He says that the Asiatic clique, discussing the affair in the cook’s room, thinks the three gangsters are responsible. Bert Rhine is carrying a lame shoulder. Nosey Murphy is limping as from some injury in the hips. And Kid Twist has been so badly beaten that he has not left his bunk for two days. And that is all the data to build on. The gangsters are as close-mouthed as Mr. Pike. The Asiatic clique has decided that murder was attempted and that all that saved the mate was his hard skull.
Last evening, in the second dog-watch, I got another proof that Captain West is not so oblivious of what goes on aboard the Elsinore as he seems. I had gone for’ard along the bridge to the mizzen-mast, in the shadow of which I was leaning. From the main deck, in the alley-way between the ’midship-house and the rail, came the voices of Bert Rhine, Nosey Murphy, and Mr. Mellaire. It was not ship’s work. They were having a friendly, even sociable chat, for their voices hummed genially, and now and again one or another laughed, and sometimes all laughed.
I remembered Wada’s reports on this unseamanlike intimacy of the second mate with the gangsters, and tried to make out the nature of the conversation. But the gangsters were low-voiced, and all I could catch was the tone of friendliness and good-nature.
Suddenly, from the poop, came Captain West’s voice. It was the voice, not of the Samurai riding the storm, but of the Samurai calm and cold. It was clear, soft, and mellow as the mellowest bell ever cast by eastern artificers of old time to call worshippers to prayer. I know I slightly chilled to it—it was so exquisitely sweet and yet as passionless as the ring of steel on a frosty night. And I knew the effect on the men beneath me was electrical. I could feel them stiffen and chill to it as I had stiffened and chilled. And yet all he said was:
“Yes, sir,“ answered Mr. Mellaire, after a moment of tense silence.
“Come aft here,“ came Captain West’s voice.
I heard the second mate move along the deck beneath me and stop at the foot of the poop-ladder.
“Your place is aft on the poop, Mr. Mellaire,“ said the cold, passionless voice.
“Yes, sir,“ answered the second mate.
That was all. Not another word was spoken. Captain West resumed his stroll on the weather side of the poop, and Mr. Mellaire, ascending the ladder, went to pacing up and down the lee side.
I continued along the bridge to the forecastle head and purposely remained there half an hour ere I returned to the cabin by way of the main deck. Although I did not analyze my motive, I knew I did not desire any one to know that I had overheard the occurrence.
* * * * *
I have made a discovery. Ninety per cent. of our crew is brunette. Aft, with the exception of Wada and the steward, who are our servants, we are all blonds. What led me to this discovery was Woodruff’s Effects of Tropical Light on White Men, which I am just reading. Major Woodruff’s thesis is that the white-skinned, blue-eyed Aryan, born to government and command, ever leaving his primeval, overcast and foggy home, ever commands and governs the rest of the world and ever perishes because of the too-white light he encounters. It is a very tenable hypothesis, and will bear looking into.
But to return. Every one of us who sits aft in the high place is a blond Aryan. For’ard, leavened with a ten per cent, of degenerate blonds, the remaining ninety per cent, of the slaves that toil for us are brunettes. They will not perish. According to Woodruff, they will inherit the earth, not because of their capacity for mastery and government, but because of their skin-pigmentation which enables their tissues to resist the ravages of the sun.
And I look at the four of us at table—Captain West, his daughter, Mr. Pike, and myself—all fair-skinned, blue-eyed, and perishing, yet mastering and commanding, like our fathers before us, to the end of our type on the earth. Ah, well, ours is a lordly history, and though we may be doomed to pass, in our time we shall have trod on the faces of all peoples, disciplined them to obedience, taught them government, and dwelt in the palaces we have compelled them by the weight of our own right arms to build for us.
The Elsinore depicts this in miniature. The best of the food and all spacious and beautiful accommodation is ours. For’ard is a pig-sty and a slave-pen.
As a king, Captain West sits above all. As a captain of soldiers, Mr. Pike enforces his king’s will. Miss West is a princess of the royal house. And I? Am I not an honourable, noble-lineaged pensioner on the deeds and achievements of my father, who, in his day, compelled thousands of the lesser types to the building of the fortune I enjoy?
The north-west trade carried us almost into the south-east trade, and then left us for several days to roll and swelter in the doldrums.
During this time I have discovered that I have a genius for rifle-shooting. Mr. Pike swore I must have had long practice; and I confess I was myself startled by the ease of the thing. Of course, it’s the knack; but one must be so made, I suppose, in order to be able to acquire the knack.
By the end of half an hour, standing on the heaving deck and shooting at bottles floating on the rolling swell, I found that I broke each bottle at the first shot. The supply of empty bottles giving out, Mr. Pike was so interested that he had the carpenter saw me a lot of small square blocks of hard wood. These were more satisfactory. A well-aimed shot threw them out of the water and spinning into the air, and I could use a single block until it had drifted out of range. In an hour’s time I could, shooting quickly and at short range, empty my magazine at a block and hit it nine times, and, on occasion, ten times, out of eleven.
I might not have judged my aptitude as unusual, had I not induced Miss West and Wada to try their hands. Neither had luck like mine. I finally persuaded Mr. Pike, and he went behind the wheel-house so that none of the crew might see how poor a shot he was. He was never able to hit the mark, and was guilty of the most ludicrous misses.
“I never could get the hang of rifle-shooting,“ he announced disgustedly, “but when it comes to close range with a gat I’m right there. I guess I might as well overhaul mine and limber it up.“
He went below and came back with a huge ’44 automatic pistol and a handful of loaded clips.
“Anywhere from right against the body up to ten or twelve feet away, holding for the stomach, it’s astonishing, Mr. Pathurst, what you can do with a weapon like this. Now you can’t use a rifle in a mix-up. I’ve been down and under, with a bunch giving me the boot, when I turned loose with this. Talk about damage! It ranged them the full length of their bodies. One of them’d just landed his brogans on my face when I let’m have it. The bullet entered just above his knee, smashed the collarbone, where it came out, and then clipped off an ear. I guess that bullet’s still going. It took more than a full-sized man to stop it. So I say, give me a good handy gat when something’s doing.“
“Ain’t you afraid you’ll use all your ammunition up?“ he asked anxiously half an hour later, as I continued to crack away with my new toy.
He was quite reassured when I told him Wada had brought along fifty thousand rounds for me.
In the midst of the shooting, two sharks came swimming around. They were quite large, Mr. Pike said, and he estimated their length at fifteen feet. It was Sunday morning, so that the crew, except for working the ship, had its time to itself, and soon the carpenter, with a rope for a fish-line and a great iron hook baited with a chunk of salt pork the size of my head, captured first one, and then the other, of the monsters. They were hoisted in on the main deck. And then I saw a spectacle of the cruelty of the sea.
The full crew gathered about with sheath knives, hatchets, clubs, and big butcher knives borrowed from the galley. I shall not give the details, save that they gloated and lusted, and roared and bellowed their delight in the atrocities they committed. Finally, the first of the two fish was thrown back into the ocean with a pointed stake thrust into its upper and lower jaws so that it could not close its mouth. Inevitable and prolonged starvation was the fate thus meted out to it.
“I’ll show you something, boys,“ Andy Fay cried, as they prepared to handle the second shark.
The Maltese Cockney had been a most capable master of ceremonies with the first one. More than anything else, I think, was I hardened against these brutes by what I saw them do. In the end, the maltreated fish thrashed about the deck entirely eviscerated. Nothing remained but the mere flesh-shell of the creature, yet it would not die. It was amazing the life that lingered when all the vital organs were gone. But more amazing things were to follow.
Mulligan Jacobs, his arms a butcher’s to the elbows, without as much as “by your leave,“ suddenly thrust a hunk of meat into my hand. I sprang back, startled, and dropped it to the deck, while a gleeful howl went up from the two-score men. I was shamed, despite myself. These brutes held me in little respect; and, after all, human nature is so strange a compound that even a philosopher dislikes being held in disesteem by the brutes of his own species.
I looked at what I had dropped. It was the heart of the shark, and as I looked, there under my eyes, on the scorching deck where the pitch oozed from the seams, the heart pulsed with life.
And I dared. I would not permit these animals to laugh at any fastidiousness of mine. I stooped and picked up the heart, and while I concealed and conquered my qualms I held it in my hand and felt it beat in my hand.
At any rate, I had won a mild victory over Mulligan Jacobs; for he abandoned me for the more delectable diversion of torturing the shark that would not die. For several minutes it had been lying quite motionless. Mulligan Jacobs smote it a heavy blow on the nose with the flat of a hatchet, and as the thing galvanized into life and flung its body about the deck the little venomous man screamed in ecstasy:
“The hooks are in it!—the hooks are in it!—and burnin’ hot!“
He squirmed and writhed with fiendish delight, and again he struck it on the nose and made it leap.
This was too much, and I beat a retreat—feigning boredom, or cessation of interest, of course; and absently carrying the still throbbing heart in my hand.
As I came upon the poop I saw Miss West, with her sewing basket, emerging from the port door of the chart-house. The deck-chairs were on that side, so I stole around on the starboard side of the chart-house in order to fling overboard unobserved the dreadful thing I carried. But, drying on the surface in the tropic heat and still pulsing inside, it stuck to my hand, so that it was a bad cast. Instead of clearing the railing, it struck on the pin-rail and stuck there in the shade, and as I opened the door to go below and wash my hands, with a last glance I saw it pulse where it had fallen.
When I came back it was still pulsing. I heard a splash overside from the waist of the ship, and knew the carcass had been flung overboard. I did not go around the chart-house and join Miss West, but stood enthralled by the spectacle of that heart that beat in the tropic heat.
Boisterous shouts from the sailors attracted my attention. They had all climbed to the top of the tall rail and were watching something outboard. I followed their gaze and saw the amazing thing. That long-eviscerated shark was not dead. It moved, it swam, it thrashed about, and ever it strove to escape from the surface of the ocean. Sometimes it swam down as deep as fifty or a hundred feet, and then, still struggling to escape the surface, struggled involuntarily to the surface. Each failure thus to escape fetched wild laughter from the men. But why did they laugh? The thing was sublime, horrible, but it was not humorous. I leave it to you. What is there laughable in the sight of a pain-distraught fish rolling helplessly on the surface of the sea and exposing to the sun all its essential emptiness?
I was turning away, when renewed shouting drew my gaze. Half a dozen other sharks had appeared, smaller ones, nine or ten feet long. They attacked their helpless comrade. They tore him to pieces they destroyed him, devoured him. I saw the last shred of him disappear down their maws. He was gone, disintegrated, entombed in the living bodies of his kind, and already entering into the processes of digestion. And yet, there, in the shade on the pin-rail, that unbelievable and monstrous heart beat on.
The voyage is doomed to disaster and death. I know Mr. Pike, now, and if ever he discovers the identity of Mr. Mellaire, murder will be done. Mr. Mellaire is not Mr. Mellaire. He is not from Georgia. He is from Virginia. His name is Waltham—Sidney Waltham. He is one of the Walthams of Virginia, a black sheep, true, but a Waltham. Of this I am convinced, just as utterly as I am convinced that Mr. Pike will kill him if he learns who he is.
Let me tell how I have discovered all this. It was last night, shortly before midnight, when I came up on the poop to enjoy a whiff of the south-east trades in which we are now bowling along, close-hauled in order to weather Cape San Roque. Mr. Pike had the watch, and I paced up and down with him while he told me old pages of his life. He has often done this, when not “sea-grouched,“ and often he has mentioned with pride—yes, with reverence—a master with whom he sailed five years. “Old Captain Somers,“ he called him—“the finest, squarest, noblest man I ever sailed under, sir.“
Well, last night our talk turned on lugubrious subjects, and Mr. Pike, wicked old man that he is, descanted on the wickedness of the world and on the wickedness of the man who had murdered Captain Somers.
“He was an old man, over seventy years old,“ Mr. Pike went on. “And they say he’d got a touch of palsy—I hadn’t seen him for years. You see, I’d had to clear out from the coast because of trouble. And that devil of a second mate caught him in bed late at night and beat him to death. It was terrible. They told me about it. Right in San Francisco, on board the Jason Harrison, it happened, eleven years ago.
“And do you know what they did? First, they gave the murderer life, when he should have been hanged. His plea was insanity, from having had his head chopped open a long time before by a crazy sea-cook. And when he’d served seven years the governor pardoned him. He wasn’t any good, but his people were a powerful old Virginian family, the Walthams—I guess you’ve heard of them—and they brought all kinds of pressure to bear. His name was Sidney Waltham.“
At this moment the warning bell, a single stroke fifteen minutes before the change of watch, rang out from the wheel and was repeated by the look-out on the forecastle head. Mr. Pike, under his stress of feeling, had stopped walking, and we stood at the break of the poop. As chance would have it, Mr. Mellaire was a quarter of an hour ahead of time, and he climbed the poop-ladder and stood beside us while the mate concluded his tale.
“I didn’t mind it,“ Mr. Pike continued, “as long as he’d got life and was serving his time. But when they pardoned him out after only seven years I swore I’d get him. And I will. I don’t believe in God or devil, and it’s a rotten crazy world anyway; but I do believe in hunches. And I know I’m going to get him.“
“What will you do?“ I queried.
“Do?“ Mr. Pike’s voice was fraught with surprise that I should not know. “Do? Well, what did he do to old Captain Somers? Yet he’s disappeared these last three years now. I’ve heard neither hide nor hair of him. But he’s a sailor, and he’ll drift back to the sea, and some day . . . “
In the illumination of a match with which the second mate was lighting his pipe I saw Mr. Pike’s gorilla arms and huge clenched paws raised to heaven, and his face convulsed and working. Also, in that brief moment of light, I saw that the second mate’s hand which held the match was shaking.
“And I ain’t never seen even a photo of him,“ Mr. Pike added. “But I’ve got a general idea of his looks, and he’s got a mark unmistakable. I could know him by it in the dark. All I’d have to do is feel it. Some day I’ll stick my fingers into that mark.“
“What did you say, sir, was the captain’s name?“ Mr. Mellaire asked casually.
“Somers—old Captain Somers,“ Mr. Pike answered.
Mr. Mellaire repeated the name aloud several times, and then hazarded:
“Didn’t he command the Lammermoor thirty years ago?“
“That’s the man.“
“I thought I recognized him. I lay at anchor in a ship next to his in Table Bay that time ago.“
“Oh, the wickedness of the world, the wickedness of the world,“ Mr. Pike muttered as he turned and strode away.
I said good-night to the second mate and had started to go below, when he called to me in a low voice, “Mr. Pathurst!“
I stopped, and then he said, hurriedly and confusedly:
“Never mind, sir . . . I beg your pardon . . . I—I changed my mind.“
Below, lying in my bunk, I found myself unable to read. My mind was bent on returning to what had just occurred on deck, and, against my will, the most gruesome speculations kept suggesting themselves.
And then came Mr. Mellaire. He had slipped down the booby hatch into the big after-room and thence through the hallway to my room. He entered noiselessly, on clumsy tiptoes, and pressed his finger warningly to his lips. Not until he was beside my bunk did he speak, and then it was in a whisper.
“I beg your pardon, sir, Mr. Pathurst . . . I—I beg your pardon; but, you see, sir, I was just passing, and seeing you awake I . . . I thought it would not inconvenience you to . . . you see, I thought I might just as well prefer a small favour . . . seeing that I would not inconvenience you, sir . . . I . . . I . . . “
I waited for him to proceed, and in the pause that ensued, while he licked his dry lips with his tongue, the thing ambushed in his skull peered at me through his eyes and seemed almost on the verge of leaping out and pouncing upon me.
“Well, sir,“ he began again, this time more coherently, “it’s just a little thing—foolish on my part, of course—a whim, so to say—but you will remember, near the beginning of the voyage, I showed you a scar on my head . . . a really small affair, sir, which I contracted in a misadventure. It amounts to a deformity, which it is my fancy to conceal. Not for worlds, sir, would I care to have Miss West, for instance, know that I carried such a deformity. A man is a man, sir—you understand—and you have not spoken of it to her?“
“No,“ I replied. “It just happens that I have not.“
“Nor to anybody else?—to, say, Captain West?—or, say, Mr. Pike?“
“No, I haven’t mentioned it to anybody,“ I averred.
He could not conceal the relief he experienced. The perturbation went out of his face and manner, and the ambushed thing drew back deeper into the recess of his skull.
“The favour, sir, Mr. Pathurst, that I would prefer is that you will not mention that little matter to anybody. I suppose“ (he smiled, and his voice was superlatively suave) “it is vanity on my part—you understand, I am sure.“
I nodded, and made a restless movement with my book as evidence that I desired to resume my reading.
“I can depend upon you for that, Mr. Pathurst?“ His whole voice and manner had changed. It was practically a command, and I could almost see fangs, bared and menacing, sprouting in the jaws of that thing I fancied dwelt behind his eyes.
“Certainly,“ I answered coldly.
“Thank you, sir—I thank you,“ he said, and, without more ado, tiptoed from the room.
Of course I did not read. How could I? Nor did I sleep. My mind ran on, and on, and not until the steward brought my coffee, shortly before five, did I sink into my first doze.
One thing is very evident. Mr. Pike does not dream that the murderer of Captain Somers is on board the Elsinore. He has never glimpsed that prodigious fissure that clefts Mr. Mellaire’s, or, rather, Sidney Waltham’s, skull. And I, for one, shall never tell Mr. Pike. And I know, now, why from the very first I disliked the second mate. And I understand that live thing, that other thing, that lurks within and peers out through the eyes. I have recognized the same thing in the three gangsters for’ard. Like the second mate, they are prison birds. The restraint, the secrecy, and iron control of prison life has developed in all of them terrible other selves.
Yes, and another thing is very evident. On board this ship, driving now through the South Atlantic for the winter passage of Cape Horn, are all the elements of sea tragedy and horror. We are freighted with human dynamite that is liable at any moment to blow our tiny floating world to fragments.
The days slip by. The south-east trade is brisk and small splashes of sea occasionally invade my open ports. Mr. Pike’s room was soaked yesterday. This is the most exciting thing that has happened for some time. The gangsters rule in the forecastle. Larry and Shorty have had a harmless fight. The hooks continue to burn in Mulligan Jacobs’s brain. Charles Davis resides alone in his little steel room, coming out only to get his food from the galley. Miss West plays and sings, doctors Possum, launders, and is for ever otherwise busy with her fancy work. Mr. Pike runs the phonograph every other evening in the second dog-watch. Mr. Mellaire hides the cleft in his head. I keep his secret. And Captain West, more remote than ever, sits in the draught of wind in the twilight cabin.
We are now thirty-seven days at sea, in which time, until to-day, we have not sighted a vessel. And to-day, at one time, no less than six vessels were visible from the deck. Not until I saw these ships was I able thoroughly to realize how lonely this ocean is.
Mr. Pike tells me we are several hundred miles off the South American coast. And yet, only the other day, it seems, we were scarcely more distant from Africa. A big velvety moth fluttered aboard this morning, and we are filled with conjecture. How possibly could it have come from the South American coast these hundreds of miles in the teeth of the trades?
The Southern Cross has been visible, of course, for weeks; the North Star has disappeared behind the bulge of the earth; and the Great Bear, at its highest, is very low. Soon it, too, will be gone and we shall be raising the Magellan Clouds.
I remember the fight between Larry and Shorty. Wada reports that Mr. Pike watched it for some time, until, becoming incensed at their awkwardness, he clouted both of them with his open hands and made them stop, announcing that until they could make a better showing he intended doing all the fighting on the Elsinore himself.
It is a feat beyond me to realize that he is sixty-nine years old. And when I look at the tremendous build of him and at his fearful, man-handling hands, I conjure up a vision of him avenging Captain Somers’s murder.
Life is cruel. Amongst the Elsinore’s five thousand tons of coal are thousands of rats. There is no way for them to get out of their steel-walled prison, for all the ventilators are guarded with stout wire-mesh. On her previous voyage, loaded with barley, they increased and multiplied. Now they are imprisoned in the coal, and cannibalism is what must occur among them. Mr. Pike says that when we reach Seattle there will be a dozen or a score of survivors, huge fellows, the strongest and fiercest. Sometimes, passing the mouth of one ventilator that is in the after wall of the chart-house, I can hear their plaintive squealing and crying from far beneath in the coal.
Other and luckier rats are in the ’tween decks for’ard, where all the spare suits of sails are stored. They come out and run about the deck at night, steal food from the galley, and lap up the dew. Which reminds me that Mr. Pike will no longer look at Possum. It seems, under his suggestion, that Wada trapped a rat in the donkey-engine room. Wada swears that it was the father of all rats, and that, by actual measurement, it scaled eighteen inches from nose to the tip of tail. Also, it seems that Mr. Pike and Wada, with the door shut in the former’s room, pitted the rat against Possum, and that Possum was licked. They were compelled to kill the rat themselves, while Possum, when all was over, lay down and had a fit.
Now Mr. Pike abhors a coward, and his disgust with Possum is profound. He no longer plays with the puppy, nor even speaks to him, and, whenever he passes him on the deck, glowers sourly at him.
I have been reading up the South Atlantic Sailing Directions, and I find that we are now entering the most beautiful sunset region in the world. And this evening we were favoured with a sample. I was in my quarters, overhauling my books, when Miss West called to me from the foot of the chart-house stairs:
“Mr. Pathurst!—Come quick! Oh, do come quick! You can’t afford to miss it!“
Half the sky, from the zenith to the western sea-line, was an astonishing sheet of pure, pale, even gold. And through this sheen, on the horizon, burned the sun, a disc of richer gold. The gold of the sky grew more golden, then tarnished before our eyes and began to glow faintly with red. As the red deepened, a mist spread over the whole sheet of gold and the burning yellow sun. Turner was never guilty of so audacious an orgy in gold-mist.
Presently, along the horizon, entirely completing the circle of sea and sky, the tight-packed shapes of the trade wind clouds began to show through the mist; and as they took form they spilled with rose-colour at their upper edges, while their bases were a pulsing, bluish-white. I say it advisedly. All the colours of this display pulsed.
As the gold-mist continued to clear away, the colours became garish, bold; the turquoises went into greens and the roses turned to the red of blood. And the purple and indigo of the long swells of sea were bronzed with the colour-riot in the sky, while across the water, like gigantic serpents, crawled red and green sky-reflections. And then all the gorgeousness quickly dulled, and the warm, tropic darkness drew about us.
The Elsinore is truly the ship of souls, the world in miniature; and, because she is such a small world, cleaving this vastitude of ocean as our larger world cleaves space, the strange juxtapositions that continually occur are startling.
For instance, this afternoon on the poop. Let me describe it. Here was Miss West, in a crisp duck sailor suit, immaculately white, open at the throat, where, under the broad collar, was knotted a man-of-war black silk neckerchief. Her smooth-groomed hair, a trifle rebellious in the breeze, was glorious. And here was I, in white ducks, white shoes, and white silk shirt, as immaculate and well-tended as she. The steward was just bringing the pretty tea-service for Miss West, and in the background Wada hovered.
We had been discussing philosophy—or, rather, I had been feeling her out; and from a sketch of Spinoza’s anticipations of the modern mind, through the speculative interpretations of the latest achievements in physics of Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir William Ramsay, I had come, as usual, to De Casseres, whom I was quoting, when Mr. Pike snarled orders to the watch.
“‘In this rise into the azure of pure perception, attainable only by a very few human beings, the spectacular sense is born,’.“ I was quoting. “‘Life is no longer good or evil. It is a perpetual play of forces without beginning or end. The freed Intellect merges itself with the World-Will and partakes of its essence, which is not a moral essence but an æsthetic essence . . . “
And at this moment the watch swarmed on to the poop to haul on the port-braces of the mizzen-sky-sail, royal and topgallant-sail. The sailors passed us, or toiled close to us, with lowered eyes. They did not look at us, so far removed from them were we. It was this contrast that caught my fancy. Here were the high and low, slaves and masters, beauty and ugliness, cleanness and filth. Their feet were bare and scaled with patches of tar and pitch. Their unbathed bodies were garmented in the meanest of clothes, dingy, dirty, ragged, and sparse. Each one had on but two garments—dungaree trousers and a shoddy cotton shirt.
And we, in our comfortable deck-chairs, our two servants at our backs, the quintessence of elegant leisure, sipped delicate tea from beautiful, fragile cups, and looked on at these wretched ones whose labour made possible the journey of our little world. We did not speak to them, nor recognize their existence, any more than would they have dared speak to us.
And Miss West, with the appraising eye of a plantation mistress for the condition of her field slaves, looked them over.
“You see how they have fleshed up,“ she said, as they coiled the last turns of the ropes over the pins and faded away for’ard off the poop. “It is the regular hours, the good weather, the hard work, the open air, the sufficient food, and the absence of whisky. And they will keep in this fettle until they get off the Horn. And then you will see them go down from day to day. A winter passage of the Horn is always a severe strain on the men.
“But then, once we are around and in the good weather of the Pacific, you will see them gain again from day to day. And when we reach Seattle they will be in splendid shape. Only they will go ashore, drink up their wages in several days, and ship away on other vessels in precisely the same sodden, miserable condition that they were in when they sailed with us from Baltimore.“
And just then Captain West came out the chart-house door, strolled by for a single turn up and down, and with a smile and a word for us and an all-observant eye for the ship, the trim of her sails, the wind, and the sky, and the weather promise, went back through the chart-house door—the blond Aryan master, the king, the Samurai.
And I finished sipping my tea of delicious and most expensive aroma, and our slant-eyed, dark-skinned servitors carried the pretty gear away, and I read, continuing De Casseres:
“‘Instinct wills, creates, carries on the work of the species. The Intellect destroys, negatives, satirizes and ends in pure nihilism, instinct creates life, endlessly, hurling forth profusely and blindly its clowns, tragedians and comedians. Intellect remains the eternal spectator of the play. It participates at will, but never gives itself wholly to the fine sport. The Intellect, freed from the trammels of the personal will, soars into the ether of perception, where Instinct follows it in a thousand disguises, seeking to draw it down to earth.’“
We are now south of Rio and working south. We are out of the latitude of the trades, and the wind is capricious. Rain squalls and wind squalls vex the Elsinore. One hour we may be rolling sickeningly in a dead calm, and the next hour we may be dashing fourteen knots through the water and taking off sail as fast as the men can clew up and lower away. A night of calm, when sleep is well-nigh impossible in the sultry, muggy air, may be followed by a day of blazing sun and an oily swell from the south’ard, connoting great gales in that area of ocean we are sailing toward—or all day long the Elsinore, under an overcast sky, royals and sky sails furled, may plunge and buck under wind-pressure into a short and choppy head-sea.
And all this means work for the men. Taking Mr. Pike’s judgment, they are very inadequate, though by this time they know the ropes. He growls and grumbles, and snorts and sneers whenever he watches them doing anything. To-day, at eleven in the morning, the wind was so violent, continuing in greater gusts after having come in a great gust, that Mr. Pike ordered the mainsail taken off. The great crojack was already off. But the watch could not clew up the mainsail, and, after much vain sing-songing and pull-hauling, the watch below was routed out to bear a hand.
“My God!“ Mr. Pike groaned to me. “Two watches for a rag like that when half a decent watch could do it! Look at that preventer bosun of mine!“
Poor Nancy! He looked the saddest, sickest, bleakest creature I had ever seen. He was so wretched, so miserable, so helpless. And Sundry Buyers was just as impotent. The expression on his face was of pain and hopelessness, and as he pressed his abdomen he lumbered futilely about, ever seeking something he might do and ever failing to find it. He pottered. He would stand and stare at one rope for a minute or so at a time, following it aloft with his eyes through the maze of ropes and stabs and gears with all the intentness of a man working out an intricate problem. Then, holding his hand against his stomach, he would lumber on a few steps and select another rope for study.
“Oh dear, oh dear,“ Mr. Pike lamented. “How can one drive with bosuns like that and a crew like that? Just the same, if I was captain of this ship I’d drive ’em. I’d show ’em what drive was, if I had to lose a few of them. And when they grow weak off the Horn what’ll we do? It’ll be both watches all the time, which will weaken them just that much the faster.“
Evidently this winter passage of the Horn is all that one has been led to expect from reading the narratives of the navigators. Iron men like the two mates are very respectful of “Cape Stiff,“ as they call that uttermost tip of the American continent. Speaking of the two mates, iron-made and iron-mouthed that they are, it is amusing that in really serious moments both of them curse with “Oh dear, oh dear.“
In the spells of calm I take great delight in the little rifle. I have already fired away five thousand rounds, and have come to consider myself an expert. Whatever the knack of shooting may be, I’ve got it. When I get back I shall take up target practice. It is a neat, deft sport.
Not only is Possum afraid of the sails and of rats, but he is afraid of rifle-fire, and at the first discharge goes yelping and ki-yi-ing below. The dislike Mr. Pike has developed for the poor little puppy is ludicrous. He even told me that if it were his dog he’d throw it overboard for a target. Just the same, he is an affectionate, heart-warming little rascal, and has already crept so deep into my heart that I am glad Miss West did not accept him.
And—oh!—he insists on sleeping with me on top the bedding; a proceeding which has scandalized the mate. “I suppose he’ll be using your toothbrush next,“ Mr. Pike growled at me. But the puppy loves my companionship, and is never happier than when on the bed with me. Yet the bed is not entirely paradise, for Possum is badly frightened when ours is the lee side and the seas pound and smash against the glass ports. Then the little beggar, electric with fear to every hair tip, crouches and snarls menacingly and almost at the same time whimpers appeasingly at the storm-monster outside.
“Father knows the sea,“ Miss West said to me this afternoon. “He understands it, and he loves it.“
“Or it may be habit,“ I ventured.
She shook her head.
“He does know it. And he loves it. That is why he has come back to it. All his people before him were sea folk. His grandfather, Anthony West, made forty-six voyages between 1801 and 1847. And his father, Robert, sailed master to the north-west coast before the gold days and was captain of some of the fastest Cape Horn clippers after the gold discovery. Elijah West, father’s great-grandfather, was a privateersman in the Revolution. He commanded the armed brig New Defence. And, even before that, Elijah’s father, in turn, and Elijah’s father’s father, were masters and owners on long-voyage merchant adventures.
“Anthony West, in 1813 and 1814, commanded the David Bruce, with letters of marque. He was half-owner, with Gracie & Sons as the other half-owners. She was a two-hundred-ton schooner, built right up in Maine. She carried a long eighteen-pounder, two ten-pounders, and ten six-pounders, and she sailed like a witch. She ran the blockade off Newport and got away to the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay. And, do you know, though she only cost twelve thousand dollars all told, she took over three hundred thousand dollars of British prizes. A brother of his was on the Wasp.
“So, you see, the sea is in our blood. She is our mother. As far back as we can trace all our line was born to the sea.“ She laughed and went on. “We’ve pirates and slavers in our family, and all sorts of disreputable sea-rovers. Old Ezra West, just how far back I don’t remember, was executed for piracy and his body hung in chains at Plymouth.
“The sea is father’s blood. And he knows, well, a ship, as you would know a dog or a horse. Every ship he sails has a distinct personality for him. I have watched him, in high moments, and seen him think. But oh! the times I have seen him when he does not think—when he feels and knows everything without thinking at all. Really, with all that appertains to the sea and ships, he is an artist. There is no other word for it.“
“You think a great deal of your father,“ I remarked.
“He is the most wonderful man I have ever known,“ she replied. “Remember, you are not seeing him at his best. He has never been the same since mother’s death. If ever a man and woman were one, they were.“ She broke off, then concluded abruptly. “You don’t know him. You don’t know him at all.“
“I think we are going to have a fine sunset,“ Captain West remarked last evening.
Miss West and I abandoned our rubber of cribbage and hastened on deck. The sunset had not yet come, but all was preparing. As we gazed we could see the sky gathering the materials, grouping the gray clouds in long lines and towering masses, spreading its palette with slow-growing, glowing tints and sudden blobs of colour.
“It’s the Golden Gate!“ Miss West cried, indicating the west. “See! We’re just inside the harbour. Look to the south there. If that isn’t the sky-line of San Francisco! There’s the Call Building, and there, far down, the Ferry Tower, and surely that is the Fairmount.“ Her eyes roved back through the opening between the cloud masses, and she clapped her hands. “It’s a sunset within a sunset! See! The Farallones!“—swimming in a miniature orange and red sunset all their own. “Isn’t it the Golden Gate, and San Francisco, and the Farallones?“ She appealed to Mr. Pike, who, leaning near, on the poop-rail, was divided between gazing sourly at Nancy pottering on the main deck and sourly at Possum, who, on the bridge, crouched with terror each time the crojack flapped emptily above him.
The mate turned his head and favoured the sky picture with a solemn stare.
“Oh, I don’t know,“ he growled. “It may look like the Farallones to you, but to me it looks like a battleship coming right in the Gate with a bone in its teeth at a twenty-knot clip.“
Sure enough. The floating Farallones had metamorphosed into a giant warship.
Then came the colour riot, the dominant tone of which was green. It was green, green, green—the blue-green of the springing year, and sere and yellow green and tawny-brown green of autumn. There were orange green, gold green, and a copper green. And all these greens were rich green beyond description; and yet the richness and the greenness passed even as we gazed upon it, going out of the gray clouds and into the sea, which assumed the exquisite golden pink of polished copper, while the hollows of the smooth and silken ripples were touched by a most ethereal pea green.
The gray clouds became a long, low swathe of ruby red, or garnet red—such as one sees in a glass of heavy burgundy when held to the light. There was such depth to this red! And, below it, separated from the main colour-mass by a line of gray-white fog, or line of sea, was another and smaller streak of ruddy-coloured wine.
I strolled across the poop to the port side.
“Oh! Come back! Look! Look!“ Miss West cried to me.
“What’s the use?“ I answered. “I’ve something just as good over here.“
She joined me, and as she did so I noted, a sour grin on Mr. Pike’s face.
The eastern heavens were equally spectacular. That quarter of the sky was sheer and delicate shell of blue, the upper portions of which faded, changed, through every harmony, into a pale, yet warm, rose, all trembling, palpitating, with misty blue tinting into pink. The reflection of this coloured sky-shell upon the water made of the sea a glimmering watered silk, all changeable, blue, Nile-green, and salmon-pink. It was silky, silken, a wonderful silk that veneered and flossed the softly moving, wavy water.
And the pale moon looked like a wet pearl gleaming through the tinted mist of the sky-shell.
In the southern quadrant of the sky we discovered an entirely different sunset—what would be accounted a very excellent orange-and-red sunset anywhere, with grey clouds hanging low and lighted and tinted on all their under edges.
“Huh!“ Mr. Pike muttered gruffly, while we were exclaiming over our fresh discovery. “Look at the sunset I got here to the north. It ain’t doing so badly now, I leave it to you.“
And it wasn’t. The northern quadrant was a great fen of colour and cloud, that spread ribs of feathery pink, fleece-frilled, from the horizon to the zenith. It was all amazing. Four sunsets at the one time in the sky! Each quadrant glowed, and burned, and pulsed with a sunset distinctly its own.
And as the colours dulled in the slow twilight, the moon, still misty, wept tears of brilliant, heavy silver into the dim lilac sea. And then came the hush of darkness and the night, and we came to ourselves, out of reverie, sated with beauty, leaning toward each other as we leaned upon the rail side by side.
* * * * *
I never grow tired of watching Captain West. In a way he bears a sort of resemblance to several of Washington’s portraits. He is six feet of aristocratic thinness, and has a very definite, leisurely and stately grace of movement. His thinness is almost ascetic. In appearance and manner he is the perfect old-type New England gentleman.
He has the same gray eyes as his daughter, although his are genial rather than warm; and his eyes have the same trick of smiling. His skin is pinker than hers, and his brows and lashes are fairer. But he seems removed beyond passion, or even simple enthusiasm. Miss West is firm, like her father; but there is warmth in her firmness. He is clean, he is sweet and courteous; but he is coolly sweet, coolly courteous. With all his certain graciousness, in cabin or on deck, so far as his social equals are concerned, his graciousness is cool, elevated, thin.
He is the perfect master of the art of doing nothing. He never reads, except the Bible; yet he is never bored. Often, I note him in a deck-chair, studying his perfect finger-nails, and, I’ll swear, not seeing them at all. Miss West says he loves the sea. And I ask myself a thousand times, “But how?“ He shows no interest in any phase of the sea. Although he called our attention to the glorious sunset I have just described, he did not remain on deck to enjoy it. He sat below, in the big leather chair, not reading, not dozing, but merely gazing straight before him at nothing.
* * * * *
The days pass, and the seasons pass. We left Baltimore at the tail-end of winter, went into spring and on through summer, and now we are in fall weather and urging our way south to the winter of Cape Horn. And as we double the Cape and proceed north, we shall go through spring and summer—a long summer—pursuing the sun north through its declination and arriving at Seattle in summer. And all these seasons have occurred, and will have occurred, in the space of five months.
Our white ducks are gone, and, in south latitude thirty-five, we are wearing the garments of a temperate clime. I notice that Wada has given me heavier underclothes and heavier pyjamas, and that Possum, of nights, is no longer content with the top of the bed but must crawl underneath the bed-clothes.
* * * * *
We are now off the Plate, a region notorious for storms, and Mr. Pike is on the lookout for a pampero. Captain West does not seem to be on the lookout for anything; yet I notice that he spends longer hours on deck when the sky and barometer are threatening.
Yesterday we had a hint of Plate weather, and to-day an awesome fiasco of the same. The hint came last evening between the twilight and the dark. There was practically no wind, and the Elsinore, just maintaining steerage way by means of intermittent fans of air from the north, floundered exasperatingly in a huge glassy swell that rolled up as an echo from some blown-out storm to the south.
Ahead of us, arising with the swiftness of magic, was a dense slate-blackness. I suppose it was cloud-formation, but it bore no semblance to clouds. It was merely and sheerly a blackness that towered higher and higher until it overhung us, while it spread to right and left, blotting out half the sea.
And still the light puffs from the north filled our sails; and still, as the Elsinore floundered on the huge, smooth swells and the sails emptied and flapped a hollow thunder, we moved slowly towards that ominous blackness. In the cast, in what was quite distinctly an active thunder cloud, the lightning fairly winked, while the blackness in front of us was rent with blobs and flashes of lightning.
The last puffs left us, and in the hushes, between the rumbles of the nearing thunder, the voices of the men aloft on the yards came to one’s ear as if they were right beside one instead of being hundreds of feet away and up in the air. That they were duly impressed by what was impending was patent from the earnestness with which they worked. Both watches toiled under both mates, and Captain West strolled the poop in his usual casual way, and gave no orders at all, save in low conventional tones, when Mr. Pike came upon the poop and conferred with him.
Miss West, having deserted the scene five minutes before, returned, a proper sea-woman, clad in oil-skins, sou’wester, and long sea-boots. She ordered me, quite peremptorily, to do the same. But I could not bring myself to leave the deck for fear of missing something, so I compromised by having Wada bring my storm-gear to me.
And then the wind came, smack out of the blackness, with the abruptness of thunder and accompanied by the most diabolical thunder. And with the rain and thunder came the blackness. It was tangible. It drove past us in the bellowing wind like so much stuff that one could feel. Blackness as well as wind impacted on us. There is no other way to describe it than by the old, ancient old, way of saying one could not see his hand before his face.
“Isn’t it splendid!“ Miss West shouted into my ear, close beside me, as we clung to the railing of the break of the poop.
“Superb!“ I shouted back, my lips to her ear, so that her hair tickled my face.
And, I know not why—it must have been spontaneous with both of us—in that shouting blackness of wind, as we clung to the rail to avoid being blown away, our hands went out to each other and my hand and hers gripped and pressed and then held mutually to the rail.
“Daughter of Herodias,“ I commented grimly to myself; but my hand did not leave hers.
“What is happening?“ I shouted in her ear.
“We’ve lost way,“ came her answer. “I think we’re caught aback! The wheel’s up, but she could not steer!“
The Gabriel voice of the Samurai rang out. “Hard over?“ was his mellow storm-call to the man at the wheel. “Hard over, sir,“ came the helmsman’s reply, vague, cracked with strain, and smothered.
Came the lightning, before us, behind us, on every side, bathing us in flaming minutes at a time. And all the while we were deafened by the unceasing uproar of thunder. It was a weird sight—far aloft the black skeleton of spars and masts from which the sails had been removed; lower down, the sailors clinging like monstrous bugs as they passed the gaskets and furled; beneath them the few set sails, filled backward against the masts, gleaming whitely, wickedly, evilly, in the fearful illumination; and, at the bottom, the deck and bridge and houses of the Elsinore, and a tangled riff-raff of flying ropes, and clumps and bunches of swaying, pulling, hauling, human creatures.
It was a great moment, the master’s moment—caught all aback with all our bulk and tonnage and infinitude of gear, and our heaven-aspiring masts two hundred feet above our heads. And our master was there, in sheeting flame, slender, casual, imperturbable, with two men—one of them a murderer—under him to pass on and enforce his will, and with a horde of inefficients and weaklings to obey that will, and pull, and haul, and by the sheer leverages of physics manipulate our floating world so that it would endure this fury of the elements.
What happened next, what was done, I do not know, save that now and again I heard the Gabriel voice; for the darkness came, and the rain in pouring, horizontal sheets. It filled my mouth and strangled my lungs as if I had fallen overboard. It seemed to drive up as well as down, piercing its way under my sou’wester, through my oilskins, down my tight-buttoned collar, and into my sea-boots. I was dizzied, obfuscated, by all this onslaught of thunder, lightning, wind, blackness, and water. And yet the master, near to me, there on the poop, lived and moved serenely in all, voicing his wisdom and will to the wisps of creatures who obeyed and by their brute, puny strength pulled braces, slacked sheets, dragged courses, swung yards and lowered them, hauled on buntlines and clewlines, smoothed and gasketed the huge spreads of canvas.
How it happened I know not, but Miss West and I crouched together, clinging to the rail and to each other in the shelter of the thrumming weather-cloth. My arm was about her and fast to the railing; her shoulder pressed close against me, and by one hand she held tightly to the lapel of my oilskin.
An hour later we made our way across the poop to the chart-house, helping each other to maintain footing as the Elsinore plunged and bucked in the rising sea and was pressed over and down by the weight of wind on her few remaining set sails. The wind, which had lulled after the rain, had risen in recurrent gusts to storm violence. But all was well with the gallant ship. The crisis was past, and the ship lived, and we lived, and with streaming faces and bright eyes we looked at each other and laughed in the bright light of the chart-room.
“Who can blame one for loving the sea?“ Miss West cried out exultantly, as she wrung the rain from her ropes of hair which had gone adrift in the turmoil. “And the men of the sea!“ she cried. “The masters of the sea! You saw my father . . . “
“He is a king,“ I said.
“He is a king,“ she repeated after me.
And the Elsinore lifted on a cresting sea and flung down on her side, so that we were thrown together and brought up breathless against the wall.
I said good-night to her at the foot of the stairs, and as I passed the open door to the cabin I glanced in. There sat Captain West, whom I had thought still on deck. His storm-trappings were removed, his sea-boots replaced by slippers; and he leaned back in the big leather chair, eyes wide open, beholding visions in the curling smoke of a cigar against a background of wildly reeling cabin wall.
It was at eleven this morning that the Plate gave us a fiasco. Last night’s was a real pampero—though a mild one. To-day’s promised to be a far worse one, and then laughed at us as a proper cosmic joke. The wind, during the night, had so eased that by nine in the morning we had all our topgallant-sails set. By ten we were rolling in a dead calm. By eleven the stuff began making up ominously in the south’ard.
The overcast sky closed down. Our lofty trucks seemed to scrape the cloud-zenith. The horizon drew in on us till it seemed scarcely half a mile away. The Elsinore was embayed in a tiny universe of mist and sea. The lightning played. Sky and horizon drew so close that the Elsinore seemed on the verge of being absorbed, sucked in by it, sucked up by it.
Then from zenith to horizon the sky was cracked with forked lightning, and the wet atmosphere turned to a horrid green. The rain, beginning gently, in dead calm, grew into a deluge of enormous streaming drops. It grew darker and darker, a green darkness, and in the cabin, although it was midday, Wada and the steward lighted lamps. The lightning came closer and closer, until the ship was enveloped in it. The green darkness was continually a-tremble with flame, through which broke greater illuminations of forked lightning. These became more violent as the rain lessened, and, so absolutely were we centred in this electrical maelstrom, there was no connecting any chain or flash or fork of lightning with any particular thunder-clap. The atmosphere all about us paled and flamed. Such a crashing and smashing! We looked every moment for the Elsinore to be struck. And never had I seen such colours in lightning. Although from moment to moment we were dazzled by the greater bolts, there persisted always a tremulous, pulsing lesser play of light, sometimes softly blue, at other times a thin purple that quivered on into a thousand shades of lavender.
And there was no wind. No wind came. Nothing happened. The Elsinore, naked-sparred, under only lower-topsails, with spanker and crojack furled, was prepared for anything. Her lower-topsails hung in limp emptiness from the yards, heavy with rain and flapping soggily when she rolled. The cloud mass thinned, the day brightened, the green blackness passed into gray twilight, the lightning eased, the thunder moved along away from us, and there was no wind. In half an hour the sun was shining, the thunder muttered intermittently along the horizon, and the Elsinore still rolled in a hush of air.
“You can’t tell, sir,“ Mr. Pike growled to me. “Thirty years ago I was dismasted right here off the Plate in a clap of wind that come on just as that come on.“
It was the changing of the watches, and Mr. Mellaire, who had come on the poop to relieve the mate, stood beside me.
“One of the nastiest pieces of water in the world,“ he concurred. “Eighteen years ago the Plate gave it to me—lost half our sticks, twenty hours on our beam-ends, cargo shifted, and foundered. I was two days in the boat before an English tramp picked us up. And none of the other boats ever was picked up.“
“The Elsinore behaved very well last night,“ I put in cheerily.
“Oh, hell, that wasn’t nothing,“ Mr. Pike grumbled. “Wait till you see a real pampero. It’s a dirty stretch hereabouts, and I, for one, ’ll be glad when we get across It. I’d sooner have a dozen Cape Horn snorters than one of these. How about you, Mr. Mellaire?“
“Same here, sir,“ he answered. “Those sou’-westers are honest. You know what to expect. But here you never know. The best of ship-masters can get tripped up off the Plate.“
“‘As I’ve found out . . .
Beyond a doubt,“
Mr. Pike hummed from Newcomb’s Celeste, as he went down the ladder.
The sunsets grow more bizarre and spectacular off this coast of the Argentine. Last evening we had high clouds, broken white and golden, flung disorderly, generously, over the western half of the sky, while in the east was painted a second sunset—a reflection, perhaps, of the first. At any rate, the eastern sky was a bank of pale clouds that shed soft, spread rays of blue and white upon a blue-grey sea.
And the evening before last we had a gorgeous Arizona riot in the west. Bastioned upon the ocean cloud-tier was piled upon cloud-tier, spacious and lofty, until we gazed upon a Grand Canyon a myriad times vaster and more celestial than that of the Colorado. The clouds took on the same stratified, serrated, rose-rock formation, and all the hollows were filled with the opal blues and purple hazes of the Painted Lands.
The Sailing Directions say that these remarkable sunsets are due to the dust being driven high into the air by the winds that blow across the pampas of the Argentine.
And our sunset to-night—I am writing this at midnight, as I sit propped in my blankets, wedged by pillows, while the Elsinore wallows damnably in a dead calm and a huge swell rolling up from the Cape Horn region, where, it does seem, gales perpetually blow. But our sunset. Turner might have perpetrated it. The west was as if a painter had stood off and slapped brushfuls of gray at a green canvas. On this green background of sky the clouds spilled and crumpled.
But such a background! Such an orgy of green! No shade of green was missing in the interstices, large and small, between the milky, curdled clouds—Nile-green high up, and then, in order, each with a thousand shades, blue-green, brown-green, grey-green, and a wonderful olive-green that tarnished into a rich bronze-green.
During the display the rest of the horizon glowed with broad bands of pink, and blue, and pale green, and yellow. A little later, when the sun was quite down, in the background of the curdled clouds smouldered a wine-red mass of colour, that faded to bronze and tinged all the fading greens with its sanguinary hue. The clouds themselves flushed to rose of all shades, while a fan of gigantic streamers of pale rose radiated toward the zenith. These deepened rapidly into flaunting rose-flame and burned long in the slow-closing twilight.
And with all this wonder of the beauty of the world still glowing in my brain hours afterward, I hear the snarling of Mr. Pike above my head, and the trample and drag of feet as the men move from rope to rope and pull and haul. More weather is making, and from the way sail is being taken in it cannot be far off.
* * * * *
Yet at daylight this morning we were still wallowing in the same dead calm and sickly swell. Miss West says the barometer is down, but that the warning has been too long, for the Plate, to amount to anything. Pamperos happen quickly here, and though the Elsinore, under bare poles to her upper-topsails, is prepared for anything, it may well be that they will be crowding on canvas in another hour.
Mr. Pike was so fooled that he actually had set the topgallant-sails, and the gaskets were being taken off the royals, when the Samurai came on deck, strolled back and forth a casual five minutes, then spoke in an undertone to Mr. Pike. Mr. Pike did not like it. To me, a tyro, it was evident that he disagreed with his master. Nevertheless, his voice went out in a snarl aloft to the men on the royal-yards to make all fast again. Then it was clewlines and buntlines and lowering of yards as the topgallant-sails were stripped off. The crojack was taken in, and some of the outer fore-and-aft handsails, whose order of names I can never remember.
A breeze set in from the south-west, blowing briskly under a clear sky. I could see that Mr. Pike was secretly pleased. The Samurai had been mistaken. And each time Mr. Pike glanced aloft at the naked topgallant- and royal-yards, I knew his thought was that they might well be carrying sail. I was quite convinced that the Plate had fooled Captain West. So was Miss West convinced, and, being a favoured person like myself, she frankly told me so.
“Father will be setting sail in half an hour,“ she prophesied.
What superior weather-sense Captain West possesses I know not, save that it is his by Samurai right. The sky, as I have said, was clear. The air was brittle—sparkling gloriously in the windy sun. And yet, behold, in a brief quarter of an hour, the change that took place. I had just returned from a trip below, and Miss West was venting her scorn on the River Plate and promising to go below to the sewing-machine, when we heard Mr. Pike groan. It was a whimsical groan of disgust, contrition, and acknowledgment of inferiority before the master.
“Here comes the whole River Plate,“ was what he groaned.
Following his gaze to the south-west, we saw it coming. It was a cloud-mass that blotted out the sunlight and the day. It seemed to swell and belch and roll over and over on itself as it advanced with a rapidity that told of enormous wind behind it and in it. Its speed was headlong, terrific; and, beneath it, covering the sea, advancing with it, was a gray bank of mist.
Captain West spoke to the mate, who bawled the order along, and the watch, reinforced by the watch below, began dewing up the mainsail and foresail and climbing into the rigging.
“Keep off! Put your wheel over! Hard over!“ Captain West called gently to the helmsman.
And the big wheel spun around, and the Elsinore’s bow fell off so that she might not be caught aback by the onslaught of wind.
Thunder rode in that rushing, rolling blackness of cloud; and it was rent by lightning as it fell upon us.
Then it was rain, wind, obscureness of gloom, and lightning. I caught a glimpse of the men on the lower-yards as they were blotted from view and as the Elsinore heeled over and down. There were fifteen men of them to each yard, and the gaskets were well passed ere we were struck. How they regained the deck I do not know, I never saw; for the Elsinore, under only upper- and lower-topsails, lay down on her side, her port-rail buried in the sea, and did not rise.
There was no maintaining an unsupported upright position on that acute slant of deck. Everybody held on. Mr. Pike frankly gripped the poop-rail with both hands, and Miss West and I made frantic clutches and scrambled for footing. But I noticed that the Samurai, poised lightly, like a bird on the verge of flight, merely rested one hand on the rail. He gave no orders. As I divined, there was nothing to be done. He waited—that was all—in tranquillity and repose. The situation was simple. Either the masts would go, or the Elsinore would rise with her masts intact, or she would never rise again.
In the meantime she lay dead, her lee yardarms almost touching the sea, the sea creaming solidly to her hatch-combings across the buried, unseen rail.
The minutes were as centuries, until the bow paid off and the Elsinore, turned tail before it, righted to an even keel. Immediately this was accomplished Captain West had her brought back upon the wind. And immediately, thereupon, the big foresail went adrift from its gaskets. The shock, or succession of shocks, to the ship, from the tremendous buffeting that followed, was fearful. It seemed she was being racked to pieces. Master and mate were side by side when this happened, and the expressions on their faces typified them. In neither face was apprehension. Mr. Pike’s face bore a sour sneer for the worthless sailors who had botched the job. Captain West’s face was serenely considerative.
Still, nothing was to be done, could be done; and for five minutes the Elsinore was shaken as in the maw of some gigantic monster, until the last shreds of the great piece of canvas had been torn away.
“Our foresail has departed for Africa,“ Miss West laughed in my ear.
She is like her father, unaware of fear.
“And now we may as well go below and be comfortable,“ she said five minutes later. “The worst is over. It will only be blow, blow, blow, and a big sea making.“
* * * * *
All day it blew. And the big sea that arose made the Elsinore’s conduct almost unlivable. My only comfort was achieved by taking to my bunk and wedging myself with pillows buttressed against the bunk’s sides by empty soap-boxes which Wada arranged. Mr. Pike, clinging to my door-casing while his legs sprawled adrift in a succession of terrific rolls, paused to tell me that it was a new one on him in the pampero line. It was all wrong from the first. It had not come on right. It had no reason to be.
He paused a little longer, and, in a casual way, that under the circumstances was ridiculously transparent, exposed what was at ferment in his mind.
First of all he was absurd enough to ask if Possum showed symptoms of sea-sickness. Next, he unburdened his wrath for the inefficients who had lost the foresail, and sympathized with the sail-makers for the extra work thrown upon them. Then he asked permission to borrow one of my books, and, clinging to my bunk, selected Buchner’s Force and Matter from my shelf, carefully wedging the empty space with the doubled magazine I use for that purpose.
Still he was loth to depart, and, cudgelling his brains for a pretext, he set up a rambling discourse on River Plate weather. And all the time I kept wondering what was behind it all. At last it came.
“By the way, Mr. Pathurst,“ he remarked, “do you happen to remember how many years ago Mr. Mellaire said it was that he was dismasted and foundered off here?“
I caught his drift on the instant.
“Eight years ago, wasn’t it?“ I lied.
Mr. Pike let this sink in and slowly digested it, while the Elsinore was guilty of three huge rolls down to port and back again.
“Now I wonder what ship was sunk off the Plate eight years ago?“ he communed, as if with himself. “I guess I’ll have to ask Mr. Mellaire her name. You can search me for all any I can recollect.“
He thanked me with unwonted elaborateness for Force and Matter, of which I knew he would never read a line, and felt his way to the door. Here he hung on for a moment, as if struck by a new and most accidental idea.
“Now it wasn’t, by any chance, that he said eighteen years ago?“ he queried.
I shook my head.
“Eight years ago,“ I said. “That’s the way I remember it, though why I should remember it at all I don’t know. But that is what he said,“ I went on with increasing confidence. “Eight years ago. I am sure of it.“
Mr. Pike looked at me ponderingly, and waited until the Elsinore had fairly righted for an instant ere he took his departure down the hall.
I think I have followed the working of his mind. I have long since learned that his memory of ships, officers, cargoes, gales, and disasters is remarkable. He is a veritable encyclopædia of the sea. Also, it is patent that he has equipped himself with Sidney Waltham’s history. As yet, he does not dream that Mr. Mellaire is Sidney Waltham, and he is merely wondering if Mr. Mellaire was a ship-mate of Sidney Waltham eighteen years ago in the ship lost off the Plate.
In the meantime, I shall never forgive Mr. Mellaire for this slip he has made. He should have been more careful.
An abominable night! A wonderful night! Sleep? I suppose I did sleep, in catnaps, but I swear I heard every bell struck until three-thirty. Then came a change, an easement. No longer was it a stubborn, loggy fight against pressures. The Elsinore moved. I could feel her slip, and slide, and send, and soar. Whereas before she had been flung continually down to port, she now rolled as far to one side as to the other.
I knew what had taken place. Instead of remaining hove-to on the pampero, Captain West had turned tail and was running before it. This, I understood, meant a really serious storm, for the north-east was the last direction in which Captain West desired to go. But at any rate the movement, though wilder, was easier, and I slept. I was awakened at five by the thunder of seas that fell aboard, rushed down the main deck, and crashed against the cabin wall. Through my open door I could see water swashing up and down the hall, while half a foot of water creamed and curdled from under my bunk across the floor each time the ship rolled to starboard.
The steward brought me my coffee, and, wedged by boxes and pillows, like an equilibrist, I sat up and drank it. Luckily I managed to finish it in time, for a succession of terrific rolls emptied one of my book-shelves. Possum, crawling upward from my feet under the covered way of my bed, yapped with terror as the seas smashed and thundered and as the avalanche of books descended upon us. And I could not but grin when the Paste Board Crown smote me on the head, while the puppy was knocked gasping with Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World?
“Well, what do you think?“ I queried of the steward who was helping to set us and the books to rights.
He shrugged his shoulders, and his bright slant eyes were very bright as he replied:
“Many times I see like this. Me old man. Many times I see more bad. Too much wind, too much work. Rotten dam bad.“
I could guess that the scene on deck was a spectacle, and at six o’clock, as gray light showed through my ports in the intervals when they were not submerged, I essayed the side-board of my bunk like a gymnast, captured my careering slippers, and shuddered as I thrust my bare feet into their chill sogginess. I did not wait to dress. Merely in pyjamas I headed for the poop, Possum wailing dismally at my desertion.
It was a feat to travel the narrow halls. Time and again I paused and held on until my finger-tips hurt. In the moments of easement I made progress. Yet I miscalculated. The foot of the broad stairway to the chart-house rested on a cross-hall a dozen feet in length. Over-confidence and an unusually violent antic of the Elsinore caused the disaster. She flung down to starboard with such suddenness and at such a pitch that the flooring seemed to go out from under me and I hustled helplessly down the incline. I missed a frantic clutch at the newel-post, flung up my arm in time to save my face, and, most fortunately, whirled half about, and, still falling, impacted with my shoulder muscle-pad on Captain West’s door.
Youth will have its way. So will a ship in a sea. And so will a hundred and seventy pounds of a man. The beautiful hardwood door-panel splintered, the latch fetched away, and I broke the nails of the four fingers of my right hand in a futile grab at the flying door, marring the polished surface with four parallel scratches. I kept right on, erupting into Captain West’s spacious room with the big brass bed.
Miss West, swathed in a woollen dressing-gown, her eyes heavy still with sleep, her hair glorious and for the once ungroomed, clinging in the doorway that gave entrance on the main cabin, met my startled gaze with an equally startled gaze.
It was no time for apologies. I kept right on my mad way, caught the foot stanchion, and was whipped around in half a circle flat upon Captain West’s brass bed.
Miss West was beginning to laugh.
“Come right in,“ she gurgled.
A score of retorts, all deliciously inadvisable, tickled my tongue, so I said nothing, contenting myself with holding on with my left hand while I nursed my stinging right hand under my arm-pit. Beyond her, across the floor of the main cabin, I saw the steward in pursuit of Captain West’s Bible and a sheaf of Miss West’s music. And as she gurgled and laughed at me, beholding her in this intimacy of storm, the thought flashed through my brain:
She is a woman. She is desirable.
Now did she sense this fleeting, unuttered flash of mine? I know not, save that her laughter left her, and long conventional training asserted itself as she said:
“I just knew everything was adrift in father’s room. He hasn’t been in it all night. I could hear things rolling around . . . What is wrong? Are you hurt?“
“Stubbed my fingers, that’s all,“ I answered, looking at my broken nails and standing gingerly upright.
“My, that was a roll,“ she sympathized.
“Yes; I’d started to go upstairs,“ I said, “and not to turn into your father’s bed. I’m afraid I’ve ruined the door.“
Came another series of great rolls. I sat down on the bed and held on. Miss West, secure in the doorway, began gurgling again, while beyond, across the cabin carpet, the steward shot past, embracing a small writing-desk that had evidently carried away from its fastenings when he seized hold of it for support. More seas smashed and crashed against the for’ard wall of the cabin; and the steward, failing of lodgment, shot back across the carpet, still holding the desk from harm.
Taking advantage of favouring spells, I managed to effect my exit and gain the newel-post ere the next series of rolls came. And as I clung on and waited, I could not forget what I had just seen. Vividly under my eyelids burned the picture of Miss West’s sleep-laden eyes, her hair, and all the softness of her. A woman and desirable kept drumming in my brain.
But I forgot all this, when, nearly at the top, I was thrown up the hill of the stairs as if it had suddenly become downhill. My feet flew from stair to stair to escape falling, and I flew, or fell, apparently upward, until, at the top, I hung on for dear life while the stern of the Elsinore flung skyward on some mighty surge.
Such antics of so huge a ship! The old stereotyped “toy“ describes her; for toy she was, the sheerest splinter of a plaything in the grip of the elements. And yet, despite this overwhelming sensation of microscopic helplessness, I was aware of a sense of surety. There was the Samurai. Informed with his will and wisdom, the Elsinore was no cat’s-paw. Everything was ordered, controlled. She was doing what he ordained her to do, and, no matter what storm-Titans bellowed about her and buffeted her, she would continue to do what he ordained her to do.
I glanced into the chart-room. There he sat, leaned back in a screw-chair, his sea-booted legs, wedged against the settee, holding him in place in the most violent rolls. His black oilskin coat glistened in the lamplight with a myriad drops of ocean that advertised a recent return from deck. His sou’wester, black and glistening, was like the helmet of some legendary hero. He was smoking a cigar, and he smiled and greeted me. But he seemed very tired and very old—old with wisdom, however, not weakness. The flesh of his face, the pink pigment quite washed and worn away, was more transparent than ever; and yet never was he more serene, never more the master absolute of our tiny, fragile world. The age that showed in him was not a matter of terrestrial years. It was ageless, passionless, beyond human. Never had he appeared so great to me, so far remote, so much a spirit visitant.
And he cautioned and advised me, in silver-mellow beneficent voice, as I essayed the venture of opening the chart-house door to gain outside. He knew the moment, although I never could have guessed it for myself, and gave the word that enabled me to win the poop.
Water was everywhere. The Elsinore was rushing through a blurring whirr of water. Seas creamed and licked the poop-deck edge, now to starboard, now to port. High in the air, over-towering and perilously down-toppling, following-seas pursued our stern. The air was filled with spindrift like a fog or spray. No officer of the watch was in sight. The poop was deserted, save for two helmsmen in streaming oilskins under the half-shelter of the open wheel-house. I nodded good morning to them.
One was Tom Spink, the elderly but keen and dependable English sailor. The other was Bill Quigley, one of a forecastle group of three that herded uniquely together, though the other two, Frank Fitzgibbon and Richard Oiler, were in the second mate’s watch. The three had proved handy with their fists, and clannish; they had fought pitched forecastle battles with the gangster clique and won a sort of neutrality of independence for themselves. They were not exactly sailors—Mr. Mellaire sneeringly called them the “bricklayers“—but they had successfully refused subservience to the gangster crowd.
To cross the deck from the chart-house to the break of the poop was no slight feat, but I managed it and hung on to the railing while the wind stung my flesh with the flappings of my pyjamas. At this moment, and for the moment, the Elsinore righted to an even keel, and dashed along and down the avalanching face of a wave. And as she thus righted her deck was filled with water level from rail to rail. Above this flood, or knee-deep in it, Mr. Pike and half-a-dozen sailors were bunched on the fife-rail of the mizzen-mast. The carpenter, too, was there, with a couple of assistants.
The next roll spilled half a thousand tons of water outboard sheer over the starboard-rail, while all the starboard ports opened automatically and gushed huge streams. Then came the opposite roll to port, with a clanging shut of the iron doors; and a hundred tons of sea sloshed outboard across the port-rail, while all the iron doors on that side opened wide and gushed. And all this time, it must not be forgotten, the Elsinore was dashing ahead through the sea.
The only sail she carried was three upper-topsails. Not the tiniest triangle of headsail was on her. I had never seen her with so little wind-surface, and the three narrow strips of canvas, bellied to the seemingness of sheet-iron with the pressure of the wind, drove her before the gale at astonishing speed.
As the water on the deck subsided the men on the fife-rail left their refuge. One group, led by the redoubtable Mr. Pike, strove to capture a mass of planks and twisted steel. For the moment I did not recognize what it was. The carpenter, with two men, sprang upon Number Three hatch and worked hurriedly and fearfully. And I knew why Captain West had turned tail to the storm. Number Three hatch was a wreck. Among other things the great timber, called the “strong-back,“ was broken. He had had to run, or founder. Before our decks were swept again I could make out the carpenter’s emergency repairs. With fresh timbers he was bolting, lashing, and wedging Number Three hatch into some sort of tightness.
When the Elsinore dipped her port-rail under and scooped several hundred tons of South Atlantic, and then, immediately rolling her starboard-rail under, had another hundred tons of breaking sea fall in board upon her, all the men forsook everything and scrambled for life upon the fife-rail. In the bursting spray they were quite hidden; and then I saw them and counted them all as they emerged into view. Again they waited for the water to subside.
The mass of wreckage pursued by Mr. Pike and his men ground a hundred feet along the deck for’ard, and, as the Elsinore’s stern sank down in some abyss, ground back again and smashed up against the cabin wall. I identified this stuff as part of the bridge. That portion which spanned from the mizzen-mast to the ’midship-house was missing, while the starboard boat on the ’midship-house was a splintered mess.
Watching the struggle to capture and subdue the section of bridge, I was reminded of Victor Hugo’s splendid description of the sailor’s battle with a ship’s gun gone adrift in a night of storm. But there was a difference, I found that Hugo’s narrative had stirred me more profoundly than was I stirred by this actual struggle before my eyes.
I have repeatedly said that the sea makes one hard. I now realized how hard I had become as I stood there at the break of the poop in my wind-shipped, spray-soaked pyjamas. I felt no solicitude for the forecastle humans who struggled in peril of their lives beneath me. They did not count. Ah—I was even curious to see what might happen, did they get caught by those crashing avalanches of sea ere they could gain the safety of the fife-rail.
And I saw. Mr. Pike, in the lead, of course, up to his waist in rushing water, dashed in, caught the flying wreckage with a turn of rope, and fetched it up short with a turn around one of the port mizzen-shrouds. The Elsinore flung down to port, and a solid wall of down-toppling green upreared a dozen feet above the rail. The men fled to the fife-rail. But Mr. Pike, holding his turn, held on, looked squarely into the wall of the wave, and received the downfall. He emerged, still holding by the turn the captured bridge.
The feeble-minded faun (the stone-deaf man) led the way to Mr. Pike’s assistance, followed by Tony, the suicidal Greek. Paddy was next, and in order came Shorty, Henry the training-ship boy, and Nancy, last, of course, and looking as if he were going to execution.
The deck-water was no more than knee-deep, though rushing with torrential force, when Mr. Pike and the six men lifted the section of bridge and started for’ard with it. They swayed and staggered, but managed to keep going.
The carpenter saw the impending ocean-mountain first. I saw him cry to his own men and then to Mr. Pike ere he fled to the fife-rail. But Mr. Pike’s men had no chance. Abreast of the ’midship-house, on the starboard side, fully fifteen feet above the rail and twenty above the deck, the sea fell on board. The top of the ’midship-house was swept clean of the splintered boat. The water, impacting against the side of the house, spouted skyward as high as the crojack-yard. And all this, in addition to the main bulk of the wave, swept and descended upon Mr. Pike and his men.
They disappeared. The bridge disappeared. The Elsinore rolled to port and dipped her deck full from rail to rail. Next, she plunged down by the head, and all this mass of water surged forward. Through the creaming, foaming surface now and then emerged an arm, or a head, or a back, while cruel edges of jagged plank and twisted steel rods advertised that the bridge was turning over and over. I wondered what men were beneath it and what mauling they were receiving.
And yet these men did not count. I was aware of anxiety only for Mr. Pike. He, in a way, socially, was of my caste and class. He and I belonged aft in the high place; ate at the same table. I was acutely desirous that he should not be hurt or killed. The rest did not matter. They were not of my world. I imagine the old-time skippers, on the middle passage, felt much the same toward their slave-cargoes in the fetid ’tween decks.
The Elsinore’s bow tilted skyward while her stern fell into a foaming valley. Not a man had gained his feet. Bridge and men swept back toward me and fetched up against the mizzen-shrouds. And then that prodigious, incredible old man appeared out of the water, on his two legs, upright, dragging with him, a man in each hand, the helpless forms of Nancy and the Faun. My heart leapt at beholding this mighty figure of a man-killer and slave-driver, it is true, but who sprang first into the teeth of danger so that his slaves might follow, and who emerged with a half-drowned slave in either hand.
I knew augustness and pride as I gazed—pride that my eyes were blue, like his; that my skin was blond, like his; that my place was aft with him, and with the Samurai, in the high place of government and command. I nearly wept with the chill of pride that was akin to awe and that tingled and bristled along my spinal column and in my brain. As for the rest—the weaklings and the rejected, and the dark-pigmented things, the half-castes, the mongrel-bloods, and the dregs of long-conquered races—how could they count? My heels were iron as I gazed on them in their peril and weakness. Lord! Lord! For ten thousand generations and centuries we had stamped upon their faces and enslaved them to the toil of our will.
Again the Elsinore rolled to starboard and to port, while the spume spouted to our lower-yards and a thousand tons of South Atlantic surged across from rail to rail. And again all were down and under, with jagged plank and twisted steel overriding them. And again that amazing blond-skinned giant emerged, on his two legs upstanding, a broken waif like a rat in either hand. He forced his way through rushing, waist-high water, deposited his burdens with the carpenter on the fife-rail, and returned to drag Larry reeling to his feet and help him to the fife-rail. Out of the wash, Tony, the Greek, crawled on hands and knees and sank down helplessly at the fife-rail. There was nothing suicidal now in his mood. Struggle as he would, he could not lift himself until the mate, gripping his oilskin at the collar, with one hand flung him through the air into the carpenter’s arms.
Next came Shorty, his face streaming blood, one arm hanging useless, his sea-boots stripped from him. Mr. Pike pitched him into the fife-rail, and returned for the last man. It was Henry, the training-ship boy. Him I had seen, unstruggling, motionless, show at the surface like a drowned man and sink again as the flood surged aft and smashed him against the cabin. Mr. Pike, shoulder-deep, twice beaten to his knees and under by bursting seas, caught the lad, shouldered him, and carried him away for’ard.
An hour later, in the cabin, I encountered Mr. Pike going into breakfast. He had changed his clothes, and he had shaved! Now how could one treat a hero such as he save as I treated him when I remarked off-handedly that he must have had a lively watch?
“My,“ he answered, equally off-handedly, “I did get a prime soaking.“
That was all. He had had no time to see me at the poop-rail. It was merely the day’s work, the ship’s work, the MAN’S work—all capitals, if you please, in MAN. I was the only one aft who knew, and I knew because I had chanced to see. Had I not been on the poop at that early hour no one aft ever would have known those gray, storm-morning deeds of his.
“Anybody hurt?“ I asked.
“Oh, some of the men got wet. But no bones broke. Henry’ll be laid off for a day. He got turned over in a sea and bashed his head. And Shorty’s got a wrenched shoulder, I think.—But, say, we got Davis into the top bunk! The seas filled him full and he had to climb for it. He’s all awash and wet now, and you oughta seen me praying for more.“ He paused and sighed. “I’m getting old, I guess. I oughta wring his neck, but somehow I ain’t got the gumption. Just the same, he’ll be overside before we get in.“
“A month’s wages against a pound of tobacco he won’t,“ I challenged.
“No,“ said Mr. Pike slowly. “But I’ll tell you what I will do. I’ll bet you a pound of tobacco even, or a month’s wages even, that I’ll have the pleasure of putting a sack of coal to his feet that never will come off.“
“Done,“ said I.
“Done,“ said Mr. Pike. “And now I guess I’ll get a bite to eat.“
The more I see of Miss West the more she pleases me. Explain it in terms of propinquity, or isolation, or whatever you will; I, at least, do not attempt explanation. I know only that she is a woman and desirable. And I am rather proud, in a way, to find that I am just a man like any man. The midnight oil, and the relentless pursuit I have endured in the past from the whole tribe of women, have not, I am glad to say, utterly spoiled me.
I am obsessed by that phrase—a woman and desirable. It beats in my brain, in my thought. I go out of my way to steal a glimpse of Miss West through a cabin door or vista of hall when she does not know I am looking. A woman is a wonderful thing. A woman’s hair is wonderful. A woman’s softness is a magic.—Oh, I know them for what they are, and yet this very knowledge makes them only the more wonderful. I know—I would stake my soul—that Miss West has considered me as a mate a thousand times to once that I have so considered her. And yet—she is a woman and desirable.
And I find myself continually reminded of Richard Le Gallienne’s inimitable quatrain:
“Were I a woman, I would all day long
Sing my own beauty in some holy song,
Bend low before it, hushed and half afraid,
And say ‘I am a woman’ all day long.“
Let me advise all philosophers suffering from world-sickness to take a long sea voyage with a woman like Miss West.
In this narrative I shall call her “Miss West“ no more. She has ceased to be Miss West. She is Margaret. I do not think of her as Miss West. I think of her as Margaret. It is a pretty word, a woman-word. What poet must have created it! Margaret! I never tire of it. My tongue is enamoured of it. Margaret West! What a name to conjure with! A name provocative of dreams and mighty connotations. The history of our westward-faring race is written in it. There is pride in it, and dominion, and adventure, and conquest. When I murmur it I see visions of lean, beaked ships, of winged helmets, and heels iron-shod of restless men, royal lovers, royal adventurers, royal fighters. Yes, and even now, in these latter days when the sun consumes us, still we sit in the high seat of government and command.
Oh—and by the way—she is twenty-four years old. I asked Mr. Pike the date of the Dixie’s collision with the river steamer in San Francisco Bay. This occurred in 1901. Margaret was twelve years old at the time. This is 1913. Blessings on the head of the man who invented arithmetic! She is twenty-four. Her name is Margaret, and she is desirable.
* * * * *
There are so many things to tell about. Where and how this mad voyage, with a mad crew, will end is beyond all surmise. But the Elsinore drives on, and day by day her history is bloodily written. And while murder is done, and while the whole floating drama moves toward the bleak southern ocean and the icy blasts of Cape Horn, I sit in the high place with the masters, unafraid, I am proud to say, in an ecstasy, I am proud to say, and I murmur over and over to myself—Margaret, a woman; Margaret, and desirable.
But to resume. It is the first day of June. Ten days have passed since the pampero. When the strong back on Number Three hatch was repaired Captain West came back on the wind, hove to, and rode out the gale. Since then, in calm, and fog, and damp, and storm, we have won south until to-day we are almost abreast of the Falklands. The coast of the Argentine lies to the West, below the sea-line, and some time this morning we crossed the fiftieth parallel of south latitude. Here begins the passage of Cape Horn, for so it is reckoned by the navigators—fifty south in the Atlantic to fifty south in the Pacific.
And yet all is well with us in the matter of weather. The Elsinore slides along with favouring winds. Daily it grows colder. The great cabin stove roars and is white-hot, and all the connecting doors are open, so that the whole after region of the ship is warm and comfortable. But on the deck the air bites, and Margaret and I wear mittens as we promenade the poop or go for’ard along the repaired bridge to see the chickens on the ’midship-house. The poor, wretched creatures of instinct and climate! Behold, as they approach the southern mid-winter of the Horn, when they have need of all their feathers, they proceed to moult, because, forsooth, this is the summer time in the land they came from. Or is moulting determined by the time of year they happen to be born? I shall have to look into this. Margaret will know.
Yesterday ominous preparations were made for the passage of the Horn. All the braces were taken from the main deck pin-rails and geared and arranged so that they may be worked from the tops of the houses.
Thus, the fore-braces run to the top of the forecastle, the main-braces to the top of the ’midship-house, and the mizzen-braces to the poop. It is evident that they expect our main deck frequently to be filled with water. So evident is it that a laden ship when in big seas is like a log awash, that fore and aft, on both sides, along the deck, shoulder-high, life-lines have been rigged. Also, the two iron doors, on port and starboard, that open from the cabin directly upon the main deck, have been barricaded and caulked. Not until we are in the Pacific and flying north will these doors open again.
And while we prepare to battle around the stormiest headland in the world our situation on board grows darker. This morning Petro Marinkovich, a sailor in Mr. Mellaire’s watch, was found dead on Number One hatch. The body bore several knife-wounds and the throat was cut. It was palpably done by some one or several of the forecastle hands; but not a word can be elicited. Those who are guilty of it are silent, of course; while others who may chance to know are afraid to speak.
Before midday the body was overside with the customary sack of coal. Already the man is a past episode. But the humans for’ard are tense with expectancy of what is to come. I strolled for’ard this afternoon, and noted for the first time a distinct hostility toward me. They recognize that I belong with the after-guard in the high place. Oh, nothing was said; but it was patent by the way almost every man looked at me, or refused to look at me. Only Mulligan Jacobs and Charles Davis were outspoken.
“Good riddance,“ said Mulligan Jacobs. “The Guinea didn’t have the spunk of a louse. And he’s better off, ain’t he? He lived dirty, an’ he died dirty, an’ now he’s over an’ done with the whole dirty game. There’s men on board that oughta wish they was as lucky as him. Theirs is still a-coming to ’em.“
“You mean . . . ?“ I queried.
“Whatever you want to think I mean,“ the twisted wretch grinned malevolently into my face.
Charles Davis, when I peeped into his iron room, was exuberant.
“A pretty tale for the court in Seattle,“ he exulted. “It’ll only make my case that much stronger. And wait till the reporters get hold of it! The hell-ship Elsinore! They’ll have pretty pickin’s!“
“I haven’t seen any hell-ship,“ I said coldly.
“You’ve seen my treatment, ain’t you?“ he retorted. “You’ve seen the hell I’ve got, ain’t you?“
“I know you for a cold-blooded murderer,“ I answered.
“The court will determine that, sir. All you’ll have to do is to testify to facts.“
“I’ll testify that had I been in the mate’s place I’d have hanged you for murder.“
His eyes positively sparkled.
“I’ll ask you to remember this conversation when you’re under oath, sir,“ he cried eagerly.
I confess the man aroused in me a reluctant admiration. I looked about his mean, iron-walled room. During the pampero the place had been awash. The white paint was peeling off in huge scabs, and iron-rust was everywhere. The floor was filthy. The place stank with the stench of his sickness. His pannikin and unwashed eating-gear from the last meal were scattered on the floor: His blankets were wet, his clothing was wet. In a corner was a heterogeneous mass of soggy, dirty garments. He lay in the very bunk in which he had brained O’Sullivan. He had been months in this vile hole. In order to live he would have to remain months more in it. And while his rat-like vitality won my admiration, I loathed and detested him in very nausea.
“Aren’t you afraid?“ I demanded. “What makes you think you will last the voyage? Don’t you know bets are being made that you won’t?“
So interested was he that he seemed to prick up his ears as he raised on his elbow.
“I suppose you’re too scared to tell me about them bets,“ he sneered.
“Oh, I’ve bet you’ll last,“ I assured him.
“That means there’s others that bet I won’t,“ he rattled on hastily. “An’ that means that there’s men aboard the Elsinore right now financially interested in my taking-off.“
At this moment the steward, bound aft from the galley, paused in the doorway and listened, grinning. As for Charles Davis, the man had missed his vocation. He should have been a land-lawyer, not a sea-lawyer.
“Very well, sir,“ he went on. “I’ll have you testify to that in Seattle, unless you’re lying to a helpless sick man, or unless you’ll perjure yourself under oath.“
He got what he was seeking, for he stung me to retort:
“Oh, I’ll testify. Though I tell you candidly that I don’t think I’ll win my bet.“
“You loose ’m bet sure,“ the steward broke in, nodding his head. “That fellow him die damn soon.“
“Bet with’m, sir,“ David challenged me. “It’s a straight tip from me, an’ a regular cinch.“
The whole situation was so gruesome and grotesque, and I had been swept into it so absurdly, that for the moment I did not know what to do or say.
“It’s good money,“ Davis urged. “I ain’t goin’ to die. Look here, steward, how much you want to bet?“
“Five dollar, ten dollar, twenty dollar,“ the steward answered, with a shoulder-shrug that meant that the sum was immaterial.
“Very well then, steward. Mr. Pathurst covers your money, say for twenty. Is it a go, sir?“
“Why don’t you bet with him yourself?“ I demanded.
“Sure I will, sir. Here, you steward, I bet you twenty even I don’t die.“
The steward shook his head.
“I bet you twenty to ten,“ the sick man insisted. “What’s eatin’ you, anyway?“
“You live, me lose, me pay you,“ the steward explained. “You die, I win, you dead; no pay me.“
Still grinning and shaking his head, he went his way.
“Just the same, sir, it’ll be rich testimony,“ David chuckled. “An’ can’t you see the reporters eatin’ it up?“
The Asiatic clique in the cook’s room has its suspicions about the death of Marinkovich, but will not voice them. Beyond shakings of heads and dark mutterings, I can get nothing out of Wada or the steward. When I talked with the sail-maker, he complained that his injured hand was hurting him and that he would be glad when he could get to the surgeons in Seattle. As for the murder, when pressed by me, he gave me to understand that it was no affair of the Japanese or Chinese on board, and that he was a Japanese.
But Louis, the Chinese half-caste with the Oxford accent, was more frank. I caught him aft from the galley on a trip to the lazarette for provisions.
“We are of a different race, sir, from these men,“ he said; “and our safest policy is to leave them alone. We have talked it over, and we have nothing to say, sir, nothing whatever to say. Consider my position. I work for’ard in the galley; I am in constant contact with the sailors; I even sleep in their section of the ship; and I am one man against many. The only other countryman I have on board is the steward, and he sleeps aft. Your servant and the two sail-makers are Japanese. They are only remotely kin to us, though we’ve agreed to stand together and apart from whatever happens.“
“There is Shorty,“ I said, remembering Mr. Pike’s diagnosis of his mixed nationality.
“But we do not recognize him, sir,“ Louis answered suavely. “He is Portuguese; he is Malay; he is Japanese, true; but he is a mongrel, sir, a mongrel and a bastard. Also, he is a fool. And please, sir, remember that we are very few, and that our position compels us to neutrality.“
“But your outlook is gloomy,“ I persisted. “How do you think it will end?“
“We shall arrive in Seattle most probably, some of us. But I can tell you this, sir: I have lived a long life on the sea, but I have never seen a crew like this. There are few sailors in it; there are bad men in it; and the rest are fools and worse. You will notice I mention no names, sir; but there are men on board whom I do not care to antagonize. I am just Louis, the cook. I do my work to the best of my ability, and that is all, sir.“
“And will Charles Davis arrive in Seattle?“ I asked, changing the topic in acknowledgment of his right to be reticent.
“No, I do not think so, sir,“ he answered, although his eyes thanked me for my courtesy. “The steward tells me you have bet that he will. I think, sir, it is a poor bet. We are about to go around the Horn. I have been around it many times. This is midwinter, and we are going from east to west. Davis’ room will be awash for weeks. It will never be dry. A strong healthy man confined in it could well die of the hardship. And Davis is far from well. In short, sir, I know his condition, and he is in a shocking state. Surgeons might prolong his life, but here in a wind-jammer it is shortened very rapidly. I have seen many men die at sea. I know, sir. Thank you, sir.“
And the Eurasian Chinese-Englishman bowed himself away.
Things are worse than I fancied. Here are two episodes within the last seventy-two hours. Mr. Mellaire, for instance, is going to pieces. He cannot stand the strain of being on the same vessel with the man who has sworn to avenge Captain Somers’s murder, especially when that man is the redoubtable Mr. Pike.
For several days Margaret and I have been remarking the second mate’s bloodshot eyes and pain-lined face and wondering if he were sick. And to-day the secret leaked out. Wada does not like Mr. Mellaire, and this morning, when he brought me breakfast, I saw by the wicked, gleeful gleam in his almond eyes that he was spilling over with some fresh, delectable ship’s gossip.
For several days, I learned, he and the steward have been solving a cabin mystery. A gallon can of wood alcohol, standing on a shelf in the after-room, had lost quite a portion of its contents. They compared notes and then made of themselves a Sherlock Holmes and a Doctor Watson. First, they gauged the daily diminution of alcohol. Next they gauged it several times daily, and learned that the diminution, whenever it occurred, was first apparent immediately after meal-time. This focussed their attention on two suspects—the second mate and the carpenter, who alone sat in the after-room. The rest was easy. Whenever Mr. Mellaire arrived ahead of the carpenter more alcohol was missing. When they arrived and departed together, the alcohol was undisturbed. The carpenter was never alone in the room. The syllogism was complete. And now the steward stores the alcohol under his bunk.
But wood alcohol is deadly poison. What a constitution this man of fifty must have! Small wonder his eyes have been bloodshot. The great wonder is that the stuff did not destroy him.
I have not whispered a word of this to Margaret; nor shall I whisper it. I should like to put Mr. Pike on his guard; and yet I know that the revealing of Mr. Mellaire’s identity would precipitate another killing. And still we drive south, close-hauled on the wind, toward the inhospitable tip of the continent. To-day we are south of a line drawn between the Straits of Magellan and the Falklands, and to-morrow, if the breeze holds, we shall pick up the coast of Tierra del Fuego close to the entrance of the Straits of Le Maire, through which Captain West intends to pass if the wind favours.
The other episode occurred last night. Mr. Pike says nothing, yet he knows the crew situation. I have been watching some time now, ever since the death of Marinkovich; and I am certain that Mr. Pike never ventures on the main deck after dark. Yet he holds his tongue, confides in no man, and plays out the bitter perilous game as a commonplace matter of course and all in the day’s work.
And now to the episode. Shortly after the close of the second dog-watch last evening I went for’ard to the chickens on the ’midship-house on an errand for Margaret. I was to make sure that the steward had carried out her orders. The canvas covering to the big chicken coop had to be down, the ventilation insured, and the kerosene stove burning properly. When I had proved to my satisfaction the dependableness of the steward, and just as I was on the verge of returning to the poop, I was drawn aside by the weird crying of penguins in the darkness and by the unmistakable noise of a whale blowing not far away.
I had climbed around the end of the port boat, and was standing there, quite hidden in the darkness, when I heard the unmistakable age-lag step of the mate proceed along the bridge from the poop. It was a dim starry night, and the Elsinore, in the calm ocean under the lee of Tierra del Fuego, was slipping gently and prettily through the water at an eight-knot clip.
Mr. Pike paused at the for’ard end of the housetop and stood in a listening attitude. From the main deck below, near Number Two hatch, across the mumbling of various voices, I could recognize Kid Twist, Nosey Murphy, and Bert Rhine—the three gangsters. But Steve Roberts, the cow-boy, was also there, as was Mr. Mellaire, both of whom belonged in the other watch and should have been turned in; for, at midnight, it would be their watch on deck. Especially wrong was Mr. Mellaire’s presence, holding social converse with members of the crew—a breach of ship ethics most grievous.
I have always been cursed with curiosity. Always have I wanted to know; and, on the Elsinore, I have already witnessed many a little scene that was a clean-cut dramatic gem. So I did not discover myself, but lurked behind the boat.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. The men still talked. I was tantalized by the crying of the penguins, and by the whale, evidently playful, which came so close that it spouted and splashed a biscuit-toss away. I saw Mr. Pike’s head turn at the sound; he glanced squarely in my direction, but did not see me. Then he returned to listening to the mumble of voices from beneath.
Now whether Mulligan Jacobs just happened along, or whether he was deliberately scouting, I do not know. I tell what occurred. Up-and-down the side of the ’midship-house is a ladder. And up this ladder Mulligan Jacobs climbed so noiselessly that I was not aware of his presence until I heard Mr. Pike snarl:
“What the hell you doin’ here?“
Then I saw Mulligan Jacobs in the gloom, within two yards of the mate.
“What’s it to you?“ Mulligan Jacobs snarled back. The voices below hushed. I knew every man stood there tense and listening. No; the philosophers have not yet explained Mulligan Jacobs. There is something more to him than the last word has said in any book. He stood there in the darkness, a fragile creature with curvature of the spine, facing alone the first mate, and he was not afraid.
Mr. Pike cursed him with fearful, unrepeatable words, and again demanded what he was doing there.
“I left me plug of tobacco here when I was coiling down last,“ said the little twisted man—no; he did not say it. He spat it out like so much venom.
“Get off of here, or I’ll throw you off, you and your tobacco,“ raged the mate.
Mulligan Jacobs lurched closer to Mr. Pike, and in the gloom and with the roll of the ship swayed in the other’s face.
“By God, Jacobs!“ was all the mate could say.
“You old stiff,“ was all the terrible little cripple could retort.
Mr. Pike gripped him by the collar and swung him in the air.
“Are you goin’ down?—or am I goin’ to throw you down?“ the mate demanded.
I cannot describe their manner of utterance. It was that of wild beasts.
“I ain’t ate outa your hand yet, have I?“ was the reply.
Mr. Pike tried to say something, still holding the cripple suspended, but he could do no more than strangle in his impotence of rage.
“You’re an old stiff, an old stiff, an old stiff,“ Mulligan Jacobs chanted, equally incoherent and unimaginative with brutish fury.
“Say it again and over you go,“ the mate managed to enunciate thickly.
“You’re an old stiff,“ gasped Mulligan Jacobs. He was flung. He soared through the air with the might of the fling, and even as he soared and fell through the darkness he reiterated:
“Old stiff! Old stiff!“
He fell among the men on Number Two hatch, and there were confusion and movement below, and groans.
Mr. Pike paced up and down the narrow house and gritted his teeth. Then he paused. He leaned his arms on the bridge-rail, rested his head on his arms for a full minute, then groaned:
“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.“ That was all. Then he went aft, slowly, dragging his feet along the bridge.