Very well. There was nothing for it but to fill another pipe, and dwell with some dismay upon such things as, for instance, the way one's light grows smoky with age. Is there a manual which will help a man to keep his light shining brightly—supposing he has a light to keep? But if he has but the cheapest of transient glims, good and bright enough for its narrow purpose, is it any wonder it burns foul, seeing what business usually it gets to illuminate in these exciting and hurried times. What work! I think it would make rebels of the most quiet, unadventurous, and simple-featured troop of words that ever a man gathered about him for the plain domestic duties to employ them regularly, for example, in sweeping up into neat columns such litter as the House of Commons makes. It would numb the original heart of the bonniest set of words that rightly used would have made some people happy—sterilize them, make them anaemic and pasty-faced, so that they would disturb the peace of mind of all compassionate men who looked upon them. That my own staff of words refused my summons....
But what was it I said I wanted them for just now? I gazed round the walls upon the portraits of the great writers of the past, hoping for inspiration. Useless! Upon Emerson's face there was a faint smile of most infuriating benevolence. Lamb—but I am getting tired of his smirk, which might be of irony or kindness. He would look savage enough today, hearing his constantly returning Dissertation on Roast Pig thump the door-mat four times a week; for that, he can be assured, is the way editors would treat it now, and without even preliminary consultations with lady typist-secretaries. Of the whole gallery of the great I felt there was not one worth his wall room. They are pious frauds. This inspiration business is played out. I have never had the worth of the frames out of those portraits.... Ah, the Balkans. That was it. And of all the flat, interminable Arctic wastes of bleak wickedness and frozen error that ever a shivering writer had to traverse....
My head was in my hands, and I was trying to get daylight and direction into the affair with my eyes shut, when I felt a slight touch on my arm. "I'm sorry we're in your way. Are you praying? Look who's here."
I looked. It was Miss Muffet who spoke. She shook the gold out of her eyes and regarded me steadily. Well she knew she had no right there, for all her look of confident and tender solicitude. The Boy, who is a little older (and already knows enough to place the responsibility for intrusion on his sister with her innocent eyes and imperturbable calm and golden hair), stood a little in the background, pretending to be engrossed with a magnet, as though he were unaware that he was really present. Curls hopped about on one leg frankly, knowing that the others would be blamed for any naughtiness of hers. Her radiant impudence never needs any apology. What a plague of inconsequential violators of any necessary peace! When would my lucky words come now?
The Boy probably saw a red light somewhere. "Haven't you finished uncle we thought you had has a topsail schooner got two or three masts I saw a fine little engine up in the town today and an aeroplane it was only seventeen shillings do you think that is too much?"
"I am learning the sailors' hornpipe at school," said Miss Muffet, slowly and calmly; "you watch my feet. Do I dance it nicely?"
I watched her feet. Now it is but fair to say that when Miss Muffet dances across a room there is no international crisis in all this world which would distract any man's frank admiration. When Miss Muffet steps it on a sunny day, her hair being what it is, and her little feet in her strap shoes being such as they are, then your mood dances in accord, and your thoughts swing in light and rhythmic harmony. I got up. And Curls, who is one of those who must mount stairs laboriously, secure to the rails—she has black eyes only the bright light of which is seen through her mane—she reached up for my hand, for she cannot imitate her sister's hornpipe without holding on.
Miss Muffet reached a corner of the room, and swung round, light as a fairy, her hands on her hips, and said, "What do you think of that?" Some of my lucky words instantly returned. I suppose it was more to their mind. But I had nothing to give them to do. They could just stand around and look on now, for when Curls seriously imitates her sister, and then laughs heartily at her own absurd failure, because her feet are irresponsible, that is the time when you have nothing to do, and would not do anything if it had to be done....
What time it was the next interruption came—it was another telegram—I don't know. Time had been obliterated. But then it began to flow again; though not with a viscid and heavy measure. And when I took up my light and ready pen, there, standing at eager attention, was all my staff, waiting the call. What had happened to bring them all back? If the writers of literary manuals will explain that secret to me, I should acquire true wealth.
IX. A First Impression
Certainly it was an inconsiderate way of approaching the greatest city of the Americas, but that was not my fault. I wished for the direct approach, the figure of Liberty to rise, haughty and most calm, a noble symbol, as we came in from overseas; then the wide portals; then New York. But the erratic tracks of a tramp steamer go not as her voyagers will. They have no control over her. She moves to an enigmatic will in London. It happens, then, that she rarely shows a wonder of the world any respect. She arrives like sudden rain, like wind from a new quarter. She is as chance as the fall of a star. None knows the day nor the hour. At the most inconvenient time she takes the wonder's visitors to the back door.
We went, light ship from the South, to Barbados, for orders; and because I wanted New York, for that was the way home, we were sent to Tampa for phosphates. As to Tampa, its position on the globe is known only to underwriters and shipbrokers; it is that sort of place. It is a mere name, like Fernando de Noronha, or Key West, which one meets only in the shipping news, idly wondering then what strange things the seafarer would find if he went.
Late one night, down a main street of Tampa, there came, with the deliberate movement of fate, a gigantic corridor train, looming as high as a row of lighted villas, and drawn by the awful engine of a dream. That train behaved there as trams do at home, presently stopping alongside a footway.
Behind me was a little wooden shop. In front was the wall of a carriage, having an entrance on the second storey, and a roof athwart the meridian stars. One of its wheels was the nearest and most dominant object in the night to me, a monstrous bright round resting on a muddy newspaper in the road. It absorbed all the light from the little wooden shop. Now, I had hunted throughout Tampa for its railway terminus, fruitlessly; but here its train had found me, keeping me from crossing the road.
"Where do I board this train for New York?" I asked. (I talked like a fool, I know; it was like asking a casual wayfarer in East Ham whether that by the kerb is the Moscow express. Yet what was I to do?) "Board her right here," said the fellow, who was in his shirt sleeves. Therefore I delivered myself, in blind faith, to the casual gods who are apt to wake up and by a series of deft little miracles get things done fitly in America when all seems lost and the traveller has even bared his resigned neck to the stroke.
But I had not the least hope of seeing New York and a Cunarder; not with such an unpropitious start as that. With an exit like Euston one never doubts sure direction, and arrival at the precise spot at the exact moment. You feel there it was arranged for in Genesis. The officials cannot alter affairs. They are priests administering inviolate rites, advancing matters fore-ordained by the unseen, and so no more able to stay or speed this cosmic concern than the astronomer who schedules the planets. The planets take their heavenly courses. But I had never been to the United States before, did not know even the names of their many gods, and New York was at the end of a great journey; and the train for it stopped outside a tobacco shop in the road, like a common tram.
There was another night when, with the usual unreason, the swift and luxurious glide, lessening through easy gradations, ceased. I saw some lights in the rain outside. How should I know it was New York? We had even changed climates since we started. The passengers of my early days in the train had passed away. There was nothing to show. More, I felt no exultation—which should have been the first of warnings. Merely we got to a railway station one night, and a negro insisted that I should get out and stop out. This was N' Yark, he said.
It was night, I repeat; there was a row of cabs in a dolorous rain. I saw a man in a shiny cape under the nearest lamp, and beyond him a vista of reflections from vacant stones, which to me always, more than bleak hills or the empty round of the sea, is desolation. There were no spacious portals. There was no figure of Liberty, haughty but welcoming. There was rain, and cabs that waited without hope. There was exactly what you find at the end of a twopenny journey when your only luggage is an evening paper, an umbrella, and that tired feeling. Not knowing where to go, and little caring, I followed the crowd, and so found myself in a large well-lighted hall. Having no business there—it was a barren place—I pushed on, and came suddenly to the rim of the world.
Before me was the immensity of dark celestial space in which wandered hosts of uncharted stars; and below my feet was the abyss of old night. Just behind me was a woman telling her husband that they had forgotten Jimmy's boots, and couldn't go back now, for the ferry was just coming.
Jimmy's boots! Now, when you are a released soul, ascending the night, and the earth below is a bright silver ball, not so very big, and some other viewless soul behind you, still with thoughts absent on worldly trifles, mutters concerning boots when in the Milky Way, you will know how I felt. Here was the ultimate empty dark in which the sun could never shine. The sun had not merely left the place. It had never been there. It was a remote star, one of myriads in the constellations at large, the definite groups which occulted in the void before me. Looking at those swiftly moving systems, I watched for the flash of impact; but no great light of collision broke. The groups of lights passed and repassed noiselessly.
Then one constellation presently detached itself, and its orbit evidently would intersect our foothold. It came nearer out of the night, till I could see plainly that it appeared to be a long section of a well-lighted street, say, like a length of Piccadilly. It approached end-on to where I stood, and at last impinged. It actually was a length of street, and I could continue my walk. The street floated off again into the night, with me, Jimmy's father and mother, and all of us, and the vans and motor-cars; and the other square end of it soon joined a roadway on the opposite shore. The dark river was as full of mobile lengths of bright roadway as Oxford Circus is of motor-buses; and the fear of the unknown, as in the terrific dark of a dream where flaming comets stream on undirected courses, numbed my little mind. I had found New York.
I had found it. Its bulk was beyond the mind, its lights were falling star systems, and its movements those of general cataclysm. I should find no care for little human needs there. One cannot warm one's hands against the flames of earthquake. There is no provision for men in the welter, but dimly apprehended in the night, of blind and inhuman powers.
Therefore, the hotel bedroom, when I got to it, surprised and steadied me with its elaborate care for the body. But yet I was not certain. Then I saw against the wall a dial, and reading a notice over it I learned that by working the hands of this false clock correctly I could procure anything, from an apple to the fire brigade. Now this was carrying matters to the other extreme; and I had to suppress a desire to laugh hysterically. I set the hands to a number; waited one minute; then the door opened, and a waiter came in with a real tray, conveying a glass and a bottle. So there was a method then in this general madness after all. I tried to regard the wonder as indifferently as the waiter's own cold and measuring eyes.
X. The Derelict
In a tramp steamer, which was overloaded, and in midwinter, I had crossed to America for the first time. What we experienced of the western ocean during that passage gave me so much respect for it that the prospect of the return journey, three thousand miles of those seas between me and home, was already a dismal foreboding. The shipping posters of New York, showing stately liners too lofty even to notice the Atlantic, were arguments good enough for steerage passengers, who do, I know, reckon a steamer's worth by the number of its funnels; but the pictures did nothing to lessen my regard for that dark outer world I knew. And having no experience of ships installed with racquet courts, Parisian cafes, swimming baths, and pergolas, I was naturally puzzled by the inconsequential behaviour of the first-class passengers at the hotel. They were leaving by the liner which was to take me, and, I gathered, were going to cross a bridge to England in the morning. Of course, this might have been merely the innocent profanity of the simple-minded.
Embarking at the quay next day, I could not see that our ship had either a beginning or an end. There was a blank wall which ran out of sight to the right and left. How far it went, and what it enclosed, were beyond me. Hundreds of us in a slow procession mounted stairs to the upper floor of a warehouse, and from thence a bridge led us to a door in the wall half-way in its height. No funnels could be seen. Looking straight up from the embarkation gangway, along what seemed the parapet of the wall was a row of far-off indistinguishable faces peering straight down at us. There was no evidence that this building we were entering, of which the high black wall was a part, was not an important and permanent feature of the city. It was in keeping with the magnitude of New York's skyscrapers, which this planet's occasionally non-irritant skin permits to stand there to afford man an apparent reason to be gratified with his own capacity and daring.
But with the knowledge that this wall must be afloat there came no sense of security when, going through that little opening in its altitude, I found myself in a spacious decorated interior which hinted nothing of a ship, for I was puzzled as to direction. My last ship could be surveyed in two glances; she looked, and was, a comprehensible ship, no more than a manageable handful for an able master. In that ship you could see at once where you were and what to do. But in this liner you could not see where you were, and would never know which way to take unless you had a good memory. No understanding came to me in that hall of a measured and shapely body, designed with a cunning informed by ages of sea-lore to move buoyantly and surely among the ranging seas, to balance delicately, a quick and sensitive being, to every precarious slope, to recover a lost poise easily and with the grace natural to a quick creature controlled by an alert mind.
There was no shape at all to this structure. I could see no line the run of which gave me warrant that it was comprised in the rondure of a ship. The lines were all of straight corridors, which, for all I knew, might have ended blindly on open space, as streets which traverse a city and are bare in vacancy beyond the dwellings. It was possible we were encompassed by walls, but only one wall was visible. There we idled, all strangers, and to remain strangers, in a large hall roofed by a dome of coloured glass. Quite properly, palms stood beneath. There were offices and doors everywhere. On a broad staircase a multitude of us wandered aimlessly up and down. Each side of the stairway were electric lifts, intermittent and brilliant apparitions. I began to understand why the saloon passengers thought nothing of the voyage. They were encountering nothing unfamiliar. They had but come to another hotel for a few days.
I attempted to find my cabin, but failed. A uniformed guide took care of me. But my cabin, curtained, upholstered, and warm, with mirrors and plated ware, sunk somewhere deeply among carpeted and silent streets down each of which the perspective of glow-lamps looked interminable, left me still questioning. The long walk had given me a fear that I was remote from important affairs which might be happening beyond. My address was 323. The street door—I was down a side turning, though—bore that number. A visitor could make no mistake, supposing he could find the street and my side turning. That was it. There was a very great deal in this place for everybody to remember, and most of us were strangers. No doubt, however, we were afloat, if the lifebelts in the rack meant anything. Yet the cabin, insulated from all noise, was not soothing, but disturbing. I had been used to a ship in which you could guess all that was happening even when in your bunk; a sensitive and communicative ship.
A steward appeared at my door, a stranger out of nowhere, and asked whether I had seen a bag not mine in the cabin. He might have been created merely to put that question, for I never saw him again on the voyage. This liner was a large province having irregular and shifting bounds, permitting incontinent entrance and disappearance. All this should have inspired me with an idea of our vastness and importance, but it did not. I felt I was one of a multitude included in a nebulous mass too vague to hold together unless we were constantly wary.
In the saloon there was the solid furniture of rare woods, the ornate decorations, and the light and shadows making vague its limits and giving it an appearance of immensity, to keep the mind from the thought of our real circumstances. At dinner we had valentine music, dreamy stuff to accord with the shaded lamps which displayed the tables in a lower rosy light. It helped to extend the mysterious and romantic shadows. The pale, disembodied masks of the waiters swam in the dusk above the tinted light. I had for a companion a vivacious American lady from the Middle West, and she looked round that prospect we had of an expensive cafe, and said, "Well, but I am disappointed. Why, I've been looking forward to seeing the ocean, you know. And it isn't here."
"Smooth passage," remarked a man on the other side. "No sea at all worth mentioning." Actually, I know there was a heavy beam sea running before a half-gale. I could guess the officer in charge somewhere on the exposed roof might have another mind about it; but it made no difference to us in our circle of rosy intimate light bound by those vague shadows which were alive with ready servitude.
"And I've been reading Captains Courageous with this voyage in view. Isn't this the month when the forties roar? I want to hear them roar, just once, you know, and as gently as any sucking dove." We all laughed. "We can't even tell we're in a ship."
She began to discuss Kipling's book. "There's some fine seas in that. Have you read it? But I'd like to know where that ocean is he pretends to have seen. I do believe the realists are no more reliable than the romanticists. Here we are a thousand miles out, and none of us has seen the sea yet. Tell me, does not a realist have to magnify his awful billows just to get them into his reader's view?"
I murmured something feeble and sociable. I saw then why sailors never talk directly of the sea. I, for instance, could not find my key at that moment—it was in another pocket somewhere—so I had no iron to touch. Talking largely of the sea is something like the knowing talk of young men about women; and what is a simple sailor man that he should open his mouth on mysteries?
Only on the liner's boat-deck, where you could watch her four funnels against the sky, could you see to what extent the liner was rolling. The arc seemed to be considerable then, but slowly described. But the roll made little difference to the promenaders below. Sometimes they walked a short distance on the edges of their boots, leaning over as they did so, and swerving from the straight, as though they had turned giddy. The shadows formed by the weak sunlight moved slowly out of ambush across the white deck, but often moved indecisively, as though uncertain of a need to go; and then slowly went into hiding again. The sea whirling and leaping past was far below our wall side. It was like peering dizzily over a precipice when watching those green and white cataracts.
The passengers, wrapped and comfortable on the lee deck, chatted as blithely as at a garden-party, while the band played medleys of national airs to suit our varied complexions. The stewards came round with loaded trays. A diminutive and wrinkled dame in costly furs frowned through her golden spectacles at her book, while her maid sat attentively by. An American actress was the centre of an eager group of grinning young men; she was unseen, but her voice was distinct. The two Vanderbilts took their brisk constitutional among us as though the liner had but two real passengers though many invisible nobodies. The children, who had not ceased laughing and playing since we left New York, waited for the slope of the deck to reach its greatest, and then ran down towards the bulwarks precipitously. The children, happy and innocent, completed for us the feeling of comfortable indifference and security which we found when we saw there was more ship than ocean. The liner's deck canted slowly to leeward, went over more and more, beyond what it had done yet, and a pretty little girl with dark curls riotous from under her red tam-o'-shanter, ran down, and brought up against us violently with both hands, laughing heartily. We laughed too. Looking seawards, I saw receding the broad green hill, snow-capped, which had lifted us and let us down. The sea was getting up.
Near sunset, when the billows were mounting express along our run, sometimes to leap and snatch at our upper structure, and were rocking us with some ease, there was a commotion forward. Books and shawls went anywhere as the passengers ran. Something strange was to be seen upon the waters.
It looked like a big log out there ahead, over the starboard bow. It was not easy to make out. The light was failing. We overhauled it rapidly, and it began to shape as a ship's boat. "Oh, it's gone," exclaimed some one then. But the forlorn object lifted high again, and sank once more. Whenever it was glimpsed it was set in a patch of foam.
That flotsam, whatever it was, was of man. As we watched it intently, and before it was quite plain, we knew intuitively that hope was not there, that we were watching something past its doom. It drew abeam, and we saw what it was, a derelict sailing ship, mastless and awash. The alien wilderness was around us now, and we saw a sky that was overcast and driven, and seas that were uplifted, which had grown incredibly huge, swift, and perilous, and they had colder and more sombre hues.
The derelict was a schooner, a lifeless and soddened hulk, so heavy and uncontesting that its foundering seemed at hand. The waters poured back and forth at her waist, as though holding her body captive for the assaults of the active seas which came over her broken bulwarks, and plunged ruthlessly about. There was something ironic in the indifference of her defenceless body to these unending attacks. It mocked this white and raging post-mortem brutality, and gave her a dignity that was cold and superior to all the eternal powers could now do. She pitched helplessly head first into a hollow, and a door flew open under the break of her poop; it surprised and shocked us, for the dead might have signed to us then. She went astern of us fast, and a great comber ran at her, as if it had but just spied her, and thought she was escaping. There was a high white flash, and a concussion we heard. She had gone. But she appeared again far away, on a summit in desolation, black against the sunset. The stump of her bowsprit, the accusatory finger of the dead, pointed at the sky.
I turned, and there beside me was the lady who had wanted to find the sea. She was gazing at the place where the wreck was last seen, her eyes fixed, her mouth a little open in awe and horror.
XI. The Voyage of the Mona
There was the Mona, Yeo's boat, below the quay wall; but I could not see her owner. The unequal stones of that wall have the weathered appearance of a natural outcrop of rock, for they were matured by the traffic of ships when America was a new yarn among sailors. They are the very stones one would choose to hear speak. Yet the light of early morning in that spacious estuary was so young and tenuous that you could suppose this heavy planet had not yet known the stains of night and evil; and the Mona, it must be remembered, is white without and egg-blue within. Such were the reflections she made, lively at anchor on the swirls of a flood-tide bright enough for the sea-bottom to have been luminous, that I felt I must find Yeo. The white houses of the village, with shining faces, were looking out to sea.
Another man, a visitor from the cities of the plains, was gazing down with appreciation at the Mona. There was that to his credit. His young wife, slight and sad, and in the dress of the promenade of a London park, was with him. She was not looking on the quickness of the lucent tide, but at the end of a parasol, which was idly marking the grits. I had seen the couple about the village for a week. He was big, ruddy, middle-aged, and lusty. His neck ran straight up into his round head, and its stiff prickles glittered like short ends of brass wire. It was easy to guess of him, without knowing him and therefore unfairly, that, if his wife actually confessed to him that she loved another man, he would not have believed her; because how was it possible for her to do that, he being what he was? His aggressive face, and his air of confident possession, the unconscious immodesty of the man because of his important success at some unimportant thing or other, seemed an offence in the ancient tranquillity of that place, where poor men acknowledged only the sea, the sun, and the winds.
I found Yeo at the end of the quay, where round the corner to seaward open out the dunes of the opposite shore of the estuary, faint with distance and their own pallor, and ending in the slender stalk of a lighthouse, always quivering at the vastness of what confronts it. Yeo was sitting on a bollard, rubbing tobacco between his palms. I told him this was the sort of morning to get the Mona out. He carefully poured the grains into the bowl of his pipe, stoppered it, glanced slowly about the brightness of the river mouth, and shook his head. This was a great surprise, and anybody who did not know Yeo would have questioned him. But it was certain he knew his business. There is not a more deceptive and difficult stretch of coast round these islands, and Yeo was born to it. He stood up, and his long black hair stirred in the breeze under the broad brim of a grey hat he insists on wearing. The soft hat and his lank hair make him womanish in profile, in spite of a body to which a blue jersey does full justice, and the sea-boots; but when he turns his face to you, with his light eyes and his dark and leathery face, you feel he is strangely masculine and wise, and must be addressed with care and not as most men. He rarely smiles when a foolish word is spoken or when he is contradicted boldly by the innocent. He spits at his feet and contemplates the sea, as though he had heard nothing.
The visitor came up, followed reluctantly by his wife. "Are you Yeo? How are you, Yeo? What about a sail? I want you to take us round to Pebblecombe."
That village is over the bar and across the bay. Yeo looked at the man, and shook his head.
"Why not?" asked the visitor sharply, as though he were addressing the reluctance of the driver of his own car.
The sailor pointed a stern finger seawards, to where the bar is shown in charts, but where all we could make out was the flashing of inconstant white lines.
"Well?" questioned the man, who glanced out there perfunctorily. "What of it?"
"Look at it," mildly insisted the sailor, speaking for the first time. "Isn't the sea like a wall?" The man's wife, who was regarding Yeo's placid face with melancholy attention, turned to her husband and placed a hand of nervous deprecation on his arm. He did not look at her.
"Oh, of course, if you don't want to go, if you don't want to go...." said the visitor, shaking his head as though at rubbish, and rising several times on his toes. "Perhaps you've a better job," he added, with an unpleasant smile.
"I'm ready to go if you are, sir," said Yeo, "but I shall have to take my friend with me." The sailor nodded my way.
The man did not look at me. I was not there to him. He gave an impatient jerk to his head. "Ready to go? Of course I'm ready to go! Of course. Why do you suppose I asked?"
Yeo went indoors, came out with a bundle of tarpaulins for us, and began moving with deliberation along to the Mona. Something was said by the woman behind us, but so quietly I did not catch it. Her husband made confident noises of amusement, and replied in French that it was always the way with these local folk—always the way. The result, I gathered, of a slow life, though that was hardly the way he put it. Nothing in it, she could be sure. These difficulties were made to raise the price. The morning was beautiful. Still, if she did not want to go ... if she did not want to go. And his tone was that perhaps she would be as absurd as that. I heard no more, and both followed us.
I got out to the Mona, cast off her stern mooring, got in the anchor, and the pull on that brought us to the stone steps of the landing-stage. While I made the seats ready for the voyagers and handed them in, Yeo took two reefs in the lug-sail (an act which seemed, I must say, with what wind we felt there, to be carrying his prescience to bold lengths) and hauled the sail to its place. I went forward to lower the centre keel as he came aft with the sheet in his hand. The Mona sidled away, stood out, and then reached for the distant sandhills. The village diminished and concentrated under its hill.
When clear of the shelter of the hill, on the lee foot of which the village shelters from the westerly winds, the Mona went over suddenly in a gust which put her gunwale in the wash and kept it there. The dipper came adrift and rattled over. Yeo eased her a bit, and his uncanny eyes never shifted from their fixed scrutiny ahead. Our passenger laughed aloud, for his wife had grasped him at the unexpected movement and the noise. "That's nothing," he assured her. "This is fine."
We cleared the shallows and were in the channel where the weight of the incoming tide raced and climbed. The Mona's light bows, meeting the tide, danced ecstatically, sending over us showers which caught in the foot of the sail. The weather in the open was bright and hard, and the sun lost a little of its warmth in the wind, which was north of west. The dunes, which had been evanescent through distance in the wind and light, grew material and great. The combers, breaking diagonally along that forsaken beach, had something ominous to say of the bar. Even I knew that, and turned to look ahead. Out there, across and above the burnished sea, a regular series of long shadowy walls were forming. They advanced slowly, grew darker, and grew higher; then in their parapets appeared arcs of white, and at once, where those lines of sombre shadows had been, there were plunging strata of white clouds. Other dark bands advanced from seaward continuously. There was a tremor and sound as of the shock and roll of far thunder.
We went about again, steering for the first outward mark of the fairway, the Mullet Buoy. Only the last house of the village was now looking at us remotely, a tiny white cube which frequently sank, on its precarious ledge of earth, beneath an intervening upheaval of the waters. The sea was superior now, as we saw the world from our little boat. The waters moved in from the outer with the ease of certain conquest, and the foundering shores vanished under each uplifted send of the ocean. We rounded the buoy. I could see the tide holding it down aslant with heavy strands of water, stretched and taut. About we went again for the lifeboat-house.
There was no doubt of it now. We should be baling soon. Yeo, with one brown paw on the sheet and the other on the tiller, had not moved, nor even, so he looked, blinked the strange, unfrowning eyes peering from under the brim of his hat. The Mona came on an even keel by the lifeboat-house, shook her wing for a moment as though in delight, and was off again dancing for the Mid Buoy. She was a live, responsive, and happy bird. "Now, Yeo," said the passenger beside the sailor, beaming in proper enjoyment of this quick and radiant experience. "Didn't I tell you so? What's the matter with this?"
There was nothing the matter with that. The sea was blue and white. The frail coast, now far away, was of green and gold. The sky was the assurance of continued good. Our boat was buoyant energy. That bay, when in its uplifted and sparkling mood, with the extent of its liberty and the coloured promise of its romantic adventure, has no hint at all of the startling suddenness of its shadow, that presage of its complex and impersonal malice.
Yeo turned the big features of his impassive face to his passenger, looked at him as he would at a wilful and ill-mannered child, and said, "In five minutes we shall be round the Mid Buoy. Better go back. If you want to go back, say so now. Soon you won't be able to. We may be kept out. If we are, don't blame me."
"Oh, go on, you," the man said, smiling indulgently. He was not going to relinquish the fine gift of this splendid time.
Yeo put his pipe in his mouth and resumed his stare outwards. He said no more. On we went, skimming over inflowing ridges with exhilarating undulations, light as a sandpiper. It was really right to call that a glorious morning. I heard the curlews fluting among the stones of the Morte Bank, which must then have been almost awash; but I did not look that way, for the nearing view of the big seas breaking ahead of us fixed my mind with the first intentness of anxiety. Though near the top of the flood, the fairway could not be made out. What from the distance had appeared orderly ranks of surf had become a convulsive wilderness of foam, piled and dazzling, the incontinent smother of a heavy ground swell; for after all, though the wind needed watching, it was nothing much. The Mona danced on towards the anxious place. Except the distant hills there was no shore. Our hills were of water now we neared the bar. They appeared ahead with surprising suddenness, came straight at us as though they had been looking for us, and the discovery made them eager; and then, when the head of the living mass was looking over our boat, it swung under us.
We were beyond the bar before we knew it. There were a few minutes when, on either hand of the Mona, but not near enough to be more than an arresting spectacle, ponderous glassy billows ceaselessly arose, projected wonderful curves of translucent parapets which threw shadows ahead of their deliberate advance, lost their delicate poise, and became plunging fields of blinding and hissing snow. We sped past them and were at sea. Yeo's knowledge of his work gives him more than the dexterity which overcomes difficulties as it meets them; it gives him the prescience to avoid them.
The steady breeze carried away from us the noise of that great tumult on the bar, and here was a sunny quietude where we heard nothing but the wing of the Mona when it fluttered. The last of the land was the Bar Buoy, weltering and tolling erratically its melancholy bell in its huge red cage. That dropped astern. The Mona, as though she had been exuberant with joy at the promise of release, had come out with whoops and a fuss, but, being outside, settled down to enjoy liberty in quiet content. The little lady with us, for the first time, appeared not sorry to be there. The boat was dry. The scoured thwarts were even hot to the touch. Our lady held the brim of her big straw hat, looking out over the slow rhythm of the heavy but unbroken seas, the deep suspirations of the ocean, and there was even a smile on her delicate face. She crouched forward no longer, and did not show that timid hesitation between her fear of sudden ugly water, when she would have inclined to her husband's side, and her evident nervousness also of her mate. She sat erect, enjoying the slow uplift and descent of the boat with a responsive body. She gazed over-side into the transparent deeps, where large jellyfish were shining like sunken moons. I got out my pipe. This suggested something to our other passenger, and he got out his. He fumbled out his pouch and filled up. He then regarded the loaded pipe thoughtfully, but presently put it away, and leaned forward, gazing at the bottom of the boat. I caught Yeo's eye in a very solemn wink.
The Mona, lost in the waste, coursed without apparent purpose. Sometimes for a drowsy while we headed into the great light shining from all the Atlantic which stretched before us to America; and again we turned to the coast, which was low and far beyond mounting seas. By watching one mark ashore, a grey blur which was really the tower of a familiar village church, it was clear Yeo was not making Pebblecombe with any ease. I glanced at him, and he shook his head. He then nodded it towards the western headland of the bay.
That was almost veiled by a dark curtain, though not long before the partitioned fields and colours of its upper slopes were clear as a mosaic; so insidiously, to the uninitiated, do the moods of this bay change. Our lady was at this moment bending solicitously towards her husband, whose head was in his hands. But he shook her off, turning away with a face not quite so proud as it had been, for its complexion had become that of a green canary's. He had acquired an expression of holiness, contemplative and sorrowful. The western coast had disappeared in the murk. "Better have something to eat now," said Yeo, "while there's a chance."
The lady, after a hesitating glance at her husband, who made no sign, his face being hidden in his arms, got out the luncheon-basket. He looked up once with a face full of misery and reproach, and said, forgetting the past with boldness, "Don't you think we'd better be getting back? It's looking very dark over there."
Yeo munched with calm for a while, swallowed, and then remarked, while conning the headland, "It'll be darker yet, and then we shan't go back, because we can't."
The Mona continuously soared upwards on the hills and sank again, often trembling now, for the impact of the seas was sharper. The man got into the bottom of the boat and groaned.
Light clouds, the feathery growth of the threatening obscurity which had hidden the western land, first spread to dim the light of the sun, then grew thick and dark overhead too, leaving us, after one ray that sought us out again and at once died, in a chill gloom. The glassy seas at once became opaque and bleak. Their surface was roughened with gusts. The delicate colours of the world, its hopeful spaciousness, its dancing light, the high blue vault, abruptly changed to the dim, cold, restricted outlook of age. We waited.
As Yeo luffed the squall fell on us bodily with a great weight of wind and white rain, pressing us into the sea. The Mona made ineffective leaps, trying to get release from her imprisonment, but only succeeded in pouring water over the inert figure lying on the bottom boards. In a spasm of fear he sprang up and began to scramble wildly towards his wife, who in her nervousness was gripping the gunwale, but was facing the affair silently and pluckily. "Keep still there!" peremptorily ordered the sailor; and the man bundled down without a word, like a dog, an abject heap of wet rags.
The first weight of the squall was released. The Mona eased. But the rain set in with steadiness and definition. Nothing was in sight but the waves shaping in the murk and passing us, and the blurred outline of a ketch labouring under reduced canvas to leeward. The bundle on the boat's floor sat up painfully and glanced over the gunwale. He made no attempt to disguise his complete defeat by our circumstances. He saw the ketch, saw she was bigger, and humbly and loudly implored Yeo to put him aboard. He did not look at his wife. His misery was in full possession of him. When near to the ketch we saw something was wrong with a flag she was flying. We got round to her lee quarter and hailed the three muffled figures on her deck.
"Can we come aboard?" roared Yeo.
One of the figures came to the ship's side and leaned over. "All right," we heard, "if you don't mind sailing with a corpse."
Yeo put it to his passengers. The woman said nothing. Her pale face, pitifully tiny and appealing within a sailor's tarpaulin hat, showed an innocent mind startled by the brutality of a world she did not know, but a mind controlled and alert. You could guess she expected nothing now but the worst, and had been schooling herself to face it. Her husband, when he knew what was on that ship, repudiated the vessel with horror. Yet we had no sooner fallen slightly away than he looked up again, was reminded once more that she stood so much higher than our boat, and cried, "Yes, yes!"
The two craft imperceptibly approached, as by gravitation. The men of the ketch saw we had changed our minds, and made ready to receive us. On one noisy uplift of a wave we got the lady inboard. Waiting another opportunity, floundering about below the black wall of the ship, presently it came, and we shoved over just anyhow the helpless bulk of the man. He disappeared within the ship like a shapeless sack, and bumped like one. When I got over, I saw the Mona's mast, which was thrusting and falling by the side of the ketch, making wild oscillations and eccentrics, suddenly vanish; and then appeared Yeo, who carried a tow-line aft and made fast.
The skipper of the ketch had been drowned, we were told. They were bringing his body home. The helmsman indicated a form lashed in a sail-cloth to the hatch. They were standing on and off, waiting to get it over the bar. Yeo they knew so well that hardly any words passed between them. They were glad to put the piloting in his hands. He took the wheel of the Judy of Padstow.
The substantial deck of the Judy was a great relief after the dizzy gyrations of the aerial Mona; and our lady, with a half-glance at what on the hatch was so grimly indifferent to all that could happen now, even smiled again, perhaps with a new sense of safety. She saw her husband settled in a place not too wet, and got about the venerable boards of the Judy, looking at the old gear with curiosity, glancing, with her head dropped back, into the dark intricacy of rigging upheld by the ponderous mainmast as it swayed back and forth. Every time the men went hurriedly trampling to some point of the running gear she watched what they were at. For hours we beat about, in a great noise of waters, waiting for that opportunity at the entrance to home and comfort. Once Yeo took us as far towards the vague mist of surf as the dismal tolling of the Bar Buoy, but evidently did not like the look of it, and stood out again.
At last, having decided, he shouted orders, there was a burst of activity, and we headed for the bad place. Soon we should know.
The Judy began to plunge alarmingly. The incoming rollers at times swept her along with a rush, and Yeo had his hands full. Her bowsprit yawned, rose and fell hurriedly, the Judy's unsteady dexter pointing in nervous excitement at what was ahead of her. But Yeo held her to it, though those heavy following seas so demoralized the Judy that it was clear it was all Yeo could do to keep her to her course. Columns of spray exploded ahead, driving in on us like shot.
"Look out!" cried Yeo. I looked. Astern was a grey hill, high over us, fast overtaking us, the white turmoil of its summit already streaming down its long slope. It accelerated, as if it could see it would soon be too late. It nearly was, but not quite. A cataract roared over the poop, and Yeo vanished. The Judy, in a panic, made an attempt at a move which would have been fatal then; but she was checked and her head steadied. I could do nothing but hold the lady firm and grasp a pin in its rail. The flood swept us, brawling round the gear, foundering the hatch. For a moment I thought it was a case, and saw nothing but maniacal water. Then the foam subsided to clear torrents which flung about violently with the ship's movement. The men were in the rigging. Yeo was rigid at the wheel, his eyes on the future. I could not see the other passenger till his wife screamed, and then I saw him. Two figures rolled in a flood that was pouring to the canting of the deck, and one of them desperately clutched at the other for aid. But the other was the dead skipper, washed from his place on the hatch.
We were over the bar again, and the deck became level. But it remained the bottom of a shallow well in which floated with indifference the one-time master of the Judy, face downwards, and who presently stranded amidships. Our passenger reclined on the vacated hatch, his eyes wide with childish and unspoken terror, and fixed on his wife, whose ministering hands he fumbled for as does a child for his mother's when he wakes at night after a dream of evil.
XII. The Lascar's Walking-Stick
The big face of Limehouse Church clock stared through the window at us. It is rather a senseless face, because it is so full of cracks that you can find any hour in it you do not want, especially when in a hurry. But nobody with a life that had not wide areas of waste leisure in it would ever visit Hammond now, where he lives in a tenement building, in a room which overlooks the roofs and railway arches of Limehouse. Just outside his window the tower of the church is rather too large and too close.
Hammond has rooms in the tenement which are above the rest of the street. He surmounts many layers of dense humanity. The house is not the usual model dwelling. Once it knew better days. Once it was the residence of a shipowner, in the days when the London docks were full of clippers, and shipowners husbanded their own ships and liked to live near their work. The house has a broad and noble staircase, having a carved handrail as wide as a span; but much of the old and carved interior woodwork of the house is missing—firewood sometimes runs short there—and the rest is buried under years of paint and dirt.
Hammond never knows how many people share the house with him. "I've tried to find out, but the next day one of 'em has died and two more are born." It is such a hive that most of Hammond's friends gave up visiting him after discovering in what place he had secluded himself; but there he stays with his books and his camera, his pubs and his lightermen, Jews, Chinamen, sailors, and dock-labourers. Occasionally a missionary from the studios of Hempstead or Chelsea goes down to sort out Hammond from his surroundings, and to look him over for damage, when found.
"Did I ever tell you about Jabberjee?" Hammond asked me that afternoon.
No, he hadn't. Some of Hammond's work, which he had been showing me, was scattered over the floor, and he stepped among the litter and came and looked through the window with me. "A funny thing happened to me here," he said, "the other evening. A pal of mine died. The bills which advertise for the recovery of his body—you can see 'em in any pub about here—call him Joseph Cherry, commonly called Ginger. He was a lighterman, you know. There was a sing-song for the benefit of his wife and kids round at the George and Dragon, and I was going.
"On my way I stopped to look in at my favourite pawnshop. Do you know the country about here? Well, you have to mind your eye. You never know what will turn up. I never knew such a place. Not all of Limehouse gets into the Directory, not by a lot. It is bound on the east by China, on the north by Greenland, on the south by Cape Horn, and on the west by London Bridge.
"The main road near here is the foreshore of London. There's no doubt the sea beats on it—unless you are only a Chelsea chap, with your eyes bunged up with paint. All sorts of things drift along. All sorts of wreckage. It's like finding a cocoanut or a palm hole stranded in a Cornish cove. The stories I hear—one of you writer fellers ought to come and stay here, only I suppose you are too busy writing about things that really matter. You are like the bright youths in the art schools, drawing plaster casts till they don't know life when they see it.
"Well, about this pawnshop. It's a sort of pocket—you know those places on the beach where a lot of flotsam strands—oceanic treasure-trove. I suppose the currents, for some reason sailors could explain, eddy round this pawnshop and leave things there. That pawnshop is the luckiest corner along our beach, and I stopped to turn over the sea litter.
"Of course, there was a lot of chronometers, and on top of a pile of 'em was a carved cocoanut. South Sea Islands, I suppose. Full of curious involuted lines—a mist of lines—with a face peering through the mist, if you looked close enough. Rows of cheap watches hung on their chains, and there was a lot of second-hand meerschaum pipes, and a walrus tusk, carved about a little. What took my eye was an old Chinese bowl, because inside it was a little jade idol—a fearful little wretch, with mother-o'-pearl eyes. It would squat in your thoughts like a toad, that idol—eh, where does Jabberjee come in? Well, here he comes.
"I didn't know he was coming at all, you understand. I shouldn't have jumped more if the idol had winked at me.
"There stood Jabberjee. I didn't know that was his name, though. He was christened Jabberjee after the trouble, by a learned Limehouse schoolboy, who wore spectacles. Do I make myself clear?"
I murmured that I was a little dense, but time might carry out improvements. Hammond was talking on, though, without looking at me. "There the Lascar was. Lots of 'em about here, you know. He was the usual bundle of bones and blue cotton rags, and his gunny bags flapped on his stick legs like banners. He looked as uncertain as a candle-flame in a draught. Perhaps he was sixteen. I dunno. Maybe he was sixty. You can't tell these Johnnies. He had a shaven cranium, and his tight scalp might have been slipped over the bony bosses of his head with a shoehorn.
"I don't know what he was saying. He cringed, and said something very quickly; I thought he was speaking of something he had concealed on his person. Smuggled goods, likely. Tobacco.
"Looking over his shoulder, wishing he would go away, I saw a policeman in the dusk at the opposite corner, with his eye on us.
"Then I could see something was concealed under the Lascar's flimsies. He seemed trying to keep it quiet. He kept on talking, and I couldn't make out what he was driving at. I was looking at his clothes, wondering what the deuce he had concealed there. At last something came out of his rags. Talk about making you jump! It really did look like the head of a snake. It was, too, but attached to a walking-stick—sort of handle. A scaly head it was, in some shiny material. Its eyes were like a pair of rubies. They picked up the light somehow, and glittered.
"Now listen. I looked up then into the Lascar's face. I was surprised to find he was taller. Much taller. He put his face forward and down, so that I wanted to step back.
"He had an ugly look. He was smiling; the sweep was smiling, as though he knew he was a lot cleverer than I. Another thing. The place was suddenly quiet, and the houses and shops seemed to have fallen far back. The pavement was wider.
"There was something else, I noticed. The bobby had left the street corner, and was walking our way. The curious thing was, though, the more he walked the farther off he got, as though the road was being stretched under his feet.
"Mind you, I was still awake and critical. You know there is a substratum of your mind which is critical, when you are dreaming, standing looking on outside you, like a spectator.
"Then the stick touched my hand. I shouted. I must have yelled jolly loud, I think. I couldn't help it. That horrible thing seemed to wriggle in my fingers.
"It was the shout which brought the crowd. There was the policeman. I can't make out how he got there. 'Now, what's your little game?' he said. That brought the buildings up with a rush, and broke the road into the usual clatter.
"It was all quite simple. There was nothing in it then out of the ordinary. Just a usual Lascar, very frightened, waving a cheap cane with a handle like a snake's head. Then another policeman came up in a hurry, and pushed through the crowd. The crowd was on my side, maudlin and sympathetic. They knew all about it. The coolie had tried to stab me. An eager young lady in an apron asked a boy in front—he had just forced through—what was the matter. He knew all about it.
"'The Indian tried to bite the copper.'
"'Tried to bite him?'
"'Not 'arf he didn't.'
"The Hindoo was now nearly hysterical, and the kiddies were picking up his language fast. 'Now then, old Jabberjee,' said one nipper in spectacles. The crowd was laughing, and surging towards the police. I managed to edge out of it.
"'What's the trouble?' I asked a carman.
"'You see that P. and O. Johnny?' he said. 'Well, he knocked down that kid'—indicating the boy in spectacles—'and took tuppence from him.'
"I thought a lot about the whole thing on the way home," said Hammond. "I tell you the yarn for you to explain to the chaps who like to base their beliefs on the sure ground of what they can understand."
XIII. The Extra Hand
Old George Galsworthy and I sat on the headland above the estuary, looking into the vacancy which was the Atlantic on an entranced silver evening. The sky was overcast. There was no wind, and no direct sun. The light was refined and diffused through a thin veiling of pearl. Sea and sky were one. As though they were suspended in space we saw a tug, having a barque in tow, far but distinct, in the light of the bay, tiny models of ebony set in a vast brightness. They were poised in the illumination, and seemed to be motionless, but we knew they were moving down on us. "Here she comes," said the seaman, "and a fine evening it is for the end of her last voyage." Shipbreakers had bought that barque. She was coming in to be destroyed.
The stillness of the world, and its lustre in which that fine black shape was centred and was moving to her end, made me feel that headlands, sea, and sky knew what was known to the two watchers on the hill. She was condemned. The ship was central, and the regarding world stood about her in silence. Sombre and stately she came, in the manner of the tragic proud, superior to the compelling fussiness of little men, making no resistance. The spring tide was near full. It had flooded the marsh lands below us, but not with water, for those irregular pools resplendent as mirrors were deeps of light. The hedgerows were strips of the earth's rind remaining above a profound. The light below the lines of black hedges was antipodean. The barque moved in slowly. She did not go past the lighthouse, and past our hill, into the harbour beyond, like a ship about the business of her life. She turned into the shallows below us, and stood towards the foot of the hill.
"She's altered a little," meditated Galsworthy. "They've shortened her sticks, those Norwegians, and painted her their beastly mustard colour and white. She's hogbacked, too. Well, she's old." The old man continued his quiet meditation. He was really talking to himself, I think, and I was listening to his thoughts.
"Look!" cried Galsworthy, suddenly rising, his hand gripping my shoulder. The tug had cast off and was going about. The ship came right on. There was an interval of time between her and the shore which was breathless and prolonged.
"She's aground!" exclaimed the old man to himself, and the hand on my shoulder gripped harder. He stood regarding her for some time. "She's done," he said, and presently released me, sitting down beside me again, still looking at her moodily, smoking his pipe. He was silent for a time. Perhaps he had in his mind that he too had taken the ground. It was sunset, and there she was, and there was he, and no more sparkling morning tides out of port for them any more.
Presently he turned to me. "There's a queer story about her. She carried an extra hand. I'll tell you. It's a queer yarn. She had one man at a muster more than signed for her. At night, you couldn't get into the rigging ahead of that chap. There you'd find him just too much ahead of the first lad who had jumped at the call to be properly seen, you know. You could see him, but you couldn't make him out. So the chap behind him was in no hurry, after the first rush. Well, it made it pretty hard for her old man to round up a crew. He had to find men who didn't know her. Men in Poplar who didn't know her, those days, were scarce. She was a London clipper and she carried a famous flag. Everybody knew her but men who weren't sailors.
"Well, the boys said she had a bit of gibbet-post about her somewhere. Ah! maybe. I don't know. Anyway, I say she was a fine clipper. I knew her. She was the pick of the bunch, to my eye. But she was full of trouble. I must say that. When she was launched she killed a man. First she stuck on the ways, and then she went off all unexpected, like a bird. That was always a trick of hers. You never knew her. And when she was tired of headwinds, she'd find a dead calm. That was the kind of ship she was. A skipper would look at her, and swear she was the ship for him. The other chaps didn't understand her, he'd say. A ship like that's sure to be good, he'd tell you. But when he'd got her she'd turn his hair grey. She was that sort.
"One voyage she was six weeks beating to westward round Cape Horn. We had a bad time. I'd never seen such seas. We could do no good there. It was a voyage and a half. She lost the second mate overboard, and she lost gear. So the old man put back to the Plate. And, of course, all her crowd deserted, to a man. They said they wanted to see their homes again before they died. They said there was something wrong about that ship, and they left all their truck aboard, and made themselves scarce. The old man scraped up a new crowd. They came aboard at dusk, one day, and they stared about them. 'Look, sir,' said one of them, 'what's that up there? What's that figgerhead in y'r main to'gallan' cross-tree?' I was the mate, you know. I talked to that chap. He learned something about getting the booze out of him before he came aboard. He got a move on.
"We were over four months making 'Frisco that voyage, and she the sailer she was. Why, she's logged thirteen knots. But she could get nothing right, not for long. She was like those fine-looking women men can't live without, and can't live with. She'd break a man's heart. When we got back to Blackwall we heard she was sold to foreigners ... but there she is now, come home to die. I bet old Yeo don't care much about her troubles, though. He'll break her up, troubles and all, and she's for firewood ... there you are, my dear, there you are ... but you should have seen her at Blackwall, in the old days ... what's the East India Dock Road like, these times?"
The next day, at low water, I stood beneath her, and watched a cascade pouring incessantly from a patched wound in her side, for she had been in collision, and that was why she was condemned. She was careened, like a slain thing, and with the dank rocks and weeds about, and that monotonous pour from her wound, she might have been a venerable sea monster from which the life was draining. Yeo hailed me from above, and up the lively rope ladder I went. She had a Norwegian name, but that was not her name. All Poplar knew her once. There she was born. She was one of ours. That stone arch of John Company, the entrance to the East India Dock, once framed her picture, and her topmasts looked down to the Dock Road, when she was at home. I could believe Galsworthy. She was not so empty as she seemed. She had a freight, and Yeo did not know it. Poplar and the days of the clippers! I knew she was invisibly peopled. Of course she was haunted.
The shipwrecker and I went about her canted decks, groped through dark recesses where it might have been the rats we heard, and peered into the sonorous shades of the empty cargo spaces. In the cabins we puzzled over those relics left by her last crew, which, without their associations, seemed to have no reason in them. There was a mocking silence in the cabins. What sort of men were they who were familiar with these doors? And before the northmen had her, and she was English, trim, and flew skysails and studding-sails, and carried lady passengers, who were the Poplar boys that laughed and yarned here? She was more mine than Yeo's. Let him claim her timber. All the rich freight of her past was mine. I was the intimate of every ghost she had.
We sat in a cabin which had been her skipper's. There was a litter on the floor of old newspapers and documents, receipts for harbour dues, the captain's copies of bills of lading, store lists, and some picture-postcards from the old man's family. A lump of indurated plum-duff, like a geological specimen, was on the table. There was a slant of sunshine through a square port window, and it rested on a decayed suit of oilskins. We sat silent, the shipbreaker having finished estimating to me, with enthusiasm, what she had of copper. He was now waiting for his men to return to work. They were going to take the masts out of her. But I was wondering what I could do to lay that ghost of my old shipping parish which this craft had conjured in my mind. And as we both sat there, looking at nothing, we heard, at the end of the alley-way, a door stealthily latch.
Yeo sprang to his feet at once, staring and listening. He looked at me, surprised and puzzled. "Of all the——" he began, and stopped. He took his seat again. "Why, of course," he said. "She's settling. That's what it is. She's settling. But my men, the fools, will have it there's some one pottering about this ship."
XIV. The Sou'-Wester
The trees of the Embankment Gardens were nearly stripped of their leaves, and were tossing widely. Shutting the eyes, you could think you heard the sweep of deep-water seas with strident crests. The greater buildings, like St. Paul's, might have been promontories looming in a driving murk. The low sky was dark and riven, and was falling headlong. But I liked the look of it. Here, plainly, was the end of the halcyon days,—good-bye to the sun,—but I felt, for a reason I could not remember and did not try to recall, pleased and satisfied with this gale and its wrack. The clouds seemed curiously familiar. I had seen them before somewhere; they were reminding me of a lucky but forgotten occasion of the past. Whatever it was, no doubt it was better than anything likely to happen today. It was something good in an old world we have lost. But it was something of that old world, like an old book which reads the same today; or an old friend surviving, who would help to make endurable the years to come. I need not try to remember it. I had got it, whatever it was, and that was all the assurance of its wealth I wanted. Then from the river came a call, deep, prolonged, and melancholy....
So that was it! No wonder the low clouds driving, and the wind in the trees, worked that in my mind. The tide was near full. There was a steamer moving in the Pool. She was outward bound.
Outward bound! I saw again the black buildings of a Welsh coaling port at evening, and a vague steamer (but no liner, that was plain enough, no liner), and two men beside me, who were going out with me in her, watching her. She was little more than a shadow with a port light. She gave a deep, shuddering warning. She was off. We had been for a last run round the town. We were to board her in the outer lock. The wind was whining in the telegraph-wires. It was hazing the pools of rain, which were bright and bleak with the last of a brazen yellow sunset. "Happy days!" said one of us. "Who wouldn't sell that little farm?... Now we're in for it. It will be the devil of an old, tough night." (Where this night is that friend? Mine-sweeping? Patrolling? Or is he—— But I hope not. He was a good fellow and a sailor.)
We were better off than we knew then, though then we thought it would be hard luck for a dog. Our thoughts turned to the snug indoor places of the lighted town behind us; for in the small hours we should be plunging off Hartland; with the Wolf to come, and the Bay after that; and the glass falling. But youth did know it was young, and that this night, wild and forbidding, and the old Sirius rolling away into it, would look fine when seen through tobacco smoke in the years to come.
For the light we saw at sea never fades. It survives our voyaging. It shines into the mind and abides there. We watched the horizon steadfastly for lands we did not know. The sun came up each day to a world that was not the same, no matter how it looked. At night we changed our stars. We heard nothing but the wind and the waves, and the quiet voice of a shipmate yarning with his pipe in his mouth. The elements could interrupt us, but not the world. Not a gull of that was left.
And somehow the beginning of a voyage seemed to be always in westerly weather, at the beginning of winter. The English land to me is a twilight coast with clouds like iron above it poised in a windy light of aquamarine, and a sunset of lucid saffron. Against that western light, bright, bare, and penetrating as the ruthless judgment of impersonal divinity, the polished waves mount, outlined as hard as jet, and move towards us. The ship's prow rises to cut out segments of the west; falls into the dark hollows of waves. The wind pours over us, an icy and ponderable flood, and is increasing. Where England has sunk in the dark one clear eye, like a yellow planet, comes out to watch us.
One thinks of the sea now as something gone, like the old world. There once a voyager was sundered from insistent trifles. He was with simple, elemental things that have been since time began, and he had to meet them with what skill he had, the wind for his friend and adversary, the sun his clock, the stars for counsel, and the varying wilderness his hope and his doubt. But the cruel misery of man did not intrude. He was free from that. All men at sea were his fellows, whatever their language, an ancient fraternity whose bond was a common but unspoken knowledge of a hidden but imminent fate. They could be strangers ashore, but not at sea.
But that is gone now. The sea is poisoned with a deadly sorrow not its own, which man has put there. The spaciousness of the great vault above the round of waters is soiled by the gibbering anxieties of a thousand gossipers of evil, which the ship catches in its wires, to darken the night of its little company with surmises of distant malignity and woe. It is something to retain a little of the light of the days at sea which have passed. They too had their glooms, but they came of the dignity of advancing storms, and the fear which great seas put in men who held a resolute course nevertheless, knowing that their weird was one which good seamen have faced since first the unknown beyond the land was dared; faith, courage, and the loyalty of comrades, which all the waters of the world cannot drown. But the heart of man, which will face the worst the elements can do, sickens at the thought of the perverse and inexplicable cruelty of his fellows.
XV. On Leave
Coming out of Victoria Station into the stir of London again, on leave from Flanders, must give as near the sensation of being thrust suddenly into life from the beyond and the dead as mortal man may expect to know. It is a surprising and providential wakening into a world which long ago went dark. That world is strangely loud, bright, and alive. Plainly it did not stop when, somehow, it vanished once upon a time. There its vivid circulation moves, and the buses are so usual, the people so brisk and intent on their own concerns, the signs so startlingly familiar, that the man who is home again begins to doubt that he has been absent, that he has been dead. But his uniform must surely mean something, and its stains something more!
And there can be no doubt about it, as you stand there a trifle dizzy in London once more. You really have come back from another world; and you have the curious idea that you may be invisible in this old world. In a sense you know you are unseen. These people will never know what you know. There they gossip in the hall, and leisurely survey the bookstall, and they would never guess it, but you have just returned from hell. What could they say if you told them? They would be embarrassed, polite, forbearing, kindly, and smiling, and they would mention the matter afterwards as a queer adventure with a poor devil who was evidently a little over-wrought; shell shock, of course. Beastly thing, shell shock. Seems to affect the nerves.
They would not understand. They will never understand. What is the use of standing in veritable daylight, and telling the living, who have never been dead, of the other place?
I know now how Rip Van Winkle felt about it. But his was a minor trouble. All he lost was some years. He had not changed, except that his beard was longer. But the man who comes back from the line has lost more than years. He has lost his original self. People failed to recognize Rip because they did not know his beard. Our friends do recognize us when they greet us on our return from the front, but they do not know us because we are not the men they remember. They are the same as ever; but when they address us, they talk to a mind which is not there, though the eyes betray nothing of the difference. They talk to those who have come back to life to see them again, but who cannot tell them what has happened, and dare not try.
Between that old self and the man they see, there is an abyss of dread. He has passed through it. To them the war is official communiques, the amplifying dispatches of war correspondents, the silence of absent friends in danger, the shock of a telegram, and rather interesting food-rationing. They think it is the same war which the leave-man knows. He will tell them all about it, and they will learn the truth at last.
All about it! If an apparition of the battle-line in eruption were to form over London, over Paris, over Berlin, a sinister mirage, near, unfading, and admonitory, with spectral figures moving in its reflected fires and its gloom, and the echoes of their cries were heard, and murmurs of convulsive shocks, and the wind over the roofs brought ghostly and abominable smells into our streets; and if that were to haunt us by day and night, a phantom from which there was no escape, to remain till the sins of Europe were expiated, we should soon forget politics and arguments, and be in sackcloth and ashes, positive no longer, but down on our knees before Heaven in awe at this revelation of social guilt, asking simply what we must do to be saved.
Your revival at home, when on leave, is full of wonderful commonplaces, especially now, with summer ripening. The yellow-hammer is heard on the telegraph wire, and the voices of children in the wood, and the dust of white English country roads is smelled at evening. All that is a delight which is miraculous in its intensity. But it is very lonesome and far. It is curious to feel that you are really there, delighting in the vividness of this recollection of the past, and yet balked by the knowledge that you are, nevertheless, outside this world of home, though it looks and smells and sounds so close; and that you may never enter it again. It is like the landscape in a mirror, the luminous projection of what is behind you. But you are not there. It is recognized, but viewed now apart and aloof, a chance glimpse at the secure and enduring place from which you came, vouchsafed to one who must soon return to the secret darkness in his mind.
The home folk do not know this, and may not be told—I mean they may not be told why it is so. The youngster who is home on leave, though he may not have reasoned it out, knows that what he wants to say, often prompted by indignation, cannot be said. He feels intuitively that this is beyond his power to express. Besides, if he were to begin, where would he end? He cannot trust himself. What would happen if he uncovered, in a sunny and innocent breakfast-room, the horror he knows? If he spoke out? His people would not understand him. They would think he was mad. They would be sorry, dammit. Sorry for him! Why, he is not sorry for himself. He can stand it now he knows what it is like. He can stand it—if they can. And he realizes they can stand it, and are merely anxious about his welfare, the welfare which does not trouble him in the least, for he has looked into the depth of evil, and for him the earth has changed; and he rather despises it. He has seen all he wants to see of it. Let it go, dammit. If they don't mind the change, and don't kick, why should he? What a hell of a world to be born into; and once it did look so jolly good, too! He is shy, cheery, but inexorably silent on what he knows. Some old fool said to him once, "It must be pretty bad out there?" Pretty bad! What a lark!
But for his senior, who also knows, though the feeling is the same, the nature of the combative adult male is less shy, and not merely negatively contemptuous, but aggressive. It is difficult for him to endure hearing the home folk speak with the confidence of special revelation of the war they have not seen, when he, who has been in it, has contradictory minds about it. They are so assured that they think there can be no other view; and they bear out their mathematical arguments with maps and figures. It might be a chess tournament. He feels at last his anger beginning to smoulder. He feels a bleak and impalpable alienation from those who are all the world to him. He understands at last that they also are in the mirror, projected from his world that was, and that now he cannot come near them. Yet though he knows it, they do not. The greatest evil of war—this is what staggers you when you come home, feeling you know the worst of it—is the unconscious indifference to war's obscene blasphemy against life of the men and women who have the assurance that they will never be called on to experience it. Out there, comrades in a common and unlightened affliction shake a fist humorously at the disregarding stars, and mock them. Let the Fates do their worst. The sooner it is over, the better; and, while waiting, they will take it out of Old Jerry. He is the only one out of whom they can take it. They are to throw away their world and die, so they must take it out of somebody. Therefore Jerry "gets it in the neck." Men under the irrefragable compulsion of a common spell, who are selected for sacrifice in the fervour of a general obsession, but who are cooly awake to the unreason which locks the minds of their fellows, will burst into fury at the bond they feel. The obvious obstruction is the obstinate "blighter" with a machine-gun in front of them. At least, they are free to "strafe" him.
But what is the matter with London? The men on leave, when they meet each other, always ask that question without hope, in the seclusion of their confidence and special knowledge. They feel perversely they would sooner be amid the hated filth and smells of the battle-ground than at home. Out there, though possibly mischance may suddenly extinguish the day for them, they will be with those who understand, with comrades who rarely discuss the war except obliquely and with quiet and bitter jesting. Seeing the world has gone wrong, how much better and easier it is to take the likelihood of extinction with men who have the same mental disgust as your own, and can endure it till they die, but who, while they live in the same torment with you, have the unspoken but certain conviction that Europe is a decadent old beast eating her young with insatiable appetite, than to sit in sunny breakfast-rooms with the newspaper maps and positive arguments of the unsaved!
XVI. The Dunes
The dunes are in another world. They are two miles across the uncertain and hazardous tide races of the estuary. The folk of the village never go over. The dunes are nothing. They are the horizon. They are only seen in idleness, or when the weather is scanned, or an incoming ship is marked. The dunes are but a pallid phantom of land so delicately golden that it is surprising to find it constant. The faint glow of that dilated shore, quavering just above the sea, the sea intensely blue and positive, might wreathe and vanish at any moment in the pour of wind from the Atlantic, whose endless strength easily bears in and over us vast involuted continents of white cloud. The dunes tremble in the broad flood of wind, light, and sea, diaphanous and fading, always on the limit of vision, the point of disappearing, but are established. They are soundless, immaterial, and far, like a pleasing and personal illusion, a luminous dream of lasting tranquillity in a better but an unapproachable place, and the thought of crossing to them never suggests anything so obvious as a boat. They look like no coast that could be reached.
It was a perverse tide on a windless day which drifted me over. The green mounds of water were flawless, with shadows of mysteries in their clear deeps. The boat and the tide were murmuring to each other secretly. The boat's thwarts were hot and dry in the sun. The serene immensity of the sky, the warmth and dryness of the boat's timbers, the deep and translucent waters, and the coast so low and indistinct that the silent flashing of the combers there might have been on nothing substantial, were all timeless, and could have been but a thought and a desire; they were like a memorable morning in a Floridan cay miraculously returned. The boat did not move; the shore approached, revealed itself. It was something granted on a lucky day. This country would not be on the map.
I landed on a broad margin of sand which the tide had just left. It was filmed with water. It was a mirror in which the sky was inverted. When a breath of air passed over that polished surface it was as though the earth were a shining bubble which then nearly burst. To dare that foothold might precipitate the intruder on ancient magic to cloudland floating miles beneath the feet. But I had had the propriety to go barefooted, and had lightened my mind before beginning the voyage. Here I felt I was breaking into what was still only the first day, for man had never measured this place with his countless interruptions of darkness. I don't know whether that mirror had ever been darkened till I put my foot in it. After the news I had heard on the quay that morning before starting out, news just arrived from London, the dunes were an unexpected assurance that the earth has an integrity and purity of its own, a quality which even man cannot irreparably soil; that it maintains a pristine health and bloom invulnerable to the best our heroic and intelligent activities can accomplish, and could easily survive our extinction, and even forget it once supported us.
I found an empty bottle among the dry litter and drift above the tide-mark, sole relic, as far as could be seen there, of man. No message was in the bottle. The black bottle itself was forlornly the message, but it lay there unregarded by the bright immemorial genius of that coast. Yet it settled one doubt. This was not a land which had never known man. It had merely forgotten it had known him. He had been there, but whatever difference he had made was of the same significance now as the dry bladder-wrack, the mummied gull near by, and the bleached shells. The next tide probably would hide the memento for ever. At the time this did not seem an unhappy thought, though the relic had been our last witness, so enduring was the tenuous brightness of the place, the shrine of our particular star, the visible aura of earth. We rarely see it. It is something to be reminded it is not lost; that we cannot, whatever else we can do, put out a celestial light.
Above the steep beach a dry flat opened out, reached only by gales and the highest of the spring tides, a wilderness of fine sand, hot and deep, its surface studded with the opaque blue of round pebbles and mussel shells. It looked too arid to support life, but sea-rocket with fleshy emerald stems and lilac flowers was scattered about. Nothing moved in the waste but an impulsive small butterfly, blue as a fragment of sky. The silence of the desert was that of a dream, but when listening to the quiet, a murmur which had been below hearing was imagined. The dunes were quivering with the intensity of some latent energy, and it might have been that one heard, or else it was the remembrance held by that strand of a storm which had passed, or it might have been the ardent shafts of the sun. At the landward end of the waste, by the foot of the dunes, was an old beam of a ship, harsh with barnacles, its bolt-holes stopped with dust. A spinous shrub grew to one side of it. A solitary wasp, a slender creature in black and gold, quick and emotional, had made a cabin of one of the holes in the timber. For some reason that fragment of a barque was more eloquent of travel, and the work of seamen gone, than any of the craft moored at the quay I left that morning. I smoked a pipe on that timber—for all I knew, not for the first time—and did not feel at all lonely, nor that voyages for the discovery of fairer times were finished.
Now the dunes were close they appeared surprisingly high, and were formed, not like hills, but like the high Alps. They had the peaks and declivities of mountains. Their colour was of old ivory, and the long marram grass which grew on them sparsely was as fine as green hair. The hollowed slope before me was so pale, spacious, and immaculate that there was an instinctive hesitation about taking it. A dark ghost began slowly to traverse it with outspread arms, a shade so distinct on that virgin surface that not till the gull, whose shadow it was, had gone inland, following its shadow over the high yellow ridge, did I know that I had not been looking at the personality. But the surface had been darkened, and I could overcome my hesitation.
From the ridge, the country of the dunes opened inland with the enlarged likeness of a lunar landscape surveyed in a telescope. It merely appeared to be near. The sand-hills, with their acute outlines, and their shadows flung rigidly from their peaks across the pallor of their slopes, were the apparition of inviolable seclusion. They could have been waiting upon an event secret from our knowledge, larger than the measure of our experience; so they had still the aspect of a strange world, not only infinitely remote, but superior with a greater destiny. They were old, greatly older than the ancient village across the water. Ships left the village and went by them to sea gay with the bunting of a first voyage, with a fair wind, and on a fine morning; and when such a ship came back long after as an old plank bearded with sea moss, to the dunes under which it stranded the day was still the same, vestal and innocent; for they were on a voyage of greater length and import. They had buried many ships; but, as time moved to them, all on the same day.
Only when resting on a knoll of one of the slopes, where the shadows of a tuft of marram grass above my head lay as thin black wire on the sand, were the dunes caught in part of their secret. There was no sound. I heard the outer world from which I had come only as the whistle of a curlew. It was far away now. To this place, the news I had heard on the quay that morning would have sounded the same as Waterloo, which was yesterday, or the Armada, which was the same day—wasn't it?—or the day before, or as the whistle of a curlew. Here we were outside time. Then I thought I heard a faint whisper, but when I looked round nothing had altered. The shadows of the grass formed a fixed metallic design on the sand. But I heard the whisper again, and with a side glance caught the dune stealthily on the move.
It was alive. When you were not attentive, some of its grains would start furtively, pour in increasing mobility fanwise, and rest instantly when looked at. This hill was fluid, and circulated. It preserved an outline that was fixed through the years, a known, named, and charted locality, only to those to whom one map would serve a lifetime. But it was really unknown. It was on its way. Like the ships that were passing, it also was passing. It was only taking its own time.
Secluded within the inner ranges were little valleys, where, for a while, the dunes had ceased to travel, and were at leisure. I got into a hollow which had a floor of hoary lichen, with bronze hummocks of moss. In this moment of pause it had assumed a look of what we call antiquity. The valley was not abundant with vegetation, but enamelled and jewelled. A more concentrated, hectic, and volatile essence sent up stalks, blades, and sprays, with that direction and restraint which perfection needs. More than in a likelier and fecund spot, in this valley the ichor showed the ardour and flush of its early vitality. Even now it could shape like this, and give these dyes! Chosen by an earth astringent and tonic, the forms were few and personal. Here you should see to what influences our planet is still subject. The shapes in that valley were more than coloured; they were rare jets of light, emerald, orange, blue, and scarlet. Life burned with an original force, a steady virtue. What is "good news"? It depends on the sort of evidence for which we look.
Just showing in the drift on the seaward side of the valley were some worked stones and a little brickwork. When the sandhill paused, it had almost covered a building where man once worshipped. I could find nobody afterwards who remembered the church, or had even heard of it. Yet the doom of this temple, prolonged in its approach but inevitable, to those to whom the altar once had seemed as indestructible as hope, must on a day have struck the men who saw at last their temple's end was near as a hint, vague but glacial, of the transience of all their affairs.
But what were their affairs? We should have to know them before we could regret the dry sand which buried them. The valley looked very well as it was. It showed no sign of failure. Over one of the stones of the forgotten altar was a casual weed which stood like a sign of success and continuance. It was as indecipherable as the stone, but the blue of its flowers, still and deep as rapture, surprising and satisfying as an unexpected revelation of good, would have been better worth reading for a knowledge of the heart from which could be drawn the temper and intensity of that faith.
XVII. Binding a Spell
You may never have addressed a meeting of the public, but you have long cherished a vision of a figure (well known to your private mirror) standing where it overlooks an intent and silent multitude to which it communicates with apt and fluent words those things not seen by mortal eyes, the dream of a world not ours.... You know what I mean. (Loud and prolonged applause.)
"I should be glad," wrote one who is still unashamed to call himself my friend, "if you could run down here one evening and address a meeting on your experiences. Just conversationally, you know."
A casual sort of letter. Designedly so. But I could see through it. It was an invitation which did not wish to scare me from accepting it. I smiled with serene amusement at its concluding sentence. Conversationally! Why, that would be merely talking; tongue-work; keeping on and on after one usually, if merciful to a friend, lets him off. I felt instantly that for once it might be even more pleasant to entertain an audience than to be one of the crowd and bored. And it happened that my experiences really did give me something to say, and were exactly what an audience, in war-time, might be glad to hear. I therefore wrote a brief note of acceptance, as one to whom this sort of thing comes ten times a day; and thought no more about it.