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´╗┐Title: London River
Author: Tomlinson, H. M. (Henry Major), 1873-1958
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "London River" ***

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LONDON RIVER

by

H. M. TOMLINSON

Garden City, New York
Garden City Publishing Co., Inc
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

1921



TO MY MOTHER

AND TO THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER



Contents

    I  THE FORESHORE
   II  A MIDNIGHT VOYAGE
  III  A SHIPPING PARISH
   IV  THE "HEART'S DESIRE"
    V  THE MASTER
   VI  THE SHIP-RUNNERS
  VII  NOT IN THE ALMANAC
 VIII  THE ILLUSION
   IX  IN A COFFEE-SHOP
    X  OFF-SHORE
   XI  AN OLD LLOYD'S REGISTER



I. The Foreshore

It begins on the north side of the City, at Poverty Corner.  It begins
imperceptibly, and very likely is no more than what a native knows is
there.  It does not look like a foreshore.  It looks like another of
the byways of the capital.  There is nothing to distinguish it from the
rest of Fenchurch Street.  You will not find it in the Directory, for
its name is only a familiar bearing used by seamen among themselves.
If a wayfarer came upon it from the west, he might stop to light a pipe
(as well there as anywhere) and pass on, guessing nothing of what it is
and of its memories.  And why should he?  London is built of such old
shadows; and while we are here casting our own there is not much time
to turn and question what they fall upon.  Yet if some unreasonable
doubt, a suspicion that he was being watched, made a stranger hesitate
at that corner, he might begin to feel that London there was as
different from Bayswater and Clapham as though deep water intervened.
In a sense deep water does; and not only the sea, but legends of ships
that have gone, and of the men who knew them, and traditions of a
service older than anything Whitehall knows, though still as lively as
enterprise itself, and as recent as the ships which moved on today's
high water.

In a frame outside one of its shops hangs a photograph of a sailing
ship.  The portrait is so large and the beauty of the subject so
evident that it might have been the cause of the stranger stopping
there to fill his pipe.  Yet how could he know that to those groups of
men loitering about the name of that ship is as familiar as Suez or
Rio, even though they have never seen her?  They know her as well as
they know their business.  They know her house-flag--it is
indistinguishable in the picture--and her master, and it is possible
the oldest of them remembers the clippers of that fleet of which she
alone now carries the emblem; for this is not only another year, but
another era.  But they do not look at her portrait.  They spit into the
road, or stare across it, and rarely move from where they stand, except
to pace up and down as though keeping a watch.  At one time, perhaps
thirty years ago, it was usual to see gold rings in their ears.  It is
said that if you wanted a bunch of men to run a little river steamer,
with a freeboard of six inches, out to Delagoa Bay, you could engage
them all at this corner, or at the taverns just up the turning.  The
suggestion of such a voyage, in such a ship, would turn us to look on
these men in wonder, for it is the way of all but the wise to expect
appearance to betray admirable qualities.  These fellows, though, are
not significant, except that you might think of some of them that their
ease and indifference were assumed, and that, when trying not to look
so, they were very conscious of the haste and importance of this great
city into which that corner jutted far enough for them.  They have just
landed, or they are about to sail again, and they might be standing on
the shore eyeing the town beyond, in which the luck of ships is cast by
strangers they never see, but who are inimical to them, and whose ways
are inscrutable.

If there are any inland shops which can hold one longer than the place
where that ship's portrait hangs, then I do not know them.  That comes
from no more, of course, than the usual fault of an early impression.
That fault gives a mould to the mind, and our latest thoughts, which we
try to make reasonable, betray that accidental shape.  It may be said
that I looked into this window while still soft.  The consequence,
everybody knows, would be incurable in a boy who saw sextants for the
first time, compasses, patent logs, sounding-machines, signalling gear,
and the other secrets of navigators.  And not only those things.  There
was a section given to books, with classics like Stevens on _Stowage_,
and Norie's _Navigation_, volumes never seen west of Gracechurch
Street.  The books were all for the eyes of sailors, and were sorted by
chance.  _Knots and Splices_, _Typee_, _Know Your Own Ship_, the _South
Pacific Directory_, and _Castaway on the Auckland Islands_.  There were
many of them, and they were in that fortuitous and attractive order.
The back of every volume had to be read, though the light was bad.  On
one wall between the windows a specimen chart was framed.  Maps are
good; but how much better are charts, especially when you cannot read
them except by guessing at their cryptic lettering!  About the coast
line the fathom marks cluster thickly, and venture to sea in lines
which attenuate, or become sparse clusters, till the chart is blank,
being beyond soundings.  At the capes are red dots, with arcs on the
seaward side to show at what distance mariners pick up the real lights
at night.  Through such windows, boys with bills of lading and mates'
receipts in their pockets, being on errands to shipowners, look
outward, and only seem to look inward.  Where are the confines of
London?

Opposite Poverty Corner there is, or used to be, an archway into a
courtyard where in one old office the walls were hung with half-models
of sailing ships.  I remember the name of one, the _Winefred_.
Deed-boxes stood on shelves, with the name of a ship on each.  There
was a mahogany counter, an encrusted pewter inkstand, desks made secret
with high screens, and a silence that might have been the reproof to
intruders of a repute remembered in dignity behind the screens by those
who kept waiting so unimportant a visitor as a boy.  On the counter was
a stand displaying sailing cards, announcing, among other events in
London River, "the fine ship _Blackadder_ for immediate dispatch,
having most of her cargo engaged, to Brisbane."  And in those days,
just round the corner in Billiter Street, one of the East India
Company's warehouses survived, a sombre relic among the new limestone
and red granite offices, a massive archway in its centre leading, it
could be believed, to an enclosure of night left by the eighteenth
century, and forgotten.  I never saw anybody go into it, or come out.
How could they?  It was of another time and place.  The familiar Tower,
the Guildhall that we knew nearly as well, the Cathedral which
certainly existed, for it could often be seen in the distance, and the
Abbey that was little more than something we had heard named, they were
but the scenery close to the buses.  Yet London was more wonderful than
anything they could make it appear.  About Fenchurch Street and
Leadenhall Street wagons could be seen going east, bearing bales and
cases, and the packages were port-marked for Sourabaya, Para, Ilo-Ilo,
and Santos--names like those.  They had to be seen to be believed.  You
could stand there, forced to think that the sun never did more than
make the floor of asphalted streets glow like polished brass, and that
the evening light was full of glittering motes and smelt of dust, and
that life worked itself out in cupboards made of glass and mahogany;
and suddenly you learned, while smelling the dust, that Acapulco was
more than a portent in a book and held only by an act of faith.  Yet
that astonishing revelation, enough to make any youthful messenger
forget where he himself was bound, through turning to follow with his
eyes that acceptance by a carrier's cart of the verity of the fable, is
nowhere mentioned, I have found since, in any guide to London, though
you may learn how Cornhill got its name.

For though Londoners understand the Guildhall pigeons have as much
right to the place as the aldermen, they look upon the seabirds by
London Bridge as vagrant strangers.  They do not know where their city
ends on the east side.  Their River descends from Oxford in more than
one sense.  It has little history worth mentioning below Westminster.
To the poets, the River becomes flat and songless where at Richmond the
sea's remote influence just moves it; and there they leave it.  The
Thames goes down then to a wide grey vacuity, a featureless monotony
where men but toil, where life becomes silent in effort, and goes out
through fogs to nowhere in particular.  But there is a hill-top at
Woolwich from which, better than from Richmond, our River, the
burden-bearer, the road which joins us to New York and Sydney, can be
seen for what it is, plainly related to a vaster world, with the ships
upon its bright path moving through the smoke and buildings of the
City.  And surely some surmise of what our River is comes to a few of
that multitude who cross London Bridge every day?  They favour the east
side of it, I have noticed, and they cannot always resist a pause to
stare overside to the Pool.  Why do they?  Ships are there, it is true,
but only insignificant traders, diminished by sombre cliffs up which
their cargo is hauled piece-meal to vanish instantly into mid-air
caverns; London absorbs all they have as morsels.  Anyhow, it is the
business of ships.  The people on the bridge watch another life below,
with its strange cries and mysterious movements.  A leisurely wisp of
steam rises from a steamer's funnel.  She is alive and breathing,
though motionless.  The walls enclosing the Pool are spectral in a
winter light, and might be no more than the almost forgotten memory of
a dark past.  Looking at them intently, to give them a name, the
wayfarer on the bridge could imagine they were maintained there only by
the frail effort of his will.  Once they were, but now, in some moods,
they are merely remembered.  Only the men busy on the deck of the ship
below are real.  Through an arch beneath the feet a barge shoots out
noiselessly on the ebb, and staring down at its sudden apparition you
feel dizzily that it has the bridge in tow, and that all you people on
it are being drawn unresisting into that lower world of shades.  You
release yourself from this spell with an effort, and look at the faces
of those who are beside you at the parapet.  What are their thoughts?
Do they know?  Have they also seen the ghosts?  Have they felt stirring
a secret and forgotten desire, old memories, tales that were told?
They move away and go to their desks, or to their homes in the suburbs.
A vessel that has hauled into the fairway calls for the Tower Bridge
gates to be opened for her.  She is going.  We watch the eastern mists
take her from us.  For we never are so passive and well-disciplined to
the things which compel us but rebellion comes at times--misgiving that
there is a world beyond the one we know, regret that we never ventured
and made no discovery, and that our time has been saved and not spent.
The gates to the outer world close again.

There, where that ship vanished, is the highway which brought those
unknown folk whose need created London out of reeds and mere.  It is
our oldest road, and now has many bypaths.  Near Poverty Corner is a
building which recently was dismissed with a brief, humorous reference
in a new guide to our City--a cobbled forecourt, tame pigeons, cabs, a
brick front topped by a clock-face: Fenchurch Street Station.  Beyond
its dingy platforms, the metal track which contracts into the murk is
the road to China, though that is, perhaps, the last place you would
guess to be at the end of it.  The train runs over a wilderness of
tiles, a grey plateau of bare slate and rock, its expanse cracked and
scored as though by a withering heat.  Nothing grows there; nothing
could live there.  Smoke still pours from it, as though it were
volcanic, from numberless vents.  The region is without sap.  Above its
expanse project superior fumaroles, their drifting vapours dissolving
great areas.  When the track descends slightly, you see cavities in
that cliff which runs parallel with your track.  The desert is actually
burrowed, and every hole in the plateau is a habitation.  Something
does live there.  That region of burnt and fissured rock is tunneled
and inhabited.  The unlikely serrations and ridges with the smoke
moving over them are porous, and a fluid life ranges beneath unseen.
It is the beginning of Dockland.  That the life is in upright beings,
each with independent volition and a soul; that it is not an amorphous
movement, flowing in bulk through buried pipes, incapable of the idea
of height, of rising, it is difficult to believe.  It has not been
believed.  If life, you protest, is really there, has any purpose which
is better than that of extending worm-like through the underground,
then why, at intervals, is there not an upheaval, a geyser-like burst,
a plain hint from a power usually pent, but liable to go skywards?  But
that is for the desert to answer.  As by mocking chance the desert
itself almost instantly shows what possibilities are hidden within it.
The train roars unexpectedly over a viaduct, and below is a deep hollow
filled with light, with a floor of water, and a surprise of ships.  How
did that white schooner get into such an enclosure?  Is freedom nearer
here than we thought?

The crust of roofs ends abruptly in a country which is a complexity of
gasometers, canals, railway junctions, between which cabbage fields in
long spokes radiate from the train and revolve.  There is the grotesque
suggestion of many ships in the distance, for through gaps in a
nondescript horizon masts appear in a kaleidoscopic way.  The journey
ends, usually in the rain, among iron sheds that are topped on the far
side by the rigging and smoke-stacks of great liners.  There is no
doubt about it now.  At the corner of one shed, sheltering from the
weather, is a group of brown men in coloured rags, first seen in the
gloom because of the whites of their eyes.  What we remember of such a
day is that it was half of night, and the wind hummed in the cordage,
and swayed wildly the loose gear aloft.  Towering hulls were ranged
down each side of a lagoon that ended in vacancy.  The rigging and
funnels of the fleet were unrelated; those ships were phantom and
monstrous.  They seemed on too great a scale to be within human
control.  We felt diminished and a little fearful, as among the looming
urgencies of a dream.  The forms were gigantic but vague, and they were
seen in a smother of the elements; and their sounds, deep and mournful,
were like the warnings of something alien, yet without form, which we
knew was adverse, but could not recall when awake again.  We remember,
that day, a few watchers insecure on an exposed dockhead that projected
into a sullen dreariness of river and mud which could have been the
finish of the land.  At the end of a creaking hawser was a steamer
canting as she backed to head downstream--now she was exposed to a
great adventure--the tide rapid and noisy on her plates, the reek from
her funnel sinking over the water.  And from the dockhead, in the
fuddle of a rain-squall, we were waving a handkerchief, probably to the
wrong man, till the vessel went out where all was one--rain, river,
mud, and sky, and the future.

It is afterwards that so strange an ending to a brief journey from a
City station is seen to have had more in it than the time-table,
hurriedly scanned, gave away.  Or it would be remembered as strange, if
the one who had to make that journey as much as thought of it again;
for perhaps to a stranger occupied with more important matters it was
passed as being quite relevant to the occasion, ordinary and rather
dismal, the usual boredom of a duty.  Its strangeness depends, very
likely, as much on an idle and squandering mind as on the ships, the
River, and the gasometers.  Yet suppose you first saw the River from
Blackwall Stairs, in the days when the windows of the _Artichoke
Tavern_, an ancient, weather-boarded house with benches outside, still
looked towards the ships coming in!  And how if then, one evening, you
had seen a Blackwall liner haul out for the Antipodes while her crew
sang a chanty!  It might put another light on the River, but a light, I
will admit, which others should not be expected to see, and if they
looked for it now might not discover, for it is possible that it has
vanished, like the old tavern.  It is easy to persuade ourselves that a
matter is made plain by the light in which we prefer to see it, for it
is our light.

One day, I remember, a boy had to take a sheaf of documents to a vessel
loading in the London Dock.  She was sailing that tide.  It was a hot
July noon.  It is unlucky to send a boy, who is marked by all the omens
for a City prisoner, to that dock, for it is one of the best of its
kind.  He had not been there before.  There was an astonishing vista,
once inside the gates, of sherry butts and port casks.  On the
flagstones were pools of wine lees.  There was an unforgettable smell.
It was of wine, spices, oakum, wool, and hides.  The sun made it worse,
but the boy, I think, preferred it strong.  After wandering along many
old quays, and through the openings of dark sheds that, on so sunny a
day, were stored with cool night and cubes and planks of gold, he found
his ship, the _Mulatto Girl_.  She was for the Brazils.  Now it is
clear that one even wiser in shipping affairs than a boy would have
expected to see a craft that was haughty and portentous when bound for
the Brazils, a ship that looked equal to making a coast of that kind.
There she was, her flush deck well below the quay wall.  A ladder went
down to her, for she was no more than a schooner of a little over one
hundred tons.  If that did not look like the beginning of one of those
voyages reputed to have ended with the Elizabethans, then I am trying
to convey a wrong impression.  On the deck of the _Mulatto Girl_ was
her master, in shirt and trousers and a remarkable straw hat more like
a canopy, bending over to discharge some weighty words into the hatch.
He rose and looked up at the boy on the quay, showing then a taut black
beard and formidable eyes.  With his hands on his hips, he surveyed for
a few seconds, without speaking, the messenger above.  Then he talked
business, and more than legitimate business.  "Do you want to come?" he
asked, and smiled.  "Eh?"  He stroked his beard.  (The Brazils and all!
A ship like that!)  "There's a berth for you.  Come along, my son."
And observe what we may lose through that habit of ours of uncritical
obedience to duty; see what may leave us for ever in that fatal pause,
caused by the surprise of the challenge to our narrow experience and
knowledge, the pause in which we allow habit to overcome adventurous
instinct!  I never heard again of the _Mulatto Girl_.  I could not
expect to.  Something, though, was gained that day.  It cannot be
named.  It is of no value.  It is, you may have guessed, that very
light which it has been admitted may since have gone out.

Well, nobody who has ever surprised that light in Dockland will be
persuaded that it is not there still, and will remain.  But what could
strangers see of it?  The foreshore to them is the unending monotony of
grey streets, sometimes grim, often decayed, and always reticent and
sullen, that might never have seen the stars nor heard of good luck;
and the light would be, when closely looked at, merely a high gas
bracket on a dank wall in solitude, its glass broken, and the flame
within it fluttering to extinction like an imprisoned and crippled moth
trying to evade the squeeze of giant darkness and the wind.  The narrow
and forbidding by-path under that glim, a path intermittent and
depending on the weight of the night which is trying to blot it out
altogether, goes to Wapping Old Stairs.  Prince Rupert once went that
way.  The ketch _Nonsuch_, Captain Zachary Gillam, was then lying just
off, about to make the voyage which established the Hudson's Bay
Company.

It is a path, like all those stairs and ways that go down to the River,
which began when human footsteps first outlined London with rough
tracks.  It is a path by which the descendants of those primitives went
out of London, when projecting the original enterprise of their
forbears from Wapping to the Guinea Coast and Manitoba.  Why should we
believe it is different today?  The sea does not change, and seamen are
what they were if their ships are not those we admired many years ago
in the India Docks.  It is impossible for those who know them to see
those moody streets of Dockland, indeterminate, for they follow the
River, which run from Tooley Street by the Hole-in-the-Wall to the
Deptford docks, and from Tower Hill along Wapping High Street to
Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs, as strangers would see them.  What
could they be to strangers?  Mud, taverns, pawnshops, neglected and
obscure churches, and houses that might know nothing but ill-fortune.

So they are; but those ways hold more than the visible shades.  The
warehouses of that meandering chasm which is Wapping High Street are
like weathered and unequal cliffs.  It is hard to believe sunlight ever
falls there.  It could not get down.  It is not easy to believe the
River is near.  It seldom shows.  You think at times you hear the
distant call of a ship.  But what would that be?  Something in the
mind.  It happened long ago.  You, too, are a ghost left by the
vanished past.  There is a man above at a high loophole, the topmost
cave of a warehouse which you can see has been exposed to commerce and
the elements for ages; he pulls in a bale pendulous from the cable of a
derrick.  Below him one of the horses of a van tosses its nose-bag.
There is no other movement.  A carman leans against an iron post, and
cuts bread and cheese with a clasp-knife.  It was curious to hear that
steamer call, but we knew what it was.  It was from a ship that went
down, we have lately heard, in the War, and her spectre reminds us,
from a voyage which is over, of men we shall see no more.  But the call
comes again just where the Stairs, like a shining wedge of day, hold
the black warehouses asunder, and give us the light of the River and a
release to the outer world.  And there, moving swiftly across the
brightness, goes a steamer outward bound.

That was what we wanted to know.  She confirms it, and her signal, to
whomever it was made, carries farther than she would guess.  It is
understood.  The past for some of us now is our only populous and
habitable world, invisible to others, but alive with whispers for us.
Yet the sea still moves daily along the old foreshore, and ships still
come and go, and do not, like us, run aground on what now is not there.



II. A Midnight Voyage

Our voyage was to begin at midnight from near Limehouse Hole.  The hour
and the place have been less promising in the beginning of many a
strange adventure.  Where the voyage would end could not be said,
except that it would be in Bugsby's Reach, and at some time or other.
It was now ten o'clock, getting towards sailing time, and the way to
the foreshore was unlighted and devious.  Yet it was somewhere near.
This area of still and empty night railed off from the glare of the
Commercial Road would be Limehouse Church.  It is foolish to suppose
you know the Tower Hamlets because you have seen them by day.  They
change.  They are like those uncanny folk of the fables.  At night,
wonderfully, they become something else, take another form, which has
never been more than glimpsed, and another character, so fabulous and
secret that it will support the tales of the wildest romanticist, who
rightly feels that if such yarns were told of 'Frisco or Timbuctoo they
might get found out.  Was this the church?  Three Chinamen were
disputing by its gate.  Perhaps they were in disagreement as to where
the church would be in daylight.

At a corner where the broad main channel of electric light ended, and
perplexity began, a policeman stood, and directed me into chaos.
"Anywhere," he explained, "anywhere down there will do."  I saw a
narrow alley in the darkness, which had one gas lamp and many cobbled
stones.  At the bottom of the lane were three iron posts.  Beyond the
posts a bracket lamp showed a brick wall, and in the wall was an arch
so full of gloom that it seemed impassable, except to a steady draught
of cold air that might have been the midnight itself entering Limehouse
from its own place.  At the far end of that opening in the wall was
nothing.  I stood on an invisible wooden platform and looked into
nothing with no belief that a voyage could begin from there.  Before me
then should have been the Thames, at the top of the flood tide.  It was
not seen.  There was only a black void dividing some clusters of
brilliant but remote and diminished lights.  There were odd stars which
detached themselves from the fixed clusters, and moved in the void,
sounding the profundity of the chasm beneath them with lines of
trembling fire.  Such a wandering comet drifted near where I stood on
the verge of nothing, and then it was plain that its trail of quivering
light did not sound, but floated and undulated on a travelling
road--that chasm before me was black because it was filled with fluid
night.  Night, I discovered suddenly, was in irresistible movement.  It
was swift and heavy.  It was unconfined.  It was welling higher to
douse our feeble glims and to founder London, built of shadows on its
boundary.  It moved with frightful quietness.  It seemed confident of
its power.  It swirled and eddied by the piles of the wharf, and there
it found a voice, though that was muffled; yet now and then it broke
into levity for a moment, as at some shrouded and alien jest.

There were sounds which reached me at last from the opposite shore,
faint with distance and terror.  The warning from an unseen steamer
going out was as if a soul, crossing this Styx, now knew all.  There is
no London on the Thames, after sundown.  Most of us know very little of
the River by day.  It might then be no more native to our capital than
the Orientals who stand under the Limehouse gas lamps at night.  It
surprises us.  We turn and look at it from our seat in a tram, and
watch a barge going down on the ebb--it luckily misses the piers of
Blackfriars Bridge--as if a door had unexpectedly opened on a mystery,
revealing another world in London, and another sort of life than ours.
It is as uncanny as if we had sensed another dimension of space.  The
tram gets among the buildings again, and we are reassured by the
confined and arid life we know.  But what a light and width had that
surprising world where we saw a barge drifting as leisurely as though
the narrow limits which we call reality were there unknown!

But after dark there is not only no River, when you stand where by day
is its foreshore; there is no London.  Then, looking out from
Limehouse, you might be the only surviving memory of a city that has
vanished.  You might be solitary among the unsubstantial shades, for
about you are only comets passing through space, and inscrutable
shapes; your neighbours are Cassiopeia and the Great Bear.

But where was our barge, the _Lizzie_?  I became aware abruptly of the
skipper of this ship for our midnight voyage among the stars.  He had
his coat-collar raised.  The _Lizzie_, he said, was now free of the
mud, and he was going to push off.  Sitting on a bollard, and pulling
out his tobacco-pouch, he said he hadn't had her out before.  Sorry
he'd got to do it now.  She was a bitch.  She bucked her other man
overboard three days ago.  They hadn't found him yet.  They found her
down by Gallions Reach.  Jack Jones was the other chap.  Old Rarzo they
called him.  Took more than a little to give him that colour.  But he
was All Right.  They were going to give a benefit concert for his wife
and kids.  Jack's brother was going to sing; good as Harry Lauder, he
is.

Below us a swirl of water broke into mirth, instantly suppressed.  We
could see the _Lizzie_ now.  The ripples slipped round her to the tune
of they-'avn't-found-'im-yet, they-'avn't-found-'im-yet-they 'avn't.
The skipper and crew rose, fumbling at his feet for a rope.  There did
not seem to be much of the _Lizzie_.  She was but a little raft to
drift out on those tides which move among the stars.  "Now's your
chance," said her crew, and I took it, on all fours.  The last remnant
of London was then pushed from us with a pole.  We were launched on
night, which had begun its ebb towards morning.

The punt sidled away obliquely for mid-stream.  I stood at one end of
it.  The figure of Charon could be seen at the other, of long
acquaintance with this passage, using his sweep with the indifference
of habitude.  Perhaps it was not Charon.  Yet there was some
obstruction to the belief that we were bound for no more than the
steamer _Aldebaran_, anchored in Bugsby's Reach.  From the low deck of
the barge it was surprising that the River, whose name was Night, was
content with the height to which it had risen.  Perhaps it was taking
its time.  It might soon receive an influx from space, rise then in a
silent upheaval, and those low shadows that were London, even now half
foundered, would at once go.  This darkness was an irresponsible power.
It was the same flood which had sunk Knossos and Memphis.  It was
tranquil, indifferent, knowing us not, reckoning us all one with the
Sumerians.  They were below it.  It had risen above them.  Now the time
had come when it was laving the base of London.

The crew cried out to us that over there was the entrance to the West
India Dock.  We knew that place in another life.  But should Charon
joke with us?  We saw only chaos, in which the beams from a reputed
city glimmered without purpose.

The shadow of the master of our black barge pulled at his sweep with a
slow confidence that was fearful amid what was sightless and unknown.
His pipe glowed, as with the profanity of an immortal to whom eternity
and infinity are of the usual significance.  Then a red and green eye
appeared astern, and there was a steady throbbing as if some monster
were in pursuit of us.  A tug shaped near us, drew level, and exposed
with its fires, as it went ahead, a radiant _Lizzie_ on an area of
water that leaped in red flames.  The furnace door of the tug was shut,
and at once we were blind.  "Hold hard," yelled our skipper, and the
_Lizzie_ slipped into the turmoil of the tug's wake.

There would be Millwall.  The tug and the turmoil had gone.  We were
alone again in the beyond.  There was no sound now but the water
spattering under our craft, and the fumbling and infrequent splash of
the sweep.  Once we heard the miniature bark of a dog, distinct and
fine, as though distance had refined it as well as reduced it.  We were
nearly round the loop the River makes about Millwall, and this unknown
region before us was Blackwall Reach by day, and Execution Dock used to
be dead ahead.  To the east, over the waters, red light exploded
fan-wise and pulsed on the clouds latent above, giving them momentary
form.  It was as though, from the place where it starts, the dawn had
been released too soon, and was at once recalled.  "The gas works,"
said the skipper.

Still the slow drift, quite proper to those at large in eternity.  But
this, I was told, was the beginning of Bugsby's Reach.  It was first a
premonition, then a doubt, and at last a distinct tremor in the
darkness ahead of us.  A light appeared, grew nearer, higher, and
brighter, and there was a suspicion of imminent mass.  "Watch her,"
warned the skipper.  Watch what?  There was nothing to watch but the
dark and some planets far away, one of them red.  The menacing one
still grew higher and brighter.  It came at us.  A wall instantly
appeared to overhang us, with a funnel and masts above it, and our
skipper's yell was lost in the thunder of a churning propeller.  The
air shuddered, and a siren hooted in the heavens.  A long, dark body
seemed minutes going by us, and our skipper's insults were taken in
silence by her superior deck.  She left us riotous in her wake, and we
continued our journey dancing our indignation on the uneasy deck of the
_Lizzie_.

The silent drift recommenced, and we neared a region of unearthly
lights and the smell of sulphur, where aerial skeletons, vast and
black, and columns and towers, alternately glowed and vanished as the
doors of infernal fires were opened and shut.  We drew abreast of this
phantom place where names and darkness battled amid gigantic ruin.
Charon spoke.  "They're the coal wharves," he said.

The lights of a steamer rose in the night below the wharves, but it was
our own progress which brought them nearer.  She was anchored.  We made
out at last her shape, but at first she did not answer our hail.

"Hullo, _Aldebaran_," once more roared our captain.

There was no answer.  In a minute we should be by her, and too late.

"Barge ahoy!" came a voice.  "Look out for a line."



III. A Shipping Parish

What face this shipping parish shows to a stranger I do not know.  I
was never a stranger to it.  I should suppose it to be a face almost
vacant, perhaps a little conventionally picturesque, for it is grey and
seamed.  It might be even an altogether expressionless mask, staring at
nothing.  Anyhow, there must be very little to be learned from it, for
those bright young cultured strangers, admirable in their eagerness for
social service, who come and live with us for a time, so that they may
understand the life of the poor, never seem to have made anything of
us.  They say they have; they speak even with some amount of assurance,
at places where the problem which is us is examined aloud by confident
politicians and churchfolk.  But I think they know well enough that
they always failed to get anywhere near what mind we have.  There is a
reason for it, of course.  Think of honest and sociable Mary Ann, of
Pottles Rents, E., having been alarmed by the behaviour of good
society, as it is betrayed in the popular picture Press, making odd
calls in Belgravia (the bells for visitors, too), to bring souls to God.

My parish, to strangers, must be opaque with its indifference.  It
stares beyond the interested visitor, in the way the sad and
disillusioned have, to things it supposes a stranger would not
understand if he were told.  He has reason, therefore, to say we are
dull.  And Dockland, with its life so uniform that it could be an
amorphous mass overflowing a reef of brick cells, I think would be
distressing to a sensitive stranger, and even a little terrifying, as
all that is alive but inexplicable must be.  No more conscious purpose
shows in our existence than is seen in the coral polyp.  We just go on
increasing and forming more cells.  Overlooking our wilderness of tiles
in the rain--we get more than a fair share of rain, or else the sad
quality of wet weather is more noticeable in such a place as ours--it
seems a dismal affair to present for the intelligent labours of mankind
for generations.  Could nothing better have been done than that?  What
have we been busy about?

Well, what are people busy about anywhere?  Human purpose here has been
as blind and sporadic as it is at Westminster, unrelated to any fixed
star, lucky to fill the need of the day, building without any distant
design, flowing in bulk through the lowest channels that offered.  As
elsewhere, it is obstructed by the unrecognized mistakes of its past.
Our part of London, like Kensington or Islington, is but the formless
accretion of countless swarms of life which had no common endeavour;
and so here we are, Time's latest deposit, the vascular stratum of this
area of the earth's rind, a sensitive surface flourishing during its
day on the piled strata of the dead.  Yet this is the reef to which I
am connected by tissue and bone.  Cut the kind of life you find in
Poplar and I must bleed.  I cannot detach myself, and write of it.
Like any other atom, I would show the local dirt, if examined.  My hand
moves, not loyally so much as instinctively, to impulses which come
from beneath and so out of a stranger's knowledge; out of my own, too,
largely.

Is that all?  Not quite.  Where you, if you came to us, would see but
an unremarkable level of East-Enders, much like other Londoners, with
no past worth recording, and no future likely to be worth a book of
gold, I see, looking to the past, a spectral show of fine ships and
brave affairs, and good men forgotten, or almost forgotten, and moving
among the plainer shades of its foreground some ghosts well known to
me.  I think they were what are called failures in life.  And turning
from those shades, and their work which went the way of all forgotten
stuff before the inexorable tide of affairs, I look forward from
Poplar, unreasonably hopeful (for so we are made), though this time
into the utter dark, for the morning that shall show us the more
enduring towers of the city of our dreams, the heart of the commune,
the radiant spires of the city that shall be lovelier than that dear
city of Cecrops.

But for those whose place it is not, memories and dreams can do nothing
to transform it.  Dockland would seem to others as any alien town would
seem to me.  There is something, though, you must grant us, a heritage
peculiarly ours.  Amid our packed tenements, into the dark mass where
poorer London huddles as my shipping parish, are set our docks.
Embayed in the obscurity are those areas of captured day, reservoirs of
light brimmed daily by the tides of the sun, silver mirrors through
which one may leave the dark floor of Poplar for radiant other worlds.
We have our ships and docks, and the River at Blackwall when night and
the flood come together, and walls and roofs which topmasts and funnels
surmount, suggestions of a vagabondage hidden in what seemed so arid a
commonplace desert.  These are of first importance.  They are our ways
of escape.  We are not kept within a division of the map.  And Orion,
he strides over our roofs on bright winter nights.  We have the
immortals.  At the most, your official map sets us only lateral bounds.
The heavens here are as high as elsewhere.  Our horizon is beyond our
own limits.  In this faithful chronicle of our parish I must tell of
our boundaries as I know them.  They are not so narrow as you might
think.  Maps cannot be so carefully planned, nor walls built high
enough nor streets confined and strict enough, to hold within limits
our lusty and growing population of thoughts.  There is no census you
can take which will give you forewarning of what is growing here, of
the way we increase and expand.  Take care.  Some day, when we discover
the time has come for it, we shall tell our numbers, and be sure you
will then learn the result.  Travelling through our part of the
country, you see but our appearance.  You go, and report us casually to
your friends, and forget us.  But when you feel the ground moving under
your feet, that will be us.

From my high window in central Dockland, as from a watch tower, I look
out over a tumbled waste of roofs and chimneys, a volcanic desert,
inhabited only by sparrows and pigeons.  Humanity burrows in swarms
below that surface of crags, but only faint cries tell me that the
rocks are caverned and inhabited, that life flows there unseen through
subterranean galleries.  Often, when the sunrise over the roofs is
certainly the coming of Aurora, as though then the first illumination
of the sky heralded the veritable dayspring for which we look, and the
gods were nearly here, I have watched for that crust beneath, which
seals the sleepers under, to heave and roll, to burst, and for released
humanity to pour through fractures, from the lower dark, to be renewed
in the fires of the morning.  Nothing has happened yet.  But I am
confident it would repay society to appoint another watcher when I am
gone, to keep an eye on the place.

Right below my window there are two ridges running in parallel jags of
chimneys, with a crevasse between them to which I can see no bottom.
But a roadway is there.  From an acute angle of the window a cornice
overhangs a sheer fall of cliff.  That is as near the ground as can be
got from my outlook.  Several superior peaks rise out of the
wilderness, where the churches are; and beyond the puzzling middle
distance, where smoke dissolves all form, loom the dock warehouses, a
continuous range of far dark heights.  I have thoughts of a venturesome
and lonely journey by moonlight, in and out of the chimney stacks, and
all the way to the distant mountains.  It looks inviting, and possible,
by moonlight.  And, indeed, any bright day in summer, from my window,
Dockland with its goblin-like chimneys might be the enchanted country
of a child's dream, where shapes, though inanimate, are watchful and
protean.  From that silent world legions of grotesques move out of the
shadows at a touch of sunlight, and then, when you turn on them in
surprise, become thin and vague, either phantoms or smoke, and
dissolve.  The freakish light shows in little what happens in the long
run to man's handiwork, for it accelerates the speed of change till
change is fast enough for you to watch a town grow and die.  You see
that Dockland is unstable, is in flux, alters in colours and form.  I
doubt whether the people below are sensitive to this ironic display on
their roofs.

My eyes more frequently go to one place in that high country.  In that
distant line of warehouses is a break, and there occasionally I see the
masts and spars of a tall ship, and I remember that beyond my dark
horizon of warehouses is the path down which she has come from the
Indies to Blackwall.  I said we were not inland.  Cassiopeia is in that
direction, and China over there.

For my outlook is more than the centre of Dockland.  I call it the
centre of the world.  Our high road is part of the main thoroughfare
from Kensington to Valparaiso.  Every wanderer must come this way at
least once in his life.  We are the hub whence all roads go to the
circumference.  A ship does not go down but we hear the cry of
distress, and the house of a neighbour rocks on the flood and is lost,
casting its people adrift on the blind tides.

Think of some of our street names--Malabar Street, Amoy Place, Nankin
Street, Pekin Street, Canton Street.  And John Company has left its
marks.  You pick up hints of the sea here as you pick old shells out of
dunes.  We have, still nourishing in a garden, John Company's Chapel of
St. Matthias, a fragment of a time that was, where now the vigorous
commercial life of the Company shows no evidence whatever of its
previous urgent importance.  Founded in the time of the Commonwealth as
a symbol for the Company's men who, when in rare moments they looked up
from the engrossing business of their dominant hours, desired a
reminder of the ineffable things beyond ships and cargoes, the Chapel
has survived all the changes which destroyed their ships and scattered
the engrossing business of their working hours into dry matter for
antiquaries.  So little do men really change.  They always leave their
temples, whether they lived in Poplar or Nineveh.  Only the names of
their gods change.  The Chapel at Poplar it was then, when this
shipping parish had no docks, and the nearest church was over the
fields to Stepney.  Our vessels then lay in the river.  We got our
first dock, that of the West India Merchants, at the beginning of last
century.  A little later the East India Dock was built by John Company.
Then another phase began to reshape Dockland.  There came a time when
the Americans looked in a fair way, sailing ahead fast with the
wonderful clippers Donald McKay was building at Boston, to show us a
tow rope.  The best sailers ever launched were those Yankee ships, and
the Thames building yards were working to create the ideal clipper
which should beat them.  This really was the last effort of sails, for
steamers were on the seas, and the Americans were actually making
heroic efforts to smother them with canvas.  Mr. Green, of Poplar,
worried over those Boston craft, declared we must be first again, and
first we were.  But both Boston and Poplar, in their efforts to perfect
an old idea, did not see a crude but conquering notion taking form to
magnify and hasten both commerce and war.

But they were worth doing, those clippers, and worth remembering.  They
sail clear into our day as imperishable memories.  They still live, for
they did far more than carry merchandise.  When an old mariner speaks
of the days of studding sails it is not the precious freight, the real
purpose of his ships, which animates his face.  What we always remember
afterwards is not the thing we did, or tried to do, but the friends who
were about us at the time.  But our stately ships themselves, with our
River their home, which gave Poplar's name, wherever they went, a ring
on the counter like a sound guinea, at the most they are now but planks
bearded with sea grass, lost in ocean currents, sighted only by the
albatross.

Long ago nearly every home in Dockland treasured a lithographic
portrait of one of the beauties, framed and hung where visitors could
see it as soon as they entered the door.  Each of us knew one of them,
her runs and her records, the skipper and his fads, the owner and his
prejudice about the last pennyworth of tar.  She was not a transporter
to us, an earner of freights, something to which was attached a profit
and loss account and an insurance policy.  She had a name.  She was a
sentient being, perhaps noble, perhaps wilful; she might have any
quality of character, even malice.  I have seen hands laid on her with
affection in dock, when those who knew her were telling me of her ways.

To few of the newer homes among the later streets of Dockland is that
beautiful lady's portrait known.  Here and there it survives, part of
the flotsam which has drifted through the years with grandmother's
sandalwood chest, the last of the rush-bottomed chairs, and the
lacquered tea-caddy.  I well remember a room from which such survivals
were saved when the household ship ran on a coffin, and foundered.  It
was a front parlour in one of the streets with an Oriental name; which,
I cannot be expected to remember, for when last I was in that room I
was lifted to sit on one of its horsehair chairs, its seat like a
hedgehog, and I was cautioned to sit still.  It was rather a long drop
to the floor from a chair for me in those days, and though sitting
still was hard, sliding part of the way would have been much worse.
That was a room for holy days, too, a place for good behaviour, and
boots profaned it.  Its door was nearly always shut and locked, and
only the chance formal visit of respect-worthy strangers brought down
its key from the top shelf of the kitchen dresser.  That key was seldom
used for relatives, except at Christmas, or when one was dead.  The
room was always sombre.  Light filtered into it through curtains of
wire gauze, fixed in the window by mahogany frames.  Over the door by
which you entered was the picture of an uncle, too young and jolly for
that serious position, I thought then, with his careless neckcloth, and
his cap pulled down over one eye.  The gilt moulding was gone from a
corner of the picture--the only flaw in the prim apartment--for once
that portrait fell to the floor, and on the very day, it was guessed,
that his ship must have foundered.

A round table set on a central thick leg having a three-clawed foot was
in that chamber, covered with a cloth on which was worked a picture
from the story of Ruth.  But only puzzling bits of the latter were to
be seen, for on the circumference of the table-cover were books, placed
at precise distances apart, and in the centre was a huge Bible, with a
brass clasp.  With many others my name was in the Bible, and my
birthday, and a space left blank for the day of my death.  Reflected in
the pier-glass which doubled the room were the portraits in oils of my
grandparents, looking wonderfully young, as you may have noticed is
often the case in people belonging to ancient history, as though,
strangely enough, people were the same in those remote days, except
that they wore different clothes.

I have often sat on the chair, and when patience had inured me to the
spines of the area I occupied, looked at the reflections in the mirror
of those portraits, for they seemed more distant so, and in a
perspective according to their age, and became really my grandparents,
in a room, properly, of another world, which could be seen, but was
not.  A room no one could enter any more.  I remember a black sofa,
which smelt of dust, an antimacassar over its head.  That sofa would
wake to squeak tales if I stood on it to inspect the model of a ship in
yellow ivory, resting on a wall-bracket above.  There were many old
shells in the polished brass fender, some with thick orange lips and
spotted backs; others were spirals of mother-o'-pearl, which took
different colours for every way you held them.  You could get the only
sound in the room by putting the shells to your ear.  Like the people
of the portraits, it was impossible to believe the shells had ever
lived.  The inside of the grate was filled with white paper, and the
trickles of fine black dust which rested in its crevices would start
and run stealthily when people walked in the next room.  Over the
looking-glass there hung a pair of immense buffalo horns, with a piece
of curly black hair dividing them which looked like the skin of our
retriever dog.  Above the horns was the picture of "The Famous Tea
Clipper _Oberon_, setting her Studding Sails off the Lizard"; but so
high was the print, and so faint--for the picture, too, was old--that
some one grown up had to tell me all about it.

The clipper _Oberon_ long since sailed to the Isle-of-No-Land-at-All,
and the room in which her picture hung has gone also, like old
Dockland, and is now no more than something remembered.  The clipper's
picture went with the wreckage, when the room was strewn, and I expect
in that house today there is a photograph of a steamer with two funnels.

Nothing conjures back that room so well as the recollection of a
strange odour which fell from it when its door opened, as though
something bodiless passed as we entered.  There was never anything in
the room which alone could account for the smell, for it had in it
something of the sofa, which was old and black, and of the lacquered
tea-caddy, within the lid of which was the faint ghost of a principle
indefinably ancient and rare; and there was in it, too, something of
the shells.  But you could never find where the smell really came from.
I have tried, and know.  A recollection of that strange dusky fragrance
brings back the old room on a summer afternoon, so sombre that the
mahogany sideboard had its own reddish light, so quiet that the clock
could be heard ticking in the next room; time, you could hear, going
leisurely.  There would be a long lath of sunlight, numberless atoms
swimming in it, slanting from a corner of the window to brighten a
patch of carpet.  Two flies would be hovering under the ceiling.
Sometimes they would dart at a tangent to hover in another place.  I
used to wonder what they lived on.  You felt secure there, knowing it
was old, but seeing things did not alter, as though the world were
established and content, desiring no new thing.  I did not know that
the old house, even then, quiet and still as it seemed, was actually
rocking on the flood of mutable affairs; that its navigator, sick with
anxiety and bewilderment in guiding his home in the years he did not
understand, which his experience had never charted, was sinking
nerveless at his helm.  For he heard, when his children did not, the
premonition of breakers in seas having no landmark that he knew; felt
the trend and push of new and inimical forces, and currents that
carried him helpless, whither he would not go, but must, heartbroken,
into the uproar and welter of the modern.

I have been told that London east of the Tower has no history worth
mentioning, and it is true that sixteenth-century prints show the town
to finish just where the Dock of St. Katherine is now.  Beyond that,
and only marshes show, with Stebonhithe Church and a few other signs to
mark recognizable country.  On the south side the marshes were very
extensive, stretching from the River inland for a considerable
distance.  The north shore was fen also, but a little above the tides
was a low eminence, a clay and gravel cliff, that sea-wall which now
begins below the Albert Dock and continues round the East Anglian
seaboard.  Once it serpentined as far as the upper Pool, disappearing
as the wharves and docks were built to accommodate London's increasing
commerce.  There is no doubt, then, that the Lower Thames parishes are
really young; but, when we are reminded that they have no history worth
mentioning, it may be understood that the historian is simply not
interested enough to mention it.

So far as age goes my shipping parish cannot compare with a cathedral
city; but antiquity is not the same as richness of experience.  One
remembers the historic and venerable tortoise.  He is old enough,
compared with us.  But he has had nothing so varied and lively as the
least of us can show.  Most of his reputed three hundred years is
sleep, no doubt, and the rest vegetables.  In the experience of
Wapping, Poplar, Rotherhithe, Limehouse, and Deptford, when they really
came to life, there was precious little sleep, and no vegetables worth
mentioning.  They were quick and lusty.  There they stood, long
knee-deep and busy among their fleets, sometimes rising to cheer when a
greater adventure was sailing or returning, some expedition that was
off to find further avenues through the Orient or the Americas, or else
a broken craft bringing back tragedy from the Arctic; ship after ship;
great captain after great captain.  No history worth mentioning!  There
are Londoners who cannot taste the salt.  Yet, no doubt, it is
difficult for younger London to get the ocean within its horizon.  The
memory of the _Oberon_, that famous ship, is significant to me, for she
has gone, with all her fleet, and some say she took Poplar's best with
her.  Once we were a famous shipping parish.  Now we are but part of
the East End of London.  The steamers have changed us.  The tides do
not rise high enough today, and our shallow waters cannot make home for
the new keels.

But to the old home now the last of the sailing fleet is loyal.  We
have enough still to show what once was there; the soft gradations of a
ship's entrance, rising into bows and bowsprit, like the form of a
comber at its limit, just before it leaps forward in collapse.  The
mounting spars, alive and braced.  The swoop and lift of the sheer, the
rich and audacious colours, the strange flags and foreign names.  South
Sea schooner, whaling barque from Hudson's Bay, the mahogany ship from
Honduras, the fine ships and barques that still load for the antipodes
and 'Frisco.  Every season they diminish, but some are still with us.
At Tilbury, where the modern liners are, you get wall sides mounting
like great hotels with tier on tier of decks, and funnels soaring high
to dominate the day.  There the prospect of masts is a line of derrick
poles.  But still in the upper docks is what will soon have gone for
ever from London, a dark haze of spars and rigging, with sometimes a
white sail floating in it like a cloud.  We had a Russian barquentine
there yesterday.  I think a barquentine is the most beautiful of ships,
the most aerial and graceful of rigs, the foremast with its transverse
spars giving breadth and balance, and steadying the unhindered lift
skywards of main and mizzen poles.  The model of this Russian ship was
as memorable as a Greek statue.  It is a ship's sheer which gives
loveliness to her model, like the waist of a lissom woman, finely
poised, sure of herself, in profile.  She was so slight a body, so tall
and slender, but standing alert and illustriously posed, there was
implied in her slenderness a rare strength and swiftness.  And to her
beauty of line there went a richness of colour which made our dull
parish a notable place.  She was of wood, painted white.  Her masts
were of pine, veined with amber.  Her white hull, with the drenchings
of the seas, had become shot with ultramarine shadows, as though
tinctured with the virtue of the ocean.  The verdigris of her sheathing
was vivid as green light; and the languid dock water, the colour of
jade, glinting round her hull, was lambent with hues not its own.  You
could believe there was a soft radiation from that ship's sides which
fired the water about her, but faded when far from her sides, a
delicate and faery light which soon expired.

Such are our distinguished visitors in Dockland, though now they come
to us with less frequency.  If the skipper of the _Oberon_ could now
look down the Dock Road from the corner by North Street, what he would
look for first would be, not, I am sure, what compelled the electric
trams, but for the entrance of the East Dock and its familiar tangle of
spars.  He would not find it.  The old dock is there, but a lagoon
asleep, and but few vessels sleeping with it.  The quays are vacant,
except for the discarded lumber of ships, sun-dried boats, rusted
cables and anchors, and a pile of broken davits.  The older dock of the
West India Merchants is almost the same.  Yet even I have seen the
bowsprits and jib-booms of the Australian packets diminish down the
quays of the East Dock as an arcade; and of that West Dock there is a
boy who well remembers its quays buried under the largess of the
tropics and the Spanish Main, where now, through the colonnades of its
warehouse supports, the vistas are empty.  Once you had to squeeze
sideways through the stacked merchandise.  There were huge hogsheads of
sugar and hillocks of coconuts.  Molasses and honey escaped to spread a
viscid carpet which held your feet.  The casual prodigality of it
expanded the mind.  Certainly this earth must be a big and cheerful
place if it could spread its treasures thus wide and deep in a public
place under the sky.  It corrected the impression got from the retail
shops for any penniless youngster, with that pungent odour of sugar
crushed under foot, with its libations of syrup poured from the plenty
of the sunny isles.  Today the quays are bare and deserted, and grass
rims the stones of the footway, as verdure does the neglected stone
covers in a churchyard.  In the dusk of a winter evening the high and
silent warehouses which enclose the mirrors of water enclose too an
accentuation of the dusk.  The water might be evaporating in shadows.
The hulls of the few ships, moored beside the walls, become absorbed in
the dark.  Night withdraws their substance.  What the solitary wayfarer
sees then is the incorporeal presentment of ships.  Dockland expires.
The living and sounding day is elsewhere, lighting the new things on
which the young are working.  Here is the past, deep in the obscurity
from which time has taken the sun, where only memory can go, and sees
but the ineffaceable impression of what once was there.

There is a notable building in our Dock Road, the Board of Trade
offices, retired a little way from the traffic behind a screen of plane
trees.  Not much more than its parapet appears behind the foliage.  By
those offices, on fine evenings, I find one of our ancients, Captain
Tom Bowline.  Why he favours the road there I do not know.  It would be
a reasonable reason, but occult.  The electric trams and motor buses
annoy him.  And not one of the young stokers and deck-hands just ashore
and paid off, or else waiting at a likely corner for news of a ship,
could possibly know the skipper and his honourable records.  They do
not know that once, in that office, Tom was a famous and respected
figure.  There he stands at times, outside the place which knew him
well, but has forgotten him, wearing his immemorial reefer jacket, his
notorious tall white hat and his humorous trousers--short, round,
substantial columns--with a broad line of braid down each leg.

His face is weather-stained still, and though his hair is white, it has
the form of its early black and abundant vitality.  As long ago as 1885
he landed from his last ship, and has been with us since, watching the
landmarks go.  "The sea," he said to me once, "the sea has gone.  When
I look down this road and see it so empty--(the simple truth is it was
noisy with traffic)--I feel I've overstayed my time allowance.  My
ships are firewood and wreckage, my owners are only funny portraits in
offices that run ten-thousand-ton steamers, and the boys are bones.
Poplar?  This isn't Poplar.  I feel like Robinson Crusoe--only I can't
find a footprint in the place."

It is for the young to remember there is no decay, though change,
sometimes called progress, resembles it, especially when your work is
finished and you are only waiting and looking on.  When Captain Tom is
in that mood we go to smoke a pipe at a dockhead.  It will be high tide
if we are in luck, and the sun will be going down to give our River
majesty, and a steamer will be backing into the stream, outward bound.
The quiet of a fine evening for Tom, and the great business of ships
and the sea for me.  We see the steamer's captain and its pilot leaning
over the bridge, looking aft towards the River.  I think the size of
their vessel is a little awful to Tom.  He never had to guide so many
thousand tons of steel and cargo into a crowded waterway.  But those
two young fellows above know nothing of the change; they came with it.
They are under their spell, thinking their world, as once Tom did his,
established and permanent.  They are keeping easy pace with the
movement, and so do not know of it.  Tom, now at rest, sitting on a
pierhead bollard, sees the world leaving him, going ahead past his
cogitating tobacco smoke.  Let it go.  We, watching quietly from our
place on the pier-head, are wiser than the moving world in one respect.
We know it does not know whence it is moving, nor why.  Well, perhaps
its presiding god, who is determined the world shall go round, would be
foolish to tell us.

The sun has dropped behind the black serration of the western city.
Now the River with all the lower world loses substance, becomes
vaporous and unreal.  Moving so fast then?  But the definite sky
remains, a hard dome of glowing saffron based on thin girders of iron
clouds.  The heaven alone is trite and plain.  The wharves, the
factories, the ships, the docks, all the material evidence of hope and
industry, merge into a dim spectral show in which a few lights burn,
fumbling with ineffectual beams in dissolution.  Out on the River a
dark body moves past; it has bright eyes, and hoots dismally as it goes.

There is a hush, as though at sunset the world had really resolved, and
had stopped moving.  But from the waiting steamer looming over us, a
gigantic and portentous bulk, a thin wisp of steam hums from a pipe,
and hangs across the vessel, a white wraith.  Yet the hum of the steam
is too subdued a sound in the palpable and oppressive dusk to be
significant.  Then a boatswain's pipe rends the heavy dark like the
gleam of a sword, and a great voice, awed by nothing, roars from the
steamer's bridge.  There is a sudden commotion, we hear the voice
again, and answering cries, and by us, towards the black chasm of the
River in which hover groups of moving planets, the mass of the steamer
glides, its pale funnel mounting over us like a column.  Out she goes,
turning broadside on, a shadow sprinkled with stars, then makes slow
way down stream, a travelling constellation occulting one after another
all the fixed lights.

Captain Tom knocks out his pipe on the heel of his boot, his eyes still
on the lights of the steamer.  "Well," says Tom, "they can still do it.
They don't want any help old Tom could give aboard her.  A good man
there.  Where's she bound for, I wonder?"

Now who could tell him that? What a question to ask me.  Did Tom ever
know his real destination? Not he!  And have I not watched Dockland
itself in movement under the sun, easily mobile, from my window in its
midst?  Whither was it bound?  Why should the old master mariner expect
the young to answer that?  He is a lucky navigator who always finds his
sky quite clear, and can set his course by the signs of unclouded
heavenly bodies, and so is sure of the port to which his steering will
take him.



IV. The Heart's Desire.

If the evening was one of those which seem longer than usual but still
have far to go, it was once a custom in Millwall to find a pair of
boots of which it could be claimed that it was time they were mended,
and to carry the artful parcel around to Mr. Pascoe.  His cobbler's
shop was in a street that had the look of having retired from the hurry
and press of London, aged, dispirited, and indifferent even to its
defeat, and of waiting vacantly for what must come to elderly and
shabby despondence.  Each grey house in the street was distinguished
but by its number and the ornament which showed between the muslin
curtains of its parlour window.  The home of the Jones's had a
geranium, and so was different from one neighbour with a ship's model
in gypsum, and from the other whose sign was a faded photograph askew
in its frame.  On warm evenings some of the women would be sitting on
their doorsteps, watching with dull faces their children at play, as if
experience had told them more than they wanted to know, but that they
had nothing to say about it.  Beyond this street there was emptiness.
It ended, literally, on a blind wall.  It was easy for a wayfarer to
feel in that street that its life was caught.  It was secluded from the
main stream, and its children were a lively yet merely revolving eddy.
They could not get out.  When I first visited Mr. Pascoe, as there was
no window ornament to distinguish his place from the others, and his
number was missing, I made a mistake, and went next door.  Through a
hole drilled in that wrong door a length of cord was pendant, with a
greasy knot at its end.  Underneath the knot was chalked "Pull."  I
pulled.  The door opened on a mass of enclosed night.  From the street
it was hard to see what was there, so I went inside.  What was there
might have been a cavern--narrow, obscure, and dangerous with dim
obstructions.  Some of the shadows were darker than others, because the
cave ended, far-off, on a port-light, a small square of day framed in
black.  Empty space was luminous beyond that cave.  Becoming used to
the gloom I saw chains and cordage hanging from the unseen roof.  What
was faintly like the prow of a boat shaped near.  Then out from the
lumber and suggestions of things a gnome approached me.  "Y' want ole
Pascoe?  Nex' dore, guv'nor!"  At that moment, in the square of bright
day at the end of the darkness, the apparition of a ship silently
appeared, and was gone again before my surprise.  That open space
beyond was London River.

Next door, in a small room to which day and night were the same, Mr.
Pascoe was always to be found bending over his hobbing foot, under a
tiny yellow fan of gaslight which could be heard making a tenuous
shrilling whenever the bootmaker looked up, and ceased riveting.  When
his head was bent over his task only the crown of a red and matured
cricketing cap, which nodded in time to his hammer, was presented to
you.  When he paused to speak, and glanced up, he showed a face that
the gas jet, with the aid of many secluded years, had tinctured with
its own artificial hue, a face puckered through a long frowning intent
on old boots.  He wore an apron that had ragged gaps in it.  He was a
frail and dingy little man, and might never have had a mother, but
could have been born of that dusty workroom, to which he had been a
faithful son all his life.  It was a murky interior shut in from the
day, a litter of petty tools and nameless rubbish on a ruinous bench, a
disorder of dilapidated boots, that mean gas jet, a smell of leather;
and there old Pascoe's hammer defiantly and rapidly attacked its
circumstances, driving home at times, and all unseen, more than those
rivets.  If he rose to rake over his bench for material or a tool, he
went spryly, aided by a stick, but at every step his body heeled over
because one leg was shorter than the other.  Having found what he
wanted he would wheel round, with a strange agility that was apparently
a consequence of his deformity, continuing his discourse, and driving
his points into the air with his hammer, and so hobble back, still
talking; still talking through his funny cap, as his neighbours used to
say of him.  At times he convoluted aerial designs and free ideas with
his hammer, spending it aloft on matters superior to boots.  The boots
were never noticed.  Pascoe could revivify his dust.  The glitter of
his spectacles when he looked up might have been the sparkling of an
ardent vitality suppressed in his little body.

The wall space of his room was stratified with shelves, where half-seen
bottles and nondescript lumps were to be guessed at, like fossils
embedded in shadow.  They had never been moved, and they never would
be.  Hanging from a nail on one shelf was a framed lithograph of the
ship _Euterpe_, off S. Catherine's Point, July 21, 1849.  On the shelf
below the picture was a row of books.  I never saw Pascoe look at them,
and they could have been like the bottles, retained by a careful man
because of the notion that some day they would come in handy.  Once,
when waiting for Pascoe, who was out getting a little beer, I glanced
at the volumes, and supposed they bore some relation to the picture of
the ship; perhaps once they had been owned by that legendary brother of
Pascoe's, a sailor, of whom I had had a misty apprehension.  It would
be difficult to say there had been a direct word about him.  There were
manuals on navigation, seamanship, and ship-building, all of them
curiosities, in these later days, rather than expert guides.  They were
full of marginal notes, and were not so dusty as I had expected to find
them.  The rest of the books were of journeys in Central America and
Mexico: _Three Years in Guatemala_; _The Buried Cities of Yucatan_;
_Scenes on the Mosquito Coast_; _A Voyage to Honduras_.  There was more
of it, and of that sort.  They were by authors long forgotten; but
those books, too, looked as though they were often in use.  Certainly
they could not be classed with the old glue-pots and the lumber.

It was long after my first visit to Pascoe that he referred to those
books.  "Somebody told me," he said one evening, while offering me a
share of his beer, "that you have been to the American tropics."

I told him I could say I had been, but little more.  I said it was a
very big world.

"Yes," he said, after a pause: "and what a world.  Think of those
buried cities in Yucatan--lost in the forest, temples and gods and
everything.  Men and women there, once upon a time, thinking they were
a fine people, the only great people, with a king and princesses and
priests who made out they knew the mysteries, and what God was up to.
And there were processions of girls with fruit and flowers on
feast-days, and soldiers in gold armour.  All gone, even their big
notions.  Their god hasn't got even a name now.  Have you ever read the
_Companions of Columbus_?"

I was as surprised as though one of his dim bottles in the shadows had
suddenly glowed before my eyes, become magical with moving opalescence.
What right had old Pascoe to be staring like that to the land and
romance of the Toltecs?  I had been under the impression that he read
nothing but the Bible and _Progress and Poverty_.  There was a
biography of Bradlaugh, too, which he would quote copiously, and his
spectacles used fairly to scintillate over that, and his yellow face to
acquire a new set of cunning and ironic puckers; for I believe he
thought, when he quoted Bradlaugh--whose name was nearly all I knew of
that famous man--that he was becoming extremely modern, and a little
too strong for my conventional and sensitive mind.  But here he was,
telling of Incas, Aztecs, and Toltecs, of buried cities, of forgotten
treasures, though mainly of the mind, of Montezuma, of the quetzal
bird, and of the vanished splendour of nations that are now but a few
weathered stones.  It was the forlorn stones, lost in an uninhabited
wilderness, to which he constantly returned.  A brother of his, who had
been there, perhaps had dropped a word once into Pascoe's ear while his
accustomed weapon was uplifted over a dock-labourer's boot-heel, and
this was what that word had done.  Pascoe, with a sort of symbolic
gesture, rose from his bobbing foot before me, tore the shoe from it,
flung it contemptuously on the floor, and approached me with a
flamboyant hammer.

And that evening I feared for a moment that Pascoe was spoiled for me.
He had admitted me to a close view of some secret treasured charms of
his memory, and believing that I was not uninterested, now, of course,
he would be always displaying, for the ease of his soul, supposing we
had a fellowship and a bond, his fascinating quetzals and Toltecs.  Yet
I never heard any more about them.  There was another subject though,
quite homely, seeing where we both lived, and equally absorbing for us
both.  He knew our local history, as far as our ships and house-flags
were concerned, from John Company's fleet to the _Macquarie_.  He knew,
by reputation, many of our contemporary master mariners.  He knew, and
how he had learned it was as great a wonder as though he spoke Chinese,
a fair measure of naval architecture.  He could discuss ships' models
as some men would Greek drama.  He would enter into the comparative
merits of rig suitable for small cruising craft with a particularity
which, now and then, gave me a feeling almost akin to alarm; because in
a man of Pascoe's years this fond insistence on the best furniture for
one's own little ship went beyond fair interest, and became the
day-dreaming of romantic and rebellious youth.  At that point he was
beyond my depth.  I had forgotten long ago, though but half Pascoe's
age, what my ship was to be like, when I got her at last.  Knowing she
would never be seen at her moorings, I had, in a manner of speaking,
posted her as a missing ship.

One day I met at his door the barge-builder into whose cavernous loft I
had stumbled on my first visit to Pascoe.  He said it was a fine
afternoon.  He invited me in to inspect a figure-head he had purchased.
"How's the old 'un?" he asked, jerking a thumb towards the bootmaker's.
Then, with some amused winking and crafty tilting of his chin, he
signed to me to follow him along his loft.  He led me clean through the
port-light of his cave, and down a length of steps outside to his yard
on the foreshore of the Thames, where, among his barges hauled up for
repairs, he paused by a formless shape covered by tarpaulins.

"I've seen a few things in the way of boats, but this 'ere's a--well,
what do you make of it?"  He pulled the tarpaulin back, and disclosed a
vessel whose hull was nearing completion.  I did not ask if it was
Pascoe's work.  It was such an amusing and pathetic surprise, that,
with the barge-builder's leering face turned to me waiting for my
guess, there was no need to answer.  "He reckons," said the
barge-builder, "that he can do a bit of cruising about the mouth of the
Thames in that.  'Bout all she wants now is to have a mast fitted, and
to keep the water out, and she'll do."  He chuckled grimly.  Her lines
were crude, and she had been built up, you could see, as Pascoe came
across timber that was anywhere near being possible.  Her strakes were
a patchwork of various kinds of wood, though when she was tarred their
diversity would be hidden from all but the searching of the elements.
It was astonishing that Pascoe had done so well.  It was still more
astonishing that he should think it would serve.

"I've given him a hand with it," remarked the barge-builder, "an' more
advice than the old 'un 'ud take.  But I dessay 'e could potter about
with the dam' tub round about as far as Canvey, if 'e keeps it out of
the wash of the steamers.  He's been at this job two years now, and I
shan't be sorry to see my yard shut of it. . . .  Must humour the old
boy, though. . . . Nigglin' job, mending boots, I reckon.  If I mended
boots, I'd 'ave to let orf steam summow.  Or go on the booze."

I felt hurt that Pascoe had not taken me into his confidence, and that
his ship, so far as I was concerned, did not exist.  One Saturday
evening, when I called, his room was in darkness.  Striking a match,
there was his apron shrouding his hobbing foot.  This had never
happened before, and I turned into the barge-builder's.  The proprietor
there faced me silently for a moment, treasuring a jest he was going to
give me when I was sufficiently impatient for it.  "Come to see whether
your boots are done?  Well, they ain't.  Pascoe's gone.  Christened his
boat this morning, and pushed off.  Gone for a trial trip.  Gone down
river."

"Good Lord," I said, or something of the sort.

"Yes," continued the barge-builder, luxuriating in it, "and I've often
wondered what name he'd give her, and he done it this morning, in gold
leaf.  D'yer remember what she looked like?  All right.  Well, 'er name
is the _Heart's Desire_, and her skipper will be back soon, if she
don't fall apart too far off."

Her skipper was not back soon, nor that day.  We had no news of him the
next day.  A few women were in his workshop, when I called, hunting
about for footwear that should have been repaired and returned, but was
not.  "'Ere they are," cried one.  "'Ere's young Bill's boots, and
nothing done to 'em.  The silly old fool.  Why didn't 'e tell me 'e was
going to sea?  'Ow's young Bill to go to school on Monday now?"  The
others found their boots, all urgently wanted, and all as they were
when Pascoe got them.  A commination began of light-minded cripples who
took in young and innocent boots, promising them all things, and then
treacherously abandoned them, to do God knew what; and so I left.

This became serious; for old Pascoe, with his _Heart's Desire_, had
vanished, like his Toltecs.  A week went by.  The barge-builder, for
whom this had now ceased to be a joke, was vastly troubled by the
complete disappearance of his neighbour, and shook his head over it.
Then a few lines in an evening paper, from a port on the Devon coast,
looked promising, though what they wished to convey was not quite
clear, for it was a humorous paragraph.  But the evidence was strong
enough for me, and on behalf of the barge-builder and a few others I
went at once to that west-coast harbour.

It was late at night when I arrived, and bewildering with rain, total
darkness, and an upheaval of cobbles in by-ways that wandered to no
known purpose.  But a guide presently brought me to a providential
window, and quarters in the _Turk's Head_.  In my room I could hear a
continuous murmuring, no doubt from the saloon bar below, and
occasional rounds of hearty merriment.  That would be the place for
news, and I went down to get it.  An oil-lamp veiled in tobacco smoke
was hanging from a beam of a sooty ceiling.  A congregation of
longshoremen, visible in the blue mist and smoky light chiefly because
of their pink masks, was packed on benches round the walls.  They
laughed aloud again as I went in.  They were regarding with indulgent
interest and a little shy respect an elegant figure overlooking them,
and posed negligently against the bar, on the other side of which
rested the large bust of a laughing barmaid.  She was as amused as the
men.  The figure turned to me as I entered, and stopped its discourse
at once.  It ran a hand over its white brow and curly hair with a
gesture of mock despair.  "Why, here comes another to share our _Hearts
Desire_.  We can't keep the beauty to ourselves."

It was young Hopkins, known to every reader of the _Morning Despatch_
for his volatility and omniscience.  It was certainly not his business
to allow any place to keep its secrets to itself; indeed, his
reputation including even a capacity for humour, the world was
frequently delighted with more than the place itself knew even in
secret.  Other correspondents from London were also in the room.  I saw
them vaguely when Hopkins indicated their positions with a few graceful
flourishes of his hand.  They were lost in Hopkins's assurance of
occupying superiority.  They were looking on.  "We all got here
yesterday," explained Hopkins.  "It's a fine story, not without its
funny touches.  And it has come jolly handy in a dull season when
people want cheering up.  We have found the Ancient Mariner.  He was
off voyaging again but his ship's magic was washed out by heavy
weather.  And while beer is more plentiful than news, we hope to keep
London going with some wonders of the deep."

In the morning, before the correspondents had begun on the next
instalment of their serial story, I saw Pascoe sitting up in a bed at
another inn, his expenses an investment of the newspaper men.  He was
unsubdued.  He was even exalted.  He did not think it strange to see me
there, though it was not difficult to guess that he had his doubts
about the quality of the publicity he had attracted, and of the motive
for the ardent attentions of his new and strange acquaintances from
London.  "Don't be hard on me," he begged, "for not telling you more in
London.  But you're so cautious and distrustful.  I was going to tell
you, but was uncertain what you'd say.  Now I've started and you can't
stop me.  I've met a man here named Hopkins, who has given me some help
and advice.  As soon as my craft is repaired, I'm off again.  It was
unlucky to meet that sou'wester in July.  But once out of home waters,
I ought to be able to pick up the Portuguese trade wind off Finisterre,
and then I'm good for the Caribbees.  I'll do it.  She should take no
more than a fortnight to put right."

There was no need to argue with him.  The _Heart's Desire_, a centre of
attraction in the place, answered any doubt I had as to Pascoe's
safety.  But he was humoured.  Hopkins humoured him, even openly
encouraged him.  The Heart's Desire was destined for a great adventure.
The world was kept in anticipation of the second departure for this
strange voyage to Guatemala.  The _Heart's Desire_ on the edge of a
ship-repairer's yard, was tinkered, patched, refitted, made as right as
she could be.  The ship-repairer, the money for the work made certain
for him, did what he was told, but made no comment, except to
interrogate me curiously when I was about.

A spring tide, with a southerly wind, brought us to a natural
conclusion.  An unexpected lift of the water washed off the _Heart's
Desire_, rolled her about, and left her broken on the mud.  I met the
journalists in a group on their way to the afternoon train, their faces
still reflecting the brightness of an excellent entertainment.  Hopkins
took me aside.  "I've made it right with old Pascoe.  He hasn't lost
anything by it, you can be sure of that."  But I was looking for the
cobbler, and all I wished to learn was the place where I was likely to
find him.  They did not know that.

Late that evening I was still looking for him, and it had been raining
for hours.  The streets of the village were dark and deserted.  Passing
one of the many inns, which were the only illumination of the village,
I stumbled over a shadow on the cobbles outside.  In the glow of a
match I found Pascoe, drunk, with his necessary stick beside him,
broken.



V. The Master

This master of a ship I remember first as a slim lad, with a shy smile,
and large hands that were lonely beyond his outgrown reefer jacket.
His cap was always too small for him, and the soiled frontal badge of
his line became a coloured button beyond his forelock.  He used to come
home occasionally--and it was always when we were on the point of
forgetting him altogether.  He came with a huge bolster in a cab, as
though out of the past and nowhere.  There is a tradition, a book
tradition, that the boy apprenticed to the sea acquires saucy eyes, and
a self-reliance always ready to dare to that bleak extreme the very
thought of which horrifies those who are lawful and cautious.  They
know better who live where the ships are.  He used to bring his young
shipmates to see us, and they were like himself.  Their eyes were
downcast.  They showed no self-reliance.  Their shyness and politeness,
when the occasion was quite simple, were absurdly incommensurate even
with modesty.  Their sisters, not nearly so polite, used to mock them.

As our own shy lad was never with us for long, his departure being as
abrupt and unannounced as his appearance, we could willingly endure
him.  But he was extraneous to the household.  He had the impeding
nature of a new and superfluous piece of furniture which is in the way,
yet never knows it, and placidly stays where it is, in its wooden
manner, till it is placed elsewhere.  There was a morning when, as he
was leaving the house, during one of his brief visits to his home, I
noticed to my astonishment that he had grown taller than myself.  How
had that happened?  And where?  I had followed him to the door that
morning because, looking down at his cap which he was nervously
handling, he had told me he was going then to an examination.  About a
week later he announced, in a casual way, that he had got his masters
ticket.  After the first shock of surprise, caused by the fact that
this information was an unexpected warning of our advance in years, we
were amused, and we congratulated him.  Naturally he had got his
certificate as master mariner.  Why not?  Nearly all the mates we knew
got it, sooner or later.  That was bound to come.  But very soon after
that he gave us a genuine surprise, and made us anxious.  He informed
us, as casually, that he had been appointed master to a ship; a very
different matter from merely possessing the licence to command.

We were even alarmed.  This was serious.  He could not do it.  He was
not the man to make a command for anything.  A fellow who, not so long
ago, used to walk a mile with a telegram because he had not the
strength of character to face the lady clerk in the post office round
the corner, was hardly the man to overawe a crowd of hard characters
gathered by chance from Tower Hill, socialize them, and direct them
successfully in subduing the conflicting elements of a difficult
enterprise.  Not he.  But we said nothing to discourage him.

Of course, he was a delightful fellow.  He often amused us, and he did
not always know why.  He was frank, he was gentle, but that large
vacancy, the sea, where he had spent most of his young life, had made
him--well, slow.  You know what I mean.  He was curiously innocent of
those dangers of great cities which are nothing to us because we know
they are there.  Yet he was always on the alert for thieves and
parasites.  I think he enjoyed his belief in their crafty omnipresence
ashore.  Proud of his alert and knowing intelligence, he would relate a
long story of the way he had not only frustrated an artful shark, but
had enjoyed the process in perfect safety.  That we, who rarely went
out of London, never had such adventures, did not strike him as worth a
thought or two.  He never paused in his merriment to consider the
strange fact that to him, alone of our household, such wayside
adventures fell.  With a shrewd air he would inform us that he was
about to put the savings of a voyage into an advertised trap which a
country parson would have stepped over without a second contemptuous
glance,

He took his ship away.  The affair was not discussed at home, though
each of us gave it some private despondency.  We followed him silently,
apprehensively, through the reports in the _Shipping Gazette_.  He made
point after point safely--St. Vincent, Gibraltar, Suez, Aden--after him
we went across to Colombo, Singapore, and at length we learned that he
was safe at Batavia.  He had got that steamer out all right.  He got
her home again, too.  After his first adventure as master he made
voyage after voyage with no more excitement in them than you would find
in Sunday walks in a suburb.  It was plain luck; or else navigation and
seamanship were greatly overrated arts.

A day came when he invited me to go with him part of his voyage.  I
could leave the ship at Bordeaux.  I went.  You must remember that we
had never seen his ship.  And there he was, walking with me to the dock
from a Welsh railway station, a man in a cheap mackintosh, with an
umbrella I will not describe, and he was carrying a brown paper parcel.
He was appropriately crowned with a bowler hat several sizes too small
for him.  Glancing up at his profile, I actually wondered whether the
turmoil was now going on in his mind over that confession which now he
was bound to make; that he was not the master of a ship, and never had
been.

There she was, a bulky modern freighter, full of derricks and
time-saving appliances, and her funnel lording it over the
neighbourhood.  The man with the parcel under his arm led me up the
gangway.  I was not yet convinced.  I was, indeed, less sure than ever
that he could be the master of this huge community of engines and men.
He did not accord with it.

We were no sooner on deck than a man in uniform, grey-haired, with a
seamed and resolute face, which any one would have recognized at once
as a sailor's, approached us.  He was introduced as the chief officer.
He had a tale of woe: trouble with the dockmaster, with the stevedores,
with the cargo, with many things.  He did not appear to know what to do
with them.  He was asking this boy of ours.

The skipper began to speak.  At that moment I was gazing at the funnel,
trying to decipher a monogram upon it; but I heard a new voice, rapid
and incisive, sure of its subject, resolving doubts, and making the
crooked straight.  It was the man with the brown paper parcel.  That
was still under his arm--in fact, the parcel contained pink pyjamas,
and there was hardly enough paper.  The respect of the mate was not
lessened by this.

The skipper went to gaze down a hatchway.  He walked to the other side
of the ship, and inspected something there.  Conned her length, called
up in a friendly but authoritative way to an engineer standing by an
amid-ship rail above.  He came back to the mate, and with an easy
precision directed his will on others, through his deputy, up to the
time of sailing.  He beckoned to me, who also, apparently, was under
his august orders, and turned, as though perfectly aware that in this
place I should follow him meekly, in full obedience.

Our steamer moved out at midnight, in a drive of wind and rain.  There
were bewildering and unrelated lights about us.  Peremptory challenges
were shouted to us from nowhere.  Sirens blared out of dark voids.  And
there was the skipper on the bridge, the lad who caused us amusement at
home, with this confusion in the dark about him, and an immense
insentient mass moving with him at his will; and he had his hands in
his pockets, and turned to tell me what a cold night it was.  The
pier-head searchlight showed his face, alert, serene, with his brows
knitted in a little frown, and his underlip projecting as the sign of
the pride of those who look direct into the eyes of an opponent, and
care not at all.  In my berth that night I searched for a moral for
this narrative, but went to sleep before I found it.

VI. The Ship-Runners

1

The _Negro Boy_ tavern is known by few people in its own parish, for it
is a house with nothing about it to distinguish its fame to those who do
not know that a man may say to his friend, when their ships go different
ways out of Callao, "I may meet you at the _Negro Boy_ some day."  It is
in a road which returns to the same point, or near to it, after a
fatiguing circuit of the Isle of Dogs.  No part of the road is better
than the rest.  It is merely a long road.  That day when I first heard of
Bill Purdy I was going to the tavern hoping to meet Macandrew, Chief of
the _Medea_.  His ship was in again.  But there was nobody about.  There
was nothing in sight but the walls, old, sad, and discreet, of the yards
where ships are repaired.  The dock warehouses opposite the tavern
offered me their high backs in a severer and apparently an endless
obduracy.  The _Negro Boy_, as usual, was lost and forlorn, but resigned
to its seclusion from the London that lives, having stood there long
enough to learn that nothing can control the ways of changing custom.
Its windows were modest and prim in green curtains.  Its only adornment
was the picture, above its principal door, of what once was a negro boy.
This picture now was weathered into a faded plum-coloured suit and a pair
of silver shoe-buckles--there was nothing left of the boy himself but the
whites of his eyes.  The tavern is placed where men moving in the new
ways of a busy and adventurous world would not see it, for they would not
be there.  Its dog Ching was asleep on the mat of the portico to the
saloon bar; a Chinese animal, in colour and mane resembling a lion whose
dignity has become sullenness through diminution.  He could doze there
all day, and never scare away a chance customer.  None would come.  But
men who had learned to find him there through continuing to trade to the
opposite dock, would address him with some familiar and insulting words,
and stride over him.

The tavern is near one of the wicket gates of the irregular intrusion
into the city of a maze of dock basins, a gate giving those who know the
district a short cut home from the ships and quays; the tavern was sited
not altogether without design.  And there came Macandrew through that
gate, just as I had decided I must try again soon.  His second, Hanson,
was with him.  They crossed to the public-house, and we stooped over the
yellow lump of Chinese apathy to talk to him, and went through the swing
doors into the saloon.  The saloon was excluded from the gaze of the rest
of the house by little swinging screens of frosted glass above the bar,
for that was where old friends of the landlord met, who had known him all
the time their house-flags had been at home in the neighbouring docks;
and perhaps had even sailed with him when be himself went to sea.  A
settee in red plush, salvage from the smoke-room of a liner, ran round
the walls, with the very mahogany tables before it which it knew when
afloat.  Some men in dingy uniforms and dungarees were at the tables.
Two men I did not know stood leaning over the bar talking confidentially
across it to a woman who was only a laugh, for she was hidden.  One of
the men turned from the counter to see who had come in.

"Hullo Mac," he cried, in a voice hearty with the abandon of one who,
perhaps, had been there long enough; "look here, here's Jessie says she's
going to leave us."

A woman's hand, spoiled by many heavy rings, moved across the counter and
shook his arm in warning.  The youngster merely closed his own hand over
it.  "Isn't it hard.  Really going to forsake us.  Won't mix your whiskey
or uncork my lemonade any more.  What are we going to do when we come
home now?"

There was an impatient muttering beyond him, and he made public a
soothing and exaggerated apology.  All the men in the room, even the
group bent over a diagram of a marine engine they had drawn in chalk on
their table, looked up in surprise, first at the youngster who had raised
his voice, and then to watch the tall shadow of a woman pass quickly down
the counter-screen and vanish.  Still laughing, the young man, with his
uniform cap worn a little too carelessly, nodded to the company, and went
out with his companion.

Macandrew stared in contempt at the back of the fellow as he went.  "A
nice boy that.  Too bright and bonny for my ship.  What's that he was
saying about Jessie?"  He tried to see where she was, and lowered his
voice.  "I know his kind.  I saw them together last night, in the Dock
Road.  What does she have anything to do with him for? We know her of
course . . . but even then. . . .  She's really not a bad sort.  She's
like that with all those young dogs.  Can't help it, I suppose."

He moved to the bar, a massive figure, beyond the age of a sea-going
engineer, but still as light on his feet as a girl.  "Where's she gone?"
He pushed open one of the little glass screens, and put his petulant
face, with its pale eyes set like aquamarines in bronze, into an opening
too small to frame it.  "Can you see her, Hanson?"

Hanson winked at me, adjusted the spectacles on his nose, and grinned.
With that grin, and his spectacles, he was as surprising as a handsome
gargoyle.  His height compelled him to lean forward and to grin downward,
even when speaking to a big man like Macandrew.  He turned to his chief
now, and both hands went up to his spectacles.  In the way the corners of
his mouth turned up before he spoke, whimsically wrinkling his nose, and
in his intent and amused regard, there was a suggestion of the mockery of
a low immortal for beings who are fated earnestly to frustrate
themselves.  His grin gave you the uncomfortable feeling that it was
useless to pretend you were keeping nothing from him.

"Here goes," said Hanson.  "Never mind Jessie.  I've got something to
tell you, Chief.  I'm leaving you this voyage."

Macandrew was instantly annoyed.  "Going?  Dammit, you can't.  Look at
the crowd I've got now.  You mustn't do it."

"I must.  They are a thin lot, but you could push the old _Medea_ along
with anything.  I've got another ship.  My reason is very good, from the
way I look at it."

Hanson turned his grin to me.  He was going to enjoy the privilege of
seeing his reasons deemed unreasonable.  "Don't think it's a better job
I've got.  It's worse.  It's a very rummy voyage.  We may complete it,
with luck.  It's a boat-running lunacy, and some mining gear.  She's
called the _Cygnet_.  I've been over her, and we shall call her something
different before we see the last of her."

"Then why are you going?" I asked him.

"To see what will happen. . . ."

Macandrew interrupted him.  "What?  And you next on the list for Chief?
You're romantic, young man, and that means you're no engineer.  Is there
a lot of money in it?"

"There isn't, but there's some life.  I want to know what I'm made of.
Shall I ever learn it under you?  Down below in the _Medea_ is like
winding up a clock and going to sleep.  Do you know the _Cygnet_ has six
inches of freeboard?"  He was talking to me, but kept glancing sideways
to see what effect this had on Macandrew.  But Macandrew's broad back was
impassive.

"Six inches of freeboard, barring her false bulwarks of deal boards, and
she's going out to--I forget the name of the place, but I could show you
where it is within a hundred miles on a map that doesn't give its name.
It's up the Pondurucu."

Macandrew made no sign, and Hanson, his humour a little damped, spoke
more seriously.  "I don't think she'll ever get there, but it will be
interesting to see where she stops, and why."

Macandrew heaved round on his junior.  "There's drivel.  It sounds well
from an engineer and a mathematician, doesn't it?"  He turned away again.
"Supposing," he said, over his shoulder, "supposing you pull this ship
through all right, then where will you be?  Any better off?"

"I think so," said Hanson.  He couldn't talk to Macandrew's back, so he
bent over me and pointed a challenging finger at my necktie.  "I've never
risked anything yet, not even my job.  This is where I do it.  It'll be
nice to attempt something when the odds are that you can't finish it, and
there's nothing much in it if you do.  Why," he said, grinning at his
Chief's back, "if I were to stay with him I'd become so normal that I'd
slip into marriage and safety as a matter of course, and have to give up
everything."

"Who's in charge of this lunacy?" asked Macandrew.  His voice was a
little truculent.

"All right, Chief.  I shan't remember his name any the better because
you're annoyed with me.  I haven't seen the skipper yet.  I think I heard
him called Purdy."

"Purdy?  Bill Purdy?" Macandrew was incredulous.  "Do you know what
you've let yourself in for?  If Purdy's got the job, I know why.  Nobody
else would take it, and he's the last man, anyway, who ought to have it."

"What, drink?" asked Hanson.

"Lord, no.  Not Purdy.  No.  It's the man himself.  I've known him a long
time, and I like him, but he'll never do.  He can't make up his mind to a
course.  Don't you remember the _Campeachy_ case? I expect it was before
your time.  Purdy had her.  He was coming up-Channel, and got nervous
over the weather, and put into Portland for a pilot.  There was no pilot.
So he decided to put out again and go on.  It never occurred to him that
as he was in shelter he'd better stay there till a pilot arrived, because
getting out of that was exactly when he'd want one.  He put her ashore.
That was like Purdy, to play for safety and make a wreck.  When he got
over the fuss Lloyd's raised about it he refused to take command again
for some time.  He couldn't even make up his mind whether he wanted a
ship at all."

Hanson listened to this with the air of one who was being reassured in a
doubtful enterprise.

"You mistake me, Chief," he said.  "You are only improving my reasons for
going.  Not only is the ship crank, but so is her skipper.  Now tell me
. . ."

Macandrew frowned at his junior, and his curiously pale eyes became
distinctly inhuman.  I believe he thought his counsel was being laughed
at.  But the door opened, and he touched Hanson's arm.  A little man of
middle age stood there, who turned, and actually prevented the doors from
swinging together with their usual announcement of another customer.  For
only a moment he raised his downcast eyes to see who was there, and then
nodded sadly to Macandrew.  His drooping moustache conformed to the
downward lines of his face, which was that of a man who had been long
observing life with understanding, and had not a lively opinion of it.

Macandrew's demeanour changed.  It was now mild and almost affectionate
as he greeted the little man.  "Come over here, Purdy, and tell us what
you've been doing.  Here's Hanson, this young fellow.  I hear he's
sailing with you.  He's your Chief.  You'd better know him."

Purdy raised his eyes in a grave and momentary survey, made to shake
hands with Hanson, but hesitated, and did so only because Hanson put out
his own great fist with decision.  Purdy did not speak, except to say to
Hanson: "We're signing-on tomorrow.  I'll meet you at the shipping office
then."  He seemed to forget the pair of them, paused, and went to a far
vacant corner of the bar.  The barmaid, as he got there, returned, and
stopped to say something to him.

"Well, I'm damned," muttered Macandrew.  "Look here, Jessie," he cried,
"here's all us young men been waiting for nearly twenty minutes, and you
take no notice of us, but as soon as a captain looks across the counter,
there you are.  But how did you know he was a captain?  That's what I'd
like to know.  He's only wearing a bowler hat."


2

The _Medea_ had been ordered unexpectedly to Barry for loading, to take
the place of an unready sister-ship; and Macandrew, of whom I have had
much experience, would be active, critical of what a dog must put up with
in life, and altogether unfit for intimate, amiable, and reminiscent
conversation.  Yet I wanted to see him again before he left, and went
past the Board of Trade Office hoping for signs of the _Medea_, for I had
heard she was assembling a crew that morning.  But the marine-store
shops, with their tarpaulin suits hanging outside open-armed and
oscillating, looked across to the men lounging against the
shipping-office railings, and the idlers stared across at the tarpaulins.
It did not appear to be a place where anything was destined to happen.
It merely looked like rain.

Macandrew might be inside with his crowd of firemen and greasers.  Behind
the brass grille there a clerk, solitary and absorbed in his duties, bent
over a pile of ships' articles, and presented to the seamen in the public
space beyond him only the featureless shine of a bald head.  The seamen,
scattered about in groups, shabby and listless, with a few of their
officers among them, were as sombre and subdued as though they had
learned life had nothing more to offer them, and they were present only
because they might as well use up the salvage of their days.  The clerk
raised his head and questioned the men before him with a quick, inclusive
glance.  "Any men here of the _Cygnet_?" he demanded.  His voice, raised
in certainty above the casual murmuring of the repressed, made them all
as self-conscious and furtive as though discovered in guilt.  Hanson's
head appeared above the crowd, as he rose from a bench and went to the
official.  "I'm the engineer of the _Cygnet_.  We're waiting for Captain
Purdy."

The clerk complained.  He pulled out his watch.  "He said he would be
ready for me at ten this morning.  Now you've lost your turn, and there
are three other ships."  He turned away in a manner which told every one
that Hanson had now become non-existent, pushed aside the _Cygnet's_
papers, and searched the room once more.  "Ah, good morning, Captain
Hudson.  You ready for me?  Then I'll take you next."  The captain went
around to stand beside the official, and his crew clustered on their side
of the bars, with their caps in their hands.

"A good start that," said Hanson to me.  "Perhaps, after all, we never
shall start.  Must be a rum chap, that Purdy."

He told me the _Medea's_ crowd was there, but perhaps Macandrew had
already signed, and so would not appear.  That meant I might not see him
for another year; but as I left the office I found him coming up its
steps outside, and not as though there were the affairs of a month to be
got into two days, but in leisurely abstraction.  He might have been
making up his mind that, after all, there was no need to call there, for
he was studying each step as if he were looking for the bottom of a
mystery.  His fingers were twirling the little ivory pig he carries as a
charm on his watchguard.  The pig is supposed to assist him when he is in
a difficulty.  He raised his eyes.

"Anyhow," he despaired to me with irrelevance, "I can't do anything for
him."

I waited for the chance of a clue.  "I thought," Macandrew quietly
soliloquized, "he knew better than that.  He's been a failure, but all
the same, he's got a better head than most of us.  She's sure to bring
him to grief."

"What's all this about?" I ventured.

"I've just been talking to Purdy.  You remember what Hanson said of that
voyage he's making?  Purdy is taking Jessie with him.  You don't know
Purdy, but I do.  And I know Jessie; but that's nothing."

"Taking her with him?" I asked; "but how. . . ."

"Oh, cook, of course.  That'll be it.  She'll be steward, naturally.
That's reasonable.  You've seen her.  Jessie's the sort of woman would
jump at the chance of such a pleasant trip, as cook."

"I don't understand. . . ."

"Who said you did?  Nobody does but the pair of them.  I know what
another man might see in Purdy.  But a woman!  He's middle-aged, quiet,
and looks tired.  That woman is young and lively, and she'll be bored to
death with him on such a trip."

"But I thought you said . . ."

"What have I said?  I've said nothing.  Jessie's away to sea as cook.
Why not?  I'm going inside.  Are you coming in?"

Crossing the floor of the office, Hanson caught Macandrew's arm.  "Your
lot are signing-on now."  The master of the _Medea_ was round with the
official tallying the men by the ship's papers.  "I see it," Macandrew
answered.  "I've signed.  I wanted to catch the old man before he began
that job."

"We're hung up for Purdy," Hanson told him.  "Nobody seems to know where
he is."  Hanson was amused.

"Yes.  Well . . . he'll be here all right . . . and now this new job
which you think so funny, young Hanson.  See it goes through.  Presently
it won't be so funny.  Hang on to it then."

Hanson was surprised by this, and a trifle hurt.  He was beginning to
speak, making the usual preliminary adjustment of his spectacles, when a
movement near the door checked him.  His hands remained at his glasses,
as if aiding his sight to certify the unbelievable.

"What's this?" he murmured.  "Here's Purdy.  Isn't that the _Negro Boy's_
barmaid with him . . . is she with him?"  He continued to watch,
apparently for some sign that this coincidence of his captain and a
barmaid in a public office was designed.

The bent gaze of the master of the _Cygnet_ might have noticed the boots
of his engineer, for he took in the room no higher than that.  Then he
came forward with his umbrella, still in contemplation.  It might have
been no more than a coincidence.  She, too, approached, a little behind
him, but obscuring his dull meagreness, for she was a head taller, and a
bold and challenging figure.  Her blond hair distinguished her even more
than the emphasis of her florid hat.  Her pallor that morning refined the
indubious coarseness of her face, and changed vulgarity into the
attractive originality of a spirited character.  Many there knew her, but
she recognized nobody.  She yawned once, in a fair piece of acting, and
in her movements and the poise of her head there was a disdain almost
plain enough to be insolence.  Purdy turned to her, and the strange pair
conferred.  I heard Hanson say to himself: "What on earth."  She left
Purdy, bent her head with a gracious but stressed smile to Macandrew, and
went to the bench by the wall, where she sat, waiting, with her legs
crossed in a way that was a defiance and an attraction in such a place,
where a woman is rarely seen.  She read a newspaper, perhaps because that
acted as a screen, though she turned its pages with a nervous abruptness
which betrayed her imitation of indifference.


3

The _Medea_ and the _Cygnet_, and the other ships I knew which carried
those whose fortunes were some concern of mine, might have sailed over
the edge of the world.  My only communication was with an occasional
familiar name in the reports of the _Shipping List_.  Then Macandrew came
home again.  But it was difficult to meet him.  Mrs. Macandrew told me he
was working by his ship in drydock.  They had had trouble with the
engines that voyage, and she herself had seen little of him, except to
find him, when she came down of a morning, asleep in the drawing-room.
Just flung himself down in the first place, you know.  In those greasy
overalls, too.  He had told her the engine-room looked like a scrap-heap,
but the ship had to be ready for sea in ten days.  Once he had worked
thirty-two hours on end.  Think of that, and he had not been home for six
months.  She would strongly advise any girl not to marry a man who went
to sea, and if I met Macandrew I was to bring him home at once.  Did I
hear?

When I found the _Medea_ it was late in the day, for she was not in the
dry-dock that had been named.  Her Chief had just gone ashore.  There was
a chance that he would have called at the _Negro Boy_, but he had not
been seen there.  Except for the landlord, who was at a table talking to
a stranger, the saloon was empty.  A silk hat was on the table before the
stranger, beside a tankard, and the hat was surmounted by a pair of
neatly folded kid gloves.  "Come over here," said the landlord.  "Sit
here for a bit, Macandrew may come in.  This is Dr. Maslin."  A monocle
fell its length of black cord from the doctor's eye, and he nodded to me.

"The doctor used to be with me when I was running out East," explained
the landlord.  "Where did you say you had come from now, Doctor?  Oh,
yes, Tabacol.  Funny name.  I was never on the South American coast.
After I left you sick at Macassar, the last trip we had together--the old
_Siwalik_--I left the sea to younger men.  But there you are, Doctor.
Still at it.  Why don't you give it up?"

The doctor did not answer, except to make a bubbling noise in his
tankard.  He placed it on the table again delicately and deliberately,
and wiped his grizzled moustache with a crimson silk handkerchief.  He
put up his monocle, and seemed to be intently inspecting a gas globe over
the counter.  I thought his grimace in this concentration came from an
effort to reinforce his will against all curiosity on our part.  But it
appeared he was really looking at what showed, at an angle, of a portrait
on the wall of an inner room.  He could just see it, from where he sat.
Anyhow, the landlord imagined it was the portrait which had caught his
friend's interest.  "Looking at that crayon portrait, Doctor?  Ah, showy
woman, isn't she?  Used to be barmaid here.  The Lord knows where she is
now.  Went to sea, like a fool.  Stewardess, or something worse.  Much
more useful here."

The doctor's seamed face, sour and ironic, made it impossible to know
whether his expression was one of undisguised boredom, or only his show
of conventional politeness.  I began to feel I had broken into the
intimacy of two men whose minds were dissimilar, but friendly through old
associations, and that the doctor's finer wit was reproving me for an
intrusion.  So I rose, and asked indifferently what sort of a place was
Tabacol.  Had he been there before?

"Never," said the doctor, "nor is it the kind of place one wishes to see
twice.  We were kept at Tabacol because so many of our men were down with
fever.  It is a little distance up the Pondurucu River . . . maybe two
hundred miles.  Did you say. . . ?  No.  It is not really out of the way.
An ocean steamer calls at Tabacol once a month or six weeks.  It is only
on the edge of what romantic people call the unknown."

It was evident he thought I could be one of the romantic.  He looked at
me for the first time, twisting the cord of his eyeglass with his finger
and thumb in a fastidious way, and I thought his glance was to dissipate
some doubt he had that he ought to be speaking to me at all.  He dropped
the cord suddenly as if letting go his reserve, and said slyly, with a
grave smile: "Perhaps the romantic think the unknown is worth looking
into because it may be better than what they know.  At Tabacol I used to
think the unknown country beyond it looked even duller than usual.  There
was a forest, a river, a silence, and it was either day or night.  That
was all.  If the voice of Nature is the voice of God. . . ."

The landlord was observing in surprise this conversational excursion by
his old friend, as if it were altogether new to him.  He laughed aloud,
and, putting a consoling hand on his friend's shoulder as he rose, he
told us he must leave us for a few minutes, for he had business.  "Look
more cheerful before I get back, Doctor."

The doctor chuckled, and stretched across to give his gloves a more
satisfactory position on his hat.  "I don't understand what it can be
that attracts people to such a place.  Young men, maybe yourself even,
wish to go there.  Isn't that so?  Yes.  I've met such men in such
places.  Then they did not give me the impression that they were
satisfied with their romance.  Impossible, of course.  Romance is never
in the place unless we put it there, and who would put even a sentimental
dream into such a hole as Tabacol?  Tropical squalor.  Broken people!
I've never seen romance in such a place, and don't expect to. . . ."

Several cabs, on their way to a ship outward bound, made an increasing
noise in the night, rattled by on the cobbles outside, their occupants
roaring a sentimental chorus, and drowned what the doctor was saying.

". . . folly.  Worse than folly."  He was holding his gloves now, and was
lightly flicking the edge of the table with them in place of verbal
emphasis.  He suddenly regarded me again as if he strongly suspected me
of being his antipathy.  "Who but a fool would take a woman to such a
country as that?  Any romantic sentimentalist, I suppose.  I forget the
name of the ship.  There was, you might say, hardly sufficient room to
paint a name on her.  She was no more than a tug.  It was a miracle she
survived to get there at all, for she had crossed from England.  Crossed
the Western ocean in such a craft, and brought a woman with him.  Did
ever you hear of such folly?"

Now I was certain of our whereabouts, and felt a weak inclination to show
an elder that I, too, knew something about it; but when I leaned forward
eagerly and was about to speak, the doctor screwed in that devastating
monocle, and I felt I was only a curious example of the sort of thing he
especially disliked.  For a minute, in which I wondered if I had quite
stopped his guarded flow, he said no more.  Then he addressed his
eyeglass to a panel of the partition, and flicked his gloves at that.

"I had noticed for some days that little craft lying near us, but gave
her no attention.  I had sixteen men to attend to with complexions like
lemons, and one died.  There was no time to bother with other folk's
troubles.  Our skipper, one breakfast-time, told me there was a woman
aboard that little thing, and he'd been asked whether I'd go over.  She
was ill.

"I've seen some queer packets of misery at sea, but never one that
touched that ship.  Her skipper seemed a regular fool.  I had to ask him
to speak up, for he mumbled like a boy who has been caught out, and knows
it is useless to pretend.  I learned from him that he was only just
beginning his voyage.  You understand?  He was just beginning it, there.
He was going up-river, to a point not on the chart.  I cannot make out
now whether he wanted to put that woman ashore to get home in comfort at
the first opportunity, or whether . . . it's impossible to say.  One
would sooner believe the best of another man, with half a chance.  After
all," said the doctor bitterly, "as long as the woman survived I suppose
she was some consolation in misery.

"I scrambled over the deck lumber.  There was hardly room to move.  I
found her in a cabin where she could get little seclusion from the crew.
Hardly any privacy at all, I should say.  As soon as I saw her I could
make a guess . . . however, I told the fellow afterwards what I thought,
and he gave me no answer.  He even turned his back on me.  He must have
known well enough that that river was no place for any sort of white
woman.  He was condemning her perhaps to death just to make an ugly job
more attractive.

"I admit," said the doctor, with a sly glance, "that she could make it
attractive, for a sort of man.  She was wrapped in a rosy dressing-gown.
She held it together with her hands.  I noticed them . . . anybody might
. . . they were covered with rings.  She had character, too.  She made me
feel, the way she looked at me, that I was indiscreet in asking personal
questions.  I could see what was wrong with her.  It was debility, but
all the same the beginning of an end not far off, in that country.

"'You'll have to get out of this,' I told her.

"'Can't be done, Doctor,' she said coolly.

"'It can.  A liner for England will be here in another week, and you must
take it.'

"'I don't,' she said.  She was quiet enough, but she seemed a very wilful
woman.  'I've got my job here.'

"I told her that the skipper of her ship would never carry out his
orders, because they could not be carried out.  I told her, what was
perfectly true, that their craft would rot on a sandbar, or find
cataracts, or that they'd all get eaten by cannibals, or die of something
nasty.  I admit I tried to frighten her.

"'It's no good, Doctor,' she said.  'You can't worry me.  I've got my
work to do in this ship, like the others.'

"'Pooh!' I said to her.  'Cooking and that.  Anybody could do it.  Let
the men do it.  It's not a woman's job.'

"'You're wrong,' she said.  'It's mine.  You don't know.'

"I began to get annoyed with this stubborn creature.  I told her she
would die, if she didn't leave the working of that ship to those who
ought to do it.

"'Who ought?' she asked me, in a bit of a temper.  'I know what I have to
do.  I'm going through with it.  It's no good talking.  I'll take my
chance, like the rest.'

"So I had to tell her that I was there because the master of her ship had
sent for me to give my advice.  My business was to say what she ought to
do.

"'I don't want to be told.  I know,' she said.  'The captain sent for
you.  Talk to him.'

"My temper was going, and I told her that it was something to know the
captain himself had enough sense to send for me.

"'Look here,' she told me.  'I've had enough of this.  I want to be
alone.  Thank you for troubling to come over.'"

The doctor lifted his shoulders, and made a wry face, that might have
been disdain or pity.

"I was leaving her, but she called to me, and I went back.  She held out
her hand.  'I do thank you for troubling about me.  Of course I do.  But
I want to stay on here--I must.'

"'Well, you know the penalty,' I said.  'I was bound to tell you that.'

"'What of it?' she said, and laughed at me.  'We musn't bother about
penalties.  Good-bye!'

"I must say she made me feel that if the skipper of that ship had been of
different metal, she might almost have pulled him through.  But what a
man.  What a man!  I saw his miserable little figure standing not far
from where my boat was when I was going.  He made as if he were coming to
me, and then stopped.  I was going to take no notice of him, but went up
and explained a thing or two.  I'll bet he'll remember them.  All he said
was: 'I was afraid you'd never change her mind,' and turned away.  What a
man!  There was a pair for you.  I could understand him, but what could
have been in her mind?  Whatever made her talk like that?  That's the way
of it.  There's your romance of the tropics, and your squalid Garden of
Eden, when you know it.  A monotonous and dreary job, and a woman."

The landlord returned.  The monocle fixedly and significantly regarded
me.  "Have another, Doctor," said the landlord, pointing to the empty
tankard.  "How long were you in Macassar?"  The doctor turned briskly to
his old friend, and began some chaff.


4

Ferguson, who had just come into port with a damaged propeller shaft, was
telling us how it was.  This was his first expansive experience, and
there could be no doubt the engine-room staff of the _Torrington_ had
behaved very well.  The underwriters had recognized that, and handsomely,
at a special meeting at Cornhill.  Though Ferguson was young for a chief
engineer, his professional elders, who were listening to him, showed some
critical appreciation of the way he solved his problem.  He was sitting
at a table of the _Negro Boy_, drawing a diagram on it, and they stood
round.

"There.  That was where it was.  You see what we had to do.  It would not
have been so bad in calm weather, but we were labouring heavily, all the
way from Savannah.  Our old man did not think it possible to do it.  But
it was no good waiting for something worse to happen."

The matter grew too technical for me.  There was cargo jettisoned, and
ballast tanks emptied aft.  The stern of the _Torrington_ was lifted so
that her propeller at intervals was clear.  Ferguson then went overside
on life-lines.  When he was not submerged, he was trying to put his ship
right again; and when he became exhausted, one of his colleagues took his
place, to see whether, while escaping drowning, he could continue the
work of salvation.  They all escaped, and the _Torrington_ put back to
Tampa for repairs, which her own engineers accomplished.

The demonstration was over, and Ferguson's story was lapsing into general
gossip.  The party of men began to dissolve.

"Who do you think I saw at Tampa?" Ferguson asked Macandrew.  "Old Purdy."

"What?" cried Macandrew.  "Is he alive?"

Ferguson laughed.  "Just about.  What's he been doing?  I thought he had
chucked the sea.  It was in the Customs Office.  I'd been there to make a
declaration, and in one of those long corridors there he stood, all
alone, with his hat in his hand, perhaps cooling his head.  I hardly knew
him.  He's more miserable than ever."

"Did he say anything?" asked Macandrew.

"About as much as usual.  I didn't know him at first.  He seemed rather
ill.  The temples of that high forehead of his were knotted with veins.
It nearly gave me a headache to look at him."

Several of us were impelled to ask a number of questions, but Ferguson
was listening now, with the detachment of youth, to the end of a bawdy
story that two men were laughing over.  This had already displaced Purdy
in his mind.

"Didn't he say anything at all?  Didn't he mention Hanson?" we asked
Ferguson.

"Eh?  What, old Purdy?  I don't think so.  I don't remember.  Now you
mention it, I think I did hear somewhere that Hanson was with Purdy.  But
I don't believe he said anything about him.  I was just going to ask him
to come and have a drink, when he said good-bye.  All I know is I saw him
standing there like a sorrowful saint.  Then he walked off slowly down
the corridor.  He's a sociable beggar.  I couldn't help laughing at him."


5

There was a notice in the window of the _Negro Boy_, and I discovered
that the tavern was under Entirely New Management.  The picture sign over
the principal door had been renewed.  The mythical little figure which
had given the public-house its name was no longer lost in the soot of
half a century.  He was now an obvious negro boy, resplendent in a golden
coat.  The reticence of the green window-curtains had become a bright
vacancy of mirrors, and the tavern was modern within.  Reform had
destroyed the exclusiveness of the saloon bar; instead of privacy,
distant mirrors astonished you with glimpses of your own head which were
incredible and embarrassing in their novelty.  The table-tops were of
white marble supported on gilded iron.  The prints and lithographs of
ships had gone from the walls, and were replaced by real pictures
converted to the advertisement of various whiskies--pictures of
battleships, bull-dogs, Scotsmen, and figures in armour tempted from
their ancient posts in baronial halls, after midnight, to finish the
precious drink forgotten by the guests.  In accordance with this
transformation the young lady in attendance at the bar was in neat black
and white, with her hair as compact and precise as a resolution at a
public meeting which had been passed even by the women present.  She was
severe and decisive, and without recognition of anything there but the
tariff of the house, and sold her refreshments as in a simple yet
exacting ritual which she despised, but knew to be righteous.

It was many months since I had been there.  Macandrew was no nearer than
Rotterdam, and perhaps would not see London that voyage.  There had been
a long period in which change had been at work at the docks, even to
their improvement, but through it all not one of my old friends had
returned home.  They had approached no nearer than Falmouth, the
Hartlepools, or Antwerp, with a slender chance that they would come to
the Thames, and next we heard of them when they were bound outwards once
more, and for a period known not even to their wives.  The new _Negro
Boy_ had not the appearance of a place where I could expect to find a
friend, and I was leaving it again, instantly, when a tall figure rose in
a corner waving a reassuring hand.  I did not recognize the man, but
thought I knew his smile, which made me look at him in dawning hope.  The
grin, evidently knowing its power, was maintained till I saw it
indubitably as Hanson's.  He made a remembered gesture with his
spectacles.  "I was just about sick of this place," he said.  "I've
waited here for an hour hoping somebody would turn up.  Where's Macandrew
now?"

"In Rotterdam.  I don't think he will be home this voyage."

"And what's happened to this house?  Where's the old man?"

"You know all I know about it.  I haven't been here for nearly a year.
We must expect progress to make things better than they were.  Where have
you come from?"

"I'm running between Liverpool and Baltimore now, in the Planets.
They're comfortable ships, but I don't admire the Western ocean.  It's
too savage and cold.  How is Macandrew?  I came up from Liverpool because
I felt I must see him again.  I heard he was here."

From the way he talked, I thought he preferred those subjects requiring
the least effort for a casual occasion.  "Now and then," I had to tell
him, "some of us have wondered what happened to the _Cygnet_."

Hanson's smile became effulgent.  My remark might have reminded him of a
most enjoyable joke, but he made no sign, while enjoying it privately,
that he intended to share it with me at any time.

"There was a _Cygnet_, wasn't there?" he asked, when my patience had
nearly gone.  "I should like somebody to confirm it.  The reason I came
to this house tonight, to be candid, was just to see this room again, to
settle a doubt I had.  Didn't Macandrew stand over there, and show
concern because a fair, plump woman wasn't quick enough with his beer?"

I admitted this, as an encouragement.  "But when I got here tonight,"
continued Hanson, "the change made me feel my mind had lost hold.  I must
say it's a relief to see you."

"Has this anything to do with the _Cygnet_?" I asked.

"Everything.  I had the time of my life.  I wouldn't have missed it for
anything.  But somehow, now and then, I want to be quite sure I had it
myself, and not some other fellow."  He beamed with the very remembrance
of the experience, and nodded his head at me.  He leaned over the table
to me in confidence.  "Have you ever been to the tropics?  I don't mean
calling at Colombo or Rio.  I mean the back of things where there's a
remarkable sun experimenting with low life and hardly anybody looking on.
If ever you get the chance, you take it.  It alters all your ideas of
time and space.  You begin to learn what stuff life is made of when you
see a tropical forest, and see nothing else for months.  On the other
hand," he said, "you become nothing.  You see it doesn't matter to others
what happens to you, and you don't care much what happens to others."

"You don't care?  It doesn't matter?" I said in doubt to this young
mathematician and philosopher, who had been experimenting with life.
"Isn't that merely romantic?"

"Romance--romance be damned!  I got down to the facts."

"Well, get me down to them.  I should like the facts.  I want to hear
what this strange voyage was like."

"As you know," Hanson assured me, "I went out merely to see what would
happen to myself, in certain circumstances.  I knew I was going to be
scared, and I was.  There is a place called Tabacol on the river, and we
anchored there after our ocean passage for more than a week.  I don't
know why, and it was no use asking Purdy.  Probably he didn't know.  I
had made up my mind to make the engines move and stop, whenever ordered,
and then see where we are.  Anyway, after the racket of the sea voyage,
when the engines stopped at Tabacol the utter silence was as if something
which had been waiting there for you at once pounced.  The quiet was of
an awful weight.  I could hardly breathe, and chanced to look at the
thermometer.  It stood at 132 degrees.  I don't know how I got outside,
but when I came to I was on my back on deck, and Jessie was looking after
me.  I remember wondering then how a big, fleshy woman like her could
stand it, and felt almost as sorry for her as I did for myself."

"Did she look ill?"

"Jessie?  Oh, I don't know.  She looked as if she might have been having
a merrier time.  Well, we left Tabacol, and I felt we were leaving
everything we knew behind us.  I got the idea, in the first day on the
river, that we were quite lost, and were only pushing the old _Cygnet_
along to keep up our spirits.  We crawled close under the walls of the
forest.  Our vessel looked about as large and important as a leaf adrift.
That place is so immense that I saw we were going to make no impression
on it.  It wouldn't matter to anybody but ourselves if it swallowed us
up.  On the first day I saw a round head and two yellow eyes in it,
watching us go by.  The thought went through my mind: 'a jaguar.'  The
watching face vanished on the instant, and I always felt afterwards that
the forest knew all about us, but wouldn't let us know anything.  I got
the idea that it wasn't of the least use going on, unless we didn't
intend to treat the job seriously.  If we were serious about it then it
was evident we ought to turn back."

"Didn't the skipper ever say what he thought of it?"

"What could Purdy think, or do?  There was that river, and the forest on
both sides of it, and the sun over us.  Nothing else but the quiet; and
we didn't know where our destination was.  We anchored every evening,
close to the bank.  One evening, as we anchored, a shower of arrows
clattered about us.  There was just one shower, out of the trees, or out
of the clouds."

"What was Jessie doing all this time?" I ventured to ask him.

"Why, what was any one doing?  She wasn't an anxiety of my department.  I
suppose she was there for the only reason I had--because she asked for
it.  It was the same next day, except that instead of more arrows we
found a python in the bunkers.  Came aboard over the hawsers, I suppose.
We were a lively lunatic asylum below while killing it with fire-shovels
and crowbars.  That was what the voyage was like.  The whole lot of it
was the same, and you knew quite well that the farther you went the less
anything mattered.  There were slight variations each day of snakes,
mosquitoes, and fevers, to keep you from feeling dead already."

"I've often wondered," I confessed, thinking to bring Hanson to something
I wanted to hear, "what happened to your company.  Once we had a word of
Purdy, but never of Jessie or of you."

"Well, now I'm telling you.  But you'd have been past wondering if you'd
been with us.  Purdy wasn't companionable.  He'd tell me it was hot.  And
it was.  You could feel that yourself.  Jessie cooked our meals.  Her
galley could have been only a shade better than the engine-room.  She
began to look rather faded.  At last I was the only one who hadn't been
down with fever.  We crawled on and on, and the only question was where
we ourselves would end, for the forest and the river were never going to.
But you didn't care.  I'd never been better in my life, and here was the
thing I'd always wanted to see.  I could have gone on for ever like that,
wondering what we should see round the next corner.

"Our big troubles were to come.  Up to then, we hadn't run into anything
really drastic after turning a corner.  I suppose we had had about a
month of it, and God knows where we were, but we had nobody to ask; and
then we ran on a sandbar.  The jungle met overhead.  We were in what was
only a dark drain through the forest.  So this, I thought, is where we
throw in our hand.  We might as well have been in another planet for all
the chance we had of getting away from that place.  We were aground for
two days; the river then rose a foot, and we came off.  The men were
complaining among themselves by then.  I heard them talking to each other
about chucking it.  It was bound to come.  This day they went aft in a
body to Purdy.  There stood Purdy, a little object in white against the
gloom of the forest, and he looked about as futile as the last match in a
wind at night.  He stood fingering a beard he had grown.  One of the men
was beginning to talk truculently at him.  Just then Jessie appeared from
below, between me and the group.  She had been down with fever for some
days, and she surprised me as much as a ghost.  She looked rather like
one, too.  She stood watching Purdy, without moving.  He didn't look at
her, though he must have known she was there.  I'm pretty sure we had to
thank her for what happened to us afterwards, for it was then that Purdy
began shaking his finger at that big stoker who was shouting.  I'd never
seen him with such an expression before.  As near as he could be wild, he
was.  'We're going on,' said Purdy to them very distinctly.  'This ship
continues her voyage.  If you want to leave her here, I'll put you
ashore.'  He walked away some paces, and came back to the men.  Then he
said something more in his usual voice.  'Do you men tell me you're
afraid of the job?  I don't believe it.  It can be done.  We'll do it.
We'll do it.  Mr. Hanson,' he called out, 'we are ready to get under way.
Would you please stand by?'

"The men never said another word.  They went for'ard.  It was very
curious, but after that they behaved as though they had another skipper.
Yet they were properly frightened by what they thought was ahead of them.
My lot below were always asking me about it, and I handed them the usual
ornamental and soothing lies, in which they believed long enough to keep
the steam up.  What more could you ask of human nature?  So we kept her
plugging along, getting nearer and nearer nowhere.  We turned another of
those dramatic corners, later on, though I forget how much later, and
ahead of us the river was piled high with rocks, and was tumbling from
above.  The _Cygnet_ had had her fair share of luck, but luck could not
get her over that.  We were all looking at the white water ahead, and
feeling--at least I was--that we were being laughed at, when I heard
Purdy call me, and turned round.  He was hurrying towards me round the
gear, and I thought from the look of him that this complete frustration
had turned his mind.  He signed for me to follow him, and I did it,
wondering what we should do with a lunatic added to all the rest of it.
I followed him into his cabin.  'What can I do?' he said, and bent over
his berth, 'what can I do?'

"Jessie was curled up on her side in his berth, and there was nothing
anyone could do.  I didn't know she was alive.  But she half opened her
eyes, without looking up, and her hand began moving towards Purdy.  'That
you, Bill?' she said.  Purdy flopped down beside her.  I got out.

"So I took over for a bit--the mate was no good--and waited for the next
thing.  That affair disheartened the men a lot, and I took it for
granted, from their faces as they stood round that figure in a tarpaulin
under a tree in the forest, that we were witnessing the end.  There was
Purdy, too . . . you couldn't expect much from him after a funeral."

Hanson bent over the table, and began tapping it with a finger, and spoke
slowly through a surprise he still felt.  "Old Purdy came to me the
following morning, and told me what he intended to do.  What do you
think?  He reckoned that, though we were still a hundred miles from the
headquarters of the consignees, an outpost was probably no farther than
just above the falls.  He himself was going to prospect, for there should
be a native trail through the woods, past the rapids; and he left me in
charge.

"Macandrew was all wrong about that fellow.  In two days he was back.  He
had found an outpost, four miles above, but nobody was there, so we could
get no help.  He was going to land our cargo of a ton and a half of
machinery, and place it on the company's territory above the falls.  'You
can see for yourself,' Purdy said to me pathetically, 'that I can't
deliver the _Cygnet_ there.  But I think I am right in making her secure
and leaving her here, and reporting it.  What else can I do?  They ought
to give me a clean receipt.'

"It was funny enough, that anxiety about a ship and machinery where there
was nothing but monkeys and parrots, but I agreed with him, and we got to
work landing those packages of mining gear, which only an expert could
understand, in a place where nothing was likely to happen till the Last
Day.  The way we sweated over it!  And then warped the stuff with snatch
blocks through four miles of jungle.  Yes; and buried two men of our
company on the way.  But we did get the cargo on to the company's damned
land at last, and a nice lot of half-naked scarecrows we looked, with
nothing to fill our hollow cheeks but whiskers.  There the name of the
place was all right, 'Tres Irmaos,' painted over a shed.  The shed was
falling to pieces.  There was nobody about.  Nothing but a little open
space, and the forest around, and the sun blazing down at us.

"We pushed on for headquarters, Purdy leading us.  A hundred miles to go!
I don't know how we did it.  Three more died, including the mate, but we
didn't bury those.  Purdy kept on the move.  He told me, after an
eternity, that it was just ahead of us, and at last we did come to some
other men.  They were Colombians.  We astonished them, but nothing could
astonish us any more.  Purdy learned that he had got to our ultimate
destination all right.  Then some fellow appeared, in a gaudy uniform and
a sword, who spoke English.  When Purdy asked to be taken to the manager
of the company, this gay chap laughed fiercely, and kept looking at Purdy
in triumph.  'Him?' he shouted, when he had got enough fun out of it,
'im?  He's dead.  We execute him.  All those people--they go.  No more
company.  All finish.  No good.'  He was very bright about it.

"Purdy never said a word.  All he did was to turn to me, and then stare
beyond me with big eyes at something which couldn't possibly have been
there."



VII. Not in the Almanac

It was an unlucky Friday morning; "and, what's more," the chief officer
stopped on the gangway to call down to me on the quay, "a black cat
crossed my path when I left home this morning, and a very nice black
cat it was."  The gangway was hauled up.  The tugs began to move the
big steamer away from us, a process so slow that the daylight between
us and the ship increased imperceptibly.

On my way home I paused by the shop which sells such antiques as old
spring mattresses, china dogs, portable baths, dumb-bells, and even the
kind of bedroom furniture which one would never have supposed was
purchasable at second-hand.  But lower, much lower in the shopkeeper's
estimate than even such commodities--thrown into a bin because they
were rubbish, and yet not quite valueless--was a mass of odd volumes.
_The First Principles of Algebra_, _Acts Relating to Pawnbrokers_, and
_Jessica's First Prayer_, were discovered in that order.  The next was
_Superstitions of the Sea_.

I am not superstitious.  I have never met a man who was.  And look at
the ships in dock today, without figure-heads, with masts that are only
the support of derricks and the aerials of wireless, and with science
and an official certificate of competency even in the galley!  Could
anything happen in such ships to bring one to awe and wonder?  The dark
of the human mind is now lighted, one may say, with electricity.  We
have no shadows to make us hesitate.  That book of sea superstitions
was on my table, some weeks later, and a sailor, who gave up trading to
the East to patrol mine-fields for three years, and who has never been
known to lose any time when in doubt through wasting it on a secret
propitiatory gesture, picked up the book, smiling a little
superciliously, lost his smile when examining it, and then asked if he
might borrow it.

We are not superstitious, now we are sure a matter may be mysterious
only when we have not had the leisure to test it in the right way, but
we have our private reservations.  There is a ship's doctor, who has
been called a hard case by those who know him, for he has grown grey
and serious in watching humanity from the Guinea Coast to the South
Seas.  He only smiles now when listening to a religious or a political
discussion, and might not be supposed to have any more regard for the
mysteries than you would find in the _Cold Storage Gazette_.  When he
is home again we go to the British Museum.  He always takes me there.
It is one of his weaknesses.  I invited him, when last we were there,
to let us search out a certain exhibit from Egypt about which curious
stories are whispered.  "No you don't," he exclaimed peremptorily.  He
gave me no argument, but I gathered that it is very well to be funny
about such coincidences, yet that one never certainly knows, and that
it is better to regard the unexplored dark with a well-simulated
respect till one can see through it.  He had, he said, known of affairs
in the East, and they were not provided for in the books; he had tried
to see through them from all points, but not with the satisfaction he
desired.  For that reason he never invited trouble unless he knew it
was not there.

Another man, very like him, a master mariner, and one who knew me well
enough for secrets, was bringing me from the French Coast for Barry at
full speed, in a fog.  He was a clever, but an indiscreet navigator.  I
was mildly rebuking him by the door of his chart-room for his
foolhardiness, but he laughed quietly, said he intended to make a good
passage, which his owners expected, and that when the problem was
straightforward he used science, but that when it was all a fog he
trusted mainly to his instinct, or whatever it might be, to inform him
in time.  I was not to be alarmed.  We should have the Lizard eight
miles on the starboard beam in another hour and a half.  By this time
we were continuing our talk in the chart-room.  An old cap of his was
on the floor, upside down.  I faced him there, in rebuke of this
reliance on instinct, but he was staring at the cap, a little startled.
Then he dashed past me without a word for the bridge.  While following
him at leisure I heard the telegraph ring.  Outside I could see nothing
but the pallor of a blind world.  The flat sea was but the fugitive
lustre of what might have been water; but all melted into nothing at a
distance which could have been anywhere.  The tremor of the ship
lessened, and the noise of the wash fell, for the speed had slackened.
We might have become hushed, and were waiting, listening and anxious,
for something that was invisible, but threatening.  Then I heard the
skippers voice, quick but quiet, and arrived on the bridge in time to
see the man at the wheel putting it hard over.  Something had been
sighted ahead of us, and now was growing broad on the starboard bow--a
faint presentment of land, high and unrelated, for there was a luminous
void below it.  It was a filmy and coloured ghost in the sky, with a
thin shine upon it of a sun we could not see.  It grew more material as
we watched it, and brighter, a near and indubitable coast.  "I know
where I am now," said the skipper.  "Another minute or two, and we
should have been on the Manacles."

Smiling a little awkwardly, he explained that he had seen that old cap
on the floor before, without knowing how it could have got there, and
at the same time he had felt very nervous, without knowing why.  The
last time was when, homeward bound in charge of a fine steamer, he
hoped Finisterre was distant, but not too far off.  Just about _there_,
as it were; and that his dead reckoning was correct.  The weather had
been dirty, the seas heavy, and the sun invisible.  He went on, to find
nothing but worse weather.  He did sight, however, two other steamers,
on the same course as himself, evidently having calculated to pass
Ushant in the morning; his own calculation.  He would be off Ushant
later, for his speed was less than theirs.  There they were, a lucky
and unexpected confirmation of his own reasoning.  His chief officer,
an elderly man full of doubt, smiled again, and smacked his hands
together.  That was all right.  My friend then went into the
chart-room, and underwent the strange experience we know.  He wondered
a little, concluded it was just as well to be on the safe side, and
slightly altered his course.  Early next morning he sighted Ushant.
There was nothing to spare.  He was, indeed, cutting it fine.  The seas
were great, and piled up on the rocks of that bad coast were the two
steamers he had sighted the day before.

Why had not the other two masters received the same nudge from
Providence before it was too late?  That is what the unfortunate, who
cannot genuinely offer solemn thanks like the lucky, will never know,
though they continually ask.  It is the darkest and most unedifying
part of the mystery.  Moreover, that side of the question, as a war has
helped us to remember, never troubles the lucky ones.  Yet I wish to
add that later, my friend, when in waters not well known, in charge of
a ship on her maiden voyage--for he always got the last and best ship
from his owners, they having recognized that his stars were
well-assorted--was warned that to attempt a certain passage, in some
peculiar circumstances, was what a wise man would not lightly
undertake.  But my friend was young, daring, clever, and fortunate.
That morning his cap was _not_ on the floor.  At night his valuable
ship with her exceptionally valuable cargo was fast for ever on a coral
reef.

What did that prove?  Apart from the fact that if the young reject the
experience of their elders they may regret it, just as they may regret
if they do pay heed to it, his later misfortune proves nothing; except,
perhaps, that the last thing on which a man should rely, unless he
must, is the supposed favour of the gods of whom he knows nothing but,
say, a cap unreasonably on the floor; yet gods, nevertheless, whose
existence even the wise and dubious cannot flatly deny.

It may have been for a reason of such a sort that I did not lend my
book to my young sailor friend who wished to borrow it.  I should never
have had it back.  Men go to sea, and forget us.  Our world has
narrowed and has shut out Vanderdecken for ever.  But now that
everything private and personal about us which is below the notice even
of the Freudian professor is pigeon-holed by officials at the Town
Hall, I enjoy reading the abundant evidence for the Extra Hand, that
one of the ship's company who cannot be counted in the watch, but is
felt to be there.  And now that every Pacific dot is a concession to
some registered syndicate of money-makers, the Isle-of-No-Land-At-All,
which some lucky mariners profess to have sighted, is our last chance
of refuge.  We cannot let even the thought of it go.



VIII. The Illusion

When I came to the house in Malabar Street to which John Williams,
master mariner, had retired from the sea, his wife was at her front
gate.  It was evening, and from the distant River a steamer called.
Mrs. Williams did not see me, for her grey head was turned away.  She
was watching, a little down the street, an officer of the Merchant
Service, with his cap set like a challenge, for he was very young, and
a demure girl with a market-basket who was with him.  They were
standing in amused perplexity before their house door.  It was a house
that had been empty since the foundering of the _Drummond Castle_.  The
sailor was searching his pockets for the door-key, and the girl was
laughing at his pretended lively nervousness in not finding it.  Mrs.
Williams had not heard me stop at her elbow, and continued to watch the
comedy.  She had no children, and she loved young people.

I did not speak, but waited for her to turn, with that ship's call
still sounding in my mind.  The rain had cleared for a winter sunset.
Opposite, in the house which had been turned into a frugal shop, it was
thought so near to night that they lit their lamp, though it was not
only possible to see the bottles of sweet-stuff and the bundles of wood
in the window, but to make out the large print of a bill stuck to a
pane announcing a concert at the Wesleyan Mission Room.  The lamp was
alight also in the little beer-house next door to it, where the
_Shipping Gazette_ could be borrowed, if it were not already out on
loan; for children constantly go there for it, with a request from
mother, learning their geography that way in Malabar Street, while
following a father or a brother round the world and back again, and
working out by dead-reckoning whether he would be home for Christmas.

The quiet street, with every house alike, had that air of conscious
reserve which is given by the respectable and monotonous; but for a
moment then it was bright with the glory of the sky's afterglow
reflected on its wet pavements, as though briefly exalted with an
unexpected revelation.  The radiance died.  Night came, and it was as
if the twilight native to the street clouded from its walls and brimmed
it with gloom, while yet the sky was bright.  The lamplighter set his
beacon at the end of the street.

That key had been found.  Mrs. Williams laughed to herself, and then
saw me.  "Oh," she exclaimed.  "I didn't know you were there.  Did you
see that?  That lamplighter!  When Williams was at sea, and I was
alone, it was quite hopeful when the lamplighter did that.  It looked
like a star.  And that Number Ten is let at last.  Did you see the
young people there?  I'm sure they're newly married.  He's a sailor."

With the fire, the humming kettle, and the cat between us, and the
table laid for tea, Mrs. Williams speculated with interest and hope
about those young strangers.  Did I notice what badge was on his cap?
My eyes were better than hers.  She trusted it would be all right for
them.  They were starting very young.  It was better to start young.
She looked such a good little soul, that girl.  It was pleasant to know
that house was let at last.  It had been empty too long.  It was
getting a name.  People could not help remembering why it was empty.
But young life would make it bright.

"People say things only change, but I like to think they change for the
better, don't you?  But Williams, he will have it they change for the
worse.  I don't know, I'm sure.  He thinks nothing really good except
the old days."  She laughed quietly, bending to tickle the cat's
ear--"nothing good at all except the old days.  Even the wrecks were
more like wrecks."  She looked at me, smiling.

"As you know," she said, "there's many men who follow the sea with
homes in this street, but Williams is so proud and strong-willed.  He
says he doesn't want to hear about them.  What do they know about the
sea?  You know his way.  What do they know about the sea?  That's the
way he talks, doesn't he?  But surely the sea is the same for us all.
He won't have it, though.  Williams is so vain and determined."

The captain knocked.  There was no doubt about that knock.  The door
surrendered to him.  His is a peremptory summons.  The old master
mariner brought his bulk with dignity into the room, and his wife,
reaching up to that superior height, too slight for the task,
ministered to the overcoat of the big figure which was making, all
unconsciously, disdainful noises in its throat.  It would have been
worse than useless for me to interfere.  The pair would have repelled
me.  This was a domestic rite.  Once in his struggle with his coat the
dominant figure glanced down at the earnestness of his little mate,
paused for a moment, and the stern face relaxed.

With his attention concentrated and severe even in so small an effort
as taking from his broad back a reluctant coat, and the unvarying fixed
intentness of the dark eyes over which the lids, loose with age, had
partly folded, giving him the piercing look of a bird of prey; and the
swarthiness of his face, massive, hairless, and acutely ridged, with
its crown of tousled white hair, his was a figure which made it easy to
believe the tales one had heard of him when he was the master of the
_Oberon_, and drove his ship home with the new season's tea, leaving,
it is said, a trail of light spars all the way from Tientsin to the
Channel.

The coat was off.  His wife had it over her arm, and was regarding with
concern the big petulant face above her.  She said to him: "Number Ten
is let at last.  They're a young couple who have got it.  He's a
sailor."

The old man sat down at a corner of the table, stooped, and in one
handful abruptly hauled the cat off the rug, laying its unresisting
body across his knees, and rubbing its ribs with a hand that half
covered it.  He did not appear to have heard what he had been told.  He
did not look at her, but talked gravely to the fire.  "I met Dennison
today," he said, as if speaking aloud to himself, in surprise at
meeting Dennison.  "Years since I saw him," he continued, turning to
me.  "Where was it now, where was it?  Must have been Canton River, the
year he lost his ship.  Extraordinary to find Dennison still afloat.
Not many of those men about now.  You can go the length of the Dock
Road today and see nothing and meet nobody."

He looked again into the flames, fixedly, as though what he really
wanted was only to be found in them.  His wife was at his elbow.  She,
too, was watching them, still with his coat over her arm.  She spoke
aloud, though more to herself than to us.  "She seemed such a nice
little woman, too.  I couldn't see the badge on his cap."

"Eh?" said the old man, throwing the cat back to the floor and rounding
to his wife.  "What's that?  Let's have tea, Mrs. Williams.  We're both
dreaming, and there's a visitor.  What are you dreaming about?  You've
nothing to dream about."

There was never any doubt, though, that the past was full and alive to
him.  There was only the past.  And what a memory was his!  He would
look at the portrait of his old clipper, the _Oberon_--it was central
over the mantel-shelf--and recall her voyages, and the days in each
voyage, and just how the weather was, what canvas she carried, and how
things happened.  Malabar Street vanished.  We would go, when he was in
that mood, and live for the evening in another year, with men who have
gone, among strange affairs forgotten.

Mrs. Williams would be in her dream, too, with her work-basket in her
lap, absently picking the table-cloth with her needle.  But for us, all
we knew was that the _Cinderella_ had a day's start of us, and the
weather in the Southern Ocean, when we got there, was like the death of
the world.  I was aware that we were under foresail, lower topsails,
and stay-sails only, and they were too much.  They were driving us
under, and the _Oberon_ was tender.  Yes, she was very tricky.  But
where was the _Cinderella_?  Anyhow, she had a day's start of us.
Captain Williams would rise then, and stand before his ship's picture,
pointing into her rigging.

"I must go in and see that girl," said the captain's wife once, when we
were in the middle of one of our voyages.

"Eh?" questioned her husband, instantly bending to her, but keeping his
forefinger pointing to his old ship; thinking, perhaps, his wife was
adding something to his narrative he had forgotten.

"Yes," she said, and did not meet his face.  "I must go in and see her.
He's been gone a week now.  He must be crossing the Bay, and look at
the weather we've had.  I know what it is."

I did then leave our voyage in the past for a moment, to listen to the
immediate weather without.  It was certainly a wild night.  I should
get wet when I left for home.

"Ah!" exclaimed the puzzled captain, suddenly enlightened, with his
finger still addressing the picture on the wall.  "She means the man
down the street.  An engineer, isn't he?  The missis calls him a
sailor."  He continued that voyage, made in 1862.

There was one evening when, on the home run, we had overhauled and
passed our rivals in the race, and were off the Start.  Captain
Williams was serving a tot all round, in a propitiatory act, hoping to
lower the masts of the next astern deeper beneath the horizon, and to
keep them there till he was off Blackwall Point.  He then found he
wanted to show me a letter, testimony to the work of his ship, which he
had received that voyage from his owners.  Where was it?  The missis
knew, and he looked over his shoulder for her.  But she was not there.

They must have been the days to live in, when China was like that, and
there was all the East, and such ships, and men who were seamen and
navigators in a way that is lost.  As the old master mariner, who had
lived in that time, would sometimes demand of me: What is the sea now?
Steamers do not make time, or lose it.  They keep it.  They run to
schedule, one behind the other, in processions.  They have nothing to
overcome.  They do not fail, and they cannot triumph.  They are
predestined engines, and the sea is but their track.  Yet it had been
otherwise.  And the old man would brood into the greater past, his
voice would grow quiet, and he would gently emphasize his argument by
letting one hand, from a fixed wrist, rise, and fall sadly on the
table, in a gesture of solemn finality.  He was in that act, early one
evening, while his wife was reading a newspaper; and I had risen to go,
and stood for a moment silent in the thought that these of ours were
lesser days, and their petty demands and trivial duties made of men but
mere attendants on uninspiring process.

Serene Mrs. Williams, reading her paper, and not in our world at all,
at that moment struck the paper into her lap, and fixed me with
surprise and shock in her eyes, as though she had just repelled that
mean print in a malicious attempt at injury.  Her husband took no
notice.  She handed me the paper, with a finger on a paragraph.  "The
steamer _Arab_, which sailed on December 26 last for Buenos Aires, has
not been heard of since that date, and today was 'posted' as missing."

I remembered then a young man in uniform, with a rakish cap, trying to
find a key while a girl was laughing at him.  As I left the house I
could see in the dusk, a little down the street, the girl standing at
her gate.  The street was empty and silent.  At the end of it the
lamp-lighter set his beacon.



IX. In a Coffee-Shop

With a day of rain, Dockland is set in its appropriate element.  It
does not then look better than before, but it looks what it is.  Not
sudden April showers are meant, sparkling and revivifying, but a
drizzle, thin and eternal, as if the rain were no more than the shadow
cast by a sky as unchanging as poverty.  When real night comes, then
the street lamps dissolve ochreous hollows in the murk.  It was such a
day as that; it was not night, for the street lamps were not alight.
There was no sound.  The rain was as noiseless as the passage of time.
Two other wayfarers were in the street with me.  One had no right
there, nor anywhere, and knew it, slinking along with his head and tail
held low, trailing a length of string through the puddles.  The other,
too, seemed lost.  He was idling as if one street was the same as
another, and on that day there was rain in all.  He came towards me,
with his hands in his pockets and his coat collar up.  He turned on me
briskly, with a sudden decision, when he drew level.  Water dripped
from the peak of his cap, and his clothes were heavy and dark with it.
He spoke.  "Mister, could ye give me a hand up?  I've made a mess of
it."  His cheerful and rather insolent assurance faltered for a moment.
He then mumbled: "I've been on the booze y'understand."  But there was
still something in his tone which suggested that any good man might
have done the same thing.

It is not easy to be even sententious with the sinful when an open
confession robs us of our moral prerogative, so I only told him that it
seemed likely booze had something to do with it.  His age could have
been forty; but it was not easy to judge, for the bridge of his nose
was a livid depression.  Some accident had pushed in his face under the
eyes, giving him the battered aspect of ancient sin.  His sinister
appearance would have frightened any timid lady if he had stopped her
in such a street, on such a day, with nobody about but a lost dog, and
the houses, it could be supposed, deserted, or their inmates secluded
in an abandonment to misery.  And, taking another glance at him, I
thought it probable, from the frank regard of the blue and frivolous
eye which met mine, that he would have recognized timidity in a lady at
a distance, and would have passed her without seeing her.  Uncertain
whether his guess in stopping me was lucky, he began pulling nervously
at a bleached moustache.  His paw was the colour of leather.  Its nails
were broken and stained with tar.

"Can't you get work?" I suggested.  "Why don't you go to sea?"

This deliberately unfair question shook his upright confidence in
himself, and perhaps convinced him that he had, after all, stopped a
fool.  He took his cap off, and flung a shower from it--it had been
draining into his moustache--and asked whether I did not think he
looked poor enough for a sailor.

Then I heard how he came to be there.  Two days before he had signed
the articles of the steamship _Bilbao_.  His box had gone aboard, and
that contained all his estate.  The skipper, to be sure of his man, had
taken care of his discharge book, and so was in possession of the only
proof of his identity.  Then he left the shipping office, and met some
friends.

Those friends!  "That was a fine girl," he said, speaking more to the
rain than to me.  "I never seen a finer."  I began to show signs of
moving away.  "Don't go, mister.  She was all right.  I lay you never
seen a finer.  Look here.  I reckon you know her."  He plunged an eager
hand into an inner pocket.  "Ever heard of Angel Light?  She's on the
stage.  It's a fact.  She showed me her name herself on a programme
last night.  There y'are."  He triumphed with a photograph, and his
gnarled forefinger pointed at an exposed set of teeth under an
extraordinary hat.  "Eh, ain't that all right? On the stage, too.  Met
her at the corner of Pennyfields."

It was still raining.  He flung another shower from his cap.  I was
impatient, but he took my lapel confidentially.  "Guv'nor," he said,
"if I could find the swab as took my money, I lay I'd make him look so
as his own mother 'ud turn her back on him.  I would.  Ten quid."

He had, it appeared, lost those friends.  He was now seeking, with
varying emotions, both the girl and the swab.  I suggested the dock and
his ship would be a better quest.  No, it was no good, he said.  He
tried that late last night.  Both had gone.  The policeman at the gate
told him so.  The dock was there again this morning, but a different
policeman; and whatever improbable world the dock and the policeman of
midnight had visited, there they had left his ship, inaccessible,
tangled hopelessly in a revolving mesh of saloon lights and collapsing
streets.  Now he had no name, no history, no character, no money, and
he was hungry.

We went into a coffee-shop.  It stands at the corner of the street
which is opposite the _Steam Packet_ beerhouse.  You may recognize the
place, for it is marked conspicuously as a good pull-up for carmen,
though then the carmen were taking their vans steadily past it.  The
buildings of a shipwright's yard stand above it, and the hammers of the
yard beat with a continuous rhythmic clangour which recedes, when you
are used to it, till it is only the normal pulse of life in your ears.
The time was three in the afternoon.  The children were at school, and
alone the men of the iron-yard made audible the unseen life of the
place.  We had the coffee-shop to ourselves.  On the counter a jam roll
was derelict.  Some crumpled and greasy newspapers sprawled on the
benches.  The outcast squeezed into a corner of a bench, and a stout
and elderly matron appeared, drying her bare arms on her apron, and
looked at us with annoyance.  My friend seized her hand, patted it, and
addressed her in terms of extravagant endearment.  She spoke to him
about that.  But food came; and as he ate--how he ate!--I waited,
looking into my own mug of tepid brown slop at twopence the pint.
There was a racing calendar punctuated with dead flies, and a picture
in the dark by the side of the door of Lord Beaconsfield, with its
motto: "For God, King, and Country"; and there was a smell which comes
of long years of herrings cooked on a gas grill.  At last the hungry
child had finished scraping his plate and wiping his moustache with his
hands.  He brought out a briar pipe, and a pouch of hairy skin, and
faded behind a blue cloud.  From behind the cloud he spoke at large,
like a confident disreputable Jove who had been skylarking for years
with the little planet Earth.

At a point in his familiar reminiscences my dwindling interest
vanished, and I noticed again, through the window, the house fronts of
the place I knew once, when Poplar was salt.  The lost sailor himself
was insignificant.  What was he?  A deck hand; one who tarred iron, and
could take a trick at the wheel when some one was watching him.  The
place outside might have been any dismal neighbourhood of London.  Its
character had gone.

The tap-tapping on iron plates in the yard next door showed where we
were today.  The sailor was silent for a time, and we listened together
to the sound of rivets going home.  "That's right," said the outcast.
"Make them bite.  Good luck to the rivets.  What yard is that?"  I told
him.

"What?  I didn't know it was about here.  That place!  Well, it's a
good yard, that.  They're all right.  I was on a steamer that went in
there, one trip.  She wanted it, too.  You could put a chisel through
her.  But they only put in what they were paid for, not what she
wanted.  The old _Starlight_.  She wouldn't have gone in then but for a
bump she got.  Do you know old Jackson?  Lives in Foochow Street round
about here somewhere.  He's lived next to that pub in Foochow Street
for years and years.  He was the old man of the _Starlight_.  He's a
sailor all right, is Jackson.

"The last trip I had with him was ten months ago.  The _Starlight_ came
in here to the West Dock with timber.  She had to go into dry-dock, and
I signed on for her again when she was ready.  This used to be my home,
Poplar, before I married that Cardiff woman.  Do you know Poplar at
all?  Poplar's all right.  We went over to Rotterdam for something or
other, but sailed from there light, for Fowey.  We loaded about three
thousand tons of china clay for Baltimore.

"The sea got up when we were abreast of the Wolf that night, and she
was a wet ship.  'We're running into it,' said old Jackson to the mate.
I was at the wheel.  'Look out, and call me if I'm wanted.'"

The man pushed his plate away, and leaned towards me, elbows on the
table, putting close his flat and brutish face, with his wet hair
plastered over all the brow he had.  He appeared to be a little drowsy
with food.  "Ever crossed the Western ocean in winter?  Sometimes
there's nothing in it.  But when it's bad there's no word for it.
There was our old bitch, filling up for'ard every time she dropped, and
rolling enough to shift the boilers.  We reckoned something was coming
all right.  Then when it began to blow, from dead ahead, the old man
wouldn't ease her.  That was like old Jackson.  It makes you think of
your comfortable little home, watching them big grey-backs running by
your ship, and no hot grub because the galley's flooded.  The Wolf was
only two days behind us, and we had all the way to go.  It was lively,
guv'nor.  The third night I was in with the cook helping him to get
something for the men.  They'd been roping her hatches.  The covers
were beginning to come adrift, y'understand.  The cook, he was slipping
about, grousing all round.  Then she stopped dead, and the lights went
out.  Something swept right over us with a hell of a rush, and I felt
the deck give under my feet.  The galley filled with water.  'Christ,
she's done,' shouted the cook.

"We scrambled out.  It was too dark to see anything, but we could hear
the old man shouting.  The engines had stopped.  I fell over some
wreckage."  The sailor stroked his nose.  "This is what it did.

"Next morning you wouldn't have known the old _Starlight_.  All her
boats had gone, and she had a list to port like a roof.  You wanted to
be a bird to get about her.  The crowd looked blue enough when they saw
the falls flying around at daylight, and only bits of boats.  It was a
case.  Every time she lay down in the trough, and a sea went over her
solid, we watched her come up again.  She took her time about it.

"The engineers were at it below, trying to get her clear.  They had the
donkey going.  In the afternoon we sighted a steamer's smoke to
westward.  She bore down on us.  I never seen anything I liked better
than that.  Then the Chief came up, and I saw him talking to the old
man.  The old man climbed round to us.  'Now, lads,' he said, 'there's
a Cunarder coming.  But the engineer says he reckons he's getting her
clear of water.  What about it?  Shall I signal the liner, or will you
stand by her?'

"We let the Cunarder go.  I watched her out of sight.  We hung around,
and just about sunset the Chief came up again.  I heard what he said.
'It's overhauling us fast, sir,' he said to the old man.  The old man,
he stood looking down at the deck.  Nobody said anything for a spell.
Then a fireman shot through a companion on all fours, scrambled to the
bulwarks, and looked out.  He began cursing the sun, shaking his fist
at it every time it popped over the seas.  It was low down.  It was
funny to hear him.  'So long, chaps,' he said, and dropped overside.

"We waited all night.  I couldn't sleep, what with the noise of the
seas running over us, and waiting for something to happen.  It was
perishing cold, too.  At sun-up I could see she might pitch under at
any time.  She was about awash.  The old man came to me and the
steward, and said: 'Give the men all the gin they'll drink.  Fill 'em
up.'  Some of 'em took it.  I never knew a ship take such a hell of a
time to sink as that one.

"I sighted the steamer, right ahead, and we wondered whether the iron
under us would wait till she come.  We counted every roller that went
over us.  The other steamer was a slow ship all right.  But she came
up, and put out her boats.  We had to lower the drunks into them.  I
left in the last boat with the old man.  'Jim,' he said, looking at her
as we left her, 'she's got no more than five minutes now.  I just felt
her drop.  Something's given way.'  Before we got to the other ship we
saw the _Starlight's_ propeller in the air.  Right on end.  Yes.  I
never seen anything like that--and then she just went . . ."

The sailor made a grimace at me and nodded.  From the shipwright's next
door the steady, continuous hammering in the dry-dock was heard again,
as though it had been waiting, and were now continuing the yarn.



X. Off-Shore

1

For weeks our London days had been handmade with gas and oil.  It was a
winter of the kind when the heaven of the capital is a brown obscurity
not much above the highest reached by the churches, and a December more
years before the War then it would be amusing to count.  There was enough
of the sun in that morning to light my way down Mark Lane, across Great
Tower Street to Billingsgate.  I was on my way to sea for the first time,
but that fortune was as incredible to me as the daylight.  And as to the
daylight, the only certainty in it was its antiquity.  It was a gloom
that was not only because the year was exhausted, but because darkness
was falling at the end of an epoch.  It was not many years before the
War, to be a little more precise, though then I was unaware of the reason
of the darkness, except common fog.

Besides, why should a Londoner, and even an East-Ender whose familiar
walls are topped by mastheads, believe in the nearness of the ocean?  We
think of the shipping no more than we do of the paving stones or of the
warnings of the pious.  It is an event of the first importance to go for
a first voyage, though mine was to be only by steam-trawler to the Dogger
Bank; yet, as the event had come to me so late, I had lost faith in the
omens of London's foreshore, among which, at the bottom of Mark Lane, was
an Italian baking chestnuts over a coke fire.  The fog, and the slops,
and the smell by Billingsgate, could have been tokens of no more than a
twopenny journey to Shepherd's Bush.  I had believed in the signs so
little that I had left my bag at a railway station, miles away.

Three small steamers, the size of tugs, but with upstanding bows and a
sheer suggesting speed and buoyancy, were lying off the fish market, and
mine, the _Windhover_, had the outside berth.  I climbed over to her.
Blubber littered her iron deck, and slime drained along her gutters.
Black grits showered from her stack.  The smell from her galley, and the
heat from her engine-room casing, were challenging to a stranger.  It was
no place for me.  The men and porters tramping about their jobs knew
that, and did not order me out of their way.  This was Billingsgate, and
there was a tide to be caught.  They hustled me out of it.  But the
skipper had to be found, for I must know when I had to come aboard.  A
perpendicular iron ladder led to her saloon from a hatch, and through
unintelligence and the dark I entered that saloon more precipitously than
was a measure of my eagerness, picked myself up with a coolness which I
can only hope met with the approval of some silent men, watching me, who
sat at a table there, and offered my pass to the man nearest me.

It was the mate.  He scrutinized the simple document at unnecessary
length, and with a gravity that was embarrassing.  He turned up slowly a
large and weather-beaten sadness, with a grizzled moustache that curled
tightly into his mouth from under a long, thin nose which pointed at me
like a finger.  His heavy eyes might have been melancholy or only tired,
and they regarded me as if they sought on my face what they could not
find on my document.  I thought he was searching me for the proof of my
sanity.  Presently he spoke: "Have you _got_ to come?" he said, and in a
gentle voice that was disconcerting from a figure so masculine.  While I
was wondering what was hidden in this question, the ship's master entered
the saloon briskly.  He was plump and light.  His face was a smooth round
of unctuous red, without a beard, and was mounted upon many folds of
brown woollen scarf, like an attractive pudding on a platter.  He looked
at me with amusement, as I have no doubt those lively eyes, with their
brows of arched interest, looked at everything; and his thick grey hair
was curved upwards in a confusion of interrogation marks.

He chuckled.  "This is not a passenger ship," he said.  "That will have
to be your berth." He pointed to a part of the saloon settee which was
about six feet forward and above the propeller.  "A sou'-wester washed
out our only spare cabin, comin' in.  There you are."  He began to climb
the ladder out of it again, but stopped, and put his rosy face under the
lintel of the door.  "You've got twenty minutes now.  Get your luggage
aboard."

My bag was where it could not be reached in twenty minutes.  Roughing it
may have its humours, but to suffer through it, as I was aware I must, if
I stayed, would more than outweigh the legitimate interest of a first
voyage, except for heroic youth with its gift of eternal life.  Simple
ignorance, as usual, made me heroic.  I went on deck, and found the
steward sitting on a box, with a bucket of sprats before him, tearing off
their heads, and then throwing the bodies contemptuously into another
bucket.  The ends of his fingers and thumbs were pink and bright, and
were separated from the remainder of his dark hands by margins of
glittering scales.  He compared to me, as he beheaded the fish, the girls
of Hull and London.  But what I knew of the girls of but one city was so
meagre in comparison that I could only listen to his particulars in
silent surprise.  It was notable that a man like that, who pulled the
heads and guts of fish like that, should have acquired a knowledge so
peculiar, so personal, of the girls of two cities.  While considering
whether what at first looked like the mystery of this problem might not
be in reality its clue, I became aware of another listener.  Its lean and
dismal length was disproportionate to that small ship.  It had on but
dungarees and a singlet, and the singlet, because of the length of the
figure, was concave at the stomach, where, having nothing to rest upon,
it was corrugated through the weight of a head made brooding by a heavy
black beard.  Hairy wrists were thrust deeply into the pockets to hold up
the trousers.  The dome of its head was as bald and polished as yellow
metal.  The steward introduced me to the Chief Engineer.  "Yon's a dirty
steward," returned the Chief simply.

"Clean enough for this ship," said the Steward.

"Aye," sighed the engineer, "aye!"

"Have you been to the Queen's Hall lately?" asked the Chief of me.  "I
should like to hear some Beethoven or Mozart tonight.  Aye, but we're
awa'.  It'll be yon sprats."  He sighed his affirmative again in
resignation, and stood regarding the steward bending over the pails on
the deck.  "What make ye," he asked, "of this war between the Japs and
Russia?  Come awa' doon, and have a bit talk.  I canna' look at that
man's hands and argue reasonable.  It'd no be fair to ye."

We could not have that argument then, for I had so little time to go
ashore and purchase what necessaries could be remembered while narrowly
watching the clock.  I was astride the bulwarks again when the
_Windhover_ was free of her moorings.  There was a lack of deliberation
and dignity in this departure which gave it the appearance of
improvisation, of not being the real thing.  I could not believe it
mattered whether I went or not.  My first voyage had, that is, those
common circumstances which always make our crises incredible when they
face us, as if they had met us by accident, in mistake for some one else.
The bascules of the Tower Bridge went up, this time to let out me.  Yet
that significant gesture, obviously made to my ship, was watched with an
indifference which was little better than cynicism.  What was this city,
past which we moved?  In that haze it was only the fading impress of what
once was there, of what once had overlooked the departure of voyagers,
when on memorable journeys, in famous ships.  Now it had almost gone.  It
had seen its great days.  There was nothing more to watch upon its River,
and so it was going.  And was an important voyage ever made by one who
had forgotten his overcoat?  The steward rose, raised his bucket of fish
offal, emptied it overboard, and went below.  It was not easy to believe
that such a voyage could come to anything, for London itself was
intangible, and when we got past those heavier shades which were the
city, and were running along the Essex marshes, though there was more
light, there was nothing to be seen, not even land substantial enough to
be a shadow.  There was only the length of our own ship.  Our pilot left
us, and we felt our way to the Lower Hope, a place I could have accepted
if it had not been on the chart, and anchored.

Night came, and drove me below to the saloon, where we made five who sat
with the sprats, now fried, and mugs of tea before us.  The saloon was
the hollow stern, a triangle with a little fireplace in its base, and
four bunks in its sides.  Its centre was filled with a triangular table,
over which, pendent from the skylight, was an oil-lamp in chains.  A
settee ran completely round the sides, and on that one sat for meals, and
used it as a step when climbing into a bunk.  The skipper cheerily hailed
me.  "As you're in for it, make yourself comfortable.  Sorry we can't do
more than give you the seat to sleep on.  But the chief thing in this
ship is fish.  Try some sprats."

"Aye, try yon sprats," invited the Chief.  "Ye'll get to like them well,
in time."  After the fish there was cards, in which I took no hand, but
regarded four bent heads, so intent they might have been watching a
ritual of magic which might betray their fate; and, above those heads,
motionless blue cirrus clouds of tobacco smoke wreathing the still lamp.
The hush was so profound that we could have been anchored beyond the
confines of this life.


2

What the time was next morning when I woke I do not know, for the saloon
was too dark to show the clock, over the fireplace.  But the skylight was
a pale cube of daylight, and through it I could see a halyard quivering
and swaying, apparently in a high wind.  My bench was in a continuous
tremor.

We were off again.  Somebody appeared at the doorway, a pull of cotton
waste in his hand, and turned a negroid face, made lugubrious by white
lines which sweat had channelled downwards through its coal dust.  It
looked at me, this spectre with eyes brilliant yet full of unutterable
reproach, saw that I was awake, and winked slowly.  It was the second
engineer.  He said it was a clear morning.  We had been under way an
hour.  He had got sixty revolutions now.  He then receded into the gloom
beyond; but materialized again, or, to be exact, the white stare of two
disembodied eyes appeared, and the same voice said that it had won
seventeen and six-pence last night, but there was something funny about
the way the skipper shuffled cards.

Feeling as though I were in one piece, I got up, made my joints bend
again, and went on deck.  Our ship, tilting at the immobile world, might
have upset the morning, which was pouring a bath of cold air over us.
The overcoat of the skipper, who was pacing the bridge, flapped in this
steady current.  A low coast was dim on either hand, hardly superior to
the flawless glass of the Thames.  By the look of it, we were the first
ever to break the tranquillity of that stream.  We ourselves made
scarcely a sound; we could have been attempting a swift, secret and, so
far, unchallenged escape.  The shores unfolded in a panorama without
form.  Once we spun past an anchored ship, or what had been a ship before
the world congealed to this filmed crystal, but now it was a frail ghost
shrouded in the still folds of diaphanous night, its riding lights
following us like eyes.  In the horny light of that winter dawn we
overhauled, one after another, the lamps of the Thames estuary, the
Chapman, the Nore, and the Mouse, and dropped them astern.  We made a
course east by north to where the red glints of the Maplin and Gunfleet
lights winked in their iron gibbets.  Above the shallows of the Burrows
Shoal the masts projected awry of the wreck of a three-masted schooner,
and they could have been the fingers of the drowned making a last clutch
at nothing.

We got abreast of Orfordness, and went through the gate of the North
Channel upon a wide grey plain.  We were fairly at sea.  We were out.
The _Windhover_, being free, I suppose, began to dance.  The sun came up.
The seas were on the march.  Just behind us was London, asleep and
unsuspecting under the brown depression of its canopy; and as to this
surprise of light and space so near to that city, so easily entered, yet
for so long merely an ancient rumour, an old tale of our streets to which
the ships and the wharves gave credence--how shall the report of it sound
true?  Not at all, except to those who still hold to a faith, through all
foul times, in the chance hints of a better world.

A new time was beginning in such a world.  There was a massive purple
battlement on the sea, at a great distance, the last entrenchment of
night; but a multitude of rays had stormed it, poured through clefts and
chasms in the wall, and escaped to the _Windhover_ on a broad road that
was newly laid from the sky to this planet.  The sun was at one end of
the road, and we were at the other.  There were only the two of us on
that road.  On our port beam the shadow which was East Anglia became
suddenly that bright shore which is sometimes conjectured, but is never
reached.

The _Windhover_ drove athwart the morning, and her bows would ride over
the horizon to divide it, and then the skyline joined again as she sank
below it.  We were beginning to live.  I did not know what the skipper
would think of it, so I did not cheer.  Sometimes the sea did this for
me, making a loud applause as it leaped over the prow.  The trawler was a
good ship; you could feel that.  She was as easy and buoyant as a
thoroughbred.  She would take a wave in a stride.  I liked her start of
surprise when she met a wave of unexpected speed and strength, and then
leaped at it, and threw it, white and shouting, all around us.  It was
that part of a first voyage when you feel you were meant to be a
navigator.  To stand at the end of the bridge, rolling out over the
cataracts roaring below, and to swing back, and out again, watching the
ship's head decline into a hollow of the seas, and then to clutch the
saddle as she reared with a sudden twist and swing above the horizon, and
in such a vast and illuminated theatre, was to awake to a new virtue in
life.  We were alone there.  There were only comets of smoke on the
bright wall of the sky, of steamers out of sight.

At sunset we made Smith's Knoll Light, and dropped the land.  The cluster
of stars astern, which was a fleet of Yarmouth herring boats at work,
went out in the dark.  I had, for warmth and company in the wheel-house
on the bridge, while listening to the seas getting up, only signals from
Orion and the Great Bear, the glow of the pipe of the silent fellow at
the wheel, and the warm shaft of light which streamed from somewhere in
the ship's body and isolated the foremast as a column of gold.  There was
the monody, confident but subdued, the most ancient song in the world, of
invisible waters.  Sometimes there was a shock when she dropped into a
hollow, and a vicious shower whipped across the glass of the wheel-house.
I then got the sad feeling, much too soon, that the inhospitable North
was greeting us.  It is after sundown at sea, when looking through the
dark to the stars, listening to sounds that are as though ancient waters
were still wandering under a sky in which day has not been kindled,
seeking coasts not yet formed, it is in such nights that one's thoughts
are of destiny, and then the remembrance of our late eager activities
brings a little smile.  There being no illumination in the wheel-house
but the restricted glow from the binnacle, this silent comment of mine on
man and his fate caused the helmsman no amusement.  "I hope you are
bringing us luck this trip," said the sailor to me.  "Last trip we got a
poor catch.  I don't know where the fish have got to."  Somewhere,
north-east about two hundred miles, was the fleet which, if I were the
right sort of mascot to the Windhover, we should pick up on the evening
of the next day.


3

When I left the wheel-house to go below, it was near midnight.  As I
opened the heavy door of the house the night howled aloud at my
appearance.  The night smelt pungently of salt and seaweed.  The
hand-rail was cold and wet.  The wind was like ice in my nose, and it
tasted like iron.  Sometimes the next step was at a correct distance
below my feet; and then all that was under me would be swept away.  I
descended into the muffled saloon, which was a little box enclosing light
and warmth partially submerged in the waters.  There it smelt of hot
engine-oil and stale clothes.  I got used to the murmuring transit of
something which swept our outer walls in immense bounds, and the flying
grind of the propeller, and the bang-clang of the rudder when it was
struck . . . and must have gone to sleep. . . .

When I woke, it was because the saloon in my dreams had gone mad.
Perhaps it had been going mad for some time.  Really I was not fully
awake--it was four in the morning, the fire was out, and violent draughts
kept ballooning the blanket over me--and in another minute I might have
become quite aware that I had gone to sea for the first time.  It was my
bench which properly woke me.  It fell away from me, and I, of course,
went after it, and my impression is that I met it halfway on its return
journey, for then there came the swooning sensation one feels in the
immediate ascent of a lift.  When the bench was as high as it could go it
overbalanced, canting acutely, and, grabbing my blanket, I left
diagonally for a corner of the saloon, accompanied by some sea-boots I
met under the table.  As I was slowly and carefully climbing back, the
floor reversed, and I stopped falling when my head struck a panel.  The
panel slid gently along, and the mate's severe countenance regarded me
from inside the bunk.  I expected some remonstrance from a tired man who
had been unfairly awakened too soon.  "Hurt yourself?" he asked.  "It's
getting up outside.  Dirty weather.  Take things easy."

I took them as easily as perhaps should be expected of a longshoreman.
There was no more sleep, though no more was wanted.  By putting out my
hand to the table I managed to keep where I was, even when, in those
moments of greatest insecurity, the screw was roaring in mid-air.  Our
fascinating hanging lamp would perform the impossible, hanging acutely
out of plumb; and then, when I was watching this miracle, rattle its
chain and hang the other way.  A regiment of boots on the floor--I
suppose it was boots--would tramp to one corner, remain quiet for a
while, and then clatter elsewhere in a body.  Towards daybreak the
skipper appeared in shining oilskins, tapped the barometer, glanced at
me, and laughed because my pillow--which was a linen bag stuffed with old
magazines--at that moment became lower than my heels, and the precipitous
rug tried to smother me.  I enjoyed that laugh.

Later still, I saw that our dark skylight was beginning to regain its
sight.  Light was coming through.  Our lunatic saloon lamp was growing
wan.  I ventured on deck.  When my face was no more than out of the
hatch, what I saw was our ship's stern upturned before me, with our boat
lashed to it.  It dropped out of view instantly, and exposed the blurred
apparition of a hill in pursuit of us--the hill ran in to run over
us--and in that very moment of crisis the slope of wet deck appeared
again, and the lashed boat.  The cold iron was wet and slippery, but I
grasped it firmly, as though that were an essential condition of
existence in such a place.

The _Windhover_, too, looked so small.  She was diminished.  She did not
bear herself as buoyantly as yesterday.  Often she was not quick enough
to escape a blow.  She looked a forlorn trifle, and there was no aid in
sight.  I cannot say those hills, alive and deliberate on all sides, were
waves.  They were the sea.  The dawn astern was a narrow band of dead
white, an effort at daybreak suddenly frustrated by night, but not
altogether expunged.  The separating black waters bulked above the dawn
in regular upheavals, shutting out its pallor, and as incontinently
collapsed again to release it to make the _Windhover_ plainer in her
solitude.

The skipper waddled briskly aft, and stood beside me.  He put his nose
inside the galley.  "I smell coffee," he said.  His charge reared, and
pitched him against the bulwarks.  "Whoa, you bitch," he cried
cheerfully.  "Our fleet ought not to be far off," he explained.  "Ought
to see something of them soon."  He glanced casually round the emptinesss
of the dawn.  He might have been looking for some one with whom he had
made an appointment at Charing Cross.  He then backed into the hatch and
went below.  The big mate appeared, yawned, stooped to examine a lashed
spar, did not give the sunrise so much as a glance, did not allow the
ocean to see that he was even aware of its existence, but went forward to
the bridge.

The clouds lowered during the morning, and through that narrowed space
between the sea and the sky the wind was forced at a greater pace,
dragging rain over the waters.  Our fleet might have been half a mile
away, and we could have gone on, still looking for it.  The day early
surrendered its light, a dismal submission to conditions that had made
its brief existence a failure.  It had nearly gone when we sighted
another trawler.  She was the _Susie_.  She was smaller than the
_Windhover_.  We went close enough to hail the men standing knee-deep in
the wash on her deck.  It would not be easy to forget the _Susie_.  I
shall always see her, at the moment when our skipper began to shout
through his hands at her.  She was poised askew, in that arrested
instant, on a glassy slope of water, with its crest foaming above her.
Surge blotted her out amid-ships, and her streaming forefoot jutted
clear.  She plunged then into the hollow between us, showing us the plan
of her deck, for her funnel was pointing at us.  Her men bawled to us.
They said the _Susie_ had sighted nothing.

Our engine-bell rang for us to part company.  Our little friend dropped
astern.  She seemed a poor little thing, with a squirt of steam to keep
her alive in that stupendous and hurrying world.  A man on her raised his
arm to us in salute, and she vanished.


4

The talk of our skipper, who began to be preoccupied and abrupt veered to
the subject of Jonah.  We should now have been with our fleet, but were
alone in the wilderness, and any course we took would be as likely as
another.  "This hasn't happened to me for years," he apologized.  He
stared about him, tapping the weather-dodger with his fingers, and
whistled reflectively.  He turned to the man at the wheel.  "Take her
east for an hour, and then north for an hour," and went below.

Day returned briefly at sunset.  It was an astonishing gift.  The clouds
rapidly lifted and the sky cleared, till the sea extended far to a bright
horizon, hard and polished, a clear separation of our planet and heaven.
The waves were still ponderous.  The _Windhover_ laboured heavily.  We
rolled over the bright slopes aimlessly.  She would rear till the forward
deck stuck up in front of us, then drop over, flinging us against the
dodger, and the shock would surround her with foam that was an eruption
of greenish light.

The sun was a cold rayless ball halved by the dark sea.  The wall of
heaven above it was flushed and translucent marble.  There was a silver
paring of moon in a tincture of rose.  When the sun had gone, the place
it had left was luminous with saffron and mauve, and for a brief while we
might have been alone in a vast hall with its crystalline dome penetrated
by a glow that was without.  The purple waters took the light from above
and the waves turned to flames.  The fountains that mounted at the bows
and fell inboard came as showers of gems.  (I heard afterwards it was
still foggy in London.)  And now, having made all I can of sunset and
ocean, and a spray of amethysts, jacinths, emeralds, zircons, rubies,
peridots, and sapphires, it is no longer possible for me to avoid the
saloon, the thought of which, for an obscure reason, my mind loathed.

And our saloon, compared with the measure of the twilight emptiness now
about us, was no bigger than the comfort a man feels amid mischance when
he remembers that he is still virtuous.  The white cloth on its table, I
noticed, as I sat down, was contaminated by a long and sinful life.  But
the men round it were good and hearty.  I took my share of ham and fish
on the same plate, and began to feel not so hungry as before.  I was
informed that ashore we are too particular about trifles, because we have
the room for it, but on a trawler there is not much room.  You have to
squeeze together, and make do with what is there, because fish is the
most important passenger.  My hunk of bread was placed where the cloth
bore the imprint of a negro's hand.  The mugs of tea were massive, and
sweetish (I could smell that) with condensed milk.  Did I want my tea?  I
noticed there were two men between me and the exit, and no room to pass.
The room was hot.  The bench was rising and falling.  My soul felt pale
and faintly apprehensive, compelling me, now I was beset, to take hold of
it firmly, and to tell it that this was not the time to be a miserable
martyr, but a coarse brute; and that, whether it liked it or not, I was
going to feed at once on fish, ham, and sickly liquor, and heaven help us
if it failed me before these sailors.  It made no response, being a thin
nonconformist soul, so I had to leave it, and alone I advanced on the
food.  As so often happens, the conquest was a little less hard than it
appeared to be.  I progressed, though slowly, and at last was
sufficiently disengaged from my task to count the minutes moving at their
funeral pace to the end of the meal.  The heat of the room mounted.  The
movements of the ship continued to throw my stomach against the edge of
the table.

My companions, however, were in no hurry to move.  They discussed, among
other things, Hull, and its unfortunate system of sanitation.  While this
gossip, which was explicit with exuberant detail, was engaging us, I
summoned my scientific mind, which is not connected with my soul, to
listen to what was being said, and the rest of me was deaf.  They went on
to tell each other about other trawlers and other crews.  Other ships and
men, I heard, had most of the luck.  "The fish follow some of 'em about,"
complained the skipper.  "I should like to know how it's done."

"They ought to follow us," replied the second engineer.  "When I went
down to take over this morning, Mac was singing Scotch songs.  What more
could we do below?"

"It's a grand life," nodded his superior's polished bald head.  "Aye,
there's guid reason for singing.  Sing to yon codfish, y'ken."

The skipper looked at the engineer in doubtful innocence.  "Well, I wish
singing would do it," he said gravely.  "I don't know.  How do you
account for some fellows getting most of the luck? Their ships are the
same, and they don't know any more."

Mac shook his head.  "The owners think they do.  There's their big
catches, y'ken.  Ye'll no convince owners that the sea bottom isna' wet
and onsairten."

The rosy face of the skipper became darker, and there was a spark in his
eyes.  This was unfair.  "But dammit, man, you don't mean to say the
owners are right?  Do these chaps know any more?  Look at old Rumface,
old Billy Higgs.  Got enough women to make him hate going into any port.
Can't be happy ashore unless he's too drunk to know one woman from
another.  What does he do?  Can't go to sea without taking his trawler
right over all the fish there is.  Is that his sense?  Ain't God good to
him?  Shows him the fish every time."

The engineer stood up, bending his head beneath a beam, crooking an elbow
to consider one hairy arm.  "Ah weel, I wouldna call it God.  Ye canna
tell.  Man Billy has his last trip to make.  Likely he'll catch fish
that'd frighten Hull.  Aye."

The skipper moved impatiently, made noises in his throat, rose, and both
went out.  The mate, who had been chewing and looking at nothing all the
time, chuckled.

The mate pulled off his big boots, and climbed into his bunk.  The
steward cleared the table.  I had the saloon to myself, and tried to read
from a magazine I extracted from my pillow.  The first story was
rollicking of the sea, and I have never seen more silly or such dreary
lies in print.  And the others were about women, magazine women, and the
land, that magazine land which is not of this earth.  The bench still
heaved, and there was a new smell of sour pickles.  I think a jar had
upset in a store cupboard.  Perhaps I should feel happier in the
wheel-house.  It was certain the wheel-house would not smell of vinegar,
boots, and engine oil.  It would have its own disadvantages--it would be
cold and damp--and the wind and seas on the lively deck had to be faced
on the way to it.  The difficulty there is in placing the second course
on London's cosy dinner-tables began to surprise me.

Our wooden shelter, the wheel-house, is ten feet above the deck, with
windows through which I could look at the night, and imagine the rest.  I
had, to support me, the mono-syllabic skipper and a helmsman with nothing
to say.  I saw one of them when, drawing hard on his pipe, its glow
outlined a bodyless face.  The wheel chains rattled in their channels.
There was a clang when a sea wrenched the rudder.  I clung to a
window-strap, flung back to look upwards through a window which the ship
abruptly placed above my head, then thrown forward to see wreaths of
water speeding below like ghosts.  The stars jolted back and forth in
wide arcs.  There were explosions at the bows, and the ship trembled and
hesitated.  Occasionally the skipper split the darkness with a rocket,
and we gazed round the night for an answer.  The night had no answer to
give.  We were probably nearing the North Pole.  About midnight, the
silent helmsman put away his pipe, as a preliminary to answering a
foolish question of mine, and said, "Sometimes it happens.  It's bound
to.  You can see for ye'self.  They're little things, these trawlers.
Just about last Christmas--wasn't it about Christmas-time, Skipper?--the
_Mavis_ left the fleet to go home.  Boilers wrong.  There was one of our
hands, Jim Budge, who was laid up, and he reckoned he'd better get home
quick.  So he joined her.  We were off the Tail of the Dogger, and it
blew that night.  Next morning Jim's mate swore Jim's bunk had been laid
in.  It was wet.  He said the _Mavis_ had gone.  I could see the bunk was
wet all right, but what are ventilators for?  Chance it, the _Mavis_
never got home.  A big sea to flood the engine-room, and there she goes."


5

After the next daybreak time stood still--or rather, I refused to note
its passage.  For that morning I made out the skipper, drenched with
spray, and his eyes bloodshot, no doubt through weariness and the
weather, watching me from the saloon doorway.  I did not ask any
questions, but pretended I was merely turning in my sleep.  It is
probably better not to ask the man who has succeeded in losing you where
you are, particularly when his eyes are bloodshot and he is wondering
what the deuce he shall do about it.  And greater caution still is
required when his reproachful silence gives you the idea that he thinks
you a touch of ill-luck in his enterprise.  My companions, I believe,
regretted I had not been omitted.  I tried, therefore, to be
inconspicuous, and went up to seclude myself at the back of the boat on
the poop, there to understudy a dog which is sorry it did it.  Not
adverse fate itself could show a more misanthropic aspect than the empty
overcast waste around us.  It was useless to appeal to it.  It did
vouchsafe us one ship that morning, a German trawler with a fir tree
lashed to her deck, ready for Christmas morning, I suppose, when perhaps
they would tie herrings to its twigs.  But she was no good to us.  And
the grey animosity granted us three others during the afternoon, and they
were equally useless, for they had not sighted our fleet for a week.  All
that interested me was the way the lookout on the bridge picked out a
mark, which I could not see, for it was obscured where sea and sky were
the same murk, and called it a ship.  Long before I could properly
discern it, the look-out behaved as though he knew all about it.  But it
was never the sign we wanted.  We had changed our course so often that I
was beginning to believe that nobody aboard could make a nearer guess at
our position than the giddy victim in blindman's-buff.  A sextant was
never used.  Apparently these fishermen found their way about on a little
mental arithmetic compounded of speed, time, and the course.  That leaves
a large margin for error.  So if they felt doubtful they got a plummet,
greased it, and dipped it overboard.  When it was hauled up they
inspected whatever might be sticking to the tallow, and at once announced
our position.  At first I felt sceptical.  It was as though one who had
got lost with you in London might pick up a stone in an unknown
thoroughfare, and straightway announce the name of that street.  That
would be rather clever.  But I discovered my fishermen could do something
like it.

Our skipper no longer appeared at meals.  He was on the bridge day and
night.  He acted quite well a pose of complete indifference, and said no
more than: "This has not happened to me for years."  He repeated this
slowly at reasonable intervals.  But he had lost the nimble impulse to
chat about little things, and also his look of peering and innocent
curiosity.  As now he did not come to our table, the others spoke of
Billingsgate carriers, such as ours, which had driven about the Dogger
till there was no more in the bunkers than would take them to Hull to get
more coal.  From the way they spoke I gathered they would crawl into
port, in such circumstances, without flags, and without singing.  This
gave my first trip an appearance I had never expected.  Imagination,
which is clearly of little help in geography, had always pictured the
Dogger as a sea where you could hail another trawler as you would a cab
in London.  A vessel might reasonably expect to find there a fish-trunk
it had left behind.  But here we were with our ship plunging round the
compass merely expectant of luck, and each wave looking exactly like the
others,

But at last we had them.  We spoke a rival fleet of trawlers.  Their
admiral cried through a speaking-trumpet that he had left "ours" at six
that morning twenty miles NNE., steaming west.  It was then eleven
o'clock.  Hopefully the _Windhover_ put about.  We held on for three
hours at full speed, but saw nothing but the same waves.  The skipper
then rather violently addressed the Dogger, and said he was going below.
The mate asked what course he should steer.  "Take the damned ship where
you like," said the skipper.  "I'm going to sleep."  He was away ten
minutes.  He reappeared, and resumed his silent parade of the bridge.
The helmsman grinned at the mate.  By then the wind had fallen, the seas
were more deliberate; there came a suffusion of thin sunlight,
insufficient and too late to expand our outlook, for the night began to
fill the hollows of the Dogger almost at once, and soon there was nothing
to be seen but the glimmer of breaking waves.


6

There is nothing to be done with an adventure which has become a misprise
than to enjoy it that way instead.  What did I care when they complained
at breakfast of the waste of rockets the night before?  What did that
matter to me when the skylight above our morning coffee was open at last,
really open?  Fine weather for December!  Across that patch of blue,
which was a peep into eternity, I saw drift a bird as white as sanctity.
And did it matter if the imprints on our tablecloth of negroes' thumbs
were more numerous and patent than ever, in such a light?  Not in the
least.  For I myself had long since given up washing, as a laborious and
unsatisfactory process, and was then cutting up cake tobacco with the
rapture of an acolyte preparing the incense.  If this was what was meant
by getting lost on the Dogger, then the method, if only its magic could
be formulated, would make the fortunes of the professional fakirs of
happiness in the capitals of the rich.  Yet mornings of such a quality
cannot be purchased, nor even claimed as the reward of virtue.

On deck it was a regal day, leisurely, immense, and majestic.  The wind
was steady and generous.  The warm sunlight danced.  I should not have
been surprised to have seen Zeus throned on the splendid summit of the
greatest of those rounded clouds, contemplative of us, finger on cheek,
smiling with approval of the scene below--melancholy approval, for we
would remind him of those halcyon days whose refulgence turned pale and
sickly when Paul, that argumentative zealot, came to provide a world,
already thinking more of industry and State politics than of the gods,
with a hard-wearing theology which would last till Manchester came.  For
the _Windhover_ had drifted into a time and place as innocent of man's
highest achievements as is joy of death.  The wind and sea were chanting.
The riding of the ship kept time to that measure.  The vault was
turquoise, and the moving floor was cobalt.  The white islands of the
Olympians were in the sky.

Hour after hour our lonely black atom moved over that vast floor, with
nothing in sight, of course, in a day that had been left over from
earth's earlier and more innocent time, till a little cloud formed in the
north.  That cloud did not rise.  It blew towards us straight over the
seas, rigid and formless; becoming at last a barque under full sail,
heading east of south of us.  She was, when at a distance, a baffling
mass of canvas, from which a square-sail occasionally heliographed.  She
got abeam of us.  Before the clippers have quite gone, it is proper to
give grace for the privilege of having seen one, superlative as the ship
of romance, and in such a time and place.  She was a cloud that, when it
mounted the horizon like the others, instead of floating into the
meridian, moved over the seas to us, an immutable billow of luminous mist
blown forward on the wind.  She might have risen at any moment.  Her
green hull had the sheer of a sea hollow.  Her bows pressed continually
onward, like the crest of a wave curving forward to break, but held, as
though enchanted.  Sometimes, when her white mass heeled from us under
the pressure of the wind, a red light flashed from her submerged body.
She passed silently, a shining phantom, and at last vanished, as phantoms
do.


7

When the boots, exploded on the saloon floor by the petulant mate, woke
me, it was three of a morning which, for my part, was not in the almanac.
"We're bewitched," the mate said, climbing over me into his cupboard.  "I
never thought I should want to see our fleet so much."

"Aye," remarked the chief engineer, who came shuffling in then for some
sleep, "ye'll find that fleet quick, or the stokers are giving orders.
D'ye think a ship is driven by the man at the wheel?  No' that I want to
smell Hull."

A kick of the ship overturned the fireshovel, and I woke again to look
with surprise at so small a cause of a terrible sound, and was leaving
the shovel to its fate when it came to life, and began to crawl
stealthily over the floor.  It was an imperative duty to rise and
imprison it.  When that was forgotten the steward arrived, and roused me
to watch the method of setting a breakfast-table at sea; but I had seen
all that before, and climbed out of the saloon.  There are moments in a
life afloat when the kennel and chain of the house-dog appear to have
their merits.  The same wash was still racing past outside, and the ship
moving along.  The halyards were shaking in the cold.  The funnel was
still abruptly rocking.  A sailor was painting the starboard stanchions.
A stoker was going forward off duty, in his shirt and trousers,
indifferent to the cruel wind which bulged and quivered his thin rags.
The skipper was on the bridge, his hands in the pockets of his flapping
overcoat, still searching the distance for what was not there.  A train
of gulls was weaving about over our wake.  A derelict fish-trunk floated
close to us, with a great black-backed gull perched on it.  He cocked up
one eye at me when he drew level, crouched for flight, but perhaps saw on
my face the reason why I prefer working tomorrow, and contemptuously
stayed where he was.  Then I noticed the skipper looking back at the
bird.  He nodded to it, and cried: "There goes a milestone.  The fleet is
about somewhere."  I danced with caution along the treacherous deck,
where one day that voyage a sea picked up two men and stranded them on
top of the engine-room casing, and got up with the master.  He had just
ordered the ship to be put over to a trawler in sight.  With the seas so
swift and ponderous I completely forgot the cold wind in watching the two
lively ships being manoeuvred till they were within earshot.  When the
engines were stopped the steering had to be nicely calculated, or erratic
waves brought them dangerously close, or else took them out of call.  Our
new friend had not seen "our lot," but had left a fleet with an unknown
house-flag ten miles astern.  We surged forward again.

We steamed for two hours, and then the pattern of a trawler's smoke was
seen ahead traced on a band of greenish brilliance which divided the sea
from the sky.  Almost at once other faint tracings multiplied there.  In
a few minutes we could make out plainly within that livid narrow outlet
between the sea and the heavy clouds a concourse of midget ships.

"There they are," breathed the skipper after a quick inspection through
his glasses.

In half an hour we were in the midst of a fleet of fifty little steamers,
just too late to take our place as carrier to them for London's daily
market.  As we steamed in, another carrier, which had left London after
us, hoisted her signal pennant, and took over that job.

While still our ship was under way, boats put out from the surrounding
trawlers, and converged on us for our outward cargo, the empty
fish-trunks.  That intense band of light which had first betrayed the
smoke of the fleet eroded upwards into the low, slaty roof of nimbus till
the gloom was dissolved to the zenith.  The incubus vanished; the sun
flooded us.  At last only white feathers were left in the sky.  I felt I
had known and loved these trawlers for years.  All round us were ships'
boats, riding those sweeping seas in a gyrating and delirious lunacy; and
in each were two jovial fishermen, who shouted separate reasons to our
skipper for "the week off" he had taken.

These boats came at us like a swarm of assailants, swooping downhill on
us, swerving, recoiling, and falling away, rising swiftly above us again
for a charge, and then careering at us with abandon on the next declivity
of glass.  A boat would hesitate above us, poised and rocking on the
snowy ridge of an upheaval, and vanish as the _Windhover_ canted away.
Then we rolled towards her, and there she was below us, in a smooth and
transient hollow.  Watching for their chances, snatched out of luck by
skill and audacity, our men fed the clamorous boats with empties; the
boxes often fell just at the moment when the open boat was snatched away,
and then were swept off.  The shouted jokes were broadened and
strengthened to fit that riot and uproar.  This sudden robust life,
following the routine of our subdued company on its lonely and
disappointed vigils in a deserted sea, the cheery men countering and
mocking aloud the sly tricks of their erratic craft, a multitude of masts
and smoking funnels around us swaying in various arcs against a
triumphant sky, the clamorous desperation of clouds of wheeling
kittiwakes, herring-gulls, black-backed gulls and gannets, and all in
that pour of hard and crystalline northern sunlight, was as though the
creative word had been spoken only five minutes before.  We, and all
this, had just come.  I wanted to laugh and cheer.


8

There is, we know, a pleasure more refined to be got from looking at a
chart than from any impeccable modern map.  Maps today are losing their
attraction, for they permit of no escape, even to fancy.  Maps do not
allow us to forget that there are established and well-ordered
governments up to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, waiting to restrict, to
tax, and to punish us, and that their police patrol the tropical forests.
But consider the legends on a chart even of the North Sea, of the world
beneath the fathoms--the _Silver Pits_, the _Dowsing Ground_, the _Leman
Bank_, the _Great Fisher Ground_, the _Horn Reef_, the _Witch Ground_,
and the _Great Dogger Bank_!  Strange, that indefinable implication of a
word!  I remember that, when a child, I was awake one night listening to
a grandfather's clock talking quietly to itself in its long box, and a
brother sat up in bed and whispered: "Look, the Star in the East."  I
turned, and one bright eye of the night was staring through the window.
Heaven knows into what profundity of ancestral darkness my brothers
whisper had fallen, nor what it stirred there, but an awe, or a fear, was
wakened in me which was not mine, for I remember I could not explain it,
even though, at the time, the anxious direct question was put to me.  Nor
can I now.  It would puzzle a psycho-analyst most assured of the right
system for indexing secret human motives to disengage one shadow from
another in an ancestral darkness.  That is why I merely put down here the
names to be found on a chart of the North Sea, and say no more about it,
being sure they will mean nothing except to those to whom they mean
something.  Those words, like certain moonbeams, which stir in us that
not ourselves which makes for righteousness, or lunacy, combine only by
chance.  The combination which unlocks the secret cannot be stated, or it
would not work.  When there is a fortuitous coincidence of the magic
factors, the result is as remarkable to us as it is to those who think
they know us.  When I used to stand on London's foreshore, gazing to what
was beyond our street lamps, the names on the chart had a meaning for me
which is outside the usual methods of human communication.  The Dogger
Bank!

Here then it was, yet still to be seen only by faith.  It was like Mrs.
Harris.  I had the luck to discover that I should lose nothing through my
visit; and every traveller knows how much he gains when the place he has
wished to visit allows him to take away from it no less than what he
brought with him.  The Bank was twenty fathoms under us.  We saw it
proved at times when a little fine white sand came up, or fleshy yellow
fingers, called sponge by the men, which showed we were over the pastures
of the haddock.  That was all we saw of a foundered region of prehistoric
Europe, where once there was a ridge in the valley of that lost river to
which the Rhine and Thames were tributaries.  Our forefathers,
prospecting that attractive and remunerative plateau of the Dogger, on
their pilgrimage to begin making our England what it is, caught deer
where we were netting cod.  I almost shuddered at the thought, as though
even then I felt the trawl of another race of men, who had strangely
forgotten all our noble deeds and precious memories, catching in the ruin
of St. Stephen's Tower, and the strangers, unaware of what august relic
was beneath them, cursing that obstruction to their progress.  Anyhow, we
should have the laugh of them there; but these aeons of time are
desperate waters into which to sink one's thought.  It sinks out of
sight.  It goes down to dark nothing.

Well, it happened to be the sun of my day just then, and our time for
catching cod, with the reasonable hope, too, that we should find the city
still under St. Stephen's Tower when we got back, as a place to sell our
catch.

Our empty boxes were discharged.  Led by the admiral, the
_Windhover_--with the  rest of the fleet--lowered her trawl, and went
dipping slowly and quietly over the hills, towing her sunken net.  The
admiral of a fishing-fleet is a great man.  All is in his hands.  He
chooses the grounds.  Our admiral, it was whispered to me, was the wizard
of the north.  The abundant fish-pastures were revealed to him in his
dreams.  It was my last evening on the Bank.  The day had been
wonderfully fine for winter and a sea that is notoriously evil.  At
twilight the wind dropped, the heave of the waters decreased.  The
scattered fleet, gliding through the hush, carried red, green, and white
planets.  The ships which lay in the western glow were black and simple
shapes.  Those to the east of us were remarkable with a chromatic
prominence, and you thought, while watching them, that till that moment
you had not really seen them.  Presently the moon cleared the edge of the
sea, a segment of frozen light, and moored to our stern with a quivering,
ghostly line.

Coloured rockets sailed upwards from the admiral when he changed his mind
and his course, and then the city of mobile streets altered its plan, and
rewove its constellation.  At midnight white flares burned forward on all
the boats.  The trawls were to be hauled.  Our steam-winch began to bang
its cogs in the heavy work of lifting the net.  All hands assembled to
see what would be our luck.  The light sent a silver lane through the
night, and men broke through the black walls of that brilliant separation
of the darkness, and vanished on the other side.  Leaning overside, I
could see the pocket of our trawl drawing near, still some fathoms deep,
a phosphorescent and flashing cloud.  It came inboard, and was suspended
over the deck, a bulging mass, its bottom was unfastened, and out gushed
our catch, slithering over the deck, convulsive in the scuppers.  The
mass of blubber and plasm pulsed with an elfish glow.


9

We were homeward bound.  The flat sea was dazzling with reflected
sunshine, and a shade had to be erected over the binnacle for the man at
the wheel.  It might have been June, yet we had but few days to
Christmas.  The noon ceiling was a frail blue, where gauze was suspended
in motionless loops and folds.  The track of the sun was incandescent
silver.  A few sailing vessels idled in the North Channel, their sails
slack; but we could not see a steamer in what is one of the world's
busiest fairways.  We ran on a level keel, and there was no movement but
the tremor of the engines.  We should catch the tide at the Shipwash, and
go up on it to Billingsgate and be home by midnight.  How foolish it is
to portion your future, at sea!

It was when I was arranging what I should do in the later hours of that
day, when we were at Billingsgate, that the skipper, staring round the
North Channel, said to me: "It looks as though London had been wiped out
since we left it.  Where's the ships?"

The Maplin watched us pass with its red eye.  We raised all the lights
true and clear.  I went below, and we were talking of London, and the
last trains, when the engine-room telegraph gave us a great shock.  "Stop
her!" we heard the watch cry below.

I don't know how we got on deck.  There were too many on the companion
ladder at the same time.  While we were struggling upwards we heard that
frantic bell ring often enough to drive the engine-room people
distracted.  I got to the ship's side in time to see a liner's bulk glide
by.  She would have been invisible but for her strata of lights.  She was
just beyond our touch.  A figure on her, high over us, came to her rail,
distinct in the blur of the light of a cabin behind him, and shouted at
us.  I remember very well what he said, but it is forbidden to put down
such words here.  The man at our wheel paid no attention to him, that
danger being now past, and so of no importance.  He continued to spin the
spokes desperately, because, though we could not see the ships about us,
we could hear everywhere the alarm of their bells.  We had run at eleven
knots into a bank of fog which seemed full of ships.  The moon was
looking now over the top of the wall of fog, yet the _Windhover_, which,
with engines reversed, seemed to be going ahead with frightful velocity,
drove into an opacity in which there was nothing but the warning sounds
of a great fear of us.  I imagined in the dark the loom of impending
bodies, and straining overside in an effort to make them out, listening
to the murmur of the stream, nervously fanned the fog with my hat in a
ridiculous effort to clear it.  Twice across our bows perilous shadows
arose, sprinkled with stars, yet by some luck they drifted silently by
us, and the impact we expected and were braced for was not felt.

I don't know how long it was before the _Windhover_ lost way, but we
anchored at last, and our own bell began to ring.  When our unseen
neighbours heard the humming of our exhaust, their frantic appeal
subsided, and only now and then they gave their bells a shaking, perhaps
to find whether we answered from the same place.  There was an absolute
silence at last, as though all had crept stealthily away, having left us,
lost and solitary, in the fog.  We felt confident there would be a
clearance soon, so but shrouded our navigation lights.  But the rampart
of fog grew higher, veiled the moon, blotted it out, expunged the last
and highest star.  We were imprisoned.  We lay till morning, and there
was only the fog, and ourselves, and a bell-buoy somewhere which tolled
dolefully.

And morning was but a weak infiltration into our prison.  A steadfast
inspection was necessary to mark even the dead water overside.  The River
was the same colour as the fog.  For a fortnight we had been without
rest.  We had become used to a little home which was unstable, and
sometimes delirious, and a sky that was always falling, and an earth that
rose to meet the collapse.  Here we were on a dead level, still and
silent, with the men whispering, and one felt inclined to reel with
giddiness.  We were fixed to a dumb, unseen river of a world that was
blind.

There was one movement.  It was that of the leisurely motes of the fog.
We watched them--there was nothing else to do--for a change of wind.  A
change did not seem likely, for the rigging was hoar with frost, and ice
glazed our deck.

Sometimes the fog would seem to rise a few feet.  It was a cruel
deception to play on the impatient.  A mere cork, a tiny dark object like
that, drifting along some distance out, would make a focal point in the
fog, and would give the illusion of a clearance.  Once, parading the deck
as the man on watch, giving an occasional shake to the bell, I went
suddenly happy with the certainty that I was now to be the harbinger of
good tidings to those below playing cards.  A vague elevated line
appeared to starboard.  I watched it grow into definition, a coast
showing through a haze that was now dissolving.  Up they all tumbled at
my shout.  They stared at the wonder hopefully and silently.  The coast
became higher and darker, and the skipper was turning to give orders--and
then our hope turned into a wide path on the ebbing River made by cinders
moving out on the tide.  The cinders passed.  We re-entered our silent
tomb.  There had been no sign of our many neighbours of the night before,
but suddenly we heard some dreadful moans, the tentative efforts of a
body surprised by pain, and these sounds shaped, hilariously lachrymose,
into a steam hooter playing "Auld Lang Syne," and then "Home, Sweet
Home."  There followed an astonishing amount of laughter from a hidden
audience.  The prisoners in the neighbouring cells were there after all,
and were even jolly.  The day thereafter was mute, the yellow walls at
evening deepened to ochre, to umber, and became black, except where our
riding lights made luminous circles.  Each miserable watcher who came
down to the saloon that night, muffled and sparkling with frost, to get a
drink of hot coffee, just drank it, and went on deck again without a word.

The motes next morning went drifting leisurely on the same light air,
interminable.  Our prison appeared even narrower.  Then once again a
clearance was imagined.  Our skipper thought he saw a lane along the
River, and up-anchored.  The noise of our cable awoke a tumult of
startled bells.

Ours was a perishable cargo.  We were much overdue.  Our skipper was
willing to take any risk--what a good master mariner would call a
reasonable risk--to get home; and so, when a deck hand, on the third
morning, with the thawing fog dripping from his moustache, appeared in
the saloon with the news that it was clearing a little, the master
decided he would go.

I then saw, from the deck of the _Windhover_, so strange a vision that it
could not be related to this lower sphere of ours.  It could be thought
that dawn's bluish twilight radiated from the _Windhover_.  We were the
luminary, and our faint aura revealed, through the melting veil, an outer
world that had no sky, no plane, no bounds.  It was void.  There was no
River, except that small oval of glass on which rested our ship, like a
model.

The universe, which that morning had only begun to form in the void, was
grouped about us.  This was the original of mornings.  We were its
gravitational point.  It was inert and voiceless.  It was pregnant with
unawakened shapes, dim surprising shadows, the suggestions of forms.
Those near to us more nearly approached the shapes we knew in another
life.  Those beyond, diminishing and fainting in the obscurity of the
dawn, were beyond remembrance and recognition.  The _Windhover_ alone was
substantial and definite.  But placed about us, suspended in a night that
was growing translucent, were the shadows of what might once have been
ships, perhaps were ships to be, but were then steamers and sailers
without substance, waiting some creative word, shrouded spectres that had
left the wrecks of their old hulls below, their voyages finished, and
were waiting to begin a new existence, having been raised to our level in
a new world boundless and serene, with unplumbed deeps beneath them.
There, on our level, we maintained them in their poise with our superior
gravity and our certain body, giving them light, being what sun there was
in this new system in another sky.  Above them there was nothing, and
around them was blind distance, and below them the abyss of space.  Their
lights gathered to our centre, an incoming of delicate and shining
mooring lines.

It was all so silent, too.  But our incoming cable shattered the spell,
and when our siren warned them that we were moving, a wild pealing
commenced which accompanied us on the long drift up to Gravesend.  There
were eight miles of ships: barges, colliers, liners, clippers, cargo
steamers, ghost after ghost took form ahead, and then went astern.  More
than once the fog thickened again, but the skipper never took way off her
while he could make out a ship ahead of us.  We drifted stern first on
the flood, with half-turns of the propeller for steering purchase, till a
boatman, whom we hailed, cried that we were off Gravesend.  And was there
any one for the shore?

There was.  I took no more risks.  I had been looking for that life-boat.
And what a thing it was to have solid paving-stones under one's feet
again.  There were naphtha flares in the fog, dingy folk in muddy ways,
and houses that kept to one place.  There was a public-house, too.
Outside that place I remembered the taste of everlasting fried fish, and
condensed milk in weak tea; and so entered, and corrected the
recollection with a glass of port--several glasses, to make sure of
it--and that great hunk of plum-cake which I had occasionally seen in a
dream.  Besides, this was Christmas Eve.



XI. An Old Lloyd's Register

With the sensation that I had survived into a strange and a hostile era
that had nothing to do with me, for its affairs were not mine, I was
inside a submarine, during the War, talking to her commander.  He was
unravelling for me the shining complexity of his "box of tricks," as he
called his ship.  He was sardonic (there was no doubt he was master of
the brute he so lightly villified), and he was blithe, and he
illustrated his scientific monologue with stories of his own
experiences in the Heligoland Bight.  These, to me, were like the
bedevilments of those dreams from which we groan to awake, but cannot.
The curious doings of this new age, I thought as I listened to him,
would have just the same interest for me as the relics of an extinct
race of men, except for the urgent remembrance that one of the
monstrous accidents this child knows of might happen now.  That made an
acute difference.  This was not nightmare, nor ridiculous romance, but
actuality.  And as I looked at this mocking youngster, I saw he was
like the men of that group on the _Queen Mary_ who were similarly
mocking, for my benefit, but a few weeks before, their expert share in
forwarding the work we had given them in this new age; and then where
were they?  Ships I knew, but not such ships as these, nor such work.

Another officer joined us, an older man, and said this to him was
strange navigation.  He was a merchant seaman.  He had served his time
in sailing ships.  I asked him to name some of them, having the feeling
that I could get back to the time I knew if I could but hail the ghost,
with another survivor from the past, of one of those forgotten ships.
"Well," he replied, "there was the _Cutty Sark_."

If he had said the _Golden Hind_ I should not have been more
astonished.  In a sense, it was the same thing.  The _Cutty Sark_ was
in the direct line with the Elizabethan ships, but at the end.  That
era, though it closed so recently, was already as far as a vague
memory.  The new sea engines had come, and here we were with them,
puzzled and embarrassed, having lost our reasonable friends.  I told
him I had known the _Cutty Sark_, and had seen that master of hers--a
character who went about Poplar in a Glengarry cap--who gave one of her
masts (the mizzen, I think) a golden rooster, after he had driven her
from Sydney Heads to the Channel to break the record--Captain Woodget.
His men said it was like living in a glass house.

I recalled to him that once, when my business was concerned with bills
of lading and freight accounts, I was advised to ship four hundred
cases to Sydney, New South Wales; and one-half of that consignment, my
instructions ran, was to arrive a month before the other.  The first
lot went in a modern steel barque, the _Cairnbulg_.  ("I have seen
her," said this submarine officer).  More than a fortnight later, being
too young to remember that the little _Cutty Sark_ had been one of the
China tea clippers, I shipped the last half of the consignment in her.
But she disordered all the careful plans of the consignees.  She got in
a fortnight ahead of the _Cairnbulg_.

The effect of that casual recollection on the submarine officer was
distinctly unwarlike.  This memory, and not his present work, might
have been the real thing.  He knew Woodget, the man in the Glengarry.
He wanted to know more; ever so much more.  He mentioned other ships
and masters, to induce me.  I got the idea that he would let his mind,
at least, escape into that time, if only I would help him to let it go.
But there was that potent and silent enigma about us. . . .

No such escape for him.  We have fashioned other ships, and must use
them.  What we have conjured up compels us to live with it.  But when
you do not go to sea you may have what ships you like.  There is some
but not much interest in the reappearance in the newspapers of the
sailing lists; a few of the old names appear again, though new ships
bear them.  But late at night, when a westerly wind with rain turns for
me a neighbouring yew tree into an invisible surge, then it is the
fortune of one who remembers such as the _Cutty Sark_ to choose
different ships and other times.  Why not choose them?  They were
comely ships, and now their time seems fair.  Who would care to
remember the power and grey threat of a modern warship, or the exotic
luxury of a liner of this new era?  Nobody who remembers the
graciousness of the clippers, nor the pride and content of the seamen
who worked them.  To aid the illusion of the yew, I have one of those
books which are not books, a _Lloyd's Register of Shipping_ for 1880,
that by some unknown circuitous route found its way from its first
owner in Madras to my suburb.  It goes very well with the surge of yew,
when westerly weather comes to unite them.

I should like to know how that book got to London.  Somewhere in it is
the name of the ship which carried it.  Anyhow, I think I can make out
in it the houseflag of that ship.  It, was, I believe, one of J. H.
Allan's teak-built craft, a forgotten line--the _Rajah of Cochin_, the
_Copenhagen_, the _Lincelles_,--though only just before the War, in the
South-West India Dock, I met a stranger, a seaman looking for work, who
regretted its disappearance, and the new company-owned steamers; for he
said they were good ships, "but more than that," he told me, "Allan was
an old gentleman who knew his own ships, and knew his men."  This
stranger said you forget a ship now as soon as you are paid off, "and
glad to," and "you don't ever know who owns her, even if there's a
strike.  Parsons and old maids and Cardiff sharks, I reckon."

Very likely.  But what sharks once were in it have all disappeared from
my Register.  It belongs to those days when, if you went to New
Zealand, you had to go by sailer; when the East India Dock had an
arcade of jib-booms and bowsprits, with sometimes a varnished shark's
tail terminal--the _Euterpe_, _Jessie Readman_, _Wanganui_, _Wazmea_,
_Waimate_, _Opawa_, _Margaret Galbraith_, _Helen Denny_, _Lutterworth_,
and _Hermione_.  There were others.  What is in these names?  But how
can we tell?  There were personal figureheads, there were shapely
forms, each with its own narrative of adventure, there was the
undiscovered sea, and there was youth; and these have gone.

It is all very well to say that the names and mere words in this old
Register have no more meaning today than a railway time-table of the
same date.  Hardly to be distinguished in the shadows in some corners
of St. Paul's Cathedral from which night never quite goes, there are
certain friendless regimental colours.  Few of us know now who bore
them, and where, and why; but imagine the deserved fate of one who
would allow a brutal word to disturb their dust!  They mean nothing,
except that men, in a world where it is easy to lose faith, treasure
the few tokens of faithfulness, courage, and enterprise proved in their
fellows; and so those old staffs, to which cling faded and dusty rags,
in a real sense support the Cathedral.  Poplar once was a parish whose
name was more familiar in Eastern seas and on the coasts of the
Americans, and stood for something greater and of more value, than the
names of some veritable capital cities.  That vista down the East India
Dock Road from North Street, past the plane trees which support on a
cloud the cupola of Green's Chapel, to the gateway of the dock which
was built for John Company, was what many would remember as essential
London who would pass the Mansion House as though it were a dingy and
nameless tavern.  At the back of that road today, and opposite a church
which was a chapel-of-ease to save the crews of the East Indiamen lying
off Blackwall the long walk to Stebonhythe Church, is the public
library; and within that building are stored, as are the regimental
colours in the Cathedral, the houseflags of those very ships my
Register helps me to remember--the tokens of fidelity and courage, of a
service that was native, and a skill in that service which was
traditional to the parish.  Tokens that now are dusty and in their
night, understood only by the few who also belong to the past.

There is the houseflag of the _Cutty Sark_, and her sister ships the
_Dharwar_, _Blackadder_, _Coldstream_--but one must be careful, and
refuse to allow these names to carry one-way.  There are so many of
them.  They are all good.  Each can conjure up a picture and a memory.
They are like those names one reads in spring in a seed-merchant's
catalogue.  They call to be written down, to be sung aloud, to be
shared with a friend.  But I know the quick jealousy of some old
sailor, his pride wounded here by an unjustifiable omission of the ship
that was the one above all others for him, is bound to be moved by
anything less than a complete reprint here of the Register.  How, for
example, could I give every name in the fleet of the White Star of
Aberdeen?  Yet was not each ship, with her green hull and white spars,
as moving as a lyric?  Is there in London River today a ship as
beautiful as the old _Thermopylae_?  There is not.  It is impossible.
There was the _Samuel Plimsoll_ of that line--now a coal hulk at
Gibraltar--which must be named, for she was Captain Simpson's ship (he
was commodore afterwards), the "merry blue-eyed skipper" of Froude's
_Oceana_, but much more than that, a sage and masterful Scot whose talk
was worth a long journey to hear.

The houseflag of Messrs. R. and H. Green, in any reference to the ships
of Blackwall, should have been mentioned first.  There is a sense in
which it is right to say that the founder of that firm, at a time when
American craft like the Boston clippers of Donald McKay were in a fair
way to leave the Red Ensign far astern, declared that Blackwall had to
beat those American flyers, and did it.  But that was long before the
eighties, and when steam was still ridiculed by those who could not see
it equalling clippers that had logged fourteen knots, or made a day's
run of over three hundred miles.  Yet some of Green's ships came down
to the end of the era, like the _Highflyer_ and the _Melbourne_.  The
latter was renamed the _Macquarie_, and was one of the last of the
clippers to come home to Poplar, and for that reason, and because of
her noble proportions, her picture is kept, as a reminder, by many who
wish to think of ships and the sea as they were.  It is likely that
most who live in Poplar now, and see next to its railway station the
curious statue of a man and a dog, wonder who on earth Richard Green,
Esq., used to be; though there are a few oldsters left still who
remember Blackwall when its shipwrights, riggers, sailmakers, and
caulkers were men of renown and substance, and who can recall, not only
Richard Green, but that dog of his, for it knew the road to the dock
probably better than most of those who use it today.  Poplar was the
nursery of the Clyde.  The flags which Poplar knew well would puzzle
London now--Devitt and Moore's, Money Wigram's, Duthie's, Willis's,
Carmichael's, Duncan Dunbar's, Scrutton's, and Elder's.  But when
lately our merchant seamen surprised us with a mastery of their craft
and a fortitude which most of us had forgotten were ever ours, what
those flags represented, a regard for a tradition as ancient and as
rigorous as that of any royal port, was beneath it all.

But if it were asked what was this tradition, it would not be easy to
say.  Its authority is voiceless, but it is understood.  Then what is
it one knows of it?  I remember, on a day just before the War, the
flood beginning to move the shipping of the Pool.  Eastward the black
cliffs lowered till they sank under the white tower of Limehouse
Church; and the church, looking to the sunset, seemed baseless, shining
with a lunar radiance.  Upriver, the small craft were uncertain, moving
like phantoms over a pit of bottomless fire.  But downstream every ship
was as salient as though lighted with the rays of a great lantern.  And
there in that light was a laden barque, outward bound, waiting at the
buoys.  She headed downstream.  Her row of white ports diminished along
the length of her green hull.  The lines of her bulwarks, her sheer,
fell to her waist, then airily rose again, came up and round to merge
in one fine line at the jibboom.  The lines sweeping down and airily
rising again were light as the swoop of a swallow.  The symmetry of her
laden hull set in a plane of dancing sun-points, and her soaring amber
masts, cross-sparred, caught in a mesh of delicate cordage, and shining
till they almost vanished where they rose above the buildings and stood
against the sky, made her seem as noble and haughty as a burst of great
music.  One of ours, that ship.  Part of our parish.





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