The Ocean Wave, by Ambrose Bierce

The Captain of “The Camel”

This ship was named the Camel. In some ways she was an extraordinary vessel. She measured six hundred tons; but when she had taken in enough ballast to keep her from upsetting like a shot duck, and was provisioned for a three months’ voyage, it was necessary to be mighty fastidious in the choice of freight and passengers. For illustration, as she was about to leave port a boat came alongside with two passengers, a man and his wife. They had booked the day before, but had remained ashore to get one more decent meal before committing themselves to the “briny cheap,” as the man called the ship’s fare. The woman came aboard, and the man was preparing to follow, when the captain leaned over the side and saw him.

“Well,” said the captain, “what do you want?”

“What do I want?” said the man, laying hold of the ladder. “I’m a-going to embark in this here ship — that’s what I want.”

“Not with all that fat on you,” roared the captain. “You don’t weigh an ounce less than eighteen stone, and I’ve got to have in my anchor yet. You wouldn’t have me leave the anchor, I suppose?”

The man said he did not care about the anchor — he was just as God had made him (he looked as if his cook had had something to do with it) and, sink or swim, he purposed embarking in that ship. A good deal of wrangling ensued, but one of the sailors finally threw the man a cork life-preserver, and the captain said that would lighten him and he might come abroad.

This was Captain Abersouth, formerly of the Mudlark— as good a seaman as ever sat on the taffrail reading a three volume novel. Nothing could equal this man’s passion for literature. For every voyage he laid in so many bales of novels that there was no stowage for the cargo. There were novels in the hold, and novels between-decks, and novels in the saloon, and in the passengers’ beds.

The Camel had been designed and built by her owner, an architect in the City, and she looked about as much like a ship as Noah’s Ark did. She had bay windows and a veranda; a cornice and doors at the water-line. These doors had knockers and servant’s bells. There had been a futile attempt at an area. The passenger saloon was on the upper deck, and had a tile roof. To this humplike structure the ship owed her name. Her designer had erected several churches — that of St. Ignotus is still used as a brewery in Hotbath Meadows — and, possessed of the ecclesiastic idea, had given the Camel a transept; but, finding this impeded her passage through the water, he had it removed. This weakened the vessel amidships. The mainmast was something like a steeple. It had a weathercock. From this spire the eye commanded one of the finest views in England.

Such was the Camel when I joined her in 1864 for a voyage of discovery to the South Pole. The expedition was under the “auspices” of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Fair Play. At a meeting of this excellent association, it had been “resolved” that the partiality of science for the North Pole was an invidious distinction between two objects equally meritorious; that Nature had marked her disapproval of it in the case of Sir John Franklin and many of his imitators; that it served them very well right; that this enterprise should be undertaken as a protest against the spirit of undue bias; and, finally, that no part of the responsibility or expense should devolve upon the society in its corporate character, but any individual member might contribute to the fund if he were fool enough. It is only common justice to say that none of them was. The Camel merely parted her cable one day while I happened to be on board — drifted out of the harbor southward, followed by the execrations of all who knew her, and could not get back. In two months she had crossed the equator, and the heat began to grow insupportable.

Suddenly we were becalmed. There had been a fine breeze up to three o’clock in the afternoon and the ship had made as much as two knots an hour when without a word of warning the sails began to belly the wrong way, owing to the impetus that the ship had acquired; and then, as this expired, they hung as limp and lifeless as the skirts of a clawhammer coat. The Camel not only stood stock still but moved a little backward toward England. Old Ben the boatswain said that he’d never knowed but one deader calm, and that, he explained, was when Preacher Jack, the reformed sailor, had got excited in a sermon in a seaman’s chapel and shouted that the Archangel Michael would chuck the Dragon into the brig and give him a taste of the rope’s -end, damn his eyes!

We lay in this woful state for the better part of a year, when, growing impatient, the crew deputed me to look up the captain and see if something could not be done about it. I found him in a remote cobwebby corner between-decks, with a book in his hand. On one side of him, the cords newly cut, were three bales of “Ouida”; on the other a mountain of Miss M.E. Braddon towered above his head. He had finished “Ouida” and was tackling Miss Braddon. He was greatly changed.

“Captain Abersouth,” said I, rising on tiptoe so as to overlook the lower slopes of Mrs. Braddon, “will you be good enough to tell me how long this thing is going on?”

“Can’t say, I’m sure,” he replied without pulling his eyes off the page. “They’ll probably make up about the middle of the book. In the meantime old Pondronummus will foul his top-hamper and take out his papers for Looney Haven, and young Monshure de Boojower will come in for a million. Then if the proud and fair Angelica doesn’t luff and come into his wake after pizening that sea lawyer, Thundermuzzle, I don’t know nothing about the deeps and shallers of the human heart.”

I could not take so hopeful a view of the situation, and went on deck, feeling very much discouraged. I had no sooner got my head out than I observed that the ship was moving at a high rate of speed!

We had on board a bullock and a Dutchman. The bullock was chained by the neck to the foremast, but the Dutchman was allowed a good deal of liberty, being shut up at night only. There was bad blood between the two — a feud of long standing, having its origin in the Dutchman’s appetite for milk and the bullock’s sense of personal dignity; the particular cause of offense it would be tedious to relate. Taking advantage of his enemy’s afternoon siesta, the Dutchman had now managed to sneak by him, and had gone out on the bowsprit to fish. When the animal waked and saw the other creature enjoying himself he straddled his chain, leveled his horns, got his hind feet against the mast and laid a course for the offender. The chain was strong, the mast firm, and the ship, as Byron says, “walked the water like a thing of course.”

After that we kept the Dutchman right where he was, night and day, the old Camel making better speed than she had ever done in the most favorable gale. We held due south.

We had now been a long time without sufficient food, particularly meat. We could spare neither the bullock nor the Dutchman; and the ship’s carpenter, that traditional first aid to the famished, was a mere bag of bones. The fish would neither bite nor be bitten. Most of the running-tackle of the ship had been used for macaroni soup; all the leather work, our shoes included, had been devoured in omelettes; with oakum and tar we had made fairly supportable salad. After a brief experimental career as tripe the sails had departed this life forever. Only two courses remained from which to choose; we could eat one another, as is the etiquette of the sea, or partake of Captain Abersouth’s novels. Dreadful alternative! — but a choice. And it is seldom, I think, that starving sailormen are offered a shipload of the best popular authors ready-roasted by the critics.

We ate that fiction. The works that the captain had thrown aside lasted six months, for most of them were by the best-selling authors and were pretty tough. After they were gone — of course some had to be given to the bullock and the Dutchman — we stood by the captain, taking the other books from his hands as he finished them. Sometimes, when we were apparently at our last gasp, he would skip a whole page of moralizing, or a bit of description; and always, as soon as he clearly foresaw the dénoûement— which he generally did at about the middle of the second volume — the work was handed over to us without a word of repining.

The effect of this diet was not unpleasant but remarkable. Physically, it sustained us; mentally, it exalted us; morally, it made us but a trifle worse than we were. We talked as no human beings ever talked before. Our wit was polished but without point. As in a stage broadsword combat, every cut has its parry, so in our conversation every remark suggested the reply, and this necessitated a certain rejoinder. The sequence once interrupted, the whole was bosh; when the thread was broken the beads were seen to be waxen and hollow.

We made love to one another, and plotted darkly in the deepest obscurity of the hold. Each set of conspirators had its proper listener at the hatch. These, leaning too far over would bump their heads together and fight. Occasionally there was confusion amongst them: two or more would assert a right to overhear the same plot. I remember at one time the cook, the carpenter, the second assistant-surgeon, and an able seaman contended with handspikes for the honor of betraying my confidence. Once there were three masked murderers of the second watch bending at the same instant over the sleeping form of a cabin-boy, who had been heard to mutter, a week previously, that he had “Gold! gold!” the accumulation of eighty — yes, eighty — years’ piracy on the high seas, while sitting as M.P. for the borough of Zaccheus-cum-Down, and attending church regularly. I saw the captain of the foretop surrounded by suitors for his hand, while he was himself fingering the edge of a packing-case, and singing an amorous ditty to a lady-love shaving at a mirror.

Our diction consisted, in about equal parts, of classical allusion, quotation from the stable, simper from the scullery, cant from the clubs, and the technical slang of heraldry. We boasted much of ancestry, and admired the whiteness of our hands whenever the skin was visible through a fault in the grease and tar. Next to love, the vegetable kingdom, murder, arson, adultery and ritual, we talked most of art. The wooden figure-head of the Camel, representing a Guinea nigger detecting a bad smell, and the monochrome picture of two back-broken dolphins on the stern, acquired a new importance. The Dutchman had destroyed the nose of the one by kicking his toes against it, and the other was nearly obliterated by the slops of the cook; but each had its daily pilgrimage, and each constantly developed occult beauties of design and subtle excellences of execution. On the whole we were greatly altered; and if the supply of contemporary fiction had been equal to the demand, the Camel, I fear, would not have been strong enough to contain the moral and æsthetic forces fired by the maceration of the brains of authors in the gastric juices of sailors.

Having now got the ship’s literature off his mind into ours, the captain went on deck for the first time since leaving port. We were still steering the same course, and, taking his first observation of the sun, the captain discovered that we were in latitude 83° south. The heat was insufferable; the air was like the breath of a furnace within a furnace. The sea steamed like a boiling cauldron, and in the vapor our bodies were temptingly parboiled — our ultimate meal was preparing. Warped by the sun, the ship held both ends high out of the water; the deck of the forecastle was an inclined plane, on which the bullock labored at a disadvantage; but the bowsprit was now vertical and the Dutchman’s tenure precarious. A thermometer hung against the mainmast, and we grouped ourselves about it as the captain went up to examine the register.

“One hundred and ninety degrees Fahrenheit!” he muttered in evident astonishment. “Impossible!” Turning sharply about, he ran his eyes over us, and inquired in a peremptory tone, “who’s been in command while I was runnin’ my eye over that book?”

“Well, captain,” I replied, as respectfully as I knew how, “the fourth day out I had the unhappiness to be drawn into a dispute about a game of cards with your first and second officers. In the absence of those excellent seamen, sir, I thought it my duty to assume control of the ship.”

“Killed ’em, hey?”

“Sir, they committed suicide by questioning the efficacy of four kings and an ace.”

“Well, you lubber, what have you to say in defense of this extraordinary weather?”

“Sir, it is no fault of mine. We are far — very far south, and it is now the middle of July. The weather is uncomfortable, I admit; but considering the latitude and season, it is not, I protest, unseasonable.”

“Latitude and season!” he shrieked, livid with rage —“latitude and season! Why, you junk-rigged, flat-bottomed, meadow lugger, don’t you know any better than that? Didn’t yer little baby brother ever tell ye that southern latitudes is colder than northern, and that July is the middle o’ winter here? Go below, you son of a scullion, or I’ll break your bones!”

“Oh! very well,” I replied; “I’m not going to stay on deck and listen to such low language as that, I warn you. Have it your own way.”

The words had no sooner left my lips, than a piercing cold wind caused me to cast my eye upon the thermometer. In the new régime of science the mercury was descending rapidly; but in a moment the instrument was obscured by a blinding fall of snow. Towering icebergs rose from the water on every side, hanging their jagged masses hundreds of feet above the masthead, and shutting us completely in. The ship twisted and writhed; her decks bulged upward, and every timber groaned and cracked like the report of a pistol. The Camel was frozen fast. The jerk of her sudden stopping snapped the bullock’s chain, and sent both that animal and the Dutchman over the bows, to accomplish their warfare on the ice.

Elbowing my way forward to go below, as I had threatened, I saw the crew tumble to the deck on either hand like ten-pins. They were frozen stiff. Passing the captain, I asked him sneeringly how he liked the weather under the new régime. He replied with a vacant stare. The chill had penetrated to the brain, and affected his mind. He murmured:

“In this delightful spot, happy in the world’s esteem, and surrounded by all that makes existence dear, they passed the remainder of their lives. The End.”

His jaw dropped. The captain of the Camel was dead.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31