The Ocean Wave, by Ambrose Bierce

The Man Overboard


The good ship Nupple-duck was drifting rapidly upon a sunken coral reef, which seemed to extend a reasonless number of leagues to the right and left without a break, and I was reading Macaulay’s “Naseby Fight” to the man at the wheel. Everything was, in fact, going on as nicely as heart could wish, when Captain Abersouth, standing on the companion-stair, poked his head above deck and asked where we were. Pausing in my reading, I informed him that we had got as far as the disastrous repulse of Prince Rupert’s cavalry, adding that if he would have the goodness to hold his jaw we should be making it awkward for the wounded in about three minutes, and he might bear a hand at the pockets of the slain. Just then the ship struck heavily, and went down!

Calling another ship, I stepped aboard, and gave directions to be taken to No. 900 Tottenham Court Road, where I had an aunt; then, walking aft to the man at the wheel, asked him if he would like to hear me read “Naseby Fight.” He thought he would: he would like to hear that, and then I might pass on to something else — Kinglake’s “Crimean War,” the proceedings at the trial of Warren Hastings, or some such trifle, just to wile away the time till eight bells.

All this time heavy clouds had been gathering along the horizon directly in front of the ship, and a deputation of passengers now came to the man at the wheel to demand that she be put about, or she would run into them, which the spokesman explained would be unusual. I thought at the time that it certainly was not the regular thing to do, but, as I was myself only a passenger, did not deem it expedient to take a part in the heated discussion that ensued; and, after all, it did not seem likely that the weather in those clouds would be much worse than that in Tottenham Court Road, where I had an aunt.

It was finally decided to refer the matter to arbitration, and after many names had been submitted and rejected by both sides, it was agreed that the captain of the ship should act as arbitrator if his consent could be obtained, and I was delegated to conduct the negotiations to that end. With considerable difficulty, I persuaded him to accept the responsibility.

He was a feeble-minded sort of fellow named Troutbeck, who was always in a funk lest he should make enemies; never reflecting that most men would a little rather be his enemies than not. He had once been the ship’s cook, but had cooked so poisonously ill that he had been forcibly transferred from galley to quarter-deck by the dyspeptic survivors of his culinary career.

The little captain went aft with me to listen to arguments of the dissatisfied passengers and the obstinate steersman, as to whether we should take our chances in the clouds, or tail off and run for the opposite horizon; but on approaching the wheel, we found both helmsman and passengers in a condition of profound astonishment, rolling their eyes about towards every point of the compass, and shaking their heads in hopeless perplexity. It was rather remarkable, certainly: the bank of cloud which had worried the landsmen was now directly astern, and the ship was cutting along lively in her own wake, toward the point from which she had come, and straight away from Tottenham Court Road! Everybody declared it was a miracle; the chaplain was piped up for prayers, and the man at the wheel was as truly penitent as if he had been detected robbing an empty poor-box.

The explanation was simple enough, and dawned upon me the moment I saw how matters stood. During the dispute between the helmsman and the deputation, the former had renounced his wheel to gesticulate, and I, thinking no harm, had amused myself, during a rather tedious debate, by revolving the thing this way and that, and had unconsciously put the ship about. By a coincidence not unusual in low latitudes, the wind had effected a corresponding transposition at the same time, and was now bowling us as merrily back toward the place where I had embarked, as it had previously wafted us in the direction of Tottenham Court Road, where I had an aunt. I must here so far anticipate, as to explain that some years later these various incidents — particularly the reading of “Naseby Fight”— led to the adoption, in our mercantile marine, of a rule which I believe is still extant, to the effect that one must not speak to the man at the wheel unless the man at the wheel speaks first.


It is only by inadvertence that I have omitted the information that the vessel in which I was now a pervading influence was the Bonnyclabber (Troutbeck, master), of Malvern Heights.

The Bonnyclabber’s reactionary course had now brought her to the spot at which I had taken passage. Passengers and crew, fatigued by their somewhat awkward attempts to manifest their gratitude for our miraculous deliverance from the cloud-bank, were snoring peacefully in unconsidered attitudes about the deck, when the lookout man, perched on the supreme extremity of the mainmast, consuming a cold sausage, began an apparently preconcerted series of extraordinary and unimaginable noises. He coughed, sneezed, and barked simultaneously — bleated in one breath, and cackled in the next — sputteringly shrieked, and chatteringly squealed, with a bass of suffocated roars. There were desolutory vocal explosions, tapering off in long wails, half smothered in unintelligible small-talk. He whistled, wheezed, and trumpeted; began to sharp, thought better of it and flatted; neighed like a horse, and then thundered like a drum! Through it all he continued making incomprehensible signals with one hand while clutching his throat with the other. Presently he gave it up, and silently descended to the deck.

By this time we were all attention; and no sooner had he set foot amongst us, than he was assailed with a tempest of questions which, had they been visible, would have resembled a flight of pigeons. He made no reply — not even by a look, but passed through our enclosing mass with a grim, defiant step, a face deathly white, and a set of the jaw as of one repressing an ambitious dinner, or ignoring a venomous toothache. For the poor man was choking!

Passing down the companion-way, the patient sought the surgeon’s cabin, with the ship’s company at his heels. The surgeon was fast asleep, the lark-like performance at the masthead having been inaudible in that lower region. While some of us were holding a whisky-bottle to the medical nose, in order to apprise the medical intelligence of the demand upon it, the patient seated himself in statuesque silence. By this time his pallor, which was but the mark of a determined mind, had given place to a fervent crimson, which visibly deepened into a pronounced purple, and was ultimately superseded by a clouded blue, shot through with opalescent gleams, and smitten with variable streaks of black. The face was swollen and shapeless, the neck puffy. The eyes protruded like pegs of a hat-stand.

Pretty soon the doctor was got awake, and after making a careful examination of his patient, remarking that it was a lovely case of stopupagus œsophagi, took a tool and set to work, producing with no difficulty a cold sausage of the size, figure, and general bearing of a somewhat self-important banana. The operation had been performed amid breathless silence, but the moment it was concluded the patient, whose neck and head had visibly collapsed, sprang to his feet and shouted:

“Man overboard!”

That is what he had been trying to say.

There was a confused rush to the upper deck, and everybody flung something over the ship’s side — a life-belt, a chicken-coop, a coil of rope, a spar, an old sail, a pocket handkerchief, an iron crowbar — any movable article which it was thought might be useful to a drowning man who had followed the vessel during the hour that had elapsed since the initial alarm at the mast-head. In a few moments the ship was pretty nearly dismantled of everything that could be easily renounced, and some excitable passenger having cut away the boats there was nothing more that we could do, though the chaplain explained that if the ill-fated gentleman in the wet did not turn up after a while it was his intention to stand at the stern and read the burial service of the Church of England.

Presently it occurred to some ingenious person to inquire who had gone overboard, and all hands being mustered and the roll called, to our great chagrin every man answered to his name, passengers and all! Captain Troutbeck, however, held that in a matter of so great importance a simple roll-call was insufficient, and with an assertion of authority that was encouraging insisted that every person on board be separately sworn. The result was the same; nobody was missing and the captain, begging pardon for having doubted our veracity, retired to his cabin to avoid further responsibility, but expressed a hope that for the purpose of having everything properly recorded in the log-book we would apprise him of any further action that we might think it advisable to take. I smiled as I remembered that in the interest of the unknown gentleman whose peril we had overestimated I had flung the log-book over the ship’s side.

Soon afterward I felt suddenly inspired with one of those great ideas that come to most men only once or twice in a lifetime, and to the ordinary story teller never. Hastily reconvening the ship’s company I mounted the capstan and thus addressed them:

“Shipmates, there has been a mistake. In the fervor of an ill-considered compassion we have made pretty free with certain movable property of an eminent firm of shipowners of Malvern Heights. For this we shall undoubtedly be called to account if we are ever so fortunate as to drop anchor in Tottenham Court Road, where I have an aunt. It would add strength to our defence if we could show to the satisfaction of a jury of our peers that in heeding the sacred promptings of humanity we had acted with some small degree of common sense. If, for example, we could make it appear that there really was a man overboard, who might have been comforted and sustained by the material consolation that we so lavishly dispensed in the form of buoyant articles belonging to others, the British heart would find in that fact a mitigating circumstance pleading eloquently in our favor. Gentlemen and ship’s officers, I venture to propose that we do now throw a man overboard.”

The effect was electrical: the motion was carried by acclamation and there was a unanimous rush for the now wretched mariner whose false alarm at the masthead was the cause of our embarrassment, but on second thoughts it was decided to substitute Captain Troutbeck, as less generally useful and more undeviatingly in error. The sailor had made one mistake of considerable magnitude, but the captain’s entire existence was a mistake altogether. He was fetched up from his cabin and chucked over.

At 900 Tottenham Road Court lived an aunt of mine — a good old lady who had brought me up by hand and taught me many wholesome lessons in morality, which in my later life have proved of extreme value. Foremost among these I may mention her solemn and oft-repeated injunction never to tell a lie without a definite and specific reason for doing so. Many years’ experience in the violation of this principle enables me to speak with authority as to its general soundness. I have, therefore, much pleasure in making a slight correction in the preceding chapter of this tolerably true history. It was there affirmed that I threw the Bonnyclabber’s log-book into the sea. The statement is entirely false, and I can discover no reason for having made it that will for a moment weigh against those I now have for the preservation of that log-book.

The progress of the story has developed new necessities, and I now find it convenient to quote from that book passages which it could not have contained if cast into the sea at the time stated; for if thrown upon the resources of my imagination I might find the temptation to exaggerate too strong to be resisted.

It is needless to worry the reader with those entries in the book referring to events already related. Our record will begin on the day of the captain’s consignment to the deep, after which era I made the entries myself.

“June 22nd. — Not much doing in the way of gales, but heavy swells left over from some previous blow. Latitude and longitude not notably different from last observation. Ship laboring a trifle, owing to lack of top-hamper, everything of that kind having been cut away in consequence of Captain Troutbeck having accidently fallen overboard while fishing from the bowsprit. Also threw over cargo and everything that we could spare. Miss our sails rather, but if they save our dear captain, we shall be content. Weather flagrant.

“23d. — Nothing from Captain Troutbeck. Dead calm — also dead whale. The passengers having become preposterous in various ways, Mr. Martin, the chief officer, had three of the ringleaders tied up and rope’s -ended. He thought it advisable also to flog an equal number of the crew, by way of being impartial. Weather ludicrous.

“24th. — Captain still prefers to stop away, and does not telegraph. The ‘captain of the foretop’— there isn’t any foretop now — was put in irons to-day by Mr. Martin for eating cold sausage while on look-out. Mr. Martin has flogged the steward, who had neglected to holy-stone the binnacle and paint the dead-lights. The steward is a good fellow all the same. Weather iniquitous.

“25th. — Can’t think whatever has become of Captain Troutbeck. He must be getting hungry by this time; for although he has his fishing-tackle with him, he has no bait. Mr. Martin inspected the entries in this book to-day. He is a most excellent and humane officer. Weather inexcusable.

“26th. — All hope of hearing from the Captain has been abandoned. We have sacrificed everything to save him; but now, if we could procure the loan of a mast and some sails, we should proceed on our voyage. Mr. Martin has knocked the coxswain overboard for sneezing. He is an experienced seaman, a capable officer, and a Christian gentleman — damn his eyes! Weather tormenting.

“27th. — Another inspection of this book by Mr. Martin. Farewell, vain world! Break it gently to my aunt in Tottenham Court Road.”

In the concluding sentences of this record, as it now lies before me, the handwriting is not very legible: they were penned under circumstances singularly unfavorable. Mr. Martin stood behind me with his eyes fixed on the page; and in order to secure a better view, had twisted the machinery of the engine he called his hand into the hair of my head, depressing that globe to such an extent that my nose was flattened against the surface of the table, and I had no small difficulty in discerning the lines through my eyebrows. I was not accustomed to writing in that position: it had not been taught in the only school that I ever attended. I therefore felt justified in bringing the record to a somewhat abrupt close, and immediately went on deck with Mr. Martin, he preceding me up the companion-stairs on foot, I following, not on horseback, but on my own, the connection between us being maintained without important alteration.

Arriving on deck, I thought it advisable, in the interest of peace and quietness, to pursue him in the same manner to the side of the ship, where I parted from him forever with many expressions of regret, which might have been heard at a considerable distance.

Of the subsequent fate of the Bonnyclabber, I can only say that the log-book from which I have quoted was found some years later in the stomach of a whale, along with some shreds of clothing, a few buttons and several decayed life-belts. It contained only one new entry, in a straggling handwriting, as if it had been penned in the dark:

“july2th foundered svivors rescude by wale wether stuffy no nues from capting trowtbeck Sammle martin cheef Ofcer.”

Let us now take a retrospective glance at the situation. The ship Nupple-duck, (Abersouth, master) had, it will be remembered, gone down with all on board except me. I had escaped on the ship Bonnyclabber (Troutbeck) which I had quitted owing to a misunderstanding with the chief officer, and was now unattached. That is how matters stood when, rising on an unusually high wave, and casting my eye in the direction of Tottenham Court Road — that is, backward along the course pursued by the Bonnyclabber and toward the spot at which the Nupple-duck had been swallowed up — I saw a quantity of what appeared to be wreckage. It turned out to be some of the stuff that we had thrown overboard under a misapprehension. The several articles had been compiled and, so to speak, carefully edited. They were, in fact, lashed together, forming a raft. On a stool in the center of it — not, apparently navigating it, but rather with the subdued and dignified bearing of a passenger, sat Captain Abersouth, of the Nupple-duck, reading a novel.

Our meeting was not cordial. He remembered me as a man of literary taste superior to his own and harbored resentment, and although he made no opposition to my taking passage with him I could see that his acquiescence was due rather to his muscular inferiority than to the circumstance that I was damp and taking cold. Merely acknowledging his presence with a nod as I climbed abroad, I seated myself and inquired if he would care to hear the concluding stanzas of “Naseby Fight.”

“No,” he replied, looking up from his novel, “no, Claude Reginald Gump, writer of sea stories, I’ve done with you. When you sank the Nupple-duck some days ago you probably thought that you had made an end of me. That was clever of you, but I came to the surface and followed the other ship — the one on which you escaped. It was I that the sailor saw from the masthead. I saw him see me. It was for me that all that stuff was hove overboard. Good — I made it into this raft. It was, I think, the next day that I passed the floating body of a man whom I recognized as, my old friend Billy Troutbeck — he used to be a cook on a man-o’-war. It gives me pleasure to be the means of saving your life, but I eschew you. The moment that we reach port our paths part. You remember that in the very first sentence of this story you began to drive my ship, the Nupple-duck, on to a reef of coral.”

I was compelled to confess that this was true, and he continued his inhospitable reproaches:

“Before you had written half a column you sent her to the bottom, with me and the crew. But you— you escaped.”

“That is true,” I replied; “I cannot deny that the facts are correctly stated.”

“And in a story before that, you took me and my mates of the ship Camel into the heart of the South Polar Sea and left us frozen dead in the ice, like flies in amber. But you did not leave yourself there — you escaped.”

“Really, Captain,” I said, “your memory is singularly accurate, considering the many hardships that you have had to undergo; many a man would have gone mad.”

“And a long time before that,” Captain Abersouth resumed, after a pause, more, apparently, to con his memory than to enjoy my good opinion of it, “you lost me at sea — look here; I didn’t read anything but George Eliot at that time, but I’m told that you lost me at sea in the Mudlark. Have I been misinformed?”

I could not say he had been misinformed.

“You yourself escaped on that occasion, I think.”

It was true. Being usually the hero of my own stories, I commonly do manage to live through one, in order to figure to advantage in the next. It is from artistic necessity: no reader would take much interest in a hero who was dead before the beginning of the tale. I endeavored to explain this to Captain Abersouth. He shook his head.

“No,” said he, “it’s cowardly, that’s the way I look at it.”

Suddenly an effulgent idea began to dawn upon me, and I let it have its way until my mind was perfectly luminous. Then I rose from my seat, and frowning down into the upturned face of my accuser, spoke in severe and rasping accents thus:

“Captain Abersouth, in the various perils you and I have encountered together in the classical literature of the period, if I have always escaped and you have always perished; if I lost you at sea in the Mudlark, froze you into the ice at the South Pole in the Camel and drowned you in the Nupple-duck, pray be good enough to tell me whom I have the honor to address.”

It was a blow to the poor man: no one was ever so disconcerted. Flinging aside his novel, he put up his hands and began to scratch his head and think. It was beautiful to see him think, but it seemed to distress him and pointing significantly over the side of the raft I suggested as delicately as possible that it was time to act. He rose to his feet and fixing upon me a look of reproach which I shall remember as long as I can, cast himself into the deep. As to me — I escaped.

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