The Last Galley, by Arthur Conan Doyle

“De Profundis”

So long as the oceans are the ligaments which bind together the great broad-cast British Empire, so long will there be a dash of romance in our minds. For the soul is swayed by the waters, as the waters are by the moon, and when the great highways of an empire are along such roads as these, so full of strange sights and sounds, with danger ever running like a hedge on either side of the course, it is a dull mind indeed which does not bear away with it some trace of such a passage. And now, Britain lies far beyond herself, for the three-mile limit of every seaboard is her frontier, which has been won by hammer and loom and pick rather than by arts of war. For it is written in history that neither king nor army can bar the path to the man who having twopence in his strong box, and knowing well where he can turn it to threepence, sets his mind to that one end. And as the frontier has broadened, the mind of Britain has broadened too, spreading out until all men can see that the ways of the island are continental, even as those of the Continent are insular.

But for this a price must be paid, and the price is a grievous one. As the beast of old must have one young human life as a tribute every year, so to our Empire we throw from day to day the pick and flower of our youth. The engine is world-wide and strong, but the only fuel that will drive it is the lives of British men. Thus it is that in the grey old cathedrals, as we look round upon the brasses on the walls, we see strange names, such names as they who reared those walls had never heard, for it is in Peshawar, and Umballah, and Korti and Fort Pearson that the youngsters die, leaving only a precedent and a brass behind them. But if every man had his obelisk, even where he lay, then no frontier line need be drawn, for a cordon of British graves would ever show how high the Anglo-Celtic tide had lapped.

This, then, as well as the waters which join us to the world, has done something to tinge us with romance. For when so many have their loved ones over the seas, walking amid hillmen’s bullets, or swamp malaria, where death is sudden and distance great, then mind communes with mind, and strange stories arise of dream, presentiment or vision, where the mother sees her dying son, and is past the first bitterness of her grief ere the message comes which should have broken the news. The learned have of late looked into the matter and have even labelled it with a name; but what can we know more of it save that a poor stricken soul, when hard-pressed and driven, can shoot across the earth some ten-thousand-mile-distant picture of its trouble to the mind which is most akin to it. Far be it from me to say that there lies no such power within us, for of all things which the brain will grasp the last will be itself; but yet it is well to be very cautious over such matters, for once at least I have known that which was within the laws of nature seem to be far upon the further side of them.

John Vansittart was the younger partner of the firm of Hudson and Vansittart, coffee exporters of the Island of Ceylon, three-quarters Dutchman by descent, but wholly English in his sympathies. For years I had been his agent in London, and when in ‘72 he came over to England for a three months’ holiday, he turned to me for the introductions which would enable him to see something of town and country life. Armed with seven letters he left my offices, and for many weeks scrappy notes from different parts of the country let me know that he had found favour in the eyes of my friends. Then came word of his engagement to Emily Lawson, of a cadet branch of the Hereford Lawsons, and at the very tail of the first flying rumour the news of his absolute marriage, for the wooing of a wanderer must be short, and the days were already crowding on towards the date when he must be upon his homeward journey. They were to return together to Colombo in one of the firm’s own thousand-ton barque-rigged sailing ships, and this was to be their princely honeymoon, at once a necessity and a delight.

Those were the royal days of coffee-planting in Ceylon, before a single season and a rotten fungus drove a whole community through years of despair to one of the greatest commercial victories which pluck and ingenuity ever won. Not often is it that men have the heart when their one great industry is withered to rear up in a few years another as rich to take its place, and the tea-fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion at Waterloo. But in ‘72 there was no cloud yet above the skyline, and the hopes of the planters were as high and as bright as the hillsides on which they reared their crops. Vansittart came down to London with his young and beautiful wife. I was introduced, dined with them, and it was finally arranged that I, since business called me also to Ceylon, should be a fellow-passenger with them on the Eastern Star, which was timed to sail on the following Monday.

It was on the Sunday evening that I saw him again. He was shown up into my rooms about nine o’clock at night, with the air of a man who is bothered and out of sorts. His hand, as I shook it, was hot and dry.

“I wish, Atkinson,” said he, “that you could give me a little lime juice and water. I have a beastly thirst upon me, and the more I take the more I seem to want.”

I rang and ordered a carafe and glasses. “You are flushed,” said I. “You don’t look the thing.”

“No, I’m clean off colour. Got a touch of rheumatism in my back, and don’t seem to taste my food. It is this vile London that is choking me. I’m not used to breathing air which has been used up by four million lungs all sucking away on every side of you.” He flapped his crooked hands before his face, like a man who really struggles for his breath.

“A touch of the sea will soon set you right.”

“Yes, I’m of one mind with you there. That’s the thing for me. I want no other doctor. If I don’t get to sea tomorrow I’ll have an illness. There are no two ways about it.” He drank off a tumbler of lime juice, and clapped his two hands with his knuckles doubled up into the small of his back.

“That seems to ease me,” said he, looking at me with a filmy eye. “Now I want your help, Atkinson, for I am rather awkwardly placed.”

“As how?”

“This way. My wife’s mother got ill and wired for her. I couldn’t go — you know best yourself how tied I have been — so she had to go alone. Now I’ve had another wire to say that she can’t come tomorrow, but that she will pick up the ship at Falmouth on Wednesday. We put in there, you know, and in, though I count it hard, Atkinson, that a man should be asked to believe in a mystery, and cursed if he can’t do it. Cursed, mind you, no less.” He leaned forward and began to draw a catchy breath like a man who is poised on the very edge of a sob.

Then first it came to my mind that I had heard much of the hard-drinking life of the island, and that from brandy came those wild words and fevered hands. The flushed cheek and the glazing eye were those of one whose drink is strong upon him. Sad it was to see so noble a young man in the grip of that most bestial of all the devils.

“You should lie down,” I said, with some severity.

He screwed up his eyes like a man who is striving to wake himself, and looked up with an air of surprise.

“So I shall presently,” said he, quite rationally. “I felt quite swimmy just now, but I am my own man again now. Let me see, what was I talking about? Oh ah, of course, about the wife. She joins the ship at Falmouth. Now I want to go round by water. I believe my health depends upon it. I just want a little clean first-lung air to set me on my feet again. I ask you, like a good fellow, to go to Falmouth by rail, so that in case we should be late you may be there to look after the wife. Put up at the Royal Hotel, and I will wire her that you are there. Her sister will bring her down, so that it will be all plain sailing.”

“I’ll do it with pleasure,” said I. “In fact, I would rather go by rail, for we shall have enough and to spare of the sea before we reach Colombo. I believe too that you badly need a change. Now, I should go and turn in, if I were you.”

“Yes, I will. I sleep aboard tonight. You know,” he continued, as the film settled down again over his eyes, “I’ve not slept well the last few nights. I’ve been troubled with theolololog — that is to say, theolological — hang it,” with a desperate effort, “with the doubts of theolologicians. Wondering why the Almighty made us, you know, and why He made our heads swimmy, and fixed little pains into the small of our backs. Maybe I’ll do better tonight.” He rose and steadied himself with an effort against the corner of the chair back.

“Look here, Vansittart,” said I, gravely, stepping up to him, and laying my hand upon his sleeve, “I can give you a shakedown here. You are not fit to go out. You are all over the place. You’ve been mixing your drinks.”

“Drinks!” He stared at me stupidly.

“You used to carry your liquor better than this.”

“I give you my word, Atkinson, that I have not had a drain for two days. It’s not drink. I don’t know what it is. I suppose you think this is drink.” He took up my hand in his burning grasp, and passed it over his own forehead.

“Great Lord!” said I.

His skin felt like a thin sheet of velvet beneath which lies a close-packed layer of small shot. It was smooth to the touch at any one place, but to a finger passed along it, rough as a nutmeg grater.

“It’s all right,” said he, smiling at my startled face. “I’ve had the prickly heat nearly as bad.”

“But this is never prickly heat.”

“No, it’s London. It’s breathing bad air. But tomorrow it’ll be all right. There’s a surgeon aboard, so I shall be in safe hands. I must be off now.”

“Not you,” said I, pushing him back into a chair. “This is past a joke. You don’t move from here until a doctor sees you. Just stay where you are.”

I caught up my hat, and rushing round to the house of a neighbouring physician, I brought him back with me. The room was empty and Vansittart gone. I rang the bell. The servant said that the gentleman had ordered a cab the instant that I had left, and had gone off in it. He had told the cabman to drive to the docks.

“Did the gentleman seem ill?” I asked.

“Ill!” The man smiled. “No, sir, he was singin’ his ‘ardest all the time.”

The information was not as reassuring as my servant seemed to think, but I reflected that he was going straight back to the Eastern Star, and that there was a doctor aboard of her, so that there was nothing which I could do in the matter. None the less, when I thought of his thirst, his burning hands, his heavy eye, his tripping speech, and lastly, of that leprous forehead, I carried with me to bed an unpleasant memory of my visitor and his visit.

At eleven o’clock next day I was at the docks, but the Eastern Star had already moved down the river, and was nearly at Gravesend. To Gravesend I went by train, but only to see her topmasts far off, with a plume of smoke from a tug in front of her. I would hear no more of my friend until I rejoined him at Falmouth. When I got back to my offices, a telegram was awaiting me from Mrs. Vansittart, asking me to meet her; and next evening found us both at the Royal Hotel, Falmouth, where we were to wait for the Eastern Star. Ten days passed, and there came no news of her.

They were ten days which I am not likely to forget. On the very day that the Eastern Star had cleared from the Thames, a furious easterly gale had sprung up, and blew on from day to day for the greater part of a week without the sign of a lull. Such a screaming, raving, long-drawn storm has never been known on the southern coast. From our hotel windows the sea view was all banked in haze, with a little rain-swept half-circle under our very eyes, churned and lashed into one tossing stretch of foam. So heavy was the wind upon the waves that little sea could rise, for the crest of each billow was torn shrieking from it, and lashed broadcast over the bay. Clouds, wind, sea, all were rushing to the west, and there, looking down at this mad jumble of elements, I waited on day after day, my sole companion a white, silent woman, with terror in her eyes, her forehead pressed ever against the window, her gaze from early morning to the fall of night fixed upon that wall of grey haze through which the loom of a vessel might come. She said nothing, but that face of hers was one long wail of fear.

On the fifth day I took counsel with an old seaman. I should have preferred to have done so alone, but she saw me speak with him, and was at our side in an instant, with parted lips and a prayer in her eyes.

“Seven days out from London,” said he, “and five in the gale. Well, the Channel’s swept clear by this wind. There’s three things for it. She may have popped into port on the French side. That’s like enough.”

“No, no; he knew we were here. He would have telegraphed.”

“Ah, yes, so he would. Well, then, he might have run for it, and if he did that he won’t be very far from Madeira by now. That’ll be it, marm, you may depend.”

“Or else? You said there was a third chance.”

“Did I, marm? No, only two, I think. I don’t think I said anything of a third. Your ship’s out there, depend upon it, away out in the Atlantic, and you’ll hear of it time enough, for the weather is breaking. Now don’t you fret, marm, and wait quiet, and you’ll find a real blue Cornish sky tomorrow.”

The old seaman was right in his surmise, for the next day broke calm and bright, with only a low dwindling cloud in the west to mark the last trailing wreaths of the storm-wrack. But still there came no word from the sea, and no sign of the ship. Three more weary days had passed, the weariest that I have ever spent, when there came a seafaring man to the hotel with a letter. I gave a shout of joy. It was from the captain of the Eastern Star. As I read the first lines of it I whisked my hand over it, but she laid her own upon it and drew it away. “I have seen it,” said she, in a cold, quiet voice. “I may as well see the rest, too.”

“Dear Sir,” said the letter,

“Mr. Vansittart is down with the small-pox, and we are blown so far on our course that we don’t know what to do, he being off his head and unfit to tell us. By dead reckoning we are but three hundred miles from Funchal, so I take it that it is best that we should push on there, get Mr. V. into hospital, and wait in the Bay until you come. There’s a sailing-ship due from Falmouth to Funchal in a few days’ time, as I understand. This goes by the brig Marian of Falmouth, and five pounds is due to the master, Yours respectfully,

“Jno. Hines.”

She was a wonderful woman that, only a chit of a girl fresh from school, but as quiet and strong as a man. She said nothing — only pressed her lips together tight, and put on her bonnet.

“You are going out?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Can I be of use?”

“No; I am going to the doctor’s.”

“To the doctor’s?”

“Yes. To learn how to nurse a small-pox case.”

She was busy at that all the evening, and next morning we were off with a fine ten-knot breeze in the barque Rose of Sharon for Madeira. For five days we made good time, and were no great way from the island; but on the sixth there fell a calm, and we lay without motion on a sea of oil, heaving slowly, but making not a foot of way.

At ten o’clock that night Emily Vansittart and I stood leaning on the starboard railing of the poop, with a full moon shining at our backs, and casting a black shadow of the barque, and of our own two heads upon the shining water. From the shadow a broadening path of moonshine stretched away to the lonely sky-line, flickering and shimmering in the gentle heave of the swell. We were talking with bent heads, chatting of the calm, of the chances of wind, of the look of the sky, when there came a sudden plop, like a rising salmon, and there, in the clear light, John Vansittart sprang out of the water and looked up at us.

I never saw anything clearer in my life than I saw that man. The moon shone full upon him, and he was but three oars’ lengths away. His face was more puffed than when I had seen him last, mottled here and there with dark scabs, his mouth and eyes open as one who is struck with some overpowering surprise. He had some white stuff streaming from his shoulders, and one hand was raised to his ear, the other crooked across his breast. I saw him leap from the water into the air, and in the dead calm the waves of his coming lapped up against the sides of the vessel. Then his figure sank back into the water again, and I heard a rending, crackling sound like a bundle of brushwood snapping in the fire on a frosty night. There were no signs of him when I looked again, but a swift swirl and eddy on the still sea still marked the spot where he had been. How long I stood there, tingling to my finger-tips, holding up an unconscious woman with one hand, clutching at the rail of the vessel with the other, was more than I could afterwards tell. I had been noted as a man of-slow and unresponsive emotions, but this time at least I was shaken to the core. Once and twice I struck my foot upon the deck to be certain that I was indeed the master of my own senses, and that this was not some mad prank of an unruly brain. As I stood, still marvelling, the woman shivered, opened her eyes, gasped, and then standing erect with her hands upon the rail, looked out over the moonlit sea with a face which had aged ten years in a summer night.

“You saw his vision?” she murmured.

“I saw something.”

“It was he! It was John! He is dead!”

I muttered some lame words of doubt.

“Doubtless he died at this hour,” she whispered. “In hospital at Madeira. I have read of such things. His thoughts were with me. His vision came to me. Oh, my John, my dear, dear, lost John!”

She broke out suddenly into a storm of weeping, and I led her down into her cabin, where I left her with her sorrow. That night a brisk breeze blew up from the east, and in the evening of the next day we passed the two islets of Los Desertos, and dropped anchor at sundown in the Bay of Funchal. The Eastern Star lay no great distance from us, with the quarantine flag flying from her main, and her Jack half-way up her peak.

“You see,” said Mrs. Vansittart, quickly. She was dry-eyed now, for she had known how it would be.

That night we received permission from the authorities to move on board the Eastern Star. The captain, Hines, was waiting upon deck with confusion and grief contending upon his bluff face as he sought for words with which to break this heavy tidings, but she took the story from his lips.

“I know that my husband is dead,” she said. “He died yesterday night, about ten o’clock, in hospital at Madeira, did he not?”

The seaman stared aghast. “No, marm, he died eight days ago at sea, and we had to bury him out there, for we lay in a belt of calm, and could not say when we might make the land.”

Well, those are the main facts about the death of John Vansittart, and his appearance to his wife somewhere about lat. 35 N. and long. 15 W. A clearer case of a wraith has seldom been made out, and since then it has been told as such, and put into print as such, and endorsed by a learned society as such, and so floated off with many others to support the recent theory of telepathy. For myself, I hold telepathy to be proved, but I would snatch this one case from amid the evidence, and say that I do not think that it was the wraith of John Vansittart, but John Vansittart himself whom we saw that night leaping into the moonlight out of the depths of the Atlantic. It has ever been my belief that some strange chance — one of those chances which seem so improbable and yet so constantly occur — had becalmed us over the very spot where the man had been buried a week before. For the rest, the surgeon tells me that the leaden weight was not too firmly fixed, and that seven days bring about changes which fetch a body to the surface. Coming from the depth to which the weight would have sunk it, he explains that it might well attain such a velocity as to carry it clear of the water. Such is my own explanation of the matter, and if you ask me what then became of the body, I must recall to you that snapping, crackling sound, with the swirl in the water. The shark is a surface feeder and is plentiful in those parts.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:33