‘All around everything was still as far as the ear could reach. The mist of his feelings shifted between us, as if disturbed by his struggles, and in the rifts of the immaterial veil he would appear to my staring eyes distinct of form and pregnant with vague appeal like a symbolic figure in a picture. The chill air of the night seemed to lie on my limbs as heavy as a slab of marble.
‘“I see,” I murmured, more to prove to myself that I could break my state of numbness than for any other reason.
‘“The Avondale picked us up just before sunset,” he remarked moodily. “Steamed right straight for us. We had only to sit and wait.”
‘After a long interval, he said, “They told their story.” And again there was that oppressive silence. “Then only I knew what it was I had made up my mind to,” he added.
‘“You said nothing,” I whispered.
‘“What could I say?” he asked, in the same low tone. . . . “Shock slight. Stopped the ship. Ascertained the damage. Took measures to get the boats out without creating a panic. As the first boat was lowered ship went down in a squall. Sank like lead. . . . What could be more clear” . . . he hung his head . . . “and more awful?” His lips quivered while he looked straight into my eyes. “I had jumped — hadn’t I?” he asked, dismayed. “That’s what I had to live down. The story didn’t matter.”.. . He clasped his hands for an instant, glanced right and left into the gloom: “It was like cheating the dead,” he stammered.
‘“And there were no dead,” I said.
‘He went away from me at this. That is the only way I can describe it. In a moment I saw his back close to the balustrade. He stood there for some time, as if admiring the purity and the peace of the night. Some flowering-shrub in the garden below spread its powerful scent through the damp air. He returned to me with hasty steps.
‘“And that did not matter,” he said, as stubbornly as you please.
‘“Perhaps not,” I admitted. I began to have a notion he was too much for me. After all, what did I know?
‘“Dead or not dead, I could not get clear,” he said. “I had to live; hadn’t I?”
‘“Well, yes — if you take it in that way,” I mumbled.
‘“I was glad, of course,” he threw out carelessly, with his mind fixed on something else. “The exposure,” he pronounced slowly, and lifted his head. “Do you know what was my first thought when I heard? I was relieved. I was relieved to learn that those shouts — did I tell you I had heard shouts? No? Well, I did. Shouts for help . . . blown along with the drizzle. Imagination, I suppose. And yet I can hardly . . . How stupid. . . . The others did not. I asked them afterwards. They all said No. No? And I was hearing them even then! I might have known — but I didn’t think — I only listened. Very faint screams — day after day. Then that little half-caste chap here came up and spoke to me. ‘The Patna . . . French gunboat . . . towed successfully to Aden . . . Investigation . . . Marine Office . . . Sailors’ Home . . . arrangements made for your board and lodging!’ I walked along with him, and I enjoyed the silence. So there had been no shouting. Imagination. I had to believe him. I could hear nothing any more. I wonder how long I could have stood it. It was getting worse, too . . . I mean — louder.” ‘He fell into thought.
‘“And I had heard nothing! Well — so be it. But the lights! The lights did go! We did not see them. They were not there. If they had been, I would have swam back — I would have gone back and shouted alongside — I would have begged them to take me on board. . . . I would have had my chance. . . . You doubt me? . . . How do you know how I felt? . . . What right have you to doubt? . . . I very nearly did it as it was — do you understand?” His voice fell. “There was not a glimmer — not a glimmer,” he protested mournfully. “Don’t you understand that if there had been, you would not have seen me here? You see me — and you doubt.”
‘I shook my head negatively. This question of the lights being lost sight of when the boat could not have been more than a quarter of a mile from the ship was a matter for much discussion. Jim stuck to it that there was nothing to be seen after the first shower had cleared away; and the others had affirmed the same thing to the officers of the Avondale. Of course people shook their heads and smiled. One old skipper who sat near me in court tickled my ear with his white beard to murmur, “Of course they would lie.” As a matter of fact nobody lied; not even the chief engineer with his story of the mast-head light dropping like a match you throw down. Not consciously, at least. A man with his liver in such a state might very well have seen a floating spark in the corner of his eye when stealing a hurried glance over his shoulder. They had seen no light of any sort though they were well within range, and they could only explain this in one way: the ship had gone down. It was obvious and comforting. The foreseen fact coming so swiftly had justified their haste. No wonder they did not cast about for any other explanation. Yet the true one was very simple, and as soon as Brierly suggested it the court ceased to bother about the question. If you remember, the ship had been stopped, and was lying with her head on the course steered through the night, with her stern canted high and her bows brought low down in the water through the filling of the fore-compartment. Being thus out of trim, when the squall struck her a little on the quarter, she swung head to wind as sharply as though she had been at anchor. By this change in her position all her lights were in a very few moments shut off from the boat to leeward. It may very well be that, had they been seen, they would have had the effect of a mute appeal — that their glimmer lost in the darkness of the cloud would have had the mysterious power of the human glance that can awaken the feelings of remorse and pity. It would have said, “I am here — still here” . . . and what more can the eye of the most forsaken of human beings say? But she turned her back on them as if in disdain of their fate: she had swung round, burdened, to glare stubbornly at the new danger of the open sea which she so strangely survived to end her days in a breaking-up yard, as if it had been her recorded fate to die obscurely under the blows of many hammers. What were the various ends their destiny provided for the pilgrims I am unable to say; but the immediate future brought, at about nine o’clock next morning, a French gun-boat homeward bound from Reunion. The report of her commander was public property. He had swept a little out of his course to ascertain what was the matter with that steamer floating dangerously by the head upon a still and hazy sea. There was an ensign, union down, flying at her main gaff (the serang had the sense to make a signal of distress at daylight); but the cooks were preparing the food in the cooking-boxes forward as usual. The decks were packed as close as a sheep-pen: there were people perched all along the rails, jammed on the bridge in a solid mass; hundreds of eyes stared, and not a sound was heard when the gunboat ranged abreast, as if all that multitude of lips had been sealed by a spell.
‘The Frenchman hailed, could get no intelligible reply, and after ascertaining through his binoculars that the crowd on deck did not look plague-stricken, decided to send a boat. Two officers came on board, listened to the serang, tried to talk with the Arab, couldn’t make head or tail of it: but of course the nature of the emergency was obvious enough. They were also very much struck by discovering a white man, dead and curled up peacefully on the bridge. “Fort intrigues par ce cadavre,” as I was informed a long time after by an elderly French lieutenant whom I came across one afternoon in Sydney, by the merest chance, in a sort of cafe, and who remembered the affair perfectly. Indeed this affair, I may notice in passing, had an extraordinary power of defying the shortness of memories and the length of time: it seemed to live, with a sort of uncanny vitality, in the minds of men, on the tips of their tongues. I’ve had the questionable pleasure of meeting it often, years afterwards, thousands of miles away, emerging from the remotest possible talk, coming to the surface of the most distant allusions. Has it not turned up to-night between us? And I am the only seaman here. I am the only one to whom it is a memory. And yet it has made its way out! But if two men who, unknown to each other, knew of this affair met accidentally on any spot of this earth, the thing would pop up between them as sure as fate, before they parted. I had never seen that Frenchman before, and at the end of an hour we had done with each other for life: he did not seem particularly talkative either; he was a quiet, massive chap in a creased uniform, sitting drowsily over a tumbler half full of some dark liquid. His shoulder-straps were a bit tarnished, his clean-shaved cheeks were large and sallow; he looked like a man who would be given to taking snuff — don’t you know? I won’t say he did; but the habit would have fitted that kind of man. It all began by his handing me a number of Home News, which I didn’t want, across the marble table. I said “Merci.” We exchanged a few apparently innocent remarks, and suddenly, before I knew how it had come about, we were in the midst of it, and he was telling me how much they had been “intrigued by that corpse.” It turned out he had been one of the boarding officers.
‘In the establishment where we sat one could get a variety of foreign drinks which were kept for the visiting naval officers, and he took a sip of the dark medical-looking stuff, which probably was nothing more nasty than cassis a l’eau, and glancing with one eye into the tumbler, shook his head slightly. “Impossible de comprendre — vous concevez,” he said, with a curious mixture of unconcern and thoughtfulness. I could very easily conceive how impossible it had been for them to understand. Nobody in the gunboat knew enough English to get hold of the story as told by the serang. There was a good deal of noise, too, round the two officers. “They crowded upon us. There was a circle round that dead man (autour de ce mort),” he described. “One had to attend to the most pressing. These people were beginning to agitate themselves — Parbleu! A mob like that — don’t you see?” he interjected with philosophic indulgence. As to the bulkhead, he had advised his commander that the safest thing was to leave it alone, it was so villainous to look at. They got two hawsers on board promptly (en toute hale) and took the Patna in tow — stern foremost at that — which, under the circumstances, was not so foolish, since the rudder was too much out of the water to be of any great use for steering, and this manoeuvre eased the strain on the bulkhead, whose state, he expounded with stolid glibness, demanded the greatest care (exigeait les plus grands menagements). I could not help thinking that my new acquaintance must have had a voice in most of these arrangements: he looked a reliable officer, no longer very active, and he was seamanlike too, in a way, though as he sat there, with his thick fingers clasped lightly on his stomach, he reminded you of one of those snuffy, quiet village priests, into whose ears are poured the sins, the sufferings, the remorse of peasant generations, on whose faces the placid and simple expression is like a veil thrown over the mystery of pain and distress. He ought to have had a threadbare black soutane buttoned smoothly up to his ample chin, instead of a frock-coat with shoulder-straps and brass buttons. His broad bosom heaved regularly while he went on telling me that it had been the very devil of a job, as doubtless (sans doute) I could figure to myself in my quality of a seaman (en votre qualite de marin). At the end of the period he inclined his body slightly towards me, and, pursing his shaved lips, allowed the air to escape with a gentle hiss. “Luckily,” he continued, “the sea was level like this table, and there was no more wind than there is here.” . . . The place struck me as indeed intolerably stuffy, and very hot; my face burned as though I had been young enough to be embarrassed and blushing. They had directed their course, he pursued, to the nearest English port “naturellement,” where their responsibility ceased, “Dieu merci.” . . . He blew out his flat cheeks a little. . . . “Because, mind you (notez bien), all the time of towing we had two quartermasters stationed with axes by the hawsers, to cut us clear of our tow in case she . . . ” He fluttered downwards his heavy eyelids, making his meaning as plain as possible. . . . “What would you! One does what one can (on fait ce qu’on peut),” and for a moment he managed to invest his ponderous immobility with an air of resignation. “Two quartermasters — thirty hours — always there. Two!” he repeated, lifting up his right hand a little, and exhibiting two fingers. This was absolutely the first gesture I saw him make. It gave me the opportunity to “note” a starred scar on the back of his hand — effect of a gunshot clearly; and, as if my sight had been made more acute by this discovery, I perceived also the seam of an old wound, beginning a little below the temple and going out of sight under the short grey hair at the side of his head — the graze of a spear or the cut of a sabre. He clasped his hands on his stomach again. “I remained on board that — that — my memory is going (s’en va). Ah! Patt-na. C’est bien ca. Patt-na. Merci. It is droll how one forgets. I stayed on that ship thirty hours. . . . ”
‘“You did!” I exclaimed. Still gazing at his hands, he pursed his lips a little, but this time made no hissing sound. “It was judged proper,” he said, lifting his eyebrows dispassionately, “that one of the officers should remain to keep an eye open (pour ouvrir l’oeil)” . . . he sighed idly . . . “and for communicating by signals with the towing ship — do you see? — and so on. For the rest, it was my opinion too. We made our boats ready to drop over — and I also on that ship took measures. . . . Enfin! One has done one’s possible. It was a delicate position. Thirty hours! They prepared me some food. As for the wine — go and whistle for it — not a drop.” In some extraordinary way, without any marked change in his inert attitude and in the placid expression of his face, he managed to convey the idea of profound disgust. “I— you know — when it comes to eating without my glass of wine — I am nowhere.”
‘I was afraid he would enlarge upon the grievance, for though he didn’t stir a limb or twitch a feature, he made one aware how much he was irritated by the recollection. But he seemed to forget all about it. They delivered their charge to the “port authorities,” as he expressed it. He was struck by the calmness with which it had been received. “One might have thought they had such a droll find (drole de trouvaille) brought them every day. You are extraordinary — you others,” he commented, with his back propped against the wall, and looking himself as incapable of an emotional display as a sack of meal. There happened to be a man-of-war and an Indian Marine steamer in the harbour at the time, and he did not conceal his admiration of the efficient manner in which the boats of these two ships cleared the Patna of her passengers. Indeed his torpid demeanour concealed nothing: it had that mysterious, almost miraculous, power of producing striking effects by means impossible of detection which is the last word of the highest art. “Twenty-five minutes — watch in hand — twenty-five, no more.” . . . He unclasped and clasped again his fingers without removing his hands from his stomach, and made it infinitely more effective than if he had thrown up his arms to heaven in amazement. . . . “All that lot (tout ce monde) on shore — with their little affairs — nobody left but a guard of seamen (marins de l’Etat) and that interesting corpse (cet interessant cadavre). Twenty-five minutes.” . . . With downcast eyes and his head tilted slightly on one side he seemed to roll knowingly on his tongue the savour of a smart bit of work. He persuaded one without any further demonstration that his approval was eminently worth having, and resuming his hardly interrupted immobility he went on to inform me that, being under orders to make the best of their way to Toulon, they left in two hours’ time, “so that (de sorte que) there are many things in this incident of my life (dans cet episode de ma vie) which have remained obscure.”’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52