OBSERVING the steady fall of the barometer, Captain MacWhirr thought, “There’s some dirty weather knocking about.” This is precisely what he thought. He had had an experience of moderately dirty weather — the term dirty as applied to the weather implying only moderate discomfort to the seaman. Had he been informed by an indisputable authority that the end of the world was to be finally accomplished by a catastrophic disturbance of the atmosphere, he would have assimilated the information under the simple idea of dirty weather, and no other, because he had no experience of cataclysms, and belief does not necessarily imply comprehension. The wisdom of his county had pronounced by means of an Act of Parliament that before he could be considered as fit to take charge of a ship he should be able to answer certain simple questions on the subject of circular storms such as hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons; and apparently he had answered them, since he was now in command of the Nan-Shan in the China seas during the season of typhoons. But if he had answered he remembered nothing of it. He was, however, conscious of being made uncomfortable by the clammy heat. He came out on the bridge, and found no relief to this oppression. The air seemed thick. He gasped like a fish, and began to believe himself greatly out of sorts.
The Nan-Shan was ploughing a vanishing furrow upon the circle of the sea that had the surface and the shimmer of an undulating piece of gray silk. The sun, pale and without rays, poured down leaden heat in a strangely indecisive light, and the Chinamen were lying prostrate about the decks. Their bloodless, pinched, yellow faces were like the faces of bilious invalids. Captain MacWhirr noticed two of them especially, stretched out on their backs below the bridge. As soon as they had closed their eyes they seemed dead. Three others, however, were quarrelling barbarously away forward; and one big fellow, half naked, with herculean shoulders, was hanging limply over a winch; another, sitting on the deck, his knees up and his head drooping sideways in a girlish attitude, was plaiting his pigtail with infinite languor depicted in his whole person and in the very movement of his fingers. The smoke struggled with difficulty out of the funnel, and instead of streaming away spread itself out like an infernal sort of cloud, smelling of sulphur and raining soot all over the decks.
“What the devil are you doing there, Mr. Jukes?” asked Captain MacWhirr.
This unusual form of address, though mumbled rather than spoken, caused the body of Mr. Jukes to start as though it had been prodded under the fifth rib. He had had a low bench brought on the bridge, and sitting on it, with a length of rope curled about his feet and a piece of canvas stretched over his knees, was pushing a sail-needle vigorously. He looked up, and his surprise gave to his eyes an expression of innocence and candour.
“I am only roping some of that new set of bags we made last trip for whipping up coals,” he remonstrated, gently. “We shall want them for the next coaling, sir.”
“What became of the others?”
“Why, worn out of course, sir.”
Captain MacWhirr, after glaring down irresolutely at his chief mate, disclosed the gloomy and cynical conviction that more than half of them had been lost overboard, “if only the truth was known,” and retired to the other end of the bridge. Jukes, exasperated by this unprovoked attack, broke the needle at the second stitch, and dropping his work got up and cursed the heat in a violent undertone.
The propeller thumped, the three Chinamen forward had given up squabbling very suddenly, and the one who had been plaiting his tail clasped his legs and stared dejectedly over his knees. The lurid sunshine cast faint and sickly shadows. The swell ran higher and swifter every moment, and the ship lurched heavily in the smooth, deep hollows of the sea.
“I wonder where that beastly swell comes from,” said Jukes aloud, recovering himself after a stagger.
“North-east,” grunted the literal MacWhirr, from his side of the bridge. “There’s some dirty weather knocking about. Go and look at the glass.”
When Jukes came out of the chart-room, the cast of his countenance had changed to thoughtfulness and concern. He caught hold of the bridge-rail and stared ahead.
The temperature in the engine-room had gone up to a hundred and seventeen degrees. Irritated voices were ascending through the skylight and through the fiddle of the stokehold in a harsh and resonant uproar, mingled with angry clangs and scrapes of metal, as if men with limbs of iron and throats of bronze had been quarrelling down there. The second engineer was falling foul of the stokers for letting the steam go down. He was a man with arms like a blacksmith, and generally feared; but that afternoon the stokers were answering him back recklessly, and slammed the furnace
doors with the fury of despair. Then the noise ceased suddenly, and the second engineer appeared, emerging out of the stokehold streaked with grime and soaking wet like a chimney-sweep coming out of a well. As soon as his head was clear of the fiddle he began to scold Jukes for not trimming properly the stokehold ventilators; and in answer Jukes made with his hands deprecatory soothing signs meaning: “No wind — can’t be helped — you can see for yourself.” But the other wouldn’t hear reason. His teeth flashed angrily in his dirty face. He didn’t mind, he said, the trouble of punching their blanked heads down there, blank his soul, but did the condemned sailors think you could keep steam up in the God-forsaken boilers simply by knocking the blanked stokers about? No, by George! You had to get some draught, too — may he be everlastingly blanked for a swab-headed deck-hand if you didn’t! And the chief, too, rampaging before the steam-gauge and carrying on like a lunatic up and down the engine-room ever since noon. What did Jukes think he was stuck up there for, if he couldn’t get one of his decayed, good-for-nothing deck-cripples to turn the ventilators to the wind?
The relations of the “engine-room” and the “deck” of the Nan-Shan were, as is known, of a brotherly nature; therefore Jukes leaned over and begged the other in a restrained tone not to make a disgusting ass of himself; the skipper was on the other side of the bridge. But the second declared mutinously that he didn’t care a rap who was on the other side of the bridge, and Jukes, passing in a flash from lofty disapproval into a state of exaltation, invited him in unflattering terms to come up and twist the beastly things to please himself, and catch such wind as a donkey of his sort could find. The second rushed up to the fray. He flung himself at the port ventilator as though he meant to tear it out bodily and toss it overboard. All he did was to move the cowl round a few inches, with an enormous expenditure of force, and seemed spent in the effort. He leaned against the back of the wheelhouse, and Jukes walked up to him.
“Oh, Heavens!” ejaculated the engineer in a feeble voice. He lifted his eyes to the sky, and then let his glassy stare descend to meet the horizon that, tilting up to an angle of forty degrees, seemed to hang on a slant for a while and settled down slowly. “Heavens! Phew! What’s up, anyhow?”
Jukes, straddling his long legs like a pair of compasses, put on an air of superiority. “We’re going to catch it this time,” he said. “The barometer is tumbling down like anything, Harry. And you trying to kick up that silly row . . . .”
The word “barometer” seemed to revive the second engineer’s mad animosity. Collecting afresh all his energies, he directed Jukes in a low and brutal tone to shove the unmentionable instrument down his gory throat. Who cared for his crimson barometer? It was the steam — the steam — that was going down; and what between the firemen going faint and the chief going silly, it was worse than a dog’s life for him; he didn’t care a tinker’s curse how soon the whole show was blown out of the water. He seemed on the point of having a cry, but after regaining his breath he muttered darkly, “I’ll faint them,” and dashed off. He stopped upon the fiddle long enough to shake his fist at the unnatural daylight, and dropped into the dark hole with a whoop.
When Jukes turned, his eyes fell upon the rounded back and the big red ears of Captain MacWhirr, who had come across. He did not look at his chief officer, but said at once, “That’s a very violent man, that second engineer.”
“Jolly good second, anyhow,” grunted Jukes. “They can’t keep up steam,” he added, rapidly, and made a grab at the rail against the coming lurch.
Captain MacWhirr, unprepared, took a run and brought himself up with a jerk by an awning stanchion.
“A profane man,” he said, obstinately. “If this goes on, I’ll have to get rid of him the first chance.”
“It’s the heat,” said Jukes. “The weather’s awful. It would make a saint swear. Even up here I feel exactly as if I had my head tied up in a woollen blanket.”
Captain MacWhirr looked up. “D’ye mean to say, Mr. Jukes, you ever had your head tied up in a blanket? What was that for?”
“It’s a manner of speaking, sir,” said Jukes, stolidly.
“Some of you fellows do go on! What’s that about saints swearing? I wish you wouldn’t talk so wild. What sort of saint would that be that would swear? No more saint than yourself, I expect. And what’s a blanket got to do with it — or the weather either. . . . The heat does not make me swear — does it? It’s filthy bad temper. That’s what it is. And what’s the good of your talking like this?”
Thus Captain MacWhirr expostulated against the use of images in speech, and at the end electrified Jukes by a contemptuous snort, followed by words of passion and resentment: “Damme! I’ll fire him out of the ship if he don’t look out.”
And Jukes, incorrigible, thought: “Goodness me! Somebody’s put a new inside to my old man. Here’s temper, if you like. Of course it’s the weather; what else? It would make an angel quarrelsome — let alone a saint.”
All the Chinamen on deck appeared at their last gasp.
At its setting the sun had a diminished diameter and an expiring brown, rayless glow, as if millions of centuries elapsing since the morning had brought it near its end. A dense bank of cloud became visible to the northward; it had a sinister dark olive tint, and lay low and motionless upon the sea, resembling a solid obstacle in the path of the ship. She went floundering towards it like an exhausted creature driven to its death. The coppery twilight retired slowly, and the darkness brought out overhead a swarm of unsteady, big stars, that, as if blown upon, flickered exceedingly and seemed to hang very near the earth. At eight o’clock Jukes went into the chart-room to write up the ship’s log.
He copies neatly out of the rough-book the number of miles, the course of the ship, and in the column for “wind” scrawled the word “calm” from top to bottom of the eight hours since noon. He was exasperated by the continuous, monotonous rolling of the ship. The heavy inkstand would slide away in a manner that suggested perverse intelligence in dodging the pen. Having written in the large space under the head of “Remarks” “Heat very oppressive,” he stuck the end of the penholder in his teeth, pipe fashion, and mopped his face carefully.
“Ship rolling heavily in a high cross swell,” he began again, and commented to himself, “Heavily is no word for it.” Then he wrote: “Sunset threatening, with a low bank of clouds to N. and E. Sky clear overhead.”
Sprawling over the table with arrested pen, he glanced out of the door, and in that frame of his vision he saw all the stars flying upwards between the teakwood jambs on a black sky. The whole lot took flight together and disappeared, leaving only a blackness flecked with white flashes, for the sea was as black as the sky and speckled with foam afar. The stars that had flown to the roll came back on the return swing of the ship, rushing downwards in their glittering multitude, not of fiery points, but enlarged to tiny discs brilliant with a clear wet sheen.
Jukes watched the flying big stars for a moment, and then wrote: “8 P.M. Swell increasing. Ship labouring and taking water on her decks. Battened down the coolies for the night. Barometer still falling.” He paused, and thought to himself, “Perhaps nothing whatever’ll come of it.” And then he closed resolutely his entries: “Every appearance of a typhoon coming on.”
On going out he had to stand aside, and Captain MacWhirr strode over the doorstep without saying a word or making a sign.
“Shut the door, Mr. Jukes, will you?” he cried from within.
Jukes turned back to do so, muttering ironically: “Afraid to catch cold, I suppose.” It was his watch below, but he yearned for communion with his kind; and he remarked cheerily to the second mate: “Doesn’t look so bad, after all — does it?”
The second mate was marching to and fro on the bridge, tripping down with small steps one moment, and the next climbing with difficulty the shifting slope of the deck. At the sound of Jukes’ voice he stood still, facing forward, but made no reply.
“Hallo! That’s a heavy one,” said Jukes, swaying to meet the long roll till his lowered hand touched the planks. This time the second mate made in his throat a noise of an unfriendly nature.
He was an oldish, shabby little fellow, with bad teeth and no hair on his face. He had been shipped in a hurry in Shanghai, that trip when the second officer brought from home had delayed the ship three hours in port by contriving (in some manner Captain MacWhirr could never understand) to fall overboard into an empty coal-lighter lying alongside, and had to be sent ashore to the hospital with concussion of the brain and a broken limb or two.
Jukes was not discouraged by the unsympathetic sound. “The Chinamen must be having a lovely time of it down there,” he said. “It’s lucky for them the old girl has the easiest roll of any ship I’ve ever been in. There now! This one wasn’t so bad.”
“You wait,” snarled the second mate.
With his sharp nose, red at the tip, and his thin pinched lips, he always looked as though he were raging inwardly; and he was concise in his speech to the point of rudeness. All his time off duty he spent in his cabin with the door shut, keeping so still in there that he was supposed to fall asleep as soon as he had disappeared; but the man who came in to wake him for his watch on deck would invariably find him with his eyes wide open, flat on his back in the bunk, and glaring irritably from a soiled pillow. He never wrote any letters, did not seem to hope for news from anywhere; and though he had been heard once to mention West Hartlepool, it was with extreme bitterness, and only in connection with the extortionate charges of a boarding-house. He was one of those men who are picked up at need in the ports of the world. They are competent enough, appear hopelessly hard up, show no evidence of any sort of vice, and carry about them all the signs of manifest failure. They come aboard on an emergency, care for no ship afloat, live in their own atmosphere of casual connection amongst their shipmates who know nothing of them, and make up their minds to leave at inconvenient times. They clear out with no words of leavetaking in some God-forsaken port other men would fear to be stranded in, and go ashore in company of a shabby sea-chest, corded like a treasure-box, and with an air of shaking the ship’s dust off their feet.
“You wait,” he repeated, balanced in great swings with his back to Jukes, motionless and implacable.
“Do you mean to say we are going to catch it hot?” asked Jukes with boyish interest.
“Say? . . . I say nothing. You don’t catch me,” snapped the little second mate, with a mixture of pride, scorn, and cunning, as if Jukes’ question had been a trap cleverly detected. “Oh, no! None of you here shall make a fool of me if I know it,” he mumbled to himself.
Jukes reflected rapidly that this second mate was a mean little beast, and in his heart he wished poor Jack Allen had never smashed himself up in the coal-lighter. The far-off blackness ahead of the ship was like another night seen through the starry night of the earth — the starless night of the immensities beyond the created universe, revealed in its appalling stillness through a low fissure in the glittering sphere of which the earth is the kernel.
“Whatever there might be about,” said Jukes, “we are steaming straight into it.”
“You’ve said it,” caught up the second mate, always with his back to Jukes. “You’ve said it, mind — not I.”
“Oh, go to Jericho!” said Jukes, frankly; and the other emitted a triumphant little chuckle.
“You’ve said it,” he repeated.
“And what of that?”
“I’ve known some real good men get into trouble with their skippers for saying a dam’ sight less,” answered the second mate feverishly. “Oh, no! You don’t catch me.”
“You seem deucedly anxious not to give yourself away,” said Jukes, completely soured by such absurdity. “I wouldn’t be afraid to say what I think.”
“Aye, to me! That’s no great trick. I am nobody, and well I know it.”
The ship, after a pause of comparative steadiness, started upon a series of rolls, one worse than the other, and for a time Jukes, preserving his equilibrium, was too busy to open his mouth. As soon as the violent swinging had quieted down somewhat, he said: “This is a bit too much of a good thing. Whether anything is coming or not I think she ought to be put head on to that swell. The old man is just gone in to lie down. Hang me if I don’t speak to him.”
But when he opened the door of the chart-room he saw his captain reading a book. Captain MacWhirr was not lying down: he was standing up with one hand grasping the edge of the bookshelf and the other holding open before his face a thick volume. The lamp wriggled in the gimbals, the loosened books toppled from side to side on the shelf, the long barometer swung in jerky circles, the table altered its slant every moment. In the midst of all this stir and movement Captain MacWhirr, holding on, showed his eyes above the upper edge, and asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Swell getting worse, sir.”
“Noticed that in here,” muttered Captain MacWhirr. “Anything wrong?”
Jukes, inwardly disconcerted by the seriousness of the eyes looking at him over the top of the book, produced an embarrassed grin.
“Rolling like old boots,” he said, sheepishly.
“Aye! Very heavy — very heavy. What do you want?”
At this Jukes lost his footing and began to flounder. “I was thinking of our passengers,” he said, in the manner of a man clutching at a straw.
“Passengers?” wondered the Captain, gravely. “What passengers?”
“Why, the Chinamen, sir,” explained Jukes, very sick of this conversation.
“The Chinamen! Why don’t you speak plainly? Couldn’t tell what you meant. Never heard a lot of coolies spoken of as passengers before. Passengers, indeed! What’s come to you?”
Captain MacWhirr, closing the book on his forefinger, lowered his arm and looked completely mystified. “Why are you thinking of the Chinamen, Mr. Jukes?” he inquired.
Jukes took a plunge, like a man driven to it. “She’s rolling her decks full of water, sir. Thought you might put her head on perhaps — for a while. Till this goes down a bit — very soon, I dare say. Head to the eastward. I never knew a ship roll like this.”
He held on in the doorway, and Captain MacWhirr, feeling his grip on the shelf inadequate, made up his mind to let go in a hurry, and fell heavily on the couch.
“Head to the eastward?” he said, struggling to sit up. “That’s more than four points off her course.”
“Yes, sir. Fifty degrees. . . . Would just bring her head far enough round to meet this . . . .”
Captain MacWhirr was now sitting up. He had not dropped the book, and he had not lost his place.
“To the eastward?” he repeated, with dawning astonishment. “To the . . . Where do you think we are bound to? You want me to haul a full-powered steamship four points off her course to make the Chinamen comfortable! Now, I’ve heard more than enough of mad things done in the world — but this. . . . If I didn’t know you, Jukes, I would think you were in liquor. Steer four points off. . . . And what afterwards? Steer four points over the other way, I suppose, to make the course good. What put it into your head that I would start to tack a steamer as if she were a sailing-ship?”
“Jolly good thing she isn’t,” threw in Jukes, with bitter readiness. “She would have rolled every blessed stick out of her this afternoon.”
“Aye! And you just would have had to stand and see them go,” said Captain MacWhirr, showing a certain animation. “It’s a dead calm, isn’t it?”
“It is, sir. But there’s something out of the common coming, for sure.”
“Maybe. I suppose you have a notion I should be getting out of the way of that dirt,” said Captain MacWhirr, speaking with the utmost simplicity of manner and tone, and fixing the oilcloth on the floor with a heavy stare. Thus he noticed neither Jukes’ discomfiture nor the mixture of vexation and astonished respect on his face.
“Now, here’s this book,” he continued with deliberation, slapping his thigh with the closed volume. “I’ve been reading the chapter on the storms there.”
This was true. He had been reading the chapter on the storms. When he had entered the chart-room, it was with no intention of taking the book down. Some influence in the air — the same influence, probably, that caused the steward to bring without orders the Captain’s sea-boots and oilskin coat up to the chart-room — had as it were guided his hand to the shelf; and without taking the time to sit down he had waded with a conscious effort into the terminology of the subject. He lost himself amongst advancing semi-circles, left — and right-hand quadrants, the curves of the tracks, the probable bearing of the centre, the shifts of wind and the readings of barometer. He tried to bring all these things into a definite relation to himself, and ended by becoming contemptuously angry with such a lot of words, and with so much advice, all head-work and supposition, without a glimmer of certitude.
“It’s the damnedest thing, Jukes,” he said. “If a fellow was to believe all that’s in there, he would be running most of his time all over the sea trying to get behind the weather.”
Again he slapped his leg with the book; and Jukes opened his mouth, but said nothing.
“Running to get behind the weather! Do you understand that, Mr. Jukes? It’s the maddest thing!” ejaculated Captain MacWhirr, with pauses, gazing at the floor profoundly. “You would think an old woman had been writing this. It passes me. If that thing means anything useful, then it means that I should at once alter the course away, away to the devil somewhere, and come booming down on Fu-chau from the northward at the tail of this dirty weather that’s supposed to be knocking about in our way. From the north! Do you understand, Mr. Jukes? Three hundred extra miles to the distance, and a pretty coal bill to show. I couldn’t bring myself to do that if every word in there was gospel truth, Mr. Jukes. Don’t you expect me . . . .”
And Jukes, silent, marvelled at this display of feeling and loquacity.
“But the truth is that you don’t know if the fellow is right, anyhow. How can you tell what a gale is made of till you get it? He isn’t aboard here, is he? Very well. Here he says that the centre of them things bears eight points off the wind; but we haven’t got any wind, for all the barometer falling. Where’s his centre now?”
“We will get the wind presently,” mumbled Jukes.
“Let it come, then,” said Captain MacWhirr, with dignified indignation. “It’s only to let you see, Mr. Jukes, that you don’t find everything in books. All these rules for dodging breezes and circumventing the winds of heaven, Mr. Jukes, seem to me the maddest thing, when you come to look at it sensibly.”
He raised his eyes, saw Jukes gazing at him dubiously, and tried to illustrate his meaning.
“About as queer as your extraordinary notion of dodging the ship head to sea, for I don’t know how long, to make the Chinamen comfortable; whereas all we’ve got to do is to take them to Fu-chau, being timed to get there before noon on Friday. If the weather delays me — very well. There’s your log-book to talk straight about the weather. But suppose I went swinging off my course and came in two days late, and they asked me: ‘Where have you been all that time, Captain?’ What could I say to that? ‘Went around to dodge the bad weather,’ I would say. ‘It must’ve been dam’ bad,’ they would say. ‘Don’t know,’ I would have to say; ‘I’ve dodged clear of it.’ See that, Jukes? I have been thinking it all out this afternoon.”
He looked up again in his unseeing, unimaginative way. No one had ever heard him say so much at one time. Jukes, with his arms open in the doorway, was like a man invited to behold a miracle. Unbounded wonder was the intellectual meaning of his eye, while incredulity was seated in his whole countenance.
“A gale is a gale, Mr. Jukes,” resumed the Captain, “and a full-powered steam-ship has got to face it. There’s just so much dirty weather knocking about the world, and the proper thing is to go through it with none of what old Captain Wilson of the Melita calls ‘storm strategy.’ The other day ashore I heard him hold forth about it to a lot of shipmasters who came in and sat at a table next to mine. It seemed to me the greatest nonsense. He was telling them how he outmanœuvred, I think he said, a terrific gale, so that it never came nearer than fifty miles to him. A neat piece of head-work he called it. How he knew there was a terrific gale fifty miles off beats me altogether. It was like listening to a crazy man. I would have thought Captain Wilson was old enough to know better.”
Captain MacWhirr ceased for a moment, then said, “It’s your watch below, Mr. Jukes?”
Jukes came to himself with a start. “Yes, sir.”
“Leave orders to call me at the slightest change,” said the Captain. He reached up to put the book away, and tucked his legs upon the couch. “Shut the door so that it don’t fly open, will you? I can’t stand a door banging. They’ve put a lot of rubbishy locks into this ship, I must say.”
Captain MacWhirr closed his eyes.
He did so to rest himself. He was tired, and he experienced that state of mental vacuity which comes at the end of an exhaustive discussion that has liberated some belief matured in the course of meditative years. He had indeed been making his confession of faith, had he only known it; and its effect was to make Jukes, on the other side of the door, stand scratching his head for a good while.
Captain MacWhirr opened his eyes.
He thought he must have been asleep. What was that loud noise? Wind? Why had he not been called? The lamp wriggled in its gimbals, the barometer swung in circles, the table altered its slant every moment; a pair of limp sea-boots with collapsed tops went sliding past the couch. He put out his hand instantly, and captured one.
Jukes’ face appeared in a crack of the door: only his face, very red, with staring eyes. The flame of the lamp leaped, a piece of paper flew up, a rush of air enveloped Captain MacWhirr. Beginning to draw on the boot, he directed an expectant gaze at Jukes’ swollen, excited features.
“Came on like this,” shouted Jukes, “five minutes ago . . . all of a sudden.”
The head disappeared with a bang, and a heavy splash and patter of drops swept past the closed door as if a pailful of melted lead had been flung against the house. A whistling could be heard now upon the deep vibrating noise outside. The stuffy chart-room seemed as full of draughts as a shed. Captain MacWhirr collared the other sea-boot on its violent passage along the floor. He was not flustered, but he could not find at once the opening for inserting his foot. The shoes he had flung off were scurrying from end to end of the cabin, gambolling playfully over each other like puppies. As soon as he stood up he kicked at them viciously, but without effect.
He threw himself into the attitude of a lunging fencer, to reach after his oilskin coat; and afterwards he staggered all over the confined space while he jerked himself into it. Very grave, straddling his legs far apart, and stretching his neck, he started to tie deliberately the strings of his sou’-wester under his chin, with thick fingers that trembled slightly. He went through all the movements of a woman putting on her bonnet before a glass, with a strained, listening attention, as though he had expected every moment to hear the shout of his name in the confused clamour that had suddenly beset his ship. Its increase filled his ears while he was getting ready to go out and confront whatever it might mean. It was tumultuous and very loud — made up of the rush of the wind, the crashes of the sea, with that prolonged deep vibration of the air, like the roll of an immense and remote drum beating the charge of the gale.
He stood for a moment in the light of the lamp, thick, clumsy, shapeless in his panoply of combat, vigilant and red-faced.
“There’s a lot of weight in this,” he muttered.
As soon as he attempted to open the door the wind caught it. Clinging to the handle, he was dragged out over the doorstep, and at once found himself engaged with the wind in a sort of personal scuffle whose object was the shutting of that door. At the last moment a tongue of air scurried in and licked out the flame of the lamp.
Ahead of the ship he perceived a great darkness lying upon a multitude of white flashes; on the starboard beam a few amazing stars drooped, dim and fitful, above an immense waste of broken seas, as if seen through a mad drift of smoke.
On the bridge a knot of men, indistinct and toiling, were making great efforts in the light of the wheelhouse windows that shone mistily on their heads and backs. Suddenly darkness closed upon one pane, then on another. The voices of the lost group reached him after the manner of men’s voices in a gale, in shreds and fragments of forlorn shouting snatched past the ear. All at once Jukes appeared at his side, yelling, with his head down.
“Watch — put in — wheelhouse shutters — glass — afraid — blow in.”
Jukes heard his commander upbraiding.
“This — come — anything — warning — call me.”
He tried to explain, with the uproar pressing on his lips.
“Light air — remained — bridge — sudden — north-east — could turn — thought — you — sure — hear.”
They had gained the shelter of the weather-cloth, and could converse with raised voices, as people quarrel.
“I got the hands along to cover up all the ventilators. Good job I had remained on deck. I didn’t think you would be asleep, and so . . . What did you say, sir? What?”
“Nothing,” cried Captain MacWhirr. “I said — all right.”
“By all the powers! We’ve got it this time,” observed Jukes in a howl.
“You haven’t altered her course?” inquired Captain MacWhirr, straining his voice.
“No, sir. Certainly not. Wind came out right ahead. And here comes the head sea.”
A plunge of the ship ended in a shock as if she had landed her forefoot upon something solid. After a moment of stillness a lofty flight of sprays drove hard with the wind upon their faces.
“Keep her at it as long as we can,” shouted Captain MacWhirr.
Before Jukes had squeezed the salt water out of his eyes all the stars had disappeared.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48