ALL that the boatswain, out of a superabundance of yells, could make clear to Captain MacWhirr was the bizarre intelligence that “All them Chinamen in the fore ‘tween deck have fetched away, sir.”
Jukes to leeward could hear these two shouting within six inches of his face, as you may hear on a still night half a mile away two men conversing across a field. He heard Captain MacWhirr’s exasperated “What? What?” and the strained pitch of the other’s hoarseness. “In a lump . . . seen them myself. . . . Awful sight, sir . . . thought . . . tell you.”
Jukes remained indifferent, as if rendered irresponsible by the force of the hurricane, which made the very thought of action utterly vain. Besides, being very young, he had found the occupation of keeping his heart completely steeled against the worst so engrossing that he had come to feel an overpowering dislike towards any other form of activity whatever. He was not scared; he knew this because, firmly believing he would never see another sunrise, he remained calm in that belief.
These are the moments of do-nothing heroics to which even good men surrender at times. Many officers of ships can no doubt recall a case in their experience when just such a trance of confounded stoicism would come all at once over a whole ship’s company. Jukes, however, had no wide experience of men or storms. He conceived himself to be calm — inexorably calm; but as a matter of fact he was daunted; not abjectly, but only so far as a decent man may, without becoming loathsome to himself.
It was rather like a forced-on numbness of spirit. The long, long stress of a gale does it; the suspense of the interminably culminating catastrophe; and there is a bodily fatigue in the mere holding on to existence within the excessive tumult; a searching and insidious fatigue that penetrates deep into a man’s breast to cast down and sadden his heart, which is incorrigible, and of all the gifts of the earth — even before life itself -aspires to peace.
Jukes was benumbed much more than he supposed. He held on — very wet, very cold, stiff in every limb; and in a momentary hallucination of swift visions (it is said that a drowning man thus reviews all his life) he beheld all sorts of memories altogether unconnected with his present situation. He remembered his father, for instance: a worthy business man, who at an unfortunate crisis in his affairs went quietly to bed and died forthwith in a state of resignation. Jukes did not recall these circumstances, of course, but remaining otherwise unconcerned he seemed to see distinctly the poor man’s face; a certain game of nap played when quite a boy in Table Bay on board a ship, since lost with all hands; the thick eyebrows of his first skipper; and without any emotion, as he might years ago have walked listlessly into her room and found her sitting there with a book, he remembered his mother — dead, too, now — the resolute woman, left badly off, who had been very firm in his bringing up.
It could not have lasted more than a second, perhaps not so much. A heavy arm had fallen about his shoulders; Captain MacWhirr’s voice was speaking his name into his ear.
He detected the tone of deep concern. The wind had thrown its weight on the ship, trying to pin her down amongst the seas. They made a clean breach over her, as over a deep-swimming log; and the gathered weight of crashes menaced monstrously from afar. The breakers flung out of the night with a ghostly light on their crests — the light of sea-foam that in a ferocious, boiling-up pale flash showed upon the slender body of the ship the toppling rush, the downfall, and the seething mad scurry of each wave. Never for a moment could she shake herself clear of the water; Jukes, rigid, perceived in her motion the ominous sign of haphazard floundering. She was no longer struggling intelligently. It was the beginning of the end; and the note of busy concern in Captain MacWhirr’s voice sickened him like an exhibition of blind and pernicious folly.
The spell of the storm had fallen upon Jukes. He was penetrated by it, absorbed by it; he was rooted in it with a rigour of dumb attention. Captain MacWhirr persisted in his cries, but the wind got between them like a solid wedge. He hung round Jukes’ neck as heavy as a millstone, and suddenly the sides of their heads knocked together.
“Jukes! Mr. Jukes, I say!”
He had to answer that voice that would not be silenced. He answered in the customary manner: “ . . . Yes, sir.”
And directly, his heart, corrupted by the storm that breeds a craving for peace, rebelled against the tyranny of training and command.
Captain MacWhirr had his mate’s head fixed firm in the crook of his elbow, and pressed it to his yelling lips mysteriously. Sometimes Jukes would break in, admonishing hastily: “Look out, sir!” or Captain MacWhirr would bawl an earnest exhortation to “Hold hard, there!” and the whole black universe seemed to reel together with the ship. They paused. She floated yet. And Captain MacWhirr would r‚sum‚ his shouts. “. . . . Says . . . whole lot . . . fetched away. . . . Ought to see . . . what’s the matter.”
Directly the full force of the hurricane had struck the ship, every part of her deck became untenable; and the sailors, dazed and dismayed, took shelter in the port alleyway under the bridge. It had a door aft, which they shut; it was very black, cold, and dismal. At each heavy fling of the ship they would groan all together in the dark, and tons of water could be heard scuttling about as if trying to get at them from above. The boatswain had been keeping up a gruff talk, but a more unreasonable lot of men, he said afterwards, he had never been with. They were snug enough there, out of harm’s way, and not wanted to do anything, either; and yet they did nothing but grumble and complain peevishly like so many sick kids. Finally, one of them said that if there had been at least some light to see each other’s noses by, it wouldn’t be so bad. It was making him crazy, he declared, to lie there in the dark waiting for the blamed hooker to sink.
“Why don’t you step outside, then, and be done with it at once?” the boatswain turned on him.
This called up a shout of execration. The boatswain found himself overwhelmed with reproaches of all sorts. They seemed to take it ill that a lamp was not instantly created for them out of nothing. They would whine after a light to get drowned by — anyhow! And though the unreason of their revilings was patent — since no one could hope to reach the lamp-room, which was forward — he became greatly distressed. He did not think it was decent of them to be nagging at him like this. He told them so, and was met by general contumely. He sought refuge, therefore, in an embittered silence. At the same time their grumbling and sighing and muttering worried him greatly, but by-and-by it occurred to him that there were six globe lamps hung in the ‘tween-deck, and that there could be no harm in depriving the coolies of one of them.
The Nan-Shan had an athwartship coal-bunker, which, being at times used as cargo space, communicated by an iron door with the fore ‘tween-deck. It was empty then, and its manhole was the foremost one in the alleyway. The boatswain could get in, therefore, without coming out on deck at all; but to his great surprise he found he could induce no one to help him in taking off the manhole cover. He groped for it all the same, but one of the crew lying in his way refused to budge.
“Why, I only want to get you that blamed light you are crying for,” he expostulated, almost pitifully.
Somebody told him to go and put his head in a bag. He regretted he could not recognize the voice, and that it was too dark to see, otherwise, as he said, he would have put a head on that son of a sea-cook, anyway, sink or swim. Nevertheless, he had made up his mind to show them he could get a light, if he were to die for it.
Through the violence of the ship’s rolling, every movement was dangerous. To be lying down seemed labour enough. He nearly broke his neck dropping into the bunker. He fell on his back, and was sent shooting helplessly from side to side in the dangerous company of a heavy iron bar — a coal-trimmer’s slice probably — left down there by somebody. This thing made him as nervous as though it had been a wild beast. He could not see it, the inside of the bunker coated with coal-dust being perfectly and impenetrably black; but he heard it sliding and clattering, and striking here and there, always in the neighbourhood of his head. It seemed to make an extraordinary noise, too — to give heavy thumps as though it had been as big as a bridge girder. This was remarkable enough for him to notice while he was flung from port to starboard and back again, and clawing desperately the smooth sides of the bunker in the endeavour to stop himself. The door into the ‘tween-deck not fitting quite true, he saw a thread of dim light at the bottom.
Being a sailor, and a still active man, he did not want much of a chance to regain his feet; and as luck would have it, in scrambling up he put his hand on the iron slice, picking it up as he rose. Otherwise he would have been afraid of the thing breaking his legs, or at least knocking him down again. At first he stood still. He felt unsafe in this darkness that seemed to make the ship’s motion unfamiliar, unforeseen, and difficult to counteract. He felt so much shaken for a moment that he dared not move for fear of “taking charge again.” He had no mind to get battered to pieces in that bunker.
He had struck his head twice; he was dazed a little. He seemed to hear yet so plainly the clatter and bangs of the iron slice flying about his ears that he tightened his grip to prove to himself he had it there safely in his hand. He was vaguely amazed at the plainness with which down there he could hear the gale raging. Its howls and shrieks seemed to take on, in the emptiness of the bunker, something of the human character, of human rage and pain — being not vast but infinitely poignant. And there were, with every roll, thumps, too — profound, ponderous thumps, as if a bulky object of five-ton weight or so had got play in the hold. But there was no such thing in the cargo. Something on deck? Impossible. Or alongside? Couldn’t be.
He thought all this quickly, clearly, competently, like a seaman, and in the end remained puzzled. This noise, though, came deadened from outside, together with the washing and pouring of water on deck above his head. Was it the wind? Must be. It made down there a row like the shouting of a big lot of crazed men. And he discovered in himself a desire for a light, too — if only to get drowned by — and a nervous anxiety to get out of that bunker as quickly as possible.
He pulled back the bolt: the heavy iron plate turned on its hinges; and it was as though he had opened the door to the sounds of the tempest. A gust of hoarse yelling met him: the air was still; and the rushing of water overhead was covered by a tumult of strangled, throaty shrieks that produced an effect of desperate confusion. He straddled his legs the whole width of the doorway and stretched his neck. And at first he perceived only what he had come to seek: six small yellow flames swinging violently on the great body of the dusk.
It was stayed like the gallery of a mine, with a row of stanchions in the middle, and cross-beams overhead, penetrating into the gloom ahead — indefinitely. And to port there loomed, like the caving in of one of the sides, a bulky mass with a slanting outline. The whole place, with the shadows and the shapes, moved all the time. The boatswain glared: the ship lurched to starboard, and a great howl came from that mass that had the slant of fallen earth.
Pieces of wood whizzed past. Planks, he thought, inexpressibly startled, and flinging back his head. At his feet a man went sliding over, open-eyed, on his back, straining with uplifted arms for nothing: and another came bounding like a detached stone with his head between his legs and his hands clenched. His
pigtail whipped in the air; he made a grab at the boatswain’s legs, and from his opened hand a bright white disc rolled against the boatswain’s foot. He recognized a silver dollar, and yelled at it with astonishment. With a precipitated sound of trampling and shuffling of bare feet, and with guttural cries, the mound of writhing bodies piled up to port detached itself from the ship’s side and sliding, inert and struggling, shifted to starboard, with a dull, brutal thump. The cries ceased. The boatswain heard a long moan through the roar and whistling of the wind; he saw an inextricable confusion of heads and shoulders, naked soles kicking upwards, fists raised, tumbling backs, legs, pigtails, faces.
“Good Lord!” he cried, horrified, and banged-to the iron door upon this vision.
This was what he had come on the bridge to tell. He could not keep it to himself; and on board ship there is only one man to whom it is worth while to unburden yourself. On his passage back the hands in the alleyway swore at him for a fool. Why didn’t he bring that lamp? What the devil did the coolies matter to anybody? And when he came out, the extremity of the ship made what went on inside of her appear of little moment.
At first he thought he had left the alleyway in the very moment of her sinking. The bridge ladders had been washed away, but an enormous sea filling the after-deck floated him up. After that he had to lie on his stomach for some time, holding to a ring-bolt, getting his breath now and then, and swallowing salt water. He struggled farther on his hands and knees, too frightened and distracted to turn back. In this way he reached the after-part of the wheelhouse. In that comparatively sheltered spot he found the second mate.
The boatswain was pleasantly surprised — his impression being that everybody on deck must have been washed away a long time ago. He asked eagerly where the Captain was.
The second mate was lying low, like a malignant little animal under a hedge.
“Captain? Gone overboard, after getting us into this mess.” The mate, too, for all he knew or cared. Another fool. Didn’t matter. Everybody was going by-and-by.
The boatswain crawled out again into the strength of the wind; not because he much expected to find anybody, he said, but just to get away from “that man.” He crawled out as outcasts go to face an inclement world. Hence his great joy at finding Jukes and the Captain. But what was going on in the ‘tween-deck was to him a minor matter by that time. Besides, it was difficult to make yourself heard. But he managed to convey the idea that the Chinaman had broken adrift together with their boxes, and that he had come up on purpose to report this. As to the hands, they were all right. Then, appeased, he subsided on the deck in a sitting posture, hugging with his arms and legs the stand of the engine-room telegraph — an iron casting as thick as a post. When that went, why, he expected he would go, too. He gave no more thought to the coolies.
Captain MacWhirr had made Jukes understand that he wanted him to go down below — to see.
“What am I to do then, sir?” And the trembling of his whole wet body caused Jukes’ voice to sound like bleating.
“See first . . . Boss’n . . . says . . . adrift.”
“That boss’n is a confounded fool,” howled Jukes, shakily.
The absurdity of the demand made upon him revolted Jukes. He was as unwilling to go as if the moment he had left the deck the ship were sure to sink.
“I must know . . . can’t leave . . . .”
“They’ll settle, sir.”
“Fight . . . boss’n says they fight. . . . Why? Can’t have . . . fighting . . . board ship. . . . Much rather keep you here . . . case. . . . I should . . . washed overboard myself. . . . Stop it . . . some way. You see and tell me . . . through engine-room tube. Don’t want you . . . come up here . . . too often. Dangerous . . . moving about . . . deck.”
Jukes, held with his head in chancery, had to listen to what seemed horrible suggestions.
“Don’t want . . . you get lost . . . so long . . . ship isn’t. . . . . Rout . . . Good man . . . Ship . . . may . . . through this . . . all right yet.”
All at once Jukes understood he would have to go.
“Do you think she may?” he screamed.
But the wind devoured the reply, out of which Jukes heard only the one word, pronounced with great energy “ . . . . Always . . . .”
Captain MacWhirr released Jukes, and bending over the boatswain, yelled, “Get back with the mate.” Jukes only knew that the arm was gone off his shoulders. He was dismissed with his orders — to do what? He was exasperated into letting go his hold carelessly, and on the instant was blown away. It seemed to him that nothing could stop him from being blown right over the stern. He flung himself down hastily, and the boatswain, who was following, fell on him.
“Don’t you get up yet, sir,” cried the boatswain. “No hurry!”
A sea swept over. Jukes understood the boatswain to splutter that the bridge ladders were gone. “I’ll lower you down, sir, by your hands,” he screamed. He shouted also something about the smoke-stack being as likely to go overboard as not. Jukes thought it very possible, and imagined the fires out, the ship helpless. . . . The boatswain by his side kept on yelling. “What? What is it?” Jukes cried distressfully; and the other repeated, “What would my old woman say if she saw me now?”
In the alleyway, where a lot of water had got in and splashed in the dark, the men were still as death, till Jukes stumbled against one of them and cursed him savagely for being in the way. Two or three voices then asked, eager and weak, “Any chance for us, sir?”
“What’s the matter with you fools?” he said brutally. He felt as though he could throw himself down amongst them and never move any more. But they seemed cheered; and in the midst of obsequious warnings, “Look out! Mind that manhole lid, sir,” they lowered him into the bunker. The boatswain tumbled down after him, and as soon as he had picked himself up he remarked, “She would say, ‘Serve you right, you old fool, for going to sea.’”
The boatswain had some means, and made a point of alluding to them frequently. His wife — a fat woman — and two grown-up daughters kept a greengrocer’s shop in the East-end of London.
In the dark, Jukes, unsteady on his legs, listened to a faint thunderous patter. A deadened screaming went on steadily at his elbow, as it were; and from above the louder tumult of the storm descended upon these near sounds. His head swam. To him, too, in that bunker, the motion of the ship seemed novel and menacing, sapping his resolution as though he had never been afloat before.
He had half a mind to scramble out again; but the remembrance of Captain MacWhirr’s voice made this impossible. His orders were to go and see. What was the good of it, he wanted to know. Enraged, he told himself he would see — of course. But the boatswain, staggering clumsily, warned him to be careful how he opened that door; there was a blamed fight going on. And Jukes, as if in great bodily pain, desired irritably to know what the devil they were fighting for.
“Dollars! Dollars, sir. All their rotten chests got burst open. Blamed money skipping all over the place, and they are tumbling after it head over heels — tearing and biting like anything. A regular little hell in there.”
Jukes convulsively opened the door. The short boatswain peered under his arm.
One of the lamps had gone out, broken perhaps. Rancorous, guttural cries burst out loudly on their ears, and a strange panting sound, the working of all these straining breasts. A hard blow hit the side of the ship: water fell above with a stunning shock, and in the forefront of the gloom, where the air was reddish and thick, Jukes saw a head bang the deck violently, two thick calves waving on high, muscular arms twined round a naked body, a yellow-face, open-mouthed and with a set wild stare, look up and slide away. An empty chest clattered turning over; a man fell head first with a jump, as if lifted by a kick; and farther off, indistinct, others streamed like a mass of rolling stones down a bank, thumping the deck with their feet and flourishing their arms wildly. The hatchway ladder was loaded with coolies swarming on it like bees on a branch. They hung on the steps in a crawling, stirring cluster, beating madly with their fists the underside of the battened hatch, and the headlong rush of the water above was heard in the intervals of their yelling. The ship heeled over more, and they began to drop off: first one, then two, then all the rest went away together, falling straight off with a great cry.
Jukes was confounded. The boatswain, with gruff anxiety, begged him, “Don’t you go in there, sir.”
The whole place seemed to twist upon itself, jumping incessantly the while; and when the ship rose to a sea Jukes fancied that all these men would be shot upon him in a body. He backed out, swung the door to, and with trembling hands pushed at the bolt . . . .
As soon as his mate had gone Captain MacWhirr, left alone on the bridge, sidled and staggered as far as the wheelhouse. Its door being hinged forward, he had to fight the gale for admittance, and when at last he managed to enter, it was with an instantaneous clatter and a bang, as though he had been fired through the wood. He stood within, holding on to the handle.
The steering-gear leaked steam, and in the confined space the glass of the binnacle made a shiny oval of light in a thin white fog. The wind howled, hummed, whistled, with sudden booming gusts that rattled the doors and shutters in the vicious patter of sprays. Two coils of lead-line and a small canvas bag hung on a long lanyard, swung wide off, and came back clinging to the bulkheads. The gratings underfoot were nearly afloat; with every sweeping blow of a sea, water squirted violently through the cracks all round the door, and the man at the helm had flung down his cap, his coat, and stood propped against the gear-casing in a striped cotton shirt open on his breast. The little brass wheel in his hands had the appearance of a bright and fragile toy. The cords of his neck stood hard and lean, a dark patch lay in the hollow of his throat, and his face was still and sunken as in death.
Captain MacWhirr wiped his eyes. The sea that had nearly taken him overboard had, to his great annoyance, washed his sou’-wester hat off his bald head. The fluffy, fair hair, soaked and darkened, resembled a mean skein of cotton threads festooned round his bare skull. His face, glistening with sea-water, had been made crimson with the wind, with the sting of sprays. He looked as though he had come off sweating from before a furnace.
“You here?” he muttered, heavily.
The second mate had found his way into the wheelhouse some time before. He had fixed himself in a corner with his knees up, a fist pressed against each temple; and this attitude suggested rage, sorrow, resignation, surrender, with a sort of concentrated unforgiveness. He said mournfully and defiantly, “Well, it’s my watch below now: ain’t it?”
The steam gear clattered, stopped, clattered again; and the helmsman’s eyeballs seemed to project out of a hungry face as if the compass card behind the binnacle glass had been meat. God knows how long he had been left there to steer, as if forgotten by all his shipmates. The bells had not been struck; there had been no reliefs; the ship’s routine had gone down wind; but he was trying to keep her head north-north-east. The rudder might have been gone for all he knew, the fires out, the engines broken down, the ship ready to roll over like a corpse. He was anxious not to get muddled and lose control of her head, because the compass-card swung far both ways, wriggling on the pivot, and sometimes seemed to whirl right round. He suffered from mental stress. He was horribly afraid, also, of the wheelhouse going. Mountains of water kept on tumbling against it. When the ship took one of her desperate dives the corners of his lips twitched.
Captain MacWhirr looked up at the wheelhouse clock. Screwed to the bulk-head, it had a white face on which the black hands appeared to stand quite still. It was half-past one in the morning.
“Another day,” he muttered to himself.
The second mate heard him, and lifting his head as one grieving amongst ruins, “You won’t see it break,” he exclaimed. His wrists and his knees could be seen to shake violently. “No, by God! You won’t . . . .”
He took his face again between his fists.
The body of the helmsman had moved slightly, but his head didn’t budge on his neck, — like a stone head fixed to look one way from a column. During a roll that all but took his booted legs from under him, and in the very stagger to save himself, Captain MacWhirr said austerely, “Don’t you pay any attention to what that man says.” And then, with an indefinable change of tone, very grave, he added, “He isn’t on duty.”
The sailor said nothing.
The hurricane boomed, shaking the little place, which seemed air-tight; and the light of the binnacle flickered all the time.
“You haven’t been relieved,” Captain MacWhirr went on, looking down. “I want you to stick to the helm, though, as long as you can. You’ve got the hang of her. Another man coming here might make a mess of it. Wouldn’t do. No child’s play. And the hands are probably busy with a job down below. . . . Think you can?”
The steering-gear leaped into an abrupt short clatter, stopped smouldering like an ember; and the still man, with a motionless gaze, burst out, as if all the passion in him had gone into his lips: “By Heavens, sir! I can steer for ever if nobody talks to me.”
“Oh! aye! All right . . . .” The Captain lifted his eyes for the first time to the man, “ . . . Hackett.”
And he seemed to dismiss this matter from his mind. He stooped to the engine-room speaking-tube, blew in, and bent his head. Mr. Rout below answered, and at once Captain MacWhirr put his lips to the mouthpiece.
With the uproar of the gale around him he applied alternately his lips and his ear, and the engineer’s voice mounted to him, harsh and as if out of the heat of an engagement. One of the stokers was disabled, the others had given in, the second engineer and the donkey-man were firing-up. The third engineer was standing by the steam-valve. The engines were being tended by hand. How was it above?
“Bad enough. It mostly rests with you,” said Captain MacWhirr. Was the mate down there yet? No? Well, he would be presently. Would Mr. Rout let him talk through the speaking-tube? — through the deck speaking-tube, because he — the Captain — was going out again on the bridge directly. There was some trouble amongst the Chinamen. They were fighting, it seemed. Couldn’t allow fighting anyhow . . . .
Mr. Rout had gone away, and Captain MacWhirr could feel against his ear the pulsation of the engines, like the beat of the ship’s heart. Mr. Rout’s voice down there shouted something distantly. The ship pitched headlong, the pulsation leaped with a hissing tumult, and stopped dead. Captain MacWhirr’s face was impassive, and his eyes were fixed aimlessly on the crouching shape of the second mate. Again Mr. Rout’s voice cried out in the depths, and the pulsating beats recommenced, with slow strokes — growing swifter.
Mr. Rout had returned to the tube. “It don’t matter much what they do,” he said, hastily; and then, with irritation, “She takes these dives as if she never meant to come up again.”
“Awful sea,” said the Captain’s voice from above.
“Don’t let me drive her under,” barked Solomon Rout up the pipe.
“Dark and rain. Can’t see what’s coming,” uttered the voice. “Must — keep — her — moving — enough to steer — and chance it,” it went on to state distinctly.
“I am doing as much as I dare.”
“We are — getting — smashed up — a good deal up here,” proceeded the voice mildly. “Doing — fairly well — though. Of course, if the wheelhouse should go . . . .”
Mr. Rout, bending an attentive ear, muttered peevishly something under his breath.
But the deliberate voice up there became animated to ask: “Jukes turned up yet?” Then, after a short wait, “I wish he would bear a hand. I want him to be done and come up here in case of anything. To look after the ship. I am all alone. The second mate’s lost . . . .”
“What?” shouted Mr. Rout into the engine-room, taking his head away. Then up the tube he cried, “Gone overboard?” and clapped his ear to.
“Lost his nerve,” the voice from above continued in a matter-of-fact tone. “Damned awkward circumstance.”
Mr. Rout, listening with bowed neck, opened his eyes wide at this. However, he heard something like the sounds of a scuffle and broken exclamations coming down to him. He strained his hearing; and all the time Beale, the third engineer, with his arms uplifted, held between the palms of his hands the rim of a little black wheel projecting at the side of a big copper pipe.
He seemed to be poising it above his head, as though it were a correct attitude in some sort of game.
To steady himself, he pressed his shoulder against the white bulkhead, one knee bent, and a sweat-rag tucked in his belt hanging on his hip. His smooth cheek was begrimed and flushed, and the coal dust on his eyelids, like the black pencilling of a make-up, enhanced the liquid brilliance of the whites, giving to his youthful face something of a feminine, exotic and fascinating aspect. When the ship pitched he would with hasty movements of his hands screw hard at the little wheel.
“Gone crazy,” began the Captain’s voice suddenly in the tube. “Rushed at me. . . . Just now. Had to knock him down . . . . This minute. You heard, Mr. Rout?”
“The devil!” muttered Mr. Rout. “Look out, Beale!”
His shout rang out like the blast of a warning trumpet, between the iron walls of the engine-room. Painted white, they rose high into the dusk of the skylight, sloping like a roof; and the whole lofty space resembled the interior of a monument, divided by floors of iron grating, with lights flickering at different levels, and a mass of gloom lingering in the middle, within the columnar stir of machinery under the motionless swelling of the cylinders. A loud and wild resonance, made up of all the noises of the hurricane, dwelt in the still warmth of the air. There was in it the smell of hot metal, of oil, and a slight mist of steam. The blows of the sea seemed to traverse it in an unringing, stunning shock, from side to side.
Gleams, like pale long flames, trembled upon the polish of metal; from the flooring below the enormous crank-heads emerged in their turns with a flash of brass and steel — going over; while the connecting-rods, big-jointed, like skeleton limbs, seemed to thrust them down and pull them up again with an irresistible precision. And deep in the half-light other rods dodged deliberately to and fro, crossheads nodded, discs of metal rubbed smoothly against each other, slow and gentle, in a commingling of shadows and gleams.
Sometimes all those powerful and unerring movements would slow down simultaneously, as if they had been the functions of a living organism, stricken suddenly by the blight of languor; and Mr. Rout’s eyes would blaze darker in his long sallow face. He was fighting this fight in a pair of carpet slippers. A short shiny jacket barely covered his loins, and his white wrists protruded far out of the tight sleeves, as though the emergency had added to his stature, had lengthened his limbs, augmented his pallor, hollowed his eyes.
He moved, climbing high up, disappearing low down, with a restless, purposeful industry, and when he stood still, holding the guard-rail in front of the starting-gear, he would keep glancing to the right at the steam-gauge, at the water-gauge, fixed upon the white wall in the light of a swaying lamp. The mouths of two speakingtubes gaped stupidly at his elbow, and the dial of the engine-room telegraph resembled a clock of large diameter, bearing on its face curt words instead of figures. The grouped letters stood out heavily black, around the pivot-head of the indicator, emphatically symbolic of loud exclamations: AHEAD, ASTERN, SLOW, Half, STAND BY; and the fat black hand pointed downwards to the word FULL, which, thus singled out, captured the eye as a sharp cry secures attention.
The wood-encased bulk of the low-pressure cylinder, frowning portly from above, emitted a faint wheeze at every thrust, and except for that low hiss the engines worked their steel limbs headlong or slow with a silent, determined smoothness. And all this, the white walls, the moving steel, the floor plates under Solomon Rout’s feet, the floors of iron grating above his head, the dusk and the gleams, uprose and sank continuously, with one accord, upon the harsh wash of the waves against the ship’s side. The whole loftiness of the place, booming hollow to the great voice of the wind, swayed at the top like a tree, would go over bodily, as if borne down this way and that by the tremendous blasts.
“You’ve got to hurry up,” shouted Mr. Rout, as soon as he saw Jukes appear in the stokehold doorway.
Jukes’ glance was wandering and tipsy; his red face was puffy, as though he had overslept himself. He had had an arduous road, and had travelled over it with immense vivacity, the agitation of his mind corresponding to the exertions of his body. He had rushed up out of the bunker, stumbling in the dark alleyway amongst a lot of bewildered men who, trod upon, asked “What’s up, sir?” in awed mutters all round him; — down the stokehold ladder, missing many iron rungs in his hurry, down into a place deep as a well, black as Tophet, tipping over back and forth like a see-saw. The water in the bilges thundered at each roll, and lumps of coal skipped to and fro, from end to end, rattling like an avalanche of pebbles on a slope of iron.
Somebody in there moaned with pain, and somebody else could be seen crouching over what seemed the prone body of a dead man; a lusty voice blasphemed; and the glow under each fire-door was like a pool of flaming blood radiating quietly in a velvety blackness.
A gust of wind struck upon the nape of Jukes’ neck and next moment he felt it streaming about his wet ankles. The stokehold ventilators hummed: in front of the six fire-doors two wild figures, stripped to the waist, staggered and stooped, wrestling with two shovels.
“Hallo! Plenty of draught now,” yelled the second engineer at once, as though he had been all the time looking out for Jukes. The donkeyman, a dapper little chap with a dazzling fair skin and a tiny, gingery moustache, worked in a sort of mute transport. They were keeping a full head of steam, and a profound rumbling, as of an empty furniture van trotting over a bridge, made a sustained bass to all the other noises of the place.
“Blowing off all the time,” went on yelling the second. With a sound as of a hundred scoured saucepans, the orifice of a ventilator spat upon his shoulder a sudden gush of salt water, and he volleyed a stream of curses upon all things on earth including his own soul, ripping and raving, and all the time attending to his business. With a sharp clash of metal the ardent pale glare of the fire opened upon his bullet head, showing his spluttering lips, his insolent face, and with another clang closed like the white-hot wink of an iron eye.
“Where’s the blooming ship? Can you tell me? blast my eyes! Under water — or what? It’s coming down here in tons. Are the condemned cowls gone to Hades? Hey? Don’t you know anything — you jolly sailor-man you . . .?”
Jukes, after a bewildered moment, had been helped by a roll to dart through; and as soon as his eyes took in the comparative vastness, peace and brilliance of the engine-room, the ship, setting her stern heavily in the water, sent him charging head down upon Mr. Rout.
The chief’s arm, long like a tentacle, and straightening as if worked by a spring, went out to meet him, and deflected his rush into a spin towards the speaking-tubes. At the same time Mr. Rout repeated earnestly:
“You’ve got to hurry up, whatever it is.”
Jukes yelled “Are you there, sir?” and listened. Nothing. Suddenly the roar of the wind fell straight into his ear, but presently a small voice shoved aside the shouting hurricane quietly.
“You, Jukes? — Well?”
Jukes was ready to talk: it was only time that seemed to be wanting. It was easy enough to account for everything. He could perfectly imagine the coolies battened down in the reeking ‘tween-deck, lying sick and scared between the rows of chests. Then one of these chests — or perhaps several at once — breaking loose in a roll, knocking out others, sides splitting, lids flying open, and all these clumsy Chinamen rising up in a body to save their property. Afterwards every fling of the ship would hurl that tramping, yelling mob here and there, from side to side, in a whirl of smashed wood, torn clothing, rolling dollars. A struggle once started, they would be unable to stop themselves. Nothing could stop them now except main force. It was a disaster. He had seen it, and that was all he could say. Some of them must be dead, he believed. The rest would go on fighting . . . .
He sent up his words, tripping over each other, crowding the narrow tube. They mounted as if into a silence of an enlightened comprehension dwelling alone up there with a storm. And Jukes wanted to be dismissed from the face of that odious trouble intruding on the great need of the ship.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52