THE END OF THE TETHER
This was the reason why Mr. Sterne’s confidential communication, delivered hurriedly on the shore alongside the dark silent ship, had disturbed his equanimity. It was the most incomprehensible and unexpected thing that could happen; and the perturbation of his spirit was so great that, forgetting all about his letters, he ran rapidly up the bridge ladder.
The portable table was being put together for dinner to the left of the wheel by two pig-tailed “boys,” who as usual snarled at each other over the job, while another, a doleful, burly, very yellow Chinaman, resembling Mr. Massy, waited apathetically with the cloth over his arm and a pile of thick dinner-plates against his chest. A common cabin lamp with its globe missing, brought up from below, had been hooked to the wooden framework of the awning; the side-screens had been lowered all round; Captain Whalley filling the depths of the wicker-chair seemed to sit benumbed in a canvas tent crudely lighted, and used for the storing of nautical objects; a shabby steering-wheel, a battered brass binnacle on a stout mahogany stand, two dingy life-buoys, an old cork fender lying in a corner, dilapidated deck-lockers with loops of thin rope instead of door-handles.
He shook off the appearance of numbness to return Mr. Van Wyk’s unusually brisk greeting, but relapsed directly afterwards. To accept a pressing invitation to dinner “up at the house” cost him another very visible physical effort. Mr. Van Wyk, perplexed, folded his arms, and leaning back against the rail, with his little, black, shiny feet well out, examined him covertly.
“I’ve noticed of late that you are not quite yourself, old friend.”
He put an affectionate gentleness into the last two words. The real intimacy of their intercourse had never been so vividly expressed before.
“Tut, tut, tut!”
The wicker-chair creaked heavily.
“Irritable,” commented Mr. Van Wyk to himself; and aloud, “I’ll expect to see you in half an hour, then,” he said negligently, moving off.
“In half an hour,” Captain Whalley’s rigid silvery head repeated behind him as if out of a trance.
Amidships, below, two voices, close against the engineroom, could be heard answering each other—one angry and slow, the other alert.
“I tell you the beast has locked himself in to get drunk.”
“Can’t help it now, Mr. Massy. After all, a man has a right to shut himself up in his cabin in his own time.”
“Not to get drunk.”
“I heard him swear that the worry with the boilers was enough to drive any man to drink,” Sterne said maliciously.
Massy hissed out something about bursting the door in. Mr. Van Wyk, to avoid them, crossed in the dark to the other side of the deserted deck. The planking of the little wharf rattled faintly under his hasty feet.
“Mr. Van Wyk! Mr. Van Wyk!”
He walked on: somebody was running on the path. “You’ve forgotten to get your mail.”
Sterne, holding a bundle of papers in his hand, caught up with him.
But, as the other continued at his elbow, Mr. Van Wyk stopped short. The overhanging eaves, descending low upon the lighted front of the bungalow, threw their black straight-edged shadow into the great body of the night on that side. Everything was very still. A tinkle of cutlery and a slight jingle of glasses were heard. Mr. Van Wyk’s servants were laying the table for two on the veranda.
“I’m afraid you give me no credit whatever for my good intentions in the matter I’ve spoken to you about,” said Sterne.
“I simply don’t understand you.”
“Captain Whalley is a very audacious man, but he will understand that his game is up. That’s all that anybody need ever know of it from me. Believe me, I am very considerate in this, but duty is duty. I don’t want to make a fuss. All I ask you, as his friend, is to tell him from me that the game’s up. That will be sufficient.”
Mr. Van Wyk felt a loathsome dismay at this queer privilege of friendship. He would not demean himself by asking for the slightest explanation; to drive the other away with contumely he did not think prudent—as yet, at any rate. So much assurance staggered him. Who could tell what there could be in it, he thought? His regard for Captain Whalley had the tenacity of a disinterested sentiment, and his practical instinct coming to his aid, he concealed his scorn.
“I gather, then, that this is something grave.”
“Very grave,” Sterne assented solemnly, delighted at having produced an effect at last. He was ready to add some effusive protestations of regret at the “unavoidable necessity,” but Mr. Van Wyk cut him short—very civilly, however.
Once on the veranda Mr. Van Wyk put his hands in his pockets, and, straddling his legs, stared down at a black panther skin lying on the floor before a rocking-chair. “It looks as if the fellow had not the pluck to play his own precious game openly,” he thought.
This was true enough. In the face of Massy’s last rebuff Sterne dared not declare his knowledge. His object was simply to get charge of the steamer and keep it for some time. Massy would never forgive him for forcing himself on; but if Captain Whalley left the ship of his own accord, the command would devolve upon him for the rest of the trip; so he hit upon the brilliant idea of scaring the old man away. A vague menace, a mere hint, would be enough in such a brazen case; and, with a strange admixture of compassion, he thought that Batu Beru was a very good place for throwing up the sponge. The skipper could go ashore quietly, and stay with that Dutchman of his. Weren’t these two as thick as thieves together? And on reflection he seemed to see that there was a way to work the whole thing through that great friend of the old man’s. This was another brilliant idea. He had an inborn preference for circuitous methods. In this particular case he desired to remain in the background as much as possible, to avoid exasperating Massy needlessly. No fuss! Let it all happen naturally.
Mr. Van Wyk all through the dinner was conscious of a sense of isolation that invades sometimes the closeness of human intercourse. Captain Whalley failed lamentably and obviously in his attempts to eat something. He seemed overcome by a strange absentmindedness. His hand would hover irresolutely, as if left without guidance by a preoccupied mind. Mr. Van Wyk had heard him coming up from a long way off in the profound stillness of the river-side, and had noticed the irresolute character of the footfalls. The toe of his boot had struck the bottom stair as though he had come along mooning with his head in the air right up to the steps of the veranda. Had the captain of the Sofala been another sort of man he would have suspected the work of age there. But one glance at him was enough. Time—after, indeed, marking him for its own—had given him up to his usefulness, in which his simple faith would see a proof of Divine mercy. “How could I contrive to warn him?” Mr. Van Wyk wondered, as if Captain Whalley had been miles and miles away, out of sight and earshot of all evil. He was sickened by an immense disgust of Sterne. To even mention his threat to a man like Whalley would be positively indecent. There was something more vile and insulting in its hint than in a definite charge of crime—the debasing taint of blackmailing. “What could anyone bring against him?” he asked himself. This was a limpid personality. “And for what object?” The Power that man trusted had thought fit to leave him nothing on earth that envy could lay hold of, except a bare crust of bread.
“Won’t you try some of this?” he asked, pushing a dish slightly. Suddenly it seemed to Mr. Van Wyk that Sterne might possibly be coveting the command of the Sofala. His cynicism was quite startled by what looked like a proof that no man may count himself safe from his kind unless in the very abyss of misery. An intrigue of that sort was hardly worth troubling about, he judged; but still, with such a fool as Massy to deal with, Whalley ought to and must be warned.
At this moment Captain Whalley, bolt upright, the deep cavities of the eyes overhung by a bushy frown, and one large brown hand resting on each side of his empty plate, spoke across the tablecloth abruptly—“Mr. Van Wyk, you’ve always treated me with the most humane consideration.”
“My dear captain, you make too much of a simple fact that I am not a savage.” Mr. Van Wyk, utterly revolted by the thought of Sterne’s obscure attempt, raised his voice incisively, as if the mate had been hiding somewhere within earshot. “Any consideration I have been able to show was no more than the rightful due of a character I’ve learned to regard by this time with an esteem that nothing can shake.”
A slight ring of glass made him lift his eyes from the slice of pine-apple he was cutting into small pieces on his plate. In changing his position Captain Whalley had contrived to upset an empty tumbler.
Without looking that way, leaning sideways on his elbow, his other hand shading his brow, he groped shakily for it, then desisted. Van Wyk stared blankly, as if something momentous had happened all at once. He did not know why he should feel so startled; but he forgot Sterne utterly for the moment.
“Why, what’s the matter?”
And Captain Whalley, half-averted, in a deadened, agitated voice, muttered—
“And I may add something more,” Mr. Van Wyk, very steady-eyed, pronounced slowly.
“Hold! Enough!” Captain Whalley did not change his attitude or raise his voice. “Say no more! I can make you no return. I am too poor even for that now. Your esteem is worth having. You are not a man that would stoop to deceive the poorest sort of devil on earth, or make a ship unseaworthy every time he takes her to sea.”
Mr. Van Wyk, leaning forward, his face gone pink all over, with the starched table-napkin over his knees, was inclined to mistrust his senses, his power of comprehension, the sanity of his guest.
“Where? Why? In the name of God!—what’s this? What ship? I don’t understand who . . .”
“Then, in the name of God, it is I! A ship’s unseaworthy when her captain can’t see. I am going blind.”
Mr. Van Wyk made a slight movement, and sat very still afterwards for a few seconds; then, with the thought of Sterne’s “The game’s up,” he ducked under the table to pick up the napkin which had slipped off his knees. This was the game that was up. And at the same time the muffled voice of Captain Whalley passed over him—
“I’ve deceived them all. Nobody knows.”
He emerged flushed to the eyes. Captain Whalley, motionless under the full blaze of the lamp, shaded his face with his hand.
“And you had that courage?”
“Call it by what name you like. But you are a humane man—a—a—gentleman, Mr. Van Wyk. You may have asked me what I had done with my conscience.”
He seemed to muse, profoundly silent, very still in his mournful pose.
“I began to tamper with it in my pride. You begin to see a lot of things when you are going blind. I could not be frank with an old chum even. I was not frank with Massy—no, not altogether. I knew he took me for a wealthy sailor fool, and I let him. I wanted to keep up my importance—because there was poor Ivy away there—my daughter. What did I want to trade on his misery for? I did trade on it—for her. And now, what mercy could I expect from him? He would trade on mine if he knew it. He would hunt the old fraud out, and stick to the money for a year. Ivy’s money. And I haven’t kept a penny for myself. How am I going to live for a year. A year! In a year there will be no sun in the sky for her father.”
His deep voice came out, awfully veiled, as though he had been overwhelmed by the earth of a landslide, and talking to you of the thoughts that haunt the dead in their graves. A cold shudder ran down Mr. Van Wyk’s back.
“And how long is it since you have . . .?” he began.
“It was a long time before I could bring myself to believe in this—this visitation.” Captain Whalley spoke with gloomy patience from under his hand.
He had not thought he had deserved it. He had begun by deceiving himself from day to day, from week to week. He had the Serang at hand there—an old servant. It came on gradually, and when he could no longer deceive himself . . .
His voice died out almost.
“Rather than give her up I set myself to deceive you all.”
“It’s incredible,” whispered Mr. Van Wyk. Captain Whalley’s appalling murmur flowed on.
“Not even the sign of God’s anger could make me forget her. How could I forsake my child, feeling my vigor all the time—the blood warm within me? Warm as yours. It seems to me that, like the blinded Samson, I would find the strength to shake down a temple upon my head. She’s a struggling woman—my own child that we used to pray over together, my poor wife and I. Do you remember that day I as well as told you that I believed God would let me live to a hundred for her sake? What sin is there in loving your child? Do you see it? I was ready for her sake to live for ever. I half believed I would. I’ve been praying for death since. Ha! Presumptuous man—you wanted to live . . .”
A tremendous, shuddering upheaval of that big frame, shaken by a gasping sob, set the glasses jingling all over the table, seemed to make the whole house tremble to the roof-tree. And Mr. Van Wyk, whose feeling of outraged love had been translated into a form of struggle with nature, understood very well that, for that man whose whole life had been conditioned by action, there could exist no other expression for all the emotions; that, to voluntarily cease venturing, doing, enduring, for his child’s sake, would have been exactly like plucking his warm love for her out of his living heart. Something too monstrous, too impossible, even to conceive.
Captain Whalley had not changed his attitude, that seemed to express something of shame, sorrow, and defiance.
“I have even deceived you. If it had not been for that word ‘esteem.’ These are not the words for me. I would have lied to you. Haven’t I lied to you? Weren’t you going to trust your property on board this very trip?”
“I have a floating yearly policy,” Mr. Van Wyk said almost unwittingly, and was amazed at the sudden cropping up of a commercial detail.
“The ship is unseaworthy, I tell you. The policy would be invalid if it were known . . .”
“We shall share the guilt, then.”
“Nothing could make mine less,” said Captain Whalley.
He had not dared to consult a doctor; the man would have perhaps asked who he was, what he was doing; Massy might have heard something. He had lived on without any help, human or divine. The very prayers stuck in his throat. What was there to pray for? and death seemed as far as ever. Once he got into his cabin he dared not come out again; when he sat down he dared not get up; he dared not raise his eyes to anybody’s face; he felt reluctant to look upon the sea or up to the sky. The world was fading before his great fear of giving himself away. The old ship was his last friend; he was not afraid of her; he knew every inch of her deck; but at her too he hardly dared to look, for fear of finding he could see less than the day before. A great incertitude enveloped him. The horizon was gone; the sky mingled darkly with the sea. Who was this figure standing over yonder? what was this thing lying down there? And a frightful doubt of the reality of what he could see made even the remnant of sight that remained to him an added torment, a pitfall always open for his miserable pretense. He was afraid to stumble inexcusably over something—to say a fatal Yes or No to a question. The hand of God was upon him, but it could not tear him away from his child. And, as if in a nightmare of humiliation, every featureless man seemed an enemy.
He let his hand fall heavily on the table. Mr. Van Wyk, arms down, chin on breast, with a gleam of white teeth pressing on the lower lip, meditated on Sterne’s “The game’s up.”
“The Serang of course does not know.”
“Nobody,” said Captain Whalley, with assurance.
“Ah yes. Nobody. Very well. Can you keep it up to the end of the trip? That is the last under the agreement with Massy.”
Captain Whalley got up and stood erect, very stately, with the great white beard lying like a silver breastplate over the awful secret of his heart. Yes; that was the only hope there was for him of ever seeing her again, of securing the money, the last he could do for her, before he crept away somewhere—useless, a burden, a reproach to himself. His voice faltered.
“Think of it! Never see her any more: the only human being besides myself now on earth that can remember my wife. She’s just like her mother. Lucky the poor woman is where there are no tears shed over those they loved on earth and that remain to pray not to be led into temptation—because, I suppose, the blessed know the secret of grace in God’s dealings with His created children.”
He swayed a little, said with austere dignity—
“I don’t. I know only the child He has given me.”
And he began to walk. Mr. Van Wyk, jumping up, saw the full meaning of the rigid head, the hesitating feet, the vaguely extended hand. His heart was beating fast; he moved a chair aside, and instinctively advanced as if to offer his arm. But Captain Whalley passed him by, making for the stairs quite straight.
“He could not see me at all out of his line,” Van Wyk thought, with a sort of awe. Then going to the head of the stairs, he asked a little tremulously—
“What is it like—like a mist—like . . .”
Captain Whalley, half-way down, stopped, and turned round undismayed to answer.
“It is as if the light were ebbing out of the world. Have you ever watched the ebbing sea on an open stretch of sands withdrawing farther and farther away from you? It is like this—only there will be no flood to follow. Never. It is as if the sun were growing smaller, the stars going out one by one. There can’t be many left that I can see by this. But I haven’t had the courage to look of late . . .” He must have been able to make out Mr. Van Wyk, because he checked him by an authoritative gesture and a stoical—
“I can get about alone yet.”
It was as if he had taken his line, and would accept no help from men, after having been cast out, like a presumptuous Titan, from his heaven. Mr. Van Wyk, arrested, seemed to count the footsteps right out of earshot. He walked between the tables, tapping smartly with his heels, took up a paper-knife, dropped it after a vague glance along the blade; then happening upon the piano, struck a few chords again and again, vigorously, standing up before the keyboard with an attentive poise of the head like a piano-tuner; closing it, he pivoted on his heels brusquely, avoided the little terrier sleeping trustfully on crossed forepaws, came upon the stairs next, and, as though he had lost his balance on the top step, ran down headlong out of the house. His servants, beginning to clear the table, heard him mutter to himself (evil words no doubt) down there, and then after a pause go away with a strolling gait in the direction of the wharf.
The bulwarks of the Sofala lying alongside the bank made a low, black wall on the undulating contour of the shore. Two masts and a funnel uprose from behind it with a great rake, as if about to fall: a solid, square elevation in the middle bore the ghostly shapes of white boats, the curves of davits, lines of rail and stanchions, all confused and mingling darkly everywhere; but low down, amidships, a single lighted port stared out on the night, perfectly round, like a small, full moon, whose yellow beam caught a patch of wet mud, the edge of trodden grass, two turns of heavy cable wound round the foot of a thick wooden post in the ground.
Mr. Van Wyk, peering alongside, heard a muzzy boastful voice apparently jeering at a person called Prendergast. It mouthed abuse thickly, choked; then pronounced very distinctly the word “Murphy,” and chuckled. Glass tinkled tremulously. All these sounds came from the lighted port. Mr. Van Wyk hesitated, stooped; it was impossible to look through unless he went down into the mud.
“Sterne,” he said, half aloud.
The drunken voice within said gladly—
“Sterne—of course. Look at him blink. Look at him! Sterne, Whalley, Massy. Massy, Whalley, Sterne. But Massy’s the best. You can’t come over him. He would just love to see you starve.”
Mr. Van Wyk moved away, made out farther forward a shadowy head stuck out from under the awnings as if on the watch, and spoke quietly in Malay, “Is the mate asleep?”
“No. Here, at your service.”
In a moment Sterne appeared, walking as noiselessly as a cat on the wharf.
“It’s so jolly dark, and I had no idea you would be down to-night.”
“What’s this horrible raving?” asked Mr. Van Wyk, as if to explain the cause of a shudder than ran over him audibly.
“Jack’s broken out on a drunk. That’s our second. It’s his way. He will be right enough by to-morrow afternoon, only Mr. Massy will keep on worrying up and down the deck. We had better get away.”
He muttered suggestively of a talk “up at the house.” He had long desired to effect an entrance there, but Mr. Van Wyk nonchalantly demurred: it would not, he feared, be quite prudent, perhaps; and the opaque black shadow under one of the two big trees left at the landing-place swallowed them up, impenetrably dense, by the side of the wide river, that seemed to spin into threads of glitter the light of a few big stars dropped here and there upon its outspread and flowing stillness.
“The situation is grave beyond doubt,” Mr. Van Wyk said. Ghost-like in their white clothes they could not distinguish each others’ features, and their feet made no sound on the soft earth. A sort of purring was heard. Mr. Sterne felt gratified by such a beginning.
“I thought, Mr. Van Wyk, a gentleman of your sort would see at once how awkwardly I was situated.”
“Yes, very. Obviously his health is bad. Perhaps he’s breaking up. I see, and he himself is well aware—I assume I am speaking to a man of sense—he is well aware that his legs are giving out.”
“His legs—ah!” Mr. Sterne was disconcerted, and then turned sulky. “You may call it his legs if you like; what I want to know is whether he intends to clear out quietly. That’s a good one, too! His legs! Pooh!”
“Why, yes. Only look at the way he walks.” Mr. Van Wyk took him up in a perfectly cool and undoubting tone. “The question, however, is whether your sense of duty does not carry you too far from your true interest. After all, I too could do something to serve you. You know who I am.”
“Everybody along the Straits has heard of you, sir.”
Mr. Van Wyk presumed that this meant something favorable. Sterne had a soft laugh at this pleasantry. He should think so! To the opening statement, that the partnership agreement was to expire at the end of this very trip, he gave an attentive assent. He was aware. One heard of nothing else on board all the blessed day long. As to Massy, it was no secret that he was in a jolly deep hole with these worn-out boilers. He would have to borrow somewhere a couple of hundred first of all to pay off the captain; and then he would have to raise money on mortgage upon the ship for the new boilers—that is, if he could find a lender at all. At best it meant loss of time, a break in the trade, short earnings for the year—and there was always the danger of having his connection filched away from him by the Germans. It was whispered about that he had already tried two firms. Neither would have anything to do with him. Ship too old, and the man too well known in the place. . . . Mr. Sterne’s final rapid winking remained buried in the deep darkness sibilating with his whispers.
“Supposing, then, he got the loan,” Mr. Van Wyk resumed in a deliberate undertone, “on your own showing he’s more than likely to get a mortgagee’s man thrust upon him as captain. For my part, I know that I would make that very stipulation myself if I had to find the money. And as a matter of fact I am thinking of doing so. It would be worth my while in many ways. Do you see how this would bear on the case under discussion?”
“Thank you, sir. I am sure you couldn’t get anybody that would care more for your interests.”
“Well, it suits my interest that Captain Whalley should finish his time. I shall probably take a passage with you down the Straits. If that can be done, I’ll be on the spot when all these changes take place, and in a position to look after your interests.”
“Mr. Van Wyk, I want nothing better. I am sure I am infinitely . . .”
“I take it, then, that this may be done without any trouble.”
“Well, sir, what risk there is can’t be helped; but (speaking to you as my employer now) the thing is more safe than it looks. If anybody had told me of it I wouldn’t have believed it, but I have been looking on myself. That old Serang has been trained up to the game. There’s nothing the matter with his—his—limbs, sir. He’s got used to doing things himself in a remarkable way. And let me tell you, sir, that Captain Whalley, poor man, is by no means useless. Fact. Let me explain to you, sir. He stiffens up that old monkey of a Malay, who knows well enough what to do. Why, he must have kept captain’s watches in all sorts of country ships off and on for the last five-and-twenty years. These natives, sir, as long as they have a white man close at the back, will go on doing the right thing most surprisingly well—even if left quite to themselves. Only the white man must be of the sort to put starch into them, and the captain is just the one for that. Why, sir, he has drilled him so well that now he needs hardly speak at all. I have seen that little wrinkled ape made to take the ship out of Pangu Bay on a blowy morning and on all through the islands; take her out first-rate, sir, dodging under the old man’s elbow, and in such quiet style that you could not have told for the life of you which of the two was doing the work up there. That’s where our poor friend would be still of use to the ship even if—if—he could no longer lift a foot, sir. Provided the Serang does not know that there’s anything wrong.”
“Naturally not. Quite beyond his apprehension. They aren’t capable of finding out anything about us, sir.”
“You seem to be a shrewd man,” said Mr. Van Wyk in a choked mutter, as though he were feeling sick.
“You’ll find me a good enough servant, sir.”
Mr. Sterne hoped now for a handshake at least, but unexpectedly, with a “What’s this? Better not to be seen together,” Mr. Van Wyk’s white shape wavered, and instantly seemed to melt away in the black air under the roof of boughs. The mate was startled. Yes. There was that faint thumping clatter.
He stole out silently from under the shade. The lighted port-hole shone from afar. His head swam with the intoxication of sudden success. What a thing it was to have a gentleman to deal with! He crept aboard, and there was something weird in the shadowy stretch of empty decks, echoing with shouts and blows proceeding from a darker part amidships. Mr. Massy was raging before the door of the berth: the drunken voice within flowed on undisturbed in the violent racket of kicks.
“Shut up! Put your light out and turn in, you confounded swilling pig—you! D’you hear me, you beast?”
The kicking stopped, and in the pause the muzzy oracular voice announced from within—
“Ah! Massy, now—that’s another thing. Massy’s deep.”
“Who’s that aft there? You, Sterne? He’ll drink himself into a fit of horrors.” The chief engineer appeared vague and big at the corner of the engineroom.
“He will be good enough for duty to-morrow. I would let him be, Mr. Massy.”
Sterne slipped away into his berth, and at once had to sit down. His head swam with exultation. He got into his bunk as if in a dream. A feeling of profound peace, of pacific joy, came over him. On deck all was quiet.
Mr. Massy, with his ear against the door of Jack’s cabin, listened critically to a deep stertorous breathing within. This was a dead-drunk sleep. The bout was over: tranquilized on that score, he too went in, and with slow wriggles got out of his old tweed jacket. It was a garment with many pockets, which he used to put on at odd times of the day, being subject to sudden chilly fits, and when he felt warmed he would take it off and hang it about anywhere all over the ship. It would be seen swinging on belaying-pins, thrown over the heads of winches, suspended on people’s very door-handles for that matter. Was he not the owner? But his favorite place was a hook on a wooden awning stanchion on the bridge, almost against the binnacle. He had even in the early days more than one tussle on that point with Captain Whalley, who desired the bridge to be kept tidy. He had been overawed then. Of late, though, he had been able to defy his partner with impunity. Captain Whalley never seemed to notice anything now. As to the Malays, in their awe of that scowling man not one of the crew would dream of laying a hand on the thing, no matter where or what it swung from.
With an unexpectedness which made Mr. Massy jump and drop the coat at his feet, there came from the next berth the crash and thud of a headlong, jingling, clattering fall. The faithful Jack must have dropped to sleep suddenly as he sat at his revels, and now had gone over chair and all, breaking, as it seemed by the sound, every single glass and bottle in the place. After the terrific smash all was still for a time in there, as though he had killed himself outright on the spot. Mr. Massy held his breath. At last a sleepy uneasy groaning sigh was exhaled slowly on the other side of the bulkhead.
“I hope to goodness he’s too drunk to wake up now,” muttered Mr. Massy.
The sound of a softly knowing laugh nearly drove him to despair. He swore violently under his breath. The fool would keep him awake all night now for certain. He cursed his luck. He wanted to forget his maddening troubles in sleep sometimes. He could detect no movements. Without apparently making the slightest attempt to get up, Jack went on sniggering to himself where he lay; then began to speak, where he had left off as it were—
“Massy! I love the dirty rascal. He would like to see his poor old Jack starve—but just you look where he has climbed to.” . . . He hiccoughed in a superior, leisurely manner. . . . “Ship-owning it with the best. A lottery ticket you want. Ha! ha! I will give you lottery tickets, my boy. Let the old ship sink and the old chum starve—that’s right. He don’t go wrong—Massy don’t. Not he. He’s a genius—that man is. That’s the way to win your money. Ship and chum must go.”
“The silly fool has taken it to heart,” muttered Massy to himself. And, listening with a softened expression of face for any slight sign of returning drowsiness, he was discouraged profoundly by a burst of laughter full of joyful irony.
“Would like to see her at the bottom of the sea! Oh, you clever, clever devil! Wish her sunk, eh? I should think you would, my boy; the damned old thing and all your troubles with her. Rake in the insurance money —turn your back on your old chum—all’s well—gentleman again.”
A grim stillness had come over Massy’s face. Only his big black eyes rolled uneasily. The raving fool. And yet it was all true. Yes. Lottery tickets, too. All true. What? Beginning again? He wished he wouldn’t. . . .
But it was even so. The imaginative drunkard on the other side of the bulkhead shook off the deathlike stillness that after his last words had fallen on the dark ship moored to a silent shore.
“Don’t you dare to say anything against George Massy, Esquire. When he’s tired of waiting he will do away with her. Look out! Down she goes—chum and all. He’ll know how to . . .”
The voice hesitated, weary, dreamy, lost, as if dying away in a vast open space.
“. . . Find a trick that will work. He’s up to it—never fear . . .”
He must have been very drunk, for at last the heavy sleep gripped him with the suddenness of a magic spell, and the last word lengthened itself into an interminable, noisy, in-drawn snore. And then even the snoring stopped, and all was still.
But it seemed as though Mr. Massy had suddenly come to doubt the efficacy of sleep as against a man’s troubles; or perhaps he had found the relief he needed in the stillness of a calm contemplation that may contain the vivid thoughts of wealth, of a stroke of luck, of long idleness, and may bring before you the imagined form of every desire; for, turning about and throwing his arms over the edge of his bunk, he stood there with his feet on his favorite old coat, looking out through the round port into the night over the river. Sometimes a breath of wind would enter and touch his face, a cool breath charged with the damp, fresh feel from a vast body of water. A glimmer here and there was all he could see of it; and once he might after all suppose he had dozed off, since there appeared before his vision, unexpectedly and connected with no dream, a row of flaming and gigantic figures—three naught seven one two—making up a number such as you may see on a lottery ticket. And then all at once the port was no longer black: it was pearly gray, framing a shore crowded with houses, thatched roof beyond thatched roof, walls of mats and bamboo, gables of carved teak timber. Rows of dwellings raised on a forest of piles lined the steely band of the river, brimful and still, with the tide at the turn. This was Batu Beru—and the day had come.
Mr. Massy shook himself, put on the tweed coat, and, shivering nervously as if from some great shock, made a note of the number. A fortunate, rare hint that. Yes; but to pursue fortune one wanted money—ready cash.
Then he went out and prepared to descend into the engine-room. Several small jobs had to be seen to, and Jack was lying dead drunk on the floor of his cabin, with the door locked at that. His gorge rose at the thought of work. Ay! But if you wanted to do nothing you had to get first a good bit of money. A ship won’t save you. He cursed the Sofala. True, all true. He was tired of waiting for some chance that would rid him at last of that ship that had turned out a curse on his life.