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End of the Tether by Joseph Conrad

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prayed for daily bread, and not to be led into tempta-
tion, in a childlike humility of spirit. Did words mean
anything? Whence did the gift of speech come? The
violent beating of his heart reverberated in his head--
seemed to shake his brain to pieces.

He sat down heavily in the deck-chair to keep the pre-
tense of his watch. The night was dark. All the nights
were dark now.

"Serang," he said, half aloud.

"Ada, Tuan. I am here."

"There are clouds on the sky?"

"There are, Tuan."

"Let her be steered straight. North."

"She is going north, Tuan."

The Serang stepped back. Captain Whalley recog-
nized Massy's footfalls on the bridge.

The engineer walked over to port and returned, pass-
ing behind the chair several times. Captain Whalley
detected an unusual character as of prudent care in this
prowling. The near presence of that man brought with
it always a recrudescence of moral suffering for Captain
Whalley. It was not remorse. After all, he had done
nothing but good to the poor devil. There was also
a sense of danger--the necessity of a greater care.

Massy stopped and said--

"So you still say you must go?"

"I must indeed."

"And you couldn't at least leave the money for a term
of years?"


"Can't trust it with me without your care, eh?"

Captain Whalley remained silent. Massy sighed
deeply over the back of the chair.

"It would just do to save me," he said in a tremulous

"I've saved you once."

The chief engineer took off his coat with careful
movements, and proceeded to feel for the brass hook
screwed into the wooden stanchion. For this purpose he
placed himself right in front of the binnacle, thus hid-
ing completely the compass-card from the quarter-
master at the wheel. "Tuan!" the lascar at last mur-
mured softly, meaning to let the white man know that
he could not see to steer.

Mr. Massy had accomplished his purpose. The coat
was hanging from the nail, within six inches of the
binnacle. And directly he had stepped aside the quarter-
master, a middle-aged, pock-marked, Sumatra Malay,
almost as dark as a negro, perceived with amazement
that in that short time, in this smooth water, with no
wind at all, the ship had gone swinging far out of her
course. He had never known her get away like this
before. With a slight grunt of astonishment he turned
the wheel hastily to bring her head back north, which
was the course. The grinding of the steering-chains,
the chiding murmurs of the Serang, who had come over
to the wheel, made a slight stir, which attracted Cap-
tain Whalley's anxious attention. He said, "Take
better care." Then everything settled to the usual quiet
on the bridge. Mr. Massy had disappeared.

But the iron in the pockets of the coat had done its
work; and the Sofala, heading north by the compass,
made untrue by this simple device, was no longer mak-
ing a safe course for Pangu Bay.

The hiss of water parted by her stem, the throb of her
engines, all the sounds of her faithful and laborious life,
went on uninterrupted in the great calm of the sea join-
ing on all sides the motionless layer of cloud over the
sky. A gentle stillness as vast as the world seemed to
wait upon her path, enveloping her lovingly in a su-
preme caress. Mr. Massy thought there could be no
better night for an arranged shipwreck.

Run up high and dry on one of the reefs east of
Pangu--wait for daylight--hole in the bottom--out
boats--Pangu Bay same evening. That's about it. As
soon as she touched he would hasten on the bridge, get
hold of the coat (nobody would notice in the dark),
and shake it upside-down over the side, or even fling
it into the sea. A detail. Who could guess? Coat been
seen hanging there from that hook hundreds of times.
Nevertheless, when he sat down on the lower step of the
bridge-ladder his knees knocked together a little. The
waiting part was the worst of it. At times he would
begin to pant quickly, as though he had been running,
and then breathe largely, swelling with the intimate
sense of a mastered fate. Now and then he would hear
the shuffle of the Serang's bare feet up there: quiet, low
voices would exchange a few words, and lapse almost
at once into silence. . . .

"Tell me directly you see any land, Serang."

"Yes, Tuan. Not yet."

"No, not yet," Captain Whalley would agree.

The ship had been the best friend of his decline. He
had sent all the money he had made by and in the
Sofala to his daughter. His thought lingered on the
name. How often he and his wife had talked over the
cot of the child in the big stern-cabin of the Condor; she
would grow up, she would marry, she would love them,
they would live near her and look at her happiness--it
would go on without end. Well, his wife was dead, to
the child he had given all he had to give; he wished he
could come near her, see her, see her face once, live in
the sound of her voice, that could make the darkness of
the living grave ready for him supportable. He had
been starved of love too long. He imagined her tender-

The Serang had been peering forward, and now and
then glancing at the chair. He fidgeted restlessly, and
suddenly burst out close to Captain Whalley--

"Tuan, do you see anything of the land?"

The alarmed voice brought Captain Whalley to his feet
at once. He! See! And at the question, the curse of
his blindness seemed to fall on him with a hundredfold

"What's the time?" he cried.

"Half-past three, Tuan."

"We are close. You MUST see. Look, I say. Look."

Mr. Massy, awakened by the sudden sound of talking
from a short doze on the lowest step, wondered why he
was there. Ah! A faintness came over him. It is one
thing to sow the seed of an accident and another to see
the monstrous fruit hanging over your head ready to
fall in the sound of agitated voices.

"There's no danger," he muttered thickly.

The horror of incertitude had seized upon Captain
Whalley, the miserable mistrust of men, of things--of
the very earth. He had steered that very course thirty-
six times by the same compass--if anything was certain
in this world it was its absolute, unerring correctness.
Then what had happened? Did the Serang lie? Why
lie? Why? Was he going blind too?

"Is there a mist? Look low on the water. Low down,
I say."

"Tuan, there's no mist. See for yourself."

Captain Whalley steadied the trembling of his limbs
by an effort. Should he stop the engines at once and
give himself away. A gust of irresolution swayed all
sorts of bizarre notions in his mind. The unusual had
come, and he was not fit to deal with it. In this passage
of inexpressible anguish he saw her face--the face of
a young girl--with an amazing strength of illusion.
No, he must not give himself away after having gone
so far for her sake. "You steered the course? You
made it? Speak the truth."

"Ya, Tuan. On the course now. Look."

Captain Whalley strode to the binnacle, which to him
made such a dim spot of light in an infinity of shape-
less shadow. By bending his face right down to the
glass he had been able before . . .

Having to stoop so low, he put out, instinctively, his
arm to where he knew there was a stanchion to steady
himself against. His hand closed on something that
was not wood but cloth. The slight pull adding to the
weight, the loop broke, and Mr. Massy's coat falling,
struck the deck heavily with a dull thump, accompanied
by a lot of clicks.

"What's this?"

Captain Whalley fell on his knees, with groping hands
extended in a frank gesture of blindness. They trem-
bled, these hands feeling for the truth. He saw it. Iron
near the compass. Wrong course. Wreck her! His
ship. Oh no. Not that.

"Jump and stop her!" he roared out in a voice not
his own.

He ran himself--hands forward, a blind man, and
while the clanging of the gong echoed still all over the
ship, she seemed to butt full tilt into the side of a

It was low water along the north side of the strait.
Mr. Massy had not reckoned on that. Instead of run-
ning aground for half her length, the Sofala butted the
sheer ridge of a stone reef which would have been
awash at high water. This made the shock absolutely
terrific. Everybody in the ship that was standing was
thrown down headlong: the shaken rigging made a great
rattling to the very trucks. All the lights went out:
several chain-guys, snapping, clattered against the
funnel: there were crashes, pings of parted wire-rope,
splintering sounds, loud cracks, the masthead lamp flew
over the bows, and all the doors about the deck began
to bang heavily. Then, after having hit, she rebounded,
hit the second time the very same spot like a battering-
ram. This completed the havoc: the funnel, with all
the guys gone, fell over with a hollow sound of thunder,
smashing the wheel to bits, crushing the frame of the
awnings, breaking the lockers, filling the bridge with
a mass of splinters, sticks, and broken wood. Captain
Whalley picked himself up and stood knee-deep in
wreckage, torn, bleeding, knowing the nature of the
danger he had escaped mostly by the sound, and holding
Mr. Massy's coat in his arms.

By this time Sterne (he had been flung out of his
bunk) had set the engines astern. They worked for a
few turns, then a voice bawled out, "Get out of the
damned engine-room, Jack!"--and they stopped; but
the ship had gone clear of the reef and lay still, with a
heavy cloud of steam issuing from the broken deck-
pipes, and vanishing in wispy shapes into the night.
Notwithstanding the suddenness of the disaster there
was no shouting, as if the very violence of the shock
had half-stunned the shadowy lot of people swaying
here and there about her decks. The voice of the Serang
pronounced distinctly above the confused murmurs--

"Eight fathom." He had heaved the lead.

Mr. Sterne cried out next in a strained pitch--

"Where the devil has she got to? Where are we?"

Captain Whalley replied in a calm bass--

"Amongst the reefs to the eastward."

"You know it, sir? Then she will never get out

"She will be sunk in five minutes. Boats, Sterne.
Even one will save you all in this calm."

The Chinaman stokers went in a disorderly rush for
the port boats. Nobody tried to check them. The
Malays, after a moment of confusion, became quiet,
and Mr. Sterne showed a good countenance. Captain
Whalley had not moved. His thoughts were darker
than this night in which he had lost his first ship.

"He made me lose a ship."

Another tall figure standing before him amongst the
litter of the smash on the bridge whispered insanely--

"Say nothing of it."

Massy stumbled closer. Captain Whalley heard the
chattering of his teeth.

"I have the coat."

"Throw it down and come along," urged the chatter-
ing voice. "B-b-b-b-boat!"

"You will get fifteen years for this."

Mr. Massy had lost his voice. His speech was a mere
dry rustling in his throat.

"Have mercy!"

"Had you any when you made me lose my ship? Mr.
Massy, you shall get fifteen years for this!"

"I wanted money! Money! My own money! I will
give you some money. Take half of it. You love
money yourself."

"There's a justice . . ."

Massy made an awful effort, and in a strange, half
choked utterance--

"You blind devil! It's you that drove me to it."

Captain Whalley, hugging the coat to his breast,
made no sound. The light had ebbed for ever from the
world--let everything go. But this man should not
escape scot-free.

Sterne's voice commanded--

"Lower away!"

The blocks rattled.

"Now then," he cried, "over with you. This way.
You, Jack, here. Mr. Massy! Mr. Massy! Captain!
Quick, sir! Let's get--

"I shall go to prison for trying to cheat the insurance,
but you'll get exposed; you, honest man, who has been
cheating me. You are poor. Aren't you? You've
nothing but the five hundred pounds. Well, you have
nothing at all now. The ship's lost, and the insurance
won't be paid."

Captain Whalley did not move. True! Ivy's money!
Gone in this wreck. Again he had a flash of insight.
He was indeed at the end of his tether.

Urgent voices cried out together alongside. Massy
did not seem able to tear himself away from the bridge.
He chattered and hissed despairingly--

"Give it up to me! Give it up!"

"No," said Captain Whalley; "I could not give it up.
You had better go. Don't wait, man, if you want to
live. She's settling down by the head fast. No; I shall
keep it, but I shall stay on board."

Massy did not seem to understand; but the love of life,
awakened suddenly, drove him away from the bridge.

Captain Whalley laid the coat down, and stumbled
amongst the heaps of wreckage to the side.

"Is Mr. Massy in with you?" he called out into the

Sterne from the boat shouted--

"Yes; we've got him. Come along, sir. It's madness
to stay longer."

Captain Whalley felt along the rail carefully, and,
without a word, cast off the painter. They were ex-
pecting him still down there. They were waiting, till
a voice suddenly exclaimed--

"We are adrift! Shove off!"

"Captain Whalley! Leap! . . . pull up a little . . .
leap! You can swim."

In that old heart, in that vigorous body, there was,
that nothing should be wanting, a horror of death that
apparently could not be overcome by the horror of
blindness. But after all, for Ivy he had carried his
point, walking in his darkness to the very verge of a
crime. God had not listened to his prayers. The light
had finished ebbing out of the world; not a glimmer. It
was a dark waste; but it was unseemly that a Whalley
who had gone so far to carry a point should continue
to live. He must pay the price.

"Leap as far as you can, sir; we will pick you up."

They did not hear him answer. But their shouting
seemed to remind him of something. He groped his
way back, and sought for Mr. Massy's coat. He could
swim indeed; people sucked down by the whirlpool of
a sinking ship do come up sometimes to the surface, and
it was unseemly that a Whalley, who had made up his
mind to die, should be beguiled by chance into a
struggle. He would put all these pieces of iron into his
own pockets.

They, looking from the boat, saw the Sofala, a black
mass upon a black sea, lying still at an appalling cant.
No sound came from her. Then, with a great bizarre
shuffling noise, as if the boilers had broken through the
bulkheads, and with a faint muffled detonation, where
the ship had been there appeared for a moment some-
thing standing upright and narrow, like a rock out of
the sea. Then that too disappeared.

When the Sofala failed to come back to Batu Beru at
the proper time, Mr. Van Wyk understood at once that
he would never see her any more. But he did not know
what had happened till some months afterwards, when,
in a native craft lent him by his Sultan, he had made
his way to the Sofala's port of registry, where already
her existence and the official inquiry into her loss was
beginning to be forgotten.

It had not been a very remarkable or interesting case,
except for the fact that the captain had gone down with
his sinking ship. It was the only life lost; and Mr. Van
Wyk would not have been able to learn any details had
it not been for Sterne, whom he met one day on the quay
near the bridge over the creek, almost on the very spot
where Captain Whalley, to preserve his daughter's five
hundred pounds intact, had turned to get a sampan
which would take him on board the Sofala.

From afar Mr. Van Wyk saw Sterne blink straight at
him and raise his hand to his hat. They drew into the
shade of a building (it was a bank), and the mate re-
lated how the boat with the crew got into Pangu Bay
about six hours after the accident, and how they had
lived for a fortnight in a state of destitution before they
found an opportunity to get away from that beastly
place. The inquiry had exonerated everybody from all
blame. The loss of the ship was put down to an un-
usual set of the current. Indeed, it could not have been
anything else: there was no other way to account for
the ship being set seven miles to the eastward of her
position during the middle watch.

"A piece of bad luck for me, sir."

Sterne passed his tongue on his lips, and glanced aside.
"I lost the advantage of being employed by you, sir.
I can never be sorry enough. But here it is: one man's
poison, another man's meat. This could not have been
handier for Mr. Massy if he had arranged that ship-
wreck himself. The most timely total loss I've ever
heard of."

"What became of that Massy?" asked Mr. Van Wyk.

"He, sir? Ha! ha! He would keep on telling me
that he meant to buy another ship; but as soon as he
had the money in his pocket he cleared out for Manilla
by mail-boat early in the morning. I gave him chase
right aboard, and he told me then he was going to make
his fortune dead sure in Manilla. I could go to the
devil for all he cared. And yet he as good as promised
to give me the command if I didn't talk too much."

"You never said anything . . ." Mr. Van Wyk

"Not I, sir. Why should I? I mean to get on, but
the dead aren't in my way," said Sterne. His eyelids
were beating rapidly, then drooped for an instant.
"Besides, sir, it would have been an awkward business.
You made me hold my tongue just a bit too long."

"Do you know how it was that Captain Whalley re-
mained on board? Did he really refuse to leave? Come
now! Or was it perhaps an accidental . . .?"

"Nothing!" Sterne interrupted with energy. "I tell
you I yelled for him to leap overboard. He simply
MUST have cast off the painter of the boat himself. We
all yelled to him--that is, Jack and I. He wouldn't even
answer us. The ship was as silent as a grave to the last.
Then the boilers fetched away, and down she went.
Accident! Not it! The game was up, sir, I tell you."

This was all that Sterne had to say.

Mr. Van Wyk had been of course made the guest of
the club for a fortnight, and it was there that he met
the lawyer in whose office had been signed the agreement
between Massy and Captain Whalley.

"Extraordinary old man," he said. "He came into
my office from nowhere in particular as you may say,
with his five hundred pounds to place, and that engineer
fellow following him anxiously. And now he is gone out
a little inexplicably, just as he came. I could never
understand him quite. There was no mystery at all
about that Massy, eh? I wonder whether Whalley re-
fused to leave the ship. It would have been foolish.
He was blameless, as the court found."

Mr. Van Wyk had known him well, he said, and he
could not believe in suicide. Such an act would not
have been in character with what he knew of the man.

"It is my opinion, too," the lawyer agreed. The gen-
eral theory was that the captain had remained too long
on board trying to save something of importance. Per-
haps the chart which would clear him, or else something
of value in his cabin. The painter of the boat had
come adrift of itself it was supposed. However, strange
to say, some little time before that voyage poor Whalley
had called in his office and had left with him a sealed
envelope addressed to his daughter, to be forwarded to
her in case of his death. Still it was nothing very un-
usual, especially in a man of his age. Mr. Van Wyk
shook his head. Captain Whalley looked good for a
hundred years.

"Perfectly true," assented the lawyer. "The old
fellow looked as though he had come into the world full-
grown and with that long beard. I could never, some-
how, imagine him either younger or older--don't you
know. There was a sense of physical power about that
man too. And perhaps that was the secret of that some-
thing peculiar in his person which struck everybody who
came in contact with him. He looked indestructible by
any ordinary means that put an end to the rest of us.
His deliberate, stately courtesy of manner was full of
significance. It was as though he were certain of hav-
ing plenty of time for everything. Yes, there was
something indestructible about him; and the way he
talked sometimes you might have thought he believed
it himself. When he called on me last with that letter
he wanted me to take charge of, he was not depressed at
all. Perhaps a shade more deliberate in his talk and
manner. Not depressed in the least. Had he a pre-
sentiment, I wonder? Perhaps! Still it seems a misera-
ble end for such a striking figure."

"Oh yes! It was a miserable end," Mr. Van Wyk said,
with so much fervor that the lawyer looked up at him
curiously; and afterwards, after parting with him, he
remarked to an acquaintance--

"Queer person that Dutch tobacco-planter from Batu
Beru. Know anything of him?"

"Heaps of money," answered the bank manager. "I
hear he's going home by the next mail to form a com-
pany to take over his estates. Another tobacco district
thrown open. He's wise, I think. These good times
won't last for ever."

In the southern hemisphere Captain Whalley's daugh-
ter had no presentiment of evil when she opened the
envelope addressed to her in the lawyer's handwriting.
She had received it in the afternoon; all the boarders
had gone out, her boys were at school, her husband sat
upstairs in his big arm-chair with a book, thin-faced,
wrapped up in rugs to the waist. The house was still,
and the grayness of a cloudy day lay against the panes
of three lofty windows.

In a shabby dining-room, where a faint cold smell of
dishes lingered all the year round, sitting at the end of
a long table surrounded by many chairs pushed in with
their backs close against the edge of the perpetually laid
table-cloth, she read the opening sentence: "Most pro-
found regret--painful duty--your father is no more--
in accordance with his instructions--fatal casualty--
consolation--no blame attached to his memory. . . ."

Her face was thin, her temples a little sunk under the
smooth bands of black hair, her lips remained resolutely
compressed, while her dark eyes grew larger, till at last,
with a low cry, she stood up, and instantly stooped to
pick up another envelope which had slipped off her
knees on to the floor.

She tore it open, snatched out the inclosure. . . .

"My dearest child," it said, "I am writing this while
I am able yet to write legibly. I am trying hard to
save for you all the money that is left; I have only kept
it to serve you better. It is yours. It shall not be lost:
it shall not be touched. There's five hundred pounds.
Of what I have earned I have kept nothing back till
now. For the future, if I live, I must keep back some--
a little--to bring me to you. I must come to you. I
must see you once more.

"It is hard to believe that you will ever look on these
lines. God seems to have forgotten me. I want to see
you--and yet death would be a greater favor. If you
ever read these words, I charge you to begin by thank-
ing a God merciful at last, for I shall be dead then, and
it will be well. My dear, I am at the end of my tether."

The next paragraph began with the words: "My sight
is going . . ."

She read no more that day. The hand holding up the
paper to her eyes fell slowly, and her slender figure in
a plain black dress walked rigidly to the window. Her
eyes were dry: no cry of sorrow or whisper of thanks
went up to heaven from her lips. Life had been too
hard, for all the efforts of his love. It had silenced her
emotions. But for the first time in all these years its
sting had departed, the carking care of poverty, the
meanness of a hard struggle for bread. Even the image
of her husband and of her children seemed to glide away
from her into the gray twilight; it was her father's
face alone that she saw, as though he had come to see
her, always quiet and big, as she had seen him last, but
with something more august and tender in his aspect.

She slipped his folded letter between the two buttons
of her plain black bodice, and leaning her forehead
against a window-pane remained there till dusk, per-
fectly motionless, giving him all the time she could
spare. Gone! Was it possible? My God, was it possi-
ble! The blow had come softened by the spaces of the
earth, by the years of absence. There had been whole
days when she had not thought of him at all--had no
time. But she had loved him, she felt she had loved
him, after all.

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