Part 3 out of 4
They would continue their senseless and muddled discourse in tones
of profound friendship for half an hour or so at the shore end of
our gangway, and then I would hear Mr. B- insisting that he must
see the other on board his ship. And away they would go, their
voices, still conversing with excessive amity, being heard moving
all round the harbour. It happened more than once that they would
thus perambulate three or four times the distance, each seeing the
other on board his ship out of pure and disinterested affection.
Then, through sheer weariness, or perhaps in a moment of
forgetfulness, they would manage to part from each other somehow,
and by-and-by the planks of our long gangway would bend and creak
under the weight of Mr. B- coming on board for good at last.
On the rail his burly form would stop and stand swaying.
He waited for a moment of steadiness before negotiating the three
steps of the inside ladder from rail to deck; and the watchman,
taught by experience, would forbear offering help which would be
received as an insult at that particular stage of the mate's
return. But many times I trembled for his neck. He was a heavy
Then with a rush and a thump it would be done. He never had to
pick himself up; but it took him a minute or so to pull himself
together after the descent.
Our dog was a gaunt and unpleasant beast, more like a wolf in poor
health than a dog, and I never noticed Mr. B- at any other time
show the slightest interest in the doings of the animal. But that
question never failed.
"Let's have your arm to steady me along."
I was always prepared for that request. He leaned on me heavily
till near enough the cabin-door to catch hold of the handle. Then
he would let go my arm at once.
"That'll do. I can manage now."
And he could manage. He could manage to find his way into his
berth, light his lamp, get into his bed--ay, and get out of it when
I called him at half-past five, the first man on deck, lifting the
cup of morning coffee to his lips with a steady hand, ready for
duty as though he had virtuously slept ten solid hours--a better
chief officer than many a man who had never tasted grog in his
life. He could manage all that, but could never manage to get on
Only once he failed to seize the cabin-door handle at the first
grab. He waited a little, tried again, and again failed. His
weight was growing heavier on my arm. He sighed slowly.
"D-n that handle!"
Without letting go his hold of me he turned about, his face lit up
bright as day by the full moon.
"I wish she were out at sea," he growled savagely.
I felt the need to say something, because he hung on to me as if
lost, breathing heavily.
"Ports are no good--ships rot, men go to the devil!"
I kept still, and after a while he repeated with a sigh.
"I wish she were at sea out of this."
"So do I, sir," I ventured.
Holding my shoulder, he turned upon me.
"You! What's that to you where she is? You don't--drink."
And even on that night he "managed it" at last. He got hold of the
handle. But he did not manage to light his lamp (I don't think he
even tried), though in the morning as usual he was the first on
deck, bull-necked, curly-headed, watching the hands turn-to with
his sardonic expression and unflinching gaze.
I met him ten years afterwards, casually, unexpectedly, in the
street, on coming out of my consignee office. I was not likely to
have forgotten him with his "I can manage now." He recognised me
at once, remembered my name, and in what ship I had served under
his orders. He looked me over from head to foot.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I am commanding a little barque," I said, "loading here for
Mauritius." Then, thoughtlessly, I added: "And what are you
doing, Mr. B-?"
"I," he said, looking at me unflinchingly, with his old sardonic
grin--"I am looking for something to do."
I felt I would rather have bitten out my tongue. His jet-black,
curly hair had turned iron-gray; he was scrupulously neat as ever,
but frightfully threadbare. His shiny boots were worn down at
heel. But he forgave me, and we drove off together in a hansom to
dine on board my ship. He went over her conscientiously, praised
her heartily, congratulated me on my command with absolute
sincerity. At dinner, as I offered him wine and beer he shook his
head, and as I sat looking at him interrogatively, muttered in an
"I've given up all that."
After dinner we came again on deck. It seemed as though he could
not tear himself away from the ship. We were fitting some new
lower rigging, and he hung about, approving, suggesting, giving me
advice in his old manner. Twice he addressed me as "My boy," and
corrected himself quickly to "Captain." My mate was about to leave
me (to get married), but I concealed the fact from Mr. B-. I was
afraid he would ask me to give him the berth in some ghastly
jocular hint that I could not refuse to take. I was afraid. It
would have been impossible. I could not have given orders to Mr.
B-, and I am sure he would not have taken them from me very long.
He could not have managed that, though he had managed to break
himself from drink--too late.
He said good-bye at last. As I watched his burly, bull-necked
figure walk away up the street, I wondered with a sinking heart
whether he had much more than the price of a night's lodging in his
pocket. And I understood that if that very minute I were to call
out after him, he would not even turn his head. He, too, is no
more than a shadow, but I seem to hear his words spoken on the
moonlit deck of the old Duke--:
"Ports are no good--ships rot, men go to the devil!"
"Ships!" exclaimed an elderly seaman in clean shore togs. "Ships"-
-and his keen glance, turning away from my face, ran along the
vista of magnificent figure-heads that in the late seventies used
to overhang in a serried rank the muddy pavement by the side of the
New South Dock--"ships are all right; it's the men in 'em. . ."
Fifty hulls, at least, moulded on lines of beauty and speed--hulls
of wood, of iron, expressing in their forms the highest achievement
of modern ship-building--lay moored all in a row, stem to quay, as
if assembled there for an exhibition, not of a great industry, but
of a great art. Their colours were gray, black, dark green, with a
narrow strip of yellow moulding defining their sheer, or with a row
of painted ports decking in warlike decoration their robust flanks
of cargo-carriers that would know no triumph but of speed in
carrying a burden, no glory other than of a long service, no
victory but that of an endless, obscure contest with the sea. The
great empty hulls with swept holds, just out of dry-dock, with
their paint glistening freshly, sat high-sided with ponderous
dignity alongside the wooden jetties, looking more like unmovable
buildings than things meant to go afloat; others, half loaded, far
on the way to recover the true sea-physiognomy of a ship brought
down to her load-line, looked more accessible. Their less steeply
slanting gangways seemed to invite the strolling sailors in search
of a berth to walk on board and try "for a chance" with the chief
mate, the guardian of a ship's efficiency. As if anxious to remain
unperceived amongst their overtopping sisters, two or three
"finished" ships floated low, with an air of straining at the leash
of their level headfasts, exposing to view their cleared decks and
covered hatches, prepared to drop stern first out of the labouring
ranks, displaying the true comeliness of form which only her proper
sea-trim gives to a ship. And for a good quarter of a mile, from
the dockyard gate to the farthest corner, where the old housed-in
hulk, the President (drill-ship, then, of the Naval Reserve), used
to lie with her frigate side rubbing against the stone of the quay,
above all these hulls, ready and unready, a hundred and fifty lofty
masts, more or less, held out the web of their rigging like an
immense net, in whose close mesh, black against the sky, the heavy
yards seemed to be entangled and suspended.
It was a sight. The humblest craft that floats makes its appeal to
a seaman by the faithfulness of her life; and this was the place
where one beheld the aristocracy of ships. It was a noble
gathering of the fairest and the swiftest, each bearing at the bow
the carved emblem of her name, as in a gallery of plaster-casts,
figures of women with mural crowns, women with flowing robes, with
gold fillets on their hair or blue scarves round their waists,
stretching out rounded arms as if to point the way; heads of men
helmeted or bare; full lengths of warriors, of kings, of statesmen,
of lords and princesses, all white from top to toe; with here and
there a dusky turbaned figure, bedizened in many colours, of some
Eastern sultan or hero, all inclined forward under the slant of
mighty bowsprits as if eager to begin another run of 11,000 miles
in their leaning attitudes. These were the fine figure-heads of
the finest ships afloat. But why, unless for the love of the life
those effigies shared with us in their wandering impassivity,
should one try to reproduce in words an impression of whose
fidelity there can be no critic and no judge, since such an
exhibition of the art of shipbuilding and the art of figure-head
carving as was seen from year's end to year's end in the open-air
gallery of the New South Dock no man's eye shall behold again? All
that patient, pale company of queens and princesses, of kings and
warriors, of allegorical women, of heroines and statesmen and
heathen gods, crowned, helmeted, bare-headed, has run for good off
the sea stretching to the last above the tumbling foam their fair,
rounded arms; holding out their spears, swords, shields, tridents
in the same unwearied, striving forward pose. And nothing remains
but lingering perhaps in the memory of a few men, the sound of
their names, vanished a long time ago from the first page of the
great London dailies; from big posters in railway-stations and the
doors of shipping offices; from the minds of sailors, dockmasters,
pilots, and tugmen; from the hail of gruff voices and the flutter
of signal flags exchanged between ships closing upon each other and
drawing apart in the open immensity of the sea.
The elderly, respectable seaman, withdrawing his gaze from that
multitude of spars, gave me a glance to make sure of our fellowship
in the craft and mystery of the sea. We had met casually, and had
got into contact as I had stopped near him, my attention being
caught by the same peculiarity he was looking at in the rigging of
an obviously new ship, a ship with her reputation all to make yet
in the talk of the seamen who were to share their life with her.
Her name was already on their lips. I had heard it uttered between
two thick, red-necked fellows of the semi-nautical type at the
Fenchurch Street Railway-station, where, in those days, the
everyday male crowd was attired in jerseys and pilot-cloth mostly,
and had the air of being more conversant with the times of high-
water than with the times of the trains. I had noticed that new
ship's name on the first page of my morning paper. I had stared at
the unfamiliar grouping of its letters, blue on white ground, on
the advertisement-boards, whenever the train came to a standstill
alongside one of the shabby, wooden, wharf-like platforms of the
dock railway-line. She had been named, with proper observances, on
the day she came off the stocks, no doubt, but she was very far yet
from "having a name." Untried, ignorant of the ways of the sea,
she had been thrust amongst that renowned company of ships to load
for her maiden voyage. There was nothing to vouch for her
soundness and the worth of her character, but the reputation of the
building-yard whence she was launched headlong into the world of
waters. She looked modest to me. I imagined her diffident, lying
very quiet, with her side nestling shyly against the wharf to which
she was made fast with very new lines, intimidated by the company
of her tried and experienced sisters already familiar with all the
violences of the ocean and the exacting love of men. They had had
more long voyages to make their names in than she had known weeks
of carefully tended life, for a new ship receives as much attention
as if she were a young bride. Even crabbed old dock-masters look
at her with benevolent eyes. In her shyness at the threshold of a
laborious and uncertain life, where so much is expected of a ship,
she could not have been better heartened and comforted, had she
only been able to hear and understand, than by the tone of deep
conviction in which my elderly, respectable seaman repeated the
first part of his saying, "Ships are all right . . ."
His civility prevented him from repeating the other, the bitter
part. It had occurred to him that it was perhaps indelicate to
insist. He had recognised in me a ship's officer, very possibly
looking for a berth like himself, and so far a comrade, but still a
man belonging to that sparsely-peopled after-end of a ship, where a
great part of her reputation as a "good ship," in seaman's
parlance, is made or marred.
"Can you say that of all ships without exception?" I asked, being
in an idle mood, because, if an obvious ship's officer, I was not,
as a matter of fact, down at the docks to "look for a berth," an
occupation as engrossing as gambling, and as little favourable to
the free exchange of ideas, besides being destructive of the kindly
temper needed for casual intercourse with one's fellow-creatures.
"You can always put up with 'em," opined the respectable seaman
He was not averse from talking, either. If he had come down to the
dock to look for a berth, he did not seem oppressed by anxiety as
to his chances. He had the serenity of a man whose estimable
character is fortunately expressed by his personal appearance in an
unobtrusive, yet convincing, manner which no chief officer in want
of hands could resist. And, true enough, I learned presently that
the mate of the Hyperion had "taken down" his name for quarter-
master. "We sign on Friday, and join next day for the morning
tide," he remarked, in a deliberate, careless tone, which
contrasted strongly with his evident readiness to stand there
yarning for an hour or so with an utter stranger.
"Hyperion," I said. "I don't remember ever seeing that ship
anywhere. What sort of a name has she got?"
It appeared from his discursive answer that she had not much of a
name one way or another. She was not very fast. It took no fool,
though, to steer her straight, he believed. Some years ago he had
seen her in Calcutta, and he remembered being told by somebody
then, that on her passage up the river she had carried away both
her hawse-pipes. But that might have been the pilot's fault. Just
now, yarning with the apprentices on board, he had heard that this
very voyage, brought up in the Downs, outward bound, she broke her
sheer, struck adrift, and lost an anchor and chain. But that might
have occurred through want of careful tending in a tideway. All
the same, this looked as though she were pretty hard on her ground-
tackle. Didn't it? She seemed a heavy ship to handle, anyway.
For the rest, as she had a new captain and a new mate this voyage,
he understood, one couldn't say how she would turn out. . . .
In such marine shore-talk as this is the name of a ship slowly
established, her fame made for her, the tale of her qualities and
of her defects kept, her idiosyncrasies commented upon with the
zest of personal gossip, her achievements made much of, her faults
glossed over as things that, being without remedy in our imperfect
world, should not be dwelt upon too much by men who, with the help
of ships, wrest out a bitter living from the rough grasp of the
sea. All that talk makes up her "name," which is handed over from
one crew to another without bitterness, without animosity, with the
indulgence of mutual dependence, and with the feeling of close
association in the exercise of her perfections and in the danger of
This feeling explains men's pride in ships. "Ships are all right,"
as my middle-aged, respectable quartermaster said with much
conviction and some irony; but they are not exactly what men make
them. They have their own nature; they can of themselves minister
to our self-esteem by the demand their qualities make upon our
skill and their shortcomings upon our hardiness and endurance.
Which is the more flattering exaction it is hard to say; but there
is the fact that in listening for upwards of twenty years to the
sea-talk that goes on afloat and ashore I have never detected the
true note of animosity. I won't deny that at sea, sometimes, the
note of profanity was audible enough in those chiding
interpellations a wet, cold, weary seaman addresses to his ship,
and in moments of exasperation is disposed to extend to all ships
that ever were launched--to the whole everlastingly exacting brood
that swims in deep waters. And I have heard curses launched at the
unstable element itself, whose fascination, outlasting the
accumulated experience of ages, had captured him as it had captured
the generations of his forebears.
For all that has been said of the love that certain natures (on
shore) have professed to feel for it, for all the celebrations it
had been the object of in prose and song, the sea has never been
friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human
restlessness, and playing the part of dangerous abettor of world-
wide ambitions. Faithful to no race after the manner of the kindly
earth, receiving no impress from valour and toil and self-
sacrifice, recognising no finality of dominion, the sea has never
adopted the cause of its masters like those lands where the
victorious nations of mankind have taken root, rocking their
cradles and setting up their gravestones. He--man or people--who,
putting his trust in the friendship of the sea, neglects the
strength and cunning of his right hand, is a fool! As if it were
too great, too mighty for common virtues, the ocean has no
compassion, no faith, no law, no memory. Its fickleness is to be
held true to men's purposes only by an undaunted resolution and by
a sleepless, armed, jealous vigilance, in which, perhaps, there has
always been more hate than love. Odi et amo may well be the
confession of those who consciously or blindly have surrendered
their existence to the fascination of the sea. All the tempestuous
passions of mankind's young days, the love of loot and the love of
glory, the love of adventure and the love of danger, with the great
love of the unknown and vast dreams of dominion and power, have
passed like images reflected from a mirror, leaving no record upon
the mysterious face of the sea. Impenetrable and heartless, the
sea has given nothing of itself to the suitors for its precarious
favours. Unlike the earth, it cannot be subjugated at any cost of
patience and toil. For all its fascination that has lured so many
to a violent death, its immensity has never been loved as the
mountains, the plains, the desert itself, have been loved. Indeed,
I suspect that, leaving aside the protestations and tributes of
writers who, one is safe in saying, care for little else in the
world than the rhythm of their lines and the cadence of their
phrase, the love of the sea, to which some men and nations confess
so readily, is a complex sentiment wherein pride enters for much,
necessity for not a little, and the love of ships--the untiring
servants of our hopes and our self-esteem--for the best and most
genuine part. For the hundreds who have reviled the sea, beginning
with Shakespeare in the line
"More fell than hunger, anguish, or the sea,"
down to the last obscure sea-dog of the "old model," having but few
words and still fewer thoughts, there could not be found, I
believe, one sailor who has ever coupled a curse with the good or
bad name of a ship. If ever his profanity, provoked by the
hardships of the sea, went so far as to touch his ship, it would be
lightly, as a hand may, without sin, be laid in the way of kindness
on a woman.
The love that is given to ships is profoundly different from the
love men feel for every other work of their hands--the love they
bear to their houses, for instance--because it is untainted by the
pride of possession. The pride of skill, the pride of
responsibility, the pride of endurance there may be, but otherwise
it is a disinterested sentiment. No seaman ever cherished a ship,
even if she belonged to him, merely because of the profit she put
in his pocket. No one, I think, ever did; for a ship-owner, even
of the best, has always been outside the pale of that sentiment
embracing in a feeling of intimate, equal fellowship the ship and
the man, backing each other against the implacable, if sometimes
dissembled, hostility of their world of waters. The sea--this
truth must be confessed--has no generosity. No display of manly
qualities--courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness--has ever
been known to touch its irresponsible consciousness of power. The
ocean has the conscienceless temper of a savage autocrat spoiled by
much adulation. He cannot brook the slightest appearance of
defiance, and has remained the irreconcilable enemy of ships and
men ever since ships and men had the unheard of audacity to go
afloat together in the face of his frown. From that day he has
gone on swallowing up fleets and men without his resentment being
glutted by the number of victims--by so many wrecked ships and
wrecked lives. To-day, as ever, he is ready to beguile and betray,
to smash and to drown the incorrigible optimism of men who, backed
by the fidelity of ships, are trying to wrest from him the fortune
of their house, the dominion of their world, or only a dole of food
for their hunger. If not always in the hot mood to smash, he is
always stealthily ready for a drowning. The most amazing wonder of
the deep is its unfathomable cruelty.
I felt its dread for the first time in mid-Atlantic one day, many
years ago, when we took off the crew of a Danish brig homeward
bound from the West Indies. A thin, silvery mist softened the calm
and majestic splendour of light without shadows--seemed to render
the sky less remote and the ocean less immense. It was one of the
days, when the might of the sea appears indeed lovable, like the
nature of a strong man in moments of quiet intimacy. At sunrise we
had made out a black speck to the westward, apparently suspended
high up in the void behind a stirring, shimmering veil of silvery
blue gauze that seemed at times to stir and float in the breeze
which fanned us slowly along. The peace of that enchanting
forenoon was so profound, so untroubled, that it seemed that every
word pronounced loudly on our deck would penetrate to the very
heart of that infinite mystery born from the conjunction of water
and sky. We did not raise our voices. "A water-logged derelict, I
think, sir," said the second officer quietly, coming down from
aloft with the binoculars in their case slung across his shoulders;
and our captain, without a word, signed to the helmsman to steer
for the black speck. Presently we made out a low, jagged stump
sticking up forward--all that remained of her departed masts.
The captain was expatiating in a low conversational tone to the
chief mate upon the danger of these derelicts, and upon his dread
of coming upon them at night, when suddenly a man forward screamed
out, "There's people on board of her, sir! I see them!" in a most
extraordinary voice--a voice never heard before in our ship; the
amazing voice of a stranger. It gave the signal for a sudden
tumult of shouts. The watch below ran up the forecastle head in a
body, the cook dashed out of the galley. Everybody saw the poor
fellows now. They were there! And all at once our ship, which had
the well-earned name of being without a rival for speed in light
winds, seemed to us to have lost the power of motion, as if the
sea, becoming viscous, had clung to her sides. And yet she moved.
Immensity, the inseparable companion of a ship's life, chose that
day to breathe upon her as gently as a sleeping child. The clamour
of our excitement had died out, and our living ship, famous for
never losing steerage way as long as there was air enough to float
a feather, stole, without a ripple, silent and white as a ghost,
towards her mutilated and wounded sister, come upon at the point of
death in the sunlit haze of a calm day at sea.
With the binoculars glued to his eyes, the captain said in a
quavering tone: "They are waving to us with something aft there."
He put down the glasses on the skylight brusquely, and began to
walk about the poop. "A shirt or a flag," he ejaculated irritably.
"Can't make it out. . . Some damn rag or other!" He took a few
more turns on the poop, glancing down over the rail now and then to
see how fast we were moving. His nervous footsteps rang sharply in
the quiet of the ship, where the other men, all looking the same
way, had forgotten themselves in a staring immobility. "This will
never do!" he cried out suddenly. "Lower the boats at once! Down
Before I jumped into mine he took me aside, as being an
inexperienced junior, for a word of warning:
"You look out as you come alongside that she doesn't take you down
with her. You understand?"
He murmured this confidentially, so that none of the men at the
falls should overhear, and I was shocked. "Heavens! as if in such
an emergency one stopped to think of danger!" I exclaimed to myself
mentally, in scorn of such cold-blooded caution.
It takes many lessons to make a real seaman, and I got my rebuke at
once. My experienced commander seemed in one searching glance to
read my thoughts on my ingenuous face.
"What you're going for is to save life, not to drown your boat's
crew for nothing," he growled severely in my ear. But as we shoved
off he leaned over and cried out: "It all rests on the power of
your arms, men. Give way for life!"
We made a race of it, and I would never have believed that a common
boat's crew of a merchantman could keep up so much determined
fierceness in the regular swing of their stroke. What our captain
had clearly perceived before we left had become plain to all of us
since. The issue of our enterprise hung on a hair above that abyss
of waters which will not give up its dead till the Day of Judgment.
It was a race of two ship's boats matched against Death for a prize
of nine men's lives, and Death had a long start. We saw the crew
of the brig from afar working at the pumps--still pumping on that
wreck, which already had settled so far down that the gentle, low
swell, over which our boats rose and fell easily without a check to
their speed, welling up almost level with her head-rails, plucked
at the ends of broken gear swinging desolately under her naked
We could not, in all conscience, have picked out a better day for
our regatta had we had the free choice of all the days that ever
dawned upon the lonely struggles and solitary agonies of ships
since the Norse rovers first steered to the westward against the
run of Atlantic waves. It was a very good race. At the finish
there was not an oar's length between the first and second boat,
with Death coming in a good third on the top of the very next
smooth swell, for all one knew to the contrary. The scuppers of
the brig gurgled softly all together when the water rising against
her sides subsided sleepily with a low wash, as if playing about an
immovable rock. Her bulwarks were gone fore and aft, and one saw
her bare deck low-lying like a raft and swept clean of boats,
spars, houses--of everything except the ringbolts and the heads of
the pumps. I had one dismal glimpse of it as I braced myself up to
receive upon my breast the last man to leave her, the captain, who
literally let himself fall into my arms.
It had been a weirdly silent rescue--a rescue without a hail,
without a single uttered word, without a gesture or a sign, without
a conscious exchange of glances. Up to the very last moment those
on board stuck to their pumps, which spouted two clear streams of
water upon their bare feet. Their brown skin showed through the
rents of their shirts; and the two small bunches of half-naked,
tattered men went on bowing from the waist to each other in their
back-breaking labour, up and down, absorbed, with no time for a
glance over the shoulder at the help that was coming to them. As
we dashed, unregarded, alongside a voice let out one, only one
hoarse howl of command, and then, just as they stood, without caps,
with the salt drying gray in the wrinkles and folds of their hairy,
haggard faces, blinking stupidly at us their red eyelids, they made
a bolt away from the handles, tottering and jostling against each
other, and positively flung themselves over upon our very heads.
The clatter they made tumbling into the boats had an
extraordinarily destructive effect upon the illusion of tragic
dignity our self-esteem had thrown over the contests of mankind
with the sea. On that exquisite day of gently breathing peace and
veiled sunshine perished my romantic love to what men's imagination
had proclaimed the most august aspect of Nature. The cynical
indifference of the sea to the merits of human suffering and
courage, laid bare in this ridiculous, panic-tainted performance
extorted from the dire extremity of nine good and honourable
seamen, revolted me. I saw the duplicity of the sea's most tender
mood. It was so because it could not help itself, but the awed
respect of the early days was gone. I felt ready to smile bitterly
at its enchanting charm and glare viciously at its furies. In a
moment, before we shoved off, I had looked coolly at the life of my
choice. Its illusions were gone, but its fascination remained. I
had become a seaman at last.
We pulled hard for a quarter of an hour, then laid on our oars
waiting for our ship. She was coming down on us with swelling
sails, looking delicately tall and exquisitely noble through the
mist. The captain of the brig, who sat in the stern sheets by my
side with his face in his hands, raised his head and began to speak
with a sort of sombre volubility. They had lost their masts and
sprung a leak in a hurricane; drifted for weeks, always at the
pumps, met more bad weather; the ships they sighted failed to make
them out, the leak gained upon them slowly, and the seas had left
them nothing to make a raft of. It was very hard to see ship after
ship pass by at a distance, "as if everybody had agreed that we
must be left to drown," he added. But they went on trying to keep
the brig afloat as long as possible, and working the pumps
constantly on insufficient food, mostly raw, till "yesterday
evening," he continued monotonously, "just as the sun went down,
the men's hearts broke."
He made an almost imperceptible pause here, and went on again with
exactly the same intonation:
"They told me the brig could not be saved, and they thought they
had done enough for themselves. I said nothing to that. It was
true. It was no mutiny. I had nothing to say to them. They lay
about aft all night, as still as so many dead men. I did not lie
down. I kept a look-out. When the first light came I saw your
ship at once. I waited for more light; the breeze began to fail on
my face. Then I shouted out as loud as I was able, 'Look at that
ship!' but only two men got up very slowly and came to me. At
first only we three stood alone, for a long time, watching you
coming down to us, and feeling the breeze drop to a calm almost;
but afterwards others, too, rose, one after another, and by-and-by
I had all my crew behind me. I turned round and said to them that
they could see the ship was coming our way, but in this small
breeze she might come too late after all, unless we turned to and
tried to keep the brig afloat long enough to give you time to save
us all. I spoke like that to them, and then I gave the command to
man the pumps."
He gave the command, and gave the example, too, by going himself to
the handles, but it seems that these men did actually hang back for
a moment, looking at each other dubiously before they followed him.
"He! he! he!" He broke out into a most unexpected, imbecile,
pathetic, nervous little giggle. "Their hearts were broken so!
They had been played with too long," he explained apologetically,
lowering his eyes, and became silent.
Twenty-five years is a long time--a quarter of a century is a dim
and distant past; but to this day I remember the dark-brown feet,
hands, and faces of two of these men whose hearts had been broken
by the sea. They were lying very still on their sides on the
bottom boards between the thwarts, curled up like dogs. My boat's
crew, leaning over the looms of their oars, stared and listened as
if at the play. The master of the brig looked up suddenly to ask
me what day it was.
They had lost the date. When I told him it was Sunday, the 22nd,
he frowned, making some mental calculation, then nodded twice sadly
to himself, staring at nothing.
His aspect was miserably unkempt and wildly sorrowful. Had it not
been for the unquenchable candour of his blue eyes, whose unhappy,
tired glance every moment sought his abandoned, sinking brig, as if
it could find rest nowhere else, he would have appeared mad. But
he was too simple to go mad, too simple with that manly simplicity
which alone can bear men unscathed in mind and body through an
encounter with the deadly playfulness of the sea or with its less
Neither angry, nor playful, nor smiling, it enveloped our distant
ship growing bigger as she neared us, our boats with the rescued
men and the dismantled hull of the brig we were leaving behind, in
the large and placid embrace of its quietness, half lost in the
fair haze, as if in a dream of infinite and tender clemency. There
was no frown, no wrinkle on its face, not a ripple. And the run of
the slight swell was so smooth that it resembled the graceful
undulation of a piece of shimmering gray silk shot with gleams of
green. We pulled an easy stroke; but when the master of the brig,
after a glance over his shoulder, stood up with a low exclamation,
my men feathered their oars instinctively, without an order, and
the boat lost her way.
He was steadying himself on my shoulder with a strong grip, while
his other arm, flung up rigidly, pointed a denunciatory finger at
the immense tranquillity of the ocean. After his first
exclamation, which stopped the swing of our oars, he made no sound,
but his whole attitude seemed to cry out an indignant "Behold!" . .
. I could not imagine what vision of evil had come to him. I was
startled, and the amazing energy of his immobilized gesture made my
heart beat faster with the anticipation of something monstrous and
unsuspected. The stillness around us became crushing.
For a moment the succession of silky undulations ran on innocently.
I saw each of them swell up the misty line of the horizon, far, far
away beyond the derelict brig, and the next moment, with a slight
friendly toss of our boat, it had passed under us and was gone.
The lulling cadence of the rise and fall, the invariable gentleness
of this irresistible force, the great charm of the deep waters,
warmed my breast deliciously, like the subtle poison of a love-
potion. But all this lasted only a few soothing seconds before I
jumped up too, making the boat roll like the veriest landlubber.
Something startling, mysterious, hastily confused, was taking
place. I watched it with incredulous and fascinated awe, as one
watches the confused, swift movements of some deed of violence done
in the dark. As if at a given signal, the run of the smooth
undulations seemed checked suddenly around the brig. By a strange
optical delusion the whole sea appeared to rise upon her in one
overwhelming heave of its silky surface, where in one spot a
smother of foam broke out ferociously. And then the effort
subsided. It was all over, and the smooth swell ran on as before
from the horizon in uninterrupted cadence of motion, passing under
us with a slight friendly toss of our boat. Far away, where the
brig had been, an angry white stain undulating on the surface of
steely-gray waters, shot with gleams of green, diminished swiftly,
without a hiss, like a patch of pure snow melting in the sun. And
the great stillness after this initiation into the sea's implacable
hate seemed full of dread thoughts and shadows of disaster.
"Gone!" ejaculated from the depths of his chest my bowman in a
final tone. He spat in his hands, and took a better grip on his
oar. The captain of the brig lowered his rigid arm slowly, and
looked at our faces in a solemnly conscious silence, which called
upon us to share in his simple-minded, marvelling awe. All at once
he sat down by my side, and leaned forward earnestly at my boat's
crew, who, swinging together in a long, easy stroke, kept their
eyes fixed upon him faithfully.
"No ship could have done so well," he addressed them firmly, after
a moment of strained silence, during which he seemed with trembling
lips to seek for words fit to bear such high testimony. "She was
small, but she was good. I had no anxiety. She was strong. Last
voyage I had my wife and two children in her. No other ship could
have stood so long the weather she had to live through for days and
days before we got dismasted a fortnight ago. She was fairly worn
out, and that's all. You may believe me. She lasted under us for
days and days, but she could not last for ever. It was long
enough. I am glad it is over. No better ship was ever left to
sink at sea on such a day as this."
He was competent to pronounce the funereal oration of a ship, this
son of ancient sea-folk, whose national existence, so little
stained by the excesses of manly virtues, had demanded nothing but
the merest foothold from the earth. By the merits of his sea-wise
forefathers and by the artlessness of his heart, he was made fit to
deliver this excellent discourse. There was nothing wanting in its
orderly arrangement--neither piety nor faith, nor the tribute of
praise due to the worthy dead, with the edifying recital of their
achievement. She had lived, he had loved her; she had suffered,
and he was glad she was at rest. It was an excellent discourse.
And it was orthodox, too, in its fidelity to the cardinal article
of a seaman's faith, of which it was a single-minded confession.
"Ships are all right." They are. They who live with the sea have
got to hold by that creed first and last; and it came to me, as I
glanced at him sideways, that some men were not altogether unworthy
in honour and conscience to pronounce the funereal eulogium of a
ship's constancy in life and death.
After this, sitting by my side with his loosely-clasped hands
hanging between his knees, he uttered no word, made no movement
till the shadow of our ship's sails fell on the boat, when, at the
loud cheer greeting the return of the victors with their prize, he
lifted up his troubled face with a faint smile of pathetic
indulgence. This smile of the worthy descendant of the most
ancient sea-folk whose audacity and hardihood had left no trace of
greatness and glory upon the waters, completed the cycle of my
initiation. There was an infinite depth of hereditary wisdom in
its pitying sadness. It made the hearty bursts of cheering sound
like a childish noise of triumph. Our crew shouted with immense
confidence--honest souls! As if anybody could ever make sure of
having prevailed against the sea, which has betrayed so many ships
of great "name," so many proud men, so many towering ambitions of
fame, power, wealth, greatness!
As I brought the boat under the falls my captain, in high good-
humour, leaned over, spreading his red and freckled elbows on the
rail, and called down to me sarcastically, out of the depths of his
cynic philosopher's beard:
"So you have brought the boat back after all, have you?"
Sarcasm was "his way," and the most that can be said for it is that
it was natural. This did not make it lovable. But it is decorous
and expedient to fall in with one's commander's way. "Yes. I
brought the boat back all right, sir," I answered. And the good
man believed me. It was not for him to discern upon me the marks
of my recent initiation. And yet I was not exactly the same
youngster who had taken the boat away--all impatience for a race
against death, with the prize of nine men's lives at the end.
Already I looked with other eyes upon the sea. I knew it capable
of betraying the generous ardour of youth as implacably as,
indifferent to evil and good, it would have betrayed the basest
greed or the noblest heroism. My conception of its magnanimous
greatness was gone. And I looked upon the true sea--the sea that
plays with men till their hearts are broken, and wears stout ships
to death. Nothing can touch the brooding bitterness of its heart.
Open to all and faithful to none, it exercises its fascination for
the undoing of the best. To love it is not well. It knows no bond
of plighted troth, no fidelity to misfortune, to long
companionship, to long devotion. The promise it holds out
perpetually is very great; but the only secret of its possession is
strength, strength--the jealous, sleepless strength of a man
guarding a coveted treasure within his gates.
The cradle of oversea traffic and of the art of naval combats, the
Mediterranean, apart from all the associations of adventure and
glory, the common heritage of all mankind, makes a tender appeal to
a seaman. It has sheltered the infancy of his craft. He looks
upon it as a man may look at a vast nursery in an old, old mansion
where innumerable generations of his own people have learned to
walk. I say his own people because, in a sense, all sailors belong
to one family: all are descended from that adventurous and shaggy
ancestor who, bestriding a shapeless log and paddling with a
crooked branch, accomplished the first coasting-trip in a sheltered
bay ringing with the admiring howls of his tribe. It is a matter
of regret that all those brothers in craft and feeling, whose
generations have learned to walk a ship's deck in that nursery,
have been also more than once fiercely engaged in cutting each
other's throats there. But life, apparently, has such exigencies.
Without human propensity to murder and other sorts of
unrighteousness there would have been no historical heroism. It is
a consoling reflection. And then, if one examines impartially the
deeds of violence, they appear of but small consequence. From
Salamis to Actium, through Lepanto and the Nile to the naval
massacre of Navarino, not to mention other armed encounters of
lesser interest, all the blood heroically spilt into the
Mediterranean has not stained with a single trail of purple the
deep azure of its classic waters.
Of course, it may be argued that battles have shaped the destiny of
mankind. The question whether they have shaped it well would
remain open, however. But it would be hardly worth discussing. It
is very probable that, had the Battle of Salamis never been fought,
the face of the world would have been much as we behold it now,
fashioned by the mediocre inspiration and the short-sighted labours
of men. From a long and miserable experience of suffering,
injustice, disgrace and aggression the nations of the earth are
mostly swayed by fear--fear of the sort that a little cheap oratory
turns easily to rage, hate, and violence. Innocent, guileless fear
has been the cause of many wars. Not, of course, the fear of war
itself, which, in the evolution of sentiments and ideas, has come
to be regarded at last as a half-mystic and glorious ceremony with
certain fashionable rites and preliminary incantations, wherein the
conception of its true nature has been lost. To apprehend the true
aspect, force, and morality of war as a natural function of mankind
one requires a feather in the hair and a ring in the nose, or,
better still, teeth filed to a point and a tattooed breast.
Unfortunately, a return to such simple ornamentation is impossible.
We are bound to the chariot of progress. There is no going back;
and, as bad luck would have it, our civilization, which has done so
much for the comfort and adornment of our bodies and the elevation
of our minds, has made lawful killing frightfully and needlessly
The whole question of improved armaments has been approached by the
governments of the earth in a spirit of nervous and unreflecting
haste, whereas the right way was lying plainly before them, and had
only to be pursued with calm determination. The learned vigils and
labours of a certain class of inventors should have been rewarded
with honourable liberality as justice demanded; and the bodies of
the inventors should have been blown to pieces by means of their
own perfected explosives and improved weapons with extreme
publicity as the commonest prudence dictated. By this method the
ardour of research in that direction would have been restrained
without infringing the sacred privileges of science. For the lack
of a little cool thinking in our guides and masters this course has
not been followed, and a beautiful simplicity has been sacrificed
for no real advantage. A frugal mind cannot defend itself from
considerable bitterness when reflecting that at the Battle of
Actium (which was fought for no less a stake than the dominion of
the world) the fleet of Octavianus Caesar and the fleet of
Antonius, including the Egyptian division and Cleopatra's galley
with purple sails, probably cost less than two modern battleships,
or, as the modern naval book-jargon has it, two capital units. But
no amount of lubberly book-jargon can disguise a fact well
calculated to afflict the soul of every sound economist. It is not
likely that the Mediterranean will ever behold a battle with a
greater issue; but when the time comes for another historical fight
its bottom will be enriched as never before by a quantity of jagged
scrap-iron, paid for at pretty nearly its weight of gold by the
deluded populations inhabiting the isles and continents of this
Happy he who, like Ulysses, has made an adventurous voyage; and
there is no such sea for adventurous voyages as the Mediterranean--
the inland sea which the ancients looked upon as so vast and so
full of wonders. And, indeed, it was terrible and wonderful; for
it is we alone who, swayed by the audacity of our minds and the
tremors of our hearts, are the sole artisans of all the wonder and
romance of the world.
It was for the Mediterranean sailors that fair-haired sirens sang
among the black rocks seething in white foam and mysterious voices
spoke in the darkness above the moving wave--voices menacing,
seductive, or prophetic, like that voice heard at the beginning of
the Christian era by the master of an African vessel in the Gulf of
Syrta, whose calm nights are full of strange murmurs and flitting
shadows. It called him by name, bidding him go and tell all men
that the great god Pan was dead. But the great legend of the
Mediterranean, the legend of traditional song and grave history,
lives, fascinating and immortal, in our minds.
The dark and fearful sea of the subtle Ulysses' wanderings,
agitated by the wrath of Olympian gods, harbouring on its isles the
fury of strange monsters and the wiles of strange women; the
highway of heroes and sages, of warriors, pirates, and saints; the
workaday sea of Carthaginian merchants and the pleasure lake of the
Roman Caesars, claims the veneration of every seaman as the
historical home of that spirit of open defiance against the great
waters of the earth which is the very soul of his calling. Issuing
thence to the west and south, as a youth leaves the shelter of his
parental house, this spirit found the way to the Indies, discovered
the coasts of a new continent, and traversed at last the immensity
of the great Pacific, rich in groups of islands remote and
mysterious like the constellations of the sky.
The first impulse of navigation took its visible form in that
tideless basin freed from hidden shoals and treacherous currents,
as if in tender regard for the infancy of the art. The steep
shores of the Mediterranean favoured the beginners in one of
humanity's most daring enterprises, and the enchanting inland sea
of classic adventure has led mankind gently from headland to
headland, from bay to bay, from island to island, out into the
promise of world-wide oceans beyond the Pillars of Hercules.
The charm of the Mediterranean dwells in the unforgettable flavour
of my early days, and to this hour this sea, upon which the Romans
alone ruled without dispute, has kept for me the fascination of
youthful romance. The very first Christmas night I ever spent away
from land was employed in running before a Gulf of Lions gale,
which made the old ship groan in every timber as she skipped before
it over the short seas until we brought her to, battered and out of
breath, under the lee of Majorca, where the smooth water was torn
by fierce cat's-paws under a very stormy sky.
We--or, rather, they, for I had hardly had two glimpses of salt
water in my life till then--kept her standing off and on all that
day, while I listened for the first time with the curiosity of my
tender years to the song of the wind in a ship's rigging. The
monotonous and vibrating note was destined to grow into the
intimacy of the heart, pass into blood and bone, accompany the
thoughts and acts of two full decades, remain to haunt like a
reproach the peace of the quiet fireside, and enter into the very
texture of respectable dreams dreamed safely under a roof of
rafters and tiles. The wind was fair, but that day we ran no more.
The thing (I will not call her a ship twice in the same half-hour)
leaked. She leaked fully, generously, overflowingly, all over--
like a basket. I took an enthusiastic part in the excitement
caused by that last infirmity of noble ships, without concerning
myself much with the why or the wherefore. The surmise of my
maturer years is that, bored by her interminable life, the
venerable antiquity was simply yawning with ennui at every seam.
But at the time I did not know; I knew generally very little, and
least of all what I was doing in that galere.
I remember that, exactly as in the comedy of Moliere, my uncle
asked the precise question in the very words--not of my
confidential valet, however, but across great distances of land, in
a letter whose mocking but indulgent turn ill concealed his almost
paternal anxiety. I fancy I tried to convey to him my (utterly
unfounded) impression that the West Indies awaited my coming. I
had to go there. It was a sort of mystic conviction--something in
the nature of a call. But it was difficult to state intelligibly
the grounds of this belief to that man of rigorous logic, if of
The truth must have been that, all unversed in the arts of the wily
Greek, the deceiver of gods, the lover of strange women, the evoker
of bloodthirsty shades, I yet longed for the beginning of my own
obscure Odyssey, which, as was proper for a modern, should unroll
its wonders and terrors beyond the Pillars of Hercules. The
disdainful ocean did not open wide to swallow up my audacity,
though the ship, the ridiculous and ancient galere of my folly, the
old, weary, disenchanted sugar-waggon, seemed extremely disposed to
open out and swallow up as much salt water as she could hold.
This, if less grandiose, would have been as final a catastrophe.
But no catastrophe occurred. I lived to watch on a strange shore a
black and youthful Nausicaa, with a joyous train of attendant
maidens, carrying baskets of linen to a clear stream overhung by
the heads of slender palm-trees. The vivid colours of their draped
raiment and the gold of their earrings invested with a barbaric and
regal magnificence their figures, stepping out freely in a shower
of broken sunshine. The whiteness of their teeth was still more
dazzling than the splendour of jewels at their ears. The shaded
side of the ravine gleamed with their smiles. They were as
unabashed as so many princesses, but, alas! not one of them was the
daughter of a jet-black sovereign. Such was my abominable luck in
being born by the mere hair's breadth of twenty-five centuries too
late into a world where kings have been growing scarce with
scandalous rapidity, while the few who remain have adopted the
uninteresting manners and customs of simple millionaires.
Obviously it was a vain hope in 187- to see the ladies of a royal
household walk in chequered sunshine, with baskets of linen on
their heads, to the banks of a clear stream overhung by the starry
fronds of palm-trees. It was a vain hope. If I did not ask myself
whether, limited by such discouraging impossibilities, life were
still worth living, it was only because I had then before me
several other pressing questions, some of which have remained
unanswered to this day. The resonant, laughing voices of these
gorgeous maidens scared away the multitude of humming-birds, whose
delicate wings wreathed with the mist of their vibration the tops
of flowering bushes.
No, they were not princesses. Their unrestrained laughter filling
the hot, fern-clad ravine had a soulless limpidity, as of wild,
inhuman dwellers in tropical woodlands. Following the example of
certain prudent travellers, I withdrew unseen--and returned, not
much wiser, to the Mediterranean, the sea of classic adventures.
It was written that there, in the nursery of our navigating
ancestors, I should learn to walk in the ways of my craft and grow
in the love of the sea, blind as young love often is, but absorbing
and disinterested as all true love must be. I demanded nothing
from it--not even adventure. In this I showed, perhaps, more
intuitive wisdom than high self-denial. No adventure ever came to
one for the asking. He who starts on a deliberate quest of
adventure goes forth but to gather dead-sea fruit, unless, indeed,
he be beloved of the gods and great amongst heroes, like that most
excellent cavalier Don Quixote de la Mancha. By us ordinary
mortals of a mediocre animus that is only too anxious to pass by
wicked giants for so many honest windmills, adventures are
entertained like visiting angels. They come upon our complacency
unawares. As unbidden guests are apt to do, they often come at
inconvenient times. And we are glad to let them go unrecognised,
without any acknowledgment of so high a favour. After many years,
on looking back from the middle turn of life's way at the events of
the past, which, like a friendly crowd, seem to gaze sadly after us
hastening towards the Cimmerian shore, we may see here and there,
in the gray throng, some figure glowing with a faint radiance, as
though it had caught all the light of our already crepuscular sky.
And by this glow we may recognise the faces of our true adventures,
of the once unbidden guests entertained unawares in our young days.
If the Mediterranean, the venerable (and sometimes atrociously ill-
tempered) nurse of all navigators, was to rock my youth, the
providing of the cradle necessary for that operation was entrusted
by Fate to the most casual assemblage of irresponsible young men
(all, however, older than myself) that, as if drunk with Provencal
sunshine, frittered life away in joyous levity on the model of
Balzac's "Histoire des Treize" qualified by a dash of romance de
cape et d'epee.
She who was my cradle in those years had been built on the River of
Savona by a famous builder of boats, was rigged in Corsica by
another good man, and was described on her papers as a 'tartane' of
sixty tons. In reality, she was a true balancelle, with two short
masts raking forward and two curved yards, each as long as her
hull; a true child of the Latin lake, with a spread of two enormous
sails resembling the pointed wings on a sea-bird's slender body,
and herself, like a bird indeed, skimming rather than sailing the
Her name was the Tremolino. How is this to be translated? The
Quiverer? What a name to give the pluckiest little craft that ever
dipped her sides in angry foam! I had felt her, it is true,
trembling for nights and days together under my feet, but it was
with the high-strung tenseness of her faithful courage. In her
short, but brilliant, career she has taught me nothing, but she has
given me everything. I owe to her the awakened love for the sea
that, with the quivering of her swift little body and the humming
of the wind under the foot of her lateen sails, stole into my heart
with a sort of gentle violence, and brought my imagination under
its despotic sway. The Tremolino! To this day I cannot utter or
even write that name without a strange tightening of the breast and
the gasp of mingled delight and dread of one's first passionate
We four formed (to use a term well understood nowadays in every
social sphere) a "syndicate" owning the Tremolino: an
international and astonishing syndicate. And we were all ardent
Royalists of the snow-white Legitimist complexion--Heaven only
knows why! In all associations of men there is generally one who,
by the authority of age and of a more experienced wisdom, imparts a
collective character to the whole set. If I mention that the
oldest of us was very old, extremely old--nearly thirty years old--
and that he used to declare with gallant carelessness, "I live by
my sword," I think I have given enough information on the score of
our collective wisdom. He was a North Carolinian gentleman, J. M.
K. B. were the initials of his name, and he really did live by the
sword, as far as I know. He died by it, too, later on, in a
Balkanian squabble, in the cause of some Serbs or else Bulgarians,
who were neither Catholics nor gentlemen--at least, not in the
exalted but narrow sense he attached to that last word.
Poor J. M. K. B., Americain, Catholique, et gentilhomme, as he was
disposed to describe himself in moments of lofty expansion! Are
there still to be found in Europe gentlemen keen of face and
elegantly slight of body, of distinguished aspect, with a
fascinating drawing-room manner and with a dark, fatal glance, who
live by their swords, I wonder? His family had been ruined in the
Civil War, I fancy, and seems for a decade or so to have led a
wandering life in the Old World. As to Henry C-, the next in age
and wisdom of our band, he had broken loose from the unyielding
rigidity of his family, solidly rooted, if I remember rightly, in a
well-to-do London suburb. On their respectable authority he
introduced himself meekly to strangers as a "black sheep." I have
never seen a more guileless specimen of an outcast. Never.
However, his people had the grace to send him a little money now
and then. Enamoured of the South, of Provence, of its people, its
life, its sunshine and its poetry, narrow-chested, tall and short-
sighted, he strode along the streets and the lanes, his long feet
projecting far in advance of his body, and his white nose and
gingery moustache buried in an open book: for he had the habit of
reading as he walked. How he avoided falling into precipices, off
the quays, or down staircases is a great mystery. The sides of his
overcoat bulged out with pocket editions of various poets. When
not engaged in reading Virgil, Homer, or Mistral, in parks,
restaurants, streets, and suchlike public places, he indited
sonnets (in French) to the eyes, ears, chin, hair, and other
visible perfections of a nymph called Therese, the daughter,
honesty compels me to state, of a certain Madame Leonore who kept a
small cafe for sailors in one of the narrowest streets of the old
No more charming face, clear-cut like an antique gem, and delicate
in colouring like the petal of a flower, had ever been set on,
alas! a somewhat squat body. He read his verses aloud to her in
the very cafe with the innocence of a little child and the vanity
of a poet. We followed him there willingly enough, if only to
watch the divine Therese laugh, under the vigilant black eyes of
Madame Leonore, her mother. She laughed very prettily, not so much
at the sonnets, which she could not but esteem, as at poor Henry's
French accent, which was unique, resembling the warbling of birds,
if birds ever warbled with a stuttering, nasal intonation.
Our third partner was Roger P. de la S-, the most Scandinavian-
looking of Provencal squires, fair, and six feet high, as became a
descendant of sea-roving Northmen, authoritative, incisive, wittily
scornful, with a comedy in three acts in his pocket, and in his
breast a heart blighted by a hopeless passion for his beautiful
cousin, married to a wealthy hide and tallow merchant. He used to
take us to lunch at their house without ceremony. I admired the
good lady's sweet patience. The husband was a conciliatory soul,
with a great fund of resignation, which he expended on "Roger's
friends." I suspect he was secretly horrified at these invasions.
But it was a Carlist salon, and as such we were made welcome. The
possibility of raising Catalonia in the interest of the Rey netto,
who had just then crossed the Pyrenees, was much discussed there.
Don Carlos, no doubt, must have had many queer friends (it is the
common lot of all Pretenders), but amongst them none more
extravagantly fantastic than the Tremolino Syndicate, which used to
meet in a tavern on the quays of the old port. The antique city of
Massilia had surely never, since the days of the earliest
Phoenicians, known an odder set of ship-owners. We met to discuss
and settle the plan of operations for each voyage of the Tremolino.
In these operations a banking-house, too, was concerned--a very
respectable banking-house. But I am afraid I shall end by saying
too much. Ladies, too, were concerned (I am really afraid I am
saying too much)--all sorts of ladies, some old enough to know
better than to put their trust in princes, others young and full of
One of these last was extremely amusing in the imitations, she gave
us in confidence, of various highly-placed personages she was
perpetually rushing off to Paris to interview in the interests of
the cause--Por el Rey! For she was a Carlist, and of Basque blood
at that, with something of a lioness in the expression of her
courageous face (especially when she let her hair down), and with
the volatile little soul of a sparrow dressed in fine Parisian
feathers, which had the trick of coming off disconcertingly at
But her imitations of a Parisian personage, very highly placed
indeed, as she represented him standing in the corner of a room
with his face to the wall, rubbing the back of his head and moaning
helplessly, "Rita, you are the death of me!" were enough to make
one (if young and free from cares) split one's sides laughing. She
had an uncle still living, a very effective Carlist, too, the
priest of a little mountain parish in Guipuzcoa. As the sea-going
member of the syndicate (whose plans depended greatly on Dona
Rita's information), I used to be charged with humbly affectionate
messages for the old man. These messages I was supposed to deliver
to the Arragonese muleteers (who were sure to await at certain
times the Tremolino in the neighbourhood of the Gulf of Rosas), for
faithful transportation inland, together with the various unlawful
goods landed secretly from under the Tremolino's hatches.
Well, now, I have really let out too much (as I feared I should in
the end) as to the usual contents of my sea-cradle. But let it
stand. And if anybody remarks cynically that I must have been a
promising infant in those days, let that stand, too. I am
concerned but for the good name of the Tremolino, and I affirm that
a ship is ever guiltless of the sins, transgressions, and follies
of her men.
It was not Tremolino's fault that the syndicate depended so much on
the wit and wisdom and the information of Dona Rita. She had taken
a little furnished house on the Prado for the good of the cause--
Por el Rey! She was always taking little houses for somebody's
good, for the sick or the sorry, for broken-down artists, cleaned-
out gamblers, temporarily unlucky speculators--vieux amis--old
friends, as she used to explain apologetically, with a shrug of her
Whether Don Carlos was one of the "old friends," too, it's hard to
say. More unlikely things have been heard of in smoking-rooms.
All I know is that one evening, entering incautiously the salon of
the little house just after the news of a considerable Carlist
success had reached the faithful, I was seized round the neck and
waist and whirled recklessly three times round the room, to the
crash of upsetting furniture and the humming of a valse tune in a
warm contralto voice.
When released from the dizzy embrace, I sat down on the carpet--
suddenly, without affectation. In this unpretentious attitude I
became aware that J. M. K. B. had followed me into the room,
elegant, fatal, correct and severe in a white tie and large shirt-
front. In answer to his politely sinister, prolonged glance of
inquiry, I overheard Dona Rita murmuring, with some confusion and
annoyance, "Vous etes bete mon cher. Voyons! Ca n'a aucune
consequence." Well content in this case to be of no particular
consequence, I had already about me the elements of some worldly
Rearranging my collar, which, truth to say, ought to have been a
round one above a short jacket, but was not, I observed
felicitously that I had come to say good-bye, being ready to go off
to sea that very night with the Tremolino. Our hostess, slightly
panting yet, and just a shade dishevelled, turned tartly upon J. M.
K. B., desiring to know when HE would be ready to go off by the
Tremolino, or in any other way, in order to join the royal
headquarters. Did he intend, she asked ironically, to wait for the
very eve of the entry into Madrid? Thus by a judicious exercise of
tact and asperity we re-established the atmospheric equilibrium of
the room long before I left them a little before midnight, now
tenderly reconciled, to walk down to the harbour and hail the
Tremolino by the usual soft whistle from the edge of the quay. It
was our signal, invariably heard by the ever-watchful Dominic, the
He would raise a lantern silently to light my steps along the
narrow, springy plank of our primitive gangway. "And so we are
going off," he would murmur directly my foot touched the deck. I
was the harbinger of sudden departures, but there was nothing in
the world sudden enough to take Dominic unawares. His thick black
moustaches, curled every morning with hot tongs by the barber at
the corner of the quay, seemed to hide a perpetual smile. But
nobody, I believe, had ever seen the true shape of his lips. From
the slow, imperturbable gravity of that broad-chested man you would
think he had never smiled in his life. In his eyes lurked a look
of perfectly remorseless irony, as though he had been provided with
an extremely experienced soul; and the slightest distension of his
nostrils would give to his bronzed face a look of extraordinary
boldness. This was the only play of feature of which he seemed
capable, being a Southerner of a concentrated, deliberate type.
His ebony hair curled slightly on the temples. He may have been
forty years old, and he was a great voyager on the inland sea.
Astute and ruthless, he could have rivalled in resource the
unfortunate son of Laertes and Anticlea. If he did not pit his
craft and audacity against the very gods, it is only because the
Olympian gods are dead. Certainly no woman could frighten him. A
one-eyed giant would not have had the ghost of a chance against
Dominic Cervoni, of Corsica, not Ithaca; and no king, son of kings,
but of very respectable family--authentic Caporali, he affirmed.
But that is as it may be. The Caporali families date back to the
For want of more exalted adversaries Dominic turned his audacity
fertile in impious stratagems against the powers of the earth, as
represented by the institution of Custom-houses and every mortal
belonging thereto--scribes, officers, and guardacostas afloat and
ashore. He was the very man for us, this modern and unlawful
wanderer with his own legend of loves, dangers, and bloodshed. He
told us bits of it sometimes in measured, ironic tones. He spoke
Catalonian, the Italian of Corsica and the French of Provence with
the same easy naturalness. Dressed in shore-togs, a white starched
shirt, black jacket, and round hat, as I took him once to see Dona
Rita, he was extremely presentable. He could make himself
interesting by a tactful and rugged reserve set off by a grim,
almost imperceptible, playfulness of tone and manner.
He had the physical assurance of strong-hearted men. After half an
hour's interview in the dining-room, during which they got in touch
with each other in an amazing way, Rita told us in her best grande
dame manner: "Mais il esi parfait, cet homme." He was perfect.
On board the Tremolino, wrapped up in a black caban, the
picturesque cloak of Mediterranean seamen, with those massive
moustaches and his remorseless eyes set off by the shadow of the
deep hood, he looked piratical and monkish and darkly initiated
into the most awful mysteries of the sea.
Anyway, he was perfect, as Dona Rita had declared. The only thing
unsatisfactory (and even inexplicable) about our Dominic was his
nephew, Cesar. It was startling to see a desolate expression of
shame veil the remorseless audacity in the eyes of that man
superior to all scruples and terrors.
"I would never have dared to bring him on board your balancelle,"
he once apologized to me. "But what am I to do? His mother is
dead, and my brother has gone into the bush."
In this way I learned that our Dominic had a brother. As to "going
into the bush," this only means that a man has done his duty
successfully in the pursuit of a hereditary vendetta. The feud
which had existed for ages between the families of Cervoni and
Brunaschi was so old that it seemed to have smouldered out at last.
One evening Pietro Brunaschi, after a laborious day amongst his
olive-trees, sat on a chair against the wall of his house with a
bowl of broth on his knees and a piece of bread in his hand.
Dominic's brother, going home with a gun on his shoulder, found a
sudden offence in this picture of content and rest so obviously
calculated to awaken the feelings of hatred and revenge. He and
Pietro had never had any personal quarrel; but, as Dominic
explained, "all our dead cried out to him." He shouted from behind
a wall of stones, "O Pietro! Behold what is coming!" And as the
other looked up innocently he took aim at the forehead and squared
the old vendetta account so neatly that, according to Dominic, the
dead man continued to sit with the bowl of broth on his knees and
the piece of bread in his hand.
This is why--because in Corsica your dead will not leave you alone-
-Dominic's brother had to go into the maquis, into the bush on the
wild mountain-side, to dodge the gendarmes for the insignificant
remainder of his life, and Dominic had charge of his nephew with a
mission to make a man of him.
No more unpromising undertaking could be imagined. The very
material for the task seemed wanting. The Cervonis, if not
handsome men, were good sturdy flesh and blood. But this
extraordinarily lean and livid youth seemed to have no more blood
in him than a snail.
"Some cursed witch must have stolen my brother's child from the
cradle and put that spawn of a starved devil in its place," Dominic
would say to me. "Look at him! Just look at him!"
To look at Cesar was not pleasant. His parchment skin, showing
dead white on his cranium through the thin wisps of dirty brown
hair, seemed to be glued directly and tightly upon his big bones,
Without being in any way deformed, he was the nearest approach
which I have ever seen or could imagine to what is commonly
understood by the word "monster." That the source of the effect
produced was really moral I have no doubt. An utterly, hopelessly
depraved nature was expressed in physical terms, that taken each
separately had nothing positively startling. You imagined him
clammily cold to the touch, like a snake. The slightest reproof,
the most mild and justifiable remonstrance, would be met by a
resentful glare and an evil shrinking of his thin dry upper lip, a
snarl of hate to which he generally added the agreeable sound of
It was for this venomous performance rather than for his lies,
impudence, and laziness that his uncle used to knock him down. It
must not be imagined that it was anything in the nature of a brutal
assault. Dominic's brawny arm would be seen describing
deliberately an ample horizontal gesture, a dignified sweep, and
Cesar would go over suddenly like a ninepin--which was funny to
see. But, once down, he would writhe on the deck, gnashing his
teeth in impotent rage--which was pretty horrible to behold. And
it also happened more than once that he would disappear completely-
-which was startling to observe. This is the exact truth. Before
some of these majestic cuffs Cesar would go down and vanish. He
would vanish heels overhead into open hatchways, into scuttles,
behind up-ended casks, according to the place where he happened to
come into contact with his uncle's mighty arm.
Once--it was in the old harbour, just before the Tremolino's last
voyage--he vanished thus overboard to my infinite consternation.
Dominic and I had been talking business together aft, and Cesar had
sneaked up behind us to listen, for, amongst his other perfections,
he was a consummate eavesdropper and spy. At the sound of the
heavy plop alongside horror held me rooted to the spot; but Dominic
stepped quietly to the rail and leaned over, waiting for his
nephew's miserable head to bob up for the first time.
"Ohe, Cesar!" he yelled contemptuously to the spluttering wretch.
"Catch hold of that mooring hawser--charogne!"
He approached me to resume the interrupted conversation.
"What about Cesar?" I asked anxiously.
"Canallia! Let him hang there," was his answer. And he went on
talking over the business in hand calmly, while I tried vainly to
dismiss from my mind the picture of Cesar steeped to the chin in
the water of the old harbour, a decoction of centuries of marine
refuse. I tried to dismiss it, because the mere notion of that
liquid made me feel very sick. Presently Dominic, hailing an idle
boatman, directed him to go and fish his nephew out; and by-and-by
Cesar appeared walking on board from the quay, shivering, streaming
with filthy water, with bits of rotten straws in his hair and a
piece of dirty orange-peel stranded on his shoulder. His teeth
chattered; his yellow eyes squinted balefully at us as he passed
forward. I thought it my duty to remonstrate.
"Why are you always knocking him about, Dominic?" I asked. Indeed,
I felt convinced it was no earthly good--a sheer waste of muscular
"I must try to make a man of him," Dominic answered hopelessly.
I restrained the obvious retort that in this way he ran the risk of
making, in the words of the immortal Mr. Mantalini, "a demnition
damp, unpleasant corpse of him."
"He wants to be a locksmith!" burst out Cervoni. "To learn how to
pick locks, I suppose," he added with sardonic bitterness.
"Why not let him be a locksmith?" I ventured.
"Who would teach him?" he cried. "Where could I leave him?" he
asked, with a drop in his voice; and I had my first glimpse of
genuine despair. "He steals, you know, alas! Par ta Madonne! I
believe he would put poison in your food and mine--the viper!"
He raised his face and both his clenched fists slowly to heaven.
However, Cesar never dropped poison into our cups. One cannot be
sure, but I fancy he went to work in another way.
This voyage, of which the details need not be given, we had to
range far afield for sufficient reasons. Coming up from the South
to end it with the important and really dangerous part of the
scheme in hand, we found it necessary to look into Barcelona for
certain definite information. This appears like running one's head
into the very jaws of the lion, but in reality it was not so. We
had one or two high, influential friends there, and many others
humble but valuable because bought for good hard cash. We were in
no danger of being molested; indeed, the important information
reached us promptly by the hands of a Custom-house officer, who
came on board full of showy zeal to poke an iron rod into the layer
of oranges which made the visible part of our cargo in the
I forgot to mention before that the Tremolino was officially known
as a fruit and cork-wood trader. The zealous officer managed to
slip a useful piece of paper into Dominic's hand as he went ashore,
and a few hours afterwards, being off duty, he returned on board
again athirst for drinks and gratitude. He got both as a matter of
course. While he sat sipping his liqueur in the tiny cabin,
Dominic plied him with questions as to the whereabouts of the
guardacostas. The preventive service afloat was really the one for
us to reckon with, and it was material for our success and safety
to know the exact position of the patrol craft in the
neighbourhood. The news could not have been more favourable. The
officer mentioned a small place on the coast some twelve miles off,
where, unsuspicious and unready, she was lying at anchor, with her
sails unbent, painting yards and scraping spars. Then he left us
after the usual compliments, smirking reassurringly over his
I had kept below pretty close all day from excess of prudence. The
stake played on that trip was big.
"We are ready to go at once, but for Cesar, who has been missing
ever since breakfast," announced Dominic to me in his slow, grim
Where the fellow had gone, and why, we could not imagine. The
usual surmises in the case of a missing seaman did not apply to
Cesar's absence. He was too odious for love, friendship, gambling,
or even casual intercourse. But once or twice he had wandered away
like this before.
Dominic went ashore to look for him, but returned at the end of two
hours alone and very angry, as I could see by the token of the
invisible smile under his moustache being intensified. We wondered
what had become of the wretch, and made a hurried investigation
amongst our portable property. He had stolen nothing.
"He will be back before long," I said confidently.
Ten minutes afterwards one of the men on deck called out loudly:
"I can see him coming."
Cesar had only his shirt and trousers on. He had sold his coat,
apparently for pocket-money.
"You knave!" was all Dominic said, with a terrible softness of
voice. He restrained his choler for a time. "Where have you been,
vagabond?" he asked menacingly.
Nothing would induce Cesar to answer that question. It was as if
he even disdained to lie. He faced us, drawing back his lips and
gnashing his teeth, and did not shrink an inch before the sweep of
Dominic's arm. He went down as if shot, of course. But this time
I noticed that, when picking himself up, he remained longer than
usual on all fours, baring his big teeth over his shoulder and
glaring upwards at his uncle with a new sort of hate in his round,
yellow eyes. That permanent sentiment seemed pointed at that
moment by especial malice and curiosity. I became quite
interested. If he ever manages to put poison in the dishes, I
thought to myself, this is how he will look at us as we sit at our
meal. But I did not, of course, believe for a moment that he would
ever put poison in our food. He ate the same things himself.
Moreover, he had no poison. And I could not imagine a human being
so blinded by cupidity as to sell poison to such an atrocious
We slipped out to sea quietly at dusk, and all through the night
everything went well. The breeze was gusty; a southerly blow was
making up. It was fair wind for our course. Now and then Dominic
slowly and rhythmically struck his hands together a few times, as
if applauding the performance of the Tremolino. The balancelle
hummed and quivered as she flew along, dancing lightly under our
At daybreak I pointed out to Dominic, amongst the several sail in
view running before the gathering storm, one particular vessel.
The press of canvas she carried made her loom up high, end-on, like
a gray column standing motionless directly in our wake.
"Look at this fellow, Dominic," I said. "He seems to be in a
The Padrone made no remark, but, wrapping his black cloak close
about him, stood up to look. His weather-tanned face, framed in
the hood, had an aspect of authority and challenging force, with
the deep-set eyes gazing far away fixedly, without a wink, like the
intent, merciless, steady eyes of a sea-bird.
"Chi va piano va sano," he remarked at last, with a derisive glance
over the side, in ironic allusion to our own tremendous speed.
The Tremolino was doing her best, and seemed to hardly touch the
great burst of foam over which she darted. I crouched down again
to get some shelter from the low bulwark. After more than half an
hour of swaying immobility expressing a concentrated, breathless
watchfulness, Dominic sank on the deck by my side. Within the
monkish cowl his eyes gleamed with a fierce expression which
surprised me. All he said was:
"He has come out here to wash the new paint off his yards, I
"What?" I shouted, getting up on my knees. "Is she the
The perpetual suggestion of a smile under Dominic's piratical
moustaches seemed to become more accentuated--quite real, grim,
actually almost visible through the wet and uncurled hair. Judging
by that symptom, he must have been in a towering rage. But I could
also see that he was puzzled, and that discovery affected me
disagreeably. Dominic puzzled! For a long time, leaning against
the bulwark, I gazed over the stern at the gray column that seemed
to stand swaying slightly in our wake always at the same distance.
Meanwhile Dominic, black and cowled, sat cross-legged on the deck,
with his back to the wind, recalling vaguely an Arab chief in his
burnuss sitting on the sand. Above his motionless figure the
little cord and tassel on the stiff point of the hood swung about
inanely in the gale. At last I gave up facing the wind and rain,
and crouched down by his side. I was satisfied that the sail was a
patrol craft. Her presence was not a thing to talk about, but
soon, between two clouds charged with hail-showers, a burst of
sunshine fell upon her sails, and our men discovered her character
for themselves. From that moment I noticed that they seemed to
take no heed of each other or of anything else. They could spare
no eyes and no thought but for the slight column-shape astern of
us. Its swaying had become perceptible. For a moment she remained
dazzlingly white, then faded away slowly to nothing in a squall,
only to reappear again, nearly black, resembling a post stuck
upright against the slaty background of solid cloud. Since first
noticed she had not gained on us a foot.
"She will never catch the Tremolino," I said exultingly.
Dominic did not look at me. He remarked absently, but justly, that
the heavy weather was in our pursuer's favour. She was three times
our size. What we had to do was to keep our distance till dark,
which we could manage easily, and then haul off to seaward and
consider the situation. But his thoughts seemed to stumble in the
darkness of some not-solved enigma, and soon he fell silent. We
ran steadily, wing-and-wing. Cape San Sebastian nearly ahead
seemed to recede from us in the squalls of rain, and come out again
to meet our rush, every time more distinct between the showers.
For my part I was by no means certain that this gabelou (as our men
alluded to her opprobriously) was after us at all. There were
nautical difficulties in such a view which made me express the
sanguine opinion that she was in all innocence simply changing her
station. At this Dominic condescended to turn his head.
"I tell you she is in chase," he affirmed moodily, after one short
I never doubted his opinion. But with all the ardour of a neophyte
and the pride of an apt learner I was at that time a great nautical
"What I can't understand," I insisted subtly, "is how on earth,
with this wind, she has managed to be just where she was when we
first made her out. It is clear that she could not, and did not,
gain twelve miles on us during the night. And there are other
impossibilities. . . ."
Dominic had been sitting motionless, like an inanimate black cone
posed on the stern deck, near the rudder-head, with a small tassel
fluttering on its sharp point, and for a time he preserved the
immobility of his meditation. Then, bending over with a short
laugh, he gave my ear the bitter fruit of it. He understood
everything now perfectly. She was where we had seen her first, not
because she had caught us up, but because we had passed her during
the night while she was already waiting for us, hove-to, most
likely, on our very track.
"Do you understand--already?" Dominic muttered in a fierce
undertone. "Already! You know we left a good eight hours before
we were expected to leave, otherwise she would have been in time to
lie in wait for us on the other side of the Cape, and"--he snapped
his teeth like a wolf close to my face--"and she would have had us
I saw it all plainly enough now. They had eyes in their heads and
all their wits about them in that craft. We had passed them in the
dark as they jogged on easily towards their ambush with the idea
that we were yet far behind. At daylight, however, sighting a
balancelle ahead under a press of canvas, they had made sail in
chase. But if that was so, then--
Dominic seized my arm.
"Yes, yes! She came out on an information--do you see, it?--on
information. . . . We have been sold--betrayed. Why? How? What
for? We always paid them all so well on shore. . . . No! But it
is my head that is going to burst."
He seemed to choke, tugged at the throat button of the cloak,
jumped up open-mouthed as if to hurl curses and denunciation, but
instantly mastered himself, and, wrapping up the cloak closer about
him, sat down on the deck again as quiet as ever.
"Yes, it must be the work of some scoundrel ashore," I observed.
He pulled the edge of the hood well forward over his brow before he
"A scoundrel. . . . Yes. . . . It's evident."
"Well," I said, "they can't get us, that's clear."
"No," he assented quietly, "they cannot."
We shaved the Cape very close to avoid an adverse current. On the
other side, by the effect of the land, the wind failed us so
completely for a moment that the Tremolino's two great lofty sails
hung idle to the masts in the thundering uproar of the seas
breaking upon the shore we had left behind. And when the returning
gust filled them again, we saw with amazement half of the new
mainsail, which we thought fit to drive the boat under before
giving way, absolutely fly out of the bolt-ropes. We lowered the
yard at once, and saved it all, but it was no longer a sail; it was
only a heap of soaked strips of canvas cumbering the deck and
weighting the craft. Dominic gave the order to throw the whole lot
I would have had the yard thrown overboard, too, he said, leading
me aft again, "if it had not been for the trouble. Let no sign
escape you," he continued, lowering his voice, "but I am going to
tell you something terrible. Listen: I have observed that the
roping stitches on that sail have been cut! You hear? Cut with a
knife in many places. And yet it stood all that time. Not enough
cut. That flap did it at last. What matters it? But look!
there's treachery seated on this very deck. By the horns of the
devil! seated here at our very backs. Do not turn, signorine."
We were facing aft then.
"What's to be done?" I asked, appalled.
"Nothing. Silence! Be a man, signorine."
"What else?" I said.
To show I could be a man, I resolved to utter no sound as long as
Dominic himself had the force to keep his lips closed. Nothing but
silence becomes certain situations. Moreover, the experience of
treachery seemed to spread a hopeless drowsiness over my thoughts
and senses. For an hour or more we watched our pursuer surging out
nearer and nearer from amongst the squalls that sometimes hid her
altogether. But even when not seen, we felt her there like a knife
at our throats. She gained on us frightfully. And the Tremolino,
in a fierce breeze and in much smoother water, swung on easily
under her one sail, with something appallingly careless in the
joyous freedom of her motion. Another half-hour went by. I could
not stand it any longer.
"They will get the poor barky," I stammered out suddenly, almost on
the verge of tears.
Dominic stirred no more than a carving. A sense of catastrophic
loneliness overcame my inexperienced soul. The vision of my
companions passed before me. The whole Royalist gang was in Monte
Carlo now, I reckoned. And they appeared to me clear-cut and very
small, with affected voices and stiff gestures, like a procession
of rigid marionettes upon a toy stage. I gave a start. What was
this? A mysterious, remorseless whisper came from within the
motionless black hood at my side.
"Il faul la tuer."
I heard it very well.
"What do you say, Dominic?" I asked, moving nothing but my lips.
And the whisper within the hood repeated mysteriously, "She must be
My heart began to beat violently.
"That's it," I faltered out. "But how?"
"You love her well?"
"Then you must find the heart for that work too. You must steer
her yourself, and I shall see to it that she dies quickly, without
leaving as much as a chip behind."
"Can you?" I murmured, fascinated by the black hood turned
immovably over the stern, as if in unlawful communion with that old
sea of magicians, slave-dealers, exiles and warriors, the sea of
legends and terrors, where the mariners of remote antiquity used to
hear the restless shade of an old wanderer weep aloud in the dark.
"I know a rock," whispered the initiated voice within the hood
secretly. "But--caution! It must be done before our men perceive
what we are about. Whom can we trust now? A knife drawn across
the fore halyards would bring the foresail down, and put an end to
our liberty in twenty minutes. And the best of our men may be
afraid of drowning. There is our little boat, but in an affair
like this no one can be sure of being saved."
The voice ceased. We had started from Barcelona with our dinghy in
tow; afterwards it was too risky to try to get her in, so we let
her take her chance of the seas at the end of a comfortable scope
of rope. Many times she had seemed to us completely overwhelmed,
but soon we would see her bob up again on a wave, apparently as
buoyant and whole as ever.
"I understand," I said softly. "Very well, Dominic. When?"
"Not yet. We must get a little more in first," answered the voice
from the hood in a ghostly murmur.
It was settled. I had now the courage to turn about. Our men
crouched about the decks here and there with anxious, crestfallen
faces, all turned one way to watch the chaser. For the first time
that morning I perceived Cesar stretched out full length on the
deck near the foremast and wondered where he had been skulking till
then. But he might in truth have been at my elbow all the time for
all I knew. We had been too absorbed in watching our fate to pay
attention to each other. Nobody had eaten anything that morning,
but the men had been coming constantly to drink at the water-butt.
I ran down to the cabin. I had there, put away in a locker, ten
thousand francs in gold of whose presence on board, so far as I was
aware, not a soul, except Dominic had the slightest inkling. When
I emerged on deck again Dominic had turned about and was peering
from under his cowl at the coast. Cape Creux closed the view
ahead. To the left a wide bay, its waters torn and swept by fierce
squalls, seemed full of smoke. Astern the sky had a menacing look.
Directly he saw me, Dominic, in a placid tone, wanted to know what
was the matter. I came close to him and, looking as unconcerned as
I could, told him in an undertone that I had found the locker
broken open and the money-belt gone. Last evening it was still
"What did you want to do with it?" he asked me, trembling
"Put it round my waist, of course," I answered, amazed to hear his
"Cursed gold!" he muttered. "The weight of the money might have
cost you your life, perhaps." He shuddered. "There is no time to
talk about that now."
"I am ready."
"Not yet. I am waiting for that squall to come over," he muttered.
And a few leaden minutes passed.
The squall came over at last. Our pursuer, overtaken by a sort of
murky whirlwind, disappeared from our sight. The Tremolino
quivered and bounded forward. The land ahead vanished, too, and we
seemed to be left alone in a world of water and wind.
"Prenez la barre, monsieur," Dominic broke the silence suddenly in
an austere voice. "Take hold of the tiller." He bent his hood to
my ear. "The balancelle is yours. Your own hands must deal the
blow. I--I have yet another piece of work to do." He spoke up
loudly to the man who steered. "Let the signorino take the tiller,
and you with the others stand by to haul the boat alongside quickly
at the word."
The man obeyed, surprised, but silent. The others stirred, and
pricked up their ears at this. I heard their murmurs. "What now?
Are we going to run in somewhere and take to our heels? The
Padrone knows what he is doing."
Dominic went forward. He paused to look down at Cesar, who, as I
have said before, was lying full length face down by the foremast,
then stepped over him, and dived out of my sight under the
foresail. I saw nothing ahead. It was impossible for me to see
anything except the foresail open and still, like a great shadowy
wing. But Dominic had his bearings. His voice came to me from
forward, in a just audible cry:
I bore on the tiller, as instructed before. Again I heard him
faintly, and then I had only to hold her straight. No ship ran so
joyously to her death before. She rose and fell, as if floating in
space, and darted forward, whizzing like an arrow. Dominic,
stooping under the foot of the foresail, reappeared, and stood
steadying himself against the mast, with a raised forefinger in an
attitude of expectant attention. A second before the shock his arm
fell down by his side. At that I set my teeth. And then--
Talk of splintered planks and smashed timbers! This shipwreck lies
upon my soul with the dread and horror of a homicide, with the
unforgettable remorse of having crushed a living, faithful heart at
a single blow. At one moment the rush and the soaring swing of
speed; the next a crash, and death, stillness--a moment of horrible
immobility, with the song of the wind changed to a strident wail,
and the heavy waters boiling up menacing and sluggish around the
corpse. I saw in a distracting minute the foreyard fly fore and
aft with a brutal swing, the men all in a heap, cursing with fear,
and hauling frantically at the line of the boat. With a strange
welcoming of the familiar I saw also Cesar amongst them, and
recognised Dominic's old, well-known, effective gesture, the
horizontal sweep of his powerful arm. I recollect distinctly
saying to myself, "Cesar must go down, of course," and then, as I
was scrambling on all fours, the swinging tiller I had let go
caught me a crack under the ear, and knocked me over senseless.
I don't think I was actually unconscious for more than a few
minutes, but when I came to myself the dinghy was driving before
the wind into a sheltered cove, two men just keeping her straight
with their oars. Dominic, with his arm round my shoulders,
supported me in the stern-sheets.
We landed in a familiar part of the country. Dominic took one of
the boat's oars with him. I suppose he was thinking of the stream
we would have presently to cross, on which there was a miserable
specimen of a punt, often robbed of its pole. But first of all we
had to ascend the ridge of land at the back of the Cape. He helped
me up. I was dizzy. My head felt very large and heavy. At the
top of the ascent I clung to him, and we stopped to rest.
To the right, below us, the wide, smoky bay was empty. Dominic had
kept his word. There was not a chip to be seen around the black
rock from which the Tremolino, with her plucky heart crushed at one
blow, had slipped off into deep water to her eternal rest. The
vastness of the open sea was smothered in driving mists, and in the
centre of the thinning squall, phantom-like, under a frightful
press of canvas, the unconscious guardacosta dashed on, still
chasing to the northward. Our men were already descending the
reverse slope to look for that punt which we knew from experience
was not always to be found easily. I looked after them with dazed,
misty eyes. One, two, three, four.
"Dominic, where's Cesar?" I cried.
As if repulsing the very sound of the name, the Padrone made that
ample, sweeping, knocking-down gesture. I stepped back a pace and
stared at him fearfully. His open shirt uncovered his muscular
neck and the thick hair on his chest. He planted the oar upright
in the soft soil, and rolling up slowly his right sleeve, extended
the bare arm before my face.
"This," he began, with an extreme deliberation, whose superhuman
restraint vibrated with the suppressed violence of his feelings,
"is the arm which delivered the blow. I am afraid it is your own
gold that did the rest. I forgot all about your money." He
clasped his hands together in sudden distress. "I forgot, I
forgot," he repeated disconsolately.
"Cesar stole the belt?" I stammered out, bewildered.
"And who else? Canallia! He must have been spying on you for
days. And he did the whole thing. Absent all day in Barcelona.
Traditore! Sold his jacket--to hire a horse. Ha! ha! A good
affair! I tell you it was he who set him at us. . . ."
Dominic pointed at the sea, where the guardacosta was a mere dark
speck. His chin dropped on his breast.
". . . On information," he murmured, in a gloomy voice. "A
Cervoni! Oh! my poor brother! . . ."
"And you drowned him," I said feebly.
"I struck once, and the wretch went down like a stone--with the
gold. Yes. But he had time to read in my eyes that nothing could
save him while I was alive. And had I not the right--I, Dominic
Cervoni, Padrone, who brought him aboard your fellucca--my nephew,
He pulled the oar out of the ground and helped me carefully down
the slope. All the time he never once looked me in the face. He
punted us over, then shouldered the oar again and waited till our
men were at some distance before he offered me his arm. After we
had gone a little way, the fishing hamlet we were making for came
into view. Dominic stopped.
"Do you think you can make your way as far as the houses by
yourself?" he asked me quietly.
"Yes, I think so. But why? Where are you going, Dominic?"
"Anywhere. What a question! Signorino, you are but little more
than a boy to ask such a question of a man having this tale in his
family. Ah! Traditore! What made me ever own that spawn of a
hungry devil for our own blood! Thief, cheat, coward, liar--other
men can deal with that. But I was his uncle, and so . . . I wish
he had poisoned me--charogne! But this: that I, a confidential
man and a Corsican, should have to ask your pardon for bringing on
board your vessel, of which I was Padrone, a Cervoni, who has
betrayed you--a traitor!--that is too much. It is too much. Well,
I beg your pardon; and you may spit in Dominic's face because a
traitor of our blood taints us all. A theft may be made good
between men, a lie may be set right, a death avenged, but what can
one do to atone for a treachery like this? . . . Nothing."
He turned and walked away from me along the bank of the stream,
flourishing a vengeful arm and repeating to himself slowly, with
savage emphasis: "Ah! Canaille! Canaille! Canaille!. . ." He
left me there trembling with weakness and mute with awe. Unable to
make a sound, I gazed after the strangely desolate figure of that
seaman carrying an oar on his shoulder up a barren, rock-strewn
ravine under the dreary leaden sky of Tremolino's last day. Thus,
walking deliberately, with his back to the sea, Dominic vanished
from my sight.
With the quality of our desires, thoughts, and wonder proportioned
to our infinite littleness, we measure even time itself by our own
stature. Imprisoned in the house of personal illusions, thirty
centuries in mankind's history seem less to look back upon than
thirty years of our own life. And Dominic Cervoni takes his place
in my memory by the side of the legendary wanderer on the sea of
marvels and terrors, by the side of the fatal and impious
adventurer, to whom the evoked shade of the soothsayer predicted a
journey inland with an oar on his shoulder, till he met men who had
never set eyes on ships and oars. It seems to me I can see them
side by side in the twilight of an arid land, the unfortunate
possessors of the secret lore of the sea, bearing the emblem of
their hard calling on their shoulders, surrounded by silent and
curious men: even as I, too, having turned my back upon the sea,
am bearing those few pages in the twilight, with the hope of
finding in an inland valley the silent welcome of some patient
"A fellow has now no chance of promotion unless he jumps into the
muzzle of a gun and crawls out of the touch-hole."
He who, a hundred years ago, more or less, pronounced the above
words in the uneasiness of his heart, thirsting for professional
distinction, was a young naval officer. Of his life, career,
achievements, and end nothing is preserved for the edification of
his young successors in the fleet of to-day--nothing but this
phrase, which, sailor-like in the simplicity of personal sentiment
and strength of graphic expression, embodies the spirit of the
epoch. This obscure but vigorous testimony has its price, its