Part 3 out of 3
port and see the metaphysical commander bent over sheets of
foolscap and thickly wreathed in pipe-smoke.
He himself had fallen into a kind of tranced felicity, in which
these questions no longer had other than an ingenious interest.
His heart was drowned in the engulfing blue. As they made their
southing, wind and weather seemed to fall astern, the sun poured
with a more golden candour. He stood at the wheel in a tranquil
reverie, blithely steering toward some bright belly of cloud that
had caught his fancy. Mr. Pointer shook his head when he glanced
surreptitiously at the steering recorder, a device that noted
graphically every movement of the rudder with a view to promoting
economical helmsmanship. Indeed Gissing's course, as logged on
the chart, surprised even himself, so that he forbade the
officers taking their noon observations. When Mr. Pointer said
something about isobars, the staff-captain replied serenely that
he did not expect to find any polar bears in these latitudes.
He had hoped privately for an occasional pirate, and scanned the
sea-rim sharply for suspicious topsails. But the ocean, as he
remarked, is not crowded. They proceeded, day after day, in a
solitary wideness of unblemished colour. The ship, travelling
always in the centre of this infinite disk, seemed strangely
identified with his own itinerant spirit, watchful at the gist of
things, alert at the point which was necessarily, for him, the
nub of all existence. He wandered about the pomerania~s sagely
ordered passages and found her more and more magical. She went on
and on, with some strange urgent vitality of her own. Through the
fiddleys on the boat deck came a hot oily breath and the steady
drumming of her burning heart. From outer to hawse-hole, from
shaft-tunnel to crow's-nest, he explored and loved her. In the
whole of her proud, faithful, obedient fabric he divined honour
and exultation. Poised upon uncertainty, she was sure. The camber
of her white-scrubbed decks, the long, clean sheer of her hull,
the concave flare of her bows--what was the amazing joy and
rightness of these things? And yet the grotesque passengers
regarded her only as a vehicle, to carry them sedatively to some
clamouring dock. Fools! She was more lovely than anything they
would ever see again! He yearned to drive her endlessly toward
that unreachable perimeter of sky.
On land there had been definite horizons, even if disappointing
when reached and examined; but here there was no horizon at all.
Every hour it slid and slid over the dark orb of sea. He lost
count of time. The tremulous cradling of the Pomerania, steadily
climbing the long leagues; her noble forecastle solemnly lifting
against heaven, then descending with grave beauty into a spread
of foaming beryl and snowdrift, seemed one with the rhythm of his
pulse and heart. Perhaps there had been more than mere ingenuity
in his last riddle for the theological skipper. Truly the
subconscious had usurped him. Here he was almost happy, for he
was almost unaware of life. It was all blue vacancy and
suspension. The sea is the great answer and consoler, for it
means either nothing or everything, and so need not tease the
But the passengers, though unobservant, began to murmur;
especially those who had wagered that the Pomerania would dock on
the eighth day. The world itself, they complained, was created in
seven days, and why should so fine a ship take longer to cross a
comparatively small ocean? Urbanely, over coffee and petite
fours, Gissing argued with them. They were well on their way, he
protested; and then, as a hypothetical case, he asked why one
destination was more worth visiting than another? He even quoted
Shakespeare on this point--something about "ports and happy
havens"--and succeeded in turning the tide of conversation for a
while. The mention of Shakespeare suggested to some of the ladies
that it would be pleasant, now they all knew each other so well,
to put on some amateur theatricals. They compromised by playing
charades in the saloon. Another evening Gissing kept them amused
by fireworks, which were very lovely against the dark sky. For
this purpose he used the emergency rockets, star-shells and
coloured flares, much to the distress of Dane, the quartermaster,
who had charge of these supplies.
Little by little, however, the querulous protests of the
passengers began to weary him. Also, he had been receiving terse
memoranda from the Chief Engineer that the coal was getting low
in the bunkers and that something must be queer in the navigating
department. This seemed very unreasonable. The fixed gaze of Mr.
Pointer, perpetually examining the horizon as though he wanted to
make sure he would recognize it if they met again, was trying.
Even Captain Scottie complained one day that the supply of fresh
meat had given out and that the steward had been bringing him
tinned beef. Gissing determined upon resolute measures.
He had notice served that on account of possible danger from
pirates there would be a general boat drill on the following day-
-not merely for the crew, but for everyone. He gave a little talk
about it in the saloon after dinner, and worked his audience up
to quite a pitch of enthusiasm. This would be better than any
amateur theatricals, he insisted. Everyone was to act exactly as
though in a sudden calamity. They might make up the boat-parties
on the basis of congeniality if they wished; five minutes would
be given for reaching the stations, without panic or disorder.
They should prepare themselves as though they were actually going
to leave a sinking ship.
The passengers were delighted with the idea of this novel
entertainment. Every soul on board-- with the exception of
Captain Scottie, who had locked himself in and refused to be
disturbed--was properly advertised of the event.
The following day, fortunately, was clear and calm. At noon
Gissing blew the syren, fired a rocket from the bridge, and swung
the engine telegraph to STOP. The ship's orchestra, by his
orders, struck up a rollicking air. Quickly and without
confusion, amid cries of Women and children first! the passengers
filed to their allotted places. The crew and officers were all at
Gissing knocked at Captain Scottie's cabin.
"We are taking to the boats," he said.
"Goad!" cried the skipper. "Wull it be a colleesion?"
"All's clear and the davits are outboard," said Gissing. He had
been studying the manual of boat handling in one of the nautical
volumes in the chart-room.
"Auld Hornie!" ejaculated the skipper. "we'll no can salve the
specie! Make note of her poseetion, Mr. Gissing!" He hastened to
gather his papers, the log, a chronometer, and a large canister
"The Deil's intil't," he said as he hastened to his boat. "I had
yon pragmateesm of yours on a lee shore. Two-three hours, I'd
have careened ye."
Gissing was ready with his megaphone. From the wing of the bridge
he gave the orders.
"Lower away!" and the boats dropped to the passenger rail.
"Avast lowering!" Each boat took in her roster of passengers, who
were in high spirits at this unusual excitement.
"Mind your painters! Lower handsomely!"
The boats took the water in orderly fashion, and were cast off.
Remaining members of the crew swarmed down the falls. The
bandsmen had a boat to themselves, and resumed their tune as soon
as they were settled.
Gissing, left alone on the ship, waved for silence.
"Look sharp, man!" cried Captain Scottie. "Honour's satisfied!
Take your place in the boat!"
The passengers applauded, and there was quite a clatter of camera
shutters as they snapped the Pomerania looming grandly above
"Boats are all provisioned and equipped," shouted Gissing. "I've
broadcasted your position by radio. The barometer's at Fixed
Fair. Pull off now, and 'ware the screw."
He moved the telegraph handle to DEAD SLOW, and the Pomerania
began to slip forward gently. The boats dropped aft amid a loud
miscellaneous outcry. Mr. Pointer was already examining the
horizon. Captain Scottie, awakened to the situation, was uttering
the language of theology but not the purport.
"Don't stand up in the boats," megaphoned Gissing. "You're quite
all right, there's a ship on the way already. I wirelessed last
He slid the telegraph to slow, half, and then full. Once more the
ship creamed through the lifting purple swells. The little flock
of boats was soon out of sight.
Alone at the wheel, he realized that a great weight was off his
mind. The responsibility of his position had burdened him more
than he knew. Now a strange eagerness and joy possessed him. His
bubbling wake cut straight and milky across the glittering
afternoon. In a ruddy sunset glow, the sea darkened through all
tints of violet, amethyst, indigo. The horizon line sharpened so
clearly that he could distinguish the tossing profile of waves
wetting the sky. "A red sky at night is the sailor's delight," he
said to himself. He switched on the port and starboard lights and
the masthead lanterns, then lashed the wheel while he went below
for supper. He did not know exactly where he was, for he seemed
to have steamed clean off the chart; but as he conned the helm
that evening, and leaned over the lighted binnacle, he had a
feeling that he was not far from some destiny. With cheerful
assurance he lashed the wheel again, and turned in. He woke once
in the night, and leaped from the hammock with a start. He
thought he had heard a sound of barking.
The next morning he sighted land. Coming out on the bridge, the
whole face of things was changed. The sea-colour had lightened to
a tawny green; gulls dipped and hovered; away on the horizon lay
a soft blue contour. "Land Ho!" he shouted superbly, and wondered
what new country he had discovered. He ran up a hoist of red and
yellow signal flags, and steered gaily toward the shore.
It had grown suddenly cold: he had to fetch Captain Scottie's
pea-jacket to wear at the wheel. On the long spilling crests,
that crumbled and spread running layers of froth in their hurry
shoreward, the Pomerania rode home. She knew her landfall and
seemed to quicken. Steadily swinging on the jade-green surges,
she buried her nose almost to the hawse-pipes, then lifted until
her streaming forefoot gleamed out of a frilled ruffle of foam.
Gissing, too, was eager. A tingling buoyancy and impatience took
hold of him: he fidgeted with sheer eagerness for life. Land, the
beloved stability of our dear and only earth, drew and charmed
him. Behind was the senseless, heartbreaking sea. Now he could
discern hills rising in a gilded opaline light. In the volatile
thin air was a quick sense of strangeness. A new world was close
about him: a world that he could see, and feel, and inhale, and
yet knew nothing of.
Suddenly a great humility possessed him. He had been froward and
silly and vain. He had shouted arrogantly at Beauty, like a noisy
tourist in a canyon; and the only answer, after long waiting, had
been the paltry diminished echo of his own voice. He thought
shamefully of his follies. What matter how you name God or in
what words you praise Him? In this new foreign land he would
quietly accept things as he found them. The laughter of God was
too strange to understand.
No, there was no answer. He was doubly damned, for he had made
truth a mere sport of intellectual riddling. The mind, like a
spinning flywheel of fatigued steel, was gradually racked to
bursting by the conflict of stresses. And yet: every equilibrium
was an opposure of forces. Rotation, if swift enough, creates
amazing stability: he had seen how the gyroscope can balance at
apparently impossible angles. Perhaps it was so of the mind. If
it twirls at high speed it can lean right out over the abyss
without collapse. But the stationary mind--he thought of Bishop
Borzoi--must keep away from the edge. Try to force it to the
edge, it raves in panic. Every mind, very likely, knows its own
frailties, and does well to safeguard them. At any rate, that was
the most generous interpretation. Most minds, undoubtedly, were
uneasy in high places. They doubted their ability to refrain from
jumping off. How many bones of fine intellects lay whitening at
the foot of the theological cliff-- It seemed to be a lonely
coast, and wintry. Patches of snow lay upon the hills, the woods
were bare and brown. A bottle-necked harbour opened out before
him. He reduced the engines to Dead Slow and glided gaily through
the strait. He had been anxious lest his navigation might not be
equal to the occasion: he did not want to disgrace himself at
this final test. But all seemed to arrange itself with enchanted
ease. A steep ledge of ground offered a natural pier, with
tree-stumps for bollards. He let her come gently beyond the spot;
reversed the propellers just at the right time, and backed neatly
alongside. He moved the telegraph handle to FINISHED WITH
ENGINES; ran out the gangplank smartly, and stepped ashore. He
moored the vessel fore and aft, and hung out fenders to prevent
The first thing to do, he said to himself, is to get the lie of
the land, and find out whether it is inhabited.
A hillside rising above the water promised a clear view. The
stubble grass was dry and frosty, after the warm days at sea the
chill was nipping; but what an elixir of air! If this is a desert
island, he thought, it will be a glorious discovery. His heart
was jocund with anticipation. A curious foreign look in the
landscape, he thought; quite unlike anything-- Suddenly, where
the hill arched against pearly sky, he saw narrow thread of smoke
rising. He halted in alarm. Who might this be, friend or foe? But
eager agitation pushed him on. Burning to know, he hurried up to
the brow of the hill.
The smoke mounted from a small bonfire of sticks in a sheltered
thicket, where a miraculous being--who was, as a matter of fact,
a rather ragged and dingy vagabond--was cooking a tin of stew
over the blaze.
Gissing stood, quivering with emotion. Joy such as he had never
known darted through all the cords of his body. He ran, shouting,
in mirth and terror. In fear, in a passion of love and knowledge
and understanding, he abased himself and yearned before this
marvel. Impossible to have conceived, yet, once seen, utterly
satisfying and the fulfilment of all needs. He laughed and leaped
and worshipped. When the first transport was over, he laid his
head against this being's knee, he nestled there and was content.
This was the inscrutable perfect answer.
"Cripes!" said the puzzled tramp, as he caressed the nuzzling
head. "The purp's loco. Maybe he's been lost. You might think
he'd never seen a man before."
He was right.
And Gissing sat quietly, his throat resting upon the soiled knee
of a very old and spicy trouser.
"I have found God," he said.
Presently he thought of the ship. It would not do to leave her so
insecurely moored. Reluctantly, with many a backward glance and a
heart full of glory, he left the Presence. He ran to the edge of
the hill to look down upon the harbour.
The outlook was puzzlingly altered. He gazed in astonishment.
What were those poplars, rising naked into the bright air?--there
was something familiar about them. And that little house beyond .
. . he stared bewildered.
The great shining breadth of the ocean had shrunk to the
roundness of a tiny pond. And the Pomerania? He leaned over,
shaken with questions. There, beside the bank, was a little plank
of wood, a child's plaything, roughly fashioned shipshape: two
chips for funnels; red and yellow frosted leaves for flags; a
withered dogwood blossom for propeller. He leaned closer, with
whirling mind. In the clear cool surface of the pond he could see
the sky mirrored, deeper than any ocean, pellucid, infinite,
He ran up the path to the house. The scuffled ragged garden lay
naked and hard. At the windows, he saw with surprise, were holly
wreaths tied with broad red ribbon. On the porch, some battered
toys. He opened the door.
A fluttering rosy light filled the room. By the fireplace the
puppies--how big they were!--were sitting with Mrs. Spaniel.
Joyous uproar greeted him: they flung themselves upon him. Shouts
of "Daddy! Daddy!" filled the house, while the young Spaniels
stood by more bashfully.
Good Mrs. Spaniel was gratefully moved. Her moist eyes shone
brightly in the firelight.
"I knew you'd be home for Christmas, Mr. Gissing," she said.
"I've been telling them so all afternoon. Now, children, be still
a moment and let me speak. I've been telling you your Daddy would
be home in time for a Christmas Eve story. I've got to go and fix
that plum pudding."
In her excitement a clear bubble dripped from the tip of her
tongue. She caught it in her apron, and hurried to the kitchen.
The children insisted on leading him all through the house to
show how nicely they had taken care of things. And in every room
Gissing saw the marks of riot and wreckage. There were
tooth-scars on all furniture-legs; the fringes of rugs were
chewed off; there were prints of mud, ink, paints, and whatnot,
on curtains and wallpapers and coverlets. Poor Mrs. Spaniel kept
running anxiously from the kitchen to renew apologies.
"I DID try to keep 'em in order," she said, "but they seem to
bash things when you're not looking."
But Gissing was too happy to stew about such trifles. When the
inspection was over, they all sat down by the chimney and he
piled on more logs.
"Well, chilluns," he said, "what do you want Santa Claus to bring
you for Christmas?"
"An aunbile!" exclaimed Groups
"An elphunt!" exclaimed Bunks
"A little train with hammers!" exclaimed Yelpers
"A little train with hammers?" asked Gissing. "What does he
"Oh," said Groups and Bunks, with condescending pity, "he means a
typewriter. He calls it a little train because it moves on a
track when you hit it."
A painful apprehension seized him, and he went hastily to his
study. He had not noticed the typewriter, which Mrs. Spaniel had-
-too late--put out of reach. Half the keys were sticking upright,
jammed together and tangled in a whirl of ribbon; the carriage
was strangely dislocated. And yet even this mischance, which
would once have horrified him, left him unperturbed. It's my own
fault, he thought: I shouldn't have left it where they could play
with it. Perhaps God thinks the same when His creatures make a
mess of the dangerous laws of life.
"A Christmas story!" the children were clamouring.
Can it really be Christmas Eve? Gissing thought. Christmas seems
to have come very suddenly this year, I haven't really adjusted
my mind to it yet.
"All right," he said. "Now sit still and keep quiet. Bunks, give
Yelpers a little more room. If there's any bickering Santa Claus
might hear it."
He sat in the big chair by the fire, and the three looked upward
expectantly from the hearthrug.
"Once upon a time there were three little puppies, who lived in a
house in the country in the Canine Estates. And their names were
Groups, Bunks, and Yelpers."
The three tails thumped in turn as the names were mentioned, but
the children were too excitedly absorbed to interrupt.
"And one year, just before Christmas, they heard a dreadful
"What's a rumour?" cried Yelpers, alarmed.
This was rather difficult to explain, so Gissing did not attempt
it. He began again.
"They heard that Santa Claus might not be able to come because he
was so behind with his housework. You see, Santa Claus is a great
big Newfoundland dog with a white beard, and he lives in a frosty
kennel at the North Pole, all shining with icicles round the roof
and windows. But it's so far away from everywhere that poor Santa
couldn't get a servant. All the maids who went there refused to
stay because it was so cold and lonely, and so far from the
movies. Santa Claus was busy in his workshop, making toys; he was
busy taking care of the reindeer in their snow-stables; and he
didn't have time to wash his dishes. So all summer he just let
them pile up and pile up in the kitchen. And when Christmas came
near, there was his lovely house in a dreadful state of
untidiness. He couldn't go away and leave it like that. And so,
if he didn't get his dishes washed and the house cleaned up for
Christmas, all the puppies all over the world would have to go
without toys. When Groups and Bunks and Yelpers heard this, they
were very much worried."
"How did they hear it?" asked Bunks, who was the analytical
member of the trio.
"A very sensible question," said Gissing, approvingly. "They
heard it from the chipmunk who lives in the wood behind the
house. The chipmunk heard it underground."
"In his chipmonastery?" cried Groups. It was a family joke to
call the chipmunk's burrow by that name, and though the puppies
did not understand the pun they relished the long word.
"Yes," continued Gissing. "The reindeer in Santa Claus's stable
were so unhappy about the dishes not being washed, and the chance
of missing their Christmas frolic, that they broadcasted a radio
message. Their horns are very fine for sending radio, and the
chipmunk, sitting at his little wireless outfit, with the
receivers over his ears, heard it. And Chippy told Groups and
Bunks and Yelpers.
"So these puppies decided to help Santa Claus. They didn't know
exactly where to find him, but the chipmunk told them the
direction, and off they went. They travelled and travelled, and
when they came to the ocean they begged a ride from the seagulls,
and each one sat on a seagull's back just as though he was on a
little airplane. They flew and flew, and at last they came to
Santa Claus's house. Through the stable-walls, which were made of
clear ice, they could see the reindeer stamping in their stalls.
In the big workshop, where Santa Claus was busy making toys, they
could hear a lively sound of hammering. The big red sleigh was
standing outside the stables, all ready to be hitched up to the
"They slipped into Santa Claus's house quickly and quietly, so no
one would see or hear them. The house was in a terrible state,
but they set to work to clean up. Groups found the vacuum cleaner
and sucked up all the crumbs from the dining-room rug. Bunks ran
upstairs and made Santa Claus's bed for him and swept the floors
and put clean towels in the bathroom. And Yelpers hurried into
the kitchen and washed the dishes, and scrubbed the pots, and
polished the egg-stains off the silver spoons, and emptied the
ice-box pan. All working hard, they got through very soon, and
made Santa Claus's house as clean as any house could be. They
fixed the window-shades so that they would all hang level, not
just anyhow, as poor Santa had them. Then, when everything was
spick and span, they ran outdoors again and beckoned the
seagulls. They climbed on the gulls' backs, and away they flew
"Was Santa Claus pleased?" asked Bunks.
"Indeed he was, when he came back from his
workshop, very tired after making toys all day "
"What kind of toys did he make?" exclaimed Yelpers anxiously.
"Did he make a typewriter?"
"He made every kind of toy. And when he saw how his house had
been cleaned up, he thought the fairies must have done it. He lit
his pipe, and filled a thermos bottle with hot cocoa to keep him
warm on his long journey. Then he put on his red coat, and his
long boots, and his fur cap, and went out to harness the
reindeer. That very night he drove off with his sleigh packed
full of toys for all the puppies in the world. In fact, he was so
pleased that he loaded his big bag with more toys than he had
ever carried before. And that was how a queer thing happened."
They waited in eager suspense.
"You know, Santa Claus always drives into the Canine Estates by
the little back road through the woods, where the chipmunk lives.
You know the gateway, at the bend in the lane: well, it's rather
narrow, and Santa Claus's sleigh is very wide. And this time,
because his bag had so many toys in it, the bag bulged over the
edge of the sleigh, and one corner of the bag caught on the
gatepost as he drove by. Three toys fell out, and what do you
suppose they were?"
"Yes, that's quite right. And it happened that the chipmunk was
out that night, digging up some nuts for his Christmas dinner, a
little sad because he had no presents to give his children; and
he found the three toys. He took them home to the little
chipmunks, and they were tremendously pleased. That was only
fair, because if it hadn't been for the chipmunk and his radio
set, no one would have had any toys that Christmas."
"Did Santa Claus have any more typewriters in his bag?" asked
"Oh, yes, he had plenty more of everything. And when he got to
the house where Groups and Bunks and Yelpers lived, he slid down
the chimney and took a look round. He didn't see any crumbs on
the floor, or any toys lying about not put away, so he filled the
stockings with all kinds of lovely things, and an aunbile and an
elphunt and a typewriter."
"What did the puppies say?" they inquired.
"They were sound asleep upstairs, and didn't know anything about
it until Christmas morning. Come on now, it's time for bed."
"We can undress ourselves now," said Groups.
"Will you tuck me in?" said Bunks.
"You're sure he had another typewriter in his bag?" said Yelpers.
They scrambled upstairs.
Later, when the house was quiet, Gissing went out to the kitchen
to see Mrs. Spaniel. She was diligently rolling pastry, and her
nose was white with flour.
"Oh, sir, I'm glad you got home in time for Christmas," she said.
"The children were counting on it. Did you have a successful
"Every trip is successful when you get home again," said Gissing.
"I suppose the shops will be open late to-night, won't they? I'm
going to run down to the village to get some toys."
Before leaving the house, he went down to the cellar to see if
the furnace was all right. He was amazed to see how naturally and
cheerfully he had slipped back into the old sense of
responsibility. Where was the illusory freedom he had dreamed of?
Even the epiphany on the hilltop now seemed a distant miracle.
That fearful happiness might never come again. And yet here,
among the familiar difficult minutiae of home, what a lightness
he felt. A great phrase from the prayer-book came to his mind--
"Whose service is perfect freedom."
Ah, he said to himself, it is all very well to wear a crown of
thorns, and indeed every sensitive creature carries one in
secret. But there are times when it ought to be worn cocked over
He opened the furnace door. A bright glow filled the fire-box: he
could hear a stir and singing in the boiler, and the rustle of
warm pipes that chuckled quietly through winter nights of storm.
Over the coals hovered a magic evasive flicker, the very soul of
fire. It was a Pentecostal flame, perfect and heavenly in tint,
the essence of pure colour, a clear immortal blue.