Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

The Mirror of the Sea by Joseph Conrad

Part 2 out of 4

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.4 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

the other side of the earth, over wires and cables, for your
electric telegraph is a great alleviator of anxiety. Details, of
course, shall follow. And they may unfold a tale of narrow escape,
of steady ill-luck, of high winds and heavy weather, of ice, of
interminable calms or endless head-gales; a tale of difficulties
overcome, of adversity defied by a small knot of men upon the great
loneliness of the sea; a tale of resource, of courage--of
helplessness, perhaps.

Of all ships disabled at sea, a steamer who has lost her propeller
is the most helpless. And if she drifts into an unpopulated part
of the ocean she may soon become overdue. The menace of the
"overdue" and the finality of "missing" come very quickly to
steamers whose life, fed on coals and breathing the black breath of
smoke into the air, goes on in disregard of wind and wave. Such a
one, a big steamship, too, whose working life had been a record of
faithful keeping time from land to land, in disregard of wind and
sea, once lost her propeller down south, on her passage out to New

It was the wintry, murky time of cold gales and heavy seas. With
the snapping of her tail-shaft her life seemed suddenly to depart
from her big body, and from a stubborn, arrogant existence she
passed all at once into the passive state of a drifting log. A
ship sick with her own weakness has not the pathos of a ship
vanquished in a battle with the elements, wherein consists the
inner drama of her life. No seaman can look without compassion
upon a disabled ship, but to look at a sailing-vessel with her
lofty spars gone is to look upon a defeated but indomitable
warrior. There is defiance in the remaining stumps of her masts,
raised up like maimed limbs against the menacing scowl of a stormy
sky; there is high courage in the upward sweep of her lines towards
the bow; and as soon as, on a hastily-rigged spar, a strip of
canvas is shown to the wind to keep her head to sea, she faces the
waves again with an unsubdued courage.


The efficiency of a steamship consists not so much in her courage
as in the power she carries within herself. It beats and throbs
like a pulsating heart within her iron ribs, and when it stops, the
steamer, whose life is not so much a contest as the disdainful
ignoring of the sea, sickens and dies upon the waves. The sailing-
ship, with her unthrobbing body, seemed to lead mysteriously a sort
of unearthly existence, bordering upon the magic of the invisible
forces, sustained by the inspiration of life-giving and death-
dealing winds.

So that big steamer, dying by a sudden stroke, drifted, an unwieldy
corpse, away from the track of other ships. And she would have
been posted really as "overdue," or maybe as "missing," had she not
been sighted in a snowstorm, vaguely, like a strange rolling
island, by a whaler going north from her Polar cruising ground.
There was plenty of food on board, and I don't know whether the
nerves of her passengers were at all affected by anything else than
the sense of interminable boredom or the vague fear of that unusual
situation. Does a passenger ever feel the life of the ship in
which he is being carried like a sort of honoured bale of highly
sensitive goods? For a man who has never been a passenger it is
impossible to say. But I know that there is no harder trial for a
seaman than to feel a dead ship under his feet.

There is no mistaking that sensation, so dismal, so tormenting and
so subtle, so full of unhappiness and unrest. I could imagine no
worse eternal punishment for evil seamen who die unrepentant upon
the earthly sea than that their souls should be condemned to man
the ghosts of disabled ships, drifting for ever across a ghostly
and tempestuous ocean.

She must have looked ghostly enough, that broken-down steamer,
rolling in that snowstorm--a dark apparition in a world of white
snowflakes to the staring eyes of that whaler's crew. Evidently
they didn't believe in ghosts, for on arrival into port her captain
unromantically reported having sighted a disabled steamer in
latitude somewhere about 50 degrees S. and a longitude still more
uncertain. Other steamers came out to look for her, and ultimately
towed her away from the cold edge of the world into a harbour with
docks and workshops, where, with many blows of hammers, her
pulsating heart of steel was set going again to go forth presently
in the renewed pride of its strength, fed on fire and water,
breathing black smoke into the air, pulsating, throbbing,
shouldering its arrogant way against the great rollers in blind
disdain of winds and sea.

The track she had made when drifting while her heart stood still
within her iron ribs looked like a tangled thread on the white
paper of the chart. It was shown to me by a friend, her second
officer. In that surprising tangle there were words in minute
letters--"gales," "thick fog," "ice"--written by him here and there
as memoranda of the weather. She had interminably turned upon her
tracks, she had crossed and recrossed her haphazard path till it
resembled nothing so much as a puzzling maze of pencilled lines
without a meaning. But in that maze there lurked all the romance
of the "overdue" and a menacing hint of "missing."

"We had three weeks of it," said my friend, "just think of that!"

"How did you feel about it?" I asked.

He waved his hand as much as to say: It's all in the day's work.
But then, abruptly, as if making up his mind:

"I'll tell you. Towards the last I used to shut myself up in my
berth and cry."


"Shed tears," he explained briefly, and rolled up the chart.

I can answer for it, he was a good man--as good as ever stepped
upon a ship's deck--but he could not bear the feeling of a dead
ship under his feet: the sickly, disheartening feeling which the
men of some "overdue" ships that come into harbour at last under a
jury-rig must have felt, combated, and overcome in the faithful
discharge of their duty.


It is difficult for a seaman to believe that his stranded ship does
not feel as unhappy at the unnatural predicament of having no water
under her keel as he is himself at feeling her stranded.

Stranding is, indeed, the reverse of sinking. The sea does not
close upon the water-logged hull with a sunny ripple, or maybe with
the angry rush of a curling wave, erasing her name from the roll of
living ships. No. It is as if an invisible hand had been
stealthily uplifted from the bottom to catch hold of her keel as it
glides through the water.

More than any other event does stranding bring to the sailor a
sense of utter and dismal failure. There are strandings and
strandings, but I am safe to say that 90 per cent. of them are
occasions in which a sailor, without dishonour, may well wish
himself dead; and I have no doubt that of those who had the
experience of their ship taking the ground, 90 per cent. did
actually for five seconds or so wish themselves dead.

"Taking the ground" is the professional expression for a ship that
is stranded in gentle circumstances. But the feeling is more as if
the ground had taken hold of her. It is for those on her deck a
surprising sensation. It is as if your feet had been caught in an
imponderable snare; you feel the balance of your body threatened,
and the steady poise of your mind is destroyed at once. This
sensation lasts only a second, for even while you stagger something
seems to turn over in your head, bringing uppermost the mental
exclamation, full of astonishment and dismay, "By Jove! she's on
the ground!"

And that is very terrible. After all, the only mission of a
seaman's calling is to keep ships' keels off the ground. Thus the
moment of her stranding takes away from him every excuse for his
continued existence. To keep ships afloat is his business; it is
his trust; it is the effective formula of the bottom of all these
vague impulses, dreams, and illusions that go to the making up of a
boy's vocation. The grip of the land upon the keel of your ship,
even if nothing worse comes of it than the wear and tear of tackle
and the loss of time, remains in a seaman's memory an indelibly
fixed taste of disaster.

"Stranded" within the meaning of this paper stands for a more or
less excusable mistake. A ship may be "driven ashore" by stress of
weather. It is a catastrophe, a defeat. To be "run ashore" has
the littleness, poignancy, and bitterness of human error.


That is why your "strandings" are for the most part so unexpected.
In fact, they are all unexpected, except those heralded by some
short glimpse of the danger, full of agitation and excitement, like
an awakening from a dream of incredible folly.

The land suddenly at night looms up right over your bows, or
perhaps the cry of "Broken water ahead!" is raised, and some long
mistake, some complicated edifice of self-delusion, over-
confidence, and wrong reasoning is brought down in a fatal shock,
and the heart-searing experience of your ship's keel scraping and
scrunching over, say, a coral reef. It is a sound, for its size,
far more terrific to your soul than that of a world coming
violently to an end. But out of that chaos your belief in your own
prudence and sagacity reasserts itself. You ask yourself, Where on
earth did I get to? How on earth did I get there? with a
conviction that it could not be your own act, that there has been
at work some mysterious conspiracy of accident; that the charts are
all wrong, and if the charts are not wrong, that land and sea have
changed their places; that your misfortune shall for ever remain
inexplicable, since you have lived always with the sense of your
trust, the last thing on closing your eyes, the first on opening
them, as if your mind had kept firm hold of your responsibility
during the hours of sleep.

You contemplate mentally your mischance, till little by little your
mood changes, cold doubt steals into the very marrow of your bones,
you see the inexplicable fact in another light. That is the time
when you ask yourself, How on earth could I have been fool enough
to get there? And you are ready to renounce all belief in your
good sense, in your knowledge, in your fidelity, in what you
thought till then was the best in you, giving you the daily bread
of life and the moral support of other men's confidence.

The ship is lost or not lost. Once stranded, you have to do your
best by her. She may be saved by your efforts, by your resource
and fortitude bearing up against the heavy weight of guilt and
failure. And there are justifiable strandings in fogs, on
uncharted seas, on dangerous shores, through treacherous tides.
But, saved or not saved, there remains with her commander a
distinct sense of loss, a flavour in the mouth of the real, abiding
danger that lurks in all the forms of human existence. It is an
acquisition, too, that feeling. A man may be the better for it,
but he will not be the same. Damocles has seen the sword suspended
by a hair over his head, and though a good man need not be made
less valuable by such a knowledge, the feast shall not henceforth
have the same flavour.

Years ago I was concerned as chief mate in a case of stranding
which was not fatal to the ship. We went to work for ten hours on
end, laying out anchors in readiness to heave off at high water.
While I was still busy about the decks forward I heard the steward
at my elbow saying: "The captain asks whether you mean to come in,
sir, and have something to eat to-day."

I went into the cuddy. My captain sat at the head of the table
like a statue. There was a strange motionlessness of everything in
that pretty little cabin. The swing-table which for seventy odd
days had been always on the move, if ever so little, hung quite
still above the soup-tureen. Nothing could have altered the rich
colour of my commander's complexion, laid on generously by wind and
sea; but between the two tufts of fair hair above his ears, his
skull, generally suffused with the hue of blood, shone dead white,
like a dome of ivory. And he looked strangely untidy. I perceived
he had not shaved himself that day; and yet the wildest motion of
the ship in the most stormy latitudes we had passed through, never
made him miss one single morning ever since we left the Channel.
The fact must be that a commander cannot possibly shave himself
when his ship is aground. I have commanded ships myself, but I
don't know; I have never tried to shave in my life.

He did not offer to help me or himself till I had coughed markedly
several times. I talked to him professionally in a cheery tone,
and ended with the confident assertion:

"We shall get her off before midnight, sir."

He smiled faintly without looking up, and muttered as if to

"Yes, yes; the captain put the ship ashore and we got her off."

Then, raising his head, he attacked grumpily the steward, a lanky,
anxious youth with a long, pale face and two big front teeth.

"What makes this soup so bitter? I am surprised the mate can
swallow the beastly stuff. I'm sure the cook's ladled some salt
water into it by mistake."

The charge was so outrageous that the steward for all answer only
dropped his eyelids bashfully.

There was nothing the matter with the soup. I had a second
helping. My heart was warm with hours of hard work at the head of
a willing crew. I was elated with having handled heavy anchors,
cables, boats without the slightest hitch; pleased with having laid
out scientifically bower, stream, and kedge exactly where I
believed they would do most good. On that occasion the bitter
taste of a stranding was not for my mouth. That experience came
later, and it was only then that I understood the loneliness of the
man in charge.

It's the captain who puts the ship ashore; it's we who get her off.


It seems to me that no man born and truthful to himself could
declare that he ever saw the sea looking young as the earth looks
young in spring. But some of us, regarding the ocean with
understanding and affection, have seen it looking old, as if the
immemorial ages had been stirred up from the undisturbed bottom of
ooze. For it is a gale of wind that makes the sea look old.

From a distance of years, looking at the remembered aspects of the
storms lived through, it is that impression which disengages itself
clearly from the great body of impressions left by many years of
intimate contact.

If you would know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a
storm. The grayness of the whole immense surface, the wind furrows
upon the faces of the waves, the great masses of foam, tossed about
and waving, like matted white locks, give to the sea in a gale an
appearance of hoary age, lustreless, dull, without gleams, as
though it had been created before light itself.

Looking back after much love and much trouble, the instinct of
primitive man, who seeks to personify the forces of Nature for his
affection and for his fear, is awakened again in the breast of one
civilized beyond that stage even in his infancy. One seems to have
known gales as enemies, and even as enemies one embraces them in
that affectionate regret which clings to the past.

Gales have their personalities, and, after all, perhaps it is not
strange; for, when all is said and done, they are adversaries whose
wiles you must defeat, whose violence you must resist, and yet with
whom you must live in the intimacies of nights and days.

Here speaks the man of masts and sails, to whom the sea is not a
navigable element, but an intimate companion. The length of
passages, the growing sense of solitude, the close dependence upon
the very forces that, friendly to-day, without changing their
nature, by the mere putting forth of their might, become dangerous
to-morrow, make for that sense of fellowship which modern seamen,
good men as they are, cannot hope to know. And, besides, your
modern ship which is a steamship makes her passages on other
principles than yielding to the weather and humouring the sea. She
receives smashing blows, but she advances; it is a slogging fight,
and not a scientific campaign. The machinery, the steel, the fire,
the steam, have stepped in between the man and the sea. A modern
fleet of ships does not so much make use of the sea as exploit a
highway. The modern ship is not the sport of the waves. Let us
say that each of her voyages is a triumphant progress; and yet it
is a question whether it is not a more subtle and more human
triumph to be the sport of the waves and yet survive, achieving
your end.

In his own time a man is always very modern. Whether the seamen of
three hundred years hence will have the faculty of sympathy it is
impossible to say. An incorrigible mankind hardens its heart in
the progress of its own perfectability. How will they feel on
seeing the illustrations to the sea novels of our day, or of our
yesterday? It is impossible to guess. But the seaman of the last
generation, brought into sympathy with the caravels of ancient time
by his sailing-ship, their lineal descendant, cannot look upon
those lumbering forms navigating the naive seas of ancient woodcuts
without a feeling of surprise, of affectionate derision, envy, and
admiration. For those things, whose unmanageableness, even when
represented on paper, makes one gasp with a sort of amused horror,
were manned by men who are his direct professional ancestors.

No; the seamen of three hundred years hence will probably be
neither touched nor moved to derision, affection, or admiration.
They will glance at the photogravures of our nearly defunct
sailing-ships with a cold, inquisitive and indifferent eye. Our
ships of yesterday will stand to their ships as no lineal
ancestors, but as mere predecessors whose course will have been run
and the race extinct. Whatever craft he handles with skill, the
seaman of the future shall be, not our descendant, but only our


And so much depends upon the craft which, made by man, is one with
man, that the sea shall wear for him another aspect. I remember
once seeing the commander--officially the master, by courtesy the
captain--of a fine iron ship of the old wool fleet shaking his head
at a very pretty brigantine. She was bound the other way. She was
a taut, trim, neat little craft, extremely well kept; and on that
serene evening when we passed her close she looked the embodiment
of coquettish comfort on the sea. It was somewhere near the Cape--
THE Cape being, of course, the Cape of Good Hope, the Cape of
Storms of its Portuguese discoverer. And whether it is that the
word "storm" should not be pronounced upon the sea where the storms
dwell thickly, or because men are shy of confessing their good
hopes, it has become the nameless cape--the Cape tout court. The
other great cape of the world, strangely enough, is seldom if ever
called a cape. We say, "a voyage round the Horn"; "we rounded the
Horn"; "we got a frightful battering off the Horn"; but rarely
"Cape Horn," and, indeed, with some reason, for Cape Horn is as
much an island as a cape. The third stormy cape of the world,
which is the Leeuwin, receives generally its full name, as if to
console its second-rate dignity. These are the capes that look
upon the gales.

The little brigantine, then, had doubled the Cape. Perhaps she was
coming from Port Elizabeth, from East London--who knows? It was
many years ago, but I remember well the captain of the wool-clipper
nodding at her with the words, "Fancy having to go about the sea in
a thing like that!"

He was a man brought up in big deep-water ships, and the size of
the craft under his feet was a part of his conception of the sea.
His own ship was certainly big as ships went then. He may have
thought of the size of his cabin, or--unconsciously, perhaps--have
conjured up a vision of a vessel so small tossing amongst the great
seas. I didn't inquire, and to a young second mate the captain of
the little pretty brigantine, sitting astride a camp stool with his
chin resting on his hands that were crossed upon the rail, might
have appeared a minor king amongst men. We passed her within
earshot, without a hail, reading each other's names with the naked

Some years later, the second mate, the recipient of that almost
involuntary mutter, could have told his captain that a man brought
up in big ships may yet take a peculiar delight in what we should
both then have called a small craft. Probably the captain of the
big ship would not have understood very well. His answer would
have been a gruff, "Give me size," as I heard another man reply to
a remark praising the handiness of a small vessel. It was not a
love of the grandiose or the prestige attached to the command of
great tonnage, for he continued, with an air of disgust and
contempt, "Why, you get flung out of your bunk as likely as not in
any sort of heavy weather."

I don't know. I remember a few nights in my lifetime, and in a big
ship, too (as big as they made them then), when one did not get
flung out of one's bed simply because one never even attempted to
get in; one had been made too weary, too hopeless, to try. The
expedient of turning your bedding out on to a damp floor and lying
on it there was no earthly good, since you could not keep your
place or get a second's rest in that or any other position. But of
the delight of seeing a small craft run bravely amongst the great
seas there can be no question to him whose soul does not dwell
ashore. Thus I well remember a three days' run got out of a little
barque of 400 tons somewhere between the islands of St. Paul and
Amsterdam and Cape Otway on the Australian coast. It was a hard,
long gale, gray clouds and green sea, heavy weather undoubtedly,
but still what a sailor would call manageable. Under two lower
topsails and a reefed foresail the barque seemed to race with a
long, steady sea that did not becalm her in the troughs. The
solemn thundering combers caught her up from astern, passed her
with a fierce boiling up of foam level with the bulwarks, swept on
ahead with a swish and a roar: and the little vessel, dipping her
jib-boom into the tumbling froth, would go on running in a smooth,
glassy hollow, a deep valley between two ridges of the sea, hiding
the horizon ahead and astern. There was such fascination in her
pluck, nimbleness, the continual exhibition of unfailing
seaworthiness, in the semblance of courage and endurance, that I
could not give up the delight of watching her run through the three
unforgettable days of that gale which my mate also delighted to
extol as "a famous shove."

And this is one of those gales whose memory in after-years returns,
welcome in dignified austerity, as you would remember with pleasure
the noble features of a stranger with whom you crossed swords once
in knightly encounter and are never to see again. In this way
gales have their physiognomy. You remember them by your own
feelings, and no two gales stamp themselves in the same way upon
your emotions. Some cling to you in woebegone misery; others come
back fiercely and weirdly, like ghouls bent upon sucking your
strength away; others, again, have a catastrophic splendour; some
are unvenerated recollections, as of spiteful wild-cats clawing at
your agonized vitals; others are severe, like a visitation; and one
or two rise up draped and mysterious, with an aspect of ominous
menace. In each of them there is a characteristic point at which
the whole feeling seems contained in one single moment. Thus there
is a certain four o'clock in the morning in the confused roar of a
black and white world when coming on deck to take charge of my
watch I received the instantaneous impression that the ship could
not live for another hour in such a raging sea.

I wonder what became of the men who silently (you couldn't hear
yourself speak) must have shared that conviction with me. To be
left to write about it is not, perhaps, the most enviable fate; but
the point is that this impression resumes in its intensity the
whole recollection of days and days of desperately dangerous
weather. We were then, for reasons which it is not worth while to
specify, in the close neighbourhood of Kerguelen Land; and now,
when I open an atlas and look at the tiny dots on the map of the
Southern Ocean, I see as if engraved upon the paper the enraged
physiognomy of that gale.

Another, strangely, recalls a silent man. And yet it was not din
that was wanting; in fact, it was terrific. That one was a gale
that came upon the ship swiftly, like a parnpero, which last is a
very sudden wind indeed. Before we knew very well what was coming
all the sails we had set had burst; the furled ones were blowing
loose, ropes flying, sea hissing--it hissed tremendously--wind
howling, and the ship lying on her side, so that half of the crew
were swimming and the other half clawing desperately at whatever
came to hand, according to the side of the deck each man had been
caught on by the catastrophe, either to leeward or to windward.
The shouting I need not mention--it was the merest drop in an ocean
of noise--and yet the character of the gale seems contained in the
recollection of one small, not particularly impressive, sallow man
without a cap and with a very still face. Captain Jones--let us
call him Jones--had been caught unawares. Two orders he had given
at the first sign of an utterly unforeseen onset; after that the
magnitude of his mistake seemed to have overwhelmed him. We were
doing what was needed and feasible. The ship behaved well. Of
course, it was some time before we could pause in our fierce and
laborious exertions; but all through the work, the excitement, the
uproar, and some dismay, we were aware of this silent little man at
the break of the poop, perfectly motionless, soundless, and often
hidden from us by the drift of sprays.

When we officers clambered at last upon the poop, he seemed to come
out of that numbed composure, and shouted to us down wind: "Try
the pumps." Afterwards he disappeared. As to the ship, I need not
say that, although she was presently swallowed up in one of the
blackest nights I can remember, she did not disappear. In truth, I
don't fancy that there had ever been much danger of that, but
certainly the experience was noisy and particularly distracting--
and yet it is the memory of a very quiet silence that survives.


For, after all, a gale of wind, the thing of mighty sound, is
inarticulate. It is man who, in a chance phrase, interprets the
elemental passion of his enemy. Thus there is another gale in my
memory, a thing of endless, deep, humming roar, moonlight, and a
spoken sentence.

It was off that other cape which is always deprived of its title as
the Cape of Good Hope is robbed of its name. It was off the Horn.
For a true expression of dishevelled wildness there is nothing like
a gale in the bright moonlight of a high latitude.

The ship, brought-to and bowing to enormous flashing seas,
glistened wet from deck to trucks; her one set sail stood out a
coal-black shape upon the gloomy blueness of the air. I was a
youngster then, and suffering from weariness, cold, and imperfect
oilskins which let water in at every seam. I craved human
companionship, and, coming off the poop, took my place by the side
of the boatswain (a man whom I did not like) in a comparatively dry
spot where at worst we had water only up to our knees. Above our
heads the explosive booming gusts of wind passed continuously,
justifying the sailor's saying "It blows great guns." And just
from that need of human companionship, being very close to the man,
I said, or rather shouted:

"Blows very hard, boatswain."

His answer was:

"Ay, and if it blows only a little harder things will begin to go.
I don't mind as long as everything holds, but when things begin to
go it's bad."

The note of dread in the shouting voice, the practical truth of
these words, heard years ago from a man I did not like, have
stamped its peculiar character on that gale.

A look in the eyes of a shipmate, a low murmur in the most
sheltered spot where the watch on duty are huddled together, a
meaning moan from one to the other with a glance at the windward
sky, a sigh of weariness, a gesture of disgust passing into the
keeping of the great wind, become part and parcel of the gale. The
olive hue of hurricane clouds presents an aspect peculiarly
appalling. The inky ragged wrack, flying before a nor'-west wind,
makes you dizzy with its headlong speed that depicts the rush of
the invisible air. A hard sou'-wester startles you with its close
horizon and its low gray sky, as if the world were a dungeon
wherein there is no rest for body or soul. And there are black
squalls, white squalls, thunder squalls, and unexpected gusts that
come without a single sign in the sky; and of each kind no one of
them resembles another.

There is infinite variety in the gales of wind at sea, and except
for the peculiar, terrible, and mysterious moaning that may be
heard sometimes passing through the roar of a hurricane--except for
that unforgettable sound, as if the soul of the universe had been
goaded into a mournful groan--it is, after all, the human voice
that stamps the mark of human consciousness upon the character of a


There is no part of the world of coasts, continents, oceans, seas,
straits, capes, and islands which is not under the sway of a
reigning wind, the sovereign of its typical weather. The wind
rules the aspects of the sky and the action of the sea. But no
wind rules unchallenged his realm of land and water. As with the
kingdoms of the earth, there are regions more turbulent than
others. In the middle belt of the earth the Trade Winds reign
supreme, undisputed, like monarchs of long-settled kingdoms, whose
traditional power, checking all undue ambitions, is not so much an
exercise of personal might as the working of long-established
institutions. The intertropical kingdoms of the Trade Winds are
favourable to the ordinary life of a merchantman. The trumpet-call
of strife is seldom borne on their wings to the watchful ears of
men on the decks of ships. The regions ruled by the north-east and
south-east Trade Winds are serene. In a southern-going ship, bound
out for a long voyage, the passage through their dominions is
characterized by a relaxation of strain and vigilance on the part
of the seamen. Those citizens of the ocean feel sheltered under
the aegis of an uncontested law, of an undisputed dynasty. There,
indeed, if anywhere on earth, the weather may be trusted.

Yet not too implicitly. Even in the constitutional realm of Trade
Winds, north and south of the equator, ships are overtaken by
strange disturbances. Still, the easterly winds, and, generally
speaking, the easterly weather all the world over, is characterized
by regularity and persistence.

As a ruler, the East Wind has a remarkable stability; as an invader
of the high latitudes lying under the tumultuous sway of his great
brother, the Wind of the West, he is extremely difficult to
dislodge, by the reason of his cold craftiness and profound

The narrow seas around these isles, where British admirals keep
watch and ward upon the marches of the Atlantic Ocean, are subject
to the turbulent sway of the West Wind. Call it north-west or
south-west, it is all one--a different phase of the same character,
a changed expression on the same face. In the orientation of the
winds that rule the seas, the north and south directions are of no
importance. There are no North and South Winds of any account upon
this earth. The North and South Winds are but small princes in the
dynasties that make peace and war upon the sea. They never assert
themselves upon a vast stage. They depend upon local causes--the
configuration of coasts, the shapes of straits, the accidents of
bold promontories round which they play their little part. In the
polity of winds, as amongst the tribes of the earth, the real
struggle lies between East and West.


The West Wind reigns over the seas surrounding the coasts of these
kingdoms; and from the gateways of the channels, from promontories
as if from watch-towers, from estuaries of rivers as if from
postern gates, from passage-ways, inlets, straits, firths, the
garrison of the Isle and the crews of the ships going and returning
look to the westward to judge by the varied splendours of his
sunset mantle the mood of that arbitrary ruler. The end of the day
is the time to gaze at the kingly face of the Westerly Weather, who
is the arbiter of ships' destinies. Benignant and splendid, or
splendid and sinister, the western sky reflects the hidden purposes
of the royal mind. Clothed in a mantle of dazzling gold or draped
in rags of black clouds like a beggar, the might of the Westerly
Wind sits enthroned upon the western horizon with the whole North
Atlantic as a footstool for his feet and the first twinkling stars
making a diadem for his brow. Then the seamen, attentive courtiers
of the weather, think of regulating the conduct of their ships by
the mood of the master. The West Wind is too great a king to be a
dissembler: he is no calculator plotting deep schemes in a sombre
heart; he is too strong for small artifices; there is passion in
all his moods, even in the soft mood of his serene days, in the
grace of his blue sky whose immense and unfathomable tenderness
reflected in the mirror of the sea embraces, possesses, lulls to
sleep the ships with white sails. He is all things to all oceans;
he is like a poet seated upon a throne--magnificent, simple,
barbarous, pensive, generous, impulsive, changeable, unfathomable--
but when you understand him, always the same. Some of his sunsets
are like pageants devised for the delight of the multitude, when
all the gems of the royal treasure-house are displayed above the
sea. Others are like the opening of his royal confidence, tinged
with thoughts of sadness and compassion in a melancholy splendour
meditating upon the short-lived peace of the waters. And I have
seen him put the pent-up anger of his heart into the aspect of the
inaccessible sun, and cause it to glare fiercely like the eye of an
implacable autocrat out of a pale and frightened sky.

He is the war-lord who sends his battalions of Atlantic rollers to
the assault of our seaboard. The compelling voice of the West Wind
musters up to his service all the might of the ocean. At the
bidding of the West Wind there arises a great commotion in the sky
above these Islands, and a great rush of waters falls upon our
shores. The sky of the westerly weather is full of flying clouds,
of great big white clouds coming thicker and thicker till they seem
to stand welded into a solid canopy, upon whose gray face the lower
wrack of the gale, thin, black and angry-looking, flies past with
vertiginous speed. Denser and denser grows this dome of vapours,
descending lower and lower upon the sea, narrowing the horizon
around the ship. And the characteristic aspect of westerly
weather, the thick, gray, smoky and sinister tone sets in,
circumscribing the view of the men, drenching their bodies,
oppressing their souls, taking their breath away with booming
gusts, deafening, blinding, driving, rushing them onwards in a
swaying ship towards our coasts lost in mists and rain.

The caprice of the winds, like the wilfulness of men, is fraught
with the disastrous consequences of self-indulgence. Long anger,
the sense of his uncontrolled power, spoils the frank and generous
nature of the West Wind. It is as if his heart were corrupted by a
malevolent and brooding rancour. He devastates his own kingdom in
the wantonness of his force. South-west is the quarter of the
heavens where he presents his darkened brow. He breathes his rage
in terrific squalls, and overwhelms his realm with an inexhaustible
welter of clouds. He strews the seeds of anxiety upon the decks of
scudding ships, makes the foam-stripped ocean look old, and
sprinkles with gray hairs the heads of ship-masters in the
homeward-bound ships running for the Channel. The Westerly Wind
asserting his sway from the south-west quarter is often like a
monarch gone mad, driving forth with wild imprecations the most
faithful of his courtiers to shipwreck, disaster, and death.

The south-westerly weather is the thick weather par excellence. It
is not the thickness of the fog; it is rather a contraction of the
horizon, a mysterious veiling of the shores with clouds that seem
to make a low-vaulted dungeon around the running ship. It is not
blindness; it is a shortening of the sight. The West Wind does not
say to the seaman, "You shall be blind"; it restricts merely the
range of his vision and raises the dread of land within his breast.
It makes of him a man robbed of half his force, of half his
efficiency. Many times in my life, standing in long sea-boots and
streaming oilskins at the elbow of my commander on the poop of a
homeward-bound ship making for the Channel, and gazing ahead into
the gray and tormented waste, I have heard a weary sigh shape
itself into a studiously casual comment:

"Can't see very far in this weather."

And have made answer in the same low, perfunctory tone

"No, sir."

It would be merely the instinctive voicing of an ever-present
thought associated closely with the consciousness of the land
somewhere ahead and of the great speed of the ship. Fair wind,
fair wind! Who would dare to grumble at a fair wind? It was a
favour of the Western King, who rules masterfully the North
Atlantic from the latitude of the Azores to the latitude of Cape
Farewell. A famous shove this to end a good passage with; and yet,
somehow, one could not muster upon one's lips the smile of a
courtier's gratitude. This favour was dispensed to you from under
an overbearing scowl, which is the true expression of the great
autocrat when he has made up his mind to give a battering to some
ships and to hunt certain others home in one breath of cruelty and
benevolence, equally distracting.

"No, sir. Can't see very far."

Thus would the mate's voice repeat the thought of the master, both
gazing ahead, while under their feet the ship rushes at some twelve
knots in the direction of the lee shore; and only a couple of miles
in front of her swinging and dripping jib-boom, carried naked with
an upward slant like a spear, a gray horizon closes the view with a
multitude of waves surging upwards violently as if to strike at the
stooping clouds.

Awful and threatening scowls darken the face of the West Wind in
his clouded, south-west mood; and from the King's throne-hall in
the western board stronger gusts reach you, like the fierce shouts
of raving fury to which only the gloomy grandeur of the scene
imparts a saving dignity. A shower pelts the deck and the sails of
the ship as if flung with a scream by an angry hand; and when the
night closes in, the night of a south-westerly gale, it seems more
hopeless than the shade of Hades. The south-westerly mood of the
great West Wind is a lightless mood, without sun, moon, or stars,
with no gleam of light but the phosphorescent flashes of the great
sheets of foam that, boiling up on each side of the ship, fling
bluish gleams upon her dark and narrow hull, rolling as she runs,
chased by enormous seas, distracted in the tumult.

There are some bad nights in the kingdom of the West Wind for
homeward-bound ships making for the Channel; and the days of wrath
dawn upon them colourless and vague like the timid turning up of
invisible lights upon the scene of a tyrannical and passionate
outbreak, awful in the monotony of its method and the increasing
strength of its violence. It is the same wind, the same clouds,
the same wildly racing seas, the same thick horizon around the
ship. Only the wind is stronger, the clouds seem denser and more
overwhelming, the waves appear to have grown bigger and more
threatening during the night. The hours, whose minutes are marked
by the crash of the breaking seas, slip by with the screaming,
pelting squalls overtaking the ship as she runs on and on with
darkened canvas, with streaming spars and dripping ropes. The
down-pours thicken. Preceding each shower a mysterious gloom, like
the passage of a shadow above the firmament of gray clouds, filters
down upon the ship. Now and then the rain pours upon your head in
streams as if from spouts. It seems as if your ship were going to
be drowned before she sank, as if all atmosphere had turned to
water. You gasp, you splutter, you are blinded and deafened, you
are submerged, obliterated, dissolved, annihilated, streaming all
over as if your limbs, too, had turned to water. And every nerve
on the alert you watch for the clearing-up mood of the Western
King, that shall come with a shift of wind as likely as not to whip
all the three masts out of your ship in the twinkling of an eye.


Heralded by the increasing fierceness of the squalls, sometimes by
a faint flash of lightning like the signal of a lighted torch waved
far away behind the clouds, the shift of wind comes at last, the
crucial moment of the change from the brooding and veiled violence
of the south-west gale to the sparkling, flashing, cutting, clear-
eyed anger of the King's north-westerly mood. You behold another
phase of his passion, a fury bejewelled with stars, mayhap bearing
the crescent of the moon on its brow, shaking the last vestiges of
its torn cloud-mantle in inky-black squalls, with hail and sleet
descending like showers of crystals and pearls, bounding off the
spars, drumming on the sails, pattering on the oilskin coats,
whitening the decks of homeward-bound ships. Faint, ruddy flashes
of lightning flicker in the starlight upon her mastheads. A chilly
blast hums in the taut rigging, causing the ship to tremble to her
very keel, and the soaked men on her decks to shiver in their wet
clothes to the very marrow of their bones. Before one squall has
flown over to sink in the eastern board, the edge of another peeps
up already above the western horizon, racing up swift, shapeless,
like a black bag full of frozen water ready to burst over your
devoted head. The temper of the ruler of the ocean has changed.
Each gust of the clouded mood that seemed warmed by the heat of a
heart flaming with anger has its counterpart in the chilly blasts
that seem blown from a breast turned to ice with a sudden revulsion
of feeling. Instead of blinding your eyes and crushing your soul
with a terrible apparatus of cloud and mists and seas and rain, the
King of the West turns his power to contemptuous pelting of your
back with icicles, to making your weary eyes water as if in grief,
and your worn-out carcass quake pitifully. But each mood of the
great autocrat has its own greatness, and each is hard to bear.
Only the north-west phase of that mighty display is not
demoralizing to the same extent, because between the hail and sleet
squalls of a north-westerly gale one can see a long way ahead.

To see! to see!--this is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest
of blind humanity. To have his path made clear for him is the
aspiration of every human being in our beclouded and tempestuous
existence. I have heard a reserved, silent man, with no nerves to
speak of, after three days of hard running in thick south-westerly
weather, burst out passionately: "I wish to God we could get sight
of something!"

We had just gone down below for a moment to commune in a battened-
down cabin, with a large white chart lying limp and damp upon a
cold and clammy table under the light of a smoky lamp. Sprawling
over that seaman's silent and trusted adviser, with one elbow upon
the coast of Africa and the other planted in the neighbourhood of
Cape Hatteras (it was a general track-chart of the North Atlantic),
my skipper lifted his rugged, hairy face, and glared at me in a
half-exasperated, half-appealing way. We have seen no sun, moon,
or stars for something like seven days. By the effect of the West
Wind's wrath the celestial bodies had gone into hiding for a week
or more, and the last three days had seen the force of a south-west
gale grow from fresh, through strong, to heavy, as the entries in
my log-book could testify. Then we separated, he to go on deck
again, in obedience to that mysterious call that seems to sound for
ever in a shipmaster's ears, I to stagger into my cabin with some
vague notion of putting down the words "Very heavy weather" in a
log-book not quite written up-to-date. But I gave it up, and
crawled into my bunk instead, boots and hat on, all standing (it
did not matter; everything was soaking wet, a heavy sea having
burst the poop skylights the night before), to remain in a
nightmarish state between waking and sleeping for a couple of hours
of so-called rest.

The south-westerly mood of the West Wind is an enemy of sleep, and
even of a recumbent position, in the responsible officers of a
ship. After two hours of futile, light-headed, inconsequent
thinking upon all things under heaven in that dark, dank, wet and
devastated cabin, I arose suddenly and staggered up on deck. The
autocrat of the North Atlantic was still oppressing his kingdom and
its outlying dependencies, even as far as the Bay of Biscay, in the
dismal secrecy of thick, very thick, weather. The force of the
wind, though we were running before it at the rate of some ten
knots an hour, was so great that it drove me with a steady push to
the front of the poop, where my commander was holding on.

"What do you think of it?" he addressed me in an interrogative

What I really thought was that we both had had just about enough of
it. The manner in which the great West Wind chooses at times to
administer his possessions does not commend itself to a person of
peaceful and law-abiding disposition, inclined to draw distinctions
between right and wrong in the face of natural forces, whose
standard, naturally, is that of might alone. But, of course, I
said nothing. For a man caught, as it were, between his skipper
and the great West Wind silence is the safest sort of diplomacy.
Moreover, I knew my skipper. He did not want to know what I
thought. Shipmasters hanging on a breath before the thrones of the
winds ruling the seas have their psychology, whose workings are as
important to the ship and those on board of her as the changing
moods of the weather. The man, as a matter of fact, under no
circumstances, ever cared a brass farthing for what I or anybody
else in his ship thought. He had had just about enough of it, I
guessed, and what he was at really was a process of fishing for a
suggestion. It was the pride of his life that he had never wasted
a chance, no matter how boisterous, threatening, and dangerous, of
a fair wind. Like men racing blindfold for a gap in a hedge, we
were finishing a splendidly quick passage from the Antipodes, with
a tremendous rush for the Channel in as thick a weather as any I
can remember, but his psychology did not permit him to bring the
ship to with a fair wind blowing--at least not on his own
initiative. And yet he felt that very soon indeed something would
have to be done. He wanted the suggestion to come from me, so that
later on, when the trouble was over, he could argue this point with
his own uncompromising spirit, laying the blame upon my shoulders.
I must render him the justice that this sort of pride was his only

But he got no suggestion from me. I understood his psychology.
Besides, I had my own stock of weaknesses at the time (it is a
different one now), and amongst them was the conceit of being
remarkably well up in the psychology of the Westerly weather. I
believed--not to mince matters--that I had a genius for reading the
mind of the great ruler of high latitudes. I fancied I could
discern already the coming of a change in his royal mood. And all
I said was:

"The weather's bound to clear up with the shift of wind."

"Anybody knows that much!" he snapped at me, at the highest pitch
of his voice.

"I mean before dark!" I cried.

This was all the opening he ever got from me. The eagerness with
which he seized upon it gave me the measure of the anxiety he had
been labouring under.

"Very well," he shouted, with an affectation of impatience, as if
giving way to long entreaties. "All right. If we don't get a
shift by then we'll take that foresail off her and put her head
under her wing for the night."

I was struck by the picturesque character of the phrase as applied
to a ship brought-to in order to ride out a gale with wave after
wave passing under her breast. I could see her resting in the
tumult of the elements like a sea-bird sleeping in wild weather
upon the raging waters with its head tucked under its wing. In
imaginative precision, in true feeling, this is one of the most
expressive sentences I have ever heard on human lips. But as to
taking the foresail off that ship before we put her head under her
wing, I had my grave doubts. They were justified. That long
enduring piece of canvas was confiscated by the arbitrary decree of
the West Wind, to whom belong the lives of men and the contrivances
of their hands within the limits of his kingdom. With the sound of
a faint explosion it vanished into the thick weather bodily,
leaving behind of its stout substance not so much as one solitary
strip big enough to be picked into a handful of lint for, say, a
wounded elephant. Torn out of its bolt-ropes, it faded like a
whiff of smoke in the smoky drift of clouds shattered and torn by
the shift of wind. For the shift of wind had come. The unveiled,
low sun glared angrily from a chaotic sky upon a confused and
tremendous sea dashing itself upon a coast. We recognised the
headland, and looked at each other in the silence of dumb wonder.
Without knowing it in the least, we had run up alongside the Isle
of Wight, and that tower, tinged a faint evening red in the salt
wind-haze, was the lighthouse on St. Catherine's Point.

My skipper recovered first from his astonishment. His bulging eyes
sank back gradually into their orbits. His psychology, taking it
all round, was really very creditable for an average sailor. He
had been spared the humiliation of laying his ship to with a fair
wind; and at once that man, of an open and truthful nature, spoke
up in perfect good faith, rubbing together his brown, hairy hands--
the hands of a master-craftsman upon the sea:

"Humph! that's just about where I reckoned we had got to."

The transparency and ingenuousness, in a way, of that delusion, the
airy tone, the hint of already growing pride, were perfectly
delicious. But, in truth, this was one of the greatest surprises
ever sprung by the clearing up mood of the West Wind upon one of
the most accomplished of his courtiers.


The winds of North and South are, as I have said, but small princes
amongst the powers of the sea. They have no territory of their
own; they are not reigning winds anywhere. Yet it is from their
houses that the reigning dynasties which have shared between them
the waters of the earth are sprung. All the weather of the world
is based upon the contest of the Polar and Equatorial strains of
that tyrannous race. The West Wind is the greatest king. The East
rules between the Tropics. They have shared each ocean between
them. Each has his genius of supreme rule. The King of the West
never intrudes upon the recognised dominion of his kingly brother.
He is a barbarian, of a northern type. Violent without craftiness,
and furious without malice, one may imagine him seated masterfully
with a double-edged sword on his knees upon the painted and gilt
clouds of the sunset, bowing his shock head of golden locks, a
flaming beard over his breast, imposing, colossal, mighty-limbed,
with a thundering voice, distended cheeks and fierce blue eyes,
urging the speed of his gales. The other, the East king, the king
of blood-red sunrises, I represent to myself as a spare Southerner
with clear-cut features, black-browed and dark-eyed, gray-robed,
upright in sunshine, resting a smooth-shaven cheek in the palm of
his hand, impenetrable, secret, full of wiles, fine-drawn, keen--
meditating aggressions.

The West Wind keeps faith with his brother, the King of the
Easterly weather. "What we have divided we have divided," he seems
to say in his gruff voice, this ruler without guile, who hurls as
if in sport enormous masses of cloud across the sky, and flings the
great waves of the Atlantic clear across from the shores of the New
World upon the hoary headlands of Old Europe, which harbours more
kings and rulers upon its seamed and furrowed body than all the
oceans of the world together. "What we have divided we have
divided; and if no rest and peace in this world have fallen to my
share, leave me alone. Let me play at quoits with cyclonic gales,
flinging the discs of spinning cloud and whirling air from one end
of my dismal kingdom to the other: over the Great Banks or along
the edges of pack-ice--this one with true aim right into the bight
of the Bay of Biscay, that other upon the fiords of Norway, across
the North Sea where the fishermen of many nations look watchfully
into my angry eye. This is the time of kingly sport."

And the royal master of high latitudes sighs mightily, with the
sinking sun upon his breast and the double-edged sword upon his
knees, as if wearied by the innumerable centuries of a strenuous
rule and saddened by the unchangeable aspect of the ocean under his
feet--by the endless vista of future ages where the work of sowing
the wind and reaping the whirlwind shall go on and on till his
realm of living waters becomes a frozen and motionless ocean. But
the other, crafty and unmoved, nursing his shaven chin between the
thumb and forefinger of his slim and treacherous hand, thinks deep
within his heart full of guile: "Aha! our brother of the West has
fallen into the mood of kingly melancholy. He is tired of playing
with circular gales, and blowing great guns, and unrolling thick
streamers of fog in wanton sport at the cost of his own poor,
miserable subjects. Their fate is most pitiful. Let us make a
foray upon the dominions of that noisy barbarian, a great raid from
Finisterre to Hatteras, catching his fishermen unawares, baffling
the fleets that trust to his power, and shooting sly arrows into
the livers of men who court his good graces. He is, indeed, a
worthless fellow." And forthwith, while the West Wind meditates
upon the vanity of his irresistible might, the thing is done, and
the Easterly weather sets in upon the North Atlantic.

The prevailing weather of the North Atlantic is typical of the way
in which the West Wind rules his realm on which the sun never sets.
North Atlantic is the heart of a great empire. It is the part of
the West Wind's dominions most thickly populated with generations
of fine ships and hardy men. Heroic deeds and adventurous exploits
have been performed there, within the very stronghold of his sway.
The best sailors in the world have been born and bred under the
shadow of his sceptre, learning to manage their ships with skill
and audacity before the steps of his stormy throne. Reckless
adventurers, toiling fishermen, admirals as wise and brave as the
world has ever known, have waited upon the signs of his westerly
sky. Fleets of victorious ships have hung upon his breath. He has
tossed in his hand squadrons of war-scarred three-deckers, and
shredded out in mere sport the bunting of flags hallowed in the
traditions of honour and glory. He is a good friend and a
dangerous enemy, without mercy to unseaworthy ships and faint-
hearted seamen. In his kingly way he has taken but little account
of lives sacrificed to his impulsive policy; he is a king with a
double-edged sword bared in his right hand. The East Wind, an
interloper in the dominions of Westerly weather, is an impassive-
faced tyrant with a sharp poniard held behind his back for a
treacherous stab.

In his forays into the North Atlantic the East Wind behaves like a
subtle and cruel adventurer without a notion of honour or fair
play. Veiling his clear-cut, lean face in a thin layer of a hard,
high cloud, I have seen him, like a wizened robber sheik of the
sea, hold up large caravans of ships to the number of three hundred
or more at the very gates of the English Channel. And the worst of
it was that there was no ransom that we could pay to satisfy his
avidity; for whatever evil is wrought by the raiding East Wind, it
is done only to spite his kingly brother of the West. We gazed
helplessly at the systematic, cold, gray-eyed obstinacy of the
Easterly weather, while short rations became the order of the day,
and the pinch of hunger under the breast-bone grew familiar to
every sailor in that held-up fleet. Every day added to our
numbers. In knots and groups and straggling parties we flung to
and fro before the closed gate. And meantime the outward-bound
ships passed, running through our humiliated ranks under all the
canvas they could show. It is my idea that the Easterly Wind helps
the ships away from home in the wicked hope that they shall all
come to an untimely end and be heard of no more. For six weeks did
the robber sheik hold the trade route of the earth, while our liege
lord, the West Wind, slept profoundly like a tired Titan, or else
remained lost in a mood of idle sadness known only to frank
natures. All was still to the westward; we looked in vain towards
his stronghold: the King slumbered on so deeply that he let his
foraging brother steal the very mantle of gold-lined purple clouds
from his bowed shoulders. What had become of the dazzling hoard of
royal jewels exhibited at every close of day? Gone, disappeared,
extinguished, carried off without leaving a single gold band or the
flash of a single sunbeam in the evening sky! Day after day
through a cold streak of heavens as bare and poor as the inside of
a rifled safe a rayless and despoiled sun would slink shamefacedly,
without pomp or show, to hide in haste under the waters. And still
the King slept on, or mourned the vanity of his might and his
power, while the thin-lipped intruder put the impress of his cold
and implacable spirit upon the sky and sea. With every daybreak
the rising sun had to wade through a crimson stream, luminous and
sinister, like the spilt blood of celestial bodies murdered during
the night.

In this particular instance the mean interloper held the road for
some six weeks on end, establishing his particular administrative
methods over the best part of the North Atlantic. It looked as if
the easterly weather had come to stay for ever, or, at least, till
we had all starved to death in the held-up fleet--starved within
sight, as it were, of plenty, within touch, almost, of the
bountiful heart of the Empire. There we were, dotting with our
white dry sails the hard blueness of the deep sea. There we were,
a growing company of ships, each with her burden of grain, of
timber, of wool, of hides, and even of oranges, for we had one or
two belated fruit schooners in company. There we were, in that
memorable spring of a certain year in the late seventies, dodging
to and fro, baffled on every tack, and with our stores running down
to sweepings of bread-lockers and scrapings of sugar-casks. It was
just like the East Wind's nature to inflict starvation upon the
bodies of unoffending sailors, while he corrupted their simple
souls by an exasperation leading to outbursts of profanity as lurid
as his blood-red sunrises. They were followed by gray days under
the cover of high, motionless clouds that looked as if carved in a
slab of ash-coloured marble. And each mean starved sunset left us
calling with imprecations upon the West Wind even in its most
veiled misty mood to wake up and give us our liberty, if only to
rush on and dash the heads of our ships against the very walls of
our unapproachable home.


In the atmosphere of the Easterly weather, as pellucid as a piece
of crystal and refracting like a prism, we could see the appalling
numbers of our helpless company, even to those who in more normal
conditions would have remained invisible, sails down under the
horizon. It is the malicious pleasure of the East Wind to augment
the power of your eyesight, in order, perhaps, that you should see
better the perfect humiliation, the hopeless character of your
captivity. Easterly weather is generally clear, and that is all
that can be said for it--almost supernaturally clear when it likes;
but whatever its mood, there is something uncanny in its nature.
Its duplicity is such that it will deceive a scientific instrument.
No barometer will give warning of an easterly gale, were it ever so
wet. It would be an unjust and ungrateful thing to say that a
barometer is a stupid contrivance. It is simply that the wiles of
the East Wind are too much for its fundamental honesty. After
years and years of experience the most trusty instrument of the
sort that ever went to sea screwed on to a ship's cabin bulkhead
will, almost invariably, be induced to rise by the diabolic
ingenuity of the Easterly weather, just at the moment when the
Easterly weather, discarding its methods of hard, dry, impassive
cruelty, contemplates drowning what is left of your spirit in
torrents of a peculiarly cold and horrid rain. The sleet-and-hail
squalls following the lightning at the end of a westerly gale are
cold and benumbing and stinging and cruel enough. But the dry,
Easterly weather, when it turns to wet, seems to rain poisoned
showers upon your head. It is a sort of steady, persistent,
overwhelming, endlessly driving downpour, which makes your heart
sick, and opens it to dismal forebodings. And the stormy mood of
the Easterly weather looms black upon the sky with a peculiar and
amazing blackness. The West Wind hangs heavy gray curtains of mist
and spray before your gaze, but the Eastern interloper of the
narrow seas, when he has mustered his courage and cruelty to the
point of a gale, puts your eyes out, puts them out completely,
makes you feel blind for life upon a lee-shore. It is the wind,
also, that brings snow.

Out of his black and merciless heart he flings a white blinding
sheet upon the ships of the sea. He has more manners of villainy,
and no more conscience than an Italian prince of the seventeenth
century. His weapon is a dagger carried under a black cloak when
he goes out on his unlawful enterprises. The mere hint of his
approach fills with dread every craft that swims the sea, from
fishing-smacks to four-masted ships that recognise the sway of the
West Wind. Even in his most accommodating mood he inspires a dread
of treachery. I have heard upwards of ten score of windlasses
spring like one into clanking life in the dead of night, filling
the Downs with a panic-struck sound of anchors being torn hurriedly
out of the ground at the first breath of his approach.
Fortunately, his heart often fails him: he does not always blow
home upon our exposed coast; he has not the fearless temper of his
Westerly brother.

The natures of those two winds that share the dominions of the
great oceans are fundamentally different. It is strange that the
winds which men are prone to style capricious remain true to their
character in all the various regions of the earth. To us here, for
instance, the East Wind comes across a great continent, sweeping
over the greatest body of solid land upon this earth. For the
Australian east coast the East Wind is the wind of the ocean,
coming across the greatest body of water upon the globe; and yet
here and there its characteristics remain the same with a strange
consistency in everything that is vile and base. The members of
the West Wind's dynasty are modified in a way by the regions they
rule, as a Hohenzollern, without ceasing to be himself, becomes a
Roumanian by virtue of his throne, or a Saxe-Coburg learns to put
the dress of Bulgarian phrases upon his particular thoughts,
whatever they are.

The autocratic sway of the West Wind, whether forty north or forty
south of the Equator, is characterized by an open, generous, frank,
barbarous recklessness. For he is a great autocrat, and to be a
great autocrat you must be a great barbarian. I have been too much
moulded to his sway to nurse now any idea of rebellion in my heart.
Moreover, what is a rebellion within the four walls of a room
against the tempestuous rule of the West Wind? I remain faithful
to the memory of the mighty King with a double-edged sword in one
hand, and in the other holding out rewards of great daily runs and
famously quick passages to those of his courtiers who knew how to
wait watchfully for every sign of his secret mood. As we deep-
water men always reckoned, he made one year in three fairly lively
for anybody having business upon the Atlantic or down there along
the "forties" of the Southern Ocean. You had to take the bitter
with the sweet; and it cannot be denied he played carelessly with
our lives and fortunes. But, then, he was always a great king, fit
to rule over the great waters where, strictly speaking, a man would
have no business whatever but for his audacity.

The audacious should not complain. A mere trader ought not to
grumble at the tolls levied by a mighty king. His mightiness was
sometimes very overwhelming; but even when you had to defy him
openly, as on the banks of the Agulhas homeward bound from the East
Indies, or on the outward passage round the Horn, he struck at you
fairly his stinging blows (full in the face, too), and it was your
business not to get too much staggered. And, after all, if you
showed anything of a countenance, the good-natured barbarian would
let you fight your way past the very steps of his throne. It was
only now and then that the sword descended and a head fell; but if
you fell you were sure of impressive obsequies and of a roomy,
generous grave.

Such is the king to whom Viking chieftains bowed their heads, and
whom the modern and palatial steamship defies with impunity seven
times a week. And yet it is but defiance, not victory. The
magnificent barbarian sits enthroned in a mantle of gold-lined
clouds looking from on high on great ships gliding like mechanical
toys upon his sea and on men who, armed with fire and iron, no
longer need to watch anxiously for the slightest sign of his royal
mood. He is disregarded; but he has kept all his strength, all his
splendour, and a great part of his power. Time itself, that shakes
all the thrones, is on the side of that king. The sword in his
hand remains as sharp as ever upon both its edges; and he may well
go on playing his royal game of quoits with hurricanes, tossing
them over from the continent of republics to the continent of
kingdoms, in the assurance that both the new republics and the old
kingdoms, the heat of fire and the strength of iron, with the
untold generations of audacious men, shall crumble to dust at the
steps of his throne, and pass away, and be forgotten before his own
rule comes to an end.


The estuaries of rivers appeal strongly to an adventurous
imagination. This appeal is not always a charm, for there are
estuaries of a particularly dispiriting ugliness: lowlands, mud-
flats, or perhaps barren sandhills without beauty of form or
amenity of aspect, covered with a shabby and scanty vegetation
conveying the impression of poverty and uselessness. Sometimes
such an ugliness is merely a repulsive mask. A river whose estuary
resembles a breach in a sand rampart may flow through a most
fertile country. But all the estuaries of great rivers have their
fascination, the attractiveness of an open portal. Water is
friendly to man. The ocean, a part of Nature furthest removed in
the unchangeableness and majesty of its might from the spirit of
mankind, has ever been a friend to the enterprising nations of the
earth. And of all the elements this is the one to which men have
always been prone to trust themselves, as if its immensity held a
reward as vast as itself.

From the offing the open estuary promises every possible fruition
to adventurous hopes. That road open to enterprise and courage
invites the explorer of coasts to new efforts towards the
fulfilment of great expectations. The commander of the first Roman
galley must have looked with an intense absorption upon the estuary
of the Thames as he turned the beaked prow of his ship to the
westward under the brow of the North Foreland. The estuary of the
Thames is not beautiful; it has no noble features, no romantic
grandeur of aspect, no smiling geniality; but it is wide open,
spacious, inviting, hospitable at the first glance, with a strange
air of mysteriousness which lingers about it to this very day. The
navigation of his craft must have engrossed all the Roman's
attention in the calm of a summer's day (he would choose his
weather), when the single row of long sweeps (the galley would be a
light one, not a trireme) could fall in easy cadence upon a sheet
of water like plate-glass, reflecting faithfully the classic form
of his vessel and the contour of the lonely shores close on his
left hand. I assume he followed the land and passed through what
is at present known as Margate Roads, groping his careful way along
the hidden sandbanks, whose every tail and spit has its beacon or
buoy nowadays. He must have been anxious, though no doubt he had
collected beforehand on the shores of the Gauls a store of
information from the talk of traders, adventurers, fishermen,
slave-dealers, pirates--all sorts of unofficial men connected with
the sea in a more or less reputable way. He would have heard of
channels and sandbanks, of natural features of the land useful for
sea-marks, of villages and tribes and modes of barter and
precautions to take: with the instructive tales about native
chiefs dyed more or less blue, whose character for greediness,
ferocity, or amiability must have been expounded to him with that
capacity for vivid language which seems joined naturally to the
shadiness of moral character and recklessness of disposition. With
that sort of spiced food provided for his anxious thought, watchful
for strange men, strange beasts, strange turns of the tide, he
would make the best of his way up, a military seaman with a short
sword on thigh and a bronze helmet on his head, the pioneer post-
captain of an imperial fleet. Was the tribe inhabiting the Isle of
Thanet of a ferocious disposition, I wonder, and ready to fall with
stone-studded clubs and wooden lances hardened in the fire, upon
the backs of unwary mariners?

Amongst the great commercial streams of these islands, the Thames
is the only one, I think, open to romantic feeling, from the fact
that the sight of human labour and the sounds of human industry do
not come down its shores to the very sea, destroying the suggestion
of mysterious vastness caused by the configuration of the shore.
The broad inlet of the shallow North Sea passes gradually into the
contracted shape of the river; but for a long time the feeling of
the open water remains with the ship steering to the westward
through one of the lighted and buoyed passage-ways of the Thames,
such as Queen's Channel, Prince's Channel, Four-Fathom Channel; or
else coming down the Swin from the north. The rush of the yellow
flood-tide hurries her up as if into the unknown between the two
fading lines of the coast. There are no features to this land, no
conspicuous, far-famed landmarks for the eye; there is nothing so
far down to tell you of the greatest agglomeration of mankind on
earth dwelling no more than five and twenty miles away, where the
sun sets in a blaze of colour flaming on a gold background, and the
dark, low shores trend towards each other. And in the great
silence the deep, faint booming of the big guns being tested at
Shoeburyness hangs about the Nore--a historical spot in the keeping
of one of England's appointed guardians.


The Nore sand remains covered at low-water, and never seen by human
eye; but the Nore is a name to conjure with visions of historical
events, of battles, of fleets, of mutinies, of watch and ward kept
upon the great throbbing heart of the State. This ideal point of
the estuary, this centre of memories, is marked upon the steely
gray expanse of the waters by a lightship painted red that, from a
couple of miles off, looks like a cheap and bizarre little toy. I
remember how, on coming up the river for the first time, I was
surprised at the smallness of that vivid object--a tiny warm speck
of crimson lost in an immensity of gray tones. I was startled, as
if of necessity the principal beacon in the water-way of the
greatest town on earth should have presented imposing proportions.
And, behold! the brown sprit-sail of a barge hid it entirely from
my view.

Coming in from the eastward, the bright colouring of the lightship
marking the part of the river committed to the charge of an Admiral
(the Commander-in-Chief at the Nore) accentuates the dreariness and
the great breadth of the Thames Estuary. But soon the course of
the ship opens the entrance of the Medway, with its men-of-war
moored in line, and the long wooden jetty of Port Victoria, with
its few low buildings like the beginning of a hasty settlement upon
a wild and unexplored shore. The famous Thames barges sit in brown
clusters upon the water with an effect of birds floating upon a
pond. On the imposing expanse of the great estuary the traffic of
the port where so much of the world's work and the world's thinking
is being done becomes insignificant, scattered, streaming away in
thin lines of ships stringing themselves out into the eastern
quarter through the various navigable channels of which the Nore
lightship marks the divergence. The coasting traffic inclines to
the north; the deep-water ships steer east with a southern
inclination, on through the Downs, to the most remote ends of the
world. In the widening of the shores sinking low in the gray,
smoky distances the greatness of the sea receives the mercantile
fleet of good ships that London sends out upon the turn of every
tide. They follow each other, going very close by the Essex shore.
Such as the beads of a rosary told by business-like shipowners for
the greater profit of the world they slip one by one into the open:
while in the offing the inward-bound ships come up singly and in
bunches from under the sea horizon closing the mouth of the river
between Orfordness and North Foreland. They all converge upon the
Nore, the warm speck of red upon the tones of drab and gray, with
the distant shores running together towards the west, low and flat,
like the sides of an enormous canal. The sea-reach of the Thames
is straight, and, once Sheerness is left behind, its banks seem
very uninhabited, except for the cluster of houses which is
Southend, or here and there a lonely wooden jetty where petroleum
ships discharge their dangerous cargoes, and the oil-storage tanks,
low and round with slightly-domed roofs, peep over the edge of the
fore-shore, as it were a village of Central African huts imitated
in iron. Bordered by the black and shining mud-flats, the level
marsh extends for miles. Away in the far background the land
rises, closing the view with a continuous wooded slope, forming in
the distance an interminable rampart overgrown with bushes.

Then, on the slight turn of the Lower Hope Reach, clusters of
factory chimneys come distinctly into view, tall and slender above
the squat ranges of cement works in Grays and Greenhithe. Smoking
quietly at the top against the great blaze of a magnificent sunset,
they give an industrial character to the scene, speak of work,
manufactures, and trade, as palm-groves on the coral strands of
distant islands speak of the luxuriant grace, beauty and vigour of
tropical nature. The houses of Gravesend crowd upon the shore with
an effect of confusion as if they had tumbled down haphazard from
the top of the hill at the back. The flatness of the Kentish shore
ends there. A fleet of steam-tugs lies at anchor in front of the
various piers. A conspicuous church spire, the first seen
distinctly coming from the sea, has a thoughtful grace, the
serenity of a fine form above the chaotic disorder of men's houses.
But on the other side, on the flat Essex side, a shapeless and
desolate red edifice, a vast pile of bricks with many windows and a
slate roof more inaccessible than an Alpine slope, towers over the
bend in monstrous ugliness, the tallest, heaviest building for
miles around, a thing like an hotel, like a mansion of flats (all
to let), exiled into these fields out of a street in West
Kensington. Just round the corner, as it were, on a pier defined
with stone blocks and wooden piles, a white mast, slender like a
stalk of straw and crossed by a yard like a knitting-needle, flying
the signals of flag and balloon, watches over a set of heavy dock-
gates. Mast-heads and funnel-tops of ships peep above the ranges
of corrugated iron roofs. This is the entrance to Tilbury Dock,
the most recent of all London docks, the nearest to the sea.

Between the crowded houses of Gravesend and the monstrous red-brick
pile on the Essex shore the ship is surrendered fairly to the grasp
of the river. That hint of loneliness, that soul of the sea which
had accompanied her as far as the Lower Hope Reach, abandons her at
the turn of the first bend above. The salt, acrid flavour is gone
out of the air, together with a sense of unlimited space opening
free beyond the threshold of sandbanks below the Nore. The waters
of the sea rush on past Gravesend, tumbling the big mooring buoys
laid along the face of the town; but the sea-freedom stops short
there, surrendering the salt tide to the needs, the artifices, the
contrivances of toiling men. Wharves, landing-places, dock-gates,
waterside stairs, follow each other continuously right up to London
Bridge, and the hum of men's work fills the river with a menacing,
muttering note as of a breathless, ever-driving gale. The water-
way, so fair above and wide below, flows oppressed by bricks and
mortar and stone, by blackened timber and grimed glass and rusty
iron, covered with black barges, whipped up by paddles and screws,
overburdened with craft, overhung with chains, overshadowed by
walls making a steep gorge for its bed, filled with a haze of smoke
and dust.

This stretch of the Thames from London Bridge to the Albert Docks
is to other watersides of river ports what a virgin forest would be
to a garden. It is a thing grown up, not made. It recalls a
jungle by the confused, varied, and impenetrable aspect of the
buildings that line the shore, not according to a planned purpose,
but as if sprung up by accident from scattered seeds. Like the
matted growth of bushes and creepers veiling the silent depths of
an unexplored wilderness, they hide the depths of London's
infinitely varied, vigorous, seething life. In other river ports
it is not so. They lie open to their stream, with quays like broad
clearings, with streets like avenues cut through thick timber for
the convenience of trade. I am thinking now of river ports I have
seen--of Antwerp, for instance; of Nantes or Bordeaux, or even old
Rouen, where the night-watchmen of ships, elbows on rail, gaze at
shop-windows and brilliant cafes, and see the audience go in and
come out of the opera-house. But London, the oldest and greatest
of river ports, does not possess as much as a hundred yards of open
quays upon its river front. Dark and impenetrable at night, like
the face of a forest, is the London waterside. It is the waterside
of watersides, where only one aspect of the world's life can be
seen, and only one kind of men toils on the edge of the stream.
The lightless walls seem to spring from the very mud upon which the
stranded barges lie; and the narrow lanes coming down to the
foreshore resemble the paths of smashed bushes and crumbled earth
where big game comes to drink on the banks of tropical streams.

Behind the growth of the London waterside the docks of London
spread out unsuspected, smooth, and placid, lost amongst the
buildings like dark lagoons hidden in a thick forest. They lie
concealed in the intricate growth of houses with a few stalks of
mastheads here and there overtopping the roof of some four-story

It is a strange conjunction this of roofs and mastheads, of walls
and yard-arms. I remember once having the incongruity of the
relation brought home to me in a practical way. I was the chief
officer of a fine ship, just docked with a cargo of wool from
Sydney, after a ninety days' passage. In fact, we had not been in
more than half an hour and I was still busy making her fast to the
stone posts of a very narrow quay in front of a lofty warehouse.
An old man with a gray whisker under the chin and brass buttons on
his pilot-cloth jacket, hurried up along the quay hailing my ship
by name. He was one of those officials called berthing-masters--
not the one who had berthed us, but another, who, apparently, had
been busy securing a steamer at the other end of the dock. I could
see from afar his hard blue eyes staring at us, as if fascinated,
with a queer sort of absorption. I wondered what that worthy sea-
dog had found to criticise in my ship's rigging. And I, too,
glanced aloft anxiously. I could see nothing wrong there. But
perhaps that superannuated fellow-craftsman was simply admiring the
ship's perfect order aloft, I thought, with some secret pride; for
the chief officer is responsible for his ship's appearance, and as
to her outward condition, he is the man open to praise or blame.
Meantime the old salt ("ex-coasting skipper" was writ large all
over his person) had hobbled up alongside in his bumpy, shiny
boots, and, waving an arm, short and thick like the flipper of a
seal, terminated by a paw red as an uncooked beef-steak, addressed
the poop in a muffled, faint, roaring voice, as if a sample of
every North-Sea fog of his life had been permanently lodged in his
throat: "Haul 'em round, Mr. Mate!" were his words. "If you don't
look sharp, you'll have your topgallant yards through the windows
of that 'ere warehouse presently!" This was the only cause of his
interest in the ship's beautiful spars. I own that for a time I
was struck dumb by the bizarre associations of yard-arms and
window-panes. To break windows is the last thing one would think
of in connection with a ship's topgallant yard, unless, indeed, one
were an experienced berthing-master in one of the London docks.
This old chap was doing his little share of the world's work with
proper efficiency. His little blue eyes had made out the danger
many hundred yards off. His rheumaticky feet, tired with balancing
that squat body for many years upon the decks of small coasters,
and made sore by miles of tramping upon the flagstones of the dock
side, had hurried up in time to avert a ridiculous catastrophe. I
answered him pettishly, I fear, and as if I had known all about it

"All right, all right! can't do everything at once."

He remained near by, muttering to himself till the yards had been
hauled round at my order, and then raised again his foggy, thick

"None too soon," he observed, with a critical glance up at the
towering side of the warehouse. "That's a half-sovereign in your
pocket, Mr. Mate. You should always look first how you are for
them windows before you begin to breast in your ship to the quay."

It was good advice. But one cannot think of everything or foresee
contacts of things apparently as remote as stars and hop-poles.


The view of ships lying moored in some of the older docks of London
has always suggested to my mind the image of a flock of swans kept
in the flooded backyard of grim tenement houses. The flatness of
the walls surrounding the dark pool on which they float brings out
wonderfully the flowing grace of the lines on which a ship's hull
is built. The lightness of these forms, devised to meet the winds
and the seas, makes, by contrast with the great piles of bricks,
the chains and cables of their moorings appear very necessary, as
if nothing less could prevent them from soaring upwards and over
the roofs. The least puff of wind stealing round the corners of
the dock buildings stirs these captives fettered to rigid shores.
It is as if the soul of a ship were impatient of confinement.
Those masted hulls, relieved of their cargo, become restless at the
slightest hint of the wind's freedom. However tightly moored, they
range a little at their berths, swaying imperceptibly the spire-
like assemblages of cordage and spars. You can detect their
impatience by watching the sway of the mastheads against the
motionless, the soulless gravity of mortar and stones. As you pass
alongside each hopeless prisoner chained to the quay, the slight
grinding noise of the wooden fenders makes a sound of angry
muttering. But, after all, it may be good for ships to go through
a period of restraint and repose, as the restraint and self-
communion of inactivity may be good for an unruly soul--not,
indeed, that I mean to say that ships are unruly; on the contrary,
they are faithful creatures, as so many men can testify. And
faithfulness is a great restraint, the strongest bond laid upon the
self-will of men and ships on this globe of land and sea.

This interval of bondage in the docks rounds each period of a
ship's life with the sense of accomplished duty, of an effectively
played part in the work of the world. The dock is the scene of
what the world would think the most serious part in the light,
bounding, swaying life of a ship. But there are docks and docks.
The ugliness of some docks is appalling. Wild horses would not
drag from me the name of a certain river in the north whose narrow
estuary is inhospitable and dangerous, and whose docks are like a
nightmare of dreariness and misery. Their dismal shores are
studded thickly with scaffold-like, enormous timber structures,
whose lofty heads are veiled periodically by the infernal gritty
night of a cloud of coal-dust. The most important ingredient for
getting the world's work along is distributed there under the
circumstances of the greatest cruelty meted out to helpless ships.
Shut up in the desolate circuit of these basins, you would think a
free ship would droop and die like a wild bird put into a dirty
cage. But a ship, perhaps because of her faithfulness to men, will
endure an extraordinary lot of ill-usage. Still, I have seen ships
issue from certain docks like half-dead prisoners from a dungeon,
bedraggled, overcome, wholly disguised in dirt, and with their men
rolling white eyeballs in black and worried faces raised to a
heaven which, in its smoky and soiled aspect, seemed to reflect the
sordidness of the earth below. One thing, however, may be said for
the docks of the Port of London on both sides of the river: for
all the complaints of their insufficient equipment, of their
obsolete rules, of failure (they say) in the matter of quick
despatch, no ship need ever issue from their gates in a half-
fainting condition. London is a general cargo port, as is only
proper for the greatest capital of the world to be. General cargo
ports belong to the aristocracy of the earth's trading places, and
in that aristocracy London, as it is its way, has a unique

The absence of picturesqueness cannot be laid to the charge of the
docks opening into the Thames. For all my unkind comparisons to
swans and backyards, it cannot be denied that each dock or group of
docks along the north side of the river has its own individual
attractiveness. Beginning with the cosy little St. Katherine's
Dock, lying overshadowed and black like a quiet pool amongst rocky
crags, through the venerable and sympathetic London Docks, with not
a single line of rails in the whole of their area and the aroma of
spices lingering between its warehouses, with their far-famed wine-
cellars--down through the interesting group of West India Docks,
the fine docks at Blackwall, on past the Galleons Reach entrance of
the Victoria and Albert Docks, right down to the vast gloom of the
great basins in Tilbury, each of those places of restraint for
ships has its own peculiar physiognomy, its own expression. And
what makes them unique and attractive is their common trait of
being romantic in their usefulness.

In their way they are as romantic as the river they serve is unlike
all the other commercial streams of the world. The cosiness of the
St. Katherine's Dock, the old-world air of the London Docks, remain
impressed upon the memory. The docks down the river, abreast of
Woolwich, are imposing by their proportions and the vast scale of
the ugliness that forms their surroundings--ugliness so picturesque
as to become a delight to the eye. When one talks of the Thames
docks, "beauty" is a vain word, but romance has lived too long upon
this river not to have thrown a mantle of glamour upon its banks.

The antiquity of the port appeals to the imagination by the long
chain of adventurous enterprises that had their inception in the
town and floated out into the world on the waters of the river.
Even the newest of the docks, the Tilbury Dock, shares in the
glamour conferred by historical associations. Queen Elizabeth has
made one of her progresses down there, not one of her journeys of
pomp and ceremony, but an anxious business progress at a crisis of
national history. The menace of that time has passed away, and now
Tilbury is known by its docks. These are very modern, but their
remoteness and isolation upon the Essex marsh, the days of failure
attending their creation, invested them with a romantic air.
Nothing in those days could have been more striking than the vast,
empty basins, surrounded by miles of bare quays and the ranges of
cargo-sheds, where two or three ships seemed lost like bewitched
children in a forest of gaunt, hydraulic cranes. One received a
wonderful impression of utter abandonment, of wasted efficiency.
From the first the Tilbury Docks were very efficient and ready for
their task, but they had come, perhaps, too soon into the field. A
great future lies before Tilbury Docks. They shall never fill a
long-felt want (in the sacramental phrase that is applied to
railways, tunnels, newspapers, and new editions of books). They
were too early in the field. The want shall never be felt because,
free of the trammels of the tide, easy of access, magnificent and
desolate, they are already there, prepared to take and keep the
biggest ships that float upon the sea. They are worthy of the
oldest river port in the world.

And, truth to say, for all the criticisms flung upon the heads of
the dock companies, the other docks of the Thames are no disgrace
to the town with a population greater than that of some
commonwealths. The growth of London as a well-equipped port has
been slow, while not unworthy of a great capital, of a great centre
of distribution. It must not be forgotten that London has not the
backing of great industrial districts or great fields of natural
exploitation. In this it differs from Liverpool, from Cardiff,
from Newcastle, from Glasgow; and therein the Thames differs from
the Mersey, from the Tyne, from the Clyde. It is an historical
river; it is a romantic stream flowing through the centre of great
affairs, and for all the criticism of the river's administration,
my contention is that its development has been worthy of its
dignity. For a long time the stream itself could accommodate quite
easily the oversea and coasting traffic. That was in the days
when, in the part called the Pool, just below London Bridge, the
vessels moored stem and stern in the very strength of the tide
formed one solid mass like an island covered with a forest of
gaunt, leafless trees; and when the trade had grown too big for the
river there came the St. Katherine's Docks and the London Docks,
magnificent undertakings answering to the need of their time. The
same may be said of the other artificial lakes full of ships that
go in and out upon this high road to all parts of the world. The
labour of the imperial waterway goes on from generation to
generation, goes on day and night. Nothing ever arrests its
sleepless industry but the coming of a heavy fog, which clothes the
teeming stream in a mantle of impenetrable stillness.

After the gradual cessation of all sound and movement on the
faithful river, only the ringing of ships' bells is heard,
mysterious and muffled in the white vapour from London Bridge right
down to the Nore, for miles and miles in a decrescendo tinkling, to
where the estuary broadens out into the North Sea, and the anchored
ships lie scattered thinly in the shrouded channels between the
sand-banks of the Thames' mouth. Through the long and glorious
tale of years of the river's strenuous service to its people these
are its only breathing times.


A ship in dock, surrounded by quays and the walls of warehouses,
has the appearance of a prisoner meditating upon freedom in the
sadness of a free spirit put under restraint. Chain cables and
stout ropes keep her bound to stone posts at the edge of a paved
shore, and a berthing-master, with brass buttons on his coat, walks
about like a weather-beaten and ruddy gaoler, casting jealous,
watchful glances upon the moorings that fetter a ship lying passive
and still and safe, as if lost in deep regrets of her days of
liberty and danger on the sea.

The swarm of renegades--dock-masters, berthing-masters, gatemen,
and such like--appear to nurse an immense distrust of the captive
ship's resignation. There never seem chains and ropes enough to
satisfy their minds concerned with the safe binding of free ships
to the strong, muddy, enslaved earth. "You had better put another
bight of a hawser astern, Mr. Mate," is the usual phrase in their
mouth. I brand them for renegades, because most of them have been
sailors in their time. As if the infirmities of old age--the gray
hair, the wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, and the knotted
veins of the hands--were the symptoms of moral poison, they prowl
about the quays with an underhand air of gloating over the broken
spirit of noble captives. They want more fenders, more breasting-
ropes; they want more springs, more shackles, more fetters; they
want to make ships with volatile souls as motionless as square
blocks of stone. They stand on the mud of pavements, these
degraded sea-dogs, with long lines of railway-trucks clanking their
couplings behind their backs, and run malevolent glances over your
ship from headgear to taffrail, only wishing to tyrannize over the
poor creature under the hypocritical cloak of benevolence and care.
Here and there cargo cranes looking like instruments of torture for
ships swing cruel hooks at the end of long chains. Gangs of dock-
labourers swarm with muddy feet over the gangways. It is a moving
sight this, of so many men of the earth, earthy, who never cared
anything for a ship, trampling unconcerned, brutal and hob-nailed
upon her helpless body.

Fortunately, nothing can deface the beauty of a ship. That sense
of a dungeon, that sense of a horrible and degrading misfortune
overtaking a creature fair to see and safe to trust, attaches only
to ships moored in the docks of great European ports. You feel
that they are dishonestly locked up, to be hunted about from wharf
to wharf on a dark, greasy, square pool of black water as a brutal
reward at the end of a faithful voyage.

A ship anchored in an open roadstead, with cargo-lighters alongside
and her own tackle swinging the burden over the rail, is
accomplishing in freedom a function of her life. There is no
restraint; there is space: clear water around her, and a clear sky
above her mastheads, with a landscape of green hills and charming
bays opening around her anchorage. She is not abandoned by her own
men to the tender mercies of shore people. She still shelters, and
is looked after by, her own little devoted band, and you feel that
presently she will glide between the headlands and disappear. It
is only at home, in dock, that she lies abandoned, shut off from
freedom by all the artifices of men that think of quick despatch
and profitable freights. It is only then that the odious,
rectangular shadows of walls and roofs fall upon her decks, with
showers of soot.

To a man who has never seen the extraordinary nobility, strength,
and grace that the devoted generations of ship-builders have
evolved from some pure nooks of their simple souls, the sight that
could be seen five-and-twenty years ago of a large fleet of
clippers moored along the north side of the New South Dock was an
inspiring spectacle. Then there was a quarter of a mile of them,
from the iron dockyard-gates guarded by policemen, in a long,
forest-like perspective of masts, moored two and two to many stout
wooden jetties. Their spars dwarfed with their loftiness the
corrugated-iron sheds, their jibbooms extended far over the shore,
their white-and-gold figure-heads, almost dazzling in their purity,
overhung the straight, long quay above the mud and dirt of the
wharfside, with the busy figures of groups and single men moving to
and fro, restless and grimy under their soaring immobility.

At tide-time you would see one of the loaded ships with battened-
down hatches drop out of the ranks and float in the clear space of
the dock, held by lines dark and slender, like the first threads of
a spider's web, extending from her bows and her quarters to the
mooring-posts on shore. There, graceful and still, like a bird
ready to spread its wings, she waited till, at the opening of the
gates, a tug or two would hurry in noisily, hovering round her with
an air of fuss and solicitude, and take her out into the river,
tending, shepherding her through open bridges, through dam-like
gates between the flat pier-heads, with a bit of green lawn
surrounded by gravel and a white signal-mast with yard and gaff,
flying a couple of dingy blue, red, or white flags.

This New South Dock (it was its official name), round which my
earlier professional memories are centred, belongs to the group of
West India Docks, together with two smaller and much older basins
called Import and Export respectively, both with the greatness of
their trade departed from them already. Picturesque and clean as
docks go, these twin basins spread side by side the dark lustre of
their glassy water, sparely peopled by a few ships laid up on buoys
or tucked far away from each other at the end of sheds in the
corners of empty quays, where they seemed to slumber quietly
remote, untouched by the bustle of men's affairs--in retreat rather
than in captivity. They were quaint and sympathetic, those two
homely basins, unfurnished and silent, with no aggressive display
of cranes, no apparatus of hurry and work on their narrow shores.
No railway-lines cumbered them. The knots of labourers trooping in
clumsily round the corners of cargo-sheds to eat their food in
peace out of red cotton handkerchiefs had the air of picnicking by
the side of a lonely mountain pool. They were restful (and I
should say very unprofitable), those basins, where the chief
officer of one of the ships involved in the harassing, strenuous,
noisy activity of the New South Dock only a few yards away could
escape in the dinner-hour to stroll, unhampered by men and affairs,
meditating (if he chose) on the vanity of all things human. At one
time they must have been full of good old slow West Indiamen of the
square-stern type, that took their captivity, one imagines, as
stolidly as they had faced the buffeting of the waves with their
blunt, honest bows, and disgorged sugar, rum, molasses, coffee, or
logwood sedately with their own winch and tackle. But when I knew
them, of exports there was never a sign that one could detect; and
all the imports I have ever seen were some rare cargoes of tropical
timber, enormous baulks roughed out of iron trunks grown in the
woods about the Gulf of Mexico. They lay piled up in stacks of
mighty boles, and it was hard to believe that all this mass of dead
and stripped trees had come out of the flanks of a slender,
innocent-looking little barque with, as likely as not, a homely
woman's name--Ellen this or Annie that--upon her fine bows. But
this is generally the case with a discharged cargo. Once spread at
large over the quay, it looks the most impossible bulk to have all
come there out of that ship along-side.

They were quiet, serene nooks in the busy world of docks, these
basins where it has never been my good luck to get a berth after
some more or less arduous passage. But one could see at a glance
that men and ships were never hustled there. They were so quiet
that, remembering them well, one comes to doubt that they ever
existed--places of repose for tired ships to dream in, places of
meditation rather than work, where wicked ships--the cranky, the
lazy, the wet, the bad sea boats, the wild steerers, the
capricious, the pig-headed, the generally ungovernable--would have
full leisure to take count and repent of their sins, sorrowful and
naked, with their rent garments of sailcloth stripped off them, and
with the dust and ashes of the London atmosphere upon their
mastheads. For that the worst of ships would repent if she were
ever given time I make no doubt. I have known too many of them.
No ship is wholly bad; and now that their bodies that had braved so
many tempests have been blown off the face of the sea by a puff of
steam, the evil and the good together into the limbo of things that
have served their time, there can be no harm in affirming that in
these vanished generations of willing servants there never has been
one utterly unredeemable soul.

In the New South Dock there was certainly no time for remorse,
introspection, repentance, or any phenomena of inner life either
for the captive ships or for their officers. From six in the
morning till six at night the hard labour of the prison-house,
which rewards the valiance of ships that win the harbour went on
steadily, great slings of general cargo swinging over the rail, to
drop plumb into the hatchways at the sign of the gangway-tender's
hand. The New South Dock was especially a loading dock for the
Colonies in those great (and last) days of smart wool-clippers,
good to look at and--well--exciting to handle. Some of them were
more fair to see than the others; many were (to put it mildly)
somewhat over-masted; all were expected to make good passages; and
of all that line of ships, whose rigging made a thick, enormous
network against the sky, whose brasses flashed almost as far as the
eye of the policeman at the gates could reach, there was hardly one
that knew of any other port amongst all the ports on the wide earth
but London and Sydney, or London and Melbourne, or London and
Adelaide, perhaps with Hobart Town added for those of smaller
tonnage. One could almost have believed, as her gray-whiskered
second mate used to say of the old Duke of S-, that they knew the
road to the Antipodes better than their own skippers, who, year in,
year out, took them from London--the place of captivity--to some
Australian port where, twenty-five years ago, though moored well
and tight enough to the wooden wharves, they felt themselves no
captives, but honoured guests.


These towns of the Antipodes, not so great then as they are now,
took an interest in the shipping, the running links with "home,"
whose numbers confirmed the sense of their growing importance.
They made it part and parcel of their daily interests. This was
especially the case in Sydney, where, from the heart of the fair
city, down the vista of important streets, could be seen the wool-
clippers lying at the Circular Quay--no walled prison-house of a
dock that, but the integral part of one of the finest, most
beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun ever shone upon. Now great
steam-liners lie at these berths, always reserved for the sea
aristocracy--grand and imposing enough ships, but here to-day and
gone next week; whereas the general cargo, emigrant, and passenger
clippers of my time, rigged with heavy spars, and built on fine
lines, used to remain for months together waiting for their load of
wool. Their names attained the dignity of household words. On
Sundays and holidays the citizens trooped down, on visiting bent,
and the lonely officer on duty solaced himself by playing the
cicerone--especially to the citizenesses with engaging manners and
a well-developed sense of the fun that may be got out of the
inspection of a ship's cabins and state-rooms. The tinkle of more
or less untuned cottage pianos floated out of open stern-ports till
the gas-lamps began to twinkle in the streets, and the ship's
night-watchman, coming sleepily on duty after his unsatisfactory
day slumbers, hauled down the flags and fastened a lighted lantern
at the break of the gangway. The night closed rapidly upon the
silent ships with their crews on shore. Up a short, steep ascent
by the King's Head pub., patronized by the cooks and stewards of
the fleet, the voice of a man crying "Hot saveloys!" at the end of
George Street, where the cheap eating-houses (sixpence a meal) were
kept by Chinamen (Sun-kum-on's was not bad), is heard at regular
intervals. I have listened for hours to this most pertinacious
pedlar (I wonder whether he is dead or has made a fortune), while
sitting on the rail of the old Duke of S- (she's dead, poor thing!
a violent death on the coast of New Zealand), fascinated by the
monotony, the regularity, the abruptness of the recurring cry, and
so exasperated at the absurd spell, that I wished the fellow would
choke himself to death with a mouthful of his own infamous wares.

A stupid job, and fit only for an old man, my comrades used to tell
me, to be the night-watchman of a captive (though honoured) ship.
And generally the oldest of the able seamen in a ship's crew does
get it. But sometimes neither the oldest nor any other fairly
steady seaman is forthcoming. Ships' crews had the trick of
melting away swiftly in those days. So, probably on account of my
youth, innocence, and pensive habits (which made me sometimes
dilatory in my work about the rigging), I was suddenly nominated,
in our chief mate Mr. B-'s most sardonic tones, to that enviable
situation. I do not regret the experience. The night humours of
the town descended from the street to the waterside in the still
watches of the night: larrikins rushing down in bands to settle
some quarrel by a stand-up fight, away from the police, in an
indistinct ring half hidden by piles of cargo, with the sounds of
blows, a groan now and then, the stamping of feet, and the cry of
"Time!" rising suddenly above the sinister and excited murmurs;
night-prowlers, pursued or pursuing, with a stifled shriek followed
by a profound silence, or slinking stealthily along-side like
ghosts, and addressing me from the quay below in mysterious tones
with incomprehensible propositions. The cabmen, too, who twice a
week, on the night when the A.S.N. Company's passenger-boat was due
to arrive, used to range a battalion of blazing lamps opposite the
ship, were very amusing in their way. They got down from their
perches and told each other impolite stories in racy language,
every word of which reached me distinctly over the bulwarks as I
sat smoking on the main-hatch. On one occasion I had an hour or so
of a most intellectual conversation with a person whom I could not
see distinctly, a gentleman from England, he said, with a
cultivated voice, I on deck and he on the quay sitting on the case
of a piano (landed out of our hold that very afternoon), and
smoking a cigar which smelt very good. We touched, in our
discourse, upon science, politics, natural history, and operatic
singers. Then, after remarking abruptly, "You seem to be rather
intelligent, my man," he informed me pointedly that his name was
Mr. Senior, and walked off--to his hotel, I suppose. Shadows!
Shadows! I think I saw a white whisker as he turned under the
lamp-post. It is a shock to think that in the natural course of
nature he must be dead by now. There was nothing to object to in
his intelligence but a little dogmatism maybe. And his name was
Senior! Mr. Senior!

The position had its drawbacks, however. One wintry, blustering,
dark night in July, as I stood sleepily out of the rain under the
break of the poop something resembling an ostrich dashed up the
gangway. I say ostrich because the creature, though it ran on two
legs, appeared to help its progress by working a pair of short
wings; it was a man, however, only his coat, ripped up the back and
flapping in two halves above his shoulders, gave him that weird and
fowl-like appearance. At least, I suppose it was his coat, for it
was impossible to make him out distinctly. How he managed to come
so straight upon me, at speed and without a stumble over a strange
deck, I cannot imagine. He must have been able to see in the dark
better than any cat. He overwhelmed me with panting entreaties to
let him take shelter till morning in our forecastle. Following my
strict orders, I refused his request, mildly at first, in a sterner
tone as he insisted with growing impudence.

"For God's sake let me, matey! Some of 'em are after me--and I've
got hold of a ticker here."

"You clear out of this!" I said.

"Don't be hard on a chap, old man!" he whined pitifully.

"Now then, get ashore at once. Do you hear?"

Silence. He appeared to cringe, mute, as if words had failed him
through grief; then--bang! came a concussion and a great flash of
light in which he vanished, leaving me prone on my back with the
most abominable black eye that anybody ever got in the faithful
discharge of duty. Shadows! Shadows! I hope he escaped the
enemies he was fleeing from to live and flourish to this day. But
his fist was uncommonly hard and his aim miraculously true in the

There were other experiences, less painful and more funny for the
most part, with one amongst them of a dramatic complexion; but the
greatest experience of them all was Mr. B-, our chief mate himself.

He used to go ashore every night to foregather in some hotel's
parlour with his crony, the mate of the barque Cicero, lying on the
other side of the Circular Quay. Late at night I would hear from
afar their stumbling footsteps and their voices raised in endless
argument. The mate of the Cicero was seeing his friend on board.

Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Pinterest