by H. M. Tomlinson
IN a tramp steamer, which was overloaded, and in midwinter, I had
crossed to America for the first time. What we experienced of the
western ocean during that passage gave me so much respect for it that
the prospect of the return journey, three thousand miles of those seas
between me and home, was already a dismal foreboding.
The shipping posters of New York, showing stately liners too lofty
even to notice the Atlantic, were arguments good enough for steerage
passengers, who do, I know, reckon a steamer's worth by the number of
its funnels; but the pictures did nothing to lessen my regard for that
dark outer world I knew. And having no experience of ships installed
with racquet courts, Parisian cafes, swimming baths, and pergolas, I
was naturally puzzled by the inconsequential behavior of the
first-class passengers at the hotel. They were leaving by the liner
which was to take me, and, I gathered, were going to cross a bridge to
England in the morning. Of course, this might have been merely the
innocent profanity of the simple-minded.
Embarking at the quay next day, I could not see that our ship had
either a beginning or an end. There was a blank wall which ran out of
sight to the right and left. How far it went, and what it enclosed,
were beyond me. Hundreds of us in a slow procession mounted stairs to
the upper floor of a warehouse, and from thence a bridge led us to a
door in the wall half-way in its height. No funnels could be seen.
Looking straight up from the embarkation gangway, along what seemed
the parapet of the wall was a row of far-off indistinguishable faces
peering straight down at us. There was no evidence that this building
we were entering, of which the high black wall was a part, was not an
important and permanent feature of the city. It was in keeping with
the magnitude of New York's skyscrapers, which this planet's
occasionally non-irritant skin permits to stand there to afford man an
apparent reason to be gratified with his own capacity and daring.
But with the knowledge that this wall must be afloat there came no
sense of security when, going through that little opening in its
altitude, I found myself in a spacious decorated interior which hinted
nothing of a ship, for I was puzzled as to direction. My last ship
could be surveyed in two glances; she looked, and was, a comprehensible
ship, no more than a manageable handful for an able master. In that
ship you could see at once where you were and what to do. But in this
liner you could not see where you were, and would never know which way
to take unless you had a good memory. No understanding came to me in
that hall of a measured and shapely body, designed with a cunning
informed by ages of sea-lore to move buoyantly and surely among the
raging seas, to balance delicately, a quick and sensitive being, to
every precarious slope, to recover a lost poise easily and with the
grace natural to a quick creature controlled by an alert mind.
There was no shape at all to this structure. I could see no line
the run of which gave me warrant that it was comprised in the rondure
of a ship. The lines were all of straight corridors, which, for all I
knew, might have ended blindly on open space, as streets which traverse
a city and are bare in vacancy beyond the dwellings. It was possible
we were encompassed by walls, but only one wall was visible. There we
idled, all strangers, in a large hall roofed by a dome of colored
glass. Quite properly, palms stood beneath. There were offices and
doors everywhere. On a broad staircase a multitude of us wandered
aimlessly up and down. Each side of the stairway were electric lifts,
intermittent and brilliant apparitions. I began to understand why the
saloon passengers thought nothing of the voyage. They were
encountering nothing unfamiliar. They had but come to another hotel
for a few days.
I attempted to find my cabin, but failed. A uniformed guide took
care of me. But my cabin, curtained, upholstered, and warm, with
mirrors and plated ware, sunk somewhere deeply among carpeted and
silent streets down each of which the perspective of glow-lamps looked
interminable, left me still questioning. The long walk had given me a
fear that I was remote from important affairs which might be happening
beyond. My address was 323. The street door—I was down a side
turning, though—bore that number. A visitor could make no mistake,
supposing he could find the street and my side turning. That was it.
There was a very great deal in this place for everybody to remember,
and most of us were strangers. No doubt, however, we were afloat, if
the lifebelts in the rack meant anything. Yet the cabin, insulated
from all noise, was not soothing, but disturbing. I had been used to a
ship in which you could guess all that was happening even when in your
bunk; a sensitive and communicative ship.
A steward appeared at my door, a stranger out of nowhere, and asked
whether I had seen a bag not mine in the cabin. He might have been
created merely to put that question, for I never saw him again on the
voyage. This liner was a large province having irregular and shifting
bounds, permitting incontinent entrance and disappearance. All this
should have inspired me with an idea of our vastness and importance,
but it did not. I felt I was one of a multitude included in a nebulous
mass too vague to hold together unless we were constantly wary.
In the saloon there was the solid furniture of rare woods, the
ornate decorations, and the light and shadows making vague its limits
and giving it an appearance of immensity, to keep the mind from the
thought of our real circumstances. At dinner we had valentine music,
dreamy stuff to accord with the shaded lamps which displayed the tables
in a lower rosy light. It helped to extend the mysterious and romantic
shadows. The pale, disembodied masks of the waiters swam in the dusk
above the tinted light. I had for a companion a vivacious American
lady from the Middle West, and she looked round that prospect we had of
an expensive cafe, and said, "Well, but I am disappointed. Why, I've
been looking forward to seeing the ocean, you know. And it isn't
"Smooth passage," remarked a man on the other side. "No sea at all
worth mentioning." Actually, I know there was a heavy beam sea running
before a half-gale. I could guess the officer in charge somewhere on
the exposed roof might have another mind about it; but it made no
difference to us in our circle of rosy intimate light bound by those
vague shadows which were alive with ready servitude.
"And I've been reading Captains Courageous with this
voyage in view. Isn't this the month when the forties roar? I want to
hear them roar, just once, you know, and as gently as any sucking
dove." We all laughed. "We can't even tell we're in a ship."
She began to discuss Kipling's book. "There's some fine seas in
that. Have you read it? But I'd like to know where that ocean is he
pretends to have seen. I do believe the realists are no more reliable
than the romanticists. Here we are a thousand miles out, and none of
us has seen the sea yet. Tell me, does not a realist have to magnify
his awful billows just to get them into his reader's view?"
I murmured something feeble and sociable. I saw then why sailors
never talk directly of the sea. I, for instance, could not find my key
at that moment—it was in another pocket somewhere—so I had no iron to
touch. Talking largely of the sea is something like the knowing talk
of young men about women; and what is a simple sailor man that he
should open his mouth on mysteries?
Only on the liner's boat-deck, where you could watch her four
funnels against the sky, could you see to what extent the liner was
rolling. The arc seemed to be considerable then, but slowly described.
But the roll made little difference to the promenaders below.
Sometimes they walked a short distance on the edges of their boots,
leaning over as they did so, and swerving from the straight, as though
they had turned giddy. The shadows formed by the weak sunlight moved
slowly out of ambush across the white deck, but often moved
indecisively, as though uncertain of a need to go; and then slowly went
into hiding again. The sea whirling and leaping past was far below our
wall side. It was like peering dizzily over a precipice when watching
those green and white cataracts.
The passengers, wrapped and comfortable on the lee deck, chatted as
blithely as at a garden-party, while the band played medleys of
national airs to suit our varied complexions. The stewards came round
with loaded trays. A diminutive and wrinkled dame in costly furs
frowned through her golden spectacles at her book, while her maid sat
attentively by. An American actress was the center of an eager group
of grinning young men; she was unseen, but her voice was distinct. The
two Vanderbilts took their brisk constitutional among us as though the
liner had but two real passengers though many invisible nobodies. The
children, who had not ceased laughing and playing since we left New
York, waited for the slope of the deck to reach its greatest, and then
ran down toward the bulwarks precipitously. The children, happy and
innocent, completed for us the feeling of comfortable indifference and
security which we found when we saw there was more ship than ocean. The
liner's deck canted slowly to leeward, went over more and more, beyond
what it had done yet, and a pretty little girl with dark curls riotous
from under her red tam-o'shanter, ran down, and brought up against us
violently with both hands, laughing heartily. We laughed too. Looking
seaward, I saw receding the broad green hill, snow-capped, which had
lifted us and let us down. The sea was getting up.
Near sunset, when the billows were mounting express along our run,
sometimes to leap and snatch at our upper structure, and were rocking
us with some ease, there was a commotion forward. Books and shawls went
anywhere as the passengers ran. Something strange was to be seen upon
It looked like a big log out there ahead, over the starboard bow.
It was not easy to make out. The light was failing. We overhauled it
rapidly, and it began to shape as a ship's boat. "Oh, it's gone,"
exclaimed someone then. But the forlorn object lifted high again, and
sank once more. Whenever it was glimpsed it was set in a patch of foam.
That flotsam, whatever it was, was of man. As we watched it
intently, and before it was quite plain, we knew intuitively that hope
was not there, that we were watching something past its doom. It drew
abeam, and we saw what it was, a derelict sailing ship, mastless and
awash. The alien wilderness was around us now, and we saw a sky that
was overcast and driven, and seas that were uplifted, which had grown
incredibly huge, swift, and perilous, and they had colder and more
The derelict was a schooner, a lifeless and soddened hulk, so heavy
and uncontesting that its foundering seemed at hand. The waters poured
back and forth at her waist, as though holding her body captive for the
assaults of the active seas which came over her broken bulwarks, and
plunged ruthlessly about. There was something ironic in the
indifference of her defenseless body to these unending attacks. It
mocked this white and raging post-mortem brutality, and gave her a
dignity that was cold and superior to all the eternal powers could now
do. She pitched helplessly head first into a hollow, and a door flew
open under the break of her poop; it surprised and shocked us, for the
dead might have signed to us then. She went astern of us fast, and a
great comber ran at her, as if it had but just spied her, and thought
she was escaping. There was a high white flash, and a concussion we
heard. She had gone. But she appeared again far away, on a summit in
desolation, black against the sunset. The stump of her bowsprit, the
accusatory finger of the dead, pointed at the sky.
I turned, and there beside me was the lady who had wanted to find
the sea. She was gazing at the place where the wreck was last seen,
her eyes fixed, her mouth a little open in awe and horror.