An Ocean Tramp
by William McFee
An Ocean Tramp
Garden City New York
Doubleday, Page &Company
COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE &COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES
THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N.Y.
PREFACE TO THE
I II III IV V VI
VII VIII IX X XI
XII XIII XIV XV
XVI XVII XVIII
XIX XX XXI XXII
XXV XXVI XXVII
XXVIII XXIX XXX
She was lovable, and he loved her. But he
was not lovable, and she did not love him.
PREFACE TO THE 1921 EDITION
In the original preface to the First Edition, it will be seen that
by a perfectly justifiable stroke of artistic manipulation, the writer
of the letters, the Ocean Tramp himself, is drowned at sea. Neither
author nor publisher had offered any guarantee that the book was a
record of cold facts, and it was not deemed necessary at that time to
disillusion any of the public who saw fit to send in condolences upon
the tragic end of a promising career. Nevertheless, the book was
faithful enough in a larger sense, for the young man who wrote it had
undoubtedly died and buried himself in its pages. His place, it
appeared presently, was taken by a cynical person who voyaged all over
the seven seas in various steamers, accumulating immense stocks of
local colour, passing through the divers experiences which befall
sailor-men, reading a good many books, and gradually assuming the
rôle of an amused spectator. Of this person, however, there is no
need to speak just now, and we must go back to the time when the
author, in that condition known to the cloth as out of a ship,
arrived in London, the following pages tied up in a piece of bunting,
in his dunnage, and took a small suite of chambers over the ancient
gate of Cliffords Inn. Now it would be easy enough, and the temptation
is great, to convey the impression that the writer had arrived in the
Metropolis to make his name and win fame and fortune with his
manuscript. So runs the tale in many a novel issued during the last
twenty-five years. It is time, therefore, to invent something new. The
penniless law-student who writes a best seller and wins the love of a
celebrated actress must make way for a sea-going engineer with a year's
wages and a volume of essays in his pocket, and who had not succeeded
in winning the love of anybody. Indeed the singular moderation of the
demands of this young man will be appreciated by any one who has been
afflicted with ambition, for he has never at any time desired either to
write a play, edit a magazine, or marry a prima-donna. At the
particular juncture when he took over the little suite of furnished
chambers from a young newspaper man who had received a sudden
invitation to visit a rich uncle, his principal preoccupation was to
pass his examination for his certificate of competency as a first-class
engineer. To this end he began a mysterious existence possible only to
the skilled Londoner. For the benefit of those who are not skilled
Londoners, the following description may evoke interest.
In the morning on waking, he saw, through the small bowed window
which looked out into the Inn, the sunlight shining upon the gilded
gothic roof of the Rolls Building and possibly touching the tops of the
trees of the grimy enclosure. Stepping through into the front room he
could lean out of a mullioned affair below which he could read the date
carved in the stone1472and looking up a long narrow court he could
watch the morning traffic of the Strand passing the farther end like
the film of a cinematograph. Down below, a gentleman who sold studs,
shoe-laces, and dying pigs on the curb, and who kept his stock in a
cupboard under the arch, was preparing to start out for the day. A
dying pig, it may be mentioned, was a toy much in demand among
stock-broking clerks and other frivolous young gentlemen in the City,
and consisted of a bladder shaped like a pig whose snout contained a
whistle which gave out on deflation an almost human note of anguish.
Should the hour be before eight, which was probable since the author
had contracted the habit, at sea, of rising at four, he would be
further exhilarated by seeing his landlord, Mr. Honeyball, in a tightly
buttoned frock-coat and wide-awake hat, march with an erect and
military air to the end of the passage, dart a piercing glance in
either direction, and remain, hands behind back and shoulders squared,
taking the air. Which meant that Mrs. Honeyball was engaged in the dark
and dungeon-like kitchen below the worn flags of the archway, preparing
the coffee and bacon for Mr. Honeyball's breakfast.
Having washed and shavedand here it may be set down, for the
benefit of Americans and others not skilled in metropolitan existence,
that when a building bears over its archway the date 1472 the bathing
arrangements within will not be of the most modern designthe author
then took his pipe, tobacco, and cane and prepared to descend the
winding stone stairway which ended in a door of heavy wood. This
contrivance opened directly upon the small triangular chamber where
Mrs. Honeyball each day laid the meals for herself and husband,
transacted her rent-collecting, and received occasional visitors during
late afternoon, self-effacing ladies of mature age who seemed to shrink
back into the panelling behind them and who assumed the anxious
immobility of figures in high relief, if the phrase may be allowed to
pass. At this early hour, however, no one is in sight save Mrs.
Honeyball herself, a slight elderly person with that look of pink
beatification on her face which accompanies some forms of Christianity,
emerging from another door which leads down a curved stairway to
subterranean regions. Mrs. Honeyball, it may be stated in parenthesis,
is of the great family of hero-worshippers, women who are inspired with
an indomitable and quite illogical faith in the wisdom and strength of
their gentlemen friends. The mere fact of the author being a nautical
character is sufficient for Mrs. Honeyball. Beyond going as far as
Margate on the Clacton Belle, a fat, squab-shaped side-wheel
affair very popular with London folk in that era, Mrs. Honeyball's
acquaintance with the sea is purely theoretical. To her all sea-faring
men are courageous, simple-hearted stalwarts having their business in
great waters, and she has intimated that she always remembers them in
her prayers. The modest breakfast, for two, is spread on one side of
the round table which is so much too large for the room. She would be
only too pleased if she could board me, but it is not allowed. The Inn,
I have been given to understand, has been bought outright by some
person of great wealth, whose design is to pull it down and erect a
block of apartments. Mrs. Honeyball is somewhat afraid of this person.
She gets in a great flutter, about the twentieth of the month, over her
accounts. Just now, however, she is placidly benevolent and hopes that
author has slept well. He has and says so, and opening the outer door,
an immense portal of heavy wood studded with big black nails, he steps
down into the archway, where Mr. Honeyball is encountered. Mr.
Honeyball has been in the army, has retired on a sergeant-major's
pension after twenty-three years service and he salutes the author in
correct military fashion.
These amenities concluded and watches compared with the great clock
of the Law Courts visible from the end of the passage, the author
turned westward and set off briskly toward Charing Cross, buying a
paper on the way, and noting from time to time the attractively attired
young ladies who were hurrying to their various employments. At the
risk of evoking a certain conventional incredulity in the readers'
bosom, the author is constrained to point out that he harboured only
the purest and most abstract sentiments towards these young women.
There is a period in the life of the literary artist, unhappily not
permanent, when the surface of his mind may be described as absorbent
of emotional influences, a period which results in the accumulation of
vast quantities of data concerning women without to any degree
destroying the authentic simplicity of his heart. And when the point of
saturation is reached, to use an engineer's phrase, the artist, still
preserving his own innocence, begins to produce. And this, one may
remark in passing, is the happiest time of his life! He combines the
felicity of youth, the wisdom of age, and the unencumbered vitality of
manhood. He knows, even while in love, as he frequently is at such
periods, that there are loftier peaks beyond, mountain-ranges of
emotion up which some day he is destined to travel, and he disregards
the pathetic seductions of those who would bid him settle in their
Arriving in the neighbourhood of Charing Cross, the author takes an
affectionate glimpse into Trafalgar Square, and turns down a steep,
narrow street, leading towards the River, where is situated a small
eating house. At that time, it should be observed, almost the only way
for a stranger to obtain a breakfast in London was to go to a hotel and
engage a room. Even at railroad terminals, where the refreshment-rooms
were just beginning to be swept and garnished, and the waitresses were
yawning behind the big urns, they did not regard the famished traveller
with any enthusiasm. It was felt that a stranger wanting food at that
hour had been up to no good. The author, being a skilled Londoner, was
put to no such inconvenience. It was his habit, at intervals, to write
special articles for the London papers, articles which had to be
delivered to the night commissionaire on duty in the office of the
newspaper. The particular functionary employed by the News was a
social being and fond of port, and over a dock-glass at Finches, the
celebrated bar in Fleet Street, had recommended a certain chop-house
where night-birds ate before retiring to their nests in distant
suburbs. To this hostelry the author therefore repairs, down the narrow
declivity, in at the door whose brass handles are being vigorously
polished by a youth in a green baize apron, and upstairs to a long low
chamber furnished with small tables. Here one discovers some half-dozen
strays from the millions of Londoners who breakfast in orthodox
fashionin the secrecy and sullen silence of their own homes. And the
salient feature of the people in this upstairs room is the inexorable
isolation of their souls. No one speaks. One or two look up from their
food as the author makes his way to the window from which he commands a
glimpse of blue sky, the elevation of an enormous brick wall, and
possibly a locomotive having its firebox cleaned on a siding and
panting as though afflicted with lung trouble. He takes his seat not
far from a young woman who is breakfasting on a bun and a glass of
milk. She is reading a book, a fat novel in fine print, the covers
soiled with food and the corners grimy with years of friction. She is
there every morning eating a bun and drinking a glass of milk. She has
a clear, delicate face, blonde hair, and large black eyes. Her hands
are fine, too, though they might be better kept. One suspects she does
her own washing after she gets home at night.
The reader may possibly wonder why the author should lower himself
in the esteem of men by dilating upon the appearance of a stray young
woman whom fate had washed up on the shores of time near him and whom
the next wave would inevitably bear away again. But the reader must
exercise a little patience. Several women appear in this preface, and
the author imagines they may reveal to the reader something of the
mentality which wrote this book. A mentality somewhat alien to the
English, since it was profoundly interested in women without incurring
any suspicion of French naughtiness, or endeavouring in any way to make
itself pleasing to them. A mentality hampered by an almost hysterical
shyness which, however, was capable of swift and complete evaporation
in certain circumstances.
So far, let it be premised, the shyness was still in evidence, and
the author became as silent and austere as the other members of the
company. There was a youth, in trousers obviously pressed under his
mattress, and a coat too short for him, whose air of shabby smartness
brought tears to the eyes of the author, who had passed through very
much the same purgatory years before. Indeed it was very much like a
coffee room in purgatory, if the reader can imagine such a thing, for
every one of the patrons had this distinguishing traitthey were
shackled and tortured and seared by the lack of a little money. The
mangy old waif who asked for a cup of tea and furtively fished out of a
little black oil-cloth bag a couple of thick sandwiches; the
middle-aged person with a fine moustache, frock-coat, and silk-hat, who
ordered coffee and bacon and eggs, and forgot to eat while his tired
eyes fixed themselves with insane intensity upon a mineral-water
advertisement on the opposite wall; the foreign lady (whom the author
hastens to record as a virtuous matron) whose bizarre hat and brightly
painted cheeks were stowed away in an obscure and lonely corner where
she pored over a Greek newspaper; the middle-aged gentleman whose
marbled note-book was filled with incredibly fine writing and columns
of figures which ought to have meant something substantial, but which
were probably only lists of bad debts utterly uncollectableall these
poor people would have been carried up to heaven had they suddenly
discovered under their plates a twenty-pound note. And the desire to do
this thing, to play the rich uncle for once, was at times so keen that
the author felt himself in purgatory, too, in a way, and lost his
appetite thinking about it.
The reader may opine that such a meal would be but a poor
preliminary for a morning of study, but the fact remains that the
contemplation of misery stimulates one's mental perceptions. Once more
out in the Strand, having watched the young woman descend the narrow
street and fling a swift glance over her shoulder as she turned into
Northumberland Avenue, the author mounted a Barking 'bus and settled
himself in the front seat, a gay little Union Jack fluttering just
above his head, and gave himself up unreservedly to reflections evoked
by a return, after some years at sea, to his native air. Every foot of
the way eastward brought up memories long dormant beneath the swarms of
alien impressions received since going to sea, impressions that ranged
from the songs of an octaroon in a blind-tiger back of Oglethorpe
Avenue in Savannah, to the mellow Boom-cling-clang of
temple-bells heard in the flawless dawn from a verandah above the
sampan-cluttered canals of Osaka. Between his nostrils and the ancient
odours of creosote blocks and of river mud drying at low tide came the
heavy scent of Arab quarters, the reek of Argentine slaughter-houses
and the subtle pervasions of Singapore. Since he had read with careless
neglect the familiar names over familiar shops where he and his father
had dealt in the common things of life, his eyes had ached with the
glittering hieroglyphics of Chinatown and the incomprehensible
futilities of Armenian and Cyrillic announcements. So it came about
that he regarded the cheerful, homely, and sun-lit Strand with
extraordinary delight, a delight enhanced by the incorrigible
conviction that in a few weeks he would quit it once more for distant
shores. Yet the charm, evanescent as it was, laid an authentic hand
upon his pulse and made it beat more quickly. Here he had bought his
first dress-suit. The tailor's shop was gone and a restaurant with
bulging glass windows thrust out a portly stomach into the street. Here
again he had lunched in days gone by on Saturdays, and loitered far
into the afternoon to flirt with the waitress. Here, where Wellington
Street plunged across and flung itself upon Waterloo Bridge, one beheld
staggering changes. The mountainous motor bus put on speed and
scampered past the churches left like rocky islets in the midst of a
swift river of traffic. Once past Temple Bar and in the narrow defile
of Fleet Street the author's thoughts darted up Fetter Lane and hovered
around a grimy building where he had pursued his studies with the
relentless fanaticism of youthful ambition. There, under the lamp-post
at the corner, one keen evening in early spring, he had what was for
him a tremendous emotional experience. In the German class (for he was
all for Wilhelm Meister, Faust, The Robbers, and
Dichtung und Wahrheit in those days) was a German girl learning
English, a robust, vital, brown-haired wench from Stuttgart. Often when
it came to his turn to read from the set piece of literature, he felt
this girl's eyes upon him and he would raise his own to find her
regarding him with a steady, appraising glance. And yet she seemed to
vanish effectively enough in the general confusion of departure. Once
she picked up his pencil and asked mutely for the use of it, and he
assented with what he knew was a fiery blush. She replaced it with a
firm nod of the head and her steady glance. For a few days the thought
of her bothered his dreams and then, in the fanatical pursuit of
knowledge, the mood evaporated. Perhaps she was aware of this and laid
her plans accordingly, for on the last evening of the session, as he
came down the steps of the college and turned toward Fetter Lane, he
saw her standing under the lamp-post at the corner. A frightful
predicament! It was one thing to read about Johann Wolfgang Goethe and
his free emotional development, about Arthur Schopenhauer living in
Venice with his mistress and writing philosophical works, or to approve
the newly translated vapourings of Frederick Nietzsche. It was quite
another to walk steadily onward and encounter a robust, vital,
brown-haired wench from Stuttgart who stood waiting with unmistakable
invitation in her pose. When he arrived at the corner he was in a
condition bordering on blind panic and he heard, as through a thick
wall, a hoarse, musical voice murmur unintelligible words. He heard
himself murmur something which brought a look of angry astonishment
into her eyes. He heard the words Don't you like me? far off, drowned
by a buzzing of the blood in his ear-drums. And then a vicious thrust
forward of the blonde head, a show of big white teeth, and the
contemptuous phrase Nassty you are! as she flung round and hurried
down the street.
No doubt she was right. Often, in the night-watches at sea, the
author has recalled the vitality of her appeal, the genuine frankness
of her character, and wished for an opportunity to express his regret
for his gaucherie and offer adequate amends. And as the 'bus
lumbers along towards Ludgate Hill he thinks of her and wonders
precisely what purpose these fugitive and fortuitous encounters serve.
These futile yet fascinating conjectures bring him past Saint Paul's,
in whose shadow he has spent many hours reading old books at the stalls
in Holywell Street, and the 'bus races along Cannon Street, is brought
up almost on its hind wheels at the Mansion House Corner, and the
author gets a brief glimpse of Princes Street and Moorgate Street,
where he was once something in the City as we used to say, before the
policeman's hand is lowered and the eastbound traffic roars along
Threadneedle Street and so down to Aldgate, where the author descends
by the famous Pump, to begin the serious business of the day. For it
must not be forgotten that this daily 'bus-ride from Charing Cross to
Aldgate Pump is not prosecuted in a spirit of sentimental reverie. The
author is going to school. Across the road may be seen a building
athwart whose topmost window runs a tarnished gold sign Teague's
School of Engineering, only all three ns of the last word are
missing, which seems in keeping with the name Teague somehow, and gives
the whole affair a touch of Irish dissipation. Nothing, however, could
be more misleading. Upstairs, four flights, the last two uncarpeted or
linoleumed, one discovers only an austere establishment from which both
Teague and his possible dissipation are long since departed. The
business is now owned by a dapper young man of pleasing exterior and
almost uncanny technical omniscience, who for a lump inclusive fee
undertakes to pull the most illiterate of seafarers through the narrow
portals of the government examination. He gives that impression as he
sits at his desk in his private office, the cuffs of his grey
frock-coat and his starched white shirt drawn up out of the way. He has
the capable air of a surgeon, the swift, impersonal competence of an
experienced accoucheur. His business is to get results. It is
not too much to say that he gets them.
In the room beyond, however, in which the author takes his seat in
the humble capacity of student, there is the curiously strained
atmosphere that is to be found in all companies of disparate
personalities intent upon a common end. Seated in rows at a number of
pine desks are a score of men whose ages range from twenty-three to
forty-five. Some are smoking. Others, with tongue protruding slightly
from the corner of the mouth, and head on one side, are slowly and
painfully copying the drawing of a pump or a valve-box. Others, again,
are in the murky depths of vast arithmetical solutions extracting, with
heavy breathings, the cube root from some formidable quantity, and
bringing it to the surface exhausted and far from certain as to the
ultimate utility of their discoveries. They have come from the far ends
of the sea-lanes, these men, from Niger River ports and the coast towns
of China, from lordly liners and humble tramps, from the frozen fjords
of Älborg and the crowded tideways of the Hooghley. They are
extraordinarily unprepossessing, most of them, for the time was not yet
when sea-going was considered, save as a last resource, like selling
newspapers or going to America. These men were mostly artisans,
thick-fingered mechanics who had gone to sea, driven by some obscure
urge or prosaic economic necessity, and the sea had changed them, as it
changes everything, fashioning in them a blunt work-a-day fatalism and
a strong, coarse-fibred character admirably adapted to their way of
life. But that way is far from schools and colleges. They lack that
subtle academical atmosphere so essential to genuine culture. They have
none of them what the educated classes call an examination brain. They
resemble a pack of sheep-dogs in a parlour. They accept with pathetic
fidelity the dogmas of their text-books, and they submit humbly to
incarceration while their heads are loaded down with formulas and
theories, most of which they jettison with relief when they feel the
first faint lift of the vessel to the ocean swell outside the
But it should on no account be assumed from the above truthful
estimate of their mentality that these men are to be dismissed as mere
factory hands or negligible land-failures. The sea has her own way of
making men, and informs them, as the years and miles go by, with a
species of differential intuition, a flexible mental mechanism which
calibrates and registers with astonishing accuracy and speed. They
become profound judges of human character within the rough walls of
their experience, and for women they betray a highly specialized
For all that, as they sit here in their extremely respectable blue
serge suits, which still show the sharp creases where they were laid
away in unskillful folds during the voyage, they give one an impression
of lugubrious failure. It must be confessed that simple as the
examinations are they are beyond the range of many of us. The habits of
study are not easily retained during the long stretches of
watch-keeping intermitted with hilarious trips ashore. We find a great
difficulty in keeping our minds on the problems set down. Outside is a
blue sky, the roar of traffic at the confluence of four great
thoroughfares, and the call of London, a very siren among cities, when
one knows! Over yonder, a cigarette in his mouth, his head on his hand
and his elbow asprawl on the desk, making idle marks with a pencil, is
a youth who is nursing a grievance against the government. He has been
up eight times and failed every time. He is going up again with us next
Tuesday. Yet, as it has been whispered to me during lunch hour by my
neighbour, a robust individual just home from Rangoon, he is a
first-class man; just the chap in a break-down; always on the job; fine
record. There is another, between us and the sectional model of a feed
pump valve, who never looks up, but figures unceasingly with elbows
close to his sides, his toes turned in, the nape of an obstinate,
close-cropped neck glistening pale gold and pink in the morning sun.
Without having been to sea with this party or even having seen his
face, one is aware that he will always be found with his pale eyes wide
open when the light is flicked on at One Bell. He has been sometime in
tramp-steamers, who carry no oilers, for there is a hard callous on the
knuckle of his right forefinger where the oil-feeder handle has been
chafing. Whether he would be a tower of strength in a smash-up is not
so easily divined. Next to him a young gentleman is sitting sideways
smoking, a pair of handsome cuff-buttons of Indian design flashing at
his wrists. He is, my neighbour has informed me during lunch, from the
P. &O. and he corroborates this by asking a question of the lecturer
concerning a broken valve-spindle of enormous dimensions. He stands for
class in our community and gives a certain tone to the group who go up
on Tuesday. Unhappily he falls out on the second day, owing to certain
defects in his arithmetic, and disappears. No doubt he has gone to
another sea-port to try a less austere examiner.
And after lunch, the principal of Teague's School of Engineering
suddenly emerges from his private office, hangs up a card labelled
No Smoking during Lectures and proceeds to feed us with the
irreducible minimum of information necessary for our ordeal. By long
practice, astute contriving, and careful cross-examination of
successful pupils he has arrived at such a pass that he seems to know
more about the examiner's mind than that gentleman himself. He repeats
slowly and deliberately the exact form of answer which is most likely
to draw approval from the grand inquisitor, and we copy it down hastily
in our notes. The sleeves of his grey frock-coat are pulled back to
keep the chalk dust from soiling them as he rapidly sketches on the
board for our edification. We listen with respect, for we know he has
been through precisely the same mill as ourselves, he has come on watch
at midnight with his mouth dry and his eyelids sagging and wishing in
his heart he were dead. He has won out and now stands ready to show us
the way. We listen to every word. The lecture is short, sharp,
apposite, a model of all a lecture should be, stripped to the bare
bones of fundamental truth, pared clean of every redundant word. As the
clock strikes three he claps his hands to rid them of chalk, pauses for
a moment to answer pertinent questions, and vanishes into his office
Most of us go home.
The author now has an assignation with a lady, and the reader who
has been patiently waiting for some sort of literary allusions in a
preface to a volume of literary essays, is about to be gratified. The
scene changes from the vulgar uproar of Aldgate to a flat in Chelsea.
Hurrying through Houndsditch, across Leadenhall Street and up St. Mary
Axe, the author discovers the right 'bus in Broad Street about to
start. They are filling the radiator with water and the conductor is
intoning a mysterious incantation which resolves itself into Benk!
Oobun, Benk! Piccadilly, 'Yde Pawk, Sloon Stree', Sloon Square, Kings
Road, Chelsea an' Walham Green. Here y' are, lidy. With long
practice he can make the vowels reverberate above the roar of the
traffic. The words Benk and Pawk come from his diaphragm in sullen
booms. To listen to him is a lesson in prosody. He enjoys doing it. He
is an artist. He extracts the uttermost from his material, which is the
mark of the supreme artist. He unbends when he comes up to collect the
fares from the author and a lady who is probably returning to Turnham
Green after a visit to her married daughter at Islington, and he leans
over the author's shoulder to scan the racing news in the Stop Press
Column, a courtesy as little likely to be withheld in London as a light
for a cigarette in Alexandria. Hm! he murmurs, stoically. Jes'
fancy! An' I had 'im backed for a place, too. That's the larst money I
lose on that stable. He clatters down again and one hears his
voice lifted once more as he rumbles: BenkOoborn Benk! with
To know London from the top of a 'bus is no doubt a liberal
education, but it may be questioned whether the tuition is as extensive
and peculiar with a gasoline-driven vehicle as with the old
horse-hauled affairs that took all day to jungle along from the North
Pole Inn at Wormwood Scrubbs to the Mile End Road, or from the Angel at
Islington to Roehampton. Almost before the author has digested a
leading article dealing with the Venezuelan Question the 'bus roars
down Sloan Street, shoots across the Square, and draws up just where a
few people are already collecting by the pit-doors of the Court Theatre
for the evening performance of Man and Superman. This being the end
of a stage, if the pleasantry may be pardoned, the author descends and
walks onward to his destination, which is a flat down by the River.
There are certain thoroughfares in London which have always avoided
any suspicion of respectable regularity either in their reputation or
their architecture. The dead monotony of Woburn or Eaton Square, for
example, the massive austerity of the Cromwell Road, and the cliff-like
cornices of Victoria Street, are the antithesis of the extraordinary
variety to be found in Park Lane, High Street Kensington, Maida Vale
and Cheyne Walk. This last reveals, between Blantyre and Tite streets,
the whole social order of England and the most disconcerting
divarications of design. In it meet democracy, plutocracy, and
aristocracy, artist and artisan, trade and tradition, philosophy and
philistinism, publicans and publicists, connoisseurs and confidence
men, sin and sincerity. It is not proposed to introduce the reader to
the whole of this goodly company. The Balzac of Chelsea still tarries
in obscurity. By some amazing oversight this street, which has
sheltered more artists and authors than any other thoroughfare in the
world, seems to have evaded their capture. Chelsea is a cosmos. Cheyne
Walk is a world, a world abandoned by genius to the cheap purveyors of
second-hand clap-trap and imitators of original minds.
Let us go upstairs.
Miss Flaherty is one of those women who appear from time to time in
the newspaper world and who seem to embody in their own personalities
the essential differences between journalism and literature. Their
equipment is trivial and their industry colossal. In a literary sense
they are so prolific that they do not beget; they spawn. They present a
marvellous combination of unquenchable enthusiasm and slovenly
inaccuracy. They needs must love the highest when they see it, but they
are congenitally incapable of describing it correctly. Their conception
of art consists of writing a book describing their own sexual impulses.
This is frequently so ungrammatical and obscure that even publishers'
readers balk at it, and it goes the rounds. In the meanwhile, they
produce an incredible quantity of daily and weekly matter for the
press. They wheedle commissions out of male editors by appealing to
their sex, and write sprightly articles on Bachelor Girls and their
Ideals, and the Economic Independence of the Married Woman. They become
hysterically lachrymose, in print, over a romantic love affair, and
relapse into sordid intrigues on the sly. They demand political power
without intending for a single moment to assume political
responsibility. Their days are about equally divided between catching a
husband and achieving what they describe as a scoop.
To all this Miss Flaherty adds an unusual faculty for spectacular
antics. She has dressed in a red sweater and plied her trade, for a
day, as a shoe-shine boy. She has dressed in a green cloak and sold
shamrock on St. Patrick's day. She has dressed in rags and sung in the
streets for charity. She has hired a van and ridden about the suburbs
pretending to sell domestic articles. She has attended revival meetings
and thrown herself in a spasm of ecstasy upon what she calls the
mercy-seat. She has....
But the author is not absolutely sure whether she has ... after all.
He is of the opinion that, like most English women, she has no talent
for that sort of thing. Like most young women who babble of
emancipation she has an unsuspected aptitude for domesticity. She makes
tea far better than she writes articles. She is, under a ridiculous
assumption of slangy modernity, oppressively conventional.
However, the author's immediate concern is not with Miss Flaherty's
destiny at all, but with his manuscript which she has been XXXX
commissioned to place with a publisher. A writer of dime novels, on
being consulted as to the way to get a book published, said he didn't
know, never having had a book to publish save in weekly serial numbers;
and that, he hastened to observe, was quite another story. And then
suddenly remarked, slapping his thigh and reaching for the makings of a
fresh cigarette: Why not try Imogene Flaherty? She's anxious to start
in as author's agent. The author had no objections to raise beyond the
fact that he disliked doing business with women and was afraid of
anybody named Imogene. The dime-novelist shook his head and said women
in business and journalism had come to stay. And seriously, Miss
Flaherty might easily be of immense assistance to the author. Very
nice girl, tooh-mhm! This reminiscently. Very decent little
woman. Go and see hertake my carddown in Cheyne Walk. She had a
flat down there near Church Street. H-m. Yes.
So it happened. And the result had been an explosion. Miss Flaherty
had accepted the commission and had read the manuscript and had, in
common parlance, gone up in the air. Her enthusiasm literally knew no
bounds. She did not actually foam at the mouth, but she displayed all
the symptoms of advanced literary hysteria. Now there is this to be
said for the seait may not furnish one with universal judgments about
women but it does provide the solitude and austere discipline which
enable a man to coördinate his hitherto chaotic ideas about them. And
women, if they only knew how they appear to the imagination of men on
the rolling waters, would undoubtedly modify their own conceptions of
life, and possibly profit by the change. Imogene, however, had no such
moment of illumination. She lived in an enchanted world of imitation
emotion and something in the author's manuscript had set her off, had
appealed to her rudimentary notions of fine writing, and engendered a
flame of enthusiasm. It is not too much to say that she believed in
that manuscript much more than the author did. That is the correct
attitude for a successful agent. Imogene did not push the book, as
salesmen say, so much as herald it. She entered publishers' offices
like a prophetess or one of the seraphim, panoplied in shining plumage,
blinding the poor human eyes with beams of heavenly radiance, the
marvellous manuscript, like a roll of lost gospels, held out before
her. She blew a blast on her trumpet and the doors of the publishers'
readers swung wide. No knowledge of English literature prevented her
from uttering her solemn conviction that here was the greatest book
since Geoffrey Chaucer laid down his pen. With intrepid resource she
warned the hesitating publisher that he would have none save himself to
blame if he missed this chance of immortalizing his house, and
eventually a publisher was discovered who was willing to issue the book
at the author's expense. All this, let it be said with regret, did not
bring a blush to the author's sea-tanned cheek. On the contrary, he
cherished a secret apprehension that Imogene had gone mad.
The one fly in the ointment at this juncture was the author's
unmannerly attitude towards publishers who issued books at the writer's
expense. He went so far as to characterize them as crooks and declined
to have anything to do with them. He had been writing for a good many
years of apprenticeship and had arrived at the conclusion that a man
might get along in decent comfort all his life without publishing
anything at all, if fate so ordered it; and the suggestion that he pay
away his hoarded sea-wages just to have his name on a book, clouded a
naturally sunny temper for some time.
Here, however, sitting at tea in the intensely artistic flat on the
third floor over a grocery-store, and looking out upon the River and
the warehouses of the Surrey Side, the author is rapturously apprised
that the book is as good as sold. A publisher's reader, a
representative of an important house, has declared that the book has
distinction. This is a true record, in the main, and the author is
obliged to confess, thirteen years later, that he fell for this. In his
simplicity he thought it a fine thing to have distinction. And this is
true. It is a fine thing, but the fineness of the bloom is soon licked
off by the busy tongues of the Imogenes and their masculine
counterparts. The author did not see this so clearly at the time. He
felt as a cat feels when stroked. The patrons of distinction were also
in a position to make a cash offer for the copyright. In those days,
when fifty dollars a month was considered adequate remuneration for his
services at sea, the author had modest notions about cash offers. He
treated the matter in a sporting spirit and closed.
But it was not consummated in a word and with the gesture of signing
one's name. Things are not done that way when dealing with Imogenes.
One has to negotiate a continent of emotional hill-climbing and an
ocean of talk. A sea-faring person, schooled to deal with men and
things with an economy of effort, is moved to amazement before the
spectacle of a bachelor girl in action. One assumes, of course, that
she intends to remain a bachelor girl. There is the solemn initiation
into the ranks of her pals. Palship, as she calls it, is something
quite different from friendship, and to a man of normal instincts this
is an alarming proposition. It is certainly far more exhausting than an
intrigue and far less interesting than a rationally controlled
friendship with a person of the same sex. And here it is pertinent to
put forward what the author conceives to be the fundamental trouble
with the Imogenes of both sides of the Atlantic. It is pertinent
because he was, at the time of writing this book, under the influence
of a very potent and inspiring friendship for a man now dead, a
friendship which moulded his ideas and inspired him to hammer out for
himself a characteristic philosophy of life. And one of the most
important determinations of that philosophy deals with the common
errors concerning friendship and love. The mistake of the bachelor girl
and her prototypes lies in their failure to recognize the principle of
sex as universal. It is not so much that men and women cannot meet
without the problem of sex arising between them as that no two human
beings can have any interchange of thoughts at all without involving
each other in a complex of which masculine and feminine are the
opposite poles. The most fascinating of all friendships are those in
which the protagonists alternate, each one, owing to freshly revealed
depths or shallows in his character, assuming the masculine or feminine
rôle. The Latin recognises this by instinct. Just as his nouns are
always either masculine or feminine, so are his ideas. And his women,
who have never heard of bachelor girls or palship, have achieved
with consummate skill all and more than the Imogenes have ever
imagined. Any one who has ever enjoyed the friendship of such women
will recall that subtle aroma of sex which informs the whole affair.
The coarse-grained northerner is prone to attribute the abundant
vitality, the exquisite graces of body and mind to a deftly concealed
vampirism or sensuality. Nothing is further from the truth. If you can
play up to it, if your emotions and instincts are under the control of
a traditional and finely tempered will, a notable experience is yours.
Friendship, in fact, is the divinity whose name must not be uttered or
he will vanish. She will not inform you, as Imogene does, that you are
not in love with her and she is not in love with you and therefore a
palship is under way. On the contrary, she will never let you forget
that love is a possibility always just out of sight, where it will
always remain. She is economically independent because men cannot do
without her. She has more rights than the Imogenes will gain in a
thousand years; and she is, moreover, something that men would strive
to preserve in a world-cataclysm, whereas no one would give Imogene a
single panic thought.
Imogene, however, has no inkling of this. She is under the
impression that she is one of the world's cosmic forces. In the rag-bag
of her brain whence she fishes out the innumerable formless and
gaudy-coloured pilferings from which she fashions her special
articles, she cherishes an extraordinary illusion that she is a sort
of modern Hypatia. She says Aspasia, but that is only because she has
confused Kingsley's heroine with Pericles' mistress. She talks of
mating with an affinity of influencing the lives of the men who do
things. She is very worried about the men who do things. It is a proof
of her conventional and Victorian mentality that she imagines men who
do things are inspired to do them by women; whereas it is rather the
other way round, the men who do things having to avoid the majority of
women as they would cholera morbus, if they are ever to get
Springing up on the impulse of this thought the author makes his
excuses to the assembled guests and descends the dark stairway to the
street. To tell the truth, these glimpses into the society of literary
folk do not inspire in his bosom any frantic anxiety to abandon his own
way of life. He had a furtive and foolish notion that these people are
of no importance whatever. These coteries, these at-homes, and flat
philosophies are not the real thing. It sounds unsocial and
unconventional, no doubt, but it is a question so far unsettled in the
author's mind whether any genuine artist loves his fellows well enough
to co-habit with them on a literary basis. For some mysterious reason
the real men, the original living forces in literature, do not frequent
the salons of the Imogenes. They are more likely to be found in
the private bars of taverns in the King's Road, or walking along lonely
roads in Essex and Surrey. Indeed, they may be preoccupied with
problems quite foreign to the immediate business of literary
conversation. They may be building bridges, or sailing ships, or
governing principalities. They are unrecognised for the most part. The
fact is they are romantic, and it is the hall-mark of the true romantic
to do what other men dream of, and say nothing about it.
The motives of the author, however, in deserting the flat in
Chelsea, were not entirely due to dreams of lofty achievement, but to
the stern necessity to read voraciously on the subject of Heat for his
examination. And one of the dominating changes which he discovers in
himself after the passage of thirteen years is a sad falling off in
brain-power. He is no longer able to read voraciously on the subject of
Heat and Heat-engines. His technical library remains packed with grim
neatness in his cabin book-case. When his juniors bring problems
involving a quadratic equation he is stricken with a horrible fear lest
the answer won't come out. He looks through his old examination papers
and echoes Swift's melancholy sigh Gad! What a genius I had when I
wrote all that! Most professional men, one is bound to suppose, become
aware at periods of the gradual ossification of their intellects. And
it is not always easy to retain a full consciousness of the
compensating advantages of seniority in the face of this positive
degeneration. One begins to watch carefully for errors where one used
to go pounding to a finish with a full-blooded rush. One has a feeling
of being overtaken; the young people of the next decade can be heard
not far behind, and they seem to be offensively successful in business,
in friendship, and in love. One has ceased to be interesting to the
women of thirty and the men of forty. The achievement of years shrinks
to depressing dimensions, and the real test is on. One becomes
uncomfortably aware of the shrewd poke of Degas that any one can have
talent at twenty-five. The great thing is to have talent at forty.
The reader is invited to assume, therefore, that the author, at
twenty-five, was sufficiently talented and ambitious to read
voraciously on Heat and a great many other subjects. That he did so he
calls on Mrs. Honeyball to witness, since that lady was really
concerned for his health and urged him not to work too hard for fear
of a break-down. There was never any danger of a break-down, however.
London was outside that window with 1472 carved below it, and at the
first warning of fatigue the author would take hat and stick and fare
forth in search of recreation and adventure. He would apologize to Mrs.
Honeyball and her friends gathered in the little room below, where they
were discussing what Mr. Honeyball described as Christian Work. Mr.
Honeyball used to bring out this phrase with extraordinary vigour and
emphasis, as though the very enunciation were a blow to the designs of
Satan. The author heard, during a later voyage, that the Honeyballs did
eventually give up the mundane job of supervising apartments and
retired to a quiet sea-side town where they devoted themselves entirely
to Christian Work.
It was on one of these evening strolls that the author became on
speaking terms with the girl who ate a bun and a glass of milk for
breakfast every morning. It is very easy to get acquainted with a
virtuous girl in Englandso easy that the foreigner is frequently
bewildered or inclined to be suspicious of the virtue. It is a facility
difficult to reconcile with our heavily advertised frigidity, our
disconcerting habit of addressing a stranger as though some invisible
third person (an enemy) just behind him were the object of our
dignified disapproval. It may be explained by the fact that, from the
middle classes downward, and excluding the swarms of immigrants in the
large cities, we are a very old race, with a comprehensive knowledge of
our own mentalities. One finds blond, blue-eyed Saxon children in East
Anglia, and there are black-haired, brown-skinned people in the West
Country who have had no foreign admixture to their Phoenician blood
since the Norman Conquest. This makes for a certain solidarity of
sentiment and a corresponding freedom of intercourse.
Not that Mabel would understand any of this if she heard it. She has
a robust and coarse-textured mind curiously contrasted with her pale,
delicate features and sombre black eyes. She was one of those people
who seem suddenly to transmute themselves into totally different beings
the moment one speaks to them. As the author did one evening, after
peering absently through the window of a candy-store down near the
railroad arch below Charing Cross, and seeing her sitting pensive
behind the stacks of merchandise. She was very glad to see a familiar
face and recognised the claim of the breakfast-hour with a tolerant
smile and a cheerful nod. It is very easy, while talking to Mabel, to
understand why there is no native opera in England, and a very powerful
native literature. Opera can only prosper where the emotional strain
between the sexes is so heavy that it must be relieved by song and
gesture. We have nothing of that in England. Women, more even than men,
distrust themselves and eschew the outward trappings of romance. But
this makes for character, so that our friends and relatives appear to
us like the men and women in novels. Mabel was like that. She walked in
and out of half a dozen books which the author had recently read. And
her importance in this preface lies in the illumination she shed upon
this same subject of literature. The author at that time, as will be
seen in the following pages, was addicted to fine writing and he held
the view that literature was for the cultured and made no direct appeal
to the masses. Mabel unconsciously showed that this was a mistaken
view. Mabel was as chock full of literature as a Russian novel. She had
adventures everywhere. The author coming in and talking to her, after
breakfasting in the same coffee-room, was an adventure. It would make a
story, she observed with naïve candour. Only the other night, she
remarked, a strange gentleman came, a foreigner of some sort, and asked
for chocolates. A very entertaining gentleman with a bag, which he
asked her to keep. No fear, she observed; no bombs or things in her
shoptake it to the cloak-room in the station. Well, he must have done
so, for they got it out of there after his arrest. Here was his
photograph in the Sunday paper. Millions of francs he'd stole. Like a
novel, wasn't it? The author said it was, very, and begged for more. He
said she ought to write them down. Mabel looked grave at this and said
she had a fellow ... splendid education he had had. Was in the
Prudential. Her voice grew low and hesitating. He was going to give it
up! Give up the Prudential? But that was a job for life, wasn't it? Ah,
but he had it in him.... It appeared that he had won five pounds for a
story. It was wonderful the way he wrote them off. In his spare time.
And poetry. He was really a poet, but poetry didn't pay, the author was
given to understand. So he wrote stories. Some people made thousands a
This was all very well from Mabel's point of view, but the author
did not want to go into the vexed question of royalties. He wanted, on
the contrary, to know Mabel's feelings towards the coming Maupassant of
North London. Did she love him? Or rather, to put the matter in another
way, did he love her? Was he permitted that supreme privilege? Well,
they had been going round together, on and off, this nine months now.
As for being engaged ... he only got two pound a week as yet,
remember. Yes, that was why she wanted him to go in for this writing
and make a hit. She'd take it on and make ends meet somehow, if he did
that. She could help him. He said she had some good ideas, only they
wanted working out. And here was a secrethe'd written a play! Mabel
leaned over the candy jars and whispered this dreadful thing in the
author's ear. A friend of theirs had seen ithe was at one of the
theatres in the electrical department and knew all the starsand he
said it was very good but needed what he called pulling together! If
only a reliable person in the play-writing line could be found to do
this pulling together, there might be a fortune in it.
The reader may be disturbed at Mabel's insistence upon the financial
possibilities of literature, but in this she was only a child of her
time. The point worthy of note is not her rapacity but the dexterity
with which she utilized literature to further her ambition. She was
identifying herself with literature and so fortifying her position. She
was really far better fitted to be the wife of a fictionist than
Imogene. And she could appreciate poetry addressed to herself. The
author eventually saw some of it for a moment, written on sermon paper,
but the stanzas shall remain forever vibrating in his own bosom. She is
memorable to the author, moreover, in that she brought home to him for
the first time the startling fact that every such woman is, in a sense,
an adventuress. She never knows what will happen next. She is in the
grip of incalculable forces. She has to work with feverish haste to
make herself secure and to use even such bizarre instruments as
literature in the pursuit of safety. Back in his tiny chambers over the
old Gate of Cliffords Inn, the author meditated darkly upon that play
that only required pulling together to make it the nucleus of a
fortune. Evidently, he reflected, there were determined characters
about, aided and inspired by equally determined young women, battering
upon the gates of Fame, and he felt his own chances of success against
such rivals were frail indeed. So he went to sea again.
Here, in one short sentence, is the gist of this book, that the sea
is a way of escape from the intolerable burden of life. A cynic once
described it as having all the advantages of suicide without any of its
inconveniences. To the author it was more than that. It was the means
of finding himself in the world, a medium in which he could work out
the dreams which beset him and which were the basis of future writings.
But ever at the back of the mind will there be the craving to get out
beyond the bar, to see the hard, bright glitter of impersonal
land-lights die suddenly in the fresh gusts, and to leave behind the
importunate demands of business, of friendship, and of love.
From too much love of living
From hope and fear set free.
The words hummed in his brain as he ascended the stone stairs of the
gaunt building in Mark Lane to face the final ordeal of a viva voce
examination before the Head Examiner. There had been a hurried
consultation in whispers in the great examination room. In a far corner
was a glazed, portioned-off space where sat the regular examiner with a
perspiring candidate in front of him, tongue-tied and weary. And there
were a dozen more waiting. So the author was informed in a whisper that
he had better step upstairs and the Head Examiner would deal with him.
And settle his hash quickly enough, thought the author as he sprang
nimbly up behind the assistant examiner. He found himself in a large,
imposing office where at an immense desk sat a man with a trim beard,
rapidly scanning a mass of papers. The author immediately became
absorbed in the contemplation of this person, for he bore an
extraordinary resemblance to George Meredith. The head in profile was
like a Sicilian antique, with the clear-cut candour of a cameo.
Memories of Lord Ormont and His Aminta crowded upon the waiting
victim and he found himself almost hysterical with curiosity as to what
would happen if he claimed to be a distant connection of Sir Willoughby
Patterne, but without the historic leg. What if he led the conversation
gently towards Richard Feverel's perfect love-story, or alluded to a
lady with whom he will always remain in loveDiana of the Crossways?
But nothing of the sort happened. The author was nodded curtly to a
seat, the assistant examiner chose another chair close by, cleared his
throat, shot his cuffs, and pulled up the knees of his trousers. The
Head Examiner, without looking up or desisting from his rapid writing,
began to express his deep regret that the author apparently preferred
to work an evaporator under a pressure instead of a vacuum. There might
possibly be some reason for this which he, the Examiner, had
overlooked, and he would appreciate it if the author could so far
unbend as to outline his experience in this business. Whereupon the
Head Examiner proceeded with his writing and left the author, in a
state of coma, facing an expectant assistant examiner, who resembled
some predatory bird only waiting for life to be extinct before falling
upon the victim. Somewhat to his own surprise, however, the victim
showed signs of returning animation, and began to utter strange,
semi-articulate noises. The Head Examiner wrote on with increasing
speed; the assistant examiner, somewhat disappointed, still preserved
an expectant air. The victim became more active, and astounded himself
by carrying the war into the enemy's camp. He announced himself as an
adherent of the pressure method. He became eloquent, describing his
tribulations working an evaporator on a vacuum. But the aim of
examiners apparently is not to hear what one knows but to reveal to a
shocked world what one does not know. The subject was immediately
changed to the advantages of multi-polar generators and the ethics of
the single-wire system. The assistant examiner reluctantly resigned any
thoughts of an immediate banquet upon the author's remains and assumed
an attitude of charitable tolerance, much as one watches an insect's
valorous struggles to get out of the molasses. The Head Examiner from
time to time interjected a short, sharp question, like a lancet into
the discussion, but without looking up or ceasing to write with extreme
rapidity. And as time went on and the whole range of knowledge was gone
over in the attempt to destroy him, the author began to wonder whether
these men thought he had, like Lord Bacon, taken all knowledge for his
province, whether tramp steamers carried a crew of technical pundits,
and whether there would be so many literary men and women about if they
had to go through this sort of thing. And the thought of literature
brought back George Meredith to mind again, only to be dismissed. It
was much more like being examined by Anthony Trollope or Arnold
Bennett, the author decided, than by Meredith. Appearances are
misleading. The thin, classical face never roused from its down-cast
repose and implacable attention. But at long last the assistant
examiner shuffled his papers and remained silent for a moment, as
though regretfully admitting that the victim was, within bounds,
omniscient, and could not be decently tortured any longer. As an after
thought, however, and glancing at the Head Examiner as he did so, he
enquired whether the author had experienced any break-downs, accidents,
The author had. It was a subject upon which he was an authority,
having served in a ship twenty-five years old with rotten boilers and
perishing frames. And all unwittingly he became reminiscent and drifted
into the story of a gale in the Bristol Channel with the empty ship
rolling till she showed her bilge keels, the propeller with its boss
awash thrashing the sea with lunatic rage, and then the three of us
swaying and sweating on the boiler-tops, a broken main-steam pipe lying
under our feet. And it had to be done, for the tide and the current
were taking us up to Lundy, where half-tide rocks would soon cook our
goose, as the saying is. And as he grew absorbed in the tale the author
observed out of the corner of his eye that the Head Examiner's pen
paused and then was gently laid down, a new expression of alertness, as
though about to deliver judgment, came over the finely cut features.
And presently, as it was explained how an iron collar was made and
clamped about the broken pipe, and long bolts made to pass into the
solid flanges of the valve below, to haul the pipe into its socket and
hold it there by main force until we could get in, the Head Examiner
turned in his chair, and nodded as he touched his beard lightly with
one finger. It was about four in the morning when the job was finished,
the author recalled, and he came up on to the wet deck, with low clouds
flying past and Lundy an ominous shadow behind, while the dawn lifted
beyond the Welsh Mountains and the jolly, homely lights of Swansea
shone clear ahead. And as he paused and remarked that the repair proved
to be effective, he saw something else in the face of the man watching
him, something not seen before, something not very easy to describe.
But it may be said to have marked another step in his career. Call it
character, and the perception of it. Something, as the reader will see,
that is only emerging in the pages of this book. Something harsh and
strong-fibred, nurtured upon coarse food and the inexorable discipline
of the sea. Something that is the enemy of sloth and lies and the soft
languors of love. Indeed, what the author has finally to say after all
may be comprised in thisthat out of his experience, which has been to
a certain degree varied, he has come to the conviction that this same
character, the achievement and acceptance of it, stands out as the one
desirable and indispensable thing in the world, and neither fame nor
wealth nor love can furnish any adequate substitute for it.
S. S. Turrialba, August, 1920.
[Footnote A: Preface to the first edition.]
As I sit, this hot July day, by my window on the Walk, while the two
streams, of traffic and of Thames, drift past me, I think of the man
who was my friend, the man who loved this scene so well.
And he is dead. In my hand, as I write, lie his last written words,
a hasty scribble ere the steamer left port on her voyage across the
Atlantic. He is busy, as is evident by the greasy thumb-mark on the
corner. He sat down in the midst of his work to send a last line to his
friend. There is the inevitable joke at the expense of his friend the
Mate, that individual being in a towering passion with a certain pig
which had escaped from his enclosure. This same pig, he declares, is
some previous First Officer, who had been smitten by Circe for
incontinence, and now wanders even from his sty! But I cannot go on in
this way, for he is dead, poor lad, and I shall not see him again.
To those men who have wedded early I can never hope to explain the
deep-rootedness of such a friendship as ours. It was, to me, as though
my own youth were renewed in more perfect design. Never again shall I
experience that exquisite delight with which one sees a youth reach
post after post along the ways of life and thought, reach out eagerly
to field on field of knowledge, through which one has tramped or
scampered so many years before. With something of wonder, too, was I
inspired to see so young a man lead a life so perfectly balanced, so
exquisitely sensitive to every fine masculine influence. Possessing to
an unusual degree that rare temperament which we call culture, he
entered joyously into all that life offered to him, impatient only of
hypocrisy and what he called the copiously pious. Many misunderstood
this phase of his character, mistaking for coarseness what was really a
very fine love of honesty in thinking.
Of his antecedents I have often wished to know something, but it was
his whim to treat personal details in a very general way. He would
maintain obstinately that he himself was the most interesting person he
had ever met, because, he would add, he knew so little about himself!
When pressed, he would say, My forefathers plowed the soil, my father
plowed the ocean, I myself am the full corn in the ear. As to his
childhood, he rarely mentioned it save in a cynical manner, indicating
indisputably enough that all had not gone well.
In the beginning, I heard him tell a religious person, In the
beginning my mother bore me. When I was a child I was wont to bore my
mother. Now we bore each other. That this was primarily intended to
shock our friend's devotional sensibilities I do not doubt, but I
imagine it contained some small truth all the same. I think he rather
shrank from personalities, resolutely refusing even to be photographed,
hating that process with an unexampled vehemence strange in one so
modern and so versed in mechanical and chemical science. I! he would
rage. What have I done to merit portraiture? Have I builded a
city, or painted a masterpiece, or served my country, or composed an
iliad? Again, Better a single faulty human effort than the
most perfect photograph ever developed.
Scanty indeed, therefore, did I find the materials with which to
fashion an introduction to this book. With the exception of one or two
pertinent fragments among his manuscripts, fragments more valuable to a
critic than a biographer, I was unrewarded. One thing, however, was
impressed upon me by my search. Here, at any rate, was a man developed
to the full. Here was a man whose culture was deep and broad, whose
body was inured to toil, whose hands and brains were employed in doing
the world's work. I have read in books vehement denials of such a one's
existence. He himself, in citing Ruskin, seemed to be sceptical of any
one man becoming a passionate thinker and a manual worker. But I have
often heard him in close converse with some old shopmate, passing hour
after hour in technical reminiscences and descriptions; then, upon the
entrance of some artist or litterateur, plunge into the history
of Letters or of Arts, never at a loss for authorities or original
ideas, often even illuminating intellectual problems by some happy
analogy with the problems of his trade, and rarely grounding on either
the Scylla of overbearing conceit or the Charybdis of foolish humility.
I must insist on this fact at all events: he was not merely a clever
young man of modern ideas. London is paved and bastioned with clever
young men, he would snarl. His aversion to the impossible type of
cultured nonentities was almost too marked. His passion for thinking as
an integral part of life placed him beyond these, among a rarer,
different class of men, the lovers of solitude. It came to view in
various ways, this fine quality of intellectual fibre. And, indeed,
hewho had in him so much that drove him towards the fine Arts, yet
could go out to earn his bread upon the waters, dwelling among those
who had no glimmering of the things he cared forwas no slippered
mouther of Pater and Sainte-Beuve but a strong spirit, confident in his
own breadth of pinion, courageous to let Fate order his destiny.
Another outcome of my search for light was a conviction of the
importance of his theory of art. I might almost say his religion of
art, inasmuch as he had no traffic with anything that was not
spontaneous, effervescing. To him a hammer and a chisel were actual and
very real, and the plastic art appealed especially to him in its
character of smiting. To smite from the stone, to finish with
all a craftsman's cunning carethere seemed to him real joy in this;
and so I think he felt the influence of art dynamically, maintaining
always that the life-force is also the art-force, and remains constant
throughout the ages. So, I imagine, he reasoned when he wrote the
following verses, only to fling them aside to be forgotten:
An Author, Sitting to a Sculptor, Speaks His Mind.
And yet you call yourself a sculptor, sir?
You with your tape a-trailing to and fro,
Jotting down figures, frowning when I stir,
Measuring me across the shoulders, so!
And yet you are an artist, they aver,
Heir to the crown of Michelangelo?
I cannot thinkeh, what? I ought to think?
How will you have me? Shall I sit at ease,
Staring at nothing thro' the eyelids' chink,
Coining new words for old philosophies?
Aye, so I sit until the pale stars wink
And vanish ere the early morning breeze.
Sculpture is dead, I say! We have no men
To match the mighty masters of the past:
I've read, I've seen their works; the acumen
Of Learning on their triumph I have cast.
Divine! Colossal! Tongue nor pen
Can tell their beauty, O Iconoclast!
Ah, now you're modellingin the soft clay!
In that prosaic task where is the glow
Of genius, as in great Lorenzo's day,
When, solitary in his studio,
Buonarotti, in his terrible way,
Smote swift and hard the marble, blow on blow?
One moment while I ask you, earnestly,
Where is the splendour of the Dorian gone,
The genius of him whose mastery
Outshines the classic grace of Sicyon,
Whose art can show Death lock'd with Life, the cry,
The shuddering moan of poor Laocoön?
The Sculptor continues to model swiftly while the sitter remains
motionless, watching him.
That's good, sir, good! I'll wait till you have done:
We men of letters are a crabbéd race;
Often we're blind with staring at the sun;
And when the evening stars begin their race,
We miss their beauty, we, who creep and run
Like beetles o'er a buried Greek god's face.
I am reluctant to explain one of the main motifs of this
young man's life as an unfortunate love affair. Indeed, apart from
his frank avowal of the wandering fever in his blood, I am grown to
believe that it was the very reverse of unfortunate for him. It brought
him, as such things do, face to face with Realities, and showed him,
sharply enough, that at a certain point in a man's life there is a
Gate, guarded by the Fates, whose questions he must answer truthfully,
or turn sadly aside into the vague thickets of an aimless existence.
And never did there live a youth more sincere in his thought. I know
nothing more typical of him than his resolute refusal to sit for his
portrait until he had done something memorable. What! he would
cry. Why, the milk-man, who, I heard, has just had twins, is more
worthy of that high honour than I. He has done something in the
And now he is dead, and doing and not doing are beyond his power.
That the sea whereon he was born should bring him his death was
fitting. Often he would urge his horror, not of death, but of Christian
burial. To be boxed up in the midst of mummeries and lieshe would
start up and pace the floor, the sweat standing on his face. Grimly
enough, Fate took him at his word, flung him suddenly into eternity,
the rushing of the wind his only requiem, the coastwise lights and the
morning star the only watchers of his end.
To the orthodox sentiment sudden death may seem a very horrible sort
of end to a promising life. But, as I sit by my window on the Walk,
while the tides of Thames and traffic flow swiftly by, and the blue
evening mist comes down over the river, transforming dingy wharf and
factory into fairy palace and phantom battlement, it seems to me that
my friend died fitly and well, in the midst of Realities, recking
little that the love he thought secure had passed irrevocably from him,
but never swerving in fidelity to his mistress or devotion to his
The air grows chilly, and night has fallen over the river.
AN OCEAN TRAMP
This evening, as the Italian boatman rowed me across the harbour of
Livorno, and the exquisite loveliness of the night enfolded me, I
thought of you. It may be that the long curving line of lights which
marked the Molo Nuovo reminded me of the Embankment by our
windows, and so carried my mind on to him who waits for his
Vanderdecken to return. Around me loomed the hulls of many
steamers, their dark sides relieved by glowing port-holes, while across
the water came the hoarse calls of the boatmen, the sound of oars,
music, and the light laughter of women. Far down the harbour, near the
Castello, a steamer's winches rattled and roared in irregular gusts of
noise. By the Custom House a steam yacht, gleaming ghostly white in the
darkness, lay at rest. And so, as the boat slipped through the buoys,
and the molten silver dripped from the oars, I thought of you, my
friend at home, and of my promise that I would tell you of the life of
men in a cargo-tramp.
I propose, as I go on from sea to sea, to tell, in the simplest
language in my power, of the life that is around me, of the men among
whom I toil. I shall not tell you of these fair towns of the Southern
Sea, for you have travelled in years gone by. I shall not prattle of
the beauties of Nature, for the prattle is at your elbow in books. But
I shallnay, must, for it is my use and habittell you about myself
and the things in my heart. I shall be, not a hero talking about men,
but a man talking about heroes, as well as the astonishing beings who
go down to the sea in ships, and have their business in great waters.
To you, therefore, these occasional writings will be in somewise
addressed. You are my friend, and I know you well. That alone is to me
a mystic thread in the skein of my complex life, a thread which may not
be severed without peril. You, moreover, know me well, or perhaps
better, inasmuch as I am but passing the periods of early manhood,
while you are in the placid phases of an unencumbered middle-age. So,
in speaking of the deep things of life, I may leave much to be taken
for granted, as is fitting between friends.
I offer no apology, moreover, for the form of these Letters from an
Ocean Tramp. Even if I unwisely endeavoured to hide their literary
character under a disguise of colloquialisms and familiar references to
personal intimacies, I should fail, because, as I have just said, you
know me well. In your private judgments, I believe, I am allocated
among those who are destined to set the Thames on fire. In plainer
words, you believe that I have an ambition. This is true, and so I make
no attempt to conceal from you the ulterior design of these essays. Ere
you have read one of them, you will perceive that I am writing a book.
I shall take no umbrage at the failure of my communications to call
forth replies. I know you to be a bad correspondent, but a valuable
friend. I know that your attitude toward a letter addressed to you is
that of a mediæval prince toward a recalcitrant prisonerviz., get all
the information possible out of him, and then commit him to the flames.
Possibly, when I have attained to a deeper knowledge of the spirit of
the Middle Ages, I shall also have discovered the motives for this
curious survival of barbarism in your character. I can only hope humbly
that these papers, armed with their avowed literary import, will not
share the fate of the commoner envoys passing through your hands, but
will be treated as noble ambassadors rather than as hapless
petitioners, not merely escaping the flames of oblivion, but receiving
safe conduct, courteous audience, and honourable lodging.
I suppose we may say of everyone, that he sooner or later falls a
victim to the desire to travel, with as much truth as we say, far more
often, that he falls a victim to love. However that may be, I claim no
special destiny when I say that I have been mastered by both passions,
except perhaps that they culminated in my case simultaneously.
I must go back to the time when I was some six years old to find the
first faint evidences of the rover in me. At that time we lived almost
at the foot of that interminable thoroughfare, the Finsbury Park Road,
next door to a childless dame whose sole companion was a pug of
surpassing hideousness of aspect, and whose sole recreation was a
morning stroll in Finsbury Park with this pug. How I came to form a
third person in these walks I cannot quite remember but I can imagine.
At the age of six I was a solemn child, unclean in habits, consorting
with grown-ups, and filled with an unsocial hatred for the baby whose
matutinal ablutions were consummated at the same hour at which the old
lady usually took her walk. I can remember that I was supposed to
assist in some way at those ablutions, probably to hold the mottled
soap, which curiously resembled the infant's limbs when pinched with
cold; and so, I suppose, I would steal out and join the lady and her
dog, walking a little to one side as we drifted slowly up the dull
suburban street into the park. Sometimes we went as far as the lake,
and I have faint memories of a bun, purchased by the dame, and munched
by me as we watched the gardeners trimming the beds. I do not wish to
suggest that this lady was my first loveI have never carried my
senophile proclivities to that extent. She was, to me, the antithesis
of mottled soap and cradle-rocking, and as such she lives in my memory.
I am also grateful to her for giving me my first glimpse of a world
outside the front door; an ugly world, it is true, a world of raucous
bargaining and ill-bred enjoyment, but a world nevertheless.
Why should I tell of so trivial an incident? Bear with me a moment.
Since I have been at sea I have often reflected upon the fact that
many phases of my life are even now going on, quite heedless of my
absence, quite apathetic of my very existence, in fact. How marvellous,
it seems to me, to know that life at my old school is proceeding upon
exactly the same lines as when I was there! At this moment I can see,
in imagination, the whole routine; and I can tell at any time what the
school is doing. Again, I know precisely the goings-in and the
comings-out of all the staff at my old employer's; picture to myself
with ease what is happening at any instant. More wonderful still, I
know what my friend is doing at this moment. I know that he is seated
in his room at the Institute, talking to our friends (perchance of me),
ere they descend to their lectures at seven o'clock. At ten, while I am
turned in, he will be leaving the Institute, and the 'bus will put
him down at his favourite hostelry. At this moment he is smoking a
cigarette! But then, of course, he is always smoking a cigarette!
It is a far cry from a stealthy stroll with an old woman in Finsbury
Park to a twenty-thousand-mile tramp in a freighter, and yet one is the
logical outcome of the other, arrived at by unconscious yet inevitable
steps. Listen again.
At a later period, when I had discovered that tools were a necessary
complement to my intellectual well-being, I brought my insatiable
desire to make something to the assistance of my equally
insatiable desire to go somewhere. From a sugar-box and a pair
of perambulator wheels I fashioned a cart, between the shafts of which
I travelled many leagues into the wilds of Middlesex and Essex.
Leagues must be understood in the sense in which Don Quixote would
have used the word. I do not suppose I ever traversed more than eight
or ten miles at a time. But never, while the desire to go out and see
is living within me, shall I forget how, one breathless August day,
when the air was heavy with the aroma of creosoted sleepers, my small
brother and I stared through the gates of a level crossing, and saw
Epping Forest in the blue distance! O phantoms of Cortes, Balboa, and
De Soto, wert thou there? O Sir Francis, hadst thou that thrill when
Drake went down to the Horn,
And England was crowned thereby?
But I grow magniloquent. My object is attained if I can but show
that when my friend took me under his wing at the Institute long years
agone, when the innocent-looking lad with the fair hair, that might
have had an incipient tonsure superimposed without incongruity, drifted
away from text-books of mechanics, and sat down with Schiller,
Ducoudray, and Carlyle, he little imagined how adventurous a spirit
there boiled under that demure disguise of retiring scholarshipa
spirit fired with an untamable passion for looking over the back-garden
Even perambulator wheels give out, however. I forget whether the
wheels of my little cart failed before my mother's patience, or the
reverse. I was growing away from those tiny journeys; my head bulged
with loose heaps of intellectual rubbish acquired during long hours of
unsociable communion with a box of books in the lumber room. I knew the
date of Evil Merodach's accession to the Assyrian throne, but I did not
know who killed Cock Robin. I knew more than Keats about the discovery
of the Pacific, but I did not know Keats. I knew exactly how pig-iron
was smelted, but I did not know the iron which enters into the soul. I
knew how to differentiate between living and non-living matter, but I
did not know that I was alive. Then a new heaven and a new hell opened
before me; I was sent away to school.
Concerning school and, after school, apprenticeship, I shall not
speak. Neither mind nor body can wander far in those humane
penitentiaries called schools. I had fed myself with History
since I had learned, painfully enough, to read, and here at school I
found I knew nothing. What did it matter? The joy of knowing the name
of the wife of Darius, of Lucan, of Cæsar, was mine alone. I wove
stories about Roxana and Polla, but I doubt if any one ever wove
stories about the Conventicle Act, or the Petition of Rights, or the
Supremacy of the Pope, as told in a school history. I often wonder that
boys do not grow up to hate their country, when they are gorged with
the horrible trash in those yellow volumes.
I once read of a little boy who killed himself after reading The
Mighty Atom. I believe many people deplored this, and expressed
aversion to the book in consequence. That is proper; but suppose the
school history had related the story of The Little Princes in the
Tower with the same power and intensity which Corelli employs in the
Atom, and suppose the little boy had been so overwhelmed with the
horror and vividness of the historical perspective that he had hanged
himself behind the fourth-form classroom doorwell, then, I should say
the remainder of the boys would have learned the reign of Richard the
Third as it has never been learned before or since, and the unhappy
suicide would not have died in vain.
But, as I said, one cannot wander far at school. A schoolmaster once
advised his colleagues to take up some literary hobbyessay writing,
articles for the press, etc.; for, said he, teaching is a narrowing
profession. I wonder if any schoolmaster has ever imagined how
narrowing it is for the boys? Have they never seen the look of abject
boredom creep over the faces of even clever lads as the lesson drones
on: At this period the Gothic style of architecture arose, and was
much used in Northern Europe for ecclesiastical buildings. And so on,
including dates. Whose spirit would not fail? Why not, oh, my masters,
why not use this inborn passion for wandering abroad of which I write?
Why not take that jaded band of youths out across yon fields, take them
to the village church, and show them grinning gargoyle and
curling finial, show them the deep-cut blocks of stone, show them, on
your return, a picture of the Rue de la Grosse Horloge at Rouen? Would
your trade be narrowing then?
But the sea!
My friend asked me once, of the MediterraneanIs it really blue?
And I replied that I could give him no notion of the colour of it. And
that is true. From the real sea-green of the shallow North Sea to the
turquoise-blue of the Bay; from the grey-white rush of the Irish Sea to
the clear-cut emerald of the Clyde Estuary; from the colourless, oily
swell of the Equatorial Atlantic to the paraffin-hued rollers of the
Tropic of Cancer, the sea varies as human nature itself. To the artist,
I imagine, no two square miles are alike, no two sunsets, no two
His sea in no showing the same,
His sea, yet the same in all showing.
As I climbed the steep side of the almost-empty steamer, lying at
the Tyne-main Buoys, a keen, alert, bearded face looked over the
gunwale above me. I stepped aboard and spoke to the owner of this face.
I said, Is the Chief aboard?
He is not.
Is the Captain aboard?
He is not.
Then who is aboard?
The Mate's aboard.
Are you the Mate?
I am that.
My name is McAlnwick. I am signing on with this steamer.
Ye're welcome. And we shook hands.
He is the very image of my old Headmaster, is this mate of the
Benvenuto. The trim beard, the keen, blue, deep-set eyes, the
smilehow often have I seen them from my vantage-point at the bottom
of the Sixth Form! On his head is an old uniform cap with two gold
bands and an obliterated badge. He wears a soiled mess-jacket with
brass buttons in the breast-pocket of which I see the mouthpiece of a
certain ivory-stemmed pipe. His hands are in his trouser pockets, and
he turns from me to howl into the cavernous hold some directions to the
cargo-men below. In the gathering gloom of a short January afternoon,
with the rush and roar of the winches in my ears, I stumble aft to my
quarters, thinking pleasantly of my first acquaintance.
And our friendship grows as we proceed. When we have slipped out of
the Tyne one grey evening, when the lights of Shields and Sunderland
die away, we are friends. For, as I prophesied, my whiskey would open
hearts. It was on a cold, bleak morning, ere we left Newcastle, that I
heard a stealthy step down the stairs to my room, and a husky
whisperhad I a nip o' whiskey? Yes, I had a nip. The bottle is
opened, and I fill two glasses. Evidently the First Officer is no
believer in dilution. With a hushed warning of Ould Maun! as a dull
snoring comes through the partition, he tosses my whiskey down his
neck, rubs his stomach, and vanishes likelike a spirit! Later in the
day, as I stare across at some huge ships-of-war (for we are opposite
Elswick now), I hear a voice, a hearty voice, at my elbow.
Thank ye, Mister McAlnwick, for the whiskey. 'Twas good!
I express my pleasure at hearing this. He touches me on the
Come down to me berth this evening, he says, an' we'll have a
nip. And I promise.
Perhaps it is the sensation of drinking whiskey with my Headmaster's
double, but I enjoy creeping down the companion-way to the Mate's room.
And I, being of the true line of descent, with my father held in memory
still, am welcome. I am taken into this old sea-dog's confidence, and
we talk. I have learnt, I think, the delicate art of asking questions
of the men who do the world's work. Perhaps because I have dwelt so
long with them, because I love them truly, they tell me the deep things
of their lives. And so you must picture me in the Mate's room, seated
on his settee, while he loads my knees with photographs of his wife and
children. This is Jack, son and heir, in his Boys' Brigade uniform. He
has a flute, too, which he plays beautiful, Mr. McAlnwickbeautiful!
Then there is Madge, a sweet little English maid of fourteen, with a
violin: Her mother to the life. Dot follows, with only her big
six-year-old eyes looking out of curls which are golden. And the Baby
on his mother's kneebut I cannot describe babies. To me they are not
beautiful creatures. They always seem to me, in photographs, to be
stonily demanding why they have been born; and I, wretched man that I
am, cannot answer them, for I do not know. Calypso, too, not
eternally aground on the Goodwin Sands of inconsolability, interests
me, in that I also was mothered of a sea-wife. A hard life, I imagine,
a hard life. I find no delight in the sea in these mariners. A Life on
the Ocean Wave was not written by one who earned his bread from port
to port. My friend the Mate (he has gone on watch now, so I may speak
freely) lives for the future. He holds a master's ticket, yes; but
commands do not come to all. He lives for the time when the insurance
money falls in, when he will sit down in the little house in Penarth
where the sun warms the creeper on the back-garden wall. He will keep
chickens, and perhaps there will be a cucumber frame between the peas
and the vegetable patch, and he will do a little gardening when the
weather is fine, and smoke, and read the shipping news. And there
shall be no more sea.
Not that I would give you to think that a Chief Officer's life is
one of toil. Indeed, on a steamship, while at sea, he has little to do.
His watch is a sinecure save in thick weather, and is usually
occupied by day with sundry odd jobs, by night with thoughts of home.
In port he is busy like everybody else; but at sea, in fine weather,
his greatest grievance is the short hours off and on. Our steamer
carries but two deck officers, and these two keep alternate watch and
watch throughout the twenty-four hours. This means that his watch
below is all sleep. The Chief Officer comes off at eight p.m., say,
washes himself, smokes a pipe, and turns in. At eleven-forty-five the
sailor coming on watch at the wheel calls him, and he turns out.
Nothing can equal the ghastly expression on the faces of men who have
been torn from their sleep at an unnaturally premature hour. They move
along the iron decks like ghosts, peering into one's face like
disembodied spirits seeking their corporeal correlatives, and avoiding
stanchions, chains, and other pitfalls in an uncanny fashion. In the
meantime, the Second Officer drifts aft to his bunk for another
four-hour sleep. And so on, day after day, for weeks.
I have this, at any rate, to say of sea-life: a man is pre-eminently
conscious of a Soul. I feel, remembering the blithe positivism of my
early note, that I am here scarcely consistent. As I stood by the rail
this morning at four o'clockthe icy fingers of the wind ruffled my
hair so that the roots tingled deliciously, and a low, greenish
cloud-bank, which was Ireland, lay nebulously against our port bowI
felt a change take place. It was almost physical, organic. The dawn
grew whiter, and the rose-pink banners of the coming sun reached out
across the grey wastes of the St. George's Channel. I am loth to use
the trite metaphor of a spiritual dawn. By a strange twist of things,
my barest hint of a soul within me, that is to say, the faintest
glimmer of the ever-increasing purpose of my beingthe moment it
showed through, the outer world, including my own self, had always
greeted it with inextinguishable laughter. Perhaps because the purpose
was always so very immature, so very uncertain. I wantedI hardly knew
what. My ideas of morality were so terrible that I left it alone, on
one side, for a time, and charged full tilt at art. I shouted that I
thought music a disease, and musicians crushed me. I did not mean that;
but I could get no nearer to what I did mean in any other phrase. I
told hard, practical business men that they were dreamers and
visionaries; and they are still dreaming.
But the Angel of the Spirit does not move in any prescribed path, or
make his visits to any time-table. I think I heard the far-off beating
of his wings this morning, as we swept up-channel towards the Clyde,
and I think I was promised deeper knowledge of Love and Life than
heretofore. I know that with the dawn came a sense of infinite power
and vision, as though the cool wind were the rushing music of the
spheres, and the rosy cloudland the outer portals of the Kingdom of
And, indeed, I have had my reward. I had come from Italy, where I
had wandered through churches and galleries, and had seen the supreme
excellence of a generation whose like we shall not see again, and as we
came up that stately firth and discovered a generation as supreme in
their art as the Italians of the sixteenth century were in theirs, I
held my breath.
From Greenock to Glasgow resounded the clangour of hammers and the
thunder of mechanism. Plate by plate, rivet by rivet, and beam by beam,
there grew before my very eyes the shapes of half a hundred ships. I
see more clearly still, now, what I meant by insisting on the
conservation of intellectual energy. My friend points piteously to past
periods, and says, They can't do it now, old man. And I smile and
point to those steel steamships, growing in grace and beauty as I
watch, and I say, They couldn't do that then, old man! Just as
the physical energy in this universe is a definite totality, so is the
intellectual or spiritual energy. The Da Vinci of to-day leaves his
Last Supper undepicted; but he drives a Tube through the London clay.
Cellini no longer casts a Perseus and alternates a murder with a
Trattato; he builds engines and railroads and ships. Michael Angelo
smites no sibyls from the living stone, but he has carved the face of
the very earth to his design. And though no fair youth steps forth to
paint the unearthly nimbus-light around the brows of his beloved
madonna, I count it fair exchange that from every reef and point of
this our sea-girt isle there shines a radiance none can watch without a
catching of the breath.
It is a far call from such musings to the Skipper, whom I
encountered as I was in the midst of them. It is only the bald truth to
say that I had not then considered him to be a human being. Even now I
am uncertain how to describe him, for we do not meet often. He is a
tall, powerfully built, slow-moving man, strong with the strength of
those who live continually at sea. Something apart from temporary bias
made me look distastefully upon his personality. I resolved to fasten
it upon my dissecting board, and analyse it, relegating it if possible
to its order, genus, and species. Let me try.
A single glance at the specimen before us, gentlemen, tells us that
we have to deal with a remarkable case of arrested development.
Although inexperienced observers might imagine traces of the British
colonel, as found in Pall Mall, in the bristling white moustache,
swollen neck, and red gills, we find neither public school education
nor inefficiency much in evidence anywhere. On the contrary, education
is in a rudimentary condition, though with slightly protuberent
mathematical and fictional glands. Inefficiency, too, is quite absent,
the organ having had but small opportunity to perform its functions.
The subject, we may conclude, gentlemen, has been accustomed to a sort
of mathematical progression and having to ascertain its whereabouts in
the water by taking the sun. It has been fed chiefly on novels, food
which requires no digestive organs. It has a horror of land generally,
and should never be looked for on the rocks. You observe this
accumulation of yellow tissue round the heart. The subject is
particularly fond of gold, which metal eventually strangles the heart
and renders its action ineffective and unreliable.
Longfellow, if I remember rightly, drew a very spirited comparison
between the building and launching of a ship and the building and
launching of a state. The state, said he, is a ship. M-yes, in a
poetical way. But no poetry is needed to say that a ship is a state. I
maintain that it is the most perfect state yet conceived; and it is
almost startling to think that so perfect an institution as a ship can
be run successfully without morality, without honesty, without
religion, without even ceremonialwithout, in fact, any of those props
usually considered by Tories and Nonconformists to be so vital to the
For, observe, here on this ship we have some forty human beings,
each of whom has certain clearly defined duties to perform, each of
whom owes instant and absolute obedience to his superior officer; each
of whom receives a definite amount of food, drink, tobacco, and sleep
per day; each of whom is bound for a certain period to remain in the
state, but is free to go or stay when that period terminates; each of
whom is at liberty to be of any persuasion he please, of any political
party he please, to be of any nationality he please, provided he speak
the language of the state; each of whom is medically attended by the
state; and, finally, each of whom can snap his fingers at every
Utopia-monger since Plato, and call him a fool who makes paradises for
other fools to dwell in. So, I say, the ship is a perfect state, its
very perfection being attested by the desire of its inhabitants to end
their days elsewhere.
Joking aside, though, I fear my notions of sailor-men have been
sadly jarred since I began to study them. Writing with one eye on this
master-mariner of ours, I call to mind certain conceptions of the
sailor-man which my youthful mind gathered from books and relations. He
was an honest, God-fearing man; slightly superstitious certainly,
slightly forcible in his language at times, slightly garrulous when
telling you about the Sarah Sands; but all these were as spots
on the sun. He was just and upright towards all men, never dreamed of
making money on his own, and read prayers aloud on Sunday morning to
the assembled seamen.
Humph! I own I cannot imagine this skipper reading anything aloud to
his crew except the Riot Act, and he would not get more than half-way
through that if his cartridges were dry. There is a brutal,
edge-of-civilization look in his cold blue eye which harmonizes ill
with the Brixton address on the letters he sends to his wife.
Ah, well! Sometimes, when I think of this man and his like, when I
think of my puny attempts to creep into their skins, I must need laugh,
lest, like Beaumarchais, I should weep. What, after all, do I know of
him? What is there in my armoury to pierce this impenetrable outer-man?
Once, when I was Browning-mad, I began an epic. Yes, I, an epic! I
pictured the hordes of civilisation sweeping over an immense and
beautiful mountain, crushing, destroying, manufacturing, and the burden
of their cry was a scornful text of Ruskin'sWe do not come here to
look at the mountain; and they shouted, Stand aside. And then, when
the mountain lay blackened, and dead, and disembowelled, out of the
hordes of slaves came a youth who would not work and thereby lose his
soul; so he set out on a pilgrimage. And the burden of his song
was the hearts of men.
And the cry went up to the roofs again,
Show me the way to the hearts of men.
But, alas! by the time I had got back into blank verse again, he had
fallen in love, and as far as I know he lived happy ever after. But I
often think of his clear, boyish voice singing, Show me the way to the
hearts of men.
Gilbert Chesterton, whose genius I hope my friend will some day
appreciate, once wrote a strange crazy tale, in which he meets a
madman who had stood in a field; and this seemingly silent pasture had
presented to his ears an unspeakable uproar. And he says, I could hear
the daisies grow! Well, I have sometimes thought of that when in some
roaring street of London. Could I but hear men and women think as they
pass along! To what a tiny hum would the traffic fall when that titanic
clangour met my ears! I imagine Walter Pater had this thought in mind
when he says, so finely, of young Gaston de Latour: He became aware,
suddenly, of the great stream of human tears, falling always through
the shadows of the world.
How good that is! But, alas! So few read Pater. It is true men
cannot possibly read everything. To quote another exquisite thinker,
who I fear drops more and more into oblivion: A man would die in the
first cloisters if he tried to read all the books of the world. But it
is strange so few read those eight or nine volumes, so beautifully
printed, which are Pater's legacy to us. How they would be repaid by
the delicate dexterity of his art, the wonderful music of his style!
But I digress.
I have no doubt that many monarchs would envy the life of a
steamship captain at sea. Indeed, his duties are non-existent, his XXXX
responsibility enormous. He bears the same relation to his company that
a Viceroy of India bears to the Home Government. So extended were his
powers that he could take the steamer into a port, sell her cargo, sell
the vessel herself, discharge her crew, and disappear for ever. It is a
sad pill for us sentimentalists that those who live by and on the sea
have less sentiment than any others. These masters are wholly intent on
the things of which money is the exchange. They have never yet seen
the light that never was, on sea or land. Their utmost flight above
pickings and store commissions is a morose evangelicalism, a sort
of ill-breeding illumined by the smoky light of the Apocalypse. But
they never relax their iron grasp on this world. Perhaps because they
feel the supernal tugging at them so persistently they hold the tighter
to the tangible. They are ashamed, I think, to let any divinity show
through. And ye shall be as gods was not uttered of them. The
romancethat is the word!the romance of their lives is
never mirrored in their souls. And the realisation of this has
sometimes led me to imagine thatit was always so! I mean that there
was nothing poetic to Hercules about the Augean task, when the pungent
smell of ammonia filled his nostrils, and he bent a sweat-dewed face to
that mighty scavenging once more: that there was nothing poetic to
Cæsar about the Rubicon: nothing poetic to Clive about India. The world
seems to have an invincible prejudice against men who see the romance
in the work they are doing. The footballing, cigarette-smoking clerk,
who lives at Hornsey or Tufnell Park, works in an office in Queen
Victoria Street, lunches at Lyons's, and plays football at Shepherd's
Bush, sees no romance in his own life, which is in reality thrilling
with adventure, but thinks Captain Kettle the hero of an ideal
existence. Captain Kettle, bringing coal from Dunston Staiths to Genoa,
suffers day after day of boredom, and reads Marie Corelli and Hall
Caine with a relish only equalled by the girl typewriters in the
second-class carriages of the eight-fifteen up from Croydon or
Hampstead Heath. These people cannot see the sunlight of romance
shining on their own faces! I observe in myself a frantic resentment
when I fail to convince the other officers that they are heroes. They
regard such crazy notions as dangerous and scarcely decent. You can now
perceive why religion occasionally gains such a hold upon these men. To
be uplifted about work, or nature, or love, is derogatory to their
dignity as bond-slaves of the industrial world; but in the realms of
the infinite future, in the Kingdom of God, where there shall be no
more sea, their souls break away from the harbour-mud, and they put
out on the illimitable ocean of belief.
It is so long since I set my hand to paper that I am grown rusty! I
did not write you from Madeirathat is true. One cannot write from
Madeira when Madeira means a plunging vortex of coal-dust, a blazing
sun, and the unending roar of the winches as they fish up ton after ton
of coal. Moreover, I was boarded by a battalion of fleas from the
Spanish labourers in my vicinityfleas that had evidently been
apprenticed to their trade, and had been allowed free scope for the
development of their ubiquitous genius. I looked at the old rascal who
tallied the bags with me, envisaged in parchment, and clothed in
picturesque remnants, and heard his croaking Cincuo saco, Señor, or Cuarro saco, Señor, as he bade me note the varying
numbers on the hook, and I wondered inwardly whether the Holy Office
had experimented during the sixteenth century with Spanish fleas, and
so brought them to such an astonishing perfection in the administration
of slow torture. Breeding, I take it, holds good with fleas as with
horses, dogs, etc. Those born of parents with thicker mail, longer
springs, harder proboscis, and greater daring in initiative, would
doubtless be selected and encouraged, if I may say so, to go farther.
It is possible that many famous recantations could be accounted for by
this hypothesis. Galileo, for instance, probably had a sensitive
epidermis which afforded an unlimited field for the exploitation of
Spanish fleas, which formed, according to my theory, an indispensable
item in the torture chest carried by the fraternity in Tuscany.
Giordano Bruno, on the other hand, I imagine to have been a XXXX
dark-skinned heretic, tanned by travel and hardship, and regarding the
aphanipterous insect with the sardonic contempt of one who had lived in
England in the sixteenth century. His own gown probably contained....
I was roused from these musings by observing four bags come up on
the hook, and hearing them saluted by my picturesque vis-à vis
with Cincuo saco, Señor! I deserted my theory and hastened to
point out the error of fact. He bowed his head in submission with all
the haughty grace of Old Castile. When out at sea once more, I looked
back along his ancestral line; I saw him in the days of old, marching
through Italy with the Great Emperor, taking part in some murderous
deed that cried to the law for vengeance, flying from Spain in a tall
galleon to still more desperate work upon the high seas, settling in
these pleasant islands with bloody booty in pieces of eight, drifting
down and down to an adobe hut, and an occasional job as sub-deputy
assistant stevedore to a British coal factor. Then he faded from my
sight, and the life of an ocean tramp closed round me once more.
Sailcloth and coal-dust being our equivalent for sackcloth and
ashes, the steamer looks mournful indeed as she drives southward
towards the Cape. But with lower latitudes comes warmer weather, and a
sea so unutterably smooth that one loses faith in the agony of the Bay
or the Gulf of Lyons, while the hellish frenzy of the North Atlantic in
winter is a distemper of the brain. It is in such halcyon days that we
begin to believe in paint. The decks are methodically chipped and
scraped of their corroding rust, ventilators are washed and painted,
and all the deck-houses are cleansed of a coating of coal-dust which
seems appalling. As the days drone by the filth disappears; pots of
red, white, brown, and black paint come out of the Mate's secret store
in the fore-peak, and one hears satirical approval from those below.
Like a little yacht, she is, says one, and the Second Mate is asked
if he has a R. Y. S. flag in the chart-room. I fear the wit who called
the engine-room a whited sepulchre had some smack of truth in him. The
Mate had given it an external coating of paint as white as the driven
snow, and it needed no heaven-sent seer to perceive that within it was
full of all uncleanness. But what would you? The engines do not run of
themselves, though to say so is one of the navigator's few joys in a
world of woe. The ship herself knows better, I think, though perchance
she is like us other mortals, and thinks her heart best unattended, and
sees no connection between the twenty-five tons of coal she eats per
day and the tiny clink which the speed recorder gives every quarter of
a mile on the poop. We below, at any rate, know all this, for therein
is the justification of our existence. And so our decorations
must needs wait till we reach port, when the holds are in travail and
the winches scream out their agony to the bare brown hills beyond the
town and mingle with the deep, dull roar of the surf on the barrier
And now let me describe my day at sea, as well as I am able.
Different indeed from those I was wont to spend at home. No delicious
hours in our pet hostelries; no Sundays with music and an open window
looking out upon the river; no rollicking evenings in some dear old
tumble-down studio; no midnight rambles towards home down the Fulham
Road, where the ghostly women walk; no cosy talks round the fire when
the fog lies white against the glass, while the candle-light glows on
the tall, warm rose-wood book-case, and all is well with us. Nay, as
eight-bells strikes ting-ting-ting-ting-ting-ting-ting-ting, and the
hands of the clocks point to twelve midnight, I awake. Ten minutes
before, George the Fourth, of whom I may tell more anon, switches on
the light and punches me in the ribs. I turn over to sleep again, while
he rummages in his berth for soap, towel, and clean shirt, and goes
below. A gay, likeable lad is George the Fourth, with bonnie brown hair
and steady blue eyes.
Mechanically I rise at twelve, hustle on my dungarees, and,
sweat-rag in my teeth, I pass along the deck beneath the stars which
dust the midnight dome. My friend the Mate is just ahead, as I vanish
through a low-arched doorway which shows black against his white paint.
Careful now; these stairs are steep, and the upward-rising air is like
a gust of the stormy blast of hell. Round the low-pressure cylinder,
then down againand we are below.
The steady beat and kick has become a thunderous uproar; by the
yellow light of the electrics you can see the enginesmy
engines for the next four hours. George is round by the pumps, stripped
to the waist, washing. He has finished; on the black-board he has
recorded his steam-pressure, his vacuum, his speed per minute, the
temperature of his sea water, his discharge water, and feed water; but
he cannot leave till I have thumbed all bearings, noted all water
levels, tried the gauges, and see that bilges, pumps, thrust-block,
tunnel-shaft, and stern-gland are all right. And while I do all this I
try to make out the orchestration of the uproar as my friend would some
tremendous Wagnerian clangour. Ah, what would he think of this, the
very heart of things, if he were but here?
Does George the Fourth feel the romance of it? Not a bit. George the
Fourth was pitch-forked into a marine engineering shop at the ripe age
of thirteen. He is twenty-two now, and carnal minded. He wants siller
forwell, not for the Broomielaw. He wants to go east again
to Singapore, where the ladies of Japan are so charming and so cheap.
The only hope for him is that he may fall in love. I pray without
ceasing that he may fall in love. See the young pagan lounging round by
the stokehold door. Now you will perceive what I argued as to the
heroic nature of their lives.
L.P. Top end is warm, I observe reproachfully.
'Twas red-hot when it came to me, he exaggerates genially, putting
a clay gun in his mouth, and adding:
Chief says, clean Number Four smoke-boxes fore and aft yoore watch,
an' ta trimmers to tak' nowt fra' th' thwart-ship boonkers.
Then he swings away, climbing the stairs with one eye on the engine.
A goodly youth, such as we admire; a magnificent young animal with
And then the firemen. I stand under the ventilatorit is
coolerand I watch them toil. Think well upon it, my friend. These
were men doing this while you were at your German University, while you
were travelling over Europe and storing your mind with the best of all
times. They are doing it now, will do it while you are at your work at
the Institute. They have their business in the great waters. That
little man there, with two fingers of his left hand gone, is Joe, a
Welshman from his beloved Abertawe. Beyond him, again, the huge gaunt
frame and battered deep-sea cap, the draggled military moustache
surmounted by high cheek-bones, the long, thin, sinewy arms tattooed
with French dancing-girlswhere shall our knowledge of the nations
place him? That is Androwsky, from Novorossisk, in South Russia. A
vast, silent man, uttering but three or four words a day. His story? I
cannot tell it, for he never speaks. In my poor way I have tried to get
it in German, but it is no good. In the meantime he is almost the best
fireman in the ship. Indeed, all my men are good. Scarcely ever do we
have less than full steam at the end of the watch.
And now, my engines! To the uninitiated it is, I suppose, a
tiresome, bewildering uproar. And yet every component, every note of
this great harmony, has a special meaning for the engineer; moreover,
the smallest dissonance is detected at once, even though he be almost
ready to doze. So finely attuned to the music does the ear become that
the dropping of a hammer in the stokehold, the rattling of a chain on
deck, the rocking of a barrel in the stores, makes one jump. It is the
same with the eye. It is even the same with the hand. We can tell in an
instant if a bearing has warmed ever so slightly beyond its legitimate
temperature. And so it is difficult to know who is the potter and who
the pot. The man and the machine are inextricably associated, and
their reflex actions, one upon the other, are infinite. It is this
extraordinary intimacy, this ceaseless vigilance and proximity, that
gives the marine engineer such a pull over all others where endurance
and resource accompany responsibility. In all big power-stations you
will find many men with long sea service in charge of the engines.
I remember arguing once with a matter-of-fact apprentice in the shop
concerning the suburbs as suitable localities for such as he. He was
not convinced. There! he said, slapping the shelf above his bench.
That's where I'd like ter sleep. All yer gotter do at six o'clock is
roll off and turn to! Well, that is just what he would get at sea. In
most steamers the engineer walks out of the mess-room, bathroom, or
berth, into an alley-way on either side of the engine platform. The
beat of the engines becomes part of his environment. He sleeps with it
pulsing in his ears, so that if she slows or stops he opens his eyes.
When I go up at four o'clock and call the Second Engineer, he will
stretch, yawn, half open one eye, and mutter, What's the steam?
To keep him awake I retail some piece of current engine gossip.
After-bilge pump jibbed at three o'clock, I say. Aw ri' now? he
asks. Yes, aw ri' now, I answer. You'll have to watch the M.P. guide
thoughshe's warm. Then, remarking that the after-well is dry, and
that I've got plenty of water in the boilers for him, I leave him and
go below till he relieves me. It is a point of honour among us to know
every kink and crotchet of day-to-day working. If a joint starts
blowing ever so little away up in some obscure corner of our kingdom,
we know of it within an hour or two. One would think we were a mothers'
meeting discussing our babies, to hear the grave tittle-tattle
concerning the inevitable weakness of babies and engines which passes
over the mess-room table.
Now come with me along the tunnel, then, to the end of the world. A
narrow, sliding water-tight door in the bulkhead here, under the shadow
of the thrust-blockelegance in design, you will observe, being
strictly subordinated to use. Follow carefully now, and leave that
shaft alone. It will not help you at all if you slip. The music has
died away, only a solemn clonk-clonkclonk-clonk reverberates
through this narrow, Norman-arched catacomb. At length we emerge into a
larger vaulted chamber, where the air is singularly freshbut I
forgot. I am not writing a smugglers' cave story. We are under an
air-shaft running up to the poop-deck, and we may go no further. The
fourteen-inch shaft disappears through a gland, and, just beyond that
is the eighteen-foot propeller whirling in the blue ocean water. Here,
for us, is the great First Cause. Of the illimitable worlds of marine
flora and fauna outside these riveted steel walls the sailor-man knows
nothing and cares less. What are called the wonders of the deep have
no part in the life of the greatest wonder of the deepthe seaman.
And when the propeller drops away, as it does sometimesdrops
down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes
arethere goes out from that ship all life, all motion. Even as
the mass of metal plunges downward and as the frenzied engineer rushes
through blinding steam and water to stop the engines in their panic
rush, the spirit of the vessel goes out of her in a great sigh. With
dampered ash-pits her fires blacken and go out, the idle
steering-engine clanks and rattles as the useless rudder tugs at her
chains, and the crew tell in whispers how it happened just like
that on the Gipsy Queen, out of Sunderland, or the Gerard Dow, out of Antwerp. All of which is not to be learned in the study at
home. Let us get back to the engine-room.
I am curious to know how all this would strike my friend at home.
Would it not, as Henley used to say, give him much to perpend? I hear
him mutter that phrase we talked out once, at the tea-tableThe Age
of Mechanism. But why not an Age of Heroism? Mind, I use this latter
word in its true sense as I use the word Hero. For some occult reason,
known only to Brixton and Peckham Rye, a hero is the person who jumps
into the Thames and pulls a woman out, or the interesting inanity of a
popular serial. There is nothing essentially heroic in life-saving.
Indeed, all the old heroes of Norseland, Rome, and Greece regarded the
saving of life with a contempt that was only natural when we consider
the utter lack of board schools and their frantic belief in a
hereafter. I imagine the Norse Sea-kings who pushed out to
Vine-landaye, even down to Cape Codwould have been puzzled to hear
an undersized clerk who had saved a man from a watery grave described
as a hero. Their method was to pull the drowning wretch out with
a boat-hook, and curse him for being so clumsy as to fall in. Eric the
Red never worried about a sailor who had the bad judgment to be washed
overside during the night. Hercules would have felt outraged had the
Royal Humane Society of the period loaded him down with their medals.
Achilles would as soon have thought of committing the interminable
catalogue of the Grecian Ships to memory as of associating the saving
of life with the heroic. I am not suggesting that these heroes are more
worthy of emulation than a life-saver; I only want to explain that
there is, in our day, a race of beings, half-man, half-god, who
correspond, in all broad characteristics, to those rather indecent
heroes of early imaginative literature. They do with ease those deeds
which would have appalled the mailed monsters of chivalry; they regard
the other sex as being created solely for their use in port; they love
life dearly, but they leave the saving of it, like the heroes of old,
to the gods.
One has only to listen (in the galley) to their nonchalantly
narrated tales of mystery and horror to realize the truth of that
argument. A steady monotone is the key of their telling, their voices
rising only to hammer home some particularly horrific detail.
Sometimes, in the clangour of the engine-room, they will relate
perilous misadventures at sea, or ludicrous entanglements in sunny
southern ports. But they never waste breath in elaboration or
atmosphere. They leave that to the nervous listener. They know
nothing of the artistic values of their virile tales. They do not know
they are only carrying on the tradition of the men of all time since
Homer. They fling you the fine gold of their own lives, and wallow in
the tittle-tattle of lady-novelists and Reynolds's. They seethe
with admiration for Captain Kettle's amazing manoeuvres, while the
shipping offices are papered with lists of those who are too indolent
or too forgetful to claim their service medals from the Government.
I remember, in the grey dawn one day last week, my relief sang in my
ear as he wiped his hands after feeling round, Deutschland's
astern, goin' like fury. Sure? I asked. Only boat with four funnels
in the line, he said. Four funnels! I raced up and aft, and saw her.
Some three miles astern going westward, going grandly. From each of her
enormous funnels belched vast clouds of black smoke till she looked
like some Yorkshire township afloat. Through glasses I could see the
dome of the immense dining saloon, and the myriad port-holes in her
wall-like side. I could see her moving fast, though so far away. As the
head sea caught the massive bows, she never waited. Her 35,000 h.p.
drove her crashing through them, and they broke high in air in clouds
of foam. Splendid! I thought. But my heart was with those below.
Think of the toil! Six or seven hundred tons of coal per day is flung
into her dozens of furnaces, against our twenty-five tons. Think of the
twenty-odd engineers who scarcely see their bunks from the Elbe to the
Hudson. And, in that cool, grey, pearly dawn, think of those passengers
sleeping in their palatial state-rooms, with never a thought of the
slaves who drive that monstrous ship across the Atlantic at such an
appalling speed. I say appalling because I know. The smoking-room
nuisance will say, Pooh! My dear fellow, the Lusitania licks us
clean with her twenty-five knots. He is coldly critical because he
does not know.
But I digress.
Look around now. You observe we lose very little space in gangways.
Even in front of the engines, where we are walking to and fro, the
space is perilously narrow between the fly-wheel of the reversing
engine and the lathe. Some thirty feet long, this engine-room, bulkhead
to bulkhead, and, save for a recess or two extending to the ship's
skin, penned in between bunkers. Twelve hundred tons of coal,
distributed like a thick wall round us, make the place warm in the
tropics. Forward, the stokeholds, dimly enough lit save when a furnace
door opens and a fiery glow illuminates the bent back and soot-blurred
face of some cosmopolitan fireman. Overhead, each lit by a single lamp,
are the water-gaugesgreen glass tubes in which the water ebbs and
flows with the motion of the ship.
Well, the time is going fast'twill soon be four o'clock, eight
bells, and I am relieved. What do I think of on watch? That's a
question! The engines chiefly, with an under-current of other things.
Often and often, in the dark nooks of my dominions, will I see the
glimmering, phantom light-o'-love. Sometimes it will come and
sit beside me if all runs smooth, and then I fly across the broad blue
floors of the tropic night sky towards England. Not that my fairy elf
is a fair-weather friend. Through blinding oil and sweat I have seen
grey eyes smile and a white hand beckon. In times of trial and sore
need I have turned desperately towards that faery glimmer, and never
have I come back unencouraged or unrefreshed.
Of my friend, too, I think often, as I know he thinks of me. Of our
dear old rooms on the Walk; of our cosy evenings alone; of our rambles
in search of the Perfect Pub (where, he told me, they sold hot rum up
to 3 a.m.); of the Chelsea Freaks, who add so unconsciously to the
gaiety of the nationshow I have laughed incontinently, and how some
fireman's face would brighten when I laughed, though he knew not the
Of books, too, I have many thoughts; which reminds me that one
cannot imagine how different are the values of books, out here at
sea, to their values at home in the metropolis. To steal a phrase from
chemistry, their valency alters. Their relative combining weights
seem to vary; by which I mean, their applicability to life, their vital
importance to me as a man, changes. This change, moreover, is all in
favour of the classics. One sees through shams more quicklyat least,
I think so. Books which I could always respect, yet never touch, now
come forth and show their glories to me. My own past work, too, drops
pathetically into its own place. And that is? Spare me this confession!
One night, one star-light night, when the dark blue heaven, slashed
across with the pale immensity of the Milky Way, watched me with its
million winking eyes, I stole out on the poop with some stories in my
hand, and dropped them into the creamy rush of the wake. As the poor
little bits of paper swayed and eddied and drowned in the foaming
vortex, I felt, deep down in that heart which some say I do not
possess, a vague tremor of unrest. I felt, somehow, close to Eternity.
And then, as I went below once more, I wondered, Will they all
go like that? Shall I live to do any good work? Oh, the
terrible sadness of Noble Attempts! How I toiled at those stories! And
all for nothing. Flung, like the ashes from our furnaces, like the
rubbish from our larders, into the cruel oblivion of the unheeding sea.
Such is the mood which comes over me at times when the pettiness of
the past starts up in the presence of these immensities of sea and sky.
M., you know, when he would come back to his studio from some yachting
cruise in the Channel, and find me in his armchair, would drag me out
to look at the ceaselessly changing glories of the river at sunset, and
tell me how the vastness of the sea always communicated to him an
overwhelming sense of the Power of God.
You can't get away from it, old man, he would say. Out there
alone, man is nothing, God is everything. Why could I never assent to
that? Why, when people ask me if I love the sea, am I silent? Well,
have you ever heard the sudden yapping of a puppy at night? Imagine it,
then, at sea. The two Immensities between which we creep: the sea
flashing with her own secret glory of phosphorescent fire, the sky
emblazoned with her countless diadems, and thenyap-yap-yap! That is
how the pestilent cackle of many people affects me when they rave about
the sea. Why do they not keep silent, like the stars? God! These fools,
I think, would clatter up the steps of the Great White Throne, talking,
talking, talking! When the pearly gates swing wide to let us in, when
we pace the burnished vistas towards the Presence, when the measureless
music of the Most High God fills our heartsyap-yap-yap!
Music, I said! I think I stand towards music as I stand towards sea
and sky. Oh, I could squirm when I think of the bickerings I have had
with music-lovers. And yet with you, my friend, prince of music-lovers,
I have had no quarrel. Because, I think, you let me alone. When you
feel in the mood, when the moon is on the river, and the warm breeze
gently sways the curtains by the open window, you will sit down and
improvise, and I will lie in my deep chair, and smoke and dream. You
cease, and say Do you like it? and I am silent.
Then you laugh and go on again. You understand. But what maniacal
frenzy is this which demands a vociferous passionate love of music
from everyone? Watch the current dish-water fiction. Every character,
male and female, is passionately fond of music. Which means? That the
readers of this stuff consider a passionate love of music to be
fashionable. It is so easy, you see, to possess it. There is no need to
study either musical theory, practice, history, or biography. An inane
expression of vacuous content when music is being rendered, a quantity
of rhapsodical rubbish about Chopin and Beethoven without any knowledge
of either, and behold! a lover of music. Yap-yap-yap!
With all this, I know, you agree, but you ask yourself, as you read,
what has this to do with a marine engineer's working day? It has
everything to do with it. It has everything to do with the working day
of every man. For this indiscriminate belauding of the love of music
leads to an almost unimaginable hypocrisy among those who do not think.
Certainly, Music is the highest of the Arts, and the oldest, just (I
presume) as Astronomy is the highest and most ancient science. One is
pure form, the other pure mathematics. And so, I may conclude, the
Music of the Spheres comprises all that is highest and purest and
truest within our comprehension. But this fashionable, open-mouthed
delirium is no more a worship of music than star-gazing is serious
astronomy. These hypocrites are sailing under false colours. I noticed,
when I once suggested at a dinner-table the cultivation of the tin
whistle, amusement among the men, and titters among the women. When I
asked why old Pan's instrument should be so bespattered with ridicule,
they were instantly serious, as is their habit when you mention any one
who has passed away. You see my point? I protest against this nasty
slime of hypocrisy which is befouling every part of our intellectual
and national life. We love the sea, we old sea-dogs, descendants (we
proudly think) of the mighty Norsemenwe love it from Brighton Beach.
We love Sport, do we who sneer at Frenchmen because they cannot play
footballwe love it from the closely packed amphitheatres of the
race-course and footer-field, as spectators. We love Warwith a penny
flag and a yell in front of the Mansion House. We love Children, for we
leave them to dwell in slums. And we love Music with all our hearts,
because we were told that we did, and the wise repeat that it elevates
and refines the soul.
I am disappointed with the meagre letter my friend sends me, in
haste! Disappointed and surprised withal, inasmuch as he finds time to
say, hastily enough, Give me of your best; describe, toujours,
describe! To which I can only reply, Humph! Mon ami, I do not
write for the sake of showing off my penmanship, nor my authorship.
When I have time, I lie down, on my stuffed-seaweed bed, and write my
thoughts leisurely and enjoyably. A letter is something which would not
be set down if the two persons concerned were within speaking distance.
The mere fact that I endeavour to give my jottings some rude literary
finish proves nothing to the contrary. When we are gathered together
round the fire or the tea-table, the same thing obtains. The difference
between conversation and tittle-tattle lies in the participants of the
former giving a finish to their contributions, watching for points,
keeping the main channel of conversation clear of the lumber of
extraneous witticism and personalities, gradually leading the timid to
think and, later, to express their thoughts, using the learning which
they have acquired in secret for the edification or building-up
of us all.
I remember how, when young Hvisited our anchorage, he sat silent
and abashed while we thundered and declaimed about his bewildered head.
And then, when the conversation moved, naturally enough, from education
to religion, from religion to science, and from science to evolution, I
noticed how, so to speak, he pricked up his ears. He was thinking then,
trying to realize, however faintly, that inside him was something
different to anything inside us. His Catholic training, his sequestered
up-bringing, his entomological studies, his intellectual resiliency, so deftly utilized by the Society of Jesusall these came gradually
into view, and we found truth, which is perfected praise, emanating
from the babe by whom, I had been assured, we were to be bored to
We realize only too little what has been lost through the decay of
conversation. Come, let us reason together. And letters are
only a form of reasoning together adapted to our special needs, gaining
perhaps some added pathos from the implied separation of kindred souls,
and a further value from the permanence and potential artistry of the
form itself. It is not incumbent upon us to be very deep in the
eighteenth century to remark that, with conversation, letter-writing
dwindles and dies before the rush of mechanism and trade. It is easy to
see the reason of this. Mechanism and trade are expressions of
dissatisfaction with one's circumstances. Men used machines to make and
carry commodities, not because they felt the exquisite joy of making,
or the still higher joy of giving, but because they, or their wives,
wanted larger houses, more splendid equipages, more sumptuous
provender. Conversation, on the other hand, implies leisure and
contentment of mind. I do not mean idlers and persons of no ambition.
Neither of these classes ever wrote letters or shone in conversations.
So, musing upon my friend's hasty screed, I wonder how I am, in very
truth, to give him of my best. True, I know from that hint that he is
fighting with beasts at Ephesus to get his play into working, or rather
playing order. This is sufficient to make me forgive my friend. But
consider in future, mon ami, that your letters are the only
conversation I can enjoy out here, for the heroes with whom I toil know
not the art.
The transition of a great nation from barbarism to an elementary
form of culture is always interesting. So, too, is the same transition
in the case of a great profession. In 1840, when the propulsion of
ships by means of a steam-driven screw opened a new era in maritime
history, the practical man in the engineering trade was an uneducated
savage. Possessing no trade union, no voice in Parliament, no means of
educating himself in the intricate theory of the machinery he helped to
build, the mechanic of sixty years ago was regarded by those above him
in the social scale merely as a hand. When, therefore, steamships
became common, and men were needed to operate and care for the
propelling mechanism, they were naturally drawn from the ranks of
mechanics who were employed in the works to construct it. Stokers were
enlisted, in a similar way, from those working on land-boilers. Here,
then, were two new classes of seamen, corresponding very largely to the
officers and sailors of a sailing-ship. To the unbiassed judgment, it
went without saying that the engineer on watch would take rank with the
navigating officer on watch; but the old school of mariners, the school
whose ideas of progress are crystallised for all time in the historic
report of certain Admiralty Lords that steam power would never be of
any practical use in Her Majesty's Navy, thought differently. In their
opinion, the engineer was the same as a stoker, and from that day
almost to this the deck-officer who served his time in a sailing-ship
secretly regards the engineers of his steamer as upstarts more or less,
whose position and pay are a gross encroachment upon his own more
A little consideration will show that there was some reason for this
feeling in the beginning. In the case of the Royal Navy, the
aggravation was particularly acute. The deck-officers, then as now,
were sons of gentlemen, were members of an ancient and honourable
service, a service included among that select quaternity, to be outside
of which was to be a nonentitythe Navy, the Army, the Church, and the
Bar. The naval officer, then as now, did not soil his hands, wore a
sword, and was swathed in an inextricable meshwork of red tape, service
codes, and High Toryism. He had his own peculiar notions of studying a
profession, looked askance at the new-fangled method of driving a ship,
honestly thinking, with Ruskin, that a floating kettle was a direct
contravention of the laws of God. Imagine, then, the aristocratic
consternation of these honourable gentlemen when the care and
maintenance of propelling machinery, auxiliary mechanism, and also guns
and gun-mountings, were gradually transferred to a body of men of low
social extraction, uncultured and unpolished land-lubbers and
civilians! Only within the last twenty years have naval engineer
officers, now drawn from the same social strata as the navigating
officers, won official recognition of their importance in the
personnel of a ship.
In the case of the engineers of the Mercantile Marine the struggle
has been the same, though by no means so bitter or so sustained. The
reasons for this are two.
In the first place, the navigating officers of a merchantman are
merely the employees of civiliansthe shipowners. In the second place,
the Board of Trade, by compelling shipowners to carry a certain number
of navigators and engineers holding certificates of competency, have
placed them on one professional level. Nevertheless, the animosity
between the mates and the shrewd, greasy, sea-going engineer was keen
enough, sharpened no doubt by the preponderating wages of the latter.
Again, the former's habits of deference and mute obedience to the
master, at once navigator, agent, and magistrate of the ship, were not
readily assimilated by the engineer, whose democratic consciousness was
just then rising into being, and whose mechanical instincts were
outraged by the sailor's ignorant indifference to the knowledge and
unremitting vigilance demanded by the machinery in his care.
It is in this fashion that a class of men like my Chief have
developed. Born of the lower middle class, the artisan class,
apprenticed to their trade at twelve or thirteen years of age, and, on
going to sea, suddenly finding themselves in possession of a definite
uniform and rank with a fixed watch and routine, their natural instinct
leads them to do their utmost to live up to their new dignity. In
course of time, after a certain minimum of sea service, and an unbroken
record of efficiency and good behaviour, the Board of Trade examiner
affixes his stamp on the finished product, and the youth ventures on
matrimony and indulges in dreams of rising in the world. His travelling
has given his mind a certain shallow breadth of outlook; he will
discuss Italian art with you, although his knowledge of Italy is
confined to the low parts of Genoa and Naples, with perhaps a visit to
the Campo Santo of the former. He has acquired the reading habit,
perforce, at sea, though his authors would be considered dubious by the
educated; and a smattering of some other language, generally Spanish,
is, in his own opinion, good reason for holding himself above the
common mechanic ashore. His salary as a chief engineer enables his wife
to keep a servant and buy superior garments; he puts money by, and in
the course of time solidifies his position as a genuine bourgeois. In
the meantime he exhales Smiles. He believes in Rising in the World. He
would blot out a perfectly inoffensive, if ignoble, ancestry, and he
would also, if he could, make friends with English Grammar. But how can
I hope for his success in the latter struggle when the books he borrows
from my little store are returned uncut. Possibly the colourless eyes,
which survey me over the retroussé nose and deceptive moustache,
are capable of gathering wisdom from the uncut fields of learning. And
yet, and yet, have I not unintentionally surprised him in his cabin
devouring The Unwritten Commandment or The Lady's Realm, while my
Aristophanes is on the settee? I do not blame a sea-going engineer for
disliking Aristophanes. Many agricultural labourers would find him
uninforming. But why borrow him and simulate a cultured interest in his
My friend, I think, abhors blatant uxoriousness. So do I. And I fear
the Most Wonderful Man on Earth is blatantly uxorious. I honour him for
a certain sadness in his voice when he speaks of unrequited love. But
his constant reference to Ibsen's motif in the Wild Duck,
though it fails in its primary object of convincing me that he is
familiar with Ibsen's plays, does in truth tell me that some fair one
gave him sleepless nights.
Of course, this amusing assumption would not stand a single hour in
a cultured circle. Some periodicals of the day foster the fallacy in
many an unfortunate mind that to read about a book is really quite as
good as actually to read it. Their readers are led to infer that
learning is quite a spare-time affair. I once assured a victim of this
delusion that in true culture there was no threepence-in-the-shilling
discount; and he wrinkles his brows yet, I believe, wondering what I
meant. How many years of close study, my friend, are required to enable
one to stroll through a second-hand book-shop, pick up the one
treasure from the shelves, and walk out again?
It may be, perchance, that I labour this trait in the character of
one who would be great but for his disabilities. Which thought recalls
to my mind a suspicion that intermittently haunts methat, living as
we do here on this ocean tramp, thrown together, as the phrase goes,
so constantly, faults in another man grow more and more apparent;
social abrasions which would be smoothed down and forgotten ashore are
roughened at each fresh encounter, until the man is hidden behind one
flaming sin. Especially is this to be expected when mind and body are
worn, the one with responsibility, the other with rough toil. Who am I
that I should claim cultured intercourse from these heroes? Have I not
shared their agony and bloody sweat in times of storm and stress? Have
I not seen this same wearer of elevators in his engine-room, a
blood-stained handkerchief across his head where he has been smashed,
the sweat running from his blackened features, watching his engines
with an agony no young mother ever knew?
What of the time when our main steam pipe burst in the Irish Sea in
a fog? Read in the Chief Mate's log an entry, Delayed 2 hrs. 40
min., break-down in engine-room. Simple, isn't it? But behind
those brief words lies a small hell for the Chief Engineer. Behind them
lies two hours and forty minutes' frenzied toil in the heat of the
boiler-tops, where the arched bunkers keep the air stifling; two hours
and forty minutes' work with tools that race and slither to the rolling
of the ship, with bolts that burn and blister, with steam that knows no
master when she's loose. Literature? Art? Old friend, these gods seem
very impotent sometimes. They seem impotent, as when, for instance, my
first gauge-glass burst. Pacing up and down in front of my engines,
there is a hiss and a roar, and one of my firemen rushes into the
engine-room, his right hand clasping the left shoulder convulsively. He
has been cut to the bone with a piece of the flying glass. Men of
thirty years' sea-time tell me they never have got used to a glass
failing. And then the fight with the water and steam in the darkness,
the frenzied groping for the wires to shut the cocks, the ceaseless
roar of water and steam! A look at the engines, an adjustment of the
feed-valves, lest the water get low while I am fitting a new glass, and
then to work. How glad one is when one sees that luminous ring, which
denotes the water-level, rise two-thirds glass once more! And how far
from the fine arts is he whose life is one long succession of incidents
like these? Can they blame us if we look indulgently upon mere writers
and painters? Surely, when the books are opened and the last log is
read, when the overlooker calls our names and reads out the indictment
Lacking culture, we may stand up manfully and answer as
clearly as we can, Lord, we had our business in great waters.
In such wise, I imagine, will George the Fourth reply. He is an
admirable foil to the Most Wonderful Man on Earth. He regales you with
no false sentiment; he is five feet ten in his socks, and he is
clamorously indignant when you suggest that he will one day get
married. He considers love to be damned foolishness, and despises
womanisers. He likes tarts, has one in most ports of the Atlantic
sea-board, and even writes to a certain Mexican enchantress, who lives
in a nice little room over a nice little shop in a nice little street
in the nice little town of Vera Cruz. What does he write? Frankly I
don't know. What does he say, when he has dressed himself in dazzling
white raiment and goes ashore in Surabaya or Singapore, and sits down
to tea with Japanese girls whose eyes are swollen with belladonna and
whose touch communicates fire? How can I answer?
George, I say, what would your mother think?
George is not communicative. He flicks ash from his cigarette and
picks up a month-old Reynolds's. And that is a sufficient answer
to my accusations, though he does not realize it. I, at any rate, have
not the face to upbraid a lonely youth, without home or girl friends
from one year's end to another, when in that same Reynolds's I
see page after page of cases. If these people swerve, if they break
the tables of the law every week, surely George the Fourth may hold up
his head. You see, in Geordie-land, in the ports of Tyne and Wear,
where George the Fourth was bred, there are many engineers who have
been out in steamers working up and down the China coast, who have had
nice little homes in Hankow, Hong-Kong, or Shanghai, with Japanese
wives all complete. Then when the charter was up, and the steamer came
home, these practical men left homes and wives behind them, and all was
just as before. That is George's dream. China or Burma coast-trade.
That's the job for me when I get ma tickut. It is useless for a stern
moralist like me to argue, because I feel certain that, being what he
is, he would be entirely wise and right.
What an utter futility is marriage to a sea-going engineer! Here is
my friend McGorren, a hard-working and Christian man. He is chief of a
boat in the Burmese oil trade. His wife is dead; he has three children,
who are being brought up with their cousins in North London. McGorren
has been out East two years. It will be another two years before he can
come home. Where is the morality of this? He has no home. His little
ones grow up strangers to him; they are mothered by a stranger. He is
voteless, yet subject to income tax. He can have no friendships, no
society, no rational enjoyment save reading. Nothing! And what is his
return? Four hundred a year and all found. I look into the frank eyes
of George the Fourth and I am mute. In no philosophy, in no Conduct of
Life, in no Lesson for the Day which I have read can I discover any
consolation or sane rule of living for such as he. Is not this a
terrible gap in Ruskin, Emerson, and Co.? I take up the first and I ask
George to listen. He is perfectly willing, because, he says with
reverence, I am a scholar, and I have read to him before.
... There must be work done by the arms, or none of us could
live. There must be work done by the brains, or the life we get
would not be worth having. And the same men cannot do both. There is
rough work to be done, and rough men must do it; there is gentle work
to be done, and gentlemen must do it; and it is physically impossible
that one class should do, or divide, the work of the other. And it is
of no use to try to conceal this sorrowful fact by fine words, and to
talk to the workman about the honourableness of manual labour and the
dignity of humanity. Rough work, honourable or not, takes the life out
of us; and the man who has been heaving clay out of a ditch all day, or
driving an express train against the north wind all night, or holding a
collier's helm in a gale on a lee shore, or whirling white-hot metal at
a furnace mouth, is not the same man at the end of his day, or night,
as one who has been sitting in a quiet room, with everything
comfortable about him, reading books, or classing butterflies, or
George nods. He understands exactly what is meant. His father is
skipper of a collier, his brother is in a steel works. Probably he and
I know, better than John Ruskin, how rough work takes the life out of
us. But when I continue, and read to him what the wise man teaches
concerning justice to men, and never-failing knight-errantry towards
women, and love for natural beauty, even awe-struck George becomes
slightly sardonic, and his mouth comes down at the corners. Let me
formulate his thoughts. He is asking how can one be just when the
work's got to be done, and blame must fall on somebody's
shoulders? How can one feel and act rightly towards women when one is
young, yet compelled to live a life of alternate celibacy and licence?
How can one love nature, even the sea, when the engine-room temperature
is normally 90° F., and often 120° F., when the soul cries out against
the endless rolling miles? Wise of the world, give answer! We two poor
rough toilers sit at your feet and wait upon your words.
You will see, now, why I want George the Fourth to fall in love. But
with whom is he to fall in love? Who courts the society of a sailor in
a foreign port? Seamen's bethels? Ah, yes! The gentle English ladies in
foreign ports are very sympathetic, very kind, very pleasant, at the
Wednesday evening concert in the rebuilt Genoese palace or the deserted
Neapolitan hotel, or the tin tabernacle amid the white sand and scrub;
but they take good care to keep together at the upper end of the room,
and the audience is railed off from them if possible, while the merry
girls outside, who live shameful lives, and whose existence is ignored
by the missionary, link their arms in George's and take him to their
cosy little boxes high up behind those beautiful green blinds....
It's a hell of a life, but we've just got to mak' the best of it,
says George, and he lounges off to join the talk in the Second's room.
I, too, sigh when he is gone. The best of it! Are these heroes of
mine right after all?
Then wherefore sully the entrusted gem
Of high and noble life with thoughts so sick?
Why pierce high-fronted honour to the quick
For nothing but a dream?
It is an hour since George the Fourth left me, and I have been
discussing the matter with the Mate. It is a habit of mine to discuss
matters with the Mate. Here is a man with no theories of life, no
culture, as we understand the term, no touch of modern life at all; a
man of apostolic simplicity, having gone down to the sea in ships since
1867. You can depend on the practicability of his conclusions, because
he has dealt with factssince 1867. For, to quote Carlyle, you are
in contact with verities, to an unexampled degree, when you get upon
the ocean, with intent to sail on it ... bottomless destruction raging
beneath you and on all hands of you, if you neglect, for any reason,
the methods of keeping it down and making it float you to your
'Tis a hard life, Mr. McAlnwick, an' we've just got to make the
best of it.
But, Mr. Honna, what is the best of it?
This! Give us your glass. One more, an' Nicholas is makin' a
Stonewall Jackson in the panthry. He'll be in in a minute.
In a minute Nicholas arrives with a jug. Nicholas is the Steward, at
sea since '69, a bronzed Greek from Salonika, a believer in dreams and
sound investments at six per cent. He brings in a Lloyd's News,
arrived by the last mail.
Ah! The Mate is certainly making the best of it. What are the
exact components of the drink I cannot determine, but the resultant is
without blemish; eggs, milk, brandy, rumall these are in it, and the
Mate's tongue loosens.
Have you seen this about ze Lorenzo, mister? asks Nicholas.
Nicholas (reading): 'Ze Lorenzo, bound from New Yawk to Cuba
with coke, met with heavy gales off Cape Hatteras, and has put back
into Norfolk in a disabled condition. Two blades of her propeller are
broken, and she is leaking badly amidships. She is to undergo a special
survey before proceeding further.'
The Mate's visage is wrinkled, his mouth is pursed up as he sets
down his glass and adjusts his spectacles to read, and he nods his
See, now, 'tis two years, two years an' a half, since I left her.
Nicholas, you were there then, were ye not?
Ess, mister. She was on the Western Ocean trade then, too.
Aye! Lumber out o' St. John's to Liverpool. He lays down the
paper. Mr. McAlnwick, now wait while I tell ye. Ye talk of honesty at
sea? I joined that ship in Glasgow, an' we signed on for the voy'ge,
winter North Atlantic. General cargo for St. John's, Newf'unlan', with
deals to bring back to Liverpool. And, though you may consider
me superstitious, not havin' been long at sea (Nicholas stands, legs
apart, glass in hand, head nodding sagely), not havin' been long at
sea, I say, 'twas the Second and Fourth engineers who brought us black
How, Mr. Honna?
This way. Nicholas, sit ye down and listen. I was Mate, as I am
here. I went up from London and joined her, an' the Chief, who's here
now, was thick as thieves with the old man, an' was courtin' the
youngest daughter, tho' he never married herhe came to lay
down the law to me. There was a spare stateroom for'ard of the
alley-way, port side. The door was locked, an' I wanted it open. Ses
he, ''Tis locked.' Ses I, 'I want it open.' Ses he, 'Who are you?' Ye
know his way, Mr. McAlnwick? Ses I, 'I'm the Mate o' this ship, an', by
Gawd, if that door isn't opened smart, ye're a better man than I am.'
And I took off me coat. 'Oh,' ses he, ''tis all right, mister, I'll
have it opened.' Ye see, there was women aboard, an' the Second and
Fourth were responsible.
They were inside! snickers Nicholas, looking at his cigar
They was, Mr. McAlnwick. 'Twas scandalousthat Chief, too,
trapesin' away out to Scotstoun Hill every evenin' to play cards an'
shilly-shally, while his juniors had loose females aboard the ship.
Well, we put out, made St. John's in sixteen days, and discharged in a
fortn't. 'Twas there the Second an' Fourth began again, but they took
me in. I came on deck one Saturday afternoon, the old man being ashore,
and saw two females, with sealskin muffs and furred spats, lookin'
roun' the poop an' liftin' their skirts over the ropes, for all the
world like real ladies. An' I treated them as such, never thinkin' what
they were, for to me a lady's a lady, an' I know how to behave to them.
But the Second Mate stopped me as I was showin' 'em over all, and ses
he, 'D'yer know what she is, Mr. Honna?' pointin' to the one with a
heliatrope blouse under her jacket.
There is another snicker from Nicholas, and the Mate goes on:
I would not believe it, Mr. McAlnwick. I've had my
weaknesses, I have some now, or I would not be Mate of this ship. But
I've never insulted my employers by makin' aa bloomin' seraglio
o' the ship, nor have I ever seen it done without bringin' black luck.
Now, wait till I tell ye. The nex' mornin', being on deck at seven
o'clock, I saw the Second and Fourth racin' up the dock. Their collars
were loose at the back, an' their waistcoats were all out o' gear, an'
they'd made hat-bands o' their ties. Mr. McAlnwick, ye may laugh, but
they were a disgrace to the ship!
Well, we put out o' St. John, deck-loaded with deals, in a fog, and
we stayed in a fog for three days. We were all among the ice, too, an'
that afternoon I came on deck to relieve Mr. Bruce, the Second Mate.
The old man had her in an ice-lane, goin' full speed. Ses I, 'She's
goin' fast, sir.' 'Oh,' ses he, 'she steers better so.' 'Ay,' ses I,
'but if she hits anything, she willhit it.' A minute after, he come
up out o' the fog, an' ses he, 'Stop her, Mr. Honna, stop her!' I'd me
hand on the telegraph and me eye on the foc'sle head when she
struckbang! An' all the canvas caps on the foc'sle ventilators blew
up an' went overboard. We'd hit a cake. The Second Mate ran out of his
berth in his shirt-sleeves, and went for'ard, an' I followed him. There
she was, her nose crunched into a low-lyin' cake not two feet above the
waterline. I kept all my spare gear in the fore-peak, an' the Second
Mate went down toto reconnoitre. ''Tis all right, mister,' ses he.
''Tis all right here.' Ses I, 'I don't think, Mr. Bruce, I don't
think!' An' when I went down an' put me foot on those piles of rope an'
bolts of canvas, they went down, all soft, under me. Ye understand? Oh,
I knew there was somethin', rememberin' those flighty women, an' the
foc'sle bonnets blowin' off. The water had rushed into the fore-peak,
an' had driven the air up, ye see.
Well, we put her full astern and drew away, and then we put back
into St. John, slow, dead slow, all the way. An' there the Second
Engineer saw a doctor, an' the one in the heliatrope blouse saw a
Ess, 'e come up be'ind 'er, an'
Now, hold yer horses, Nicholas, hold yer horses! Ye see, Mr.
McAlnwick, when a woman has seen a man aboard of a ship, an' she's seen
that ship hull down, or, what's the same thing, swallowed up in the
fog, she writes him off, so to speak. 'Poor feller,' ses she, 'he's at
sea,' just as we say, 'Poor feller, he's in the churchyard.' An' so,
when that woman felt someone touch her on the arm in Main Street, and
turned an' found it was the Second Engineer, she gave a shriek like a
lost soul, an' fainted on the sidewalk. So it happened. Now listen.
Help yourself, Nicholas.
We had a wooden bow put on, which took a week, an' we started
again. Two days out it fell off, and we went back into St. John for the
third time, an' had another fitted. I took the opportunity then of
havin' a word with the Second, while we were makin' her fast. 'Mr.
Carson,' ses I, 'air ye satisfied?' He knew what I meant, for he came
from Carrickfergus, an' the Lady's Fever had him hard. 'Aye, mister,'
ses he. ''Tis all right; I'll see her no more,' ses he. An' our luck
turned. We had another bow fitted, an' we came across the Western
Ocean, half-speed, an' made her fast in the Canada Dock.
Is that all, Mr. Honna?
No, no, says Nicholas, with another reminiscent giggle. No,
mister, the Super, 'e comes down, an' 'e
Hold yer horses, now, Nicholas; hold yer horses, and let Jack Honna
tell this yarn. Mr. McAlnwick, I said I'd show ye honesty as practised
in the Mercantile Marine. Now listen. The Superthat's Mr. Fallon, as
ye knowcame down into my berth. 'Mornin', Honna'ye know his way;
but he seemed anxious an' fidgety. Of course, I knew without tellin'
how she was insured. Ye see, mister, the Lorenzo an' the
Julio an' the Niccolo an' the Benvenuto here are
insured against total loss, an' if we went on that reef
to-night, Messrs. Crubred, Orr, and Glasswell 'ud drink champagne to it
an' book our half-pay in tobacco and stamps. But thenah, Mr.
McAlnwick, then it was different. The Lorenzo was insured
against accidents to the tune o' three thousand pound sterling,
providedprovided, ye understand, that repairs came up to that
figure. An' that was why Mr. Fallon looked worried.
Why, Mr. Honna? The Mate's voice drops to a whisper.
Why, don't ye see, mister? But ye've not been long at sea. Because
he'd totted up all the indents, an' added all he reasonably could on
the bow plates an' stringers plus a new double bottom to the
forehold, an' then he could only make it come to about
twenty-four hundred pound. 'What's to be done, Honna?' ses he, rappin'
it out. 'What's to be done?' ses I, as if I was astonished. 'What d'ye
mean, Mr. Fallon?' Ses he, ''Tis a dead lossa dead loss, Honna.' Ses
I, 'I don't understand, sir.' And I looked him in the eye. 'She's not
hurt,' ses he, snappin'. 'She's not hurt at all.' 'Oh,' ses I, 'is that
all? Why not hurt her, thenhurt her?' An' I got up to go out.
'Oh,' ses he, 'we can't have thatwe can't have that. Where's that
indent?' And we went on deck. Well, I went up to the office that
afternoon he came over, an' he ses in a hurry, 'Honna, yer wife's
comin' up to-night, ye said?' (The little man never forgets anythin',
as perhaps ye've noticed.) 'Yes,' ses I, 'she is.' 'Then go an' meet
her,' ses he. 'Go an' meet her.' 'What?' ses I. 'Leave the ship, with
her goin' into dry-dock to-morrer an' no cap'en aboard?' 'Damn the
ship,' ses he. 'Damn the ship! I'll look after the ship. Go an'
see yer wife.' Mr. McAlnwick, when I got outside I laughed. An' when I
got to Lime Street, and told my girl about Fallon damnin' the ship, she
laughed too. It must have been eleven o'clock when I left the hotel an'
went down to the docks. When I got there she was in dry-dock. The Super
had issued orders that s.s. Lorenzo was to be dry-docked
after dark, an' I saw that our luck was in. The Second Engineer was
standin' by the ladder as I climbed over the side, an' ses he,
solemn-like, 'Mr. Honna, I've been to see a doctor this night, an' I'm
all right now. I'll see her no more.' 'Of course ye're all right!' ses
I, chucklin', 'an' so's the Lorenzo. Come down an' have
somethin'.' 'What are they doin'?' ses he. 'I was below this five
minutes, an' I thought the bottom was comin' in.' 'Repairs,' ses I,
wavin' me hand. 'Repairs. Come down.' An' we went. 'Twas half-past one
when we got down on the dock side an' peeped under. An' when we'd done
laughin' we turned in.
Well, I went down into the dock nex' mornin', an' the Surveyor was
there with Mr. Fallon. He was a youngish man, an' probably he's learnt
a good deal since that day, but he was just the feller for us. The
Super introduced us, an' ses he, 'Mr. Honna will corroborate what I
say, Mr. Blythe.' The Surveyor turned to look at the ship's bottom, and
it was lucky he did, for me jaw was hangin'. Mr. McAlnwick, they'd had
the hydraulic jacks under her, an' they'd pushed her to kingdom come!
She was bent to the very keelson. Not a straight plate from stem to
stern. 'It's marvellous, Mr. Honna!' ses the Surveyor. 'It's
marvellous! How in the worrld did ye come home?' 'How?' ses I,
laughin'. 'On our hands and knees, to be sure, mister.' 'Dear me!' he
ses. 'Dear me!' 'Aye,' ses I. 'An' she steered to a hair, too!' And I
went for'ard to look at her bows. He was a young man, an' I felt sorry
for him, but our luck was in. Mr. Fallon came down into my room that
afternoon, as I was puttin' on me shore clothes, an' ses he, 'Honna,
did ye see yer wife?' 'I did, sir,' ses I. 'Is she all right?' ses he.
'No,' ses I; 'she's frettin'.' 'What's the matter wi' her?' he snaps,
sittin' down where you are now. 'What?' ses I, an' I stopped as I was
fixin' me collar. 'She thinks I ought to have a new hat, Mister
Fallon.' An' I looked him in the eye. 'Oh!' ses he in his sharp way.
'Get five new hatsget five new hats. Have the ship ready to be moved
to-morrow night. She will be discharged, and redocked forextended
repairs. Good-day,' ses he, an' he went out. An' when I looked where
he'd been sittin' there was a five-poun' note in an envelope, stickin'
in the cushion.
Did you see your wife again, Mr. Honna?
I did, Mr. McAlnwick, an' she pinched me black an' blue! An' when
we were walkin' through the city that evenin' I saw the Second Engineer
followin' a sealskin jacket along Paradise Street, and I felt glad he
was leavin' to go up for his ticket.
Is that all, Mr. Honna? The Chief Officer's face is screwed up,
his glasses are on the end of his nose (how like my old Headmaster he
looks now!), and he scrutinizes the Steward's newspaper once more.
All, Mr. McAlnwick? Apparently not, by this. Mr. Fallon'll be down
to see her, for he's goin' across to see the Giacopo, I know,
an', by thunder, he'll fix her! Never seen him in a fix yet. Eh,
Ah, he's a sharpun, by God! This from the fervent Nicholas.
Ses he, first thing when he put his fut on the deck when we brought
the Ludovico into Shields from Nikolaeff, ses he, 'Honna, look
at them slack funnel stays; Honna, look at that spare propeller shaft,
not painted; Honna, don't keep pigs on the saddle-back
bunker-hatch'tis insanitary.' Honna this, that, and the other all in
one breath. And we'd had the blessed stern torn out of her, runnin'
foul o' the breakwater, to say nothin' of pickin' up the telegraph
cable with our anchor outside Constant!
Mr. Honna, tell me
To-morrow, mister, to-morrow. 'Tis late, and I would turn in.
And so we end our day.
To-day's shipping news has it thus:
Swansea.Entered inwards, s.s. Benvenuto.
Africa. P. W. D.
Which cryptic item covers much joy, much money, and an irrepressible
consumption of strong drink. O ye rabid total-abstinence mongers! If I
could only lure you away on a six-thousand-mile voyage, make you work
twelve hours a day, turn you out on the middle watch, feed you on bully
beef and tinned milk! Where would your blue ribbons be then? My faith,
gentlemen, when once you had been paid off at the bottom of Wind
Street, I warrant me we should not see your backs for dust as you
sprinted into the nearest hostelry!
And the joy, moreover, of receiving three months' pay in one lump
sum! Ah! one is rich as he pushes past the green baize swing-door, and
through the crowd of seamen and sharks who cluster like flies round
that same green door. To the married sailor, however, that joy is
chastened by the knowledge that his judy has been drawing half-pay
all the time, and to say nothing of the advance note of two-pound-ten
which he drew on joining, to buy clothes. But Jack Tar or Jack Trimmer
knows well how to drown such worries. He possesses an infinite capacity
for taking liquor, which inevitably goes, not to his head, but to his
feet. Six of the Benvenuto's sailor-men, two firemen, and the
carpenter enter our private bar as we sit drinking. An indescribable
uproar invades the room immediately. They are in their best
clothesdecent boots, ready-made blue serge, red tie with green spots
over a six-penny-halfpenny dickey, and a cap that would make even
Newmarket stare and gasp. Nothing will pacify them short of drinks at
their expense. A sailor with yellow hair and moustache curled and oiled
insufferably, insists on providing me with a pint of rum. The
carpenter, a radical and Fenian when sober, sports a bowler with a
decided list. He embraces my yellow-haired benefactor, and now, to
the music of Remember Me to Mother Dear, rendered by the electric
piano behind the bar, they waltz slowly and solemnly around. The
landlady implores them to stop, and the carpenter bursts into tears. It
really is very much like the Hunting of the Snark. They are so
unaffectedly wealthy, so ridiculously happy, so unspeakably vulgar!
They batter their silver and gold upon the bar; they command
inoffensive strangers to drink monstrous potations; they ply their feet
in unconscious single-steps; they forget they have not touched the last
glass, and order more; they put cataclysmal questions to the blushing
lassie who serves them; they embrace one another repeatedly with
maudlin affection, and are finally ejected by main force from the
premises. All the worldbelow Wind Streetknows that the Benvenuto
has been paid off.
And we? We drink soberly to England, home, and beauty, bank our
surpluses, and scuttle back to the ship. Past interminable rows of huge
hydraulic cranes, over lock-gates, under gigantic coal-shoots which
hurl twenty tons of coal at once into the gaping holds of filthy
colliers, we stumble and hurry along to where our own steamer is
berthed. That is one of the hardships of our exalted position as
officers. We begin again as soon as we have been paid off;
they depart, inebriated and uxorious, to their homes. They
enjoy what the political economists call the rewards of abstinence;
we put on our boiler suits and crawl about in noisome bilges,
soot-choked smoke-boxes, and salt-scarred evaporators.
Nevertheless, when five o'clock strikes and work is done for the
day, we put on our shore clothes (the inevitable blue serge of the
seamen), light our pipes, and go into the town again. Ah! How good it
is to see people, people, people! To see cars, and shops, and girls
again! How wondrously, how ineffably beautiful a barmaid appears to us,
who have seen no white woman for nearly four months! And book-shops!
Dear God! I was in the High Street for half an hour to-night, and I
have already bagged a genuine Galignani Byron, calf binding, yellow
paper, and suppressed poems, all complete, for three shillings. It will
go well in our book-case beside our Guiccioli Recollections. For myself
I have a dear little Grammont with notes, a fine edition of
Bandello's Novelle, and a weird paper-covered copy of Joseph
Andrews, designed, presumably, to corrupt the youthful errantry of
Swansea, and secreted by the vendor of Welsh devotional literature at
the very bottom of the tuppenny box. In spite of Borrow's enthusiasm
for Ab Gwilym, I have no craving for Welsh Theology, mostly by Jones
and Williams, which is to be had by the cubic ton. No one buys it, I
fear. The little lass who sold me the Fielding and the Novelle looked
pale and hungry behind the stacks of books, and I am shamed, speaking
merely as a thorough-paced buyer of second-hand books, that I paid more
for the latter than she would have asked. But the blue-grey eyes, the
nervous poise of the head, the pride in the sensitive nostrils,
reminded me of someone.... A horrible life for a young girl, my friend,
a horrible life.
I took my treasures along the brilliantly lighted streets. I walked
on air, happy with a mysterious happiness. I looked at myself as I
passed a shop mirror, and saw a face with a cold, cynical expression,
the soul intrenched behind inscrutable, searching eyes. You do not
look happy, I said to myself as I passed on, and I smiled. I thought
again of those gaudily dressed sailors; I thought of their inane
felicity, and smiled again. De chacun selon que son habilleté, à
chacun selon que ses besoins, I muttered as I turned into an
And now I reached the summit of experience. All the morning I was
toiling in the engine-room as we ploughed across the Channel, past
Lundy, and up to the Mumbles Head. I had played my part in that strange
comedy of paying off. I had toiled again in the afternoon in a
dry-docked steamer, making all safe after shutting down. I had scoured
the shelves of a tiny shop for books. And now I sat in the fauteuils of
a modern music-hall, beholding the amazing drama of The Road to Ruin.
Verily, as Sainte-Beuve says, Au théâtre on exagère toujours.
Not that I would accuse the constructors of the piece of any lack of
skill. Indeed, Scribe himself never displayed more consummate
stage-craft or a greater sense of situation, than they. As one gazes
upon the spectacle of the impossible undergraduate's downfall, he loses
all confidence in the impossibility; he believes that here indeed lies
the road to ruin; he feels inexpressibly relieved when the young man
thanks Heaven for his terrible dream of the future, and sits down to
Conic Sections, his head between his hands. You notice this latter
touch. The playwright knows his audience. He knows they think that an
influx of Conic Sections strains the cerebral centres, and that study
is always carried on with the head compressed between the hands. Thus
the sermon reaches the hearts of those who still have occasional
nightmares of the time when they conned Parallel lines are those
which, if produced ever so far both ways, will not meet. Alas! I fear
our conceptions of art are in the same predicament.
Is it not strange, though, how customs vary? In the Middle Ages one
went to church to see the mystery play; now one goes to the music-hall
to hear a sermon. Pronounced by clergymen and others to be the most
powerful sermon ever preached from the stage, etc. I wonder, as I scan
my programme, whether the monastic playwrights of old ever published
encomiums on their weird productions by prominent highwaymen. I say
highwaymen because I can think of none who had a better right to
criticise dramatic performances from the practical and moral
standpoints. But the noise of the undergraduate as he goes crashing
through his ruinous nightmare recalls me. I proceed to examine my
companions in distress. All are engaged in the Road to Ruin. I think
they like stage ruinit is so thrilling. Moreover, it leaves out all
that is at all middle class. Even our wicked undergraduate never falls
as low as the middle class. He starts as a university man, and ends in
a slum, but he is saved from the second-class season ticket. I am still
puzzling with this question of the middle class as I quit the theatre
and make my way down to the docks. There is a mild, misty rain falling,
and I turn into my favourite tavern in Wind Street for a glass of ale.
The Middle Class! Why, I ask myself, are they so strange in their
intellectual tastes? The wealthy I understand; the workmen I
understand; but O this terrible Middle Class! I sit musing, and four
men come in upon my solitude. Obviously they are actors, rushing in for
a smile between the acts. Obviously, I say, for their easy manners,
savoir faire, and good breeding stamp them men of the world, and
their evening dress does the rest.
Ah, you read the Clarion? observes one. I start guiltily.
Yes, I had bought a copy, and I have unconsciously spread it on the
table by my side. Will you drink with us, sir? adds another. He is
not of the Middle Class.
Thank you, I will, I answer, and my first interlocutor glances
over the paper.
Are you a Socialist? he inquires. Yes, I reply. So am I. I
rise, and we shake hands. This, my friend, was beyond all my imagining.
It is, moreover, not middle class. I have ridden in a suburban
train day after day for years, with people who lived in the same
street, without exchanging a word. Here, in this tavern, convention
dares not to show her head. And I am warmed as with the cheerful sun.
Have you been in? asks the man who hands me my beer, and he flings
his head back to indicate the theatre.
Not yet, I answer. What have you on this week?
A Sister's Sin. You should see it. Come to-morrow.
* * * * *
A Sister's Sin!
I shall not go to see it. I dare not. I had intended to ask my
Socialist whether he could solve the problem of the Middle Class for
me, but he has done it. Au théâtre on exagère toujours. I
hardly know which are the more bafflingthe Middle Ages or the Middle
I have just been looking through an old, old note-book of mine, the
sort of book compiled, I suppose, by every man who really sets out on
the long road. I remember buying the thing, a stout volume with
commercially marbled covers, at a stationer's shop in the Goswell Road.
I wonder if the salesman dreamed that it would be used by the grimy
apprentice to transcribe extracts from such writers as Kant and Lotze,
Swinburne and Taine, Emerson and Schopenhauer? How strong, how dear to
me, was all that pertained to Metaphysic in that long ago! Often, too,
I see original speculations, naïve dogmatism, sandwiched between the
Worthless, of courseit should be hardly necessary to say so. And
yet, as I turn the leaves, I get occasional glimpses of real thought
shining through the overstrained self-consciousness, illuminating my
youthful priggishness of demeanour. For instance, how could I have been
so prescient to have coupled Emerson and Schopenhauer together so
persistently? Here, smudged and corrected to distraction, is a
passionate defence of the former, occasioned by some academical trifler
dubbing him a mere echo of Carlyle and Coleridge. I almost lived on
Emerson in those days, to such good purpose, indeed, that I know him by
heart. And, if I mistake not, he will come to his own again in the near
future, when there will be no talk of Carlylean echoes.
All alone, sharing its page with no other thought, is this, to me,
characteristic phrase: Mental Parabolism, N. B. It was
like a shock to see it once more after all these years, and I have been
trying to understand it. It was born, I think, of my frenzy for
analogizing. I wanted some analogy, in physical phenomena, for
everything in my mental experience. Professor Drummond was to be left
infinitely in the rear. And by parabolism, it seems according to a
later note, I meant that a man's intellectual career is a curve, and
that curve is a parabola, being the resultant of his mental mass into
his intellectual force. The importance of this notion impresses me more
now than then. It will explain how men of indubitable genius stop at
certain points along the road. They can get no further, because their
mental parabola is complete. All that has happened since is to them
unreal and unimportant. One man I know exemplifies this to a remarkable
degree. His parabola starts at the seventeenth century, rises to its
maximum somewhere about the Johnsonian period, continues with scarcely
abated vigour as far as Thackeray and Carlyle, declines towards
Trollope andends. To speak of Meredith and Tolstoi, Ibsen and
Maeterlinck, is to beat the air. The energy is exhausted, the mind has
completed its curve; the rest is a quiet reminiscence of what has been.
It pleases me to think that there may be some grain of truth in all
this, though I am not unmindful of the inevitable conclusion, that my
own parabola will some day take its downward course, and I shall sit,
quiescent, while the younger men around will demand stormily why I
cannot see the grandeur, the profundity, of their newer gods. There
lies the tragedy. Those gods, quite possibly, will be greater
than minemust be, if my belief in man be worth anything. Yes,
that is the tragedy. I shall be at rest, and the youths of the golden
future will be seeing visions and dreaming dreams of which I have not
even the faintest hint.
I feel this most keenly, when reading Nietzsche, that volcanic
stammerer of the thing to come. I feel, inside, as children say, that
my parabola will be finished before I can win to the burning heart of
the man. It frightens me (a sign of coming fatigue) to launch out on
one of his torrents of thoughtveritable rushing rivers of vitriol,
burning up all that is decaying and fleshly, casting away the refined,
exhausted, yet exultant spirit on some lonely point of the future,
where he can see the illimitable ocean of race-possibilities.
Oh, noon of life! Delightful garden land! Fair summer Station!
So, writing (steadying myself against the Atlantic roll) one fresh
thought in the blank left for it in the long ago, I close the book, and
take up my present life once more.
The secret of a joyful life is to live dangerously. Perhaps one
may judge of a man's power by his reception of that aphorism. For me,
at any rate, there is but unconditional assent. To live dangerously!
How nauseous to me is the maternal anxiety of some of my friends. They
are so anxious for me. It is such a dangerous trade. And so on.
I have been scanning a newspaper left in the mess-room, and it has
provoked me to further thought. I see, in retrospect, those myriads of
nicely dressed, God-fearing suburbans in their upholstered local
trains, each with his face turned towards his daily sheet, each with
his scaly hide of prejudice clamped about his soul, each placidly
settling the world's politics and religion to his own satisfaction,
each taking his daily dram of news from the same still. I look into my
own copy and read on one page of a society bazaar where Lady So-and-So
and the Hon. Alicia So-and-So presided over a very tasteful stall of
dwarf myrtle-trees, etc.
In another column I am informed that some person or other, of whom I
have never heard, has gone to Wiesbaden. The leading article is devoted
to a eulogium of some football team, the special article asks, Can we
live on twopence a day? You cannot imagine how unutterably turbid all
this appears to me, out on the green Atlantic. It is Sunday, and so we
rest; but yesterday afternoon I was out in one of the lifeboats,
line-fishing for cod. The great green rollers came up from the south,
and the boat rode the billows like a cockle-shell. How I would like to
have had some of those city folk with me in that up-ended lifeboat,
their hands red with the cold sea water and scarred with the line as it
ran through their fingers to the pull of a fourteen-pounder. Dwarf
myrtle-trees! Wiesbaden! God! Let them come below with me, let me take
them into our boilers and crush them down among those furred and
salt-scarred tubes, and make them work. They used to tell me, when I
said I loathed football, that I did not know I was alive. Do they, I
Yes, the newspaper came to me like a breath of foul city air. Very
much in the same way I was affected by a remark made to me by my friend
the Mate. Where I live, said he, one child won't play with another
if its father gets five shillings a week more'n t'other's father. We
were talking Socialism, if I remember rightly, and that was his
argument against its feasibility. I did not notice the argument; I fell
to thinking how odd it must be to live in such an atmosphere. How is it
we never have it in Chelsea? I have never been the less welcome because
my host or hostess has as many pounds a week as I have a year. My old
friend of my 'prentice daysdear old Tom, the foreman, and Jack
Williams, the slinger, they get no colder welcome from us because they
live in Hammersmith or Whitechapel. Have we ourselves not seen in our
rooms rich and poor, artist and mechanic, writer and labourer? Nay,
have we not had German clerk and Chinese aristocrat, German baron and
Russian nihilist? What is it that permits us to dispense with that
snobbery which seems almost a necessary of life to the people where the
old Mate lives! I think it is lack of imagination in our women-folk,
and the fetish of the home. For surely the utter antithesis of home
is that same dangerous life. These young men who economise and grow
stingy in their desperate endeavour to establish a home nest, some
Acacia Villa in Wood Green or Croydonwhat can they know of living
dangerously? Their whole existence is a fleeing from danger. Safe
callings, safe investments, safe drainage, safe transit, safe morality,
safe in the arms of Jesus. Is it lack of imagination?
So we, who foregathered yesterday afternoon in the shipping office,
are lashed together for another four months. A motley group, my friend.
Outside I stood, note-book in hand, trying to find a spare fireman who
wanted a job. A mob of touts, sharks, and pimps crowded round me,
hustling each other, and then turning away from my call, Any firemen
here? In despair I go over to the Federation Office, where all
seamen are registered in the books of life insurance, where they pay
their premiums, and await possible engineers. I consult with the grave,
elderly man in the office, and he asks for firemen in the bare, cold
waiting-room. One man comes up, a pale, nervous chap, clean-shaven and
quiet. I take his Continuous Discharge book, flick it open at the
last entrytrawling! The last foreign-going voyage is dated 1902, S.
Africa, Voyage not completed. I hand it back. Won't do, I remark
shortly, and look round for others. The man looks at the grave, elderly
person, who takes the book. Give him a chance, says the latter, in
his low, official voice. LookS. Africa. The man's been serving his
country. Give him a chance. I would if he'd promise not to get
enteric when we reach port, I say. Never 'ad it yet, sir, says the
man, and I take his book. Benvenuto. Hurry up. She's signing on
now. He runs across the road, and I follow.
When I reach the shipping office they are waiting for me. Behind the
counter and seated beside the clerk is the Captain, writing our
advance notes. The clerk asks if all are present; we shuffle up
closer, and he begins to read the articles to which we XXXX
subscribesigning our death-warrants, we call it. No one listens to
himhe himself is paring his nails, or arranging some other papers as
he intones the sentences which are more familiar to him and to us than
the Lord's Prayer to a clergyman. Then, when he has finished, each one
comes up for catechismcarpenter, sailors, donkeyman, fireman, all in
due order. Then the officers. Donkeyman! calls the clerk. A huge,
muscular figure with a red handkerchief round his bull throat ceases
arguing with a fireman, plunges forward, and seizes the pen. He is my
friend of the last voyage, the mighty Norseman.
What is your name?
Johann Nicanor Gustaffsen.
Where were you born?
How old are you?
Where do you live?
Ryder Street, Swansea.
And so on with each of us.
Don't forget, says the clerk from the depths of a
three-and-a-half-inch collar, to be on the ship at nine o'clock
to-morrow morning. And we troop out to make room for another crew,
meet yet another coming to be paid off at the other counter, wish we
were they, and eventually reach the ship.
Strange scenes sometimes, in that shipping office, or, for that
matter, in any shipping office. I shall not forget that forlorn little
lad we had once engaged for mess-room steward at two pounds five a
month, with his red little nose and the bullied look in his eyes. It
was when he went up to sign, and answer the questions given above. What
was his name? Christmas Hedge. All turned and stared at the
snivelling urchin. Where was he born? In a field.
The walls, too, interest a man like me. There are notices in all the
tongues of Europe on the wallsnotices of sunken wrecks, of masters
fined for submerging their loaded discs, of white lights in the China
seas altered to green ones by the Celestial Government, of
transport-medals awaiting their owners, of how to send money home from
Salonika or Copenhagen or Yokohama or Singapore. Near the door,
moreover, is a plain wooden money-box with no appeal for alms
thereonmerely a printed slip pasted along the base of it: There
is sorrow on the sea. And often and often I have seen grey chief
officers and beardless fourths drop their sixpences into the box, for
the sake of that sorrow on the sea.
And now it is nightour last night ashore. The Second Engineer asks
me to go up town with him. The Chief has gone to see his wife home to
Cardiff, and George goes on watch at eight-bells. So for the last time
I don a linen collar and shore clothes, and we go up town. We meet
sundry youth from the ship-yard; they are going to that iridescent
music-hall into which I plunged six weeks ago when we came in. We pay
our sixpences for two hours' high-speed enjoyment, early performance;
enjoyment being sold nowadays very much like electricityat a high
voltage but small cost per unit. Scarcely my sort, I fear, but what
would you? I cannot be hypercritical on this our last night ashore. And
so I strive to feel as if I were sorry to go away, as if parting were
indeed that sweet sorrow I have heard it called, as if I really cared a
scrap for the things they care for. True, I feel the parting from my
friend, and it is no sweet sorrow either. But that is at Paddington,
when the train moves, and our hands are gripped tightlya faint
foretaste of that last terror, when he or I shall pass away into the
shadows and the other will be left alone for ever. It is when I ponder
upon that scene that I realize what our friendship has become, that I
realize how paltry every other familiar or even relative appears by
comparison. Let me treasure this friendship carefully, healthfully, old
friend, for, by my love of life, it is rare enough in these our modern
I have been wondering why this isI think it is money, or rather
business. Have you noticed how business dehumanises men? I count
over in my mind dozens of men whom I know, men of age, experience, and
wealth, who almost demand that I should envy them by the very way they
walk the city streets. They are prosperous, they imagine. I, strolling
idly through those same city streets, looking at the show, studying
their faces, defied them, and said to myself, You gentlemen are not
human beingsyou are business men. Not that I would tell them this;
they would not understand, though they are guilty of occasional lucid
intervals. They will admit, in a superior tone, that business cuts them
off from a great deal. But it is evident they intend sticking to the
irrefutable logic of the bank-balance. For them there is no friendship
like ours. They could not afford it, bless you. How are they to know
that you won't do them or borrow of them? No, no. The world, for
them, is a place where they have a chance of besting you and me, of
getting more money than you or I, of prospering, as they call it, at
If I say to one of these men, I want no fortune; I have what I need
now by working for it, he looks at me as though I were stark mad. If I
say, to poor Sandy Jackson, for instance, who has only one lung and is
mad on getting more businessif I say to him, You advise me to go
in for business on my own account, Sandy. Very good. What does that
mean? It means that I must become dehumanised, or fail. I must
have no friends who are of no use to me. I must waste no time reading
or writing or dreaming dreams. I must eat no dinners abroad which are
not likely to bring in business. I must toil early and late, go on
spare regimen, drink little, dress uncomfortably, live respectablyfor
what, Sandy? For a few hundreds or thousands of pounds. May I let up
then? Oh, no, Sandy, that is the business man's mirage, that letting
up. He never lets up until he is let downinto the tomb. It would be
against his principles. Well, Sandy, I see you're at it and apparently
killing yourself by it, but I wish to be excused. It isn't good enough.
I want my friends, my books, my dreams most of all. Take your business;
I'll to my dreams again.
So, while we sit in the gaudy playhouse, I dream my dreams of the
great books I want to write, the orations I want to deliver, the
lessons I want to teach, and I wonder how long my time of probation
will be. Strange that I should never make any allowance for the
dangerous nature of my calling. This may be my last night ashore for
ever. What of it? Well, it will be a nuisance to leave those books,
lectures, and lessons to be written, given, and taught by somebody
else; but I don't really mind. I only want to go along steadily to the
end, and when that comes shake my friend by the hand and say
Farewell. It is plain, is it not, that I am no business man?
I am still dreaming when our noisy little crowd elbow their way out
and pass up the street into a tavern. Here my friend the Second is
known. He pats the fair barmaid on the cheeks, chucks the dark one
under the chin, calls the landlady old dear, and orders drinks in
extenso. I am introduced to one and all, and another girl, neither
dark nor fair, emerges from an inner room for my especial regard. We
are invited within, and with glass in hand and girl on knee, we toast
our coming voyage. One by one the girls are kissed; the landlady
jocularly asks why she is left out, and a sense of justice makes me
salute her chastely. You see, old man, this is the last night ashore.
We bid them good-bye, they wish us good luck, and we depart to our
own place once more. The Second is silent. He has said good-bye to his
girlhe hung back a moment as we left the tavern. And there is
something burning in my brain, just behind the eyeballs. I have not
said good-bye to my girl. Or rather I meanbut I cannot formulate to
myself just what I do mean at the time. I only feel, as I turn in, that
I ought to have told my friend all that happened when I met her, a
month ago, and that, after all, nothing really matters, and the sooner
I get away to sea again the better.
Cleared for sea.
s.s. Benvenuto, for S. Africa.
It is ten-thirty this clear, cold December day; the sun shines on
the turquoise patch of open Channel which I can see from the bridge
where I am testing the whistle; the tide is rising; the last cases of
general cargo are being lowered into Number Two Hold, and from all
along the deck rise little jets of steam, for the Mate is already
trying the windlass. Once more we are cleared for sea. In an hour's
time the tug Implacable, mingling her frenzied little yelp with
our deeper note, will pull us out into the middle of the dock, then
round, and slowly through the big gates, into the locks. The hatches
are already on the after combings, and sailors are spreading the
tarpaulin covers over them and battening down with the big wood wedges.
Steam for eleven o'clock, said the Chief last night. Right! The
gauges are trembling over the 150 mark nowenough to get away with.
Open everything out, Mr. McAlnwick, says the Second as he strolls
round for a last look before going on deck. I carry out the order,
glance at the water-level in the boilers, and then go for'ard to see
how many of my firemen are missing. They should all be here by now. No,
two short still. Old Androwsky rears himself up and points with the
stem of his pipe at the quay. The ship has moved away, and the two men
with sailors' bags and mattresses are watching us. They will get aboard
in the locks.
The Skipper is in uniform on the bridge, and the Mate is, as usual,
in a hurry. The mooring winch is groaning horribly as she hauls on a
cable running from the stern to the quay while the tug pulls our head
slowly round. Right down to the centre of the loading disc now. The
Second Mate rushes to the fiddle-top, and shouts for more steamthe
winch has stuckand a howl from below tells him that the donkeyman is
doing his best. As I go below again the sharp clang of the telegraph
strikes my earStand by.
The steam is warming the engine-room, and there is, in the
atmosphere down here, a peculiar pungent smell, always present when
getting away. It is, I suppose, the smell of steam, if steam has any
smell. Give 'er a turn, Mr. McAlnwick. The Chief looks down from the
deck-door, and I answer All right, sir. We are moving into the locks
now, and as I start the little high-speed reversing engine the
telegraph pointer moves round to Slow ahead with a sharp clang.
Ash-pit dampers off! cries George the Fourth, and runs to close the
drain-cocks. There is a sudden loud hammering as I open the throttle,
and she moves away under her own steam. Then she sticks on a
dead-centre, à point du mort, as the French mécaniciens
say, and George rushes to open the intermediate valve, kicking open the
water-service cock as he goes past it. At last she goes away, slow,
solemn, and steamy, three pairs of eyes watching every link and bar for
trouble. All right? asks the Chief from above, and the Second,
standing by the staircase, answers All right, sir. Then clang goes
the telegraph round to Stop, and I close the throttle. We're in the
locks, says George, fiddling with an oil-cup which is loose on the
intermediate pressure rod. We're in the locks, and we soon shall cross
the bar. And as he busies himself with one thing and another he hums
the tune which has swept over Swansea like some contagious disease of
When there isn't a girl about,
You do feel lonely!
When there isn't a girl about
To call your only!
You're absolutely on the shelf,
Don't know what to do with yourself,
When there isn't a girl about!
Said good-bye to her, Mac? he asks. I nod evasively. He has been
home to Sunderland since we got in, and I found him asleep on the
gallery floor, with his head in the ash-pit, the night of his return.
He is better now, and since I know he has brought back a photograph
from the north, I am in hopes of his having fallen in love. (Clang!
Slow ahead.) It is high time, I think. His constitution won't stand
everything, you know. And it seems such a pity for a fine young chap
to(Clang! Stop.) George is recording the bridge orders on
the black-board on the bunker bulkhead, and I wonder(Clang! Slow
ahead.) A pause; thenClang! FULL AHEAD.
Let her go away gradually, mister, says the Second as he goes
round to have a look at the pumps. Cautiously the stop-valve is opened
out, and the engines get into their sixty-two per-minute stride. The
firemen are at it now, trimmers are flogging away the wedges from the
bunker doors, and the funnel damper is full open. And then, and
thenhow shall I describe the sensation of that first delicate rise
and fall of the plates. I experience a feeling of buoyant life under my
feet! It means we are out at sea, that we have crossed the bar. The
Chief and Second have gone to get washed for dinner, George is on deck
shutting off steam and watching the steering engine for defects, and I
am left alone below with a greaser. I experience a feeling of
exultation as I watch my engines settle down for their seven-day run to
the Canary Islands. How can I explain how beautiful they are?
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all!
Yes, that is how I feel just now as I pace round and round, alert
for a leaky joint or a slackened nut. The solemn music of the plunging
rods is all the sweeter for that I have not heard it for six weeks. We
are out at sea!
And now George comes down again, and I go on deck to get my dinner.
We are crossing Swansea Bay, among the brown-sailed trawlers and the
incoming steamships. The sun shines brightly on us as we bear away
southward towards Lundy, and I stare out silently across the broad
Channel, thinking. Oh, my friend, stand by me now, in this my hour of
need! How foolish! I am alone at sea, and my friend is in London,
puzzling over my behaviour to him.
The cool breeze against my face arouses me. The mood of exultation
in my engines, the mood of blank despair, both have passed, and I am, I
hope, myself again. Once more the kick o' the screw beneath us and the
round blue seas outside. Once more the wandering fever is in my blood,
and, as the winter's day fades away, I stand against the rail looking
eastward at the flashing lights, calmer than I have been since that
nighta month ago. I am an ocean tramp once more, and count it life
And out at sea, behold the dock-lights die,
And meet my mate, the wind that tramps the world.
I have been looking into some of my books, now that the sea is so
calm and the weather so enchantingly fair. I find a pleasurable
contrast in dipping into such volumes as Boswell's Johnson,
Goldsmith's Beau Nash, and Lady Montague's Letters. The life they
depict is so different, the opinions they express so dissimilar from
those I have myself gradually grown to affect. And what an amazing
farrago is that same Boswell! Surely, if ever a book was written
con amore, it is that one. Compare it with the Life of Beau Nash.
Each is the biography of a remarkable man, but what a difference! In
every line Goldsmith displays a certain forced interest. I do not know,
but I am almost positive he cared very little for his subject; I feel
that the work is only being carried on for the sake of gain. Regarded
so, it is a masterly little Life. Two hundred small pagesNash merits
no more on the roll of fame.
But the former, twelve hundred closely printed pages. No paltry
little anecdote or incident, germane or not, is too contemptible for
him. The identity of some obscure school, the mastership of which
Johnson never held, is argued about until one is weary of the thing.
The illegible note, written for his own eye alone, is construed in a
dozen ways, and judgment delivered as though the fate of empires hung
thereon. The smug complaisance with which he cites some prayer or
comment to illustrate his idol's religious orthodoxy would have angered
me oncedid anger me oncebut out here, on the broad blue
ocean, I smile at the toady, and marvel at the wondrous thing he has
Pleasant, too, to turn the leaves of my Dryden, and glance through
some of those admirably composed prefaces, those egotistical
self-criticisms so full of literary pugnacity, in an age when pluck in
a poet needed searching for. I often say to folk who deplore Bernard
Shaw's prefatory egotism that if they would read Dryden they would
discover that Shaw is only up to his own masterly old game of imitating
his predecessor's tactics. But Shaw is quite safe. He knows people do
not read the literature of their own land nowadays.
I had a laugh last evening all to myself when I noticed that, in a
hasty re-arrangement of my book-shelves, Gorky stood shouldering
old Chaucer! Could disparity go further? And yet each is a
master of his craft, each does his work with skillwith trade
finish, as we say. And so it seemed to me that, after all, one might
leave the Romaunt of the Rose side by side with Three of Them, on
condition that each is read and re-read, if only for the workmanship.
Cellini, too, draws me as regularly and irresistibly as the moon
makes our tides. Here is richness. The breathless impetuosity of the
whole narrative, the inconceivable truculence of the man, fascinates
me, who am so different. When I looked at that Perseus in Florence,
when I leaned over the medal-cases in South Kensington and stared hard
at the work of his murderous hands, I felt awed and baffled. How could
he do ithe with his dagger just withdrawn from some rival's
shoulders, his fingers just unclasped from some enemy's windpipe? Then,
again, the virile cheerfulness of the man! God is ever on his side,
Justice is his guardian angel. And while musing upon him some few days
back, I fell to wondering if I might not imitate him. I mean, why could
not I take the life of some such man (and I know one at least who could
sit for the portrait), and write a fictitious autobiography in that
truculent, bombastic, interesting style? I have the material, and I
believe I could do it. What do you think, old friend? It is already one
of my plans for the future, when I am done wandering.
That last word reminds me of my Borrow. Who can describe the
bewildering delight when one first plunges into Lavengro and the
Romany Rye? To take them from the book-case and carry them out to
Barnet, where the Kingmaker fell, and read with the wind in your face
and the Great North Road before your eyesis that too much to ask of
mine ancient Londoner? Believe me, the thing is worth doing. No man
ever put so divine an optimism into his books, so genuine a love of
nature. Says Mr. Petulengro: There's night and day, brother, both
sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there's
likewise the wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would
wish to die?
One of the most precious memories of my younger manhood is brought
back to me as I write those words. It was a Sunday afternoon in late
autumn, in one of those unfrequented ways which slant off from the
Great North Road beyond Hadley Heath, where the green turf bordered the
brown road and the leaves covered the earth beneath the trees with a
carpet of flaming cloth-of-gold. I had left my book and bicycle to one
side, and, seated upon a low grey stone wall, I watched the sun go
down. Behind me, across the intervening meadows, rose clouds of dust,
redolent of waste gases, where thundered an ever-increasing traffic of
swift vehicles. In front a vaporous mist was rising from the land; the
shadows broadened, and the red western glow grew deeper, while in the
middle distance a tiny child, clad in green cloak and little red hood,
stood conning her Sunday storya jewel of quiet colour in the
gathering autumn twilight. And so, as I listened to the roar from the
macadamed highway and looked out upon that evening glory, it was as
though I heard, far off, the throbbing pulse of the great world's
mighty hand, while I sat still in the heart of it.
Life is very sweet, brother: who would wish to die?
Is all this too bookish for an ocean tramp? Alas! I fear I grow too
cocksure of my literary attainments out here, with none to check me. It
is in London where a man finds his true level in the book world, as
Johnson shrewdly observed. In the evening, when we are gathered over
the fire, and opinions fly across and rebound, when one hears bookmen
talk of books, and painters talk of artthat is the time when I feel
myself so unutterably insignificant. Often I have looked across at
T, or G, or , someone I know even better than them, and I
feel discouraged. You men have done things, while Iwell, I
talk about doing things, and try, feebly enough, to make my talking
good; but to what end? Thas his work in many a public building and
sacred edifice; Ghas his books on our tables and in the circulating
libraries; and you have done things, too, in dramatic literature.
Meanwhile I am an engine-driver on the high seas! I know my work is
in the end as honourable and more useful than yours, but I cannot
always keep back a jealous feeling when I think of the years sliding
by, and nothing done. Nothing ever finished, not evenbut there! That
chapter of my life is finished and done with, incomplete as the story
will be always. Often and often, under the stars at midnight, I think
that if she would stand by me, I could be nearer successI could take
hold of life and wrench away the difficulties of it. And then again
comes a more valiant, manly mood. I say to myself, I will do something
yet. I will reach the heights, and show her that one man at least can
stand on his own feet. I will show her that she need have no need to be
ashamed of him, though no carpet-knight, only an engine-driver. And I
recall that brave song in the Gay Pretenders:
I am not what she'd have me be,
I am no courtier fair to see;
And yet no other in the land,
I swear, shall take my lady's hand!
Well, that is my high resolve sometimes, and I will try to keep it
in front of me always, and so do something at last.
Well, well, this is sad talk for the day before Christmas! Come away
from books and trouble, out on deck, where there is a breeze. The
mighty Norseman is ready to cut my hair, and is waiting abaft the
engine-room under the awning.
It is the donkeyman's business, aboard this ship, to cut the
officers' hair. A marvellous man, a good donkeyman. And this one of
ours is multi-marvellous, for he can do anything. He speaks Swedish,
Danish, Russian, German, and excellent English. He has been a
blacksmith, butcher, fireman, greaser, tinsmith, copper-smelter, and
now, endlich, enfin, at last, a donkeyman. His frame is
gigantic, his strength prodigious. On his chest is a horrific picture
of the Crucifixion in red, blue, and green tattoo. Between the Christ
and the starboard thief is a great triangular scar of smooth, shiny
skin. One of his colossal knees is livid with scars. He tells me the
story like this, keeping time with the click of the scissors.
When I was a kid I was a wild devil. Why, I ran away with a circus
that came to Stockholm, and my father he came after me and he nearly
kill me. Then, one day, I had onwhat you call 'em, mister?long
shoes, eight, ten feet longah! yes, we call 'em ski. Well, I
go to jump thirty, forty feet, and I am only twelve years old. The
strap come off my foot and I have not time to shift my balance to the
other foot, and I go over and over, like a stone. I come down on my
knee, and there are beer-bottles on the rocks. The English and Germans,
they drink beer on the rocksbeautiful Swedish beer, better than
Löwenbrau, hein! Well, they take out of my knee fifty pieces of
glassyou see the marks? And my chest it is smashed bad. They cut off
three rib and look inside; this is where they look into my chest. All
right! They put ribs back and box all up. Oh, I was a wild devil when I
was a kid!
Such is Johann Nicanor Gustaffsen, with his huge strength, frescoed
chest, and pasty face with the jolly blue eyes. I think the women like
him, and, by the hammer of Thor! he can bend a bar of iron across his
It is Christmas Day, and I begin it with the clock as usual. George
the Fourth punches me in the ribs, grunts, Merry new Christmas, Mac,
and vanishes. There is not a breath of air stirring. Through the sultry
night air the stars burn brightly. A cluster of blurred lights on the
horizon show me where a liner is creeping past us in the darknessa
ship passing in the night. Clad only in dungaree trousers and singlet,
I go below, on watch. The windsail hangs limp and breathless, and the
thermometer stands at 120° Fah. Christmas Day!
Slowly in the hot air the hours drag on. One, two, three o'clock.
Then, one bell. No breeze yet. I finish up, score my log on the
black-boardSea water 90°, discharge 116°and call the Second. He is
awake, panting in the hot oven of his berth. If I wish him a merry
Christmas he will murder me. I slink below again, and have a sea bath.
Even salt water at 90° Fah. is a boon after four hours in that inferno.
A mug of cocoastrange how hot cocoa cools oneand I turn in. I
hear the Skipper padding up and down in his sandals on the poop, clad
only in pyjamas. At last, as the stars are paling, I fall asleep.
At seven o'clock I am aroused by the mess-room steward leaning over
me, closing my ports. They are flooding the decks with sea-water to
cool them, and if my ports are open I am also flooded.
Still no relief. There is a deathly quiet in the mess-room as we
assembled to our Christmas breakfast of bacon and eggs, coffee, cocoa,
and marmalade. Imagine such a menu in the tropics! The butter is
liquid, and from each of us, clad in singlets and white ducks, the
sweat streams. The day begins unpropitiously. John Thomas, the
mess-room steward, balancing himself on the top step of our
companion-way with three cups of boiling cocoa in his hands, slips and
thunders to the bottom. There is a chaotic mixture of scalded boy,
broken cups, and steam on the floor, and we giggle nervously in our
George the Fourth goes on watch, and we lie listlessly under our
awning, praying for a breeze. On the face of the blazing vault there is
not a single cloud, on the face of the waters not a ripple. The sea is
a vast pond of paraffin. The hot gases from the funnel rise vertically,
and the sun quivers behind them. The flaps of the windsail hang dead,
the sides of the canvas tube have fallen in like the neck of a skinny
old man. Slowly the sun mounts over our heads and the air grows hotter
and hotter. From the galley come sounds of quacking, and a few feathers
roll slowly past us. Now and then an agonized trimmer will stagger out
of a bunker hatch into the open air, his half-naked body black with
coal-dust and gleaming with sweat. The Mate, in a big straw hat, paces
the bridge slowly. The cook emerges from the galley and hastens aft for
provisionsthey are preparing our Christmas dinner. Roast duck, green
peas, new potatoes, plum puddingand the temperature is 105° Fah. on
One bell. I rise, and go below to change for my watch12 to 4.
Will you take any dinner, sir? John Thomas rubs the sweat from his
forehead and sets the soup on the table. I ponder on the madness of
eating Christmas fare in that oven-like mess-room, but sentiment wins,
and I sit down with the others.
Hoondred an' twenty oonder t' win's'le, whispers George to me
What's the sea-water? asks the Chief.
We push the soup aside, and John Thomas brings in the roast ducks.
How appetizing they would be at home! The Chief wrenches them apart in
perspiring silence, and we fall to. We peck at the food; the sweat
drops from our faces into the plates, the utensils slide from our
hands, and so we make the best of it. But when the pudding arrives our
courage fails us. We cannot face plum pudding, sentiment or no
sentiment. We gulp down some lime-juice and stagger away like dying
menI to four hours' purgatory below.
Slowly (oh, so slowly!) the time drags on. The greaser draws his
tattooed arm across his eyes and whispers, with the triumph of a lost
soul bragging of the Circle of Fire, that he has known it 'otter'n
this in the Red Sea, sir. He is an entertaining man. Often I hear
tales from the wide world of waters from his lips. This is his last
voyage, he tells me. He is going shore donkeyman in futurewhat you
call longshoreman. His wife has a nice little business in Neath now,
and she wants 'im 'ome. Have I noticed how that high-press guide is
leaking? Should he tighten up the tap-bolts in the bottom plate? I
dissent, because one cannot reach them safely while she is running. It
is only a trifle; better let it go. He acquiesces doubtfully, and
resumes greasing. And the hours drift by.
At four o'clock the Second relieves me, looking reproachfully at the
slackened windsail. Still no breeze. And the greaser, who does not go
off till six o'clock, observes, Oh, wot a'appy Christmas! Which
would be profane if the temperature were lower.
I change into white ducks again and saunter up to the bridge to talk
to my friend the Mate. If I were to paraphrase Johnson's burst of
energy, I should say, Sir, I love the Mate!
Merry Christmas, Mr. McAlnwick! he shouts cheerfully from the
upper bridge, and a chorus of yelping dogs joyfully take up the cry.
They are the Old Man's, but they follow the Mate up and down until
they drop with fatigue. Black silky spaniel, rough-red Irish terrier,
black and grey badger-toed Scotch half-breed, nameless mongrelthey
all love the Mate. Come here, he says, and I climb up to his level.
The Old Man had a letter this mornin', he says.
Eh? I remark blankly.
Ah! His wife gave it me before we sailed an' I left it on his table
this mornin'! Says he, at breakfast, 'Pshaw!' says he, 'it's a waste o'
Mr. Honna, I say, perhaps he'll be sorry for saying that, eh?
He will, he willsome day, Mr. Mac, and he walks up and down the
bridge for a bit, smoking the pipe his children gave him for a present
last Christmas. I ask him:
When shall we strike the trade wind, Mr. Honna?
Soon, soon. 'T ought to be here in the morning.
I climb down again, and sniff eagerly for the first beginnings of a
breeze. Nothing, unless you are optimistic and like to stare at a brown
streak away southward, between sky and sea.
I reach the engineers' awning aft of the engine-room, and see the
Chief in his chair, the Fourth in his hammock, and the Second just come
up for tea. I open my mouth and speak, when the regular throb of the
engines is broken by a scream. Like a flash each one springs to his
feet and looks at the others. The regular throb goes on as before, and
George laughs, but the Second disappears through the door, I following.
I shall not easily forget that scream.
Half-way down, a fireman, his face blanching under the coal-dust and
sweat, meets us.
What's up? snaps the Second.
Donkeyman, sir. In the crankpit! He plunges downward again, and we
do the same. Down into the fierce oily heat illuminated by the
electrics in front of each engine. The second puts two fingers in his
mouth and whistles shrilly to those above. And then we fall to work.
The telegraph is flung over to Stop, the throttle is closed, ash-pit
damper put on, and the regular throb slackens, hesitates, stops. With a
dexterous flick of the reversing engine the Second catches the
high-press engine on the stop centre and locks her there. And then we
Far better for him, poor lad, if he had taken my tip and left those
tap-bolts to leak. The Second says Hand-lamp, and I give him one.
People are coming down the stairs in numbers now, and the Chief rushes
up to us, looks down, and turns away sickened. The ponderous cranks
have blood dashed across them, the rod is streaked and lathered with
it. From the bottom of the pit comes no sound, no movement. Lying on
the plates is the spanner which must have spun from his hand as he fell
Now then, how many more? snarls the Second. Sweat streams from his
face as he pushes the intruders away and lifts a man-hole plate in the
platform. I seize the hand-lamp and get down on to the tank, and the
Second follows. It is not pleasant, understand, down there, where bilge
collects and rats run riot, and grease is rolled into filthy black
balls, and the stench is intolerable. I push on towards the pit.
* * * * *
A full moon, blood-red and enormous, hangs just above the eastern
sky-line. In the west still burns the glow of the vanishing sun, and
the pale sky is twinkling with innumerable stars. The regular throb of
the engines drives the ship forward again, a sailor is hauling down the
red ensign from the poop, and another moves to and fro, silhouetted
against the southern sky, on the foc'sle-head. Just ahead of the bridge
two more sailors sit busily sewing. The Old Man stands by the
chart-house door talking to the Mate. The dogs lie quietly on the lower
deck, their heads between their paws.
In the after-hatch, covered by the flag, lies that which is about to
be committed to the deep.
The red glow fades from the west, and the moon swings upward,
flooding the sea with silver light. Away southward lies a black streak
on the sky-line and the windsail flickers a little. The two sailors
have finished sewing, and go aft. A fireman breaks the deck silence as
he hoists two firebars up from the for'ard stokehold and carries them
aft. Up on the poop, under the awning, the Second Mate has removed the
hand-rails on the starboard quarter, and the carpenter is lashing some
hatches in an inclined position.
We by the engine-room door are silent, for there is nothing to say.
We wait for the Stand by bell in silence. A heavy footfall, and
the Skipper, his bronzed face hard-drawn, his snowy hair uncovered,
passes us. I think, even now, he is sorry for that sneer at his wife's
little trick. He is going to get the Prayer Book that lies close to his
revolver in his chest.
George and I go below and make all ready. I think the Second is glad
of our company, in the terrible heat. We potter about in silence: then
Stand byHalfSlowStop. A few minutes' swift toil, a
hurried wash, and we climb up on deck again into the moonlight. A
white, silent world of waters is about us as we join the crew going aft
to the poop. The awning has been partly folded back, and we see the
Skipper resting his book on the tiller-gear, while the Steward stands
by with a lantern. I look curiously into the faces I know so well,
seeking, in the presence of death, a little more knowledge of life. I
look at the Skipper, with his white hair and fierce moustache gleaming
in the silver radiance of the moon, his hands fumbling with the leaves
of the book. I look at the Chief, fidgeting about in the rear, meeting
no one's eye, his mouth working nervously. I look at George the Fourth;
he is staring like a schoolboy at the flag-covered thing on the hatch,
with the firebars lashed to its sides. And then the silence is broken
by the harsh, unsteady voice:
I am the resurrection and the life.
The tension is almost unbearable now. We have not been educated to
this. We are like soldiers suddenly flung into the face of the enemy.
We therefore commit his body to the deep, to be turned into
corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body (when the sea
shall give up her dead), and the life of the world to come, through our
Lord Jesus Christ; who at his coming shall change our vile body that it
may be like his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby
he is able to subdue all things to himself.
A pause, and he closes the book. Two of the men quietly slacken the
ropes which hold the body in position, another pulls off the flag, and
the dark mass on the planks plunges downward into the oily sea. Another
pause, while I picture it rushing down to the dark, to the utter dark,
where the blind white sea-snakes are, and the Chief motions furtively
with his fingers.
In a few minutes we are under way.
* * * * *
It is eight bells, midnight, once more. The sky to the southward is
a jet-black mass of clouds, and the windsail is yawing in a strong,
cool breeze. Away to the westward the moon still throws her glory over
the face of the waters and I go below, thinking of the night coming,
when no man shall work.
And so ends our Christmas Day.
It is Sunday, and I lie under the awning by the engine-room door,
lazily reading Faust. There is a speck on the sky-linethe mail
boat, bringing a letter from my friend. I look round at the translucent
opal of the bay, the glittering white of the surf on the reef, the
downward swoop on an albatross, and I listen to the dull roar of the
breakers, to the solemn tang-tang of the bell-buoy on the bar, and the
complaisant ah-ha-a-a of some argumentative penguin. Even the
drab-coloured African hills in the distance, and the corrugated
Catholic church (shipped in sections) with the sun blazing on its
windows, are beautiful to me to-day, for I am not of those who think
religion is ugly because it is corrugated, or that hills are repulsive
because they are not in the guide-book. I am at peace, and so are the
rest. My friend the Mate is fishing, but that, of course, is trite; the
Mate is always fishing. I fancy the cod nudge each other and wink when
they see his old face looking down into those opalescent depths, and
watch him feeling at his lines for a bite. How they must have joked
together this morning when he gave a shout and called for help, for he
could not lift the line! We all responded to the call, and the line
came up slowly. Must be a whopper, muttered the Mate, and refused my
callous suggestion that it was a coal-bag which had got entangled in
the hook. At last, after an eternity of hauling, came up part of an
iron bedstead, dropped from some steamer in the long ago. But the true
fisherman has reserves of philosophy to cope with such slings and
arrows of outrageous fortune.
Meanwhile the speck has enlarged itself into a blot with a tag above
it and some cotton-woolly smoke. 'Tis the Nautilas, observes
the Mate, and he calls it Naughty Lass with hibernian unconsciousness
of his own humour. I wonder, now, why it is that we sailor-men
invariably display such frantic feminine interest when another
craft heaves in sight. The most contemptible fishing boat in the Bay of
Biscay, when she appears on the horizon, receives the notice of all
handsthe old as well as the young. And when we pass a sister ship,
the Aretino or the Cosimo or the Angelo; in
mid-ocean, we talk about her and criticise her, and rake out her past
history, for days. I sometimes think, from hints the Mate drops, that
our own Benvenuto has a past, a St. John's Wood past I mean, not
a Haymarket past. But he will have no talk by others against the ship.
What's the matter with the ship? he will shout. Damn it all, I like
the ship! She's a good old ship, an' I glory in her! So we talk
scandal about the others instead.
Here, on the ragged edge of the Empire, things are managed
expeditiously by the authorities. Scarcely an hour after the
Nautilas has dropped her pick the tugboat comes out again and
flings us our mail. Bosun and donkeyman trudge aft and take the letters
for the foc'sle, the mess-room steward deposits a letter in my lap, and
I think of my friend. At this moment he is engaged in repartee with the
housekeeper as she lays the table for tea. The heavy twilight is
settling down over the river outside; lovers are pacing the walk as
they return from their Sunday tramp. Possibly, too, that fantastic
scene which he has described to me is now enacting. He is at the piano;
the housekeeper, in tears, is on her knees beside him, and they raise
their melodious voices for those in peril on the sea. How
affecting, for one to be so remembered! I thank them both with all my
And now he tells me that his play goes well, and I am glad. It will
indeed be a red-letter day when I pay my shilling and climb into the
gallery to see his work. No, I shall not criticise. Probably I shall
hardly listen. I shall be thinking many thoughts, dreaming dreams,
feeling simply very glad and very proud.
I sympathise always with his struggles with his personnel,
but I think, though, he hardly allows enough for the point of view.
These actors and actresses are not literary. (They should be, I
know.) They look at an author's work as a man looks at the universea
small part at a time. That trite old paradox that, to the actor, the
part is greater than the whole, should never be forgotten. Remember,
too, how touchy, as he calls it, they must be, in the nature
of things. Their touchiness, their affectation, their lack of
cultureall are inherent in them. Their success is always
immediate, using the word in its literal sense as a metaphysician would
use it; the author's success is mediate, through time and trial. So one
should not be discouraged because they fail to appreciate one's efforts
to give them the atmosphere of the period. They will get the atmosphere
intuitively, or not at all.
He complains of loss of time, thankless task, inefficiency,
and the like. Now, I think that is grumbling without cause. Take my own
case, for example. I have no problems of dramatic art to wrestle with,
only the problem of coal consumption. But it is ultimately the same
thing, i.e., energy. My friend mourns the shameful loss of energy
incident to the production of a decent presentment of his dramatic
conception. I, as an engineer, mourn over the hideous loss of coal
incidental to the propulsion of the ship. The loss in his case, I
suppose, is incalculable: in mine it is nearly seventy per cent. Think
of it for a moment. The Lusitania's furnaces consume one
thousand tons of coal per day, seven hundred of which are, in all
probability, lost in the inefficiency of the steam-engine as a prime
mover. It runs through the whole of our life, my friend! Waste, waste,
waste! What we call the perfect cycle, the conversion of energy into
heat and heat into energy, cannot, in practice, be accomplished without
loss. What may interest you still more is that we cannot, even in
theory, calculate on no loss whatever in the progress of the cycle, and
by this same entropy loss, as we call it, some of our more reckless
physicists foresee the running down of the great universe-machine some
day, and so eliminating both plays and steam-engines from the problem
altogether. But this is my point. Prodigious loss is the law of nature
which she imposes both on artist and artisan. Indeed, artist and
artisan have their reason of being in that loss, as I think you will
Again, history will corroborate my contention as to the catholicity
of this loss. Imagine the French Revolution, the Lutheran Reformation,
the Catholic Reaction, and the like, to be revolutions of the
vast human engine. Consider then the loss of power. Consider the
impulse, the enormous impulse, applied to the piston, and then look at
the result. What losses in leakages, in cooled enthusiasms, in
friction-heat, in (pardon the ludicrous analogy) waste gases! Think,
too, of the loss involved in unbalanced minds, as in unbalanced
engines, one mass of bigoted inertia retarding another mass! Oh, my
friend, my friend, you talk of losses as though you playwrights had a
monopoly of it. Ask men of all trades, of all faiths, and they will
give you, in their answers, increased knowledge of human life.
Such, at least, is my methoddigging into the hearts of men. Take,
for instance, my friend the Second Officer. A tall, lean young man,
with an iron jaw under his brown beard. I began to talk to him one
evening because he said he never had letters from home. He had a
sister, he told me, but there was no joy in the telling. We don't hit
it off, he observed grimly, and I smiled. He has no sweetheart, loves
nothing but dogs. How he loves dogs! He has two at his heels all day
long. He loves them almost as much as dogs love the Chief Officer,
which is to distraction. He will take the solemn English terrier up on
his knee and give me a lecture thereon. This same pup, I learn, is
lowlook at his nose! He is in bad healthjust feel his back teeth!
Saucy? Yes, certainly, but not a thoroughbred hair on him. He has
worms, too, I understand, somewhere inside, and on several occasions
during the voyage his bowels needed attention. I, in my utter ignorance
of dog-lore, begin to marvel that the animal holds together at all
under the stress of these deficiencies. Perhaps the dirt which he
collects by rolling about on deck affords a protective covering. Once a
week, however, his lord and master divests him of even this shadowy
defence, and he emerges from a bucket, clean, soapy, and coughing
violently. In all probability he rejoices in consumption as well.
The Second Officer, I say, teaches me philosophy. He has had a hard
life, I think. By sheer industry he has risen from common sailor to his
present berth. I say sheer because it seems to me that when a man has
no friends or relations who care to write to him, the way of life must
be very steep indeed. I was surprised, though, to learn of his
loneliness. Had he, then, no kindly light to lead him on? Unconsciously
he answered me. Would I come down below and have something to drink?
With pleasure; and so we went. The last time I had been in that room
was when his predecessor, the little man with four children and a house
of his own, had extended hospitality to me. It is not a pleasant room.
A spare bunk full of canvas bolts, cordage, and other stores, make it
untidy; and the Steward's stores are just behind the after bulkhead, so
that it smells like a ship-chandler's warehouse. Well, we sit down, and
the whiskey passes. We light cigars (magnificent Campania Generals at
three farthings each), and then he ferrets about in his locker. I look
at the pictures. Almanack issued by a rope-maker in Manchester; photo
of an Irish terrier, legs wide part, tail at an angle of forty-five to
the rest of him; photo of Scotch terrier, short legs, fat body, ears
like a donkey's; photo of the officers of s.s. Timbuctoo, in
full uniform, my friend among them, taken on the upper deck, bulldog in
the foreground. By this time the Second Officer has exhumed an oblong
wooden case containing a worn violin. Ah! I have his secret. He holds
it like a baby, and plucks at the strings. Then he plays.
Well, he knows, by instinct I imagine, that I care nothing for
music, as music. So when I ask for hymn-tunes, he smiles soberly and
complies. I hear my favourites to my heart's contentHark, Hark, My
Soul, Weary of Earth, Abide With Me, and Thou Knowest, Lord. How
glad they must be who believe these words! The red sun was flooding the
room with his last flaming signal as the man played:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide,
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me!
Yes, mon ami, all men know of that tremendous loss inherent
in all their labours. And it is, I think, to balance that loss that
they have invented religion.
It has suddenly struck me that there are many important things to be
found by considering the cheap literature which floods the English and
American publics week by week and month by month. I am afraid that,
when at home in Chelsea, where even the idlers read Swinburne and Lord
de Tabley, I had grown accustomed to the stilted point of view, calling
novelettes trashy and beneath an intellectual man's consideration.
Well, since this particular trash forms the staple brain food in the
Mercantile Marine, I must needs look into it more closely. With
There is a question of bulk and output. This is appalling to a
laborious writer, a student or a thinker. Week by week there pours
forth an unending deluge of love fiction, and week by week this deluge
is absorbed into the systems of millions of human beings. We speak
glibly of the world-wide fame of some classic, when, in point of fact,
the people familiar with that classic are isolated specks in the vast,
solid mass to whom some novelettist is a household god. The classic
will have, say, one votary in the family, the novelettist will capture
the family en bloc. An engineer will receive a cargo of
novelettes, all of which have been digested, or even feverishly
devoured, by his mother, wife, or sisters. He will pass them on to the
Steward, who will read them and give them to the sailors and firemen.
And this obtains in every ship wherever the English language is spoken.
What classic can claim a public that does not seem microscopic compared
I cannot but observe, too, that Miss Anonyme often writes
exceedingly well. No extraneous vapourings are admitted, and the plot
is steadily developed to its inevitable conclusion of happy ever
after. The metaphors are somewhat stereotyped, and quotations from
Tennyson are awkwardly handled, butwhat would you for a penny?
Johnson's explanationthat they write well in order to be paid
wellis correct. Miss Anonyme knows her market, and she writes for
it as well as can be expected under the circumstances.
A point worth noting is that this talk about pernicious literature
is not sincere. Literature cannot be pernicious in itself. At the
present time people can get exactly what they desire, because the
question of price does not arise. The finest works are to be had at
every free library, and for a few pence at every book-shop, and the
public carefully avoids them. Novels containing chapter after chapter
of neurotic aphrodisiacs and pornography masquerading as literature are
priced at a shilling net, and are avidly purchased and read by the
simple, God-fearing, sea-faring man.
There is, of course, a tragic side to this question. I mean that,
after all, a sublime simplicity of mind is a necessary predicate to the
acceptance of this cheap fiction. A penn'orth o' loove,
George the Fourth calls a novelette, and there's something very grim to
me in that phrase also.
I have already noted the passionate love of music in the heroes
and heroines of these stories. I made notes, and, in ten consecutive
tales, one or more of the characters was a passionate lover of music.
I do not complain against the genius whose heroine elopes with a
clean-shaven villain to Brittany and is married in a Gothic church with
frescoed chapels. Neither do I any longer cry out when I read that the
light that never was lay over the land. I am grown callous with a
course of light fiction such as I have never taken before. And I hope I
shall not be misunderstood and numbered with the prigs when I say that
never did literature seem to me more lovely and alluring than when I
had finished my task and had opened my Faust once more, feeling the
magic of the master beckoning to far-off shores with smiles from other
What we clearly comprehend we can clearly express. That, I think, is
Boileau, though I cannot remember where I read it. The baffling thing
about this fiction is that it expresses nothing, and therefore is not
really a part of literature. The features of my colleagues when
absorbing a first-rate soporific of this nature remind me of the
symptoms of catalepsy enumerated in a treatise of forensic medicine
which I once read. The influence is even physical. It is generally
associated with a recumbent position, repeated yawning, and excessive
languor. Loss of memory, too, is only one of the consequences of
reading a dozen novelettes in a week's run.
There is another possibility. I must not forget that in one point I
found myself in error. In the case especially of engineers, this
intellectual drug-taking has no effect upon their interest in
professional literature. When George the Fourth goes up for his
tickut he will be as keen about the theory of steam and the latest
researches in salinometry as any of the aristocratic young gentlemen
who haunt the precincts of Great George Street and Storeys Gate. This
leads me to imagine that in the future there will be a vast mass of
highly trained mechanicians to whom literature will be non-existent,
but whose acquaintance with written technics will be enormous. Like our
scientific men, perhaps. I am uneasy at the prospect, because this
conception of uncultured omniscience, the calm eyes of him shining with
the pride of Government-stamped knowledge, is inseparable from an utter
lack of reverence for women. Neither Antony nor Pericles, but
Alcibiades is his classical prototype. And so the fiction with which he
will pass the time between labour and sleep will have none of the
subtlety of Meredith, none of the delicate artistry of Flaubert, but
rather the fluent obviousness of Guy Boothby, stripped as bare as
possible of sex romance.
I am anxious to convince myself of all this, because I want so much
to divorce this tremendous flood of machine-made writing from genuine
literary activity. That, too, will evolve and evolve and evolve again;
but with such a theme I am not genius enough to cope.
I am grown tired of books. It is a fact that protracted manual toil
strikes a shrewd blow at one's capacity for thought, and at times I
turn from the fierce intellectual life with a weariness I never knew in
the old days. How my friend would smile at such a confession. I, who
have thumped the supper-table until three in the morning, until our
eyelids were leaden with fatigue, growing weary of the strife! Yet it
is sometimes true.
After all, though, my real study nowadays is on deck and below,
where Shakespeare and the musical glasses are beyond the sky-line, and
one can talk to men who have never in their lives speculated upon life,
have never imagined that life could possibly be arraigned and called in
question, or that morality could ever be anything but givin' the girl
her lines, like a man. My friend the Mate is a compendium of humanism,
the Chief provides me with curious researches in natural history. Even
the Cook, with whom I have been conversing, presents new phases of life
to me, and brings me into touch with the poor, the ignorant, and the
prolific. The poor whom we know at home are only poor in purse.
These men are poor in everything save courage and the power to
propagate their kind. The Cook has received a letter from his
sister-in-law to the effect that he is now the father of twins, and he
looks at me and smiles grimly. Under the pretence of obtaining hot
water for shaving, I am admitted to his sanctum sanctorum abaft
the funnel, and we talk. It is hardly necessary to say that the
Malthusian doctrine receives cordial approbation from my friend the
Cook, when I have expounded it to him.
Certainly, Mr. McAlnwick, he observes, but 'ow are you goin' to
You see, I reply, it isn't a question of starting, but a question
Well, he says stolidly, rolling a cigarette, 'ow are you goin' to
You, I answer, might have dispensed with these twins.
Lord love yer, mister, I can dispense with 'em easy enough.
That's not the question. The question is, 'ow am I to feed 'em, now
I've got 'em? An' 'ow am I to avoid 'em, me bein' a man, mind, an' not
a lump o' dry wood?
Like all theorists, I am hard put for an answer. I look round me,
and watch my interlocutor preparing to make bread. There is a mammoth
pan on the bench beside me containing a coast-line of flour with a lake
of water in the middle. Cook is opening the yeast-jar, an expression of
serious intent on his face. Some cooks sing when they make bread; the
Scotchman I told you of in a previous letter invariably trilled Stop
yer ticklin', Jock, and his bread was invariably below par. But this
cook does not warble. He only releases the stopper with a crack like a
gun-shot, flings the liquid doughshifter over the lake in a
devastating shower, and commences to knead, swearing softly. Anon the
exorcism changes to a noise like that affected by ostlers as they tend
their charges, and the lake has become a parchment-coloured morass. For
five pounds a month this man toils from four a.m. to eight p.m., and
his wife can find nothing better to do than present him with twins!
I look into the glowing fire and think.
I feel this is delicate ground, even allowing for the natural warmth
of a man who has twins, so I am silent.
Sometimes, Cook continues, growing pensive as the dough grows
stiff, sometimes I feel as though I could jump over the side with a
''ere goes nothink' and a bit of fire-bar in me 'ip-pocket. Same
blasted work, day after day. Monday curry an' rice, fresh meat an' two
veg., ''arriet lane' and spuds. Toosday, salt meat ditto. Wednesday,
bully soup an' pastry. Thursday, similar. Friday, kill a pig an' clean
the galley. Sat'day, ''arriet lane' an' spuds, fresh meat, two veg.,
an' tart. Sunday, similar with eggs an' bacon aft. What good do it do?
Who's the better for it all? Not me. ''Ere goes nothink!'
He stabs the fire savagely through a rivet-hole in the door, and
pushes his cauldrons about. To one who knows Cook all this is merely
the safety-valve lifting. The ceaseless grind tells on the hardest
soul, and you behold the result. In an hour or so he will be smiling
again, and telling me how nearly he married a laundryman's daughter in
Tooley Street, a favourite topic which he tries to invest with pathos.
It appears that, after bidding the fair blanchisseuse
good-night, he chanced one evening to take a walk up and down Liverpool
Street, where he fell into conversation with a girl of prepossessing
appearance. Quite oblivious of the fact that Mademoiselle Soap-Suds had
followed him, just to see if he was as simple as he looked, he
enjoyed himself immensely for some twenty minutes, and then ran right
into her. He assures me he was 'orror-struck. Like a man, he admitted
that he was conversing with thatthat there. I always like this part
of the tale. His confession seems to him to have been the uttermost
depths of mortal self-abnegation. Alas, the heiress of Soap-Suds Senior
had no appreciation of the queenly attribute of forgiveness. She boxed
his ears, and he never saw her again. She was allus a spiteful cat,
he observes pensively; so p'raps the wash 'us 'ud ha' been dear at the
price. Still, it was a nice little business, an' no kid.
As I raise my pot of shaving-water a huge head and shoulders fill up
the upper half of the galley doorway. The mighty Norseman has come for
some crawfish legs. Like Mr. Peggotty and the crustacea he desires to
consume, he has gone into hot water very black, and emerges very red.
His flannel shirt only partially drapes his illuminated chestI see
the livid scar plainly. He beams upon me, and asks for a match.
Well, Donkey, says Cook, 'ow goes it?; Donkey is the mighty
Norseman's professional title aboard ship.
Aw reet, mon, says he with the fiendish aptitude of his race for
idiom. How is the Kuck?
Oh, splendid. Stand out o' the way, and let me make thy daily
Daily! screams the Donkeyman. Tell that to the marines. I have
one loaf sof' bread three times a week, an' there are seven days to a
week. Daily! Tell that
Find another ship, me man, find another ship if the Benvenuto
don't suit! And the Mate passes on to the chart-house, where are many
Ay, will I, when we get to Swansea, says the Donkey man to me,
beaming. There are more ships than parish churches, eh? Mister, I want
to speak to you. Come out here. I go outside in the moonlight, and the
mighty Norseman takes hold of the second button of my patrol-jacket.
I 'ave had a letter from Marianna, he whispers.
Ah! And so she is
She is Marianna, always Marianna now. A good lettertwo and a half
page. See, in German, mister. She write it very well, Marianna. And I
behold a letter in German script.
Tastes differ. I am compelled to believe that passion can flow even
through German scriptaye, when it is written by a Swedish maiden of
uncertain caligraphy. Heavenly powers! I turn the sheet to the light
from the galley. Surely no mortal can decipher such a farrago of
alphabetical obscurity. And I do so want to know what Marianna says for
herself. I love Marianna, for the mighty Norseman says she is small and
dainty, and her eyes are grey, andandwell, the resemblance doesn't
end there; so when I tell my friend, he may laugh as much as he
pleases. But there had been a quarrel (in German script), and the
mighty Norseman had grown mightily misogynistic. His jolly pasty face
had been as long as my arm most of the way out, and his sentiments,
confided to me each day at seven bells, were discourteous to the sex.
But now, behold the cloud lifted: German script has undone its own
villainy, and Johann Nicanor Gustaffsen beams.
I will go 'ome this time, mister, he says, folding up the
How, Donkeywork it?
Not much, you bet. I go to London and take a Swedish boat from
Royal Albert Docks to Gothenburg, train from Gothenburg to Marianna.
Seventeen knots quadruple twin screw. I will be a passenger for one
Donkey, did you ever hear of IbsenHenrik Ibsen?
Ibsen? Noa. What ship is he Chief of, mister?
A ship that passes in the night, Donkey.
What's that, mister?
How small a thing is literary fame, after all! When one considers
the density of the human atmosphere, the darkness in which the millions
live, is not Ibsen to them a ship passing in the night indeed, a
mysterious light afar off, voyaging they know not where? Perhaps that
is what I meant.
He wrote plays, DonkeySchauspielschreiber, you know.
Oa! Ich hatte nicht daran gedacht! 'Ave you a bit of paper
and envelope, mister, please? I will write to Marianna.
Give her my love, Donkey.
Oh-a-yes, please! I'll watch it! What? You cut me out? A rumbling
laugh comes up from that mighty chest, he beams upon me, and plunges
into the galley for his crawfish legs.
Mug of hot water in hand, I pick my way aft among the derrick
chains, and descend to my room. Have I yet described it? Nine feet six
by seven wide by seven high At the for'ard end a bunk overtopped by two
ports looking out upon the main deck. At the after end a settee over
which is my book-case. A chest of drawers, a shelf, a mirror, a framed
photograph, a bottle-rack, and a shaving-strop adorn the starboard
bulkhead. A door, placed midway in the opposite side, is hung with many
clothes. A curtain screens my slumbers, and a ventilator in the ceiling
chills my toes when turned to the wind. Ceiling and walls are painted
dead white, with red wainscotting round the settee. Two engravings
grace the only vacant spots on my wallsone a wild piece of wood and
moorland, the road shining white after a late-autumn rain, with a gypsy
van showing sharp against the lowering sky; the other a wintry lane
with a waggon labouring in the snow. A patrol-jacket and a uniform cap
hang over a pillow-case half full of dirty clothes. Such is my home at
Look round while I shave. Quite possibly some may wonder that I
should affect such commonplace pictures. They cost me threepence each,
in Swansea. Well, I am not concerned with their merit as pieces of
decorative art. When I look at that wet road and rainy sky, I go back
in thought to the days when I lived near Barnet, and the world was mine
on Sunday. I recall how I was wont to throw off my morning lethargy,
get astride my bicycle, a pipe in one pocket and a book in the other,
and plunge into the open country beyond Hadley Heath. It had rained,
very likely, in the morning, and the roads were clean and fresh, and
the trees were sweet after their bath. And as the afternoon closed in I
would sit on a gate in some unfrequented lane and watch the red fog
darken over London town. I was happy then, as few lads are, I think.
Those long silences, those solitary communings; were mind-building
all the time. So, when I came away from home and settled in Chelsea,
and heard men talk, I felt that I, too, had something to say.
In like manner my snowscape takes me back to the time when I was a
mechanic, engine-building near Aylesbury. We lived half a mile from the
works, at an old inn, and we began at six o'clock. In winter time, I
remember, we would snuggle into the big back kitchen, with its huge
cauldron of pig-meat swinging over the open fire, and its barrels
containing evil things like stoats and ferrets, to put on our boots;
and when we opened the door, two feet of snow would fall in upon the
floor. How well I remember that silent trudge up the bleak Birmingham
Road to the works! There were always two broad ruts in the white
roadwaythe mail-coach had passed silently, at two o'clock. Cold,
cold, cold! A white silence, save for our dark figures shuffling softly
through the snow. And then a long eleven-hour day.
I have occasionally mentioned my friend the Second. A keen,
dark-skinned, clean-shaven face, with small blue eyes and regular white
teeth. There are no flies on him. His is one of those minds which can
grasp every detail of a profession and yet remain very ignorant indeed,
a mind which travel has made broaderand shallower. He is a clever,
courteous, skilful, well-bred, narrow-minded Broad-Churchman. He is a
total abstainer, a non-smoker, and a frequenter of houses of fair
reception. If anomaly can go further, I can declare to you that he is
engaged to a clergyman's daughter. When he is angered, his face grows
as thin as a razor, the small blue eyes diminish to glittering points,
and the small white teeth close like a vise. It is then that I am sorry
for the clergyman's daughter. We do not understand each other, I fear,
because I am so unsentimental. He believes in unpractical things like
Money, Success, Empire, Home Life, Football, and Wales for ever. How
can a man who puts faith in such visionary matters understand one who
builds on the eternal and immovable bedrock of literature and art? He
has sober dreams of following in his father's steps and making a
fortune for himself, and he considers me weak in the head when I
explain that I have made my wealth and am now enjoying it. Would
he ever understand, I wonder?
Yes, there are some from whom our Lady flies,
Whose dull, dead souls, rise not at her command,
And who, in blindness, press back from their eyes
'The light that never was on sea or land.'
In fact, I should say he is one of those same mechanicians of whom I
spoke, in whose lives literature will have no place, and the desire for
a private harem supplant the grande passion. This may sound
absurd when one remembers their love of home; but I speak with
knowledge. It is easy enough to make a man out to be a patriot, or a
humanitarian, or a home-lover, if you pick and choose from his
complicated mentality just what suits that particular label. To know a
man as he is, you must be shipmates with him, quarrel with him, mess
with him week after week until you are sick of the sight of him. Then,
if you are sufficiently sensitive to personality, you will divine his
spiritual bedrock beneath all the superimposed recencies, and you will
know whether he be a mere phosphatous prop of flesh or whether he
have in him some genuine metallic rock, from which the fabric of the
distant world-state may be fashioned.
Once more I am writing homeward bound. Homeward bound! Outside the
Channel fog is coming down to enfold us, the wind is cold, my stock of
fruit, laid in at Las Palmas is done, and George the Fourth is growling
through the ventilator, T' Longships, mister!
Longshipsthat's twelve hours' run from the Mumble Head, the great
white lenticular lenses of which fling wide-sweeping spokes of light
across the tumbling waters of the Channel. The Skipper is cautious, has
been twenty-two hours on bridge and in chart-room; refuses to go ahead
until he can locate Lundy. We heard, in Grand Canary, that the big
White Star Satanic is lying near the Lizard, back broken, total
loss, heroic passengers all safely landed. Wonderful people,
passengers. If they keep hysteria at a distance for a few hours, they
are bravoed from one end of the Empire to the other. The Satanic's
engineers? The Empire has overlooked them, I suppose, which is their
own peculiar glory.
Homeward bound! Finishing, too, for three of us. Chief, Second,
and Fourth are leaving when we get in, and I shall be alone for a few
days. That means work, I fear, and no joyful run up to Paddington this
time. Well, well, next time I finish, and we shall foregather in
the Walk once more. I was thinking, only a day or two back, that
Chelsea Embankment must be in its glory now, glory of early spring.
That noble line of granite coping and twinkling lights. How often have
we walked down past the Barracks from Knightsbridge, taken pot-luck at
the coffee-stall at the corner, and then fared homeward between the
river and the trees! Ah, me! To do it once againthat is what I long
In the meanwhile, the Longships are away astern, the Skipper has
found Lundy, a grey hump on the port bow in the morning light, and we
are full ahead for the Mumbles. Sailors' bags are drying on the
cylinder-tops, Chief, Second, and Fourth are fixing up a blow-out up
town to-morrow night; mess-room steward is polishing the brasswork till
it shines like gold; and I am writing to my very good friend. We are
all very cheerful, too; no sailors' gloom in our faces as we go on
watch. George the Fourth (I cannot imagine what the ship will be like
without him) is making himself ridiculous by doing everything for t'
last time. T' last time! he mutters as he starts the evaporator and
adjusts the vapour-cock. He is taking the temperatures for the last
time. He is going up to South Shields for his tickut, by which he
means a first-class certificate of competency issued by the Board of
Trade. That is George the Fourth's utmost ambition. He is a man then;
he is licensed to take any steamer of any tonnage into any sea on the
chart. He has, moreover, a certain prestige, has this skylarky youth,
when he gets his chief's tickut. Ladies who preside over saloon bars
will try to lure him into matrimony. He will grow (I hope) a little
steadier, and fall really and truly in love.
My colleague the Second, he intends to work ashore and sleep at
home. The clergyman's daughter, I imagine, will come more and more into
the scheme of things, and the mother he loves so well will give him her
blessing. So each, you see, has a clearly defined plan, while I drift
along, planless, ambitionless, smoking many pipes. I have been trying
to think out something practicable. Am I to drift always about the
world, a mere piece of flotsam on Swansea tide? Or am I to sit down
once more in Chelsea, hand and brain running to seed, while the world
spins on outside? I must think out a plan. And I must school myself to
cancel all plans beginning If she willif only. Why cannot I rise to
some decent sense of self-respect, to say, as says the man in The Last
Take back the hope you gave,I claim
Only a memory of the same.
That's manlypre-eminently English, in fact. But, meanwhile, I
The mighty Norseman, too, in his own sinewy Hyperborean style, is
full of joy. His jolly pasty face beams joyously upon me. He will be a
passenger for one quid from London to Gothenburg, thence to Stockholm,
and Marianna. The engine-room is bulging, in places, with the
contraband goods he is bringing home for Marianna. Pieces of silk for
the Signorina, as the handsome old huxter-lady at Canary purrs in our
ears; bottles of Florida water, mule canaries, and Herrick's own divine
Canary Sack, to which he so often bade farewell. All these for the
dainty maiden who indulges in German Script. God speed you, oh, mighty
Norseman! May your frescoed bosom never prove unfaithful to your
grey-eyed maiden. I, at least, have been the better for having known
youa ship passing in the night.
And so we come to the Mumble Head.
Paid off, free for the afternoon, with overcoat buttoned up and
collar about my ears, I stroll aimlessly through the town. It has often
been my ambition to emulate those correct creatures who, when they come
to a place, study maps, read guide-books, and do the sights one by
one. But, so far, I am a dead failure. Even my own dear London is known
to me by long-continued pedestrianism. When I reach a town I put up by
chance, I see things by chance, leave on an impulse, and carry away
precious glimpses of nothing in particular that I can piece together at
leisure into a sort of mnemonic mosaic. Well, so I stroll through
Swansea, trying to forget the only two facts which I know concerning
itthat Beau Nash was born here and Savage died here. They are like
bits of grit in the oyster of my content. I will turn aside and see
I enter one of my favourite taverns. I am surrounded by maidens,
barmaidens, and a fat landlady. Amy, Baby, Starlight, Chubbyall are
here, clamorous for the baubles I had promised them four months before.
My friend would be shocked at their familiarity; I admit, from a
certain point of view, it is scandalous. But, then, all things are
still forgiven to sailors. And so, business being slack, I am dragged
into the bar-parlour and commanded to disgorge. I produce bottles of
perfume, little buckhorns, ostrich feathers, flamingo wings, and bits
of silk. The big pocket of my overcoat is discharged of its cargo. I am
suffocated with salutes of the boisterous, tom-boy kind, and am
commanded to name my poison.
As a reward, Chubby promises to go with me to that iridescent
music-hall up the street. Chubby's appearance is deceptive. She is
diminutive, with a Kenwigs tail of plaited hair down her straight
little back. But she is almost twenty; she is amazingly swift behind
the bar, and no man has yet bilked her of a penny. There is a Spartan
courage about the small maiden, too, which I cannot but admire. Her
parents are dead; her sisters both died the same week a year ago; she
must earn her living; butNo use mopin', is it? she inquires as she
fingers a locket containing photographs which hangs around her neck.
That is her philosophy, couched in language that resembles herself. I
should be only too delighted to take her. Butthere is my incorrigible
habit of reading a book or lapsing into intellectual oblivion while at
the play. How many comedies have I seen without hearing a single
word! So, when I go to the iridescent music-hall, something in the
programme, or the audience, will set me musing, and Chubby will be
neglected. I think I shall buy two tickets, and let Chubby take someone
elseGeorge the Fourth, say!
And Baby, fingering the silk I have brought herBaby personifies
for me that terrible problem which women and men treat so callously.
Baby has already passed several milestones on the road to Alsatia and
we shall meet her some day, somewhere between Hyde Park Corner and
But that is far away yet. The glamour of the thing, its risk, its
pleasantness, are over her as yet. Officers of the Mercantile Marine
are not squeamish in a home port, nor are they scarce. Baby's rings are
worth good money. The sordid bickerings of the trade are in the future,
the callous calculations, the indispensable whiskey.
Now, while Baby is bending the violet eyes of hers upon a piece of
Moorish silk, let me clear my mind of humbug. I am no sentimentalist in
this matter. I am not certain, yet, that my lady of to-day is the
sole repository of every virtue; neither am I dogmatic about necessary
vice, the irreducible minimum, and such-like large viewpoints. I
have, indeed, nursed a theory that our floating population might be
induced to receive a certain percentage of these adjuncts to
civilisation, one or two on each ship, say, with results satisfactory
to all concerned. Everyone knows that, in towns, the demand is
grotesquely disproportionate to the supply. The Board of Trade could
deal with the question of certificates of competency.
As I sit in this bar-parlour, it seems to me that an
inextinguishable howl of horror is rising from the people of England.
And as I desire to be honest, I admit that I am overawed by that same
tumulta sort of singing in my earsand so leave the problem to Mr.
H. G. Wells, or someone else who deals habitually in social seismics.
After all, descriptions of sea-port barmaids can scarcely be
interesting to my friend. If she lose no time in providing him with hot
rum and water (not ungenerous with the sugar), she can rival either
Pompadour or La Pelletierhe cares not which. Which is the callous
regard of the whole business to which I have referred.
Once more adrift, I wend my way dockwards, pause at the Seamen's
Mission, hesitate, and am lost. I enter a workhouse-like room, and a
colourless man nods good-afternoon. Conveniences for writing home,
newspapers, magazines, flamboyant almanacks of the Christian Herald
type, Pears' Soap art, and Vessels entered inwards. For the
asking I may have back numbers of the Christian Herald. Mrs.
Henry Wood's story-books are obtainable by the cubic foot. As the
colourless man opens his mouth to address me, I shudder and back out.
Give me vice, give me boredom, give me anything in the world but this
practical religion and smug futility of ignoble minds.
I fear my philosophy has broken away and I am misanthropic. Possibly
because I shall not see my friend this home-coming. Moreover, I am due
on the ship even now, for the others are going off to their triumphal
finish up town. Faring back, then, I come to the dock-head at sunset,
and it is my hour. Darkness is rushing down upon the shipping as I
watch. In the distance hill piled on hill, blue dome upon blue dome,
spangled with myriad firefly lights, backed by the smoky red of winter
sunset; and here the shipping, ghostly now in the darkness, exquisitely
beautiful in the silence. From out at sea comes a faint ah-oo-oo-oo
one more toiler coming in to rest. And it is night.
My friend the Chief Officer is putting fresh clothes on his bed.
Clean sheets and blankets and a snowy counterpane (All sorts o' people
come in to have a chat, Mr. McAlnwick") are arranged with due care. He
is brisk to-night, is my good friend, having no log to modify this
time, and nothing else on hand for a day or two. Photos dusted, ports
opened, tobacco and whiskey duly placed between us, he climbs into his
nest and proceeds to converse. A sort of Tabagie or tobacco
parliament, such as was once in force at Potsdam.
Sure, he snorts, 'twas blackmail the baggage was after, ye can
take it from me, andkeep the door open when she's sorting the
Being a young man, I wait, seated sedately on the settee, to hear
more concerning the baggage, who is, let me explain, an itinerant
blanchisseuse des équipages of equivocal repute. The Mate reaches
for his pipe.
Would ye believe it, Mr. McAlnwick? She comes in here, while I'm
lying in me bunk, closes the door, and comes up to me. Says she, 'Oh,
Mr. Mate, I'm very unhappy!' and puts her arms round me neck, in
spitein spite of all I could do, and falls to screamin'!
'Slack back,' says I, 'or ye'll be the most unhappy woman in this
town.' An' then Nicholas he puts his head in.
The Steward! I ejaculate.
The same. Ye see, mister, the baggage, she thought the Old Man was
aboard, andshe was goin' to make out a case! Says Nicholas, 'Oh, my
words! I'll fetch police!' An' away he cuts.
The blue eyes of my friend the Mate are twinkling, his face is
screwed up, and his nose is wrinkled all the way up. He is more like my
old Headmaster than ever.
'Twas so, Mr. McAlnwick'twas so. Ye see, my besettin' sin is
sympathy. I feel sorry for the baggage. She has a har-rd time of it,
and the ends don't meetwon't meet, nohow. But, as I said, 'Consider
the situation, Mrs. Ambree.' 'Oh, Mr. Mate,' says she, 'will he fetch
the police?' 'Possibly,' says I, 'if he finds one on the quay.' And she
began cryin' fit to break me heart.
To my surprise, the nose is still wrinkled; he breathes through his
nose in a way that means Ye don't know what's comin'.
'Oh, I hope he won't be so cruel, Mr. Mate,' says she, cryin' as I
said. 'For why?' says I, speakin' stern. 'You are an immoral wumman,
Mrs. Ambree.' 'Yes,' says she, 'I know that, Mr. Mate, I know that; but
it would be har-rd on me if he was to fetch Jim aboard for me.' 'Jim?'
says I. 'Who in thunder's Jim, Mrs. Ambree?' ''Tis my husband,' she
sobs. 'He's on night duty in this dock, an' I'm a ruined soul if he
finds out.' And she set down there, Mr. McAlnwick, just where you're
settin' and burst into floods o' tears.
Dear me! I observe. And the nose is one mass of humoursome
Aye, 'tis so, continues the Chief Officer, pouring out Black and
White for two. An' at that moment in comes Nicholas, his face
serious-like, and says he, 'Mrs. Ambree, ye're wanted.' An' she goes
out wi' him, like Mary Queen o' Scots to the block!
Mr. Honna, I'm surprised!
Not a bit of it, McAlnwick, not a bit of it! At first I thought
Nicholas had been a fool and fetched a policeman, but Nicholas is no
fool, as ye've no doubt observed. Still, I got out an' put on me pants
and went into the cabin. Passin' the Steward's door I heard voices.
Enterin' the Steward's room, I saw him an' the baggage splittin' a
Guinness and carryin' on! 'Twas scandalous, Mr. McAlnwick. To be done
by a wire-haired, leather-skinned old reprobate like Nicholas. 'Twas a
clear case, for his wife does all his washin' up at Bridgend.
I am shocked, Mr. Honna.
Ye may well be. I was too. Pass the water-bottle, Mr. McAlnwick.
I hear, I observe, I hear Alexander the Great is to have the
Petruchio next time she comes in.
That's the rumour, Mr. McAlnwick. I think there's something
in it, for me wife tells me that Mrs. Alexander was lookin' at a house
in Cathay only last week. 'A house,' says she, 'that will be not less
than thirty pounds a year.' That means Petruchio, a big ship.
The above personage, you see, is the Chief, the man who wore
elevators in his boots.
But why should he move into a larger house, Mr. Honna?
To keep up his position in the world, Mr. McAlnwick. 'Tis a big
responsibility, ye see. His youngster will now go to aa scholastic
academy while mine remain on the rates.
How are they, Mr. Honna?
Fine, Mr. McAlnwick, fine! Jacko passed I don't know how many
exams., and he's teaching the curate to play the organ. Hallo!
There is a knock at the door, and I rise to lift the hook which
holds it. A stout man with a short moustache and a double
chinTenniel's Bismarck to the lifetouches his cap. It is the night
Beg pardon, sir, Mr. Honna, but I don't feel well, sir, and I
wanted to know, sir, if you'd mind my goin' to get a drop o' brandy,
Away ye go, then.
Thank you, sir. Shan't be long, sir. Only
Have ye any money?
Oh, yes, sir. Thank you all the same, sir.
I close the door, Bismarck hastens away for brandy, and the Mate's
nose is covered with wrinkles. Whereby I am at liberty to conclude that
there is bunkum in the air. I cough.
See that man? he says. I nod.
Skipper of a three-masted bark once.
What brought him down to night watchman at thirty shillings a
Bad health. He was always feelin' unwell, and he was tradin'
between Liverpool and Bordeaux.
The Mate nods at me to emphasise his words, while I look at him
An' now, adds my friend the Mate, I must turn out and see he
I'll do thatdon't bother. So he's one of the derelicts?
His brother was another. Died mad, over at Landore. Ever hear of
Mad Robin? Well, he was Chief of a boat carryin' cotton to Liverpool.
Comin' home from Savannah, dropped her propeller in mid-ocean.
Shipped his spare one? Mr. Honna laughs shortly.
Didn't carry spares in that company, Mr. McAlnwick. No, he made
Made one! How?
Out of a block of hornbeam and the plates of one of his bulkheads.
Knocked about for a month waitin' for fine weather, tipped the ship,
fixed his tin-pot screw on, and started 'slow ahead.' Came in under her
own steam, Second Engineer in command, Chief under restraint in his
berth. Died over at LandoreD.T.
With which abrupt epitaph the Mate reaches for his pants, while I,
knocking out my pipe, go away to turn in.
But I cannot sleep. Something lies at the back of my braina dull
anxiety, hardly definable to myself. It is possible that I may see her
again, when I come home once more. I shall know for certain in the
morning. And yet it may so happen that it is indeed finished. Nay, nay,
my friend, have patience. I can see you as you read this, storming
about the room, dropping red cigarette ash on the carpet, visibly
perturbed in your mind at my madness.
Yes, yes, I know I forswore it all in a moment of bitter cynicism.
But, mon ami, I am a mana very irregularly balanced man, too,
I often thinkand there rises from my soul an exceeding bitter cry
sometimes. You see here my lifebarmaid society, ship's tittle-tattle,
unending rough toil. To have but one hold, one haven, one star to
guidecanst blame me, mon ami, if I hold desperately to a tiny
Thinking this out, I walk far out to the pier-head, beneath the
harbour light, and look earnestly into the darkness covering the sea.
Have pity, at least, old friend, when I write in pain.
Worth how well, those dark grey eyes,
That hair so dark and dear, how worth,
That a man should strive and agonise,
And taste a very hell on earth
For the hope of such a prize!
To which your much-tried patience replies merely, Humph! I
suppose? But, old friend, is it not true? Have I not heard your own
voice give way a little, your own hand falter with the eternal
cigarette as some long-hidden memory swept across your mind? So I
believe, and so I understand the terse silence when you rise abruptly
from the piano in the middle of some sad, low improvisation, and I lose
you in the smoke-laden darkness of the room. Life for us moderns has
its difficulties at times, life being, as it were, anything but modern.
We have so many gods, not all of them false, either; but the Voice of
the Dweller in the Innermost brings their temples crashing about our
ears, and we are homeless, godless, atheists indeed.
I do not think this problem has been solved for us yet. It is all
very well for the orthodox to say sneeringly, Why not believe, like
us? Why stand outside the pearly gates, while Love and Lovers pace
beneath the trees that grow by the River of Life? So easy, mes amis! Only believe. Do not delay, but come. Why not to-night? We are
further from yon purple-crowned heights than you wot of, good friends.
Between us and that golden radiance lie many miles of dusty road, lies
even the Valley of the Shadow, through which we have passed. And now,
as we are emerging from that same Valley, out upon the broad high
tablelands of Understanding, we turn and see the distant loveliness,
and we halt and stumble, and (sometimes) lose our way.
She should never have looked on me,
If she meant I should not love her!
There are plentymen, you call such,
I supposeshe may discover
All her soul to, if she pleases,
And yet leave much as she found them:
But I'm not so, and she knew it
When she fixed me, glancing round them.
Chains rattling, winches groaning, sun shining, longshoremen
shouting, breezes blowing.
God's in His heaven
All's right with the world.
And the dock postman (dear old Postie, who cadges sticks of hard
tobacco and cigars from us when he brings good news) is standing on the
quay while the ship is being moved into her new berth, and he waves a
batch of letters when he sees me looking towards him. So! I have been
burrowing in our boilers, testing the scale, inspecting stays and
furnace crowns, and the joy of working has come back to me. I was
solemn last evening, melancholic and somewhat metaphysical it seems;
but let it stand. 'Tis morning, and Postie's on the quay.
I breakfast alone. The others are ashore, but they will appear
during the day to finish up and to bestow mementoes on the wretched one
they leave behind. And so I sit smoking my pipe by the mess-room fire;
Postie descends, beaming expectantly. He hands me two letters, one from
my friend, one from
There was a thick mist before my eyes, the fire seemed an infinitely
distant red blur, and Postie, several continents away, was burbling
about possible promotions, good voyage, fine weather, tobacco, and the
like. Forgive me, old man, but your letter lay unopened for a while. I
poured tobacco and cigars into Postie's pockets, and sat down to think
things out. Was it foolish of me to sit down to think? To set down the
problem thus: Here am I, a man of infinite, almost unknowable latent
possibilities, suddenly repossessed of the supreme power and glory of
life. How can I, by taking thought, bring out those same possibilities,
make them actual and patent to the world, apply them to the highest and
noblest uses, and so justify myself before men? In some such manner did
I put to my own soul the position, trying ever to keep in view the
sanctity, the holiness of life, and the preciousness of its holiest of
holies, where dwell, as I have said, the power and the glory.
It is late in the evening of this most momentous day, and I must put
down my pen, but there is one thought which perhaps may serve as answer
to the scepticism so often expressed when I asserted my belief in this
world after all. I mean if a man, when he experiences some transcendent
joy, is prompted to express that joy in terms of nobler effort and
sterner consecration to the welfare of othersdoes not this fact lead
him to infer that happiness is, at least, more natural than
unhappiness? that the universe does indeed exist, in Emerson's phrase,
hospitably for the weal of souls? That, in fine, when the majority
turn their faces this way, first keeping the houses of their souls
swept and garnished for the love they are awaiting, then will the
mountain of our misery be levelled, our valleys of despair filled up,
and the rough places of life made plain?
So, at least, it seems to me just now as I sit and write. How I long
for a talk with my friend!
You're my friend!
What a thing friendship is, world without end!
I was awakened by something rattling outside my open window-port,
wakened to a small tragedy. A circular wire rat-trap, depending from a
line held by someone on the poop, and containing two frantic rats,
dangled against the opening. Alas! how they ran round and round and
round! The cause of all their agony, a piece of decayed fish and a
fragment of mouldy cheese, was left untouched as they dangled before
me. The voice of my friend the Mate is audible down my ventilator. He
is arguing with the Steward, one Nicholas, of whom you have heard. Said
Nicholas is protesting in his clickety Graeco-English fashion, that the
pelt of a drowned rat (dronded raht, Nicholas loquitur) is worth
less than that of one skinned alive. To which horrible doctrine my
friend the Mate opposes a blustering Irish humaneness issuing in
Dammit, ye shan't! Rats, meanwhile dangling, they as well as their
fate hanging uncertain. At last they are lowered. (The Mate talking, I
think, over his shoulder at Nicholas, who stands, probably in
contemplative fashion, legs apart, face serious, brain calculating
income derivable from rats skinned alive.) The line rising in a minute,
I turn on my elbow to witness the end. Alas! Hélas!! Ach Himmel!!!
How are the mighty fallen! Two grey shining lumps, each with tapering
tail dropped limply through the bottom; fish, cheese, and rodents all
on one dead level now, given over to corruption. Up, upI hear the
trap grounded on the poop over my head. I sigh as I climb out and wash.
I rather like rats. The Grey One in the tunnel is an old chum of mine.
I have never killed one yet, though often even Grey One has been chased
up and down, in fun. He, sitting on a stringer and twirling his
whiskers, has views, I think, about Men with Sticks, his
conception of the Devil and all his angels.
John Thomas, bursting in with hot water for shaving and information
concerning breakfast in the cabin, interrupts my rat-reverie. It is
Eight o'clock, sir. Steward say, sir, will you have breakfast with
the Chief Officer?
No one else aboard?
Second Officer's in the galley, sir.
Galley, sir. A snigger from John Thomas. Come aboard early, sir.
Oh! Tell the Steward 'Yes, with pleasure.'
So! I finish dressing leisurely, donning patrol-jacket and uniform
cap, and turn out. It is a calm Sabbath morning. Not yet have the
mists rolled from the heights which frown upon us all around, but the
sun glitters on the docked shipping, silent save for the flapping of
sea gulls and the clank of some fresh-water pump. With a glance of
homage towards the sun, I go below for my inspection. Boilers, fires
banked in the donkey-boilers over weekend, bilges, sea-cocks all in
order; I am at liberty to enjoy my day of rest. Nicholas, in white
drill coat, shining silver buttons, and shore-boots of burnished bronze
hue, glides aft with a dish (held high, in the professional manner)
covered with a dome of gleaming pewter. Two youths on the quay, fishing
hopelessly for insignificant dock carp, watch with open-mouthed awe. My
own buttons of yellow metal, linen collar, and badge de rigueur,
pass a similar scrutiny as I follow him to the saloon.
The saloon, compared with our own quarters, is sumptuously
furnished. Panelled in hard woods, white ceiling with shining nickel
rods and brackets, carpeted floor and ruby-plush upholsteringinto
such a palace I step to take breakfast with my friend the Mate. He is
already entrenched behind the pewter dome, Nicholas gliding round
giving the final touch of art to the preparations. The subject of
skinned rats has vanished to make room for the serious business of his
Good-mornin', Mr. McAlnwick. Sit there! We are alone to-day, as ye
Nicholas is a believer in ritual. He is tolling his little brass
hand-bell just as though everyone was here. In a minute he reappears.
Is Mr. Hammerton aboard? A snigger from John Thomas, installed
pro tem. in the pantry as the Steward's aide-de-camp.
'S in de galley, mister.
Does he want any breakfast?
No, sir. 'S 'sleep in de galley. Another snigger.
What's the matter with that boy? thunders my friend the Mate,
lifting the dome from ham and eggs.
He is merely cursed with a sense of humour, Mr. Honna, I observe,
and we avoid conversational rock and shoals until we are ensconced in
his private berth.
The fact is, Mr. McAlnwick, Mr. Hammerton's a very foolish young
feller. Help yourself to some tobacco. Knowin' as I do that when he
went ashore last night he had twenty-six pounds ten in his cash pocket,
I wonder he isn't lyin' at the bottom o' the dock instead of in the
galley. He will not bank his surplus. And he will get drunk.
What's at the bottom of it all, Mr. Honna?
I'll show ye! With a hoarse whisper he rises, tip-toes swiftly
along the corridor to the Second Officer's room, and returns with a
Baby! Is she another milestone nearer to Alsatia, then? My pipe
remains unlit as I gaze at the cheap provincial photograph of a girl
with large eyes and a sensuous mouth.
Mr. Honna pushes his cap back and stares at me.
What! D'ye know her?
It's Baby, I answer, laying the thing down. Baby!
He's engaged to her.
SinceGawd knowslast Monday, I believe.
I reach for the matches, and recount to the Mate my knowledge of
Baby. His nose wrinkles up, his eyes diminish to steel-blue points of
fire, and he nods his head slowly to my tale.
Same old yarn. Oh, Mr. McAlnwick, are there not queer things come
in with the tide? Now listen, while I tell ye. 'Tis what they all do.
They dangle round bars, all at loose ends, they get their master's
tickets, and they marry barmaids. Then when the command comes along,
the woman keeps the man down in the mud. 'Twas with me, too. I was
engaged to a Nova Scotia girltwo Nova Scotia girlsdifferent times.
I'd roll round town, givin' 'em to understand I was master, take 'em
out drivin' in a buggy Sunday evenin', makin' a fool o' meself fine.
When the crash cameoh, Mr. McAlnwick, make use of your advantages now
yer're at sea!when the crash came, we were just ready to sail, an' I
stayed by the ship. But next time 'twould be the same. I couldn't be
acquainted with a girl for a week without proposin' matrimony! Mr.
McAlnwick, ye mustn't laugh. 'Tis the truth. Even nowbut why talk? Ye
know my sympathetic nature. But this seems to be serious. So she's the
barmaid at the Stormy Petrel, is she? Humph!
His brains must be addled, I observe, not to see
Ah! but ye're young, Mr. McAlnwick! That's no hindrance in
the worrld toto such as him. Oh, dear no!
Then such as he have a very low standard of morality.
Mr. McAlnwick, now listen. When ye've been sent to sea at twelve
year old as apprentice, an' ploughed the oceans of the worrld for five
years in the foc'sle, when ye've been bullied an' damned by fifty
different skippers on fifty different trades as third and second mate,
when ye've split yer head studyin' for yer ticket, when ye've got it
and ye're glad to go second mate at seven pounds ten a month, when ye
see men o' less merit promoted because they marry skippers' daughters
while you are walkin' the bridgewhat 'ud ye do?
I don't know, mister. I am taken aback by the velocity of the
question, by the Mate's earnestness.
Ye'd turn callous or religious, or go mad! Ye see, Mr. McAlnwick,
there's a lot ye miss, though ye won't admit it. Ye come to sea and ye
meet the cloth, but ye don't realise their trainin'. Ye laugh at us for
our queer ways, such as never walkin' on the poop over the Skipper's
head, never askin' for another helpin', never arguin' the point, an'
such like. But consider that man's trainin'! Ye cannot? Ye've been
brought up ashore, ye've had opportunities for studyin' and conversin'
with edyecated people, an' ye're frettin' for some young lady, as I can
seedon't deny it, I saw Postie bring the letterand ye wouldn't
touch the likes o' this with a pair o' tongs. But with Mr.
Hammerton 'tis different, do ye not see?
Yes, I see, a little. But you yourself, now
Me? Oh, 'twas a special providence preserved me, Mr. McAlnwick. I
was waitin' for a command at the time, and I was unable to get out o'
the bargain. But ye know my wife.
Now, there is no doubt in my mind, after some thought, that the
Chief Officer was right in insisting on the unspanned gulf between the
old style officer and the men of our sphere. Heavenly powers! What have
I not seen, now that the Mate has reminded me? The fatuous ignorance,
the bigoted conceit, the nauseous truckling to the Old Man, the
debased intellect. And yet the Second Officer does not always lie in
drunken stupor on the galley bench. I call to mind a time when he took
a violin and played to me as the sun went down across the foam-flecked
sea. Let us remember him by that rather than by his present state, and
leave the rest to God.
It is, I think, an inestimable privilege to claim the friendship of
a man whose life and letters are a perpetual stimulus to action, an
invariable provocative of thought. I have just had a letter from my
friend, telling me that he is in despair of the stage. His play is a
thing of the past, and he vows that he has done with dramatic art for
Now being, like Goldsmith, a person who spends much time in taverns
and coffee-houses, where one can study every conceivable shade of
character, I took my friend's letter up town with me, and sat down to
muse over it and a tankard of ale. It was a cosy bar, cosier than the
Cheshire Cheese, if more modern; I sank back in a deep lounge and
watched the world go round.
To commence, I thought to myself, these people here constitute a
potential public for a play. Therefore, supposing it were my
play, my attitude towards them is a factor in the dramatic problem.
What is my definition, my analysis of this potential public?
Well, they are all engaged in a terrific struggle for safety.
They have no social instinct apart from the instinct to combine for
safety. Their ideal is a tradesman, a pedlar, who has accumulated
sufficient wealth to be safe from poverty. Their ideal of religion is
one which guarantees safety from hell. They do not believe, and they
tell you bluntly they do not believe, any man who claims to be an
altruist. They do not believe any man who protests that he does not
worship wealthi.e., safety.
By this time I was puzzled to know how to answer my friend's
complaints. All I knew was that, to strike one blow on the metal and
drop the hammer because it jarred his fingers, argues sloth, not the
artistic temperament. Oh, mon ami, that artistic
temperament. Is this all? Up again! If you are discouraged I can
only suggest a course of reading in the lives of dramatists. I recall a
few offhandLessing, Molière, Scribe, Wagner, Ibsen, these will
suffice. When did they stop and fold their hands in despair? As
for the Elizabethan and Restoration playwrights, their facility of
invention, their exuberance under difficulties is devastating. That,
however, is not your problem. Your drama of to-day is an old bottle
with no wine in it. You fail because words have ceased to have any
definite meaning. The words in a man's mouth bear as little relation to
his emotions as the architecture of his house bears to his ideas. Words
like Love, God, Faith, and Soul are mere coloured balloons floating
about the modern West End stage. It is easy to be horrified at such a
view, but men like me, who deal with things, are not to be
humbugged. You put a man in a commonplace predicament, and you make him
say tragically, The die is cast, or I will see him hanged first, or
All is over between us. That is not drama; it is nonsense. Dies are
rarely cast nowadays, public hangings have been abolished, and salaries
rule too low to risk breach of promise actions. There's your dilemma.
Write me a play in which every word is meantthe drama will
look after itself. But, if you will allow a young man to suggest a
point, I say that you are all working in the dark; you are groping
blindly forward when you might rejoice in the sunlight. And now, with
my colleagues as texts, I shall read a homily on the conditions of
modern dramatic art.
The division of biped mammalia into merely men and women is of
comparatively recent date. In very early times, however, when wisdom
was commoner than now, the classification began with gods and
goddesses, heroes, men and women, with lower types like fauns and
satyrs. I venture to think that this nomenclature might with advantage
be revived. From time to time, in the history of the human mind since
Anno Domini, one sees efforts to differentiate, generally with
scant success. The Roman Catholic Church, with her elaborate canonising
machinery, stands as the most prosperous example of this, though with
the vital fault of postponing the sanctifying till after death. She,
again, is responsible for another attempt, viz., the infallibility of
her ministers, a promising enough plan, but ill regulated. The Stuart
régime, urging with unpleasant vigour the divinity of kingship and
the corresponding caddishness (or decadence) of much of the rest of
mankind, is a signal example of how my plan should not be carried out.
Carlyle's heroes are mostly supermen; individuals, not types.
Now, I suggest to you that we agree to classify my colleagues, the
masters of the mighty vapour, the beings who are the real
cloud-compellers of our day, as heroes. If I mistake not, I have a
prior claim to the word, too, in that Hero's engine is the type of all
our modern prime movers, the supreme type to which we are ever striving
to approximate. Masters of the vapour-driven sphere! Not men, but
heroes, having their own thoughts, their own joys and sorrows, their
own gods; more than men, in that they need less than men, less than
gods, in that they owe allegiance to them.
Well, then, here is your dramatic problem. Until you recognise the
fact that such beings as I have indicated do actually inhabit the earth
and cover the sea with their handiwork, until you consider the
tremendous fact that your world's work is done by heroes, and not by
politicians and commercial travellers, that, in short, your
intellectual Frankensteins have made a million-brained monster whom you
cannot, dare not destroy, your drama will not be a living force. I hold
out no hope that the problem is easy of solution; I only know it
exists. You will first of all become as little children, and learn, as
best you may, what makes the wheels go round. Learn, that you may
teach, by your creative art. Above all, remember, when you rise to
protest that I am forgetting Nature, that together with the way of an
eagle in the air, and the way of a serpent upon a rock, the Hebrew
poet has joined the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way
of a man with a maid.
I have been up town to meeting, as my father used to say. The air
was clear and warm when my friend the Mate appeared on deck in all the
splendour of shore gear. He affects a material which never wears out.
Mr. McAlnwick, these here are the pants I was married in! He reserves
his serious thoughts for underwear, of which he carries a portentous
quantity to last a voyage. Smart young cadets, who never wear the same
collar twice, and sport white shirts and soiled souls in seamen's
missions, are the Mate's aversion. He has severe censures for
gallivantin' and dressin' for show. He approves of my own staid
habits of life, after the fashion of those elderly folk who admire in
others what they so sadly lacked in their own spring-time. He forgets
that perhaps even I have trembled with rage because there was a spot on
my collar, that even I may have spent precious moments folding and
pressing a favourite pair of trousers.
The Mate does not often go ashore nowadays, even to missions, and so
the lavendery smell which exhales from the historic pants scarcely has
time to dissipate before they are back in the chest. Different now,
from his young days, when the vessel lay alongside the Quai de la
Bourse in Rouen City, and my friend stepped across each evening to
the Café Victor to drink crème de menthe and feel that listening
to the band was rather wicked and altogether Continental. Indeed, his
attachment to the ship is now proverbial, the prevailing feeling having
been brilliantly epitomised by himself. If I wash me face, he snapped
to me one day; If I wash me face, they think I'm goin' ashore! But
now the decent double-breasted blue serge, the trim beard and black
bowler hat are in evidence; my friend the Mate is about to attend
divine service at the Seamen's Mission. My own appearance in mufti
Ye're comin', Mr. McAlnwick?
As far as the door, I reply.
The Chief Officer's blue eyes glint as he wrinkles his nose.
'Tis my opinion, Mr. McAlnwick, that ye've a young woman in the
And we go forth into the town. At the door of the Mission I bid the
Mate farewell, and I catch a last glimpse of him as he removes his hat
and wipes his boots with the diffidence apparently interwoven in the
fibre of all mariners ashore. He is not of a proselytising disposition.
Strong Orangeman, an Ulster Protestant, andthe rest. So, thinking of
him, I fare onward, watching the show. Men and maidens idly saunter
along, or hasten to the house of God. Why, I wonder, do girls of
religious disposition allow themselves so little time to dress? Two or
three have passed me; one had a button loose at the back of her dress;
another's stole of equivocal lace was unsymmetrically adjusted to her
shoulders; and so on. I know that God looketh not on the outward
semblance, but I am also painfully aware that young men are not
fashioned after their Creator in that respect, and my desire to see
everybody married is outraged by these omissions. And looking into the
faces of my fellow-passengers this Sunday evening, I am led to think
that, as a class, girls are not very beautiful objects when they lack
refinement. I see much raw material around me which might possibly be
hewn into lovely shapebutTo my friend, with his intellectual
Toryism, this hiatus is quite reasonable. These lower classes, he will
observe sublimely, have their functions; refinement is not for all. And
the St. James's Gazette rustles comfortably as he sinks back
into the saddle-bags again!
Well, let me be honest in this matter. My mind is still in a fluid
state concerning theories of society. I can only generalise. I believe,
with Emerson, that the world exists ultimately for the weal of souls; I
believe, also, the spiritually correlative truth, the ultimate probity
of those same souls, butI have not yet discovered why I abhor contact
with those who hold the same political faith. Am I misanthropic? Or
unsocial? Why, when I sit resolutely down to hear my own beliefs
preached, do I silently contest each point, adopt the contrary view?
Why do I avoid active propaganda, working for the cause, and such
like? Is it because I disbelieve utterly in preaching? I do that,
anyway. I often think how much farther ahead we should be if no one
ever preached. I do not condemn lecturing by any means. I dislike the
packed audience of the conventional preacher, socialistic or otherwise.
My ideal is the heterogeneous assembly, hearkening to the words of a
man skilled in oratory, profound in thought, a genius in the art of the
suggestive phrase. The audience in all probability would be far from
clear as to his intentions; they would grow clearer as time went on and
the suggestions ripened into independent speculation. If they could
understand at once what he intends, they would stand in no need of his
You will perceive how unfitted I was for the meeting I attended
to-night. The uppermost thought in mind as I left was, I do not
believe in bloodless revolutions. You cannot have a revolution of
society without turning part of it upside down. And I am half afraid
that a good deal of what I value most in this world will be turned
upside down by a socialistic revolution. Add the sad, indisputable fact
that if everyone were a Socialist I should, by natural law, be a Tory,
and you will see, more or less accurately, how I stand. You will see,
too, the cause of my belief in heroes and gods, which latter you call
natural laws. I look upon myself as a man working among gods and
heroes, and I am beginning to think that the question of revolutions
rests always ultimately with them, while I, a man, can but look on and
Well, I am tired with my jaunt. One's feet are not inured to walking
after months at sea. And I hear my friend the Mate overhead.
Mr. McAlnwick, ye should have been there! The élite o' the
Mission was on show. An' we had an anthem. 'Twas good!
I slip ashore with my letter before turning in.
Though I had no intention of buying many books, the dreary
loneliness of the tavern where I supped drove me out upon the streets,
and insensibly I drifted towards my favourite second-hand book-shop,
where the little maiden behind the mountains of Welsh theology reminds
me of someone I know. My Welsh Divinity I call her, hovering
bright-winged above the dust-clouds of old literature, with clear grey
eyes and nervous mouth. Not the heir of all the ages, I fear, though
the potentiality in her must be infinite and beyond my ken. What do
you, oh, young man? So I seem to read the query in her eyes. Are you
only a hodman in this book-yard, then? Where is she? What is
she? Who is she? As I stand and thumb the serried ranks of
corpses, I feel her gaze upon me. Quite inarticulate, both of us, you
understandI as shy as she.
I must seem extraordinarily sensitive to you, I think. Merely the
presence of this child stirs my soul to nobler ideals. I feel
invigorated and refreshed. So my lady stirs me; so even the mere
presence of some men we know. In like manner, I imagine, is my friend
influenced by superb music. They affect me like an essay by Pater, a
Watts portrait, or a Dulwich Cuyp, a feeling which I can only call a
passionate intellectualism, a loosening of corporeal encumbrances. My
friend will not carp because I seem to place my love for my mistress in
a category with a Dutch landscape and an aesthetic essayhe will
I have no desire to be proud, but I confess I have never appreciated
that amorousness which prompts the lovers to exchange hats as well as
vows. Indeed, I scarcely understand what the older poets mean by vows
even. What are these vows? By whom are they kept? Of what avail are
they when they are most needed? Nearly as useless as marriage vows,
these of the trysting-place, I fancy. You hold up your hands in horror
at this, not because you disagree, but because of my audacity in
applying general modernisms to myself. Well, I am tired of people who
pose as advanced thinkers and remain as conventional as ever. We have
outgrown so much of the sentimentalism of Love that muddle-headed
moderns imagine that we have outgrown Love itself. The keynote of
everything worthy in modern life and art and philosophy isrestraint.
I decline to regard ranting as eloquence because the Elizabethan ranted
well, and I decline also to accept the Shakesperian conception of Love,
viz., physical satiety, as the very latest thing in ideals.
Restraint, then! A marriage is doubtless, as Chesterton so admirably
puts it, a passionate compromise, but it does not follow that love is
therefore a compromising debauchery. It may be that I, who have my ways
far from feminine influence, tend to place women in a rarer and purer
atmosphere than most of them breathe, and that this tendency unfits me
for judging them accurately. Let it be so. Let my Welsh Divinity watch
me from beyond the dust-clouds of learning with her grey eyes, while I
pray never to lose my reverence for the quiet loveliness of which she
is, so unconsciously, the type.
Once more I am out at sea. I have stowed away my shore gear,
slipped the movable bar across my book-shelf, screwed up my windows,
and made all snug against the wind blowing up-channel. There is a
gentle roll; she is in ballast, for the Western Ocean, and the Mate
does not smile when we discuss the probable weather. He would like a
little more ballast, I know, and he thinks she draws too much
forrard. Well, I am minded to go on deck for a smoke before I turn in.
And the Third Officer is on watch.
I call him the Innovation. There is to be much tallying on this
charter, and there is a happy rumour that the Benvenuto will pay
in future. I hear, said my friend the Mate, I hear, Mr. McAlnwick,
that she has been reconstructed. By which he means that certain
financial props have been introduced into her economy, and she is no
longer in liquidation. The Mate glories in a four-hour watch, and the
Innovation takes the eight to twelve.
He walks across the bridge with a dozen swift strides. Then a
peculiar slew of his active little frame, and he whirls back to
starboard. His keen, clean-shaven face, hardened prematurely into an
expression of relentless ferocity, looks out from the peak of his
badge-cap, the strap cramming the crown against his bullet head. He is
twenty-two, and pure Liverpool. He served his apprenticeship in sail on
the Australian and Western American coasts. A middle class education is
submerged beneath seven years at sea, seven years of unbridled lust,
seven years of the seven deadly sins, seven years of joyous and
There is no break in his voice when he speaks of his old ladyshe
is religious. His old man is a hard case, another name for a
Liverpool skipper. He met his brother this time at homedidn't know
him, mister. Hadn't seen him for six years. His knowledge of some
things extends from Sydney and Melbourne to Marseilles and Hamburg,
from Amsterdam to Valparaiso; he drinks Irish neat, and his
conversation is blistered from end to end with blasphemous invocations
of the name of the Son of God.
I do not overdraw this picture of one who is only a type of
thousands. It is impossible to give any adequate specification of him.
He takes me, metaphorically, by the throat, and I am helpless. With
vivid strokes he paints me scene after scene, episode after episode, of
his life in a windbag, and I see that he exaggerates not at all. He
candidly admits that, in his opinion, Marseilles is heaven and Georgia
the other extreme. He passed for second mate a month ago, collected
half a dozen shipmates, and terminated the orgies in the police-court.
The psychology of such a soul fascinates me. I hold to my cardinal
doctrine of the illimitable virtue latent in all men; and I am right.
The unspeakable anathemas he pronounces on a certain skipper, who let
one of his apprentices die in a West Coast hospital, his own terrific
descent into the Chilean common grave, groping for the body among the
rotten corpses, feeling for the poor lad's breast, where hung a broken
rouble, token of some bygone Black Sea passionall this tells me that
I am right. Stark materialist though he is, he looks with scared awe
upon the mysteries of religion, and the denunciations of the Dream on
Patmos make him hope and pray that his own end may come in a deep
We are out beyond the Scillies now, and the Atlantic stretches
before us in a grey, ominous immensity. The wind is rising steadily as
I turn in, and the ship is rolling deep. The waves loom up,
white-crested, snap sullenly, and surge away aft. A deeper roll, the
sea crashes against my ports, and I screw them tighter. I think we are
to have a bad night of it. As I draw my curtain I catch sight of a
letter on my drawer-top, and I sink back with a sigh of content. A
grey eye or so!
I feel strangely to-night, and I cannot sleep. As I woke, Six Bells,
eleven o'clock, was striking, half carried away by the wind. For the
storm is rising, and a beam sea sends wave after wave against my ports.
Now and then, in the lulls, I feel the race of the propeller as she
rises from the water, sending vast tremors through the frame of the
empty ship. How she rolls! In my thwart-ship bunk I slide up and down,
and the green seas thunder over my head repeatedly. As I turn out I
feel excited. North Atlantic, light ship.
The mess-room is silent, dark. To and fro on the floor there washes
a few inches of water. The stove-pipe has been carried away, and the
sea has flooded the stove. The solid teak door at the top of the
companion groans as the tons of water are hurled against it. The brass
lamp glimmers in the darkness, creaking as it swings. Against the white
wall the Steward's whiter apron sways like a ghost, fluttering in some
eddy of draught. In the tiny pantry the cups clink softly on their
hooks. And outside the storm-wind whistles in demoniac fury.
Across the room a narrow slit of light shows where the Fourth's room
is hooked ajar. I go across and peer in. He is on watch, of course, and
there is no one there. But all round I see littered the belongings of
George's successor. A quiet, likeable Glasgow laddie, as I know him
yet. He has put up his bunk curtains, and as they sway I catch a
glimpse of a portrait. And so? Who can blame me if I look searchingly
into the eyes of the girl with ribbon in her hair and a silver cross on
her breast? And just beneath the narrow gold frame, swinging on a
screw, there is a coloured paper design, which I know emanates from the
Order of the Sacred Heart. It is an indulgence for one hundred days,
and it has been blessed by the Vicar of Christ. Yes, and the laddie
will have one on his breast, next the skin, as he stands by the
throttle down below. And when we are half a world away from the parish
church, he will be mindful of the tonsured man who gave him these; he
will read the little red Prayer Book, and he will be ill at ease on
Friday when we pass him the salt fish.
Glancing at an old cigar-box full of letters, I go out softly and
hook the door.
For all the darkness and the rushing water it is close, and I go up
and struggle desperately with the teak door, biding my time until the
waters surge back to the rail. The door crashes to again, and I
struggle on to the poop. To my amazement there are men here, four of
them at the wheel. And my friend the Mate, in oilskins and sou'wester,
walking back and for'ard. I cry his name, but my voice is swept into
the void. He sees me, but does not speak, only walks to and fro. To me,
strung up to a tautness of sensation that almost frightens me, this
silence of the Mate is horrible. I feel a pain in my chest like the
pressure of a heavy weight as I look at him. And the four men toil at
the wheel, for the steering chains have been carried away.
Looking for'ard, I see on the well-deck the white wreckage of a
boat, and I begin to tremble with excitement. If the Mate would only
speak! A thought strikes methat he will never speak to me again; then
the sea comes. As she rolls to starboard, the great wave lifts his head
and springs like a wild beast at the rail. A hoarse roar, a rending,
splitting sound of gear going adrift, and the sea strikes the poop with
terrific impact. Then the water soughs away through the scuppers. And
athwart the blackened sky there darts a dazzling flash of lightning. As
I hold to my stanchion, soaked to the skin, I watch the wrath of God on
the face of the waters.
Making a rush, I gain the shelter of the canvas screen round the
cabin companion, and I bump into the Innovation. From beneath the
dripping sou'wester his small, keen face peers up at me, and he utters
his inevitable blasphemy. He hugs his left hand to his side. Mister!
he hisses in my ear, for the love of Christ get me a scarf out o' me
berth. It's a blue one, in the top drawer. Then, darting out for a
moment, he yells Ai! boiling over into asterisks. He darts in again,
hugging his hand. My foot is in the door, and together we wrench it
open. I drop down the companion and turn into his berth for the scarf.
It is while coming back that I see into the cabin, and I halt. The
Skipper is standing under the lamp holding out his hand for a cup of
coffee. And Nicholas, the fears and imaginings of a volatile race
blanching his wizened features, rocks unsteadily across the floor. The
big man with the white hair, red face, and cold blue eyes, towers over
him, those same eyes snapping with something that has nought to do with
money-making or Brixton, something not mentioned in any Board of Trade
regulations. And Nicholas, holding by the table, looks like a rat in a
trap, shaking with the fear of sudden death. A word from the Skipper,
and he turns and runs a zig-zag course for the door. He cannot see me
in the darkness, but I hear him whinnying a song to steady his nerves:
Ess, a young maid's broken-'earted
When a ship is outward bound.
His face is pinched and drawn, his beady eyes move unceasingly, and
I think of one who said, His nose was as sharp as a pen, and 'e
babbled of green fields.
* * * * *
As I go below to my berth again, striving with the door as with a
strong man, there crackles and hisses a forked glare of lightning, an
enormous whip driving the great white horses of the sea to madness.
Onward they spring, phalanx after phalanx, while above the riot of
their disintegration glints the faint yellow light of Fastnet. Far off
to nor'ard, guarding Cape Clear, hidden at times by the mountainous
water, veiled almost to obscurity by the flying spume, it flashes, a
coastwise light. And on the eastern horizonO wondrous sight to
me!the black pall has lifted a little from the tumbling waters,
leaving a band of yellow moonlight with one green-flashing star.
Reaching my berth once more, the terror and delight of that last
glimpse is upon me. In that strange yellow rift at midnight, backing
the world of dark chaos, that star of palest green, I feel a thrill of
the superhuman sense which renders Turner inexplicable to Balham, and
stabs the soul with demoniac joy in the Steersman's Song.
One Bell, and the pen drops from my fingers. And so, until the day
break and the shadows flee away, I shall be at my post. And in the
morning there will be more to tell.