H.M. Tomlinson.

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later, for his speed was less than theirs. There they were, a lucky
and unexpected confirmation of his own reasoning. His chief officer,
an elderly man full of doubt, smiled again, and smacked his hands
together. That was all right. My friend then went into the
chart-room, and underwent the strange experience we know. He wondered
a little, concluded it was just as well to be on the safe side, and
slightly altered his course. Early next morning he sighted Ushant.
There was nothing to spare. He was, indeed, cutting it fine. The seas
were great, and piled up on the rocks of that bad coast were the two
steamers he had sighted the day before.

Why had not the other two masters received the same nudge from
Providence before it was too late? That is what the unfortunate, who
cannot genuinely offer solemn thanks like the lucky, will never know,
though they continually ask. It is the darkest and most unedifying
part of the mystery. Moreover, that side of the question, as a war has
helped us to remember, never troubles the lucky ones. Yet I wish to
add that later, my friend, when in waters not well known, in charge of
a ship on her maiden voyage - for he always got the last and best ship
from his owners, they having recognized that his stars were
well-assorted - was warned that to attempt a certain passage, in some
peculiar circumstances, was what a wise man would not lightly
undertake. But my friend was young, daring, clever, and fortunate.
That morning his cap was _not_ on the floor. At night his valuable
ship with her exceptionally valuable cargo was fast for ever on a coral
reef.

What did that prove? Apart from the fact that if the young reject the
experience of their elders they may regret it, just as they may regret
if they do pay heed to it, his later misfortune proves nothing; except,
perhaps, that the last thing on which a man should rely, unless he
must, is the supposed favour of the gods of whom he knows nothing but,
say, a cap unreasonably on the floor; yet gods, nevertheless, whose
existence even the wise and dubious cannot flatly deny.

It may have been for a reason of such a sort that I did not lend my
book to my young sailor friend who wished to borrow it. I should never
have had it back. Men go to sea, and forget us. Our world has
narrowed and has shut out Vanderdecken for ever. But now that
everything private and personal about us which is below the notice even
of the Freudian professor is pigeon-holed by officials at the Town
Hall, I enjoy reading the abundant evidence for the Extra Hand, that
one of the ship's company who cannot be counted in the watch, but is
felt to be there. And now that every Pacific dot is a concession to
some registered syndicate of money-makers, the Isle-of-No-Land-At-All,
which some lucky mariners profess to have sighted, is our last chance
of refuge. We cannot let even the thought of it go.




VIII. The Illusion

When I came to the house in Malabar Street to which John Williams,
master mariner, had retired from the sea, his wife was at her front
gate. It was evening, and from the distant River a steamer called.
Mrs. Williams did not see me, for her grey head was turned away. She
was watching, a little down the street, an officer of the Merchant
Service, with his cap set like a challenge, for he was very young, and
a demure girl with a market-basket who was with him. They were
standing in amused perplexity before their house door. It was a house
that had been empty since the foundering of the _Drummond Castle_. The
sailor was searching his pockets for the door-key, and the girl was
laughing at his pretended lively nervousness in not finding it. Mrs.
Williams had not heard me stop at her elbow, and continued to watch the
comedy. She had no children, and she loved young people.

I did not speak, but waited for her to turn, with that ship's call
still sounding in my mind. The rain had cleared for a winter sunset.
Opposite, in the house which had been turned into a frugal shop, it was
thought so near to night that they lit their lamp, though it was not
only possible to see the bottles of sweet-stuff and the bundles of wood
in the window, but to make out the large print of a bill stuck to a
pane announcing a concert at the Wesleyan Mission Room. The lamp was
alight also in the little beer-house next door to it, where the
_Shipping Gazette_ could be borrowed, if it were not already out on
loan; for children constantly go there for it, with a request from
mother, learning their geography that way in Malabar Street, while
following a father or a brother round the world and back again, and
working out by dead-reckoning whether he would be home for Christmas.

The quiet street, with every house alike, had that air of conscious
reserve which is given by the respectable and monotonous; but for a
moment then it was bright with the glory of the sky's afterglow
reflected on its wet pavements, as though briefly exalted with an
unexpected revelation. The radiance died. Night came, and it was as
if the twilight native to the street clouded from its walls and brimmed
it with gloom, while yet the sky was bright. The lamplighter set his
beacon at the end of the street.

That key had been found. Mrs. Williams laughed to herself, and then
saw me. "Oh," she exclaimed. "I didn't know you were there. Did you
see that? That lamplighter! When Williams was at sea, and I was
alone, it was quite hopeful when the lamplighter did that. It looked
like a star. And that Number Ten is let at last. Did you see the
young people there? I'm sure they're newly married. He's a sailor."

With the fire, the humming kettle, and the cat between us, and the
table laid for tea, Mrs. Williams speculated with interest and hope
about those young strangers. Did I notice what badge was on his cap?
My eyes were better than hers. She trusted it would be all right for
them. They were starting very young. It was better to start young.
She looked such a good little soul, that girl. It was pleasant to know
that house was let at last. It had been empty too long. It was
getting a name. People could not help remembering why it was empty.
But young life would make it bright.

"People say things only change, but I like to think they change for the
better, don't you? But Williams, he will have it they change for the
worse. I don't know, I'm sure. He thinks nothing really good except
the old days." She laughed quietly, bending to tickle the cat's
ear - "nothing good at all except the old days. Even the wrecks were
more like wrecks." She looked at me, smiling.

"As you know," she said, "there's many men who follow the sea with
homes in this street, but Williams is so proud and strong-willed. He
says he doesn't want to hear about them. What do they know about the
sea? You know his way. What do they know about the sea? That's the
way he talks, doesn't he? But surely the sea is the same for us all.
He won't have it, though. Williams is so vain and determined."

The captain knocked. There was no doubt about that knock. The door
surrendered to him. His is a peremptory summons. The old master
mariner brought his bulk with dignity into the room, and his wife,
reaching up to that superior height, too slight for the task,
ministered to the overcoat of the big figure which was making, all
unconsciously, disdainful noises in its throat. It would have been
worse than useless for me to interfere. The pair would have repelled
me. This was a domestic rite. Once in his struggle with his coat the
dominant figure glanced down at the earnestness of his little mate,
paused for a moment, and the stern face relaxed.

With his attention concentrated and severe even in so small an effort
as taking from his broad back a reluctant coat, and the unvarying fixed
intentness of the dark eyes over which the lids, loose with age, had
partly folded, giving him the piercing look of a bird of prey; and the
swarthiness of his face, massive, hairless, and acutely ridged, with
its crown of tousled white hair, his was a figure which made it easy to
believe the tales one had heard of him when he was the master of the
_Oberon_, and drove his ship home with the new season's tea, leaving,
it is said, a trail of light spars all the way from Tientsin to the
Channel.

The coat was off. His wife had it over her arm, and was regarding with
concern the big petulant face above her. She said to him: "Number Ten
is let at last. They're a young couple who have got it. He's a
sailor."

The old man sat down at a corner of the table, stooped, and in one
handful abruptly hauled the cat off the rug, laying its unresisting
body across his knees, and rubbing its ribs with a hand that half
covered it. He did not appear to have heard what he had been told. He
did not look at her, but talked gravely to the fire. "I met Dennison
today," he said, as if speaking aloud to himself, in surprise at
meeting Dennison. "Years since I saw him," he continued, turning to
me. "Where was it now, where was it? Must have been Canton River, the
year he lost his ship. Extraordinary to find Dennison still afloat.
Not many of those men about now. You can go the length of the Dock
Road today and see nothing and meet nobody."

He looked again into the flames, fixedly, as though what he really
wanted was only to be found in them. His wife was at his elbow. She,
too, was watching them, still with his coat over her arm. She spoke
aloud, though more to herself than to us. "She seemed such a nice
little woman, too. I couldn't see the badge on his cap."

"Eh?" said the old man, throwing the cat back to the floor and rounding
to his wife. "What's that? Let's have tea, Mrs. Williams. We're both
dreaming, and there's a visitor. What are you dreaming about? You've
nothing to dream about."

There was never any doubt, though, that the past was full and alive to
him. There was only the past. And what a memory was his! He would
look at the portrait of his old clipper, the _Oberon_ - it was central
over the mantel-shelf - and recall her voyages, and the days in each
voyage, and just how the weather was, what canvas she carried, and how
things happened. Malabar Street vanished. We would go, when he was in
that mood, and live for the evening in another year, with men who have
gone, among strange affairs forgotten.

Mrs. Williams would be in her dream, too, with her work-basket in her
lap, absently picking the table-cloth with her needle. But for us, all
we knew was that the _Cinderella_ had a day's start of us, and the
weather in the Southern Ocean, when we got there, was like the death of
the world. I was aware that we were under foresail, lower topsails,
and stay-sails only, and they were too much. They were driving us
under, and the _Oberon_ was tender. Yes, she was very tricky. But
where was the _Cinderella_? Anyhow, she had a day's start of us.
Captain Williams would rise then, and stand before his ship's picture,
pointing into her rigging.

"I must go in and see that girl," said the captain's wife once, when we
were in the middle of one of our voyages.

"Eh?" questioned her husband, instantly bending to her, but keeping his
forefinger pointing to his old ship; thinking, perhaps, his wife was
adding something to his narrative he had forgotten.

"Yes," she said, and did not meet his face. "I must go in and see her.
He's been gone a week now. He must be crossing the Bay, and look at
the weather we've had. I know what it is."

I did then leave our voyage in the past for a moment, to listen to the
immediate weather without. It was certainly a wild night. I should
get wet when I left for home.

"Ah!" exclaimed the puzzled captain, suddenly enlightened, with his
finger still addressing the picture on the wall. "She means the man
down the street. An engineer, isn't he? The missis calls him a
sailor." He continued that voyage, made in 1862.

There was one evening when, on the home run, we had overhauled and
passed our rivals in the race, and were off the Start. Captain
Williams was serving a tot all round, in a propitiatory act, hoping to
lower the masts of the next astern deeper beneath the horizon, and to
keep them there till he was off Blackwall Point. He then found he
wanted to show me a letter, testimony to the work of his ship, which he
had received that voyage from his owners. Where was it? The missis
knew, and he looked over his shoulder for her. But she was not there.

They must have been the days to live in, when China was like that, and
there was all the East, and such ships, and men who were seamen and
navigators in a way that is lost. As the old master mariner, who had
lived in that time, would sometimes demand of me: What is the sea now?
Steamers do not make time, or lose it. They keep it. They run to
schedule, one behind the other, in processions. They have nothing to
overcome. They do not fail, and they cannot triumph. They are
predestined engines, and the sea is but their track. Yet it had been
otherwise. And the old man would brood into the greater past, his
voice would grow quiet, and he would gently emphasize his argument by
letting one hand, from a fixed wrist, rise, and fall sadly on the
table, in a gesture of solemn finality. He was in that act, early one
evening, while his wife was reading a newspaper; and I had risen to go,
and stood for a moment silent in the thought that these of ours were
lesser days, and their petty demands and trivial duties made of men but
mere attendants on uninspiring process.

Serene Mrs. Williams, reading her paper, and not in our world at all,
at that moment struck the paper into her lap, and fixed me with
surprise and shock in her eyes, as though she had just repelled that
mean print in a malicious attempt at injury. Her husband took no
notice. She handed me the paper, with a finger on a paragraph. "The
steamer _Arab_, which sailed on December 26 last for Buenos Aires, has
not been heard of since that date, and today was 'posted' as missing."

I remembered then a young man in uniform, with a rakish cap, trying to
find a key while a girl was laughing at him. As I left the house I
could see in the dusk, a little down the street, the girl standing at
her gate. The street was empty and silent. At the end of it the
lamp-lighter set his beacon.




IX. In a Coffee-Shop

With a day of rain, Dockland is set in its appropriate element. It
does not then look better than before, but it looks what it is. Not
sudden April showers are meant, sparkling and revivifying, but a
drizzle, thin and eternal, as if the rain were no more than the shadow
cast by a sky as unchanging as poverty. When real night comes, then
the street lamps dissolve ochreous hollows in the murk. It was such a
day as that; it was not night, for the street lamps were not alight.
There was no sound. The rain was as noiseless as the passage of time.
Two other wayfarers were in the street with me. One had no right
there, nor anywhere, and knew it, slinking along with his head and tail
held low, trailing a length of string through the puddles. The other,
too, seemed lost. He was idling as if one street was the same as
another, and on that day there was rain in all. He came towards me,
with his hands in his pockets and his coat collar up. He turned on me
briskly, with a sudden decision, when he drew level. Water dripped
from the peak of his cap, and his clothes were heavy and dark with it.
He spoke. "Mister, could ye give me a hand up? I've made a mess of
it." His cheerful and rather insolent assurance faltered for a moment.
He then mumbled: "I've been on the booze y'understand." But there was
still something in his tone which suggested that any good man might
have done the same thing.

It is not easy to be even sententious with the sinful when an open
confession robs us of our moral prerogative, so I only told him that it
seemed likely booze had something to do with it. His age could have
been forty; but it was not easy to judge, for the bridge of his nose
was a livid depression. Some accident had pushed in his face under the
eyes, giving him the battered aspect of ancient sin. His sinister
appearance would have frightened any timid lady if he had stopped her
in such a street, on such a day, with nobody about but a lost dog, and
the houses, it could be supposed, deserted, or their inmates secluded
in an abandonment to misery. And, taking another glance at him, I
thought it probable, from the frank regard of the blue and frivolous
eye which met mine, that he would have recognized timidity in a lady at
a distance, and would have passed her without seeing her. Uncertain
whether his guess in stopping me was lucky, he began pulling nervously
at a bleached moustache. His paw was the colour of leather. Its nails
were broken and stained with tar.

"Can't you get work?" I suggested. "Why don't you go to sea?"

This deliberately unfair question shook his upright confidence in
himself, and perhaps convinced him that he had, after all, stopped a
fool. He took his cap off, and flung a shower from it - it had been
draining into his moustache - and asked whether I did not think he
looked poor enough for a sailor.

Then I heard how he came to be there. Two days before he had signed
the articles of the steamship _Bilbao_. His box had gone aboard, and
that contained all his estate. The skipper, to be sure of his man, had
taken care of his discharge book, and so was in possession of the only
proof of his identity. Then he left the shipping office, and met some
friends.

Those friends! "That was a fine girl," he said, speaking more to the
rain than to me. "I never seen a finer." I began to show signs of
moving away. "Don't go, mister. She was all right. I lay you never
seen a finer. Look here. I reckon you know her." He plunged an eager
hand into an inner pocket. "Ever heard of Angel Light? She's on the
stage. It's a fact. She showed me her name herself on a programme
last night. There y'are." He triumphed with a photograph, and his
gnarled forefinger pointed at an exposed set of teeth under an
extraordinary hat. "Eh, ain't that all right? On the stage, too. Met
her at the corner of Pennyfields."

It was still raining. He flung another shower from his cap. I was
impatient, but he took my lapel confidentially. "Guv'nor," he said,
"if I could find the swab as took my money, I lay I'd make him look so
as his own mother 'ud turn her back on him. I would. Ten quid."

He had, it appeared, lost those friends. He was now seeking, with
varying emotions, both the girl and the swab. I suggested the dock and
his ship would be a better quest. No, it was no good, he said. He
tried that late last night. Both had gone. The policeman at the gate
told him so. The dock was there again this morning, but a different
policeman; and whatever improbable world the dock and the policeman of
midnight had visited, there they had left his ship, inaccessible,
tangled hopelessly in a revolving mesh of saloon lights and collapsing
streets. Now he had no name, no history, no character, no money, and
he was hungry.

We went into a coffee-shop. It stands at the corner of the street
which is opposite the _Steam Packet_ beerhouse. You may recognize the
place, for it is marked conspicuously as a good pull-up for carmen,
though then the carmen were taking their vans steadily past it. The
buildings of a shipwright's yard stand above it, and the hammers of the
yard beat with a continuous rhythmic clangour which recedes, when you
are used to it, till it is only the normal pulse of life in your ears.
The time was three in the afternoon. The children were at school, and
alone the men of the iron-yard made audible the unseen life of the
place. We had the coffee-shop to ourselves. On the counter a jam roll
was derelict. Some crumpled and greasy newspapers sprawled on the
benches. The outcast squeezed into a corner of a bench, and a stout
and elderly matron appeared, drying her bare arms on her apron, and
looked at us with annoyance. My friend seized her hand, patted it, and
addressed her in terms of extravagant endearment. She spoke to him
about that. But food came; and as he ate - how he ate! - I waited,
looking into my own mug of tepid brown slop at twopence the pint.
There was a racing calendar punctuated with dead flies, and a picture
in the dark by the side of the door of Lord Beaconsfield, with its
motto: "For God, King, and Country"; and there was a smell which comes
of long years of herrings cooked on a gas grill. At last the hungry
child had finished scraping his plate and wiping his moustache with his
hands. He brought out a briar pipe, and a pouch of hairy skin, and
faded behind a blue cloud. From behind the cloud he spoke at large,
like a confident disreputable Jove who had been skylarking for years
with the little planet Earth.

At a point in his familiar reminiscences my dwindling interest
vanished, and I noticed again, through the window, the house fronts of
the place I knew once, when Poplar was salt. The lost sailor himself
was insignificant. What was he? A deck hand; one who tarred iron, and
could take a trick at the wheel when some one was watching him. The
place outside might have been any dismal neighbourhood of London. Its
character had gone.

The tap-tapping on iron plates in the yard next door showed where we
were today. The sailor was silent for a time, and we listened together
to the sound of rivets going home. "That's right," said the outcast.
"Make them bite. Good luck to the rivets. What yard is that?" I told
him.

"What? I didn't know it was about here. That place! Well, it's a
good yard, that. They're all right. I was on a steamer that went in
there, one trip. She wanted it, too. You could put a chisel through
her. But they only put in what they were paid for, not what she
wanted. The old _Starlight_. She wouldn't have gone in then but for a
bump she got. Do you know old Jackson? Lives in Foochow Street round
about here somewhere. He's lived next to that pub in Foochow Street
for years and years. He was the old man of the _Starlight_. He's a
sailor all right, is Jackson.

"The last trip I had with him was ten months ago. The _Starlight_ came
in here to the West Dock with timber. She had to go into dry-dock, and
I signed on for her again when she was ready. This used to be my home,
Poplar, before I married that Cardiff woman. Do you know Poplar at
all? Poplar's all right. We went over to Rotterdam for something or
other, but sailed from there light, for Fowey. We loaded about three
thousand tons of china clay for Baltimore.

"The sea got up when we were abreast of the Wolf that night, and she
was a wet ship. 'We're running into it,' said old Jackson to the mate.
I was at the wheel. 'Look out, and call me if I'm wanted.'"

The man pushed his plate away, and leaned towards me, elbows on the
table, putting close his flat and brutish face, with his wet hair
plastered over all the brow he had. He appeared to be a little drowsy
with food. "Ever crossed the Western ocean in winter? Sometimes
there's nothing in it. But when it's bad there's no word for it.
There was our old bitch, filling up for'ard every time she dropped, and
rolling enough to shift the boilers. We reckoned something was coming
all right. Then when it began to blow, from dead ahead, the old man
wouldn't ease her. That was like old Jackson. It makes you think of
your comfortable little home, watching them big grey-backs running by
your ship, and no hot grub because the galley's flooded. The Wolf was
only two days behind us, and we had all the way to go. It was lively,
guv'nor. The third night I was in with the cook helping him to get
something for the men. They'd been roping her hatches. The covers
were beginning to come adrift, y'understand. The cook, he was slipping
about, grousing all round. Then she stopped dead, and the lights went
out. Something swept right over us with a hell of a rush, and I felt
the deck give under my feet. The galley filled with water. 'Christ,
she's done,' shouted the cook.

"We scrambled out. It was too dark to see anything, but we could hear
the old man shouting. The engines had stopped. I fell over some
wreckage." The sailor stroked his nose. "This is what it did.

"Next morning you wouldn't have known the old _Starlight_. All her
boats had gone, and she had a list to port like a roof. You wanted to
be a bird to get about her. The crowd looked blue enough when they saw


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