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the falls flying around at daylight, and only bits of boats. It was a
case. Every time she lay down in the trough, and a sea went over her
solid, we watched her come up again. She took her time about it.

"The engineers were at it below, trying to get her clear. They had the
donkey going. In the afternoon we sighted a steamer's smoke to
westward. She bore down on us. I never seen anything I liked better
than that. Then the Chief came up, and I saw him talking to the old
man. The old man climbed round to us. 'Now, lads,' he said, 'there's
a Cunarder coming. But the engineer says he reckons he's getting her
clear of water. What about it? Shall I signal the liner, or will you
stand by her?'

"We let the Cunarder go. I watched her out of sight. We hung around,
and just about sunset the Chief came up again. I heard what he said.
'It's overhauling us fast, sir,' he said to the old man. The old man,
he stood looking down at the deck. Nobody said anything for a spell.
Then a fireman shot through a companion on all fours, scrambled to the
bulwarks, and looked out. He began cursing the sun, shaking his fist
at it every time it popped over the seas. It was low down. It was
funny to hear him. 'So long, chaps,' he said, and dropped overside.

"We waited all night. I couldn't sleep, what with the noise of the
seas running over us, and waiting for something to happen. It was
perishing cold, too. At sun-up I could see she might pitch under at
any time. She was about awash. The old man came to me and the
steward, and said: 'Give the men all the gin they'll drink. Fill 'em
up.' Some of 'em took it. I never knew a ship take such a hell of a
time to sink as that one.

"I sighted the steamer, right ahead, and we wondered whether the iron
under us would wait till she come. We counted every roller that went
over us. The other steamer was a slow ship all right. But she came
up, and put out her boats. We had to lower the drunks into them. I
left in the last boat with the old man. 'Jim,' he said, looking at her
as we left her, 'she's got no more than five minutes now. I just felt
her drop. Something's given way.' Before we got to the other ship we
saw the _Starlight's_ propeller in the air. Right on end. Yes. I
never seen anything like that - and then she just went . . ."

The sailor made a grimace at me and nodded. From the shipwright's next
door the steady, continuous hammering in the dry-dock was heard again,
as though it had been waiting, and were now continuing the yarn.




X. Off-Shore

1

For weeks our London days had been handmade with gas and oil. It was a
winter of the kind when the heaven of the capital is a brown obscurity
not much above the highest reached by the churches, and a December more
years before the War then it would be amusing to count. There was enough
of the sun in that morning to light my way down Mark Lane, across Great
Tower Street to Billingsgate. I was on my way to sea for the first time,
but that fortune was as incredible to me as the daylight. And as to the
daylight, the only certainty in it was its antiquity. It was a gloom
that was not only because the year was exhausted, but because darkness
was falling at the end of an epoch. It was not many years before the
War, to be a little more precise, though then I was unaware of the reason
of the darkness, except common fog.

Besides, why should a Londoner, and even an East-Ender whose familiar
walls are topped by mastheads, believe in the nearness of the ocean? We
think of the shipping no more than we do of the paving stones or of the
warnings of the pious. It is an event of the first importance to go for
a first voyage, though mine was to be only by steam-trawler to the Dogger
Bank; yet, as the event had come to me so late, I had lost faith in the
omens of London's foreshore, among which, at the bottom of Mark Lane, was
an Italian baking chestnuts over a coke fire. The fog, and the slops,
and the smell by Billingsgate, could have been tokens of no more than a
twopenny journey to Shepherd's Bush. I had believed in the signs so
little that I had left my bag at a railway station, miles away.

Three small steamers, the size of tugs, but with upstanding bows and a
sheer suggesting speed and buoyancy, were lying off the fish market, and
mine, the _Windhover_, had the outside berth. I climbed over to her.
Blubber littered her iron deck, and slime drained along her gutters.
Black grits showered from her stack. The smell from her galley, and the
heat from her engine-room casing, were challenging to a stranger. It was
no place for me. The men and porters tramping about their jobs knew
that, and did not order me out of their way. This was Billingsgate, and
there was a tide to be caught. They hustled me out of it. But the
skipper had to be found, for I must know when I had to come aboard. A
perpendicular iron ladder led to her saloon from a hatch, and through
unintelligence and the dark I entered that saloon more precipitously than
was a measure of my eagerness, picked myself up with a coolness which I
can only hope met with the approval of some silent men, watching me, who
sat at a table there, and offered my pass to the man nearest me.

It was the mate. He scrutinized the simple document at unnecessary
length, and with a gravity that was embarrassing. He turned up slowly a
large and weather-beaten sadness, with a grizzled moustache that curled
tightly into his mouth from under a long, thin nose which pointed at me
like a finger. His heavy eyes might have been melancholy or only tired,
and they regarded me as if they sought on my face what they could not
find on my document. I thought he was searching me for the proof of my
sanity. Presently he spoke: "Have you _got_ to come?" he said, and in a
gentle voice that was disconcerting from a figure so masculine. While I
was wondering what was hidden in this question, the ship's master entered
the saloon briskly. He was plump and light. His face was a smooth round
of unctuous red, without a beard, and was mounted upon many folds of
brown woollen scarf, like an attractive pudding on a platter. He looked
at me with amusement, as I have no doubt those lively eyes, with their
brows of arched interest, looked at everything; and his thick grey hair
was curved upwards in a confusion of interrogation marks.

He chuckled. "This is not a passenger ship," he said. "That will have
to be your berth." He pointed to a part of the saloon settee which was
about six feet forward and above the propeller. "A sou'-wester washed
out our only spare cabin, comin' in. There you are." He began to climb
the ladder out of it again, but stopped, and put his rosy face under the
lintel of the door. "You've got twenty minutes now. Get your luggage
aboard."

My bag was where it could not be reached in twenty minutes. Roughing it
may have its humours, but to suffer through it, as I was aware I must, if
I stayed, would more than outweigh the legitimate interest of a first
voyage, except for heroic youth with its gift of eternal life. Simple
ignorance, as usual, made me heroic. I went on deck, and found the
steward sitting on a box, with a bucket of sprats before him, tearing off
their heads, and then throwing the bodies contemptuously into another
bucket. The ends of his fingers and thumbs were pink and bright, and
were separated from the remainder of his dark hands by margins of
glittering scales. He compared to me, as he beheaded the fish, the girls
of Hull and London. But what I knew of the girls of but one city was so
meagre in comparison that I could only listen to his particulars in
silent surprise. It was notable that a man like that, who pulled the
heads and guts of fish like that, should have acquired a knowledge so
peculiar, so personal, of the girls of two cities. While considering
whether what at first looked like the mystery of this problem might not
be in reality its clue, I became aware of another listener. Its lean and
dismal length was disproportionate to that small ship. It had on but
dungarees and a singlet, and the singlet, because of the length of the
figure, was concave at the stomach, where, having nothing to rest upon,
it was corrugated through the weight of a head made brooding by a heavy
black beard. Hairy wrists were thrust deeply into the pockets to hold up
the trousers. The dome of its head was as bald and polished as yellow
metal. The steward introduced me to the Chief Engineer. "Yon's a dirty
steward," returned the Chief simply.

"Clean enough for this ship," said the Steward.

"Aye," sighed the engineer, "aye!"

"Have you been to the Queen's Hall lately?" asked the Chief of me. "I
should like to hear some Beethoven or Mozart tonight. Aye, but we're
awa'. It'll be yon sprats." He sighed his affirmative again in
resignation, and stood regarding the steward bending over the pails on
the deck. "What make ye," he asked, "of this war between the Japs and
Russia? Come awa' doon, and have a bit talk. I canna' look at that
man's hands and argue reasonable. It'd no be fair to ye."

We could not have that argument then, for I had so little time to go
ashore and purchase what necessaries could be remembered while narrowly
watching the clock. I was astride the bulwarks again when the
_Windhover_ was free of her moorings. There was a lack of deliberation
and dignity in this departure which gave it the appearance of
improvisation, of not being the real thing. I could not believe it
mattered whether I went or not. My first voyage had, that is, those
common circumstances which always make our crises incredible when they
face us, as if they had met us by accident, in mistake for some one else.
The bascules of the Tower Bridge went up, this time to let out me. Yet
that significant gesture, obviously made to my ship, was watched with an
indifference which was little better than cynicism. What was this city,
past which we moved? In that haze it was only the fading impress of what
once was there, of what once had overlooked the departure of voyagers,
when on memorable journeys, in famous ships. Now it had almost gone. It
had seen its great days. There was nothing more to watch upon its River,
and so it was going. And was an important voyage ever made by one who
had forgotten his overcoat? The steward rose, raised his bucket of fish
offal, emptied it overboard, and went below. It was not easy to believe
that such a voyage could come to anything, for London itself was
intangible, and when we got past those heavier shades which were the
city, and were running along the Essex marshes, though there was more
light, there was nothing to be seen, not even land substantial enough to
be a shadow. There was only the length of our own ship. Our pilot left
us, and we felt our way to the Lower Hope, a place I could have accepted
if it had not been on the chart, and anchored.

Night came, and drove me below to the saloon, where we made five who sat
with the sprats, now fried, and mugs of tea before us. The saloon was
the hollow stern, a triangle with a little fireplace in its base, and
four bunks in its sides. Its centre was filled with a triangular table,
over which, pendent from the skylight, was an oil-lamp in chains. A
settee ran completely round the sides, and on that one sat for meals, and
used it as a step when climbing into a bunk. The skipper cheerily hailed
me. "As you're in for it, make yourself comfortable. Sorry we can't do
more than give you the seat to sleep on. But the chief thing in this
ship is fish. Try some sprats."

"Aye, try yon sprats," invited the Chief. "Ye'll get to like them well,
in time." After the fish there was cards, in which I took no hand, but
regarded four bent heads, so intent they might have been watching a
ritual of magic which might betray their fate; and, above those heads,
motionless blue cirrus clouds of tobacco smoke wreathing the still lamp.
The hush was so profound that we could have been anchored beyond the
confines of this life.


2

What the time was next morning when I woke I do not know, for the saloon
was too dark to show the clock, over the fireplace. But the skylight was
a pale cube of daylight, and through it I could see a halyard quivering
and swaying, apparently in a high wind. My bench was in a continuous
tremor.

We were off again. Somebody appeared at the doorway, a pull of cotton
waste in his hand, and turned a negroid face, made lugubrious by white
lines which sweat had channelled downwards through its coal dust. It
looked at me, this spectre with eyes brilliant yet full of unutterable
reproach, saw that I was awake, and winked slowly. It was the second
engineer. He said it was a clear morning. We had been under way an
hour. He had got sixty revolutions now. He then receded into the gloom
beyond; but materialized again, or, to be exact, the white stare of two
disembodied eyes appeared, and the same voice said that it had won
seventeen and six-pence last night, but there was something funny about
the way the skipper shuffled cards.

Feeling as though I were in one piece, I got up, made my joints bend
again, and went on deck. Our ship, tilting at the immobile world, might
have upset the morning, which was pouring a bath of cold air over us.
The overcoat of the skipper, who was pacing the bridge, flapped in this
steady current. A low coast was dim on either hand, hardly superior to
the flawless glass of the Thames. By the look of it, we were the first
ever to break the tranquillity of that stream. We ourselves made
scarcely a sound; we could have been attempting a swift, secret and, so
far, unchallenged escape. The shores unfolded in a panorama without
form. Once we spun past an anchored ship, or what had been a ship before
the world congealed to this filmed crystal, but now it was a frail ghost
shrouded in the still folds of diaphanous night, its riding lights
following us like eyes. In the horny light of that winter dawn we
overhauled, one after another, the lamps of the Thames estuary, the
Chapman, the Nore, and the Mouse, and dropped them astern. We made a
course east by north to where the red glints of the Maplin and Gunfleet
lights winked in their iron gibbets. Above the shallows of the Burrows
Shoal the masts projected awry of the wreck of a three-masted schooner,
and they could have been the fingers of the drowned making a last clutch
at nothing.

We got abreast of Orfordness, and went through the gate of the North
Channel upon a wide grey plain. We were fairly at sea. We were out.
The _Windhover_, being free, I suppose, began to dance. The sun came up.
The seas were on the march. Just behind us was London, asleep and
unsuspecting under the brown depression of its canopy; and as to this
surprise of light and space so near to that city, so easily entered, yet
for so long merely an ancient rumour, an old tale of our streets to which
the ships and the wharves gave credence - how shall the report of it sound
true? Not at all, except to those who still hold to a faith, through all
foul times, in the chance hints of a better world.

A new time was beginning in such a world. There was a massive purple
battlement on the sea, at a great distance, the last entrenchment of
night; but a multitude of rays had stormed it, poured through clefts and
chasms in the wall, and escaped to the _Windhover_ on a broad road that
was newly laid from the sky to this planet. The sun was at one end of
the road, and we were at the other. There were only the two of us on
that road. On our port beam the shadow which was East Anglia became
suddenly that bright shore which is sometimes conjectured, but is never
reached.

The _Windhover_ drove athwart the morning, and her bows would ride over
the horizon to divide it, and then the skyline joined again as she sank
below it. We were beginning to live. I did not know what the skipper
would think of it, so I did not cheer. Sometimes the sea did this for
me, making a loud applause as it leaped over the prow. The trawler was a
good ship; you could feel that. She was as easy and buoyant as a
thoroughbred. She would take a wave in a stride. I liked her start of
surprise when she met a wave of unexpected speed and strength, and then
leaped at it, and threw it, white and shouting, all around us. It was
that part of a first voyage when you feel you were meant to be a
navigator. To stand at the end of the bridge, rolling out over the
cataracts roaring below, and to swing back, and out again, watching the
ship's head decline into a hollow of the seas, and then to clutch the
saddle as she reared with a sudden twist and swing above the horizon, and
in such a vast and illuminated theatre, was to awake to a new virtue in
life. We were alone there. There were only comets of smoke on the
bright wall of the sky, of steamers out of sight.

At sunset we made Smith's Knoll Light, and dropped the land. The cluster
of stars astern, which was a fleet of Yarmouth herring boats at work,
went out in the dark. I had, for warmth and company in the wheel-house
on the bridge, while listening to the seas getting up, only signals from
Orion and the Great Bear, the glow of the pipe of the silent fellow at
the wheel, and the warm shaft of light which streamed from somewhere in
the ship's body and isolated the foremast as a column of gold. There was
the monody, confident but subdued, the most ancient song in the world, of
invisible waters. Sometimes there was a shock when she dropped into a
hollow, and a vicious shower whipped across the glass of the wheel-house.
I then got the sad feeling, much too soon, that the inhospitable North
was greeting us. It is after sundown at sea, when looking through the
dark to the stars, listening to sounds that are as though ancient waters
were still wandering under a sky in which day has not been kindled,
seeking coasts not yet formed, it is in such nights that one's thoughts
are of destiny, and then the remembrance of our late eager activities
brings a little smile. There being no illumination in the wheel-house
but the restricted glow from the binnacle, this silent comment of mine on
man and his fate caused the helmsman no amusement. "I hope you are
bringing us luck this trip," said the sailor to me. "Last trip we got a
poor catch. I don't know where the fish have got to." Somewhere,
north-east about two hundred miles, was the fleet which, if I were the
right sort of mascot to the Windhover, we should pick up on the evening
of the next day.


3

When I left the wheel-house to go below, it was near midnight. As I
opened the heavy door of the house the night howled aloud at my
appearance. The night smelt pungently of salt and seaweed. The
hand-rail was cold and wet. The wind was like ice in my nose, and it
tasted like iron. Sometimes the next step was at a correct distance
below my feet; and then all that was under me would be swept away. I
descended into the muffled saloon, which was a little box enclosing light
and warmth partially submerged in the waters. There it smelt of hot
engine-oil and stale clothes. I got used to the murmuring transit of
something which swept our outer walls in immense bounds, and the flying
grind of the propeller, and the bang-clang of the rudder when it was
struck . . . and must have gone to sleep. . . .

When I woke, it was because the saloon in my dreams had gone mad.
Perhaps it had been going mad for some time. Really I was not fully
awake - it was four in the morning, the fire was out, and violent draughts
kept ballooning the blanket over me - and in another minute I might have
become quite aware that I had gone to sea for the first time. It was my
bench which properly woke me. It fell away from me, and I, of course,
went after it, and my impression is that I met it halfway on its return
journey, for then there came the swooning sensation one feels in the
immediate ascent of a lift. When the bench was as high as it could go it
overbalanced, canting acutely, and, grabbing my blanket, I left
diagonally for a corner of the saloon, accompanied by some sea-boots I
met under the table. As I was slowly and carefully climbing back, the
floor reversed, and I stopped falling when my head struck a panel. The
panel slid gently along, and the mate's severe countenance regarded me
from inside the bunk. I expected some remonstrance from a tired man who
had been unfairly awakened too soon. "Hurt yourself?" he asked. "It's
getting up outside. Dirty weather. Take things easy."

I took them as easily as perhaps should be expected of a longshoreman.
There was no more sleep, though no more was wanted. By putting out my
hand to the table I managed to keep where I was, even when, in those
moments of greatest insecurity, the screw was roaring in mid-air. Our
fascinating hanging lamp would perform the impossible, hanging acutely
out of plumb; and then, when I was watching this miracle, rattle its
chain and hang the other way. A regiment of boots on the floor - I
suppose it was boots - would tramp to one corner, remain quiet for a
while, and then clatter elsewhere in a body. Towards daybreak the
skipper appeared in shining oilskins, tapped the barometer, glanced at
me, and laughed because my pillow - which was a linen bag stuffed with old
magazines - at that moment became lower than my heels, and the precipitous
rug tried to smother me. I enjoyed that laugh.

Later still, I saw that our dark skylight was beginning to regain its
sight. Light was coming through. Our lunatic saloon lamp was growing
wan. I ventured on deck. When my face was no more than out of the
hatch, what I saw was our ship's stern upturned before me, with our boat
lashed to it. It dropped out of view instantly, and exposed the blurred
apparition of a hill in pursuit of us - the hill ran in to run over
us - and in that very moment of crisis the slope of wet deck appeared
again, and the lashed boat. The cold iron was wet and slippery, but I
grasped it firmly, as though that were an essential condition of
existence in such a place.

The _Windhover_, too, looked so small. She was diminished. She did not
bear herself as buoyantly as yesterday. Often she was not quick enough
to escape a blow. She looked a forlorn trifle, and there was no aid in
sight. I cannot say those hills, alive and deliberate on all sides, were
waves. They were the sea. The dawn astern was a narrow band of dead
white, an effort at daybreak suddenly frustrated by night, but not
altogether expunged. The separating black waters bulked above the dawn
in regular upheavals, shutting out its pallor, and as incontinently
collapsed again to release it to make the _Windhover_ plainer in her
solitude.

The skipper waddled briskly aft, and stood beside me. He put his nose
inside the galley. "I smell coffee," he said. His charge reared, and
pitched him against the bulwarks. "Whoa, you bitch," he cried
cheerfully. "Our fleet ought not to be far off," he explained. "Ought
to see something of them soon." He glanced casually round the emptinesss
of the dawn. He might have been looking for some one with whom he had
made an appointment at Charing Cross. He then backed into the hatch and
went below. The big mate appeared, yawned, stooped to examine a lashed
spar, did not give the sunrise so much as a glance, did not allow the
ocean to see that he was even aware of its existence, but went forward to
the bridge.

The clouds lowered during the morning, and through that narrowed space
between the sea and the sky the wind was forced at a greater pace,
dragging rain over the waters. Our fleet might have been half a mile
away, and we could have gone on, still looking for it. The day early
surrendered its light, a dismal submission to conditions that had made
its brief existence a failure. It had nearly gone when we sighted
another trawler. She was the _Susie_. She was smaller than the
_Windhover_. We went close enough to hail the men standing knee-deep in
the wash on her deck. It would not be easy to forget the _Susie_. I
shall always see her, at the moment when our skipper began to shout
through his hands at her. She was poised askew, in that arrested
instant, on a glassy slope of water, with its crest foaming above her.
Surge blotted her out amid-ships, and her streaming forefoot jutted
clear. She plunged then into the hollow between us, showing us the plan
of her deck, for her funnel was pointing at us. Her men bawled to us.
They said the _Susie_ had sighted nothing.


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