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soldiers at the end of the day, wiping the sweat and blood from
their faces, counting the dead fallen to their hands, looking at the
devastated fields, the torn earth that seems to suffer and bleed
with them. One does, really. The final brutality of it - the taste of
primitive passion - the ferocious frankness of the blow struck with one's
hand - the direct call and the straight response. Well, the sea gave you
nothing of that, and seemed to pretend that there was nothing the matter
with the world."

She interrupted, stirring a little.

"Oh, yes. Sincerity - frankness - passion - three words of your gospel.
Don't I know them!"

"Think! Isn't it ours - believed in common?" he asked, anxiously,
yet without expecting an answer, and went on at once: "Such were the
feelings of the commanding officer. When the night came trailing over
the sea, hiding what looked like the hypocrisy of an old friend, it was
a relief. The night blinds you frankly - and there are circumstances when
the sunlight may grow as odious to one as falsehood itself. Night is all
right.

"At night the commanding officer could let his thoughts get away - I
won't tell you where. Somewhere where there was no choice but between
truth and death. But thick weather, though it blinded one, brought
no such relief. Mist is deceitful, the dead luminosity of the fog is
irritating. It seems that you _ought_ to see.

"One gloomy, nasty day the ship was steaming along her beat in sight
of a rocky, dangerous coast that stood out intensely black like an
India-ink drawing on gray paper. Presently the second in command spoke
to his chief. He thought he saw something on the water, to seaward.
Small wreckage, perhaps.

"'But there shouldn't be any wreckage here, sir,' he remarked.

"'No,' said the commanding officer. 'The last reported submarined ships
were sunk a long way to the westward. But one never knows. There may
have been others since then not reported nor seen. Gone with all hands.'

"That was how it began. The ship's course was altered to pass the object
close; for it was necessary to have a good look at what one could see.
Close, but without touching; for it was not advisable to come in contact
with objects of any form whatever floating casually about. Close, but
without stopping or even diminishing speed; for in those times it was
not prudent to linger on any particular spot, even for a moment. I may
tell you at once that the object was not dangerous in itself. No use
in describing it. It may have been nothing more remarkable than, say, a
barrel of a certain shape and colour. But it was significant.

"The smooth bow-wave hove it up as if for a closer inspection, and
then the ship, brought again to her course, turned her back on it with
indifference, while twenty pairs of eyes on her deck stared in all
directions trying to see - what they could see.

"The commanding officer and his second in command discussed the object
with understanding. It appeared to them to be not so much a proof of the
sagacity as of the activity of certain neutrals. This activity had
in many cases taken the form of replenishing the stores of certain
submarines at sea. This was generally believed, if not absolutely known.
But the very nature of things in those early days pointed that way.
The object, looked at closely and turned away from with apparent
indifference, put it beyond doubt that something of the sort had been
done somewhere in the neighbourhood.

"The object in itself was more than suspect. But the fact of its being
left in evidence roused other suspicions. Was it the result of some deep
and devilish purpose? As to that all speculation soon appeared to be a
vain thing. Finally the two officers came to the conclusion that it
wras left there most likely by accident, complicated possibly by some
unforeseen necessity; such, perhaps, as the sudden need to get away
quickly from the spot, or something of that kind.

"Their discussion had been carried on in curt, weighty phrases,
separated by long, thoughtful silences. And all the time their eyes
roamed about the horizon in an everlasting, almost mechanical effort of
vigilance. The younger man summed up grimly:

"'Well, it's evidence. That's what this is. Evidence of what we were
pretty certain of before. And plain, too.'

"'And much good it will do to us,' retorted the commanding officer. 'The
parties are miles away; the submarine, devil only knows where, ready
to kill; and the noble neutral slipping away to the eastward, ready to
lie!'

"The second in command laughed a little at the tone. But he guessed
that the neutral wouldn't even have to lie very much. Fellows like that,
unless caught in the very act, felt themselves pretty safe. They could
afford to chuckle. That fellow was probably chuckling to himself. It's
very possible he had been before at the game and didn't care a rap for
the bit of evidence left behind. It was a game in which practice made
one bold and successful, too.

"And again he laughed faintly. But his commanding officer was in
revolt against the murderous stealthiness of methods and the atrocious
callousness of complicities that seemed to taint the very source of
men's deep emotions and noblest activities; to corrupt their
imagination which builds up the final conceptions of life and death. He
suffered - - - -"

The voice from the sofa interrupted the narrator.

"How well I can understand that in him!"

He bent forward slightly.

"Yes. I, too. Everything should be open in love and war. Open as
the day, since both are the call of an ideal which it is so easy, so
terribly easy, to degrade in the name of Victory."

He paused; then went on: I don't know that the commanding officer delved
so deep as that into his feelings. But he did suffer from them - a sort
of disenchanted sadness. It is possible, even, that he suspected himself
of folly. Man is various. But he had no time for much introspection,
because from the southwest a wall of fog had advanced upon his ship.
Great convolutions of vapours flew over, swirling about masts and
funnel, which looked as if they were beginning to melt. Then they
vanished.

"The ship was stopped, all sounds ceased, and the very fog became
motionless, growing denser and as if solid in its amazing dumb
immobility. The men at their stations lost sight of each other.
Footsteps sounded stealthy; rare voices, impersonal and remote, died out
without resonance. A blind white stillness took possession of the world.

"It looked, too, as if it would last for days. I don't mean to say that
the fog did not vary a little in its density. Now and then it would
thin out mysteriously, revealing to the men a more or less ghostly
presentment of their ship. Several times the shadow of the coast itself
swam darkly before their eyes through the fluctuating opaque brightness
of the great white cloud clinging to the water.

"Taking advantage of these moments, the ship had been moved cautiously
nearer the shore. It was useless to remain out in such thick weather.
Her officers knew every nook and cranny of the coast along their beat.
They thought that she would be much better in a certain cove. It wasn't
a large place, just ample room for a ship to swing at her anchor. She
would have an easier time of it till the fog lifted up.

"Slowly, with infinite caution and patience, they crept closer and
closer, seeing no more of the cliffs than an evanescent dark loom with a
narrow border of angry foam at its foot. At the moment of anchoring
the fog was so thick that for all they could see they might have been a
thousand miles out in the open sea. Yet the shelter of the land could
be felt. There was a peculiar quality in the stillness of the air. Very
faint, very elusive, the wash of the ripple against the encircling land
reached their ears, with mysterious sudden pauses.

"The anchor dropped, the leads were laid in. The commanding officer went
below into his cabin. But he had not been there very long when a voice
outside his door requested his presence on deck. He thought to himself:
'What is it now?' He felt some impatience at being called out again to
face the wearisome fog.

"He found that it had thinned again a little and had taken on a gloomy
hue from the dark cliffs which had no form, no outline, but asserted
themselves as a curtain of shadows all round the ship, except in one
bright spot, which was the entrance from the open sea. Several officers
were looking that way from the bridge. The second in command met him
with the breathlessly whispered information that there was another ship
in the cove.

"She had been made out by several pairs of eyes only a couple of minutes
before. She was lying at anchor very near the entrance - a mere vague
blot on the fog's brightness. And the commanding officer by staring in
the direction pointed out to him by eager hands ended by distinguishing
it at last himself. Indubitably a vessel of some sort.

"'It's a wonder we didn't run slap into her when coming in,' observed
the second in command.

"'Send a boat on board before she vanishes,' said the commanding
officer. He surmised that this was a coaster. It could hardly be
anything else. But another thought came into his head suddenly. 'It is
a wonder,' he said to his second in command, who had rejoined him after
sending the boat away.

"By that time both of them had been struck by the fact that the ship so
suddenly discovered had not manifested her presence by ringing her bell.

"'We came in very quietly, that's true,' concluded the younger officer.
'But they must have heard our leadsmen at least. We couldn't have passed
her more than fifty yards off. The closest shave! They may even have
made us out, since they were aware of something coming in. And the
strange thing is that we never heard a sound from her. The fellows on
board must have been holding their breath.'

"'Aye,' said the commanding officer, thoughtfully.

"In due course the boarding-boat returned, appearing suddenly
alongside, as though she had burrowed her way under the fog. The officer
in charge came up to make his report, but the commanding officer didn't
give him time to begin. He cried from a distance:

"'Coaster, isn't she?'

"'No, sir. A stranger - a neutral,' was the answer.

"'No. Really! Well, tell us all about it. What is she doing here?'

"The young man stated then that he had been told a long and complicated
story of engine troubles. But it was plausible enough from a strictly
professional point of view and it had the usual features: disablement,
dangerous drifting along the shore, weather more or less thick for days,
fear of a gale, ultimately a resolve to go in and anchor anywhere on the
coast, and so on. Fairly plausible.

"'Engines still disabled?' inquired the commanding officer.

"'No, sir. She has steam on them.'

"The commanding officer took his second aside. 'By Jove!' he said, 'you
were right! They were holding their breaths as we passed them. They
were.'

"But the second in command had his doubts now.

"'A fog like this does muffle small sounds, sir,' he remarked. 'And what
could his object be, after all?'

"'To sneak out unnoticed,' answered the commanding officer.

"'Then why didn't he? He might have done it, you know. Not exactly
unnoticed, perhaps. I don't suppose he could have slipped his cable
without making some noise. Still, in a minute or so he would have been
lost to view - clean gone before we had made him out fairly. Yet he
didn't.'

"They looked at each other. The commanding officer shook his head.
Such suspicions as the one which had entered his head are not defended
easily. He did not even state it openly. The boarding officer finished
his report. The cargo of the ship was of a harmless and useful
character. She was bound to an English port. Papers and everything in
perfect order. Nothing suspicious to be detected anywhere.

"Then passing to the men, he reported the crew on deck as the usual lot.
Engineers of the well-known type, and very full of their achievement in
repairing the engines. The mate surly. The master rather a fine specimen
of a Northman, civil enough, but appeared to have been drinking. Seemed
to be recover-ing from a regular bout of it.

"'I told him I couldn't give him permission to proceed. He said he
wouldn't dare to move his ship her own length out in such weather as
this, permission or no permission. I left a man on board, though.'

"'Quite right.'

"The commanding officer, after communing with his suspicions for a time,
called his second aside.

"'What if she were the very ship which had been feeding some infernal
submarine or other?' he said in an undertone.

"The other started. Then, with conviction:

"'She would get off scot-free. You couldn't prove it, sir.'

"'I want to look into it myself.'

"'From the report we've heard I am afraid you couldn't even make a case
for reasonable suspicion, sir.'

"'I'll go on board all the same.'

"He had made up his mind. Curiosity is the great motive power of
hatred and love. What did he expect to find? He could not have told
anybody - not even himself.

"What he really expected to find there was the atmosphere, the
atmosphere of gratuitous treachery, which in his view nothing could
excuse; for he thought that even a passion of unrighteousness for its
own sake could not excuse that. But could he detect it? Sniff it?
Taste it? Receive some mysterious communication which would turn his
invincible suspicions into a certitude strong enough to provoke action
with all its risks?

"The master met him on the after-deck, looming up in the fog amongst the
blurred shapes of the usual snip's fittings. He was a robust Northman,
bearded, and in the force of his age. A round leather cap fitted his
head closely. His hands were rammed deep into the pockets of his short
leather jacket. He kept them there while lie explained that at sea he
lived in the chart-room, and led the way there, striding carelessly.
Just before reaching the door under the bridge he staggered a little,
recovered himself, flung it open, and stood aside, leaning his shoulder
as if involuntarily against the side of the house, and staring vaguely
into the fog-filled space. But he followed the commanding officer at
once, flung the door to, snapped on the electric light, and hastened to
thrust his hands back into his pockets, as though afraid of being seized
by them either in friendship or in hostility.

"The place was stuffy and hot. The usual chart-rack overhead was full,
and the chart on the table was kept unrolled by an empty cup standing on
a saucer half-full of some spilt dark liquid. A slightly nibbled biscuit
reposed on the chronometer-case. There were two settees, and one of them
had been made up into a bed with a pillow and some blankets, which were
now very much tumbled. The Northman let himself fall on it, his hands
still in his pockets.

"'Well, here I am,' he said, with a curious air of being surprised at
the sound of his own voice.

"The commanding officer from the other settee observed the handsome,
flushed face. Drops of fog hung on the yellow beard and moustaches of
the Northman. The much darker eyebrows ran together in a puzzled frown,
and suddenly he jumped up.

"'What I mean is that I don't know where I am. I really don't,' he
burst out, with extreme earnestness. 'Hang it all! I got turned around
somehow. The fog has been after me for a week. More than a week. And
then my engines broke down. I will tell you how it was.'

"He burst out into loquacity. It was not hurried, but it was insistent.
It was not continuous for all that. It was broken by the most queer,
thoughtful pauses. Each of these pauses lasted no more than a couple of
seconds, and each had the profoundity of an endless meditation. When he
began again nothing betrayed in him the slightest consciousness of
these intervals. There was the same fixed glance, the same unchanged
earnestness of tone. He didn't know. Indeed, more than one of these
pauses occurred in the middle of a sentence.

"The commanding officer listened to the tale. It struck him as more
plausible than simple truth is in the habit of being. But that, perhaps,
was prejudice. All the time the Northman was speaking the commanding
officer had been aware of an inward voice, a grave murmur in the depth
of his very own self, telling another tale, as if on purpose to keep
alive in him his indignation and his anger with that baseness of greed
or of mere outlook which lies often at the root of simple ideas.

"It was the story that had been already told to the boarding officer
an hour or so before. The commanding officer nodded slightly at the
Northman from time to time. The latter came to an end and turned his
eyes away. He added, as an afterthought:

"'Wasn't it enough to drive a man out of his mind with worry? And it's my
first voyage to this part, too. And the ship's my own. Your officer has
seen the papers. She isn't much, as you can see for yourself. Just an
old cargo-boat. Bare living for my family.'

"He raised a big arm to point at a row of photographs plastering the
bulkhead. The movement was ponderous, as if the arm had been made of
lead. The commanding officer said, carelessly:

"'You will be making a fortune yet for your family with this old ship.'

"'Yes, if I don't lose her,' said the Northman, gloomily.

"'I mean - out of this war,' added the commanding officer.

"The Northman stared at him in a curiously unseeing and at the same time
interested manner, as only eyes of a particular blue shade can stare.

"'And you wouldn't be angry at it,' he said, 'would you? You are too
much of a gentleman. We didn't bring this on you. And suppose we sat
down and cried. What good would that be? Let those cry who made
the trouble,' he concluded, with energy. 'Time's money, you say.
Well - _this_ time _is_ money. Oh! isn't it!'

"The commanding officer tried to keep under the feeling of immense
disgust. He said to himself that it was unreasonable. Men were like
that - moral cannibals feeding on each other's misfortunes. He said
aloud:

"'You have made it perfectly plain how it is that you are here. Your
log-book confirms you very minutely. Of course, a log-book may be
cooked. Nothing easier.'

"The Northman never moved a muscle. He was gazing at the floor; he
seemed not to have heard. He raised his head after a while.

"'But you can't suspect me of anything,' he muttered, negligently.

"The commanding officer thought: 'Why should he say this?'

"Immediately afterwards the man before him added: 'My cargo is for an
English port.'

"His voice had turned husky for the moment. The commanding officer
reflected: 'That's true. There can be nothing. I can't suspect him. Yet
why was he lying with steam up in this fog - and then, hearing us come
in, why didn't he give some sign of life? Why? Could it be anything else
but a guilty conscience? He could tell by the leadsmen that this was a
man-of-war.'

"Yes - why? The commanding officer went on thinking: 'Suppose I ask
him and then watch his face. He will betray himself in some way. It's
perfectly plain that the fellow _has_ been drinking. Yes, he has been
drinking; but he will have a lie ready all the same.' The commanding
officer was one of those men who are made morally and almost physically
uncomfortable by the mere thought of having to beat down a lie. He
shrank from the act in scorn and disgust, which were invincible because
more temperamental than moral.

"So he went out on deck instead and had the crew mustered formally for
his inspection. He found them very much what the report of the boarding
officer had led him to expect. And from their answers to his questions
he could discover no flaw in the log-book story.

"He dismissed them. His impression of them was - a picked lot; have been
promised a fistful of money each if this came off; all slightly anxious,
but not frightened. Not a single one of them likely to give the show
away. They don't feel in danger of their life. They know England and
English ways too well!

"He felt alarmed at catching himself thinking as if his vaguest
suspicions were turning into a certitude. For, indeed, there was no
shadow of reason for his inferences. There was nothing to give away.

"He returned to the chart-room. The Northman had lingered behind there;
and something subtly different in his bearing, more bold in his blue,
glassy stare, induced the commanding officer to conclude that the fellow
had snatched at the opportunity to take another swig at the bottle he
must have had concealed somewhere.

"He noticed, too, that the Northman on meeting his eyes put on an
elaborately surprised expression. At least, it seemed elaborated.
Nothing could be trusted. And the Englishman felt himself with
astonishing conviction faced by an enormous lie, solid like a wall, with
no way round to get at the truth, whose ugly murderous face he seemed to
see peeping over at him with a cynical grin.

"'I dare say,' he began, suddenly, 'you are wondering at my proceedings,
though I am not detaining you, am I? You wouldn't dare to move in this
fog?'

"'I don't know where I am,' the Northman ejaculated, earnestly. 'I
really don't.'

"He looked around as if the very chart-room fittings were strange
to him. The commanding officer asked him whether he had not seen any
unusual objects floating about while he was at sea.

"'Objects! What objects? We were groping blind in the fog for days.'

"'We had a few clear intervals' said the commanding officer. 'And I'll
tell you what we have seen and the conclusion I've come to about it.'

"He told him in a few words. He heard the sound of a sharp breath
indrawn through closed teeth. The Northman with his hand on the table
stood absolutely motionless and dumb. He stood as if thunderstruck. Then
he produced a fatuous smile.

"Or at least so it appeared to the commanding officer. Was this
significant, or of no meaning whatever? He didn't know, he couldn't
tell. All the truth had departed out of the world as if drawn in,
absorbed in this monstrous villainy this man was - or was not - guilty of.

"'Shooting's too good for people that conceive neutrality in this pretty
way,' remarked the commanding officer, after a silence.

"'Yes, yes, yes,' the Northman assented, hurriedly - then added an
unexpected and dreamy-voiced 'Perhaps.'

"Was he pretending to be drunk, or only trying to appear sober? His
glance was straight, but it was somewhat glazed. His lips outlined
themselves firmly under his yellow moustache. But they twitched. Did
they twitch? And why was he drooping like this in his attitude?

"'There's no perhaps about it,' pronounced the commanding officer
sternly.

"The Northman had straightened himself. And unexpectedly he looked
stern, too.

"'No. But what about the tempters? Better kill that lot off. There's
about four, five, six million of them,' he said, grimly; but in a moment
changed into a whining key. 'But I had better hold my tongue. You have
some suspicions.'

"'No, I've no suspicions,' declared the commanding officer.

"He never faltered. At that moment he had the certitude. The air of the
chart-room was thick with guilt and falsehood braving the discovery,
defying simple right, common decency, all humanity of feeling, every
scruple of conduct.

"The Northman drew a long breath. 'Well, we know that you English are
gentlemen. But let us speak the truth. Why should we love you so very
much? You haven't done anything to be loved. We don't love the other
people, of course. They haven't done anything for that either. A fellow
comes along with a bag of gold... I haven't been in Rotterdam my last
voyage for nothing.'

"'You may be able to tell something interesting, then, to our people
when you come into port,' interjected the officer.

"I might. But you keep some people in your pay at Rotterdam. Let them
report. I am a neutral - am I not?... Have you ever seen a poor man
on one side and a bag of gold on the other? Of course, I couldn't be
tempted. I haven't the nerve for it. Really I haven't. It's nothing to
me. I am just talking openly for once.'

"'Yes. And I am listening to you,' said the commanding officer, quietly.

"The Northman leaned forward over the table. 'Now that I know you have
no suspicions, I talk. You don't know what a poor man is. I do. I am
poor myself. This old ship, she isn't much, and she is mortgaged, too.
Bare living, no more. Of course, I wouldn't have the nerve. But a man
who has nerve! See. The stuff he takes aboard looks like any other
cargo - packages, barrels, tins, copper tubes - what not. He doesn't see


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Online LibraryJoseph ConradTales Of Hearsay → online text (page 5 of 8)