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'Twixt Land & Sea Tales


Contents


A Smile of Fortune
The Secret Sharer
Freya of the Seven Isles


A SMILE OF FORTUNE - HARBOUR STORY


Ever since the sun rose I had been looking ahead. The ship glided
gently in smooth water. After a sixty days' passage I was anxious
to make my landfall, a fertile and beautiful island of the tropics.
The more enthusiastic of its inhabitants delight in describing it
as the "Pearl of the Ocean." Well, let us call it the "Pearl."
It's a good name. A pearl distilling much sweetness upon the
world.

This is only a way of telling you that first-rate sugar-cane is
grown there. All the population of the Pearl lives for it and by
it. Sugar is their daily bread, as it were. And I was coming to
them for a cargo of sugar in the hope of the crop having been good
and of the freights being high.

Mr. Burns, my chief mate, made out the land first; and very soon I
became entranced by this blue, pinnacled apparition, almost
transparent against the light of the sky, a mere emanation, the
astral body of an island risen to greet me from afar. It is a rare
phenomenon, such a sight of the Pearl at sixty miles off. And I
wondered half seriously whether it was a good omen, whether what
would meet me in that island would be as luckily exceptional as
this beautiful, dreamlike vision so very few seamen have been
privileged to behold.

But horrid thoughts of business interfered with my enjoyment of an
accomplished passage. I was anxious for success and I wished, too,
to do justice to the flattering latitude of my owners' instructions
contained in one noble phrase: "We leave it to you to do the best
you can with the ship." . . . All the world being thus given me for
a stage, my abilities appeared to me no bigger than a pinhead.

Meantime the wind dropped, and Mr. Burns began to make disagreeable
remarks about my usual bad luck. I believe it was his devotion for
me which made him critically outspoken on every occasion. All the
same, I would not have put up with his humours if it had not been
my lot at one time to nurse him through a desperate illness at sea.
After snatching him out of the jaws of death, so to speak, it would
have been absurd to throw away such an efficient officer. But
sometimes I wished he would dismiss himself.

We were late in closing in with the land, and had to anchor outside
the harbour till next day. An unpleasant and unrestful night
followed. In this roadstead, strange to us both, Burns and I
remained on deck almost all the time. Clouds swirled down the
porphyry crags under which we lay. The rising wind made a great
bullying noise amongst the naked spars, with interludes of sad
moaning. I remarked that we had been in luck to fetch the
anchorage before dark. It would have been a nasty, anxious night
to hang off a harbour under canvas. But my chief mate was
uncompromising in his attitude.

"Luck, you call it, sir! Ay - our usual luck. The sort of luck to
thank God it's no worse!"

And so he fretted through the dark hours, while I drew on my fund
of philosophy. Ah, but it was an exasperating, weary, endless
night, to be lying at anchor close under that black coast! The
agitated water made snarling sounds all round the ship. At times a
wild gust of wind out of a gully high up on the cliffs struck on
our rigging a harsh and plaintive note like the wail of a forsaken
soul.


CHAPTER I


By half-past seven in the morning, the ship being then inside the
harbour at last and moored within a long stone's-throw from the
quay, my stock of philosophy was nearly exhausted. I was dressing
hurriedly in my cabin when the steward came tripping in with a
morning suit over his arm.

Hungry, tired, and depressed, with my head engaged inside a white
shirt irritatingly stuck together by too much starch, I desired him
peevishly to "heave round with that breakfast." I wanted to get
ashore as soon as possible.

"Yes, sir. Ready at eight, sir. There's a gentleman from the
shore waiting to speak to you, sir."

This statement was curiously slurred over. I dragged the shirt
violently over my head and emerged staring.

"So early!" I cried. "Who's he? What does he want?"

On coming in from sea one has to pick up the conditions of an
utterly unrelated existence. Every little event at first has the
peculiar emphasis of novelty. I was greatly surprised by that
early caller; but there was no reason for my steward to look so
particularly foolish.

"Didn't you ask for the name?" I inquired in a stern tone.

"His name's Jacobus, I believe," he mumbled shamefacedly.

"Mr. Jacobus!" I exclaimed loudly, more surprised than ever, but
with a total change of feeling. "Why couldn't you say so at once?"

But the fellow had scuttled out of my room. Through the
momentarily opened door I had a glimpse of a tall, stout man
standing in the cuddy by the table on which the cloth was already
laid; a "harbour" table-cloth, stainless and dazzlingly white. So
far good.

I shouted courteously through the closed door, that I was dressing
and would be with him in a moment. In return the assurance that
there was no hurry reached me in the visitor's deep, quiet
undertone. His time was my own. He dared say I would give him a
cup of coffee presently.

"I am afraid you will have a poor breakfast," I cried
apologetically. "We have been sixty-one days at sea, you know."

A quiet little laugh, with a "That'll be all right, Captain," was
his answer. All this, words, intonation, the glimpsed attitude of
the man in the cuddy, had an unexpected character, a something
friendly in it - propitiatory. And my surprise was not diminished
thereby. What did this call mean? Was it the sign of some dark
design against my commercial innocence?

Ah! These commercial interests - spoiling the finest life under the
sun. Why must the sea be used for trade - and for war as well? Why
kill and traffic on it, pursuing selfish aims of no great
importance after all? It would have been so much nicer just to
sail about with here and there a port and a bit of land to stretch
one's legs on, buy a few books and get a change of cooking for a
while. But, living in a world more or less homicidal and
desperately mercantile, it was plainly my duty to make the best of
its opportunities.

My owners' letter had left it to me, as I have said before, to do
my best for the ship, according to my own judgment. But it
contained also a postscript worded somewhat as follows:

"Without meaning to interfere with your liberty of action we are
writing by the outgoing mail to some of our business friends there
who may be of assistance to you. We desire you particularly to
call on Mr. Jacobus, a prominent merchant and charterer. Should
you hit it off with him he may be able to put you in the way of
profitable employment for the ship."

Hit it off! Here was the prominent creature absolutely on board
asking for the favour of a cup of coffee! And life not being a
fairy-tale the improbability of the event almost shocked me. Had I
discovered an enchanted nook of the earth where wealthy merchants
rush fasting on board ships before they are fairly moored? Was
this white magic or merely some black trick of trade? I came in
the end (while making the bow of my tie) to suspect that perhaps I
did not get the name right. I had been thinking of the prominent
Mr. Jacobus pretty frequently during the passage and my hearing
might have been deceived by some remote similarity of sound. . .
The steward might have said Antrobus - or maybe Jackson.

But coming out of my stateroom with an interrogative "Mr. Jacobus?"
I was met by a quiet "Yes," uttered with a gentle smile. The "yes"
was rather perfunctory. He did not seem to make much of the fact
that he was Mr. Jacobus. I took stock of a big, pale face, hair
thin on the top, whiskers also thin, of a faded nondescript colour,
heavy eyelids. The thick, smooth lips in repose looked as if glued
together. The smile was faint. A heavy, tranquil man. I named my
two officers, who just then came down to breakfast; but why Mr.
Burns's silent demeanour should suggest suppressed indignation I
could not understand.

While we were taking our seats round the table some disconnected
words of an altercation going on in the companionway reached my
ear. A stranger apparently wanted to come down to interview me,
and the steward was opposing him.

"You can't see him."

"Why can't I?"

"The Captain is at breakfast, I tell you. He'll be going on shore
presently, and you can speak to him on deck."

"That's not fair. You let - "

"I've had nothing to do with that."

"Oh, yes, you have. Everybody ought to have the same chance. You
let that fellow - "

The rest I lost. The person having been repulsed successfully, the
steward came down. I can't say he looked flushed - he was a
mulatto - but he looked flustered. After putting the dishes on the
table he remained by the sideboard with that lackadaisical air of
indifference he used to assume when he had done something too
clever by half and was afraid of getting into a scrape over it.
The contemptuous expression of Mr. Burns's face as he looked from
him to me was really extraordinary. I couldn't imagine what new
bee had stung the mate now.

The Captain being silent, nobody else cared to speak, as is the way
in ships. And I was saying nothing simply because I had been made
dumb by the splendour of the entertainment. I had expected the
usual sea-breakfast, whereas I beheld spread before us a veritable
feast of shore provisions: eggs, sausages, butter which plainly
did not come from a Danish tin, cutlets, and even a dish of
potatoes. It was three weeks since I had seen a real, live potato.
I contemplated them with interest, and Mr. Jacobus disclosed
himself as a man of human, homely sympathies, and something of a
thought-reader.

"Try them, Captain," he encouraged me in a friendly undertone.
"They are excellent."

"They look that," I admitted. "Grown on the island, I suppose."

"Oh, no, imported. Those grown here would be more expensive."

I was grieved at the ineptitude of the conversation. Were these
the topics for a prominent and wealthy merchant to discuss? I
thought the simplicity with which he made himself at home rather
attractive; but what is one to talk about to a man who comes on one
suddenly, after sixty-one days at sea, out of a totally unknown
little town in an island one has never seen before? What were
(besides sugar) the interests of that crumb of the earth, its
gossip, its topics of conversation? To draw him on business at
once would have been almost indecent - or even worse: impolitic.
All I could do at the moment was to keep on in the old groove.

"Are the provisions generally dear here?" I asked, fretting
inwardly at my inanity.

"I wouldn't say that," he answered placidly, with that appearance
of saving his breath his restrained manner of speaking suggested.

He would not be more explicit, yet he did not evade the subject.
Eyeing the table in a spirit of complete abstemiousness (he
wouldn't let me help him to any eatables) he went into details of
supply. The beef was for the most part imported from Madagascar;
mutton of course was rare and somewhat expensive, but good goat's
flesh -

"Are these goat's cutlets?" I exclaimed hastily, pointing at one of
the dishes.

Posed sentimentally by the sideboard, the steward gave a start.

"Lor', no, sir! It's real mutton!"

Mr. Burns got through his breakfast impatiently, as if exasperated
by being made a party to some monstrous foolishness, muttered a
curt excuse, and went on deck. Shortly afterwards the second mate
took his smooth red countenance out of the cabin. With the
appetite of a schoolboy, and after two months of sea-fare, he
appreciated the generous spread. But I did not. It smacked of
extravagance. All the same, it was a remarkable feat to have
produced it so quickly, and I congratulated the steward on his
smartness in a somewhat ominous tone. He gave me a deprecatory
smile and, in a way I didn't know what to make of, blinked his fine
dark eyes in the direction of the guest.

The latter asked under his breath for another cup of coffee, and
nibbled ascetically at a piece of very hard ship's biscuit. I
don't think he consumed a square inch in the end; but meantime he
gave me, casually as it were, a complete account of the sugar crop,
of the local business houses, of the state of the freight market.
All that talk was interspersed with hints as to personalities,
amounting to veiled warnings, but his pale, fleshy face remained
equable, without a gleam, as if ignorant of his voice. As you may
imagine I opened my ears very wide. Every word was precious. My
ideas as to the value of business friendship were being favourably
modified. He gave me the names of all the disponible ships
together with their tonnage and the names of their commanders.
From that, which was still commercial information, he condescended
to mere harbour gossip. The Hilda had unaccountably lost her
figurehead in the Bay of Bengal, and her captain was greatly
affected by this. He and the ship had been getting on in years
together and the old gentleman imagined this strange event to be
the forerunner of his own early dissolution. The Stella had
experienced awful weather off the Cape - had her decks swept, and
the chief officer washed overboard. And only a few hours before
reaching port the baby died.

Poor Captain H- and his wife were terribly cut up. If they had
only been able to bring it into port alive it could have been
probably saved; but the wind failed them for the last week or so,
light breezes, and . . . the baby was going to be buried this
afternoon. He supposed I would attend -

"Do you think I ought to?" I asked, shrinkingly.

He thought so, decidedly. It would be greatly appreciated. All
the captains in the harbour were going to attend. Poor Mrs. H- was
quite prostrated. Pretty hard on H- altogether.

"And you, Captain - you are not married I suppose?"

"No, I am not married," I said. "Neither married nor even
engaged."

Mentally I thanked my stars; and while he smiled in a musing,
dreamy fashion, I expressed my acknowledgments for his visit and
for the interesting business information he had been good enough to
impart to me. But I said nothing of my wonder thereat.

"Of course, I would have made a point of calling on you in a day or
two," I concluded.

He raised his eyelids distinctly at me, and somehow managed to look
rather more sleepy than before.

"In accordance with my owners' instructions," I explained. "You
have had their letter, of course?"

By that time he had raised his eyebrows too but without any
particular emotion. On the contrary he struck me then as
absolutely imperturbable.

"Oh! You must be thinking of my brother."

It was for me, then, to say "Oh!" But I hope that no more than
civil surprise appeared in my voice when I asked him to what, then,
I owed the pleasure. . . . He was reaching for an inside pocket
leisurely.

"My brother's a very different person. But I am well known in this
part of the world. You've probably heard - "

I took a card he extended to me. A thick business card, as I
lived! Alfred Jacobus - the other was Ernest - dealer in every
description of ship's stores! Provisions salt and fresh, oils,
paints, rope, canvas, etc., etc. Ships in harbour victualled by
contract on moderate terms -

"I've never heard of you," I said brusquely.

His low-pitched assurance did not abandon him.

"You will be very well satisfied," he breathed out quietly.

I was not placated. I had the sense of having been circumvented
somehow. Yet I had deceived myself - if there was any deception.
But the confounded cheek of inviting himself to breakfast was
enough to deceive any one. And the thought struck me: Why! The
fellow had provided all these eatables himself in the way of
business. I said:

"You must have got up mighty early this morning."

He admitted with simplicity that he was on the quay before six
o'clock waiting for my ship to come in. He gave me the impression
that it would be impossible to get rid of him now.

"If you think we are going to live on that scale," I said, looking
at the table with an irritated eye, "you are jolly well mistaken."

"You'll find it all right, Captain. I quite understand."

Nothing could disturb his equanimity. I felt dissatisfied, but I
could not very well fly out at him. He had told me many useful
things - and besides he was the brother of that wealthy merchant.
That seemed queer enough.

I rose and told him curtly that I must now go ashore. At once he
offered the use of his boat for all the time of my stay in port.

"I only make a nominal charge," he continued equably. "My man
remains all day at the landing-steps. You have only to blow a
whistle when you want the boat."

And, standing aside at every doorway to let me go through first, he
carried me off in his custody after all. As we crossed the
quarter-deck two shabby individuals stepped forward and in mournful
silence offered me business cards which I took from them without a
word under his heavy eye. It was a useless and gloomy ceremony.
They were the touts of the other ship-chandlers, and he placid at
my back, ignored their existence.

We parted on the quay, after he had expressed quietly the hope of
seeing me often "at the store." He had a smoking-room for captains
there, with newspapers and a box of "rather decent cigars." I left
him very unceremoniously.

My consignees received me with the usual business heartiness, but
their account of the state of the freight-market was by no means so
favourable as the talk of the wrong Jacobus had led me to expect.
Naturally I became inclined now to put my trust in his version,
rather. As I closed the door of the private office behind me I
thought to myself: "H'm. A lot of lies. Commercial diplomacy.
That's the sort of thing a man coming from sea has got to expect.
They would try to charter the ship under the market rate."

In the big, outer room, full of desks, the chief clerk, a tall,
lean, shaved person in immaculate white clothes and with a shiny,
closely-cropped black head on which silvery gleams came and went,
rose from his place and detained me affably. Anything they could
do for me, they would be most happy. Was I likely to call again in
the afternoon? What? Going to a funeral? Oh, yes, poor Captain
H-.

He pulled a long, sympathetic face for a moment, then, dismissing
from this workaday world the baby, which had got ill in a tempest
and had died from too much calm at sea, he asked me with a dental,
shark-like smile - if sharks had false teeth - whether I had yet made
my little arrangements for the ship's stay in port.

"Yes, with Jacobus," I answered carelessly. "I understand he's the
brother of Mr. Ernest Jacobus to whom I have an introduction from
my owners."

I was not sorry to let him know I was not altogether helpless in
the hands of his firm. He screwed his thin lips dubiously.

"Why," I cried, "isn't he the brother?"

"Oh, yes. . . . They haven't spoken to each other for eighteen
years," he added impressively after a pause.

"Indeed! What's the quarrel about?"

"Oh, nothing! Nothing that one would care to mention," he
protested primly. "He's got quite a large business. The best
ship-chandler here, without a doubt. Business is all very well,
but there is such a thing as personal character, too, isn't there?
Good-morning, Captain."

He went away mincingly to his desk. He amused me. He resembled an
old maid, a commercial old maid, shocked by some impropriety. Was
it a commercial impropriety? Commercial impropriety is a serious
matter, for it aims at one's pocket. Or was he only a purist in
conduct who disapproved of Jacobus doing his own touting? It was
certainly undignified. I wondered how the merchant brother liked
it. But then different countries, different customs. In a
community so isolated and so exclusively "trading" social standards
have their own scale.


CHAPTER II


I would have gladly dispensed with the mournful opportunity of
becoming acquainted by sight with all my fellow-captains at once.
However I found my way to the cemetery. We made a considerable
group of bareheaded men in sombre garments. I noticed that those
of our company most approaching to the now obsolete sea-dog type
were the most moved - perhaps because they had less "manner" than
the new generation. The old sea-dog, away from his natural
element, was a simple and sentimental animal. I noticed one - he
was facing me across the grave - who was dropping tears. They
trickled down his weather-beaten face like drops of rain on an old
rugged wall. I learned afterwards that he was looked upon as the
terror of sailors, a hard man; that he had never had wife or chick
of his own, and that, engaged from his tenderest years in deep-sea
voyages, he knew women and children merely by sight.

Perhaps he was dropping those tears over his lost opportunities,
from sheer envy of paternity and in strange jealousy of a sorrow
which he could never know. Man, and even the sea-man, is a
capricious animal, the creature and the victim of lost
opportunities. But he made me feel ashamed of my callousness. I
had no tears.

I listened with horribly critical detachment to that service I had
had to read myself, once or twice, over childlike men who had died
at sea. The words of hope and defiance, the winged words so
inspiring in the free immensity of water and sky, seemed to fall
wearily into the little grave. What was the use of asking Death
where her sting was, before that small, dark hole in the ground?
And then my thoughts escaped me altogether - away into matters of
life - and no very high matters at that - ships, freights, business.
In the instability of his emotions man resembles deplorably a
monkey. I was disgusted with my thoughts - and I thought: Shall I
be able to get a charter soon? Time's money. . . . Will that
Jacobus really put good business in my way? I must go and see him
in a day or two.

Don't imagine that I pursued these thoughts with any precision.
They pursued me rather: vague, shadowy, restless, shamefaced.
Theirs was a callous, abominable, almost revolting, pertinacity.
And it was the presence of that pertinacious ship-chandler which
had started them. He stood mournfully amongst our little band of
men from the sea, and I was angry at his presence, which,
suggesting his brother the merchant, had caused me to become
outrageous to myself. For indeed I had preserved some decency of
feeling. It was only the mind which -

It was over at last. The poor father - a man of forty with black,
bushy side-whiskers and a pathetic gash on his freshly-shaved chin-
-thanked us all, swallowing his tears. But for some reason, either
because I lingered at the gate of the cemetery being somewhat hazy
as to my way back, or because I was the youngest, or ascribing my
moodiness caused by remorse to some more worthy and appropriate
sentiment, or simply because I was even more of a stranger to him
than the others - he singled me out. Keeping at my side, he renewed
his thanks, which I listened to in a gloomy, conscience-stricken
silence. Suddenly he slipped one hand under my arm and waved the
other after a tall, stout figure walking away by itself down a
street in a flutter of thin, grey garments:

"That's a good fellow - a real good fellow" - he swallowed down a
belated sob - "this Jacobus."

And he told me in a low voice that Jacobus was the first man to
board his ship on arrival, and, learning of their misfortune, had
taken charge of everything, volunteered to attend to all routine
business, carried off the ship's papers on shore, arranged for the
funeral -

"A good fellow. I was knocked over. I had been looking at my wife
for ten days. And helpless. Just you think of that! The dear
little chap died the very day we made the land. How I managed to
take the ship in God alone knows! I couldn't see anything; I
couldn't speak; I couldn't. . . . You've heard, perhaps, that we
lost our mate overboard on the passage? There was no one to do it
for me. And the poor woman nearly crazy down below there all alone
with the . . . By the Lord! It isn't fair."

We walked in silence together. I did not know how to part from
him. On the quay he let go my arm and struck fiercely his fist
into the palm of his other hand.

"By God, it isn't fair!" he cried again. "Don't you ever marry


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Online LibraryJoseph ConradTwixt Land and Sea → online text (page 1 of 16)