The Silent Sea
Remember (if indeed there be any need to remind you) that it is a flagrant landsman who is telling you this tale. Nothing know I of seamanship, save what one could not avoid picking up on the round voyage of the Lady Jermyn, never to be completed on this globe. I may be told that I have burned that devoted vessel as nothing ever burned on land or sea. I answer that I write of what I saw, and that is not altered by a miscalled spar or a misunderstood manouvre. But now I am aboard a craft I handle for myself, and must make shift to handle a second time with this frail pen.
The hen-coop was some six feet long, by eighteen or twenty inches in breadth and depth. It was simply a long box with bars in lieu of a lid; but it was very strongly built.
I recognized it as one of two which had stood lashed against either rail of the Lady Jermyn's poop; there the bars had risen at right angles to the deck; now they lay horizontal, a gridiron six feet long-and my bed. And as each particular bar left its own stripe across my wearied body, and yet its own comfort in my quivering heart, another day broke over the face of the waters, and over me.
Discipline, what there was of it originally, had been the very first thing to perish aboard our ill-starred ship; the officers, I am afraid, were not much better than poor Ready made them out
(thanks to Bendigo and Ballarat), and little had been done in true ship-shape style all night. All hands had taken their spell at everything as the fancy seized them; not a bell had been struck from first to last; and I can only conjecture that the fire raged four or five hours, from the fact that it was midnight by my watch when I left it on my cabin drawers, and that the final extinction of the smouldering keel was so soon followed by the first deep hint of dawn. The rest took place with the trite rapidity of the equatorial latitudes. It had been my foolish way to pooh-pooh the old saying that there is no twilight in the tropics. I saw more truth in it as I lay lonely on this heaving waste.
The stars were out; the sea was silver; the sun was up.
And oh! the awful glory of that sunrise! It was terrific; it was sickening; my senses swam. Sunlit billows smooth and sinister, without a crest, without a sound; miles and miles of them as I rose; an oily grave among them as I fell. Hill after hill of horror, valley after valley of despair! The face of the waters in petty but eternal unrest; and now the sun must shine to set it smiling, to show me its cruel ceaseless mouthings, to reveal all but the ghastlier horrors underneath.
How deep was it? I fell to wondering! Not that it makes any difference whether you drown in one fathom or in ten thousand, whether you fall from a balloon or from the attic window. But the greater depth or distance is the worse to contemplate; and I was as a man hanging by his hands so high above the world, that his dangling feet cover countries, continents; a man who must fall very soon, and wonders how long he will be falling, falling; and how far his soul will bear his body company.
In time I became more accustomed to the sun upon this heaving void; less frightened, as a child is frightened, by the mere picture. And I have still the impression that, as hour followed hour since the falling of the wind, the nauseous swell in part subsided. I seemed less often on an eminence or in a pit; my glassy azure dales had gentler slopes, or a distemper was melting from my eyes.
At least I know that I had now less work to keep my frail ship trim, though this also may have come by use and practice. In the beginning one or other of my legs had been for ever trailing in the sea, to keep the hen-coop from rolling over the other way; in fact, as I understand they steer the toboggan in Canada, so I my little bark. Now the necessity for this was gradually decreasing; whatever the cause, it was the greatest mercy the day had brought me yet. With less strain on the attention, however, there was more upon the mind. No longer forced to exert some muscle twice or thrice a minute, I had time to feel very faint, and yet time to think. My soul flew homing to its proper prison. I was no longer any unit at unequal strife with the elements; instincts common to my kind were no longer my only stimulus. I was my poor self again; it was my own little life, and no other, that I wanted to go on living;, and yet I felt vaguely there was some special thing I wished to live for, something that had not been very long in my ken; something that had perhaps nerved and strengthened me all these hours. What, then, could it be? I could not think.
For moments or for minutes I wondered stupidly, dazed as I was. Then I remembered - and the tears gushed to my eyes. How could I ever have forgotten? I deserved it all, all, all! To think that many a time we must have sat together on this very coop! I kissed its blistering edge at the thought, and my tears ran afresh, as though they never would stop.
Ah! how I thought of her as that cruel day's most cruel sun climbed higher and higher in the flawless flaming vault. A pocket-handkerchief of all things had remained in my trousers pocket through fire and water; I knotted it on the old childish plan, and kept it ever drenched upon the head that had its own fever to endure as well. Eva Denison! Eva Denison! I was talking to her in the past, I was talking to her in the future, and oh! how different were the words, the tone! Yes, I hated myself for having forgotten her; but I hated God for having given her back to my tortured brain; it made life so many thousandfold more sweet, and death so many thousandfold more bitter.
She was saved in the gig. Sweet Jesus, thanks for that! But I - I was dying a lingering death in mid-ocean; she would never know how I loved her, I, who could only lecture her when I had her at my side.
Dying? No - no - not yet! I must live - live - live - to tell my darling how I had loved her all the time. So I forced myself from my lethargy of despair and grief; and this thought, the sweetest thought of all my life, may or may not have been my unrealized stimulus ere now; it was in very deed my most conscious and perpetual spur henceforth until the end.
>From this onward, while my sense stood by me, I was practical, resourceful, alert. It was now high-noon, and I had eaten nothing since dinner the night before. How clearly I saw the long saloon table, only laid, however, abaft the mast; the glittering glass, the cool white napery, the poor old dried dessert in the green dishes! Earlier, this had occupied my mind an hour; now I dismissed it in a moment; there was Eva, I must live for her; there must be ways of living at least a day or two without sustenance, and I must think of them.
So I undid that belt of mine which fastened me to my gridiron, and I straddled my craft with a sudden keen eye for sharks, of which I never once had thought until now. Then I tightened the belt about my hollow body, and just sat there with the problem. The past hour I had been wholly unobservant; the inner eye had had its turn; but that was over now, and I sat as upright as possible, seeking greedily for a sail. Of course I saw none. Had we indeed been off our course before the fire broke out? Had we burned to cinders aside and apart from the regular track of ships? Then, though my present valiant mood might ignore the adverse chances, they were as one hundred to a single chance of deliverance. Our burning had brought no ship to our succor; and how should I, a mere speck amid the waves, bring one to mine?
Moreover, I was all but motionless; I was barely drifting at all. This I saw from a few objects which were floating around me now at noon; they had been with me when the high sun rose. One was, I think, the very oar which had been my first support; another was a sailor's cap; but another, which floated nearer, was new to me, as though it had come to the surface while my eyes were turned inwards. And this was clearly the case; for the thing was a drowned and bloated corpse.
It fascinated me, though not with extraordinary horror; it came too late to do that. I thought I recognized the man's back. I fancied it was the mate who had taken charge of the long-boat. Was I then the single survivor of those thirty souls? I was still watching my poor lost com rade, when that happened to him against which even I was not proof. Through the deep translucent blue beneath me a slim shape glided; three smaller fish led the way; they dallied an instant a fathom under my feet, which were snatched up, with what haste you may imagine; then on they went to surer prey.
He turned over; his dreadful face stared upwards; it was the chief officer, sure enough. Then he clove the water with a rush, his dead hand waved, the last of him to disappear; and I had a new horror to think over for my sins. His poor fingers were all broken and beaten to a pulp.
The voices of the night came back to me - the curses and the cries. Yes, I must have heard them. In memory now I recognized the voice of the chief mate, but there again came in the assisted imagination. Yet I was not so sure of this as before. I thought of Santos and his horrible heavy cane. Good God! she was in the power of that! I must live for Eva indeed; must save myself to save and protect my innocent and helpless girl.
Again I was a man; stronger than ever was the stimulus now, louder than ever the call on every drop of true man's blood in my perishing frame. It should not perish! It should not!
Yet my throat was parched; my lips were caked; my frame was hollow. Very weak I was already; without sustenance I should surely die. But as yet I was far enough from death, or I had done disdaining the means of life that all this time lay ready to my hand. A number of dead fowls imparted ballast to my little craft.
Yet I could not look at them in all these hours; or I could look, but that was all. So I must sit up one hour more, and keep a sharper eye than ever for the tiniest glimmer of a sail. To what end, I often asked myself? I might see them; they would never see me.
Then my eyes would fail, and "you squeamish fool!" I said at intervals, until my tongue failed to articulate; it had swollen so in my mouth. Flying fish skimmed the water like thick spray; petrels were so few that I could count them; another shark swam round me for an hour. In sudden panic I dashed my knuckles on the wooden bars, to get at a duck to give the monster for a sop. My knuckles bled. I held them to my mouth. My cleaving tongue wanted more. The duck went to the shark; a few minutes more and I had made my own vile meal as well.Next