The sun declined; my shadow broadened on die waters; and now I felt that if my cockle-shell could live a little longer, why, so could I.
I had got at the fowls without further hurt. Some of the bars took out, I discovered how. And now very carefully I got my legs in, and knelt; but the change of posture was not worth the risk one ran for it; there was too much danger of capsizing, and failing to free oneself before she filled and sank.
With much caution I began breaking the bars, one by one; it was hard enough, weak as I was; my thighs were of more service than my hands.
But at last I could sit, the grating only covering me from the knees downwards. And the relief of that outweighed all the danger, which, as I discovered to my untold joy, was now much less than it had been before. I was better ballast than the fowls.
These I had attached to the lashings which had been blown asunder by the explosion; at one end of the coop the ring-bolt had been torn clean out, but at the other it was the cordage that had parted. To the frayed ends I tied my fowls by the legs, with the most foolish pride in my own cunning. Do you not see? It would keep them fresh for my use, and it was a trick I had read of in no book; it was all my own.
So evening fell and found me hopeful and even puffed up; but yet, no sail.
Now, however, I could lie back, and use had given me a strange sense of safety; besides, I think I knew, I hope I felt, that the hen-coop was in other Hands than mine.
All is reaction in the heart of man; light follows darkness nowhere more surely than in that hidden self, and now at sunset it was my heart's high-noon. Deep peace pervaded me as I lay outstretched in my narrow rocking bed, as it might be in my coffin; a trust in my Maker's will to save me if that were for the best, a trust in His final wisdom and loving-kindness, even though this night should be my last on earth. For myself I was resigned, and for others I must trust Him no less. Who was I to constitute myself the protector of the helpless, when He was in His Heaven? Such was my sunset mood; it lasted a few minutes, and then, without radically changing, it became more objective.
The west was a broadening blaze of yellow and purple and red. I cannot describe it to you. If you have seen the sun set in the tropics, you would despise my description; and, if not, I for one could never make you see it. Suffice it that a petrel wheeled somewhere between deepening carmine and paling blue, and it took my thoughts off at an earthy tangent. I thanked God there were no big sea-birds in these latitudes; no molly-hawks, no albatrosses, no Cape-hens. I thought of an albatross that I had caught going out. Its beak and talons were at the bottom with the charred remains of the Lady Jermyn. But I could see them still, could feel them shrewdly in my mind's flesh; and so to the old superstition, strangely justified by my case; and so to the poem which I, with my special experience, not unnaturally consider the greatest poem ever penned.
But I did not know it then as I do now - and how the lines eluded me! I seemed to see them in the book, yet I could not read the words!
"Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink."
That, of course, came first (incorrectly); and it reminded me of my thirst, which the blood of the fowls had so very partially appeased. I see now that it is lucky I could recall but little more. Experience is less terrible than realization, and that poem makes me realize what I went through as memory cannot. It has verses which would have driven me mad. On the other hand, the exhaustive mental search for them distracted my thoughts until the stars were back in the sky; and now I had a new occupation, saying to myself all the poetry I could remember, especially that of the sea; for I was a bookish fellow even then. But I never was anything of a scholar. It is odd therefore, that the one apposite passage which recurred to me in its entirety was in hexameters and pentameters
Me miserum, quanti montes volvuntur aquarum!
Jam jam tacturos sidera summa putes.
Quantae diducto subsidunt aequore valles!
Jam jam tacturas Tartara nigra putes.
Quocunque adspicio, nihil est nisi pontus et aether;
Fluctibus hic tumidis, nubibus ille minax....
More there was of it in my head; but this much was an accurate statement of my case; and yet less so now (I was thankful to reflect) than in the morning, when every wave was indeed a mountain, and its trough a Tartarus. I had learnt the lines at school; nay, they had formed my very earliest piece of Latin repetition. And how sharply I saw the room I said them in, the man I said them to, ever since my friend! I figured him even now hearing Ovid rep., the same passage in the same room. And I lay saying it on a hen-coop in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!
At last I fell into a deep sleep, a long unconscious holiday of the soul, undefiled by any dream.
They say that our dreaming is done as we slowly wake; then was I out of the way of it that night, for a sudden violent rocking awoke me in one horrid instant. I made it worse by the way I started to a sitting posture. I had shipped some water. I was shipping more. Yet all around the sea was glassy; whence then the commotion? As my ship came trim again, and I saw that my hour was not yet, the cause occurred to me; and my heart turned so sick that it was minutes before I had the courage to test my theory.
It was the true one.
A shark had been at my trailing fowls; had taken the bunch of them together, dragging the legs from my loose fastenings. Lucky they had been no stronger! Else had I been dragged down to perdition too.
Lucky, did I say? The refinement of cruelty rather; for now I had neither meat nor drink; my throat was a kiln; my tongue a flame; and another day at hand.
The stars were out; the sea was silver; the sun was up!
I was waiting now for my delirium.
It came in bits.
I was a child. I was playing on the lawn at home. I was back on the blazing sea.
I was a schoolboy saying my Ovid; then back once more.
The hen-coop was the Lady Jermyn. I was at Eva Denison's side. They were marrying us on board. The ship's bell was ringing for us; a guitar in the background burlesqued the Wedding March under skinny fingers; the air was poisoned by a million cigarettes, they raised a pall of smoke above the mastheads, they set fire to the ship; smoke and flame covered the sea from rim to rim, smoke and flame filled the universe; the sea dried up, and I was left lying in its bed, lying in my coffin, with red-hot teeth, because the sun blazed right above them, and my withered lips were drawn back from them for ever.
So once more I came back to my living death; too weak now to carry a finger to the salt water and back to my mouth; too weak to think of Eva; too weak to pray any longer for the end, to trouble or to care any more.
Only so tired.
Death has no more terrors for me. I have supped the last horror of the worst death a man can die. You shall hear now for what I was delivered; you shall read of my reward.
My floating coffin was many things in turn; a railway carriage, a pleasure boat on the Thames, a hammock under the trees; last of all it was the upper berth in a not very sweet-smelling cabin, with a clatter of knives and forks near at hand, and a very strong odor of onions in the Irish stew.
My hand crawled to my head; both felt a wondrous weight; and my head was covered with bristles no longer than those on my chin, only less stubborn.
"Where am I?" I feebly asked.
The knives and forks clattered on, and presently I burst out crying because they had not heard me, and I knew that I could never make them hear. Well, they heard my sobs, and a huge fellow came with his mouth full, and smelling like a pickle bottle.
"Where am I?"
"Aboard the brig Eliza, Liverpool, homeward bound; glad to see them eyes open."
"Have I been here long?"
"Matter o' ten days."
Where did you find me
Floating in a hen-coop; thought you was a dead 'un."
"Do you know what ship?"
"Do we know? No, that's what you've got to tell us!"
"I can't," I sighed, too weak to wag my head upon the pillow.
The man went to my cabin door.
"Here's a go," said he; "forgotten the name of his blessed ship, he has. Where's that there paper, Mr. Bowles? There's just a chance it may be the same."
"I've got it, sir."
"Well, fetch it along, and come you in, Mr. Bowles; likely you may think o' somethin'."
A reddish, hook-nosed man, with a jaunty, wicked look, came and smiled upon me in the friendliest fashion; the smell of onions became more than I knew how to endure.
"Ever hear of the ship Lady Jermyn?" asked the first corner, winking at the other.
I thought very hard, the name did sound familiar; but no, I could not honestly say that I had beard it before.
The captain looked at his mate.
"It was a thousand to one," said he; "still we may as well try him with the other names. Ever heard of Cap'n Harris, mister?"
"Not that I know of."
"Nor yet of Ready - a passenger?"
"It's no use goin' on," said the captain folding up the paper.
"None whatever, sir," said the mate
"Ready! Ready!" I repeated. "I do seem to have heard that name before. Won't you give me another chance ?"
The paper was unfolded with a shrug.
"There was another passenger of the name of San-Santos. Dutchman, seemin'ly. Ever heard o' him?"
My disappointment was keen. I could not say that I had. Yet I would not swear that I had not.
"Oh, won't you? Well, there's only one more chance. Ever heard of Miss Eva Denison - "
"By God, yes! Have you?"
I was sitting bolt upright in my bunk. The skipper's beard dropped upon his chest.
"Bless my soul! The last name o' the lot, too!"
"Have you heard of her ?" I reiterated.
"Wait a bit, my lad! Not so fast. Lie down again and tell me who she was."
"Who she was?" I screamed. "I want to know where she is!"
"I can't hardly say," said the captain awkwardly. "We found the gig o' the Lady Jermyn the week arter we found you, bein' becalmed like; there wasn't no lady aboard her, though."
"Was there anybody?"
"Two dead 'uns - an' this here paper."
"Let me see it!"
The skipper hesitated.
"Hadn't you better wait a bit?"
"No, no; for Christ's sake let me see the worst; do you think I can't read it in your face?"
I could - I did. I made that plain to them, and at last I had the paper smoothed out upon my knees. It was a short statement of the last sufferings of those who had escaped in the gig, and there was nothing in it that I did not now expect. They had buried Ready first - then my darling - then her step-father. The rest expected to follow fast enough. It was all written plainly, on a sheet of the log-book, in different trembling hands. Captain Harris had gone next; and two had been discovered dead.
How long I studied that bit of crumpled paper, with the salt spray still sparkling on it faintly, God alone knows. All at once a peal of nightmare laughter rattled through the cabin. My deliverers started back. The laugh was mine.Next