Thirty Fathoms Deep


I WANT to tell you in this story what I know about Naylon. Part of it is what the old fellow told me himself concerning his life, and part of it is what I myself know about his death. I can see no good reason why the tale should not be told, for Naylon is dead long since and the girl was dead before Naylon saw and loved her.

I knew Naylon only as the captain of an inside lifeboat station, where the surf-boat was not called out twice a year. He was finishing his life there quietly, in company with his crew of eight Scandinavians, an aged geranium that never flowered, and a bass viol upon which regularly every Sunday afternoon Naylon played the only tunes he ever knew — ‘Blest Be the Tie that Binds’ and ‘Let Us Haste to Kelvin Grove.’

But, for all this, the old man had known the meaning of a life of extraordinary action and adventure when he was younger. He had filibustered down to Chile and the Argentine, had been shanghaied out of Callao on a beachcombing venture, and had even begun life as a thorough-paced deep-sea diver and government-certificate man. Of this latter career he was curiously loath to talk. He would tell me tales of filibustering, shanghaiing, and piloting all up and down the coast, from Buenos Ayres to the Aleutian Islands, till the hair of my head stood up with excitement. But he dodged speaking of his diving experiences by saying, ‘Divers don’t like to talk of what they see below. It preys on the mind and gets you to thinking.’

Naylon’s station was on the shore of San Francisco Bay, midway between Black Point and the Presidio. I went out to see him three times a week. Early each Tuesday morning we cruised out of the Golden Gate in the smaller boat; Wednesday evening we played backgammon and Naylon made grog; and on Sundays we took a walk along the drain on the other side of the Presidio, getting back in time for five o’clock supper and the bass viol.

By putting together the tales he told me over the backgammon board, or sitting on the drain, or between ‘Kelvin Grove’ and ‘The Tie that Binds,’ I had a consecutive story of Naylon’s life from the time when he was a choirboy in York Cathedral until the day of his appointment as Captain of LifeBoat Station No. 8 — all except one period of five years, about the time when he was nineteen or twenty. I followed him easily enough until he reached California as foremast hand on a revenue cutter. There I lost him and only picked him up again some halfdozen years later as ice-pilot aboard the Rogers.

Another point I could not fail to notice was the character of Naylon himself. You may say what you will, but a man cannot for long entertain a deep and sincere affection without its leaving a mark upon him afterwards. Naylon had had his romance. Of that I was certain. There was a sweetness, a serious firm grip of his upon the basic instincts of primitive good, that could be explained in no other way. There was something Homeric about the man. Little by little I had come to know the various chapters of the old fellow’s life — excepting always the clue chapter. The pattern was complete, but for the one note of color that should bring the whole scheme into harmony. At last, however, I found it. Naylon told me the last story of all. It was an extraordinary story, as you may see for yourself— nearly beyond belief.

It happened of a Sunday. I had gone out to the station early in the afternoon, to find Naylon pottering about his bloomless geranium and grieving that it should never come to flower. He had had the plant I cannot guess how long, but it was so old that its budding was out of all question. Still Naylon obstinately cherished the hope that it would some day blossom.

‘It may be,’ he said on this occasion, ‘that the sea air is a bit too sharp. Perhaps, if it was put under a glass case — what do you think? Or if I trimmed away some of the young leaves? It’s not beyond hope. No, I’ll not believe it. I ’ll not have it so. Surely, some day we’ll have a flower on it. Some day it will be as fresh as ever. I can remember it not so very long ago. You should have seen it then — red flowers as big as your two fists — and smell! Why, I think you could have smelled it in the other room!’

He turned away to reach down his gardener’s trowel, which, with the prim nicety of old men who live alone, he always kept upon the top shelf of his closet in a lidless cigar box. As he opened the closet door I was surprised to notice upon the floor the complete armor of a deep-sea diver — helmet, breastplate, pumps, rubber shoes, and all. I knew that Naylon had his outfit somewhere about the station, but hitherto I had imagined that it stood in the attic. It was in perfect condition now and the copper helmet had been newly rubbed with suet.

‘Hello,Naylon,’ I exclaimed, ‘what’s all this? Going diving again?’

He closed the door and looked at me for a moment. Then: —

‘ I got a bit of chemical loam from a gardener in Golden Gate Park to-day. I’m going to try it. I think it might help.’

‘ Better get a new plant,’ I suggested.

From the sharp way he looked at me I could fancy that my remark had actually hurt him a little. But he said nothing, and I fell to wondering at the strange contradiction in a man who had sat down to meat with buccaneers and had seen men killed for the boots they wore, but who could yet find interest in a cracked bass viol and a geranium that never bloomed.

All the rest of that afternoon Naylon was unusually silent and preoccupied. I let him have his thoughts to himself. We took our accustomed walk a little later, around the old fort at the Golden Gate, then along the broken drain that follows the line of the hills there — from whence one could see Fujiyama, could one but see over the curve of the earth — to a point where the land shrugged a bony shoulder out of the surf and shut in the wind. Here we turned and climbed part way up the hill to a level spot where we knew we could sit down, and where sometimes we found blackberries and blue iris. Naylon took out his pipe and filled and lit. For quite five minutes neither of us spoke, pretending to be interested in a Cape Horner, a huge deep-sea tramp, held almost motionless in the middle passage between the heads of the Gate, the tide at her bow and the wind at her back.

‘Mate,’ said Naylon at length, ‘I want you to go somewheres with me.’

Where, indeed, would n’t I have gone with Naylon in those days?

‘Right,’ said I, upon the instant; and the old fellow continued, looking seaward and to the south with unseeing eyes, —

‘There’s a ship down there I want to see again before I ’ — he cleared his throat. ‘A ship down there I want to see. A passenger packet from Tahiti, the Allouette. She’s there off one of the Catalina Islands.’

‘I did n’t know that the Tahiti boats called at the Catalinas,’ I interjected.

‘They don’t,’ he replied dreamily. ‘But for all that I’m going down to the Catalina Islands, come next week, to visit the packet Allouette, that’s off the west coast of Catalina and that weighed her anchor out of Tahiti with nine passengers and crew.’

‘I have never seen her,’ I put in.

‘Nor I,’ answered Naylon; and, before I could voice my surprise, he continued, ‘Nor I, mate; only her ghost, as one might say. Listen, and I ’ll tell you what I’ve never told man or woman yet.’

‘I was diving in those days for the C. &. A. Wrecking Company. Just a lad I was, only turned twenty, but I could take the pressure up to the seventies and more, just like an old hand. I was at work on the caissons of a pier head at San Diego when Catalina sent down in a hurry for a diver to bring up the bodies from a Tahiti packet that had gone down in a squall off the west coast of one of the islands. I went.

‘ When I got to the wrecking float I was told that the bodies of all the crew and those of two of the passengers had come up. But seven of the passengers were still below. I was to take a “stray line” down and send them up.’

Naylon paused a moment.

‘You have heard, perhaps, how bodies act in the water when they don’t come up?’ he inquired. ‘They sit in their places, or stand, or lie, as the case may be, as natural as if in a parlor — and still, very still, until the water about them is stirred or a bit of a current set going. Then they raise their arms and turn their heads; or maybe, if they are sitting up, they lie down quiet like, as if they are very tired and are goin’ to sleep. You can’t believe sometimes that they are drowned and dead. Old divers have a saying, you know, that a man — or a woman, either, for the matter of that — is n’t really dead until the body comes up; that they only die when the air touches them, and that they still have a kind of life down there among themselves, in all that green and gloom of the sea bottom.’

After a moment of silence the narrative continued: ‘ I went down where the Allouette sank — a hundred and eighty feet of water — an’ that’s a wonder deep dive. It’s a pressure of over eighty pounds, and some men paralyze at that and die in their armor. But I was n’t down long. Six of the bodies I found, — four men, the stewardess and a boy, — sent them up, then came up myself and reported. There was one more down below, they told me. It was the body of a girl, a girl of nineteen. She was the daughter of an orange-grower in Los Angeles and an only child — a beautiful girl whom everybody loved. Her mother was dead and her father was way off in Mexico at the time of the wreck. I’d heard of her, but I’d never seen her.

‘ The men on the float — newspaper reporters, the coroner, the wrecking hands, and the like — would have it that I should go down again and have another try. I did so, though I was bleeding at the ears even then. This time I crawled into the dining-room through a pile of wreck, — the ceiling had fetched away, — and came up to the bit of a door that looked like the entrance to a linen closet. When I opened it I saw that it was a little stateroom.

‘There, sure enough, was the girl, sitting on a red plush lounge opposite the door, quite natural. She wore some kind of a white muslin dress and a smart little chip hat, and was holding a satchel in her hands, just as if she was waitin’ to go ashore. Her eyes were open and she was lookin’ right at me and smiling. When I pulled open the door it set the water in motion and she dropped her satchel and came toward me, holdin’ out her arms.

‘I jumped back and shut the door and sat down on one of the screw chairs in the saloon, for I was fair turned with the queerness of it. When I had got over the strain, I made ready to send her up. But, as it was, I never went into the stateroom again. I began to wonder if, after all, it was n’t better to leave her as she was. You see, I was a bit young then and sentimental-like, as all folks are that have to do with the sea. I thought of that crowd of men up there on the float, and she the only girl, and they handing her about and staring at her and she not knowing — with never a relative of hers within a thousand miles and no woman to take care of her. Then I remembered the old divers’ superstition about folks never really dying till they came up to the surface. Of course, that was foolishness — but I believed it then. I don’t know — maybe I believe it now. But, at any rate, I told myself that at that moment she was lovely and sweet and all, in her little chip hat and her white muslin frock, but if I sent her up she’d be buried, put in a hole of dirt, with the worms and the dark. If I left her away from the air, shut up there in that little stateroom, thirty fathom deep, in that still quiet green water, she’d always stay as she was — always be nineteen.

‘The key was on the outside of the stateroom door. I locked the door without opening it and battened down the ventilator so that nothing — no fish or anything — could get in. I went to the outside of the ship and saw to it that the porthole of her stateroom was fast. Then I took a last look through the port. She was lyin’ on the floor near the door, with her face hidden, as though she was sorry I had left her so. An’ one arm was reachin’ out a little, palm up, as though she was waitin’ for me to come back — as if she expected that I would come back some day and she wanted to tell me she was n’t angry.

‘Then I signaled to be pulled up and left her that way, just waiting, quietlike and all alone in that still green water. On the float I told them that I had n’t seen anything and no doubt the current had carried her away.

‘There was some talk of my company raising the Allouette, but I reported that she was broken up so bad that it wouldn ’t be worth while. People quit talking about the packet, and the girl’s father married again, down in Mexico. I guess he’s got another daughter by now. In a year’s time the whole business was forgotten.

‘But I never forgot. You see, a lad at that age, a sea-faring lad, when he gets an impression, it sticks and sticks and goes deeper. May be it turned my wits a little. May be they ’re still turned. I’ve never forgot her. I forgot, though, about being frightened and only remembered the pretty way of her coming toward me, smiling and holding out her arms. And though I’ve grown to an old man, she’s always stayed young, just as sweet and fresh and pretty as she was the first day I saw her. Somehow I could never take to other girls after that or love anybody but just her. I always remembered her down there in all that still green water, waiting for me to come back and open the door. And remembering her like that always kept me straight and clean, I guess. And everybody else has forgotten her, but me. Nobody knows she’s waiting there, and her father has another daughter by now. She’s only got me, you see. She just belongs to me.’

In the pause that followed I could barely make out the waves that leaped before me; there seemed to be a mist before my eyes.

‘ I never saw her again. I came away the next day and never went back. That was a long time ago. But next week I’m going to get a sloop and go along the coast to the Catalinas and go down and see her. I’m getting old now, you see. And old men, after a while they kind of get young again in a way. Sorter move in a circle. Maybe my circle is nearly done, but I feel to-day as I felt that day when I first found her and we were both young. So I guess I’ll go down there.’

‘But Naylon,’ I protested, ‘how would it be? This is all so long ago. Would she be just the same? Maybe I’m wrong — don’t know much about such things — but the action of the sea water —’

‘No,’ he interrupted. ‘There was no air, you see. The place was almost hermetically sealed. I battened down the ventilators and locked the door. She is just the same to-day as she was long ago, when I first saw her. It can’t be otherwise. I’ll not believe it so. They never really die, so long as they stay below.’

Naylon’s pipe was out. The Cape Horner had long since passed the heads with the turning of the tide, and by the time we reached the Presidio on our way home the Farallones were standing out purple-black against the conflagration of the sunset.


The next week Naylon got his leave of absence and found a man by the name of Willetts, a retired sea captain, to take his place. We chartered a seagoing sloop and cleared for the Catalina Islands. The Coast Survey people had buoyed the wreck of the Allouette, — much harm the old packet could do at that depth, — and Naylon located it by this means almost immediately.

I shall never forget the old fellow’s agitation on the day we arrived and tied up at the buoy. What the emotions were that conflicted in his poor old troubled brain, judge you. He was to see again the girl he had loved half a century ago and whom he had never seen alive. He was to look for the last time upon a dead face. There was something of the funeral in it — and something of the wedding. It was a strange situation.

When I had helped him on with the armor and opened the seacock at the helmet’s throat, I noted that he had the Deremal rod — a very sharp knife — under his weight belt.

‘It’s shark water,’ he explained, reading my glance of inquiry. But I had seen no sharks.

He had already told me the kinds of peril he really incurred. His lines, the lifeand air-line, might be cut by friction against the sharp edge of brass or copper or the pressure might become too great for him.

‘As a lad I stood it well enough,’ he said, ‘but I’m an old man now and a hundred and eighty feet is a wonder deep dive. See,’ he continued, holding up a key, ‘here’s the key to her stateroom. I’ve always kept it.’

I laced down the helmet. We said good-bye, and as we shook hands I felt his calloused palm quivering against mine. He was as excited as a boy — a boy of twenty. Then he went over the side.

For some time I could follow the red glint of his copper helmet, dropping away under the shadow of the boat. Then at length it disappeared, and only the shifting weight and the pull on the life-line were left me. I paid out over the boat’s side until suddenly the line fell limp and I knew that Naylon’s feet were on the deck of the Allouette.

I turned the wheel of the pump unsteadily, my heart knocking at my palate, for it is not good to see a living man descend into the nether world from out the light of day. The two lines ran slowly out, now pausing, now giving out by jerks. Once he signaled that I was giving him too much air, and as I slacked the pump and watched the lines still running out, I could fancy that I traced his movements thus. That long straight even run marked his progress down the deck. The shorter flight, after that moment’s pause, no doubt indicated his descent down a hatchway. Now he was upon the berth-deck; now in the saloon companion-way; now crawling over that pile of wreckage he spoke of, where the lines might easily be sliced in two; now he was in the saloon itself; and now —was not his hand upon the stateroom door?

There was no further movement of the lines. Naylon must be there, there in the open doorway of that little stateroom which he had left so many years before.

The lines had ceased to run out. Ten, fifteen minutes passed without a movement, while I turned the pump and looked out over the indifferent face of the broad blue Pacific that held there in its depths so strange a little drama. The sloop lay some hundred feet off a rugged, tree-grown slope, desolate but for an occasional sheep or a circling bird. The heat lay close over the ocean like the shutting down of a great warm palm. The water talked incessantly under the sloop’s forefoot, and a blue dragon-fly, arched like a bow, lighted from time to time upon the boat’s painter. But for the plaint of the unwilling pump and the talking of the water, it was very still.

Presently I looked at my watch and was surprised to note that Naylon had been down over an hour. At so great a depth I knew this to be very dangerous. Another half-hour passed in increasing anxiety, while I waited for some signal from him. When two hours had gone by, I could wait no longer, and warned him by a pull on the lifeline.

An empty feeling on the line itself caught at my heart. I hauled in quickly. The line came home slack. I drew at the air-line. That, too, returned to the boat without the least resistance. When I had drawn both in, I found them cut in two. Had Naylon cut them with his knife, or had they been severed by some sharp edge of brass or copper in the wreckage? I could never tell— but I suspected.

I believe I fully came to myself only by the time I had the sloop half-way around the island on my way to the little town on the shoreward side, to tell of what had happened. Then I asked myself what good could come of it. My mind traversed the same course as that which Naylon had already outlined to me. His body, confined down there between the decks of the Allouette, would never rise. Why not leave him there? How did I know that he had not wished that end — planned it even? Or, supposing that his death had been accidental, was it not best to leave the two of them as they were — the old man and the girl of nineteen, deep down in the calm untouched quiet of the ocean floor?

I recalled what Naylon had said, and half believed, of the legend of the deepsea divers — the story of the drowned who do not die.

So I left them there together and came away.

The other day a letter reached me from Willetts, the sea captain who took Naylon’s place at the lifeboat station. He wrote to ask what he was to do with some of the old man’s belongings. He spoke of the backgammon board and the cracked bass viol, and asked if I would care to have them. Then he added, —

‘He had a geranium plant here, too, but if you don’t mind I’d like to keep that. It’s blossomed out all of a sudden and makes the place look rather gay.’