IT was one August that I landed in Mukden and put up at the Standard Oil Mess. Douglas was there. For three years we had been in China without sight of each other, although our friendship was of long standing. It was partly due to these facts that the following events occurred; events which, as it turned out, nearly brought us to blows.
‘I am ordered on an inspection trip down the Manchurian coast,’ he said to me. ‘I leave to-morrow. Once a year someone has to make this jaunt. It’s not very exciting, but it’s awfully healthy. All good clean fun, you know. You have to go by native junk. How about signing on?’
I had not seen Douglas for a long time. I did not know the north or the coasts of China. I had never traveled in a sea junk. Eagerly I agreed to go.
The following evening, boarding the train, we were met by Mr. Huang. Mr. Huang — my first glimpse of the well-dressed interpreter — was a fashionable young gentleman evidently expecting an eclipse of the sun, for he peered out at me from behind spectacles of cobalt-blue glass. He wore foreign clothes: trousers, skimpy and affectionate, wrapping themselves about his shins with the tenacity of ivy on a pole; a shirt of sporty salmon pink with a collar not to match; an almostgold bar pin large enough for the doors of a donjon keep; and a washable — but unwashed — tie of robin’s-egg blue.
Not because but rather in spite of his foreign clothes, Mr. Huang was pleasantly mannered. Before he left us he expressed wonderment and, I thought, a little alarm that we would not travel by launch, but were insistent on a native junk.
When he had gone Douglas declared, ‘You can see that Pinko there is no sailor, can’t you? Just to look at him. That’s the only trouble with these sea trips — the boy and the interpreter always mess the place up so. They have none of the old viking blood which races through our veins.’
I had never known that Douglas was a sailor, but, not to be outdone, I asserted, ‘ My people were all sea captains before me. It’s in my blood. I can smell the tang of the ocean already.’
‘Yes, so can I. And we’re one hundred and seventy miles away.’
Morning brought us to Antung and the sea. We left our baggage at the very modern Japanese hotel. It is, by the way, so modern and so efficient that it can control the railroad timetable — for its own uses. All important trains arrive in Antung too late for the unlucky traveler to make connections until the following day. It was from this accommodating hostelry that we proceeded to the water front.
Along its edge a strip of ragged road swerved in and out to follow the twistings of the shore. On the land side ship chandlers, makers of tackle and cordage, sellers of sailcloth, lumber dealers with unpeeled masts, venders of bamboo for sail ribs, shipwrights, merchants of millet and rice and bean cake, had tacked their flimsy mud-andplaster shops one against the crazy walls of another. As we passed, their long pendulous signs, painted with the Chinese characters in black and gold, swung and creaked on their rusted brackets, for the wind was high. Those which were of cloth streamed straight out as pennons do, or, like red tongues doubling back upon themselves, bellied roundly, and then shook out with a report like the snapping of whips.
On the sea side an in-running tide slashed about the gray hulls of the junks, slapping their flanks and spouting up jeweled water between. Where the junks bumped and rubbed each other and jostled side to side, their gunwales groaned like old gentlemen with the gout. The masts stabbed the sky, or went sawing through it in great sweeping arcs. Below, the cordage and rigging swung nets to tangle the eye. High up, terns swept down the wind, or beat up into it in ascending spirals, or balanced with feathers frilled, poised satin-white against the stretched blue silk of the sky.
Out of ships came smells, for we passed close to the holds. Smells of fish; of tar; of resin from new pine masts sweating their sap; of mildewed sailcloth; of musty kaoliang; of bitter bricks of tea; of camphor wood from the far south; of sweet, pungent joss; of wine from a broken keg; of flour turned mouldy by brine; and over all the knifelike thrust of the smell of bean cake. As we plodded along through ankle-deep dust which grimed our white shoes to a dinginess darker than slate, we passed a score of newly landed junks unloading this bean cake from their holds. The quai side rang with the singsong of their stevedores. They swayed by, sweating, in pairs, a bamboo pole borne on the shoulders between them, and slung from the pole one bean cake as large as an artillery wheel. Under its weight each pair of coolies bowed their backs and sagged at the knees, for the cake had been heavily wetted during its passage. As a result the air around us choked with a rancidness which stuck like a bone in the throat.
It was with much relief that we at last turned in at the door of a junk hong. The interpreter having asked for the head man, a servant went out to get him; another servant, lifting the curtain of split bamboo which hung over the doorway, let us into an inner room. Passing from here into another room, we penetrated deeper into the dimness of the interior. The last room, after the August sun of outdoors, seemed as dim and dank as a cave. Here, I told myself, one hired junks for trading in strange ports. From this dim room went out clumsy argosies to try their fortunes on the sea.
I saw a dirt floor and about it square Chinese chairs with carved arms and straight carved backs. The kang platform, occupying a third of the room, was spread with grass mats; a low black opium table with carved legs crouched in its centre. I knew that in the long Manchurian winter the crowd of sleepers lay huddled together here on the kang while in the oven beneath them stalks of burning kaoliang gave out heat through the intervening bricks. At the end of the room stood a small, high table, and on it, pushed back against the wall, an incense pot, a tall ancestor tablet like a miniature gravestone, strange-lipped candlesticks of long-unpolished pewter, two unburnt tapers, — square, candy-red, and with a wick of gold, — and a gilt-encrusted foreign clock with its dial roguishly painted in pink and blue hearts, flowers, and cupids.
My observations were interrupted by the manager of the hong, who came bowing himself into the room. With a flourish of skirts he sat on the kang. There followed the customary ‘polite talk,’ the ‘guest breath,’ which must preface every business transaction. Douglas and the interpreter explained their own and my dishonorable names; our absolutely worthless homeland; from what place we had just come; what company we were connected with; our ages; the number of our sons (Not married ? Amazement!); how long we had been in such a (they insisted) despicable country as China (Only two years? Oy-yah! Our Chinese was perfection itself— almost like a native’s!); whether Mukden bank notes were going up or down; and how much we regretted being unable to accept their most courteous invitation to feast that night.
Here the servants entered with bowls of tea, cans of cigarettes, a smouldering paper slow match, and one brass water pipe. I accepted the tea, but turned down the doubtful pleasures of the pipe. By now the room contained four or five clerks and assistants and three shipmen wearing peaked yellow hats of plaited straw. Beneath their brims were faces brown as iodine. Behind these lookers-on the bamboo door curtain flickered every thirty seconds as someone passing, and overcome by curiosity but having no right to enter the room, lifted the screening to stare in for a moment at the foreigners.
At this point the manager, having first drunk some tea in a manner that was neither sip nor inundation, but some succulent in-between, took the water pipe from a servant. It guggled like a racing coffee percolator and filled the lungs of the smoker. He handed it back to the servant, belched out a cloud of smoke like a volcano in a tantrum, and flipped open his fan.
‘This,’ said Douglas to me, ‘means that the battle is on. You’d better settle yourself for a long siege. We may have to stay the night.’
This prediction surprised me. As these preliminaries had taken almost an hour, the opening of negotiations would, I had imagined, mean a quick settlement. Sublime was my optimism.
The hong manager snapped his fan shut with a ripple of stiff paper folds and a final clack at the end. Perhaps we, the foreign gentlemen, had come on some business of some kind? A junk. Ah, ah, ah — yes, a junk. It was a very bad time for hiring junks now. A very bad time. Junks were very scarce and in constant demand. The military had been seizing them to transport soldiers and millet. Perhaps the foreign gentlemen wished a junk to make a trip in on the sea. They did? Ah, ah, ah — he had thought so all the time. Perhaps they wished to sail to the north? Oh, no, to the south — hao, hao, hao, that was good, too. To the little towns — Chuangho, Takoushan, to finish at Dairen. Ah yes, he knew them well. It was a dangerous trip to the south. The tides were li hai teh hên, very terrible. And the winds — oy-yah ! The winds along that coast were like a buffet from one’s godmother’s fist. And it was the beginning of the storm season now. Several junks had been driven way out of their course only last week.
Thrrr — the fan, like a pack of cards. Snap — it had shut. Thrrr, map, thrrr, snap, thrrr. A gentle creaking while it was used for fanning.
I became fascinated watching it. The hong manager went on, gesticulating, smiling always. I thought, ‘What a fat, jolly, laughing Buddha! How absolutely different from the inscrutable Oriental of books!’
The foreign gentlemen, he went on, might wish a small junk or perhaps one which was not small. Fairly large? Ah, hao, hao, hao. The price? H’m — the price — no need to worry about the price. That would be reasonable. (The ribs of the fan snapped shut against each other as one claps together a row of books stacked loose between book-ends.) The price would be twenty-five dollars a day.
‘Tell him,’ Douglas said, ‘nothing doing on this by-the-day business. We’ll never get back for Thanksgiving if we pay money by the day. How much for the trip?’ The interpreter translated. The manager smiled from the kang.
By the trip? Oh, pu, pu, pu, pu, pu! Impossible! Pu hsin! Impossible. How can one know the winds, the strength of the tides? We might be blown all the way in six days, but we might have evil winds and our trip differ not much from twenty to thirty days. By the trip? Quite impossible.
‘Tell him,’ said Douglas, ‘to pipe down on these horrors of the sea and to give us a price for the trip, and to be quick about it.’
‘The foreign gentlemen,’ translated the interpreter, ‘much appreciate your forewarning them of all the perils of the heavens and the sea, but they believe that Heaven will favor them with a fair breeze. Perhaps you, sir, would consider telling them what a fair price would be for the trip if by any chance you should waive your prejudices.’
The fan tapped the grass mat of the kang.
‘For the trip. Hao — hao — h’m — h’m’m. I will speak in one last word — three hundred and fifty dollars.’
‘Tell him he’s got us all wrong,’ Douglas instructed. ‘We want to hire his junk — not buy it.’
‘The foreign gentleman wishes to suggest that possibly you, sir, have overestimated the expenses and asked a price too high,’ said the interpreter, following Douglas’s instructions.
Ah, pu shih, pu shih — there is no mistake. He would not think of overestimating for foreigners. He had given them a special consideration! May his grandmother be ashamed of him if he has not spoken fairly. But the other way — so much for each day — is cheaper, then? That is very good. Perhaps, with good wind — only four days — quite possible. For emphasis he spit on the floor. It was not an ineffectual emphasis, but the act of a professional.
‘No!’ from Douglas. ‘Tell him nothing doing, absolutely. Tell him our clothes would wear out before we got back. Tell him to come down out of the crosstrees and stow that by-theday business. Trip or nothing! ’
‘The foreign gentleman says that he knows your junks are very fine, in fact the best on the water front, and that, as you say, they might make the journey even in four days; but he must hire a boat by the trip, for that is his custom,’ the interpreter translated with as close an accuracy as the two races are usually capable of.
While the hong manager ran over several score of reasons why a junk could not be hired except by the day, I once more glanced at my watch. Another hour had almost passed.
The servants circulated again with fresh tea from galvanized iron watering pots, and a new can of cigarettes. I noted that the crowd looking on had been increased to seventeen. They stood to one side, void of expression, wooden as mannequins.
‘Tell him,’ I heard Douglas urging, ‘that we will give him seventy dollars for the trip. It took twelve days last year. If we get in under twelve days, they still keep the whole seventy dollars. For any time over we’ll give seven dollars a day up to the fifteenth day—after that they’re out of luck.’ The interpreter translated. The crowd of listeners smiled, indulgently, as one smiles at a foolish child. The hong manager looked pityingly at the poor foreigners.
‘Pu hsin,’ he said, and gargled his tea. Douglas got up from his chair as if to go.
‘Tell him, Mr. Huang, that we will give him ninety dollars for the trip for twelve days or under, and seven dollars a day extra up to fifteen days. That’s our last price.’ The interpreter repeated the figures.
The manager believed that he might consider that. As it was absolutely impossible to figure without an abacus, a servant was sent out to get one. He returned immediately with two. This calculator, I had discovered before, was the only thing in China quickly procurable. I hoped it meant the end.
The abacuses clicked, the mumbling of the manager and an assistant following in undertone, like bees doing their sums. At the end of several minutes the manager announced that He thought the offer might do, but that before clinching the bargain he would have to interview the captain. A servant went out in search of him. We smoked, drank tea, talked a little. After half an hour the servant returned with the captain at his heels.
The captain, from under his peaked Tatar hat, grieved exceedingly, — ‘ate much bitterness’ was how he expressed it, — but the crew refused to man the ship with foreigners aboard. They might bring bad luck. The hong manager sighed resignedly and waved his fan.
I looked at my watch. Another forty-five minutes had passed. I was being tired by that gnawing fatigue which seems to attack Occidentals when they find inactivity forced upon them for any length of time. The Westerner, I philosophized, cannot wait. For the Oriental, time itself delays. The chair had made my back ache; the air about me smelled dank and stale like a garment that has been slept in. How much longer? I dared not estimate.
‘I’ll settle the crew,’ Douglas said to me. ‘Lesson number one in Chinese psychology: destruction of fear and casting out of superstitions. Just watch.’ He turned to the interpreter. ‘Tell Captain Blood, here, that if the crew is a good crew they will all get a tip, a cumshaw, at the end. — Now watch! ’
The captain grunted. He said that he would have to confer with all five of the men. He left the hong. In three minutes he was back. The crew, he said, thought they could overlook their scruples. They would sail.
After that the disposition of the money had to be haggled over. How much deposit now? How much paid to the men during the trip? To whom? By whom? By the day? By the week? What amount each day? In case the trip lasted fifteen days, how much, and how, and to whom at the end? When half an hour had been consumed straightening out the matter of payments, the manager threw the whole bargain into another barbed-wire entanglement out of which I — with an inward groan — saw plainly that there was no means of extrication.
The money, he mentioned in passing, was to be paid in big dollars silver.
‘Mukden paper notes, naturally,’ Douglas said. ‘That’s their local currency. Holy cats! What s the matter with these birds? We can ’t stay here forever. Why don’t they ask for United States gold?’ Arrangements came to an impasse. They all argued at once. Douglas blurted forth Chinese, volubly; bizarre-sounding Chinese — fanfares of it, like ineffectual Roman candles. When the talk had finally spent itself, he compromised again.
‘ Tell this old bean pot,’ he instructed the interpreter, ‘that he knows we meant Mukden notes, and he did too, and we know he did; but that because I have a particular affection for him I’ll offer this extra inducement: if the trip down is a success, I’ll give him Socony cargo to bring back, if there is any in Dairen.'
The manager, satisfied, smiled blandly and panted a string of ‘Hao, hao, hao, hao, hao, hao.’ Douglas got out his money to pay down the deposit. At last, I sighed, everything was settled. I stretched my suffering limbs. My watch had ticked off four hours and twenty-five minutes since we had entered the hong. Twenty-nine spectators — all eyes converging to a point on the money then changing hands — crowded the end of the room. The manager spoke again.
‘Junk can be all ready for you without fail in five days,’ he assured. Douglas stopped counting the silver. He had heard.
‘My God! ’ he ejaculated with Scotch wrath. ‘We want to sail to-night!’
At that the manager was terribly broken up. He could hardly talk — very much. How had he known? The gentlemen had not mentioned when. (In sooth we had not!) He could understand no reason for the hurry — the sea was always there. Unfortunately there would be no junks for five days. All those not engaged were being completely overhauled. The only way to sail so soon would be to get many men working on one junk; but that might be impossible, and would probably cost the foreign gentlemen more money — not much, of course.
‘Well, I’ll be damned!’ Douglas sputtered. ‘Now you tell this old Semite that he will accept the terms agreed on and get me a junk to sail by nine o’clock to-night. If not, I go now to another hong.’
Like a fat goose the manager waddled down off the kang. Regrets spilled out of him like bonbons out of a box. But he could do nothing. To-night was hopeless, without a special charge. Too bad, too bad! He escorted us to the door. He bowed low. Until we met again, we should ‘go slowly.’
We left the door and walked away.
‘My God,’ I groaned. ‘Almost five hours. That’s the worst I’ve ever struck. You don’t mean to say that we’ve got to go through that again?’
‘ Don’t get excited, lad. “ Go slowly,” you know.’
We plodded down the roadway, silent.
A hundred yards from the hong a servant came running to overtake us.
‘He says,’ the interpreter explained, ‘please come back. To-night they have perhaps found a way to get one.’
We returned. The manager was all smiles and bows and a perfect put-put of hao, hao, hao.
‘Well, old motor boat,’ said Douglas, ‘what’s the dope? What explanation does he have, Mr. Huang? A new junk just came in after we left this place, eh?’
We paid the deposit; waited while each silver dollar was tested for its ring.
‘Is it like this every time?’ I asked.
‘Yes, lad,’ Douglas sighed wearily. ‘Every time. The mysterious old Orient, you know.’
That night we went blithely aboard with provisions, our camp cots, a mattress for sleeping on the deck when the weather was calm (Douglas’s idea), the interpreter, and, to act as cook, the boy.
In daylight a Manchurian junk is strange to behold, but that night in lantern shine, hemmed in by scores of others just like itself, it was distorted into shapes more grotesque than any phantasy. When the lantern sent the shadows rioting about the deck, our craft might have been any kind to which keel was ever laid — a galleon from Cadiz, a Barbary slaver, an ancient trireme fished up off Samothrace.
We were both, I think, aware of its fascination. We glared at the painted eyes on the prows moored near us, listened to the soft-lipped tide whispering about the black hulls, and yearned to cast off for the open sea.
‘Boy,’ Douglas instructed, ‘you tell the lao-ta we go now.’
The skipper, however, seeing no cause for hurry, declared that we could not leave till the tide turned at dawn.
‘You see,’ Douglas jeered, ‘these landlubbers have to have the daylight. My viking ancestors used to refuse to sail out of Stavanger unless it was nighttime and no stars. Daylight was too easy.'
‘Mine too,’ I assisted. ‘My freebooting progenitor from the fjords would only sail out during thunderstorms, and then he used to back out — stern on — just to show his seamanship. I hope we have a little dirty weather.'
The morning found us with a fair wind, coasting down the Gulf of Liaotung. Above us the bamboo ribs of the lugger sail were creaking gently as they rubbed against the mast. Green water was slipping like jade beneath the hull; and astern the soft hiss of the wake’s foaming sounded silken and sibilant, like fast-falling snow.
The boy brought that luxury of the Orient — morning tea. We looked at our watches and then at each other. It was seven-thirty. We, eager seamen, had slept through all the din of embarking.
That day and the next there was nothing to do but to get sunburnt. We went at this with ferocity. When we lay down to sleep at night, we did so with whimperings, for the touch of clothing clawed like a Nessus shirt.
On these first two days many junks passed us by and all drew close to question the crew. Names? Where from? Going where? Cargo? Oh, foreigners! It was interesting to note that of all the ships which passed our own not a single one ever varied its questions. They were as stereotyped as a catechism. And always importantly at the end were the two obsessions of Chinese life — food, money.
Of the crews of these passing ships we obtained only a distant view, but a few days later we had an opportunity to study them at closer range — and they us. On that day we headed for an estuary and ran in against the ebbing tide. Our junk anchored alongside of six others; and while we delayed to eat lunch before going up the river to the town, the tide slipped out and left all seven junks lying like harpooned whales on a plain of slime. With ticking claws armies of invisible crabs sidled over pock-marked acres of mud to forage for food. Douglas threw an empty tin can, whereupon a million creatures leaped back to their homes, and the earth shuddered. It was the prodigality of throwing away that can which brought us an audience.
To forage for other cans, or, at least, for new sensations, the crews of the other six junks clambered over the decks and came to squat in a ring about us — these two strange barbarians from the lands of the West! Fascinated, they followed our every move.
‘Look, look! He eats a bean.'
The others took up this discovery and handed it around much like the button in the game of ‘Who’s got the button ? ’
‘Indeed, a bean!’ cried they all.
‘Now, eats bread. You look, it is bread.’
‘Yes, yes, bread.’
‘You are not wrong, it is bread that he eats.’
‘Look,’ said the spokesman, ‘that is salt. See, salt — and he’s eating it.’
‘Salt!’ cried all the crowd excitedly.
Some hours after our performance with knife and fork was over and the cheering had died away, the returning tide having floated the ships again, the crew made ready the sampan.
It was a typical tidewater Manchurian town, its ochre-colored streets drowned in sunlight and thronged with blue-clad coolies. Farmers from the interior jolted by, seated cross-legged in their thumping northern carts. Under tentlike white awnings hawkers of sandals and shears, of opium pipes and cotton socks, venders of medicine, seers of the future, magicians, mimers, dentists, yawped their wares. Occasionally a silent Korean strayed by, his baggy clothes white, his hat black, like a gauze flytrap set upon his hair. Birdmen screeched that they had falcons for sale, and others larks from Mongolia, perched on sticks and tied by the toe with a string. In all the din their throats trilled with song. Hammock-backed pigs squealed at a foot thumped on their ribs, asses brayed, and pariah dogs — having slept too long in the middle of the street — kiyied at the nip of a cart wheel. About the red-jellyfish market the sunlight hummed with the oaths and prayers attendant on bargaining in the East.
Just north of here we found the Socony agent’s shop, where a counter ran the length of the dirt floor, and where above the counter ranged shelves of calico and cheap printed cottons, and beside it, next the opposite wall, a round bin of millet seed. A corpulent person, stripped to the waist, leaned with his stomach grooved against the counter. As the day was warm, with the fan in his hand he cooled his armpits. When we asked for the proprietor, he grinned accommodatingly and confessed that it was he whom we looked upon.
We were led into the inevitable back room, with its inescapable kang, ancestor tablet, paper flowers, and that harridan of horologes — the foreign clock. After thirty minutes of weather talk, Douglas revealed his nationality by instructing the interpreter to ‘tell him to cut out the bull and get out the books.’ But these were only produced half an hour later, and only after the proprietor had declared that Douglas and I spoke Chinese like a native.
When questioned as to how much oil he had sold that year, the agent stated that the amount ‘differed not much’ from the year before. On being pressed, he elaborated by saying that it might be a little less or a little more. Anything more accurate was unobtainable. He had sounded the chord which we should hear for two weeks throughout the trip.
After two hours over accounts, we proceeded to the godown. It was a long shed with earthen walls, stacked to the roof with tins of oil — the whole place smelling like a garage and ten times as hot. We counted the rows of wooden cases up and down, along, to the side. We removed a whole section right through the middle to see that the centre was not hollow. And the results showed that of Tiger Brand, Brilliant, and Eagle there were not too few but too many.
‘This,’ Douglas explained, ‘is the native agent’s favorite dodge. You see, he has reported half this oil to the company as sold. It’s neither sold nor paid for. This bird thought that Mukden notes were going to decrease in value. So he speculates that the company will raise the price of oil. Then he can sell at the new price and pocket the difference. Of course this is against the company rules and against his agreement with us. But as an inspector comes to this town only once a year the agent can afford to take a chance. These birds are clever.’
The epilogue to our visit offered me even more amusement. Douglas sought out the agent for the Asiatic Petroleum Company and after him the Texaco man. As with the Socony agent, he asked each about his business and to see his record of sales. There was no objection to this request.
‘Strange business methods here,’ I commented.
‘Not at all,’ Douglas said. ‘The A. P. C. and Texaco will be allowed by our own agent to see our books, just the same. Convenient, is n’t it? The mysterious old Orient, you know.’
And then one night toward the end of the trip we got our storm.
The junk was heading out to sea, intending to round a headland off our starboard bow and, on the lee side, anchor for the night. Darkness was shutting in, and as we looked ahead a beacon just beyond the end of the cliffs began to wink its light.
The sky darkened astern and clouds hanging low over the water shook out a sullen indigo darkness over all the sea. The wind, which had been from off our starboard side, died suddenly, like a bird shot on the wing; and the junk, wallowing in the smooth swell, lay with slack sail in water more glasslike than the Everglades. I looked again astern. Herded denser than black bulls the on-coming clouds were stampeding the sky.
‘I think, Leif,’ Douglas commented, looking sternward, ‘that we are in for a bit of a blow.’
‘I rather suspected that myself,’ I said. ‘I hope it’s worth while. None of these zephyrs for me. My viking blood —’ I was interrupted. The water ruffled into scallops like gray fur blown backward. A single puff of wind — like a gust from a suddenly opened door — struck the sea. It heaved the junk forward, and with such power that it seemed to lift her as though a gigantic hand had grasped her keel. Then, as if the door whence the wind came had been slammed shut, the sea became once more as smooth as marble. We looked at each other questioningly.
The lao-ta came forward and spoke with the interpreter, who informed us that the skipper wished to borrow one of our fowls. We had brought five on board with us to be sure of fresh meat. There were two left, hiding in the bow under a coil of rope.
‘The captain,’ said the interpreter, ‘thinks that a bad storm comes. He wants one chicken, to do sacrifice.’
‘Let’s let him have it,’ Douglas said. ‘It will be worth seeing. This, you know, is often called the twentieth century.’ He turned to Mr. Huang.
‘If he’s certain it will do good, all right. He’s sure, eh?’
‘Yes, all the crew think so. Funny people,’ said Mr. Huang, who spoke disparagingly of all such foolishness and wore foreign clothes. With that he disappeared into the hold.
The lao-ta silently wrung a chicken’s neck, and then went below. He returned in a few minutes with the chicken featherless, with a box of matches (made in Sweden), an incense stone, a fistful of joss, and with a bare knife stuck in his girdle. Going forward to the very front of the bow, he knelt down, struck a match, shielded it in his long gown from the rising wind, and applied to the flame a stick of joss. Presently, when the tip smouldered, he stuck the other end in the incense stone. Smoke swirled in a blue thread out on the wind. The lao-ta, on his knees, bumped his forehead nine times to the deck. With that he took the knife from his belt. Across the tightly bent neck of the fowl he drew the blade once. A red gash followed it, and from the yellow skin drops of scarlet dripped on the deck. With the neck bent back to open the wound, he then moved about the forward end of the ship, smearing all parts with bright crimson daubs of blood.
Returning to the joss, he kowtowed again, and thereupon sliced off the comb of the chicken, its wattles, and its toes. The eyes and the tongue he plucked out with the knife point. These appendages of our fowl he cast into the sea, bowing three times as he threw each one. Having again bumped his head nine times, he then went aft, the chicken dangling from his thumb by its crop, and disappeared with it below.
We felt reassured after these precautions, but wondered about the ultimate fate of the hapless bird. That, mercifully, was shrouded from our eyes — although there were certain savors on the following day.
‘But look!’ Douglas cried, his eyes on another part of the ship. The five men of the crew took the junk’s thirty-foot sweeps, laid them horizontally on props three feet above the soap-box deck, threw bamboo mattings over them, and then with rope lashed down the whole to iron rings on the sides of the deck. The top of the junk now resembled a long tent with steep sides, its ridgepole ranging the length of the ship. At the mainmast a loose corner of the matting allowed entrance for one person at a time, and probably, I foresaw, for the rain.
We decided to put our big mattress (Douglas’s idea) under the matting and not to go below into the upper part of the hold. It would be breathless there and somewhat crowded because of the wood roaches. Then, too, it was our intention to enjoy the storm.
The wind hit us now from astern and seemed to increase with the quick acceleration of a falling body. As it was almost totally dark outside, we squeezed our way in by the mast and lay down on our mattress, put just under the matting roof. The place was cramped for room and we could sit up only by bowing our necks and shoulders. We smoked, and of storms we talked disparagingly.
The rain came along with the wind and beat on the matting in drops heavy like mercury. We lay reveling in our snug quarters; but in half an hour the wind had mounted to such a frenzy that I, for one, was beginning to wonder whether we had not been foolish to ship aboard what was probably an old and rotten hulk. I heard the seas begin to tumble over the port bow and knew that the deck three feet below us was awash. With every lift of the bow the surges hammered against the sides with staggering blows. At each wave the hull through all its length shuddered sickeningly. This endless, forever ceaseless, constantly recurrent pounding, pounding, pounding, would in time, I suspected, wear down my nerves.
We lay in the dark trying to keep from rolling from side to side, yelling at each other in an attempt to outhowl the wind.
‘If the crew were all vikings,’ Douglas shouted, ‘I’d order them to sail her out to the open sea.’ We both laughed at this idea.
‘Where do you think we’re heading for?’ I asked. ‘Trying to get round that light on the point? Rocks there. Cliffs. Want to make the open sea, where there’s lots of room.’
‘Sure! We’ll be picked up somewhere by an Empress boat — castaways.’ We laughed.
‘Write a book,’ I suggested. We laughed — loudly, that each might hear.
‘Don’t suppose this old tub has any open seams, do you?’ — from Douglas.
‘Don’t know,’ I said; ‘just heard a slight gurgle below. Probably means a leak. Hate to have to order the crew below to caulk up. Tough on the boys. They’d die of fright.’ We laughed
— about equally—at the scene thus
‘Say,’ Douglas shouted, ‘that mast is expressing itself, is n’t it?’
The mast was groaning and craunching as if it would tear itself loose from its socket. The noise produced a chill tingling up and down my spine. Sudden weakness attacked the muscles of my thighs, and I thanked all the gods of the sea that I had no need to stand up. My legs, I suspected, would flutter under me. At another plunge of the ship the noise increased. The wind and the sea, it appeared, were using the mast like a pestle, grinding it around below us there in the bowels of the ship. In the open above, it must be bending like a whip. Secretly, I wondered how any wood could stand such a strain.
‘Be great.’ I suggested to reassure Douglas, ‘if the mast went by the board.’
‘Yeah,’ he yelled; ‘but if it does, hope she does n’t splinter. I’d dislike to be impaled.’ We laughed — loudly
— at this droll idea.
For a few moments we lay still, saying nothing, listening to the concussion of those tons of water against the bow — boong . . . boong . . . boong.
The ship rocked on her side and rolled us in a heap to starboard.
‘Hey,’ roared Douglas, ‘take your knee out of my face, will you!’ We disentangled ourselves, laughing.
‘I just happened to remember an interesting fact,’ Douglas shouted. ‘The company report from last year mentioned twelve native junks wrecked with loss of oil and ten men just off this shore last August. Just about this date, I think.’ We laughed at this, too.
‘If we do have to leave the ship — on a spar — get marooned, you know
— what’ll we take — can of beans or asparagus?’
‘Asparagus — lash them together — make a raft — hey!’
The ship heeled sharply over, rolled us to one side, and dumped us down like apples out of a barrel. Before we could collect ourselves the return roll had spilled us in the other direction. I became somehow mixed up with something soft and heavy. Douglas on top of me! From somewhere in the darkness his voice yelled, ‘Hey! Get off me!’
‘I’m not on you — you’re on me!’
The ship, without warning, pitched. We were flung together and in some way our heads cracked one against the other. For a moment we were stunned, and then at the top of our lungs we yelled, both at once and wrathfully, ’Ouch! Hey! What’s the idea?’
‘Well, what’s your idea? Trying to brain me?’
‘Don’t be such a funny man,’ I snarled. ‘Get off.’
‘I’m not on you.’
‘ Well, something is.’
‘Something’s on me, too. Where’s the mattress?’ We groped in the floundering darkness. A sudden drop of the ship must have up-ended the mattress and then rolled us under. It was on top of both of us.
We started out to get it under us again, but the ship by this time seemed to be sitting back on its haunches like a trick dog. It was only a matter of time, we believed, when it would fall over backward. In rearranging the mattress it was impossible to sit up in any way without striking one’s head. Arched on our backs, propped on an elbow, groveling on our stomachs, we tugged at that invisible bulk. It had swollen since yesterday. It had thirtytwo corners to it, all designed to catch against something. It was around us, over us, between us. Half the time we were tugging against each other. Cooped up in the blackness of that tunnel-like space, we toiled like two moles trying to move a bank safe.
The ship slung us again to one side, loosening our grip on the mattress. I landed abruptly but painlessly against something soft and yielding. Douglas let out a sudden ‘Uggh ! and immediately afterward a string of blasphemies from the bottom of his soul.
‘What’s the idea? First you try to dash out my brains, and then you knee me in the pit of the stomach. Be careful, will you?’
Words like this, I thought, were a breach of friendship. I felt too injured by them to answer. We lay there in silence, listening to the mast protesting. If that mast had a soul, I reflected, it was certainly at that moment being rived upon the burning spits of Hell.
Quite unexpectedly Douglas’s spirits seemed to have revived. He began to talk again.
' I ’m awfully sorry for the interpreter and the boy,’ he said. ‘Bet they’re sick.’
‘ Yeah — landlubbers.’
‘Crew’s probably sick, too,’ he commiserated. ‘Just for fun, think I ’ll take a look outside. See if there is any sign of them.’ He warped himself toward the mast.
After a while I heard him return, inching himself along.
‘Any sign of the crew?’ I taunted.
‘No’ — wanly.
‘Well, you stayed quite a while.’
‘I like to be outside in rough weather.’
A crash of water drowned further words. The ship seemed to poise on the pinnacle of something, to waver dizzily, to shudder into the depths. I felt her every quiver through every fibre of my frame. Mutely I squirmed to the mast, poked out my head. The blackness was full of stinging pellets of rain. The air — great gulps of it — was good. Some minutes later I returned.
‘Been for a little promenade?’ — from Douglas, scornfully.
‘I wanted to see if the mast light was lit. Dangerous without it.’
‘Well, there is one thing worse than a man who is seasick, and that is one who is and won’t admit it. But of course these guys with no viking — ’ He hitched himself toward the mast. I followed him, eager to get there first. We remained a little while, each one occupied with his own affairs.
And then through blurry eyes we looked around us in bewilderment. We had sailed into another world.
I had seen phosphorus before — furring the prows of a liner dipping through Hawaiian seas; but that was like a watch crystal compared to this. The raindrops struck the sea in dancing sparks, and the leagues of black water became lit with a trillion twinkling lights. Spindrift from the comber crests swept down the air in gusts like opalescent snow. The tall surges breaking and crumbling under their own weight of foaming water were long, gleaming reaches of ghostly light — comets with swishing, serpentine tails rushing wind-driven through the tumbling stars. It was as though the universe had been upturned and we — these two mortals — were being tossed about by the winds of heaven among the star-swarming skies. We had almost forgotten the ship and the storm when a wave of salt water caught us in the face and drenched us through. We drew back, closing the flap of the matting after us.
‘Wonderful, eh?’ Douglas’s teeth chattered. ‘Too bad we can’t appreciate it more.’
‘Yes,’ I yelled; ‘like to look at it in a nice warm living room.'
The rain and spray had long since begun to leak through our mattings. I was shivering with the cold as we lay down again on the sodden mattress.
‘Getting fed up,’ Douglas confessed, his pride at low ebb. ‘Wonder what’s the time?’
There crept into my mind the thought that the storm might be more serious than we would admit. We had no means of knowing. Even now we might be being driven far out to sea. The junk was undoubtedly only an old leaky hulk. She might founder any minute and go down. Such a small craft would go quickly. I wondered just how many minutes it would take. But what did it matter? We could n’t get out in time, anyway. We were lashed in like slaves in a drowning galley. Still, in the darkness, the groan of the mast. The crash of the seas over the bow. The spray, still, like whips above our heads. Beneath us that mattress, sodden, icy cold. Would morning ever come?
Each of us saw the face of the other — a corpse-gray mask, black holes for the eyes and mouth. We knew that the light had come. Douglas said: —
‘I hand it to the boys. They’re not as good as our viking ancestors, but they’re second. They’ve stuck to the old bathtub all the night. They’re sailormen, all.’
‘Yes,’ I said, without much enthusiasm.
We found the light little cheer. For me the long imprisonment weighed on my spirits like black despair. Suddenly Douglas spoke what were almost my identical thoughts.
‘I don’t know about you, but I’m going to get out of this hole even if I’m washed overboard. Primal fear of imprisonment, confining of movement, and all that. Psychological fact. My nerves are in the raw.’ He crawled to the mast, stuck his head out, and then stood up. I lay debating whether to follow him. The wind slackened a bit, and I heard him call.
‘Come on out! Come on out! It’s great. Your viking blood will revel in it. Come on out — I want you to see what a good crew we have, and what a devil of a fine sailor you are.’
At the mast we stood holding on to a halyard apiece, bracing ourselves against the pitching of the ship. There was no one but ourselves abroad. Not a person to man the ship. For a fraction of a second I wondered if the crew had been all washed overboard, and then the truth broke upon me. I looked at Douglas. He was grinning sheepishly.
The skipper and the crew had slept below the whole time. Our junk had been anchored all the night. With four anchors down — we counted them — we had been riding out the storm.