A Ship Goes Down
THE shrieking darkness lay like a mask on the face of the sea. Occasionally a wave towered high, deep black like the loom of an island steep-to and close aboard, to leap out of the night and break with a rumbling roar against the flare of the starboard bow. Sluggish in the seaway, the vessel floundered in the trough, smothering herself under the weight of water that spilled on board to growl among the winches and the deck cargo that was lashed on the forward well. Spray rose in a perpendicular curtain to drive in a whiplash upon the bridge, flashing, for a moment, with iridescence, as the globules of water reflected the green, white, and red of the steaming lights. The night became a fairyland of brilliance, its terrors gone as if before the wave of a magic wand; then the darkness shut in again, was more profound, and the wild ravings of the storm rose in an awesome crescendo.
In oilskins, streaming with water and glistening where the light from the binnacle in the wheelhouse touched them, Captain Oliver Wicksteed stood behind the weather cloth with his arms spread out and his hands clutching the upper bridge rail to steady him against the violent lurching of his vessel. Since midnight he had been there, his eyes peering ahead into the murkiness to watch the vagaries of the storm. If the seas became too high and dangerous or too confused the vessel would have to be hove to. Time would be lost.
And time was valuable. On the previous day a message had come from his owners, ‘to make all possible speed.’
Notwithstanding his anxiety, there was a secret joy in his heart, which increased as the storm grew in violence. On the completion of the voyage he was to retire after forty-five years upon the sea. The owners considered him too old to withstand the rigors of the life. They had scoffed when he protested against their decision. With some heat he had pointed out that he loved the sea, and, although he had been master for thirty years, never an accident had occurred to any of his commands, nor one passenger’s life been lost. It was an enviable record, of which he was proud.
He rejoiced because he was going out on the heels of a gale. It would be something to remember, like the day he first donned the cap with the oak leaves on the visor and walked out on the bridge to take the salute of his officers. There had been other occasions, on the bridges of larger vessels, but none quite like the first. He smiled into the face of the storm at the recollection, and something of its exultation surged through him. Storms came and went so quickly, he thought, like a life born and rushed to its fulfillment and taken away at the height of a squall. He would fare better than the storm. In retirement there would be leisure to proceed peacefully toward the end, and the sea would be at his door to allay the hankering for the life, should it come to him. Footsteps sounded on the wet bridge behind him. He gazed around as the second mate loomed out of the darkness and halted a few feet away, swaying easily to the tumbling of the vessel.
‘Well, mister?' he asked, lowering his head below the top of the weather cloth, out of the wind.
‘Don’t you think she’s hanging over to starboard a bit, sir?’ the second mate shouted.
‘ Hmm! ’
The second mate went on: ‘With all that cargo on the forrard deck I thought I’d better draw your attention to it.’
Captain Wicksteed faced forward again and leaned back to the full extent of his arms to permit his eye to gauge the angle between the foremast and the blurred line of the horizon. It was difficult to do so, for the vessel pitched and rolled with a peculiar corkscrew motion. After a few minutes he looked over his shoulder at his subordinate.
‘She’s over all right, mister,’ he stated, quietly. ‘I had n’t noticed it.’
‘It came on her quite sudden, sir. About fifteen minutes ago.’
Captain Wicksteed held the weather cloth down with his hands so that he could sweep the forward well with his eyes. The starboard rail scooped up the top of a wave, smothering the bulwarks with green water. The deck cargo moved ever so slightly, straining at the lashings. The seas had grown precipitous, dangerous.
‘Whistle down to the engine room and tell them to take the list out of her!’ he ordered curtly, without looking round. ‘They ought to know better than to work the bunkers off the lee side on a night like this!’
The second mate acknowledged the order, made a mental note of the captain’s remark, with which he intended to taunt the engineers when the occasion presented itself, and went into the wheelhouse.
Above the howling of the wind Captain Wicksteed heard the speakingtube whistle sound shrilly in the bowels of the vessel. It was like a voice out of the night assuring him that all was well. At the moment he needed the assurance, for three seas, in quick succession, had flopped on board, hiding the forward well beneath a seething mass of treacherous water. He feared for the heavy deck cargo when the vessel lurched to windward, beam on to the advancing waves.
When he heard the whistle snap back into the upper end of the speaking tube he turned around to meet the second mate, who came hurriedly from the wheelhouse.
‘Are you there, sir?’ the second mate inquired, groping for the rail, his eyes blinded by gazing at the binnacle light. His voice carried an excited pitch.
‘Here, mister!’ Captain Wicksteed said, controlling his impatience.
The second mate swung into the lee beside him. He shouted: ‘The Chief’s down below, sir. He says he can do nothing with her. Water’s coming in and he can’t locate from where. He says the pumps won’t keep it down! ’
With an effort of will Captain Wicksteed overcame the fear that clutched at his heart. He realized his impotence in the face of the overwhelming furies of the storm as he had never done before. The hand of defeat brushed past, in his hour of exultation, and the ice-tipped fingers traced a path upon his spine. Swept into oblivion were his successful years upon the sea. Defeat alone remained, for all to sneer at! He saw, so vividly that it might have been real, his brother shipmasters in the agent’s office discussing, in derogatory terms, the climax of his career. But the reflection passed as quickly as it had come. He was going down in defeat before defeat had come to him. He flung back his shoulders and swung round on the second mate.
‘Tell the chief engineer I want to see him right away! ’ he ordered.
The sound of his own voice, stem and steady, brought back to him the knowledge that he was still in command. It was a stay within his mind, to strengthen the weakened structure of his thoughts. If disaster was imminent, he would have to keep a grip upon himself, he reflected, for courage was the symbol of his rank.
The beam of a flash light cut the murkiness of the night above the boat deck, disclosing a figure groping along toward the bridge between the rope reels and the side-bunker hatches. Captain Wicksteed looked aft, then turned back toward the second mate.
‘Keep an eye on her, mister. I’m going inside to have a word with the Chief.’
Without waiting for the answering ‘Aye, aye, sir!’ he walked deliberately through the wheelhouse into the chart room and switched on the light. Throwing his sou’wester on to the settee, he wiped the spray and rain from his face with a towel which he took from a hook on the bulkhead. He was about to light his pipe when a knock came at the door and it opened. The chief engineer came in, his face smeared with oil and coal dust and an old coat flung over his head and shoulders like a shawl. He shivered and clutched the coat tightly around his neck and raised his elbow to shield his eyes from the brilliant light. The door banged shut behind him as the vessel heeled well over to starboard.
‘Hullo, Mr. Burnham,’ Captain Wicksteed began, striving to speak easily. ‘What’s the trouble down below?’
Mr. Burnham loosened the coat about his neck and let it fall from his head on to his shoulders. He looked the captain square in the eyes as if making an appraisal of his character. What he saw must have satisfied him, for he nodded slightly and said: —
‘Can’t quite say, sir. Water’s floodin’ into the bunkers and washin’ the coal into the bilges. The strums are choked. The juniors are takin’ turns at divin’ down to clear them. The water’s cold an’ she’s in a bloody mess. It’s beginnin’ to look serious, sir.’
‘What do you mean, Chief?’
‘Well, sir, the water’s gainin’ on us and we can’t locate from where it is comin’. I have all the engine-room staff out, too.’
Captain Wicksteed pondered a moment, twirling a pencil between his fingers. A fierce squall shrieked around the chart room. A dollop of spray crashed on the house, and water leaked through the ports to stream across the deck at their feet. The chief engineer adjusted the coat over his head and around his neck.
‘Do your best, Mr. Burnham,’ Captain Wicksteed said. ‘Let me know at once if you think that it is impossible to cope with the water. If you require more men, get some from the chief officer. The chief steward will issue grog and tea to keep you all warm. It’s a dirty night, Chief. Do all you can!’
The chief engineer nodded and went out. ‘A dirty night all right,’ he muttered to himself as the weight of the wind flung upon him. He should have told the ‘old man’ that it was hopeless now, but, he reflected, there was a chance that something might turn up. The leak might choke with coal, or the storm die down to ease the strain upon the hull. There was a chance. . . .
Captain Wicksteed waited until the Chief’s footsteps faded into the night, then he leaned forward with his elbows on the table and gazed at the chart. For the second time that night he realized his impotence in the face of disaster. He was as powerless as a child in its cradle. Somewhere within his vessel, and below the water line, there was a leak. He knew it, yet there was nothing he could do to stop it. He must wait and trust in the ingenuity of his subordinates.
After a while he scribbled a message on a pad, tore off the page, put on his sou’wester, and went back on to the bridge. The second mate came out of the port cab toward him.
‘Call all hands, mister,’ Captain Wicksteed ordered. ‘Tell the chief officer to take the carpenter and bos’n with him and make an inspection of the holds. When the third mate relieves you get down on to the boat deck with the men and clear away the boats. Send this message along to the wireless operator. It’s advising all ships to stand by. We may need assistance. But caution everybody to be calm. I don’t want the passengers to know. It’ll be time enough for them to come on deck when the day is up. That’ll do. Carry on! ’
The second mate sent the quartermaster to carry out the orders. Captain Wicksteed watched him go, and his heart sank dow n into his boots. If there was only something that he could do. He ransacked his memory, striving to recall what other shipmasters had failed to do when the emergency arose, or what they had done to stave off disaster. But his mind was in a fog through which loomed a leak. A leak that grew to Gargantuan proportions in his imagination and swamped him under its irresistible force.
The third mate relieved the second. The chief mate came up on the bridge to make report.
‘The holds are dry, sir,’ he stated. ‘But the water’s gaining in the engine room and stokehold. Everything else is O.K., sir.’ ‘Thanks, Armstrong.’
‘Get everything ready to leave her should it be necessary. At daylight notify the passengers, then muster them on the deck beside the boats.’
‘Very good, sir.’
A lump came into Captain Wicksteed’s throat. Mr. Armstrong’s respect and fearless fidelity to his orders had put it there. It added a prop to his courage, for already he perceived the cross to which he must hang.
The dawn crept furtively into the leaden sky in the wake of a hurricane squall that worked a white pattern on the heaving surface of the gray water. The mist lay close, limiting the range of vision to half a mile or less. The storm grew in strength, although the sea had gone down slightly, which indicated that the Gulf Stream had been crossed. The vessel sped before the wind, yawing wildly, widely, yet drawing nearer and nearer to the coast and the track of shipping.
In the cold gray hours before the dawn Captain Wicksteed realized that therein lay the only chance of their salvation. Although no word had come up from the engine room, he felt that the end was near. His vessel was listing more heavily every minute, and it was only a matter of time before she would be unable to steer.
Standing on the starboard wing of the bridge, looking aft, he saw the passengers come timidly from the entries and the companionways on to the boat deck and fall into their places abreast of their boats. There was no excitement, but on each face there was a fearful resignation that sent a knife thrust into his heart. They had put their trust in him, and he had failed. He turned his face away and looked into the sky to see if God had a message written there for him, a sign of a shift of wind that would clear the mist wraith from the sea, but all he saw was the lowering nimbus and the cold bleak light of the dawn.
Then, as if to press him further into the depth, the engine-room telegraph clanged.
‘ What’s that? ’ he cried.
‘They’ve rung “Stand By,” sir,’ the third mate answered.
‘Answer them!’ he ordered brusquely, knowing all the while just what it meant.
The chief engineer came out of a companionway, the old coat still over his head and around his shoulders, and wearily ascended the ladder to the bridge. His trousers, where they showed, were black with coal muck and saturated with oil, and his face was gaunt, wild-eyed.
A hurricane gust swept over the vessel as he cleared the lee of the wheelhouse. Gelid spray drenched him to the skin. To free his eyes he loosened the grip on his coat. It bellied in the wind, tailed out like a flag, and carried him against the rails, where he remained fighting to retrieve the covering for his head and shoulders.
To Captain Wicksteed, clinging to the rails further to windward, he seemed like the angel of death come to pay a call. He had seen such a picture somewhere, so terrifying in its reality. But he forced the recollection from his mind and braced back his shoulders as the chief engineer recovered his coat and his composure and came down the slanting deck toward him.
‘Well, Mr. Burnham?’ he asked, fearfully.
‘It’s like this, sir,’ the chief engineer began. ‘ We — we — we — ’
‘Don’t quibble, Chief! Out with it!’
The chief engineer shivered and seemed to shrivel up beneath his coat.
‘We’ll have to leave the engine room, sir,’ he said. ‘The water’s nearly up to the fires. I’m sorry, sir—’
‘Nothing to be sorry about, Mr. Burnham,’ Captain Wicksteed said, endeavoring to put a bluffness into his voice which he did not feel. ‘I know you all did what you could. It’s a pity, though, a pity. A few hours more might have helped. Tell your men to get on their warmest clothing and stand by the boats.’
‘I’ll have to stop her, sir.’
‘I understand that. Do so when you go below.’
The chief engineer nodded and turned away, but when he reached the top of the ladder he halted and gazed at the passengers mustering near the boats. His right foot went out to begin the descent, but instead of doing so he placed it on the bridge and retraced his footsteps. Close to Captain Wicksteed he halted again and cleared his throat nervously.
‘Mebbe I’ll not see you again, sir,’ he stated. ‘It looks bad.’
He held out his hand as he continued, ‘I’ll say good-bye, sir. It’s been a pleasure to sail with you.'
Captain Wicksteed freed one hand from the rail and squeezed the thin fingers of his shipmate. A lump grew within his throat.
‘Thanks, Chief,’ he said. ‘If we are saved it’ll be due to the efforts of you and your men. You did your best, I know. You’re an honor to the profession. Do your best now to save the passengers entrusted to your care in your boat. Good-bye.’
‘I will that, sir. Good-bye.’
Captain Wicksteed followed the chief engineer with his eyes as he walked quickly toward the companionway. He felt unutterably alone. Around him there were rising the walls of tradition over which there was no escape. Did he want to escape? He was not sure. Though death was so near, it seemed a long way off. There were so many other things now to think about.
He beckoned to the third mate, who was standing in the centre of the bridge, clutching the midship stanchion.
’Ask the wireless operator the names of the vessels he’s in touch with, and how far they are away,’he shouted.
The third mate went through the wheelhouse to the telephone in the chart room.
One thought was now uppermost in Captain Wicksteed’s mind. At all costs he must save the lives of all the passengers. The vessel would sink, of that he was certain, for already she was floundering heavily in the trough, but she could be replaced. The lives of his passengers were invaluable. His duty was to them.
The third mate came out of the wheelhouse and slid down the wet deck toward him.
‘The operator says he can’t get through the static, sir,’ he shouted. ‘The current has been shut off and he’s using the batteries. The power from them does n’t carry very far!’
‘My God!’ Captain Wicksteed muttered under his breath. Aloud he said: ‘Tell him to send out an SOS, using the six o’clock position. It will be near enough.’
The words had but left his lips when the engine-room telegraph indicator swung, with a clang, to ‘Stop.’ The vessel ceased to vibrate and lay dead in the seaway.
‘Sing out when she won’t steer!’ he shouted to the man at the wheel. Picking up a megaphone that had been lashed to the rail near him earlier in the morning, he put it to his mouth and faced the passengers mustered below on the boat deck.
‘The vessel has been stopped,’ he shouted. ‘She may roll very heavily when she falls into the trough. Watch out! Hang on to the storm rails!’
Everyone faced the bridge at the sound of his voice, which carried above the howling of the gale. He looked over their heads, away into the distance, for he was afraid of what he might see if he looked down. They were blaming him, he knew, and he suffered. He wanted to tell them that the cause of their plight was circumstances over which he had no control and not an error of judgment. But what would be the use, he thought. He was the master, and his the responsibility whatever happened.
From the corner of his eye he caught the foaming crest of a wave that towered high on the beam. It shut out the glint on the murky horizon, and a shadow, dark like the night of a squall, fell upon the vessel.
He gazed quickly into the eye of the wind, perceived the danger.
‘Hold on! Hold on!’ he yelled, waving his arms frantically to encourage the passengers below to action.
The wave reached the starboard side. The vessel came up to an even keel on the slanting volume of mad water. She staggered and shook, smothered herself fore and aft, broached to. Then down she flopped on to her beam ends!
Captain Wicksteed lost his balance. His voice, still yelling encouragement to all hands to hold on for their lives, ended in an incoherent shout as, with a gasp, he fell on his stomach and crashed in a heap into the starboard cab. The crest of the wave flopped in through the open window and covered him.
For a moment he thought the end had come. He was filled with a quiet content. Death had no terrors now. It was cold and wet, that was all. Then, rolling over in the cab, he saw the bridge, the wheelhouse, the murkiness that was the sky, and the third mate gazing fearfully from the centre of the bridge toward him. Death was not so easy after all. A thought struck him! He was forgetting!
In a second he was on his feet fighting his way hand over hand up the rail toward where the third mate stood clinging desperately to the stanchion, afraid to leave his post until the order had been given, and yet afraid to stay.
‘Anybody lost?’ Captain Wicksteed shouted, his voice vibrant with anxiety.
‘The after starboard boat carried away, sir. Two men in it. That’s all!’ the third mate answered.
‘Passengers or crew?’
Captain Wicksteed sighed with relief as he pulled himself erect and looked aft. Away over the stern, already almost obscured by the mist, a lifeboat drifted with what looked like a man clinging to the keel.
‘Do you want the mate to send a boat after them? ’ the third mate asked.
‘No!’ Captain Wicksteed spoke curtly. More lives would be lost in the attempt, he thought. Perhaps also a boat, and all were required. Anyway, members of the crew were paid to be drowned if the emergency demanded it. It was a part of their duty. Passengers paid for safety. He wished, though, that the third mate had n’t asked the question. It was stupid of him, but he was young.
Freeing one hand from the rail, Captain Wicksteed wiped the salt, water from his face. The wind, blowing against his wet clothing, made him shiver, and he wondered if the third mate was thinking he was shaking with fear; there was a queer look in his eyes. It was with difficulty that he could stand, too, for the vessel was lying so far over. Must be all of twenty-five degrees, he thought. Something must be done. At all costs he must maintain his position, his dignity, no matter what happened.
‘Sing out to the chief officer!’ he shouted. ‘Then get me a couple of fathoms of line.’
The third mate disappeared behind the wheelhouse with alacrity. Almost instantly Mr. Armstrong came on to the bridge.
‘Yes, sir?’ he inquired, his eyes bright with excitement, yet devoid of fear.
Perceiving the eager face before him, a glow of pride surged over Captain Wicksteed. He knew that anything he gave this man to do would be done efficiently, and with dispatch.
‘Cut away the deck cargo on the forward well, Armstrong,’ he said quietly. ‘Then lower the starboard boats and pass them around to the lee side. We’ll load them from there.’
‘But won’t the deck cargo smash the hatches, sir?’
‘Perhaps; better the deck cargo than the sea, Armstrong. I want to get some of the top-hamper off her — to bring her up a bit. It will help a little when getting the boats away. It can be done without doing too much damage?’
‘Yes, sir. Very good, sir.’
Mr. Armstrong saluted smartly, pulled himself up the slanting bridge, and swung away easily in the exuberance of his youth.
The third mate came out of the wheelhouse with a length of line. Captain Wicksteed took it from him, and, walking up into the port wing, he made one end of it fast to the upper bridge rail. The other he passed twice around his body and then hitched it beside the first. Being on the high side of his vessel, he was in a position now to keep an eye upon the boat deck and, no matter to what angle she heeled, he could remain upright without holding on.
Very soon, he realized, the lifeboats must leave. Perhaps even now they should be away. But two reasons encouraged him to delay. The sea was going down. Every minute he waited might mean the saving of a life, a passenger’s life. And he knew that it was much safer to be on a large vessel, though sinking, than in a lifeboat suspended from its davits and swinging out over the sea. So with agony furrowed deeply on his face he waited, gazing to leeward for the first signs of a lessening of the wind.
From behind him there came the crash of the dock cargo as it went by the board. The vessel came up a little, though not so very much. Mr. Armstrong bustled on to the boat deck, followed by his sailormen. They tackled the weather boats while the passengers gazed on their activity with calm, tired eyes. The hours of waiting were beginning to show upon their faces.
One by one the boat falls were cut, sending the heavy boats splashing into the sea. A chance had to be taken. With the painters they were passed around the stern and allowed to drift down to leeward. Only one was smashed in the passing.
When the work was done Mr. Armstrong came up the ladder on to the bridge.
‘All ready, sir,’ he reported; ‘I don’t think she’ll last much longer, sir. She’s over now to thirty degrees!’
Captain Wicksteed felt the same about it. He hesitated to speak, while gazing into the face before him. He saw eager eyes, brimful of courage. Such a man now he needed to carry out his final instructions. Once the passengers were in the lifeboats they would be in charge of his subordinate. He must remain alone on his vessel until she went down.
‘ Ask the wireless operator what news he has,’ he said, very quietly. He could have asked the third mate to execute the order, but he wanted to hang on to this youth for but a moment more. Life was racing away from him, racing fast on the wings of the wind.
Mr. Armstrong clung to the jamb of the wheelhouse door and shouted across the bridge.
‘There’s a vessel close by, sir — the Norman Star. She’s got a radio bearing of us, but she’s hemmed in by the mist and rain and afraid to proceed at full speed in case of collision. The operator says she’s coming in very loud, sir.’
‘Good!’ Captain Wicksteed answered . ‘ Come here! ’
He went on as Mr. Armstrong swung over beside him: ‘Load the boats and get them away. Be quick about it, but don’t hurry! Pass orders on to all men in charge that they must not lose sight of this vessel until she goes down. Then they must all keep in sight of each other. The mist will swallow them up if they get separated. D’you understand ? ’
‘ Very good! Carry on! ’
The order was as irrevocable as it was emphatic. He had taken the lives of the passengers from the hands of fate into his own. He was sending them from one danger into another. He wondered if God would stand behind him and see him through. And he wondered what Mary would think of him when he did n’t come home.
He had tried so hard to keep her out of his mind, but she was always there. She had asked him the question that was troubling him now. Only once had she asked him, but he knew it was always at the back of her head, like a sore that would not heal.
It had been on the night of his return home from the sea after his first voyage in command. A passenger vessel had gone down while he was away.
He recalled the incident vividly. It was in the dark of night. They lay together in the great soft bed that always seemed so large to him after sleeping in a bunk so long. He thought she was asleep, she was so quiet.
Suddenly she asked, and he could hear her voice whispering again in his ear: ‘Oliver! What would you do if your vessel was going down? Would you go down with her, or would you come home to me?’
He had hesitated too long.
‘What would you do, Oliver?’ Her voice had been wistful, scarcely more than a whisper.
‘I —I don’t know.’
She had wept a little, very quietly. He turned away to hide the perplexity in his eyes. Women thought of such disturbing questions to ask!
It had all been so long ago — almost thirty years. Perhaps time had healed the ache within her heart, and she would understand the inexorability of his duty. He should have tried to explain it to her, but he never thought — It was too late now.
With an effort of will he shut her from his thoughts and turned toward the third mate.
‘Get down to your boat, mister. Remember your orders and carry them through! ’
‘Yes, sir! Good-bye, sir!’ the third mate answered, scrambling down the ladder like a monkey, so steeply was it suspended over the sea.
‘Good luck to you, mister!’ Captain Wicksteed shouted after him, and there was a bitter note in his voice. They were leaving him, every one of them, and eager to be away like prisoners released from gaol.
But the cynicism passed as quickly as it had come. Who was he to blame them for clutching at life, while yet there was a hope on which to cling? Youth had so much ahead, and age so little. He had been eager too, like them.
He braced back his shoulders and looked along the boat deck. The boats were getting away without mishap. A lull had come in the wind. It was as well, for the list had increased until the water lapped over the bridge when the vessel sank down in the trough. She was settling fast. The buoyancy was entirely out of her. He could feel the weight of the water within the hull surging about as she heaved and fell listlessly, as if eager for the end.
Mr. Armstrong pulled himself up the ladder, stopped at the top with his legs astride, one foot jammed against the wheelhouse to brace him against the list, his hands gripping the rail to prevent him from crashing into the starboard cab. His oilskins were off. His face was flushed with exertion, his eyes bright with the pride of what he had accomplished.
‘All boats are safely away, sir,’ he cried. ‘Your boat is waiting alongside, sir.’
‘Tell them to push off, Armstrong. Take charge of it.’
Captain Wicksteed saw that Mr. Armstrong understood. Bright chap, Armstrong. Smart chap! He’d get a command soon. It was inevitable.
But Mr. Armstrong was speaking.
‘Good luck to you, sir!’ he cried, and, with a wave of his hand, he swung on to the deck below.
Captain Wicksteed saw him jump for a tackle fall and slide down into the boat that waited below. He felt very much alone. He would have liked to send a message to Mary, to tell her that he had been detained on board. But it was too late now. Armstrong had said ‘Good luck’ and not ‘Goodbye.’ Perhaps a bit of luck awaited him yet. A change of wind was imminent. A cold breath touched his cheeks. A clearance might disclose the Norman Star close to, seeking them.
As if to subdue the hope that had sprung within him, the vessel vibrated throughout her length, steadied, then lurched over full upon her beam ends, suspending him by the rope around his waist over the leaping seas. Somewhere, deep down within her, something carried away with an ominous rumbling. Water flung from the engineroom skylights and the fiddley gratings to join that of the sea.
The end was very near. He gazed apathetically on the cold gray water. He had beaten it, saved from its impenetrable depth his passengers. Within an hour they would be safe on board the vessel that waited behind the mist wraith. Of triumph he felt none. Why should he? Soon he would be dead, joined in death to the command of which he had been so proud.
A squall whistled down, black and fierce. The spray and rain drove into his face. He wiped them from his eyes and looked along the length of his vessel. She was queer, lying on her side, and sinking. He thought of the boats. He imagined them away to leeward, drifting in all directions before the wind.
‘Fools!’ he cried.
A madness possessed him. They must come back! What he had waited for would be lost! Perhaps there was still steam on the siren? Frantically he struggled with the knots of the rope around his waist. But the weight of his body tightened them, and the rain and spray had swollen the manila of which they were made. They would not give beneath the pressure of his fingers.
‘ Come back! Come back! ’ he yelled, but his voice was swallowed up in the howling of the squall.
Suddenly he ceased to struggle. Through the curtain of the squall there loomed the outline of a vessel. She could not be more than a quarter of a mile away! She grew in magnitude. A whiff of steam trailed out against the background of mist. They had sighted his vessel. The signal put a cheer within his heart.
Why should he die? His duty was done. He felt in his pockets for a knife, but there was none. He tried to look to leeward, but the deck towered above him, slowly heaving over.
Where were the boats? He willed them to come back! Even now he might be saved.
‘Oh, God!’ he cried, gazing upward. ‘Help me!’
He saw, as if in answer to his cry, a rift in the murk wraith of the storm and, beyond it, the blue sky shining through. It was the eye of God, his God, watching him. In a minute, he knew, the clearance would come.
A great peace came to him. His passengers would be saved. What else mattered? He was very old and weary, and his work was done.
The starboard cab went under the water. A wave leapt up, into his face. He wound his legs around a stanchion, spread out his arms, and gripped the upper rail with his hands. Twisting round in the lashing about his waist, he looked upward toward the blue sky that was ever widening, and he whispered his thanks to God.
The grayness had gone from the sea. It was blue and very warm. It reached up, embraced him.
‘Good-bye.’ The word was scarcely audible. Hew was thinking of Mary.
He thought the officers on the other vessel would see him hanging in the lashing. He tried to stand erect, but the feet went from under him. He thought of a line of poetry he had learned in his youth: —
The vessel capsized and went down.