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   Chapter 3 A TALE OF NO MAN’S SEA

Mrs. Falchion, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 14136

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Inside the cabin Hungerford closed the door, gripped me by the arm, and then handed me a cheroot, with the remark: "My pater gave them to me last voyage home. Have kept 'em in tea." And then he added, with no appearance of consecutiveness: "Hang the bally ship, anyhow!"

I shall not attempt to tone down the crudeness of Hungerford's language. It contents me to think that the solidity of his character and his worth will appear even through the crust of free-and-easy idioms, as they will certainly be seen in his acts;-he was sound at heart and true as steel.

"What is the matter, Hungerford?" I asked lighting the cheroot.

"Everything's the matter. Captain, with his nose in the air, and trusting all round to his officers. First officer, no good-never any use since they poured the coal on him. Purser, ought to be on a Chinese junk. Second, third, fourth officers, first-rate chaps, but so-so sailors. Doctor, frivolling with a lovely filly, pedigree not known. Why, confound it! nobody takes this business seriously except the captain, and he sits on a golden throne. He doesn't know that in any real danger this swagger craft would be filled with foolishness. There isn't more than one good boat's crew on board-sailors, lascars, stewards, and all. As for the officers, if the surgeon would leave the lovely ladies to themselves, he'd find cases worth treating, and duties worth doing. He should keep himself fit for shocks. And he can take my word for it-for I've been at sea since I was a kid, worse luck!-that a man with anything to do on a ship ought to travel every day nose out for shipwreck next day, and so on, port to port. Ship-surgeons, as well as all other officers, weren't ordained to follow after cambric skirts and lace handkerchiefs at sea. Believe me or not as you like, but, for a man having work to do, woman, lovely woman, is rocks. Now, I suppose you'll think I'm insolent, for I'm younger than you are, Marmion, but you know what a rough-and-tumble fellow I am, and you'll not mind."

"Well, Hungerford," I said, "to what does this lead?"

"To Number 116 Intermediate, for one thing. It's letting off steam for another. I tell you, Marmion, these big ships are too big. There are those canvas boats. They won't work; you can't get them together. You couldn't launch one in an hour. And as for the use of the others, the lascars would melt like snow in any real danger. There's about one decent boat's crew on the ship, that's all. There! I've unburdened myself; I feel better."

Presently he added, with a shake of the head: "See here: now-a-days we trust too much to machinery and chance, and not enough to skill of hand and brain stuff. I'd like to show you some of the crews I've had in the Pacific and the China Sea-but I'm at it again! I'll now come, Marmion, to the real reason why I brought you here.... Number 116 Intermediate is under the weather; I found him fainting in the passage. I helped him into his cabin. He said he'd been to you to get medicine, and you'd given him some. Now, the strange part of the business is, I know him. He didn't remember me, however-perhaps because he didn't get a good look at me. Coincidence is a strange thing. I can point to a dozen in my short life, every one as remarkable, if not as startling, as this. Here, I'll spin you a yarn:

"It happened four years ago. I had no moustache then, was fat like a whale, and first mate on the 'Dancing Kate', a pearler in the Indian Ocean, between Java and Australia. That was sailing, mind you-real seamanship, no bally nonsense; a fight every weather, interesting all round. If it wasn't a deadly calm, it was a typhoon; if it wasn't either, it was want of food and water. I've seen us with pearls on board worth a thousand quid, and not a drop of water nor three square meals in the caboose. But that was life for men and not Miss Nancys. If they weren't saints, they were sailors, afraid of nothing but God Almighty-and they do respect Him, even when they curse the winds and the sea. Well, one day we were lying in the open sea, about two hundred and fifty miles from Port Darwin. There wasn't a breath of air. The sea was like glass; the sun was drawing turpentine out of every inch of the 'Dancing Kate'. The world was one wild blister. There wasn't a comfortable spot in the craft, and all round us was that staring, oily sea. It was too hot to smoke, and I used to make a Sede boy do my smoking for me. I got the benefit of the smell without any work. I was lying under the droop of a dingey, making the Sede boy call on all his gods for wind, with interludes of smoke, when he chucked his deities and tobacco, and, pointing, shouted, 'Man! man!'

"I snatched a spy-glass. Sure enough, there was a boat on the water. It was moving ever so slowly. It seemed to stop, and we saw something lifted and waved, and then all was still again. I got a boat's crew together, and away we went in that deadly smother. An hour's row and we got within hail of the derelict-as one of the crew said, 'feelin' as if the immortal life was jerked out of us.' The dingey lay there on the glassy surface, not a sign of life about her. Yet I had, as I said, seen something waved. The water didn't even lap its sides. It was ghostly, I can tell you. Our oars licked the water; they didn't attack it. Now, I'm going to tell you something, Marmion, that'll make you laugh. I don't think I've got any poetry in me, but just then I thought of some verses I learned when I was a little cove at Wellington-a devilishly weird thing. It came to me at that moment like a word in my ear. It made me feel awkward for a second. All sailors are superstitious, you know. I'm superstitious about this ship. Never mind; I'll tell you the verses, to show you what a queer thing memory is. The thing was called 'No Man's Sea':

"'The days are dead in the No Man's Sea,

And God has left it alone;

The angels cover their heads and flee,

And the wild four winds have flown.

"'There's never a ripple upon the tide,

There's never a word or sound;

But over the waste the white wraiths glide,

To look for the souls of the drowned.

"'The No Man's Sea is a gaol of souls,

And its gate is a burning sun,

And deep beneath it a great bell tolls

For a death that never is done.

"'Alas! for any that comes anear,

That lies on its moveless breast;

The grumbling water shall be his bier,

And never a place of rest."'

"There are four of the verses. Well, I made a motion to stop the rowing, and was mum for a minute. The men got nervous. They looked at the boat in front of us, and then turned round, as though to see if the 'Dancing Kate' was still in sight. I spoke, and they got more courage. I stood up in the boat, but could see nothing in the dingey. I gave a sign to go on, and soon we were alongside. In the bottom of the dingey lay a man, apparently dead, wearing the clothes of a convict. One of the crew gave a grunt of disgust, the others said nothing. I don't take to men often, and to convicts precious seldom; but th

ere was a look in this man's face which the prison clothes couldn't demoralise-a damned pathetic look, which seemed to say, 'Not guilty.'

"In a minute I was beside him, and found he wasn't dead. Brandy brought him round a little; but he was a bit gone in the head, and muttered all the way back to the ship. I had unbuttoned his shirt, and I saw on his breast a little ivory portrait of a woman. I didn't let the crew see it; for the fellow, even in his delirium, appeared to know I had exposed the thing, and drew the linen close in his fingers, and for a long time held it at his throat."

"What was the woman's face like, Hungerford?" I asked.

He parried, remarking only that she had the face of a lady, and was handsome.

I pressed him. "But did it resemble any one you had ever seen?"

With a slight droop of his eyelids, he said: "Don't ask foolish questions, Marmion. Well, the castaway had a hard pull for life. He wouldn't have lived at all, if a breeze hadn't come up and let us get away to the coast. It was the beginning of the monsoon, and we went bowling down towards Port Darwin, a crowd of Malay proas in our wake. However, the poor beggar thought he was going to die, and one night he told me his story. He was an escaped convict from Freemantle, Western Australia. He had, with others, been taken up to the northern coast to do some Government work, and had escaped in the dingey. His crime was stealing funds belonging to a Squatting and Mining Company. There was this extenuating circumstance: he could have replaced the money, which, as he said, he'd only intended to use for a few weeks. But a personal enemy threw suspicion on him, accounts were examined, and though he showed he'd only used the money while more of his own was on the way to him, the Company insisted on prosecuting him. For two reasons: because it was itself in bad odour, and hoped by this trial to divert public attention from its own dirty position; and because he had against him not only his personal enemy, but those who wanted to hit the Company through him. He'd filched to be able to meet the large expenses of his wife's establishment. Into this he didn't enter minutely, and he didn't blame her for having so big a menage; he only said he was sorry that he hadn't been able to support it without having to come, even for a day, to the stupidity of stealing. After two years he escaped. He asked me to write a letter to his wife, which he'd dictate. Marmion, you or I couldn't have dictated that letter if we'd taken a year to do it. There was no religion in it, no poppy-cock, but straightforward talk, full of sorrow for what he'd done, and for the disgrace he'd brought on her. I remember the last few sentences as if I'd seen them yesterday. 'I am dying on the open sea, disgraced, but free,' he said. 'I am not innocent in act, but I was not guilty of intentional wrong. I did what I did that you should have all you wished, all you ought to have. I ask but this-and I shall soon ask for nothing-that you will have a kind thought, now and then, for the man who always loved you, and loves you yet. I have never blamed you that you did not come near me in my trouble; but I wish you were here for a moment before I go away for ever. You must forgive me now, for you will be free. If I were a better man I would say, God bless you. In my last conscious moments I will think of you, and speak your name. And now good-bye-an everlasting good-bye. I was your loving husband, and am your lover until death.' And it was signed, 'Boyd Madras.'

"However, he didn't die. Between the captain and myself, we kept life in him, and at last landed him at Port Darwin; all of us, officers and crew, swearing to let no one know he was a convict. And I'll say this for the crew of the 'Dancing Kate' that, so far as I know, they kept their word. That letter, addressed in care of a firm of Melbourne bankers, I gave back to him before we landed. We made him up a purse of fifty pounds,-for the crew got to like him,-and left him at Port Darwin, sailing away again in a few days to another pearl-field farther east. What happened to him at Port Darwin and elsewhere, I don't know; but one day I found him on a fashionable steamer in the Indian Ocean, looking almost as near to Kingdom Come as when he starved in the dingey on No Man's Sea. As I said before, I think he didn't recognise me; and he's lying now in 116 Intermediate, with a look on him that I've seen in the face of a man condemned to death by the devils of cholera or equatorial fever. And that's the story, Marmion, which I brought you to hear-told, as you notice, in fine classical style."

"And why do you tell ME this, Hungerford-a secret you've kept all these years? Knowledge of that man's crime wasn't necessary before giving him belladonna or a hot bath."

Hungerford kept back the whole truth for reasons of his own. He said: "Chiefly because I want you to take a decent interest in the chap. He looks as if he might go off on the long voyage any tick o' the clock. You are doctor, parson, and everything else of the kind on board. I like the poor devil, but anyhow I'm not in a position to be going around with ginger-tea in a spoon, or Ecclesiastes under my arm,-very good things. Your profession has more or less to do with the mind as well as the body, and you may take my word for it that Boyd Madras's mind is as sick as his torso. By the way, he calls himself 'Charles Boyd,' so I suppose we needn't recall to him his former experiences by adding the 'Madras.'"

Hungerford squeezed my arm again violently, and added: "Look here, Marmion, we understand each other in this, don't we? To do what we can for the fellow, and be mum."

Some of this looks rough and blunt, but as it was spoken there was that in it which softened it to my ear. I knew he had told all he thought I ought to know, and that he wished me to question him no more, nor to refer to Mrs. Falchion, whose relationship to Boyd Madras-or Charles Boyd-both of us suspected.

"It was funny about those verses coming to my mind, wasn't it, Marmion?" he continued. And he began to repeat one of them, keeping time to the wave-like metre with his cheroot, winding up with a quick, circular movement, and putting it again between his lips:

"'There's never a ripple upon the tide,

There's never a breath or sound;

But over the waste the white wraiths glide,

To look for the souls of the drowned."'

Then he jumped off the berth where he had been sitting, put on his jacket, said it was time to take his turn on the bridge, and prepared to go out, having apparently dismissed Number 116 Intermediate from his mind.

I went to Charles Boyd's cabin, and knocked gently. There was no response. I entered. He lay sleeping soundly-the sleep that comes after nervous exhaustion. I had a good chance to study him as he lay there. The face was sensitive and well fashioned, but not strong; the hands were delicate, yet firmly made. One hand was clinched upon that portion of his breast where the portrait hung.

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