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   Chapter 21 No.21

Jaffery By William John Locke Characters: 28497

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Luckily, I have kept most of Jaffery's letters written to me from all quarters of the globe. Excepting those concerned with the voyage of the S.S. Vesta, they were rare phenomena. Ordinarily, if I heard from him thrice a year I had to consider that he was indulging in an orgy of correspondence. But what with Doria and Adrian and Liosha, and what with Barbara and myself being so intimately mixed up in the matters which preoccupied his mind, the voyage of the Vesta covered a period of abnormal epistolary activity. Instead of a wife, our amateur sailor found a post office at every port. He wrote reams. He had the journalist's trick of instantaneous composition. Like the Ouidaesque hero, who could ride a Derby Winner with one hand, and stroke a University Crew to victory with the other, Jaffery could with one hand hang on to a rope over a yawning abyss, while with the other he could scribble a graphic account of the situation on a knee-supported writing-pad. In ordinary circumstances-that is to say in what, to Jaffery, were ordinary circumstances-he performed these literary gymnastics for the sake of his newspaper; but the voyage of the Vesta was an exceptional affair. Save incidentally-for he did send descriptive articles to The Daily Gazette-he was not out on professional business. The gymnastics were performed for my benefit-yet with an ulterior motive. He had sailed away, not on a job, but to satisfy a certain nostalgia, to escape from civilisation, to escape from Doria, to escape from desire and from heartache . . . and the deeper he plunged into the fatness of primitive life, the closer did the poor ogre come to heartache and to desire. He wrote spaciously, in the foolish hope that I would reply narrowly, following a Doria scent laid down with the na?veté of childhood. I received constant telegrams informing me of dates and addresses-I who, Jaffery out of England, never knew for certain whether he was doing the giant's stride around the North Pole or horizontal bar exercise on the Equator. It was rather pathetic, for I could give him but little comfort.

Besides the letters, he (and Liosha) deluged us with photographs taken chiefly by the absurd second mate, from which it was possible to reconstruct the S.S. Vesta in all her dismalness. You have seen scores of her rusty, grimy congeners in any port in the world. You have only to picture an old, two-masted, well-decked tramp with smokestack and foul clutter of bridge-house amidships, and fore and aft a miserable bit of a deck broken by hatches and capstans and donkey-engines and stanchions and chains and other unholy stumbling blocks and offences to the casual promenader. From the photographs and letters I learned that the dog-hole, intended by the Captain for Jaffery, but given over to Liosha, was away aft, beneath a kind of poop and immediately above the scrunch of the propeller; and that Jaffery, with singular lack of privacy, bunked in the stuffy, low cabin where the officers took their meals and relaxations. The more vividly did they present the details of their life, the more heartfelt were my thanksgivings to a merciful Providence for having been spared so dreadful an experience.

Our two friends, however, found indiscriminate joy in everything; I have their letters to prove it. And Jaffery especially found perpetual enjoyment in the vagaries of Liosha. For instance, here is an extract from one of his letters:

"It's a grand life, my boy! You're up against realities all the time. Not a sham within the horizon. You eat till you burst, work till you sleep, and sleep till you're kicked awake. You should just see Liosha. Maturin says he has only met one other woman sailor like her, and that was the daughter of a trader sailing among the Islands, who had lived all her life since birth on his ship and had scarcely slept ashore. She's as much born to it as any shell-back on board. She has the amazing gift of looking part of the tub, like the stokers and the man at the wheel. Unlike another woman, she's never in the way, and the more work you can give her to do, the happier she is. She's in magnificent health and as strong as a horse. At first the hands didn't know what to make of her; now she's friends with the whole bunch. The difficulty is to keep her from overfamiliar intercourse with them, for though she signed on as cook's mate, she eats in the cabin with the officers, and between the cabin and the fo'c'sle lies a great gulf. They come and tell her about their wives and their girls and what rotten food they've got-'Everybody has got rotten food on board ship, you silly ass!' quoth Liosha. 'What do you expect-sweetbreads and ices?'-and what soul-shattering blighters they've shipped with, and what deeds of heroism (mostly imaginary) they have performed in pursuit of their perilous calling. They're all children, you know, when you come to the bottom of them, these hell-tearing fellows-children afflicted with a perpetual thirst and a craving to punch heads-and Liosha's a child, too; so there's a kind of freemasonry between them.

"There was the devil's own row in the fo'c'sle the other evening. The first mate went to look into it and found Liosha standing enraptured at the hatch looking down upon a free fight. There were knives about. The mate, being a blasphemous and pugilistic dog, soon restored order. Then he came up to Liosha-you and Barbara should have seen her-it was sultry, not a breath of air-and she just had on a thin bodice open at her throat and the sleeves rolled up and a short ragged skirt and was bareheaded.

"'Why the Hades didn't you stop 'em, missus?'

"For some reason or the other, the whole ship's company, except the skipper and myself, call her 'missus.' She gazed on him like an ox-eyed Juno; you know her way.

"'Why should I interfere with their enjoyment?'

"'Enjoyment-!' he gasped. 'Oh, my Gawd!' He flung out his arms and came over to me. I was smoking against the taffrail. 'There they was trying to cut one another's throats, and she calls it enjoyment.'

"He went off spluttering. I watched Liosha. A Dutchman-what you would call a Swede-a hulking beggar, came up from the fo'c'sle very much the worse for wear. Liosha says:

"'Mr. Andrews was very angry, Petersen.'

"He grinned. 'He was, missus.'

"'What was it all about?'

"He explained in his sea-English, which is not the English of that mildewed Boarding House in South Kensington. Bill Figgins had called him a --, he had retaliated, and the others had taken a hand, too."

It is I who suppress the actual words reported by Jaffery. But, believe me, they were enough to annoy anybody.

"She shouted down the stairway. 'Here you, Bill Figgins, come on deck for a minute.'

"A lean, wiry, black-looking man-spawn of the Pool of London, emerged.

"'what's the matter?'

"Why did you call Petersen a --?' she asked pleasantly and word-perfect.

"'Cos he is one.'

"'He isn't,' said Liosha. 'He's a very nice man. And so are you. And you both fought fine; I was looking on, and I was mad not to see the end of it. But Mr. Andrews doesn't like fighting. So see here, if you two don't shake hands, right now, and make friends and promise not to fight again, I'll not speak a word to either of you for the rest of the voyage.'

"If I had tackled them like this, hefty chap that I am, they would have consigned me to a shambles of perdition. And if any other woman had attempted it, even our valiant Barbara, they would have told her in perhaps polite, but anyhow forcible, terms to mind her own business. In either case they would have resented to the depths of their simple souls the alien interference. But with Liosha it was different. Of course sex told. Naturally. But she was a child like themselves. She had looked on, placidly, and had caught the flash of knives without turning a hair. They felt that if she were drawn into a mêlée she would use a knife with the best of them. I'm panning out about this, because it seems so deuced interesting and I should like to know what you and Barbara think. Do you remember Gulliver? For all the world it was like Glumdalclitch making the peace between two little nine-year-old Brobdingnagians. The two men looked at each other sheepishly. Half a dozen grinning heads appeared at the fo'c'sle hatch. You never saw anything so funny in your life. At last the lean Bill Figgins stuck out his hand sideways to the Dutchman, without looking at him.

"'All right, mate.'

"And the Swede shook it heartily, and the grimy hands cried 'Bravo, missus!' and Liosha, turning and catching sight of me just a bit abaft the funnel beneath the bridge, for the first time, swung up the deck towards me, as pleased as Punch."

* * *

Here is another extract. . . . Well, wait for a minute.

Jaffery's letters are an embarrassment of riches. If I printed them in full they would form a picturesque handbook to the coast of the African continent from Casablanca in Morocco, all the way round by the Cape of Good Hope to Port Said. But Jaffery, in his lavish way, duplicated these travel-pictures in articles to The Daily Gazette, which, supplemented by memory, he has already published in book form for all the world to read. Therefore, if I recorded his impressions of Grand Bassam, Cape Lopez, Boma, Matadi, Delagoa Bay, Montirana, Mombasa and other apocalyptic places, I should be merely plagiarising or infringing copyright, or what-not; and in any case I should be introducing matter entirely irrelevant to this chronicle. You must just imagine the rusty Vesta wallowing along, about nine knots an hour, around Africa, disgorging cotton goods and cheap jewelry at each God-forsaken port, and making up cargo with whatever raw material could find a European market. If I had gone this voyage, I would tell you all about it; but you see, I remained in England. And if I subjected Jaffery's correspondence to microscopic examination, and read up blue books on the exports and imports of all the places on the South African coast line, and told you exactly what was taken out of the S.S. Vesta and what was put into her, I cannot conceive your being in the slightest degree interested. To do so, would bore me to death. To me, cargo is just cargo. The transference of it from ship to shore and from shore to ship is a matter of awful noise and perspiring confusion. I have travelled, in so-called comfort, as a first-class passenger to Africa. I know all about it. Generally, the ship cannot get within quarter of a mile of the shore. On one side of it lies a fleet of flat-bottomed lighters manned by glistening and excited negroes. On board is a donkey-engine working a derrick with a Tophetical clatter. Vast bales and packing cases are lifted from the holds. A dingily white-suited officer stands by with greasy invoice sheets, while another at the yawning abyss whence the cargo emerges makes the tropical day hideous with horrible imprecations. And the merchandise swings over the side and is received in the lighter, by black uplifted arms, in the midst of a blood-curdling babel of unmeaning ferocity. That is all that unloading cargo means to me; and I cannot imagine that it means any more to any of the sons or daughters of men who are not intimately concerned in a particular trade. . . . You must imagine, I say, the S.S. Vesta repeating this monotonous performance; Jaffery and Liosha and the little, black-bearded skipper, all clad in decent raiment, going ashore, and being entertained scraggily or copiously by German, French, Portuguese, English, fever-eyed commissioners, who took them on the tour du propriétaire, among the white wooden government buildings, the palm-covered huts of the natives, and shewed them the Mission Chapels and the new Custom Houses and the pigeon-like fowls and the little dirty naked nigger children, and the exiguity of their stock of glass and china, and the yearning of their souls for the fleshpots of the respective Egypts to which they belonged. You must imagine this. If anything relevant to the story of Jaffery, which, as you will remember, is all that I have to relate, happened at any of these ports, I should tell you. I should have chapter and verse for it in Jaffery's letters. But as far as I can make out, the moment they put foot on shore, they behaved like the best-conducted globe-trotters who dwell habitually in a semi-detached residence in Peckham Rye. I know Jaffery will be furious when he reads this. But great is the Truth, and it shall prevail. It was on the sea, away from ports and mission stations and exiles hungering for the last word of civilisation, and shore-going clothes, that life as depicted by Jaffery swelled with juiciness; and to my taste, the juiciest parts of his letters are those humoristically concerned with the doings of Liosha.

As to his hopeless passion for Doria, he says very little. When Jaffery put pen to paper he was objective, loving to describe what he saw and letting what he felt go hang. In consequence the shy references to Doria were all the more poignant by reason of their rarity. But Liosha was the central figure in many a picture.

Here, I say, is another extract:

"Liosha continues to thrive exceedingly. But there's one thing that worries me about her. What the blazes are we going to do with her after this voyage? No doubt she would like to keep on going round and round Africa for the rest of her life. But I can't go with her. I must get back and begin to earn my living. And I don't see her settling down to afternoon tea and respectability again. I think I'll have to set her up as a gipsy with a caravan and a snarling tyke for company. How a creature with her physical energy has managed to lie listless for all these months I can't imagine. It shews strength of character anyway. But I don't see her putting in another long stretch. . . .

"She has taken her position as cook's mate seriously, and shares the galley with the cook, a sorrow-stricken little Portugee whose wife ran away with another man during the last trip. He pours out his woes to her while she wipes away the tears from the lobscouse. I don't know how she stands it, for even I, who've got a pretty strong stomach, dra

w the line at the galley. But she loves it. Now and again, when it's my watch-I'm on the starboard watch, you know-I see her turn out in the morning at two bells. She stands for a few moments right aft of her cabin-door, and fills her lungs. And the wind tugs at her hair beneath her cap, and at her skirts, and the spindrift from the pale grey sea of dawn stings at her face; and then she lurches like a sailor down the wet, slanting deck-and I can tell you, she looks a devilish fine figure of a woman. And soon afterwards there comes from the galley the smell of bacon and eggs-my son, if you don't know the conglomerate smell of fried bacon and eggs, bilge water, and the salt of the pure early morning ocean, your ideas of perfume are rudimentary. She and the Portugee between them, he contributing the science and she the good-will, give us excellent grub; of course you would turn your nose up at it-but you've never been hungry in your life! and there hasn't been a grumble in the cabin. Maturin has offered her the permanent job. Certainly she looks after us and attends to our comforts in a way sailor men on tramps aren't accustomed to. She's a great pal of the second mate's and at night they play spoiled-five at a corner of the table, with the greasiest pack of cards you ever saw, and she's perfectly happy.

"Now and again we discuss the future, without arriving at any result. A day or two ago I chaffed her about marriage. She considered the matter gravely.

"'I guess I'll have to. I'm twenty-four. But I haven't had much luck so far, have I?'

"I replied: 'You won't always strike wrong 'uns.'

"'I don't know what kind of a man I'm going to strike,' she said. 'Not any of those little billy-goats in dinner jackets I used to meet at Mrs. Jardine's. No, sirree. And no more Ras Fendihooks!'

"She rose-we had been sitting on the cabin sky-light-and leaned over the taffrail and looked wistfully out to sea. I joined her. She was silent for a bit. Then she said:

"'I guess I'm not going to marry at all; for I'm not going to marry a man I don't love, and I couldn't love a man who couldn't beat me-and there ain't many. That's the kind of fool way I'm built.'

"She turned and left me. I suppose she meant it. Liosha doesn't talk through her hat. But if she ever does fall in love with a man who can beat her, there'll be the devil to pay. Liosha in love would be a tornado of a spectacle. But I shouldn't like it. Honest-I shouldn't like it. I've got so used to this clean great Amazon of a Liosha, that I should loathe the fellow were he as decent a sort as you please."

It is curious to observe how, as the voyage proceeded, Jaffery's horizon gradually narrowed to the small shipboard circle, just as an invalid's interests become circumscribed by the walls of his sick-room. He tells us of childish things, a catch of fish, a quarrel between the first and second mate over Liosha, second having accused first of a disrespectful attitude towards the lady, the sail-cloth screen rigged up aft behind which Liosha had her morning tub of sea-water, the stubbing of Liosha's toe and her temporary lameness, the illness of the Portugee cook and Liosha's supremacy in the galley. And he wrote it all with the air of the impresario vaunting the qualities of his prima donna, nay more-with a fatuous air of proprietorship, as though he himself had created Liosha.

Here is the beginning of another letter, addressed to us both:

"A thousand thanks, dearest people, for what you tell me of Doria. If she just misses me a little bit, all may be well. I've bought some jolly gold barbaric ornaments that she may accept when I reach home; and do try to persuade her that the poor old bear is rough only on the outside.

"Things going on just as usual. Liosha has got a monkey given her by the donkey-man. . . .

There follows a description of the monkey and its antics, and a long account of a chase all over the ship, in which all the ship's company including the captain took part, to the subversion of discipline and navigation. But you see-he switches off at once to Liosha and the trivial records of the humdrum day.

At last he had something less trivial to write about. They were in the Mozambique Channel, making for Madagascar:

"Now that this darned cabin table is comparatively straight, I can scribble a few lines to you. We've had a beast of a time. The dirtiest weather ever since we left Beira and the cranky old tub rolling and pitching and standing on her head as I've never known ship do before. Consequence was the cargo got shifted and there was a list to port, so that every time she ducked that side, she shipped half the channel. Skies black as thunder and the sea the colour of inky water. We had the devil's own job getting the cargo straight. Just imagine a black rolling dungeon full of great packing cases weighing about half a ton each all gone murderous mad. Just imagine getting down among them, as practically all hands had to do, save the engine-room, and sweating and fighting and straining and lashing for hour after hour. And half the time the port side of the lame old duck under water. How she didn't turn turtle is known only to Allah and Maturin; and One is great and the other's a damned fine sailor. Of course, I had to go down into the inferno of the hold like the others. Part of the day's work; but I didn't like it; no one liked it.

"When the order was given all hands tumbled up to the hatchway and began swarming down the iron ladder. It was a swaying, staggering crowd. When you stand on a wet deck at an angle of forty-five degrees one way and thirty degrees another and constantly shifting both angles, with nothing but a rope lashed athwart the ship to catch hold of, your mind is pretty well concentrated on yourself. I know mine was. I slipped and wallowed on my belly hanging on to the rope like grim death till my turn came for the ladder. I got my feet on the rungs. I was all right, when looking up into the livid daylight whom do you think I saw calmly preparing to follow me? Liosha. I hadn't noticed her. She had sea-boots and a jersey and looked just like a man. I roared:

"'Clear out. This is no place for you.'

"'I'm coming. Go along down.'

"She put her foot on the rung just below my face. I gripped as much of her ankle as the stiff leather allowed.

"'Clear out. Don't be a fool.'

"Andrews, the first mate, poured out a flood of blasphemy. What the this, that and the other were we waiting for?

"'Mr. Andrews,' I shouted, 'send this woman to her cabin.'

"'Oh, go to hell! Tumble down every one of you, or I'll damn soon make you,' cried Andrews.

"He was in a vile temper, being responsible for the snugness of the cargo, and the cargo lay about as snug as a dormitory of devils. He was sorry afterwards, poor chap, for his lack of courtesy, but at the moment he didn't care who went down into the hold, or who was killed, so long as this infernal cargo was righted and the crazy old tub didn't go down.

"So I descended. It was ordained. Liosha followed. And once down we were carried away out of ourselves by a nightmare of toil and peril. Andrews and second were there yelling orders. We obeyed in some subconscious way. How we heard I don't know. For peace and quiet give me a battlefield. Twenty men in semi-darkness, scarce able to stand, fighting blind, mad forces of half a ton each. The huge crates of deal seemed so innocent and harmless on the quay-side, but charging about that swaying, rocking lower deck, they looked malignant, like grimy blocks of Hell's anger. I don't know what I did. All I can say is that I never before felt my muscles about to snap-queer feeling that-and I think I'm about as tough as they make 'em.

"Liosha worked as well as any man in the bunch. I only caught sight of her now and then . . . you see what we had to do, don't you? . . . We had to secure all these infernal things that were running amuck and ease up the rest of the cargo that had got jammed on the port side. There were accidents. Three or four were knocked out. Petersen, the Swede, had his leg crushed. I don't know what was wrong at the time. He was working next me, and a roll of the ship brought an ugly crate over him. He couldn't get up. He looked ghastly. So I took him on my back and clawed my way up the iron ladder and reached the deck somehow, and staggered along, barging into everything-it was blowing half a gale-and once I fell and he screamed like a pig, poor devil. But I picked him up and got him into the fo'c'sle and stuck him in a bunk. The Portugee cook, sick of fever-I think he's a blighted malingerer-was the only creature there. I routed him out, in the dim mephitic place reeking of sour bedding, and put Petersen in his charge. Then I went back through the drenching seas to the hatch. There was just enough room for a man's body to squeeze through down the ladder. I went down into the same hell-broth of sweat and confusion. The ground you stood upon might have been the back of a super-Titanic butterfly. Stability was a nonexistent term. It was a helpless scuttering surge of men and vast wooden cubes. Most of the men had torn off their upper garments and fought half naked, the sweat glistening on their skins in the feeble light. Soon the heat became unbearable and I too tore off jersey and shirt. Liosha joined me and we worked together without speaking. Her long thick hair had come down and she had hastily tied it in a knot, just as you might tie a knot in a towel, and she had thrown off things like everybody else and only a flimsy cotton, sleeveless bodice, or whatever it's called, drenched through and sticking to her, made a pretence of covering her from her waist.

"You had to get like flies round these infernal things and wait your time-if you could-for the roll, and push and then scramble with ropes and make fast; awl at the same time dance out of the way of the slithering hulks that bore down on you with fantastic murderousness. And through it all thundered the roaring of the storm, the grind of the engines, the shattering of the propeller lifted above the waves, and the shrieks and creakings of every plank and plate of this steam-driven old Noah's Ark.

"We had just, with exhausted muscles, made a whole stack fast, and were standing by, panting, haggard eyed, the sweat running down anyhow, twenty of us, Dagoes, Dutchmen, Englishmen, in the dim twilight-just a shaft of pale illumination coming slick down the ladder where the hatch was open,-hanging on to edges and corners of cargo, when suddenly the ship, caught on top of a wave, vibrated in a sickening shudder, plunged, and then with an impetus of cataclysm wallowed to starboard. Andrews shrieked, 'Stand clear!' Most of the men leaped and flung themselves away. But I stumbled and fell. Before I realized the danger of a vast sliding crate, two strong arms were curled round my waist and I was flung aside, to slither and roll down the swaying deck until I was stopped by the bulkhead. When I picked myself up, I saw half the men securing the crate and the other half grovelling around something on the deck. It was Liosha. She lay white and senseless with blood streaming from her head.

Before I realized the danger . . . I was flung aside.

"In a mortal funk I took her up the ladder with the help of another fellow, and carried her to her cabin. I never before realised the appalling length of this vessel. We got her into her bunk aft; I sent the other chap for brandy and first-aid appliances from the ship's stores, and did what I could to discover how far she was injured. . . .

"Thank God, nothing worse had happened than a nasty scalp wound. But her escape had been miraculous. She had saved my life; for as I lay on the deck, the crate charging direct would have squashed my skull into jelly, and crushed my body against the side of the hold. A fraction of a second later and it would have been her skull and her body instead of mine; but she just managed to roll practically clear until she got caught by the swerving side of the crate. I hope you'll understand what a heroic thing she did. She faced what seemed to be certain death for me; and it is thanks to Liosha that I'm able to tell you that I'm alive. And she, God bless her, walks about with her head bandaged, among an adoring ship's company, and refuses to admit having done anything wonderful."

And, indeed, to confirm Jaffery's last statement, here is a bit of a scrawl from Liosha-her complete account of the incident:

"We've just had the most awful storm I ever did see. The cargo go loose in the hold and we had to fix it up. I got a cut on the head and had to stay in bed till the storm finished. I must say it gave me an awful headache, but there I guess I'm better now."

Well, that seems to be the most exciting thing that happened to them. Afterwards, in the mind of each, it loomed as the great event in the amazing voyage. A man does not forget having his life saved by a woman at the risk of her own; and a woman, no matter how heroic in action and how magnanimous in after modesty, does not forget it either. Although he had been credited (to his ingenuous delight) by reviewers of "The Greater Glory" with uncanny knowledge of the complexities of a woman's nature, I have never met a more dunder-headed blunderer in his dealings with women. He perceived the symptoms of this unforgetfulness on Liosha's part, but seems to have been absolutely fogged in diagnosis.

"Liosha flourishes," he writes in one of his last Vesta letters, "like a virgin forest of green bay trees. Gosh! She's splendid. I take back and swallow every presumptuous word I've said about her. And, I suppose, owing to our knockabout sort of intimacy, she has adopted a protective, motherly attitude towards me. In her great, spacious, kind way, she gives you the impression that she owns Jaffery Chayne, and knows exactly what is for his good. Women's ways are wonderful but weird."

He must have thought himself vastly clever with his alliterative epigram. But he hadn't the faintest idea of the fount of Liosha's motherliness.

"Owing to our knockabout sort of intimacy"! Oh, the silly ass!

* * *

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