The Secret Sharer/Section IIb
For some time longer I sat in the cuddy. Had my double vanished as he had come? But of his coming there was an explanation, whereas his disappearance would be inexplicable…. I went slowly into my dark room, shut the door, lighted the lamp, and for a time dared not turn round. When at last I did I saw him standing bolt-upright in the narrow recessed part. It would not be true to say I had a shock, but an irresistible doubt of his bodily existence flitted through my mind. Can it be, I asked myself, that he is not visible to other eyes than mine? It was like being haunted. Motionless, with a grave face, he raised his hands slightly at me in a gesture which meant clearly, “Heavens! What a narrow escape!” Narrow indeed. I think I had come creeping quietly as near insanity as any man who has not actually gone over the border. That gesture restrained me, so to speak.
The mate with the terrific whiskers was now putting the ship on the other tack. In the moment of profound silence which follows upon the hands going to their stations I heard on the poop his raised voice: “Hard alee!” and the distant shout of the order repeated on the main-deck. The sails, in that light breeze, made but a faint fluttering noise. It ceased. The ship was coming round slowly: I held my breath in the renewed stillness of expectation; one wouldn’t have thought that there was a single living soul on her decks. A sudden brisk shout, “Mainsail haul!” broke the spell, and in the noisy cries and rush overhead of the men running away with the main brace we two, down in my cabin, came together in our usual position by the bed place.
He did not wait for my question. “I heard him fumbling here and just managed to squat myself down in the bath,” he whispered to me. “The fellow only opened the door and put his arm in to hang the coat up. All the same----“
“I never thought of that,” I whispered back, even more appalled than before at the closeness of the shave, and marveling at that something unyielding in his character which was carrying him through so finely. There was no agitation in his whisper. Whoever was being driven distracted, it was not he. He was sane. And the proof of his sanity was continued when he took up the whispering again.
“It would never do for me to come to life again.”
It was something that a ghost might have said. But what he was alluding to was his old captain’s reluctant admission of the theory of suicide. It would obviously serve his turn – if I had understood at all the view which seemed to govern the unalterable purpose of his action.
“You must maroon me as soon as ever you can get amongst these islands off the Cambodge shore,” he went on.
“Maroon you! We are not living in a boy’s adventure tale,” I protested. His scornful whispering took me up.
“We aren’t indeed! There’s nothing of a boy’s tale in this. But there’s nothing else for it. I want no more. You don’t suppose I am afraid of what can be done to me? Prison or gallows or whatever they may please. But you don’t see me coming back to explain such things to an old fellow in a wig and twelve respectable tradesmen, do you? What can they know whether I am guilty or not – or of what I am guilty, either? That’s my affair. What does the Bible say? “Driven off the face of the earth.” Very well, I am off the face of the earth now. As I came at night so I shall go.”
“Impossible!” I murmured. “You can’t.”
“Can’t?... Not naked like a soul on the Day of Judgment. I shall freeze on to this sleeping suit. The Last Day is not yet – and …. you have understood thoroughly. Didn’t you?”
I felt suddenly ashamed of myself. I may say truly that I understood – and my hesitation in letting that man swim away from my ship’s side had been a mere sham sentiment, a sort of cowardice.
“It can’t be done now till next night,” I breathed out. “The ship is on the off-shore tack and the wind may fail us.”
“As long as I know that you understand,” he whispered. “But of course you do. It’s a great satisfaction to have got somebody to understand. You seem to have been there on purpose.” And in the same whisper, as if we two whenever we talked had to say things to each other which were not fit for the world to hear, he added, “It’s very wonderful.”
We remained side by side talking in our secret way – but sometimes silent or just exchanging a whispered word or two at long intervals. And as usual he stared through the port. A breath of wind came now and again into our faces. The ship might have been moored in dock, so gently and on an even keel she slipped through the water, that did not murmur even at our passage, shadowy and silent like a phantom sea.
At midnight I went on deck, and to my mate’s great surprise put the ship round on the other tack. His terrible whiskers flitted round me in silent criticism. I certainly should not have done it if it had been only a question of getting out of that sleepy gulf as quickly as possible. I believe he told the second mate, who relieved him, that it was a great want of judgment. The other only yawned. That intolerable cub shuffled about so sleepily and lolled against the rails in such a slack, improper fashion that I came down on him sharply.
“Aren’t you properly awake yet?”
“Yes, sir! I am awake.”
“Well, then, be good enough to hold yourself as if you were. And keep a lookout. If there’s any current we’ll be closing with some islands before daylight.”
The east side of the gulf is fringed with islands, some solitary, others in groups. On the blue background of the high coast they seem to float on silvery patches of calm water, arid and gray, or dark green and rounded like clumps of evergreen bushes, with the larger ones, a mile or two long, showing the outlines of ridges, ribs of gray rock under the dank mantle of matted leafage. Unknown to trade, to travel, almost to geography, the manner of life they harbor is an unsolved secret. There must be villages – settlements of fishermen at least – on the largest of them, and some communication with the world is probably kept up by native craft. But all that forenoon, as we headed for them, fanned along by the faintest of breezes, I saw no sign of man or canoe in the field of the telescope I kept on pointing at the scattered group.
At noon I gave no orders for a change of course, and the mate’s whiskers became much concerned and seemed to be offering themselves unduly to my notice. At last I said:
“I am going to stand right in. Quite in – as far as I can take her.”
The stare of extreme surprise imparted an air of ferocity also to his eyes, and he looked truly terrific for a moment.
“We’re not doing well in the middle of the gulf,” I continued, casually. “I am going to look for the land breezes tonight.”
“Bless my soul! Do you mean, sir, in the dark amongst the lot of all them islands and reefs and shoals?”
“Well – if there are any regular land breezes at all on this coast one must get close inshore to find them, mustn’t one?”
“Bless my soul!” he exclaimed again under his breath. All that afternoon he wore a dreamy, contemplative appearance which in him was a mark of perplexity. After dinner I went into my stateroom as if I meant to take some rest. There we two bent our dark heads over a half-unrolled chart lying on my bed.
“There,” I said. “It’s got to be Koh-ring. I’ve been looking at it ever since sunrise. It has got two hills and a low point. It must be inhabited. And on the coast opposite there is what looks like the mouth of a biggish river – with some towns, no doubt, not far up. It’s the best chance for you that I can see.”
“Anything. Koh-ring let it be.”
He looked thoughtfully at the chart as if surveying chances and distances from a lofty height – and following with his eyes his own figure wandering on the blank land of Cochin-China, and then passing off that piece of paper clean out of sight into uncharted regions. And it was as if the ship had two captains to plan her course for her. I had been so worried and restless running up and down that I had not had the patience to dress that day. I had remained in my sleeping suit, with straw slippers and a soft floppy hat. The closeness of the heat in the gulf had been most oppressive, and the crew were used to seeing me wandering in that airy attire.
“She will clear the south point as she heads now,” I whispered into his ear. “Goodness only knows when, though, but certainly after the dark. I’ll edge her in to half a mile, as far as I may be able to judge in the dark----“
“Be careful,” he murmured, warningly – and I realized suddenly that all my future, the only future for which I was fit, would perhaps go irretrievably to pieces in any mishap to my first command.
I could not stop a moment longer in the room. I motioned him to get out of sight and made my way on the poop. That unplayful cub had the watch. I walked up and down for a while thinking things out, then beckoned him over.
“Send a couple of hands to open the two quarter-deck ports,” I said, mildly.
He actually had the impudence, or else so forgot himself in his wonder at such an incomprehensible order, as to repeat:
“Open the quarter-deck ports! What for, sir?”
“The only reason you need concern yourself about is because I tell you to do so. Have them open wide and fastened properly.”
He reddened and went off, but I believe made some jeering remark to the carpenter as to the sensible practice of ventilating a ship’s quarter-deck. I know he popped into the mate’s cabin to impart the fact to him because the whiskers came on deck, as it were by chance, and stole glances at me from below – for signs of lunacy or drunkenness, I suppose.
A little before supper, feeling more restless than ever, I rejoined, for a moment, my second self. And to find him sitting so quietly was surprising, like something against nature, inhuman.
I developed my plan in a hurried whisper.
“I shall stand in as close as I dare and then put her round. I will presently find means to smuggle you out of here into the sail locker, which communicates with the lobby. But there is an opening, a sort of square for hauling the sails out, which gives straight on the quarter-deck and which is never closed in fine weather, so as to give air to the sails. When the ship’s way is deadened in stays and all the hands are aft at the main braces you will have a clear road to slip out and get overboard through the open quarter-deck port. I’ve had them both fastened up. Use a rope’s end to lower yourself into the water so as to avoid a splash – you know. It could be heard and cause some beastly complication.”
He kept silent for a while, then whispered, “I understand.”
“I won’t be there to see you go,” I began with an effort. “The rest…. I only hope I have understood, too.”
“You have. From first to last” – and for the first time there seemed to be a faltering, something strained in his whisper. He caught hold of my arm, but the ringing of the supper bell made me start. He didn’t though; he only released his grip.
After supper I didn’t come below again till well past eight o’clock. The faint, steady breeze was loaded with dew; and the wet, darkened sails held all there was of propelling power in it. The night, clear and starry, sparkled darkly, and the opaque, lightless patches shifting slowly against the low stars were the drifting islets. On the port bow there was a big one more distant and shadowily imposing by the great space of sky it eclipsed.
On opening the door I had a back view of my very own self looking at a chart. He had come out of the recess and was standing near the table.
“Quite dark enough,” I whispered.
He stepped back and leaned against my bed with a level, quiet glance. I sat on the couch. We had nothing to say to each other. Over our heads the officer of the watch moved here and there. Then I heard him move quickly. I knew what that meant. He was making for the companion; and presently his voice was outside my door.
“We are drawing in pretty fast, sir. Land looks rather close.”
“Very well,” I answered. “I am coming on deck directly.”
I waited till he was gone out of the cuddy, then rose. My double moved too. The time had come to exchange our last whispers, for neither of us was ever to hear each other’s natural voice.
“Look here!” I opened a drawer and took out three sovereigns. “Take this anyhow. I’ve got six and I’d give you the lot, only I must keep a little money to buy some fruit and vegetables for the crew from native boats as we go through Sunda Straits.”
He shook his head.
“Take it,” I urged him, whispering desperately. “No one can tell what----“
He smiled and slapped meaningly the only pocket of the sleeping jacket. It was not safe, certainly. But I produced a large old silk handkerchief of mine, and tying the three pieces of gold in a corner, pressed it on him. He was touched, I supposed, because he took it at last and tied it quickly round his waist under the jacket, on his bare skin.
Our eyes met; several seconds elapsed, till, our glances still mingled, I extended my hand and turned the lamp out. Then I passed through the cuddy, leaving the door of my room wide open…”Steward!”
He was still lingering in the pantry in the greatness of his zeal, giving a rub-up to a plated cruet stand the last thing before going to bed. Being careful not to wake up the mate, whose room was opposite, I spoke in an undertone.
He looked round anxiously. “Sir!”
“Can you get me a little hot water from the galley?”
“I am afraid, sir, the galley fire’s been out for some time now.”
“Go and see.”
He flew up the stairs.
“Now,” I whispered, loudly, into the saloon – too loudly, perhaps, but I was afraid I couldn’t make a sound. He was by my side in an instant – the double captain slipped past the stairs – through a tiny dark passage… a sliding door. We were in the sail locker, scrambling on our knees over the sails. A sudden thought struck me. I saw myself wandering barefooted, bareheaded, the sun beating on my dark poll. I snatched off my floppy hat and tried hurriedly in the dark to ram it on my other self. He dodged and fended off silently. I wonder what he thought had come to me before he understood and suddenly desisted. Our hands met gropingly, lingered united in a steady, motionless clasp for a second. …No word was breathed by either of us when they separated.
I was standing quietly by the pantry door when the steward returned.
“Sorry, sir. Kettle barely warm. Shall I light the spirit lamp?”
I came out on deck slowly. It was now a matter of conscience to shave the land as close as possible – for now he must go overboard whenever the ship was put in stays. Must! There could be no going back for him. After a moment I walked over to leeward and my heart flew into my mouth at the nearness of the land on the bow. Under any other circumstances I would not have held on a minute longer. The second mate had followed me anxiously.
I looked on till I felt I could command my voice.
“She will weather,” I said then in a quiet tone.
“Are you going to try that, sir?” he stammered out incredulously.
I took no notice of him and raised my tone just enough to be heard by the helmsman.
“Keep her good full.”
“Good full, sir.”
The wind fanned my cheek, the sails slept, the world was silent. The strain of watching the dark loom of the land grow bigger and denser was too much for me. I had shut my eyes – because the ship must go closer. She must! The stillness was intolerable. Were we standing still?
When I opened my eyes the second view started my heart with a thump. The black southern hill of Koh-ring seemed to hang right over the ship like a towering fragment of the ever-lasting night. On that enormous mass of blackness there was not a gleam to be seen, not a sound to be heard. It was gliding irresistibly towards us and yet seemed already within reach of the hand. I saw the vague figures of the watch grouped in the waist, gazing in awed silence.
“Are you going on , sir?” inquired an unsteady voice at my elbow.
I ignored it. I had to go on.
“Keep her full. Don’t check her way. That won’t do now,” I said, warningly.
“I can’t see the sails very well,” the helmsman answered me, in strange, quavering tones.
Was she close enough? Already she was, I won’t say in the shadow of the land, but in the very blackness of it, already swallowed up as it were, gone too close to be recalled, gone from me altogether.
“Give the mate a call,” I said to the young man who stood at my elbow as still as death. “And turn all hands up.”
My tone had a borrowed loudness reverberated from the height of the land. Several voices cried out together: “We are all on deck, sir.”
Then stillness again, with the great shadow gliding closer, towering higher, without a light, without a sound. Such a hush had fallen on the ship that she might have been a bark of the dead floating in slowly under the very gate of Erebus.
“My God! Where are we?”
It was the mate moaning at my elbow. He was thunderstruck, and as it were deprived of the moral support of his whiskers. He clapped his hands and absolutely cried out, “Lost!”
“Be quiet,” I said, sternly.
He lowered his tone, but I saw the shadowy gesture of his despair. “What are we doing here?”
“Looking for the land wind.”
He made as if to tear his hair, and addressed me recklessly.
“She will never get out. You have done it, sir. I knew it’d end in something like this. She will never weather, and you are too close now to stay. She’ll drift ashore before she’s round. O my God!”
I caught his arm as he was raising it to batter his poor devoted head, and shook it violently.
“She’s ashore already,” he wailed, trying to tear himself away.
“Is she?...Keep good full there!”
“Good full, sir,” cried the helmsman in a frightened, thin, childlike voice.
I hadn’t let go the mate’s arm and went on shaking it. “Ready about, do you hear? You go forward” – shake – “and stop there” – shake – “and hold your noise” – shake – “and see these head-sheets properly overhauled” – shake, shake – shake.
And all the time I dared not look towards the land lest my heart should fail me. I released my grip at last and he ran forward as if fleeing for dear life.
I wondered what my double there in the sail locker thought of this commotion. He was able to hear everything – and perhaps he was able to understand why, on my conscience, it had to be thus close – no less. My first order “Hard alee!” re-echoed ominously under the towering shadow of Koh-ring as if I had shouted in a mountain gorge. And then I watched the land intently. In that smooth water and light wind it was impossible to feel the ship coming-to. No! I could not feel her. And my second self was making now ready to ship out and lower himself overboard. Perhaps he was gone already…?
The great black mass brooding over our very mastheads began to pivot away from the ship’s side silently. And now I forgot the secret stranger ready to depart, and remembered only that I was a total stranger to the ship. I did not know her. Would she do it? How was she to be handled?
I swung the mainyard and waited helplessly. She was perhaps stopped, and her very fate hung in the balance, with the black mass of Koh-ring like the gate of the everlasting night towering over her taffrail. What would she do now? Had she way on her yet? I stepped to the side swiftly, and on the shadowy water I could see nothing except a faint phosphorescent flash revealing the glassy smoothness of the sleeping surface. It was impossible to tell – and I had not learned yet the feel of my ship. Was she moving? What I needed was something easily seen, a piece of paper, which I could throw overboard and watch. I had nothing on me. To run down for it I didn’t dare. There was no time. All at once my strained, yearning stare distinguished a white object floating within a yard of the ship’s side. White on the black water. A phosphorescent flash passed under it. What was that thing?... I recognized my own floppy hat. It must have fallen off his head… and he didn’t bother. Now I had what I wanted – the saving mark for my eyes. But I hardly thought of my other self, now gone from the ship, to be hidden forever from all friendly faces, to be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, with no brand of the curse on his sane forehead to stay a slaying hand… to proud to explain.
And I watched the hat – the expression of my sudden pity for his mere flesh. It had been meant to save his homeless head from the dangers of the sun. And now – behold – it was saving the ship, by serving me for a mark to help out the ignorance of my strangeness. Ha! It was drifting forward, warning me just in time that the ship had gathered sternway.
“Shift the helm,” I said in a low voice to the seaman standing still like a statue.
The man’s eyes glistened wildly in the binnacle light as he jumped round to the other side and spun round the wheel.
I walked to the break of the poop. On the overshadowed deck all hands stood by the forebraces waiting for my order. The stars ahead seemed to be gliding from right to left. And all was so still in the world that I heard the quiet remark, “She’s round,” passed in a tone of intense relief between two seamen.
“Let go and haul.”
The foreyards ran round with a great noise, amidst cheery cries. And now the frightful whiskers made themselves heard giving various orders. Already the ship was drawing ahead. And I was alone with her. Nothing! no one in the world should stand now between us, throwing a shadow on the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.
Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus – yes, I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.