‘I would suggest to people they read it while cruising around the Galápagos Islands.’
Euan Macleod, on Isinglass
(image: In Island (2007/2011), Euan Macleod. Courtesy of Bowen Galleries)
The elbow of time bends: here comes the de Chirico train. Into the slowly morning. Palm trees, arches, a stopped clock. Grey dust falls on the stones of the piazza. Ariadne, waking, finds Theseus gone. Dionysius rising. Her bloody hand, opening, discloses the glans of a penis. Whose? Ariadne, spider-woman, labyrinth-weaver, maenad, soothsayer. Tourists crowd the piazza, their phones alight, lithium cobalt batteries humming, taking photographs. Breakthrough in grey room. Word falling, photo falling. The dust is the Cantor Dust. You can hear it singing. In the violet interstices of the night, she wakes and finds her lover gone. Finds herself alone again. Dionysius rising. Crowds outside, ready for anything. All those exiled to the ghostly city. Drink the black wine. Dance, fuck, fall, die—into immortality.
I was staying with George Cawkwell, Emeritus Fellow and former Praelector in Ancient History at University College. When I was organising my research trip George, as a younger contemporary of the eminent Roman historian Ronald Syme’s, was suggested as someone I might write to. (It was the Syme papers, in the Bodleian Library, that I was going to examine during my week in Oxford.) Why he offered to put me up, as he phrased it, is another question. He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. It might save you a bit of money, he said. I thought he couldn’t possibly be serious. Then I looked at hotel prices. B & Bs. Air B & B. Colleges which rent out rooms during holidays or other breaks in term. These options were either inordinately expensive, far from the centre of town, highly inconvenient, or merely grotesque. I wrote back to George and accepted his kind offer. Now I was on my way to meet him.
George was then 95 years old. Born 1919, a year before my father, in Auckland. He went to Kings College, where he was Head Boy, and to Auckland University College. During the war, again like my father, he served in the Pacific. My Dad was in the air force, while George joined the Fijian Infantry and fought with them, under American command, in the Solomon Islands. Nevertheless, they might have met—either in Fiji or the Solomons. Dad was at Guadalcanal too, but only once the worst of the fighting was over. After the war, George married his sweetheart, Pat Clarke; and took up a Rhodes Scholarship. He was a rugby player; he had represented Scotland in a test against the French in 1947 and was at the time of writing the oldest surviving Scottish international, even though that game in Paris was the only one he played. He was a lock forward but they picked him out of position, he said, at prop.
He met me at the door. A big man, slightly stooped, with a quizzical expression and kindly eyes, wearing a jacket and a tie. In the hallway was a picture of him robed as Xenophon, the Greek historian: a special study of his. Come in, come in, he said and ushered me through to the kitchen, where the interrogation took place. Where was I from? Who were my parents? Where did I go to school? University? Once these facts were ascertained, he didn’t ask anything else. Instead, after remarking that a spell in the army was a good preparation for the teaching of Classics, he rose and intoned: Let us go then, you and I . . . and took me up to his study for a whisky. He kept a stick at either end of the stairs and hauled himself along using the banister rail. Lines of poetry, not necessarily by T S Eliot, were a feature of his conversation.
As we sipped our Scotch—he behind his desk, I, like a dutiful student, sitting opposite—George outlined my itinerary for the week. He had, with exemplary generosity and careful forethought, set up a series of meetings with people he thought I should see. Ronald Syme’s literary executor, for instance. The archivist at Wolfson College, where Syme lived out his years. A scholar who’d recently delivered the annual Syme lecture, which fortunately I had already read. And so forth. I took notes on what I was to do. That, and the whisky, accomplished, we went down for dinner: macaroni cheese which George had heating in the oven. He favoured a high-end range of pre-cooked meals; and served them as the main course with, invariably, a soup for starters and a dessert afterwards. And then, fruit and cheese. We drank a bottle of wine, an elegant light red. Before beginning to eat, George clipped a linen napkin to his jacket lapel, using a clothes peg, and made his apologies. I’m old, you see, he said. I can’t always be sure of getting the food properly to my mouth. I don’t have all my teeth, either. The way he managed his dental plates was an elaborate ritual I won’t attempt to describe.
After dinner, in a small downstairs sitting room—Pat’s study—we watched a DVD. It was not what I expected: Midnight in Paris, the 2011 Woody Allen film. It’s a time travel movie in which the lead character, a troubled writer, each night accepts a mysterious ride and is transported: first to the 1920s, later to La Belle Époque; the private eye who tracks him ends up even further back, at Versailles before the Revolution. Marvellous film, said George, absolutely marvellous; and fell asleep. He woke and dozed and woke again throughout. I can’t help it. It’s my age, you see. I think what he liked about the movie was the way various figures from the past appeared before us: Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker; Man Ray, Picasso, Bunuel; Gauguin, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec.
My room was upstairs at the back of the house, overlooking the garden; with a double bed, an ensuite bathroom with a bidet, and an exquisite Persian miniature of a warrior riding a blue horse on the wall. It was not a print. There was a full bottle of whisky, of the same kind we had enjoyed earlier, plus Evian water, on a tray on the dresser. I thought you’d be younger, George grumbled as he showed me the way. Still, you’re a New Zealander, aren’t you? We’re a race apart you know. Have to look after each other. He said he would see me in the morning; and not to be alarmed if I heard voices. He had a woman, Judy, who came in each day to do the housework. She would be knocking on the door at seven o’clock sharp; and he would expect me down to breakfast half an hour after that. That is if I wake up tomorrow. I hope to God I don’t. He snorted, whether from amusement or something darker I could not tell; then went back down the hall to his own bedroom: which he had not altered one jot, he said, since his wife died, suddenly, eight years before.
I woke to the sound of laughter. A low bass rumble and a lighter tinkling fall. Two people, a man and a woman. I lay there listening. There would be murmurs of conversation, the words of which I could not make out, then a renewed gust of laughter. Must be George and Judy, I thought. How lovely. But when I went down to breakfast, there was only George at the table, already kitted out in his jacket and tie. He explained that his earliest memory, when he was about four years old, was of standing on a stool in the family kitchen in Auckland having a tie knotted around his young neck. I wear a tie every day of my life, you know. Breakfast was another ritual. Tea, juice, cereal and nuts, followed by toast and marmalade or jam, then fruit and coffee. My preferences were duly noted and I was offered the same things again each morning thereafter. Judy joined us near the end of the meal, for coffee. She was a bluff working class woman about the same age as I am, the wife of a policeman. As fond of George as he was of her, and inclined to tease him; but if she went too far he would admonish her. I know my place, she said after one rebuke; but what place was that? She was both his servant and his salvation.
The morning laughter, which, like everything else in that household, recurred, arose during George’s daily ablutions. Because of a skin condition, he wasn’t able to bath or shower so each week day morning—she didn’t come in on weekends—Judy would rub him down with some kind of oil. I was curious as to the composition of this unguent but didn’t like to ask what it was. It seemed the daily anointing was both an intimate moment and a shared pleasure—of which neither of them was in the least bit ashamed. Judy was otherwise brisk and efficient and inclined to boss George round, which he liked, but only up to a point. Later he told me that his great fear was of losing her. I don’t think I could go on without her, he said. He was, as I have already indicated, still mourning his wife. One day when they were going out for lunch, Pat realised she’d forgotten her gloves and went upstairs to retrieve them; she did not come down again. A stroke, I think.
George was one of those lucky men whom women love. Over the week, I saw him in various public situations and also met and spoke at length with people who knew him well; if they were women, without exception, they adored him. It was his innate sweetness of nature; his habit of self-deprecation, allied with a weather eye for the little absurdities that make up any life; the ability to make light of what might otherwise appear desperate or dark. He was a kind man, empathetic too; who would not willingly hurt another soul; except, perhaps, in the stern correction of a classroom error. After I got to know him a little better, I asked him if he had actually liked Ronald Syme? It was the only time I saw him lost for words. Well, he expostulated. Well. He was a fellow New Zealander, wasn’t he! He was one of us!
. . .
I’d agreed to cook dinner for George. And so, after a day spent in the library, split in two by an enjoyable lunch at Brasenose College with Ronald Syme’s literary executor, Fergus Millar—who gave me a handsomely bound copy of a thesis on Syme written by a Spanish scholar living in the Canary Islands—I made my way down to the Tesco on Magdalen Street to do the shopping. I bought bacon, onion, garlic, capsicum, zucchini, tomato, basil and a few other things as well. A block of Parmesan cheese and a packet of pasta. I was concerned about quantity: George had an aversion to leftovers and instructed me, more than once, that I must cook the meal in such a way that there weren’t going to be any. I remembered the sardonic summary of an Australian friend: You Kiwis and your leftovers—put them in the fridge then throw them out later.
I wasn’t too worried about the sauce itself: it is a simple recipe and I have cooked it often enough now that I can do it anywhere, in any kitchen, with any collection of pots, pans and other implements. Or even round a campfire. We had, as always, a soup for starters and then I served the pasta, al dente, in the sauce I had made. George put his teeth back in, took a mouthful and smacked his lips. Good. George liked food, ate well and did most of the shopping himself. He was in the habit of taking his stick and his bag and walking over to Summertown most days to buy the necessaries. He hated those occasions when rainy weather or icy pavements made this difficult for his 95 year old body to do.
So my meal passed the taste test. Now we had somehow to eat it all; and still find room for dessert. When we’d both finished what was on our plates, there was a small serving of the pasta languishing, like a rebuke, between us. I looked doubtfully at it: prepared to consume if necessary but not really wanting to. Then George said Do you mind? reached over and helped himself. I filled our wine glasses. Delicious, he pronounced as he finished the last mouthful; and, leftover free, we moved on to dessert which, this night, was poached pears served in a yellow custard, with ground nutmeg sprinkled upon it.
I think it must have been over the pears that George told me about a young American Rhodes Scholar he taught at University College back in 1968 or 69, whom he advised to study Classics as well as Politics as a way of broadening his grasp upon things. This was William Jefferson Clinton, from Hot Springs, Arkansas via Georgetown University in Washington DC, later to be the 42nd President of the United States. What was he like? I asked. He was a nice enough fellow, George said. Not that I knew him very well. A decent rugby player, too. That was perhaps the ultimate accolade.
. . .
One night I went out to East Oxford to have dinner with Janet Wilson. I didn’t stay late. I was travelling on public transport and George had said that he wouldn’t be able to get to sleep until he knew I was safely back under his roof again. I caught two buses, one down Cowley Road to town, the other up Banbury Road to North Oxford; when I let myself into the house the lights were blazing, upstairs and down, but there was no sign of George anywhere. I looked in the kitchen, in the downstairs study where he watched television, in the sitting room and the dining room, then went upstairs and looked in the study there. The door to his bedroom was open but he didn’t seem to be in there either. I went into my own room and took off my jacket and my shoes. I was trying not to feel alarmed: George often joked, half longingly, about his imminent mortality and I wondered if the fatal moment had come at last?
If so, what should I do? Who should I call? George and Pat had three children, two boys and a girl, all of whom were in close touch with their father, calling often on the telephone: but I didn’t know how to contact any of them. What about the emergency services? What number do you ring for help in England? 999? I did another circuit of the house, upstairs and down. Then, as I came up the stairs for the third time, George walked out of his bathroom wearing magnificent red striped pyjamas with the jacket tucked into the trousers, looking like—I don’t actually know what he looked like, something out of a Boy’s Own Annual perhaps, or from a subtle satire upon Englishness. I was so relieved I could have hugged him but of course I didn’t. We merely exchanged polite small talk then said goodnight and went to our respective bedrooms to sleep.
. . .
I tried to articulate my Ashmolean intuitions over lunch on Sunday. Well, said George, noncommittal, after hearing me out, that is what we historians do. Try to find out from whence we came. He had guests that afternoon, a troubled young man he was mentoring and his girlfriend, wife, or wife-to-be. I stayed in my room, broaching the whisky bottle and spending the time reading Jan Morris’ book Oxford, a paperback of which I’d bought at Blackwells that morning. The hardback, published in 1965 under the name of James Morris, was on George’s bookshelves and I’d been dipping into it all week. At that time James was already transitioning into Jan but the voice—civilized, humorous, witty, wise and perceptive—didn’t change as the sexual designation did. Later, after George’s guests had gone and I rejoined him, he rebuked me: not for tippling on his whisky but because I had not bothered to come down to meet them. I did not know how to say I thought he would not have wanted me to do that. It was the only uneasy moment I recall between us.
George had a head full of verse and was inclined to declaim at odd moments. Now, perhaps because of the incipient awkwardness, he broke into: For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast, / And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost, / And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host / As the run stealers flicker to and fro, / To and fro: / O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago! Francis Thompson, a few months before his death in 1907, had a ticket to go to Lords to watch his team, Lancashire, play Middlesex; but instead he wrote the poem, called At Lords, of which this is the refrain—remembering a time in 1878 when he had seen Lancs. play Gloucestershire at Old Trafford. I didn’t know the poem and thought George might have been foreshadowing his own death. He wasn’t, not exactly. He was taking me up to his study to show me a video of a speech he had made on the occasion of his 95th birthday, and 65th anniversary as a Fellow at University College. It was, I suppose, a valedictory of a kind.
We were going to Univ that night, to Evensong in the Chapel then dinner at the High Table in the Hall. Perhaps that was why he broke into verse again: The sable presbyters approach / The avenue of penitence; / The young are red and pustular / Clutching piaculative pence. // Under the penitential gates / Sustained by staring Seraphim / Where the souls of the devout / Burn invisible and dim. I knew it was T S Eliot but didn’t know which poem; I memorised a phrase and looked it up later. It is from the last stanza, in which Sweeney, after all that high-toned speech, shifts on his hams in the bathtub. George quoted the second half of Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Sermon. Then he set about finding me a tie to wear. It is blue and has small golden tyrannosaurs, each holding a book, upon it; I have it still, because he insisted I keep it, along with the broken comb he gave me so I could tidy up my hair, which was long and curly then, and of which he disapproved.
Sunday night at Univ was a ritual; he went every week. And, like so many rituals, it had its irritations. George always called a taxi van because, using the sliding door on the side, he was able to get in and out of the back of the vehicle more easily. They sent a car. He was furious, not least because this had happened before. Well, we got there eventually and then there was the ritual of disembarking: down Logic Lane to an obscure gateway where the ground was level and ingress easy. We were meant to be met there by the porter, who would open the gate, but the porter wasn’t there; it was only when some random students exited that I was able to catch and keep it open. The porter was in his lodge, playing with his hound, a red setter. There was a tortoise in a terrarium, too, mumbling over a piece of lettuce. We had to stop again, so George could pee. I idled outside waiting. It was night, the lights were on and an unearthly glow was coming from an unseen room along the corridor.
A statue, in white marble, of a drowned youth, lay naked on a slab; surrounded by water as if floating upon an invisible sea. It was supported by two bronze lions, rampant, and between them sat, head-down, weeping, a bronze sea-nymph; the whole upon a stepped pink marble plinth. There was a blue dome above, pricked out with silver stars; and on the pale magenta-coloured walls, lines from a poem were inscribed: Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity, / Until Death tramples it to fragments. I knew them. My sister had in her school days written them upon her pencil case; and would often quote them out loud in her poetry voice. Shelley’s Adonais.
In the Chapel, the choir was more numerous than the congregation; the singing, unearthlily beautiful. The chaplain, a gingery Belfast man, preached a sermon about St Valentine, whose day it was, and the place of love in our hearts. George, exempt from kneeling at prayer, was given a printed copy of the sermon, in case he couldn’t hear it. He dozed, off and on. Afterwards we took a glass of the palest, most astringent sherry I have ever tasted before going in to eat at the High Table. During Grace, spoken in Latin by a young woman down the other end of the table, George seemed to have nodded off again; but when the long oration ended, he raised his ancient head and pronounced: No mistakes!
I wish now I could remember what we ate. Or talked about. I was sitting on the left of the Master, an excessively formal American named William, whom George treated with exaggerated respect. Taking a taxi back to North Oxford afterwards was only a little less complex than going there had been. George sighed when we were finally back inside the house. I’m getting too old for this kind of thing, he said. I may not go again. And then, unexpectedly: Golden lads and girls all must / As chimney sweepers come to dust. He twinkled at me. Ghosts unlaid forbear thee! / Nothing ill come near thee! he intoned and went up to bed. He was a lovely man.
The most amazing wonder of the deep is its unfathomable cruelty.
I felt its dread the first time in the mid-Atlantic one day, many years ago, when we took off the crew of a Danish brig homeward bound from the West Indies. A thin, silvery mist softened the calm and majestic splendour of light without shadows—seemed to render the sky less remote and the ocean less immense. It was one of the days when the might of the sea appears lovable. At sunrise we made out a black speck to the westward, suspended high up in the void behind a shimmering veil of silvery blue gauze that seemed to stir and float in the breeze which fanned us slowly along.
The peace of that forenoon was so profound, untroubled, it seemed that every word pronounced upon our deck would penetrate to the very heart of that infinite mystery born from the conjunction of water and sky. We did not raise our voices. “A water-logged derelict, I think, sir,” said the second officer quietly, coming down from aloft with the binoculars in their case slung across his shoulders; and our captain, without a word, signed to the helmsman to steer for the black speck. Presently we made out a low, jagged stump sticking up forward — all that remained of her departed masts.
The captain was expatiating in a low conversational tone to the chief mate upon the danger of these derelicts, and upon his dread of coming upon them at night, when suddenly a man forward screamed out, “There’s people on board of her, sir! I see them!” in a most extraordinary voice — a voice never heard before in our ship; the amazing voice of a stranger. It gave the signal for a sudden tumult of shouts. The watch below ran up the forecastle head in a body, the cook dashed out of the galley. Everybody saw the poor fellows now. They were there!
And all at once our ship, which had the well-earned name of being without a rival for speed in light winds, seemed to us to have lost the power of motion, as if the sea, becoming viscous, had clung to her sides. And yet she moved. Immensity, the inseparable companion of a ship’s life, chose that day to breathe upon her as gently as a sleeping child. The clamour of our excitement died out, and our living ship, famous for never losing steerage way as long as there was air enough to float a feather, stole, without a ripple, silent and white as a ghost, towards her mutilated and wounded sister, come upon her at the point of death in the sunlit haze of a calm day at sea.
With the binoculars glued to his eyes, the captain said in a quavering tone: “They are waving to us with something aft there.”
He put down the glasses on the skylight and began to walk about the poop. “A shirt or a flag,” he ejaculated irritably. “Can’t make it out . . . Some damn rag or other!”
He took a few more turns on the poop, glancing down over the rail now and then to see how fast we were moving. His nervous footsteps rang sharply in the quiet of the ship, where the other men, all looking the same way, had forgotten themselves in a staring immobility.
“This will never do!” he cried out suddenly. “Lower the boats at once! Down with them!”
Before I jumped into mine he took me aside, as being an inexperienced junior, for a word of warning:
“You look out as you come alongside that she doesn’t take you down with her. You understand?”
He murmured this confidentially, so that none of the men at the falls should overhear; and I was shocked.
“Heavens! as if in such an emergency one stopped to think of danger!” I exclaimed to myself mentally, in scorn of such cold-blooded caution.
It takes many lessons to make a real seaman, and I got my rebuke at once. My commander seemed in one searching glance to read the thoughts upon my face.
“What you’re going for is to save life, not to drown your boat’s crew for nothing,” he growled in my ear.
As we shoved off he leaned over and said: “It all rests on the power of your arms, men. Give way for life!”
We made a race of it, and I would never have believed that a common boat’s crew of a merchantman could keep up so much determined fierceness in the regular swing of their stroke. What our captain perceived before we left had become plain to all of us since. The issue of our enterprise hung upon a hair above that abyss of waters which will not give up its dead till the Day of Judgment. It was a race of two ship’s boats matched against Death for a prize of nine men’s lives; and Death had a long start.
We saw the crew of the brig from afar working at the pumps — pumping on that wreck, which already had settled so far down that the gentle, low swell, over which our boats rose and fell easily without a check to their speed, welling up almost level with her head-rails, plucked at the ends of broken gear swinging desolately under her naked bowsprit.
We could not, in all conscience, have picked out a better day for our regatta; had we had a free choice of all the days that ever dawned upon the lonely struggles and solitary agonies of ships since the Norse rovers first steered to the westward against the run of Atlantic waves. It was a very good race. At the finish was not an oar’s length between the first and second boat, with Death coming in a good third on the top of the very next smooth swell, for all one knew to the contrary.
The scuppers of the brig gurgled softly all together when the water rising against her sides subsided sleepily with a low wash, as if playing about an immovable rock. Her bulwarks were gone fore and aft, and one saw her bare deck low-lying like a raft and swept clean of boats, spars, houses — of everything except the ringbolts and the heads of the pumps. I had one dismal glimpse of it as I braced myself up to receive upon my breast the last man to leave her, the captain, who literally let himself fall into my arms.
It had been a weirdly silent rescue — a rescue without a hail, without a single uttered word, without a gesture or a sign, without a conscious exchange of glances. Up to the very last moment those on board stuck to their pumps, which spouted two clear streams of water upon their bare feet. Their brown skin showed through the rents of their shirts; and the two small bunches of half-naked, tattered men went on bowing from the waist to each other in their back-breaking labour, up and down, absorbed, with no time for a glance over the shoulder at the help that was coming to them.
As we dashed, unregarded, alongside a voice let out one, only one, hoarse howl of command, and then, just as they stood, without caps, with the salt drying gray in the wrinkles and folds of their hairy, haggard faces, blinking stupidly at us their red eyelids, they made a bolt away from the handles, tottering and jostling against each other, and positively flung themselves over upon our very heads. The clatter they made tumbling into the boats had an extraordinarily destructive effect upon the illusion of tragic dignity our self-esteem had thrown over the contests of mankind with the sea.
On that exquisite day of gently breathing peace and veiled sunshine perished my romantic love to what men’s imagination had proclaimed the most august aspect of Nature. The cynical indifference of the sea to the merits of human suffering and courage, laid bare in this ridiculous, panic-tainted performance extorted from the dire extremity of nine good and honourable seamen, revolted me. I saw the duplicity of the sea’s most tender mood. It was so because it could not help itself; but the awed respect of the early days was gone. I felt ready to smile bitterly at its enchanting charm and glare viciously at its furies. In a moment, before we shoved off, I had looked at the life of my choice. Its illusions were gone, but its fascination remained. I had become a seaman.
We pulled hard for a quarter of an hour, then laid on our oars waiting for our ship. She was coming down on us with swelling sails, looking delicately tall and exquisitely noble through the mist. The captain of the brig, who sat in the stern sheets by my side with his face in his hands, raised his head and began to speak with a sort of sombre volubility. They had lost their masts and sprung a leak in a hurricane; drifted for weeks, always at the pumps, met more bad weather; the ships they sighted failed to make them out, the leak gained upon them slowly, and the seas had left them nothing to make a raft of.
It was very hard to see ship after ship pass by at a distance, “as if everybody had agreed that we must be left to drown,” he added. But they went on trying to keep the brig afloat as long as possible, and working the pumps constantly on insufficient food, mostly raw, till “yesterday evening,” he continued monotonously, “just as the sun went down, the men’s hearts broke.” He made an almost imperceptible pause here, and went on again with exactly the same intonation:
“They told me the brig could not be saved, and they thought they had done enough for themselves. I said nothing to that. It was true. It was no mutiny. I had nothing to say to them. They lay about aft all night, as still as so many dead men. I did not lie down. I kept a look-out. When the first light came I saw your ship at once. I waited for more light; the breeze began to fail on my face. Then I shouted out as loud as I was able, ‘Look at that ship!’ but only two men got up very slowly and came to me.
At first only we three stood alone, for a long time, watching you coming down to us, and feeling the breeze drop to a calm almost; but afterwards others, too, rose, one after another, and by-and-by I had all my crew behind me. I turned round and said to them that they could see the ship was coming our way, but in this small breeze she might come too late after all, unless we turned to and tried to keep the brig afloat long enough to give you time to save us all. I spoke like that to them, and then I gave the command to man the pumps.”
He gave the command, and gave the example, too, by going himself to the handles, but it seems that these men did actually hang back for a moment, looking at each other dubiously before they followed him. “He! he! he!” He broke out into a most unexpected, imbecile, pathetic, nervous little giggle. “Their hearts were broken so! They had been played with too long,” he explained apologetically, lowering his eyes, and became silent.
Twenty-five years is a long time — a quarter of a century is a dim and distant past; but to this day I remember the dark-brown feet, hands, and faces of two of these men whose hearts had been broken by the sea. They were lying very still on their sides on the bottom boards between the thwarts, curled up like dogs. My boat’s crew, leaning over the looms of their oars, stared and listened as if at the play. The master of the brig looked up suddenly to ask me what day it was.
They had lost the date. When I told him it was Sunday, the 22nd, he frowned, making some mental calculation, then nodded twice sadly to himself, staring at nothing.
His aspect was miserably unkempt and wildly sorrowful. Had it not been for the unquenchable candour of his blue eyes, whose unhappy, tired glance every moment sought his abandoned, sinking brig, as if it could find rest nowhere else, he would have appeared mad. But he was too simple to go mad, too simple with that manly simplicity which alone can bear men unscathed in mind and body through an encounter with the deadly playfulness of the sea or with its less abominable fury.
Neither angry, nor playful, nor smiling, it enveloped our distant ship growing bigger as she neared us, our boats with the rescued men and the dismantled hull of the brig we were leaving behind, in the large and placid embrace of its quietness, half lost in the fair haze, as if in a dream of infinite and tender clemency. There was no frown, no wrinkle on its face, not a ripple. And the run of the slight swell was so smooth that it resembled the graceful undulation of a piece of shimmering gray silk shot with gleams of green.
We pulled an easy stroke; but when the master of the brig, after a glance over his shoulder, stood up with a low exclamation, my men feathered their oars instinctively, without an order, and the boat lost her way. He was steadying himself on my shoulder with a strong grip, while his other arm, flung up rigidly, pointed a denunciatory finger at the immense tranquillity of the ocean. After his first exclamation, which stopped the swing of our oars, he made no sound, but his whole attitude seemed to cry out an indignant “Behold!” . . . I could not imagine what vision of evil had come to him. I was startled, and the amazing energy of his immobilized gesture made my heart beat faster with the anticipation of something monstrous and unsuspected. The stillness around us became crushing.
For a moment the succession of silky undulations ran on innocently. I saw each of them swell up the misty line of the horizon, far, far away beyond the derelict brig, and the next moment, with a slight friendly toss of our boat, it had passed under us and was gone. The lulling cadence of the rise and fall, the invariable gentleness of this irresistible force, the great charm of the deep waters, warmed my breast deliciously, like the subtle poison of a love-potion. But all this lasted only a few soothing seconds before I jumped up too, making the boat roll like the veriest landlubber.
Something startling, mysterious, hastily confused, was taking place. I watched it with incredulous and fascinated awe, as one watches the confused, swift movements of some deed of violence done in the dark. As if at a given signal, the run of the smooth undulations seemed checked suddenly around the brig. By a strange optical delusion the whole sea appeared to rise upon her in one overwhelming heave of its silky surface, where in one spot a smother of foam broke out ferociously.
And then the effort subsided. It was all over, and the smooth swell ran on as before from the horizon in uninterrupted cadence of motion, passing under us with a slight friendly toss of our boat. Far away, where the brig had been, an angry white stain undulating on the surface of steely-gray waters, shot with gleams of green, diminished swiftly, without a hiss, like a patch of pure snow melting in the sun. And the great stillness after this initiation into the sea’s implacable hate seemed full of dread thoughts and shadows of disaster.
“Gone!” ejaculated from the depths of his chest my bowman in a final tone. He spat in his hands, and took a better grip on his oar. The captain of the brig lowered his rigid arm slowly, and looked at our faces in a solemnly conscious silence, which called upon us to share in his simple-minded, marvelling awe. All at once he sat down by my side, and leaned forward earnestly at my boat’s crew, who, swinging together in a long, easy stroke, kept their eyes fixed upon him faithfully.
“No ship could have done so well,” he addressed them firmly, after a moment of strained silence, during which he seemed with trembling lips to seek for words fit to bear such high testimony. “She was small, but she was good. I had no anxiety. She was strong. Last voyage I had my wife and two children in her. No other ship could have stood so long the weather she had to live through for days and days before we got dismasted a fortnight ago. She was fairly worn out, and that’s all. You may believe me. She lasted under us for days and days, but she could not last for ever. It was long enough. I am glad it is over. No better ship was ever left to sink at sea on such a day as this.”
He was competent to pronounce the funereal oration of a ship, this son of ancient sea-folk, whose national existence, so little stained by the excesses of manly virtues, had demanded nothing but the merest foothold from the earth. By the merits of his sea-wise forefathers and by the artlessness of his heart, he was made fit to deliver this excellent discourse. There was nothing wanting in its orderly arrangement — neither piety nor faith, nor the tribute of praise due to the worthy dead, with the edifying recital of their achievement.
She had lived, he had loved her; she had suffered, and he was glad she was at rest. It was an excellent discourse. And it was orthodox, too, in its fidelity to the cardinal article of a seaman’s faith, of which it was a single-minded confession. “Ships are all right.” They are. They who live with the sea have got to hold by that creed first and last; and it came to me, as I glanced at him sideways, that some men were not altogether unworthy in honour and conscience to pronounce the funereal eulogium of a ship’s constancy in life and death.
After this, sitting by my side, with his loosely-clasped hands hanging between his knees, he uttered no word, made no movement till the shadow of our ship’s sails fell on the boat, when, at the loud cheer greeting the return of the victors with their prize, he lifted up his troubled face with a faint smile of pathetic indulgence. This smile of the worthy descendant of the most ancient sea-folk whose audacity and hardihood had left no trace of greatness and glory upon the waters, completed the cycle of my initiation.
There was an infinite depth of hereditary wisdom in its pitying sadness. It made the hearty bursts of cheering sound like a childish noise of triumph. Our crew shouted with immense confidence — honest souls! As if anybody could ever make sure of having prevailed against the sea, which has betrayed so many ships of great “name,” so many proud men, so many towering ambitions of fame, power, wealth, greatness!
As I brought the boat under the falls my captain, in high good-humour, leaned over, spreading his red and freckled elbows on the rail, and called down to me sarcastically, out of the depths of his cynic philosopher’s beard:
“So you have brought the boat back after all, have you?”
Sarcasm was “his way,” and the most that can be said for it is that it was natural. This did not make it lovable. But it is decorous and expedient to fall in with one’s commander’s way.
“Yes. I brought the boat back all right, sir,” I answered. And the good man believed me. It was not for him to discern upon me the marks of my recent initiation. And yet I was not exactly the same youngster who had taken the boat away — all impatience for a race against death, with the prize of nine men’s lives at the end.
Already I looked with other eyes upon the sea. I knew it capable of betraying the generous ardour of youth as implacably as, indifferent to evil and good, it would have betrayed the basest greed or the noblest heroism. My conception of its magnanimous greatness was gone. And I looked upon the true sea — the sea that plays with men till their hearts are broken, and wears stout ships to death.
Nothing can touch the brooding bitterness of its heart. Open to all and faithful to none, it exercises its fascination for the undoing of the best. To love it is not well. It knows no bond of plighted troth, no fidelity to misfortune, to long companionship, to long devotion. The promise it holds out perpetually is very great; but the only secret of its possession is strength, strength — the jealous, sleepless strength of a man guarding a coveted treasure within his gates.