OUT OF THE OOZE
Which is the stronger, intelligence or brute force? As with most of us, that was merely an academic question with Thane until he had to stake life itself on an answer.
THE Royal Mail steamer Abyssinia, Bombay for Ph ladelphia via Cape Town, raced through the jewel-studded darkness of an
Indian Ocean night. The crews of gliding native dhows murmured male-dictions in crooning Arabic as the tall
hull, pricked out in long lines of lighted ports, fled past, the dinner music of her band wafting back over the swinging water, and left them dipping in the heavy wash.
The liner was behind schedule, delayed at Colombo for a party of distinguished passengers, and she was making up the time. Her passenger-list was of a sort that ocean steamship companies delight in, but its most prominent name was that of the famous international corporation lawyer, Julian Thane. Certainly, no one on board the Abyssinia could approach him in intellectual power, imitate his analytical exactitude of mind, nor the adroitness with which he was able to turn circumstance to the advantage of his clients and himself. He had built of his life an impressive edifice, and if there lurked about its areas, and crouched in its great shadows, the ghosts of broken fortunes and ruined lives, what mattered it, when butler Moral Rectitude stood guard upon the door?
Julian Thane was of average build, but with more than ordinary physical strength—the result of a constant effo t for fitness, which enabled him to carry through his strenuous professional programmes. He was clean-shaven with few grey threads in his black hair, and he looked out upon his world with keen, fearless eyes—eyes whose keenness, some said, verged upon sharpness, and their fearlessness upon the bold. But that is a matter of opinion.
He was a tremendous believer, almo t to the point of obsession, in the ascendency of mind over matter. Brute force and low cunning might conquer mediocrity; they never could overcome trained intelligence. This was Thane’s complacent creed.
He was enlarging upon it in the saloon to an afterdinner party of audibly admiring friends. His sledgehammer logic was having its usual profound effect when, from an unexpected source, like the note of a katydid in a thunderstorm, came a word of mild dissent. It was the ship’s doctor who spoke—a quiet little man whose eyes
held the blue of the sea—and, what added to its enormity, he seemed not to realize his presumption.
“If a reversion to elementáis entailed a question of survival, Mr. Thane,” said he, “a highly trained brain might not be so infallible when opposed to brute cunning as you suppose.”
For an instant the lawyer thought of ignoring the intruder. Then he reconsidered, and lifted a tolerant eyebrow. The chap was amusing.
“Just what are you driving at?” he smiled.
The doctor was unabashed.
“At this,” he said simply, “that the influence of hundreds of centuries of evolution from the primal state, culminating in our present civilization, has had an effect upon the human race. The raw material in man to-day is not that of primeval man. The seed planted in the ooze of the world’s beginning is coming to fruit.”
Thane smiled again, indulgently, and glanced at his satellites.
“I’m afraid we can’t quite see how your vague evolutionary theories apply to our specific subject, Doctor,” he drawled. “Besides, aren’t you forgetting the late war? Don’t tell us that primordial savagery outdid that!”
His calm assumption that he was speaking for the group, caused the little doctor’s cheeks to flush. He was not good in argument. To add to his embarrassment, his eyes filled, suddenly, behind their thick glasses, as they were wont to do at such times. Then, as his thin, nervous fingers strayed to an ugly blue scar at the corner of his jaw, anger gripped him and he flared out:
“You’d better keep to ground with which you’re familiar, Mr. Thane. Christ-taught ethics had their influence, even in the great war. I—er—I happen to know!”
A tall American major standing behind the lawyer, laughed. “Good boy, Doc.,” he said, quite audibly.
It was Thane’s turn to color, but one of his followers
came loyally to his rescue without delay.
“Anyone can indulge in personalities—” he began, and glared at the American.
The soldier eyed the sputtering lawyer with laughing contempt. Then he turned away. “Come on, Doc.,” he
called out, “let’s have a drink.”
'T'HREE nights later, in the middle watch, as the A Abyssinia hurtled toward Durban, there rolled lazily across her path a black, water-logged derelict, an aimless ancient of the seas who, jealous perhaps of modern power, gave the proud ship her death wound and proved for the ten billionth time that, though men may dance, fate pulls the strings. There was a rending smash, wild shouts, a quivering of the liner’s gigantic shell, and a dimming, and then extinguishing, of lights. Stark yells of terror echoed in the blackness of corridors and saloons, mingled with the deafening hiss of escaping steam. There was a lurch, a shudder and a steady settling, and the noise of the band, which tootled incoherently until blasphemed to silence.
Julian Thane, on deck, with a jacket and trousers over his pajamas, watched chivalry murdered at the boats, as the little doctor, knight-errant of the helpless, pitted his meagre frame and determined face against the trampling rush of frenzied men, while the tall American major met death as gallantly as on any stricken field, fighting to aid his friend.
The great man did not bear a hand. His life, he felt, was too precious to the world. Instead, he groped his way to the lower bridge, where he recollected having seen a small working boat. It would be forgotten, perhaps, in the shambles for the larger security of the life boats. He found it, and was wondering how to get it away alone, when a skulking figure joined him—one who had been guided there by the craven instinct of the lower brute. Together, with infinite labor, they managed to get the boat clear of the chocks, lowered it to the water—not a great distance, slid down the falls, unhooked the blocks and then, unheeding, perhaps not hearing, the gasping entreaties of struggling wretches in the sea about them, pulled frantically away from the foundering liner. There was a series of dull explosions and a bubbling roar that announced a glory of phosphorescence, and the Abyssina plunged to the icy blackness of the four thousand fathom depth.
The small boat, rigged with a dipping-lug sail, which hung motionless against the mast, floated on a calm, flat sea. No cloud in the heavens, no ripple on the water; just heat, under a sky of brass; heat, shimmering, stifling; searing the flesh when it touched metal, and raising blisters on the paintwork. Twelve hours had elapsed since the loss of the Abyssinia and the escape of Julian Thane and his companion, “Clinker” Martin, a fo’mast hand. Besides their predicament they had but one point of similarity—they were about equal in physique. Otherwise, they were poles apart. Dawn found them alone, their boat a chip in a colossal bowl of blueing. With the coming of daylight, the sailor had recognized Thane, and the diffidence of caste kept them apart, the lawyer in the stern-sheets, the other in the bow. Desperation, that great leveller, had yet to show its head. Thane was first to speak.
“Better come along here, my man, then we can talk things over?” he suggested.
“Ain’t much good, talkin’, mate!” the man replied, but moved aft, nevertheless. Thane felt a prick of annoyance at the omission of the customary “sir”; it seemed to imply, vaguely, that they stood on some common plane. His voice, when again he spoke, carried a hint of patronage.
“That remains to be seen. No use getting downhearted already. We shall most likely be picked up in a day or so.” With the incredible assurance of those who live to be served he believed this
The other spat derisively over the side “No bloody fear!” he retorted, and relapsed into moody silence.
“Why not?” Thame persisted.
“Coz I bin on this---run long enough
to know—that’s why not! There’s a few steamers passes, an’ fewer sailin’ ships. Wot charnce ud we ’ave any’ow, unless we wos run atop of? Yer’d be surprised ’ow perishin’
’ard it is to spot anythink as small as us an ’arf mile off!”
The man seemed lethargic—-indifferent to their fate—but they took stock of what was in the boat. Being used for work about the ship in harbor, it was not provided with airtight food tanks, fishing gear and the usual life-giving paraphernalia of the larger boats. Their survey did not take long. As Thane rummaged about under the sternsheets thwart, a huge rat scurried out and then back, its claws scraping sharply against the woodwork, and stood at bay against the sternboard, teeth bared, and beady eyes shining with terror. Thane poked at it with the tiller and crushed its head, then, repressing a shudder, took it gingerly by the tail and was about to throw it over the side. Martin shouted.
“ ’Ere, mate! . . . Gawd lumme, yer nearly did it! Give it me!”
Thane boiled at the man’s tone but tossed the rodent toward him.
“What do you want the filthy thing for?” he asked tartly.
“See ’ow much grub we got in the boat, then arsk yerself wot for!” the other retorted.
The keen mind functioned faultlessly, but for the first time in his ordered life the lawyer refused to acknowledge its finding. He redoubled his search for food. There was nothing. The total of their combined efforts brought forth only the rat, and about a gallon of dirty, brackish water in a broached breaker. Martin, thinking of the wellstocked lifeboats, mouthed terrible blasphemy. Thane experienced deep dejection.
Besides the mast, sail and oars, the boat contained a canvas bucket, a length of rope, three pannikins and a small, blunt hatchet.
The sailor searched his clothes and produced a seaman’s clasp-knife, a pipe, box of matches and a small plug of tobacco. The lawyer discovered his cigarette case, nearly full, in his jacket pocket. These and the boat kept off eternity.
The day passed, deepened into night, bringing relief from the sun’s bald glare.
Symptoms, readily identified by the sailor but strange to Thane, began to assert themselves.
“I—I say,” he ventured, “I’ve got rather a dull pain in my stomach. I wonder—”
“ ’Ungry!” said Martin.
Thane had read of the pangs of hunger
often enough, but with a mild disgust. Hunger; an ugly word.
The sailor took the first watch—they could only estimate the time—and Thane in deadly ennui, crawled beneath the thwarts to the bottom-boards and tossed in uneasy, comfortless sleep. After an hour or so he arose with aching hips, and volunteered to watch until dawn.
Martin handed over the tiller, a perfunctory move, for there was not a breath of wind, and the lank belly of the sail hung against the mast, and creeping to the bows was soon in deep and noisy slumber. Thane envied him his swift forgetfulness.
The boat dipped to a slight swell and the masthead traced endless designs against the stars. The lawyer, his joints stiff with long hours of confinement, lay back and thought; yet even thought was hard, for, at intervals, his mind seemed in abeyance and he caught himself listening —harking to the insistent, never-ceasing voice of the sea. It was there, yet intangible, its very elusiveness-a worry to his methodical mind. It was space articulate; a sound which, when he had analyzed it, came to his sharpened senses in a restless lapping, the soft dropping of one tiny ripple upon another; thousands of miles of ceaseless motion, which merged into a deep, murmurous undertone that threatened—what did it threaten?
Fear, born of the loneliness and the glittering constellations and that low whisper of the sea, which spelled his terrible remoteness from the world of men, slipped into the stern-sheets to keep him company.
His mind explored the probabilities of the future; day after day of burning sun and heaving ocean, no food, water gone, an endless cycle of suffering days and haunted
nights. What then, of that matchless mind? Would it ascend to the rarefied asceticism of the Yogi—to an intellectual plane of which he never had dreamed—or—a groping tentacle of thought touched a possibility, unutterable, which caused it hastily to withdraw—but the shadow of that unnamed thing remained, and the lawyer sickened. Another thought, and it came, now, without a qualm: There was still the rat, thank God.
Dawn came, a riot of purple and rose, too soon to turn to molten brass. The day wore on. Now and again they stood upon a thwart and gazed, with shading hand, over the heat-blurred horizon. Nothing. At noon they had their first ration of water—a half-pannikin each.
Thane poured it from the dirty breaker, careful not to spill one of the precious drops. As he passed over Martin’s share the sailor halted him.
“Le’s see yours,” he demanded roughly, and, when he had compared the two, drank his own with a word of muttered apology.
His quick suspicion set in motion thoughts, born of the solitude of the night, which the lawyer would rather let be. A day of hunger, now sharp, now subdued to a dull ache, smothered in bone-racking slumber, then, upon awakening, revived to keenness that ran, lance-like, through their intestines; after that, numbness, and sudden spasmodic tightenings of the abdominal muscles. That night the sailor skinned and devoured the rat. He offered a portion to Thane, whose gorge rose.
By the afternoon of the third day a subtle change had come over their relationship. Mutually indifferent to each other from the beginning, proximity and suffering evolved a growing hostility, which an action of Martin’s
made evident. Both were sitting on the
elliptic thwart of the stern-sheets, exchanging monosyllables which hourly grew more hostile in tone. After a time the sailor rose and, slowly and painfully, moved forward into the bows, where he curled himself up as though to sleep; but the lawyer felt the other’s wolfish eyes fixed upon him from under the shadow of the crooked elbow, and knew, instantly, toward what they were drifting, as inevitably as if the gaunt finger of famine had traced it in letters of blood across their heat-scaled brows.
Next day Martin, with infinite care, fashioned a rough wooden fish-hook out of a piece of thwart, separated a couple of strands from the rope that lay amidship, and twisting them together for a line, impaled a piece of rat skin which he had preserved for the purpose. The boat was making scant steerageway under a puffing breeze, and he trolled over the side. This he did again and again without result, until all of his bait was snatched, and the light air subsided, leaving wind lanes on the glassy water. Then he broke into vile cursing and stamped the hook to splinters beneath his heel.
On the sixth day their suffering became acute. A heavy stubble of beard covered dirty, thinning cheeks. Eyes glared at each other with fevered brilliance from deepened sockets. The boat rolled and pitched in sickening gyrations, from a heavy swell that came, without wind, from the south, and Thane was deathly sick. Up and down they swung until his brain grew dizzy, and fruitless retching awakened the devils of hunger to renewed gnawing. Once he had heard that the Chinese tortured prisoners by placing starved rats under inverted glass bowls upon their bare bodies, and, hearing, had laughed in derision. He did not laugh now.
At noon the next day Martin checked Thane as the lawyer was about to measure out their allowance of water, reduced now to one half their previous ration.
“ ’Ere —stop* a bit!” he croaked, through black, sun-cracked lips, “we’ll take turn an’ turn about, now. Your turn yestiday. Me, to-day!”
“All right,” the lawyer rasped, “but the one who pours, lays the pannikins on the thwart and the other takes his choice. There’ll be no cheating then.”
The other nodded and poured shares, equal almost to the drop.
After the seventh day they lost all count of time. Both were light-headed. The essential brutishness of the sailor emerged, full blown, and in his swinish eyes was suspicion —deep—sleepless—and the lawyer knew that he was waiting—for what?
His own shell of culture was cracked into scaling bits by a sun that had burned his flesh raw: by thirst that clogged his gulletby hunger that chewed at his veneer of selfcontrol, until his primal self broke through stark and unlovely, and the faces of men whom'he had driven to desperation in the past, arose before his bloodshot eyes with mocking and revilement.
Both knew that their deadly hatred was not merely a nervous reaction to their suffering; it was the strident cry of primeval man who must eat to live. It stained their thoughts in blaring sunlight and ghost-filled dark.
Through the long nights Thane remained awake. His mind floated through infinite space, functioning without conscious effort. His straining ears caught distant music over the whispering water and hope leaped, until he realized it existed only in his brain. There were voices, too; malevolent undertones that fled before one insistent voice, slow and softly distinct. “A question of survival,” it said, over and over again. Who had spoken that? He strained to remember, and there came before his eyes the face of the little doctor, whose eyes had held the vivid blue of the sea—and again he heard the faraway music of the Abyssinia's band. A question of survival! All the heat-cursed day the thought was with him; all the voice-ridden night. He laughed aloud—a mirthless cackle that fell from his puffed lips to be swallowed up in the sough of the heaving waters.
Again it was Martin who made the first definite move. The man was an unclean atom of viciousness. His bloated tongue was pressed against his lips, his shaggy hair hung over heavy brows and his feverpolished eyes were filled with the furious hunger of a starving beast. Thane did not know that the man was but a replica of himself. Falling into deeper forgetfulness in the stern-sheets, toward the fag-end of a seemingly endless night, he awoke with an apprehensive start to find Martin over the middle thwart, halfway toward him, eyes glowing like coals in their deep caverns, an open knife in his hand. The man retreated when Thane, grasping the hatchet, arose in terror to his feet.
Open warfare. Thane of the old, assured dayB would have smiled at the thought. Here was his pet problem ready for the solving; a lower organism that would take cunning and immediate advantage of the moment, against a hrain trained to move with mathematical precision.
Next morning, Martin overcame his hatred sufficiently to ask for a cigarette of which the lawyer still had two. Thane hesitated, then got out his case and, moving to the midship thwart, extended it to the sailor. Martin reached—and fastened his hand like a clamp about the other’s wrist, giving a jerk that brought Thane’s knee-caps in keenest agony against the thwart and nearly—not quite —threw him off his balance. The sailor’s knife flashed and missed. There was a moment of violent struggle in which both men nearly went over the side, then the lawyer wrenched himself free. Martin tumbled to the bottom of the boat and, his brief courage forsaking him, scrambled back to his place in the bows. Thane was stronger than he had reckoned. Weeping hysterically, he dragged himself to the stern-sheets and lay, his eyes on his enemy, forming child-like, resentful plans for retaliation. Futile impulses beset him. He burned to make a sudden reckless onslaught, but his well-trained mind, still moving in its accustomed groove, refused co-operation with his vacillating muscles, and the moment passed. Again, his was the exhausted state of the punished, resentful child ; then, as the physical stress became dormant, intellect again functioned as though the shock of combat had given it new life, bringing him closer to sanity than he had been for days.
With darkness, a breeze sprang up, sufficient to ripple the water and fill out the idle sail. Thane lay back, regardless of blazing comets that split the arc of night, and searched his brain for a plan wherewith to defeat the sailor. Both were reluctant to settle the matter in a battle of the bodies; they were too evenly matched, and their courage was not equal to it. But the restrictions of their position and resources, left but little opportunity for trickery or elaborate scheming. The lawyer rumpled his hair and passed his grimy hand in an angry rubbing over his face as, again and again, he was brought up against a wall of bafflement.
Shifting forward a bit, as the wind
picked up, he stiffened, suddenly, and remained absolutely motionless for a long time. His foot had touched the rope cast aside by the sailor after his fruitless attempt at fishing, and he scarcely dared breathe lest Martin read the thought which leaped into his brain. Thane peered toward the bows, well knowing that the other’s comatose attitude was assumed, and that the slightest advance by himself would precipitate deadly action.
He pushed his foot forward by cautious inches and manoeuvered the rope toward him until he got the end in his grasp. He bent a running noose and snaked it along the bottom-boards in such a way that the irregular circle of the noose rimmed the spot at the centre thwart where the sailor would come for his water next day. The hauling end Thane then worked by infinitesimal fractions toward the side of the stern-sheets where it would be quick to hand. This required nearly an hour of patient effort, broken by periods of intense watchfulness and listening. When it was done he lay back, deprived of energy by the prolonged strain. The wind died, and they dipped to the restless ocean, a speck in immensity under the flooding moon.
The sun crawled up its burning path to a pitiless zenith. Thane, with heart pounding as though it would rack his frame apart, watched, as Martin arose and lumbered painfully aft to pour out their ration of water. This daily rite scrupulously was observed, for the advantage gained by its violation would be negligible and might be followed by a fatal access of angry strength on the part of the loser. Thane covertly judged the other’s every step . . . closer . . . a few inches more ... let him but put one foot inside that hempen ring; there would be a swift jerk on a bit of tarry hemp . . . his enemy fettered about the ankles and at his mercy. One hand felt below his knees and grasped the rope end; his other reached furtively for the hatchet . . . now—now!
Martin caught the slight movement. With a sailor’s quick instinct he looked down. Contemptuous sound issued from his throat and he kicked the noose aside.
Thane gave way to weak rage. The sudden checkmate left him helpless, and his fists beat futilely on the blistered wood of the thwart. Tears of disappointment forced themselves through raw eyelids.
Still chuckling, Martin bent down for the water beaker. Then he straightened like a whip, a murderous light in his eyes and faced the lawyer.
“It’s empty! Damn you, its empty! You drank it! . you—you—YOU!”
His voice rose to a frenzied shriek.
Thane’s heart stopped. God, no! The water gone? Not that! He started forward, then discernment came just in time, and he sank back on his seat and laughed in turn.
“Pour it!” he cackled, with a feebly grandiloquent gesture.
Martin’s eyes met his as though compelled to admiration in spite of the failure of his quick trick. He poured, and returned to his place in the bows while the lawyer drank off his portion. Then he returned to claim his own.
In the moment that he watched the greedy haste with which the sailor guzzled his share the great idea came to Thane. Every day he had drawn a bucket of salt water over the side and sluiced himself, hoping that his parched body might absorb some of the moisture. How he had longed to plunge in his head and drink to repletion; but that way led to madness. Salt water brought nausea, he remembered, and to men in their condition it might well prove fatal. To-morrow was his day to serve the water. .
Martin gabbled incessantly as evening approached, yet the sailor’s mind seemed to have the greater power in summoning lucidity at needed times. Was that elementary brain to prove superior to one which was the product of a lifetime of assiduous development? A week ago Thane would have sneered. Now, fear chilling his bowels, he summoned his remaining scrap of coherency to its task. At length he felt that he had the simple details of his plan firm fixed in his mind.
As evening fell, red dots flickered before Thane’s eyes and he tried to match them with the splashes of red-lead on the rough thwart. Presently, tiring of this he turned to futile searching of the empty sky. One by one the stars were lighted, gleaming pale in their setting of bird’s-egg blue, then deepening until they snapped in tropic brilliance against the fabric of the dark. A crooning chant came from the bows, where Martin lay, curled up in semi-delirium—“a frog he would a wooing go . . . a-hmmm—” What homely,
long-forgotten scene had drawn that simple nursery song up through the cesspool of his mind?
The moon arose, and voices came, and spoke to Thane, louder than ever before; mocking, taunting voices, now spun thin by distance, now mixed, and recurring like spots of dancing scarlet, in the jungle of his mind. He answered them; jibed and swore and spat at nothing in the spaciousness of the vast sea night. Let them have their sport; a few hours more and—! Martin’s voice soared in maudlin cursing. For a moment the lawyer thought of creeping—but no! it might be a trap. He shuddered and again his mind fell into a fantasy of endless days, interminable nights, sea and sky and glaring sun on the shimmering water, the glittering wake of flying-fish, changeless solitude, and the low, clear voice of that blue-eyed man asleep in the depths of the sea.
The moon arose. Still the cracked voice of Martin rambled on, in muddled fo’castle chanteys or the metrical scum of seaports. A new, voice, then, and Thane found himself listening with critical, detached interest to a stream of scalding blasphemy directed against the sailor’s ravings, until he realized, with a little shock of pleased surprise, that it was himself who spoke. A faint stirring of air played gratefully about his hot temples and the boat sailed in endless circles, backed, filled and fell away again for lack of a guiding hand on the neglected tiller. The wind dropped at daybreak to a few gentle puffs and dawn, opening the portals of another cruel day, found both men deep in stertorous slumber.
The climbing sun quickly sapped their sleep-stored energy and Thane found himself fighting constantly for a clear head. Martin watched him through red-rimmed, bestial eyes, and his lips moved incessantly without sound.
In the middle of the forenoon Thane drew his bucket of water from over the side with scarcely strength to raise it. Standing amidship, with a wary eye upon the sailor, he drenched himself and, as the salt stream flowed over him, noted that a quantity slopped into one of the pannikins standing under the thwart. Then he returned to his seat and waited patiently for noon. With Martin’s eyes fixed unwaveringly upon him, he took care to betray none of the excitement that began to creep through his sluggish veins.
It was well past noon before he moved, and then only when warned by a guttural note from the sailor. He arose uncertainly, striving to control the mad trembling of his hands, and, going to the centre of the boat, picked up the almost empty breaker. There was but a swallow or two left. The plane of the thwart obstructed the other’s vision. He was deliberate now, cold ferocity possessing him.
He picked up the three pannikins, moved them about and placed two on the thwart. The other he flung down. One on the thwart was empty; the other was nearly a quarter full of brine. He poured
the last of the water from the breaker. One of the pannikins then held a ration of drinking water, the other a slightly greater quantity of brine with a tiny dilution of fresh. He was careful not to overdo it. Next, he raised the breaker and moved it gently to and fro. “One more share,” he lied, and resumed his seat. Martin crawled wearily aft, his strength nearly gone. Thane exulted at the wolfishness in his famished eyes as they settled upon the pannikin containing the larger portion. The sailor’s greedy fingers closed about the vessel and he retreated with it to his place in the bows. Then, parting his swollen lips with a dirty forefinger and pushing back his protruding tongue he tilted the pannikin and swallowed the draught in a gulp. His eyes started and he choked. The pan fell from his relaxed fingers and clanked in the bottom of the boat. In a flash his knife was out and he made as though to spring aft, but a violent shudder racked him and he fell over the gunwale in a paroxysm of helpless retching.
Thane sprang up and scuttled forward with uplifted hatchet. The sound of his coming penetrated the sailor’s agony, and, with an effort almost superhuman, he raised himself. With one quick stroke of the knife he slashed through the halliard that held the dipping-lug boom aloft. The sail came down with a run, enveloping Thane and holding him under its bellying folds with not enough strength to fight free. Martin was about to strike through the threshing canvas when sickness again seized him and he fell, in horrible suffering, to the bottom of the boat. For an hour they lay, in a silence like the colossal stillness of the world’s beginning.
Impasse! Flung back down the abyss of the ages, they lay quivering upon that shadowy borderline between beast and primeval man. Descend further they could not and remain human. What would they do upon recovery of consciousness? Tear at each other’s throats like maddened apes? Or, having run the gamut of human mental and physical effort, would they use the foothold deposited by countless aeons of upward progress, to launch themselves out of the ooze?
THE sailor stirred first. Feebly he dragged the sail from Thane’s head and shoulders. Thane struggled to his knees and although Martin’s hand still gripped the knife he did not fear. They knelt, steadying each other, and gazed as though emerged from a land of shadow, conscious, each, of deepening pools of emotion behind the other’s haggard eyes.
Martin breathed huskily, his words barely audible.
“We oughtn’t ’a’ done it, mate . . . we forgot we was men.”
Thane gulped painfully, gagged by his bloated tongue; he shook his head, and tears of weakness dropped. The sailor put a wasted arm about his body and helped him to the stern sheets, while their craft rocked perilously. Time passed.
Tropic night blotted out the sun and the two men sat side by side, now swallowed in a trough, now silhouetted black against the sky, with the deep breathing of a heavy ground swell from the African coast. Thane’s head slumped down upon his chest while the sailor supported him, bare, shrivelled feet against a thwart. The stars burned low, brave sentinels of space, while over the rim of the ocean help came, in a plume of smoke.