Supply and Demand
IN THE bows of the lifeboat, a man moved uneasily in his soiled ducks and then sat up to gaze at the sun, which had risen with bewildering suddenness. For a minute his eyes swept the sea. The horizon was unbroken and nothing was visible on the glistening water. With a low groan, the man pulled himself up and made his way clumsily down the lifeboat past the sail which hung listlessly in the still air toward the stern, where a sailor with jacket buttoned tightly over his collarless shirt sat with his arm on the tiller, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
“Where are we?” he asked curtly. Ralph Bascombe was accustomed to a cup of tea and a quarter of an hour’s contemplation before he got up in the morning.
“Somewhere between Africa and India, sir. It’s a thousand miles either way and with no wind. I’m wondering which you’d prefer.” A slow smile came to the man’s unshaven face.
“We shall be picked up.” The man’s voice was confident. “What did you say your name was?”
“Smith, sir. Third officer.”
“Ah, yes, I remember. That awful wind blew everything out of my head last night. Seem’s to have dropped as quickly as it got up.” His eyes swept the water again. “Well, Smith, I shall expect you to get us out of this. I shan’t forget your prompt action last night when we get ashore. You’ll lxi second officer on the next trip.”
“Thanks. But I don’t need the hope of promotion to do my best. I’ve a wife waiting for me, and possibly a son.” Bascombe looked a little surprised at the thinly veiled sarcasm in Smith’s voice, then changed the subject.
“What happened last night?”
“A tornado hit us, I think.” The “sir” had been dropped, the voice was aloof. “Carried away the aerial in the first second—that’s why I’m not so optimistic about being picked up. It was my watch below, so I don’t know much. The lights failed, and as I came on deck the first thing I saw was you sitting in the lifeboat and shouting.”
“Er—I’m afraid I was a little excited.” Bascombe laughed uneasily. “I’m used to bigger ships, you see. Never travelled in one of my own tankers before. I thought she’d go under any minute.”
Smith nodded. “You told me to get the boat away and never mind the captain. By sheer luck we weren’t smashed up as we went down. The last I saw of the Orlando in the darkness, a big w-ave had struck her and her deck was awash.”
“I’m afraid not many of them got away.” There was little regret in Bascombe’s voice.
“I’ve seen none of the other boats. Probably smashed before they could get afloat.”
BASCOMBE nodded. “Lucky we were quick. It’s the man who thinks quickly and takes his chance who gets away.” He patted the pockets of his coat. “Have you a cigarette?” It was more of a command than a question.
"I have nine,” replied the sailor. “Luckily there was a new packet in my coat pocket. I didn’t stay to pick up anything.” He did not move.
“I’ll have one, I think. I’m getting hungry. Must be about breakfast time.”
The sailor laughed shortly. “There’s some biscuits in the locker you’re sitting on.”
“Biscuits? Isn’t there anything else?”
Smith shook his head.
“Then I’ll have a cigarette now. We’ll probably be picked up in a few hours.”
Smith held the end of the cigarette he was smoking carefully between his fingers to get the last draw from it, then tossed the minute butt overboard.
“I said I’d have one of your cigarettes now,” Bascombe remarked impatiently. “I tell you I haven’t any. Left them behind.”
“That’s a pity. I’ve only nine, you see, and I’m thinking I may be glad of them before we see the next tobacco shop. But I’ve plenty of matches.”
Bascombe went very white. “Have you forgotten who you’re talking to?
You must be mad. I order you to give me a cigarette.
I tell you this insolence won’t help you when you get ashore.”
“I was chucking my job anyway,” remarked Smith. “I’ve been without a berth as often as I’ve had one these last three years and now, with a nipper of my own, I’d like to be more at home.
Thinking of taking up farming. My wife’s all for that.”
‘‘For the last time,
Smith, are you giving me a cigarette?” Bascombe was shouting now. Owner of twenty ships, even if he had the reputation of a close dealer, he was not accustomed to his orders being ignored.
“I’m sorry but the supply is limited,” Smith smiled. “You’ll remember, a couple of nights ago you invited us to dinner in your saloon and made a little speech about business; explained the economic laws governing prices and wages. You’d drunk a good deal, but there was sense in what you said. You told us your success was due to anticipating demand and controlling supplies, and that it was because the supply
of competent sailors exceeded the demand that our wages had been cut for the last two years. . . I could have stayed with my wife while my son arrived but for that twenty per cent cut,” he added bitterly.
“Yes, yes, I know. Times are difficult. Look here, Smith, I’ll give you a month on full pay when we get back, but for
heaven’s sake give me a cigarette.” The confidence had gone from his voice now.
Smith laughed. “Ten pounds for a cigarette, eh?” he remarked. “Conditions seem good for business. Supplies are short, demand is brisk. Make it twenty pounds, and I’ll give you a cigarette. I don’t want the leave, I’m taking it anyway.”
“Twenty pounds for a cigarette worth a halfpenny?” Bascombe snorted. "That’s sheer blackmail.”
“All right. I don’t want to sell the cigarettes particularly. But I thought you wanted one badly.”
“But twenty pounds!”
“That’s the price. How do you decide the price at which one of your boats shall carry a cargo? Supply and demand. It’s true these gaspers are ten for sixpence in the shops. But there are no shops round here.” He pulled his packet from his pocket, took out a cigarette and lit it, watching Bascombe from under his eyelids. “As I said, I’m not particular about selling. But if you press me, I’ll part with one for twenty quid.”
BASCOMBE moved his lips as if forming an oath. “All right,” he said suddenly. “But it’s sheer robbery.” He held out his hand.
Smith ignored it and replaced the cigarette in the packet.
“I tell you I’ll give you twenty pounds!” Bascombe was screaming now.
“That’s right,” remarked Smith. “I’m waiting for the cash.”
“Cash! D’you think I’d get cash here?” “I’ll take a cheque. I see you stopped to pick up your dispatch case before you hopped into the boat.” Smith jerked his head at a leather case lying on the bottom of the boat.
Bascombe bit his lip, then climbed to the case, opened it and, taking out a fountainpen, wrote a cheque. Smith examined the slip of paper carefully,'dried it in the sun, then folded it neatly and placed it in his pocket. He took a cigarette from his pocket, handed it to Bascombe and struck a match.
“Just as well to get it on a businesslike basis,” he said coolly. “I knew you’d prefer that.” He chuckled silently. “Great idea this supply and demand business. I’m glad you explained it to us. I might have been fool enough to have let you have one at cost price or even for nothing.”
Bascombe smoked in silence, his back turned to Smith, who glanced up every now and then at the sail. Suddenly Bascombe turned.
“My mouth’s dry,” he remarked. “You’ve got some water somewhere?”
Smith nodded and produced a flask containing perhaps half a gallon. He poured a little into a tin cup and handed it to Bascombe, who tossed it off at a gulp and held out the cup again.
“More,” he said.
Smith shook his head. “Look here, you may as well get this straight,” he said firmly. "We may be a week in this boat. Drink the water that way and it’ll be finished by tonight.”
“I’ll drink what I want,” retorted Bascombe. “Here, give it to me.” He took a step forward and reached for the flask. A push from Smith sent him sprawling.
“You may know all about ships,” said the sailor, “but you know nothing about being adrift in the Indian Ocean. It’s for your own good. If we have half a cupful every four hours during the day, this water will hold out for three days. After that. . .” He shrugged his shoulders.
P)R A MOMENT, Bascombe seemed to be measuring Smith, as if estimating his chance of taking the flask by force. He measured his flabby body against the sailor’s lean six feet and saw it was hopeless.
“How do I know you won’t take a drink when I’m not looking?” he sneered.
“All right,” he said, “we’ll divide it.” He opened a locker and produced an empty bottle. “I’ll put half in here. If you like to drink yours right off and die of thirst, that’s your funeral. I’m being generous. I’ve never loved you, though for years you’ve been
little more than a name to me. But I’ll give you a good half.”
He divided the water and handed the flask to Bascombe.
“Satisfied?” he asked.
Bascombe grunted. He had seen that there was nearer three quarters of the water in his flask than half. He took a drink, and some of the water trickled down his chin on to his chest. “That’s better,” he muttered.
Smith shook his head. “You’ll be glad of those drops you’ve spilled before we’re out of this,” he said. He placed his bottle in the locker, carefully shielding it from the sun.
All the day the sun beat down on them, without a breath of wind to fill the sail. Bascombe suggested rowing, but Smith retorted briefly that twelve miles wouldn’t take them any nearer land. The boat might have been drifting, but with the unbroken horizon it was impossible to tell. When the sun dipped suddenly out of sight, the scene was the same as that on which it had risen.
Bascombe had slept through the afternoon in the shade of the sail. He had bought five more cigarettes from Smith. Over the first three there had been the same little scene before the cheque for twenty pounds was produced. For the fourth and fifth Smith had demanded thirty pounds, and Bascombe had paid without protest. Smith had not smoked, and he had drunk from his bottle but once, being content to rinse out his mouth when it grew dry beyond endurance. Bascombe had lifted his flask every hour, cursing the heat.
In the growing darkness, Bascombe called.
“I suppose one of us had better stay awake in case a boat passes,” he said. He sounded more refreshed after his sleep. “I’ll take first turn as I’ve had a nap. I’ll wake you later. Here, give me the tiller.”
Smith, a little surprised, agreed readily. It was twenty hours since he had closed his eyes. In two minutes he was fast asleep at the bottom of the boat.
He awoke with a start, sure that he had heard a bang. In the gloom he could just see Bascombe standing in the stern, his back turned, leaning over the locker. It was the falling of the locker lid that had awakened him. Suddenly Bascombe turned and was silhouetted against the sky. There was a bottle in his hands; a bottle from which he was pouring into his flask.
Smith leaped to his feet, reached him with one stride and snatched the bottle, spilling drops of the precious liquid. His eyes were ablaze, his fists clenched to strike as Bascombe cowered. Suddenly the sailor calmed, his hand unclenched.
“There’s a better way with you,” he said. “Where’s your water?”
“I’ve—I’ve finished it,” Bascombe stammered.
“And that had to last three days.” There was alarm in Smith’s voice.
“My mouth was like dust,” Bascombe muttered. “I was only taking a drop to wash it out.”
Smith smiled icily: “Pity you didn’t wash it out with your own.” He took the tiller in one hand, retaining his hold on the bottle with the other. “If you want a drink, the price is a pound a drop.”
“I’ll go without.” Bascombe was defiant as he stumbled away. “I’ll see you’re shown up when we get back.”
“/ƒ we get back,” laughed Smith.
THERE WAS silence for five minutes. Suddenly Bascombe began to sob.
“I must have it.” He picked up his cup. “Here, fill it up.”
“A pound a drop,” remarked Smith as he poured out the water. “That’s about fifty quid’s worth.” Bascombe drank it down at a gulp, then sat down. “What about a cheque?” smiled Smith. “Nothing like spot cash in this business.”
“To blazes with you!” exclaimed Bascombe. The water had made him feel stronger. “You can whistle for your cheque.” Smith clenched his fist, then let his arm drop.
“All right,” and he shrugged his shoulders. The night was little cooler than the day. The men perspired even when they sat with-
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Supply and Demand
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out moving. They were saved only the blistering heat of the sun.
It was noon on the second day before Bascombe asked for another drink. Smith had been content with just one at daybreak. Smith shook his head.
“Nothing doing,” he said. “You cheated last time. Besides, I want all this.”
Bascombe did not reply. An hour later, he opened his case and took out his chequebook.
“I’ll pay,” he said weakly. “But for heaven’s sake, give me a drink.”
Smith smiled. “It’ll be a hundred quid this time,” he said. “Price has gone up owing to steady demand. And there’s fifty to add ! on from last time. We’ll call the interest ten. That’s one-sixty.”
I “Interest! You must be mad. It’s not twelve hours ago.”
“I know. I’ve never received interest in my life before. It feels good. Rate’s high, but then, I may never be able to cash these ; cheques. Still, I’m not particular. I could do with the water. . .”
Bascombe muttered an oath weakly, then scrawled with his fountain pen.
“Give it to me,” he snarled, as Smith paused to see if the cheque was correctly made out. He began to gulp the water, then paused and, copying Smith, just rinsed out his mouth. He kept half the water back.
But at nightfall, he bought another drink. He was weak, lying on the bottom of the boat. There was no danger now, Smith knew, of the remains of his supply being stolen during the night. Three hundred j pounds—that was the sum represented by the little slips of paper in his pocket. All I night long, as he gazed into the darkness,
1 he added it up, divided it, calculated. Another two hundred would make it up to the five he needed to get possession of the little farm he had never thought would be anything else than a dream. Perhaps this was a dream. . . He pulled himself together. His parched mouth told him it was : real. He had drunk only two cups out of his share. He must go easy. He could charge the old boy what he liked now, of course, but there were limits and he had to have another hundred pounds. . .
Two hours after sunrise on the third day, Bascombe asked for another drink. He was almost delirious now, hardly able to stagger to his feet. Smith was a little stronger, but he smiled.
“I haven’t really any to spare,” he replied, “but I tell you what. I’ll strike a bargain. I’ll divide what’s left and let you have it for two hundred. I’m being generous. I could
ask what I like. I’ll take two hundred.” Bascombe hesitated for barely a second. The cheque was the last in his book. He gulped heavily from the generous half Smith offered him, then lay back exhausted.
IT WAS LATE on the fourth day when they were found and hoisted aboard the little tramp that, seeing a speck in the distance, had turned back to investigate. Bascombe opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. His tongue was black and swollen so that it filled his mouth. He could not swallow the water forced between his lips, and lapsed into unconsciousness. He came to in a strange cabin, and lay for half an hour trying to sort things out.
Smith also lay in the cabin and he leaned forward to see if the cheques were in his coat. Reassured, he lay back.
A sailor looked in, saw Bascombe awake and went out. Presently the captain came below—a bearded Frenchman with little English. The captain felt Bascombe’s pulse and took his temperature, seemed reassured and then laughed heartily.
“What is funny?” asked Bascombe, a little annoyed.
“We have heard by the radio that your Orlando did not sink. She is in port, reporting you lost. It is funny, for one thing, that you should jump overboard like that. The other funny thing is that you should be dying of thirst when there were ten gallons of water in the keg in the bow locker.” “Ten gallons of water in the keg!” Bascombe turned white.
“Certainly,” laughed the French captain. “It is the rule of the sea that lifeboats should always have water.”
“What do you think of that, curse you, Smith !” exclaimed Bascombe. “A fine sailor you are, sitting on water and not knowing it was there!”
Smith smiled weakly.
“I’m a poor sailor,” he said. “That’s why I’m giving it up for good. But you’ve made me a fine businessman. I knew the water was there, but you see, if I had mentioned it, supply would have exceeded demand and that would have been bad for business.” He lay back and closed his eyes. The captain thought he had fainted again. But he was only dreaming of a farm which could be bought for 500 pounds. In a few minutes he sat up and felt in his jacket pocket, producing a crumpled cigarette.
“Funny thing this supply and demand business,” he remarked. “Yesterday that cigarette was worth thirty pounds. Now it’s hardly worth smoking.”