The Commander's Wife
A tale of a haunted captain and a woman with bloodred fingernails
CAPTAIN LANSDALE closed the novel he was reading and jerked it irritably across the deck of his day cabin.
“Bilge!” he ejaculated aloud.
He lay back in the chintz-covered armchair with his feet on another chair and his white tunic unbuttoned. The draught from an overhead fan stirred the flyleaf of the rejected novel where it lay. It quivered a little, like the wing of a dying bird, and was still.
Captain Lansdale wanted to dismiss the story from his mind but found it difficult. His second-in-command had lent him the book. The commander said it was a very clever novel. It may have been, but Captain Lansdale had no use for that type of cleverness. He was, however, not surprised to observe that the commander had been sent the book by his wife, a thin, long-eyed girl with crimson fingernails. She had scribbled her husband’s name and her own on the flyleaf. “Jan from Tansy,” and a date underneath and an exclamation mark. Why an exclamation mark? Some secret they shared . . . some laughing intimate secret ... He lifted his feet off the chair and sat upright.
For a while he sat staring at the brass rim of the scuttle which reflected the sunlight off the sea with a winking mesmeric effect. His eyes were blue and rather prominent; the mesmeric scuttle-rim gave them a fixed glassiness, like marbles. The dome of his head was almost bald and he grew his hair long to cover it. Sometimes when he was reading prayers to the ship’s company on the quarter-deck, the wind caught these long wisps and lifted them a little. The older members of the ship’s company called them trapping lines.
Why did women paint their lips and fingernails crimson? It was, he thought, a disgusting fashion. It made them look as if they had dipped their fingertips in blood and then wiped them on their lips. Certain types of women did it. Types he disapproved of. Mrs. Keeling, the commander’s wife, for instance. Ilis wife disapproved of her, too. “Modern,” was her verdict when the Keelings first came to call. She meant more than she said. He agreed. He said nothing about the faintly disturbing effect of her long, green, slightly oblique eyes.
Almost from the moment he set eyes on her he could feel a subtle antagonism between them. She resented something. He had given her a coo1 stare of disapproval, because well, he did disapprove of her. Her eyes defied him, and then her smile had mocked him. Mocked him with her inaccessibility. She had read something in his stare besides disapproval; something forbidden that flashed through his thoughts and escaped. No woman he had ever met had affected him like that. Extraordinary' to think that all the time that conventional tea-party was in progress, while they passed teacups and chatted, politely formal, this conflict should have been going on in the troubled depths of their consciousness.
He wondered uneasily what had brought it all back to him. He supposed it was the novel. A most improper book. Supposing his wife had sent him a book like that! He would have been appalled. He rose restlessly to his feet. Was it really the book, or could it be that the tropics were getting him down? That was rubbish. He had had more years of the tropics than he cared to count, and he had nothing to reproach himself about. Nothing. He picked up the book and stood looking at the inscription on the flyleaf.
“Jan from Tansy.” Tansy. A strange name. And that enigmatic exclamation mark. It was like a note of laughter. Derisive laughter. He could almost hear it ringing in his ears. Her eyes slanted when she laughed. He remembered her saying something about a Russian grandmother. The Russians were a queer people. Immoral. Not that Mrs. Keeling . . .
T_TIS GLANCE wandered from the date she had written T T to the calendar above his desk. Odd, but it was today. He closed the book and thrust it into the bookshelf. He walked to the door of his cabin and stepped out onto the quarter-deck.
The hands were “making and mending” and there was nobody on the quarter-deck except the officer of the watch
who was watching something ashore through his telescope.
Captain Lansdale stood for a moment staring at the island in whose lee he had anchored the previous afternoon. It was a low-lying coral atoll with a fringe of palm trees along the edge of the beach. His orders had been to look in there on his way to the base. The commander-in-chief had information that schooners employed in illicit drugrunning called there; actually there was a schooner in the harbor when the cruiser arrived. Captain Lansdale sent the officer of the guard and an armed boat’s crew to search her—rather a high-handed proceeding, but he wasn’t concerned with the susceptibilities of the schooner’s colored crew. They were too startled and alarmed to protest. Of course the search party found nothing on board except a harmless cargo of copra, and in the dawn she shook out her sails and slipped away below the horizon.
Captain Lansdale intended to remain at anchor for a couple of days to give the engine room complement a standeasy, because they had had rather a lot of sea time lately. There was nothing to do ashore. A few officers and some of the younger members of the ship’s company had landed to bathe and picnic. The remainder were stretched out under the awnings asleep.
He walked to the gangway and looked out to seaward. The sky was cloudless and reflected a deep indigo in the water that stretched, ruffled by a gentle breeze, to the arc of the horizon. Here and there a line of reefs showed purple through the blue. They stretched for several miles in the direction he was looking. Except the island off which they were anchored, nothing was visible; no ship moved across the blue disc of the sea, no smoke stained the clear curve of the horizon. The nearest land was, he knew, seventy-four miles northeast of them, another coral islet like this one, a pin point in the immensity of the ocean. To the southward there was no land. Nothing till you came to the Antarctic.
Captain Lansdale’s staring unimaginative eyes came back from the horizon to his own ship. They travelled over her foremast and bridge, and the ship’s side, and out along the lower boom where three boats lay at their painters—a motorboat, a cutter and the skiff. The boatkeeper in the cutter was dozing with his arms folded and his chin on his chest, his sun helmet tilted over his eyes.
The ship’s bell in amidships struck the hour, and Captain Lansdale glanced at his watch incredulously. Only two o’clock. He felt as if he had been sitting in his cabin for hours since he finished lunch. It would be another couple of hours before the ship awoke to life again and his steward would bring him tea. After evening quarters he usually studied German for a couple of hours. He was also writing a memorandum on the training of young seamen which he intended to send to the commander-in-chief. He had plenty to occupy him. But he was a man of regular habits and it was his routine to work in the dog watches.
He usually read between lunch and tea—naval history and the biographies of eminent admirals and generals. He had read every book published about the Great War. Officers in command of His Majesty’s ships had, in his opinion, a great deal to learn from that class of literature, and he rarely departed from it. But that afternoon, because he had given the ship’s company a half holiday, he had taken one himself. If you could call reading an improper novel a holiday. Something in his reflections suddenly made him knit his brows with impatience. The thought of returning to his cabin was distasteful; it was as if there was someone there waiting for him whom he had no wish to see. Or rather . . .
He turned abruptly inboard and called for the officer of the watch.
“Get the skiff alongside. I’m going to go away fishing for a couple of hours. Have the mast and sail in the boat.”
Captain Lansdale walked back to his cabin and changed into a tennis shirt, grey flannel trousers and canvas rubbersoled shoes, and finally slipijed on a thin flannel blazer. From an assortment of headgear he selected a sun helmet. Then, with his fishing gear, he turned and walked out onto the quarter-deck.
When the skiff was reported alongside he stepped to the gangway and lcx>ked down at the boat. The mast was stepped and the sail in readiness for hoisting. There were a pair of sculls in her and the tiller was shipped. The side boy stood looking up at him, holding the boat alongside the ladder.
“Tell the bridge to keep an eye on me in case I want a tow back. I am going to sail over to the reef. I’ll wave my arm if I want to be fetched.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” said Crombie, officer of the watch.
Captain Lansdale passed over the side and descended the ladder.
When the boat pulled away, Crombie glanced to windward and asked the quartermaster what the glass was doing.
The quartermaster said it was falling.
Crombie strolled to the deck log and ran his finger down the readings of the barometer for each hour since he came on watch. He supposed the captain knew the glass was falling. He had a barograph in his cabin and had only to glance at it.
A little line of dark clouds began trailing up on the
wind from behind the island.
who as a matter of fact had omitted to glance at the barograph as he left his cabin, was skimming before the wind in the direction of the reefs. The breeze had strengthened since he went into his cabin to change, and here and there a reef showed white for a moment as if the smiling sunlit sea had suddenly bared its teeth. He altered course slightly, steering for deeper water.
It was pleasant, he reflected, sailing away from the ship by himself. Perhaps he stayed on board rather too much. One got into a groove; a lonely groove, too. Captains couldn’t help that: they had to make the best of it. The loneliness of high command. He believed in maintaining the dignity of his rank under all circumstances. Then everybody knew precisely where they were. It was his invariable rule and he never relaxed from it.
All the same, one could be too much alone; especially at his age. It wasn’t good for the mind. It played tricks on one.
The boat heeled over from a sudden gust of wind, and Captain Lansdale realized for the first time how fast he was travelling. The water slid hissing past the gunwale, and a reef, visible far down through the clear water on the port side, went aft and disappeared as if jerked from sight by an unseen agency. He looked back at his ship and the island beyond, astonished to see how far he had travelled. There w-as a change coming in the weather; a bank of dark cloud was piling up to windward and sending thin streamers of mist out into the zenith like the fingers of a gigantic hand. The brilliance of the sun dimmed slightly as the haze spread over the sky.
It occurred to Captain Lansdale that it might be prudent to turn and begin to beat back toward his ship. But they v'ould see him and probably think he was afraid of the weather, whereas—he glanced again to windward—there was nothing to worry about. A squall probably, but he could handle the skiff in a squall. It would set the youngsters a good example to see their captain handling the skiff
singlehanded in a squall. He had stressed the importance of example in his memorandum.
He held doggedly on his course without looking back again. He w'as a man with complete confidence in himself. It never entered his head that there could be any emergency to which lie was unequal; and yet he was not an instinctive seaman, born to it, as it were. His knowledge of seamanship had been acquired as he was acquiring a knowledge of the German language, doggedly and conscientiously. He believed that he had learned all there was to know about it, and was helped in his belief by a complete absence of fear and of imagination. He was a good seaman—up to a point. Up to that point he would have been equally good in practically any profession.
It w^as Captain Lansdale’s intention to spin for barracuda along the outer line of reefs, but as he neared them he realized that he was sailing too fast for a fish to take the spoon properly. He thought that perhaps he would take in a couple of reefs, and began to bring the skiff round. A vicious gust struck her and drove her onto her beam ends.
For the first time he realized the force of the wind, but remained unperturbed. He got the skiff’s bows into the wind, scrambled forward and lowered the sail. While he was knotting the reef-points he observed that the surf was breaking white all along the lines of reefs. He had passed the outer line; had in fact come considerably farther than he intended to. The sky to windward was inky black, and every moment the sea got bigger. The sun was shining as if through a gauze veil.
He decided to give up the idea of fishing, and to beat back to the ship. If he got bored he would signal for them to send the motorboat and tow him back. Captain Lansdale hoisted the sail again and commenced to reach to windward; then he realized the size of the seas. One broke
over the weather bow, drenching him. He made the discovery that there was no bailer in the boat.
nPHE AFTERNOON watch was passing ven' pleasantly while the chief yeoman concluded aloud the memoirs of a gentleman recently released from prison after serving a sentence for bigamy, arson and attempted murder. “If he don’t know what’s what, search me.”
The second yeoman’s rather enigmatic comment on these biographical revelations was interrupted by a sudden gust of wind that shook the bridge awning. The yeoman moved out onto the bridge and looked to windward. “Here—what’s the captain doing?”
The second hand of the watch, his telescope steadied against the wheel shelter, said he thought the captain was bound for Cape Horn.
“It’s coming on to blow.” said the yeoman. He turned toward the chart house. “Here, chief, what do you think of the weather?”
The chief yeoman, a stout man. rose with a grunt from the settee, surveyed the sky and the sea, and said what lie thought of the weather.
“How about the captain?” asked the yeoman.
“Keep an eye on him. That’s his orders. We can’t do no more. Get the big telescope onto him.”
They focused the swivelled high-power telescope onto the skiff. The chief yeoman applied his eye to it. “Running down to leeward lickerty split. There’s a big sea running out there. He don’t trouble . . . Can’t he see the sky to windward?” He called the signalman. “Clap your face to this eye-piece and don’t take it off the skiff till I come back.” He began to button up his tunic. “I’m going to have a yam with the officer of the watch.”
“Fear’s the captain’s trouble,” said the yeoman, who
had leanings toward dramatic utterance. “He don’t know the meaning of it.”
The chief yeoman found the officer of the watch staring seaward through his glass.
“We’ve got the high-power glass on the captain, sir. He hasn’t made no signal and lie’s still running down to leeward. The weather don’t look too good.”
“He’s brought her up into the wind now. I think he’s coming back.” Crombie turned a worried face toward the approaching storm. “I think I’ll report to the commander that it’s coming on to blow.”
“Aye, aye, sir. I’ve got a hand watching the skiff.”
The chief yeoman turned and went forward. Crombie made his way to the commander’s cabin, knocked and entered. The commander, who was asleep in the armchair with a book on his knees, opened his eyes at the knock, wide-awake on the instant.
“It’s coming on to blow a bit, sir, and the captain’s away sailing in the skiff. Shall I send the motorboat for him? He’s a long way down to leeward.”
'Phe commander rose to his feet, picked up his cap and telescope and stepjied out of his cabin. He glanced to windward. “Where’s the skiff?”
Crombie indicated her with his glass outstretched. “He said he’d signal if he wanted a tow back. He hasn't signalled.”
The commander said something under his breath. Forward, the notes of the bugle were rousing sleeping men. “Call away the motorboat and send her down to the captain.” Heavy drops of rain began to patter on the awning overhead. The duty part of the watch were running aft with the awning tackles.
“Here it conies,” muttered the commander.
CAPTAIN LANSDALE, nursing the skiff to windward, perched on the weather gunwale with the sheet gripjied in his left hand, saw the squall coming toward him.
It was like a grey curtain of water that swallowed the island, blotted out the cruiser, and came rushing down on him with a roar like an express train. The base of the curtain was livid white foam. He brought the skiff’s bows round to meet the squall, and for a moment she plunged in the trough of a sea with her sail flapping and the sheet flogging to and fro.
The fury of the approaching cataclysm daunted him for an instant. He thought to himself, I’d better get the sail down and try and make some sort of a sea anchor. To reach the halyards he would have to relinquish the tiller. As he hesitated, the universe changed into a pandemonium of shrieking wind and water. The rain lashed him from head to foot, blinded him, filled his mouth, nostrils and ears with suffocating water that thrashed the surface of the sea all round with a great sound like hissing. The next instant the skiff’s sail filled and she heeled over, water frothing across the gunwale.
Instinctively Captain Lansdale let the wet sheet slip through his hand, and the boat spun round and went tearing before the wind. He held the sheet tight. There was nothing else to do; he’d just have to run before the squall till it blew itself out. If he left the tiller to get at the sail and lower it. the boat would broach to and capsize. It would be all right presently. The boat lurched forward drunkenly through the driving downpour. The rain thrashed the belly of the sail and beat about his back and shoulders.
The seas were travelling faster than he was, seething and hissing under his counter, surging past with spume streaming from their ridges like smoke. He saw that he must bail or the boat would become unmanageable. Water swilled about nearly to his knees, and he remembered he had nothing to bail with except his sun helmet. Holding the sheet and tiller in one hand, he contrived to get some of the water out of her, but presently the helmet turned to pulp and collapsed. He flung it overboard.
Contrary to his expectation, the squall did not blow itself out. His watch showed him presently that he had been running with the storm for over an hour and it was still blowing as hard as ever. The seas were, if anything, increasing in size, and each time he looked over his shoulder, the grey hollow of curving, frothing water seemed to climb a little higher.
Yet the waterlogged boat seemed scarcely to move through the waves. It staggered to the crest of each successive sea, lurched forward down their slopes, lolled halfbecalmed in the troughs. But he knew that he was in reality travelling fast, away from the island, away from his ship, in a roughly southerly direction.
Another hour passed. The rain gradually ceased. Captain Lansdale could see nothing but the foaming pursuit of the wave crests astern, and a grey tumultuous sky.
At that moment the wind shifted. The skiff was poised on the crest of a sea and the wind beat the wet sail back against the mast. She spun round broadside onto the seas, and then very deliberately, slowly, it seemed to Captain Lansdale, capsized.
“It’s all right,” he thought to himself as he went under.
Continued on page 54
The Commanders Wife
Continued from page. 9—Starts on page 7
npiIE COMMANDER ran forward to the bridge as the squall struck the ship. The rain obscured the island from j sight, and there was nothing he could get a bearing from, as he intended, to see if they were dragging. The signalmen had struggled into their oilskins and were staring down-wind at the driving deluge.
“Where was the skiff when you saw her last?”
The chief yeoman pointed to leeward with his telescope rather uncertainly.
“I suppose you didn’t take a bearing of her?”
The chief yeoman admitted that he hadn’t. The squall came so suddenly. One j minute they were watching the captain and the next he was wiped out by the rain.
Keeling, from the end of the bridge, saw the crew of the motorboat crawling out along the lower boom, the wind beating at j their oilskins. He snatched a megaphone out of the chart house and shouted to the j coxswain not to cast off. They must wait till the rain eased up a bit, till they could see better. Useless to send them away in this.
Keeling never doubted that they would sight the skiff when the rain stopped. He had complete confidence in Captain Lansdale’s ability to handle a boat in any weather and to look after himself. Keeling’s attitude toward his superior was one of uncritical loyalty. His wife, he knew, did not like his captain. She had said so as they were driving home from their first call. She gave no reason. That was Tansy all over; she seemed to get impressions of people through her skin. When he pressed her for a reason, she slid her hand into his and gave it a little squeeze. That meant he j was to drop the subject, which he did. j He moved about the ship, busy with ! measures which the situation called for. j The rain lessened after about twenty minutes and he sent Masters, the subofficer, off in the motorboat, giving him an approximate course to steer from the direction of the wind. Visibility gradually increased to nearly a mile. The island became visible as a grey smear to windward, and presently the cutter was visible, close reefed, wallowing back to the ship with the drenched picnic party.
CAPTAIN LANSDALE rose, gasping, to the surface, swam a few strokes and grabbed the rudder lanyard. The skiff was floating bottom up, rising and falling on the waves that every now and again rushed seething over her. For some minutes he floated, holding onto the rudder. Presently it slipped from the inverted pintles, but remained secured to the skiff by the lanyard. The skiff had preserved a certain amount of buoyancy due to the air imprisoned in her, and Captain Lansdale, mindful of the possibility of sharks, contrived to pull himself onto the upturned keel.
Some of the skiff’s rigging was floating on the surface; he grabbed hold of the sheet and managed to pass it round the boat and secure it. It gave him something to hold on to. After a while he secured the * end round his body and lay spread-eagled, i clinging to the sheet while the seas broke i over the insignificant obstacle in their ! path, submerging him with a rush of foaming, bitterly salt water.
Now, he thought to himself, I must just hang on like this and wait till I am picked up. The ship must have seen me by now and the motorboat will be on its way. It’s just a matter of sticking it. He lay watchI ing the seas as they rushed toward him.
He was very cold, and his mouth was I dry and bitter. He had swallowed a good deal of salt water, and at intervals he was i shaken by spasms of retching. He won| dered how many hours of daylight were j left, and discovered his watch had stopped I at a quarter past five. Say a couple of
hours daylight. Plenty of time for them to find him.
He closed his eyes and held his breath as a sea enveloped him. It occurred to him as he emerged from it and gulped fresh air into his lungs that the seas were too big for the motorboat. He must have been carried a long way out into the ocean. And now he was drifting on whatever current prevailed with that wind. He lay patiently, as if crucified, face downward, trying to remember the force and direction of the currents.
Presently he began to shudder convulsively. The seas that swept over him were warmer than the air and he almost regretted when they gradually ceased. He concluded that the wind must be abating, and looked overhead at the formless mass of vapor that showed no signs of a break.
. He began to grow angry. It was outrageous that the ship hadn’t sent for him by now. Surely the seas weren’t too big for the motorboat. He craned his head round, trying to estimate their size. They looked immense. Perhaps the crew could see him all right, and were waiting for the weather to moderate. Perhaps the motorboat had broken down. She was always breaking down. Then why didn’t Keeling send a cutter? A cutter could live in that sea all right, reefed down . . . Funny to think they could see him and he couldn’t see the ship. But of course he couldn’t, with his eye on a level with the water.
He rose uncertainly to his knees, gripping the sheet, and tried to peer over the wave tops. He could only see a mile or two, whereas—he dropped to his prone position and lay shivering, his teeth chattering—whereas, from the masthead, a lookout would have a visibility . . . His brain became busy with calculations. Of course they could see him. He might even be back in time to have a dinner party. A hot bath and a good stiff tot of whisky would put him right again. He’d ojien a bottle of champagne at dinner, and hang the exjiense for once. In imagination he felt the cool prickly stuff trickling down his throat . . . A fit of shuddering shook him from head to foot. Not iced champagne. Hot toddy. Steaming hot with lemon and sugar to wash the bitter taste from his mouth.
He began again to rise unsteadily to his knees. Heavens, how his eyes smarted. Was that boat never coming? He jieered blinking through the spindrift but saw only the brief tropical dusk sweeping over sea and sky.
HASTHORPE, the navigator, came up to the bridge, glanced to leeward and entered the chart house. He drew a chart out of a drawer, studied it for a while and began to make calculations in a notebook. Keeling joined him.
“How much more daylight is there?”
The navigator looked over his shoulder at the clock. “About an hour. What time was he lost sight of?”
Keeling told him. Hasthorpe twiddled a pair of dividers about the surface of the chart and made a little pencil dot on the surface of the paper. “Assuming he hauled his sail down when the squall struck him, he ought to be there.” He carefully enclosed the dot with a circle, as if that settled the matter beyond any doubt.
Keeling leaned over the chart. “Well, he isn’t or we’d see him. I’ve been to the masthead myself and I swear there’s nothing in sight.” His round, rather boyish face looked anxious. “Supposing he capsized.”
“We’d still see him. The skiff would float.” Hasthorjie ojiened a volume of the “Pilotage Handbook” and studied it for a while. “The currents are so uncertain,” he muttered. “There’s a sou’westerly one that runs at four knots at certain states of
the tide.” He resumed his calculations, frowning.
‘‘He was clear of the reefs. He can’t have got smashed on one.” Keeling went out onto the bridge. The motorboat was visible as a small speck at the limit of visibility. Through his glass he could see her rolling and plunging, seas breaking over her. Supposing she broke down. He daren’t let her go any farther in this wind. He turned away from the rail.
“Hoist the motorboat’s recall.” he said to the chief yeoman, and re-entered the chart house. “I must get the motorboat back before dark. D’you suppose the captain ran before the squall?”
“Must have. Visibility’s what? Four miles? He’d be out of sight.” Again the navigator made a confident pencil mark. “He’d be here—about.”
“We’d better raise steam. Can you take her out in the dark?”
Hasthorpe shook his head. “You’re not supposed to approach this island at night on account of the currents. It’s not lighted, •you see. I could take her out as long as I could see the land, but not in the dark. The reefs are like currants in a plum duff. We can’t risk the ship, but I’ll take her out at crack of dawn. In the meanwhile I’ll work out a search curve.” He resumed his calculations.
Keeling glanced at the yardarm, where the flags recalling the motorboat were snapping in the wind.
“Motorboat’s returning, sir. She’s signalled nothing in sight,” reported the yeoman.
Keeling descended to the wardroom, where he found the engineer commander playing bridge.
“Chief, how much time do you need to raise steam for slow speed?”
“In an emergency? Three hours.” “That’s no good. It’ll be dark. The pilot says he can’t take her out in the dark. We’ll have to weigh at dawn.”
“Right ho!” The engineer commander laid down his cards and rose from the table. The other three players sat with their eyes turned on the second-incommand. It seemed to Keeling as if they expected him to perform some sort of miracle; suddenly to produce the captain in their midst alive and well. For an instant he felt overwhelmed by a sense of awful responsibility. Suppose the navigator was wrong in his calculations !
The bridge players sat fumbling with their cards in silence, as if rather ashamed to be doing nothing to help find the captain, and at the same time aware there was nothing they could do.
On his way forward, Keeling stepped into the captain’s cabin. Captain Lansdale’s steward was moving about in it uncertainly, duster in hand.
“Shall I lay dinner for the captain, sir?” he asked, fixing eyes like an anxious monkey’s on Keeling’s face. “D’you think he’ll be back in time?”
Keeling felt as if they were playing a sort of game. “Hardly,” he said. “Hardly in time for dinner. We’re—we’re going to sea directly it dawns to pick him up. I expect he’ll be very cold. It’s been raining so hard. We must have his bunk all ready, and hot-water bottles.”
The steward brightened. “Yes, sir. And a nice hot cup of coffee.” He bustled through into the pantry as if at any moment Captain Lansdale might appear in their midst demanding hot coffee.
Keeling stood irresolutely in the centre of the cabin. He must clear lower deck again presently and hoist the motorboat; prepare the ship for sea. His eye rested on the bookshelf where he observed the book Tansy had sent him as a birthday present. He remembered that today was his birthday, but the book had come a week ago. He had meant to have a singsong in the wardroom that evening and ask the captain to come down. The captain of Marines would have played the piano, while they sang the old-fashioned naval ditties and chanties the captain liked . . . He thought it was a pity the captain had no interests outside the Service. But then he himself had been like
that until he married Tansy. It was she who introduced him to really good literature, taught him to appreciate good music and pictures, insisted on their meeting lots of people, other than naval officers, and widened all his interests. He turned and went out onto the upper deck.
TAAWN CAME out of pearly sky, cold and stainless as a sword blade severing night from day.
Captain Lansdale raised his head from the keel of the skiff and blinked toward the east. He was too stiff and numb to move more of his body; even the effort to raise his head seemed to demand a lot of what strength he had left after the interminable night. He had spent most of the hours of darkness absorbed in the effort to keep his body on the upturned skiff. The repeated onslaughts of the seas, threatening to tear his hands from their grip, intermittent bouts of cramp, retching and the numbing cold, had exhausted him. Once or twice when he had dozed off for a second or two into semi-consciousness, his hands had relaxed their grip and he had rolled over into the water. The lashing round his waist prevented him from being washed away and each time he hauled himself back onto the keel. The nausea and violent shivering fits liad ceased. He only felt weak and cold and very thirsty.
The light grew stronger and he saw that the storm had passed. The skiff was rising and falling on a smooth swell beneath a sky slowly turning' from grey to pale turquoise.
The primrose in the east changed to rose, tinting the slopes of the swell with mother of pearl. The gold became fire and the dazzling sun rose above the horizon. For a while Captain Lansdale lay motionless in the horizontal beams, feeling the warmth flowing through his benumbed body. Gradually strength and feeling returned. His hands were flayed and bleeding from the rope he had gripped all night and hurt excessively, but as the sun rose higher and he stretched his cramped limbs in its heat he realized that there was nothing else the matter with him. His eyes smarted and he was intolerably thirsty, but he felt no other ill effects from the strain of the night.
His spirits rose, and after a while he contrived to get to his feet, holding the lashing after the manner of a surf rider, and stood upright. From the tops of successive seas he surveyed the expanse of heaving ocean in all directions, shading his eyes with his lacerated hand. There was nothing in sight.
He sat down again. In the shock of the disappointment, his weakness returned. His limbs trembled. He was seized by a fit of childish hysterical anger. “Damn them!” he shouted, and beat his fists on the boat. “Where are they? Why don’t they come and find me? Damn them all !” The futile sound of his voice in the lonely immensity of the sea and sky suddenly shocked him. He mustn’t lose control of himself. He must be patient. It was just a question of time . . . Perhaps the skiff was caught in some uncharted current and they were searching in another point of the compass. Even so, he couldn’t have drifted very far. They had only to draw a circle with a radius of, say, ten miles. That gave an area of—he occupied himself working out the problem, ignorant of the fact that all night he had been home by an unknown current at nearly four knots in the exactly opposite direction to that in which the ship had proceeded in search of him.
The hours passed, and the sun climbed steadily toward its zenith. The heat heat down on him, reflected brassily from the surface of the water. To protect his head from sunstroke, he made a clumsy turban out of his jacket. His thirst became acute torment, and periodically he rose unsteadily to scan the empty horizon with bloodshot eyes. Once he thought he saw a feather of smoke against the sky, hut it faded to nothing.
Lowering his eyes from one of these
fruitless surveys, just as he was about to resume his sitting posture, he saw a blue shadow beneath the surface of the water. It moved slowly, circling the upturned skiff, while Captain Lansdale watched it in horrified fascination. After a while it moved nearer the surface and continued to encircle him. He could make it out quite plainly—a shark about twelve feet long.
So clear was the water that he could see its black eyes watching him, the graceful effortless undulations of its tail. Once (here was a gleam of white belly as it turned a little on its side.
T_JE STOOD with his legs straddled,
-L swaying on his insecure platform, appalled at the discovery. It banished all previous consciousness of his plight, even of his thirst. He had no weapon; his knife was in the box with his fishing gear and had sunk when the skiff capsized.
The shark presently turned toward the skiff and passed beneath it. For a moment it was invisible to Captain Lansdale. but lie was left in no doubt what its intention was. The boat suddenly heeled, very nearly precipitating him into the water. His extemporized turban fell into the water and floated slowly away.
The shark reappeared, accompanied by a second one. Glancing toward his floating coat, Captain Lansdale saw a third shark swimming slowly round it. He hastily resumed a squatting position and presently the skiff jarred and heeled over again. He clung desperately to the lashing, peering down into the water. He could count five of the brutes slowly patrolling round him. The boldest came to the surface till its dorsal fin and the tip of its tail were visible. His coat, that had floated some distance away, suddenly vanished in a swirl.
The sun blazed down with savage heat; the swell gradually subsided and the surface of the sea reflected the sun’s rays like polished brass. Captain Lansdale, clinging to the lashing, expecting at any moment to be precipitated into the water by a sudden lurch of the skiff, felt as if he were being grilled alive.
Queer hallucinations beset him after a while. He was back in his childhood, astride the old cart-horse coming back from the haylield ; he had lost his hat and the sun was beating down on his unprotected head, making it ache intolerably. The horse stumbled, nearly throwing him off its back, and the fright jerked him back to consciousness of his plight. He could see the shark moving close beside the boat, still watching him.
He passed into a light delirium, giving orders to imaginary subordinates, delivering long speeches to an assembled ship’s company that became a mass of terrible faces mouthing and grimacing at him out of a sea of molten metal. A hammer in his head beat steadily on his brain—tap, tap, tap, tap. The skiff lurched again, sickeningly.
It was some time in the afternoon that the bird arrived.
Its shadow, passing over the upturned skiff, attracted Captain Lansdale’s attention. He looked up and saw it soaring above him in slow circles, apparently examining him intently. He crouched, watching it, and the bird rose with a few strokes of its pinions and continued to circle lazily overhead.
Several hours elapsed; his delirium had passed away. He lay outstretched along the keel in a semiconscious state, mechanically clutching the lashing. The sharks had apparently decided that they could not precipitate him into the water and were swimming quietly backward and forward just below the surface. He had forgotten them, forgotten his whereabouts and all hopes of rescue.
What consciousness remained in him held bitter thirst, the slow torture of sunburn and overwhelming fatigue. In this state, on the borderland of oblivion, he heard the sound of wings, felt a rush of air and simultaneously a searing pain above his temple. He sat up, blood streaming
down his face. The bird had struck at him and soared again. It continued to circle overhead, looking down at him with its green eyes.
He had no idea what kind of bird it was. In his lightheadedness he was not even sure it was a bird. It came nearer as if meditating another swoop. He wiped the blood from his eyes and brandished his arms, fighting the hallucinations of sunstroke. The bird uttered a thin cry. It sounded like a note of derisive laughter.
“Go away!” he shouted. “Go away! This is your fault. You drove me here!” His voice rose almost to a scream. This was no bird, hovering over him. It had long thin fingers tipped with crimson, hooked to strike at him again. “Leave me alone!” he bawled.
The sun declined toward the horizon, fusing sea and sky in a blazing effulgen.ee of light. The sharks passed to and fro beneath the upturned skiff. The bird circled watchfully above it, biding its time. Presently it was joined by others, concentrating from outer space upon the floating speck that was Captain Lansdale, gesticulating with his lists and babbling about a book.
r"PHE LOOKOUT, perched precariously -*■ on a boatswain’s stool at the fore topmast head, lowered his glasses and looked down at the ship to rest his eyes.
The ship’s company had been looking for the captain since dawn, but as the hours passed and there was no sign of the skiff, the gloom on the messdeck deepened and by tea time the word went round that likely as not she had sunk and the captain had been eaten by sharks.
They liked the captain. He was fair to everybody and you knew where you were with him, even at the defaulters’ table where you got all there was coming to you. A bit hard, but straight.
The lookout could see the commander and navigator on the compass platform below. They were leaning over the chart table, and the officer of the watch stood by the binnacle with his glasses raised to his eyes. Presently the sun would set and it would be dark. Then what would they do? There was a rumor forward that the commander and the navigator had had words on the bridge. It was about currents which the navigator said weren’t in the book nor marked on the chart, so how was he to know? The commander said it was his job to know, and there they’d been all day searching to the sou’west when for all they knew the skiff was drifting nor’west. So to and fro they went, and now they were heading into the sunset. How could anybody see anything in that flaming light?
The lookout shifted his position a little and resumed his scrutiny of the horizon. Far above him and a little ahead of the ship, a large bird was flying swiftly toward the sunset. He wondered where it was making for, and presently got it in the focus of his glasses. A whacking great bird with a kind of hook at the end of its beak. Maybe it was an eagle; or an albatross. The lookout was not much of an ornithologist. But through the glasses he presently saw some more birds.
They were all flying into the aching glare of the sunset. There must be something. He crinkled up his eyes, trying to see. Five minutes passed; he had lost sight of the birds. Then he saw a speck in the dazzle and lost it again. He rubbed his eyes with his finger and tried once more. Must have been his imagination.
There it was! Seaweed? A bird? No. It was some object. A little black speck. He bent down, cupping his hand round his mouth and bawled with all the strength of his lungs:
“Object fine on the port bow, sir!”
It was the shout the whole ship had been waiting for all day. He saw all the glasses on the bridge directed toward the sunset. They wouldn’t see anything for a minute. The men on the forecastle rushed to the port rails; men came scrambling up the hatchways in every variety of dress and
undress. A ragged sound of cheering floated up to him, died away and was presently renewed in a great roar of voices.
APTAIN LANSDALE lay in his bunk, listening to the faint tinkle of the wardroom piano. It was evening and he supposed they were having a singsong after dinner. It was the fifth day since his rescue, and although he still felt weak and disinclined for mental effort, he thought he would persuade the doctor to take him off the sick list in the morning.
fie would have to report the occurrence to the commander-in-chief, without of course imputing any blame to anyone. His private opinion was that the navigator was largely responsible for the delay in finding him ; although it was undeniable that there were currents in those waters whose strength and direction were a completely unknown quantity. However, when he was off the sick list he would investigate the matter. Not in any spirit of resentment or with a view to taking disciplinary action, but because it was plainly his duty as captain of one of His Majesty’s ships to satisfy himself that whatever steps had been taken to find the skiff, had been the correct ones. A strictly impersonal investigation.
It was possible, of course, that he himself had been to blame to some extent. He had held on down-wind too long. A minor aspect of the matter. He was perfectly free to go away in one of his own ship’s boats for a sail on a make-and-mend afternoon . . . His head began to ache again, but his thoughts revolved relentlessly round the circle of cause and effect. He was a free agent; why had he chosen to go away sailing on that particular afternoon? He might as well face the facts squarely. He had gone out of the ship because he had been driven out of it. Driven out of it by thoughts he was trying to escape from; thoughts occasioned by a book he had been reading.
The sound of young men’s voices singing, drifted through the wardroom scuttles and reached him where he lay plucking at the sheet.
“Now first there came the captain's wife
And she was dressed in blue,
And in one corner of her hat she carried the galley's crew.”
It was years since he had sung that meaningless old chanty with its endless
verses; not since he was a midshipman in a gunroom. He had even forgotten how it went on, and strained his ears, listening.
"For she was one of the fair ones
One of the rollicking crew.”
His hand moved slightly, as though beating time to the rhythm of the song. The voices died away as the verse ended, and swelled again.
“And then there came the commander's wife
And she was dressed in check ...”
Check. That would suit her slender figure, and her queer resentful eyes . . . Captain Lansdale had ceased beating time with his hand. I lis fingers strayed to the scarcely-healed scar above his brow.
There was a knock at the door and the commander entered. His friendly guileless smile held a faint solicitude.
“I came to see how you were this evening, sir. I hope the singing isn’t disturbing you.”
“Not a bit,” replied Captain Lansdale. “I hardly noticed it. as a matter of fact. I am glad you came in. I had just remembered that 1 still have a book you lent me. It is in my day cabin. Will you take it when you go?”
Keeling passed through the curtained doorway into the day cabin and returned with the book. He liad opened it at the flyleaf and stood looking at it with a smile.
‘T sometimes pull my wife’s leg about her name,” he said. “Tansy.”
“The name of an herb, isn’t it?” asked Captain Lansdale, staring at the rivets in the plating overhead.
“Yes. A gardening book at home says, ‘Is sometimes used as a bitter medicine.’ ” He chuckled at this humorous aspect of his wife’s name. “She sent me this for my birthday.”
Keeling thought his captain sounded fatigued, and prepared to take his departure. “That scar is healing nicely, sir.”
“Yes.” concurred Captain Lansdale. Again his fingers strayed over the wound. Keeling wished him good-night and left the cabin, closing the door softly behind him.
When he was alone, Captain Lansdale reached for the shaving mirror beside his bunk and examined the scar. As the commander had said, it was healing nicely. The shape of it was like an exclamation mark.