The Figure-head of the "White Prince"


The Figure-head of the "White Prince"

BY Morley Roberts

THE look-out on board the White Prince had but little to do, for the sky was clear and the trade wind steady in a pleasant vacant sea. So that he stayed upon the top-gallant fo'c's'le with his dark figure sometimes visible to the officer of the watch; all was well. He knew how unlikely it was that he would be troubled by any ship rising phantom-like out of the ocean, or gliding blackly out of a blacker squall. He had all those two midnight hours in which to dream according to his nature, and might, if he desired it, recall visions from the past, or imagine visions of the time to come. And Nicholas Tarvin, who held his lonely and silent watch there, saw very strange visions indeed in that calm and lonely night. For some of them were of the East, and some of the West, and some like a foul and poisonous vapour rising from the pit.

As he stayed in his walk and looked far away, his eyes grew and dilated like a cat's; but when he paused again and looked aft, clenching his hands, they narrowed with their wrinkled brown eyelids to a mere slit of malice, and the man was as hideous as some old fakir. Sometimes he gesticulated, and sometimes he clutched the hilt of his sheath-knife at his hip with a quick and venomous action. And every now and again he muttered dark words like a wizard's formula, unintelligible, but in intention deadly.

"I hate him!" he said aloud, and then, startled by the sound of his voice, he looked about him sharply. He laughed, and chuckled in his withered throat. "I will slay him day by day; and blast his life. This they taught me in the East. It is but wood for wax. I shall see him wither like a blighted leaf."

When two bells was struck lightly aft, and repeated loudly behind him, he called "All's well," and was answered from the dark poop. As the half-melancholy sound of his own voice died out of his ears he went towards the starboard rail and sat down upon the anchor. Lest he should be taken unawares, he faced aft, and drawing a sharp Oriental dagger from his bosom, he bared his thin, muscular arm, and stabbed it an inch deep in some old scars. Taking the knife in his teeth, he went over the vessel's head, and was absent from the deck two minutes. When he returned, he bound up his arm and wiped some blood-spots from the deck very carefully. He resumed his intermittent march, and at four bells was relieved and went below. As he entered the fo'c's'le he saw some of his watch sitting yarning on the spare topmast by the galley. He spat towards them and grinned.

"If they only knew my power!" he said.

For over the bows the figure of the White Prince had a little triangular stab above the heart, while some drops of thick blood dried below the wound.

And night by night Black Tarvin slipped secretly over the head to torture the imagined counterfeit of him who named the ship, and do it deadly harm. For the son of the man who had carved was the Captain, and the father had taken his only son as a model, making it strangely like, and doing his best. But Tarvin hated him; they came from the same town, from the same school, and now he sailed before the mast in the vessel that Robert Saltwood commanded. Yet Tarvin was the elder, and had sailed his own ship trading in Eastern islands. But some devilish vice of a precious drug had dragged him down and held him. He imagined strange and powerful knowledge, he repeated peculiar incantations in malignant envy that esteemed himself scorned. The little blood he shed, according to a dreadful ritual, should drain Saltwood's red heart: the man should be as white wax in the flame of hate, and the old carver should repent his love for the vulnerable creature that Tarvin stained with blood and gnashed his teeth at.

After a little while, in the tropic heat of a long unusual calm, Tarvin imagined that he saw the Captain fail. Was he as strong, as brown, as bright, as eager? Or was the thought of evil success a delusion? Tarvin crept over the bows when the south-east trade wind blew, and hung to the stays contemplating the White Prince, whose pure robes were stained here and there as with reddish rust. He muttered to himself, and at last spoke to the white fetish.

"You pale beast, how is it with you?" he asked jeering. "Do you feel the magic work? Split and rot and warp i' the sun; ache under your eyes and in your heart. Big beast, you are quiet; but you go, you go! And when you and he are rotten dust, I shall thrive and sing and sail in my Eastern seas."

He thrust his hand into his breast, and drew out a little box covered with snake-skin, and from it he took something the size and shape of a big bean. He swallowed it and went on talking.

"Aye, aye, to hear the surf beneath the palms, and to see the sea leap the breakwaters, and to lie and sweat in the sun! And out and beyond to the big brown rivers and the brown, brown girls. Oh—ah, and the Lascars singing in the heavy heat."

He intoned in a low voice the melancholy changeless Lascar chant: 'Allah, illah, allah—ay—lah," with its sudden drop of a fifth on the last note, and then was silent for a while as the water leapt under the vessel's fore-foot and she smote the smooth sea asunder with a gurgle and a low hiss. He spat down into the little white sea-flower of jutting water that grows for ever at the flat edge of a vessel's stem as she goes.

"Hiss, hiss, little serpent of the sea's green fields! Hiss under him, and when he sleeps in the moon leap up and strike till he swells and bursts like a dead beast in the sun. And I will go softly and sweet in white robes and be chosen king of an Eastern island where the coral grows and the calm reef holds strange fish in its green waters, and outside the big blue sea tumbles for ever. Hark! hark! I hear strange music."

He bent his head, and with uplifted hand listened; for the drug worked in him through the lovely night, and it crowned him king, and clothed him beautifully, and set no bounds to his freed will in a land where he was priest and magician as well. Looking up triumphantly and unafraid, he saw the thin crescent moon grow monstrously and arch the intense sky like a rainbow, and the stars were awful lamps, and the sound of the swift ship dividing the wonderful air was as thunder, and his low voice was lord of the thunder. He seemed to hear his very breathing echo from the sails and again reverberate in their darkened curves, and die far off like a passing storm. And lying far out upon the jutting boom over the hollow sea, he turned to the White Prince, who gleamed bright against the dark bows, and he saw his magic working. For the Prince was wan, and his cheeks thin and pale. Looking still, he saw the blood drip down into the sea; it rotted in his veins; he grew limp and withered, and at last hung to the ship's bows like a dried robber crucified. But Tarvin laughed and crowed like an elfin child well pleased at dark tricks that mocked some human vain endeavour. And then, as the hours passed, and the drug died, he crawled inboard, and was mean and a slave once more.

But—and how he laughed to note it, believing in his moonlight incantations and the spells he cast—the Captain of the ship was not what he had been. Some evil in his blood or nature, or some ancient harm flowering anew in a fit season, or some poison-like malaria that slays the red blood, had hold of his strength now. He was dying as a tree might die if an enemy bored out its heart and poured in vitriol.

"It works, true, it works true," said Tarvin, as he watched the sick man, who knew not of his insane hostility. "And when it is done I shall be free."

He rolled delighted in his miserable bunk and clutched his blankets to him in a very orgasm of unnatural joy. The mean bed was a couch for an emperor; the common talk of his mates was applause and triumphant shouting. What mattered if they cursed him and said that he was mad when the drug's strength was at nadir? When it lifted him on clouds of glory and was in its zenith they were his warriors and his slaves. They brought him tribute: gold and wine and women.

Yet now the little serpent lying hissing in the white foam-flower under the flowing robes of the rotting Prince at times half scared him. Sometimes he saw its eyes flash fire and its fangs gleam as though they threatened him. Unless the spell worked truly he himself might be its victim. And the carven image was not yet overcome at its heart. He hung over the bows that hot night and pricked it deep.

Next day they said that for certain the Captain could not live, and men went solemnly in the ship. But Black Tarvin hugged himself in dark places and chuckled villainously, for his time was at hand.

And one night when the vessel went plunging in golden fire, and shook ten thousand green stars in flame from the blown crest of a curving wave, he went out and slid down the dipping martingale, and sat to look up at the Dead that was a prophecy against one still living. But in the golden foam-flowers hissed many sea-snakes, and they swam swiftly in and out, weaving a sea-shroud for a sea-prince. And when Tarvin looked up from their enchanted embroidery fringed with deep and heavy blue, the pale light from the living water touched the Prince strangely. For ever before his eyes had been cast down as in contemplation: but now the white lids seemed to lift a little heavily, like those of a waking man: and the lips too looked ruddy and half-parted. He made Tarvin angry, and, fearful of the portent, he asked that night how it was with the Captain. They told him that the man was dying, and he went away with a twisted mouth that it was difficult to keep from laughter.

That night, when he went out to the White Fetich, he had changed terribly. He looked straight at his destroyer, and his eves were opened, and his mouth held an unspoken word. And though Tarvin saw now that as the Captain died his life went into his image, yet he was full of the drug and not afraid.

"White Prince of a fallen house, it is well with me, but not well with thee. Oho! but it is well with me, and I smell the East."

He mocked the living figure bending deep-eyed over a still heavy sea of lazy oil, in which the curve of the cutwater and the keel was a band of light such as a man sees in a cat's-eye of great value. But as he went in past and over the Prince it seemed to him that his garment was plucked lightly, and he heard a voice.

"Who spoke?" he cried in fear.

And he was answered from the deck.

"The Captain is dead, you black beast," said one of those who hated him, but whom he held as slaves in his mind.

But Tarvin knew then that he who had spoken to him was one clothed in white drapery, whose eyes were opened, and whose lips were unsealed.

That night, for the little box ran low, he was in great terror, and begged one of his mates to change bunks with him, for his was right in the eyes of the ship, close behind where the live white beast was hanging with its eyes open. And as the man would not, Tarvin groaned and took more of his drug, and passed the middle watch below, sitting on his chest, wondering if the White Thing would be loosed to chase him when the Captain's body was cast into the sea. He heard how it laughed outside in the foam of a clean, fresh breeze after days of oily calm. Then suddenly he dropped upon his knees in terror, and he saw the bows open, and the huge figure unfold its arms and scoop up the sea in a great hand. Then there was but heavy timber, black and sweating, between him and It. But again he looked and saw white fingers trying to work the hawse-pipe plug free, and the hand came in and grasped emptily at the close and fetid air. Tarvin screamed thickly from a dry throat, and choked and fell. When he came to he was out on deck in the moonlight among the men, and he was soaked through and through.

They said that they had cast water on him to revive him; but Tarvin knew better than that, and looked askance at them. The Prince had caught him and plunged him in the sea. He felt like a little man in the paws of a great white tiger out of the jungle, a magic beast, charmed and incapable of any propitiation.

They buried the Captain that very dawn, and as his draped coffin slid from the soaped plank into the sea, the practiser of black arts heard a voice call "Tarvin," that he could not resist. He went forward and climbed down upon the martingale stays till he was face to face with the Captain, clothed in white samite and very wonderful. But Tarvin knew that the Prince was as Robert Saltwood would have been without a soul, and he looked cruel and inexorable. And until the seaman had dipped trembling into his little box, and taken the last three beans and swallowed them, he was too afraid to look into the eyes that searched his heart. But then all sounds were very far off, and the vessel was uplifted over hollow depths as deep as the pit, and she rode lightly through thunder in which a whisper could be heard. So Tarvin spoke with the Captain for a long hour, and when he entered the ship again his hair was as white as snow, and his skin wrinkled like an old man's.

And each night he spoke with the Captain, till the boldest of his fellows feared him.

He left the white curse at last in a far western port, and sailed hurriedly in a steamer to England. But his vessel foundered as suddenly as if someone had plucked her bottom out, and the ship that picked up the one boat was called the White Prince. And once each night the Captain called to Tarvin, who came with him to Calcutta. As he hurried across the burning continent to Bombay the voice that summoned him grew fainter; and with more courage he came home at last. Hut there he lay ill in a port where few large ships were ever entered, and after months as he looked sickly out of his window he saw the White Prince lying at a near wharf. As the Captain called he rose and went forth, and the crowd jeered him and called him madman. He fled from them to the country, and at last was passed as a pauper from hand to hand till he reached his own parish, to which the White Prince belonged. He found her there, and, escaping, took ship upon the sea, which he could not leave, for Moulmein. But the White Prince pursued him even there, and in the balmy-scented East the Captain spoke with him again.

Now neither any sound of tumbling water nor colour of close seas could delight him, and brown women were as white women, and white women as the dead. The surf under palms upon the shore was full of sea-snakes, such as hissed under the robes of the White Prince or thrust their jewelled and armed heads out of the curl of the sea under the vessel's forefoot; and there was no pleasure in an imagined kingship, the gift of drugs. For now the little snake-skin box, that had held surcease from pain, and had given him strength to stand face to face with the Quick and Dead in one, kept nothing for him but things which were horrible. As he strove onward, and was chased through strange seas by the white ship, he began to lose hope in his one hope that she would drive upon a reef, or name some unnamed rock in a deep sea. How, how could he hope that, when the figure with eyes held watch and ward over her safety, and piloted her through narrow channels?

Yet the time came when hope rose again, like some sudden gorgeous flower, a night's growth in a hot forest, for he read that the White Prince had at last been cast ashore and would be a wreck. He was in London then, living close to the river, for by river or sea he had to stay. That was part of his compact with the White Thing when it held him in its finger and thumb over the sea, and if ever he drifted from navigable waters terror increased upon him and he saw the Captain walking by night.

But now his broken mind worked strangely. He was pitifully sure that the news which had come to him must be true, and fear left him for a while and he went like a free man. He drank and took the drug again, and for a time his soul flowered in vain desire which mocked him. Visions of the East rose like smoke, and were puffed away. He went home at last to his little dock-side den, whose mean and narrow casement looked over a gate, which led into a great enclosure partly filled and emptied by the flood and ebb. In it were piles of broken spars, and rusted anchors, and old anchor-stocks, and capstans, and heaps of worthless chain-cable. But Tarvin groped his way in the dark to his bed, and lay all ashake, staring out into the dim sky, in which rose one tall shaft, belching black clouds into the calm air, whose few stars it obscured. He heard the Captain call, but he muffled his ears, and pleased himself with visions of the White Prince buried in sand, sucked down at last out of sight. He fell asleep for an hour, and in the early dawn awoke.

As he lay in his foul little bed, and his mind came back out of the drift of night, he presently wondered at the changed aspect of things. For now, instead of the chimney across the river, a vessel's spars and the innumerable lines of her rigging obscured his dim prospect.

He lay and thought for a while, and then dropped his eyes a little lower. He sat up in bed, and the cold sweat ran down his dark face, and his trembling shook the mean and miserable bed. What was that? Yes, yes, what was it, indeed? He screamed a little choked scream and leapt upon the floor.

For a moment he stood, and then he choked again and put his hands to his throat as though to tear away something that had hold of him. And than he fell on his knees and got up as though he was dragged, and his eyes started from his head. He fell against the window, and its crazy frame went clash down upon the the narrow uneven pavement. Then one who was there and saw said that he rose upon the window-sill, and leaping out, fell heavily upon the hard road and broke his neck.

But the dead man, whose throat was bruised, knew that at last the White Thing had taken him, crushed him, and thrown him down.

And high above the Dry Dock Gate, and above those who picked up Black Tarvin, rose the magnificent and calm figure of the White Prince.


FiniS

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1957, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.