The Joss: A Reversion/Chapter 30
THE MORNING'S NEWS.
It was a lively voyage! Oh, yes! For those who like that kind of liveliness.
Everything went wrong, just in the old sweet way. Rudd had to sleep with his engines. As sure as he turned his back on them for five consecutive minutes something happened. I began to wonder if we shouldn’t have got on faster if we had had sweeps aboard. You don’t often see hands starting to row a steamer along. But anything was better than standing still; or being blown back—which was worse. It was no use rigging a sail against the winds we had, or we might have tried that. But the wind was against us, like everything else.
The weather seemed to have cleared on purpose to give us a chance of getting the Great Joss aboard. It broke again directly afterwards. More than once, and more than twice, I wished it hadn’t. Then perhaps we shouldn’t have been favoured with the company of Mr. Batters. In shipping him we’d shipped a Tartar. I became inclined to the belief that we owed half of our bad luck to him. The crew was dead sure that at his door could be laid the lot of it. They swore he was the devil himself, or his brother.
I wasn’t sure they were far out. Either what he had gone through had affected his brain, or he was possessed by the spirit of mischief, or there was something uncanny about him. I never knew anything like the tricks he was up to. Weather had no effect on him. As for decent hours, he scorned them. It’s my belief that what sleep he had was in the day. I know he was awake pretty well all night.
Once I was dragged out of my berth in the middle of the night because he was frightening the watch out of their senses. When I got on deck I found a heavy sea. Everything sopping. The seas breaking over the scuppers. Pitch darkness. And Mr. Batters up in the tops. The crew were of opinion that he was holding communion with his friends in hell. I shouldn’t have been surprised. He looked as if he was at something of the kind.
How he kept his place was a wonder. Although he had no legs he seemed to have a knack of gluing himself to whatever he pleased. Up there he had an illumination all on his own. It must have been visible for miles across the sea. He had smeared himself and everything about him with something shiny, phosphorus or something. He always was playing tricks with stuffs of the kind. It made him look as if he was covered with flames. He was waving his arms and going through an acrobatic performance. Snakes were twining themselves about the illuminated rigging. The old villain had smuggled a heap of them in his palanquin. He lived with them as if they were members of his family. They seemed to regard him as akin. Talk about snake charming! I believe that at a word from him they would have flown at anyone just as certainly as a dog would have done.
No wonder the watch didn’t altogether relish his proceedings. I sang out:
“Come down out of that, Mr. Batters, before there’s trouble.”
I did put a bullet into one of his precious snakes. It was this way.
I had a revolver in my hand. The boat gave a lurch. The trigger must have caught my coat sleeve. It snapped. There was a flash. A report. One of his snakes straightened itself out against the blackness like a streaming ribbon. You could see it gleam for a moment. Then it vanished. I suppose it dropped into the sea. A good thing too. The idea was that it had been hit by that unintentional shot. I can only say that if that was the case it was the victim of something very like a miracle.
Old Batters understood what had happened long before I did. He came down that rigging like ten mad monkeys. And he went for me like twenty. If the watch hadn’t been there he’d have sent me after that snake. It took the lot of us to get the best of him. If the men had had their way they’d have dropped him overboard.
I wished I had let them before I finished
A more artful old dodger never breathed. I drew up the agreement of the spoils; but it was days before I could get him to set his hand to it. At first he pretended he couldn’t write. As it happened I had seen him write. It seemed to me he was always writing. When at last I had induced him to sign, in the presence of Luke, Rudd, and Holley, he eluded me on the subject of the inventory. I could not get one. His stock of excuses was inexhaustible. And they were all so plausible. It is true that I made notes of a good many things without his knowledge. But a formal inventory I never had. As to my suggestion that at least the more valuable things should be removed to my cabin for safe custody, when I renewed it he expressed his willingness on conditions that he went with them, and his snakes. I declined. On those terms I preferred that he should remain custodian.
Then there was his intimacy with Luke. That continued, in spite of my attempts to stop it. Though they grew slacker when I began to suspect that after all Mr. Luke might not be on such good terms with his boyhood’s friend as he perhaps desired.
I got my first hint in this direction when, one afternoon, someone was heard bellowing in Mr. Batters’ cabin like a bull. I made for it. I found Mr. Luke upon the floor; his friend upon his chest; his friend’s hands about his throat. He was not bellowing just then. Mr. Batters had squeezed the grip right out of him. He was purple. In about another minute he would have known what death by strangulation meant. We got his dear friend off him. The dear friend said unkind things about Mr. Luke.
By the time we had brought the first mate round he was about as limp a man as you might wish to see. He made one remark, which was unprintable. He turned round in his bunk, where we had laid him, and for all I know he went to sleep.
Since, before that, I had taken care to see that he was berthed apart from Mr. Batters, there was nothing to disturb his slumber.
After that I did not feel it necessary to keep quite so sharp an eye on the attentions which he paid our passenger. They did not seem to be so friendly as they had been before.
As if I hadn’t enough to plague me, there was the girl. When I begin to write of her my language becomes mixed. As were my feelings at the time. And there were moments when she got me into such a state that I didn’t know if I was standing on my head or heels.
She was her father’s own child, though it seemed like sacrilege to connect the two. Insubordination wasn’t in it along with her. She twisted me round her finger. Except when I stiffened my back, and felt like stowing her in the long-boat, and cutting it adrift, with a bag of biscuit and a can of water. And then five minutes afterwards I’d feel like suicide for ever having thought of such a thing.
She wore me to a shadow.
The sea agreed with her far better than I had expected, or she either, especially considering the weather we had. She was all over the boat. All questions, like a child. There was nothing you could tell her enough about. It was extraordinary how the taste for imparting information grew on one. If you didn’t explain everything that could be explained, and a good deal that couldn’t, it wasn’t for want of trying. She had got together a mixed up lot of facts before she had been upon that vessel long. Because when you begin to look into things you find that there are a good many you think you know all about till a sharp-witted young woman starts you on to telling her all you do know. Then, before you’ve time to wriggle, you are stuck. There are men who sooner than get that will say anything.
It is bad enough to feel you are making a fool of yourself when the subject is why steamers don’t sink when they’re floating, or why engines shove them along, or that kind of thing. But when the question’s what love is, and you feel but can’t tell, it’s worse.
“Why do you say you love me?”
I had mentioned to her casually that I did, being driven clean off my balance before I knew it, though I meant every word I had said. And about two hundred thousand more. In spite of my having had more trouble with her old villain of a father that very afternoon. And being full of hope that when it came to hanging him I should be there to see.
“Because I do.”
“But what is love?”
“Love? Why, love!”
It was evening. The wind had been falling away all day. Now it was dead calm, the first we had had since shipping Batters. We were something over twelve hundred miles from Aden. There’s the exact spot marked on my chart. But I should never forget it if it wasn’t. That mark means adjectives. I had had it all out with Batters about our route. The short cut was what he wanted. It was what I wanted too. But what I did not want was to pay the Canal dues. In fact I couldn’t. There was not enough money belonging to the ship on board. I hadn’t told Batters as much as that, but I had made it clear to him that he’d have to pay. So the arrangement stood that we were to come home by Suez; and he was to hand me over the coin to take us through. We should have to coal at Aden. How we had managed so far was beyond my understanding. Rudd was a marvel. He would make a skip of coal go as far as some men would a ton. Stores we had taken in here a little, and there a little, living from hand to mouth. But we had bought no coal. I had said to Rudd:
“Shall we run into Colombo and have some put into our bunkers there?”
He pondered—it was his way to ponder—then shook his head.
“I’m thinking we’ll last to Aden. I’m thinking it. And I don’t seem to fancy a stop at Colombo with Mr. Batters aboard.”
I looked to see from his face if his words had any hidden meaning. There seemed to be something behind everything he said, till you grew tired of trying to find out what it was. He was always dropping hints, was Rudd. There appeared to be nothing unusual about his wooden-looking countenance. So I concluded to give his words their dictionary meaning.
“If you think we can last to Aden, we will. It will save time. And coal’s cheaper there.”
So it was settled. And now we were heading straight for Aden. The weather had cleared. I had told that girl I loved her. Every vein in my body was on fire because of it Luke was on the bridge. I felt that in spite of the darkness, and it was pretty dark—as well I remember!—his eye was on us as much as on the ship’s course. We had been walking up and down for exercise. She was leaning over the taffrail apparently preparing to enter on a kind of philosophical discussion about what love was.
“Is it good to love?”
My tone was grim.
“Do I love you?”
“I should like to hear you say so.”
“I love you.”
I thought that was what she said. But she was leaning so far over, seeming to be watching the smudge of soapsuds we were leaving behind us, that I couldn’t quite catch her words. Though I was all of a quiver to.
“What do you say?”
“I say I love you.”
“Susie! Do you mean it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what love is. How should I? I’m only a savage. You said so the other day. I want telling things.”
“You don’t want telling what love is.”
“Do you mean that you don’t want to tell me? You never will tell me what I really want to know. I’ll ask one of the men. I’ll ask Luke. He tells me things.”
“Susie! Luke’s too fond of interfering in matters which are no business of his. He’ll get himself into trouble before he’s done”
“Don’t you dare to ask Luke what love is!”
“Dare! I dare do anything. I’ll go and ask him now.”
She’d have been off if I hadn’t caught her arm.
“Susie! Don’t! For my sake!”
“Then tell me!—tell me yourself!”
Stamp went her foot. It was one of her favourite tricks. Directly she lost patience down it went.
“I’ll tell you, if you’ll give me time.” I tried to find the words, but couldn’t. I held out my arms instead. “It’s this.”
“Don’t you understand?”
“What am I to understand?”
“Don’t you understand that I want you to be my wife?”
“Your wife! Your wife!” She spoke in a crescendo scale, as if I had insulted her. “You said you were my friend!”
“Don’t you understand that I want to be something more than your friend?”
“You want to beat me! to use me like a dog! to have me burned!”
“My father said in England there were no wives.”
“No wives in England? He—he was making fun of you.”
“He was not making fun of me. He has told me all my life. When I asked him why they burned my mother, he said because she was his wife. He is an Englishman. In England they have no wives.”
I had a glimpse of the confusion which was in her mind. But at that moment I was incapable of straightening out the evil.
“Your—your father’s was a peculiar case. There are wives in England.”
“Is that true?”
She thrust her face close to mine. She was terrifically in earnest.
“It is perfectly true. They abound.”
“Then I will not go to England.”
“But—Susie!—you’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick. In—in England a wife’s the man’s superior.”
“It’s a lie. See how you stammer. You cannot lie like my father with an even tongue. A wife is her husband’s slave. At his bidding she fetches and she carries. He beats her as he beats his dog. When she grows old he takes another. And she dies.”
“My—my dear Susie, I assure you that that description doesn’t apply to England. There, unless she’s a wife, a woman isn’t happy.”
“Then in England women are more unhappy than in the country from which I come. I will not go there. I will not go to any place where there are wives.”
She strode past me as I stared at her, thunderstruck. I continued thunderstruck when she had gone.
She had a deal to learn.
That night I slept badly. In the morning I was roused by someone hammering at the door.
“It’s me, sir; Holley. The cutter’s gone.”
“The cutter’s gone. And the watch is hocussed.”
I was standing at the door in my nightshirt.
“What the devil do you mean? Where’s Mr. Luke?”
“He had the morning watch. He’s gone too. It’s his chaps as is hocussed. Leastways, they’re lying on the deck like logs. And Mr. Batters, he’s gone. And his things. His cabin’s stripped clean. And his daughter, she’s gone.”
I was thrusting myself into a pair of trousers. All of a sudden the ship stopped dead, with an unpleasant shock.
“What’s that? She can’t have struck!”
I rushed up. Rudd met me.
“I have to report to you, sir, that the engine’s ceased to work.”
“Very well. Patch it up and start it again as soon as you can. It’s not the first time it’s stopped.”
“But I’m thinking it’ll be the last. Someone’s been playing tricks with the machine. I’m fearing it’s Mr. Luke.”