The Man Who Knew (Atkey)

The Man Who Knew (1909)
by Bertram Atkey

Extracted from the Outing Magazine, 1909 October, pp. 55–60. Illustrations by r. McNeil Crompton may be omitted.

3932368The Man Who Knew1909Bertram Atkey



I SAT patiently upon a rock, fishing—in consequence of the aged man on the fish quay having said: “Go out to the Point an' you'll fin' a big square rock there like a table. If you sets there quiet you'll kitch fish, You wants to bait wi' prawn—unbiled. If you can't git prawns, git a bit o' squeed. You was wantin' to kitch a big fish, I s'pose? If not, there's plenty dabs in the harbor. But out at the Point you might git a pollack or a bass.”

He had expectorated, narrowly missing a box of moist whiting that had just come into the fish market for auction, and left it at that.

I discovered that rock, and sat patiently thereupon. Behind me towered a cliff that was like an impregnable barrier between me and the world. There was a curious brownish glow in the west that seemed to reach this cliff and somberly illuminate its gloom. I took my eyes from the big sea float, sat on the butt of my ineffectual rod, and stared at the cliff. It looked harsh, somehow—harsh and savage and funereal.

Great blurs of black merged with dark, red-brown blots and patches, and across the whole sprawled a slab of gray limestone, gross and huge and shapeless. The grasses that hung over the brows of the cliff gave it a slovenly, uncombed appearance, which even the gay vermilion poppies that bowed and nodded ceaselessly on the extreme edge could not disguise.

I turned to the sea. The sun had almost gone, and the waves that jostled along the rocks at my feet were turning gray. Six destroyers from Devonport slid stealthily along the narrowing horizon, one after the other; a trawler, far out, sailed quietly into a bank of fog that I had not noticed before, and I felt lonely because I could not see any more ships. A sound came presently that was like the bellow of a far-off cow in pain—the Start foghorn lowing to the ships in the Channel to go cautiously.

“This is desolate—this is very desolate,” I said to my float, which nodded. “There are dabs in the harbor, you understand, and, possibly, bass here. The person who apparently lives in a hole under the fish quay said so. But I think they have all gone to Torquay Regatta.”

The float vanished instantly, as though it wanted to go down and see for itself if there were any fish there. I landed a twelve-ounce wrasse—which is a disappointing fish, and not worth the catching. I rebaited and cast my prawn upon the waters. The float looked idiotically well pleased.

“You,” I said, “are a fool and a liar!”

The float nodded cheerfully, and I turned to that oppressive cliff again.

“And you,” I continued, for its dark and morose face made me feel insignificant and of little account, “are a bowelless impostor!”

Which was true, for, once upon a time, the huge, humpbacked headland had been full of iron. It had yielded thousands of tons of ore in its day, and it was galleried and gutted and pierced like an old and crumbling honeycomb. I had had no sport, and I was no longer happy. It was a depressing spot. Something rumbled inside the cliff—I suppose one of the galleries had fallen in—and I thought that I would get home.

“This is an eerie place,” I whispered, earnestly, to myself; “an eerie——

A ghostly pennant of fog slid past me and somebody coughed behind my back—a lonely little cough that was quite in keeping with the place and hour. It was as though a ghost had gripped me by the shoulder—and I turned much more quickly than I fancied possible.

The man who had coughed sat upon a bowlder at the foot of the cliff. He was old, I fancied, but his beard was a sort of greasy purplish red. Those who have seen the earth about an iron mine will know the color. His hair was of the same hue, and it fell down over his ear in straight, lank locks—like the tails of eels. There was a gloss to it, I remember—a red, oily gloss. His eyes were quite black, and I do not desire to see again a face so unutterably white as this man's face was. He wore clothes—I was unreasonably surprised at this—and they, too, were red with the redness of iron ore. The man cleared his throat and addressed me in a high, precise, careful voice,

“I do not deny that the right to interfere in the first place was not mine. But a suggestion is not necessarily an interference. And the gravity of the case justified either. The blame from beginning to end rested with the captain. He failed to see the thing in the right light—in the light that I saw it. Mainly through lack of sympathy—and the most elementary form of intuition. He was, of course, wholly unintellectual. But that did not excuse his criminal folly.”

He cocked his extraordinary head on one side and watched me. He seemed to expect an answer, and I could find no words beyond “Quite so.” As I uttered them a mist seemed to clear away from his haunted eyes and they were sensible.

“For God's sake, go away!” he said rapidly, glancing about him.

But before I had time to answer this he changed again—permanently. From a man who spoke like one painfully anxious to choose the exact words to express his meaning he had slid into a furtive, hunted thing—and that character he had instantly sloughed in favor of one which fitted him better, but at first was equally uncomfortable.

Now he was a man who sat on a bowlder in the twilight telling himself a singular story. At times he would appear to become aware of me, and at these times he would throw me a scrap of the tale or jerk out a query to which he did not await a reply.

“The secret of all success is the ability to distinguish between types of men,” he began in a nervous whisper. “It is the Key. Had I been in command of the ship there would have been no wreck, no fear, no death. I knew. It was so obvious. The folly of it—the gross, criminal folly.” He wrung his iron-stained hands, and rocked to and fro. “The man was a coward—it was in his eyes, his mouth, his chin, the movement of his eyebrows, his hands.” He seemed to catch sight of me for the first time.

“The most obvious type in the world is the cowardly type,” he said. “Like the man Macklan—a slender, prying man, who used to laugh unnecessarily when the other men in the fo'c'sle saw nothing to laugh at.”

He gave me this information and forgot my existence.

“Let us be accurate,” he muttered. “The ship Gratitude sailed from London for Dunedin in October, 1900, in the afternoon—and I was the only man with brains aboard her. The others were the sailors that work sailing ships in the twentieth century. I was the passenger. For my health, they said, as I remember it; to build me up. I told the captain that the man Macklan was weak and a coward, a man with an unhealthy soul.

“'But the son of a thief can steer,' said the captain, 'and that's more than any of the other muck can do—or any dotty scientific professor either!' Let me make a note of that—'or any dotty scientific professor either!' Pre-cisely!”

That “Pre-cisely” revealed the professor neck and heels.

“'Is there, then, anything really difficult in the art of steering?' I said to the captain. 'And why is it that a man such as this Macklan can steer while such a man as that Finn in the fo'c'sle cannot?' Now, that was a reasonable question, but the captain stared and, 'Oh, why!—why is a dead fish?' he said. I confess that I was angry, and I rose trembling.

“'Be warned—be warned!' I said across the table. 'Keep Macklan from the wheel on this voyage, or you—you will lose the ship.'

“'Oh, shut up, you cackling old gull!' said he, and left me alone without further words.

“But it was so true—true! How did I know who had never even seen a wheel before?”

The man on the rock chuckled inanely over his query.

“We sailed for many days, and Macklan steered often. I talked with him frequently. The man was a not uninteresting study. 'Tell me,' I asked him repeatedly, 'why you are such a coward.' The first time he looked as though he desired to kill me. Afterwards he was accustomed to laugh—a silly, meaningless, unnecessary laugh.

“So we sailed for New Zealand comfortably, and the days passed—and the nights passed,” said the man on the rock. “All the time I warned the captain uselessly. I told the crew one by one, but they did not understand. There was one—a negro—who would look over the side at the plume of water at the bow. I think he believed in his heart, for he feared me. He would look at the plume at the bow and mutter in a strange tongue.

“At last the gale came up from behind us. The wind and the sea desired the ship and pursued her. There was something human about the sea. It reared itself up from under the ship. A day passed, and the darkness closed on us, and the sea behind grew angry and enormous. Cliffs—precipices—huge and foaming. And it grew and grew, towering. At dawn, like a little naked thing crouching at the foot of a mountain, I said to myself, 'Now! It is now that we shall see!'

“I could no longer see the tops of the waves—the walls of water—that swung up behind us. They were high up in the skies. And I clung on to wait for Macklan—for Macklan's trick at the wheel. It was very interesting, and I took a keen delight in shouting to the captain when Macklan came.

“'Go to the devil!' said the captain, for answer.

“Then the monstrous wave came. It was like an avalanche, and it moved quicker than the ship. It gained upon us. Macklan glanced back furtively—as I knew he would, and stooped a little, cowering, contracting his shoulders.

“The wave came on, and on, and on, and I saw the soul go out of Macklan. He shrank, gathering himself together. His hands loosened about the wheel. The captain must have seen—at last—for he began to shout, running aft.

“'For God's sake, hold her!' he screamed.

“But he was too late, for Macklan had left the wheel and was running like a madman from that mighty wave. And then it broke over the ship, and I was under the water for ten thousand years as it seemed. And all that time men struggled and choked and drowned, but no man was at the wheel. So the ship broached and the waves beat her to pieces.”

The man on the rock crumbled a fragment of soft ore to powder in his red fingers. “And beat her to pieces,” he repeated. There was a long pause—so long that the outlines of the man had grown blurred and indistinct in the twilight before he spoke again.

I take it that the Gratitude kept afloat until the sea had gone down, for when the man took up his tale once more the scene appeared to be changed to an open boat. And here for a time the story was very disjointed, so fragmentary as to be almost incoherent. It seemed that Macklan was saved from the ship, and one of the mates, the captain, the professor, and five or six of the crew, including a boy. All save Macklan and the professor, I imagine, were injured, more or less severely. At any rate, judging from the muttered story, the professor—that is, the man on the rock—was steering this little open boat, and Macklan saw to the sheet.

“By no means would I permit Macklan to steer,” he said.

Presently he became more coherent. “Hour after hour after hour we sailed,” I heard, “and the land drew nearer and nearer.” A note of horror crept into his voice now. “And the sharks grew bolder and more numerous. The sea boiled about the boat, and their fins glided and skimmed across the broken waters like swallows. They rubbed against the boat, rolling half over upon their backs. Bolder and fiercer—and the land was still far. There was one huge...

“And they knew—these devils—they knew in their cowardly hearts that they could capsize that little boat. It was so small. And I knew, also—and Macklan knew. And all of them. But only I knew what was in my own heart. They tried to frighten the sharks with splashings of the water, but the beasts accustomed themselves to the noises and grew bolder.

“Twice the boat heeled—heeled to the very water's edge. Slowly the land came nearer. We heard the sound of breaking waves, but the hosts of sharks were closing in.

“Suddenly Macklan blanched as though one had touched him with a hot iron, and he turned and looked into my eyes. I had spoken no word, but nevertheless I saw that Macklan knew what was in my mind. He quailed and shut his eyes. And then the boat heeled again—we felt the jar and thrill of the bodies of the sharks—heeled over and over until the water rushed in. By a miracle she righted. One more attack like that, and she would not right again. I saw that with extraordinary clearness.

“So I spoke, Macklan looking at me with dull eyes. His mouth seemed to be twisted right across his face.

“'We are within two hundred yards of the land,' I said, 'but we shall never reach it—unless some one goes over the side.'

“And all their hungry eyes turned upon Macklan as I finished—they looked to him as one man. Macklan shrank back and whimpered. The boat rocked among the sharks and reeled at the impact of their bodies.

“'Some one must go over,' I said and we all stared at the man Macklan with a dreadful and relentless and cannibal regard. For it was Macklan who had brought us there.

“He moaned once and stood up, moving his hands. I do not think he could see, but I know he feared to stay in the boat with men who looked at him as we were looking.

“He said nothing—only leaned sideways. He was like a falling tree, but slower. He leaned with incredible slowness, as it seemed. But at last he leaned no more. There was a splash and a seething of the frightful waters.

“Macklan had gone over—gone over, and presently we sailed ashore, borne as it were upon the shoulders of the sharks. We ran into a little cove that shallowed until the sharks could not follow us. So we were saved by Macklan—the coward.

“Mark this, it was from beginning to end the fault of the captain. He should never have put Macklan at the wheel after I warned him. That is clear. But I said nothing—nothing at all. For things were not ready then for what was to be done.

“We set off in a haggard band from the coast seeking a town—a village—anything. I remember that we passed through strange and perilous places—forests that were dank and dark and funereal, valleys that were sickly with the scent of venomous flowers. In such a valley two of our band died—for there were snakes sleeping under the white, waxy blossoms. We walked for days round an emerald-green patch of level, inviting sward. One man we left here also—in the swamp. The fault of the captain, mark you, from the beginning to the end.

“One by one the company thinned, until at last there walked but three of us—the ship's boy, the captain, and myself walking like cripples. It was then that I carried the club which I had fashioned from a bough.

“We came to a valley in the moonlight—it ran right across our path and reached miles on either side of us. We climbed down, crossing it, and as he climbed the boy put his hand on a little yellow snake that was coiled upon a stone. Then there were but the two of us left alive—the captain and myself. He sat down by the body of the boy and hid his face in his hands.

“I said softly, 'This is your handiwork,' but he did not raise his head.

“The club was ready to my hand, and so I killed—I executed—him. I stayed in the valley for a long time after that, until I saw that the moon was touching the lip of the farther slope. Then I climbed up, having it in my mind to sleep with the moon for my pillow, but when I came to the top the moon was far away rolling on the extreme edge of a wide plain. I crossed that plain and a ridge of hills beyond it, and so came to a town by a little stream, and the people came to me while I was far from it.”

The man on the rock ceased. It was quite dark now. I waited, but all I heard was a muttered, “And so I came home—after my holiday.” This he repeated many times, always with a nervous chuckle after “holiday.” Presently I heard the rustle of his rags as he slid off the bowlder, and finally the soft pattering of bare feet.

I pinched myself and found that I was awake.

“This is a singular thing,” I heard myself saying. “I must inquire.” I put up my tackle and went cautiously homeward between the heaps of ore. The mist lay about my feet like wool. At the back of the old engine house I met the man in charge of the mine. The flame of his lantern seemed to be set in a golden haze.

“There is a half-naked man in the mine,” I began to say, but he stopped me.

“Yes,” he said wearily, like one explaining for the thousandth time. “He's my brother. It's all right.”

Something in the man's voice checked the questions I wanted to ask.

“I see. Good night,” I said, and went home.

I got the end of the story from the landlord of my inn that night.

“He was a brother of Marlyatt across at the mines, and he studied and studied, an' made a name for 'imself in London, so they say,” volunteered the landlord. “Then his 'ealth broke, an' he went on th' v'yage he talks to 'imself about. A long time after he turned up again here—this was his native village—an' settled to live in th' mines. He won't stay in a house—he's afraid, his brother says. I don't know why. It don't matter much, I s'pose.

“They aren't workin' th' mine now, an' they do say his brother has rigged 'im up a very comfortable hut sort of place somewhere down in th' mine. It don't hurt anybody, an' if th' pore chap likes it best, why, let him live there. He's gone through enough one way an' another.”

The landlord was silent for a while. When he spoke he asked a question.

“Ever seen a shark, sir?”

I said that I had.

“Well, now,” continued the comfortable man, nodding over his pipe, “what would you be inclined to think about that chap Macklan—what went over? If it's true, I mean. Was he such a coward, would you say?”

But I had no opinion to give, for I was wondering what I should have done in Macklan's place.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1952, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 71 years or less. This work may 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.

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