Love's Logic and Other Stories/The Opened Door

Those who were not busy getting the women and children into the boats, and keeping the ship above water, were cursing the other vessel for steaming away without offering aid … All except one passenger. …

THE OPENED DOOR

" WE may float for ten minutes," said the Second Officer.

After a pause the passenger remarked: "I'm glad of it, upon my word I am."

"You're thankful for small mercies," was the retort.

The passenger did not explain. He could not expect the Second Officer, or the rest of them, to sympathize with his point of view, or share the feelings which made him rejoice, not at the respite, but at the doom itself. Those who were not busy getting the women and children into the boats, and keeping the ship above water, were cursing the other vessel for steaming away without offering aid, or clutching in bewildered terror at any one who could tell them how the collision had happened and what hope there was of salvation. The boats were got safely off, laden to their utmost capacity; life-buoys were handed round, and, when they ran short, men tossed up for them, and the losers ransacked the deck for some makeshift substitute. The passenger took no part in the competition or the search. He stood with his hands in his pockets and a smile on his lips, waiting for the ten minutes to wear themselves away. His only grudge against fate lay in those superfluous ten minutes.

Left to himself, he began to think, lighting a cigarette. He had to use a fusee, which was a pity, especially for his last cigarette, but the wind blew fiercely. It was strange how much harm a man could do without being a particularly bad fellow, and what an impasse he could get himself into. He had drifted on, and things had fallen out so maliciously that, because of him who hated hurting anybody, women were weeping and children smirched, and an old man hiding an honored head in shame. He had even been required to be grateful to the man he hated most in the world, because he had not been put in the dock. That stuck in his throat more than all the rest. He had been ready to pay his shot and go to gaol—he would rather have done five years than owed the thanks for escaping them—but in very decency he couldn't insist on going; the trial would have killed the old man. So they has concocted a plan—a chance of a new life, they called it—and shipped him off to the other side of the world with fifty pounds in his pocket—the gift of that enemy. At least he could get rid of the money now; and, still smiling, he dropped his pocket-book over the side into the great heaving waves. He had always meant it to go there—God forbid he should use it—but he had hardly hoped to go with it. He would follow it soon now. The door whose handle he had shrunk from turning had opened of its own accord in a most marvelously convenient way. To throw one's self overboard is a cold-blooded, impossible sort of proceeding; the old man and the woman would have heard or it, and he really didn't want to give them any more pain. But this catastrophe was—from a selfish point of view—incredibly opportune. Such an exit had the dignity of the inevitable, and left the "new life" an agreeable hypothesis from which he doubted not that much comfort would be sucked by those dear, loving, foolish folk at home. Much "new life" he would have led! But let them think he would. And hurrah for a collision in deep water!

Five minutes gone—and they were deep in the water. The skipper was on the bridge; the engineers had come up and, together with the crew and such of the passengers as had not got away in the boats, were standing ready to jump at the word. Some were praying, some swearing, most discussing the matter in very much the same tones as they used in speculating about the weather on deck after dinner; but they all kept their eyes on the skipper.

"I shall just," said the passenger, peering over the side, "go straight down. It oughtn't to take long," and he shivered a little. It had just struck him that the process might be very unpleasant, however satisfactory the result.

There was a sudden movement of the deck under him. The skipper seemed to shout, and, waving his arms, began to run down from the bridge. Then everybody jumped. The passenger dropped his finished cigarette, kicked off his deck shoes—a purely instinctive action—and jumped too. "Here goes!" he said.

When he came up again, he found himself swimming strongly. His arms and legs were not asking his leave about it; they were fighting the water as they had been taught, and they promised to make a long bout of it. He had never felt so vigorous. It was great nonsense, prolonging the thing like this. If he had thought of it, he wouldn't have jumped so clear, then he would have been sucked down. He saw heads bobbing here and there about him; one man shrieked aloud and disappeared. It was—less the shrieking—just what he wanted to do. But he couldn't. It was all very well to want to die, but this strong body of his had a word to say to that. Its business was to live, and it meant to live if it could. Well, it had always been a rebellious carcass—that was the cause of a great deal of the trouble—and it evidently meant to have its own way for this last time.

And it began to infect him. For the life of him, he couldn't give in now. It was a fight between him and the water. He might have been a brute, and a rogue, and all the other pretty names that had come as sauce to that wretched fifty pounds, but he had never been a coward or shirked a fight. It was all right—he must be drowned in the end. But he would keep it up as long as he could; he would see it through; and with strong strokes he met and mastered and beat down wave after wave, outlived head after head that sank round him, and saw the old ship herself go under with a mighty pother.

All at once he found himself within reach of a spar. He was getting tired, though full of fight still, and he clutched at it for all the world as though he were in love with life. Hallo! There was a boy clinging to it—one of the ship's boys, whom we knew well.

"Get off!" shrieked the boy. "Get off! It's mine."

"All right, Johnny, we'll share it."

"It won't take us. Get off. It's not fair. Oh, it's going under!"

It was. The passenger let go, but kept close to it. It wouldn't bear Johnny and him, but it would bear Johnny alone; it would also, probably, bear him alone. And he was getting very tired. Johnny saw his face and clinging tight, began to cry. The passenger laid hold again. How jolly it was to have something under one's chest! Johnny had had it for a long while. And what's a ship's boy? Besides, it's every man for himself at such a time.

Johnny's end ducked and Johnny's head dipped with it. Johnny came up whimpering piteously, and swore in childish rage at the intruder. He was not a pretty boy, and he looked very ugly when he swore.

"You'll drown us both, you—!" he gasped.

"It would bear me," replied the passenger, "and you shouldn't swear, Johnny."

Johnny blubbered and swore again.

For an instant the passenger, resting as lightly as he could on the spar, watched Johnny's face.

"You've kept afloat some time," he observed, with an approving air. He liked pluck in boys—even ugly whimpering boys. His end went under, and he came up gurgling and spitting. He felt now as if he had no legs at all.

Johnny had stopped swearing, but was blubbering worse than ever.

"Damn it," said the passenger, "haven't I made enough people do that?" And he added, "Ta-ta, Johnny," and let go the spar.

His legs were there, after all, and they let him know it. For time unmeasured he battled for the life he was weary of, and would not let himself be pushed through the open door. But at last he crossed its threshold.

Johnny was drowned too. But then the passenger had always protested against his acts being judged by their consequences; and it doesn't seem fair to take it against him both ways.