Captain MacWhirr, of the steamer Nan-Shan, had a physiognomy that, in the order of material appearances, was the exact counterpart of his mind: it presented no marked characteristics of firmness or stupidity; it had no pronounced characteristics whatever; it was simply ordinary, irresponsive, and unruffled.
The only thing his aspect might have been said to suggest, at times, was bashfulness; because he would sit, in business offices ashore, sunburnt and smiling faintly, with downcast eyes. When he raised them, they were perceived to be direct in their glance and of blue colour. His hair was fair and extremely fine, clasping from temple to temple the bald dome of his skull in a clamp as of fluffy silk. The hair of his face, on the contrary, carroty and flaming, resembled a growth of copper wire clipped short to the line of the lip; while, no matter how close he shaved, fiery metallic gleams passed, when he moved his head, over the surface of his cheeks. He was rather below the medium height, a bit round-shouldered, and so sturdy of limb that his clothes always looked a shade too tight for his arms and legs. As if unable to grasp what is due to the difference of latitudes, he wore a brown bowler hat, a complete suit of a brownish hue, and clumsy black boots. These harbour togs gave to his thick figure an air of stiff and uncouth smartness. A thin silver watch-chain looped his waistcoat, and he never left his ship for the shore without clutching in his powerful, hairy fist an elegant umbrella of the very best quality, but generally unrolled. Young Jukes, the chief mate, attending his commander to the gangway, would sometimes venture to say, with the greatest gentleness, “Allow me, sir,”—and possessing himself of the umbrella deferentially, would elevate the ferule, shake the folds, twirl a neat furl in a jiffy, and hand it back; going through the performance with a face of such portentous gravity, that Mr. Solomon Rout, the chief engineer, smoking his morning cigar over the skylight, would turn away his head in order to hide a smile. “Oh! aye! The blessed gamp. . . . Thank ’ee, Jukes, thank ’ee,” would mutter Captain MacWhirr heartily, without looking up.
Having just enough imagination to carry him through each successive day, and no more, he was tranquilly sure of himself; and from the very same cause he was not in the least conceited. It is your imaginative superior who is touchy, overbearing, and difficult to please; but every ship Captain MacWhirr commanded was the floating abode of harmony and peace. It was, in truth, as impossible for him to take a flight of fancy as it would be for a watchmaker to put together a chronometer with nothing except a two-pound hammer and a whip-saw in the way of tools. Yet the uninteresting lives of men so entirely given to the actuality of the bare existence have their mysterious side. It was impossible in Captain MacWhirr’s case, for instance, to understand what under heaven could have induced that perfectly satisfactory son of a petty grocer in Belfast to run away to sea. And yet he had done that very thing at the age of fifteen. It was enough, when you thought it over, to give you the idea of an immense, potent, and invisible hand thrust into the ant-heap of the earth, laying hold of shoulders, knocking heads together, and setting the unconscious faces of the multitude towards inconceivable goals and in undreamt-of directions.
His father never really forgave him for this undutiful stupidity. “We could have got on without him,” he used to say later on, “but there’s the business. And he an only son too!” His mother wept very much after his disappearance. As it had never occurred to him to leave word behind, he was mourned over for dead till, after eight months, his first letter arrived from Talcahuano. It was short, and contained the statement: “We had very fine weather on our passage out.” But evidently, in the writer’s mind, the only important intelligence was to the effect that his captain had, on the very day of writing, entered him regularly on the ship’s articles as Ordinary Seaman. “Because I can do the work,” he explained. The mother again wept copiously, while the remark, “Tom’s an ass,” expressed the emotions of the father. He was a corpulent man, with a gift for sly chaffing, which to the end of his life he exercised in his intercourse with his son, a little pityingly, as if upon a half-witted person.
MacWhirr’s visits to his home were necessarily rare, and in the course of years he despatched other letters to his parents, informing them of his successive promotions and of his movements upon the vast earth. In these missives could be found sentences like this: “The heat here is very great.” Or: “On Christmas day at 4 p.m. we fell in with some icebergs.” The old people ultimately became acquainted with a good many names of ships, and with the names of the skippers who commanded them—with the names of Scots and English shipowners—with the names of seas, oceans, straits, promontories—with outlandish names of lumber-ports, of rice-ports, of cotton-ports—with the names of islands—with the name of their son’s young woman. She was called Lucy. It did not suggest itself to him to mention whether he thought the name pretty. And then they died.
The great day of MacWhirr’s marriage came in due course, following shortly upon the great day when he got his first command.
All these events had taken place many years before the morning when, in the chart-room of the steamer Nan-Shan, he stood confronted by the fall of a barometer he had no reason to distrust. The fall—taking into account the excellence of the instrument, the time of the year, and the ship’s position on the terrestrial globe8—was of a nature ominously prophetic; but the red face of the man betrayed no sort of inward disturbance. Omens were as nothing to him, and he was unable to discover the message of a prophecy till the fulfilment had brought it home to his very door. “That’s a fall, and no mistake,” he thought. “There must be some uncommonly dirty weather knocking about.”
The Nan-Shan was on her way from the southward to the treaty port of Fu-chau, with some cargo in her lower holds, and two hundred Chinese coolies returning to their village homes in the province of Fo-kien, after a few years of work in various tropical colonies. The morning was fine, the oily sea heaved without a sparkle, and there was a queer white misty patch in the sky like a halo of the sun. The fore-deck, packed with Chinamen, was full of sombre clothing, yellow faces, and pigtails, sprinkled over with a good many naked shoulders, for there was no wind, and the heat was close. The coolies lounged, talked, smoked, or stared over the rail; some, drawing water over the side, sluiced each other; a few slept on hatches, while several small parties of six sat on their heels surrounding iron trays with plates of rice and tiny teacups; and every single Celestial of them was carrying with him all he had in the world—a wooden chest with a ringing lock and brass on the corners, containing the savings of his labours: some clothes of ceremony, sticks of incense, a little opium maybe, bits of nameless rubbish of conventional value, and a small hoard of silver dollars, toiled for in coal lighters, won in gambling-houses or in petty trading, grubbed out of earth, sweated out in mines, on railway lines, in deadly jungle, under heavy burdens—amassed patiently, guarded with care, cherished fiercely.
A cross swell had set in from the direction of Formosa Channel about ten o’clock, without disturbing these passengers much, because the Nan-Shan, with her flat bottom, rolling chocks on bilges, and great breadth of beam, had the reputation of an exceptionally steady ship in a sea-way. Mr. Jukes, in moments of expansion on shore, would proclaim loudly that the “old girl was as good as she was pretty.” It would never have occurred to Captain MacWhirr to express his favourable opinion so loud or in terms so fanciful.
She was a good ship, undoubtedly, and not old either. She had been built in Dumbarton less than three years before, to the order of a firm of merchants in Siam—Messrs. Sigg and Son. When she lay afloat, finished in every detail and ready to take up the work of her life, the builders contemplated her with pride.
“Sigg has asked us for a reliable skipper to take her out,” remarked one of the partners; and the other, after reflecting for a while, said: “I think MacWhirr is ashore just at present.” “Is he? Then wire him at once. He’s the very man,” declared the senior, without a moment’s hesitation.
Next morning MacWhirr stood before them unperturbed, having travelled from London by the midnight express after a sudden but undemonstrative parting with his wife. She was the daughter of a superior couple who had seen better days.
“We had better be going together over the ship, Captain,” said the senior partner; and the three men started to view the perfections of the Nan-Shan from stem to stern, and from her keelson to the trucks of her two stumpy pole-masts.
Captain MacWhirr had begun by taking off his coat, which he hung on the end of a steam windlass embodying all the latest improvements.
“My uncle wrote of you favourably by yesterday’s mail to our good friends—Messrs. Sigg, you know—and doubtless they’ll continue you out there in command,” said the junior partner. “You’ll be able to boast of being in charge of the handiest boat of her size on the coast of China, Captain,” he added.
“Have you? Thank ’ee,” mumbled vaguely MacWhirr, to whom the view of a distant eventuality could appeal no more than the beauty of a wide landscape to a purblind tourist; and his eyes happening at the moment to be at rest upon the lock of the cabin door, he walked up to it, full of purpose, and began to rattle the handle vigorously, while he observed, in his low, earnest voice, “You can’t trust the workmen nowadays. A brand-new lock, and it won’t act at all. Stuck fast. See? See?”
As soon as they found themselves alone in their office across the yard: “You praised that fellow up to Sigg. What is it you see in him?” asked the nephew, with faint contempt.
“I admit he has nothing of your fancy skipper about him, if that’s what you mean,” said the elder man curtly. “Is the foreman of the joiners on the Nan-Shan outside? . . . Come in, Bates. How is it that you let Tait’s people put us off with a defective lock on the cabin door? The Captain could see directly he set eye on it. Have it replaced at once. The little straws, Bates . . . the little straws. . . .”
The lock was replaced accordingly, and a few days afterwards the Nan-Shan steamed out to the East, without MacWhirr having offered any further remark as to her fittings, or having been heard to utter a single word hinting at pride in his ship, gratitude for his appointment, or satisfaction at his prospects.
With a temperament neither loquacious nor taciturn, he found very little occasion to talk. There were matters of duty, of course—directions, orders, and so on; but the past being to his mind done with, and the future not there yet, the more general actualities of the day required no comment—because facts can speak for themselves with overwhelming precision.
Old Mr. Sigg liked a man of few words, and one that “you could be sure would not try to improve upon his instructions.” MacWhirr satisfying these requirements, was continued in command of the Nan-Shan, and applied himself to the careful navigation of his ship in the China seas. She had come out on a British register, but after some time Messrs. Sigg judged it expedient to transfer her to the Siamese flag.
At the news of the contemplated transfer Jukes grew restless, as if under a sense of personal affront. He went about grumbling to himself, and uttering short scornful laughs. “Fancy having a ridiculous Noah’s Ark elephant in the ensign of one’s ship,” he said once at the engine-room door. “Dash me if I can stand it: I’ll throw up the billet. Don’t it make you sick, Mr. Rout?” The chief engineer only cleared his throat with the air of a man who knows the value of a good billet.
The first morning the new flag floated over the stern of the Nan-Shan Jukes stood looking at it bitterly from the bridge. He struggled with his feelings for a while, and then remarked, “Queer flag for a man to sail under, sir.”
“What’s the matter with the flag?” inquired Captain MacWhirr. “Seems all right to me.” And he walked across to the end of the bridge to have a good look.
“Well, it looks queer to me,” burst out Jukes, greatly exasperated, and flung off the bridge.
Captain MacWhirr was amazed at these manners. After a while he stepped quietly into the chart-room, and opened his International Signal Code-book at the plate where the flags of all the nations are correctly figured in gaudy rows. He ran his finger over them, and when he came to Siam he contemplated with great attention the red field and the white elephant. Nothing could be more simple; but to make sure he brought the book out on the bridge for the purpose of comparing the coloured drawing with the real thing at the flagstaff astern. When next Jukes, who was carrying on the duty that day with a sort of suppressed fierceness, happened on the bridge, his commander observed:
“There’s nothing amiss with that flag.”
“Isn’t there?” mumbled Jukes, falling on his knees before a deck-locker and jerking therefrom viciously a spare lead-line.
“No. I looked up the book. Length twice the breadth and the elephant exactly in the middle. I thought the people ashore would know how to make the local flag. Stands to reason. You were wrong, Jukes. . . .”
“Well, sir,” began Jukes, getting up excitedly, “all I can say----” He fumbled for the end of the coil of line with trembling hands.
“That’s all right.” Captain MacWhirr soothed him, sitting heavily on a little canvas folding-stool he greatly affected. “All you have to do is to take care they don’t hoist the elephant upside-down before they get quite used to it.”
Jukes flung the new lead-line over on the fore-deck with a loud “Here you are, bo’ss’en—don’t forget to wet it thoroughly,” and turned with immense resolution towards his commander; but Captain MacWhirr spread his elbows on the bridge-rail comfortably.
“Because it would be, I suppose, understood as a signal of distress,” he went on. “What do you think? That elephant there, I take it, stands for something in the nature of the Union Jack in the flag. . . .”
“Does it!” yelled Jukes, so that every head on the Nan-Shan’s decks looked towards the bridge. Then he sighed, and with sudden resignation: “It would certainly be a dam’ distressful sight,” he said meekly.
Later in the day he accosted the chief engineer with a confidential “Here, let me tell you the old man’s latest.”
Mr. Solomon Rout (frequently alluded to as Long Sol, Old Sol, or Father Rout), from finding himself almost invariably the tallest man on board every ship he joined, had acquired the habit of a stooping, leisurely condescension. His hair was scant and sandy, his flat cheeks were pale, his bony wrists and long scholarly hands were pale too, as though he had lived all his life in the shade.
He smiled from on high at Jukes, and went on smoking and glancing about quietly, in the manner of a kind uncle lending an ear to the tale of an excited schoolboy. Then, greatly amused but impassive, he asked:
“And did you throw up the billet?”
“No,” cried Jukes, raising a weary, discouraged voice above the harsh buzz of the Nan-Shan’s friction winches. All of them were hard at work, snatching slings of cargo, high up, to the end of long derricks, only, as it seemed, to let them rip down recklessly by the run. The cargo chains groaned in the gins, clinked on coamings, rattled over the side; and the whole ship quivered, with her long grey flanks smoking in wreaths of steam. “No,” cried Jukes, “I didn’t. What’s the good? I might just as well fling my resignation at this bulkhead. I don’t believe you can make a man like that understand anything. He simply knocks me over.”
At that moment Captain MacWhirr, back from the shore, crossed the deck, umbrella in hand, escorted by a mournful, self-possessed Chinaman, walking behind in paper-soled silk shoes, and who also carried an umbrella.
The master of the Nan-Shan, speaking just audibly and gazing at his boots as his manner was, remarked that it would be necessary to call at Fu-chau this trip, and desired Mr. Rout to have steam up to-morrow afternoon at one o’clock sharp. He pushed back his hat to wipe his forehead, observing at the same time that he hated going ashore anyhow; while overtopping him Mr. Rout, without deigning a word, smoked austerely, nursing his right elbow in the palm of his left hand. Then Jukes was directed in the same subdued voice to keep the forward ’tween-deck clear of cargo. Two hundred coolies were going to be put down there. The Bun Hin Company17 were sending that lot home. Twenty-five bags of rice would be coming off in a sampan directly, for stores. All seven-years’-men they were, said Captain MacWhirr, with a camphor-wood chest to every man. The carpenter should be set to work nailing three-inch battens along the deck below, fore and aft, to keep these boxes from shifting in a sea-way. Jukes had better look to it at once. “D’ye hear, Jukes?” This Chinaman here was coming with the ship as far as Fu-chau,—a sort of interpreter he would be. Bun Hin’s clerk he was, and wanted to have a look at the space. Jukes had better take him forward. “D’ye hear, Jukes?”
Jukes took care to punctuate these instructions in proper places with the obligatory “Yes, sir,” ejaculated without enthusiasm. His brusque “Come along John; make look see” set the Chinaman in motion at his heels.
“Wanchee look see, all same look see can do,” said Jukes, who having no talent for foreign languages mangled the very pidgin-English18 cruelly. He pointed at the open hatch. “Catchee number one piecie place to sleep in. Eh?”
He was gruff, as became his racial superiority, but not unfriendly. The Chinaman, gazing sad and speechless into the darkness of the hatchway, seemed to stand at the head of a yawning grave.
“No catchee rain down there—savee?” pointed out Jukes. “Suppose all ’ee same fine weather, one piecie coolie-man come topside,” he pursued, warming up imaginatively. “Make so—Phooooo!” He expanded his chest and blew out his cheeks. “Savee, John? Breathe—fresh air. Good. Eh? Washee him piecie pants, chow-chow top-side—see, John?”
With his mouth and hands he made exuberant motions of eating rice and washing clothes; and the Chinaman, who concealed his distrust of this pantomime under a collected demeanour tinged by a gentle and refined melancholy, glanced out of his almond eyes from Jukes to the hatch and back again. “Velly good,” he murmured, in a disconsolate undertone, and hastened smoothly along the decks, dodging obstacles in his course. He disappeared, ducking low under a sling of ten dirty gunny-bags full of some costly merchandise and exhaling a repulsive smell.
Captain MacWhirr meantime had gone on the bridge, and into the chart-room, where a letter, commenced two days before, awaited termination. These long letters began with the words, “My darling wife,” and the steward, between the scrubbing of the floors and the dusting of chronometer-boxes, snatched at every opportunity to read them. They interested him much more than they possibly could the woman for whose eye they were intended; and this for the reason that they related in minute detail each successive trip of the Nan-Shan.
Her master, faithful to facts, which alone his consciousness reflected, would set them down with painstaking care upon many pages. The house in a northern suburb to which these pages were addressed had a bit of garden before the bow-windows, a deep porch of good appearance, coloured glass with imitation lead frame in the front door. He paid five-and-forty pounds a year for it, and did not think the rent too high, because Mrs. MacWhirr (a pretentious person with a scraggy neck and a disdainful manner) was admittedly ladylike, and in the neighbourhood considered as “quite superior.” The only secret of her life was her abject terror of the time when her husband would come home to stay for good. Under the same roof there dwelt also a daughter called Lydia and a son, Tom. These two were but slightly acquainted with their father. Mainly, they knew him as a rare but privileged visitor, who of an evening smoked his pipe in the dining-room and slept in the house. The lanky girl, upon the whole, was rather ashamed of him; the boy was frankly and utterly indifferent in a straightforward, delightful, unaffected way manly boys have.
And Captain MacWhirr wrote home from the coast of China twelve times every year, desiring quaintly to be “remembered to the children,” and subscribing himself “your loving husband,” as calmly as if the words so long used by so many men were, apart from their shape, worn-out things, and of a faded meaning.
The China seas north and south are narrow seas. They are seas full of every-day, eloquent facts, such as islands, sand-banks, reefs, swift and changeable currents—tangled facts that nevertheless speak to a seaman in clear and definite language. Their speech appealed to Captain MacWhirr’s sense of realities so forcibly that he had given up his state-room below and practically lived all his days on the bridge of his ship, often having his meals sent up, and sleeping at night in the chart-room. And he indited there his home letters. Each of them, without exception, contained the phrase, “The weather has been very fine this trip,” or some other form of a statement to that effect. And this statement, too, in its wonderful per- sistence, was of the same perfect accuracy as all the others they contained.
Mr. Rout likewise wrote letters; only no one on board knew how chatty he could be pen in hand, because the chief engineer had enough imagination to keep his desk locked. His wife relished his style greatly. They were a childless couple, and Mrs. Rout, a big, high-bosomed, jolly woman of forty, shared with Mr. Rout’s toothless and venerable mother a little cottage near Teddington. She would run over her correspondence, at breakfast, with lively eyes, and scream out interesting passages in a joyous voice at the deaf old lady, prefacing each extract by the warning shout, “Solomon says!” She had the trick of firing off Solomon’s utterances also upon strangers, astonishing them easily by the unfamiliar text and the unexpectedly jocular vein of these quotations. On the day the new curate called for the first time at the cottage, she found occasion to remark, “As Solomon says: ‘the engineers that go down to the sea in ships behold the wonders of sailor nature’;” when a change in the visitor’s countenance made her stop and stare.
“Solomon . . . Oh! . . . Mrs. Rout,” stuttered the young man, very red in the face, “I must say . . . I don’t . . .”
“He’s my husband,” she announced in a great shout, throwing herself back in the chair. Perceiving the joke, she laughed immoderately with a handkerchief to her eyes, while he sat wearing a forced smile, and, from his inexperience of jolly women, fully persuaded that she must be deplorably insane. They were excellent friends afterwards; for, absolving her from irreverent intention, he came to think she was a very worthy person indeed; and he learned in time to receive without flinching other scraps of Solomon’s wisdom.
“For my part,” Solomon was reported by his wife to have said once, “give me the dullest ass for a skipper before a rogue. There is a way to take a fool; but a rogue is smart and slippery.” This was an airy generalisation drawn from the particular case of Captain MacWhirr’s honesty, which, in itself, had the heavy obviousness of a lump of clay. On the other hand, Mr. Jukes, unable to generalise, unmarried, and unengaged, was in the habit of opening his heart after another fashion to an old chum and former shipmate, actually serving as second officer on board an Atlantic liner.
First of all he would insist upon the advantages of the Eastern trade, hinting at its superiority to the Western ocean service. He extolled the sky, the seas, the ships, and the easy life of the Far East. The Nan-Shan, he affirmed, was second to none as a sea-boat.
“We have no brass-bound uniforms, but then we are like brothers here,” he wrote. “We all mess together and live like fighting-cocks. . . . All the chaps of the black-squad are as decent as they make that kind, and old Sol, the Chief, is a dry stick. We are good friends. As to our old man, you could not find a quieter skipper. Sometimes you would think he hadn’t sense enough to see anything wrong. And yet it isn’t that. Can’t be. He has been in command for a good few years now. He doesn’t do anything actually foolish, and gets his ship along all right without worrying anybody. I believe he hasn’t brains enough to enjoy kicking up a row. I don’t take advantage of him. I would scorn it. Outside the routine of duty he doesn’t seem to understand more than half of what you tell him. We get a laugh out of this at times; but it is dull, too, to be with a man like this—in the long-run. Old Sol says he hasn’t much conversation. Conversation! O Lord! He never talks. The other day I had been yarning under the bridge with one of the engineers, and he must have heard us. When I came up to take my watch, he steps out of the chart-room and has a good look all round, peeps over at the sidelights, glances at the compass, squints upwards at the stars. That’s his regular performance. By-and-by he says: ‘Was that you talking just now in the port alleyway?’ ‘Yes, sir. ‘With the third engineer?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ He walks off to starboard, and sits under the dodger on a little campstool of his, and for half an hour perhaps he makes no sound, except that I heard him sneeze once. Then after a while I hear him getting up over there, and he strolls across to port, where I was. ‘I can’t understand what you can find to talk about,’ says he. ‘Two solid hours. I am not blaming you. I see people ashore at it all day long, and then in the evening they sit down and keep at it over the drinks. Must be saying the same things over and over again. I can’t understand.
“Did you ever hear anything like that? And he was so patient about it. It made me quite sorry for him. But he is exasperating too sometimes. Of course one would not do anything to vex him even if it were worth while. But it isn’t. He’s so jolly innocent that if you were to put your thumb to your nose and wave your fingers at him he would only wonder gravely to himself what got into you. He told me once quite simply that he found it very difficult to make out what made people always act so queerly. He’s too dense to trouble about, and that’s the truth.”
Thus wrote Mr. Jukes to his chum in the Western ocean trade, out of the fulness of his heart and the liveliness of his fancy.
He had expressed his honest opinion. It was not worth while trying to impress a man of that sort. If the world had been full of such men, life would have probably appeared to Jukes an unentertaining and unprofitable business. He was not alone in his opinion. The sea itself, as if sharing Mr. Jukes’ good-natured forbearance, had never put itself out to startle the silent man, who seldom looked up, and wandered innocently over the waters with the only visible purpose of getting food, raiment, and house-room for three people ashore. Dirty weather he had known, of course. He had been made wet, uncomfortable, tired in the usual way, felt at the time and presently forgotten. So that upon the whole he had been justified in reporting fine weather at home. But he had never been given a glimpse of immeasurable strength and of immoderate wrath, the wrath that passes exhausted but never appeased—the wrath and fury of the passionate sea. He knew it existed, as we know that crime and abominations exist; he had heard of it as a peaceable citizen in a town hears of battles, famines, and floods, and yet knows nothing of what these things mean—though, indeed, he may have been mixed up in a street row, have gone without his dinner once, or been soaked to the skin in a shower. Captain MacWhirr had sailed over the surface of the oceans as some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror. There are on sea and land such men thus fortunate—or thus disdained by destiny or by the sea.
Copyright © 2003 by Joseph Conrad. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.