The Extra Hand
OLD George Galsworthy and I sat on the headland above the estuary, looking into the vacancy which was the Atlantic on an entranced silver evening. The sky was overcast. There was no wind, and no direct sun. The light was refined and diffused through a thin veiling of pearl. Sea and sky were one. As though they were suspended in space we saw a tug, having a barque in tow, far but distinct, in the light of the bay, tiny models of ebony set in a vast brightness. They were poised in the illumination, and seemed to be motionless, but we knew they were moving down on us. "Here she comes," said the seaman, "and a fine evening it is for the end of her last voyage." Shipbreakers had bought that barque. She was coming in to be destroyed.
The stillness of the world, and its lustre in which that fine black shape was centred and was moving to her end, made me feel that headlands, sea, and sky knew what was known to the two watchers on the hill. She was condemned. The ship was central, and the regarding world stood about her in silence. Sombre and stately she came, in the manner of the tragic proud, superior to the compelling fussiness of little men, making no resistance. The spring tide was near full. It had flooded the marsh lands below us, but not with water, for those irregular pools resplendent as mirrors were deeps of light. The hedgerows were strips of the earth's rind remaining above a profound. The light below the lines of black hedges was antipodean. The barque moved in slowly. She did not go past the lighthouse, and past our hill, into the harbour beyond, like a ship about the business of her life. She turned into the shallows below us, and stood towards the foot of the hill.
"She's altered a little," meditated Galsworthy. "They've shortened her sticks, those Norwegians, and painted her their beastly mustard colour and white. She's hogbacked, too. Well, she's old." The old man continued his quiet meditation. He was really talking to himself, I think, and I was listening to his thoughts.
"Look!" cried Galsworthy, suddenly rising, his hand gripping my shoulder. The tug had cast off and was going about. The ship came right on. There was an interval of time between her and the shore which was breathless and prolonged.
"She's aground!" exclaimed the old man to himself, and the hand on my shoulder gripped harder. He stood regarding her for some time. "She's done," he said, and presently released me, sitting down beside me again, still looking at her moodily, smoking his pipe. He was silent for a time. Perhaps he had in his mind that he too had taken the ground. It was sunset, and there she was, and there was he, and no more sparkling morning tides out of port for them any more.
Presently he turned to me. "There's a queer story about her. She carried an extra hand. I'll tell you. It's a queer yarn. She had one man at a muster more than signed for her. At night, you couldn't get into the rigging ahead of that chap. There you'd find him just too much ahead of the first lad who had jumped at the call to be properly seen, you know. You could see him, but you couldn't make him out. So the chap behind him was in no hurry, after the first rush. Well, it made it pretty hard for her old man to round up a crew. He had to find men who didn't know her. Men in Poplar who didn't know her, those days, were scarce. She was a London clipper and she carried a famous flag. Everybody knew her but men who weren't sailors.
"Well, the boys said she had a bit of gibbet-post about her somewhere. Ah maybe. I don't know. Anyway, I say she was a fine clipper. I knew her. She was the pick of the bunch, to my eye. But she was full of trouble. I must say that. When she was launched she killed a man. First she stuck on the ways, and then she went off all unexpected, like a bird. That was always a trick of hers. You never knew her. And when she was tired of headwinds, she'd find a dead calm. That was the kind of ship she was. A skipper would look at her, and swear she was the ship for him. The other chaps didn't understand her, he'd say. A ship like that's sure to be good, he'd tell you. But when he'd got her she'd turn his hair grey. She was that sort.
"One voyage she was six weeks beating to westward round Cape Horn. We had a bad time. I'd never seen such seas. We could do no good there. It was a voyage and a half. She lost the second mate overboard, and she lost gear. So the old man put back to the Plate. And, of course, all her crowd deserted, to a man. They said they wanted to see their homes again before they died. They said there was something wrong about that ship, and they left all their truck aboard, and made themselves scarce. The old man scraped up a new crowd. They came aboard at dusk, one day, and they stared about them. 'Look, sir,' said one of them, 'what's that up there? What's that figgerhead in y'r main to'gallan' cross-tree?' I was the mate, you know. I talked to that chap. He learned something about getting the booze out of him before he came aboard. He got a move on.
"We were over four months making 'Frisco that voyage, and she the sailer she was. Why, she's logged thirteen knots. But she could get nothing right, not for long. She was like those fine-looking women men can't live without, and can't live with. She'd break a man's heart. When we got back to Blackwall we heard she was sold to foreigners . . . but there she is now, come home to die. I bet old Yeo don't care much about her troubles, though. He'll break her up, troubles and all, and she's for firewood . . . there you are, my dear, there you are . . . but you should have seen her at Blackwall, in the old days . . . what's the East India Dock Road like, these times?"
The next day, at low water, I stood beneath her, and watched a cascade pouring incessantly from a patched wound in her side, for she had been in collision, and that was why she was condemned. She was careened, like a slain thing, and with the dank rocks and weeds about, and that monotonous pour from her wound, she might have been a venerable sea monster from which the life was draining. Yeo hailed me from above, and up the lively rope ladder I went. She had a Norwegian name, but that was not her name. All Poplar knew her once. There she was born. She was one of ours. That stone arch of John Company, the entrance to the East. India Dock, once framed her picture, and her topmasts looked down to the Dock Road, when she was at home. I could believe Galsworthy. She was not so empty as she seemed. She had a freight, and Yeo did not know it. Poplar and the days of the clippers! I knew she was invisibly peopled. Of course she was haunted.
The shipwrecker and I went about her canted decks, groped through dark recesses where it might have been the rats we heard, and peered into the sonorous gloom of the empty cargo spaces. In the cabins we puzzled over those relics left by her last crew, which, without their associations, seemed to have no reason in them. There was a mocking silence in the cabins. What sort of men were they who were familiar with these doors? And before the northmen had her, and she was English, trim, and flew skysails and studding-sails, and carried lady passengers, who were the Poplar boys that laughed and yarned here? She was more mine than Yeo's. Let him claim her timber. All the rich freight of her past was mine. I was the intimate of every ghost she had.
We sat in a cabin which had been her skipper's. There was a litter on the floor of old newspapers and documents, receipts for harbour dues, the captain's copies of bills of lading, store lists, and some picture-postcards from the old man's family. A lump of indurated plum-duff, like a geological specimen, was on the table. There was a slant of sunshine through a square port window, and it rested on a decayed suit of oilskins. We sat silent, the shipbreaker having finished estimating to me, with enthusiasm, what she had of copper. He was now waiting for his men to return to work. They were going to take the masts out of her. But I was wondering what I could do to lay that ghost of my old shipping parish which this craft had conjured in my mind. And as we both sat there, looking at nothing, we heard, at the end of the alley-way, a door stealthily latch.
Yeo sprang to his feet at once, staring and listening. He looked at me, surprised and puzzled. "Of all the----" he began, "and stopped. He took his seat again. "Why, of course," he said. "She's settling. That's what it is. She's settling. But my men, the fools, will have it there's Someone pottering about this ship."