THE trees of the Embankment Gardens were nearly stripped of their leaves, and were tossing wildly. Shutting the eyes, you could think you heard the sweep of deep-water seas with strident crests. The greater buildings, like St. Paul's, might have been promontories looming in a driving murk. The low sky was dark and riven, and was falling headlong. But I liked the look of it. Here, plainly, was the end of the halcyon days,--good-bye to the sun,--but I felt, for a reason I could not remember and did not try to recall, pleased and satisfied with this gale and its wrack. The clouds seemed curiously familiar. I had seen them before somewhere; they were reminding me of a lucky but forgotten occasion of the past. Whatever it was, no doubt it was better than anything likely to happen to-day. It was something good in an old world we have lost. But it was something of that old world, like an old book which reads the same to-day; or an old friend surviving, who would help to make endurable the years to come. I need not try to remember it. I had got it, whatever it was, and that was all the assurance of its wealth I wanted. Then from the river came a call, deep, prolonged, and melancholy. . . .
So that was it! No wonder the low clouds driving, and the wind in the trees, worked that in my mind. The tide was near full. There was a steamer moving in the Pool. She was outward bound.
Outward bound! I saw again the black buildings of a Welsh coaling port at evening, and a vague steamer (but no liner, that was plain enough, no liner), and two men beside me, who were going out with me in her, watching her. She was little more than a shadow with a port light. She gave a deep, shuddering warning. She was off. We had been for a last run round the town. We were to board her in the outer lock. The wind was whining in the telegraph-wires. It was hazing the pools of rain, which were bright and bleak with the last of a brazen yellow sunset. "Happy days!" said one of us. "Who wouldn't sell that little farm? . . . Now we're in for it. It will be the devil of an old, tough night." (Where this night is that friend? Minesweeping? Patrolling? Or is he---- But I hope not. He was a good fellow and a sailor.)
We were better off than we knew then, though then we thought it would be hard luck for a dog. Our thoughts turned to the snug indoor places of the lighted town behind us; for in the small hours we should be plunging off Hartland; with the Wolf to come, and the Bay after that; and the glass falling. But youth did know it was young, and that this night, wild and forbidding, and the old Sirius rolling away into it, would look fine when seen through tobacco smoke in the years to come.
For the light we saw at sea never fades. It survives our voyaging. It shines into the mind and abides there. We watched the horizon steadfastly for lands we did not know. The sun came up each day to a world that was not the same, no matter how it looked. At night we changed our stars. We heard nothing but the wind and the waves, and the quiet voice of a shipmate yarning with his pipe in his mouth. The elements could interrupt us, but not the world. Not a gull of that was left.
And somehow the beginning of a voyage seemed to be always in westerly weather, at the beginning of winter. The English land to me is a twilight coast with clouds like iron above it poised in a windy light of aquamarine, and a sunset of lucid saffron. Against that western light, bright, bare, and penetrating as the ruthless judgment of impersonal divinity, the polished waves mount, outlined as hard as jet, and move towards us. The ship's prow rises to cut out segments of the west; falls into the dark hollows of waves. The wind pours over us, an icy and ponderable flood, and is increasing. Where England has sunk in the dark one clear eye, like a yellow planet, comes out to watch us.
One thinks of the sea now as something gone, like the old world. There once a voyager was sundered from insistent trifles. He was with simple, elemental things that have been since time began, and he had to meet them with what skill he had, the wind for his friend and adversary, the sun his clock, the stars for counsel, and the varying wilderness his hope and his doubt. But the cruel misery of man did not intrude. He was free from that. All men at sea were his fellows, whatever their language, an ancient fraternity whose bond was a common but unspoken knowledge of a hidden but imminent fate. They could be strangers ashore, but not at sea.
But that is gone now. The sea is poisoned with a deadly sorrow not its own, which man has put there. The spaciousness of the great vault above the round of waters is soiled by the gibbering anxieties of a thousand gossipers of evil, which the ship catches in its wires, to darken the night of its little company with the gloom of distant malignity and woe. It is something to retain a little of the light of the days at sea which have passed. They too had their glooms, but they came of the dignity of advancing storms, and the fear which great seas put in the mind of men who held a resolute course nevertheless, knowing that their weird was one which good seamen have faced since first the unknown beyond the land was dared; faith, age, and the loyalty of comrades, which all the waters of the world cannot drown. But the heart of man, which will face the worst the elements can do, sickens at the thought of the perverse and inexplicable cruelty of his fellows.