Next> | <Prev | End

From A Mingled Yarn, Copyright 1953 by H. M. Tomlinson, Indianapolis and New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Chapter 2, p26-35.

Outward Bound

H. M. Tomlinson


THE boy's gaze, from his corner seat in the train, was fixed on England flowing past. He was too shy to look round at the rest of us, or else he was day-dreaming and had forgotten we were there. I don't think he saw, except absently, the telegraph posts and wires undulating along, and the distant sunny fields and hills in slow retreat. Occasionally he glanced quickly overhead at the luggage rack. His treasure was still there. I guessed he and his baggage, so new, were outward bound. That canvas bolster had not been aired before. This was the first time. So it was for hours. Then someone exclaimed at what had come into view from the opposite window. There were signs of the sea. The boy rose, one of our betters in a moment, and over our feet he went, ever regardless of our presence, to gaze out. He stood with his back to us, and, as the masts and funnels grew higher, he began to sing to himself.

I could have sung with him, had I known the song. The music of the spheres, harmony in the poise of universal fettle, is not for such as we are. It would be a continuo too deep for our ears, as inaudible as the dance of generative heat and light over solitude in summer. That boy's humming might have been a faint echo of it. I wish I could recall the tune. I used to know an air of its kind, life rejoicing because it knew no better, but it is as far away as the hour--eight bells, midnight--and I was watching from a ship's bridge the coast-lights of England fade astern. I was bound south to the foreign, for the first time. She was a collier, from Barry Dock. A bright eye was winking at us from shoreward. Then a small voice came at my side, and said, "That's the Longships!" The ship's master had spoken. I had not heard him come up the ladder. The night was clear, dark and calm. The ship's wash was the only sound. The Longships was winking at us. The port-light of a schooner was abeam.

The schooner was a trim black silhouette in luminous night, with a red spark in her middle. I don't know her name, but she has not yet completed that voyage, for me. The Longships! How telling a name is, if heard in the due moment! There was nothing of consequence about my ship, nor in her business, and there would be no romance in her destination. She was deep with fuel for France, no more than an item in the old traditional economy, now lost, of coal out, and corn and wine home, but it is as if she moved briefly into a position where, for the lucky, there is a glimpse of a truth which endures beyond routine and duties, and departures and arrivals. She was soon out of it, of course. In another minute I was in the chart-room, and the master was getting a bottle and glasses out of a cupboard; and even he didn't know what unverifiable dimension his ship had appeared to reveal a moment ago, and I didn't tell him. For his part, he said he hoped the barometer was lying, but he supposed we were in for a dusting; and we had that dusting the next evening.

I don't say there was something peculiar about that evocation off Cornwall. That there was not may be the remarkable thing about it. Nothing strange was there, though Cornwall and its waters have their riddles. It was only as if that instant of night was not of the clock, but was from the beginning, world without end. For a moment I stood at the ship's rail myself, and there it was. If I were off the Longships next week I should not see it. Still, there is no need to try again, for those moments do not pass. They are rare, but they come without warning, we have them, and they sum up to all the eternity we can reason about; and who would believe us? No matter; occasionally we are not only aware of existence, but above it, and are content.

Ought we to round Land's End, bound south, on watch for a predicate? We might as well go to a London tube station. It will not show. If we see it at all, it is when we have turned from looking the other way. Its bearings are no more exact than Ariel's. When the mind is idle, and the occasion is only the end of one more day, and the place only our garden, it can surprise us then. Sometimes there comes a moment of midsummer twilight when common flowers may be strangely prominent and apparitional. Legendary peace might have come, or at least respite. It does not appear to be our patch of ground. It has another import. Those shapes and colours are not of our asking. Though the hour is dim, they are more individual and shining, in a momentary translation of their kind, than they were this morning. Queerly bright in obscurity, they are a little disturbing, and our confidence in a proper knowledge of circumstance is shaken. A material explanation of the odd communication may be easy, as usual, but is no help. It would not account for the way we saw it. Besides, we have learned that though knowledge may take us far, understanding remains as distant as ever. On that road there can be no end, though we never cease from travel. There, I suppose, is the fun in discovery; we must keep on.

Sailors in the days of sail, when the horizon about them was unbroken for months, seldom had much to show for solitude but a new becket or knot, or a ship in a bottle, just as another man, in the loneliness of his soul, has nothing to prove his interest in existence except a nice collection of investments, or a row of books he wrote, once on a time, but long out of print. It is not easy to count our valuables, if we are foolish enough to try. It would be difficult to name them, to say nothing of selling them. They are inevident. There is no proof. I remember reading of an explorer who had suffered the rigours of a voyage to the ice-barrier of the Antarctic. He noted in his log one day his fear that the ship would not clear the floes before winter caught her. He added to the entry that at daybreak the world of ice changed colour from bronze to light apple-green, from pink to crimson, in an ominous quiet, and he was surprised that his dogs peered overside with him, fixed by they didn't know what; no more did he. Afterwards, home in London, the thought of it would come over him and he had to leave his family and a comfortable fireside, and go out, without saying why, to be alone in the wind and the rain.

I don't know, but I fancy he went out, on his lonesome, to look again at the sum of his voyaging. That sort of impulse will come over a man. It is the only thing to do if the rest of the company is settled, cheerful, and satisfied. He has a matter to think about, but what is it? Of course, his friends would see nothing there. Should he explain it, they might conclude that his past trials in a latitude well beyond warm human fellowship had touched him somewhat. Silence in outer darkness had worked into his head.

So not a word to them about it. Out he goes, then, into the wind and rain of London streets after dark, to think over that momentary half-assurance, or challenge, that chanced in an Antarctic sunrise, while he was stuck in his navigation; as though he had glimpsed an unexpected enlargement of the world, an existence not yet explored. It was gone while he looked, and left no clue. There is no more light on it yet, either. What a pity it is that logic cannot find a way into that seclusion! Yet he felt fairly sure, it seems, at that juncture of the voyage, of something beyond his confinement in a ship which had universal ice on guard about her. There seemed to be a still more serious disability. Was it likely that consciousness, however wide-awake one may be, is not quite good enough? That a man himself is kept within bonds more obdurate than are the ribs of a ship beset by ice and no way on her? And he could not get out; in that he was as the dogs beside him. Verities exist without ascertained aids to their navigation.

That sort of thing must be left to the poets--the old-fashioned sort, of course--and they can make nothing better of it than the beauty of the earth and the glory of the skies; which leaves us where we were. The expectation of hitting on the whereabouts of such a surmise is never in our itinerary, when we board a ship. Instead, very likely it is a wet day, and the ship still taking in cargo. That's how it usually is with me, and in winter, and I like it. The insidious smells are friendly; we have met before. You only get them on a wet deck, the hatches open, and the winches in use, on a heavy November day. The sounds and cries outside the cabin--which is cold and raw as yet--are immemorial to the act of departure. It must have been much the same with Tudor voyagers. Time slows down. But there is nothing in our itinerary concerning Xanadu. What fools we should look, if we wrote it down plain! Constraint might be put upon us by our friends, and they would be right; though it is the hope we always carry with us, added to the antiseptics and carminatives, if it is so far from being a buoyant hope that we let it sink out of sight; it is forgotten.

Better to let it go and accept what comes, with good grace. We know quite well that it is not worth while going round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar, as Thoreau needlessly pointed out. We wish he had tried it. He would have counted more than cats. We miss the book he would have made. Anywhere on earth, with any professed object, and to it by any mode of travel, will suit some eyes; and at once another regret forms, as absently we regard a novel cabin, that we have no book on the American scene--what a book it would have been!--by the author of Old Calabria. Yet as to what this famous author and traveller, and that one, would have made of other lands--instead of Old France, Henry James in Patagonia, or Santayana among the Dyaks making his way across Borneo--these speculations will delay us. While stowing things in the cabin, the idea comes that a whole book could be made of these omissions; and it would not be worth writing, . . . The ship has fallen quiet. The winches have stopped. It sounds as if the hatches are going on.

It is necessary now and then to find a clear and uninterrupted horizon, and to let a long silence fall between self and the multitude, for the sake of sanity. God knows what nonsense would infect us with a moral and patriotic conviction if we did not move off till too late; the danger won't bear thinking about. A great industrial city, in this age when scientific materialism is our mystical faith, and nothing is celestial except engines at supersonic speeds, makes the continued cunning of an Evil One supererogatory; the job is all but finished. A great city is in the right geographical point, becomes bearable, and can be regarded with calm, only when the tide has turned seaward, the wide glare of neon and other lights sinks down in the night astern, and the only sound at last is the monody of unseen waters. A space opens in the smoke and fudge to let out the stars, and there the constellations are, seen by a townsman even in unbelief, but with the comfort of memory. That each appears at its appointed place restores faith, which may have become a little shaky, in the reality of what in the innocence of childhood and youth was thought to be immortal good. One can turn in to-night with assurance. To hear the hours being made on the ship's bell has no warning of the passing of time. Exemption has come. This calling of the time is merely for the convenience of the ship; the journey of the sun is being measured. A fixed idea of time is already working loose. We must be passing the Girdler light by now.

The names of our coastwise lights--those familiar lights, too, will go out presently, when the marvellous wireless beacon is in general use--almost rank with those of the stars. I do not regret that I shall have done with the sea in the year when the coasts of our island will be lightless, all one with darkness itself, whatever the weather; when the lamps of home on headland and outlying rock and shoal will be doused. Revisiting the glimpses, coming in from the outer, this ghost won't know his own place when Skerryvore. Pendeen, Lundy, the Eddystone, the Foreland, and the rest, are not keeping watch with characteristic bright eyes for wanderers in the night. No more the Smalls, Fastnet, Pladda, and Ushant? Verhaps the very names will be changed to numbers. Progress pushes us on. But I cannot yet declare, with that Cabinet Minister whose office it was to plan our towns and countryside, and who had to explain why he allowed the defilement of the surroundings of a glorious old cathedral: "Progress, not sentiment." Yes, that is what he said.

If only we knew what progress is! Doesn't it depend on the way we are going, and what we want to do? I am all for sentiment while our destiny is uncertain; the earth would be as dead as the moon without memory and affection. If to make a mechanistic desert of our planet, and that at present is what we are doing, is not to blast from it the reason for our continued existence, then life must be in a void, so of course is without purpose, and we are free to please ourselves while we have time for it, which may not be long. Some people, the sentimentalists, are not yet persuaded that this conclusion need be accepted, though it is a belief natural to the mental climate of our age. It affects the arts as well as science. Without useless sentiment, without affection which never counts the cost, without magnanimity, then nihilism. No more the making of music; mystery has gone from the universe, and instead of awe men feel the pride of conquest. Human aspiration has turned to something more reasonable than majesty, reverence, and joy. The heart is fly-blown, though the brain, cleansed by thorough knowledge of all superstitious nonsense, has its proper estimates, and can devise the means to access of power. The admonition of the best that men have thought and done is given to the deaf and blind. The mental climate of our age is pestilential.

In the first morning at sea little of this is remembered. It all goes down wind like the coils of the ship's vapours, a dream of the night too vague and inconsequential to be noticed. While in the city you cannot doubt that the future of man is of first importance, and that he seems, poor fellow, to be confidently indifferent to the omens; but with a first look round on heaven and the life of the waters, when outward bound, it is possible to believe that an absolute sanity exists apart; we may share it or leave it, just as we please. With the coming of the sun the English coast is reposeful, as if near neighbour to the splendid east and its equal, whatever may be the time spirit. The splendour is taken by cliff and upland as by right; the home we are leaving has an aspect we had forgotten. It is still in its prime. History might not have begun. England, we see, keeps an inherency untouched by the zeal of many generations, and could survive the prolonged residence of the most destructive of common convictions. The radiance of England, its response to the rising of a new day, is not of the calendar, but is the sign of an existence not altogether subject to us and our aims. It is worth making a voyage to be assured of that, though it will not be recorded in the ship's log. Our present mental climate, in a distant view, is a patch of cold fog, and will last only while there is no change of wind.

The world has been too much with us. Without a clear space around, to get our bearings, we are lost. Curiously, there is no feeling that one is lost when right off the map, quite literally off, or at best having but sketchy direction in a wild country, with no security, and no neighbours except natives who remain concealed until they decide to show themselves. We know where we are, then, for a change. There is retrieval of a mislaid identity. The traveller must keep his own feet, and the doubt that he may not get safely out of it, if he isn't up to the mark, tells him what he is; a fact worth having, if there is no purpose to which it can be put.

There is much to be said for a spell of silence in isolation, if one does not go into retreat to brood over too many dogmas, for the gods sport with fixed ideas without mercy; at least we have learned that much of the gods. And why go into retreat, unless it is to test knowledge and faith in the light of discovery, should that good fortune attend on patience? And discovery, a view of things from a new vantage, one is sure to have, unless there is a demand for signs and wonders. There are plenty of recorded wonders, for instance, in Piddington's Sailor's Horn Book, while that authority is establishing the law of storms with all the evidence from an abundance of the logs of mariners over many years; but reading about these wonders is all I want. It is not worth while voyaging to the Indian Ocean in the cyclone season to witness the warning that heaven and earth are about to conflict. That threat might be fulfilled, as far as we are concerned. Nobody who has suffered the ocean in a rage would go out of his way to have that experience twice. It may be magnificent, but usually gloom obscures it, and anyhow you can't keep still. Give me fair weather, and as much of it as is going. Only a fool would want to glimpse again mountains of water moving fast under a black ceiling lowered to the foam. After the truth has been rubbed in that bodily survival is not of first importance to anyone but the self, nothing is gained merely by looking doom in the face day after day; though I have always relished observing the way shipmates faced it. You may change completely an opinion of the spirit of a man when with him in an affair of that sort. These dramatic occasions are better when in books.

It is the little things of travel that matter. Early in the first morning out the cabin is heavy with the residue of departure, and of the claims of the shore. Release comes with the first glance from a port-light that looks forward. An unfamiliar deck is wet with spray or rain, and the glazed hatch tarpaulins might be of Argo herself; they are of gold in a new light, and quivering in the wind with expectancy. The ship's head is alive against bright clouds, and the lookout in his oilskins is high enough in the morning to be on the ramparts of an outpost of earth, watching for a new planet to swim into his ken.

That first peep should content any traveller with his time and place. The steward will be in soon with some tea, and is sure to pause to pass a word or two. He will want to get an inkling of your drift. This is not a liner; and, if you are of no importance, at any rate you are one of a small company, and that is of importance to those who will have to bear with you. You will get to know a few of your fellows in a way that rarely happens in a city street. A ship's small steel compartments are echoing, and there is no hiding between bulwarks. The person is bared at sea, and communication must be distinct, direct, and cut to the bone. The sea makes short work of pretence. I remember a ship's master--he was a reader of metaphysics and philosophy--delivering an opinion of a book while in the act of rising from the mess table. He began as he gathered his feet under him, and the criticism was over by the time he had snatched up his cap and clapped it on. I cannot report what he said for a sufficient reason, but he condensed to a line and a half all that my knowledge had been fumbling silently to put into proper shape for a week.

There are moments in a journey that are as if we saw a world science has never measured and cannot explain. If you like, put this down to personal emotion of no consequence, and so save learned argument. We will not argue it. Since Hamlet can be so analysed that the play comes down to a bare page from a book of medical instances, what could be made of us? Nothing that is pleasant. Still, all the analyses cannot remove the instant impression of the beauty of the earth and the glory of the skies, as the sun rises on a first approach to a tropical land of the rains; or when night falls there, for that matter. Though a traveller remains aware of his brief nature, yet he shares in this triumph of existence, which may be the reflection of a reality of which nothing yet is known.

^Top | Next>