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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIn The Sargasso Sea: A Novel - Chapter 28. How I Rubbed Shoulders With Despair
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In The Sargasso Sea: A Novel - Chapter 28. How I Rubbed Shoulders With Despair Post by :Bill999 Category :Long Stories Author :Thomas A. Janvier Date :May 2012 Read :2690

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In The Sargasso Sea: A Novel - Chapter 28. How I Rubbed Shoulders With Despair

CHAPTER XXVIII. HOW I RUBBED SHOULDERS WITH DESPAIR

Could I have foreseen all that was ahead of me I doubt if I should have had the courage to go on: choosing rather to stay there on the barque until I had eaten what food I had by me, and then to die slowly--and finding that way easier than the one I chose to follow, with its many days of struggle and its many chill nights of sorrow and I throughout the whole of it rubbing shoulders with despair.

As I think of it now, that long, long march seems to me like a horrible nightmare; and sometimes it comes back to me as a real nightmare in my dreams. Again, always heavy laden, I am climbing and scrambling and jumping, endlessly and hopelessly, among old rotten hulks; each morning trying to comfort myself with the belief that by night I may see some sign of ships less ancient, and so know that I am winning my way a little toward where I would be; and each night finding myself still surrounded by tall antique craft such as have not for two centuries and more held the seas, with the feeling coming down crushingly upon me that I have not advanced at all; and even then no good rest for me--as I lie down wearily in some foul-smelling old cabin, chill with heavy night-mist and with the reeking damp of oozy rotten timbers, and perhaps find in it for my sleeping-mates little heaps of fungus outgrowing from dead men's bones. And the mere dream of all this so bitterly hurts me that I wonder how I ever came through the reality of it alive.

At the start, as I have said, I had calculated that the treasure-laden galleon lay about in the centre of the wreck-pack, and therefore that I would get across from her to the other side of the pack in about the same time that I had taken to reach her in my first journey from the barque; and on the basis of that assumption, when I was come to her again, I shaped my course hopefully for the north. But my calculation, though on its face a reasonable enough one, proved to be most woefully wrong: and I have come to the conclusion, after a good deal of thinking about it, that this was because the whole vast mass of wreckage had a circular motion--the great current that created it giving at the same time a swirl to it--which made the seemingly straight line that I followed in reality a constantly extended curve. But whatever the cause may have been, the fact remains that when by my calculation I should have been on the outer edge of the wreck-pack I still was wandering in its depths. In one way my march was easier the longer that it lasted, my load growing a little lighter daily as my store of food was transferred to my stomach from my back. At first this steady decrease of my burden was a comfort to me; but after a while--when more than half of it was gone, and I still seemed to be no nearer to the end of my journey than when I left the galleon--I had a very different feeling about it: for I realized that unless I came speedily to ships whereon I would find food--of which there seemed little probability, so ancient were the craft surrounding me--I either must go back to the barque and wait on her until death came to me slowly, or else die quickly where I was. And so I had for my comforting the option of a tardy death or a speedy one--with the certainty of the latter if I hesitated long in choosing between the two.

I suppose that the two great motive powers in the world are hope and despair. It was hope that started me on that dismal march, but if despair had not at last come in to help me I never should have got to its end: for I took Death by both shoulders and looked straight into the eyes of him when I decided, having by me only food for three days longer--and at that but as little as would keep the life in me--to give over all thought of returning to the barque and to make a dash forward as fast as I could go. I had little enough to carry, but that I might have still less I left my hatchet behind me--having, indeed, no farther use for it since if my dash miscarried I was done for and there was no use in marking a path over which I never could return; and I was half-minded to leave my bag of jewels behind me too. But in the end I decided to carry the jewels along with me--my fancy being caught by the grim notion that if I did die miserably in that vile solitude at least I would die one of the richest men in all the world. As to my water-bottles, one of them I had thrown away when I found that I could count on the morning showers certainly, and the other had been broken in one of my many tumbles: yet without much troubling me--as I found that I could manage fairly well, eating but little, if I filled myself pretty full of water at the beginning of each day. And so, with only the bag of food and the bag of jewels upon my back, and with the compass on top of them, I was ready to press onward to try conclusions with despair.

The very hopelessness of my effort, and the fact that at last I was dealing with what in one way was a certainty--for I knew that if my plan miscarried I had only a very little while longer to live--gave me a sort of stolid recklessness which amazingly helped me: stimulating me to taking risks in climbing which before I should have shrunk from, and so getting me on faster; and at the same time dulling my mind to the dreads besetting it and my body to its ceaseless pains begot of weariness and thirst and scanty food. So little, indeed, did I care what became of me that even when by the middle of my second day's march I saw no change in my surroundings I did not mind it much: but, to be sure, at the outset of this last stage of my journey I had thrown hope overboard, and a man once become desperate can feel no farther ills.

But what does surprise me--as I think of it now, though it did not in any way touch me then--was the slowness with which, when there was reason for it, my dead hope got alive again: as it did, and for cause, at the end of that same second day--for by the evening I came out, with a sharp suddenness, from among the strange old craft which for so long on every side had beset me and found myself among ships which by comparison with the others--though they too, in all conscience, were old enough--seemed to be quite of a modern build. What is likely, I think--and this would help to account for my long wanderings over those ancient rotten hulks--is that some stormy commotion of the whole mass of wreckage, such as had thrust the barque whereon I had found food deep into the thick of it, had squeezed a part of the centre of the pack outward; in that way making a sort of promontory--along which by mere bad mischance I had been journeying--among the wrecks of a later time. But this notion did not then occur to me; nor did I, as I have said, at first feel any very thrilling hope coming back to me when I found myself among modern ships again--so worn had my long tussle with difficulties left my body and so sodden was my mind.

At first I had just a dull feeling of satisfaction that I had got once more--after my many nights passed on hulks soaked with wet to rottenness--on good honest dry planks: where I could sleep with no deadly chill striking into me, and where in my restless wakings I should not see the pale gleam of death-fires, and where foul stenches would not half stifle me the whole night long. And it was not until I had eaten my scant supper, and because of the comfort that even that little food gave me felt more disposed to cheerfulness, that in a weak faint-hearted way I began to hope again that perhaps the run of luck against me had come to an end.

In truth, though, there was not much to be hopeful about. For my supper I had eaten the half of what food was left me, and it was so little that I still had a mighty hungry feeling in my belly after it was down. For my breakfast I should eat what was left; and after that, unless I found fresh supplies quickly, I was in a fair way to lie down beside my bag of jewels and die of starvation--like the veriest beggar that ever was. But I did hope a little all the same; and when I went on again the next morning, though my last scrap of food was eaten, my spirits kept up pretty well--for I was sure from the look of the wrecks which I traversed that the dead ancient centre of my continent at last was behind me, and that its living outer fringe could not be very far away.

All that day I pressed forward steadily, helped by my little flickering flame of hope--which burned low because sanguine expectation does not consort well with an empty stomach, yet which kept alive because the wreck-pack had more and more of a modern look about it as I went on. But the faintness that I felt coming over me as the day waned gave me warning that the rope by which I held my life was a short one; and as the sun dropped down into the mist--at once thinning it, so that I could see farther, and giving it a ruddy tone which sent red streams of brightness gleaming over the tangle of wreckage far down into the west--I felt that the rope must come to an end altogether, and that I must stop still and let death overtake me, by the sunset of one day more.

And then it was, just as the sun was sinking, that I saw clearly--far away to the westward--the funnel of a steamer standing out black and sharp against the blood-red ball that in another minute went down into the sea. And with that glimpse--which made me sure that I was close to the edge of the wreck-pack, and so close to food again--a strong warm rush of hope swept through me that outcast finally my despair.

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