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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Rescue - PART I. THE MAN AND THE BRIG - Chapter I
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The Rescue - PART I. THE MAN AND THE BRIG - Chapter I Post by :theboss Category :Long Stories Author :Joseph Conrad Date :January 2011 Read :1058

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The Rescue - PART I. THE MAN AND THE BRIG - Chapter I

Out of the level blue of a shallow sea Carimata raises a lofty
barrenness of grey and yellow tints, the drab eminence of its
arid heights. Separated by a narrow strip of water, Suroeton, to
the west, shows a curved and ridged outline resembling the
backbone of a stooping giant. And to the eastward a troop of
insignificant islets stand effaced, indistinct, with vague
features that seem to melt into the gathering shadows. The night
following from the eastward the retreat of the setting sun
advanced slowly, swallowing the land and the sea; the land
broken, tormented and abrupt; the sea smooth and inviting with
its easy polish of continuous surface to wanderings facile and
endless.

There was no wind, and a small brig that had lain all the
afternoon a few miles to the northward and westward of Carimata
had hardly altered its position half a mile during all these
hours. The calm was absolute, a dead, flat calm, the stillness of
a dead sea and of a dead atmosphere. As far as the eye could
reach there was nothing but an impressive immobility. Nothing
moved on earth, on the waters, and above them in the unbroken
lustre of the sky. On the unruffled surface of the straits the
brig floated tranquil and upright as if bolted solidly, keel to
keel, with its own image reflected in the unframed and immense
mirror of the sea. To the south and east the double islands
watched silently the double ship that seemed fixed amongst them
forever, a hopeless captive of the calm, a helpless prisoner of
the shallow sea.

Since midday, when the light and capricious airs of these seas
had abandoned the little brig to its lingering fate, her head had
swung slowly to the westward and the end of her slender and
polished jib-boom, projecting boldly beyond the graceful curve of
the bow, pointed at the setting sun, like a spear poised high in
the hand of an enemy. Right aft by the wheel the Malay
quartermaster stood with his bare, brown feet firmly planted on
the wheel-grating, and holding the spokes at right angles, in a
solid grasp, as though the ship had been running before a gale.
He stood there perfectly motionless, as if petrified but ready to
tend the helm as soon as fate would permit the brig to gather way
through the oily sea.

The only other human being then visible on the brig's deck was
the person in charge: a white man of low stature, thick-set, with
shaven cheeks, a grizzled moustache, and a face tinted a scarlet
hue by the burning suns and by the sharp salt breezes of the
seas. He had thrown off his light jacket, and clad only in white
trousers and a thin cotton singlet, with his stout arms crossed
on his breast--upon which they showed like two thick lumps of raw
flesh--he prowled about from side to side of the half-poop. On
his bare feet he wore a pair of straw sandals, and his head was
protected by an enormous pith hat--once white but now very
dirty--which gave to the whole man the aspect of a phenomenal and
animated mushroom. At times he would interrupt his uneasy
shuffle athwart the break of the poop, and stand motionless with
a vague gaze fixed on the image of the brig in the calm water. He
could also see down there his own head and shoulders leaning out
over the rail and he would stand long, as if interested by his
own features, and mutter vague curses on the calm which lay upon
the ship like an immovable burden, immense and burning.

At last, he sighed profoundly, nerved himself for a great effort,
and making a start away from the rail managed to drag his
slippers as far as the binnacle. There he stopped again,
exhausted and bored. From under the lifted glass panes of the
cabin skylight near by came the feeble chirp of a canary, which
appeared to give him some satisfaction. He listened, smiled
faintly muttered "Dicky, poor Dick--" and fell back into the
immense silence of the world. His eyes closed, his head hung low
over the hot brass of the binnacle top. Suddenly he stood up with
a jerk and said sharply in a hoarse voice:

"You've been sleeping--you. Shift the helm. She has got stern way
on her."

The Malay, without the least flinch of feature or pose, as if he
had been an inanimate object called suddenly into life by some
hidden magic of the words, spun the wheel rapidly, letting the
spokes pass through his hands; and when the motion had stopped
with a grinding noise, caught hold again and held on grimly.
After a while, however, he turned his head slowly over his
shoulder, glanced at the sea, and said in an obstinate tone:

"No catch wind--no get way."

"No catch--no catch--that's all you know about it," growled the
red-faced seaman. "By and by catch Ali--" he went on with sudden
condescension. "By and by catch, and then the helm will be the
right way. See?"

The stolid seacannie appeared to see, and for that matter to
hear, nothing. The white man looked at the impassive Malay with
disgust, then glanced around the horizon--then again at the
helmsman and ordered curtly:

"Shift the helm back again. Don't you feel the air from aft? You
are like a dummy standing there."

The Malay revolved the spokes again with disdainful obedience,
and the red-faced man was moving forward grunting to himself,
when through the open skylight the hail "On deck there!" arrested
him short, attentive, and with a sudden change to amiability in
the expression of his face.

"Yes, sir," he said, bending his ear toward the opening. "What's
the matter up there?" asked a deep voice from below.

The red-faced man in a tone of surprise said:

"Sir?"

"I hear that rudder grinding hard up and hard down. What are you
up to, Shaw? Any wind?"

"Ye-es," drawled Shaw, putting his head down the skylight and
speaking into the gloom of the cabin. "I thought there was a
light air, and--but it's gone now. Not a breath anywhere under
the heavens."

He withdrew his head and waited a while by the skylight, but
heard only the chirping of the indefatigable canary, a feeble
twittering that seemed to ooze through the drooping red blossoms
of geraniums growing in flower-pots under the glass panes. He
strolled away a step or two before the voice from down below
called hurriedly:

"Hey, Shaw? Are you there?"

"Yes, Captain Lingard," he answered, stepping back. "Have we
drifted anything this afternoon?"

"Not an inch, sir, not an inch. We might as well have been at
anchor."

"It's always so," said the invisible Lingard. His voice changed
its tone as he moved in the cabin, and directly afterward burst
out with a clear intonation while his head appeared above the
slide of the cabin entrance:

"Always so! The currents don't begin till it's dark, when a man
can't see against what confounded thing he is being drifted, and
then the breeze will come. Dead on end, too, I don't doubt."

Shaw moved his shoulders slightly. The Malay at the wheel, after
making a dive to see the time by the cabin clock through the
skylight, rang a double stroke on the small bell aft. Directly
forward, on the main deck, a shrill whistle arose long drawn,
modulated, dying away softly. The master of the brig stepped out
of the companion upon the deck of his vessel, glanced aloft at
the yards laid dead square; then, from the door-step, took a
long, lingering look round the horizon.

He was about thirty-five, erect and supple. He moved freely, more
like a man accustomed to stride over plains and hills, than like
one who from his earliest youth had been used to counteract by
sudden swayings of his body the rise and roll of cramped decks of
small craft, tossed by the caprice of angry or playful seas.

He wore a grey flannel shirt, and his white trousers were held by
a blue silk scarf wound tightly round his narrow waist. He had
come up only for a moment, but finding the poop shaded by the
main-topsail he remained on deck bareheaded. The light chestnut
hair curled close about his well-shaped head, and the clipped
beard glinted vividly when he passed across a narrow strip of
sunlight, as if every hair in it had been a wavy and attenuated
gold wire. His mouth was lost in the heavy moustache; his nose
was straight, short, slightly blunted at the end; a broad band of
deeper red stretched under the eyes, clung to the cheek bones.
The eyes gave the face its remarkable expression. The eyebrows,
darker than the hair, pencilled a straight line below the wide
and unwrinkled brow much whiter than the sunburnt face. The eyes,
as if glowing with the light of a hidden fire, had a red glint in
their greyness that gave a scrutinizing ardour to the steadiness
of their gaze.

That man, once so well known, and now so completely forgotten
amongst the charming and heartless shores of the shallow sea, had
amongst his fellows the nickname of "Red-Eyed Tom." He was proud
of his luck but not of his good sense. He was proud of his brig,
of the speed of his craft, which was reckoned the swiftest
country vessel in those seas, and proud of what she represented.

She represented a run of luck on the Victorian goldfields; his
sagacious moderation; long days of planning, of loving care in
building; the great joy of his youth, the incomparable freedom of
the seas; a perfect because a wandering home; his independence,
his love--and his anxiety. He had often heard men say that Tom
Lingard cared for nothing on earth but for his brig--and in his
thoughts he would smilingly correct the statement by adding that
he cared for nothing LIVING but the brig.

To him she was as full of life as the great world. He felt her
live in every motion, in every roll, in every sway of her
tapering masts, of those masts whose painted trucks move forever,
to a seaman's eye, against the clouds or against the stars. To
him she was always precious--like old love; always
desirable--like a strange woman; always tender--like a mother;
always faithful --like the favourite daughter of a man's heart.

For hours he would stand elbow on rail, his head in his hand and
listen--and listen in dreamy stillness to the cajoling and
promising whisper of the sea, that slipped past in vanishing
bubbles along the smooth black-painted sides of his craft. What
passed in such moments of thoughtful solitude through the mind of
that child of generations of fishermen from the coast of Devon,
who like most of his class was dead to the subtle voices, and
blind to the mysterious aspects of the world--the man ready for
the obvious, no matter how startling, how terrible or menacing,
yet defenceless as a child before the shadowy impulses of his own
heart; what could have been the thoughts of such a man, when once
surrendered to a dreamy mood, it is difficult to say.

No doubt he, like most of us, would be uplifted at times by the
awakened lyrism of his heart into regions charming, empty, and
dangerous. But also, like most of us, he was unaware of his
barren journeys above the interesting cares of this earth. Yet
from these, no doubt absurd and wasted moments, there remained on
the man's daily life a tinge as that of a glowing and serene
half-light. It softened the outlines of his rugged nature; and
these moments kept close the bond between him and his brig.

He was aware that his little vessel could give him something not
to be had from anybody or anything in the world; something
specially his own. The dependence of that solid man of bone and
muscle on that obedient thing of wood and iron, acquired from
that feeling the mysterious dignity of love. She--the craft--had
all the qualities of a living thing: speed, obedience,
trustworthiness, endurance, beauty, capacity to do and to
suffer--all but life. He--the man--was the inspirer of that thing
that to him seemed the most perfect of its kind. His will was its
will, his thought was its impulse, his breath was the breath of
its existence. He felt all this confusedly, without ever shaping
this feeling into the soundless formulas of thought. To him she
was unique and dear, this brig of three hundred and fourteen tons
register--a kingdom!

And now, bareheaded and burly, he walked the deck of his kingdom
with a regular stride. He stepped out from the hip, swinging his
arms with the free motion of a man starting out for a
fifteen-mile walk into open country; yet at every twelfth stride
he had to turn about sharply and pace back the distance to the
taffrail.

Shaw, with his hands stuck in his waistband, had hooked himself
with both elbows to the rail, and gazed apparently at the deck
between his feet. In reality he was contemplating a little house
with a tiny front garden, lost in a maze of riverside streets in
the east end of London. The circumstance that he had not, as yet,
been able to make the acquaintance of his son--now aged eighteen
months--worried him slightly, and was the cause of that flight of
his fancy into the murky atmosphere of his home. But it was a
placid flight followed by a quick return. In less than two
minutes he was back in the brig. "All there," as his saying was.
He was proud of being always "all there."

He was abrupt in manner and grumpy in speech with the seamen. To
his successive captains, he was outwardly as deferential as he
knew how, and as a rule inwardly hostile--so very few seemed to
him of the "all there" kind. Of Lingard, with whom he had only
been a short time--having been picked up in Madras Roads out of a
home ship, which he had to leave after a thumping row with the
master--he generally approved, although he recognized with regret
that this man, like most others, had some absurd fads; he defined
them as "bottom-upwards notions."

He was a man--as there were many--of no particular value to
anybody but himself, and of no account but as the chief mate of
the brig, and the only white man on board of her besides the
captain. He felt himself immeasurably superior to the Malay
seamen whom he had to handle, and treated them with lofty
toleration, notwithstanding his opinion that at a pinch those
chaps would be found emphatically "not there."

As soon as his mind came back from his home leave, he detached
himself from the rail and, walking forward, stood by the break of
the poop, looking along the port side of the main deck. Lingard
on his own side stopped in his walk and also gazed absentmindedly
before him. In the waist of the brig, in the narrow spars that
were lashed on each side of the hatchway, he could see a group of
men squatting in a circle around a wooden tray piled up with
rice, which stood on the just swept deck. The dark-faced,
soft-eyed silent men, squatting on their hams, fed decorously
with an earnestness that did not exclude reserve.

Of the lot, only one or two wore sarongs, the others having
submitted--at least at sea--to the indignity of European
trousers. Only two sat on the spars. One, a man with a childlike,
light yellow face, smiling with fatuous imbecility under the
wisps of straight coarse hair dyed a mahogany tint, was the
tindal of the crew--a kind of boatswain's or serang's mate. The
other, sitting beside him on the booms, was a man nearly black,
not much bigger than a large ape, and wearing on his wrinkled
face that look of comical truculence which is often
characteristic of men from the southwestern coast of Sumatra.

This was the kassab or store-keeper, the holder of a position of
dignity and ease. The kassab was the only one of the crew taking
their evening meal who noticed the presence on deck of their
commander. He muttered something to the tindal who directly
cocked his old hat on one side, which senseless action invested
him with an altogether foolish appearance. The others heard, but
went on somnolently feeding with spidery movements of their lean
arms.

The sun was no more than a degree or so above the horizon, and
from the heated surface of the waters a slight low mist began to
rise; a mist thin, invisible to the human eye; yet strong enough
to change the sun into a mere glowing red disc, a disc vertical
and hot, rolling down to the edge of the horizontal and
cold-looking disc of the shining sea. Then the edges touched and
the circular expanse of water took on suddenly a tint, sombre,
like a frown; deep, like the brooding meditation of evil.

The falling sun seemed to be arrested for a moment in his descent
by the sleeping waters, while from it, to the motionless brig,
shot out on the polished and dark surface of the sea a track of
light, straight and shining, resplendent and direct; a path of
gold and crimson and purple, a path that seemed to lead dazzling
and terrible from the earth straight into heaven through the
portals of a glorious death. It faded slowly. The sea vanquished
the light. At last only a vestige of the sun remained, far off,
like a red spark floating on the water. It lingered, and all at
once--without warning--went out as if extinguished by a
treacherous hand.

"Gone," cried Lingard, who had watched intently yet missed the
last moment. "Gone! Look at the cabin clock, Shaw!"

"Nearly right, I think, sir. Three minutes past six."

The helmsman struck four bells sharply. Another barefooted
seacannie glided on the far side of the poop to relieve the
wheel, and the serang of the brig came up the ladder to take
charge of the deck from Shaw. He came up to the compass, and
stood waiting silently.

"The course is south by east when you get the wind, serang," said
Shaw, distinctly.

"Sou' by eas'," repeated the elderly Malay with grave
earnestness.

"Let me know when she begins to steer," added Lingard.

"Ya, Tuan," answered the man, glancing rapidly at the sky. "Wind
coming," he muttered.

"I think so, too," whispered Lingard as if to himself.

The shadows were gathering rapidly round the brig. A mulatto put
his head out of the companion and called out:

"Ready, sir."

"Let's get a mouthful of something to eat, Shaw," said Lingard.
"I say, just take a look around before coming below. It will be
dark when we come up again."

"Certainly, sir," said Shaw, taking up a long glass and putting
it to his eyes. "Blessed thing," he went on in snatches while he
worked the tubes in and out, "I can't--never somehow--Ah! I've
got it right at last!"

He revolved slowly on his heels, keeping the end of the tube on
the sky-line. Then he shut the instrument with a click, and said
decisively:

"Nothing in sight, sir."

He followed his captain down below rubbing his hands cheerfully.

For a good while there was no sound on the poop of the brig. Then
the seacannie at the wheel spoke dreamily:

"Did the malim say there was no one on the sea?"

"Yes," grunted the serang without looking at the man behind him.

"Between the islands there was a boat," pronounced the man very
softly.

The serang, his hands behind his back, his feet slightly apart,
stood very straight and stiff by the side of the compass stand.
His face, now hardly visible, was as inexpressive as the door of
a safe.

"Now, listen to me," insisted the helmsman in a gentle tone.

The man in authority did not budge a hair's breadth. The
seacannie bent down a little from the height of the wheel
grating.

"I saw a boat," he murmured with something of the tender
obstinacy of a lover begging for a favour. "I saw a boat, O Haji
Wasub! Ya! Haji Wasub!"

The serang had been twice a pilgrim, and was not insensible to
the sound of his rightful title. There was a grim smile on his
face.

"You saw a floating tree, O Sali," he said, ironically.

"I am Sali, and my eyes are better than the bewitched brass thing
that pulls out to a great length," said the pertinacious
helmsman. "There was a boat, just clear of the easternmost
island. There was a boat, and they in her could see the ship on
the light of the west--unless they are blind men lost on the sea.
I have seen her. Have you seen her, too, O Haji Wasub?"

"Am I a fat white man?" snapped the serang. "I was a man of the
sea before you were born, O Sali! The order is to keep silence
and mind the rudder, lest evil befall the ship."

After these words he resumed his rigid aloofness. He stood, his
legs slightly apart, very stiff and straight, a little on one
side of the compass stand. His eyes travelled incessantly from
the illuminated card to the shadowy sails of the brig and back
again, while his body was motionless as if made of wood and built
into the ship's frame. Thus, with a forced and tense
watchfulness, Haji Wasub, serang of the brig Lightning, kept the
captain's watch unwearied and wakeful, a slave to duty.

In half an hour after sunset the darkness had taken complete
possession of earth and heavens. The islands had melted into the
night. And on the smooth water of the Straits, the little brig
lying so still, seemed to sleep profoundly, wrapped up in a
scented mantle of star light and silence.

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It was half-past eight o'clock before Lingard came on deck again.Shaw--now with a coat on--trotted up and down the poop leavingbehind him a smell of tobacco smoke. An irregularly glowing sparkseemed to run by itself in the darkness before the rounded formof his head. Above the masts of the brig the dome of the clearheaven was full of lights that flickered, as if some mightybreathings high up there had been swaying about the flame of thestars. There was no sound along the brig's decks, and the heavyshadows that lay on it had the aspect, in that silence, of secretplaces concealing crouching
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The shallow sea that foams and murmurs on the shores of thethousand islands, big and little, which make up the MalayArchipelago has been for centuries the scene of adventurousundertakings. The vices and the virtues of four nations have beendisplayed in the conquest of that region that even to this dayhas not been robbed of all the mystery and romance of itspast--and the race of men who had fought against the Portuguese,the Spaniards, the Dutch and the English, has not been changed bythe unavoidable defeat. They have kept to this day their love ofliberty, their fanatical devotion to their chiefs, their blindfidelity
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