Where the Blue Begins by Christopher Morley
The steamship Pomerania, which had sailed at noon, was a few hours out of port on a calm gray sea. The passengers, after the bustle of lunch and arranging their staterooms; had settled into their deck chairs and were telling each other how much they loved the ocean. Captain Scottie had taken his afternoon constitutional on his private strip of starboard deck just aft the bridge, and was sitting in his comfortable cabin expecting a cup of tea. He was a fine old sea-dog: squat, grizzled, severe, with wiry eyebrows, a short coarse beard, and watchful quick eyes. A characteristic Scot, beneath his reticent conscientious dignity there was abundant humour and affection. He would have been recognized anywhere as a sailor: those short solid legs were perfectly adapted for balancing on a rolling deck. He stood by habit as though he were leaning into a stiff gale. His mouth always held a pipe, which he smoked in short, brisk whiffs, as though expecting to be interrupted at any moment by an iceberg.
The steward brought in the tea-tray, and Captain Scottie settled into his large armchair to enjoy it. His eye glanced automatically at the barometer.
"A little wind to-night," he said, his nose wrinkling unconsciously as the cover was lifted from the dish of hot anchovy toast.
"Yes, sir," said the steward, but lingered, apparently anxious to speak further.
"Beg pardon, sir, but the Chief Steward wanted me to say they've found someone stowed away in the linen locker, sir. Queer kind of fellow, sir, talks a bit like a padre. 'E must've come aboard by the engine-room gangway, sir, and climbed into that locker near the barber shop."
The problem of stowaways is familiar enough to shipmasters. "Send him up to me," said the Captain.
A few minutes later Gissing appeared, escorted by a burly quartermaster. Even the experienced Captain admitted to himself that this was something new in the category of stowaways. Never before had he seen one in a braided cutaway coat and wedding trousers. It was true that the garments were in grievous condition, but they were worn with an air. The stowaway's face showed some embarrassment, but not at all the usual hangdog mien of such wastrels. Involuntarily his tongue moistened when he saw the tray of tea (for he had not eaten since his supper on the steam roller the night before), but he kept his eyes politely averted from the food. They rose to a white-painted girder that ran athwart the cabin ceiling. CERTIFIED TO ACCOMMODATE THE MASTER he read there, in letters deeply incised into the thick paint. "A good Christian ship," he said to himself. "It sounds like the Y. M. C. A." He was pleased to think that his suspicion was already confirmed: ships were more religious than anything on land.
The Captain dismissed the quartermaster, and addressed himself sternly to the culprit.
"Well, what have you to say for yourself?"
"Please, Captain," said Gissing politely, "do not allow your tea to get cold. I can talk while you eat." Behind his grim demeanour the Captain was very near to smiling at this naivete. No Briton is wholly implacable at tea-time, and he felt a genuine curiosity about this unusual offender.
"What was your idea in coming aboard?" he said. "Do you know that I can put you in irons until we get across, and then have you sent home for punishment? I suppose it's the old story: you want to go sight-seeing on the other side?"
"No, Captain," said Gissing. "I have come to sea to study theology."
In spite of himself the Captain was touched by this amazing statement. He was a Scot, as we have said. He poured a cup of tea to conceal his astonishment.
"Theology!" he exclaimed. "The theology of hard work is what you will find most of aboard ship. Carry on and do your duty; keep a sharp lookout, all gear shipshape, salute the bridge when going on watch, that is the whole duty of a good officer. That's plenty theology for a seaman." But the skipper's eye turned brightly toward his bookshelves, where he had several volumes of sermons, mostly of a Calvinist sort.
"I am not afraid of work," said Gissing. "But I'm looking for horizons. In my work ashore I never could find any."
"Your horizon is likely to be peeling potatoes in the galley," remarked the Captain. "I understand they are short-handed there. Or sweeping out bunks in the steerage. Ethics of the dust! What would you say to that?"
"Sir," replied Gissing, "I shall be grateful for any task, however menial, that permits me to meditate. I understand your point of view. By coming aboard your ship I have broken the law, I have committed a crime; but not a sin. Crime and sin, every theologian admits, are not coextensive."
The Captain sailed head-on into argument.
"What?" he cried. "Are you aware of the doctrine of Moral Inability in a Fallen State? Sit down, sit down, and have a cup of tea. We must discuss this."
He rang for the steward and ordered an extra cup and a fresh supply of toast. At that moment Gissing heard two quick strokes of a bell, rung somewhere forward, a clear, musical, melancholy tone, echoed promptly in other parts of the ship. "What is that, Captain?" he asked anxiously. "An accident?"
"Two bells in the first dog-watch," said the Captain. "I fear you are as much a lubber at sea as you are in theology."
The next two hours passed like a flash. Gissing found the skipper, in spite of his occasional moods of austerity, a delicious companion. They discussed Theosophy, Spiritualism, and Christian Science, all of which the Captain, with sturdy but rather troubled vehemence, linked with Primitive Magic. Gissing, seeing that his only hope of establishing himself in the sailor's regard was to disagree and keep the argument going, plunged into psycho-analysis and the philosophy of the unconscious. Rather unwarily he ventured to introduce a nautical illustration into the talk.
"Your compass needle," he said, "points to the North Pole, and although it has never been to the Pole, and cannot even conceive of it, yet it testifies irresistibly to the existence of such a place."
"I trust you navigate your soul more skilfully than you would navigate this vessel," retorted the Captain. "In the first place, the needle does not point to the North Pole at all, but to the magnetic pole. Furthermore, it has to be adjusted by magnets to counteract deviation. Mr. Gissing, you may be a sincere student of theology, but you have not allowed for your own temperamental deviation. Why, even the gyro compass has to be adjusted for latitude error. You landsmen think that a ship is simply a floating hotel. I should like to have the Bishop you spoke of study a little navigation. That would put into him a healthy respect for the marvels of science. On board ship, sir, the binnacle is kept locked and the key is on the watch-chain of the master. It should be so in all intellectual matters. Confide them to those capable of understanding."
Gissing saw that the Captain greatly relished his sense of superiority, so he made a remark of intentional simplicity.
"The binnacle?" he said. "I thought that was the little shellfish that clings to the bottom of the boat?"
"Don't you dare call my ship a boat!" said the Captain. "At sea, a boat means only a lifeboat or some other small vagabond craft. Come out on the bridge and I'll show you a thing or two."
The evening had closed in hazy, and the Pomerania swung steadily in a long plunging roll. At the weather wing of the bridge, gazing sharply over the canvas dodger, was Mr. Pointer, the vigilant Chief Officer, peering off rigidly, as though mesmerized, but saying nothing. He gave the Captain a courteous salute, but kept silence. At the large mahogany wheel, gently steadying it to the quarterly roll of the sea, stood Dane, a tall, solemn quartermaster. In spite of a little uneasiness, due to the unfamiliar motion, Gissing was greatly elated by the wheelhouse, which seemed even more thrillingly romantic than any pulpit. Uncomprehendingly, but with admiration, he examined the binnacle, the engine-room telegraphs, the telephones, the rack of signal-flags, the buttons for closing the bulkheads, and the rotating clear-view screen for lookout in thick weather. Aloft he could see the masthead light, gently soaring in slow arcs.
"I'll show you my particular pride," said the Captain, evidently pleased by his visitor's delighted enthusiasm.
Gissing wondered what ingenious device of science this might be.
Captain Scottie stepped to the weather gunwale of the bridge. He pointed to the smoke, which was rolling rapidly from the funnels.
"You see," he said, "there's quite a strong breeze blowing. But look here."
He lit a match and held it unshielded above the canvas screen which was lashed along the front of the bridge. To Gissing's surprise it burned steadily, without blowing out.
"I've invented a convex wind-shield which splits the air just forward of the bridge. I can stand here and light my pipe in the stiffest gale, without any trouble."
On the decks below Gissing heard a bugle blowing gaily, a bright, persuasive sound.
"Six bells," the Captain said. "I must dress for dinner. Before I start you potato-peeling, I should like to clear up that little discussion of ours about Free Will. One or two things you said interested me."
He paced the bridge for a minute, thinking hard.
"I'll test your sincerity," he said. "To-night you can bunk in the chart-room. I'll have some dinner sent up to you. I wish you would write me an essay of, say, two thousand words on the subject of Necessity."
For a moment Gissing pondered whether it would not be better to be put in irons and rationed with bread and water. The wind was freshening, and the Pomerania's sharp bow slid heavily into broad hills of sea, crashing them into crumbling rollers of suds which fell outward and hissed along her steep sides. The silent Mr. Pointer escorted him into the chart-room, a bare, businesslike place with a large table, a map-cabinet, and a settee. Here, presently, a steward appeared with excellent viands, and a pen, ink, and notepaper. After a cautious meal, Gissing felt more comfortable. There is something about a wet, windy evening at sea that turns the mind naturally toward metaphysics. He pushed away the dishes and began to write.
Later in the evening the Captain reappeared. He looked pleased when he saw a number of sheets already covered with script.
"Rum lot of passengers this trip," he said. "I don't seem to see any who look interesting. All Big Business and that sort of thing. I must say it's nice to have someone who can talk about books, and so on, once in a while."
Gissing realized that sometimes a shipmaster's life must be a lonely one. The weight of responsibility is always upon him; etiquette prevents his becoming familiar with his officers; small wonder if he pines occasionally for a little congenial talk to relieve his mind.
"Big Business, did you say?" Gissing remarked. "Ah, I could write you quite an essay about that. I used to be General Manager of Beagle and Company."
"Come into my cabin and have a liqueur," said the skipper. "Let the essay go until to-morrow."
The Captain turned on the electric stove in his cabin, for the night was cold. It was a snug sanctum: at the portholes were little chintz curtains; over the bunk was a convenient reading lamp. On the wall a brass pendulum swung slowly, registering the roll of the ship. The ruddy shine of the stove lit up the orderly desk and the photographs of the Captain's family.
"Yours?" said Gissing, looking at a group of three puppies with droll Scottish faces. "Aye," said the Captain.
"I've three of my own," said Gissing, with a private pang of homesickness. The skipper's cosy quarters were the most truly domestic he had seen since the evening he first fled from responsibility.
Captain Scottie was surprised. Certainly this eccentric stranger in the badly damaged wedding garments had not given the impression of a family head. Just then the steward entered with a decanter of Benedictine and small glasses.
"Brew days and bonny!" said the Captain, raising his crystal.
"Secure amidst perils!" replied Gissing courteously. It was the phrase engraved upon the ship's notepaper, on which he had been writing, and it had impressed itself on his mind.
"You said you had been a General Manager."
Gissing told, with some vivacity, of his experiences in the world of trade. The Captain poured another small liqueur.
"They're fine halesome liquor," he said.
"Sincerely yours," said Gissing, nodding over the glass. He was beginning to feel quite at home in the navigating quarters of the ship, and hoped the potato-peeling might be postponed as long as possible.
"How far had you got in your essay?" asked the Captain.
"Not very far, I fear. I was beginning by laying down a few psychological fundamentals."
"Excellent! Will you read it to me?"
Gissing went to get his manuscript, and read it aloud. The Captain listened attentively, puffing clouds of smoke.
"I am sorry this is such a short voyage," he said when Gissing finished. "You have approached the matter from an entirely naif and instinctive standpoint, and it will take some time to show you your errors. Before I demolish your arguments I should like to turn them over in my mind. I will reduce my ideas to writing and then read them to you."
"I should like nothing better," said Gissing. "And I can think over the subject more carefully while I peel the potatoes."
"Nonsense," said the Captain. "I do not often get a chance to discuss theology. I will tell you my idea. You spoke of your experience as General Manager, when you had charge of a thousand employees. One of the things we need on this ship is a staff-captain, to take over the management of the personnel. That would permit me to concentrate entirely on navigation. In a vessel of this size it is wrong that the master should have to carry the entire responsibility."
He rang for the steward.
"My compliments to Mr. Pointer, and tell him to come here."
Mr. Pointer appeared shortly in oilskins, saluted, and gazed fixedly at his superior, with one foot raised upon the brass door-sill.
"Mr. Pointer," said Captain Scottie, "I have appointed Captain Gissing staff-captain. Take orders from him as you would from me. He will have complete charge of the ship's discipline."
"Aye, aye, sir," said Mr. Pointer, stood a moment intently to see if there were further orders, saluted again, and withdrew.
"Now you had better turn in," said the skipper. "Of course you must wear uniform. I'll send the tailor up to you at once. He can remodel one of my suits overnight. The trousers will have to be lengthened."
On the chart-room sofa, Gissing dozed and waked and dozed again. On the bridge near by he heard the steady tread of feet, the mysterious words of the officer on watch passing the course to his relief. Bells rang with sharp double clang. Through the open port he could hear the alternate boom and hiss of the sea under the bows. With the stately lift and lean of the ship there mingled a faint driving vibration.