Chapter Fifteen
 

And so the voyage went on. Gissing was quite content to do a two-hour trick at the wheel both morning and afternoon, and worked out some new principles of steering which gave him pleasure. In the first place, he noticed that the shuffle-board and quoit players, on the boat deck aft, were occasionally annoyed by cinders from the stacks, so he made it a general plan to steer so that the smoke blew at right angles to the ship's course. As the wind was prevailingly west, this meant that his general trend was southerly. Whenever he saw another vessel, a mass of floating sea-weed, a porpoise, or even a sea-gull, he steered directly for it, and passed as close as possible, to have a good look at it. Even Mr. Pointer admitted (in the mates' mess) that he had never experienced so eventful a voyage. To keep the quartermasters from being idle, Gissing had them knit him a rope hammock to be slung in the chart-room. He felt that this would be more nautical than a plush settee.

There was a marvellous sense of power in standing at the wheel and feeling the great hull reply to his touch. Occasionally Captain Scottie would emerge from his cabin, look round with a faint surprise, and come to the bridge to see what was happening. Mr. Pointer would salute mutely, and continue to study the skyline with indignant absorption. The Captain would approach the wheel, where Gissing was deep in thought. Rubbing his hands, the Captain would say heartily, "Well, I think I've got it all clear now."

Gissing sighed.

"What is it?" the Captain inquired anxiously.

"I'm bothered about the subconscious. They tell us nowadays that it's the subconscious mind that is really important. The more mental operations we can turn over to the subconscious realm, the happier we will be, and the more efficient. Morality, theology, and everything really worth while, as I understand it, spring from the subconscious."

The Captain's look of cheer would vanish.

"Maybe there's something in that."

"If so," Gissing continued, "then perhaps consciousness is entirely spurious. It seems to me that before we can get anywhere at all, we've got to draw the line between the conscious and the subconscious. What bothers me is, am I conscious of having a subconscious, or not? Sometimes I think I am, and then again I'm doubtful. But if I'm aware of my subconscious, then it isn't a genuine subconscious, and the whole thing's just another delusion--"

The Captain would knit his weather-beaten brow and again retire anxiously to his quarters, after begging Gissing to be generous and carry on a while longer. Occasionally, pacing the starboard bridge-deck, sacred to captains, Gissing would glance through the port and see the metaphysical commander bent over sheets of foolscap and thickly wreathed in pipe-smoke.

He himself had fallen into a kind of tranced felicity, in which these questions no longer had other than an ingenious interest. His heart was drowned in the engulfing blue. As they made their southing, wind and weather seemed to fall astern, the sun poured with a more golden candour. He stood at the wheel in a tranquil reverie, blithely steering toward some bright belly of cloud that had caught his fancy. Mr. Pointer shook his head when he glanced surreptitiously at the steering recorder, a device that noted graphically every movement of the rudder with a view to promoting economical helmsmanship. Indeed Gissing's course, as logged on the chart, surprised even himself, so that he forbade the officers taking their noon observations. When Mr. Pointer said something about isobars, the staff-captain replied serenely that he did not expect to find any polar bears in these latitudes.

He had hoped privately for an occasional pirate, and scanned the sea-rim sharply for suspicious topsails. But the ocean, as he remarked, is not crowded. They proceeded, day after day, in a solitary wideness of unblemished colour. The ship, travelling always in the centre of this infinite disk, seemed strangely identified with his own itinerant spirit, watchful at the gist of things, alert at the point which was necessarily, for him, the nub of all existence. He wandered about the pomerania~s sagely ordered passages and found her more and more magical. She went on and on, with some strange urgent vitality of her own. Through the fiddleys on the boat deck came a hot oily breath and the steady drumming of her burning heart. From outer to hawse-hole, from shaft-tunnel to crow's-nest, he explored and loved her. In the whole of her proud, faithful, obedient fabric he divined honour and exultation. Poised upon uncertainty, she was sure. The camber of her white-scrubbed decks, the long, clean sheer of her hull, the concave flare of her bows--what was the amazing joy and rightness of these things? And yet the grotesque passengers regarded her only as a vehicle, to carry them sedatively to some clamouring dock. Fools! She was more lovely than anything they would ever see again! He yearned to drive her endlessly toward that unreachable perimeter of sky.

On land there had been definite horizons, even if disappointing when reached and examined; but here there was no horizon at all. Every hour it slid and slid over the dark orb of sea. He lost count of time. The tremulous cradling of the Pomerania, steadily climbing the long leagues; her noble forecastle solemnly lifting against heaven, then descending with grave beauty into a spread of foaming beryl and snowdrift, seemed one with the rhythm of his pulse and heart. Perhaps there had been more than mere ingenuity in his last riddle for the theological skipper. Truly the subconscious had usurped him. Here he was almost happy, for he was almost unaware of life. It was all blue vacancy and suspension. The sea is the great answer and consoler, for it means either nothing or everything, and so need not tease the brain.

But the passengers, though unobservant, began to murmur; especially those who had wagered that the Pomerania would dock on the eighth day. The world itself, they complained, was created in seven days, and why should so fine a ship take longer to cross a comparatively small ocean? Urbanely, over coffee and petite fours, Gissing argued with them. They were well on their way, he protested; and then, as a hypothetical case, he asked why one destination was more worth visiting than another? He even quoted Shakespeare on this point--something about "ports and happy havens"--and succeeded in turning the tide of conversation for a while. The mention of Shakespeare suggested to some of the ladies that it would be pleasant, now they all knew each other so well, to put on some amateur theatricals. They compromised by playing charades in the saloon. Another evening Gissing kept them amused by fireworks, which were very lovely against the dark sky. For this purpose he used the emergency rockets, star-shells and coloured flares, much to the distress of Dane, the quartermaster, who had charge of these supplies.

Little by little, however, the querulous protests of the passengers began to weary him. Also, he had been receiving terse memoranda from the Chief Engineer that the coal was getting low in the bunkers and that something must be queer in the navigating department. This seemed very unreasonable. The fixed gaze of Mr. Pointer, perpetually examining the horizon as though he wanted to make sure he would recognize it if they met again, was trying. Even Captain Scottie complained one day that the supply of fresh meat had given out and that the steward had been bringing him tinned beef. Gissing determined upon resolute measures.

He had notice served that on account of possible danger from pirates there would be a general boat drill on the following day- -not merely for the crew, but for everyone. He gave a little talk about it in the saloon after dinner, and worked his audience up to quite a pitch of enthusiasm. This would be better than any amateur theatricals, he insisted. Everyone was to act exactly as though in a sudden calamity. They might make up the boat-parties on the basis of congeniality if they wished; five minutes would be given for reaching the stations, without panic or disorder. They should prepare themselves as though they were actually going to leave a sinking ship.

The passengers were delighted with the idea of this novel entertainment. Every soul on board-- with the exception of Captain Scottie, who had locked himself in and refused to be disturbed--was properly advertised of the event.

The following day, fortunately, was clear and calm. At noon Gissing blew the syren, fired a rocket from the bridge, and swung the engine telegraph to STOP. The ship's orchestra, by his orders, struck up a rollicking air. Quickly and without confusion, amid cries of Women and children first! the passengers filed to their allotted places. The crew and officers were all at their stations.

Gissing knocked at Captain Scottie's cabin.

"We are taking to the boats," he said.

"Goad!" cried the skipper. "Wull it be a colleesion?"

"All's clear and the davits are outboard," said Gissing. He had been studying the manual of boat handling in one of the nautical volumes in the chart-room.

"Auld Hornie!" ejaculated the skipper. "we'll no can salve the specie! Make note of her poseetion, Mr. Gissing!" He hastened to gather his papers, the log, a chronometer, and a large canister of tobacco.

"The Deil's intil't," he said as he hastened to his boat. "I had yon pragmateesm of yours on a lee shore. Two-three hours, I'd have careened ye."

Gissing was ready with his megaphone. From the wing of the bridge he gave the orders.

"Lower away!" and the boats dropped to the passenger rail.

"Avast lowering!" Each boat took in her roster of passengers, who were in high spirits at this unusual excitement.

"Mind your painters! Lower handsomely!"

The boats took the water in orderly fashion, and were cast off. Remaining members of the crew swarmed down the falls. The bandsmen had a boat to themselves, and resumed their tune as soon as they were settled.

Gissing, left alone on the ship, waved for silence.

"Look sharp, man!" cried Captain Scottie. "Honour's satisfied! Take your place in the boat!"

The passengers applauded, and there was quite a clatter of camera shutters as they snapped the Pomerania looming grandly above them.

"Boats are all provisioned and equipped," shouted Gissing. "I've broadcasted your position by radio. The barometer's at Fixed Fair. Pull off now, and 'ware the screw."

He moved the telegraph handle to DEAD SLOW, and the Pomerania began to slip forward gently. The boats dropped aft amid a loud miscellaneous outcry. Mr. Pointer was already examining the horizon. Captain Scottie, awakened to the situation, was uttering the language of theology but not the purport.

"Don't stand up in the boats," megaphoned Gissing. "You're quite all right, there's a ship on the way already. I wirelessed last night."

He slid the telegraph to slow, half, and then full. Once more the ship creamed through the lifting purple swells. The little flock of boats was soon out of sight.

Alone at the wheel, he realized that a great weight was off his mind. The responsibility of his position had burdened him more than he knew. Now a strange eagerness and joy possessed him. His bubbling wake cut straight and milky across the glittering afternoon. In a ruddy sunset glow, the sea darkened through all tints of violet, amethyst, indigo. The horizon line sharpened so clearly that he could distinguish the tossing profile of waves wetting the sky. "A red sky at night is the sailor's delight," he said to himself. He switched on the port and starboard lights and the masthead lanterns, then lashed the wheel while he went below for supper. He did not know exactly where he was, for he seemed to have steamed clean off the chart; but as he conned the helm that evening, and leaned over the lighted binnacle, he had a feeling that he was not far from some destiny. With cheerful assurance he lashed the wheel again, and turned in. He woke once in the night, and leaped from the hammock with a start. He thought he had heard a sound of barking.