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If I had cared to live, I would have died.
A storm had come up. While not sick, I found my bunk the most comfortable place, leaving it only to take my meals. Dozing after supper, I learned of disaster when a wave bashed in the door of my deck cabin. The backwash sluiced me out of it and stranded me by a stowage locker.
While I was still trying to figure out what was going on I caught a glimpse of men trying to lower boats. The ship was low in the water, although through oversight or indifference nobody had given me warning--any more than I would have bothered to take the trouble for them. At that I was first over the side; for before I could get purchase anywhere a following wave put me there.
As I swirled to leeward, I saw one lifeboat smashed. The next chance I had to look, the ship was going down by the nose. I was then far enough off to be free of the suction. It is my belief that all other hands, feet, heads, and connecting torsos were dragged bottomwards along with every bolt of the craft.
Whether the Naglfar smashed on a reef, broke its back in the waves, hit a stray mine, or suffered loss of atomic union is something I never knew. Where it foundered is anybody's guess. There had been a fog for three days, so no bearings for a similar period. The radio failed to function, and a skipper trained to lean on such a gadget was small shakes at dead reckoning. On the fourth day the fog cleared; but the sky did not, and the wind came up. It blew the Naglfar no good, and somewhere, nine days out of Baltimore, down she went.
Once again: if I had cared to live, I would have died. I would have used myself upfleeing what could not be fled. Panic at being in a sea without a visible shore would have bound my muscles and broken the rhythm of my breathing. Not far from where the ship had vanished, I too would have filled with water that stopped my fires.
As it was, I floundered for just the first minute or so. Then I did what I could, aware that it would not be enough. The seas were high, but negotiable for anyone willing to go the way the waves did. These roughed me as they came up behind, but I could rest when they got their grip and carried me along. It was simpler to keep going than to stop and drown, though that was bound to happen at the end of a mile or so. I was a fair swimmer only.
I recall thinking that I was stroking toward either the end of all life or the beginning of a new one. Neither possibility stirred me. Every man knows he will die, and nobody believes it. On that paradox stand not only a host of religions but the entity of sane being. I wasn't able to credit my own non-existence any better than the next man; what I had lost was a healthy abhorrence of the state. It had not dropped from me because of any particular shock or misfortune. It had moulted from me year by year, for all of my thirty-five, to leave me naked in apathy.
When I first saw the chunk of mast I thought it was a shark. The next time I rode high I saw better what it was, and that broke me down. I had been resigned to no hope. More than that, I had achieved indifference to the lack. But seeing something which could help me was more than my loneliness could bear. I nearly scuttled myself, tightening up and beating the water instead of stroking cleanly.
It was three combers ahead when I first saw it, then only two. Next I topped three waves without finding it, shipping water on the third as I became sure that I had only seen a fish after all. I was in the act of fighting to regain resignation, when I found myself sliding down a trough directly toward the thing.
There was a man clinging to it, but my mind had no time for him. That piece of wood, my hope and my haven, was rising up again, and I felt that I could not survive the tussle with another wave. With almost the last motion of which I was capable, I reached out and threw my arm over it.
It might soon have been wrenched away from me, spent as I was, had there been no one to help. While I feebly clung to the slippery wood, the man I had noticed was busy. Certain ropes trailed from the spar, and he looped one of these under my shoulders. When he had made the free end fast, I could ride in the sling so formed, with no immediate problem except to keep from being battered by the mast as the water tossed it and me about.
I had managed a grunt of relief, which he could take for thanks if he wanted to, but the fellow said nothing until he had reestablished himself on the other side of our buoy. "You must be as fond of swimming as the Great Silkie himself."
Without knowing what he was talking about, I could grasp that he spoke banteringly. Unfit to answer in kind, I peered at him through a veil of spindrift. His hair, long for a man, lay on his head and clung around his lean face like tawny seaweed. When the spray thinned, I observed that the big features were jauntily at odds with one another. The eyes were either gray or blue. It was hard to tell that late in the day under a cloudy sky.
I tried to say something less obvious, but my brain was geared only for facts. "The ship I was on sank, so I had to swim."
He nodded. "The one I was on ran afoul of the Maelstrom, but I dove for this spar and didn't get sucked down with the rest: It's a cylinder, you see."
Again I did not follow him. With a shrug I gazed skyward, trying to calculate how much daylight remained. As well as I could judge, it was just before or just after the late sunset of that season. Then I put the inevitable question.
"Do you know whether or not we're drifting toward shore; or if there is any shore near enough to count?"
"Somewhere off the Commonwealth is the best I can tell you. This is my second day as flotsam, and I've yet to see any landmarks." He lifted a hand from the mast in a deprecatory gesture. "I speak figuratively."
It made no difference to me how he spoke, or what he called the country I would probably never live to put my feet on. Having recovered from the panic brought on by my efforts to reach the spar, I could view things reasonably. The chances were that all I had achieved was to prolong my misery. Rescue could not be hoped for in the sense that it could be expected. If we did not die of exposure or shark bite, we would perish of hunger and thirst.
"Even if we're heading in the proper direction now," I reminded him, "we can't count on the wind to stick by us. Land had better be close to do us any good."
"I was beginning to think it wouldn't be close enough," he admitted. "But now that you've come along I feel it in my bones that we're getting somewhere. It ties things together in right Delian fashion."
Half wishing I had been left to drown in my own fashion, I wondered at his heartiness. Whatever was right, I was not. It had been a long while since I had taken pleasure in my own being; and I didn't expect anybody else to be glad of my company, even under favorable circumstances. I stared at him.
"You're pretty chipper for a man that's been in the soup for a couple of days. Doesn't it bother you?"
"Oh, I've felt better," he said, "but you get used to this sort of thing after just so many times. By the way, what's your name?" It seemed ridiculous to be concerned with amenities then. Moreover, it always irritated me to have to report my first and second names, even though I hid the worse one behind an initial.
"Shandon, A. Clarence Shandon," I growled. "Or at least I'll go by that for the next day or two. After that just call me fish food."
"Three names," he commented. "Very fancy." He was silent for a moment, evidently waiting for me to ask how he was called. When I didn't, he spoke. "I've got my share of names, too, though I don't commonly assemble them. If I did, I'd be O. Widsith Amergin Demodocus.... And let's see; there are others, of course, but to cut it short I'll wind up with Boyan Taliesin Golias."
He looked at me as if he expected to be known. "Not too well informed," he murmured to himself when he drew a blank. Then he spoke louder. "Where are you from?"
"Chicago." I hadn't liked his crack about my ignorance. "It's in the United States," I added by way of being nasty.
"Probably a good place for it," he conceded. "A seaport, I take it."
Unreasonably, I was annoyed because he had never heard of my home town, or possibly even of my native country. I couldn't be sure. "I found a railroad conductor who knew his way to a seaport," I informed him. Abruptly I snickered. "I took one of these tramp steamer cruises to get away from it all, Mr. Golias. By jiminy, I succeeded, too!"
"All what?" he enquired. I looked to see if he was pulling my leg, but he really seemed interested. "Someone hunting you?"
"No," I repudiated the notion. "Just nerves, I guess." Yet a far worse thing than an attack of nerves had come upon me. I had reached the point where trouble was less of an affliction than the burden of common living. Only the healthy of hope can abide tranquility.
A wave broke over our heads, but it did not cause him to lose the trend of our conversation. "Nerves," he mused when he had snorted the water out of his nose. "Dull stuff. You won't have much time for those sham battles in the Commonwealth."
"A place I never heard of," I pointed out, glad to be able to match him for his ignorance about my own country.
"Then that's what's the matter with you."
Considering what was the matter with me not his concern, I was nettled. "My, my, what local pride! There are no other places of real importance."
He fended off my sarcasm with a smile. "There are, now that you mention it. Nonetheless, we had a saying at the Academy that after you had been to the Commonwealth it was unimportant where you went, whereas before you visited it, it was useless to go anywhere."
It was not often that I found it worthwhile to flaunt the old college colors; but in view of his know-it-all attitude I decided not only to bring them out but to stuff them down his throat "Typical prep-school hogwash," I sneered. "The kids in every academy are taught their school has a site indicated by the finger of God. Forget that stuff. If you'd gone on to the university, you'd have picked up an outlook with more than one peep-hole." Instead of being crushed, he looked astonished. "Are you a university man?"
"Oh, yes," I said, changing my tone from the pointed to the casual. "Somewhere under the old hats, dry flies, and dead tennis balls on the top shelf of a certain closet in Chicago you'll find a sheepskin swearing that the U. of Wisconsin gave me a degree in Business Administration."
From the way he looked I might as well have poked him in the solar plexus. Next he worked his mouth over the words "business administration" several times. "Are you serious?" he finally demanded.
"Of course!" I tried to glare at him but some water got in my eyes. "As a matter of fact I was one of the top--"
It could have been only the cry of a sea bird, yet it was enough like a human voice to stop me in mid-sentence. Then it was unmistakable. "The whale, the whale! Up helm, up helm!"
Climbing a comber, I kept my eyes fixed in the direction of that shriek, telling at once of wild actions and tiger terror. Reaching the crest, I saw a ship a short ways off, also riding high in the ocean. A stubby sailing vessel it was, black and ungainly against the darkening horizon. Under the circumstances, we might never have been able to see it at all; but a rift in the pall let the afterglow through to pick the ship out of the dusk. For an instant we could see the sails flapping as men tugged on ropes, then we glided down into a watery hollow.
That shaft of light had faded but still limned the ship when we made the next ascent. The vessel was changing its course, and as the bow swung out of the way I could see what the shout had portended. A monstrous whale was charging the craft, a froth of water, like the slaver of a mad dog, trailing from its partly open mouth. It must have been the wan light which created the illusion, but the beast looked white.
Down and up again. Only a minute separated me from the knowledge of whether the ship had avoided the assault, but it was a hundred times too long. The light was still dimmer, yet I saw. The hunted vessel had been too slow. Just as my eyes focused on what they sought, the monster struck the starboard bow head on and stove in the planking.
Neither whale nor sail was in sight when we next mounted a wave. I thought, however, I could see an arm stretching toward the skies in entreaty or defiance. Then, even as I gazed, the light ceased to be.
The impact of the tableau had so stunned my feelings that I had no prompt reaction. I had forgotten Golias, but he had evidently been watching as intently as I. After a second I heard him give a long whistle.
"Consummate," he remarked. "Well, that settles it."
"It couldn't be any more settled," I muttered. "Do you think any of those poor devils are still living to float around like us?"
"Maybe one," he replied. "It's the usual number. But that isn't what I was talking about. We haven't been washed out of our course. We're in the right waters."
I had forgotten that I had been on the verge of quarreling with him. Now that I had time to absorb it, the vision of the disaster I had just witnessed haunted me. In combination with the deepening darkness it magnified the loneliness of our hopeless drifting. Never having looked upon the face of perdition before, I had the unbearable sense of falling and found myself hugging the mast tightly.
At the same time I knew the men who went down right away to be the lucky ones. They would not have to look forward, as I did, to exposure, privation, and madness. In a moment of prescience I could see myself, witless and poisoned from drinking salt water, raving while sea gulls pecked out my eyes. I wished that I had the courage to start swimming again to meet death on better terms, but that renunciation was beyond me. I clung to my refuge, knowing that it was none at all, and scorned myself for accepting the cheat.
For my companion's optimism I had only pity mixed with wonder that anyone could so fool himself. "And what," I asked, "would happen if we were swept out of our so-called course?"
"I don't know what would happen to you," he confessed. "After we had drowned, that is. I'd have to start from scratch again somewhere. But we're all right."
"You're easily pleased," I said, although keeping the derision which belonged to the words out of my tone. By then I was sure that my companion was either out of his head or had a mind with loose parts to begin with. Because of this conviction I smothered his attempts at further discussion.
It seemed to me the crowning absurdity of a pointless life that I should spend my last hours tied, to all intents and purposes, to a delirious crackpot. I was pleased when it shortly became so dark that his face lost its features. About then he gave up trying to be sociable, leaving me to brood on my desolation.
Even before I became chilled through, it was thoroughgoing. Utter darkness crowded to within a few yards of me. There was no sky above the opaque water. In this bleak fold in the elements I had my being all that night. Misery stayed with me, but consecutive thinking was unable to hold up. Finally I began to drowse, waking only when my head fell forward to hit the mast, or lolled back so that I scooped up a noseful. I can't say how long I was in that purgatory, but at length I emerged from sleep enough to regain control of myself. By then the sky was beginning to lighten.
Golias must have been going through a similar torture, and for the second night. Yet his eyes still had vitality in them, in contrast to the rest of his face, which looked as if all the blood had been washed out of his veins. "We're not far from land," he said hoarsely.
"Not more than a mile, though that's just a guess." I found that my voice didn't work well either. "I haven't taken soundings."
"No. Land to walk on," he insisted. "When that breeze hit us a moment ago--maybe you haven't noticed, but what's left of the wind has swung around--I could smell earth."
The thought that this quarter-wit was trying to push straws at me stirred me to peevishness. "Did it smell like the Commonwealth?"
He grinned, making his face more ghastly than ever. "You're not going to let anybody talk you out of dying, are you?"
I disdained to answer, but he had already done his worst. As each wave picked us up and pushed us forward, I found myself staring ahead. Visibility increased, but a stretch of skyline directly in our course did not clear. Glancing at Golias, I found that he was studying the phenomenon also. Behind us the clearing sky reddened, but the mysterious lump on the horizon did not go away.
My companion drew a huge sigh and turned to me. "I was sure," he said, "but it helps a lot to see it. You're not going to be fish food after all, A. Clarence Shandon."
"Just Shandon will do," I snapped. My mind had reached a puerile state when it hated to be proved wrong, no matter on what score. "We aren't there yet," I pointed out. "We'll probably be swept past it or dashed against the rocks."
"There are sometimes rocks," he admitted, "and I'm in no shape to do much swimming. Well, let's see if we can find out what we're up against." After saying that, and as promptly as if it had something to do with the case, he startled me by beginning to chant a sort of mad plain song:
I invoke the Commonwealth!
I know what was in Othroerir;
Othroerir was in it,
In it, it was hoarded,
Hoarded, it was stolen,
Stolen, it was spilled,
Spilled, I caught it;
Caught, it was given away,
Given away, it stays my own,
My own is the Commonwealth.
I invoke it!
The land may not be hidden from its lover.
As if some cosmic hand was taking off the lid, a bank of mist then lifted to show a bank of greenery. It was not very far off, and we were being impelled directly toward it.
"We're in the Archipelago," Golias said when we had washed a little nearer.
By then I had made the adjustment to take the fact of solid earth for granted. Yet I was so exhausted that the realization hardly dented my emotions. I stared at the land, which looked pleasant enough, although uninhabited.
"You need more than one island for that," I objected.
"There are at least two right in the offing." He pointed, and I realized that a bank of mist adjacent to what he insisted was an island had stayed put. "There's one or more tucked away in that fog, which is probably of the natural sort."
"Sure," I said, not thinking it worth while to challenge the observation. "Got any idea which one this island in front of us is?"
"I could better tell you which ones it is not." His head was turned away from me, but I could see him shake it. "From the way things are shaping up this could be P'eng Lai, Emne, or--oh, any one of a dozen others."
"Well, if you don't recognize it," I protested, "how the devil are you so sure it's an island at all? It might just as well be a cape."
"For one thing, it doesn't look like we're going to have any trouble landing," he told me. "There's usually somebody waiting to take a swing at you when you hit the mainland. Or if it isn't that, it's something else. Once when I thought I had it made, the ship cracked up just where a river ploughed through the ocean as if it had the right of way. Of course, I was in better condition then or I never could have stemmed it."
We were close enough to see that there was indeed no obstacle to landing. Between us and a dense woods was a gently shelving beach. Barring an undertow, we had it cinched, and I freed myself from the rope which bound me to the spar.
We landed as deliberately as driftwood. My legs, as I found when I tried to put them down, would not support me, so I had to stay with the mast after all. Moderate breakers rolled us back and forth in the shallows until we reached a point where we could crawl. Then every time the water flowed seaward we gained a foot or two. Even on all fours I could hardly hold myself up. The effort made me dizzy, so that I could not see where I was going; but in time I felt dry sand.
"We've got to get out of the reach of high tide," Golias gasped, when I let myself fall on my face. "Out of the sun, too."
My physical strength was gone, and I had no other to call upon. It seemed to me that I had made a reasonable effort. More than that was not worth while. If quitting cost me my life, it would not be costing me much that I valued.
"Go ahead," I mumbled. "I'm comfortable right here."
It angered me to be tugged at, but I was too weak to struggle with him. How he managed it is a mystery. I knew him to be worn out. Yet somehow he dragged me a few yards, while I helplessly cursed him. When he finally let me alone, I slept.