Power of the Sword
The fog smothered the ocean, muting all colour and sound. It undulated and seethed as the first eddy of the morning breeze washed in towards the land. The trawler lay in the fog three miles offshore on the edge of the current line, where the vast upwellings from the oceanic depths, rich in life-bringing plankton, met the gentle inshore waters in a line of darker green.
Lothar De La Rey stood in the wheelhouse and leaned on the spoked wooden wheel as he peered out into the fog. He loved these quiet charged minutes of waiting in the dawn. He could feel the electric tingle starting in his blood, the lust of the huntsman that had sustained him countless times before, an addiction as powerful as opium or strong spirits.
Casting back in his mind he remembered that soft pink dawn creeping stealthily over the Magersfontein Hills as he lay against the parapets of the trenches and waited for the lines of Highland infantry to come in out of the darkness, to march with kilts swinging and bonnet ribbons fluttering onto their waiting Mausers, and his skin prickled with gooseflesh at the memory.
There had been a hundred other dawns since then, waiting like this to go out against great game - shaggy maned Kalahari lion, scabby old buffalo with heads of armoured horn, sagacious grey elephant with wrinkled hides and precious teeth of long ivory, but now the game was smaller than any other and yet in its multitudes as vast as the ocean from which it came.
His train of thought was interrupted as the boy came down the open deck from the galley. He was barefoot andhis legs were long and brown and strong. He was almost as tall as a grown man, so he was forced to stoop through the wheelhouse door balancing a steaming tin mug of coffee in each hand.
'Sugar?' Lothar asked.
'Four spoons, Pa.' The boy grinned back at him.
The fog had condensed in dew droplets on his long eyelashes, and he blinked them away like a sleepy cat. Though his curling blond head was bleached to streaks of platinum by the sun, his eyebrows and lashes were dense and black; they framed and emphasized his amber-coloured eyes.
'Wild fish today.' Lothar crossed the fingers of his right hand in his trouser pocket to ward off the ill luck of having said it aloud. 'We need it,' he thought. 'To survive we need good wild fish.'
Five years previously he had succumbed once more to the call of the hunter's horn, to the lure of the chase and the wilds. He had sold out the prosperous road and railway construction company which he had painstakingly built up, taken everything he could borrow and gambled it all.
He had known the limitless treasures that the cold green waters of the Benguela Current hid. He had glimpsed them first during those chaotic final days of the Great War when he was making his last stand against the hated English and their traitorous puppet Jan Smuts at the head of his army of the Union of South Africa.
From a secret supply base among the tall desert dunes that flanked the South Atlantic, Lothar had refuelled and armed the German U-boats that were scourging the British mercantile fleets, and while he waited out those dreary days at the edge of the ocean for the submarines to come, he had seen the very ocean moved by its own limitless bounty. It was there merely for the taking, and in the years that followed that ignoble peace at Versailles he made his plans while he laboured in the dust and the heat, blasting andcleaving the mountain passes or driving his roads straight across the shimmering plains. He had saved and planned and schemed for this taking.
The boats he had found in Portugal, sardine trawlers, neglected and rotten. There he had found Da Silva also, old and wise in the ways of the sea. Between them they had repaired and re-equipped the four ancient trawlers and then with skeleton crews had sailed them southwards down the length of the African continent.
The canning factory he had found in California, sited there to exploit the tuna shoals by a company which had overestimated their abundance and underestimated the costs of catching these elusive unpredictable 'chicken of the sea'. Lothar had purchased the factory for a small fraction of its original cost and shipped it out to Africa in its entirety. He had re-erected it on the compacted desert sands alongside the ruined and abandoned whaling station which had given the desolate bay its name of Walvis Bay.
For the first three seasons he and old Da Silva had found wild fish, and they had reaped the endless shoals until Lothar had paid off the loans that had fettered him. He had immediately ordered new boats to replace the decrepit Portuguese trawlers which had reached the end of their useful lives, and in so doing had plunged himself more deeply into debt than he had been at the outset of the venture.
Then the fish had gone. For no reason that they could divine, the huge shoals of pilchards had disappeared, only tiny scattered pockets remaining. While they searched futilely, running out to sea a hundred miles and more, scouring the long desert coastline far beyond economic range from the canning factory, the months marched past remorselessly, each one bringing a note for accrued interest that Lothar could not meet, and the running costs of factory and boats piled up so that he had to plead and beg for further loans.
Two years with no fish. Then dramatically, just when Lothar knew himself beaten, there had been some subtle shift in the ocean current or a change in the prevailing wind and the fish had returned, good wild fish, rising thick as new grass in each dawn.
'Let it last,' Lothar prayed silently, as he stared out into the fog. 'Please God, let it last.' Another three months, that was all he needed, just another three short months and he would pay it off and be free again.
'She's lifting,' the boy said, and Lothar blinked and shook his head slightly, returning from his memories.
The fog was opening like a theatre curtain, and the scene it revealed was melodramatic and stagey, seemingly too riotously coloured to be natural as the dawn fumed and glowed like a display of fireworks, orange and gold and green where it sparkled on the ocean, turning the twisting columns of fog the colour of blood and roses so that the very waters seemed to burn with unearthly fires. The silence enhanced the magical show, a silence heavy and lucid as crystal so that it seemed they had been struck deaf, as though all their other senses had been taken from them and concentrated in their vision as they stared in wonder.
Then the sun struck through, a brilliant beam of solid golden light through the roof of the fogbank. It played across the surface, so that the current line was starkly lit. The inshore water was smudged with cloudy blue, as calm and smooth as oil. The line where it met the upwelling of the true oceanic current was straight and sharp as the edge of a knifeblade, and beyond it the surface was dark and ruffled as green velvet stroked against the pile.
'Dam spring hy!' Da Silva yelled from the foredeck, pointed out to the line of dark water 'There he jumps!'
As the low sun struck the water a single fish jumped. It was just a little longer than a man's hand, a tiny sliver of burnished silver.
'Start up!' Lothar's voice was husky with excitement,and the boy flung his mug onto the chart-table, the last few drops of coffee splashing, and dived down the ladderway to the engine-room below.
Lothar flipped on the switches and set the throttle as below him the boy stooped to the crankhandle.
'Swing it!' Lothar shouted down and the boy braced himself and heaved against the compression of all four cylinders. He was not quite thirteen years old but already he was almost as strong as a man, and there was bulging muscle in his back as he worked.
'Now!' Lothar closed the valves, and the engine, still warm from the run out from the harbour, fired and caught and roared. There was a belch of oily black smoke from the exhaust port in the side of the hull and then she settled to a regular beat.
The boy scrambled up the ladder and shot out onto the deck, racing up into the bows beside Da Silva.
Lothar swung the bows over and they ran down on the current line. The fog blew away, and they saw the other boats. They, too, had been lying quietly in the fogbank, waiting for the first rays of the sun, but now they were running down eagerly on the current line, their wakes cutting long rippling Vs across the placid surface and the bow waves creaming and flashing in the new sunlight. Along each rail the crews craned out to peer ahead, and the jabber of their excited voices carried above the beat of the engines.
From the glassed wheelhouse Lothar had an all-round view over the working areas of the fifty-foot trawler and he made one final check of the preparations. The long net was laid out down the starboard rail, the corkline coiled into meticulous spirals. The dry weight of the net was seven and a half tons, wet it would weigh many times heavier. It was five hundred feet long and in the water hung down from the cork floats like a gauzy curtain seventy feet deep. It had cost Lothar over five thousand pounds, more money thanan ordinary fisherman would earn in twenty years of unremitting toil, and each of his other three boats was so equipped. From the stern, secured by a heavy painter, each trawler towed its 'bucky', an eighteen-foot-long clinker-built dinghy.
With one long hard glance, Lothar satisfied himself that all was ready for the throw, and then looked ahead just as another fish jumped. This time it was so close that he could see the dark lateral lines along its gleaming flank, and the colour difference - ethereal green above the line and hard gleaming silver below. Then it plopped back, leaving a dark dimple on the surface.
As though it was a signal, instantly the ocean came alive. The waters turned dark as though suddenly shaded by heavy cloud, but this could was from below, rising up from the depths, and the waters roiled as though a monster moved beneath them.
'Wild fish!' screamed Da Silva, turning his weathered and creased brown face back over his shoulder towards Lothar, and at the same time spreading his arms to take in the sweep of ocean which moved with fish.
A mile wide and so deep that its far edge was hidden in the lingering fogbanks, a single dark shoal lay before them. In all the years as a hunter, Lothar had never seen such an accumulation of life, such a multitude of a single species. Beside this the locusts that could curtain and block off the African noon sun and the flocks of tiny quelea birds whose combined weight broke the boughs from the great trees on which they roosted, were insignificant. Even the crews of the racing trawlers fell silent and stared in awe as the shoal broke the surface and the waters turned white and sparkled like a snow bank; countless millions of tiny scaly bodies caught the sunlight as they were lifted clear of the water by the press of an infinity of their own kind beneath them.
Da Silva was the first to rouse himself. He turned andran back down the deck, quick and agile as a youth, pausing only at the door of the wheelhouse. 'Maria, Mother of God, grant we still have a net when this day ends.'
It was a poignant warning and then the old man ran to the stern and scrambled over the gunwale into the trailing dinghy while at his example the rest of the crew roused themselves and hurried to their stations.
'Manfred!' Lothar called his son, and the boy who had stood mesmerized in the bows bobbed his head obediently and ran back to his father.
'Take the wheel.' It was an enormous responsibility for one so young, but Manfred had proved himself so many times before that Lothar felt no misgiving as he ducked out of the wheelhouse. In the bows he signalled without looking over his shoulder and he felt the deck cant beneath his feet as Manfred spun the wheel, following his father's signal to begin a wide circle around the shoal.
'So much fish,' Lothar whispered. As his eyes estimated distance and wind and current, old Da Silva's warning was in the forefront of his calculations: the trawler and its net could handle 150 tons of these nimble silver pilchards, with skill and luck perhaps 200 tons.
Before him lay a shoal of millions of tons of fish. An injudicious throw could fill the net with ten or twenty thousand tons whose weight and momentum could rip the mesh to tatters, might even tear the entire net loose, snapping the main cork line or pulling the bollards from the deck and dragging it down into the depths. Worse still, if the lines and bollards held, the trawler might be pulled over by the weight and capsize. Lothar might lose not only a valuable net but the boat and the lives of his crew and his son as well.
Involuntarily he glanced over his shoulder and Manfred grinned at him through the window of the wheelhouse, his face alight with excitement. With his dark amber eyesglowing and white teeth flashing, he was an image of his mother and Lothar felt a bitter pang before he turned back to work.
Those few moments of inattention had nearly undone Lothar. The trawler was rushing down on the shoal, within moments it would drive over the mass of fish and they would sound; the entire shoal, moving in that mysterious unison as though it were a single organism, would vanish back into the ocean depths. Sharply he signalled the turn away, and the boy responded instantly. The trawler spun on its heel and they bore down the edge of the shoal, keeping fifty feet off, waiting for the opportunity.
Another quick glance around showed Lothar that his other skippers were warily backing off also, daunted by the sheer mass of pilchards they were circling. Swart Hendrick glared across at him, a huge black bull of a man with his bald head shining like a cannonball in the early sunlight. Companion of war and a hundred desperate endeavours, like Lothar he had readily made the transition from land to sea and now was as skilled a fisherman as once he had been a hunter of ivory and of men. Lothar flashed him the underhand cut-out signal for 'caution' and 'danger' and Swart Hendrick laughed soundlessly and waved an acknowledgement.
Gracefully as dancers, the four boats weaved and pirouetted around the massive shoal as the last shreds of the fog dissolved and blew away on the light breeze. The sun cleared the horizon and the distant dunes of the desert glowed like bronze fresh from the forge, a dramatic backdrop to the developing hunt.
Still the massed fish held its compact formation, and Lothar was becoming desperate. They had been on the surface for over an hour now and that was longer than usual. At any moment they might sound and vanish, and not one of his boats had thrown a net. They were thwarted by abundance, beggars in the presence of limitless treasure,and Lothar felt a recklessness rising in him. He had waited too long already.
'Throw, and be damned!' he thought, and signalled Manfred in closer, narrowing his eyes against the glare as they turned into the sun.
Before he could commit himself to folly, he heard Da Silva whistle, and when he looked back the Portuguese was standing on the thwart of the dinghy and gesticulating wildly. Behind them the shoal was beginning to bulge. The solid circular mass was altering shape. Out of it grew a tentacle, a pimple, no, it was more the shape of a head on a thin neck as part of the shoal detached itself from the main body. This was what they had been waiting for.
'Manfred!' Lothar yelled and windmilled his right arm. The boy spun the wheel, and she came around and they went tearing back, aiming the bows at the neck of the shoal like the blade of an executioner's axe.
'Slow down!' Lothar flapped his hand and the trawler checked. Gently she nosed up to the narrow neck of the shoal. The water was so clear that Lothar could see the individual fish, each encapsuled in its rainbow of prismed sunlight, and beneath the dark green bulk of the rest of the shoal as dense as an iceberg.
Delicately Lothar and Manfred eased the trawler's bows into the living mass, the propeller barely turning so as not to alarm it and force it to sound. The narrow neck split before the bows, and the small pocket of fish that was the bulge detached itself. Like a sheepdog with its flock, Lothar worked them clear, backing and turning and easing ahead as Manfred followed his hand signals.
'Still too much!' Lothar muttered to himself. They had separated a minute portion of the shoal from the main body, but Lothar estimated it was still well over a thousand tons - even more depending on the depth of fish beneath that he could only guess at.
It was a risk, a high risk. From the corner of his eye hecould see Da Silva agitatedly signalling caution, and now he whistled, squeaking with agitation. The old man was afraid of this much fish and Lothar grinned; his yellow eyes narrowed and glittered like polished topaz as he signalled Manfred up to throwing speed and deliberately turned his back on the old man.
At five knots he checked Manfred and brought him around in a tight turn, forcing the pocket of fish to bunch up in the centre of the circle, and then as they came around the second time and the trawler passed downwind of the shoal, Lothar spun to face the stern and cupped both hands to his mouth.
'Los!' he bellowed. 'Throw her loose!'
The black Herero crewman standing on the stern flipped the slippery knot that held the painter of the dinghy and threw it overboard. The little wooden dinghy, with Da Silva clinging to the gunwale and still howling protests, fell away behind them, bobbing in their wake, and it pulled the end of the heavy brown net over the side with it.
As the trawler steamed in its circle about the shoal, the coarse brown mesh rasped and hissed out over the wooden rail, the cork line uncoiled like a python and streamed over-side, an umbilical cord between the trawler and the dinghy. Coming around across the wind, the line of corks, evenly spaced as beads on a string, formed a circle around the dense dark shoal and now the dinghy with Da Silva slumped in resignation was dead ahead.
Manfred balanced the wheel against the drag of the great net, making minute adjustments as he laid the trawler alongside the rocking dinghy and shut the throttle as they touched lightly. Now the net was closed, hemming in the shoal, and Da Silva scrambled up the side of the trawler with the ends of the heavy three-inch manila lines over his shoulder.
'You'll lose your net,' he howled at Lothar. 'Only a crazy man would close the purse on this shoal - they'll run awaywith your net. St Anthony and the blessed St Mark are my witnesses--' But under Lothar's terse direction the Herero crewmen were already into the routine of net recovery. Two of them lifted the main cork line off Da Silva's shoulders and made it fast, while another was helping Lothar lead the purse line to the main winch.
'It's my net, and my fish,' Lothar grunted at him as he started the winch with a clattering roar. 'Get the bucky hooked on!'
The net was hanging seventy feet deep into the clear green water, but the bottom was open. The first and urgent task was to close it before the shoal discovered this escape. Crouched over the winch, the muscles in his bare arms knotting and bunching beneath the tanned brown skin, Lothar was swinging his shoulders rhythmically as he brought the purse line in hand over hand around the revolving drum of the winch. The purse line running through the steel rings around the bottom of the net was closing the mouth like the drawstring of a monstrous tobacco pouch.
In the wheelhouse Manfred was using delicate touches of forward and reverse to manoeuvre the stern, of the trawler away from the net and prevent it fouling the propeller, while old Da Silva had worked the dinghy out to the far side of the cork line and hooked onto it to provide extra buoyancy for the critical moment when the oversized shoal realized that it was trapped and began to panic. Working swiftly, Lothar hauled in the heavy purse line until at last the bunch of steel rings came in glistening and streaming over the side. The net was closed, the shoal was in the bag.
With sweat running down his cheeks and soaking his shirt, Lothar leaned against the gunwale so winded that he could not speak. His long silver-white hair, heavy with sweat, streamed down over his forehead and into his eyes as he gesticulated to Da Silva.
The cork line was laid out in a neat circle on the gentle undulating swells of the cold green Benguela Current, with the bucky hooked onto the side farthest from the trawler. But as Lothar watched it, gasping and heaving for breath, the circle of bobbing corks changed shape, elongating swiftly as the shoal felt the net for the first time and in a concerted rush pushed against it. Then the thrust was reversed as the shoal turned and rushed back, dragging the net and the dinghy with it as though it were a scrap of floating seaweed.
The power of the shoal was as irresistible as Leviathan.
'By God, we've got even more than I reckoned,' Lothar panted. Then, rousing himself, he flicked the wet blond hair from his eyes and ran to the wheelhouse.
The shoal was surging back and forth in the net, tossing the dinghy about lightly on the churning waters, and Lothar felt the deck of the trawler list sharply under him as the mass of fish dragged abruptly on the heavy lines.
'Da Silva was right. They are going crazy,' he whispered, and reached for the handle of the foghorn. He blew three sharp ringing blasts, the request for assistance, and as he ran back onto the deck he saw the other three trawlers turn and race towards him. None of them had as yet plucked up the courage to throw their own nets at the huge shoal.
'Hurry! Damn you, hurry!' Lothar snarled ineffectually at them, and then at his crew, 'All hands to dry up!'
His crew hesitated, hanging back, reluctant to handle that net.
'Move, you black bastards!' Lothar bellowed at them, setting the example by leaping to the gunwale. They had to compress the shoal, pack the tiny fish so closely as to rob them of their strength.
The net was coarse and sharp as barbed wire, but they bent to it in a row, using the roll of the hull in the low swell to work the net in by hand, recovering a few feet with each concerted heave.
Then the shoal surged again, and all the net they had won was ripped from their hands. One of the Herero crew was too slow to let it go and the fingers of his right hand were caught in the coarse mesh. The flesh was stripped off his fingers like a glove, leaving bare white bone and raw flesh. He screamed and clutched the maimed hand to his chest, trying to staunch the spurt of bright blood. It sprayed into his own face and ran down the sweat-polished black skin of his chest and belly and soaked into his breeches.
'Manfred!' Lothar yelled. 'See to him!' and he switched all his attention back to the net. The shoal was sounding, dragging one end of the cork line below the surface, and a small part of the shoal escaped over the top, spreading like dark green smoke across the bright waters.
'Good riddance,' Lothar muttered, but the vast bulk of the shoal was still trapped and the cork line bobbed to the surface. Again the shoal surged downwards, and this time the heavy fifty-foot trawler listed over dangerously so that the crew clutched for handholds, their faces turning ashy grey beneath their dark skin.
Across the circle of cork line the dinghy was dragged over sharply, and it did not have the buoyancy to resist. Green water poured in over the gunwale, swamping it.
'Jump!' Lothar yelled at the old man. 'Get clear of the net!' They both understood the danger.
The previous season one of their crew had fallen into the net. The fish had immediately pushed against him in unison, driving him below the surface, fighting against the resistance of his body in their efforts to escape.
When, hours later, they had at last recovered the corpse from the bottom of the net, they had found that the fish had been forced by their own efforts and the enormous pressures in the depths of the trapped shoal into all the man's body openings. They had thrust down his open mouth into his belly; they had been driven like silver daggers into the eye-sockets, displacing the eyeballs andentering the brain. They had even burst through the threadbare stuff of his breeches and penetrated his anus so that his belly and bowels were stuffed with dead fish and he was bloated like a grotesque balloon. It was a sight none of them would ever forget.
'Get clear of the net!' Lothar screamed again and Da Silva threw himself over the far side of the sinking dinghy just as it was dragged beneath the surface. He splashed frantically as his heavy seaboots began to drag him under.
However, Swart Hendrick was there to rescue him. He laid his trawler neatly alongside the bulging cork line, and two of his crew hauled Da Silva up the side while the others crowded the rail and under Swart Hendrick's direction hooked onto the far side of the net.
'If only the net holds,' Lothar grunted, for the two other trawlers had come up now and fastened onto the cork line. The four big boats formed a circle around the captive shoal and, working in a frenzy, the crewmen stooped over the net and started to 'dry up'.
Foot by foot they hauled up the net, twelve men on each trawler, even Manfred taking his place at his father's shoulder. They grunted and heaved and sweated, fresh blood on their torn hands when the shoal surged and burning agony in their backs and bellies, but slowly, an inch at a time, they subdued the huge shoal, until at last it was 'dried up', and the upper fish were flapping helplessly high and dry on the compacted mass of their fellows, who were drowning and dying in the crush.
'Dip them out!' Lothar shouted, and on each of the trawlers the three dip-men pulled the long-handled dip-nets from the racks over the top of the wheelhouses and dragged them down the deck.
The dip-nets were the same shape as a butterfly-net, or those little hand nets with which children catch shrimps and crabs in rock pools at the seaside. The handles of these nets, however, were thirty feet long and the net purse couldscoop up a ton of living fish at a time. At three points around the steel ring that formed the mouth of the net were attached manila lines; these were spliced to the heavier winch line by which the dip-net was lifted and lowered. The foot of the net could be opened or closed by a purse line through a set of smaller rings, exactly the same arrangement as the closure of the great main net.
While the dip-net was manhandled into position, Lothar and Manfred were knocking the covers off the hatch of the hold. Then they hurried to their positions, Lothar on the winch and Manfred holding the end of the purse line of the dip-net. With a squeal and clatter Lothar winched the dip-net high onto the derrick above their heads while the three men on the long handle swung the net outboard over the trapped and struggling shoal. Manfred jerked hard on the purse line, closing the bottom of the dip-net.
Lothar slammed the winch gear into reverse and with another squeal of the pulley block the heavy head of the net dropped into the silver mass of fish. The three dip-men leaned all their weight on the handle, forcing the net deeply into the living porridge of pilchards.
'Coming up!' Lothar yelled and changed the winch into forward gear. The net was dragged upwards through the shoal and burst out filled with a ton of quivering, flapping pilchards. With Manfred grimly hanging onto the purse line, the full net was swung inboard over the gaping hatch of the hold.
'Let go!' Lothar shouted at his son, and Manfred released the purse line. The bottom of the net opened and a ton of pilchards showered down into the open hold. The tiny scales had been rubbed from the bodies of the fish by this rough treatment and now they swirled down over the men on the deck like snowflakes, sparkling in the sunlight with pretty shades of pink and rose and gold.
As the net emptied, Manfred jerked the purse line closed and the dip-men swung the handle outboard, the winchsquealed into reverse and the net dropped into the shoal for the whole sequence to be repeated. On each of the other three trawlers the dip-men and winch driver also were hard at work, and every few seconds another ton load of fish, seawater and clouds of translucent scales streaming from it, was swung over the waiting hatches and poured into them.
It was heartbreaking, back-straining work, monotonous and repetitive, and each time the net swung overhead the crew were drenched with icy seawater and covered with scales. As the dip-men faltered with exhaustion, the skippers changed them without breaking the rhythm of swing and lift and drop, spelling the men working on the main net with those on the handle of the dip-net, although Lothar remained at the winch, tall and alert and indefatigable, his white-blond hair, thick with glittering fish scales, shining in the sunlight like a beacon fire.
'Silver threepennies.' He grinned to himself, as the fish showered into the holds on all four of his trawlers. 'Shiny threepenny bits, not fish. We will take in a deckload of tickeys today.' 'Tickey' was the slang for a threepenny coin.
'Deckload!' he bellowed across the diminishing circle of the main net to where Swart Hendrick worked at his own winch, stripped to the waist and glistening like polished ebony.
'Deckload!' he bellowed back at Lothar, revelling in the physical effort which allowed him to flaunt his superior strength in the faces of his crew. Already the holds of the trawlers were brimming full, each of them had over a hundred and fifty tons aboard, and now they were going to deckload.
Again it was a risk. Once loaded, the boats could not be lightened again until they reached harbour and were pumped out into the factory. Deckloading would burden each hull with another hundred tons of dead weight, farover the safe limit. If the weather turned, if the wind switched into the north-west, then the giant sea that would build up rapidly would hammer the overloaded trawlers into the cold green depths.
'The weather will hold,' Lothar assured himself as he toiled at the winch. He was on the crest of a wave; nothing could stop him now. He had taken one fearsome risk and it had paid him with nearly a thousand tons of fish, four deck-loads of fish, worth fifty pounds a ton in profits. Fifty thousand pounds in a single throw. The greatest stroke of fortune of his life. He could have lost his net or his boat or his life - instead he had paid off his debts with one throw of the net.
'By God,' he whispered, as he slaved at the winch, 'nothing can go wrong now, nothing can touch me now. I'm free and clear.'
So with the holds full they began to deckload the trawlers, filling them to the tops of the gunwales with a silver swamp of fish into which the crew sank waist-deep as they dried the net and swung the long handle of the dip.
Over the four trawlers hovered a dense white cloud of seabirds, adding their voracious squawking and screeching to the cacophony of the winches, diving into the purse of the net to gorge themselves until they could eat no more, could not even fly but drifted away on the current, bloated and uncomfortable, feathers started and throats straining to keep down the contents of their swollen crops. At the bows and stern of each trawler stood a man with a sharpened boathook, with which he stabbed and hacked at the big sharks that thrashed at the surface in their efforts to reach the mass of trapped fish. Their razor-sharp triangular fangs could cut through even the tough mesh of the net.
While the birds and sharks gorged, the hulls of the trawlers sank lower and still lower into the water, until at last a little after the sun had nooned even Lothar had to call enough. There was no room for another load; eachtime they swung one aboard it merely slithered over the side to feed the circling sharks.
Lothar switched off the winch. There was probably another hundred tons of fish still floating in the main net, most of them drowned and crushed. 'Empty the net,' he ordered. 'Let them go! Get the net on board.'
The four trawlers, each of them so low in the water that seawater washed in through the scuppers at each roll, and their speed reduced to an ungainly waddling motion like a string of heavily pregnant ducks, turned towards the land in line astern with Lothar leading them.
Behind them they left an area of almost half a square mile of the ocean carpeted with dead fish, floating silver belly up, as thick as autumn leaves on the forest floor. On top of them drifted thousands of satiated seagulls and beneath them the big sharks swirled and feasted still.
The exhausted crews dragged themselves through the quicksands of still quivering kicking fish that glutted the deck to the forecastle companionway. Below deck they threw themselves still soaked with fish-slime and seawater onto their cramped bunks.
In the wheelhouse Lothar drank two mugs of hot coffee then checked the chronometer above his head.
'Four hours' run back to the factory,' he said. 'Just time for our lessons.'
'Oh, Pa!' the boy pleaded. 'Not today, today is special. Do we have to learn today?'
There was no school at Walvis Bay. The nearest was the German School at Swakopmund, thirty kilometres away. Lother had been both father and mother to the boy from the very day of his birth. He had taken him wet and bloody from the childbed. His mother had never even laid eyes upon him. That had been part of their unnatural bargain. He had reared the boy alone, unaided except for the milk that the brown Nama wetnurses had provided. They had grown so close that Lothar could not bear to be parted fromhim for a single day. He had even taken over his education rather than send him away.
'No day is that special,' he told Manfred. 'Every day we learn. Muscles don't make a man strong.' He tapped his head. 'This is what makes a man strong. Get the books!'
Manfred rolled his eyes at Da Silva for sympathy but he knew better than to argue further.
'Take the wheel.' Lothar handed over to the old boatman and went to sit beside his son at the small chart-table. 'Not arithmetic.' He shook his head. 'It's English today.'
'I hate English!' Manfred declared vehemently. 'I hate English and I hate the English.'
Lothar nodded. 'Yes,' he agreed. 'The English are our enemies. They have always been and always will be our enemies. That is why we have to arm ourselves with their weapons. That is why we learn the language - so when the time comes we will be able to use it in the battle against them.'
He spoke in English for the first time that day. Manfred started to reply in Afrikaans, the South African Dutch patois that had only obtained recognition as a separate language and been adopted as an official language of the Union of South Africa in 1918, over a year before Manfred was born. Lothar held up his hand to stop him.
'English,' he admonished. 'Speak English only.'
For an hour they worked together, reading aloud from the King James version of the Bible and from a two-month-old copy of the Cape Times, and then Lothar set him a page of dictation. The labour in this unfamiliar language made Manfred fidget and frown and nibble his pencil, until at last he could contain himself no longer.
'Tell me about Grandpa, and the oath!' he wheedled his father.
Lothar grinned. 'You're a cunning little monkey, aren't you. Anything to get out of work.'
'I've told you a hundred times.'
'Tell me again. It's a special day.'
Lothar glanced out of the wheelhouse window at the precious silver cargo. The boy was right, it was a very special day. Today he was free and clear of debt, after five long hard years.
'All right.' He nodded. 'I'll tell you again, but in English.' And Manfred shut his exercise book with an enthusiastic snap and leaned across the table, his amber eyes glowing with anticipation.
The story of the great rebellion had been repeated so often that Manfred had it by heart and he corrected any discrepancy or departure from the original, or called his father back if he left out any of the details.
'Well then,' Lothar started, 'when the treacherous English King George V declared war on Kaiser Whilhelm of Germany in 1914, your grandpa and I knew our duty. We kissed your grandmother goodbye--'
'What colour was my grandmother's hair?' Manfred demanded.
'Your grandmother was a beautiful German noblewoman, and her hair was the colour of ripe wheat in the sunlight.'
'Just like mine,' Manfred prompted him.
'Just like yours,' Lothar smiled. 'And Grandpa and I rode out on our warhorses to join old General Maritz and his six hundred heroes on the banks of the Orange river where he was about to go out against old Slim Jannie Smuts.' Slim was the Afrikaans word for tricky or treacherous, and Manfred nodded avidly.
'Go on, Pa, go on!'
When Lothar reached the description of the first battle in which Jannie Smuts' troops had smashed the rebellion with machine-guns and artillery, the boy's eyes clouded with sorrow.
'But you fought like demons, didn't you, Pa?'
'We fought like madmen, but there were too many of them and they were armed with great cannons and machine-guns. Then your grandpa was hit in the stomach and I put him up on my horse and carried him off the battlefield.' Fat tears glistened in the boy's eyes now as Lothar ended.
'When at last he was dying your grandfather took the old black Bible from the saddle bag on which his head was pillowed, and he made me swear an oath upon the book.'
'I know the oath,' Manfred cut in. 'Let me tell it!'
'What was the oath?' Lothar nodded agreement.
'Grandpa said: "Promise me, my son, with your hand upon the book, promise me that the war with the English will never end."'
'Yes,' Lothar nodded again. 'That was the oath, the solemn oath I made to my father as he lay dying.' He reached out and took the boy's hand and squeezed it hard. Old Da Silva broke the mood; he coughed and hawked and spat through the wheelhouse window.
'You should be ashamed - filling the child's head with hatred and death,' he said, and Lothar stood up abruptly.
'Guard your mouth, old man,' he warned. 'This is no business of yours.'
'Thank the Holy Virgin,' Da Silva grumbled, 'for that is devil's business indeed.'
Lothar scowled and turned away from him. 'Manfred, that's enough for today. Put the books away.'
He swung out of the wheelhouse and scrambled up onto the roof. As he settled comfortably against the coaming, he took a long black cheroot from his top pocket and bit off the tip. He spat the stub overside and patted his pockets for the matches. The boy stuck his head over the edge of the coaming, hesitated shyly and when his father did not send him away - sometimes he was moody and withdrawn and wanted to be alone -- Manfred crept up and sat beside him.
Lothar cupped his hands around the flare of the match and sucked the cheroot smoke down deeply into his lungs and then he held up the match and let the wind extinguish it. He flicked it overboard, and let his arm fall casually over his son's shoulders.
The boy shivered with delight, physical display of affection from his father was so rare, and he pressed closer to him and sat still as he could, barely breathing so as not to disturb or spoil the moment.
The little fleet ran in towards the land, and turned the sharp northern horn of the bay. The seabirds were returning with them, squadrons of yellow-throated gannets in long regular lines skimming low over the cloudy green waters, and the lowering sun gilded them and burned upon the tall bronze dunes that rose like a mountain range behind the tiny insignificant cluster of buildings that stood at the edge of the bay.
'I hope Willem has had enough sense to fire up the boilers,' Lothar murmured. 'We have enough work here to keep the factory busy all night and all tomorrow.'
'We'll never be able to can all this fish,' the boy whispered.
'No, we will have to turn most of it to fish oil and fish meal--' Lothar broke off and stared across the bay. Manfred felt his body stiffen and then, to the boy's dismay, he lifted his arm off his son's shoulders and shaded his eyes.
'The bloody fool,' he growled. With his hunter's vision he had picked out the distant stack of the factory boiler-house. It was smokeless. 'What the hell is he playing at?' Lothar leapt to his feet and balanced easily against the trawler's motion. 'He has let the boilers go cold. It will take five or six hours to refire them and our fish will begin to spoil. Damn him, damn him to hell!' Raging still, Lothar dropped down to the wheelhouse. As he yanked the foghorn to alert the factory, he snapped, 'With the money from the fish I'm going to buy one of Marconi's new-fangledshortwave radio machines so we can talk to the factory while we are at sea; then this sort of thing won't happen.'
He broke off again and stared. 'What the hell is going on!' He snatched the binoculars from the bin next to the control panel and focused them. They were close enough now to see the small crowd at the main doors of the factory. The cutters and packers in their rubber aprons and boots. They should have been at their places in the factory.
'There is Willem.' The factory manager was standing on the end of the long wooden unloading jetty that thrust out into the still waters of the bay on its heavy teak pilings. 'What the hell is he playing at -- the boilers cold and everybody hanging about outside?' There were two strangers with Willem, standing one on each side of him. They were dressed in dark civilian suits and they had that self-important, puffed-up look of petty officialdom that Lothar knew and dreaded.
'Tax collectors or other civil servants,' Lothar whispered, and his anger cooled and was replaced with unease. No minion of the government had ever brought him good news.
'Trouble,' he guessed. 'Just now when I have a thousand tons of fish to cook and can--'
Then he noticed the motor cars. They had been screened by the factory building until Da Silva made the turn into the main channel that would bring the trawler up to the off-loading jetty. There were two cars. One was a battered old 'T' model Ford, but the other, even though covered with a pale coating of fine desert dust, was a much grander machine - and Lothar felt his heart trip and his breathing alter.
There could not be two similar vehicles in the whole of Africa. It was an elephantine Daimler, painted daffodil yellow. The last time he had seen it, it had been parked outside the offices of the Courtney Mining and Finance Company in the Main Street of Windhoek.
Lothar had been on his way to discuss an extension of his loans from the company. He had stood on the opposite side of the wide dusty unpaved street and watched as she came down the broad marble steps, flanked by two of her obsequious employees in dark suits and high celluloid collars; one of them had opened the door of the magnificent yellow machine for her and bowed her into the driver's seat while the other had run to take the crank handle. Scorning a chauffeur, she had driven off herself, not even glancing in Lothar's direction, and left him pale and trembling with the conflicting emotions that the mere sight of her had evoked. That had been almost a year before.
Now he roused himself as Da Silva laid the heavily burdened trawler alongside the jetty. They were so low in the water that Manfred had to toss the bow mooring-line up to one of the men on the jetty above him.
'Lothar, these men - they want to speak to you.' Willem called down. He was sweating nervously as he jerked a thumb at the man who flanked him.
'Are you Mr Lothar De La Rey?' the smaller of the two strangers demanded, pushing his dusty fedora hat onto the back of his head and mopping the pale line of skin that was exposed beneath the brim.
'That's right.' Lothar glared up at at him with his clenched fists upon his hips. 'And who the hell are you?'
'Are you the owner of the South West African Canning and Fishing Company'
'Ja!' Lothar answered him in Afrikaans. 'I am the owner - and what of it?'
'I am the sheriff of the court in Windhoek, and I have here a writ of attachment over all the assets of the company.' The sheriff brandished the document he held.
'They've closed the factory,' Willem called down to Lothar miserably, his moustaches quivering. 'They made me draw the fires on my boilers.'
'You can't do that!' Lothar snarled, and his eyes slittedyellow and fierce as those of an angry leopard. 'I've got a thousand tons of fish to process.'
'Are these the four trawlers registered in the company's name?' the sheriff went on, unperturbed by the outburst, but he unbuttoned his dark jacket and pulled it back as he placed both hands on his hips. A heavy Webley service revolver hung on a leather holster from his belt. He turned his head to watch the other trawlers mooring at their berths on each side of the jetty, then without waiting for Lothar to answer he went on placidly, 'My assistant will place the court seals on them and their cargoes. I must warn you that it will be a criminal offence to remove either the boats or their cargoes.'
'You can't do this to me!' Lothar swarmed up the ladder onto the jetty. His tone was no longer belligerent. 'I have to get my fish processed. Don't you understand? They'll be stinking to the heavens by tomorrow morning--'
'They are not your fish.' The sheriff shook his head. 'They belong to the Courtney Mining and Finance Company.' He gestured to his assistant impatiently. 'Get on with it, man.' And he began to turn away.
'She's here,' Lothar called after him, and the sheriff turned back to face him again.
'She's here,' Lothar repeated. 'That's her car. She has come herself, hasn't she?'
The sheriff dropped his eyes and shrugged, but Willem gobbled a reply.
'Yes, she's here - she's waiting in my office.'
Lothar turned away from-the group and strode down the jetty, his heavy oilskin breeches rustling and his fists still bunched as though he were going into a fight.
The agitated crowd of factory hands was waiting for him at the head of the jetty.
'What is happening, Baas?' they pleaded. 'They won't let us work. What must we do, Ou Baas?'
'Wait!' Lothar ordered them brusquely. 'I will fix this.'
'Will we get our pay, Baas? We've got children--'
'You'll be paid,' Lothar snapped, 'I promise you that.' It was a promise he could not keep, not until he had sold his fish, and he pushed his way through them and strode around the corner of the factory towards the manager's office.
The Daimler was parked outside the door, and a boy leaned against the front mudguard of the big yellow machine. It was obvious that he was disgruntled and bored. He was perhaps a year older than Manfred but an inch or so shorter and his body was slimmer and neater. He wore a white shirt that had wilted a little in the heat, and his fashionable Oxford bags of grey flannel were dusty and too modish for a boy of his age, but there was an unstudied grace about him, and he was beautiful as a girl, with flawless skin and dark indigo eyes.
Lothar came up short at the sight of him, and before he could stop himself, he said, 'Shasa!'
The boy straightened up quickly and flicked the lock of dark hair off his forehead.
'How do you know my name?' he asked, and despite his tone the dark blue eyes sparkled with interest as he studied Lothar with a level, almost adult self-assurance.
There were a hundred answers Lothar could have given, and they crowded to his lips: 'Once, many years ago, I saved you and your mother from death in the desert ... I helped wean you, and carried you on the pommel of my saddle when you were a baby ... I loved you, almost as much as once I loved your mother ... You are Manfred's brother - you are half brother to my own son. I'd recognize you anywhere, even after all this time.'
But instead he said, 'Shasa is the Bushman word for "Good Water", the most precious substance in the Bushman world.'
'That's right.' Shasa Courtney nodded. The maninterested him. There was a restrained violence and cruelty in him, an impression of untapped strength, and his eyes were strangely light coloured, almost yellow like those of a cat. 'You're right. It's a Bushman name, but my Christian name is Michel. That's French. My mother is French.'
'Where is she?' Lothar demanded, and Shasa glanced at the office door.
'She doesn't want to be disturbed,' he warned, but Lothar De La Rey stepped past him, so closely that Shasa could smell the fish slime on his oilskins and see the small white fish scales stuck to his tanned skin.
'You'd best knock--' Shasa dropped his voice, but Lothar ignored him and flung the door of the office open so that it crashed back on its hinges. He stood in the open door and Shasa could see past him. His mother rose from the straight-backed chair by the window and faced the door.
She was slim as a girl, and the yellow crêpe-de-chine of her dress was draped over her small fashionably flattened breasts and was gathered in a narrow girdle low around her hips. Her narrow-brimmed cloche hat was pulled down, covering the dense dark bush of her hair, and her eyes were huge and almost black.
She looked very young, not much older than her son, until she raised her chin and showed the hard, determined line of her jaw and the corners of her eyes lifted also and those honey-coloured lights burned in their dark depths. Then she was formidable as any man Lothar had ever met.
They stared at each other, assessing the changes that the years had wrought since their last meeting.
'How old is she?' Lothar wondered, and then immediately remembered. 'She was born an hour after midnight on the first day of the century. She is as old as the twentieth century - that's why she was named Centaine. So she's thirty-one years old, and she still looks nineteen, as youngas the day 1 found her, bleeding and dying in the desert with the wounds of lion claws deep in her sweet young flesh.'
'He has aged,' Centaine thought. 'Those silver streaks in the blond, those lines around the mouth and eyes. He'll be over forty now, and he has suffered - but not enough. I am glad I didn't kill him, I'm glad my bullet missed his heart. It would have been too quick. Now he is in my power and he'll begin to learn the true--'
Suddenly, against her will and inclination, she remembered the feel of his golden body over hers, naked and smooth and hard, and her loins clenched and then dissolved so she could feel their hot soft flooding, as hot as the blood that mounted to her cheeks and as hot as her anger against herself and her inability to master that animal corner of her emotions. In all other things she had trained herself like an athlete, but always that unruly streak of sensuality was just beyond her control.
She looked beyond the man in the doorway, and she saw Shasa standing out in the sunlight, her beautiful child, watching her curiously, and she was ashamed and angry to have been caught in that naked and unguarded moment when she was certain that her basest feelings had been on open display.
'Close the door,' she ordered, and her voice was husky and level. 'Come in and close the door.' She turned away and stared out of the window, bringing herself under complete control once more before turning back to face the man she had set herself to destroy.
Copyright © Wilbur Smith 1986.