“ROWLAND,” said the big boatswain, as the watch mustered on deck; “take the starboard bridge lookout.”
“It is not my trick, boats’n,” said Rowland, in surprise.
“Orders from the bridge. Get up there.”
Rowland grumbled, as sailors may when aggrieved, and obeyed. The man he relieved reported his name, and disappeared; the first officer sauntered down the bridge, uttered the official, “keep a good lookout,” and returned to his post; then the silence and loneliness of a night-watch at sea, intensified by the never-ceasing hum of the engines, and relieved only by the sounds of distant music and laughter from the theater, descended on the forward part of the ship. For the fresh westerly wind, coming with the Titan, made nearly a calm on her deck; and the dense fog, though overshone by a bright star-specked sky, was so chilly that the last talkative passenger had fled to the light and life within.
When three bells—half-past nine—had sounded, and Rowland had given in his turn the required call—“all’s well”—the first officer left his post and approached him.
“Rowland,” he said as he drew near; “I hear you’ve walked the quarter-deck.”
“I cannot imagine how you learned it, sir,” replied Rowland; “I am not in the habit of referring to it.”
“You told the captain. I suppose the curriculum is as complete at Annapolis as at the Royal Naval College. What do you think of Maury’s theories of currents?”
“They seem plausible,” said Rowland, unconsciously dropping the “sir”; “but I think that in most particulars he has been proven wrong.”
“Yes, I think so myself. Did you ever follow up another idea of his—that of locating the position of ice in a fog by the rate of decrease in temperature as approached?”
“Not to any definite result. But it seems to be only a matter of calculation, and time to calculate. Cold is negative heat, and can be treated like radiant energy, decreasing as the square of the distance.”
The officer stood a moment, looking ahead and humming a tune to himself; then, saying: “Yes, that’s so,” returned to his place.
“Must have a cast-iron stomach,” he muttered, as he peered into the binnacle; “or else the boats’n dosed the wrong man’s pot.”
Rowland glanced after the retreating officer with a cynical smile. “I wonder,” he said to himself, “why he comes down here talking navigation to a foremast hand. Why am I up here—out of my turn? Is this something in line with that bottle?” He resumed the short pacing back and forth on the end of the bridge, and the rather gloomy train of thought which the officer had interrupted.
“How long,” he mused, “would his ambition and love of profession last him after he had met, and won, and lost, the only woman on earth to him? Why is it—that failure to hold the affections of one among the millions of women who live, and love, can outweigh every blessing in life, and turn a man’s nature into a hell, to consume him? Who did she marry? Some one, probably a stranger long after my banishment, who came to her possessed of a few qualities of mind or physique that pleased her,—who did not need to love her—his chances were better without that—and he steps coolly and easily into my heaven. And they tell us, that ‘God doeth all things well,’ and that there is a heaven where all our unsatisfied wants are attended to—provided we have the necessary faith in it. That means, if it means anything, that after a lifetime of unrecognized allegiance, during which I win nothing but her fear and contempt, I may be rewarded by the love and companionship of her soul. Do I love her soul? Has her soul beauty of face and the figure and carriage of a Venus? Has her soul deep, blue eyes and a sweet, musical voice? Has it wit, and grace, and charm? Has it a wealth of pity for suffering? These are the things I loved. I do not love her soul, if she has one. I do not want it. I want her—I need her.” He stopped in his walk and leaned against the bridge railing, with eyes fixed on the fog ahead. He was speaking his thoughts aloud now, and the first officer drew within hearing, listened a moment, and went back. “Working on him,” he whispered to the third officer. Then he pushed the button which called the captain, blew a short blast of the steam whistle as a call to the boatswain, and resumed his watch on the drugged lookout, while the third officer conned the ship.
The steam call to the boatswain is so common a sound on a steamship as to generally pass unnoticed. This call affected another besides the boatswain. A little night-gowned figure arose from an under berth in a saloon stateroom, and, with wide-open, staring eyes, groped its way to the deck, unobserved by the watchman. The white, bare little feet felt no cold as they pattered the planks of the deserted promenade, and the little figure had reached the steerage entrance by the time the captain and boatswain had reached the bridge.
“And they talk,” went on Rowland, as the three watched and listened; “of the wonderful love and care of a merciful God, who controls all things—who has given me my defects, and my capacity for loving, and then placed Myra Gaunt in my way. Is there mercy to me in this? As part of a great evolutionary principle, which develops the race life at the expense of the individual, it might be consistent with the idea of a God—a first cause. But does the individual who perishes, because unfitted to survive, owe any love, or gratitude to this God? He does not! On the supposition that He exists, I deny it! And on the complete lack of evidence that He does exist, I affirm to myself the integrity of cause and effect—which is enough to explain the Universe, and me. A merciful God—a kind, loving, just, and merciful God—” he burst into a fit of incongruous laughter, which stopped short as he clapped his hands to his stomach and then to his head. “What ails me?” he gasped; “I feel as though I had swallowed hot coals—and my head—and my eyes—I can’t see.” The pain left him in a moment and the laughter returned. “What’s wrong with the starboard anchor? It’s moving. It’s changing. It’s a—what? What on earth is it? On end—and the windlass—and the spare anchors—and the davits—all alive—all moving.”
The sight he saw would have been horrid to a healthy mind, but it only moved this man to increased and uncontrollable merriment. The two rails below leading to the stem had arisen before him in a shadowy triangle; and within it were the deck-fittings he had mentioned. The windlass had become a thing of horror, black and forbidding. The two end barrels were the bulging, lightless eyes of a non-descript monster, for which the cable chains had multiplied themselves into innumerable legs and tentacles. And this thing was crawling around within the triangle. The anchor-davits were many-headed serpents which danced on their tails, and the anchors themselves writhed and squirmed in the shape of immense hairy caterpillars, while faces appeared on the two white lantern-towers—grinning and leering at him. With his hands on the bridge rail, and tears streaming down his face, he laughed at the strange sight, but did not speak; and the three, who had quietly approached, drew back to await, while below on the promenade deck, the little white figure, as though attracted by his laughter, turned into the stairway leading to the upper deck.
The phantasmagoria faded to a blank wall of gray fog, and Rowland found sanity to mutter, “They’ve drugged me”; but in an instant he stood in the darkness of a garden—one that he had known. In the distance were the lights of a house, and close to him was a young girl, who turned from him and fled, even as he called to her.
By a supreme effort of will, he brought himself back to the present, to the bridge he stood upon, and to his duty. “Why must it haunt me through the years?” he groaned; “drunk then—drunk since. She could have saved me, but she chose to damn me.” He strove to pace up and down, but staggered, and clung to the rail; while the three watchers approached again, and the little white figure below climbed the upper bridge steps.
“The survival of the fittest,” he rambled, as he stared into the fog; “cause and effect. It explains the Universe—and me.” He lifted his hand and spoke loudly, as though to some unseen familiar of the deep. “What will be the last effect? Where in the scheme of ultimate balance—under the law of the correlation of energy, will my wasted wealth of love be gathered, and weighed, and credited? What will balance it, and where will I be? Myra,—Myra,” he called; “do you know what you have lost? Do you know, in your goodness, and purity, and truth, of what you have done? Do you know—”
The fabric on which he stood was gone, and he seemed to be poised on nothing in a worldless universe of gray—alone. And in the vast, limitless emptiness there was no sound, or life, or change; and in his heart neither fear, nor wonder, nor emotion of any kind, save one—the unspeakable hunger of a love that had failed. Yet it seemed that he was not John Rowland, but some one, or something else; for presently he saw himself, far away—millions of billions of miles; as though on the outermost fringes of the void—and heard his own voice, calling. Faintly, yet distinctly, filled with the concentrated despair of his life, came the call: “Myra,—Myra.”
There was an answering call, and looking for the second voice, he beheld her—the woman of his love—on the opposite edge of space; and her eyes held the tenderness, and her voice held the pleading that he had known but in dreams. “Come back,” she called; “come back to me.” But it seemed that the two could not understand; for again he heard the despairing cry: “Myra, Myra, where are you?” and again the answer: “Come back. Come.”
Then in the far distance to the right appeared a faint point of flame, which grew larger. It was approaching, and he dispassionately viewed it; and when he looked again for the two, they were gone, and in their places were two clouds of nebula, which resolved into myriad points of sparkling light and color—whirling, encroaching, until they filled all space. And through them the larger light was coming—and growing larger—straight for him.
He heard a rushing sound, and looking for it, saw in the opposite direction a formless object, as much darker than the gray of the void as the flame was brighter, and it too was growing larger, and coming. And it seemed to him that this light and darkness were the good and evil of his life, and he watched, to see which would reach him first, but felt no surprise or regret when he saw that the darkness was nearest. It came, closer and closer, until it brushed him on the side.
“What have we here, Rowland?” said a voice. Instantly, the whirling points were blotted out; the universe of gray changed to the fog; the flame of light to the moon rising above it, and the shapeless darkness to the form of the first officer. The little white figure, which had just darted past the three watchers, stood at his feet. As though warned by an inner subconsciousness of danger, it had come in its sleep, for safety and care, to its mother’s old lover—the strong and the weak—the degraded and disgraced, but exalted—the persecuted, drugged, and all but helpless John Rowland.
With the readiness with which a man who dozes while standing will answer the question that wakens him, he said—though he stammered from the now waning effect of the drug: “Myra’s child, sir; it’s asleep.” He picked up the night-gowned little girl, who screamed as she wakened, and folded his pea-jacket around the cold little body.
“Who is Myra?” asked the officer in a bullying tone, in which were also chagrin and disappointment. “You’ve been asleep yourself.”
Before Rowland could reply a shout from the crow’s-nest split the air.
“Ice,” yelled the lookout; “ice ahead. Iceberg. Right under the bows.” The first officer ran amidships, and the captain, who had remained there, sprang to the engine-room telegraph, and this time the lever was turned. But in five seconds the bow of the Titan began to lift, and ahead, and on either hand, could be seen, through the fog, a field of ice, which arose in an incline to a hundred feet high in her track. The music in the theater ceased, and among the babel of shouts and cries, and the deafening noise of steel, scraping and crashing over ice, Rowland heard the agonized voice of a woman crying from the bridge steps: “Myra—Myra, where are you? Come back.”