“‘Oh, you don’t know how to get out.’ The commanding officer spoke with composure, but his heart was beating with anger and dread. ’I will give you your course. Steer south-by-east-half-east for about four miles and then you will be clear to haul to the eastward for your port. The weather will clear up before very long.’
“‘Must I? What could induce me? I haven’t the nerve.’
“‘And yet you must go. Unless you want to------’
“‘I don’t want to,’ panted the Northman. ‘I’ve enough of it.’
“The commanding officer got over the side. The Northman remained still as if rooted to the deck. Before his boat reached his ship the commanding officer heard the steamer beginning to pick up her anchor. Then, shadowy in the fog, she steamed out on the given course.
“‘Yes,’ he said to his officers, ‘I let him go.’”
The narrator bent forward towards the couch, where no movement betrayed the presence of a living person.
“Listen,” he said, forcibly. “That course would lead the Northman straight on a deadly ledge of rock. And the commanding officer gave it to him. He steamed out—ran on it—and went down. So he had spoken the truth. He did not know where he was. But it proves nothing. Nothing either way. It may have been the only truth in all his story. And yet... He seems to have been driven out by a menacing stare—nothing more.”
He abandoned all pretence.
“Yes, I gave that course to him. It seemed to me a supreme test. I believe—no, I don’t believe. I don’t know. At the time I was certain. They all went down; and I don’t know whether I have done stern retribution—or murder; whether I have added to the corpses that litter the bed of the unreadable sea the bodies of men completely innocent or basely guilty. I don’t know. I shall never know.”
He rose. The woman on the couch got up and threw her arms round his neck. Her eyes put two gleams in the deep shadow of the room. She knew his passion for truth, his horror of deceit, his humanity.
“Oh, my poor, poor------”
“I shall never know,” he repeated, sternly, disengaged himself, pressed her hands to his lips, and went out.
A good many years ago there were several ships loading at the Jetty, London Dock. I am speaking here of the ’eighties of the last century, of the time when London had plenty of fine ships in the docks, though not so many fine buildings in its streets.
The ships at the Jetty were fine enough; they lay one behind the other; and the __Sapphire__, third from the end, was as good as the rest of them, and nothing more. Each ship at the Jetty had, of course, her chief officer on board. So had every other ship in dock.
The policeman at the gates knew them all by sight, without being able to say at once, without thinking, to what ship any particular man belonged. As a matter of fact, the mates of the ships then lying in the London Dock were like the majority of officers in the Merchant Service—a steady, hard-working, staunch, un-romantic-looking set of men, belonging to various classes of society, but with the professional stamp obliterating the personal characteristics, which were not very marked anyhow.