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End of the Tether by Conrad, Joseph - Chapter 1

THE END OF THE TETHER




I

For a long time after the course of the steamer Sofala
had been altered for the land, the low swampy coast had
retained its appearance of a mere smudge of darkness
beyond a belt of glitter. The sunrays seemed to fall
violently upon the calm sea--seemed to shatter them-
selves upon an adamantine surface into sparkling dust,
into a dazzling vapor of light that blinded the eye and
wearied the brain with its unsteady brightness.

Captain Whalley did not look at it. When his
Serang, approaching the roomy cane arm-chair which
he filled capably, had informed him in a low voice that
the course was to be altered, he had risen at once and
had remained on his feet, face forward, while the head
of his ship swung through a quarter of a circle. He
had not uttered a single word, not even the word to
steady the helm. It was the Serang, an elderly, alert,
little Malay, with a very dark skin, who murmured the
order to the helmsman. And then slowly Captain
Whalley sat down again in the arm-chair on the bridge
and fixed his eyes on the deck between his feet.

He could not hope to see anything new upon this lane
of the sea. He had been on these coasts for the last
three years. From Low Cape to Malantan the distance
was fifty miles, six hours' steaming for the old ship with
the tide, or seven against. Then you steered straight
for the land, and by-and-by three palms would appear
on the sky, tall and slim, and with their disheveled heads
in a bunch, as if in confidential criticism of the dark
mangroves. The Sofala would be headed towards the
somber strip of the coast, which at a given moment, as
the ship closed with it obliquely, would show several
clean shining fractures--the brimful estuary of a river.
Then on through a brown liquid, three parts water and
one part black earth, on and on between the low shores,
three parts black earth and one part brackish water, the
Sofala would plow her way up-stream, as she had
done once every month for these seven years or more,
long before he was aware of her existence, long before
he had ever thought of having anything to do with her
and her invariable voyages. The old ship ought to have
known the road better than her men, who had not been
kept so long at it without a change; better than the
faithful Serang, whom he had brought over from his
last ship to keep the captain's watch; better than he
himself, who had been her captain for the last three
years only. She could always be depended upon to
make her courses. Her compasses were never out. She
was no trouble at all to take about, as if her great age
had given her knowledge, wisdom, and steadiness. She
made her landfalls to a degree of the bearing, and al-
most to a minute of her allowed time. At any moment,
as he sat on the bridge without looking up, or lay sleep-
less in his bed, simply by reckoning the days and the
hours he could tell where he was--the precise spot of the
beat. He knew it well too, this monotonous huckster's
round, up and down the Straits; he knew its order and
its sights and its people. Malacca to begin with, in at
daylight and out at dusk, to cross over with a rigid
phosphorescent wake this highway of the Far East.
Darkness and gleams on the water, clear stars on a black
sky, perhaps the lights of a home steamer keeping her
unswerving course in the middle, or maybe the elusive
shadow of a native craft with her mat sails flitting by
silently--and the low land on the other side in sight
at daylight. At noon the three palms of the next place
of call, up a sluggish river. The only white man re-
siding there was a retired young sailor, with whom he
had become friendly in the course of many voyages.
Sixty miles farther on there was another place of call,
a deep bay with only a couple of houses on the beach.
And so on, in and out, picking up coastwise cargo here
and there, and finishing with a hundred miles' steady
steaming through the maze of an archipelago of small
islands up to a large native town at the end of the beat.
There was a three days' rest for the old ship before
he started her again in inverse order, seeing the same
shores from another bearing, hearing the same voices in
the same places, back again to the Sofala's port of regis-
try on the great highway to the East, where he would
take up a berth nearly opposite the big stone pile of
the harbor office till it was time to start again on the
old round of 1600 miles and thirty days. Not a very
enterprising life, this, for Captain Whalley, Henry
Whalley, otherwise Dare-devil Harry--Whalley of the
Condor, a famous clipper in her day. No. Not a very
enterprising life for a man who had served famous firms,
who had sailed famous ships (more than one or two of
them his own); who had made famous passages, had
been the pioneer of new routes and new trades; who had
steered across the unsurveyed tracts of the South Seas,
and had seen the sun rise on uncharted islands. Fifty
years at sea, and forty out in the East ("a pretty thor-
ough apprenticeship," he used to remark smilingly), had
made him honorably known to a generation of ship-
owners and merchants in all the ports from Bombay clear
over to where the East merges into the West upon the
coast of the two Americas. His fame remained writ,
not very large but plain enough, on the Admiralty
charts. Was there not somewhere between Australia
and China a Whalley Island and a Condor Reef? On
that dangerous coral formation the celebrated clipper
had hung stranded for three days, her captain and crew
throwing her cargo overboard with one hand and with
the other, as it were, keeping off her a flotilla of savage
war-canoes. At that time neither the island nor the reef
had any official existence. Later the officers of her
Majesty's steam vessel Fusilier, dispatched to make a
survey of the route, recognized in the adoption of these
two names the enterprise of the man and the solidity of
the ship. Besides, as anyone who cares may see, the
"General Directory," vol. ii. p. 410, begins the descrip-
tion of the "Malotu or Whalley Passage" with the
words: "This advantageous route, first discovered in
1850 by Captain Whalley in the ship Condor," &c.,
and ends by recommending it warmly to sailing vessels
leaving the China ports for the south in the months
from December to April inclusive.

This was the clearest gain he had out of life. Nothing
could rob him of this kind of fame. The piercing of the
Isthmus of Suez, like the breaking of a dam, had let
in upon the East a flood of new ships, new men, new
methods of trade. It had changed the face of the East-
ern seas and the very spirit of their life; so that his
early experiences meant nothing whatever to the new
generation of seamen.

In those bygone days he had handled many thousands
of pounds of his employers' money and of his own; he
had attended faithfully, as by law a shipmaster is ex-
pected to do, to the conflicting interests of owners,
charterers, and underwriters. He had never lost a ship
or consented to a shady transaction; and he had lasted
well, outlasting in the end the conditions that had gone
to the making of his name. He had buried his wife (in
the Gulf of Petchili), had married off his daughter to
the man of her unlucky choice, and had lost more than
an ample competence in the crash of the notorious Tra-
vancore and Deccan Banking Corporation, whose down-
fall had shaken the East like an earthquake. And he
was sixty-five years old.