Phantas, by Oliver Onions
"For, barring all pother,
With this, or the other,
Still Britons are Lords of the Main."
THE CHAPTER OF ADMIRALS
As Abel Keeling lay on the galleon's deck, held from rolling down it only
by his own weight and the sun-blackened hand that lay outstretched upon
the planks, his gaze wandered, but ever returned to the bell that hung,
jammed with the dangerous heel-over of the vessel, in the small
ornamental belfry immediately abaft the mainmast. The bell was of cast
bronze, with half-obliterated bosses upon it that had been the heads of
cherubs; but wind and salt spray had given it a thick incrustation of
bright, beautiful, lichenous green. It was this colour that Abel
Keeling's eyes liked.
For wherever else on the galleon his eyes rested they found only
whiteness—the whiteness of extreme eld. There were slightly varying
degrees in her whiteness; here she was of a white that glistened like
salt-granules, there of a greyish chalky white, and again her whiteness
had the yellowish cast of decay; but everywhere it was the mild,
disquieting whiteness of materials out of which the life had departed.
Her cordage was bleached as old straw is bleached, and half her ropes
kept their shape little more firmly than the ash of a string keeps its
shape after the fire has passed; her pallid timbers were white and clean
as bones found in sand; and even the wild frankincense with which (for
lack of tar, at her last touching of land) she had been pitched, had
dried to a pale hard gum that sparkled like quartz in her open seams. The
sun was yet so pale a buckler of silver through the still white mists
that not a cord or timber cast a shadow; and only Abel Keeling's face and
hands were black, carked and cinder-black from exposure to his pitiless
The galleon was the Mary of the Tower, and she had a frightful list to
starboard. So canted was she that her mainyard dipped one of its steel
sickles into the glassy water, and, had her foremast remained, or more
than the broken stump of her bonaventure mizzen, she must have turned
over completely. Many days ago they had stripped the mainyard of its
course, and had passed the sail under the Mary's bottom, in the hope that
it would stop the leak. This it had partly done as long as the galleon
had continued to glide one way; then, without coming about, she had begun
to glide the other, the ropes had parted, and she had dragged the sail
after her, leaving a broad tarnish on the silver sea.
For it was broadside that the galleon glided, almost imperceptibly, ever
sucking down. She glided as if a loadstone drew her, and, at first, Abel
Keeling had thought it was a loadstone, pulling at her iron, drawing her
through the pearly mists that lay like face-cloths to the water and hid
at a short distance the tarnish left by the sail. But later he had known
that it was no loadstone drawing at her iron. The motion was due—must
be due—to the absolute deadness of the calm in that silent, sinister,
three-miles-broad waterway. With the eye of his mind he saw that
loadstone now as he lay against a gun-truck, all but toppling down the
deck. Soon that would happen again which had happened for five days past.
He would hear again the chattering of monkeys and the screaming of
parrots, the mat of green and yellow weeds would creep in towards the
Mary over the quicksilver sea, once more the sheer wall of rock would
rise, and the men would run….
But no; the men would not run this time to drop the fenders. There were
no men left to do so, unless Bligh was still alive. Perhaps Bligh was
still alive. He had walked half-way down the quarter-deck steps a little
before the sudden nightfall of the day before, had then fallen and lain
for a minute (dead, Abel Keeling had supposed, watching him from his
place by the gun-truck), and had then got up again and tottered forward
to the forecastle, his tall figure swaying and his long arms waving. Abel
Keeling had not seen him since. Most likely, he had died in the
forecastle during the night. If he had not been dead he would have come
aft again for water….
At the remembrance of the water Abel Keeling lifted his head. The strands
of lean muscle about his emaciated mouth worked, and he made a little
pressure of his sun-blackened hand on the deck, as if to verify its
steepness and his own balance. The mainmast was some seven or eight yards
away…. He put one stiff leg under him and began, seated as he was, to
make shuffling movements down the slope.
To the mainmast, near the belfry, was affixed his contrivance for
catching water. It consisted of a collar of rope set lower at one side
than at the other (but that had been before the mast had steeved so many
degrees away from the zenith), and tallowed beneath. The mists lingered
later in that gully of a strait than they did on the open ocean, and the
collar of rope served as a collector for the dews that condensed on the
mast. The drops fell into a small earthen pipkin placed on the deck
Abel Keeling reached the pipkin and looked into it. It was nearly a third
full of fresh water. Good. If Bligh, the mate, was dead, so much the more
water for Abel Keeling, master of the Mary of the Tower. He dipped two
fingers into the pipkin and put them into his mouth. This he did several
times. He did not dare to raise the pipkin to his black and broken lips
for dread of a remembered agony, he could not have told how many days
ago, when a devil had whispered to him, and he had gulped down the
contents of the pipkin in the morning, and for the rest of the day had
gone waterless…. Again he moistened his fingers and sucked them; then
he lay sprawling against the mast, idly watching the drops of water
as they fell.
It was odd how the drops formed. Slowly they collected at the edge of the
tallowed collar, trembled in their fullness for an instant, and fell,
another beginning the process instantly. It amused Abel Keeling to watch
them. Why (he wondered) were all the drops the same size? What cause and
compulsion did they obey that they never varied, and what frail tenuity
held the little globules intact? It must be due to some Cause…. He
remembered that the aromatic gum of the wild frankincense with which they
had parcelled the seams had hung on the buckets in great sluggish gouts,
obedient to a different compulsion; oil was different again, and so were
juices and balsams. Only quicksilver (perhaps the heavy and motionless
sea put him in mind of quicksilver) seemed obedient to no law…. Why was
Bligh, of course, would have had his explanation: it was the Hand of God.
That sufficed for Bligh, who had gone forward the evening before, and
whom Abel Keeling now seemed vaguely and as at a distance to remember as
the deep-voiced fanatic who had sung his hymns as, man by man, he had
committed the bodies of the ship's company to the deep. Bligh was that
sort of man; accepted things without question; was content to take things
as they were and be ready with the fenders when the wall of rock rose out
of the opalescent mists. Bligh, too, like the waterdrops, had his Law,
that was his and nobody else's….
There floated down from some rotten rope up aloft a flake of scurf, that
settled in the pipkin. Abel Keeling watched it dully as it settled
towards the pipkin's rim. When presently he again dipped his fingers into
the vessel the water ran into a little vortex, drawing the flake with it.
The water settled again; and again the minute flake determined towards
the rim and adhered there, as if the rim had power to draw it….
It was exactly so that the galleon was gliding towards the wall of rock,
the yellow and green weeds, and the monkeys and parrots. Put out into
mid-water again (while there had been men to put her out) she had glided
to the other wall. One force drew the chip in the pipkin and the ship
over the tranced sea. It was the Hand of God, said Bligh….
Abel Keeling, his mind now noting minute things and now clouded with
torpor, did not at first hear a voice that was quakingly lifted up
over by the forecastle—a voice that drew nearer, to an accompaniment of
"O Thou, that Jonas in the fish
Three days didst keep from pain,
Which was a figure of Thy death
And rising up again—"
It was Bligh, singing one of his hymns:
"O Thou, that Noah keptst from flood
And Abram, day by day,
As he along through Egypt passed
Didst guide him in the way—"
The voice ceased, leaving the pious period uncompleted. Bligh was alive,
at any rate…. Abel Keeling resumed his fitful musing.
Yes, that was the Law of Bligh's life, to call things the Hand of God;
but Abel Keeling's Law was different; no better, no worse, only
different. The Hand of God, that drew chips and galleons, must work by
some method; and Abel Keeling's eyes were dully on the pipkin again as if
he sought the method there….
Then conscious thought left him for a space, and when he resumed it was
without obvious connection.
Oars, of course, were the thing. With oars, men could laugh at calms.
Oars, that only pinnaces and galliasses now used, had had their
advantages. But oars (which was to say a method, for you could say if you
liked that the Hand of God grasped the oar-loom, as the Breath of God
filled the sail)—oars were antiquated, belonged to the past, and meant a
throwing-over of all that was good and new and a return to fine lines, a
battle-formation abreast to give effect to the shock of the ram, and a
day or two at sea and then to port again for provisions. Oars … no.
Abel Keeling was one of the new men, the men who swore by the line-ahead,
the broadside fire of sakers and demi-cannon, and weeks and months
without a landfall. Perhaps one day the wits of such men as he would
devise a craft, not oar-driven (because oars could not penetrate into the
remote seas of the world)—not sail-driven (because men who trusted to
sails found themselves in an airless, three-mile strait, suspended
motionless between cloud and water, ever gliding to a wall of rock)—but
a ship … a ship …
"To Noah and his sons with him
God spake, and thus said He:
A covenant set I up with you
And your posterity—"
It was Bligh again, wandering somewhere in the waist. Abel Keeling's mind
was once more a blank. Then slowly, slowly, as the water drops collected
on the collar of rope, his thought took shape again.
A galliasse? No, not a galliasse. The galliasse made shift to be two
things, and was neither. This ship, that the hand of man should one day
make for the Hand of God to manage, should be a ship that should take and
conserve the force of the wind, take it and store it as she stored her
victuals; at rest when she wished, going ahead when she wished; turning
the forces both of calm and storm against themselves. For, of course, her
force must be wind—stored wind—a bag of the winds, as the children's
tale had it—wind probably directed upon the water astern, driving it
away and urging forward the ship, acting by reaction. She would have a
wind-chamber, into which wind would be pumped with pumps…. Bligh would
call that equally the Hand of God, this driving-force of the ship of the
future that Abel Keeling dimly foreshadowed as he lay between the
mainmast and the belfry, turning his eyes now and then from ashy white
timbers to the vivid green bronze-rust of the bell above him….
Bligh's face, liver-coloured with the sun and ravaged from inwards by the
faith that consumed him, appeared at the head of the quarter-deck steps.
His voice beat uncontrolledly out.
"And in the earth here is no place
Of refuge to be found,
Nor in the deep and water-course
That passeth under ground—"
Bligh's eyes were lidded, as if in contemplation of his inner ecstasy.
His head was thrown back, and his brows worked up and down tormentedly.
His wide mouth remained open as his hymn was suddenly interrupted on the
long-drawn note. From somewhere in the shimmering mists the note was
taken up, and there drummed and rang and reverberated through the strait
a windy, hoarse, and dismal bellow, alarming and sustained. A tremor rang
through Bligh. Moving like a sightless man, he stumbled forward from the
head of the quarter-deck steps, and Abel Keeling was aware of his gaunt
figure behind him, taller for the steepness of the deck. As that vast
empty sound died away, Bligh laughed in his mania.
"Lord, hath the grave's wide mouth a tongue to praise Thee? Lo, again—"
Again the cavernous sound possessed the air, louder and nearer. Through
it came another sound, a slow throb, throb—throb, throb—Again the
"Even Leviathan lifteth up his voice in praise!" Bligh sobbed.
Abel Keeling did not raise his head. There had returned to him the memory
of that day when, before the morning mists had lifted from the strait, he
had emptied the pipkin of the water that was the allowance until night
should fall again. During that agony of thirst he had seen shapes and
heard sounds with other than his mortal eyes and ears, and even in the
moments that had alternated with his lightness, when he had known these
to be hallucinations, they had come again. He had heard the bells on a
Sunday in his own Kentish home, the calling of children at play, the
unconcerned singing of men at their daily labour, and the laughter and
gossip of the women as they had spread the linen on the hedge or
distributed bread upon the platters. These voices had rung in his brain,
interrupted now and then by the groans of Bligh and of two other men who
had been alive then. Some of the voices he had heard had been silent on
earth this many a long year, but Abel Keeling, thirst-tortured, had heard
them, even as he was now hearing that vacant moaning with the
intermittent throbbing that filled the strait with alarm….
"Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him!" Bligh was calling deliriously.
Then a bell seemed to sound in Abel Keeling's ears, and, as if something
in the mechanism of his brain had slipped, another picture rose in his
fancy—the scene when the Mary of the Tower had put out, to a bravery
of swinging bells and shrill fifes and valiant trumpets. She had not been
a leper-white galleon then. The scroll-work on her prow had twinkled with
gilding; her belfry and stern-galleries and elaborate lanterns had
flashed in the sun with gold; and her fighting-tops and the war-pavesse
about her waist had been gay with painted coats and scutcheons. To her
sails had been stitched gaudy ramping lions of scarlet saye, and from her
mainyard, now dipping in the water, had hung the broad two-tailed pennant
with the Virgin and Child embroidered upon it….
Then suddenly a voice about him seemed to be saying, "And a
half-seven—and a half-seven—" and in a twink the picture in Abel
Keeling's brain changed again. He was at home again, instructing his son,
young Abel, in the casting of the lead from the skiff they had pulled out
of the harbour.
"And a half-seven!" the boy seemed to be calling.
Abel Keeling's blackened lips muttered: "Excellently well cast, Abel,
excellently well cast!"
"And a half-seven—and a half-seven—seven—seven—"
"Ah," Abel Keeling murmured, "that last was not a clear cast—give me the
line—thus it should go … ay, so…. Soon you shall sail the seas with
me in the Mary of the Tower. You are already perfect in the stars and
the motions of the planets; to-morrow I will instruct you in the use of
For a minute or two he continued to mutter; then he dozed. When again he
came to semi-consciousness it was once more to the sound of bells, at
first faint, then louder, and finally becoming a noisy clamour
immediately above his head. It was Bligh. Bligh, in a fresh attack of
delirium, had seized the bell-lanyard and was ringing the bell insanely.
The cord broke in his fingers, but he thrust at the bell with his hand,
and again called aloud.
"Upon an harp and an instrument of ten strings … let Heaven and Earth
praise Thy Name!…"
He continued to call aloud, and to beat on the bronze-rusted bell.
"Ship ahoy! What ship's that?"
One would have said that a veritable hail had come out of the mists; but
Abel Keeling knew those hails that came out of the mists. They came from
ships which were not there. "Ay, ay, keep a good look-out, and have a
care to your lodemanage," he muttered again to his son….
But, as sometimes a sleeper sits up in his dream, or rises from his couch
and walks, so all of a sudden Abel Keeling found himself on his hands and
knees on the deck, looking back over his shoulder. In some deep-seated
region of his consciousness he was dimly aware that the cant of the deck
had become more perilous, but his brain received the intelligence and
forgot it again. He was looking out into the bright and baffling mists.
The buckler of the sun was of a more ardent silver; the sea below it was
lost in brilliant evaporation; and between them, suspended in the haze,
no more substantial than the vague darknesses that float before dazzled
eyes, a pyramidal phantom-shape hung. Abel Keeling passed his hand over
his eyes, but when he removed it the shape was still there, gliding
slowly towards the Mary's quarter. Its form changed as he watched it.
The spirit-grey shape that had been a pyramid seemed to dissolve into
four upright members, slightly graduated in tallness, that nearest the
Mary's stern the tallest and that to the left the lowest. It might have
been the shadow of the gigantic set of reed-pipes on which that vacant
mournful note had been sounded.
And as he looked, with fooled eyes, again his ears became fooled:
"Ahoy there! What ship's that? Are you a ship?… Here, give me that
trumpet—" Then a metallic barking. "Ahoy there! What the devil are
you? Didn't you ring a bell? Ring it again, or blow a blast or something,
and go dead slow!"
All this came, as it were, indistinctly, and through a sort of high
singing in Abel Keeling's own ears. Then he fancied a short bewildered
laugh, followed by a colloquy from somewhere between sea and sky.
"Here, Ward, just pinch me, will you? Tell me what you see there. I want
to know if I'm awake."
"There, on the starboard bow. (Stop that ventilating fan; I can't
hear myself think.) See anything? Don't tell me it's that damned
Dutchman—don't pitch me that old Vanderdecken tale—give me an easy
one first, something about a sea-serpent…. You did hear that bell,
"Shut up a minute—listen—"
Again Bligh's voice was lifted up.
"This is the cov'nant that I make:
From henceforth nevermore
Will I again the world destroy
With water, as before."
Bligh's voice died away again in Abel Keeling's ears.
"Oh—my—fat—Aunt—Julia!" the voice that seemed to come from between
sea and sky sounded again. Then it spoke more loudly. "I say," it began
with careful politeness, "if you are a ship, do you mind telling us
where the masquerade is to be? Our wireless is out of order, and we
hadn't heard of it…. Oh, you do see it, Ward, don't you?… Please,
please tell us what the hell you are!"
Again Abel Keeling had moved as a sleepwalker moves. He had raised
himself up by the belfry timbers, and Bligh had sunk in a heap on the
deck. Abel Keeling's movement overturned the pipkin, which raced the
little trickle of its contents down the deck and lodged where the still
and brimming sea made, as it were, a chain with the carved balustrade of
the quarter-deck—one link a still gleaming edge, then a dark baluster,
and then another gleaming link. For one moment only Abel Keeling found
himself noticing that that which had driven Bligh aft had been the
rising of the water in the waist as the galleon settled by the head—the
waist was now entirely submerged; then once more he was absorbed in
his dream, its voices, and its shape in the mist, which had again taken
the form of a pyramid before his eyeballs.
"Of course," a voice seemed to be complaining anew, and still through
that confused dinning in Abel Keeling's ears, "we can't turn a four-inch
on it…. And, of course, Ward, I don't believe in 'em. D'you hear, Ward?
I don't believe in 'em, I say…. Shall we call down to old A. B.? This
might interest His Scientific Skippership…."
"Oh, lower a boat and pull out to it—into it—over it—through it—"
"Look at our chaps crowded on the barbette yonder. They've seen it.
Better not give an order you know won't be obeyed…."
Abel Keeling, cramped against the antique belfry, had begun to find his
dream interesting. For, though he did not know her build, that mirage was
the shape of a ship. No doubt it was projected from his brooding on ships
of half an hour before; and that was odd…. But perhaps, after all, it
was not very odd. He knew that she did not really exist; only the
appearance of her existed; but things had to exist like that before they
really existed. Before the Mary of the Tower had existed she had been a
shape in some man's imagination; before that, some dreamer had dreamed
the form of a ship with oars; and before that, far away in the dawn and
infancy of the world, some seer had seen in a vision the raft before man
had ventured to push out over the water on his two planks. And since this
shape that rode before Abel Keeling's eyes was a shape in his, Abel
Keeling's dream, he, Abel Keeling, was the master of it. His own brooding
brain had contrived her, and she was launched upon the illimitable ocean
of his own mind….
"And I will not unmindful be
Of this, My covenant, passed
Twixt Me and you and every flesh
Whiles that the world should last,"
sang Bligh, rapt….
But as a dreamer, even in his dream, will scratch upon the wall by his
couch some key or word to put him in mind of his vision on the morrow
when it has left him, so Abel Keeling found himself seeking some sign to
be a proof to those to whom no vision is vouchsafed. Even Bligh sought
that—could not be silent in his bliss, but lay on the deck there,
uttering great passionate Amens and praising his Maker, as he said, upon
an harp and an instrument of ten strings. So with Abel Keeling. It would
be the Amen of his life to have praised God, not upon a harp, but upon a
ship that should carry her own power, that should store wind or its
equivalent as she stored her victuals, that should be something wrested
from the chaos of uninvention and ordered and disciplined and
subordinated to Abel Keeling's will…. And there she was, that
ship-shaped thing of spirit-grey, with the four pipes that resembled a
phantom organ now broadside and of equal length. And the ghost-crew
of that ship were speaking again….
The interrupted silver chain by the quarterdeck balustrade had now become
continuous, and the balusters made a herring-bone over their own
motionless reflections. The spilt water from the pipkin had dried, and
the pipkin was not to be seen. Abel Keeling stood beside the mast, erect
as God made man to go. With his leathery hand he smote upon the bell. He
waited for the space of a minute, and then cried:
"Ahoy!… Ship ahoy!… What ship's that?"
We are not conscious in a dream that we are playing a game the beginning
and end of which are in ourselves. In this dream of Abel Keeling's a
"Hallo, it's found its tongue…. Ahoy there! What are you?"
Loudly and in a clear voice Abel Keeling called: "Are you a ship?"
With a nervous giggle the answer came:
"We are a ship, aren't we, Ward? I hardly feel sure…. Yes, of course,
we're a ship. No question about us. The question is what the dickens
Not all the words these voices used were intelligible to Abel Keeling,
and he knew not what it was in the tone of these last words that reminded
him of the honour due to the Mary of the Tower. Blister-white and at
the end of her life as she was, Abel Keeling was still jealous of her
dignity; the voice had a youngish ring; and it was not fitting that young
chins should be wagged about his galleon. He spoke curtly.
"You that spoke—are you the master of that ship?"
"Officer of the watch," the words floated back; "the captain's
"Then send for him. It is with masters that masters hold speech," Abel
He could see the two shapes, flat and without relief, standing on a high
narrow structure with rails. One of them gave a low whistle, and seemed
to be fanning his face; but the other rumbled something into a sort of
funnel. Presently the two shapes became three. There was a murmuring,
as of a consultation, and then suddenly a new voice spoke. At its thrill
and tone a sudden tremor ran through Abel Keeling's frame. He wondered
what response it was that that voice found in the forgotten recesses of
"Ahoy!" seemed to call this new yet faintly remembered voice. "What's
all this about? Listen. We're His Majesty's destroyer Seapink, out of
Devonport last October, and nothing particular the matter with us. Now
who are you?"
"The Mary of the Tower, out of the Port of Rye on the day of Saint
Anne, and only two men—"
A gasp interrupted him.
"Out of WHERE?" that voice that so strangely moved Abel Keeling said
unsteadily, while Bligh broke into groans of renewed rapture.
"Out of the Port of Rye, in the County of Sussex … nay, give ear, else
I cannot make you hear me while this man's spirit and flesh wrestle so
together!… Ahoy! Are you gone?" For the voices had become a low murmur,
and the ship-shape had faded before Abel Keeling's eyes. Again and again
he called. He wished to be informed of the disposition and economy of the
"The wind-chamber!" he called, in an agony lest the knowledge
almost within his grasp should be lost. "I would know about the
Like an echo, there came back the words, uncomprehendingly uttered, "The
"… that driveth the vessel—perchance 'tis not wind—a steel bow that
is bent also conserveth force—the force you store, to move at will
through calm and storm…."
"Can you make out what it's driving at?"
"Oh, we shall all wake up in a minute…."
"Quiet, I have it; the engines; it wants to know about our engines.
It'll be wanting to see our papers presently. Rye Port!… Well, no harm
in humouring it; let's see what it can make of this. Ahoy there!" came
the voice to Abel Keeling, a little more strongly, as if a shifting wind
carried it, and speaking faster and faster as it went on. "Not wind, but
steam; d'you hear? Steam, steam. Steam, in eight Yarrow water-tube
boilers. S-t-e-a-m, steam. Got it? And we've twin-screw triple expansion
engines, indicated horse-power four thousand, and we can do 430
revolutions per minute; savvy? Is there anything your phantomhood would
like to know about our armament?…"
Abel Keeling was muttering fretfully to himself. It annoyed him that
words in his own vision should have no meaning for him. How did words
come to him in a dream that he had no knowledge of when wide awake? The
Seapink—that was the name of this ship; but a pink was long and
narrow, low-carged and square-built aft….
"And as for our armament," the voice with the tones that so profoundly
troubled Abel Keeling's memory continued, "we've two revolving Whitehead
torpedo-tubes, three six-pounders on the upper deck, and that's a
twelve-pounder forward there by the conning-tower. I forgot to mention
that we're nickel steel, with a coal capacity of sixty tons in most
damnably placed bunkers, and that thirty and a quarter knots is about our
top. Care to come aboard?"
But the voice was speaking still more rapidly and feverishly, as if to
fill a silence with no matter what, and the shape that was uttering it
was straining forward anxiously over the rail.
"Ugh! But I'm glad this happened in the daylight," another voice was
"I wish I was sure it was happening at all…. Poor old spook!"
"I suppose it would keep its feet if her deck was quite vertical. Think
she'll go down, or just melt?"
"Kind of go down … without wash…."
"Listen—here's the other one now—"
For Bligh was singing again:
"For, Lord, Thou know'st our nature such
If we great things obtain,
And in the getting of the same
Do feel no grief or pain,
"We little do esteem thereof;
But, hardly brought to pass,
A thousand times we do esteem
More than the other was."
"But oh, look—look—look at the other!… Oh, I say, wasn't he a grand
old boy! Look!"
For, transfiguring Abel Reeling's form as a prophet's form is
transfigured in the instant of his rapture, flooding his brain with the
white eureka-light of perfect knowledge, that for which he and his dream
had been at a standstill had come. He knew her, this ship of the future,
as if God's Finger had bitten her lines into his brain. He knew her as
those already sinking into the grave know things, miraculously,
completely, accepting Life's impossibilities with a nodded "Of course."
From the ardent mouths of her eight furnaces to the last drip from her
lubricators, from her bed-plates to the breeches of her quick-firers, he
knew her—read her gauges, thumbed her bearings, gave the ranges from her
range-finders, and lived the life he lived who was in command of her. And
he would not forget on the morrow, as he had forgotten on many morrows,
for at last he had seen the water about his feet, and knew that there
would be no morrow for him in this world….
And even in that moment, with but a sand or two to run in his glass,
indomitable, insatiable, dreaming dream on dream, he could not die until
he knew more. He had two questions to ask, and a master-question; and but
a moment remained. Sharply his voice rang out.
"Ho, there!… This ancient ship, the Mary of the Tower, cannot steam
thirty and a quarter knots, but yet she can sail the waters. What
more does your ship? Can she soar above them, as the fowls of the air
"Lord, he thinks we're an aeroplane!… No, she can't…."
"And can you dive, even as the fishes of the deep?"
"No…. Those are submarines … we aren't a submarine…."
But Abel Keeling waited for no more. He gave an exulting chuckle.
"Oho, oho—thirty knots, and but on the face of the waters—no more than
that? Oho!… Now my ship, the ship I see as a mother sees full-grown
the child she has but conceived—my ship, I say—oho!—my ship
shall…. Below there—trip that gun!"
The cry came suddenly and alertly, as a muffled sound came from below and
an ominous tremor shook the galleon.
"By Jove, her guns are breaking loose below—that's her finish—"
"Trip that gun, and double-breech the others!" Abel Keeling's voice rang
out, as if there had been any to obey him. He had braced himself within
the belfry frame; and then in the middle of the next order his voice
suddenly failed him. His ship-shape, that for the moment he had
forgotten, rode once more before his eyes. This was the end, and his
master-question, apprehension for the answer to which was now torturing
his face and well-nigh bursting his heart, was still unasked.
"Ho—he that spoke with me—the master," he cried in a voice that ran
high, "is he there?"
"Yes, yes!" came the other voice across the water, sick with suspense.
"Oh, be quick!"
There was a moment in which hoarse cries from many voices, a heavy thud
and rumble on wood, and a crash of timbers and a gurgle and a splash were
indescribably mingled; the gun under which Abel Keeling had lain had
snapped her rotten breechings and plunged down the deck, carrying Bligh's
unconscious form with it. The deck came up vertical, and for one instant
longer Abel Keeling clung to the belfry.
"I cannot see your face," he screamed, "but meseems your voice is a voice
I know. What is your name?"
In a torn sob the answer came across the water:
"Keeling—Abel Keeling…. Oh, my God!"
And Abel Keeling's cry of triumph, that mounted to a victorious "Huzza!"
was lost in the downward plunge of the Mary of the Tower, that left
the strait empty save for the sun's fiery blaze and the last smoke-like
evaporation of the mists.