Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

The Doldrums

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

The Doldrums

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

SIX BELLS CLANGED the dawning of the last hour in the midnight watch. I dropped my cards, for it was the peculiar custom to stop whist just as the bell sounded.

"Time up!" said the Captain regretfully, mopping his brow. "How do we stand, Jenny?"

His wife's voice - "Eight and three eleven, and four - " rose in a vinegary triumph of addition from across the saloon table, to culminate in an emphatic "Fifteen points."

"Good! I rather think that's the best night yet, sir. Bed, Jenny. Good night, gentlemen. A hot night, ain't it?"

"Good night, Captain! Good night, Mrs. Cape! Coming on deck, Jacques?"

"No," said my partner; "bed for this child, g'night"; and murmuring a disgusted "Fifteen points - and the vinegar - and the heat - phew!" he shut his cabin door with a jerk.

I climbed the stern hatchway, and joined the three men lounging against the skylight on the poop. The moon hung lazily between the softly flapping sails of the idling ship. Out of the deadly calm waters a little purposeless heave rocked her ever and anon to this side and that, and the old shellback at the useless wheel whistled softly to himself, as he looked vainly for the ship's wake in the oily tropical ocean.

The Southern Cross dipped afar on the port quarter, and innumerable stars spangled the stilly depths of the dark heavens. The curiously dissonant miaul of the fo'c'sle cat hit the ear, through the sultry stifling air, with a sense of the relieved ridiculous.

"Dosé fallows, you know (he pronounced it "gnau")," said the mate in his slightly nasal, foreign accent, evidently resuming, "it's very curious you know, they rraally haven't any feelings."

"Do you mean, they feel no emotions, as we understand the word?" said young Raymond impatiently, his intolerance of human beings so constituted ringing in the high-pitched tones of his clear voice.

"Not a blessed one!" said a third voice from the ship's side, shrill and worn. "Yellow devils! Yellow devils! They've only one virtue."

"And that, Doctor?"

"Opium, sirree. They're tolerable when they're opium-drunk."

The mate looked up sharply, and with his brown almond-shaped Slav eyes scrutinised keenly the dim figure of the speaker; and his mouth, between the close-trimmed, pointed beard and drooping moustaches, took a more than usually cynical and mournful curve.

"You are severe, Doctor," he said; but the other, without answering, turned away, and leaned over the bulwark wearily.

"Ah! That is bad, you know," I heard the mate say to himself under his breath.

"Yes," said the shrill voice presently from the darkness, "you may have seen 'em, and you may talk about 'em, but you don't know them. You've not worked in China Town amongst John Chinamen, as I've worked. I guess you've not seen 'em born, and die, and marry, as I've seen 'em. Ugh! devils -devils hog-skinned, slit-eyed devils!"

"It is all tempèrrament, you know," said the mate, "dosé fallows, you know, they are different all through, it is not a question of degree. A white man will never understand how their minds work. Will you have a cigarette, Doctor?" He watched the thin face and trembling hand closely, and shook his head, as the Doctor turned back with his lighted cigarette to the ship's side.

"It is bad, you know," he muttered to himself. Young Raymond had strolled to the wheel, and was standing talking cheerily to the helmsman; the heat seemed to have no effect on his buoyant spirits. I, stretched on a locker, fanned myself lazily with the mate's cap, and the mate himself sat in his favourite attitude with his hands clasping his knees, his chin sunk on his chest. Presently the Doctor began to talk again, more to himself than to us.

"What a night!" he said. "What a ghastly, hellish, stifling night! Look at that oily pond, can't you feel the heat lifting out of it into your face? I used to think nothing could lick the Queensland bush, but Great Lordy! …

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