THE SHADOW LINE
THE SHADOW LINE
THE SHADOW LINE
--D'autre fois calme plat grand miroir
De mon desespoir.
ONLY the young have such moments. I don't
mean the very young. No. The very young have
properly speaking no moments. It is the privi-
lege of early youth to live in advance of its days
in all the beautiful continuity of hope which
knows no pauses and no introspection.
One closes behind one the little gate of mere
boyishness--and enters an enchanted garden. Its
very shades glow with promise. Every turn of the
path has its seduction. And it isn't because it
is an undiscovered country. One knows well
enough that all mankind had streamed that way.
It is the charm of universal experience from which
one expects an uncommon or personal sensation--
a bit of one's own.
One goes on recognizing the landmarks of the
predecessors excited amused taking the hard
luck and the good luck together--the kicks and
the halfpence as the saying is--the picturesque
common lot that holds so many possibilities for
the deserving or perhaps for the lucky. Yes.
One goes on. And the time too goes on--till one
perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that
the region of early youth too must be left be-
This is the period of life in which such moments
of which I have spoken are likely to come. What
moments? Why the moments of boredom of
weariness of dissatisfaction. Rash moments.
I mean moments when the still young are inclined
to commit rash actions such as getting married
suddenly or else throwing up a job for no rea-
This is not a marriage story. It wasn't so bad
as that with me. My action rash as it was had
more the character of divorce--almost of deser-
tion. For no reason on which a sensible person
could put a finger I threw up my job--chucked
my berth--left the ship of which the worst that
could be said was that she was a steamship and
therefore perhaps not entitled to that blind
loyalty which. . . . However it's no use try-
ing to put a gloss on what even at the time I myself
half suspected to be a caprice.
It was in an Eastern port. She was an Eastern
ship inasmuch as then she belonged to that port.
She traded among dark islands on a blue reef-
scarred sea with the Red Ensign over the taffrail
and at her masthead a house-flag also red but
with a green border and with a white crescent in
it. For an Arab owned her and a Syed at that.
Hence the green border on the flag. He was the
head of a great House of Straits Arabs but as
loyal a subject of the complex British Empire as
you could find east of the Suez Canal. World
politics did not trouble him at all but he had a
great occult power amongst his own people.
It was all one to us who owned the ship. He
had to employ white men in the shipping part of
his business and many of those he so employed
had never set eyes on him from the first to the
last day. I myself saw him but once quite
accidentally on a wharf--an old dark little man
blind in one eye in a snowy robe and yellow
slippers. He was having his hand severely kissed
by a crowd of Malay pilgrims to whom he had
done some favour in the way of food and money.
His alms-giving I have heard was most exten-
sive covering almost the whole Archipelago. For
isn't it said that "The charitable man is the friend
Excellent (and picturesque) Arab owner about
whom one needed not to trouble one's head a
most excellent Scottish ship--for she was that
from the keep up--excellent sea-boat easy to
keep clean most handy in every way and if it
had not been for her internal propulsion worthy
of any man's love I cherish to this day a profound
respect for her memory. As to the kind of trade
she was engaged in and the character of my ship-
mates I could not have been happier if I had had
the life and the men made to my order by a
And suddenly I left all this. I left it in that
to us inconsequential manner in which a bird
flies away from a comfortable branch. It was as
though all unknowing I had heard a whisper or
seen something. Well--perhaps! One day I was
perfectly right and the next everything was gone
--glamour flavour interest contentment--every-
thing. It was one of these moments you know.
The green sickness of late youth descended on me
and carried me off. Carried me off that ship I
We were only four white men on board with a
large crew of Kalashes and two Malay petty
officers. The Captain stared hard as if wondering
what ailed me. But he was a sailor and he too
had been young at one time. Presently a smile
came to lurk under his thick iron-gray moustache
and he observed that of course if I felt I must
go he couldn't keep me by main force. And it was
arranged that I should be paid off the next morn-
ing. As I was going out of his cabin he added
suddenly in a peculiar wistful tone that he hoped
I would find what I was so anxious to go and look
for. A soft cryptic utterance which seemed to
reach deeper than any diamond-hard tool could
have done. I do believe he understood my case.
But the second engineer attacked me differently.
He was a sturdy young Scot with a smooth face and
light eyes. His honest red countenance emerged
out of the engine-room companion and then the
whole robust man with shirt sleeves turned up
wiping slowly the massive fore-arms with a lump
of cotton-waste. And his light eyes expressed
bitter distaste as though our friendship had turned
to ashes. He said weightily: "Oh! Aye! I've
been thinking it was about time for you to run
away home and get married to some silly girl."
It was tacitly understood in the port that John
Nieven was a fierce misogynist; and the absurd
character of the sally convinced me that he meant
to be nasty--very nasty--had meant to say the
most crushing thing he could think of. My laugh
sounded deprecatory. Nobody but a friend could
be so angry as that. I became a little crestfallen.
Our chief engineer also took a characteristic view
of my action but in a kindlier spirit.
He was young too but very thin and with a
mist of fluffy brown beard all round his haggard
face. All day long at sea or in harbour he could
be seen walking hastily up and down the after-
deck wearing an intense spiritually rapt ex-
pression which was caused by a perpetual con-
sciousness of unpleasant physical sensations in
his internal economy. For he was a confirmed
dyspeptic. His view of my case was very simple.
He said it was nothing but deranged liver. Of
course! He suggested I should stay for another
trip and meantime dose myself with a certain
patent medicine in which his own belief was ab-
solute. "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll buy you
two bottles out of my own pocket. There. I
can't say fairer than that can I?"
I believe he would have perpetrated the atrocity
(or generosity) at the merest sign of weakening
on my part. By that time however I was more
discontented disgusted and dogged than ever.
The past eighteen months so full of new and varied
experience appeared a dreary prosaic waste of
days. I felt--how shall I express it?--that there
was no truth to be got out of them.
What truth? I should have been hard put to it to
explain. Probably if pressed I would have burst
into tears simply. I was young enough for that.
Next day the Captain and I transacted our busi-
ness in the Harbour Office. It was a lofty big
cool white room where the screened light of day
glowed serenely. Everybody in it--the officials
the public--were in white. Only the heavy
polished desks gleamed darkly in a central avenue
and some papers lying on them were blue. Enor-
mous punkahs sent from on high a gentle draught
through that immaculate interior and upon our
The official behind the desk we approached
grinned amiably and kept it up till in answer to
his perfunctory question "Sign off and on again?"