THERE was no talk of it for a fortnight. We spoke of latitude and longitude and the proper manufacture of sherry cobblers, while the steamer cut open a glassy-smooth sea. Then we turned towards China and drank farewell to the nearer East. “We shall reach Hongkong without being it,” said the nervous lady.
“Nobody of ordinary strength of mind ever was it,” said the big fat man with the voice. I kept my eye on the big fat man. He boasted too much.
The China seas are governed neither by wind nor calm. Deep down under the sapphire waters sits a green and yellow devil who suffers from indigestion perpetually. When he is unwell he troubles the waters above with his twistings and writhings. Thus it happens that it is never calm in the China seas.
The sun was shining brightly when the big fat man with the voice came up the companion and looked at the horizon.
“Hah!” said he, “calm as ditch water! Now I remember when I was in the Florida in ’80, meeting a tidal-wave that turned us upside down for five minutes, and most of the people inside out, by Jove!” He expatiated at length on the heroism displayed by himself when “even the Captain was down, sir!”
I said nothing, but I kept my eyes upon the strong man.
The Sun continued to shine brightly, and it also kept an eye in the same direction. I went to the far-off fo’c’sle, where the sheep and the cow and the bo’sun and the second-class passengers dwell together in amity. “Bo’sun,” said I, “how’s her head?”
“Direckly in front of her, sir,” replied that ill-mannered soul, “but we shall be meetin’ a head-sea in half an hour that’ll put your head atween of your legs. Go aft an’ tell that to them first-dass passengers.”
I went aft, but I said nothing. We went, later, to tiffin, and there was a fine funereal smell of stale curries and tinned meats in the air. Conversation was animated, for most of the passengers had been together for five weeks and had developed two or three promising flirtations. I was a stranger—a minnow among Tritons—a third man in the cabin. Only those who have been a third man in the cabin know what this means. Suddenly and without warning our ship curtsied. It was neither a bob nor a duck nor a lurch, but a long, sweeping, stately old-fashioned curtsy. Followed a lull in the conversation. I was distinctly conscious that I had left my stomach two feet in the air, and waited for the return roll to join it. “Prettily the old hooper rides, doesn’t she?” said the strong man. “I hope she won’t do it often,” said the pretty lady with the changing complexion.
“ Wha-hoop! Wha — wha — wha — willy whoop!” said the screw, that had managed to come out of the water and was racing wildly.
“Good heavens! is the ship going down?” said the fat lady, clutching her own private claret bottle that she might not die athirst. The ship went down at the word—with a drunken lurch down she went, and a smothered yell from one of the cabins showed that there was water in the sea. The portholes closed with a clash, and we rose and fell on the swell of the bo’sun’s head-sea. The conversation died out. Some complained that the saloon was stuffy, and fled upstairs to the deck. The strong man brought up the rear.
“Ooshy — ooshy — wooshy — woggle wop!’ cried a big wave without a head. “Get up, old girll” and he smacked the ship most disrespectfully under the counter, and she squirmed as she took the drift of the next sea.
“She—ah—rides very prettily,” repeated the strong man as the companion stairs spumed him from them and he wound his arms round the nearest steward.
“Damn prettily,” said the necked officer. “I’m going to lie down. Never could stand the China seas,”
“Most refreshing thing in the world,” said the strong man faintly.
I took counsel purely with myself, which is to say, my stomach, and perceived that the worst would not befall me.
“Come to the fo’c’sle, then, and feel the wind,” said I to the strong man. The plover’s egg eyes of three yellowish-green girls were upon him.
“With pleasure,” said he, and I bore him away to where the cut-water was pulling up the scared flying-fishes as a spaniel flushes game. In front of us was the illimitable blue, lightly ridged by the procession of the big blind rollers. Up rose the stem till six feet of the red paint stood clear above the blue—from twenty-three feet to eighteen I could count as I leaned over. Then the sapphire crashed into splintered crystal with a musical jar, and the white spray licked the anchor channels as we drove down and down, sucking at the sea. I kept my eye upon the strong man, and I noticed that his mouth was slightly open, the better to inhale the rushing wind. When I looked a second time he was gone. The driven spray was scarcely quicker in its flight. My excellent stomach behaved with temperance and chastity. I enjoyed the fo’c’sle, and my delight was the greater when I reflected on the strong man. Unless I was much mistaken, he would know all about it in half an hour.
I went aft, and a lull between two waves heard the petulant pop of a champagne cork. No one drinks champagne after tiffin except . . . It.
The strong man had ordered the champagne. There were bottles of it flying about the quarter-deck. The engaged couple were sipping it out of one glass, but their faces were averted like our parents of old. They were ashamed.
“You may go! You may go to Hongkong for me!” shouted half-a-dozen little waves together, pulling the ship several ways at once. She rolled stately, and from that moment settled down to the work of the evening. I cannot blame her, for I am sure she did not know her own strength. It didn’t hurt her to be on her side, and play cat-and-mouse, and puss-in-the comer, and hide-and-seek, but it destroyed the passengers. One by one they sank into long chairs and gazed at the sky. But even there the little white moved, and there was not one stable thing in heaven above or the waters beneath. My virtuous and very respectable stomach behaved with integrity and resolution. I treated it to a gin cocktail, which I sucked by the side of the strong man, who told me in confidence that he had been overcome by the sun at the fo’c’sle. Sun fever does not make people cold and clammy and blue. I sat with him and tried to make him talk about the Florida and his voyages in the past. He evaded me and went down below. Three minutes later I followed him with a thick cheroot. Into his bunk I went, for I knew he would be helpless. He was—he was—he was. He wallowed supine, and I stood in the doorway smoking.
“What is it?” said I.
He wrestled with his pride—his wicked pride—but he would not tell a lie.
“It,” said he. And it was so.
The rolling continues. The ship is a shambles, and I have six places on each side of me all to myself.