The Red Lamp

by Rudyard Kipling

[a short tale]

“A STRONG situation—very strong, sir—quite the strongest one in the play, in fact.”

“What play?” said a voice from the bottom of the long chair under the bulwarks.

The Red Lamp.


Conversation ceased, and there was an industrious sucking of cheroots for the space of half an hour before the company adjourned to the card-room. It was decidedly a night for sleeping on deck—warm as the Red Sea and more moist than Bengal. Unfortunately, every square foot of the deck seemed to be occupied by earlier comers, and in despair I removed myself to the extreme fo’c’sle, where the anchor-chains churn rust-dyed water from the hawseholes and the lascars walk about with slushpots.

The throb of the engines reached this part of the world as a muffled breathing which might be easily mistaken for the snoring of the ship’s cow. Occasionally one of the fowls in the coops waked and cheeped dismally as she thought of to-morrow’s entrées in the saloon, but otherwise all was very, very still, for the hour was two in the morning, when the crew of a ship are not disposed to be lively. None came to bear me company save the bo’sun’s pet kittens, and they were impolite. From where I lay I could look over the whole length of awning, ghostly white in the dark, and by their constant fluttering judged that the ship was pitching considerably. The fo’c’sle swung up and down like an uneasy hydraulic lift, and a few showers of spray found their passage through the hawseholes from time to time.

Have you ever felt that maddening sense of incompetence which follows on watching the work of another man’s office? The civilian is at home among his despatch-boxes and files of pending cases. “How in the world does he do it?” asks the military man. The budding officer can arrange for the movements of two hundred men across country. “Incomprehensible!’’ says the civilian. And so it is with all alien employs from our own. So it was with me. I knew that I was lying among all the materials out of which Clark Russell builds his books of the sea—the rush through the night, the gouts of foam, the singing of the wind in the rigging overhead, and the black mystery of the water—but for the life of me I could make nothing of them all.

“A topsail royal flying free
A bit of canvas was to me.
And it was nothing more.”

“Oh, that a man should have but one poor little life and one incomplete set of experiences to crowd into it!” I sighed as the bells of the ship lulled me to sleep and the lookout man crooned a dreary song.

I slept far into the night, for the clouds gathered over the sky, the stars died out, and all grew as black as pitch. But we never slackened speed; we beat the foam to left and right with clanking of chains, rattling of bowports, and savage noises of ripping and rending from the cutwater ploughing up to the luminous sea-beasts. I was roused by the words of the man in the smoking-room: “A strong situation, sir, very strong—quite the strongest in the play, in fact—The Red Lamp, y’ know.’’

I thought over the sentence lazily for a time, and then—surely there was a red lamp in the air somewhere—an intolerable glare that singed the shut eyelids. I opened my eyes and looked forward. The lascar was asleep, his face bowed on his knees, though he ought to have been roused by the hum of a rapidly approaching city, by the noises of men and women talking and laughing and drinking. I could hear it not half a mile away: it was strange that his ears should be closed.

The night was so black that one could hardly breathe; and yet where did the glare from the red lamp come from? Not from our ship: she was silent and asleep—the officers on the bridge were asleep; there was no one of four hundred souls awake but myself. And the glare of the red lamp went up to the zenith. Small wonder. A quarter of a mile in front of us rolled a big steamer under full steam, and she was heading down on us without a word of warning. Would the lookout man never look out? Would their crew be as fast asleep as ours? It was impossible, for the other ship hummed with populous noises, and there was the defiant tinkle of a piano rising above all. She should have altered her course, or blown a fog-horn.

I held my breath while an eternity went by, counted out by the throbbing of my heart and the engines. I knew that it was my duty to call, but I knew also that no one could hear me. Moreover, I was intensely interested in the approaching catastrophe; interested, you will understand, as one whom it did in no wise concern. By the light of the luminous sea thrown forward in sheets under the forefoot of the advancing steamer I could discern the minutest details of her structure from cat-head to bridge. Abaft the bridge she was crowded with merrymakers—seemed to be, in fact, a P. & O, vessel given up to a ball, I wondered as I leaned over the bulwarks what they would say when the crash came—whether they would shriek very loudly—whether the men and women would try to rush to our decks, or whether we would rush on to theirs. It would not matter in the least, for at the speed we were driving both vessels would go down together locked through the deeps of the sea. It occurred to me then that the sea would be cold, and that instead of choking decently I might be one in a mad rush for the boats—might be crippled by a falling spar or wrenched plate and left on the heeling decks to die. Then Terror came to me—Fear, gross and overwhelming as the bulk of the night—Despair unrelieved by a single ray of hope.

We were not fifty yards apart when the passengers on the stranger caught sight of us and shrieked aloud. I saw a man pick up his child from one of the benches and futilely attempt to climb the rigging. Then we closed—her name-plate ten feet above ours, looking down into our forehatch. I heard the grinding as of a hundred querns, the ripping of the tough bow-plates, and the pistol-like report of displaced rivets followed by the rush of the sea. We were sinking in mid-ocean.

.     .     .     .     .

“Beg y’ pardon,” said the quartermaster, shaking me by the arm, “but you must have been sleeping in the moonlight for the last two hours, and that’s not good for the eyes. Didn’t seem to make you sleep easy, either.” I opened my eyes heavily. My face was swollen and aching, for on my forehead lay the malignant splendour of the moon. The glare of the Red Lamp had vanished with the brilliantly-lighted ship, but the ghastly shrieks of her drowning crew continued.

“What’s that?” I asked tremulously of the quartermaster. “Was it real?”

“Pork chops in the saloon to-morrow,” said the quartermaster. “The butcher he got up at four bells to put the old squeaker out of the way. Them’s his dying ejaculations!’

I dragged my bedding aft and went to sleep.