The Captain Is Sleeping
The engineers have not been seen for days. I stand outside the engine room, their freshly laundered sheets folded in my arms, and listen to them weep. I wonder at their anguish, at its depths, and shudder at the sound they make on the other side of the iron door.
“What is the matter?” I say through the door. I dare not shout. If I raise my voice so as to be heard, I am sure I will faint. My nerves have been tightly strung, like piano wire, ever since the ship began to act queerly. “What is the matter, men?” I try again, my lips close to the door, whispering into my cupped hands, having made of them a megaphone.
As if in answer, their keening grows more plaintive—the burden of its grief heavier to bear. I turn away.
“Oh, engineers, what is your sorrow?” I cry into the sheets, which smell pleasantly of soap and steam.
Few know of the engineers’ sequestration or that of the captain, who shut himself away in his cabin three days ago. I reported both circumstances to the ship’s doctor, as I ought. The doctor, whose fastidious whiskers remind me of Dickens’s, was denied admission to the captain by the captain’s mother, who sits impassively in front of the cabin door, “like a veritable Gorgon,” and knits.
“The captain is asleep,” she says—that, and no more.
The doctor, who studied in Heidelberg under a brilliant, if controversial, specialist in diseases of the mind, believes that the captain suffers from an acute nervous disorder, characterized by willed sleep and general suspension of animation.
“But what of the engineers?” I asked after he advanced his theory. But he merely shrugged and snipped, with a tiny scissors, a rogue whisker, which was causing his nose to snuffle. “What of their weeping?” I asked.
“Unremitting grief may be symptomatic of a disintegrating mind,” the doctor declared into the mirror, in which my own face, with its usual look of bewilderment, appeared. “However, I know of no instances in the literature where eight men simultaneously shared in the disintegration.”
“Especially men in the Corps of Engineers.”
The engineers are weeping, the captain is sleeping, and the ship seems to fidget in sympathy, or restlessness, or fear, out on the middle of the North Atlantic.
I am the ship’s steward. There is little that passes below decks that escapes me. Is it any wonder I am afraid?
Last night, after a genial performance by the Light Orchestra Society players, the doctor lowered a young woman into the engine room. Her name is Daphne; she dances in the chorus; and I love her madly. I had objected that the dumbwaiter was never intended as a conveyance, no matter how slight the passenger; that the condition of the rope was unknown; that the pulley creaked alarmingly; and that the good conduct of the engineers could not be relied upon in their present mood. The doctor could think of no other way to assess the situation.
“The situation,” he said, “is becoming more dangerous with each passing day. If for no other reason than the safety of all aboard, we must risk it,” he said. “And then there is our mission.”
Our ship, the Minos, was laying a transatlantic cable.
“Our mission is of incalculable importance, Simon. We are embarked upon a great adventure.”
I reminded him that, as ship’s steward, I had only a negligible role in the adventure: that I saw to the sheets, the pillowcases, tidied the cabins, and brought the members of the syndicate their whiskey-and-sodas.
“And clean up after those who can’t hold their liquor in a beam sea.”
The doctor reproached me for my lack of imagination. Infuriated, he would have struck me if McCutcheon, the cartoonist from one of the American papers, had not entered the infirmary.
“I need something for my nerves,” said McCutcheon. “I’m feeling on edge. My nerves are . . .” He left his sentence in midair, punctuating it, as it were, with a tear that suddenly coursed down his cheek.
The doctor and I looked at each other. His face registered the barest trace of alarm. From the involuntary displacement of my cheekbones, mine must have, too. The doctor poured some white powder into a paper, twisted it, and handed the “screw” to McCutcheon.
“Thanks, doc,” the cartoonist said, with undisguised self-pity.
“I begin to be afraid,” the doctor said anxiously, as he went to find Daphne and offer her an expanded role in our history.
Daphne agreed. The doctor commended her bravery and commitment to scientific progress, better communication and understanding between nations, et cetera. She folded herself inside the dumbwaiter. I listened to it creak and bang during its slow descent.
“A mere girl—scarcely more than a child!” said the doctor, wanting to shame me for my lack of conviction.
I hated him and hoped one night he would be carried overboard. In the meantime, I’ll short-sheet him when I make up his berth, I promised myself. Tomorrow he will retire into a straitjacket—may he rot there!
Daphne returned from the engine room, trembling.
“What is happening down there?” the doctor cried. “Simon, get the gin.”
I poured out a tumbler of the good Bombay, then helped Daphne into a chair. The cleats of the doctor’s shoes could be heard tapping on the galley floor, the hanging pots and ladles chiming companionably. We were alone in the galley—Daphne, the doctor, and I—the cook and his gang of kitchen roughs having gone to the casino to squander their week’s pay.
The gin proved itself sovereign against hysteria. (In my experience, it is always so.) Having regained her composure, Daphne was now dabbing at her eyes with a napkin.
“Tell us, girl, what it was that you saw!” the doctor demanded pitilessly, so that I hated him for Daphne’s sake.
“It was a scene from hell,” she said without the least affectation.
The doctor stopped his pacing and looked at her searchingly.
“They are lying in their bunks, their faces in their pillows, crying, while all about them black particles of soot tumble in the hellish light. From time to time, a hiss of steam drowns their lamentations.”
The doctor was silent a moment. I gently took the tumbler from Daphne’s hand, allowing mine to fall chastely onto her pert breast.
I washed the tumbler in the sink, while the doctor posed a momentous question: “Then who—for Christ’s sake—is stoking the boilers?”
“A dwarf, I think,” Daphne replied. “Naked, and black with coal dust, and incredibly hairy.”
“A dwarf?” the doctor repeated wonderingly.
“Unless it was a monkey,” she said.
Later, I walked Dolores to her cabin. For reasons I cannot explain, we came out onto one of the ship’s upper decks. We stopped at the rail and yielded to the charm of happenstance. We are young, after all, and susceptible to the prodding of the invisible. We wondered first at the sky—carbon, ermine, black as any sky I have ever seen in my voyages—black as a tropic night is black in spite of its crowding stars. This is not a night one finds in the North Atlantic, I thought to myself, where purity of darkness yields to a sullen, secretive gloom. And the air—so suave and flowery, as we leaned over the rail to watch the shining fish.
“Poisson,” said Dolores, “is French for fish.”
I asked her to repeat the word.
“Tell me it in French!” I begged.
“In saying it, your lips look as if they were about to kiss,” I said.
She smiled and looked at the moon, which was round and gold as a coin.
“I don’t understand what is happening,” I said.
She misunderstood my confusion, thinking I meant kisses. “Would you like to kiss me?” she asked. “In this moonlight?”
I forgot about the weather, which was wrong for this latitude, and the fish, which ought to have been swimming elsewhere, and kissed her. I am young, and questions of travel are better left to old men.
The Light Orchestra Society players rhapsodized. I took Dolores in my arms and danced. The gay music, which I had assumed to originate in the ship’s ballroom, seemed to be coming from the ocean itself. Straining my eyes, I saw, in the distance, the white hulls of the lifeboats—each occupied by a section of the orchestra. But I was intoxicated by moonlight and the scent of Dolores’s hair and could have been mistaken.
Waking this morning, I remember the night—the kissing and the ship’s apparent dislocation in space. I swing out of my hammock and land on the ice-cold floor. The room is freezing; the port-light, frosted over. A pale, wintry light leaves what looks like frost upon the floor. I dress quickly, putting on a sweater and wool cap, before going to the infirmary.
“Doctor Gordon, last night the ship was not where it was supposed to be,” I say. “The night reminded me of the Seychelles, or Zanzibar.”
“As to that,” he says, “we have no idea where the ship is.”
I cock my head as if listening to the shoaling of distant waves.
“The sextant is missing. And the charts.”
“What does the navigator say?” I ask.
“He also is missing.”
The doctor fastens a tourniquet around his arm and injects himself.
“It is beyond my power to explain, beyond understanding, beyond anything I have yet managed to encounter in this world,” he shouts.
“I hoped it might be love.”
“What does love have to do with it?”
“It could have explained the night.”
“And can love explain the unmanning of the engineers, or a captain who never wakes—and now this, our vanished navigator?” the doctor sneers at my ridiculous naïveté.
And I am ridiculous! Love has made me so.
“Last night was incomparable!” the doctor mutters. “I remember a night under the equator when, like you, I was in love. Last night reminded me of it.”
The doctor shakes his head as if to empty it of memory.
“What interests me now is this ship.”
We go out on deck to take a rough reckoning of our position. The sky is gray—the sun a small metallic disk that comes and goes according to the wind, which is herding lead-colored clouds across it. Their shadows lumber over water vexed and broken by the wind. We pull our collars up and our caps down over our ears. The bitter wind bites our cheeks and carries rain in its ice-cold pockets.
I look at the deck rimed with frost and frozen spray. Surely, it is not possible that Dolores and I danced, here, while the orchestra played von Suppé!
“Impossible that I kissed Dolores in last night’s moonlight—here!”
“I thought her name was Daphne,” the doctor shouts into the wind.
“Is it?” I say, my eyes transfixed by the horizon line, which is violently shaking as if with ague.
We go inside and take off our wet clothes, leaving the deck to the men who supervise the unwinding of the cable from the enormous iron spool.
“I am chilled to the bone!” the doctor cries.
Was last night a dream? I ask myself.
“The ship is moving—that’s what I do not understand!” the doctor continues. “The cable unwinds. The ship moves—on what course, we cannot say for sure. West. In a westerly direction. But without a captain, a navigator . . . Someone must be stoking the boilers! Daphne said a dwarf, or a monkey. Not a monkey, surely!”
Dolores, Daphne, Dolores, Daphne, Dolores . . .
“Confound it—there is no dwarf aboard this ship! Certainly not among the crew! I examined them all—every man of them! I would have noticed a dwarf!”
. . . Daphne, Dolores, Daphne, Dolores, Doris?
“But someone is stoking the boilers,” the doctor reasons. “Then why does he not unlock the engine room door?”
Last night there were no men on deck, I tell myself, no commotion of the spool. No cable being paid out. Only the insouciant music made by the Light Orchestra Society players.
“How is it possible!” I cry.
“That’s what I’d like to know!” the doctor answers.
I turn and hurry along the passageway.
“Where are you going, Simon?”
“I must talk to Doris.”
“Your fine romance will have to wait, Simon. First, we must talk to the captain’s mother.”
The doctor and I make our way into the interior, where the captain’s cabin lies. Each time I move about the ship I am surprised by its interior spaciousness. The Minos is listed in the registry as a 160-foot commercial vessel. But inside, it has the capacity of a passenger ship! Its decks and cabins multiply as I perform my steward’s duties, pushing the laundry cart along apparently endless passages. I am also struck by the haphazardness of the ship’s deck plan; how passages twist and turn, end abruptly, or open up into two or even three new ways. I have been amazed to find myself on a deck below, or above, the one on which I began, without my having taken the stairs.
“Have you noticed how odd the . . .”
But the doctor is nowhere to be seen.
How very strange!
I will leave the captain’s mother to the doctor. I know her obstinacy. Her taciturnity. She will not be persuaded into standing aside, so that the captain’s condition may be sounded. I suggested that a party of ordinary seamen be armed and ordered to break down the captain’s door, but the doctor feared an incident.
“There is no telling where such a breach of ship’s discipline will lead,” he said. “What horrors. Besides, the ordinary seamen are all in the infirmary, or else sick in their bunks from alcohol poisoning. We ought to have set a watch on the ship’s rum closet.”
At the time, I wondered who was performing the duties involved in the ship’s operation—the chipping, painting, swabbing, oiling, knotting, coiling, and uncoiling, not to mention the stoking. I thought it best to keep my misgivings to myself.
The doctor can confront the captain’s mother alone. Her surliness and enormous skein of black wool—they frighten me. Instead, I will go see Dora.
I spend an hour or more in fruitless search of Dora’s cabin. In the end, I succeed only in exhausting myself. On a deck I have never seen, far below the waterline, I discover a barbershop. The barber is asleep in one of the two chairs, snoring underneath a striped towel. I decide to rest a while in the other chair.
I have always been drawn to barbershops: their relaxed and luxurious atmosphere, the sense of privilege one feels while being expertly shaved, the temporary sanction of self-indulgence, the fragrance of soap and pomade—all combine in a feeling of extraordinary well-being. Barbers are also much admired as conversationalists, well versed in the day’s opinions and events.
As I let myself down into the chair, the barber whips off the towel and levers himself into an upright position. He looks at me in surprise.
“Do you mind if I sit a moment?” I ask. “I’ve been walking for hours—maybe even days. It feels like days, although by my watch it has only been an hour and a half since I left the doctor up on B deck.”
The barber swivels his chair toward me.
“Doctor? What doctor might that be, sir?”
“The ship’s doctor—Doctor Gordon! Surely, you must know him!”
The barber shakes his head—sadly, I think.
“I don’t know any doctor. On B deck, you say?”
“B deck—yes!” I reply impatiently.
“If ever I were on B deck, I have forgotten it.”
I look at the shaving mugs arrayed on a shelf beneath the mirror. Each mug bears the name of a crew member. Hunting among them with my eyes, I soon find Doctor Gordon’s.
“There,” I say, pointing in triumph to a mug snug between the navigator’s and the hydrologist’s.
The barber gets out of his chair and, picking up the doctor’s mug, blows it clean of dust.
“As you can see, it has not been used,” he says smugly. “No, sir, I have never shaved a doctor of any sort!” Glancing at the other mugs, he says: “Indeed, I cannot recall ever having shaved any man from the ship. As it happens, sir, you are my first customer.”
“I hate to disappoint you,” I say with every intention to be cruel, “but I am not a customer. I am looking for someone.”
Abashed, he swivels round to his former position and would have levered himself into the horizontal, had I not restrained him.
“I am looking for a young woman named Doris,” I say roughly, in my increasing annoyance.
“Never heard of her!” the barber replies curtly.
I jump out of the chair and twist his arm. He yelps in pain. Wincing, he says: “People rarely come into this part of the ship . . . cabins all empty for who knows how long . . . without window, calendar, or clock—impossible to grasp the passing of time . . . cannot be certain even of the time of day, or whether day or night . . . sleep when I’m tired . . . nap in the chair . . . read old magazines . . . eat when Peggy beats the dinner gong.”
“Peggy?” I ask. “Who is Peggy?”
“Peggy is my wife,” he says, as a superlatively large woman pushes aside a drapery separating the shop and the barber’s accommodations.
“I understood wives are not permitted on board.”
“That may be true of those hired under the new regulations,” the barber simpers. “But I am exempt because of my long service to the syndicate.”
“This is our home!” Peggy says combatively, as if to preclude a challenge to her status I am too indifferent to raise. “I cannot remember having ever lived anyplace else.”
Nearly dropping with exhaustion, I climb into the barber’s chair and shut my eyes.
“I must rest!”
“By all means!” the barber exclaims, tipping back the chair in which already I have begun to drift, out onto the oceanic expanse of a mind that has slipped its moorings. “The incessant duties aboard a ship, especially one commissioned to undertake a magnificent and dangerous enterprise . . .”
I wake to the noise of pots in the barber’s quarters where, presumably, Peggy is preparing dinner—another extraordinary dispensation, as the rest of the Minos’s crew is obliged to eat in the mess. But perhaps a barber and his wife are not crew, per se, but enjoy some other status. But what of the musicians, the entertainers, the hydrologist, the coatroom attendant, the metaphysicians, the magicians, and newspapermen—they dine with the ordinary seamen and lesser officers in the mess. But are they obliged to do so?
“I have never set foot inside the mess,” says Peggy, reading my mind. “In fact, since coming here as a bride, I haven’t left this deck except once—for a fitting. Otto and I were invited to the captain’s ball.” A woman as substantial as a flour sack, Peggy shambles round the shop in a tender travesty of a waltz, causing bottles of hair tonic to toll one against the other. “It would have been a lovely gown!” she sighs. “Taffeta, like green sea foam.”
“Would have been?”
“I could never find the modiste’s again.” She sighs a second time, and I am reminded of my own sadness.
“Have you ever seen this girl?” I ask, showing Peggy a photograph of Diana the ship’s photographer made of her the night we met. She is wearing an enormous hat. Her face hides in its shadow.
“I can’t make out the face. Anyway, I don’t think so,” she says, handing me back the photograph. “Is she very pretty?”
“Yes, very pretty,” although my heart nearly stops as I realize I have only an imperfect recollection of Diana’s face. It is as if a reflection rocking on water were suddenly troubled by a pebble dropped into the midst of it. She must be, I tell myself. Shaking my head to dispel an anxiety that has laid its hand upon my soul, I inquire after the barber, who is nowhere to be seen.
“He went to shave the captain!” Peggy says with the air of someone who has just been given a great happiness. “We can’t remember the last time he was called. And the captain was always so fastidious! He disliked beards and side-whiskers, insisting that he be clean-shaven. He was such a handsome man—and still may be, although it’s been years since I saw him last.”
“Through the speaking-tube,” she says, nodding toward an apparatus above the wainscoting, next to a crudely lithographed calendar.
I listen through the brass end-piece and hear what sounds like ocean and something else, the somber beating of a heart; but this may be only the effect of a molecular disturbance in a bend of the tube, or a sympathetic resonance.
I whistle down the tube, then shout: “Hello! Hello, is anyone there?”
I return the end-piece to its hook and, glancing at the gaudy calendar, remark: “Your calendar is out of date, you know.”
“Is it?” she replies indifferently. “I keep it for the picture.”
I pass through a tangle of dim passageways—desolate, with the exception of a kind of chapel, which I have never before seen, in which three monks play dominos beneath a mural depicting Christ’s bleeding heart. I begin to speak, but am silenced at once with a hostile remark delivered in a language that may be Icelandic. I leave them to their dominos and walk on, ever deeper, into the bowels of the ship. For I now believe that the answer to all that has made a mystery and an enigma of our voyage lies in the engine room, among the weeping engineers.
“May she not have returned there—to them—in the dumbwaiter?” I ask myself. “Her reason may have been overturned by an irresistible fascination.” And then I am led against all reason to the dwarf—the thought of whom makes me shudder uncontrollably. For I have remembered the story of Eurydice—how the god ascended and ravished her into his underworld. Might not the dwarf, having first subdued the engineers, have ascended in the dumbwaiter, in the middle of the night, stolen to Denise’s cabin, then carried her to hell?
I spend what seems like hours penetrating to the depths of the ship, aware all the while of an impossible silence. I might be on the surface of the moon! Or, if not the moon—at the center of a dismal, scarcely penetrable forest, enjoined to silence by a sorcerer.
I find the scattered evidence of a rout: a navigation chart, the ship’s log, magic lantern slides, a violin, an astrolabe, a ball belonging to one of the jugglers, the magician’s handkerchief.
I climb down another of an endless number of companionways, my boots ringing on the iron stairs; turn one more corner; push open a door; and find myself out on deck in the freezing cold of a North Atlantic winter’s night!
I do not any longer hope to find the girl, whose face I can no longer recall, whose name I do not remember.
It is snowing. The ship lies still and helpless within the iron grasp of the frozen sea. The snow whitens the unmoving waves. I look into the black night and see endlessly falling flakes. They are knitting a white shroud for the ship. Its lines and rails are thickly glazed. The shuffleboard court is visible behind a pane of frozen spray. If time any longer can be measured or understood, it was only a week ago the off-duty engineers played the musicians there. The great spool is stopped—its windings iced, the cable cut by the scissoring action of two floes before their drifting ceased. This is a cold to freeze birds in midflight and to make the earth stand still!
Far out on the solid sea, I seem to see men. One, I think, waves. He is calling to me faintly in a voice of immeasurable sadness. The words, if words they are, are dashed by the gale, which makes the heavy ship lean even in its ice-bound fastness.
I think it is the doctor who is waving to me.
Or Mary Shelley’s monster shambling over pack ice.
But no—how can it be, in a cold approaching absolute zero? In a cold where nothing lives or moves—not even a thing compounded of the dead.
No! I say to myself, mockingly. Not even the moon moves on such a night, in such a cold!
I hurry inside, in terror—in terror hurry down the passage leading to the infirmary.
The doctor is gone. The sick beds are empty.
“Surely not!” I cry aloud.
I must find the captain and wake him; for surely this is a dream, and whose dream is it if not his?
In an instant, I am standing outside the captain’s cabin. The captain’s mother sits before the door, her stony face inclined toward the wool in her lap.
Click, click, click is all the sound there is: that which her steel needles make as they tease the wool into a lengthening cable. Not tease, torment. She has made a black cable with them, which stretches from an inexhaustible skein into the darkness at the end of thepassage.
“I’ve come to wake the captain,” I tell her.
“The captain must not be wakened,” she replies, without dropping a stitch. “You must know by now that it is in sleep that the ship moves and the cable is laid.”
“But the ship does not move!” I cry. “And the cable is severed!”
She smiles into her hands, which ply with remarkable art the needles.
Click, click, click.
“The ship moves, nevertheless; and the cable is paid out. The work continues for as long as the captain sleeps.”
“But everyone is vanishing!” I shout.
“You remain,” she says with a smile more inscrutable than the first.
“Why should a ship’s steward remain?”
“Who knows why? Perhaps because the captain is in his bed and feels the sheets against him. Be glad of it!”
“There was a girl . . .”
“Even the memory of her is disappearing!” I have never known anguish equal to this. “She is slipping away from me!”
The old woman raises her eyes to mine and says: “Perhaps, if you follow the cable? The one I knit.”
With difficulty, I turn my eyes away from her, whose gaze is powerful, and trace the black wool to where it loses itself in darkness beyond the far bulkhead.
“Follow it, steward! It leads to all you have lost.”
Her voice is sweet—a coaxing sweet murmur, which is the voice of death. Or, if not death—death’s own servant. She sees in my mind the terror, with which I beheld on the ice-clad deck the death of the world.
“What you saw outside is simply your own dreaming—the nightmare of a dreamer who is himself a dream.”
I feel how sweet it would be to follow the voice, the cable, the lost girl into the dark. I will myself to shake off the enchantment. Desperately, before there is time to surrender to the desire that I be no more, I strangle the captain’s mother with the black yarn.
Her head lolls to one side. Her hands open. The needles—the needles continue to knit!
Click, click, click.
There is, in the captain’s cabin, that same cold that would have stopped my blood and sealed the chambers of my heart, if I had remained any longer out on deck. The cabin walls are sheathed in frost. The floor is ice. The sheet folds about the captain’s body like snow. His body, too, is cold; the limbs are possessed by rigor; the eyes, two stones beneath the lowered lids. His smooth cheeks bear traces of the lather the barber left there before he, too, disappeared. Was it to shave a corpse that the barber was called?
I stare at the sheeted body—my own eyes glazed with weariness and—something else—a fascination for this ghastly sight, for the tracery etched in ice by death’s deliberate hand, and for the freezing seawater that is welling up from the bowels of the ship—from the engine room in which no man any longer weeps. Not even a demonic dwarf can endure this death ship, I think. Not even a lord of the underworld. I strip the body of its sheet and—startled and dismayed—see the marble chest rise and fall. Studying the face, I note about the mouth and nostrils warrants of life.
The captain breathes! He is dead, but nevertheless he breathes!
And should he stop—what then?
He must not; for I know with certainty that my life and his are bound—whether by his sleeping or mine, his dream of me or mine of him—a metempsychosis of our two selves within the space of this grim ship.
I leave the captain lying where he is, afraid to remove the body from the cabin’s arctic chill—afraid its life—however minimal—will end, and the body rot, and with it—me. I fetch clean sheets from the linen closet and—pitying him—a blanket. Surely, I think, a blanket cannot sabotage the machinery by which he breathes! I mean only to comfort him—this man, who loves me. He must love me to keep me with him, when everyone else has gone! Unless it is for this only that he does: to change his sheets, as is the duty of a steward. Assured of his stability, I go out into the passage and shut the cabin door behind me, because of the cold—the cold is past enduring!
The captain’s mother lies crumpled in the chair, dead. The needles knit.
I know the art sufficiently to continue their work. I learned to ply the needles, like others aboard ship, during the empty hours between watches, to make a sweater or pair of socks. Why should I not take up the needles and the lengthening of the cable of black wool? The truth is I hate the captain’s mother—the hideous sight of her—and wish her away from here. So I drag her off, shut her in the infirmary, and—sitting in her chair—take up the needles.