Life Among The Savages, Part 12.
On deck, I was enrobed in the smell of the sea again, the briny spray that is the thinner part of the mariner’s aether, and it was a tonic to me. Perhaps one day scientists will be able to replicate the invigoration that exposure to nature can bring, or perhaps they will isolate the compounds within the oceanic air that generate these wonderful feelings. That day will be an ambivalent one for me, should it occur during my lifetime, for to have such a wondrous natural phenomenon freely available, at the slightest of whims, needs must rob that very thing of some of its inestimable charm, and pull it down into the realm of the mundane. To be able to enjoy the sea on a passing fancy would render it joyless and typical, yet another element of the everyday that, as I have expounded upon previously, already fail to receive their due many a time, while not counting the more majestic or inspirational occurrences of nature within their number. No, I say: even if it someday be within the power of humanity to conjure up the forces of nature, let us abstain from indulging that talent. Let the marvels of our earth stay mysterious and rare, and let the tiny “wonders” of our normal lives slowly reveal themselves to us and refresh us in another way. To equate the two via engineered accessibility would do little more than reduce creation to a trinket, to be tossed aside when one’s mood shifted, and held in unduly low esteem.
That said, I heartily encourage those practitioners of science to find a practical solution to the issuances of putrefaction and the persistent problem of “bad air”, as I was almost immediately reminded once rising from below decks. Scarcely a draught or two of ennobling sea air had entered my lungs before the choking stench of decay overwhelmed me and caused my eyes to water and my throat to close upon itself. I rapidly sought out the cause. Turner, sullen as usual (though this time with obvious and copious justification), crossed our paths, pushing before him a mound of lifeless and decomposing gulls with a wide rectangular-headed broom. Though we made no gesture for him to stop, he paused in his task directly before Jones and myself, preventing our advance, and leaned upon his broom while sighing mightily. An interval passed before any words were spoken.
Finally, Turner announced: “Dead birds.”
“Thank you for sharing, Turner,” Mr. Jones said, teeth clenched on his pipe.
Though the odor was stifling, my curiosity was aroused, and between coughs and gasps, I inquired of Turner concerning the origin of the avicide.
Turner, however, was in a less-than-ideal mood for discussions on the subject. In a tone of mock humility, he said, “Oh, I’m sorry, you appear to have mistaken me for noted ornithologist John James Audubon. Why the hell would I know? Though I’ll tell you, I mean I ain’t no fancypants birdwatcher or nothing, but I’d wager these stinking gull carcasses have something to do with that stream of awful black smoke that’s hanging overhead.” Turner pointed up without letting go of the broom handle, and I saw a thick stream of acrid dark smoke stretching out past the foremast and on to the horizon. As I watched, a seagull passed through its undulating path, let out a strangled cry, and fell with an unpleasant thump onto Turner’s pile of its kin.
“Just a guess, mind you,” Turner added, and then spat.
“This man is a paying passenger, Turner,” Jones said, in a way that even the first mate’s understated manner made clear was a rebuke of Turner’s ill manner.
“I’ll be sure to improve my attitude, just as soon as I push this seven stone of rotting bird meat overboard.”
Hoping to defuse the tense situation, I asked if we should we not veer away from something so obviously poisonous as the black smoke. Turner nodded as if this were exceptionally sound advice. “Captain’s tried,” he said, “but the smoke’s following us. Bloody convenient.”
When I pointed out that smoke does not follow anything, but is borne on the wind the way our ship was, Turner muttered something about traveling companions that was too vulgarly phrased for me to recount.
By this point, Jones had endured enough. “Carry on, Mr. Turner,” he said, and Turner complied, cursing under his breath.
As we proceeded to the captain’s cabin, I remarked to Jones on Turner’s demeanor and how, though he had been disrespectful and unnecessarily crude (even with the unpleasant nature of his work taken into account), I could not help but pity the man, for his unrelenting curmudgeonliness could only serve to distance himself from others, and in the final tally, greatly increase his unhappy efforts and therefore prolong his sour mood. If, even for only a moment, he took a more positive outlook, I felt certain the benefits would be immediately apparent, and would reproduce themselves without further labor on his part. In my own experience, I had found that the initiation of a jocular disposition was most often the responsibility of the person who wished to possess one, and that no manner of coaxing would effectively free one’s ebulliance from a gaol of complaint and pessimism save that which came from oneself.
“Hmm,” said Jones.
We entered the Captain’s cabin, and saw Captain Stagg and Doctor Blight in conference. The captain looked to us and, upon seeing me both conscious and ambulatory, was overcome with emotion. He rushed to me and embraced me as if I were his prodigal son, repeating “My boy! My boy! My boy!” He then persisted in this embrace for much longer than was warranted – as I was not in fact his long-lost son, nor a relative by blood or marriage of any kind – and his embrace intensified as it continued. Blight and Jones exchanged wary glances as at first I smiled politely, enduring the captain’s outsized relief at seeing me well, but after some time, it became difficult to breathe, and though I was very much recovered from my injuries, I was not yet in an advanced enough state of recuperation to endure such an onslaught of affection. When my smile turned to a grimace, and then to gasping, the doctor and first mate set about prying me free from Stagg’s grasp.
The captain stood for a while, arms encircling the area where I had been until Jones and Blight freed me, and then shuddered and turned to us, his eyes sparkling like diadems in the dim cabin, and a smile on his face which appeared full of intense happiness but empty of intelligent thought. I had seen such a smile before, on the faces of the feeble-minded and insane. Concerned that the captain’s mysterious ailment might be worsening, I decided to ask Dr. Blight about Stagg’s health at a more private time. The captain, meanwhile, gradually returned to his normal self and expressed in much more lucid terms his satisfaction at my recovery.
“But what brings you here, my boy? Surely you know I would have visited you in your quarters?” he said.
“Indeed, I know that quite well,” I replied. “However, a matter of grave importance regarding the safety of all onboard has arisen, in my very cabin, and I felt it imperative to contact you immediately.”
“He found a stowaway,” Jones said, ever valuing brevity in his utterances.
“A stowaway and madman,” I added, thinking the details important. “He threatened my life and hoped to ransom me for safe passage off the ship.”
“Safe passage off the ship? We’re in the middle of the damn ocean,” Captain Stagg said.
“As I said, Captain, he is a madman, and has fiendish plans he wishes to accomplish, no matter their impossibility.”
“Very well then,” the captain said, procuring a pistol from his desk. “Let us meet this dangerous stowaway of yours. Perhaps he has information regarding the whereabouts of my crowbar, which is strangely missing.” Here the captain gave Jones a stern look. “Again.”
Arriving back at my own cabin, Starkey was still thankfully in charge of the situation, watching over the now-conscious Martin Garrett. Captain Stagg, Mr. Jones and Dr. Blight entered the room after me, and upon sighting Mr. Garrett, the captain let out a disappointed groan and shoved his pistol into his belt.
“Is something wrong, captain?” I asked. “Did I misjudge this man?”
“No, my boy, he’s a stowaway, alright, and he might be mad, as nothing else would explain his behavior, but mostly he’s a bloody nuisance.”
“Good morning, Captain,” said Martin Garrett, grinning in a most unsavory manner.
“It’s past five in the evening, you imbecile!” the captain roared.
“My apologies, captain. I’ve been under a bed for several days.”
To me, the captain said, “This, as you probably know already, given his tendency to prattle on about himself without cease, is Martin Garrett. He hides onboard every time we pass through Kolkata and then pops out at the most inconvenient times, demanding to be taken to some imaginary land.”
Still somewhat chagrined by being taken in by Martin Garrett and his deceptive claim of seeking the land of R______, I remarked that my destination might be considered by some to also be imaginary. The captain, afraid he might have offended me, assured me Martin Garrett’s behavior was far removed from my own.
“Oh no, my boy, yours is a completely different situation. you paid in advance. And you’re clearly not a lunatic, as you didn’t try to take someone hostage. My sincerest apologies about that, happens every time he comes aboard. Jones, we have to keep better watch next time we port in Kolkata.”
“Aye,” said Jones.
Without warning, Martin Garrett screamed “I demand that you take me to–”
The captain redrew his pistol and pointed it at the madman’s head, and Martin Garrett silenced himself immediately.
“Normally, I’d just throw a stowaway such as him overboard, but he’s my cousin, of sorts, by marriage or some other such nonsense, and I’d never hear the end of it should he be drowned, as he truly deserves. The worst of it all is that since it’s just Martin Garrett, and not a real stowaway, he’ll have no idea where my crowbar has run off to, will you, Martin?”
“Oh no, sir. Crowbars are filthy things and I’d never touch one,” said the madman, and he began to laugh.
“Get him down to brig, Jones, give him his usual cell.” Starkey and Jones picked up Garrett and dragged him off to ship’s brig. As he passed me, Martin Garrett said “I won’t forget our time together, my friend. And when we reach the land of R_____, as I know we will, you’ll wish you helped me get my boat. I’ll see your blood spilled all over my hands before this trip is done!” And with more deranged laughter, Jones and Starkey pulled him out into the corridor and out of hearing.
“Well!” the captain said, checking his pocket watch, “shall we have some dinner?”