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End of the Tether

Chapter 1
For a long time after the course of the steamer Sofala had been altered for the land, the
low swampy coast had retained its appearance of a mere smudge of darkness beyond a
belt of glitter. The sunrays seemed to fall violently upon the calm sea--seemed to
shatter themselves upon an adamantine surface into sparkling dust, into a dazzling
vapor of light that blinded the eye and wearied the brain with its unsteady brightness.
Captain Whalley did not look at it. When his Serang, approaching the roomy cane arm-
chair which he filled capably, had informed him in a low voice that the course was to be
altered, he had risen at once and had remained on his feet, face forward, while the head
of his ship swung through a quarter of a circle. He had not uttered a single word, not
even the word to steady the helm. It was the Serang, an elderly, alert, little Malay, with a
very dark skin, who murmured the order to the helmsman. And then slowly Captain
Whalley sat down again in the arm-chair on the bridge and fixed his eyes on the deck
between his feet.
He could not hope to see anything new upon this lane of the sea. He had been on these
coasts for the last three years. From Low Cape to Malantan the distance was fifty miles,
six hours' steaming for the old ship with the tide, or seven against. Then you steered
straight for the land, and by-and-by three palms would appear on the sky, tall and slim,
and with their disheveled heads in a bunch, as if in confidential criticism of the dark
mangroves. The Sofala would be headed towards the somber strip of the coast, which
at a given moment, as the ship closed with it obliquely, would show several clean
shining fractures--the brimful estuary of a river. Then on through a brown liquid, three
parts water and one part black earth, on and on between the low shores, three parts
black earth and one part brackish water, the Sofala would plow her way up-stream, as
she had done once every month for these seven years or more, long before he was
aware of her existence, long before he had ever thought of having anything to do with
her and her invariable voyages. The old ship ought to have known the road better than
her men, who had not been kept so long at it without a change; better than the faithful
Serang, whom he had brought over from his last ship to keep the captain's watch; better
than he himself, who had been her captain for the last three years only.
She could always be depended upon to make her courses. Her compasses were never
out. She was no trouble at all to take about, as if her great age had given her
knowledge, wisdom, and steadiness. She made her landfalls to a degree of the bearing,
and almost to a minute of her allowed time. At any moment, as he sat on the bridge
without looking up, or lay sleepless in his bed, simply by reckoning the days and the
hours he could tell where he was--the precise spot of the beat. He knew it well too, this
monotonous huckster's round, up and down the Straits; he knew its order and its sights
and its people. Malacca to begin with, in at daylight and out at dusk, to cross over with a
rigid phosphorescent wake this highway of the Far East. Darkness and gleams on the
water, clear stars on a black sky, perhaps the lights of a home steamer keeping her
 
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