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End of the Tether

Chapter 9
On turning to descend Massy perceived the head of Sterne the mate loitering, with his
sly confident smile, his red mustaches and blinking eyes, at the foot of the ladder.
Sterne had been a junior in one of the larger shipping concerns before joining the
Sofala. He had thrown up his berth, he said, "on general principles." The promotion in
the employ was very slow, he complained, and he thought it was time for him to try and
get on a bit in the world. It seemed as though nobody would ever die or leave the firm;
they all stuck fast in their berths till they got mildewed; he was tired of waiting; and he
feared that when a vacancy did occur the best servants were by no means sure of being
treated fairly. Besides, the captain he had to serve under--Captain Provost-- was an
unaccountable sort of man, and, he fancied, had taken a dislike to him for some reason
or other. For doing rather more than his bare duty as likely as not. When he had done
anything wrong he could take a talking to, like a man; but he expected to be treated like
a man too, and not to be addressed invariably as though he were a dog. He had asked
Captain Provost plump and plain to tell him where he was at fault, and Captain Provost,
in a most scornful way, had told him that he was a perfect officer, and that if he disliked
the way he was being spoken to there was the gangway-- he could take himself off
ashore at once. But everybody knew what sort of man Captain Provost was. It was no
use appealing to the office. Captain Provost had too much influence in the employ. All
the same, they had to give him a good character. He made bold to say there was
nothing in the world against him, and, as he had happened to hear that the mate of the
Sofala had been taken to the hospital that morning with a sunstroke, he thought there
would be no harm in seeing whether he would not do. . . .
He had come to Captain Whalley freshly shaved, redfaced, thin-flanked, throwing out
his lean chest; and had recited his little tale with an open and manly assurance. Now
and then his eyelids quivered slightly, his hand would steal up to the end of the flaming
mustache; his eyebrows were straight, furry, of a chestnut color, and the directness of
his frank gaze seemed to tremble on the verge of impudence. Captain Whalley had
engaged him temporarily; then, the other man having been ordered home by the
doctors, he had remained for the next trip, and then the next. He had now attained
permanency, and the performance of his duties was marked by an air of serious, single-
minded application. Directly he was spoken to, he began to smile attentively, with a
great deference expressed in his whole attitude; but there was in the rapid winking
which went on all the time something quizzical, as though he had possessed the secret
of some universal joke cheating all creation and impenetrable to other mortals.
Grave and smiling he watched Massy come down step by step; when the chief engineer
had reached the deck he swung about, and they found themselves face to face.
Matched as to height and utterly dissimilar, they confronted each other as if there had
been something between them--something else than the bright strip of sunlight that,
falling through the wide lacing of two awnings, cut crosswise the narrow planking of the