End of the Tether
The knowledge was too disturbing, really. There was "something wrong" with a
vengeance, and the moral certitude of it was at first simply frightful to contemplate.
Sterne had been looking aft in a mood so idle, that for once he was thinking no harm of
anyone. His captain on the bridge presented himself naturally to his sight. How
insignificant, how casual was the thought that had started the train of discovery--like an
accidental spark that suffices to ignite the charge of a tremendous mine!
Caught under by the breeze, the awnings of the foredeck bellied upwards and collapsed
slowly, and above their heavy flapping the gray stuff of Captain Whalley's roomy coat
fluttered incessantly around his arms and trunk. He faced the wind in full light, with his
great silvery beard blown forcibly against his chest; the eyebrows overhung heavily the
shadows whence his glance appeared to be staring ahead piercingly. Sterne could just
detect the twin gleam of the whites shifting under the shaggy arches of the brow. At
short range these eyes, for all the man's affable manner, seemed to look you through
and through. Sterne never could defend himself from that feeling when he had occasion
to speak with his captain. He did not like it. What a big heavy man he appeared up
there, with that little shrimp of a Serang in close attendance--as was usual in this
extraordinary steamer! Confounded absurd custom that. He resented it. Surely the old
fellow could have looked after his ship without that loafing native at his elbow. Sterne
wriggled his shoulders with disgust. What was it? Indolence or what?
That old skipper must have been growing lazy for years. They all grew lazy out East
here (Sterne was very conscious of his own unimpaired activity); they got slack all over.
But he towered very erect on the bridge; and quite low by his side, as you see a small
child looking over the edge of a table, the battered soft hat and the brown face of the
Serang peeped over the white canvas screen of the rail.
No doubt the Malay was standing back, nearer to the wheel; but the great disparity of
size in close association amused Sterne like the observation of a bizarre fact in nature.
They were as queer fish out of the sea as any in it.
He saw Captain Whalley turn his head quickly to speak to his Serang; the wind whipped
the whole white mass of the beard sideways. He would be directing the chap to look at
the compass for him, or what not. Of course. Too much trouble to step over and see for
himself. Sterne's scorn for that bodily indolence which overtakes white men in the East
increased on reflection. Some of them would be utterly lost if they hadn't all these
natives at their beck and call; they grew perfectly shameless about it too. He was not of
that sort, thank God! It wasn't in him to make himself dependent for his work on any
shriveled-up little Malay like that. As if one could ever trust a silly native for anything in
the world! But that fine old man thought differently, it seems. There they were together,
never far apart; a pair of them, recalling to the mind an old whale attended by a little