End of the Tether
Sterne crossed the deck upon the track of the chief engineer. Jack, the second,
retreating backwards down the engine-room ladder, and still wiping his hands, treated
him to an incomprehensible grin of white teeth out of his grimy hard face; Massy was
nowhere to be seen. He must have gone straight into his berth. Sterne scratched at the
door softly, then, putting his lips to the rose of the ventilator, said--
"I must speak to you, Mr. Massy. Just give me a minute or two."
"I am busy. Go away from my door."
"But pray, Mr. Massy . . ."
"You go away. D'you hear? Take yourself off altogether--to the other end of the ship--
quite away . . ." The voice inside dropped low. "To the devil."
Sterne paused: then very quietly--
"It's rather pressing. When do you think you will be at liberty, sir?"
The answer to this was an exasperated "Never"; and at once Sterne, with a very firm
expression of face, turned the handle.
Mr. Massy's stateroom--a narrow, one-berth cabin-- smelt strongly of soap, and
presented to view a swept, dusted, unadorned neatness, not so much bare as barren,
not so much severe as starved and lacking in humanity, like the ward of a public
hospital, or rather (owing to the small size) like the clean retreat of a desperately poor
but exemplary person. Not a single photograph frame ornamented the bulkheads; not a
single article of clothing, not as much as a spare cap, hung from the brass hooks. All the
inside was painted in one plain tint of pale blue; two big sea-chests in sailcloth covers
and with iron padlocks fitted exactly in the space under the bunk. One glance was
enough to embrace all the strip of scrubbed planks within the four unconcealed corners.
The absence of the usual settee was striking; the teak-wood top of the washing-stand
seemed hermetically closed, and so was the lid of the writing-desk, which protruded
from the partition at the foot of the bed-place, containing a mattress as thin as a
pancake under a threadbare blanket with a faded red stripe, and a folded mosquito-net
against the nights spent in harbor. There was not a scrap of paper anywhere in sight, no
boots on the floor, no litter of any sort, not a speck of dust anywhere; no traces of pipe-
ash even, which, in a heavy smoker, was morally revolting, like a manifestation of
extreme hypocrisy; and the bottom of the old wooden arm-chair (the only seat there),
polished with much use, shone as if its shabbiness had been waxed. The screen of
leaves on the bank, passing as if unrolled endlessly in the round opening of the port,
sent a wavering network of light and shade into the place.