The Chronometer by A. E. W. Mason
AGES and ages ago one of our crack steamers of the Dagger
Line piled herself up at night on the rocks of Sokotra in the first violence
of the South-west Monsoon. I was then a youngster in the Agent's office at
Port Said learning the work, and during the next few weeks my education was
rapid and intensive. The ship was the Calobar of eleven thousand tons, the
Flagship of the Line and a favourite with passengers. But fortunately the
homeward rush from the East was over and there were no more than seventy
souls on board apart from the officers and the crew. The Calobar struck
heavily and heeled over at a dangerous cant, with a furious sea thrashing her
hull and boiling across her deck. There was some trouble, too, with the
native portion of her crew. But in the early morning one lifeboat was got
away. It carried the women and children, twenty-five of them, and it was
manned by the best of the English sailors under the command of the third
officer, a forlorn hope, no doubt, but to all appearances the only one. But
by one of the sea's favourite ironies, those who remained on board the
Calobar to die were rescued and the life-boat was never heard of again.
A big tramp steamer bound from Karachi to Liverpool picked the battered
survivors off the wreck, and with her natural speed of ten knots an hour
checked down to seven by the monsoon, carried them into Aden. There they
waited for a mail-boat and arrived at Suez in the second week of June upon a
steamer of the Khedivial Line. From Suez they travelled by train to Port
Said; and thus it was that I came across them. And what with securing rooms
for them, buying them clothes, sending cables home and arranging their
bank-drafts and their passages to England, I had enough to do. So completely
enough that of all those distressed and haggard travellers, only one remained
clearly individualized in my memories as a passenger by s.s. Calobar.
My chief brought him into the little room I occupied on the water-front.
It was on the second floor and if I craned my body out of the window, I could
see the great breakwater with the Lesseps statue reaching out into the sea;
and below me was all the traffic of the harbour from the little feluccas of
the Mediterranean to the funnelled giants of the outer seas.
"Will you hear what Mr. Trinic has to say," said my chief, "and draft out
a petition to the Board of Trade which he will sign and I will support?"
As a matter of fact the request had already gone forward on the Company's
own initiative, and the Shipping Agent's proposal was merely a kindly attempt
to find something for Mr. Trinic to do whilst he had to wait at Port
"I can hand you over with every confidence to my assistant," said the
Agent to Mr. Trinic; and he left him with me.
Mr. Trinic was as commonplace in appearance as his name was odd. His face
was a whitish grey, his age a year or two over fifty—he had big ears
and a little button of a nose, but such an aura of grief enveloped him and
set him apart that I saw in him a person of high dignity. I could imagine
him, just whilst his distress lasted, a leader amongst men.
"I want to know that she's dead," he said as soon as we were alone,
speaking with some sort of provincial accent which I could not identify. "I
had done my work, you see—planting tobacco in Java. I had made enough.
I was going back home to Liverpool with my girl to set up house. She was
twenty-four, you see. She had been seven years out with me—ever since
my wife died. It was time I took her home and gave her her chance, you see,
amongst her own people."
He was carrying a chart and a very thin book under his arm. He laid these
down on the table and took from his pocket a leather case.
"There she is. Have a look!"
He handed me the case and turning his back walked to the window whilst I
opened it. There were two photographs, face to face, of a girl, one in
profile, one full, and they took my breath away. I couldn't reconcile her
with the man staring out of the window. It was not a mere matter of looks,
though hers were rare enough. She was haunting. There was humour in the shape
and set of her mouth, and in her big eyes enormous wisdom. In the full face,
she looked out at you, knowing you—excusing you—accepting you
marvellously into her company. In the photograph of the side face, she was
just looking forward beyond the world, waiting quietly for something far off
which she saw approaching.
"Yes," I said, and I closed the case. There was nothing, indeed, for me to
"So you see." He turned back from the window and tucked the case away in
his pocket as he talked; and he talked quite quietly and sensibly. "The
Liverpool plan's over and done with—" I had an odd feeling that
Liverpool did not quite agree with those two photographs. I saw in
imagination a street of little villas with backyards and front gardens. "But
I want to know that my girl's dead. How can I go back to Liverpool and live
there—alone—for how many years!—unless I know that? You
must see. I've got to know that Mona's dead, haven't I?"
He was appealing to me as a reasonable man in a voice which he might have
used to explain some detail in his accounts. It was as dry and tearless as
his eyes. But I was conscious of a measureless unhappiness in the man which
made any word of sympathy the most futile of banalities.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Trinic?" I asked.
He spread out his chart upon my table and pinned down the four
"That life-boat was well-found in every way," he argued. "It had good
English sailors, water, food, an officer who understood navigation,
sails—and it wasn't overcrowded."
"But you don't imagine that in that storm—" I cried, and he did not
let me finish the sentence.
"Why did the Captain send it off, then?" he asked.
"Well...yes," I had to admit. "I suppose he thought it had a chance."
"Exactly. I have been studying this book," and he showed me the
title-page. It was The Gulf of Aden Pilot. "I bought it off an officer of the
tramp steamer which took us into Aden. After the first violent blow, the wind
often drops at the beginning of June. There it is, written in the book. And
I'll tell you another thing. On the north of Sokotra the current runs
eastward forty miles to the day. I'll tell you a third thing too. During the
South-west Monsoon the nearer you get to the Arabian coast, except just
within one area, the lighter you get the wind and the smoother the sea."
"The Arabian coast!" I exclaimed. "But, Mr. Trinic, the
"Three hundred miles, and the wind aft all the while," he replied
promptly. "Measure it for yourself on the chart. Here!" He took calipers out
of his pocket and handed the instrument to me. He had everything ready which
could help his argument. I took it reluctantly and measured off the
"Yes, three hundred miles—just about," said I.
There was after all this horrid possibility which was torturing my
"Some ship going East may have picked up the lifeboat," I argued.
"It's a fortnight since the life-boat left the wreck. We should have
Wireless was still at that time a marvel to come. But the Gulf of Aden was
the world's greatest trade route; and though you may cross the Atlantic and
never see a ship till you sight the Bishop or Sandy Hook, you steam in
company through the narrow seas beyond Perim. Signals would have been
exchanged. From half a dozen ports the news would have been flashed a week
ago that the Calobar's life-boat with its castaways had been saved.
"Yes, we should have heard," I conceded. I looked at the chart again.
"If they reached Arabia it would have been here, wouldn't it? At Dhofar,"
"And then?" Trinic asked. "Where's my girl? In the harem of some wretched
little black Sultan ruling over a cabbage patch and living in a block house.
Listen to this:"—he turned over the pages of the Pilot —"'The
Beni Gharrah bedouins have a great hatred towards Europeans.' The Beni
Gharrah bedouins are the people who live at Dhofar. Or suppose the boat
landed a little nearer—here—in the Bay of Kamar—" and again
he turned the pages of his book and read: "'The Mahrah tribe is very numerous
and powerful...their enmity towards the English is very great...' I want to
be sure that my girl's dead."
"You want us to send a ship along that coast and look for the wreckage of
the life-boat," I suggested.
"That's not enough," said Trinic. He referred yet again to the Pilot.
"Boats of thirty and forty tons are hauled up on shore during the South-west
Monsoon. It wouldn't be difficult to haul up a ship's life-boat and hide it.
No, I want the Government to search that strip of coast from end to end with
a man-of-war. I want every little tinpot king to turn his household out for
inspection. I want to know that my girl's dead."
I drew a sheet of foolscap towards me and began to draft out his petition
to the Board of Trade. All that day we worked at it together, and when it was
finished and signed it was sent home, whilst Trinic carried a copy of it to
the Consul-General at Cairo. As the world knows, the search was made
immediately by the Board of Trade and a little while afterwards a second
survey was taken by a steamer of the Company's Line. But between Kamar Bay
and the Kuria Muria islands, the limits east and west within which a search
was of use, not a plank of wreckage was discovered, and not a fisherman had
any story to tell of the landing of the castaways. The Calobar's life-boat
had disappeared with all its cargo of passengers. Mr. Trinic carried his
misery home with him to Liverpool and disappeared too. Gradually under the
stress of business and immediate things to be done the memory of the
catastrophe faded. Moreover, I was moved about the world's big chessboard. I
was transferred the next year to Colombo and thence to Hong Kong and thence
to London, and in due course after fifteen years I returned to Port Said as
Head Agent there of the Dagger Line.
The events which I am going to relate happened in my sixth year as Head
Agent. Yes, I had been five years in Port Said and I enjoyed every minute of
it. I had the pleasantest kind of work for anyone who likes ships, and after
all, the town itself is a Grand Hotel with the world passing in at one door
and out by the other. One morning I found that my watch had stopped and I
took it that afternoon to little Papyanni, the jeweller in the Rue de la
Poste. He opened the back and screwed his magnifying-glass into his eye.
"The mainspring's broken, Mr. Woodyer," he said. "I'll want three
Then he put the watch away in a drawer. He was a brisk little man in the
ordinary way, but this afternoon either he was thinking of something else or
he had a touch of the gout in his foot. For he moved like a snail. But he was
thinking of something else and of something which concerned me. For when he
returned to his counter he leaned across it confidentially and actually
opened his mouth to speak. But a woman from an All-Round-the-World Luxury
Steamer interrupted at that moment with a demand for a silver spoon enamelled
with the flag of Egypt, and the opportunity was lost. For little Papyanni had
a second thought. He stood up again straight.
"In three days, Mr. Woodyer," he said shortly, and he turned to his lady
customer. "Just about this time."
So just about that time in three days I turned up at Papyanni's and asked
for my watch. The All-Round-the-World Luxury Steamer had carried off its
passengers to Colombo and the shop was empty. Little Papyanni had my watch
ready and he set it to the hour by means of a large chronometer which was
ticking away in a battered but handsome mahogany box lined with faded old
"Is that right?" I asked, with a nod towards the chronometer.
As a rule, Papyanni set a watch that he had mended by the clock hanging up
against the wall opposite to the door. But he never looked at it to-day. He
rapped on the side of the mahogany case with his knuckles and answered:
"Oh, yes, this keeps very good time."
Then he shot a little inquisitive darting look at me to notice how I took
the answer. But I took it too simply for him. I said:
"Well, if you're satisfied, I've no doubt it's all right;" and I clipped
the watch on to my watch-chain, dropped it into my waistcoat pocket and went
away. I left a very disappointed watchmaker behind.
He was, indeed, so disappointed that he wrote me a letter that evening
asking me, if I could make the visit convenient, to call round at his shop. I
was intrigued by his insistence. Papyanni was not at all the kind of man who
must make a drama out of every trifle which happens to him. He was an
unimaginative little corpulent Levantine. He obviously had something to tell
me. Accordingly I went round to the Rue de la Poste just as he was shutting
up his shop for the luncheon hour. He opened the glass door again at once and
locked it when I had entered.
"I have something to show you, Mr. Woodyer," he said. He slipped behind
his counter and lifted down from a shelf behind him the big chronometer in
the mahogany case by which he had set my watch yesterday.
"But you showed me that yesterday," I answered.
"Do you know what it is, Mr. Woodyer?" he asked.
"Of course I do. That's a ship's chronometer."
I turned the deep square case towards me and opened the lid. There was no
label on the green lining and only the name of the Glasgow manufacturer on
the dial of the clock.
"I haven't an idea."
And suddenly he shot his shoulders and chest across the counter.
"The Calobar's," said he.
Once more I disappointed him.
"The Calobar...The Calobar!"
I had served the Dagger Line in a great many ports and in different
countries. For twenty years I had watched the procession of ships, each like
its fellow and each with a name of its own. I worked back to the Calobar,
however, in a minute or so.
"She was wrecked on Sokotra," I said, and Papyanni nodded.
"A tramp brought up the survivors to Aden. And a mailship picked them up
there. But how do you know this chronometer comes from that ship? Did
somebody pinch it and sell it to you?"
Papyanni shook his head.
"It's not mine. It was left with me to clean and repair a couple of months
"How do you know it's the Calobar's, then?" I repeated.
Papyanni became mysterious.
"I was curious. There's a number, see!" He lifted the chronometer off the
gimbals on which it was slung in the mahogany case and showed the number
engraved upon the bottom. "I wrote to the makers in Glasgow. It was made for
the Calobar twenty-four years ago."
I began to remember now—and more than I wanted to remember. I
stepped back from the counter, sharply, as though that chronometer in its
battered case were alive and dangerous. I did not want to hear one other word
about it. Yet in spite of myself I heard myself asking:
"It was brought to you, you say?"
"A couple of months ago."
"Who brought it?"
"I've got the name somewhere," Papyanni answered. He dived into a drawer
and fetched out a long order-book, looked back over two months of orders and
commissions and ran his finger down a page. "I don't remember names very
"Well, I don't want to hear that one, after all," said I, turning away.
But Papyanni had found it.
"Hassan Bu Ali, 'Imam of Merbat," he read out; so I stayed exactly where I
Merbat was on the Arabian coast in the district of Dhofar. So much I knew.
It was also just within the area at some point of which, according to Trinic,
the Calobar's life-boat running before the South-west Monsoon might have been
expected to make the land. There was a phrase Trinic had used. The life-boat
was well-found. It might very well have one of the ship's chronometers on
board. There was another phrase he had used and repeated. Standing in
Papyanni's shop, I wished that he hadn't. I didn't want to listen to that
phrase again whether a living voice cried it out in an agony of grief or my
own memory whispered it. Whispered it? Across the road outside a cafe there
was one of the galla-galla conjurers producing tiny chickens out of a
tourist's pocket. He had been exhibiting that trick for twenty years. But he
was no more visible to me at this moment than Trinic. His voice was
thundering in my hearing across those twenty years: "I want to know that my
I turned to Papyanni.
"What was this 'Imam like?"
Papyanni described him. He was tall, stout, prosperous, clean,
middle-aged, and black as ebony.
"Of course I saw him at his best," said Papyanni.
"How was that?"
"He was on his way to Mecca. He was waiting at Suez for a steamer to
Jeddah and meanwhile he had come up by the train to Port Said."
I was in doubt what I should do. I wanted to do the cowardly thing. I was
tempted to walk out of Papyanni's shop without another word in the hope that
this troublesome story of the Calobars shipwreck would drift back again into
the fog of oblivion. And if I had seriously believed that possible, I should
have so acted. But I had a conviction that it was not possible. The story had
been trying for twenty years to force itself up through the crust of events
and occurrences into the memory of men; and now it ensured for itself
perpetuity by propounding a riddle. For an unanswered riddle outlives the
"Hassan Bu Ali is to call for the chronometer when he returns, I suppose,"
I played with the latch of his glass door. I unlocked and pulled the door
open. I was out on the pavement. The galla-galla man was moving away. The
iniquity of oblivion would have scattered her poppy over him the moment he
had turned the corner, but over the riddle of the chronometer—no! I
went back into the shop.
"I must see this monarch when he comes back in his green turban," I said,
with a laugh which could not have sounded natural.
Papyanni nodded his head.
"I'll call you up, Mr. Woodyer, on the telephone. I can pretend that I
have put the clock aside. I can keep him whilst I have it found."
When I got back home, I looked up Merbat in The Gulf of Aden Pilot. Trinic
had left it with me and between its leaves I found the tragic sheet of
notepaper on which he had jotted down in pencil his references and notes.
Bad people, p. 115.
Anchorage safe from S.W., pp. 136-7-8.
Merbat. People civil, p. 122.
I turned to page 122 eagerly. Merbat was the principal trading town of
Dhofar. It exported frankincense and gum-arabic in its own baghalahs. The
'Imam levied a ten per cent. duty on the exports and five per cent. on the
imports; and—yes, here it was!—the population was friendly.
That was all very well. But a good many questions arose. If the population
were friendly and the life-boat had reached Merbat, how was it that one of
the bigger baghalahs wasn't sent along the coast with the survivors to Aden,
as soon as the monsoon stopped at the end of September? How was it, if the
life-boat reached Merbat and the people were friendly, that no trace of the
life-boat was found when the Board of Trade and the Dagger Line sent their
search-ships? And if the lifeboat did not reach the coast, how came the
chronometer to? What I wasn't sure of was the accuracy of the Pilot. It was
dated 1882 and so far as I knew there had been no survey since; nor was there
any reason for one. For ships whether bound east or west give that long
stormy strip of coast between Ras-el-Hadd and Aden as wide a berth as they
I put the riddle aside and as far out of my thoughts as I could. And
months passed. And my telephone bell rang. The town exchange. Mr. Papyanni
wanted me. I took the receiver off its hook. A man—not Hassan Bu
Ali—but one wearing the green turban of the pilgrim returning from
Mecca, had called for the chronometer. Would I please to come quickly? I went
as quickly as my legs, hampered by the dignity of the Head Agent of the
Dagger Line, would carry me. When I reached Papyanni's shop it was empty and
the Calobars chronometer in its mahogany case waited upon the counter.
Papyanni cringed and apologized. I never saw any sense in apologies. When
I am raised to the Peerage my motto will be "Never apologize," and my crest a
hand holding a hammer, rampant. However, that's to come. I cut the little
man's apologies short.
"An Arab—not Hassan Bu Ali but one wearing the green
turban—came looking furtively to the right and left like a countryman
on his first visit to a town. He asked for the clock, giving me a chit and
producing the money. I went to the telephone—it is here, you see, in a
corner—and called up your office. I said, 'Let Mr. Woodyer come at
once,' and over my shoulder I see a flicker and when I turn my Arab is
"You frightened him," said I.
"Everything frightened him," said Papyanni with a shrug of the shoulders;
and I could only hope that the 'Imam would come now in person for his
chronometer instead of sending his servant.
It was not he, however, who solved my riddle. Two days later a hired
victoria with a running sais stopped at the door. The clerk ran upstairs to
my room with a request from the sais. Would I be pleased to receive a visit
from a lady?
"Certainly," I said, and honestly I do not know what impulse made me ask:
"Does the sais wear a green turban?"
"Yes," said my clerk; and the next moment I was at the window. Below me
was the victoria and in it was seated an Egyptian lady so veiled and bundled
and swathed in such a superfluity of clothes that whether she was angular or
round, fat or thin, young or old, not the keenest connoisseur could have
"She had better come up," I said.
As soon as she entered the room she said in Arabic, of course, and in a
very low voice, that she wished to speak to me alone. I bowed to her and
spoke in English to my clerk.
"Put a chair for the lady and then clear out!" and a little gasp, a little
sharp movement from the shrouded woman gave me my opening. As soon as we were
alone I said in English:
"So you were in the Calobars life-boat."
She sat quite still. I had been guided by that swift small agitation. I
reckoned that she had not heard her own language spoken for twenty years and
that however carefully she had prepared herself against the shock of actually
hearing it, it had none the less startled her.
"Yes," she answered at length, and she too spoke in English. "I think that
I was the only one who was saved. I wish that I had not been."
"Tell me!" I said; and she told.
"We had a terrible passage. Three days and three nights. Some were washed
out of the boat, some died from exhaustion. We were driven upon a rock in the
bay of Merbat. I was the only one who was saved. I was flung up on the beach
half-drowned, with the wreck of the boat."
The 'Imam had claimed her. He had a stone-house with a garden and a
pavilion in the garden for his women.
"He made me his wife...I should have killed myself if I could...I had not
the means...One gets used to everything...He was not unkind."
Thus and thus only she epitomized the history of twenty appalling years.
The 'Imam had traded with his baghalahs as far south as Zanzibar, as far west
as Aden. He had put money at Aden and this spring, taking his wife with him
and a small train of servants, he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. At Jeddah
on his way home he had died. She was left well off.
"You are free then!" I cried like a fool.
She sat like an image. Her very silence rebuked me. How could she be free
with those twenty terrible years like a chain dragging behind her? She
"I have heard that all those who remained on the wreck at Sokotra were
saved. Is that true?"
"Was there a planter from Java?"
"Mr. Trinic. Yes."
Upon my word Trinic might have been standing before me. I saw him so
clearly—his insignificant features, the leather case with the two
portraits of his daughter in his hands and the immense desolation wrapping
him about in dignity. And now here in the same room twenty years afterwards
was the daughter herself. I could not doubt it. The girl with the wise quiet
eyes and the curiously spiritual look—what in those days had she been
so surely expecting?—and this bundle of clothes were one and the same
but for twenty intervening years of horror.
"What did he say?" she asked.
I was not going to tell her.
"He was distracted. He wanted the coast searched for the wreckage of the
life-boat. We did search, the Board of Trade and the Dagger Line."
It was a question. I was telling her of things dead and done with. She
held me to her question.
"He had planned to make a home in Liverpool. He was dreading going into it
alone. He stayed here until he was sure that he would have to go alone. Then
he sailed for England."
She sat quietly and in silence for a little while longer. Then her
restraint suddenly gave way.
"What shall I do?" she wailed, and the cry cut the air like a knife. "I
thought that he would have spoken a word."
She wanted a sign. I had been wondering why she had come to me. For it was
certainly not to discuss the ownership of the clock. But the reason was out
now. In the choice which she must make, she wanted to open the book of years
and put her finger on a sentence which would point her the way she was to
take. I sat and looked at her. After her one cry she had recovered her calm.
She had withdrawn within the cocoon of her wrappings. She was shapeless,
faceless. There was only the memory of her cry to warn me to tread very
delicately. For, you see, I had the word she asked for.
It all seems easy enough now, but in truth I was in a dilemma at the time.
I remembered the two photographs. I wanted her to recover what she could of
the life which the photographs had promised her—odds and ends of it at
the best. On the other hand, could any of it be recovered? Suppose that she
went to Liverpool—suppose that she found her father alive—what
sort of life could there be for both of them? The world has moved a bit no
doubt in these last twenty or thirty years; but enough? Weren't there
prejudices rooted in the blood which no veneer of broad-mindedness could
hide? However, it was for her to make her choice. I said, after a struggle
"Your father did say more than I have told you. He said, 'I want to know
that my daughter's dead.'"
She moved or rather she bent forward in her chair. I thought that she was
going to faint and pitch forward on the floor; and I started up. But from
somewhere in the folds of her clothes she produced a hand and checked me. She
was really bowing her head to the message.
"Twenty years!" she said. "Sorrows destroy themselves in time. What should
I bring but confusion?" Her voice sank as she added: "And I too have at all
events now found peace."
She rose from her chair.
"You will tell no one of my visit."
She did not wait for an answer. She was gone before I could move to the
door. I heard the carriage drive away. A little time afterwards I remembered
the chronometer and I telephoned to Papyanni to hand it over if it was called
for. But no one called for it.