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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 Said.

"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 say.

"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 corners.

"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 distance—"

"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 distance.

"Yes, three hundred miles—just about," said I.

There was after all this horrid possibility which was torturing my visitor.

"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 heard."

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," I said.

"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.

II

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 days."

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 green cloth.

"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."

"What ship's?"

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 ago."

"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 easily."

"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 was.

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 girl's dead."

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 see."

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 world.

"Hassan Bu Ali is to call for the chronometer when he returns, I suppose," I said.

"Yes."

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."

"Good."

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 can.

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 gone."

"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 discovered.

"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 said:

"I have heard that all those who remained on the wreck at Sokotra were saved. Is that true?"

"Yes."

"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."

"Yes?"

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 with myself:

"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.

 
 
 

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