A Game of Honor by W. C. Morrow
Four of the five men who sat around the card-table in the cabin of
the Merry Witch regarded the fifth man with a steady, implacable look
of scorn. The solitary one could not face that terrible glance. His
head drooped, and his gaze rested upon some cards which he idly fumbled
as he waited, numbed and listless, to hear his sentence.
The more masterful one of the four made a disdainful gesture towards
the craven one, and thus addressed the others:
Gentlemen, none of us can have forgotten the terms of our compact.
It was agreed at the beginning of this expedition that only men of
unflinching integrity should be permitted to participate in its known
dangers and possible rewards. To find and secure the magnificent
treasure which we are seeking with a sure prospect of discovering it,
we must run the risk of encounters with savage Mexican soldiers and
marines, and take all the other dangerous chances of which you are
aware. As the charterer of this vessel and the leader of the expedition
I have exercised extraordinary care in selecting my associates. We have
been and still are equals, and my leadership as the outfitter of the
expedition gives me no advantage in the sharing of the treasure. As
such leader, however, I am in authority, and have employed, unsuspected
by you, many devices to test the manhood of each of you. Were it not
for the fact that I have exhausted all reasonable resources to this
end, and have found all of you trustworthy except one, I would not now
be disclosing the plan which I have been pursuing.
The three others, who had been gazing at the crestfallen one, now
stared at their leader with a startled interest.
The final test of a man's character, calmly pursued the leader,
is the card-table. Whatever there may be in him of weakness, whether
it be a mean avarice, cowardice, or a deceitful disposition, will there
inevitably appear. If I were the president of a bank, the general of an
army, or the leader of any other great enterprise I would make it a
point to test the character of my subordinates in a series of games at
cards, preferably played for money. It is the only sure test of
character that the wisdom of the ages has been able to devise.
He paused, and then turned his scornful glance upon the cringing
man, who meanwhile had mustered courage to look up, and was employing
his eyes as well as his ears to comprehend the strange philosophy of
his judge. Terror and dismay were elements of the expression which
curiously wrinkled his white face, as though he found himself standing
before a court of inscrutable wisdom and relentless justice. But his
glance fell instantly when it encountered that of his judge, and his
weak lower lip hung trembling.
We have all agreed, impressively continued the leader, that the
one found guilty of deceiving or betraying the others to the very
smallest extent should pay the penalty which we are all sworn to exact.
A part of this agreement, as we all remember, is that the one found
derelict shall be the first to insist on the visitation of the penalty,
and that should he fail to do sobut I trust that it is unnecessary to
mention the alternative.
There was another pause, and the culprit sat still, hardly
breathing, and permitting the cards to slip from his fingers to the
Mr. Rossiter, said the leader, addressing the hapless man in a
tone so hard and cold that it congealed the marrow which it pierced,
have you any suggestion to make?
The doomed man made such a pitiful struggle for self-mastery as the
gallows often reveals. If there was a momentary flash of hope based on
a transient determination to plead, it faded instantly before the stern
and implacable eyes that greeted him from all sides of the table.
Certainly there was a fierce struggle under which his soul writhed, and
which showed in a passing flush that crimsoned his face. That went by,
and an acceptance of doom sat upon him. He raised his head and looked
firmly at the leader, and as he did so his chest expanded and his
shoulders squared bravely.
Captain, said he, with a very good voice, whatever else I may be,
I am not a coward. I have cheated. In doing so I have betrayed the
confidence of all. I remember the terms of the compact. Will you kindly
summon the skipper?
Without any change of countenance, the leader complied.
Mr. Rossiter, he said to the skipper, has a request to make of
you, and whatever it may be I authorize you to comply with it.
I wish, asked Mr. Rossiter of the skipper, that you would lower a
boat and put me aboard, and that you would furnish the boat with one
oar and nothing else whatever.
Why, exclaimed the skipper, aghast, looking in dismay from one to
another of the men, the man is insane! There is no land within five
hundred miles. We are in the tropics, and a man couldn't live four days
without food or water, and the sea is alive with sharks. Why, this is
The leader's face darkened, but before he could speak Mr. Rossiter
That is my own affair, sir; and there was a fine ring in his
* * * * *
The man in the boat, bareheaded and stripped nearly naked in the
broiling sun, was thus addressing something which he saw close at hand
in the water:
Let me see. Yes, I think it is about four days now that we have
travelled together, but I am not very positive about that. You see, if
it hadn't been for you I should have died of loneliness.... Say! aren't
you hungry, too? I was a few days ago, but I'm only thirsty now. You've
got the advantage of me, because you don't get thirsty. As for your
being hungryha, ha, ha! Who ever heard of a shark that wasn't always
hungry? Oh, I know well enough what's in your mind, companion mine, but
there's time enough for that. I hate to disturb the pleasant relation
which exists between us at present. That is to saynow, here is a
witticismI prefer the outside relation to the inside intimacy. Ha,
ha, ha! I knew you'd laugh at that, you sly old rogue! What a very sly,
patient old shark you are! Don't you know that if you didn't have those
clumsy fins, and that dreadfully homely mouth away down somewhere on
the under side of your body, and eyes so grotesquely wide apart, and
should go on land and match your wit against the various and amusing
species of sharks which abound there, your patience in pursuing a
manifest advantage would make you a millionaire in a year? Can you get
that philosophy through your thick skull, my friend?
There, there, there! Don't turn over like that and make a fool of
yourself by opening your pretty mouth and dazzling the midday sun with
the gleam of your white belly. I'm not ready yet. God! how thirsty I
am! Say, did you ever feel like that? Did you ever see blinding flashes
that tear through your brain and turn the sun black?
You haven't answered my question yet. It's a hypothetical
questionyes, hypothetical. I'm sure that's what I want to say.
Hypohypothetical question. Question; yes, that's right. Now, suppose
you'd been a pretty wild young shark, and had kept your mother anxious
and miserable, and had drifted into gambling and had gone pretty well
to the dogs. Do sharks ever go to the dogs? Now, that's a poser.
Sharks; dogs. Oh, what a very ridiculously, sublimely amusing old
shark! Dreadfully discreet you are. Never disclose your hand except on
a showdown. What a glum old villain you are!
Pretty well to the dogs, and then braced up and left home to make a
man of yourself. Think of a shark making a man of himself! And
theneasy there! Don't get excited. I only staggered that time and
didn't quite go overboard. And don't let my gesticulations excite you.
Keep your mouth shut, my friend; you're not pretty when you smile like
that. As I was sayingoh!...
How long was I that way, old fellow? Good thing for me that you
don't know how to climb into a boat when a fellow is that way. Were you
ever that way, partner? Come on like this: Biff! Big blaze of red fire
in your head. Thenthenwell, after awhile you come out of it, with
the queerest and crookedest of augers boring through your head, and a
million tadpoles of white fire darting in every direction through the
air. Don't ever get that way, my friend, if you can possibly keep out
of it. But then, you never get thirsty. Let me see. The sun was over
there when the red fire struck, and it's over here now. Shifted about
thirty degrees. Then, I was that way about two hours.
Where are those dogs? Do they come to you or do you go to them?
That depends. Now, say you had some friends that wanted to do you a
good turn; wanted to straighten you up and make a man of you. They had
ascertained the exact situation of a wonderful treasure buried in an
island of the Pacific. All right. They knew you had some of the
qualities useful for such an expeditionreckless dare-devil, afraid of
nothingthings like that. Understand, my friend? Well, all swore oaths
as long as your legas long as youroh, my! Think of a shark having a
leg! Ha, ha, ha! Long as your leg! Oh, my! Pardon my levity, old man,
but I must laugh. Ha, ha, ha! Oh, my!
All of you sworeyou and the other sharks. No lying; no deceit; no
swindling. First shark that makes a slip is to call the skipper and be
sent adrift with one oar and nothing else. And all, my friend, after
you had pledged your honor to your mother, your God, yourself, and your
friends, to be a true and honorable shark. It isn't the hot sun
broiling you and covering you with bursting blisters, and changing the
marrow of your bones to melted iron and your blood to hissing lavait
isn't the sun that hurts; and the hunger that gnaws your intestines to
rags, and the thirst that changes your throat into a funnel of hot
brass, and blinding bursts of red fire in your head, and lying dead in
the waist of the boat while the sun steals thirty degrees of time out
the sky, and a million fiery tadpoles darting through the airnone of
them hurts so much as something infinitely deeper and more cruel,your
broken pledge of honor to your mother, your God, yourself, and your
friends. That is what hurts, my friend.
It is late, old man, to begin life all over again while you are in
the article of death, and resolve to be good when it is no longer
possible to be bad. But that is our affair, yours and mine; and just at
this time we are not choosing to discuss the utility of goodness. But I
don't like that sneer in your glance. I have only one oar, and I will
cheerfully break it over your wretched head if you come a yard
Aha! Thought I was going over, eh? See; I can stand steady when I
try. But I don't like that sneer in your eyes. You don't believe in the
reformation of the dying, eh? You are a contemptible dog; a low, mean,
outcast dog. You sneer at the declaration of a man that he can and will
be honest at last and face his Maker humbly, but still as a man. Come,
then, my friend, and let us see which of us two is the decent and
honorable one. Stake your manhood against mine, and stake your life
with your manhood. We'll see which is the more honorable of the two;
for I tell you now, Mr. Shark, that we are going to gamble for our
lives and our honor.
Come up closer and watch the throw. No? Afraid of the oar? You
sneaking coward! You would be a decent shark at last did the oar but
split your skull. See this visiting card, you villain? Look at it as I
hold it up. There is printing on one side; that is my name; it is I.
The other side is blank; that is you. Now, I am going to throw this
into the water. If it falls name up, I win; if blank side up, you win.
If I win, I eat you; if you win, you eat me. Is that a go?
Hold on. You see, I can throw a card so as to bring uppermost
either side I please. That wouldn't be fair. For this, the last game of
my life, is to be square. So I fold one end down on this side, and the
other down on that side. When you throw a card folded like that no
living shark, whether he have legs or only a tail, can know which side
will fall uppermost. That is a square game, old man, and it will settle
the little difference that has existed between you and me for four days
pasta difference of ten or fifteen feet.
Mind you, if I win, you are to come alongside the boat and I am to
kill you and eat you. That may sustain my life until I am picked up. If
you win, over I go and you eat me. Are you in the game? Well, here
goes, then, for life or death.... Ah! you have won! And this is a game
* * * * *
A black-smoking steamer was steadily approaching the drifting boat,
for the lookout had reported the discovery, and the steamer was bearing
down to lend succor. The captain, standing on the bridge, saw through
his glass a wild and nearly naked man making the most extraordinary
signs and gestures, staggering and lurching in imminent danger of
falling overboard. When the ship had approached quite near the captain
saw the man toss a card into the water, and then stand with an ominous
rigidity, the meaning of which was unmistakable. He sounded a blast
from the whistle, and the drifting man started violently and turned to
see the steamer approaching, and observed hasty preparations for the
lowering of a boat. The outcast stood immovable, watching the strange
apparition, which seemed to have sprung out of the ocean.
The boat touched the water and shot lustily forward.
Pull with all your might, lads, for the man is insane, and is
preparing to leap overboard. A big shark is lying in wait for him, and
the moment he touches the water he is gone.
The men did pull with all their might and hallooed to the drifting
one and warned him of the shark.
Wait a minute, they cried, and we'll take you on the ship!
The purpose of the men seemed at last to have dawned upon the
understanding of the outcast. He straightened himself as well as he
could into a wretched semblance of dignity, and hoarsely replied,
No; I have played a game and lost; an honest man will pay a debt of
And with such a light in his eyes as comes only into those whose
vision has penetrated the most wonderful of all mysteries, he leaped
forth into the sea.