Rebecca and Sumita
The morning news was that Rebecca had broken her hip in the middle of the night. Paul Hamilton had gotten the story from Zelda, one of the nurse's aides, and he said to Dr. Narrison,
"You know how heavy older people sit on the toilet, Doc? They don't just sit, they take a sort of lunge to the rear and land with a great thump."
"I think I can imagine it."
"Well, Rebecca landed so hard that she knocked the whole fixture over sideways and landed on her hip. When the pipes broke, there was a whole geyser of water. Rebecca was yelling and screaming, and water was running down the corridor, and a lot of people woke up and thought the place was on fire. They just about had to use blocks and tackle to move Rebecca on to the stretcher."
When Paul finally ran out of breath, Dr. Narrison replied,
"I'm surprised it didn't wake us up."
"It was a floor down at the other end of the building. Anyhow, we must sleep pretty well."
"Yes. I dare say we'll be able to eat our bagels in peace for some time to come. Of course, we wouldn't have wanted Rebecca to meet with this misfortune just for that reason."
He then caught Paul's eye, and they both laughed.
It was when they rounded the corner, bagels still in hand, that the doctor told Paul about the experiment of the previous evening. Paul replied,
"I would've liked to have been there."
"You can be, next time. You could wear a white jacket and carry a clipboard the same as me. I didn't think to ask."
"Boy, knowing in advance that those women are going to be asked to undress! That must be suspenseful. Are they beautiful?"
Knowing that Paul thought Rosie beautiful, Dr. Narrison nodded and added,
"The last one made a tremendous impression on me. More than any woman has for a long time."
"What was she like?"
"She's a lawyer from downtown. Apparently very successful."
"But that wasn't what impressed you."
"No. This lady was embarrassed, but she remained elegant just the same, even in her slip. There aren't many that really can't be touched, no matter what you do."
Paul liked to talk about women, and about sex. He asked,
"Did you capture any beautiful women when you took ships?"
"No. The sorts of freighters we captured didn't have passengers, and we were lucky that there weren't any captains' wives."
"Were you in the south seas much?"
Paul had in his mind, Dr. Narrison suspected, an image of a south sea island with a beach covered with naked young ladies. Not wanting to directly disabuse him of such a notion, he answered,
"We went from Buenos Aires around the Cape of Good Hope and up into the Mozambique Channel. It was there that we captured our first ship."
Dr. Narrison wouldn't have dreamed of telling Paul about the ship they sank in the River Plate, but it was true that they had steamed some fifteen thousand miles before actually capturing a ship. Even then, it wasn't much of a ship.
One fine bright morning, they blundered into an old steam collier, deep in the water with her load of coal and making all of five knots. It looked as if a single shot would shake the old vessel to pieces. However, Leif wanted some of the coal, and he was happy when a warning shot across the bow stopped the ship and brought her British flag fluttering down.
There being almost no wind or swell, they put out bumpers and came alongside. As Leif had suspected, it was a British ship only in the sense of belonging to a British colony. Not a man aboard spoke English, but the funny little captain had a great deal to say in a language that not even Leif or Manfred could make out. They found room in the after hold for their prisoners, and conducted them there forthwith.
Coaling at sea was even messier than in a harbor, and they knew that the dust would make its way even into the food they ate and the coffee they drank. After they had taken on as much as they could, including a few hundred tons piled on the decks, Leif and Manfred decided to improve the morale of their crew by allowing them on board the captured ship to loot anything that could conceivably be of value.
The men came back, looking pleased, with the worthless possessions of the captured crew. One man seemed to prize a framed photograph of a very ugly woman, quite probably the wife of the funny little captain. They then opened the sea- cocks and cast off with the engines going slow ahead. There were some unpleasant scraping noises and Dr. Narrison could still remember Manfred, looking down from the wing of the bridge, declaring that the whole side of the ship would have to be re-painted.
When they were a quarter-mile away, there was an explosion aboard the old collier, apparently when the sea water reached the boilers, and a column of soot and smoke shot up out of her tall straight stack. It was a humorous sight, and Dr. Narrison laughed inwardly at the memory. The explosion seemed also to break the ship's back. At any rate, the bow and stern both rose gradually as the bridge dropped steadily to the water's edge. Then, as they circled, there were the loud rending and crashing noises as the many tons of remaining coal ripped the ship's structure apart on their way to the bottom. The bow floated for some time, but, as Manfred took a picture, it disappeared in a great welter of bubbles and froth.
Paul would obviously have liked to have sunk a few ships himself, and Dr. Narrison, having tried to give him a feeling for what was, after all, an unusual experience, added,
"We almost got retribution for our sins that very night. I'm only alive because an English lookout didn't see us a little farther up the Mozambique Channel. There was still no wind or sea, a full moon and hardly a ripple on the water. We were making only a few knots when we saw a ship headed in our direction from the north, steaming hard. My gunnery officer wanted to open the gun flaps, and I let him. I suspected that it was an English cruiser all along, but there was no chance to get away and nothing we could do but fight."
"Could you have won?"
"Probably only one chance in twenty. He kept coming, and, by the time we definitely identified him as a cruiser, we knew he had to be wondering about us. This time, he was over a mile away, and the odds of hitting him with a torpedo were slim. Even though we were out-matched in guns, I was tempted to open fire first, just on the chance of a lucky hit. But I kept waiting. And, do you know, he just steamed past. We could see him for a long time."
"Was it just a lookout asleep?"
"That and the officer of the watch drunk, perhaps. They had liquor aboard English ships."
"That must have been the life, cruising the south seas and capturing merchantmen."
"We were unlucky and only captured six ships. The WOLF and the MOWE were the ones who got all the attention. But I did have a woman on the island of Madagascar."
"How did you manage that?"
"Madagascar was one of the wild places of the world, probably still is. The towns are on the coast and, apart from the capitol, there's nothing but jungle in the interior. There were no roads between the towns, and they weren't regular ports, most of them just groups of mud hovels and shacks overlooking a bay. Steamships hardly ever visited them, just Arab dhows coasting along on no kind of schedule."
"Were there cannibals?"
Dr. Narrison realized that he had made Madagascar sound like New Guinea, a place he had also visited. He replied,
"No. They probably all had been, but, by the time we got there, none of the natives had the energy to kill people, much less eat them. Besides, it was a French colony in theory, and some people did speak French. Cannibalism wasn't a thing the French encouraged."
"Did you speak French?"
"Enough to communicate after a fashion."
"And they didn't mind that you were the captain of a German raider?"
"The people in those towns hardly knew that a war was going on, and the French officials didn't trouble themselves to tour the coastal villages. We discovered one place, Analalava, at the mouth of a pretty big river. We anchored the ship in the river so that she was hidden from the outside by a headland, but we positioned her so that we could blow to pieces anyone who blundered in with our guns and torpedoes. Once we were anchored, I sent water and food parties inland. The water they drank in the town would've made us all sick, so the water parties had to go miles and climb trails to find good water."
"But you were the captain and you could relax."
"That's right. I never had the slightest temptation to get into the steaming jungle with all those poisonous snakes. The town itself was strange. There were the usual mud streets lined with huts and shacks, and with animals and people wallowing along them. But, like a beacon at the end of the main street, there was an actual French cafe. It was the only thing in the town that wasn't covered with mud. Hanging from the railing were scrapers that you used to get the mud off your boots, and then, when you stepped inside, it was as if you'd gone five thousand miles, little tables and chairs and baskets of croissants. But the really extraordinary thing about it was the woman who ran it."
Dr. Narrison paused, and Paul prompted him,
"She became your girl friend?"
"To a degree. Her father was from India, one of the traders who go all over Africa, and her mother was the daughter of a French official. Her parents had set up to be the merchants of the town, but they were both dead and only the cafe remained. Her name was Sumita, and she was the only person in town who had any energy or charm or any kind of sparkle. It was as if it had all been drained from the others and concentrated in her. She should have left, of course, but her luck hadn't been good. She'd gotten herself marooned there."
"Was she like Rosie?"
"Incomparably more beautiful. More beautiful than anyone you've ever seen. It was the mixture of the races, you see. It often comes out badly, but the result is occasionally something no one race alone could ever have produced."
"And you had her."
"No, no one had ever had her. But I wanted her. There were days when I did hardly anything but sit and watch Sumita as she moved around the cafe, serving the people who considered themselves the elite of the town. I would've killed any man who looked cross-eyed at her, but they were very polite to her."
"What happened to the ship when you were ashore mooning over her."
"I didn't know and didn't care. A British or French cruiser could have come into the harbor at any moment. My first officer would have managed well enough without me, but I hardly gave it a thought. I spent whole days and nights with her. I'd sleep on a cot just so I could be there when she got up in the morning. I couldn't do anything else. Nothing at all. I couldn't move, couldn't eat, couldn't drink. I only waited for the night, when we could talk for hours. I even hoped that the men in the water parties would get bitten by snakes so we wouldn't have to put to sea so soon."
"I can see why you didn't capture many ships."
"The crew hated Analalava, and would've mutinied if I hadn't intimidated them so. We'd put out occasionally and usually capture a ship in fairly short order. We'd take on her stores, put her crew in their boats, and open the sea cocks or put an explosive charge against the keel. A couple went down slowly on an even keel, but most rolled over and stuck their sterns in the air before taking the plunge."
"Didn't you get chased by the cruisers?"
"We only saw that one. I think we survived because we didn't take enough ships to trigger a massive hunt and an intensive search of the Madagascar coast."
"What happened with your girl friend?"
"One day in the spring of 1917, when we got back to Analalava, the cafe was closed. Sumita was gone, people didn't know, or wouldn't say, where. They wouldn't say anything even when I beat them with my fists. She could only have left on a dhow, and we were out of the harbor within the hour."
"You tried to find her?"
Dr. Narrison smiled at the recollection.
"It may have been the only time in history when a warship stopped little trading vessels with crews of a half dozen each and searched them, looking for a woman. My own crew thought I was crazy, but I let them keep whatever they found on the dhows, and that kept them happy. We spent weeks at it, but we never found her."
"What happened then?"
"I put back to Analalava to see if she'd gone back, but she hadn't. I never saw her again. I've never since wanted anything or anyone as much."