A Meeting at Sea
I have gradually come to realize that the nurses and the young ladies from the Hospital Visitors' association have come to know a great deal about me. Some have taken dictation, and others have typed manuscripts. I have also given any of them permission to read these materials, and am informed that a good many have done so.
It does amaze me that, so far, none of may fair readers seem to have been so offended that they shrink from seeing me or caring for me with their usual vigilant meticulousness. After all, I arrived here in the hospital as a so-called "hero", and their disillusionment as to my true character must be painful to them. I am afraid that worse is to come, but, having gone this far, I can hardly stop now.
Sam Hanks was arriving on the usual steamer, but, at that time of year, it's schedule called for it to reach Buthir shortly before midnight. In the cafe that night, I told Cadet Jonsson that I would meet the steamer for him. The good cadet was obviously very pleased, so pleased that I immediately attempted to make it clear that I was replacing him for that night only, and not forever afterwards. I wasn't sure whether, because of the linguistic difficulty and a certain alcoholic barrier, I had succeeded in this latter task. Anyhow, that would be a problem for another day.
The wind, from the southwest, had been blowing up all day. When I left at ten, there was some sleet in the air. Sidonie looked worried, but she had looked worried all week. As I left her in the cafe with the others, Willy offered to come with me. I thanked him and declined, saying that I was sure that I could manage alone. After all, by that time, I had been rowing in the ocean for some five months.
Willy urged me to take his boat rather than my own, saying that we had never really given the distribution of kapok in mine a thorough test. I wasn't concerned about that, but agreed. With another person on board, the extra two feet would come in handy.
It was only after I had gotten underway, and was heading out of the inlet, that I fully realized what a wild night it was. I was dressed very warmly with Icelandic woolens, but I was none too warm as I struggled against the wind being funnelled up the inlet. The seas, bouncing off the rock sides, came together at all angles, and a certain amount of water slopped over the rail. There was little I could do about it then, but I hoped to get a chance to bail it out when I got offshore and the seas were more regular.
Outside, the seas did indeed become more regular, organizing themselves into long parallel combers, but the wind still blew hard. I had to row strongly just to stay where I was, and it was only with difficulty that I finally got about a half-mile off shore. My idea was that, when the steamer did appear, I could easily drop down to leeward to intercept her.
Unfortunately, I had no sooner got to my preferred position, with the black outline of the cliffs visible against the only slightly lighter sky, when the visibility closed down again, this time with increased sleet. I now had no way of fixing my position, and rowed directly into the seas, as I judged, just hard enough to stay where I was.
The sleet let up shortly before midnight, and, typically enough for Iceland, was replaced with thunder and lightning. I was startled when a brilliant flash suddenly lit the great white truncated cone of the Snaefell volcano, some distance to the west. In those conditions of cold surging water and an even colder ripping wind, that sudden burst of clarity in the murk affected me strongly in a way that I didn't then understand. Almost immediately, the sleet set in again. Further flashes illuminated nothing but the waves around me.
Time passed slowly out there, particularly when I realized that the steamer might easily be an hour or more late. Not only that, it occurred to me that they might not want to close the coast at all in those conditions of visibility. While a rowboat could lie safely under the cliffs, a steamer's momentum would carry her right into them. If they didn't dare risk it, Sam would be carried on to Olafsvik, on the sheltered side of the peninsula, or even all the way to Akureyri.
While these thoughts were depressing, Willy's boat rode beautifully in the swells, and I even got a chance to bail. Despite my concern, I was exhilarated, much as one might be at the outset of an adventure.
As it was, I must have gotten farther offshore than I knew. Just barely hearing a whistle and a siren, I realized that the steamer had gotten inside me. Seeing no boat, they might conclude that we thought it too rough to come out.
Within seconds, I had the boat turned and began rowing full-tilt with the wind and seas. It looked, a couple of times, as if the stern might be thrown up and over, capsizing me, but the great thing was to keep the boat exactly perpendicular to the seas. I managed it, and got a glorious ride.
I came out just ahead of the white bulk of the Thorwald. She lay broadside to the seas, rolling heavily. At one moment her weather rail would roll almost into the water, and then I would see a vast expanse of red-leaded bottom, dark in the dim light.
The noise of wind and sea probably drowned out my shouts, but they did see me as I came across the bow and into the lee of the ship. I could see Sam at the gangway, in a fur hat, with a seaman beside him. I don't think he recognized me at that stage, but he certainly looked very scared. That was no wonder. With the ship rolling to that extent and the boat going up and down, both relative to the ship and absolutely, he would have to get part-way down the rope ladder as it swung out, and I would have to back the stern of the boat in to catch him. I had done it before, but Sam hadn't.
It was really rather funny to watch Sam, always so perfectly pulled together and so fashionable, as he landed awkwardly in the boat, his arms and legs asplay and his rear end in the wet bilge. It was just then that he recognized me, almost debonair by contrast, with something like a groan.
It was a good thing that we were in sight of the cliffs, and that I thus knew our exact position. I had only to row along them, and then around the reef into the inlet.
The only difficulty, really, concerned the trim of the boat. A rowboat of that sort rows beautifully with two persons, one on each rowing seat, and very well with just one person, on either rowing seat. It does not, however, go well with a person on the after rowing seat and another in the stern. The bow sticks up too high, with the stem almost entirely out of the water, and the transom enters the water, thus spoiling the fine sharp lines beneath it. I should have had Sam crawl over me to the forward rowing seat, even if he didn't row. On the other hand, he appeared not to have recovered from the passage from ship to boat, and it was natural to leave him where he was.
The Thorwald cleared out quickly at full revolutions. They had to depend entirely on dead reckoning and sounding in bad weather, and the safest place was well off shore.
Sam looked at the point where the Thorwald had disappeared as if he had lost his last friend. I assured him that everything was completely under control. He said little, but his disbelief was so obvious that I realized, in that moment, that he had always held me in contempt. It had probably been amused contempt, but the amusement was now gone.
I've always noticed how often it is that people do things to justify other people's low opinions of them. The man who sets out to prove his critics wrong most often manages only to give them some really solid new evidence for their previous opinion. On this occasion, it wasn't so much my fault as the trim of the boat. Rowing diagonally across the seas, the crest of a wave hit the bow, and, because of our reduced lateral stability, knocked it sideways. Both Sam and I were unbalanced and pitched to leeward as the boat rolled. I actually recovered very quickly and got in a full stroke with my leeward oar, which kept us from being rolled into the trough. We did, however, ship a good deal of water, "green" as the sailors say, over the lee rail and the lowered transom.
I pulled up quickly into the seas, and, if Sam had bailed energetically, we might have gotten the water out. In the event, he went very nearly beserk. I think that it wasn't so much the hundred or so pounds of water surging fore and aft in the bilge, but the wild night and the sounds of the sea and the surf. After a moment of waving his arms, he covered his head with them. That did little to get the water out of the boat, and, each time it came aft, it lowered the stern enough to bring more in.
The boat was soon swamped, at least to the extent that Willy's boat could ever be swamped. By this time, we weren't far from the cliffs. They were very striking, even blacker than the sea, but with white foam being thrown up to great heights. I attempted to get through to Sam by pointing out to him the beauty of the cliffs. He looked at them, gave a cry, and then looked at me in utter horror. He then started to yank off his shoes. He seemed to think that we were about to be washed into the surf, and that he could swim to safety. I expostulated
"The water's awfully cold. We do swim sometimes, but that's when there's a nice warm sun to dry us off afterwards."
Joseph Conrad remarks in one place that a perfect civility of tone and urbanity of manner is not really of much use in dealing with the emotional collapse of another person. That may have been my mistake. Sam gave me one last look, as if he thought me utterly mad, and dove overboard. I started rowing again in an attempt to follow him, but soon lost him in the seas.
Needless to say, it was a long wet row home. However, Icelandic wool still preserves heat even when soaked with salt water, and I was hardly the first to be saved by it. Once I got used to the idea of the waves sweeping over the boat almost to my shoulders, and timed my strokes accordingly, I was able to work up momentum.
The boat then went along very nicely, rising and falling only slowly and allowing me to break through waves with the weight of the water in the boat working in my favor. I nevertheless felt considerable relief when I rounded the reef and headed up the inlet. The following short seas broke more or less into my stomach, but they were pushing me in the right direction.