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Hollow Sea

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Hollow Sea



  'The best novel I have yet had to review in this newspaper.'

  Malcolm Muggeridge in the Daily Telegraph

  'A magnificent book.'

  Elizabeth Bowen

  'Hanley at his most impressive. He is the only living English writer who knows how to write about the sea.'

  V. S. Pritchett

  'Tolstoyan . . . It has an epic quality'

  L. P. Hartley in the Observer


  Hollow Sea

  A Panther Book


  A Panther Book

  First published In Great Britain by John Lane 1938

  Nicholson & Watson edition published 1950

  Panther edition published July 1965

  Table Of Contents





















  WHEN some angry thoughts had cooled he moved his finger. It was a long finger, thin, covered with a film of reddish hair. His face was so near to it that when he breathed one could see the slight wavering of the hairs on it. The nail was thick, long, and had two white spots on it. The finger traced a line down the paper and then stopped.

  The philosophy of high explosives was a negative, an absolutely mad philosophy. He thought it came to fruition in the face of the grinning monkey sitting under the swinging yellow light. Something in him seemed to cry 'Stop'.

  His finger was moving again. Suddenly he said 'Probable'. It was as though his finger was a sort of fish caught between two tides, the tides of memory and actuality. When he remembered his finger ceased to move. His mind was lifted up, carried far away, beyond the unrest, the ceaseless movement, the incessant hammering, the monotonous 'one, two, three' . . . 'Steady there', the whisperings, the creakings of wood, the sudden vision of a great area of wood, upon which something huge performed phantom-like movements. Beyond the grinning face beneath the swinging light.

  But when his finger moved he was caught in the other tide; he was sunk in the unrest; he was part of the mass of desperate life. Three words remained engrained upon his brain. Possible. Probable. Certain. They were like pendulums, swinging to and fro, aimlessly, violently, without easy flow and rhythm.

  His finger had now covered the whole area of the chart. The paper itself was covered with lines: red and green and blue. At that moment the hammering ceased. He sat back. When he looked at the chart again it was a mere blur. The colours had run into one another, the lines moved. He put his finger down on the paper. He thought it had moved. He jumped up and closed the port-hole. Maybe it was just wind. Then he rolled up the chart, put it in the drawer, and remained standing there, staring at the drawer into which he had placed it.

  The hammering began again. He put on his hat and went out. It was very dark. He saw the light swinging in the wind, but he did not go near it. He went along another way. The hammering was deafening. The voices had ceased but they still rang in his ears. 'One. Two. Three. Steady there.' Then the wild movement of the large object on the patch of slain wood. He spat into the water.

  Rain poured down, making a strange pattering sound on the deserted decks. It was like the sudden stamping of tiny feet.

  Then a whistle blew. Where the darkness seemed thickest huge shapes moved, up and down, this way and that, slow and sombre in their movements. He gripped the rail, thinking 'If I go through that door and come out on to the other side I will see that monkey's face.' He laughed then, remembering that a certain madness upon which he had been meditating was personified in the monkey's face. It had a bald head that shone like dull ivory. Above it the light swung to and fro, sentinel-like. He thought of the light and remembered how it threw a dull sickly glare upon a certain patch of bulwark. That was just where one of the men had been careless, leaving a bad patch unpainted. From stem to stern there were five huge eyes. He remembered that when he looked into one of these eyes figures were moving about. He could not get rid of the sounds in his ears. 'One. Two. Three. Steady.' Then the chart appeared, clouded his vision of the movements inside the large eye, and he swung round and walked slowly back to his cabin. He hung up his hat, went to the drawer of the oak chest and withdraw the chart from it. He laid it out on the table and sat down again.

  He did not put his finger on the line this time because a voice kept whispering in his ear: 'It is risky.' He kept his hands in his pocket and stared at the map. He remembered that after he had stared at it for some time he realized the power hidden under the lines. The red, green and blue lines. All human activities were centred there, the chart was like a powerful magnet. Darkness could not wipe it out. If he switched off the light it would still be there, his eyes would still remain riveted upon it, and he would still see the lines moving. Once he thought it might even breathe, become humanized; it drew everything unto itself, everything but the unrest. The unrest was something in the air that could not be seen, nor felt. It was just there and the darkness magnified it. The chart was a world, a wall, a prison, a well.

  He pulled his right hand from his pocket and put his finger there again. The tip of the nail rested on a little red ball. He bent down and looked at it. 'Possible,' he said to himself, and smiled. He imagined Necessity's great hand had placed the little red ball there. He knew that it represented something called X. He exclaimed under his breath, 'X possible.' He knew it was really land, sky, water, air, people living and moving about; a place on the earth's surface, but it was called X. He thought: 'Perhaps conundrums are the square root of their crazy philosophy.'

  His finger moved higher still, then stopped again where a green wavy line began. That was L. He laughed aloud, thinking how Necessity had come to their aid with conundrums. Higher still there was O. O and L and X. The possible, probable and certain. To which one? That was the question. Again his mind was lifted up, swinging pendulum-like between memory and actuality. It swung towards L. He remembered L and what it represented quite distinctly. It was like X, a place on the globe, but it seemed to him that people liked to deal in conundrums. It helped illusion. He folded up the chart, rose to his feet and crossed the cabin. He stood staring through the open port-hole. It was so dark outside that one could not see even a finger. He was still standing there when a knock came to the door. He scrambled to his table again before calling out, 'Come in.' At the same time the door opened.

  'Ah!' he said. 'That you, Bradshaw? Come in.' The man named Bradshaw stepped into the cabin. He was smoking a pipe. He sat down on the greasy green settee. Soon the cabin was filled with clouds of bluish-black smoke from his strong-smelling shag. He pulled the pipe from his mouth and tipped its hot bowl into the palm of his large brown hand. 'Still at that game,' he remarked, and the man at the table swung round. Their eyes met.

  'Yes,' he said. 'Still at it.' He watched the other man's lips. 'Yes?'

  'The men have just gone ashore for their supper,' Bradshaw said.

  The man at the table got up. He yawned and one saw that there were two teeth missing from the front of the upper jaw. He scratched his chin with his long fingers. Bradshaw said it was so dark you could not see an inch outside. A silence fell between them. Through the open port-hole they could hear the falling rain.

  'It's quietened down
,' the man said. Bradshaw rose to his feet. He laid his hand gently on the knob of the door. Something in his demeanour amused the man. He sat down to the table again, turning his back on Bradshaw. He smiled, knowing Bradshaw was watching him.

  'They've finished numbers two and three then?' he asked.

  'Yes, Mr. Dunford,' Bradshaw said. The brass ring in the knob of the door rattled.

  'They're still at number four?'

  'Yes, Mr. Dunford,' Bradshaw said. There was a long pause. Then he added quickly, 'They're going to run those boxes fore and aft in the early morning. . . '

  'Still reckoning we'll catch that tide?' Mr. Dunford turned round. He was not looking at Bradshaw, but at his hand on the door-knob. Somewhere in the distance a bell rang.

  'You can go, then,' Mr. Dunford said. 'I know why you came. It's all right. Go!' Then he turned his back on him again. Bradshaw went away. The door banged. The man sat listening to the sounds of Bradshaw's footsteps on the bridgedeck. He heard him descending the companion-ladder. On the now deserted saloon-deck his footsteps rang out sharp and clear. Mr. Dunford followed him with his mind's eye. He was drawing near to the swinging light, to the crouched figure beneath it. He could see the bald head glistening below the yellow light. He thought: 'Nothing was ever so comical, putting him there on that box; below that light.'

  He raised his head, stared at the bulkhead. He heard a tug blowing far out in the river. What was it that was more maddening than the unrest? More confounding? One could feel the unrest, but the other was beyond feeling. It was there, surrounding one, but illusive. What was it? 'The damned secrecy,' he said. 'The damned secrecy.' It puts something like a monkey at the gangway head. 'Yes. I simply can't rid my mind of that word "monkey". But they call him Rajah.' Where would the Rajah be when she slipped her moorings, catching that all-important tide?

  He was still staring at the bulkhead. His eyes moved slowly until they rested on the electric clock. 'Ah!' he said. He got up and began pacing the room. Not a sound aboard. He had come up three hours ago. It was then he had seen the figure under the light. The face haunted and irritated him. Where had he come from? They knew, but he did not. They knew everything, he nothing. That's how it was. After a while he lay down. His mind wandered off again. L was possible, but O was certain. He fell asleep thinking of L.

  The figure on the wooden box stood up and yawned. Mr. Dunford on first seeing him had imagined him to be a sort of figure-head. A figure-head for a mad ship. But of course it ought to be rigged up just under the eyes of her. His figure was short, the head seeming unusually small to be set on such powerful shoulders. He was dressed in an old reefer jacket, a pair of faded tweed trousers, and worn brown shoes. On the deck near the saloon door lay his greasy cap with its shiny bosun's peak. His bald head shone like dull ivory. The face was small, wizened. There was something peculiar about the features. They were wooden and expressionless. The eyes were almost hidden by the shaggy brows. The skin was yellow and stretched so tightly over the flesh that one imagined the bones might burst through at any moment. His arms were unduly long for so short a man.

  He sat down again on the box, reverting to the same crouched position. The bulwarks opposite him were thickly studded with ejected tobacco quids. His jaws moved continuously. It was as if the life in him had to express itself in the movements of his mouth, the rest of the body was dead. The figure never stirred, but the jaws moved incessantly. It was a sort of uncontrollable machine. Energy and purpose fleshed itself there. The man was – his mouth. If he raised his head and allowed his eyes to wander he would see the long, low-lying cargo shed in front of him, whose roof was now almost flush with her boat-deck, for she was empty of all cargo, carrying only sand ballast.

  From the shed there rose the strong and sour odour of newly piled grain, old ropes, and salt-scarred canvas, for there was a sail-loft at the top end of the shed facing the dock road. On a level with his eye there were also the giant cranes, now silent, their long arms raised skywards, the funereal gestures of machines into which men could breathe life and energy and movement. Higher still there was the control-man's hut. Above this the sky, in which one could discern fast-gathering banks of cloud.

  The rain made a low whirring sound as it struck the concrete surface of the shed. The movement of the man's jaws stopped; he spat out a fresh quid, then pulled the plug of hard stuff from his pocket, and bit on it. The jaws were in motion again.

  Between the quay and the ship's side the narrow strip of water shone dully. When the hawsers moved a fraction, the ship too appeared to move, the water gurgled. Looking to his right the man on the box saw the derricks raised. The nearest one caught the light of the cluster above his head. He could see the gin-block quite clearly. He turned his head again, fixing his eyes upon the gangway. Its lower end was indistinguishable, being one with the darkness. He raised his hand and drew the canvas shelter farther over his head. He was conscious of two things. The sounds of rain on the canvas, and that part of the gangway where light and darkness appeared to meet. His gaze had the dull fixity of a lunatic.

  He pulled a metal watch from his pocket and stared at it. 'Um,' he said, without arresting the rhythmical movement of his jaws. The tower clock at the top of the graving-dock struck half-past ten. To his left all was shrouded in darkness, except for the faint glitter of a long object that covered the area near the poop. He knew what the glitter was. His eye focusing itself upon that glittering point, he could trace back to where the object began. From where he sat it looked like the point of a long steel finger. In the saloon at his back a single light shone. It had a red paper shade over it. Its glare fell upon the top stair of the flight that led down to the lower deck. The stairs were thickly carpeted.

  At that moment his attention was aroused by a sound of footsteps on the gangway. Instantly he was all attention. His eyes seemed to free themselves from the sheaths of hair that cupped them, to search the gangway. He had heard those footsteps quite clearly. He got up from the box, leaned his body forward and peered down. Yes. Somebody was on the gangway. His attitude was tense, expectant, furtive. Somebody was talking down there. Suddenly the man Bradshaw loomed into view. He stepped to the deck, looked at the old man, said casually, 'Night, Rajah!' then disappeared into the saloon. He closed the door behind him.

  All was silent again. But the man on the box remained standing, head thrown forward, listening. He was certain somebody else was on the gangway. He could hear Bradshaw whistling as he descended the stairs in the saloon. Then he heard voices in the shed, the sounds of hurrying feet. 'Oh!' he said.

  He sat down on the box again. The voices drew nearer. Then the gangway became flooded with men. They passed up quickly, turning to right and left, talking amongst themselves, ignoring the man in the box. He might never have existed. He could hear hatch-coverings being flung aside, chains rattling, the premature creak of a drum-end as a man tried the winch, the low hiss of steam. Ropes moved noiselessly through the blocks, falls hung motionless in the air.

  The rain had ceased. He could hear men descending the ladders in the hatches, hear their swelled voices in the cavernous 'tween-decks. The concourse of sounds increased. He appeared to have fallen asleep. His head rested on his breast. The ship had sprung to life beneath many urgent hands. But the Rajah was indifferent. The light over his head had ceased to swing. The slight breeze had gone with the rain. More clusters appeared, their lights splashing uncertainly in the darkness, as men carried them to and fro, rigging them up over hatches, lowering them to the 'tween-decks. There was something phantomlike about the men's movements.

  More and more men descended her open hatches. Then the hammering began. But the man on the box was deaf to it all.

  In the cabin on the bridge-deck Mr. Dunford woke. He had been dreaming. He jumped from the bunk, put his coat and hat on and went outside. He saw the long gun on the poop as he reached the ladder. He went down. The ship seemed to throb beneath his feet. Down in the holds he could hear the monotonous sing-song voice
s again, the deafening sound of hammers, the rattle of the winches. The whole ship throbbed with life.

  He walked towards the saloon, then stopped to inspect some port-holes and their dead-lights. He leaned against a stanchion, his eyes following the port-holes until they reached the saloon door. The man on the wooden box appeared to have fallen asleep. He went on, passed the still figure and turned into the saloon. He made his way below. After a while he was standing in the 'tween-decks between number two and three hatch. He could see the men working, the bright cluster shining down on them. They worked quickly, almost feverishly, the air was thick with the smell of new wood and strong varnish. Wood to his right and left. Tiers of wood, hands fashioning it into shapes, voices filling the air, hammers driven against nails. He thought of what they were fashioning. He was caught in the unrest again. It was like this sudden madness weaved itself secretly into the wood.

  There was the secrecy, too. One was imprisoned by it. He leaned against a ladder, one hand in his trousers' pocket, his eyes following the movements of the many hands. He glimpsed a face now and then, a mere flash and it was gone. He could not hold them. Looking at their hands he imagined that they existed separately from the bodies, that did not move. The hands swept this way and that, rose and fell, the hold was alive with them. 'She'll slip out quietly to-morrow,' he was thinking, 'Just like a thief.' Those restless hands would be still then, they would have given place to something else . . . but he did not want to think about that. The work was almost completed.

  He went away towards number five. Nobody noticed his presence nor his departure. For them he did not exist. He was something alien, outside their purpose, their goal. There was a break in the hammering now, a kind of hush fell upon the 'tween-decks. Mr. Dunford now saw that work in number five was hardly begun.

  He climbed the ladder and landed on the flush-deck a little out of breath. He took the clear air into his lungs. Here on the main-deck men were moving about, but nobody was speaking. The man went to the rail and looking over allowed his eyes to travel into the shed. He saw the edge of a big crate containing a machine. Grain trailed itself out to the quayside. He turned round and looked across the river. There was a red glare in the sky. The river was alive with craft, unlighted, moving silently towards sea and shore. To-morrow they would pass out the same way. But where? The chart loomed large in his mind, and he said aloud, 'But where?' The secrecy was insidious, foully poisonous, one never knew. Then he turned on his heel and walked right aft, climbing to the poop.

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