'There's some bad weather out there.' Captain MacWhirr said to himself, looking at the barometer.
He was a quiet man, who never looked for trouble, and rarely found it. When he talked, which was not often, he used few words. This made some people think that he was not so clever. He had blue eyes, not much hair on top of his head — with thin yellow hair around the back and sides, and thick red hair on his face. He had a strong, thick, short body. On shore — it didn't matter where — he always wore the same brown hat, brown suit, and heavy black boots. But everyone who worked with him knew that he was a good captain. Ships under his command arrived on time, and he never had trouble with his crews.
When he was fifteen, MacWhirr ran away from home in Ireland to be a sailor. He didn't tell his mother and father — who had a shop in Belfast — where he was until eight months later, when he sent them a letter from Chile. Year after year he worked on different ships, and didn't go home very often. But he wrote many letters home from all over the world. They were short, and always gave news about the weather: 'It's very hot here' or 'On Christmas Day at four o'clock in the afternoon it was very cold.'
In time he met a young woman that he liked. Her name was Lucy, but he did not have time to write much about her to his mother and father, because they died. MacWhirr married Lucy not long after he was given his first job as the captain of a ship.
The Nan-Shan was three years old and was made in Dumbarton, in Scotland. She was a fine, strong ship, neither too narrow nor too deep, and good in stormy weather. At first the Nan-Shan sailed under a British flag, but then the owner, Mr Sigg, decided that it would be better to change to the old Thai flag. This was red with a big, white elephant in the middle of it. Jukes, the first mate, felt uncomfortable sailing under Thai colours.
'It looks strange to me, that flag with the elephant on it,' he said to Captain MacWhirr. 'I don't like it.'
'There's nothing wrong with it,' replied Captain MacWhirr, looking up at the flag. 'You just have to make sure that the crew put it the right way up.'
Jukes wasn't happy with the captain's answer. Later, down on deck, he told Solomon Rout about it. Rout, taking time out from the engine room, was the chief engineer.
He was a tall, fatherly man, and often listened — smiling — to young Jukes's stories.
'I can't understand the captain,' said Jukes. 'You say one thing to him, and he takes it another way. I was ready to leave my job because we're now sailing under that Thai flag. But all he could say was that you had to put it up the right way.'
'And did you leave your job?' asked Rout, smiling. After many years' work on ships all over the world, Rout knew how important it was to have — and not to lose — a good job.
'No, I didn't,' replied Jukes. He felt a little angry with himself because he talked of it but didn't do it.
'Rout!' said the captain, arriving just then.
'Yes, sir!' Rout replied.
'We're sailing for Fu-chau this afternoon. The engines must be ready for one o'clock. And Jukes!'
'We're taking two hundred Chinese labourers with us. They're arriving in about twenty minutes. During the day, they can stay on deck, and at night they'll sleep in the hold. Make sure that there's room for them and their boxes.'
'Yes, sir,' said Jukes. And with that the captain went to his room, and Rout and Jukes hurried away to do their work.
The two hundred Chinese workers were going back to their villages after seven years of work away from home. They all wore the same dark clothes, and each one carried a little box which was made of wood. In this box was everything that they had in the world, and all their work money. Each one kept his box near him at all times. When they came onto the Nan-Shan, Jukes told them where to go. Because the Chinese labourers couldn't speak English very well, he explained everything very loudly and slowly to them: 'You sleep here. You cook food here, and here you eat. In line weather, you can come up, walk on deck, and enjoy the sea air.' Did the Chinese workers understand him? Their tired faces didn't show what they were really thinking, so it was difficult to be sure.
In four hours the ship would leave for Fu-chau. There was just time to write to family and friends, and MacWhirr, Rout and Jukes all wanted to send letters before leaving.
MacWhirr's letter was to his wife. Spending so much time at sea, Captain MacWhirr didn't understand his wife and their two children — Lydia and Tom — very well. He knew little about their lives, and had little to tell them about his life. Lucy MacWhirr usually didn't read her husband's letters very carefully: they spoke about the weather, the sea, and other things that she didn't really find very interesting. Her one great worry was that one day he would come back, and want to live at home with her all the time. So she read his letters looking for any words about that. Remember me to the children. Your loving husband, wrote MacWhirr, before he put his name at the bottom.
Rout's letters were much fuller, and his wife always enjoyed reading them. She lived with Rout's mother, who couldn't hear very well, and needed help. And she often read the really interesting parts of her husband's letters very loudly to the old woman. I prefer a slow captain who does no wrong to a quick-thinking criminal one. They're easier to work with, wrote Rout to his wife, thinking of MacWhirr.
Jukes always wrote to a friend of his — a sailor on another ship — and he usually described everything that happened in his life, and how he thought and felt about it. In this letter he wrote: The other day I was talking with one of the crew for a while, and later the captain asked me: 'Was that you talking?' I said, 'Yes.'
'For two hours!' he said. 'What do you find to talk about?' When we're on shore I see people talking all day, and then in the evening they go on talking over drinks. Surely they're saying the same things over again. I can't understand it.' Isn't he a strange man? Sometimes he makes me angry, and sometimes I feel sorry for him — because I think that he doesn't really understand anything of life at all.
After the three writers finished and posted their letters, the Nan-Shan was ready to go on her way.
Things get hotter
Once the Nan-Slum was out at sea, Captain MacWhirr looked at the barometer again. 'Yes, there's some really dirty weather out there, that's for sure,' he said to himself.
He was not worried by the way the weather was changing, and he didn't feel at all afraid at the idea of a typhoon. Spending most of his life at sea, he knew many different kinds of weather; and a typhoon was just another kind of bad weather for him. But perhaps Captain MacWhirr did not fully know the real power of the sea. Of course he knew about typhoons, and he knew that they sometimes happened in the China Sea. Before becoming a captain, he read about typhoons in books, and he heard about them from other sailors. But to be in the middle of a very strong typhoon in which the sea showed all its fury and its terrible power — no. this was something that MacWhirr himself did not really know.
The swell was getting stronger, and the ship started rolling slowly and heavily from side to side. It was now late afternoon, and the sun was beginning to go down. It was very hot. there was no wind at all. and MacWhirr could feel the storm in the air. Perhaps everyone on the Nan-Shan could feel it, because there was a heavy, angry feeling everywhere on the ship. Most of the Chinese labourers were on deck, spending the time in different ways. Some were looking out to sea, bored. Some were smoking, and some had their shirts off and were pulling up buckets full of sea water from over the side of the ship to wash in because they were so hot. Three of them were pointing at one of their boxes and shouting. Perhaps they were talking angrily about money, thought MacWhirr. The rest of them were sleeping quietly.
Below deck, it was worse. The temperature in the engine room was a hundred and seventeen degrees, and the air was full of angry voices and the loud noise of metal on metal. The second engineer, a big. strong man called Harry, was shouting at his men because there was not enough steam. Harry often shouted, and usually the men worked quietly under him; but today they were as angry as he was. To make more steam, they needed more air from the ventilators — and there was none. Harry came up on deck to see why this was, and found Jukes.
'How can my men give us enough steam if the ventilators aren't catching the wind?' he shouted.
'The ventilators aren't the problem.' said Jukes. 'There's no wind — that's the problem.' Jukes knew that it was hard work in the engine room on a day like this, and so he decided it would be a good idea to let Harry shout for a while. Perhaps after that, he would go back down below deck and do his job more quietly. But the second engineer didn't listen to Jukes's words.
'Look, it's just like I thought. This ventilator's pointing in the wrong direction. I don't know what your men do all day. Do they just lie around on their fat backs?' He tried to change the direction of the ventilator, but it was too heavy to move. Jukes stopped him: 'Harry, I told you before: there's nothing that we can do. There's no wind. But look, there's a storm coming.' Harry looked at the strong swell of the sea around them, and then at Jukes. 'This is a dog's life.' he said, angrily. And with that, he went back down to the engine room.
Jukes turned round, and saw MacWhirr looking at him.
'Why did you let him talk to you like that?' the captain asked. 'You mustn't be soft with the crew. If he goes on like that, he'll have to find himself a new job on another ship very soon.'
'His men can't make enough steam. And it's not easy working down there when it's so hot, I understand how he feels. Even up here on deck I feel like I have a blanket round my head.'
A blanket round your head? What do you mean? Have you ever had a blanket round your head, Jukes? What was that for?'
'It's just a way of speaking, sir,' said Jukes, thinking that Captain MacWhirr really had a very strange way of understanding things.
'Well, if there's any more talk of that kind from the second engineer, he'll have to go,' said MacWhirr, and he walked away.
At eight o'clock it was dark. Jukes went to the chart-room to write the ship's log. As he did every day, he wrote the number of miles, the direction the ship was sailing in, and what kind of wind there was that day. Should he write down what he thought, or only what he could see? Under 'Comments' he wrote: 'Terribly hot weather,' and: 'The swell is making the ship roll heavily.' He thought for one or two minutes, and then wrote: 'The Chinese labourers are all safely below deck for the night. The barometer is still going down.' He was closing the log, when the ship rolled very heavily He looked out of the window. In front of his eyes a great big dark wave climbed up higher and higher until it hid the starry sky. He wrote one more comment in the log: 'From what I can see, a typhoon is on its way.'
The book of storms
After Jukes finished writing his comments in the log book, the captain arrived in the chart-room, and it was Jukes's turn to go below deck. Out on the bridge, he met the second mate — a strange man with bad teeth, a long nose, and a red angry-looking face. He never spoke much to the rest of the crew. This was his first trip on the Nun-Slum.
'It's a good thing for those Chinese labourers that this ship doesn't roll so easily in a storm,' said Jukes laughing brightly, 'don't you think?'
'Just you wait,' said the second mate.
'Do you mean to say that it's going to get worse?' asked Jukes.
'You said it. Not me!' said the second mate with a cold smile.
The ship was rolling more wildly now than before, and in the end Jukes decided that he must go back and speak to Captain MacWhirr. It was a stupid idea to sail the ship into a typhoon. They should try and do something about it. Back once more in the chart-room, he found MacWhirr reading a book there.
'What's the matter?' asked MacWhirr.
'The swell's getting worse, sir,' replied Jukes.
'Yes, I can see that,' said MacWhirr. 'Anything else?'
Jukes was not sure how to begin. Then he had an idea.
'I was thinking of the passengers, sir.'
'What passengers, Jukes?'
'The Chinese labourers, sir.'
'Well, why don't you say what you mean? I've never heard anyone talk of Chinese labourers as paying passengers before! Ha! That's a good one!' he laughed. 'And what about them?' he went on.
'Well, with all this rolling, a lot of water is coming into the ship's hold. That's where all the Chinese are, sir. I thought that maybe we could go east. Then the swell would come at us straight on, and not make us roll from side to side.'
'So you want me to move a powerful steamship fifty degrees off course to make some Chinese labourers more comfortable? I've heard some stupid things in my life, but this… And what do you want us to do after that? Go fifty degrees the other way again to finish up back on course?'
'I know that you don't think much of my idea, sir, but at the moment we're busy sailing into a typhoon,' said Jukes, looking MacWhirr in the eye.
'And it seems you think that we should try and sail away from it?'
Jukes said nothing. This was a different Captain MacWhirr from the one he knew. MacWhirr held up the book in his hand.
'I was just reading the chapter on storms in this book. I think you'd like it. If we do what it says in this book, we have to sail all over the sea trying to avoid storms. Can you believe that? Think of us sailing an extra three hundred miles on our way to Fu-chau, just because of bad weather. What about the extra coal — the extra time? Think of us coming into Fu-chau two days late; what will they say to me? «Where have you been, Captain?» «Oh, it took us longer: we had to avoid some bad weather,» I'll say. Then they'll ask: «Was it a very bad storm?» «I don't know,» I'll have to answer. «I didn't see it».'
The captain looked at Jukes. Did the first mate understand what he was saying? MacWhirr tried to explain more:
'That kind of thinking is all wrong. Jukes. A storm is a storm, and a steamship has just got to go through the storms that stand in front of her as well as she can. There are some things that books can't tell, you.' MacWhirr stopped talking, and sat down on the window seat. He pulled off his boots and put his legs up. He suddenly felt tired.
'Jukes, tell them to call me if there's any change in the weather.'
'Yes, sir,' answered the first mate, and — with that — he walked out on deck again, closing the chart-room door behind him.
Captain MacWhirr closed his eyes. He was tired after all that speaking. Those twenty minutes of conversation with Jukes were all that he believed about the sea and sailing. Now his head felt empty, and he could think of nothing.
He opened his eyes some time later. What was that loud noise? Was it the wind? Why did no one call him? Just then, he saw Jukes's face at the open chart-room door. The first mate was shouting something, but the captain couldn't hear him very well because of the wind.
'Started… this suddenly… five minutes ago,' cried Jukes.
MacWhirr tried to put on his boots. This was not easy because the ship was now moving from side to side very wildly. At last they were on.
Through the wind Jukes heard the captain saying: 'I told you… any change… call me.'
Jukes tried to explain: 'Wind… sudden… north-east… thought you… sure… hear.' Again the wind carried away half his words before the captain's ears could catch them.
'We must try to stay on course for as long as we can,' said MacWhirr.
Suddenly the Nan-Slum went up over an enormous wave, and ran deep down into the sea on the other side of it. Water flew over her sides. Jukes and MacWhirr couldn't see anything for some minutes. When they could see again, Jukes pulled at MacWhirr's arm, and pointed up over their heads. Just then, all the stars went suddenly from before their eyes, and all that they could see was a heavy, coal-dark sky above them.
The typhoon hits
Jukes knew that at a time like this, a ship's officer must not show his feelings. He started to tell his men to fasten anything on the ship that was moving. He wanted them to see in him a man who was not afraid of some bad weather, a man who knew that this typhoon was coming from the beginning. But with every minute, Jukes understood that this typhoon was much bigger, and wilder, than any other usual storm. Great waves fell noisily onto the deck, covering the Nan-Shan in water from top to bottom. She was still rolling heavily from side to side, but now she began to move up and down wildly in the sea, too, like an enormous animal worried sick with fear.
'I'm not sure that we're going to live through this,' thought Jukes. He felt happy that Captain MacWhirr was there, for it was the captain who had to decide what to do in difficult times. And saving the crew's lives was the captain's job, not his.
MacWhirr did not feel so comfortable. He knew that he and his crew could all die in this typhoon, and he knew that he must decide what to do very carefully. It was now a question of life or death. He looked in front of him, trying to understand how the typhoon worked, like a man looking deeply into the eyes of a dangerous enemy. But all was dark around him. He could see nothing, not even the ship under his feet. He felt like a man who has lost the power to see, and who doesn't know where he is.
Standing next to him, Jukes said: 'I think that we've sailed into the worst part of the typhoon.' But this was not true: the worst part came a few minutes later, and it came suddenly. The typhoon exploded around them with dangerous power. It seemed that the wind and the waves wanted to break the ship into hundreds of pieces. Many sailors tried to grab some part of the ship, but couldn't do it in time. The waves sent them flying down the deck. Jukes was thrown onto his back. It seemed to him that all of the China Sea was trying to drown him. It threw him wildly from side to side, and he heard himself shouting, again and again: 'My God! My God! My God!' Hurrying to find something to hold on to, his hands touched a boot, then two boots. He held on, and then he felt Captain MacWhirr's strong arms around him, pulling him up. They stood for a short while, holding onto each other, but then the water knocked them onto the deck. At last they found each other again, and this time they held on to the ship's railings.
The typhoon was now pulling the lifeboats off the ship. One by one, they went into the angry waters of the China Sea.
'Our lifeboats have gone, sir,' shouted Jukes. Because of the noise of the wind he couldn't hear MacWhirr's answer very well:
'Can't help… had to happen… some things… left behind.'
The captain's words surprised Jukes. Was that all that MacWhirr had to say? Again, he found the Captain's way of thinking strange. The first mate looked at the waves loudly hitting the deck, and tried to decide if the Nan-Shan would survive the typhoon. If the engines kept going… if the waves didn't break the deck… if not too much water went into the hold… But then he thought, more or less without fear: 'No, she won't survive.'
At the same time that he was thinking this, he felt Captain MacWhirr's heavy arm over his shoulder. He replied by putting his own arm round MacWhirr.
'Will she live through this?' he asked the captain. At first there was no answer, only the angry noise of the wind and the sea against the ship's side. But then he heard MacWhirr's voice: 'Going to… all right… good ship… everything will… for the best.' Jukes wasn't sure if this was more of the captain's slow but sure way of thinking, or if the ship really would be all right. But it was good to hear MacWhirr's words.
'Where are… crew?' asked Macwhirr.
'What… say, sir?' Jukes couldn't hear his question.
'Where… all the men?' said MacWhirr.
Just then Jukes felt a hand touching his boot, then a second hand, and then he felt both these hands pulling on his trousers. A man was on his knees, trying to stand up. He was using Jukes's body to help him. It was the boatswain. He was a little man, with short legs and long arms, who usually smiled a lot.
'Is that you, sir?' he said to MacWhirr.
'Yes, boatswain. What have you come to tell us?' replied MacWhirr.
'It's about the Chinese labourers, sir.'
'Well, what about them, boatswain?' said Jukes.
'The sea has taken them all, sir.'
We need light
'What do you mean, the sea has taken all the Chinese labourers?' MacWhirr asked the boatswain.
'I saw an enormous wave… it took them all. together in one big group.'
'Are you sure about that, boatswain?' Jukes asked. He didn't think the boatswain was very clever. He never understood why Captain MacWhirr believed that he was good at his job.
'I saw it happen with my own two eyes, sir,' said the boatswain. He then told them everything that happened from the time that the typhoon struck:
When the boatswain and the rest of the crew saw that they were in a typhoon, they ran from the deck, and looked for somewhere drier to escape from the worst of the storm. Many of them went to a dark room under the bridge. Here, the ship rolled as much as it did on deck, but there was less water. It was very dark, and the crew were in the middle of a typhoon for the first time. Most thought that it would be their last time too. Fear made them start shouting, and with every wave that hit the deck, their shouts became louder. One of them said that they needed a light. If the ship was going to sink, at least they could see around them before they died.
'I don't like the idea of drowning in the dark,' he said.
'Well, if you want a light so badly, why don't you get one yourself?' answered the boatswain. This made them shout even more, for not one of them wanted to go out into the storm. The boatswain didn't want to go and look for a light either: outside the room that they were in. anything could happen. And the nearest place to find lights was far away. But then he remembered that there were six lights in the hold, where all the Chinese labourers were. He decided to go to the hold and bring one back.
Outside, the ship was rolling wildly from side to side. The wind, the powerful waves hitting the deck all around him, the moving ship — all seemed to be doing their best to kill him. With every step that he took, he was afraid that he would fall overboard into the angry China Sea below him. He fought his way to the hold, falling many times. The typhoon was breaking the ship into pieces, and he often had to avoid pieces of thin metal that the sea and the wind threw at him. The noise of the typhoon was terrible to hear. The wind was screaming at him: it was a noise halfway between fury and pain. But underneath the screaming wind, and the noise of metal hitting metal, there was something strange and new that he could hear: a deep thumping noise. Was it coming from the hold? It seemed that something very large and heavy was rolling from one side of the ship to the other. The boatswain couldn't understand it — there was nothing large and heavy in the hold that could make that noise. But as he came closer to the hold, the thumping noise became louder and louder.
At last he arrived at the heavy metal door to the hold, and pulled it slowly open. What he found inside was terrible to see. The typhoon was throwing the Chinese labourers from one side of the hold to the other. There was nothing for them to hold onto, so they could not stop themselves. When each new wave hit the ship, they rolled into a big pile on one side; then they all rolled back into a big pile on the other side. The hold was full of their shouts and screams.
The boatswain also saw many little pieces of wood all around the hold, together with many round pieces of bright metal. Suddenly he remembered the labourer's boxes: now they were all in pieces, and the money that was once inside them was falling all over the hold. It was like a great storm inside the ship, but a stormy sea of arms, legs, and terrified faces — not of wind and waves. And so it was that the sea took them!
Forgetting the lights, which were why he went on his journey to the hold in the first place, the boatswain hurried out of the room and closed the heavy door behind him quickly. He had to tell the captain about this! Crossing the deck, which had sea water all over it, he thought a number of times that the ship was sinking. There were no ladders up to the bridge now, but he half rode the waves and half climbed up to the wheelhouse. Outside he found the second mate, lying by the door.
'Where's the captain?' asked the boatswain.
'Overboard, like the first mate, and like we'll all be soon,' said the second mate, laughing strangely.
On his hands and knees, the boatswain moved along the bridge away from the man, and it was then that he found Jukes and the captain.
After MacWhirr heard the boatswain's words, he was silent for a while. He asked himself what was really happening down in the hold. Were the Chinese labourers on the ship, fighting, or in the sea, drowning? After thinking about it for some time, he turned to Jukes.
'You must go down to the hold with the boatswain. If those Chinese labourers are fighting over their money, you'll have to stop them. But be careful. If anything happens to me, the ship will be under your command. See what's happened down there, and then use the speaking-tube in the engine room to tell me.'
The fight to survive
When the worst part of the typhoon started, Jukes stood still, and just held strongly onto the railing in front of him. He tried not to think about what would happen, about the danger that they were in. As the typhoon got worse, he stopped feeling the water and the wind on his face. He was cold and wet all over his body. His arms and legs began to feel numb, and his thoughts came slowly. In some ways it was a good feeling. He didn't hope to survive, because hoping meant fighting for something. He couldn't fight any more.
But now MacWhirr was waking him from this numb feeling, and asking him to do something dangerous. At first he felt angry — why should he fight his way through the typhoon down to the hold? Because of some stupid story of the boatswain's? Didn't the captain understand that the boatswain had no idea what he was talking about? But when he heard MacWhirr's words, he knew that he had to go to the hold. There was no way to avoid it.
Getting there was very difficult, because now there was no ladder from the bridge to the deck below. The boatswain held Jukes by the arms and helped him to climb down slowly onto the deck. Enormous waves were still hitting the ship, and twice they nearly went overboard. At last they got to the hold. Just when Jukes started to open the heavy door, the boatswain grabbed him by the arm.
'Be careful, sir. The wooden boxes are in pieces, and the money's all over the place. If those Chinese men think that you've come to take their money, it can easily turn dangerous.'
Jukes looked inside, afraid of what he would see. The hold had a lot of water in it. Just as the boatswain said, the money was all over the place. The Chinese labourers were going from one side of the hold to the other with each wave. Some of them were trying to climb a ladder that went up to a hatch. The ones at the top were hitting the hatch with their hands as hard as they could, but they couldn't open it. The ship started rolling the other way, and all the men on the ladder fell off slowly, one by one. Each one screamed as he hit the deck below. Some fell on top of the others. Then a really enormous wave lifted the ship right up, and all the men started rolling nearer the door of the hold, where the boatswain and Jukes were standing. A great wave of water, heads, legs and arms came their way. Jukes and the boatswain quickly ran out of the hold, and shut the door behind them. He looked at the boatswain, and saw the horror on his face. Was this how his face looked too? He had no idea what to do, or if there was anything that he could do. He just had to tell MacWhirr about it.
At the same time, MacWhirr decided to go to the wheelhouse. He had to see that everything was all right in this part of the ship. If there was a problem with the rudder, then there was no hope of surviving the typhoon. Like Jukes and the boatswain, he found it very difficult to move around the ship. The wind pulled at everything that he was wearing, and when he got to the wheelhouse, he found that his rainhat was gone from off his head. This made him angry. It was worse for him than losing the lifeboats.
Inside the wheelhouse, he found the second mate sitting on the floor, his head in his hands. 'What are you doing here?' asked MacWhirr.
'It was my turn below deck,' cried the man. 'So I came in here some time back. You can't stop me!'
The captain looked up at the wheelhouse clock. It was half past one in the morning. 'A new day.' he said to himself.
'You'll never see the sun come up!' cried the second mate.
The captain said nothing back to him, but turned now to the helmsman. He was a sailor by the name of Hackett. He stood at the wheel, fighting to make sure that the ship stayed on course.
'He's a good man, to be working like that in weather like this for hour after hour,' thought MacWhirr.
'Is the rudder still all right?' asked the captain.
'Yes, sir,' answered Hackett.
'I want you to stay at the wheel. I can't send another man to take your place here. He won't know how to control the ship as well as you. Do you think you can go on without any rest?'
'Sir, I can steer her all day and all night if no one talks to me,' answered the helmsman.
'Erm… I see… yes, of course. Very good… Hackett,' said MacWhirr. The helmsman's answer surprised him.
The captain went to the speaking-tube that they used to talk with the engine room. He called into it: 'Rout?'
He needed to see that the men in the engine room were making enough steam. This was another important part of trying to control the ship. He spoke loudly into the mouth of the speaking-tube again: 'Rout! Are you there?'
By putting his ear very close to the speaking-tube, he could just hear Rout's answer: 'I hear you, sir. It's not too good down here, but we're doing what we can. One of the engineers is hurt, but we're still making steam. How is it up above deck?'
'This typhoon is really pushing us about,' answered MacWhirr looking down at the second mate, who was still sitting on the floor. 'Rout, just make sure that we have enough steam.'
'Sir, we can't give the ship too much power. We may send her down into the waves, instead of up and over them.'
'I know, Rout, but we need enough power to steer. If we don't have that, we'll lose control of the ship — and then we'll sink.'
'So the wheelhouse is still all right?' asked the chief engineer.
'For now, yes. Rout, I need to speak to Jukes. Is he there? I want him to finish down in the hold and come up and help me. I'm alone here. The second mate has...'
'No. He's lost his head.'
For some minutes the captain's voice was silent, but Rout could hear the noise of a fight coming down the speaking tube. At last, the captain came back.
'The second mate ran at me. He isn't well. I had to knock him on the head. Did you hear?'
Rout went off to see to the engines, but as soon as Jukes arrived in the engine room, the chief engineer pushed him over to the speaking-tubes to talk to MacWhirr.
'I went to look at the Chinese labourers, sir. And from what I saw, this is what happened: at first the typhoon made them afraid, and quiet. Then one of the boxes fell onto the floor of the hold and broke. When they saw the money on the floor, some tried to grab it. That started a fight. With the rolling of the ship, they went from one side of the hold to the other, and the others joined the fight. Now the storm has broken all the boxes, and all of them are fighting over all of the money. I don't see how we can stop it now, sir. I think that some are dead, and it seems that many are hurt.'
Jukes hoped that Captain MacWhirr wouldn't give him any more to do in the hold. Then the captain's answer came down the speaking-tube:
'Get some men and go back to the hold. Pick up all the money and put it somewhere safe. Typhoon or no typhoon I don't want any fighting on the Nan-Shan...'
'I have to pick up the labourers' money in the hold,' said Jukes to Rout on his way out of the engine room.
'What?!' replied the chief engineer. 'First the second mate goes and hits the captain, now you're making the hold tidy. Haven't you officers got anything better to do?'
Down in the engine room, in the deepest part of the ship, they couldn't see the enormous wall of dark sea water that was just going to hit the Nan-Shan.
The storm in the hold
The dark wave that came quickly nearer and nearer to the Nan-Shan looked as high as a mountain, and had a thin white line up at the top of it. The ship was still for a while, and then she started to climb this mountain of water. Tons of water fell onto the deck. Every man on the ship grabbed what he could, and held on. The Nan-Shan climbed the enormous wave for what seemed like a very long time. Then she began to go down the other side. Again, tons of water fell heavily onto the ship, making her shake from top to bottom.
In the engine room, Jukes and Rout looked at each other with horror on their faces.
'If another wave like that hits us, it'll finish us,' said Rout.
'What can be left on deck after such an enormous wave? If it destroyed the ventilators, there's no hope. Now it's all gone up there for sure — the wheelhouse, the bridge, the chart-room — everything,' said Jukes.
But there was no second wave, and a short while later they heard MacWhirr's voice in the speaking-tube again:
'That was a little uncomfortable. But we have to do our best. Jukes, when your men have picked up all the money. I want you to come back up to the bridge. I need you here.'
'Yes, sir,' replied Jukes, and — not feeling very happy about it — he went to get some men for the job.
Twenty minutes later, Jukes and sixteen of the crew arrived at the hold. Opening the door for the second time, he saw the same chaos as before. But this time he was ready for it. Shouting at his men to help, he started to push the Chinese labourers into one corner of the room. The crew joined arms to make them all stay in the same place. One of the crew then brought some rope, and they used this to make lifelines. Now the Chinese labourers could grab onto the lifelines, and not fall from side to side. After they fastened the ropes well to the sides of the hold, Jukes and his men started to move all the broken pieces of wood and the money into a locked room just next to the hold.
While Jukes and his men were doing this work, the Chinese labourers were terrified. What did these sailors want to do to them? Some thought that they were going to steal all their money. Others thought that Jukes and his men were there to kill them.
They sat on the floor, their faces full of fear. But to Jukes their fear looked like fury. Suddenly one of the labourers started speaking to him loudly in Chinese. He pointed at the locked room where their money was, and then started shouting. At once, the rest of them started shouting at Jukes and the crew. The crew didn't understand them, but their Chinese words seemed angry, and they seemed to be threatening Jukes and the others. So Jukes and the rest of the crew left the hold as quickly as possible, closing the heavy metal door behind them loudly.
They were all happy to be out of the hold. It was not only because of the Chinese labourers there; sailors don't like the idea of drowning below the deck.
At once, Jukes went up to the bridge to look for MacWhirr. He found him there, holding on to the railings.
We did it, sir. We picked up all the money like you said, and we fastened some lifelines to the walls for the Chinese labourers to hold on to.'
'Well done. I knew that you could do it,' answered MacWhirr. 'Did you?' said Jukes to himself.
'The wind's stopped,' said MacWhirr.
It was true. Although the waves were still enormous, there was no wind at all. Suddenly Jukes noted that he could again hear all the usual noises of the ship — the deep noise of the engines, the crew calling out to each other, the noise of creaking wood.
'It's not over yet. My book says that there's worse still to come,' explained MacWhirr. The Nan-Shan was now in the eye of the storm, the exact center of it — where all was strangely quiet and calm. Soon they would start sailing through the other part of the storm.
But Jukes seemed not to hear what MacWhirr was saying. He went on, 'It wasn't easy. We had to fight to do the job. They didn't understand that we were trying to help them. They seemed to think that we were trying to hurt them. I was worried when we put all their money in the locked room. They didn't like that at all. They started to shout at us. I think that they were threatening us. We had to get out of there as quickly as possible. You told me to pick up all the money, but it wasn't as easy as it seems.'
'Well, we had to do the right thing by those labourers. Jukes. Even if we have only five minutes more to live, we've done the right thing by them. And that's that.'
Jukes was still excited about his adventure, and had more to say.
'But that isn't the end of it, sir. They're quiet now, but there's going to be more trouble. They know that this isn't a British ship anymore. I didn't like that Thai flag from the start, sir. And it's not going to be easy when we give them back their money.'
'No, this isn't the end of it,' answered MacWhirr. 'Can you stay on deck for a minute, Jukes?'
'Are you going below, sir?' asked Jukes quickly. From his voice it seemed he felt sure that the storm would start once he was alone on the bridge and in command of the ship.
The captain went into the chart-room. It was dark inside, but he knew the room well, and felt his way. He lit one of the lamps and went over to look at the barometer. It was pointing down to 'Very Stormy' — the worst MacWhirr had ever seen. So the book that he was reading and the barometer agreed, getting out of the typhoon would be far worse than getting into it. He looked around the room that was usually so tidy but was now in chaos, and thought, 'Perhaps it's the last time I'll do this!'
'I got another man to take Hackett's place,' said Jukes to the captain when MacWhirr came out on deck again. 'It wasn't easy to get anyone to do it, but I didn't want to have to be helmsman myself. Hackett's resting now, not far from the wheel. He looks half dead. The second mate's there, too. Is he hurt, sir?'
'No. He isn't right in the head.'
'But he's hit himself, sir. He's got a cut on the side of his face.'
'Yes. I had to knock him down. Listen, Jukes, the typhoon will come back very soon, and this time it'll be worse than before. It'll take this ship and pick her up, and shake her and try to break her. It'll take what's still above deck. Of course I know that there's not much now to take...'
'… only us two,' said Jukes.
'Yes, and if the typhoon takes me, you'll be in command. The second mate will be no help to you,' answered MacWhirr. Jukes was suddenly quiet at this. MacWhirr went on: 'If that happens, make sure that you go on sailing into the wind, do you hear? Stay on course, and stay calm. Hold that one idea in your head, and the ship will survive.'
Just then, they could hear the noise of the wind again. It seemed like a great number of soldiers hurrying nearer very fast. The few minutes of calm were finished. MacWhirr thought for a minute about how well he knew the Nan-Shan from years of sailing her. She was almost like a home for him. 'I wouldn't like to lose her,' he said aloud to himself, while the waves began to hit the deck again.
The Nan-Shan arrived in Fu-chau on a bright, sunny day. She looked a real sight, and soon everyone in the harbour was talking about her.
'That ship looks like she's just come back from a war,' said one.
'It looks to me like the crew found her at the bottom of the sea and pulled her up to sell her for the metal,' said another.
'I'll buy her — for live pounds!' said a third.
Less than an hour after MacWhirr's ship arrived, a small boat took a thin man with an angry red face off the ship, and left him on shore. While the boat moved away, the thin man turned and shook his hand angrily at the Nan-Shan. A tall fat sailor with watery eyes came over to speak to the man, who was no longer the Nan Shan's second mate.
'Hello, old friend!'
'Hello, there. What are you doing here?' said the thin man, quickly shaking hands.
'I heard that perhaps there's a job going,' said the fat man.
The one-time second mate shook his hand angrily at the Nan-Slum again.
'I wouldn't let the captain of that ship be in command of the poorest river boat!' he cried angrily.
'Really?' said his fat friend.
'Of course, I'd like to make trouble for him. But he's sailing under a Thai flag. What can I do? You know, he told his chief engineer that I wasn't right in the head. Me! He's the stupidest man that ever sailed the seas! You can't really be thinking of...'
'Did you get your money?' asked his fat friend suddenly.
'Oh, yes. He paid me before I left. «Have your breakfast on shore!» he told me.'
'Did he? Shall we go and have a drink then?'
'And he hit me.'
'He didn't! You must tell me all about it. But not here. I know a quiet place where we can have a bottle or two of something nice and cold.'
And so the two of them walked away together into town.
Jukes watched them go, and then went back to planning the repairs that the poor old Nan-Slum needed. She was no longer the beautiful ship that sailed out of Dumbarton just three years before. She looked old and tired, like an enormous animal that has won a great fight against a terrible enemy, a fight which has broken it inside. While Jukes was speaking to the crew, telling them what to do, Captain Mac Whirr stood on the bridge, looking at the harbour and at the town behind it. He was thinking about what he would need to buy in Fu-chau. His pens and pencils all went overboard during the typhoon, and he would need to get new ones. And he needed a new rainhat. too. He was happy to survive the typhoon, but he did not think about that much now. Perhaps the only thing that the typhoon really did was to take this quiet man. shake him up a little, and make him speak a few more words than usual.
Back in England not long after that, three people were reading three letters. The first, Mrs MacWhirr, was reading her letter in the same way that she read all her husband's letters. She read a few words here and there, to get an idea of more or less what it was about. 'They are called typhoons… Jukes didn't seem to like it… some things that you can't find in books...' Why were his letters always so long and full of details? 'A calm that lasted for more than twenty minutes… see you and the children again...' Now why did he say that? He was always thinking of coming home! What need was there for that when he had such a good job? Worriedly, she quickly went on a few pages: '… only three with broken legs… the fairest way… tried to do the right thing...' No, there was no more about coming home. Reading so quickly, she didn't see the part that said: 'For a while I thought that I would never see you and the children again.' The door opened and Lydia, her daughter, ran into the room. Seeing the letter in her mother s hand, she stopped in surprise, and waited to hear the latest news.
'Your-father's well,' said Mrs MacWhirr. Lydia did not look very interested.
'Go and get your hat,' said her mother. 'We're going out: there's a sale at Linom's, that shop which you like so much.'
'How wonderful!' shouted Lydia, and she ran to get her hat.
Outside Linom's, Mrs MacWhirr saw one of her friends. They talked about shops, clothes — and their husbands.
'No, he's not coming home yet. It's terrible that he has to be away from us for so long, but it's good to know that he s well. He likes the weather in the China Sea.' From the way that she talked, it seemed that poor Captain MacWhirr only sailed to China because of his health.
Mrs Rout was reading out her husband's letter to Rout's mother: 'The captain of the ship did something very clever. It's difficult to explain how clever it really was. Do you remember Captain MacWhirr? Solomon said that he wasn't the quickest thinker.'
Young Mrs Rout turned the pages to find out what this clever thing was. But she could find nothing.
'Oh no… I don't understand.'
'What don't you understand, dear?' asked old Mrs Rout. She liked her son's letters, although she couldn't remember very well what he looked like. It was a very long time since she last saw him.
'Well, there's nothing more about this clever thing that the captain did. Why doesn't he tell us more about it?'
'I don't know my dear,' said old Mrs Rout.
But the last part of the letter the younger Mrs Rout read silently to herself: 'I know that we can't do anything at the moment because of my mother. But I want you to come out here. I'd like to buy you a small house where we could see each other We spend so little time together and we're not getting any younger.'
Young Mrs Rout was quiet for a while, and she looked unhappy. Then she shook herself, and said to old Mrs Rout: 'He's well, the same as always. Come on, let's have a cup of tea.'
Jukes's letter to his friend gave all the details of the 'clever thing' that Captain MacWhirr did. First, he wrote all about the typhoon, and then about how he and the crew made lifelines for the Chinese labourers in the hold.
'The problems started when we picked up all their money. They thought that we were trying to steal it. Only very desperate robbers could think of stealing money in the middle of a typhoon! Some of them even started shouting at us. When I spoke to the captain, I said that we should be careful when we were giving the money back. I said that all the crew should be there and that we should have some guns with us. That way there would be no problems. He didn't seem to like my idea. Well, we had a lot of repairs to do after the typhoon, and I made the men start working on them. I was very tired after nearly thirty hours without sleep, so I went to lie down on my bed for a while.
Sometime later one of the crew woke me. He told me that the Chinese labourers were all on deck and that MacWhirr was giving them their money. I couldn't believe it. I called some of the crew, we got the guns, and we ran there as quickly as possible. When MacWhirr saw me, he was really angry, and he told me to put the guns away. It seems that, while I was sleeping, he decided — because all the labourers were seven-year ones-that the fairest thing was to give each labourer exactly the same amount of money. One of the Chinese labourers helped to explain this to the others. And so MacWhirr gave each man his money, while all the others waited their turn. Then he gave the injured labourers their money. In the end there was a little extra money, and he gave this to the ones who were the most injured.
For a man who's always so slow and sure, I must say that he did very well.'