My friends and I, in a foreign land, were piped ashore to amuse ourselves. Pea coat clad we hit the town, bundled against strange winds. Finding nothing of warmth at our late hour, we ambled to the south. There we saw the merry glow of an inn with people about.
It was small but strong against the night with a fire in the hearth. The barmaid saw us straggle in and brought over the best of the house. As we sat and warmed ourselves, we noticed a quiet buzz. It came from the corner where an old man sat, his pipe-smoke circling above.
He looked us over with a haughty eye and nodded his approval. “You look like sailors lads” he said, with a trace of an English accent. “I was too, when I was young, and was again thereafter. Be wise and buy my next round; I’ll tell you about my … disaster … ”
Nothing better in mind and curious about the man, we pulled up our chairs and gave him our ears, to see what he was after. He wore an old captain’s hat and coat from better days. His beard was white but trimmed, his eyes blue as the ocean waves.
“Disaster?” I asked…”was that the name of your ship?”
“Ha!” he scoffed, “…if only that were it…”
He leaned back in his chair and pulled on his pipe, the tobacco glowing red, then leaned forward again with an ominous look, and this is what he said:
We had rounded the horn of Africa, crossed the Adan gulf.
Sailed up through the Red Sea lads, like Moses long ago.
We headed up to Cairo, through the Suez Canal,
It was somewhere near Ismailia – hard to remember now.
We watched the Arabs from our bow, as they went along their way,
The women wore flowing gowns that covered their whole face.
And, ah! But lads, yes, there was one. Caught my eye with grace.
No! She didn’t bow, nor stoop, as was the common, Arab, way.
“A woman!” I cried, and my shipmates laughed.
“We’re familiar with your disaster…”
“Familiar, and want no more of it,” said one.
“A woman! That’s right” he said, as he took another drag of pipe.
“I thought like you in a former life, before my Suez adventure. And if you’ll hear me well and take my advice, you’ll see you’re all the ones in danger…”
“Carry on!” we all cried, amused by our captain’s earnest…
This angel, for so she was, lads, held my eyes with her own.
On we inched, to the north, while she walked beside alone.
We continued on like this until the sun was set,
When finally she spoke; and that, lads, was how we met.
Her story, it was a sad one, it brought a tear to my eye…
She’d been a Christian woman, brought to the east to die.
“And why were you brought to die?” I asked,
“Why sir, you musn’t ask.”
“And if I’m not to ask, then why should I care? What friends are you and I?”
“Aren’t you a Christian?” she asked “From a land of chivalry?”
“Me?” asked I “I hate the word. I know only of business and the sea.”
“Then you’re a coward,” she said, as we drifted along, and her words stung me deep.
I had thought of myself as a man of the world and all that was in it to see.
“Listen, ma’am, you’re pretty – I can’t deny you that – but you followed your vanity to the east, you’ve sought your own disaster. I’m in my ship, safe from harm, while you’re on the shore, despite your charm. You’ve followed your happily-ever-after. Am I to bow, to bend to charm, when you’ve given it all for baubles and bluster? A man to whom you owe your danger? And now you’ve seen your own life’s fault, you seek refuge from a stranger?!”
“Not a stranger,” she said.
“Here where all the faces are black, to see a one like mine…to hear a friendly voice from home? Oh sir, I dream of going back! But I can’t deny what you’ve said is true. I am here by choice and folly of youth. So, if you decide to abandon me, I’ll still pray for you to have a safe journey. God, at least, may hear the prayers of one such as I. He, at least, may help a sinner – help one who is about to die…”
“Well?” we all asked…
“Well, I left her,” he said. “And she’s haunted me ever since.”
We all looked into our drinks at this somber turn of events. How could a man of our own profession, one of the sea, have such cold-hearted confessions?
We pushed back our chairs and gave him a nod, wanting no more of his stories. He’d told us all we’d wanted to hear, we were ready to get back to our berthing. We threw on our coats and wrapped up our scarves, laid down some money onto the bar, then headed for the door. But before we could leave, we heard the old man once more, a final word in parting:
“Remember the sea and what it costs
to be a man who’s free.
To see the waves and endless sky,
To be unbound from all that ties,
To land, to life, to lovers lost,
Remember the cost of the sea.”
As we walked away, I thought to myself, about the sad old captain’s words. Maybe all I need is a pair of big blue eyes to tie me to the world?