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Two Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the fog)

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It was just the two of us, Holmes and myself, in the sitting room that Thursday afternoon. It was one of those rare June days that you wish you could put by and save up for when it’s really wanted in December. The windows were open, there was a soft breeze blowing and I was reclining on the sofa, resting my eyes, when Holmes, who had been lolling about on the tiger skin rug in front of the fireplace, snorted and yawned. Out of the blue, he announced that he was feeling a bit seedy around the edges, and said he suspicioned it was a recurrence of the Dengue Fever that he had caught from the Lascars who work on the London docks.

I was mildly surprised to hear this, allowing it was probably a coincidence since, just that morning, I had attended a lecture at the Royal Society on the subject of diseases endemic to the Indonesian Archipelago. But, as I was up with the symptoms, I asked him if he had come over giddy all of a sudden. That very moment! he cried. Had he noticed a feeling of nausea in the morning? All morning, as it happened. Was he aware of any inexplicable cravings? Now that I mentioned it, some raspberries and a kipper would hit the spot! I informed him that, although, his condition was serious, I did not despair of a happy outcome in about nine months’ time.

Holmes scowled and proceeded to make himself unbearable by sulking for the next quarter hour until I suggested that his symptoms could, just as easily, be Bubonic Plague. He cheered up on hearing that and commenced to elaborate on his symptoms until Mrs. Hudson knocked on the door and announced that the tea tray was up.

Holmes ordered her to take it away, moaning how inconsiderate it was to insist he eat when clearly he was too ill to swallow even a dry crumb. He had been mid-point in what promised to be a lengthy description of a suppurating bubo in his groin. Mrs. H replied rather testily through the door that he wasn’t being called on to swallow anything like a dry crumb, but she would be happy to take the tray back downstairs.

In the interests of domestic harmony, I intervened and suggested to Holmes that modern medicine now took the view that a little something on the stomach frequently kept the disease in check. Hearing this, he permitted the tray to come in, although Mrs. Hudson had to go.

As his doctor, I was pleased to see him force himself to eat four or five hot buttered scones along with three cups of tea and sugar. After that—it is true—he took very little interest in the food, refusing to eat more than two slices of an excellent rhubarb tart. But I couldn’t see letting it go to waste.

Finally, our duty to the inner man done, we filled our pipes and resumed discussing the shocking state of his health.

What was actually the matter with Holmes, neither of us was certain, but the overriding opinion—his—was that it—whatever it was—had been brought on by overwork and exertion.

“What I want is rest,” said he.

“Rest,” I agreed. “And a complete change of scene. Your last case over-strained your mind, and it’s produced a general depression throughout your system. Getting away to some place far from the madding crowd, and the necessity of thought, will restore your physical and mental equilibrium.”

Holmes asked me what I would suggest by way of a change of scene and I began to outline a river journey—plenty of fresh air and exercise—the mind and eye enchanted by a constantly changing panorama of verdure and the sort of quaint village with narrow cobbled lanes, half-timbered cottages and roses climbing on the gates. In the evening, nothing could beat coming ashore at some pleasant wooded spot to eat a meal that one has prepared over one’s own camp fire. Or pull up to a dock and hop out to sample the local ale served at some historic inn where Charles I may have rested his head—while it was still attached to him, of course. Far from the reach of the clamorous nineteenth century with its bells, its newspapers and its telegraphs—in any event, far from Baker Street—Holmes could take the time to visit to those half-forgotten nooks which have been blessed by the fairies and are as yet untouched by the passage of time. He could take Gladstone with him; a dog is the most delightful companion on a boat trip.

“No,” said Holmes, “Mrs. Hudson will look after Gladstone while we’re away.”

“We’re away?” said I. “What do you mean? Since when are we away?”

“Since I booked our tickets on the SS Marie Fortunata this afternoon, so you had better get packing. You’ve been a little distracted yourself, lately. I’d even say you were looking a little peaky. What you need is salt air.” To my look of utter astonishment, he said, “Fairies indeed!”

I’ve long supposed—incidentally, this incident confirmed it—that Holmes has second sight. Somehow or other, he always knows the minute—to the exact second—that I’ve meet a young lady whose acquaintance I would like to pursue. This was his way of putting his oar in on this occasion, and I should have realized it, but he caught me on the hop and such is the force of his personality, that the next afternoon found us installing ourselves in a Second Class cabin aboard the Marie Fortunata, outward bound for a week’s cruising between the Hanseatic ports.

The Marie Fortunata was a grubby little steam packet, one of the old North Sea line, and if you imagine a sea voyage to be attended by every luxury of accommodation, let me disabuse you. The Marie carried only Second Class and Third Class passengers. I admit it was generous of Holmes to spring for a cabin with only two berths—he claimed the lower one, of course—but a Second Class cabin on a boat such as the Marie Fortunata is still a broom closet that has been fitted out with two narrow bunks and a child-size chair on which to place your suitcase, should you want to change your shirt. If two people are at home, and one of them is actually so foolish as to want to change his shirt, then his cabin mate must either stand outside or lie down on his bunk. Washing facilities are at the far end of the corridor.

Once outside the roads this floating palace displayed a distressing tendency to stagger and Holmes immediately turned a pale celadon around the gills. He belched and took to his bunk and, since this seemed to forecast imminent unpleasantness, I ran for a cold towel. I was dropping it on his head when the Cabin Steward came around to ask how we would like to handle our meals—either to pay for each as we had it, or arrange for the whole series during the trip.

He said that two-pound-five would cover the week’s menu: a breakfast of fish, followed by a grill, then a four course lunch at one, followed by dinner at six, consisting of soup, fish, entrée, joint, poultry, salad, sweets, cheese, and dessert, and then a light meat supper at ten.

It was a bargain, and I promptly closed on the two-pound-five job, but Holmes said, "Thank you both, very much," and would we please go away. He said his internal workings were too discontented amongst themselves for him to even consider the question.

I, myself, am never queer at sea. I tried to be professionally sympathetic, but the way that some people carry on when they experienced the slightest touch of mal de mer...well you’d think they were dying.

I told that Holmes that he just needed to be firm with the old corpus and it would come 'round. But the steward pretended to sympathize, saying a strong fizzy seltzer would see everything right and that he would see to it immediately. The man was only looking out for his tip, but the way Holmes fawned on him—practically slobbering with gratitude—was, frankly, repulsive.

I said that if my company wasn’t wanted then I was going up to the dining room, to scope out the lay of the land, so to speak.

Holmes said he would stay here in his bunk.

I promised to bring him a pickled egg, if there were any. That's the sort of friend I am. Really, it’s hardly my fault if he chose to spend the next two days wallowing in misery.

On my own, I quickly discovered that the Marie provided a dinning room, a library and a comfortable lounge-saloon for the comfort of her Second Class passengers. Many of these were gentlemen representing English firms doing business on the continent. True to their enterprising disposition, a fair number of these men enjoyed an occasional game of cards and they were generous in welcoming a newcomer to their table. That way, I was able to keep myself blamelessly occupied, until we reached our first port-of-call. This was the picturesque city of Bergen, Norway.

I took the opportunity to stretch my legs, exploring the fish market and narrow medieval streets. That evening, Holmes put in an appearance in the saloon for the first time. He was pale but his eyes were shining brilliantly. Over hot whiskies and lemon—sovereign for any complaint—I said, “Don’t you think it’s time you told me what we’re doing here?”

“You, Doctor, are relieving the traveling fraternity of their commissions, while I have been looking into the activities of one James Rose, Purser of this vessel, and his second cousin, who happens to be the Chief Engineer of same. That particular gentleman, by the way, glories below decks in the name of Two-Ton Charlie. Together they are the masterminds of an insidious ring of smugglers that has recently come to the negative attention of the Home Secretary.”

“Good Lord! What on earth have Cousin James and Cousin Charlie been smuggling?”

“Treason and sedition.” Holmes slid a book with a plain soft blue cover across the table.

I opened it to the front page. The imprint was Moscow, 1885, and the title was: “The Amatory Adventures of a Surgeon.”

Curious—I never seem to have any amatory adventures, but perhaps surgeons are more romantic by nature—I opened to a random page and read:

…the delicious warmth of the tight sheath which embraced my rigid shaft was so exciting, that without further instructions I fucked him as naturally as…

“Holmes!” I slapped the cover of the vile thing closed. “This is…!”

“Pornography. Yes. For God’s sake! Don’t wave it about like that or everyone will want to read it.”

“Where did you get this?”

“From our cabin steward, of course. In addition to fizzy seltzers, he is the ship’s prime supplier of French letters, interesting literature, and intimate companionship...if one were so inclined.”

“Have you been so inclined?”

“That is unfair!”

“My apologies.”

“You know I’ve been unwell.”

“Very funny; now tell me what has this-this filth…got to do with treason?”

“One of the foreign presses that has been so bountifully supplying the banned booksellers recently branched out and started printing illegal newspapers, tracts and broadsheets, as well. On the theory, I suppose that is one’s moral fiber has been thoroughly corrupted, one is more susceptible to the Socialist agenda. Or else, being otherwise engaged, we won’t even notice when the revolution occurs... Are you listening to me?” I had been turning up a corner or two. “You may want to put that out of sight. There’s a gentleman in a dog collar closing fast to port.”

I hurriedly slipped the book in my pocket, as the cleric sailed by. I nodded, but the man scowled with obvious disapproval at my blazing red face.

“What was that about?” Holmes raised an eyebrow. “He didn’t see the book.”

“The Reverend Gower has a regrettable habit of drawing to an inside straight.”

“How broadminded of him.” Holmes looked after Gower’s retreating form.

“What’s the plan?”

Holmes turned back. “Thanks to our steward, I know a load of fresh contraband came aboard at Bergen. It was disguised as a crate of lutefisk, which the Captain is partial to. We need to discover where they’re hiding the stash and, when we reach Danzig, I’ll wire Scotland Yard and have Lestrade and a squad of London’s finest meet the ship before it docks.”

“Do you have any idea where to look?”

“Of course I do,” said Holmes. “It’s in one of the lifeboats.”

I had noticed the Marie’s lifeboats, of course. They were stacked on the boat deck. With their fresh white paint and pristine canvas covers, they made one proud of the Board of Trade. There were eight pairs of them on either side of the stern. Two pairs on each deck, with one of each pair sitting in-board on chocks and its mate swung-out on davits. Holmes wanted to search the out-swung boats.

For this expedition, we chose the dinner hour next day, when it would be both still light enough to see and there would be the fewest people about. I recall was especially chilly that evening when we stepped out, strolling the deck, carrying our walking sticks as any two gentleman passengers taking the air might have. At a moment when there was no one to observe, we ducked behind the last in-board boat.

I gave Holmes a boost over the gunwales, and he pulled me up after him. From there a chance passer-by wouldn’t notice us, and it was possible—with me anchoring him—for Holmes to lean over and undo the ropes that secured the canvas cover of its out-swung mate which hung a few feet below. When the cover was loose enough to lift, he wriggled out of my grasp and disappeared under it, slick as an otter.

As he vanished, I heard the voices of two men approaching and flattened my length against the canvas. One of the voices was a deep ponderous rumbling—Two-ton Charlie, I presumed—saying, as it went past, “You had better be sure, Gower.”

“Course I’m bloody sure! Fookin’ Sherlock Holmes sent my brother up to Wormwood Scrubs! I saw them heading this way.”

“Ray!” Deep Voice called. “You see anyone over there?”

“Not on this side!”

“Go get some more men and check all of the boats.”

I could hear that Charlie and Gower were already starting on the boat ahead of the one I was hiding on top of and wondered what would happen when they found me.

“Watson!” From below, Holmes was hissing at me. “Down here!”

I handed down our walking sticks first. Mine was an excellent Malacca cane that I'd have rather not lost, and I certainly didn't care to leave any sign that we had been there. Then I slipped over the side and hung there, trusting that Holmes would guide my feet and catch me. He did, but when I let go and dropped into his arms, the lifeboat began to rock. As he pulled me under the canvas, the ropes and pulleys creaked and groaned louder.

It was dark under there and there was no room to move as nearly all of the space was crammed with of boxes and bundles. We bent our ears to hear and for an eternity it seemed as if the only sounds, other than the creaking of the ropes, were the subdued rumble of the ship’s engines, the sloshing of water, and Holmes breathing in my ear.

Then, with a sickening lurch one end of the lifeboat dropped. Everything—ourselves, the load of contraband—strained in that direction. Then the other end pitched down and we inclined that way. Then the falls broke and for a horrific moment, which was thankfully brief, the boat was falling free.

We hit the water with such a splash that only the canvas cover kept us from being flung overboard. As the boat rocked about wildly, the load shifted and we were fairly trapped. So much so that by the time we managed to get out from under it and stand up, the stern lights of the Marie Fortunata were glowing a mile away.

It was unlikely that Two-Ton Charlie had run to the captain and reported that one of the lifeboats had been lost. Nonetheless we both wave our arms shouted our heads off. I took off my jacket and waved that. But the wind blew our shouts back in our faces and all of the waving in the world availed us naught. The Marie Fortunata went huffing on her way like an offended dowager.

She was getting smaller and, in a thoughtless moment of desperation, I put my foot on the gunwale. The boat dipped, a rush of green water soaked my leg and Holmes grabbed the seat of my trousers. “Sit down!" he cried. "Are you trying to capsize us?” He tugged, the boat rocked the other way and I sat down on the tarpaulin, which immediately attempted to smother me in its folds, while the sharp corners of boxes underneath poked me in very tender places.

By the time I was able to extricate myself from the homicidal thing, with Holmes' help, and sit up, the ship was a tiny black speck on the horizon. We watched as the speck vanished and then there was only our little boat alone on the water.

The sun looked like a round red wafer falling into the sea.

Under those circumstances, at least one of us should have made some profound observation about symbolism and the transience of human existence, but I was in too much shock and Holmes has no poetry in his soul. He puffed out his cheeks, sat down and took out his pipe. I sat down beside him.

“You know,” he said, after filling the bowl of the pipe and striking a match. “I was just beginning to recover my appetite.”

“Really? Well, I’m out the better part of two-pound-five!”

The boat rocked back and forth.

Holmes offered me his tobacco pouch, but I declined it, crossing my arms. “I must say this is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into!"

"I can't say I feel entirely at fault here," Holmes said.

"Well what are we going to do about it?”

“It seems to me, the best thing…”

“Don’t interrupt,” I said. “I'm upset. I think it’s important to recognize that, while a man can survive a month without food, if you cast him adrift in an open boat on a sun baked ocean without water, he won’t last a day. Eventually thirst is going to drive one, or both of us, mad and then it will come to cannibalism and you’ll have any number of reasons why it should be me who gets eaten; I want it on record that I object to being eaten.”

“You’re being unreasonable, Watson,” Holmes said. He felt my arm and then my thigh.

“See! You’re already making plans.”

“My dear, neither one of us is going to be called on to make the ultimate sacrifice. I have two slices of black current loaf in my pocket and, furthermore, this is the North Sea, not the North Atlantic!”

“What difference does that make?”

“That, while it’s true that many men have died in the North Sea, most of them died from exposure or cold. Some have drowned, but few, if any, I’m prepared to assert, have ever died of starvation. I have every confidence in your ability to fashion a fish hook from that set of surgical needles in your breast pocket. Now, would you be so kind as to hold this?”

Holmes handed me his pipe and, without as much as a by-your-leave, dove under the tarp. I could feel oars and boxes shifting, and when he popped up it was with a bundle of damp broadsheets in his arm.

I took one—it was ‘The Socialist Alarm!—and began to read.

“It seems that, at least, we have a little more than enough to drink,” Holmes said.

“Oh, really?”

“Yes. In addition to treason and pornography, Two-Ton Charley has been smuggling duty-free brandy.” Holmes flung his armload of broadsheets overboard. “Now, would you please get off of that infernal tarpaulin and help me lighten the boat!”

I tossed my paper aside, and lay back, placed my hands behind my head, crossed my legs at the ankle, and watched him dispose of two more armfuls over the side.

“It’s going to be dark soon,” he said. “Are you going help me, or not?”

“Not. I am striking in solidarity with the workers of the world.” Actually, the canvas was slowly engulfing me, but if my pose didn’t convey as much defiance as I would have liked it to, my words did. “I see nothing in my future but exploitation by the bourgeois and a miserable wet death.”

“It’s certainly tempting!” Holmes said, heaving a carton of pornographic books over the side. “And quite likely, if we don’t find the drain hole soon and plug it.”

“Sherlock! That’s too bad of you!” I sat up. “All you ever have to do is explain things in a way that makes sense!”

It took a few minutes to find the drain and plug it but, fortunately, the newspapers and boxes of books had absorbed a lot of the water. We jettisoned the soggy mess along, I regret to say, with a number of cases of Very Fine Old French Cognac, retaining but one. And when we got the centerboard down, it didn’t feel quite as if we bobbing about like a cork in a bucket.

“Now what?” I took off my shoe and started bailing. “We’re still in a bad spot. Are we going to sit out here and hope another ship happens along?”

“We could, but there’s no saying that we might not just drift off toward Holland.” Holmes unscrewed the knob of his cane and looked at the little compass set in the end of it. Then he licked his finger and held it up to test the wind. “I think,” he said, “if we step the mast and raise some sail, with a little bit of luck we could be home in Baker Street in time for supper tomorrow.”

“Denmark is closer.” I couldn't resist pointing out.

“True, but it would take us four days to get home from Copenhagen and the wind has been blowing steadily to the southwest.” Holmes then rummaged about in the bilge and came up with one of the bottles of cognac that we had not thrown away. He cracked the seal and drew the cork. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “This should perk you up.”

He was quite correct. When I’d gotten my breath back, I said, “Hoist sail! Yonder lies our way!

“Good man!" Holmes clapped me on the shoulder. "Westward Ho! it is.”

It should have been a simple matter of getting the mast up and the sail rigged but, in the course of our exertions, we discovered that Two-ton Charlie had almost certainly not expedited our drop into the water. On examining the falls we discovered that the ropes were entirely rotten.

In the compass locker under the aft thwart (empty of its valuable compass) I found a pamphlet outlining the emergency equipment mandated by the Board of Trade for a lifeboat and most of it was in an equally sad state. I found the ax, the bucket, and the bailer, but the things that should have been refreshed regularly, such as lamp oil—the pamphlet said that there should have been enough to burn for seven hours—had been criminally neglected. The oil had all leaked away, the bread in every one of the bread lockers was hairy, the tins of powdered milk were corroded and what water there was in the casks stunk to high heaven.

It was obvious that the Marie Fortunata’s captain had less than no concern for the safety of his crew, or of his passengers; or else he had bent to pressure from greedy ship’s owners to save money; it isn’t unheard of. But, either way, it was obvious how the smugglers had been able to use the lifeboats with impunity.

For me, the whole issue raises the question of how a man, who may be a perfectly reasonable companion on land, can turn into a perfect Bligh when he’s given—or assumes—a little bit of authority at sea. As a lad, I used to sail a little skiff on the lake near our summer cottage and as we worked all of that youthful skill returned. I rigged the lug sail perfectly; then in the interests, as I’ve noted before, of domestic harmony, I re-rigged it to Holmes’ specifications, and wound the sheets backwards. With him wasting our time like that, it was deep purple twilight before we could take our places at the tiller and turn her bow.

But when we did, the sails bellied out with a thrilling snap of the canvas.

I pulled the sheets taut and we were off, running before the wind. Neither of us could help laughing with joy; there is that much magic in a sailboat running with a foaming bow wave. Pleased with ourselves, we grinned at each other, and Holmes—just to show off—handed me the tiller.

“Get your watch out,” he said, and plucked a scrap of wood from the bilge. He tied a length of rope to it, went forward and, from the bow, called, “Time!” and tossed it over. When I'd measured how long it took that scrap to fly the length of the boat, Holmes whooped, “We can do better!” and adjusted the sail so that the bow wave broke as smoothly as a curl of wood from a sharp plane. You'd have thought were playing a game.

When he returned to take the tiller from me, we sat side-by-side to share a pipe and the warmth of our bodies.

As Night folded her somber wings over the darkening world, the stars appeared, and, lulled by the whistle of the wind in the sails, and the gentle slap and slosh of the water, I took Holmes into my arms and it seemed the wheeling arms of the Milky Way enfolded us, as my arms held him.

Guided by his firm hand on the tiller, and the fixed bright solitary, our little boat flew along the gleaming path and I felt as if all I would ever need was within my embrace. I don’t know how many worlds such as ours there may be in the universe, but I prayed in all that sea of stars there was one where a man’s Christian’s Duty and his desires do not contradict each other. The thought filled me with a yearning, half-sad and half-sweet. I couldn’t speak and there is no poetry in Holmes’ soul but even his mechanical mind must have felt something akin to awe. He sighed and rested his cheek against my neck.

I should have been satisfied, but a man’s body can defy his will at any moment. I couldn’t help recalling what I had seen between the covers of that little blue book. I turned my head; our lips met; we kissed. 

When we parted that kiss, Holmes let his head rest on my shoulder. I nibbled the edge of his jaw and began to undo the buttons of trousers. He didn’t stop me and, when I'd pulled the linen out of the way, his shaft fairly leapt into my hand. I thumbed the blunt tip, thinking of it as the tiller by which I guided him. I chuckled to myself and pulled the foreskin back, fisting the length of the shaft, up and down. Holmes squirmed and whimpered, then stiffened against me and the eye of his prick suddenly overflowed with a hot rush. I cradled him gently in my hand until his body had stopped shuddering and he’d melted against me.

Then I licked my hand—only wanting a taste—and nearly spent myself. I got hold of myself. The measure of how hard that was to do it that my teeth were chattering.

Holmes placed my damp hand on the tiller and slipped off the bench, turning between my legs. We both worked on my buttons. I’m not sure which of us more of a hindrance to the process; me, working one handed, or him, who kept pausing to butt and teasing the bulge in my tweeds; eventually, my prick was standing clear and he bent and swallowed as much of it as he could. It was a perfect moment of him bringing me to ever impossibly higher pitches, the bobbing of his head up and down, the feel of his hair slipping between my fingers.

“Please,” I begged him, over and over, but even in those circumstances he could control me by the sensation his tongue working my shaft induced. I released when he allowed it. Afterward, we leaned against each other, forehead to forehead, until the sail began to luff. Then Holmes took hold the tiller.

“I’ll take the first watch,” he said. “Get some rest.”

“I can hold course.”

“I know. There may be squalls tomorrow. Get some rest while you can.”

It was not the time to argue, and he’d sufficiently demonstrated his mastery of me.

We had put the oars athwart ship. I spread the tarpaulin over them and stretched out on top, hardly ideal sleeping arrangements, as you can imagine, but I surprised myself by falling asleep; that alone proves the benefit of salt air.

Two hours later Holmes woke me up and took my place.

A gibbous moon had risen by then and for a time the sky was the color of lapis and the waves were silver. I sat hunched with my collar up and kept the tip of the mast beneath one particular star. But June nights are short; my star soon faded and the wind grew colder yet as the clouds presaging a stormy dawn hid the moon.

I have no idea how long Holmes rested, or even if he slept. As soon as it was grey, he got up. For breakfast we shared the slices of black current loaf—somewhat the worse for being squashed in the pockets of his coat—and took a drop or two of brandy against the cold. Not long after we saw the first angry scudding squall.

Yesterday under a blue sky, the sea water had been fifty shades of green, that morning it was a dirty and uniform grey. Under the squall, it was black.

Some say a man never feels more alive than when he is meeting the elements face to face in an open boat. Well a man who says that must be acquainted with a kinder set of elements than we met that day. Or else his boat was the sort that when the elements become de trop, he could say, “Good night,” to them, then go below and ask the cook for a nice hot cup of tea and a bowl of chowder.

The elements Holmes and I met that day were gusting winds and lashings of rain—thirty and forty minutes of it at a go—and roiling and discolored waves that broke over the gunwales. Those were especially vicious waves. All of them did their best to knock us over. To top it off, Holmes actually had the nerve to grin through it, as if he enjoyed the whole affair.

During one especially hard blow, he turned the bow into the wind’s eye and we worked frantically to take a reef in the sail and just because I stumbled over a thwart and almost went over the side…but I won’t repeat the names he called me, lubberly cawk-headed idiot was the least objectionable of them. I say a man who has been carefully brought up has no excuse for using those sorts of coarse expressions, and a crushing kiss is not an apology.

It was mid-day before that blow was over and, in the meantime, we had hours of it; broken by brief periods when the wind eased off, and it only rained. Rain hardly makes for an improvement when you are soaked to the skin and there is just about enough time to use the bailer and have a drink of rainwater from the bucket into which you've poured what has pooled in the canvas. My hands were blistered and bleeding when it was over and there were five inches of water in the bilge to be bailed out and we still had leagues to go.

I asked Holmes if he had any idea where we were, because just about then I would have enjoyed having one of Mrs. Hudson’s teas. He said he was sure we hadn’t wandered into the channel, but it was unlikely that we’d miss Scotland. I told him that I thought sarcasm was out of place in a lifeboat. I suppose it's possible his conscience started to bother him; he produced the last piece of current loaf, which he’d obviously been hiding from me. By then, it was more water than loaf anyway, but we shared it and had a pipe. Smoking is a filthy habit, yet it calms and invigorates.

We sailed on, and about the time it should have been supper by my watch, a cork float bobbed into view. On a grey misty day, it can be impossible to tell the sky from water and the thing might have been drifted all the way from Spain, for all I know, yet it seemed to say that somewhere, not too far, was land.

Yet more evidence was a gull on the wing that took a turn over head and then flew off.

Around nine o’clock we hit a bank of dense ocean fog.

“Can you handle an oar?” Holmes said.

“Give me your handkerchief, and I’ll show you how,” I said. He did and I wrapped both his handkerchief and mine around my hands, we dropped the sail and set to the oars. It was back-breaking work, with only two of us in a boat that size, but far safer than smashing blindly into something. I tried to distract myself by recalling the last Sunday dinner Mrs. Hudson had prepared before we’d left.

“I’ll ask her to cook exactly the same meal when we get home…turtle soup to start...then leg-of-lamb with mint sauce…Yorkshire pudding…new potatoes…asparagus with Hollandaise sauce…and maybe a trifle…with a port-wine sauce…unless you prefer…” I asked Holmes; it never hurts to be magnanimous, “a baked apple?”

“I’d prefer you shut cher gob or I’ll stuff a bloody kipper in it!”

I had forgotten in that ghostly white world how clearly sound will travel over water. For a moment, I thought that Holmes was threatening me. I froze with my oar up, staring at him, but he was looking around, too. It was then I realized that I could smell a slew of new odors, though predominately damp wood and fish, and just then my oar clunked against the side of a wooden hull.

“Oo the ‘ell’s doin’ that?”

“Castaways!” Holmes called.

We had gotten in amongst the herring fleet, unseen in the fog, and bumped into The Princess Louise out of Great Yarmouth. She had just dropped her nets and her crew was turning in for a rest before the haul, when we turned up.

My strongest impressions, after climbing over her side, were heat and the smells of wet wool, coffee and a fish stew that I would put up against Mrs. H’s roast lamb on any Sunday. I recall flashes of the men’s ruddy faces coming ‘round to stare at us, and Captain Lewis, a Sidmouth man if there ever was one, clicking his glass of brandy against Holmes’ and complementing our little lugger. He said a boat like that would have brought us home safe through the worst gale…

Someone must have noticed that I had fallen asleep sitting up. In any event, I was tumbled into the mate’s bunk and could not have slept more deeply if I had been a baby in my mother’s arms, although, I may have woken once. I remember the boat rocking and a voice singing:

Me thinks I see them yet again
And they all on board a‘ right
With their sails close-reefed
Their decks moist-cleaned
And their side-lights burning bright...

 

Finis
April 2012