Hungry as the Sea

Wilbur Smith

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

Nicholas Berg stepped out of the taxi on to the floodlit dock and paused to look up at the Warlock. At this state of the tide she rode high against the stone quay, so that even though the cranes towered above her, they did not dwarf her.
Despite the exhaustion that fogged his mind and cramped his muscles until they ached, Nicholas felt a stir of the old pride, the old sense of value achieved, as he looked at her. She looked like a warship, sleek and deadly, with the high flared bows and good lines that combined to make her safe in any seaway.
The superstructure was moulded steel and glittering armoured glass, behind which her lights burned in carnival array. The wings of her navigation bridge swept back elegantly and were covered to protect the men who must work her in the cruellest weather and most murderous seas.
Overlooking the wide stern deck was the second navigation bridge, from which a skilled seaman could operate the great winches and drums of cable, could catch and control the hawser on the hydraulically operated rising fairleads, could baby a wallowing oil rig or a mortally wounded liner in a gale or a silky calm.
Against the night sky high above it all, the twin towers replaced the squat single funnel of the old-fashioned salvage tugs—and the illusion of a man-of-war was heightened by the fire cannons on the upper platforms from which the Warlock could throw fifteen hundred tons of sea water an hour on to a burning vessel. From the towers themselves could be swung the boarding ladders over which men could be sent aboard a hulk, and between them was painted the small circular target that marked the miniature heliport. The whole of it, hull and upper decks, was fireproofed so she could survive in the inferno of burning petroleum from a holed tanker or the flaming chemical from a bulk carrier.
Nicholas Berg felt a little of the despondency and spiritual exhaustion slough away, although his body still ached and his legs carried him stiffly, like those of an old man, as he started towards the gangplank.
“The hell with them all,” he thought. “I built her and she is strong and good.”
Although it was an hour before midnight, the crew of the Warlock watched him from every vantage point they could find; even the oilers had come up from the engine room when the word reached them, and now loafed unobtrusively on the stern working deck.
David Allen, the First Officer, had placed a hand at the main harbour gates with a photograph of Nicholas Berg and a five-cent piece for the telephone call box beside the gate, and the whole ship was alerted now.
David Allen stood with the Chief Engineer in the glassed wing of the main navigation bridge and they watched the solitary figure pick his way across the shadowy dock, carrying his own case.
“So that’s him.” David’s voice was husky with awe and respect. He looked like a schoolboy under his shaggy bush of sun-bleached hair.
“He’s a bloody film star.” Vinny Baker, the Chief Engineer, hitched up his sagging trousers with both elbows, and his spectacles slid down the long thin nose, as he snorted. “A bloody film star,” he repeated the term with utmost scorn.
“He was first to Jules Levoisin,” David pointed out, and again the note of awe as he intoned that name, “and he is a tug man from way back.”
“That was fifteen years ago.” Vinny Baker released his elbow grip on his trousers and pushed his spectacles up on to the bridge of his nose. Immediately his trousers began their slow but inexorable slide deckwards. “Since then he’s become a bloody glamour boy—and an owner.”
“Yes,” David Allen agreed, and his baby face crumpled a little at the thought of those two legendary animals, master and owner, combined in one monster. A monster which was on the point of mounting his gangway to the deck of Warlock.
“You’d better go down and kiss him on the soft spot,” Vinny grunted comfortably, and drifted away. Two decks down was the sanctuary of his control room where neither masters nor owners could touch him. He was going there now.
David Allen was breathless and flushed when he reached the entry port. The new Master was halfway up the gangway, and he lifted his head and looked steadily at the mate as he stepped aboard.
Though he was only a little above average, Nicholas Berg gave the impression of towering height, and the shoulders beneath the blue cashmere of his jacket were wide and powerful. He wore no hat and his hair was very dark, very thick and brushed back from a wide unlined forehead. The head was big-nosed and gaunt-boned, with a heavy jaw, blue now with new beard, and the eyes were set deep in the cages of their bony sockets, underlined with dark plum-coloured smears, as though they were bruised.
But what shocked David Allen was the man’s pallor. His face was drained, as though he had been bled from the jugular. It was the pallor of mortal illness or of exhaustion close to death itself, and it was emphasized by the dark eye-sockets. This was not what David had expected of the legendary Golden Prince of Christy Marine. It was not the face he had seen so often pictured in newspapers and magazines around the world. Surprise made him mute and the man stopped and looked down at him.
“Allen?” asked Nicholas Berg quietly. His voice was low and level, without accent, but with a surprising timbre and resonance.
“Yes, sir. Welcome aboard, sir.”
When Nicholas Berg smiled, the edges of sickness and exhaustion smoothed away at his brow and at the corners of his mouth. His hand was smooth and cool, but his grip was firm enough to make David blink.
“I’ll show you your quarters, sir.” David took the Louis Vuitton suitcase from his grip.
“I know the way,” said Nick Berg. “I designed her.”
He stood in the centre of the Master’s day cabin, and felt the deck tilt under his feet, although the Warlock was fast to the stone dock, and the muscles in his thighs trembled.
“The funeral went off all right?” Nick asked.
“He was cremated, sir,” David said. “That’s the way he wanted it. I have made the arrangements for the ashes to be sent home to Mary. Mary is his wife, sir,” he explained quickly.
“Yes,” said Nick Berg. “I know. I saw her before I left London. Mac and I were shipmates once.”
“He told me. He used to boast about that.”
“Have you cleared all his gear?” Nick asked, and glanced around the Master’s suite.
“Yes sir, we’ve packed it all up. There is nothing of his left in here.”
“He was a good man.” Nick swayed again on his feet and looked longingly at the day couch, but instead he crossed to the port and looked out on to the dock. “How did it happen?”
“My report—”
“Tell me!” said Nicholas Berg, and his voice cracked like a whip.
“The main tow-cable parted, sir. He was on the after-deck. It took his head off like a bullwhip.”
Nick stood quietly for a moment, thinking about that terse description of tragedy. He had seen a tow part under stress once before. That time it had killed three men.
“All right.” Nick hesitated a moment, the exhaustion had slowed and softened him so that for a moment he was on the point of explaining why he had come to take command of Warlockhimself, rather than sending another hired man to replace Mac.
It might help to have somebody to talk to now, when he was right down on his knees, beaten and broken and tired to the very depths of his soul. He swayed again, then caught himself and forced aside the temptation. He had never whined for sympathy in his life before.
“All right,” he repeated. “Please give my apologies to your officers. I have not had much sleep in the last two weeks, and the flight out from Heathrow was murder, as always. I’ll meet them in the morning. Ask the cook to send a tray with my dinner.”
The cook was a huge man who moved like a dancer in a snowy apron and a theatrical chef’s cap. Nick Berg stared at him as he placed the tray on the table at his elbow. The cook wore his hair in a shiny carefully coiffured bob that fell to his right shoulder, but was drawn back from the left cheek to display a small diamond earring in the pierced lobe of that ear.
He lifted the cloth off the tray with a hand as hairy as that of a bull gorilla, but his voice was as lyrical as a girl’s, and his eyelashes curled soft and dark on to his cheek.
“There’s a lovely bowl of soup, and a pot-au-feu. It’s one of my little special things. You will adore it,” he said, and stepped back. He surveyed Nick Berg with those huge hands on his hips. “But I took one look at you as you came aboard and I just knew what you really needed.” With a magician’s flourish, he produced a half-bottle of Pinch Haig from the deep pocket of his apron. “Take a nip of that with your dinner, and then straight into bed with you, you poor dear.”
No man had ever called Nicholas Berg “dear” before, but his tongue was too thick and slow for the retort. He stared after the cook as he disappeared with a sweep of his white apron and the twinkle of the diamond, and then he grinned weakly and shook his head, weighing the bottle in his hand.
“Damned if I don’t need it,” he muttered, and went to find a glass. He poured it half full, and sipped as he came back to the couch and lifted the lid of the soup pot. The steaming aroma made the little saliva glands under his tongue spurt.
The hot food and whisky in his belly taxed his last reserves, and Nicholas Berg kicked off his shoes as he staggered into his night cabin.


 
Copyright © 1978 by Wilbur Smith