The decrees of Fortune may be postponed, but they can never be vacated. He who imagines that he can avoid these rulings is like the man who exerts his limited control over a raft traveling on a swiftly-moving river; he may be able to organize the furnishings on his raft, but it is the river that decides his course. It swirls him about in its currents and eddies; it pushes him against projecting rocks and rapids; and its flux holds him firmly in its aquatic grip. Individual effort can arrest or divert this course, but only under certain conditions. Most men are unable to summon the required exertions of will necessary to resist such implacable torrents. We celebrate heroism because it is so uncommon, and because it represents, in some ways, a kind of conscious rebellion against Fortune’s unfeeling mandates.
The following story was found in an old volume of nautical lore published in 1840. It is a tale worthy of Joseph Conrad. Unfortunately, neither its authorship nor its date of composition is attributed. But from the tone of its language and the references given, I would guess that the incident it describes took place near the end of the eighteenth-century, or very early in the nineteenth century. By his own admission, the author was a midshipman on his first cruise. He was walking the deck on a bright, moonlit evening. The sea was entirely calm, and the crew were engaged in swapping stories.
As for the ship’s course, our narrator says that “We had left Port Royal on the south side of Jamaica the day before on our way to the mouth of the Amazon, and were at the time of this writing passing between the small islands of Monts-Errat and Guadaloupe…In the distance you could see the white moon beams playing on the fort and beach, and glistening on the low roofs and white walls of the little capital of Guadaloupe.”
Our young narrator took up a spyglass and scanned the nearby shoreline. Not noticing anything, he was ready to move to another part of the deck, when he was approached by an old sailor in his sixties named Jack Transom. Transom asked to have a look. The narrator obliged him, and Transom peered through the lens at the darkened shore, apparently searching for something known only to him:
I dropped my glass and was getting down from my station when Jack Transom stepped up and asked for a squint, I handed the glass to him and after looking through it a moment he handed it back saying, “Aye, aye, there it stands with its creaking chains and dry bones rattling in the still air as if a ten knot breeze was ripping over it.” “What’s that?” said I, eagerly catching the glass and pointing it where “Old Starboard” as he [Transom] was familiarly called, directed me. It was some time before I saw what he meant.
When I did, I was at no loss for his abrupt speech. A little north of the town on the white beach, stood a tall gibbet with its chains, and even as old Jack said, its white bones, for I plainly saw them even at that distance glimmering in the rays of the bright moon, and I almost fancied I heard them rattling and shaking against each other, although as I said before, there was not a breath of air, not enough to move a feather…
Transom then began to tell a chilling story about the origin of the skeleton chained to the gibbet. Stuffing a wad of Virginia tobacco in his cheek, the old mariner began to tell his tale. The events he described had taken place about forty years earlier. He was only a young man then, and it was “only the third time that I had ever smelt salt water.” It was a stormy night, with the wind lashing both sails and waves; the captain had decided to make for land without delay. Suddenly the watchman shouted that he could see the sail of a smaller vessel straight ahead. Before evasive action could be taken, the larger ship collided with the smaller, and severely damaged it. “ We passed slick over her,” said Transom, “as if she had been a mere boy’s plaything.” Shouts could be heard here and there, and the captain ordered a boat lowered; he believed that someone had left the smaller boat, and was heading for the shore. Cries in the darkness could be heard, and it seemed as though someone had made for the shore. Transom’s captain, wanting to render aid to the stricken boat, ordered a party to head for land, and find out if anyone needed help. Transom and his comrades thought it was not a good idea:
That night there was not an eye closed in the ship. We were all waiting for the morning, for many thought it sheer madness in our captain to send off a boat in such a sea, and so dark a night, and prophesied that she would be swamped in less than ten minutes. Though no one said so to the captain, for he was in one of his gloomy moods, and walked the deck nearly the whole night without opening his mouth.
Transom was one of the crew dispatched to the shore the next morning. The party that had arrived on shore the night before was safe and secure. After leaving the ship, they had followed the sound of the stranger’s cries. They eventually found a shivering, exhausted man clinging to a heavy board; he had leaped overboard after the collision and made his way to the shore in pitch darkness. He was in a pitiable condition. The rescuers did what they could for him, and then decided to take him to the nearest substantial residence.
The house they brought the man to happened to be the house of the local governor, and he instantly recognized the waterlogged survivor. It turned out that the man was a pirate and a criminal who had many murders to his credit; he had been condemned to death, and was supposed to be hanged. He had escaped from confinement, and had commandeered a vessel before the accidental collision of the previous night had ruined his getaway plan. He had escaped drowning, only to face execution by hanging. And the governor ordered the execution to be carried out on that very day. Transom noted the doomed man’s demeanor:
“He looked pale and half dead when they brought him out, and for the soul of me I couldn’t help pitying him, he stept so firm, and went so willingly to meet his death. He was led out to the gallows between two files of soldiers, our parson talked to him all the way, but he paid no attention and seemed to be thinking of something else.” So the man was hanged. A sense of gloom and guilt pervaded Transom’s crew. They could not shake the feeling that they had somehow contributed to the outcome:
For we all felt as if we had some hand in it, and wished the poor devil had been food for the fishes, rather than to have fallen a prey to land-sharks. The body was taken down and then hung up in chains, and on our homeward voyage we saw them there rattling in the sea breeze and bleaching in the sun. I have passed here often, but I have never forgotten to look for the gallows and the pirate’s remains, and I shall never forget that night while I live.
According to G. W. Freytag, there is an Arabic proverb reminding us that for the wicked man whose hour has arrived, “it may happen that even a small cave holds calamities”:
عسى الغوير ابوسا
[Caput. XVIII.54: Fieri potest, ut parva spelunca calamitates contineat.]
The pirate had been unable to escape what Fortune had decreed for him. His hour had arrived, and he would have to answer for what he had done. We cannot always know when the hour of retribution will arrive, but arrive it must. This was the point of one of Aesop’s lesser-known tales, which may be related as follows.
There was once a man to whom a friend had given a sum of money to hold. The agreement was that the money should be returned on a given date; but when the date came and went, the treacherous holder dragged his feet, finding excuses to return it to its rightful owner. Finally a lawsuit was filed, and the thief avoided the court summons by moving to the countryside. Soon after arriving at a small town, the thief met an old man. The old man was leaving the town just as the thief was arriving there. When asked who he was and what he was doing, the old man told the thief, “I am the god Horkos [the Greek word for “oath”]. I am looking for those who have broken their word and done evil.”
The thief, now curious, asked the old man how often he would return to a place, after having once left it. “Oh, once every thirty or forty years,” was the reply. The thief was delighted to hear this, thinking that he was now safely out of danger. He had no problem swearing in court that he never received the money that he had in fact stolen.
Soon after this, Horkos found him. The god seized the thief with his superhuman strength, and dragged him to a nearby cliff, intending to throw him to his death. The thief cried out, “But I thought you would only come back here in thirty or forty years!” Horkos glared at him and responded, “When someone provokes me, I make a point of returning on the same day.”
Read more in the annotated, illustrated translation of Cicero’s On Moral Ends: