Author’s Note: So here are the concluding chapters of Virgil Matthew’s story. If you haven’t read the first seven brief chapters that you will find in previous blog posts. If you enjoyed the tale, please share it with your friends.
There are many that drive a man to live a certain way. The devout will take comfort in the doing or not doing of a certain thing. The proud will drive themselves for the approval of other men. Greed will drive a man to commerce or to thievery, which sometimes look very much the same. Looking back, I can’t say why I took the path I did—going to sea—it seemed to find me more than I found it. But as I said, I was hungry.
The work kept clothes on my back and kept me fed better than I would have fared as a foundling. And, meager as it was, made me enough coin to do the same for my family. If you were to ask me to name what it was that drove me, I’d have to say it was actually fear. Fear of the workhouses. Fear of going hungry.
I cannot say that I’ve been afraid of what many men feared. The first time I climbed to the top of a mast it did not occur to me to be afraid. Though I could scarcely swim, I never feared the water. Not really. Yes. I did find something about John Ferguson frightening when I first cast my eyes upon him. But I’ve had my share of differences with men. I’ve taken a few beatings from men I should have walked away from. But I don’t suppose I could say I was really afraid of John, as much as I was wary of him.
They say every man will face a choice some day in his life. A choice that will show everyone who he is and what he’s made of. A choice that will reveal what a man fears most. I’d never given it much thought before. The day John Ferguson died, I learned something about myself. I loved him like a brother. And would have given my life for is—or so I thought.
Fire on board a wooden sailing ship is a terrifying thing.
The stories about how the fire began on Invictus vary depending on who is doing the telling. Some say it was deliberate. Some say it started in the galley, late that evening. I was in my bunk when I heard men shouting. Their shouts were more desperate than I heard during the storm. Perhaps it is because we were no more than three days out from port and the prospects of returning, if only for a while, to our families. Perhaps it was because we all know that returning to port meant our pockets would be full of coin.
I roused myself from my bunk and ran towards the shouting. By the time I arrived, flames were rising from the waist where the cooper and the smith did their work. John Ferguson was there close to the flames, was calling for another bucket. A man was drawing water from the sea and passing it forward to others until it reached John. I joined the line stepping between John and another mate. The was heat near unbearable and we backed away trying to stay clear of the flames even as we worked to douse it.
A plea for help from some other part of the ship cut our line in half as men abandoned our efforts to aid others. As we back away from the flames once more, I begged John to let me step in to relieve him from the blunt of the flames. But he would have none of it.
That is why I am here to tell my tale and he is not.
As the flames continued their advance, John stumbled, ensnaring his foot in a coil of rope. I was on him quick as rabbit. In the scalding heat, we both worked to release him from the trap. But the more we worked the more he seemed to become entangled.
The inferno was but a few feet from us. Kneeling there, I felt as if my body might rupture into flames at any moment. The men who had been on our line were spasmodically tossing buckets at the flame, and I could hear the stray drops of it searing on the deck, bursting in to burning wisps of steam.
“Yuv got ta go,” John told me, his eyes full of fear and resignation.
“Just hold on.” I shouted. “I’ve almost got it.”
“Dunt be a fool, Virgil. Go now while yuv still a chance.”
The flames were so close I could smell the singing of hair on my arms and the back of my neck. Smaller flames licked at the soles of my boots, turning them into an oven in which my feet cooked. An explosion from below, perhaps caused by flames finding some mislaid cache of powder or ammunition, blew angry red embers into the sky. I felt them searing through my shirt, blistering my back. Later, I would find the angry red welts when I laid in the sick bay.
That’s when I knew I was out of time. And that John was too.
As the flames began to engulf us, I leapt over the railing, forgetting I could barely swim, and plunged into the sea. As I did, I heard the screams of a man being cooked alive. I could smell the burning of flesh and bone. In my minds eye, I saw his hair aflame, his beard being consumed. John Ferguson was roasting in the flames. I heard his screams long after he had stopped.
I hear them still today.
I don’t remember being pulled from the waters or how I stayed afloat. I don’t remember my shouts for deliverance. Somehow the flames had been doused and most of the sails had been spared the fury of the fire. Invictus was still making way for home. I found little comfort in the knowledge I would soon be home, shaken as a I was.
I’m not sure when I realized it, but I could tell the men who were caring for me did so begrudgingly. I heard muted voices whispering judgments and condemnation. You see, John was beloved by the crew, the whole lot of them. He could do the work of two men. He could tell tales that would make men laugh or fill them with fear. God himself would not take such a man as this, they reasoned. His death was more tragic than that of another six that had perished that night. They needed a reason for their loss of him.
Sometime during those final days of our journey, I became that reason.
I’ll spare you their words. I know you’ve grown wear of listening to me. But suffice it to say by the time we arrived home, burnt and broken as we were, stories of how I had abandoned my friend were set like hardened mortar. At first, I tried to explain that I had asked John to step aside. I tried telling them how his feet were somehow impossibly tangled. But the more I protested the harsher their protestations became.
With time my wounds healed. At least those on my feet and back did. The sea was all I knew. But it took two years before anyone would let me hire on to a crew. Even then I heard their whispers. I saw their furtive glances. So I kept to myself. Did my job and tried to keep clear of trouble. I even looked for opportunities to redeem myself, but the opportunity for heroic deeds never came.
John’s screams still haunt me. Like echoes from the past they sound when I am about to drift off to sleep. Sometimes they wake me in the night. But sometimes in my dreams, John Ferguson does not die. Sometimes I free him from his bindings. In those dreams John is grateful. In those days we still talk of leaving the sea for life ashore.
I began my tale telling you I am a coward. Perhaps that is true. Perhaps I should have fought harder for my name. Perhaps I should have shaken men who had seen my efforts but were unwilling to stand with me. Perhaps my cowardice kept me from such efforts. But if I am a coward that is only part of who I am. I am—I am a sailor. I am a friend. A father to his children. A faithful husband. I am a man who never took a day’s pay without returning a full day’s work for my wages.
Some day soon I suppose I will not wake up. I will die in my sleep and if what the priests and ministers say, I will face my Maker. If that is so, I will look Him in the eye and hope he is more forgiving than those men with whom I sailed. If he is, then perhaps I will see my friend John once more.
If not, I suppose I am destined for the lake of fire. But I have endured fire before and lived to tell of it.
I suppose I will do so once more.