A.G. Pym • Chapter One
Arthur Gordon Pym, originally of Nantucket, leaned back in the chair, stretched, then pulled down the wool vest over his slightly protruding belly. Not so hungry now. But there was a time when he was barely skin and bones.
He flipped open the ledger. He read through the names of the investigators, looking across several columns to the figures of weekly pay. He didn’t enjoy double checking the bookkeeping, but one must be thorough in business.
He’d learned a lot in the last thirty years. Different things than he’d learned at sea. Practical things about the industry of men and the institutions behind them. There was still a part of him, perhaps detached, perhaps kept in the background, that remembered what he’d done and seen so long ago.
He now regretted telling that story. Anyway, not so many people had read it, and no doubt not many of those could recall anything specific. The artifice of the real authorship and the postscript about his death were deemed necessary contrivances at the time. Reviewers hated the book. “Told in a loose slip-shod style”, one reviewer said. “A mass of ignorance and effrontery”, said another. Even the hack he’d worked with to write it, and under whose name it appeared, discounted it, calling it “silly”. That writer would later meet an awful drunken end, deliriously, outside a tavern in Baltimore. In order to present a story this fabulous he’d said people must be presented it as if it actually was a fiction, cemented with Pym’s demise.
A few people in England took the book seriously, noting the strange hieroglyphic writings and archaeological features described. The rest found it violent and weird.
He hadn’t thought about the book in some time. Although once in a while there would be an envelope at his office, a piece of correspondence which he simultaneously dreaded yet also anticipated, from people who’d discovered he still lived. Usually these letters began the same way. “Dear Mr Pym, I came across the book of your adventures and thought you might be interested to know…”, and so on. It was frequently some irrelevancy that they felt connected themselves to his story or an excuse to expand on a crackpot theory they felt compelled to relate.
But this letter was different.
It was from a sailor who claimed to have been on a whaler called the “Eunice”. And it began in a way that made him sit up.
”I too have been at the edge of the world, and I too have seen the white figure.”
The directness of it was different than all the other letters, the ones by cranks. The handwriting was primitive, blocky, the kind of thing he’d seen barely literate sailors put down in log books. The tone was authentic.
”I cannot, with good conscience, in the space of this letter, relate the entire tale of my journeys. It would run as long as your own, perhaps longer. I came across your account one evening in a boarding house I am recently staying, thinking it some sort of adventure story. I read it all in one sitting. I quickly realized the true nature of it, and that the second half represented my own experiences more or less. This astonished me, since I have not written or expounded in any public way my observations about a journey that took place two years before your own.”
An old sailor now, he thought. He’d seen the type, on the streets, back in New Bedford and Nantucket and Gloucester and Halifax. A few of them may have been retired captains, with some means, but most were used up, their experiences tattooed on them. They tried carrying the sea around with them, as if forever drowning on land. Some of them would try to sell oysters or lobster, things like that, making a small amount they’d subsequently drink up. The handwriting here looked like that of those men — this is what he imagined. But the tone, this contained something he couldn’t exactly place.
”The Eunice, on which I was First Mate, and whose primary goal was the industry of whaling, found herself in Southern waters rather than her natural Northern climate. This due to having fixed herself to the whims of the Captain, but I will not be distracted by that account. However, we were set upon by a ferocious storm, the worst any of us had ever witnessed — and of that crew there were a great number of very experienced seamen. While we initially endured this tempest with the skills and crafts of our profession, we were soon overwhelmed. We were hobbled, and drifted. As we had lost men, and strove to make repairs, those strong currents took us South. Our Navigator was thrown overboard during the storm, although I’m not sure he could’ve helped us, we were truly off the charts.”
Disaster at sea was not an unfamiliar tale, particularly at that latitude. He remembered the eternal cold and damp, a wind that never stopped. It drove the soul out of you, it ate away at you. You tried to get warm and escape the wind, but you couldn’t.
Occasionally he would dream he was there again, at the end of the world. These were awful nightmares where the sense of foreboding and the oppressive sense of pain and disaster, and a sinister thing, saturated every moment. And sometimes that White God would appear. But he would never allow himself to see it. He’d have, in those nightmares, closed his eyes in fear, clenching them shut as hard as he could. Harder than a man could. But he knew it was still there. He knew it, he could feel it, and he dared not look. Those nights he would wake up with a start, drenched in sweat.
He lifted the tumbler of gin and poured three thumbs worth into a glass. He uncorked a bottle of water from Saratoga and poured some over the gin. It was simple, and clear. He could see the stained wood of the desk through the bottom of the drink, slightly magnified. He picked up the letter.
He believed this sailor. And it made him re-examine his plan. He had the resources. His business did well, financial affairs and investments were also well. It’s true he rented his rooms in the city rather than build something up Bloomingdale Road, which was in fashion, but he preferred to be close to the docks and Wall Street rather than hide away in some mansion uptown. He may have been perceived as eccentric for these opinions, but he didn’t care. He hadn’t taken a wife. His business was time consuming and any attempts in that direction resulted in awkward resentments that he found distasteful and harrying. Although he knew many men his age who favored it. Simply another eccentricity, he thought. He was sure they judged him, but those dreams, of that past journey, the sense of some infinitude, at a scale far above the affairs of proper society made all of that feel petty and distanced for him. What did he care what other men thought, they knew nothing of the true nature of the world.
His plan was to go back.
Even now, twenty years later, with all the spectacular advances in science and navigation, this wouldn’t be easy. Tentatively he’d brought the subject up to friends, business partners and the explorer’s club he’d remained a member of despite their lack of exploring. He’d received some measure of interest or possibility of interest. However there was some skepticism. No doubt much of it was due to the fantastic nature of his earlier experiences placed down in that awful book. He’d anticipated this. He was aware that to execute his plan he would need to pay. It would be money, at the end of the day, which would compel. “And so”, he thought, “here is the nature of men.” Perhaps he’d become cynical in the last two decades. But he only saw his attitude as a tool. He was as far away from the young man who drunkenly sailed out that night as the miles he’d physically traveled. Each mile was an adjustment, a navigation, a calculation of risk. More accurately, in his case, a sequence of misdirections and calamities. But he wore it, he let it become part of himself without dispute. Except for the ending, that terrible white thing.
The only way to really know was to go back.
He folded the letter and put it back into his case. Tomorrow he would go to Hoboken and visit the sailor. He’d sent word by Audible, but hadn’t received a response. He’d go anyway. You couldn’t trust the Audible signal outside the city anyway. Despite years of advances he might have been better off sending a note by courier.
He got on the cable car the next morning. It was clear and crisp outside, the cable car overlooking the docks and the river. Smoke rose from the east side of Manhattan. This was industry, the black choking smoke of progress. He could see the outline of Hoboken ahead, a growing population, a place for workers and their families. It too had a port, but on far smaller scale than Manhattan.
He felt old looking out over the island and the mainland. Change seemed to have accelerated. It appeared unstoppable to him. If he’d still been young he believed he’d be more enthusiastic. But now it just highlighted what’d been lost, and how far behind him that youth was. Most of all he missed the silence. The chatter now, everyone spoke, everyone opined, everyone trying to rise as a voice over other voices. The silence he recalled from days on Nantucket was only broken by a weekly newspaper or correspondence. The scope of your knowledge and the sense of your world was smaller and more immediate. True, there were the stories brought back by sailors they all greedily consumed. Those adventures, the allure of which he succumbed to, were not generally known outside the fishing towns. But now there were a hundred journals of piratical and salacious tales of the high seas. And he felt guilty that he himself had contributed to it. He regretted telling his tale.
He kept these opinions to himself. He knew they would be perceived as laughable. Of course progress was necessary. Why would anyone want to go back in time? Forward. America moved forward. The industry of the world was here and America would shape the future of the world.
He saw the large Audible towers recede and the Hoboken platform approach. There were a few people there, waiting. He wondered what brought them to Manhattan or back to Manhattan. Those imaginary stories bubbled around in his brain. The everyday dramas, the procession of the mundane punctuated by intrigue or an affair or every something outright nefarious.
It was this very impulse, this extrapolation on his part of personalities and intentions, coupled with his understanding — a knowledge learned quickly on the open waters — of the matters of shipping, that had led to his current business. Initially, this had been the investigation and gathering of information for insurers about the shipping business and operations, but over the years the domain of this gathering had expanded. Anyone one of these people waiting on the platform could be a subject of his investigations.
People wanted to know things about one another. Particularly among the wealthy and high society that were his clients. A man suspected his wife of having an affair, or vice versa. A business partner suspected another of double dealing. The reputation of a potential suitor or lawyer or representative or employee needed confirmation. Most of it had become routine. Occasionally they discovered something criminal.
He thought of these things as he stepped down from the platform in Hoboken and he looked to get a carriage. He would meet this sailor, and use whatever perceptive and deductive skills he learned over the years to ascertain if he was telling the truth. And if he was? He knew he needed to stick to his plan. He would return to the end of the world. He would return, but he needed a crew.