It had been
fairly rough for the first two days, and this
sudden calm, and the sense of comfort that came with it, made the
whole ship seem much friendlier. By the time evening came, the
passengers, with twelve hours of good weather behind them, were
beginning to feel more courageous. At eight o’clock that night,
the main dining room was filled with people eating and drinking
with the confident appearance of experienced sailors.
The meal was not half over when the passengers realized, by
the slight movement of their bodies on the seats do their chairs
that the big ship had actually started
rolling again. It
gentle at first, just
a slow, lazy
to one side, then to the other, but it was enough to cause a
slight but immediate loss of good humour around the room. A few of
the passengers looked up from their food, waiting, almost
listening for the next roll, smiling nervously, with
little secret looks of fear in their eyes. Some were completely calm;
others were openly pleased with themselves and made jokes about
the food and the weather
order to annoy the few who were
beginning to suffer. The movement of the ship then became rapidly
more and more violent and only five or six minutes after the first
roll had been noticed, the ship
swinging heavily from
side to side.
At last, a really bad roll came, and Mr. William Botibol, sitting
the purser's table, saw his plate of fish
suddenly away from under his fork. Everybody, now, was reaching
for plates and wine glasses. Mrs. Renshaw, seated at the purser’s
right, gave a little
scream and held onto that gentleman’s arm.
“It’s going to be a rough night,” the purser said, looking at Mrs.
Renshaw. “I think there’s a storm coming that will give us a very
rough night.” There was just the
the faintest suggestion of
pleasure in the way he said it.
Most of the passengers continued with their meal. A small number,
including Mrs. Renshaw,
carefully to their feet and made their
way between the tables and through the doorway, trying
the urgency they felt.
“Well,” the purser said, “There she goes.” He looked round
with approval at
the remaining passengers who were sitting
quietly, with their faces showing openly that pride that
travellers seem to take in being recognized as ‘good sailors’.
When the eating was finished and the coffee had been served,
Mr.Botibol, who had been unusually serious and thoughtful since
the rolling started, suddenly stood up and carried his cup of
coffee around to Mrs. Renshaw’s empty place, next to the purser.
He seated himself in her chair, then immediately leaned over and
began to whisper urgently in the purser’s ear. “Excuse me,” he
said, “but could you tell me something, please?”
The purser, small and fat and red, bent forward to listen. “What’s
the trouble, Mr.Botibol?”
“What I want to know is this.” The man’s face was anxious and the
purser was watching it. “What I want to know is:
will the captain already have made his guess
at the day's run – you know, for the
competition? I mean, will he have done so before it began to get
rough like this?” The purser lowered his voice, as one does when answering a
whisperer. “I should think so – yes.”
“About how long ago do you think he did it?”
“Some time this afternoon. He usually does it in the afternoon.”
“About what time?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Around four o’clock I should think.”
“Now tell me another think. How does the captain decide which
number it will be? Does he take a lot of trouble over that?”
The purser looked at the anxious face of Mr. Botibol and smiled,
knowing quite well what the man was trying to find out. “Well, you
see, the captain has a little meeting with the second officer, and
they study the weather and a lot of other thinks, and then they
make their guess.”
Mr. Botibol thought about this answer for a moment. Then he said,
“Do you think the captain knew there was bad weather coming
“I couldn’t tell you,” the purser replied. He was looking into the
small black eyes of the other man, seeing two single little spots
of excitement dancing in their centres. “I really couldn’t tell
you, Mr Botibol. I wouldn’t know.”
“If this gets any worse, it might be worth buying some of the low
numbers. What do you think?” The whispering was more urgent, more
“Perhaps it will,” the purser said. “I doubt whether the captain
allowed for a really rough night. It was quite calm this
afternoon when he made his guess.”
The others at the table had become silent and were trying to hear
what the purser was saying.
“Now suppose you were allowed to buy a number, which one
would you choose today?” Mr. Botibol asked.
“I don’t know what the
range is yet,” the purser patiently
answered. “They don’t announce the range until the
starts after dinner. And I’m really not very good at it in any
case. I’m only the purser, you know.”
At that point, Mr.Botibol stood up.
“Excuse me, everyone,” he said, and he walked carefully away
between the other tables. Twice he had to catch hold of the back
of a chair to steady himself against the ship’s roll.
As he stepped out onto the sundeck, he felt the full force of the
wind. He took hold of the
rail and held on tight with both
hands, and he stood there looking out over the darkening sea where
the great waves were rising up high.
“Quite bad out there, isn’t sir?” said a waiter, as he went back
Mr. Botibol was combing his hair back into place with a small red
comb. “Do you think we’ve slowed down at all because of the
weather?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, sir. We’ve slowed down a great deal since this started.
You have to slow down in weather like this or you’ll be throwing
the passengers all over the ship.”
Down in the smoking room people were already arriving for the
auction. They were grouping themselves politely around the various
tables, the men a little
stiff in their dinner jackets, a
little pink beside their cool, white-armed women. Mr. Botibol took
a chair close to the
auctioneer’s table. He crossed his legs,
folded his arms, and settled himself in his seat with the
appearance of a man who has made a very important decision and
refuses to be frightened.
The winner, he was telling himself, would probably get around
seven thousand dollars. That was almost exactly what the total
auction money had been for the last two days, with the numbers
selling for about three or four hundred each. As it was a British
ship the auction would be in pounds, but he liked to do his
thinking in dollars, since he was more familiar with them. Seven
thousand dollars was plenty of money. Yes, it certainly was! He
would ask them to pay him in hundred-dollar notes and he would
take them off the ship in the inside pocket of his jacket. No
problem there. He would buy a new car immediately. He would
collect it on the way from the ship and drive it home just for the
pleasure of seeing Ethel’s face when she came out of the front
door and looked at it. Wouldn’t that be wonderful, to see Ethel’s
face when he drove up to the door in a new car? Hello, Ethel,
dear, he would say. I’ve just bought you a little present. I saw
it in the window as I went by, so I thought of you and how you
always wanted one. Do you like it, dear? Do you like the colour?
And then he would watch her face.
The auctioneer was standing up behind his table now. “Ladies and
gentlemen!” he shouted. “The captain has guessed the day’s run,
ending midday tomorrow, at 830 kilometres.
As usual, we will take the ten numbers on either side of it to
make up the range. That means 820 to 840. And of course for those
who think the true figure will be still
further away, there
will be “low field” and “high field” sold separately
as well. Now,
we'll draw the first number out of the hat…
here we are… 827?
The room became quiet. The people sat still in their chairs, all
eyes watching the auctioneer. There was a certain tension in the
air, and as the offers got higher, the tension grew. This wasn’t a
game or joke; you could be sure of that by the way one man would
look across at another who had made a higher offer - smiling
perhaps, but only with the lips, while the eyes remained bright
and completely cold.
Number 827 was sold for one hundred and ten pounds. The next three
or four numbers were sold for about the same amount.
The ship was rolling heavily. The passengers held onto the arms of
their chairs, giving all their attention to the auction.
“Low field” the auctioneer called out. “The next number is low
Mr. Botibol sat up very straight and tense. He would wait, he had
decided, until the others had finished calling out their offers,
then he would make the last offer. He had worked out that there
must be at least five hundred dollars in his account at the bank
at home, probably almost six hundred. That was about two hundred
pounds – over two hundred. This ticket wouldn’t cost more than
“As you all know,” the auctioneer was saying, “low field covers
every number below the smallest number in the range – in
this case every number below 820. So if you think the ship is
going to cover less than 820 kilometres in the twenty-four hour
period ending at midday tomorrow, you’d better buy this ticket.
What are you offering?”
It went up to one hundred and thirty pounds. Others besides Mr.
Botibol seemed to have noticed that the weather was rough. One
hundred and forty … fifty … There it stopped. The auctioneer
waited, his hammer raised.
“Going at one hundred and fifty…”
“Sixty!” Mr. Botibol called, and every face in the room turned
and looked at him.
Mr. Botibol called. He wasn’t stopping now – not for anyone.
There was a pause.
“Any more offers, please? Going at two hundred pounds …”
Sit still, he told himself. Sit completely still and don’t look
up. It’s unlucky to look up. Hold your breath. No one’s going to
offer more if you hold your breath.
“Going for two hundred pounds …” Mr. Botibol held his breath.
“Going … Going … Gone!” The man
banged the hammer on the
table. Mr. Botibol wrote out a cheque and handed it to the auctioneer,
then he settled back in his chair to wait for the finish. He did
not want to go to bed before he knew how much money there was to
added it up after the last number had been sold and it
came to two thousand one hundred pounds. That was about six
thousand dollars. He could buy the car and there would be some
left over, too. With this pleasant thought, he went
off, happy and excited, to his bed.