During the Second World War, in the mid-Atlantic, the body of a mysterious girl in what appears to be a comatose state is recovered by Gracchus, a Nazi raider whose mission it is to destroy any vessels that might aid the Allied war effort. Captain Schleicher, whose son had been killed fighting the Poles, develops an obsession with this girl whose presence somehow presages his own fate. Eventually Gracchus is rooted out and destroyed and Schleicher has a death-vision in which he and his fantasy are united.
A muffled cry arose from the crew - a salvo of wonder and admiration, as the sailors hauled from its raft the floating figure, a body left to the freedom of the sea, a woman's body cast out in the Atlantic. Like a figurehead of flesh and bone, the sailors hauled up the bare white legs, thighs and torso which glittered with the salt pearls of the North Atlantic. They bore up the castaway face and spirit-clear eyes and saturated strands of hair, and each solitary seaman, as he stared down on that form - near-naked save for a grey silk slip - felt a breath-halting tenderness, a curdling sea-deep longing from which his calling, the war in the West, Adolf Hitler, the greed and Dionysian fury of battle-mad nations - had barred him.
On the boat deck, Captain Schleicher stared with fascination and addressed a young officer. "From the Uvedalia, I suspect, picked off by a U-boat."
"Isn't that a passenger?"
"An armed merchant cruiser might be a better description."
"We've landed a mermaid, Captain," called the gunner grinning.
"Take her below," Schleicher ordered, "Dr Kahr will see to her,"
He was aware of a mutinous growl of coarse laughter from the men, for Dr Kahr was often considered the most privileged member of the crew, the one man aboard licensed to touch the female prisoners and attend to their personal problems.
After lunch, Schleicher went below deck to the salt-white sick bay where Dr Kahr pounced on him immediately.
"Surely, something could be done to reduce the vibrations when firing. Have you any idea of the effect on patients who have just been operated upon?"
"How is the girl?"
"Still in a coma."
"May I see her?"
Dr Kahr took him into the small enclosure where she was stretched out under a thin sheet. Schleicher's breath stalled and his shoulders trembled. He could make out each detail of her outline like a sculpture of a naked Venus, or Galatea waiting brought to life by an intensity of desire. As he gazed down on her, an urge stirred him, a devouring need to prostrate himself, to sink and kneel before the white thighs and slight breasts.
Sensing Schleicher's mixture of confusion and fascination, Dr Kahr was able to frame an appropriate thought.
"She exudes the spell of the Eternal Womanly, does she not?"
"Why do I feel so...so overpowered?" asked Schleicher.
Kahr shrugged and replied. "She is young, desirable and naked. She does nothing but breathe - what else does a man want?"
The next morning Schleicher heard that the Graf Spee had been scuttled. This was perplexing as well as alarming. A few days previously, he had been informed how the battleship had put out of action three British cruisers off Montivideo. "Goebbels propaganda beginning to seriously mislead," he noted in his diary.
The alarm wrenched him out of his brooding - a ship had been sighted. Quickly he asked the signalman to order it to stop and be searched.
"Prepare a boarding party."
When the boat - a Norwegian tanker - grudgingly drew alongside, Schleicher ambled down a gangplank, formally greeted the foreign crew, then produced a pistol.
"You are under arrest and your boat is hereby requisitioned for the German Navy."
Grim-faced and glowering, the seamen lifted their hands, their expressions a mix of humiliation and suppressed rage; they had been cleverly and boldly deceived.
Next Schleicher and two senior officers checked out the interior whose bulkheads, it transpired, contained gallons of aviation spirit and not the diesel fuel they had hoped for. He found it faintly eerie, exploring the crew's quarters, like stepping into the psychologies and private worlds of different men. There was something unsettling about entering cabins where mounted photographs of unfamiliar wives, girlfriends and children stared down at you with silent reproach as you removed items like wallets, binoculars and chronometers from the drawers.
An hour later Schleicher returned to the deck of the Gracchus and immediately set about transferring the women and children prisoners to the captured tanker. Next he radioed a U-boat, requesting a scratch crew so that the vessel should be manned and taken to Hamburg and re-adapted for the German war effort.
Feeling satisfied with the general efficiency of his arrangements, he went out and surveyed the deck where Commander Wilson, an English prisoner, sidled up to him. "Sorry to hear about the Graf Spee," he remarked with a grin that reached his eyes.
In the excitement of capturing and annexing the tanker, Schleicher had forgotten about the damaged pride of the German navy; the memory instantly deflated his morale. "Yes," he shrugged morosely, "it was a great loss."
"Of course, the captain did not go down with his ship. Instead he booked into a hotel room in Buenos Aires and shot himself. Imagine that - dreadful business!"
"Your concern over the welfare of our officers is most touching," remarked Schleicher. "But you must not lose sleep over it."
"Of course," Wilson needled, "now the big fish has been landed, they'll be getting their hooks into you. Your disguise won't protect you - no one could mistake you for a Clyde-built ship."
"Why?" asked Schleicher curiously. "Is it the poop deck?"
"I can't tell you," said Wilson. "You'll have to go down with that particular secret undisclosed."
"Very well Commander," said Schleicher, "but you should also bear in mind the same applies to you, as we are, quite literally, in the same boat."
Wilson gave a philosophical snort and turned away. Schleicher shrugged. In the eyes of the British he epitomised Nazi deceitfulness, for Gracchus, the ship he captained, was a wolf in sheep's clothing, a raider, a heavily armed vessel disguised as an ordinary merchant ship so that it was able to get close enough to pick off Allied shipping. Gracchus had now sunk over fifty allied vessel and Schleicher sensed the fate he had dished out to so many would shortly be turned upon him.
Two nights later, there was a rough sea and Schleicher's mind pitched and rolled in its comfortable bunk. His dreams were bloodshot, vulnerable, lost. Photographs from the Norwegians' cabins swirled across his brain in distorted form and once he glimpsed the perplexed face of his son, Timm, who had suffered the ignominy of dying by the hand of a Polish cavalryman - pierced by his long lance. Imagine that! They had thrown everything against the under-equipped Poles: screaming Stukas, Panzer divisions, vast detachments of infantry - they had routed, bombed and burned them out, but poor Timm had met an antiquated end during the counterattack by the Pomorska Brigade. With his weak chin and guilty eyes, no one could have been further from the Prussian officer who spurns humanity while clicking his heels - the boy was born out of time. He would have like to have studied botany - botany! The nearest he got to that was a floral wreath with a black laurel swastika in the centre.
"Beyond the life of the individual," Hitler had said, "is that of the Nation." But what did that mean? For there to be a purpose, some things must be fixed and stable, so that history resembles a series of foundation stones - but the history of war is of crumbling foundations. War is man's rage against his failure to find fulfilment in love. War takes life and gives back rhetoric. Once he had a son, a child who called him Papa, now a frozen lump of lard in the ground - a heroic sacrifice for the glory of the fatherland.
Troubled, he got up from his bunk and went down to the sick bay where the cataleptic girl was confined. Schleicher hovered there, listening to the thick drubbing of the diesel engines, the waves' smothering hiss and the regular knock of the ship's painter against the bows. Only a single light was burning, candle-faint, and other men had surreptitiously visited the place. He was not the only one who craved whatever it was she conferred - the peace, the sense of reverence. Yes, as if to make a shrine, the sailors had left pinned to the walls and headboard of the bed little trinkets, coins, postcards of palms and coral islands, bits of embroidery, a rag doll, an ivory elephant - votives for a sleeping beauty.
If only, it occurred to him, the world could be reduced to a slumbering woman, then it would become a quiescent possibility, an imminent revelation. But were the mass to awake, everything would polarise into motives and conflicts. If that girl were to sit up and breathe, men would begin to fight for her hand, and a small war would start over again. And he saw all conflict in a different light - as men fighting against the feminine for the feminine, risking and forfeiting all in order to regain the organic stillness before the first breath of being.
Half-dreaming Schleicher knelt before the prone figure and let his head sink forward. For a moment he gazed down upon her carved white warmth and watched his breath stir a wisp of hair that had strayed across her eyelid.
When he returned to his cabin, it was morning, and he was surprised to find Kersh, the steward, standing outside smiling and holding a glass and plate. "Captain, some champagne and a slice of Christmas cake."
"We take an extremely dim view of unnatural behaviour in the Navy," said Schleicher, reprimanding two shamefaced members of his crew, "but I realise that the circumstances are hardly easy, and so I am merely confining you both to your cabins for a week."
With a curt nod, he dismissed the men from his headquarters. It was a wretchedly embarrassing business. In lieu of fir trees, crackers and cards, he had allowed the crew to devise their own impromptu cabaret for Christmas; a number of them had dressed up and made up as females, right down to such details as lipstick, brassieres and garters. This titillating - if ludicrous - sight had inflamed the appetites of certain 'sensitive' members of the crew and drove them to acts of homosexual vice which naturally had to be dealt with promptly.
The distasteful interview finished, he went down to the wardroom and helped himself to a brandy. As the spirit stoked up warmth in his veins, he found himself mildly alarmed when a yielding, guilty urge made him unlock a drawer and remove an item of attire and hold it against his cheek - the smoke-grey slip that had once sheathed the body of the girl. Wonderful it must be, he thought, to wear such soft clothes.
During the afternoon of New Year's day, Gracchus encountered a Canadian ship. Schleicher told the signalman to give the traditional 'Stop or I'll fire' warning. When the ship was within two hundred yards, the camouflage was dropped, up sprang the Battle Flag and the 'crane' became a menacing long-barreled gun.
Half an hour later, Schleicher observed the vessel wallowing and threshing amid fountains of steam and bushes of flame. Gathered on the poop deck, beside guns that an hour before had masqueraded as industrial machinery, Schleicher and his crew watched with guilt-tinged satisfaction as the vessel, after a last boiling crescendo, purposefully dived out of sight.
Many prisoners were taken that day, men, women and children, and the atmosphere of the ship became tense and packed. In the days ahead, crammed below deck, Schleicher knew they would become a nuisance, refractory, sullen, complaining about the food and conditions - but it was now his duty to change from aggressor to formal host, to nurse them, dress their wounds, inform them of new developments and share out his owns crew's supplies with them.
Listing and interrogating the prisoners took hours, and Schleicher did not go below deck to glimpse at the girl until late at night when, poised like a sleepwalker above her supine form, the strange thought occurred to him that perhaps, if he were to attempt to make love to her, some form of resurrection might take place - she might come alive and be made whole. But no, perish the thought - he shuddered at his own imaginings - that would not be the point, not the point at all.
Gracchus saw no more action until early February when Schleicher captured and sunk a merchantman carrying supplies of beeswax, vanilla and coffee. Later, as he watched his crew pour the bags of ersatz over the side and top them up with quality stuff, he felt rueful about his honest and moral upbringing. Had he cultivated contacts in the black market, what a wealthy fellow he might have ended up! Fleetingly he imagined himself in another life, as a rich man with a daughter as well as a son, showing them around warehouses stacked with exotic goods which he would freely share out with them and all their friends. "The good things of life," he murmured, "how cheap they come." He turned and descended to the sick bay where the girl lay. He knew she would not survive much longer, for she had been unable to eat. "If she was my daughter," he sighed, "I'd enjoy not shaping or influencing, only watching time move through her." He breathed hard; a riot of hooves hammered the dust of his brain out of which jerked a silver-white lance. "Poor Timm."
The sun came out and his mood lifted. He discussed a problem with the Torpedo Officer and then encountered Commander Wilson at his morning break. The middle-aged officer was smoking his pipe as he leant against the water tank.
"Do you have a son, Wilson?" he asked.
"No, only two bloody daughters, and they drive me crackers."
"Why is that? Don't you like them?"
"No, the trouble is I like them too much. I always want to please them, and I always seem to get things wrong." He laughed. "I believe they call it the halo effect."
Schleicher smiled but the remark remained with him.
Early the next morning the alarm bell sounded, and from the bridge Schleicher was able to pick out the advancing form of a British cruiser, HMS Avenger, crisply circling the Gracchus. Holding her distance, she was performing a series of intricate serpentine manoevures, giving her a great advantage as her 8-inch guns far outstretched the range of the German raider.
Schleicher tensed and debated whether to keep course. From the gun deck of the Avenger sprouted two orange flashes - a shell slashed across the bows and masthead of the Gracchus with a noise like an express train. This was a signal ordering them to stop.
"Open fire, Captain?" called the gunner.
"No - not yet. It's out of our range anyway."
"No," said Schleicher firmly. "Stop engines." The regular throb of the diesel died; an almost spectral silence descended, in which the breath of the sea was audible, the steady lapping and washing of the bows.
Schleicher addressed the signalman. "Kaspar, try using that captured British signalling lamp. Give the signal: HMS Polyphemus asked to stop by an unidentified ship."
It was a very slender chance. If Avenger radioed the admiralty and established the true whereabouts of HMS Polyphemus, the disguise would be blown and a combative response could be expected quickly.
A tense moment. Schleicher waited. The breath of each member of the crew seemed to grow taut and solid as the Avenger continued to describe elusive esses, like a hound circling its prey, and then another spurt of orange and a shell struck the aft bow. The sea lifted up a mountain-high partition of spray and fragments of hot metal pitted the deck.
Schleicher shouted. "Start ship - full ahead!"
Two more shells struck home in rapid succession. Smoke billowed like an angry apparition and pulled away from a flaming shambles of twisted ventilators and shattered rafters.
Knowing the cause was lost, Schleicher slipped below deck to the sick bay, as if to gain a last healing look. To his amazement, the girl was sitting up with a startled look on her face.
"What is your name?" he asked dazedly.
"Grace," she replied.
That was the last word Schleicher heard - a torpedo crashed into the side of the Gracchus. The decking convulsed and thrashed epileptically and a splinter of shrapnel entered his skull. Swaying, he spread his hands and contacted nothing. But it did not matter, for there came a reassuring warmth in which his whole self seemed to be unravelling like white wool. He had never felt so light. It was as if he were striding drunk down a sloping avenue of cloud.
He sank into a coma, not entirely senseless, for whether in reality or fancy, he did not know, but he found himself clambering up to the deck with the rescued girl in his arms. Standing on the bridge beyond the wireless room, above the mayhem of ruptured metal, he held her up like a living trophy - a soul for salvage. Below him the deck was a maze of flames and a burst steam pipe was spitting out a boiling-hot mist, but still he waited and stared at the sea - probing the emerald vastation that stretched forever in front of him.
Only after a long while, when his arms were numb and his neck a dead weight, did he sight in the distance a sailing ship, a three-masted barque. Her cordage spread a glittering web as her prow sliced the waters like a knife dividing a greengage. Despite a scorching pain in his head, Schleicher felt happy, almost weightless, convinced that he and the girl were destined to board that vessel together and their voyage would be easy, effortless.