Ghosts of Doubt

Gregg Cusick

He stands before the class, the lectern his wheelhouse, the teen- or twenty-
something-aged students his sea, the sky in the back windows his horizon. The worn paperback before him lays open to a page. If he were to brush it to
the floor, the spine would strike first and the leaves would fall three-quarters
right, a quarter left. The book would lay open on page 63, just as it does on the
podium. Like a hymnal from which only one song has been chosen, again and
again. Today is October 11, exactly fifty years since the day he’d shipped out,
in 1944. He always notes this grim anniversary, but it’s never felt so heavy.

Hunter is not, and never was, a captain. More like the one the natives call
Tuan Jim—Lord Jim, the title character in the novel open on his podium—he
is something like a first mate. In 1944 he is twenty, the age many of his
students will be, when he teaches in the decades to follow. Headed to England
in October, he’s a private assigned as Chaplain’s Assistant. And two months
later, he’s leaving from Southampton aboard a Belgian troopship chartered
by the British Admiralty, the Leopoldville, crossing the English Channel on
Christmas Eve, 1944. Private Hunter and 2,234 others from the 66th Infantry
Division, U.S. Army, are reinforcements for the rapidly escalating Battle of
the Bulge.

Hunter and the other soldiers are not worried about the nine-hour
crossing—just twenty miles but lengthened by the evasive zig-zag pattern
of British Captain Charles Pringle. But they feel themselves in a kind of
uncomfortable limbo, on the water between the English mainland with its
ties to home, and France where they anticipate engaging the enemy. They
are missing family back home on Christmas Eve and, looking forward a few
more hours, they are imagining actually facing the vilified Germans.

At just after 6:00 p.m., unseen in the rough Channel waters, a periscope
rises, rotates like the head of an adder, sighting the convoy and the troopship
now just five miles from the French port of Cherbourg. Moments before, in
a cramped bunk below, Hunter had felt seasick, so he had gone up on deck
for some air. The German U-486 fires a single torpedo. Hunter is standing
near the starboard rail, midships, when the Leopoldville shudders.

“Please turn your texts to page 63,” Dr. Hunter tells the sea of blank faces
before him. He does not hear the sighs, the stifled groans. The literature class
meets three times a week, and each meeting for the past two weeks has begun with Hunter’s same statement. By this time, the books of most students will
fall open automatically to the page, just as Dr. Hunter’s own copy. “Would
you read for us, Gavin.” He picks a different student each time. “In the long
paragraph where Marlow is describing Jim, beginning ‘He was so extremely
calm…’” The calmness is not a feeling Hunter shares at this moment.

Gavin reads the narrator Marlow’s words surprisingly well, slowly
and smoothly with some gravity. “‘Why I longed to go grubbing into the
deplorable details of an occurrence which, after all, concerned me no more
than as a member of an obscure body of men held together by a community
of inglorious toil and by fidelity to a certain standard of conduct, I can’t

“The ‘occurrence’ is of course what, Melanie?” Hunter interrupts.

“The incident on the ship, the Patna,” she answers, her inflection somewhere
between statement and question. “What Jim is on trial for,” she finishes, not
describing what happened, leaving Hunter to wonder if she knows.

There were no trials after the incident on Christmas Eve, 1944. After
what was negligence, dereliction of duty, abandonment, no charges were
filed. Hunter recalls a U.S. Inspector General’s report in 1959 and a British
Admiralty Board of Inquiry report not declassified until the late ’60s, both
brief, vague, and reluctant to assess fault in the tragedy. He remembers the
Belgian Embassy’s 1992 response no one read, full of ridiculous lies. Alleging
that the Belgian crew of the Leopoldville performed admirably, and all lifeboats
were deployed, filled with soldiers. When the reality was that the few lifeboats
released carried only the Belgian crew and their suitcases. They abandoned
the soldiers on deck. Dr. Hunter sighs. “Please continue, Gavin.”

“…I see well enough now that I hoped for the impossible—for the
laying of what is the most obstinate ghost of man’s creation, of the uneasy
doubt uprising like a mist, secret and gnawing like a worm, and more chilling
than the certitude of death—the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in
a fixed standard of conduct.”

“What would you say, Jennifer, makes up the ‘standard of conduct’
Marlow speaks of? In Conrad’s world here in Lord Jim, what qualities make
up one who adheres to such a standard? What is the standard of conduct?”

She’s one of the brightest in Hunter’s class. She hesitates, searching his
face, he knows, for clues to exactly what he is expecting to hear. Now, after
weeks on the same page, the class has stumbled onto many correct answers.
“Courage,” she says. “Honor. Sense of duty, obedience, self-discipline,
bravery. Especially in adverse conditions…”

From the rail of the Leopoldville, some soldiers actually see the silver torpedo
streaking just below the water’s surface toward their ship. Private Hunter misses it, is lighting a cigarette in the last of the daylight. After dusk, smoking
on deck is forbidden since the enemy might see the match-lights. But he
feels the shudder. Like the rest of the able troops, then, he makes his way
to his company’s emergency deck location—they’d been told where to go,
but not what to do when they got there—to await further orders. On deck,
conjecture is rampant, but many realize the ship has been hit. Still, there is no
panic, and the situation seems far from dire.

Below deck is different. When the torpedo strikes, three hundred men
are killed instantly. Many of the dead and wounded are washed out the gaping
hole in the starboard hull into the sea. Remarkably, some of these survive.
As water floods into the cramped compartments of the lowest, G Deck,
soldiers gasp along the ceiling beams for air. In the cold and dark, many can
be heard screaming and praying as hatches are sealed to prevent the water
flow, trapping them below.

Up on deck, soldiers congregate, uniting with their companies at the
preassigned areas to await orders. Many witness the Belgian crew members carrying suitcases and belongings, releasing and lowering lifeboats. Loud-
speakers announce the torpedo hit, tell the men to remain on deck, that tugs from Cherbourg will arrive shortly to tow the Leopoldville into harbor.
Still most feel little worry, even though the departing crew never attempts
to instruct the soldiers how to release the never-before-used lifeboats. Their
explanations would have been in Flemish and French, so useless, anyway, to
most of the American soldiers.

Below deck, many are pulled or carried to safety by the heroic efforts of
compatriots. Soldiers form human ladders in the openings left by blown-out
stairs, and some climb to safety amid shouts in water and darkness beneath
them. Bodies float past. Shortly after 7:00 p.m. the ship has begun listing badly
to starboard. Private Hunter waits on deck with his company in the glare of
the generator lights. He does not smoke though it would be allowed now,
the prohibition a safe conduct issue when, on a lightless deck, the flare of a
match could be visible to the enemy. The faces and posture of his comrades
show their obedience, cold, and fear.

“Marlow tells us later, of course, what became of the eight hundred Muslim
pilgrims on board the ship on which Jim was first mate,” Dr. Hunter
addresses the class, somewhat wearily. He feels vaguely nauseous in the stuffy
classroom. He moves toward the window nearest, thinking to let some air
in. “Can you tell us, Adam, what happened to the Leopol–, er, Patna, what the
crew did, what Jim did, how they reacted?”

The chosen Adam—Hunter well knows the type—is a fraternity boy
from a wealthy family whose majors include getting drunk, high, and laid. He
shrugs, sits up slightly at his desk, scratches his cheek of a couple days’ fuzzy
beard growth. “Jim’s ship sinks, but he saves himself, gets off with the crew.
The pilgrims drown, I guess.”

A few groans from opposite corners of the room. Hunter’s class is now
a sea of confusion, students calling out corrections to Adam’s retelling. “It
doesn’t sink!” calls out one. “He doesn’t save himself—he chickens out!” “He
breaks the code,” says another.

At this last, Hunter seems startled. Not noticing that even in the heated
exchange, several students are asleep and others, weary of the familiar
territory being re-explored, have the glossed blank eyes of reptiles. “Okay,
okay,” says Dr. Hunter. “Remain calm.” Dr. Hunter has nearly reached the
window. Two hands on, and now a simple lift.

An hour later, the tugs have not come. Had they arrived, they couldn’t have
towed the stricken ship anyway, since the Leopoldville has been ordered to drop
anchor because the ship is drifting toward German-mined waters. The HMS
Brilliant, a British destroyer in the convoy, pulls alongside the Leopoldville. The
sea is violent. Army troops line the Leopoldville’s rail, watching. Swells of more
than twenty feet hamper efforts to tie on, and when the men working do get
a cable attached it snaps, like fishing line. From the Brilliant’s deck, British
officers exhort, “Jump, Yank!”

The Brilliant’s pitching deck is twenty feet below the deck of the Leopoldville.
The ships are held close by ropes and nets, but in roiling seas the hulls crash
together and swing apart. The soldiers must time their leaps, jumping when
the British officer hollers “Now!” Frighteningly, the signal to jump comes
when the hulls are farthest apart and so about to swing back together. Many
soldiers slip, mistime their leaps, hit the water. The ships crash back together,
crushing hundreds. The hulls of both ships are stained red. Hundreds of
soldiers paddle in the water, clinging to debris and each other, even drowning
one another to save themselves.

By 8:00 p.m., the Belgian crew of the Leopoldville is long gone. The bow
of the Leopoldville turns up at an absurd, 45-degree angle; the stern goes
down. In less than ten minutes she disappears, hundreds of soldiers on the
rails clinging as she goes under, more than a dozen tugs and rescue boats now
circling an open hole of ocean.

“Survivor Guilt,” Dr. Hunter repeats the student’s question. Devin’s, wasn’t
it? “Interesting: Jim could feel such a thing even though it would be near a century before the feeling got named that way. Of course we feel things
every day, every minute, that don’t have specific, categorical names.” Hunter
again begins to feel the choking lack of air. He moves back toward the open
window as smoothly as possible, not wishing to attract undue attention.

“But about the Patna and its sinking. I asked Jennifer to remind us the
historical or factual background for Conrad’s story. Certainly there were other
ships whose crews abandoned the passengers to save themselves. Jennifer,
you were going to tell us of the Morrow Castle, too, although that was many
years after Conrad’s story.”

Hunter does not at this moment think how many in his stifling classroom
have actually read the novel they’re trying to discuss. He does not think, as he
sometimes does, that some haven’t even cracked Conrad’s book, and some
have sampled only small bits, or worse, skimmed the Cliff ’s Notes. After
decades of teaching, Hunter still pleads with and exhorts and cajoles his
students to read, to take an interest, to relate literature to their own lives.
There are some “unreachables,” of course, but Hunter also has had his share
of surprises, the unpredictable successes as well as failures. Some, he has
thought sometimes but does not now, some learners are wired such that they
will obey a command to jump, while others, inexplicably, will freeze at the rail.
Cling to it even as they go under.

Hunter knows of no foolproof way of reaching students who are
unreceptive. He only tries—and this he does think now—to instill some, if
not respect, then at least understanding of honor, or appreciation of Jim’s
code of conduct. And let them also see the doubt that Marlow speaks of,
the creeping ghost that since that frigid night in 1944 will haunt Dr. Hunter
always. They stood at attention, for godsakes. In his dreams they stand
saluting on the bow as the ship slips below the water, a scene he never actually
witnessed. Because by then Hunter was aboard the Brilliant, having regained
consciousness. He was cold, dazed and so cold, chugging toward Cherbourg
harbor. But that Christmas Eve, hundreds of soldiers had stood awaiting
orders to abandon ship that never came, obedient to the end, adhering to
their code of honor. And for no reason he can imagine, Hunter survived
while so many others did not.

“…and so with the ship on fire, just five miles from shore, the crew then
abandoned the Morrow Castle, leaving the passengers. 133 died, September,
1934,” the young woman’s voice continues. “Are you all right, Dr. Hunter?”

“Of course, of course,” Hunter lies. He inhales deeply. He may have the
flu, he thinks then, since he cannot otherwise explain involuntary shivers that
propagate like waves through his neck, shoulders, and down his spine.

“And thank you, Jennifer, for that history.” Dr. Hunter wills relaxation
into his shoulders, sighs. “Now could we talk a moment about Jim’s new
start? I mean the job offer in faraway, primitive Patusan. Do you remember
the analogy Marlow uses to Jim, the phrase Jim says of, ‘that was jolly well
put!’ How Marlow describes what is between Jim’s past and the new job in
front of him?”

A terribly leading question, yet so vague, Hunter thinks disgustedly. But
in the sea of faces before him, the dull eyes of passengers on a long bus ride,
there is one pair that seem to gleam. It’s Adam, strangely, who does not blurt
out an answer but dutifully raises his hand. Hunter nods to him, not overly

“It’s a door, isn’t it?” Adam pauses. Hunter nods again. “Something
about Jim slamming the door on what came before. And Marlow even says
something about how, in Patusan, it’ll be like Jim never existed. Jim likes this
idea. Probably says ‘Jove!’ like he’s always doing.” This last gets a laugh from
the class. Adam flushes, embarrassed like one who starts in on the wrong
verse of a church hymn.

After the war, Hunter has his own new start. College on the GI Bill, grad
school, marriage, children. A teaching job at a small and well-regarded private
university. Friends, family, a couple of published works of literary criticism.
All the while keeping the areas of his life, the compartments, separate. Sealed
off from one another. There is some leakage, of course, but for the most part
he has lived by moving through these separate areas, like the colored chalk
boxes of hopscotch, rarely landing on more than one at once.

“Yes,” Hunter manages a slow answer. “A door.” A hatch, he thinks. A
bulkhead. Darkness, freezing water rushing in, securing hatches even as
screams for help and prayers and shouts in anger, desperate anger, are heard
from the other side. Fainter as the hatches are secured. Acts practiced, army
protocol, designed to keep the ocean out of undamaged compartments, to
keep the ship afloat. In the case of the outdated cruiser the Leopoldville, these
efforts may have only bought minutes. Perhaps minutes when some leap to
safety, but many others are trapped and sealed away below. Again, Private
Hunter sees none of this, standing above on deck when the torpedo strikes,
but he’s heard it from survivors and sees it in dreams. Pitch darkness and
freezing waters rising from legs to waist to chest, then finally over his head,
drowning the screams around him.

Dr. Hunter shivers again and tries to shake the memory, thinking door
goddammit, not hatch. A door that, once slammed, seals off the past. He almost believes it, himself part-romantic, and so wanting to believe it possible.
That the horrible past could be closed off, and a new life begun, what an idea!
Jove! he thinks.

“So can we talk about Jim as a ‘Romantic’?” Dr. Hunter asks then. He is
uncomfortably far from “page 63,” which may encourage the class but leaves
him anxious. “Can we talk about the relationship between a romantic and one
who adheres to a strict standard of conduct?” This clarification makes him
immediately feel a warmer sense of relief, while the question elicits stifled
groans from several quadrants of the classroom. “Can Jim be both at the
same time?”

Private Hunter stands at the rail in the numbing, deafening wind, his right
arm braced around a stanchion, soldiers numbering in the dozens on either
side of him. Listing badly to starboard, the Leopoldville pitches broadly in
violent Channel waters. He watches as the Brilliant pulls alongside, sees the
tow-cables the British officers try to tie onto his stricken troopship. The
gusts smell metallic, roaring over the shouts from the soldiers on the ships,
engulfing their words and carrying them helplessly out to sea.

The two ships’ hulls crash together, the Brilliant dented and becoming
stained the gray of the Leopoldville, then separate, crash together and
separate. The tie-on cables snap, Hunter’s ship a bulldog tethered with sewing
thread. To his left, a boy from Indianapolis, from the 262nd division, who
Hunter has just met and spoke to, a boy who looks twelve—Christ, we all
look twelve, Hunter thinks—stands frozen on the rail. Soldiers jump toward
the deck of the Brilliant on either side of them. A British officer is timing the
wave swells and the coming together and separations of the two ships. He
shouts “Jump, Yank! Now!” when the ships are farthest apart. Some can’t
abide the leap of faith, won’t believe the Brilliant’s deck will move back under
them if they obey the command.

Hunter puts an arm around the Hoosier beside him, who is muttering
about “No orders to abandon ship.” In fact, he’s right: No abandon ship
order was ever given. The boy stands stiffly, frozen worse than by cold.

“We’ve got to jump for it, buddy,” Hunter screams into the chilling

Too quickly the kid steps one foot on the rail, then the other. The ships
mash together, and he dives. The ships separate, and the boy from Indiana
hits the water not three feet from the Brilliant’s deck. Hunter watches the hulls
swing back and crash into each other. And when they separate again, there is
a broad red stain on the Brilliant where the boy had been. Hunter climbs the rail himself, focuses on the face and voice of the British officer. When the
two ships are farthest apart and the voice screams “Now!” Hunter leaps from
the rail, across the roiling Channel waters as the Brilliant’s deck slides under
him twenty feet below. His body strikes the deck, his head thumps, and he’s
knocked unconscious.

“Dr. Hunter. Dr. Hunter?” It’s Allison’s voice. Hunter stands at the lectern,
still as a sleeping horse. “Did you want me to read a passage?”

Hunter gazes out at the sea of faces all staring back at him with looks
of concern, of amusement, even derision. He thinks perhaps he blacked out,
hopes only for a second or two. His wife would be worried, had she seen him
then, he knows. He still feels so cold, thinks I should shut that window. Begins
to recognize the faces of his students, the classroom, the details of this place
where he’s taught for over forty years. He holds the edges of the lectern, his
ship’s wheel, with both hands firmly. He remembers then the question that
the girl’s voice had posed him.

“Yes, yes, please, would you read for us,” he looks down at the book
laying open before him. “In the long paragraph on page 63 beginning with
the words ‘He was so extremely calm. . . .’”