The Emperor
by Frederick Forsyth
(Narrated by Nigel Davenport)

 

'Maybe we could have it for dinner,' said Higgins. Kilian shook his head regretfully.

'Bonito are for bait fish,' he said. 'The locals eat them in soups, but they don't taste much good.'

They made a second run through the shoal and there was a second strike. Murgatroyd took the rod with a thrill of excitement. This was the first time he had ever done this and the last he ever would again. When he gripped the cork he could feel the shuddering of the fish 200 feet down the line as if it were next to him. He turned the clutch slowly forward and eventually the running line was silent and still. The rod tip curved towards the sea. With his left arm tensed he took the strain and was surprised at the strength needed to haul back.

He locked his left arm muscles and began methodically to turn the reel handle with his right. It turned, but it took all his forearm to do it. The pulling power at the other end surprised him. Maybe it was big, he thought, even very big. That was the excitement, he realized. Never quite knowing what giant of the deep was fighting down there in the wake. And if it was nothing much, like Higgins's tiddler, well, the next one could be a monster. He continued turning slowly, feeling his chest heave with the effort. When the fish was 20 yards short of the boat it seemed to give up and the line came quite easily.

He thought he had lost the fish, but it was there. It gave one last tug as it came under the stern, then it was over. Jean-Paul gaffed and swung it in. Another bonito, bigger, about 10 pounds.

'It's great, isn't it?' said Higgins excitedly. Murgatroyd nodded and smiled. This would be something to tell them at Ponder's End. Up at the wheel old man Patient set a new course for a patch of deep blue water he could see several miles farther on. He watched his grandson extract the hook from the bonito's mouth and grunted something to the boy. The lad undipped the trace and lure and put them back in the tackle box. He stowed the rod in its socket, the small steel swivel clip at the end of the line swinging free. Then he went forward and took the wheel. His grandfather said something to him and pointed through the windshield. The boy nodded.

'Aren't we going to use that rod?' asked Higgins.

'Monsieur Patient must have another idea,' said Kilian. 'Leave it to him. He knows what he is doing.'

The old man rolled easily down the heaving deck to where they stood and without a word sat cross-legged in the scuppers, selected the smaller bonito and began to prepare it as bait. The small fish lay hard as a board in death, crescent tail fins stiff up and down, mouth half open, tiny black eyes staring at nothing.

Monsieur Patient took from the tackle box a big single-barbed hook to whose shank was stoutly spliced a 20-inch steel wire, and a 12-inch pointed steel spike like a knitting needle. He pushed the point of the spike into the fish's anal orifice and kept pushing until the blood-tipped point emerged from its mouth. To the needle's other end he clipped the steel trace and with pliers drew needle and trace up through the bonito's body until the trace was hanging from its mouth.

The old man pushed the shank of the hook deep into the bonito's belly, so that all disappeared except the curve and the needle-sharp point with its barb. This jutted stiffly outwards and downwards from the base of the tail, the tip pointing forward. He drew the rest of the trace out of the fish's mouth until it was taut.

He produced a much smaller needle, no larger than a housewife would use for her husband's socks, and a yard of cotton twine thread. The bonito's single dorsal and two ventral fins were lying flat. The old man nicked his cotton through the leading spine of the dorsal fin, whipped it over several times and then pierced the needle through a fold of muscle behind the head. As he drew the thread tight, the dorsal fin erected, a series of spines and membranes that give vertical stability in the water. He did the same to both ventral fins, and finally sewed the mouth closed with neat and tiny stitches.

When he had finished the bonito looked much as it had in life. Its three body fins stuck out in perfect symmetry to prevent rolling or spinning. Its vertical tail would give direction at speed. The closed mouth would prevent turbulence and bubbles. Only the line of steel between its clenched lips and the vicious hook hanging from its tail root betrayed the fact that it was baited. Lastly the old fisherman clipped the few inches of trace from the bonito's mouth to the second trace hanging from the rod's tip with a small swivel, and consigned the new bait to the ocean. Still staring, the bonito bobbed twice in the wake until the leaden cigar pulled it down to begin its last journey beneath the sea. He let it run 200 feet out, behind the other baits, before he secured the rod again and went back to his command chair. The water beside them had turned from blue-grey to a bright blue-green.

Ten minutes later Higgins took another strike, on the spinner bait this time. He hauled and reeled for a full ten minutes. Whatever he had hooked was fighting with mad fury to be free. They all thought it might be a fair-sized tuna from the weight of its pull, but when it came inboard it was a yard-long, lean, narrow-bodied fish with a golden tint to its upper body and fins.

'Dorado,' said Kilian. 'Well done; these lads really fight. And they're good to eat. We'll ask the chef at the St Geran to prepare it for supper.'

Higgins was flushed and happy. 'It felt like I was pulling a runaway truck,' he gasped.

The boat boy readjusted the bait and consigned it again to the wake.

The seas were running higher now. Murgatroyd held one of the supports that sustained the timber awning over the front part of the deck in order to see better. The Avant was plunging more wildly amid great rolling waves. In the troughs they were staring at great walls of water on all sides, running slopes whose sunlit sheen belied the terrible strength beneath. On the crests they could see for miles the plumed white caps of each great wave and westwards the smudged outline of Mauritius on the horizon.

The rollers were coming from the east, shoulder to shoulder, like serried ranks of great green guardsmen marching upon the island, only to die in the artillery of the reef. He was surprised that he was not feeling queasy for he had once felt ill on a ferry crossing from Dover to Boulogne. But that had been a bigger vessel, hammering and butting its way through the waves, its passengers breathing in the odours of oil, cooking fat, fast-food, bar fumes and each other. The smaller Avant did not contest the sea; she rode with it, yielding to rise again.

Murgatroyd stared at the water and felt the awe that dwells on the edge of fear, so much companion to men in small boats. A craft may be proud, majestic, expensive and strong in the calm water of a fashionable port, admired by the passing socialite throng, the showpiece of its rich possessor. Out on the ocean it is sister to the reeking trawler, the rusted tramp, a poor thing of welded seams and bolted joints, a frail cocoon pitting its puny strength against unimaginable power, a fragile toy on a giant's palm. Even with four others around him, Murgatroyd sensed the insignificance of himself and the impertinent smallness of the boat, the loneliness that the sea can inspire. Those alone who have journeyed on the sea and in the sky, or across the great snows or over desert sands, know the feeling. All are vast, merciless, but most awesome of all is the sea, because it moves.

Just after nine o'clock Monsieur Patient muttered something to no one in particular. "Ya quelque chose,' he said.'Nous suit.'

'What did he say?' asked Higgins.

'He said there was something out there,' said Kilian. 'Something following us.'

Higgins stared around him at the tumbling water. There was nothing but water. 'How on earth can he know that?' he asked.

Kilian shrugged. 'Same way you know there is something wrong with a column of figures. Instinct.'

The old man reduced power by a touch and the Avant slowed until she seemed hardly to be making way. The pitching and tossing seemed to increase with the drop of engine power. Higgins swallowed several times as his mouth filled with spittle. At a quarter past the hour one of the rods bucked sharply and the line began to run out, not fast but briskly, the clicking of the reel like a football rattle.

'Yours,' said Kilian to Murgatroyd and jerked the rod out of its socket in the transom to place it in the fishing seat. Murgatroyd came out from the shade and sat in the chair. He tagged the rod butt to the dogclip and gripped the cork handle firmly in the left hand. The reel, a big Penn Senator like a beer firkin, was still turning briskly. He began to close the control of the slipping clutch.

The strain on his arm grew and the rod arched. But the line went on running.

'Tighten up,' said Kilian, 'or he'll take all your line.'

The bank manager locked the muscles of his biceps and tightened the clutch still further. The tip of the rod went down and down until it was level with his eyes. The running line slowed, recovered, and went on running. Kilian bent to look at the clutch. The marks on the inner and outer ring were almost opposite each other.

'That bugger's pulling eighty pounds,' he said. 'You'll have to tighten up some more.'

Murgatroyd's arm was beginning to ache and his fingers were stiffening round the cork grip. He turned the clutch control until the twin marks were exactly opposite each other.

'No more,' said Kilian. 'That's a hundred pounds. The limit. Use both hands on the rod and hang on.'

With relief Murgatroyd brought his other hand to the rod, gripped hard with both, placed the soles of his plimsoles against the transom, braced his thighs and calves and leaned back. Nothing happened. The butt of the rod was vertical between his thighs, the tip pointing straight at the wake. And the line kept on running out, slowly, steadily. The reserve on the drum was diminishing before his eyes.

'Christ,' said Kilian, 'he's big. He's pulling a hundred plus, like tissues from a box. Hang on, man.'

His South African accent was becoming more pronounced in his excitement. Murgatroyd braced his legs again, locked his fingers, wrists, forearms and biceps, hunched his shoulders, bent his head and hung on. No one had ever asked him to hold a 100-pound pull before. After three minutes the reel finally stopped turning. Whatever it was down there, it had taken 600 yards of line.

'We'd better get you in the harness,' said Kilian. One arm after the other he slipped the webbing over Murgatroyd's shoulders. Two more straps went round the waist and another broader one up from between the thighs. All five locked into a central socket on the belly. Kilian pulled the harness tight. It gave some relief to the legs, but the webbing bit through the cotton tennis shirt in front of the shoulders. For the first time Murgatroyd realized how hot the sun was out here. The tops of his bare thighs began to prick.

Old Patient had turned round, steering one-handed. He had watched the line running out from the start. Without warning he just said, 'Marlin.'

'You're lucky,' said Kilian. 'It seems you've hooked into a marlin.'

'Is that good?' asked Higgins, who had gone pale.

'It's the king of all the game fish,' said Kilian. 'Rich men come down here year after year and spend thousands on the sport, and never get a marlin. But he'll fight you, like you've never seen anything fight in your life.'

Although the line had stopped running out and the fish was swimming with the boat, he had not stopped pulling. The rod tip still arched down to the wake. The fish was still pulling between 70 and 90 pounds.

The four men watched in silence as Murgatroyd hung on. For five minutes he clung to the rod as the sweat burst from forehead and cheeks, running down in drops to his chin. Slowly the rod tip rose as the fish increased speed to ease the pull at his mouth. Kilian crouched beside Murgatroyd and began to coach him like a flying instructor to a pupil before his first solo flight.

'Reel in now,' he said, 'slowly and surely. Reduce the clutch strain to eighty pounds, for your sake not his. When he makes a break, and he will, let him go and tighten the clutch back to a hundred. Never try to reel in while he's fighting; he'll break your line like cotton. And if he runs towards the boat, reel in like mad. Never give him slack line; he '11 try to spit out the hook.'

Murgatroyd did as he was bid. He managed to reel in 50 yards before the fish made a break. When it did the force nearly tore the rod from the man's grasp. Murgatroyd just had time to swing his other hand to the grip and hold on with both arms. The fish took another 100 yards of line before he stopped his run and began to follow the boat again.

'He's taken six-fifty yards so far,' said Kilian. 'You've only got eight hundred.'

'So what do I do?' asked Murgatroyd between his teeth. The rod slackened and he began winding again.

'Pray,' said Kilian. 'You can't hold him over a hundred-pound pull. So if he reaches the end of the line on the drum, he'll just break it.'

'It's getting very hot,' said Murgatroyd.

Kilian looked at his shorts and shirt. 'You'll fry out here,' he said. 'Wait a minute.'

He took off the trousers of his own track suit and slipped them over Murgatroyd's legs, one at a time. Then he pulled them up as far as he could. The webbing harness prevented them reaching Murgatroyd's waist, but at least the thighs and shins were covered. The relief from the sun was immediate. Kilian took a spare long-sleeved sweater from the cabin. It smelt of sweat and fish.

'I'm going to slip this over your head,' he told Murgatroyd, 'but the only way to get it farther is to undo the harness for a few seconds. Just hope the marlin doesn't break in those seconds.'

They were lucky. Kilian slipped off the two shoulder straps and pulled the sweater down to Murgatroyd's waist, then reclipped the shoulder straps. The fish just ran with the boat, the line taut but without much strain. With the sweater on, Murgatroyd's arms ceased to hurt so much. Kilian turned round. From his seat old man Patient was holding out his broad-brimmed chip hat. Kilian placed it on Murgatroyd's head. The band of shadow shielded his eyes and gave more relief, but the skin of his face was already red and scorched. The sun's reflection from the sea can burn worse than the sun itself.

Murgatroyd took advantage of the marlin's passivity to reel in some more line. He had taken 100 yards, each yard making his fingers ache on the reel handle, for there was still a 40-pound strain on the line, when the fish broke again. He took his 100 yards back in thirty seconds, pulling a full 100 pounds against the slipping clutch. Murgatroyd just hunched himself and held on. The webbing bit into him wherever it touched. It was ten o'clock.

In the next hour he began to learn the meaning of pain. His fingers were stiff and throbbed. His wrists hurt and his forearms sent spasms up to his shoulders. The biceps were locked and shoulders screamed. Even beneath the track suit and pullover the merciless sun was beginning to scorch his skin again. Three times in that hour he won back 100 yards from the fish; three times the fish broke and clawed back his line.

'I don't think I can take much more,' he said between gritted teeth.

Kilian stood beside him, an open can of iced beer in his hand. His own legs were bare, but darkened by years in the sun. He seemed not to burn.

'Hang on, man. That's what the battle's about. He has the strength, you have the tackle and the cunning. After that it's all stamina, yours against his.'

Just after eleven the marlin tail-walked for the first time. Murgatroyd had brought him in to 500 yards. The boat was for a second on the crest of a roller. Down the wake the fish came surging out of the side of a wall of green water and Murgatroyd's mouth fell open. The sharp needle beak of the upper jaw lunged for the sky; below it the shorter lower mandible was hanging open. Above and behind the eye the crested dorsal fin, like a cock's comb, was extended and erect. The glittering bulk of his body followed and as the wave from which he had come ebbed from him, the marlin seemed to stand on his crescent tail. His great body shuddered as if he were walking on his tail. For one second he was there, staring at them across the waste of whitecaps. Then he crashed back into another moving wall and was gone, deep down to his own cold dark world. Old man Patient spoke first to break the silence.

'C'est VEmpereur,' he said.

Kilian spun round on him.' Vous etes sur?' he asked.

The old man just nodded.

'What did he say?' asked Higgins.

Murgatroyd stared at the spot where the fish had gone. Then, slowly and steadily, he began to reel in again.

'They know this fish around here,' said Kilian. 'If it's the same one, and I've never known the old man be wrong, he's a blue marlin, estimated to be bigger than the world record of eleven hundred pounds, which means he must be old and cunning. They call him the Emperor. He's a legend to the fishermen.'

'But how could they know one particular fish?' said Higgins. 'They all look alike.'

'This one's been hooked twice,' said Kilian. 'He broke the line twice. But the second time he was close to the boat, off Riviere Noire. They saw the first hook hanging from his mouth. Then he broke line at the last minute and took another hook with him. Each time he was hooked he tail-walked several times and they all got a good look at him. Someone took a photograph of him in mid-air, so he's well known. I couldn't identify him at five hundred yards, but Patient for all his years has eyes like a gannet.'

By midday Murgatroyd was looking old and sick. He sat hunched over his rod, in a world of his own, alone with his pain and some inner determination that he had never felt before. The palms of both hands were running water from the burst blisters, the sweat-damp webbing cut cruelly into sunflayed shoulders. He bowed his head and reeled in line.

Sometimes it came easy as if the fish too were taking a rest. When the strain came off the line the relief was a pleasure so exquisite that he could never later describe it. When the rod was bent and all his aching muscles locked again against the fish the pain was like nothing he could have imagined.

Just after noon Kilian crouched down beside him and offered him another beer. 'Look, man, you're pretty crook. It's been three hours, and really you're not fit enough. There's no need to kill yourself. If you need any help, a short rest, just say.'

Murgatroyd shook his head. His lips were split from sun and salt-spray.

'My fish,' he said, 'leave me alone.'

The battle went on as the sun hammered down onto the deck. Old Patient perched like a wise brown cormorant on his high stool, one hand on the wheel, the engines set just above the idle, his head turned to scan the wake for a sign of the Emperor. Jean-Paul was crouched in the shade of the awning, having long since reeled in and stowed the other three rods. No one was after bonito now, and extra lines would only tangle. Higgins had finally succumbed to the swell and sat miserably head down over a bucket into which he had deposited the sandwiches he had taken for brunch and two bottles of beer. Kilian sat facing him and sucked at his fifth cold lager. Occasionally they looked at the hunched, scarecrow figure under his native hat in the swivel chair and listened to the tickety-tickety-tick of the incoming reel or the despairing ziiiiiiing as the line went back out again.