The Emperor
by Frederick Forsyth
(Narrated by Nigel Davenport)


The marlin had come to 300 yards when he walked again. This time the boat was in a trough and the Emperor burst the surface pointing straight towards them. He came in a climbing leap, shaking spray from his back. The arc of his leap was down the wake and the line suddenly went completely slack. Kilian was on his feet.

'Take line,' he screamed. 'He'll spit the hook.'

Murgatroyd's tired fingers worked in a blur on the handle of the drum to take up the slack. He managed just in time. The line went tight as the marlin dived back into the sea and he had gained 50 yards. Then the fish took it all back. Down in the still dark depths, fathoms beneath the waves and the sun, the great pelagic hunter with instincts honed by a million years of evolution turned against his enemy's pull, took the strain at the corner of his bony mouth and dived.

In his chair the small bank manager hunched himself again, squeezed aching fingers around the wet cork grip, felt the webbing sear into his shoulders like thin wires, and held on. He watched the still-wet nylon line running out, fathom after fathom, before his eyes. Fifty yards were gone and the fish was still diving.

'He'll have to turn and come up again,' said Kilian, watching from over Murgatroyd's shoulder. 'That will be the time to reel in.'

He stooped and peered at the brick-red, peeling face. Two tears squeezed out of the half-closed eyes and ran down Murgatroyd's sagging cheeks. The South African put a kindly hand on his shoulder.

'Look,' he said, 'you can't take any more. Why don't I sit in, just for an hour, eh? Then you can take over for the last part, when he's close and ready to give up.'

Murgatroyd watched the slowing line. He opened his mouth to speak. A split in his hp cracked wide and a trickle of blood ran onto his chin. The cork grip was becoming slick from

the blood coming from his palms.

'My fish,' he croaked. 'My fish.'

Kilian stood up. 'All right, Engelsman, your fish,' he said.

It was two in the afternoon. The sun was using the afterdeck of the Avant as its private anvil. The Emperor stopped diving and the line-strain eased to 40 pounds. Murgatroyd began again to haul in.

An hour later the marlin leapt out of the sea for the last time. He was only a hundred yards away. His jump brought Kilian and the boat boy to the transom to watch. For two seconds he hung suspended above the foam, snapping his head from side to side like a terrier to shake the hook that drew him inexorably towards his enemies. From one corner of his mouth a loose strand of steel wire flickered in the sunlight as he shivered. Then with a boom of meat on water he hit the sea and vanished.

'That's him,' said Kilian in awe, 'that's the Emperor. He's twelve hundred pounds if he's an ounce, he's twenty feet from tip to tail and that marlin-spike bill can go through ten inches of timber when he's moving at his full forty knots. What an animal.'

He called back to Monsieur Patient. 'Vous avez vu?'

The old man nodded.

'Que pensez vous? Il va venir vite?'

'Deux heures encore,' said the old man.' 'Mais il est fatigue.'

Kilian crouched beside Murgatroyd. 'The old man says he's tired now,' he said. 'But he'll still fight for maybe another couple of hours. Want to go on?'

Murgatroyd stared at where the fish had gone. His vision was blurring with tiredness and all his body was one searing ache. Shafts of sharper pain ran through his right shoulder where he had torn a muscle. He had never once had to call on his ultimate, last reserves of will, so he did not know. He nodded. The line was still, the rod arched. The Emperor was pulling, but not up to 100 pounds. The banker sat and held on.

For another ninety minutes they fought it out, the man from Ponder's End and the great marlin. Four times the fish lunged and took line, but his breaks were getting shorter as the strain of pulling 100 pounds against the clutch drag sapped even his primal strength. Four times Murgatroyd agonizingly pulled him back and gained a few yards each time. His exhaustion was moving close to delirium. Muscles in his calves and thighs flickered crazily like light bulbs just before they fuse. His vision blurred more frequently. By half past four he had been fighting for seven and a half hours and no one should ask even a very fit man to do that. It was only a question of time, and not long. One of them had to break.

At twenty to five the line went slack. It caught Murgatroyd by surprise. Then he began to reel in. The line came more easily. The weight was still there, but it was passive. The shuddering had stopped. Kilian heard the rhythmic tickety-tickety-tick of the turning reel and came from the shade to the transom. He peered aft.

'He's coming,' he shouted, 'the Emperor's coining in.'

The sea had calmed with the onset of evening.

The whitecaps were gone, replaced by a quiet and easy swell. Jean-Paul and Higgins, who was still queasy but no longer vomitting, came to watch. Monsieur Patient cut the engines and locked the wheel. Then he descended from his perch and joined them. In the silence the group watched the water astern.

Something broke the surface of the swell, something that rolled and swayed, but which moved towards the boat at the bidding of the nylon line. The crested fin jutted up for a moment, then rolled sideways. The long bill pointed upwards, then sank beneath the surface.

At 20 yards they could make out the great bulk of the Emperor. Unless there was some last violent force left in his bones and sinews he would not break for freedom any more. He had conceded. At 20 feet the end of the steel wire trace came up to the tip of the rod. Kilian drew on a tough leather glove and seized it. He pulled it in manually. They all ignored Murgatroyd, slumped in his chair.

He let go of the rod for the first time in eight hours and it fell forward to the transom. Slowly and painfully he unbuckled his harness and the webbing fell away. He took the weight on his feet and tried to stand. His calves and thighs were too weak and he slumped in the scuppers beside the dead dorado. The other four were peering over the edge at what bobbed below the stern. As Kilian pulled slowly on the wire trace that passed through his glove, Jean-Paul leaped to stand on the transom, a great gaff hook held high above his head. Murgatroyd looked up to see the boy poised there, the spike and curved hook held high.

His voice came out more a raucous croak than a shout.

'No:

The boy froze and looked down. Murgatroyd was on his hands and knees looking down at the tackle box. On top lay a pair of wire cutters. He took them in the finger and thumb of his left hand and pressed them into the mashed meat of his right palm. Slowly the fingers closed over the handles. With his free hand he hauled himself upright and leaned across the stern.

The Emperor was lying just beneath him, exhausted almost to the point of death. The huge body lay athwart the boat's wake, on its side, mouth half open. Hanging from one corner was the steel trace of an earlier struggle with the game-fishermen, still bright in its newness. In the lower mandible another hook, long rusted, jutted out. From Kilian's hand the steel wire ran to the third hook, his own, which was deep in the gristle of the upper hp. Only part of the shank was showing.

Succeeding waves washed over the marlin's blue-black body. From 2 feet away the fish stared back at Murgatroyd with one marbled saucer eye. It was alive but had no strength left to fight. The line from its mouth to Kilian's hand was taut. Murgatroyd leaned slowly down, reaching out his right hand to the fish's mouth.

'You can pat him later, man,' said Kilian, 'let's get him home.'

Deliberately Murgatroyd placed the jaws of the cutters either side of the steel trace, where it was spliced to the shank of the hook. He squeezed. Blood came out of his palm and ran in the salt water over the marlin's head. He squeezed again and the steel wire parted.

'What are you doing? He'll get away,' shouted Higgins.

The Emperor stared at Murgatroyd as another wave ran over him. He shook his tired old head and pushed the spike of his beak into the cool water. The next wave rolled him back onto his belly and he dropped his head deeper. Away to the left his great crescent tail rose and fell, driving wearily at the water. When it made contact it flicked twice and pushed the body forward and down. The tail was the last they saw, laborious in its fatigue, driving the marlin back beneath the waves to the cold darkness of its home.

'Bloody hell,' said Kilian.

Murgatroyd tried to stand up, but too much blood had rushed to his head. He remembered the sky turning slowly once in a big circle and the dusk coming very fast. The decking rose up to hit him first in the knees and then in the face. He fainted. The sun hung suspended above the mountains of Mauritius in the west.

It had set by one hour when the Avantin cruised home across the lagoon and Murgatroyd had come awake. On the journey Kilian had taken back the trousers and sweater, so the cool evening air could play on the scorched limbs. Now Murgatroyd had drunk three beers in a row and sat slumped on one of the benches, shoulders hunched, his hands in a bucket of cleansing salt water. He took no notice when the boat moored beside the timber jetty and Jean-Paul scampered off towards the village.

Old Monsieur Patient closed the engines down and made sure the painters were secure.

He threw the large bonito and the dorado onto the pier and stowed the tackle and lures. Kilian heaved the cold-box onto the jetty and jumped back into the open well.

'Time to go,' he said.

Murgatroyd pulled himself to his feet and Kilian helped him to the quay. The hem of his shorts had fallen to below his knees and his shirt flapped open about him, dark with dried sweat. His plimsoles squelched. A number of villagers were lining the narrow jetty, so they had to walk in single file. Higgins had gone ahead.

The first person in the line was Monsieur Patient. Murgatroyd would have shaken hands but they hurt too much. He nodded to the boatman and smiled.

'Merci,' he said.

The old man, who had recovered his chip hat, pulled it from his head. 'Salut, Maitre,' he replied.

Murgatroyd walked slowly up the jetty. Each of the villagers bobbed his head and said, 'Salut, Maitre.' They reached the end of the planking and stepped into the gravel of the village street. There was a large crowd of villagers grouped round the car. 'Salut, salut, salut, Maitre,' they said quietly.

Higgins was stowing the spare clothing and the empty brunch box. Kilian swung the cold-trunk over the tailboard and slammed the door. He came to the rear passenger side where Murgatroyd waited.

'What are they saying?' whispered Murgatroyd.

'They're greeting you,' said Kilian. 'They're calling you a master-fisherman.'

'Because of the Emperor?'

'He's something of a legend around here.'

'Because I caught the Emperor?'

Kilian laughed softly. 'No, Engelsman, because you gave him his life back.'

They climbed into the car, Murgatroyd in the back where he sank gratefully into the cushions, his hands cupped, palms burning, in his lap. Kilian took the wheel, Higgins next to him.

'I say, Murgatroyd,' said Higgins, 'these villagers seem to think you're the cat's whiskers.'

Murgatroyd stared out of the window at the smiling brown faces and waving children.

'Before we go back to the hotel we'd better stop by the hospital at Flacq and let the doctor have a look at you,' said Kilian.

The young Indian doctor asked Murgatroyd to strip down and clucked in concern at what he saw. The buttocks were blistered raw from the contact backwards and forwards with the seat of the fishing chair. Deep purple welts furrowed shoulders and back where the webbing had bitten in. Arms, thighs and shins were red and flaking from sunburn and the face was bloated from the heat. Both palms looked like raw steak.

'Oh, dear me,' said the doctor, 'it will take some time.'

'Shall I call back for him in, say, a couple of hours?' asked Kilian.

'There is no need,' said the doctor. 'The Hotel St Geran is close to my journey home. I will drop the gentleman off on my way.'

It was ten o'clock when Murgatroyd walked through the main doors of the St Geran and into the light of the hallway. The doctor was still with him. One of the guests saw him enter and ran into the dining room to tell the late eaters. Word spread to the pool bar outside. There was a scraping of chairs and clatter of cutlery. A crowd of holidaymakers soon surged round the corner and came down the hall to meet him. They stopped halfway.

He looked a strange sight. His arms and legs were thickly smeared with calamine lotion, which had dried to a chalky white. Both hands were mummified in white bandages. His face was brick red and gleamed from the cream applied to it. His hair was a wild halo to his face and his khaki shorts were still at knee-length. He looked like a photographic negative. Slowly he began to walk towards the crowd, which parted for him.

'Well done, old man,' said someone.

'Hear hear, absolutely,' said someone else.

Shaking hands was out of the question. Some thought of patting him on the back as he passed through, but the doctor waved them away. Some held glasses and raised them in toast. Murgatroyd reached the base of the stone stairway to the upper rooms and began to climb.

At this point Mrs Murgatroyd emerged from the hair-dressing salon, brought by the hubbub of her husband's return. She had spent the day working herself into a towering rage since, in the mid-morning, puzzled by his absence from their usual spot on the beach, she had searched for him and learned where he had gone. She was red in the face, though from anger rather than sunburn. Her going-home perm had not been completed and rollers stuck out like Katyushka batteries from her scalp.

'Murgatroyd,' she boomed — she always called him by his surname when she was angry — 'where do you think you're going?'

At the midway landing Murgatroyd turned and looked down at the crowd and his wife. Kilian would tell colleagues later that he had a strange look in his eyes. The crowd fell silent.

'And what do you think you look like,' Edna Murgatroyd called up to him in outrage.

The bank manager then did something he had not done in many years. He shouted.

'Quiet...'

Edna Murgatroyd's mouth dropped open, as wide as, but with less majesty than, that of the fish.

'For twenty-five years, Edna,' said Murgatroyd quietly, 'you have been threatening to go and live with your sister in Bognor. You will be happy to know that I shall not detain you any longer. I shall not be returning with you tomorrow. I am going to stay here, on this island.'

The crowd stared up at him dumbfounded.

'You will not be destitute,' said Murgatroyd. 'I shall make over to you our house and my accrued savings. I shall take my accumulated pension funds and cash in my exorbitant life-assurance policy.'

Harry Foster took a swig from his can of beer and burped.

Higgins quavered, 'You can't leave London, old man. You'll have nothing to live on.'

'Yes, I can,' said the bank manager. 'I have made my decision and I am not going to go back on it. I was thinking all this out in hospital when Monsieur Patient came to see how I was. We agreed a deal. He will sell me his boat and I will have enough left over for a shack on the beach. He will stay on as captain and put his grandson through college. I will be his boat boy and for two years he will teach me the ways of the sea and the fish. After that, I shall take the tourists fishing and earn my living in that manner.'

The crowd of holidaymakers continued to stare up at him in stunned amazement.

It was Higgins who broke the silence again. 'But Murgatroyd, old man, what about the bank? What about Ponder's End?'

'And what about me?' wailed Edna Murgatroyd.

He considered each question judiciously.

'To hell with the bank,' he said at length. 'To hell with Ponder's End. And, madam, to hell with you.'

With that he turned and mounted the last few steps. A burst of cheering broke out behind him. As he went down the corridor to his room he was pursued by a bibulous valediction.

'Good on yer, Murgatroyd.'