“To the Toer wharf,” said McWhirr.
With indomitable energy, Rubio peddled his bicak and sang Unchained Melody for all he was worth. For reason I’ve yet to fathom, Indonesians consider the Righteous Brothers to be the apex of musical accomplishment. We soon arrived at the dock to see a steamship being loaded by scrawny Malays carrying heavy sacks of rice. She was an absurdly stout vessel of Victorian pedigree, whose small wheelhouse perched on her coach roof like a petite hat on a frumpy, lady dowager. On the ornate paddle boxes were emblazoned the words: The East India Company. The thick cloud issuing from her smokestack showed she was building up a head of steam for immanent departure.
As we ascended the ladder to the wheelhouse, I saw that the balustrade of the gallery which extended from the house to the rails was ornamented by a carved frieze of twined figures writhing in chained attitudes of torment. We were about to knock on the weathered, oak door when, through the blinds, came a low voice intoning:
“It is thou, O river, who judges man’s judgment… O river of sanctuaries. ..O river of light…”
McWhirr opened the door. a beefy guy in shorts, stockings and pith helmet bent over a chart table reading from a weathered scroll. Without turning he said: “What say ye,? Does the ocean refuse the river’s tribute?”
He fell silent and gazed out the wheelhouse windows. The dawn light shone violet, as though the dirty chaos of the waterfront had been suddenly transfigured by the celestial Light of Glory.
This was our engineer, Thaddeus Budge, and a wackier coot I’ve never known. But Hans had assured us that he would keep the old Polly steaming past mud banks and typhoons; the first we were to strike in short order, the latter, we were to find, swept through the middle reaches of the Ciliwung with all the frenzied vehemence of doomsday.
“Full ahead, Mister Budge,” McWhirr called into the speaking horn by the wheel.
With a creaking shudder, the paddle wheels began to churn the water into brown froth, and we bore away from the wharf into the gently flowing waters of the River.
We chugged past endless shacks and mountains of rusty, flattened cars. It was as though alluvial deposits had washed up all the planned obsolescence of millennia; and the foundering hulk of Pantijasila– those lofty 5 principles of the new Indonesia–had fetched up on a reeking bank of industrial wast and these half-naked laundresses whopping sarongs in the stagnant waters of the canal were singing an eerie monody for some dimly descried apocalypse.
The only charts we had were from the 20th century. I searched for sailing directions to the upper reaches of the Ciliwung in vain and ransacked the tattered tomes that lined the mahogany shelves of the wheelhouse for any clue that might disclose the real purpose of the voyage we were fated to undertake.
“That Bekert guy gives me the creeps.” McWhirr’s said. “I didn’t believe for a minute all that bull about his interest in antiquities. He might just be sending us on a fool’s errand in this tin pot steamer.”
McWhirr unrolled a dog-eared chart that look like it was printed during Leopold’s reign, pointed to a particularly sepentine section of the river, and said:
“There’s death at every bend of this blasted river. There are treacherous sandbanks and bandits that will cut your throat for a song. Here is the passage of Bulak Bindah. Winds can funnel between those rocks like the fiends of hell.”
“Aye, on top of that, the very guards appointed by the museum trustees who sponsor these excavations deal in the illicit trade of artifacts. Their collusion with Javanese authorities can land innocent shippers like us in jail.
“Crooked trade in antiquities is nearly as old as civilization itself. These sites had already been plundered in ancient times by looters who sold to dealers in Bangkok. Now the plunder is conducted on an industrial scale by the East India Company. The stones of sacred Temples are looted to build the brutal towers of Tomorrowland and the stolen images of the Holy Immortals now entice consumers, like sheep, into endless malls of mediocrity. This must stopped.”
Like some portly, winded spinstress, the Polly steamed past camps of water buffalo herders, laptop recyclers, and armed horsemen whose dark eyes followed her wake with unconcealed contempt.