The ticket office was jammed with most of the foreigners left in Rotterdam. Forester knew many of them from his work as a correspondent for the Times—fellow journalists, diplomats, merchants and the idle rich. They waited in the late August heat, some chatting with studied nonchalance, others smoking one foul cigarette after another, a few sitting with their heads bowed in despair. A middle-aged man with sandy-colored hair scribbled wildly in a notebook as he waited, his lips moving silently as he wrote. A large satchel of books rested at his feet. An academic, Forester guessed. He's probably wishing he were safe in his ivory tower.
Every few moments, the ticket clerk called out a lucky name. On the schedule blackboard, all of the ships were crossed out except for the Lothian, an aging steamer out of Portsmouth. Mechanical problems had kept her in Rotterdam, and now her captain meant to hazard a dash across the North Sea before the war began and Germany loosed its U-boats. For war was coming. There was no doubt about that. Orders had been issued for the Royal Navy to mobilize.
"Tolkien, John R. R.," the clerk shouted, and the academic shoved the notebook into his satchel and hurried to the ticket window. Lucky bastard, Forester thought. He needed safe passage to England more than that professor. The Low Countries were probably next on the list of German acquisitions, and his dispatches about the occupation of Czechoslovakia had not endeared him to the Nazis. He needed to get on this ship, for he had seen first-hand how they dealt with their enemies.
The waiting room was half empty and Forester's nerves were nearly shot when the clerk called "Forester, Cecil S." He grabbed his valise and ran to join the happy few who had made the passenger list.
"I hope you can swim," the first officer told him grimly as he boarded. "We don't have life vests for the half of you."
"I'll take my chances," Forester replied.
The crew herded the passengers below, and a steward pointed him toward his cabin. The door was open, and the sandy-haired academic stood by the porthole, peering at a book. Startled, he looked up at Forester.
"Cecil Forester. I'm a writer for the Times, until recently assigned to the Rotterdam desk." He held out his hand.
The academic gave him a cheerful grin as he took his hand. "John Ronald Tolkien, Pembroke College, Oxford. Until recently on sabbatical in the Netherlands. You're not C.S. Forester, the novelist?"
"The very same."
"I'm honored to meet you, sir. You have a rare gift for language, and coming from a linguist, that's no faint praise. Though your Hornblower is too modern a hero for my taste. He seems to be adrift, without any moral compass besides his own sense of reason."
Forester shrugged. This was not a new criticism of his work. "So are we all."
"Alone and adrift in the Universe? That is the modern view of the human condition, Mr. Forester, but it is not the only view."
Forester did not reply. In his years as a war correspondent, he had seen no evidence of the existence of divine providence. The faithful and the ungodly had perished with equal ease. Though a religious man would counter that all these deaths were merely a part of God's great plan.
They stowed their luggage and tossed a coin for the lower berth. Forester won. The engine's low hum resonated throughout the ship, and the deck under their feet began to vibrate. The two men went above and stood with the other passengers as the ship gained weigh. The green banks of the estuary slid by with increasing speed, and the Lothian's wake trailed behind in a gleaming ribbon. Rotterdam, mercantile, crowded, filthy Rotterdam, shone golden in the setting sun. Forester doubted he would ever see it again. The city receded and disappeared. As dusk fell, the banks of the estuary sank away, and the emptiness of the ocean filled the horizon. There was nothing more to see, so the passengers went below.
The Times would want a dispatch, though Forester felt too discouraged to write. There was no desk in the tiny cabin, so he set his battered typewriter on the lower berth and typed while sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by his notes. The professor crawled into the upper berth with his notebook and a pen. Forester struggled to hammer his notes into a newsworthy story, but his mood was restless and gloomy. This would be his final dispatch from Europe, written on a steamer fleeing from the German advance.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" the professor asked from the upper berth.
"I'll join you. I need a break." Forester searched for his cigarettes. "What are you working on, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Technically, it's a novel, though it would be better described as a fairy tale for the old. Tales of wonder are wasted on little children. They have so little need for them."
"A literary fairy tale? Like Dunsany and George MacDonald?"
"In a very general sense, yes. Though I suspect that my story and style of prose may not suit your taste."
"I would have to be the judge of that," Forester replied. His professional interest was roused, and the tedious dispatch could wait.
Tolkien rummaged in the satchel then handed him a sheaf of handwritten pages. This was probably the only copy in existence, so Forester took the manuscript with a care that was close to reverence.
The writing style was archaic which was not surprising for a fairy tale, but the heroes were a race of pipe-smoking midgets who drank tea and beer and inhabited burrows. What a bizarre piece of writing, Forester thought but decided to read a few pages more. He soon lost track of the time and was still reading at midnight when the steward brought a late supper.
He sat with Tolkien on the lower berth eating cold roast mutton. "I don't understand the threat from the pirates of Umbar," he told the professor. "Didn't Gondor have a navy?"
"Yes, but greatly diminished from its former glory, reduced to more of a coast guard than a deep water navy."
"Just as Gondor's armies had been weakened over the centuries. So by the time of the War of the Ring, they lacked the ships to face the pirates at sea," Forester said. "I like your use of the beacons. Very similar to the beacon towers that were built during the wars with Napoleon." Then he bolted the rest of his supper and went back to reading.
Just as the men of Gondor prepared to defend the Causeway Forts, the electric lights blinked out. Forester hurried on deck, followed by the professor. The entire ship was in darkness. Most of the passengers must have been asleep or they would have noticed the sudden blackout. To the west of the Lothian, the shape of a vessel rose above the horizon.
"A heavy cruiser, but I don't think she's one of ours," the first officer told them. "The superstructure looks odd. The captain would rather not attract her attention." Lights darkened, the old steamer ploughed ahead, waves slapping against her steel hull.
"I never thought I'd live to see a second Great War," Tolkien said quietly as they waited by the railing.
"This time around, we're both too old to do a damned thing except watch," Forester replied.
The warship swept past, black against the night sky, less than a mile away. Oblivious or uninterested, she did not attack the steamer. After she had vanished, Forester bowed his head and rubbed his eyes. He suddenly felt so tired. It had been an exhausting day, and the hour was long past midnight. "I'm going to turn in," he told Professor Tolkien then stumbled down the dark companionway to the cabin. He collapsed on the lower berth, not even bothering to pull off his shoes. If the Germans torpedoed the Lothian, he doubted that it would wake him. The steady pulse of the ship's engine soon lulled him to sleep.