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Conrad, Joseph

· Joseph Conrad: The Secret Sharer · Joseph Conrad: The Return · Joseph Conrad: Amy Foster · Joseph Conrad: The Idiots · Joseph Conrad: The Lagoon · Joseph Conrad: An Anarchist · Joseph Conrad: Youth

Joseph Conrad: The Secret Sharer

Joseph Conrad
(1857-1924)

The Secret Sharer

I

On my right hand there were lines of fishing stakes resembling a mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences, incomprehensible in its division of the domain of tropical fishes, and crazy of aspect as if abandoned forever by some nomad tribe of fishermen now gone to the other end of the ocean; for there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach. To the left a group of barren islets, suggesting ruins of stone walls, towers, and blockhouses, had its foundations set in a blue sea that itself looked solid, so still and stable did it lie below my feet; even the track of light from the westering sun shone smoothly, without that animated glitter which tells of an imperceptible ripple. And when I turned my head to take a parting glance at the tug which had just left us anchored outside the bar, I saw the straight line of the flat shore joined to the stable sea, edge to edge, with a perfect and unmarked closeness, in one leveled floor half brown, half blue under the enormous dome of the sky. Corresponding in their insignificance to the islets of the sea, two small clumps of trees, one on each side of the only fault in the impeccable joint, marked the mouth of the river Meinam we had just left on the first preparatory stage of our homeward journey; and, far back on the inland level, a larger and loftier mass, the grove surrounding the great Paknam pagoda, was the only thing on which the eye could rest from the vain task of exploring the monotonous sweep of the horizon. Here and there gleams as of a few scattered pieces of silver marked the windings of the great river; and on the nearest of them, just within the bar, the tug steaming right into the land became lost to my sight, hull and funnel and masts, as though the impassive earth had swallowed her up without an effort, without a tremor. My eye followed the light cloud of her smoke, now here, now there, above the plain, according to the devious curves of the stream, but always fainter and farther away, till I lost it at last behind the miter-shaped hill of the great pagoda. And then I was left alone with my ship, anchored at the head of the Gulf of Siam. She floated at the starting point of a long journey, very still in an immense stillness, the shadows of her spars flung far to the eastward by the setting sun. At that moment I was alone on her decks. There was not a sound in her – and around us nothing moved, nothing lived, not a canoe on the water, not a bird in the air, not a cloud in the sky. In this breathless pause at the threshold of a long passage we seemed to be measuring our fitness for a long and arduous enterprise, the appointed task of both our existences to be carried out, far from all human eyes, with only sky and sea for spectators and for judges.

There must have been some glare in the air to interfere with one’s sight, because it was only just before the sun left us that my roaming eyes made out beyond the highest ridges of the principal islet of the group something which did away with the solemnity of perfect solitude. The tide of darkness flowed on swiftly; and with tropical suddenness a swarm of stars came out above the shadowy earth, while I lingered yet, my hand resting lightly on my ship’s rail as if on the shoulder of a trusted friend. But, with all that multitude of celestial bodies staring down at one, the comfort of quiet communion with her was gone for good. And there were also disturbing sounds by this time – voices, footsteps forward; the steward flitted along the main-deck, a busily ministering spirit; a hand bell tinkled urgently under the poop deck. …

I found my two officers waiting for me near the supper table, in the lighted cuddy. We sat down at once, and as I helped the chief mate, I said:

“Are you aware that there is a ship anchored inside the islands? I saw her mastheads above the ridge as the sun went down.”

He raised sharply his simple face, overcharged by a terrible growth of whisker, and emitted his usual ejaculations: “Bless my soul, sir! You don’t say so!”

My second mate was a round-cheeked, silent young man, grave beyond his years, I thought; but as our eyes happened to meet I detected a slight quiver on his lips. I looked down at once. It was not my part to encourage sneering on board my ship. It must be said, too, that I knew very little of my officers. In consequence of certain events of no particular significance, except to myself, I had been appointed to the command only a fortnight before. Neither did I know much of the hands forward. All these people had been together for eighteen months or so, and my position was that of the only stranger on board. I mention this because it has some bearing on what is to follow. But what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship; and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself. The youngest man on board (barring the second mate), and untried as yet by a position of the fullest responsibility, I was willing to take the adequacy of the others for granted. They had simply to be equal to their tasks; but I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.

Meantime the chief mate, with an almost visible effect of collaboration on the part of his round eyes and frightful whiskers, was trying to evolve a theory of the anchored ship. His dominant trait was to take all things into earnest consideration. He was of a painstaking turn of mind. As he used to say, he “liked to account to himself” for practically everything that came in his way, down to a miserable scorpion he had found in his cabin a week before. The why and the wherefore of that scorpion – how it got on board and came to select his room rather than the pantry (which was a dark place and more what a scorpion would be partial to), and how on earth it managed to drown itself in the inkwell of his writing desk – had exercised him infinitely. The ship within the islands was much more easily accounted for; and just as we were about to rise from table he made his pronouncement. She was, he doubted not, a ship from home lately arrived. Probably she drew too much water to cross the bar except at the top of spring tides. Therefore she went into that natural harbor to wait for a few days in preference to remaining in an open roadstead.

“That’s so,” confirmed the second mate, suddenly, in his slightly hoarse voice. “She draws over twenty feet. She’s the Liverpool ship Sephora with a cargo of coal. Hundred and twenty-three days from Cardiff.”

We looked at him in surprise.

“The tugboat skipper told me when he came on board for your letters, sir,” explained the young man. “He expects to take her up the river the day after tomorrow.”

After thus overwhelming us with the extent of his information he slipped out of the cabin. The mate observed regretfully that he “could not account for that young fellow’s whims.” What prevented him telling us all about it at once, he wanted to know.

I detained him as he was making a move. For the last two days the crew had had plenty of hard work, and the night before they had very little sleep. I felt painfully that I – a stranger – was doing something unusual when I directed him to let all hands turn in without setting an anchor watch. I proposed to keep on deck myself till one o’clock or thereabouts. I would get the second mate to relieve me at that hour.

“He will turn out the cook and the steward at four,” I concluded, “and then give you a call. Of course at the slightest sign of any sort of wind we’ll have the hands up and make a start at once.”

He concealed his astonishment. “Very well, sir.” Outside the cuddy he put his head in the second mate’s door to inform him of my unheard-of caprice to take a five hours’ anchor watch on myself. I heard the other raise his voice incredulously – “What? The Captain himself?” Then a few more murmurs, a door closed, then another. A few moments later I went on deck.

My strangeness, which had made me sleepless, had prompted that unconventional arrangement, as if I had expected in those solitary hours of the night to get on terms with the ship of which I knew nothing, manned by men of whom I knew very little more. Fast alongside a wharf, littered like any ship in port with a tangle of unrelated things, invaded by unrelated shore people, I had hardly seen her yet properly. Now, as she lay cleared for sea, the stretch of her main-deck seemed to me very find under the stars. Very fine, very roomy for her size, and very inviting. I descended the poop and paced the waist, my mind picturing to myself the coming passage through the Malay Archipelago, down the Indian Ocean, and up the Atlantic. All its phases were familiar enough to me, every characteristic, all the alternatives which were likely to face me on the high seas – everything! … except the novel responsibility of command. But I took heart from the reasonable thought that the ship was like other ships, the men like other men, and that the sea was not likely to keep any special surprises expressly for my discomfiture.

Arrived at that comforting conclusion, I bethought myself of a cigar and went below to get it. All was still down there. Everybody at the after end of the ship was sleeping profoundly. I came out again on the quarter-deck, agreeably at ease in my sleeping suit on that warm breathless night, barefooted, a glowing cigar in my teeth, and, going forward, I was met by the profound silence of the fore end of the ship. Only as I passed the door of the forecastle, I heard a deep, quiet, trustful sigh of some sleeper inside. And suddenly I rejoiced in the great security of the sea as compared with the unrest of the land, in my choice of that untempted life presenting no disquieting problems, invested with an elementary moral beauty by the absolute straightforwardness of its appeal and by the singleness of its purpose.

The riding light in the forerigging burned with a clear, untroubled, as if symbolic, flame, confident and bright in the mysterious shades of the night. Passing on my way aft along the other side of the ship, I observed that the rope side ladder, put over, no doubt, for the master of the tug when he came to fetch away our letters, had not been hauled in as it should have been. I became annoyed at this, for exactitude in some small matters is the very soul of discipline. Then I reflected that I had myself peremptorily dismissed my officers from duty, and by my own act had prevented the anchor watch being formally set and things properly attended to. I asked myself whether it was wise ever to interfere with the established routine of duties even from the kindest of motives. My action might have made me appear eccentric. Goodness only knew how that absurdly whiskered mate would “account” for my conduct, and what the whole ship thought of that informality of their new captain. I was vexed with myself.

Not from compunction certainly, but, as it were mechanically, I proceeded to get the ladder in myself. Now a side ladder of that sort is a light affair and comes in easily, yet my vigorous tug, which should have brought it flying on board, merely recoiled upon my body in a totally unexpected jerk. What the devil! … I was so astounded by the immovableness of that ladder that I remained stockstill, trying to account for it to myself like that imbecile mate of mine. In the end, of course, I put my head over the rail.

The side of the ship made an opaque belt of shadow on the darkling glassy shimmer of the sea. But I saw at once something elongated and pale floating very close to the ladder. Before I could form a guess a faint flash of phosphorescent light, which seemed to issue suddenly from the naked body of a man, flickered in the sleeping water with the elusive, silent play of summer lightning in a night sky. With a gasp I saw revealed to my stare a pair of feet, the long legs, a broad livid back immersed right up to the neck in a greenish cadaverous glow. One hand, awash, clutched the bottom rung of the ladder. He was complete but for the head. A headless corpse! The cigar dropped out of my gaping mouth with a tiny plop and a short hiss quite audible in the absolute stillness of all things under heaven. At that I suppose he raised up his face, a dimly pale oval in the shadow of the ship’s side. But even then I could only barely make out down there the shape of his black-haired head. However, it was enough for the horrid, frost-bound sensation which had gripped me about the chest to pass off. The moment of vain exclamations was past, too. I only climbed on the spare spar and leaned over the rail as far as I could, to bring my eyes nearer to that mystery floating alongside.

As he hung by the ladder, like a resting swimmer, the sea lightning played about his limbs at every stir; and he appeared in it ghastly, silvery, fishlike. He remained as mute as a fish, too. He made no motion to get out of the water, either. It was inconceivable that he should not attempt to come on board, and strangely troubling to suspect that perhaps he did not want to. And my first words were prompted by just that troubled incertitude.

“What’s the matter?” I asked in my ordinary tone, speaking down to the face upturned exactly under mine.

“Cramp,” it answered, no louder. Then slightly anxious, “I say, no need to call anyone.”

“I was not going to,” I said.

“Are you alone on deck?”

“Yes.”

I had somehow the impression that he was on the point of letting go the ladder to swim away beyond my ken – mysterious as he came. But, for the moment, this being appearing as if he had risen from the bottom of the sea (it was certainly the nearest land to the ship) wanted only to know the time. I told him. And he, down there, tentatively:

“I suppose your captain’s turned in?”

“I am sure he isn’t,” I said.

He seemed to struggle with himself, for I heard something like the low, bitter murmur of doubt. “What’s the good?” His next words came out with a hesitating effort.

“Look here, my man. Could you call him out quietly?”

I thought the time Had come to declare myself.

“I am the captain.”

I heard a “By Jove!” whispered at the level of the water. The phosphorescence flashed in the swirl of the water all about his limbs, his other hand seized the ladder.

“My name’s Leggatt.”

The voice was calm and resolute. A good voice. The self-possession of that man had somehow induced a corresponding state in myself. It was very quietly that I remarked:

“You must be a good swimmer.”

“Yes. I’ve been in the water practically since nine o’clock. The question for me now is whether I am to let go this ladder and go on swimming till I sink from exhaustion, or – to come on board here.”

I felt this was no mere formula of desperate speech, but a real alternative in the view of a strong soul. I should have gathered from this that he was young; indeed, it is only the young who are ever confronted by such clear issues. But at the time it was pure intuition on my part. A mysterious communication was established already between us two – in the face of that silent, darkened tropical sea. I was young, too; young enough to make no comment. The man in the water began suddenly to climb up the ladder, and I hastened away from the rail to fetch some clothes.

Before entering the cabin I stood still, listening in the lobby at the foot of the stairs. A faint snore came through the closed door of the chief mate’s room. The second mate’s door was on the hook, but the darkness in there was absolutely soundless. He, too, was young and could sleep like a stone. Remained the steward, but he was not likely to wake up before he was called. I got a sleeping suit out of my room and, coming back on deck, saw the naked man from the sea sitting on the main hatch, glimmering white in the darkness, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. In a moment he had concealed his damp body in a sleeping suit of the same gray-stripe pattern as the one I was wearing and followed me like my double on the poop. Together we moved right aft, barefooted, silent.

“What is it?” I asked in a deadened voice, taking the lighted lamp out of the binnacle, and raising it to his face.

“An ugly business.”

He had rather regular features; a good mouth; light eyes under somewhat heavy, dark eyebrows; a smooth, square forehead; no growth on his cheeks; a small, brown mustache, and a well-shaped, round chin. His expression was concentrated, meditative, under the inspecting light of the lamp I held up to his face; such as a man thinking hard in solitude might wear. My sleeping suit was just right for his size. A well-knit young fellow of twenty-five at most. He caught his lower lip with the edge of white, even teeth.

“Yes,” I said, replacing the lamp in the binnacle. The warm, heavy tropical night closed upon his head again.

“There’s a ship over there,” he murmured.

“Yes, I know. The Sephora. Did you know of us?”

“Hadn’t the slightest idea. I am the mate of her – ” He paused and corrected himself. “I should say I was.”

“Aha! Something wrong?”

“Yes. Very wrong indeed. I’ve killed a man.”

“What do you mean? Just now?”

“No, on the passage. Weeks ago. Thirty-nine south. When I say a man – ”

“Fit of temper,” I suggested, confidently.

The shadowy, dark head, like mine, seemed to nod imperceptibly above the ghostly gray of my sleeping suit. It was, in the night, as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror.

“A pretty thing to have to own up to for a Conway boy,” murmured my double, distinctly.

“You’re a Conway boy?”

“I am,” he said, as if startled. Then, slowly … “Perhaps you too – ”

It was so; but being a couple of years older I had left before he joined. After a quick interchange of dates a silence fell; and I thought suddenly of my absurd mate with his terrific whiskers and the “Bless my soul – you don’t say so” type of intellect. My double gave me an inkling of his thoughts by saying: “My father’s a parson in Norfolk. Do you see me before a judge and jury on that charge? For myself I can’t see the necessity. There are fellows that an angel from heaven – And I am not that. He was one of those creatures that are just simmering all the time with a silly sort of wickedness. Miserable devils that have no business to live at all. He wouldn’t do his duty and wouldn’t let anybody else do theirs. But what’s the good of talking! You know well enough the sort of ill-conditioned snarling cur – ”

He appealed to me as if our experiences had been as identical as our clothes. And I knew well enough the pestiferous danger of such a character where there are no means of legal repression. And I knew well enough also that my double there was no homicidal ruffian. I did not think of asking him for details, and he told me the story roughly in brusque, disconnected sentences. I needed no more. I saw it all going on as though I were myself inside that other sleeping suit.

“It happened while we were setting a reefed foresail, at dusk. Reefed foresail! You understand the sort of weather. The only sail we had left to keep the ship running; so you may guess what it had been like for days. Anxious sort of job, that. He gave me some of his cursed insolence at the sheet. I tell you I was overdone with this terrific weather that seemed to have no end to it. Terrific, I tell you – and a deep ship. I believe the fellow himself was half crazed with funk. It was no time for gentlemanly reproof, so I turned round and felled him like an ox. He up and at me. We closed just as an awful sea made for the ship. All hands saw it coming and took to the rigging, but I had him by the throat, and went on shaking him like a rat, the men above us yelling, ‘Look out! look out!’ Then a crash as if the sky had fallen on my head. They say that for over ten minutes hardly anything was to be seen of the ship – just the three masts and a bit of the forecastle head and of the poop all awash driving along in a smother of foam. It was a miracle that they found us, jammed together behind the forebitts. It’s clear that I meant business, because I was holding him by the throat still when they picked us up. He was black in the face. It was too much for them. It seems they rushed us aft together, gripped as we were, screaming ‘Murder!’ like a lot of lunatics, and broke into the cuddy. And the ship running for her life, touch and go all the time, any minute her last in a sea fit to turn your hair gray only a-looking at it. I understand that the skipper, too, started raving like the rest of them. The man had been deprived of sleep for more than a week, and to have this sprung on him at the height of a furious gale nearly drove him out of his mind. I wonder they didn’t fling me overboard after getting the carcass of their precious shipmate out of my fingers. They had rather a job to separate us, I’ve been told. A sufficiently fierce story to make an old judge and a respectable jury sit up a bit. The first thing I heard when I came to myself was the maddening howling of that endless gale, and on that the voice of the old man. He was hanging on to my bunk, staring into my face out of his sou’wester.

“‘Mr. Leggatt, you have killed a man. You can act no longer as chief mate of this ship.'”

His care to subdue his voice made it sound monotonous. He rested a hand on the end of the skylight to steady himself with, and all that time did not stir a limb, so far as I could see. “Nice little tale for a quiet tea party,” he concluded in the same tone.

One of my hands, too, rested on the end of the skylight; neither did I stir a limb, so far as I knew. We stood less than a foot from each other. It occurred to me that if old “Bless my soul – you don’t say so” were to put his head up the companion and catch sight of us, he would think he was seeing double, or imagine himself come upon a scene of weird witchcraft; the strange captain having a quiet confabulation by the wheel with his own gray ghost. I became very much concerned to prevent anything of the sort. I heard the other’s soothing undertone.

“My father’s a parson in Norfolk,” it said. Evidently he had forgotten he had told me this important fact before. Truly a nice little tale.

“You had better slip down into my stateroom now,” I said, moving off stealthily. My double followed my movements; our bare feet made no sound; I let him in, closed the door with care, and, after giving a call to the second mate, returned on deck for my relief.

“Not much sign of any wind yet,” I remarked when he approached.

“No, sir. Not much,” he assented, sleepily, in his hoarse voice, with just enough deference, no more, and barely suppressing a yawn.

“Well, that’s all you have to look out for. You have got your orders.”

“Yes, sir.”

I paced a turn or two on the poop and saw him take up his position face forward with his elbow in the ratlines of the mizzen rigging before I went below. The mate’s faint snoring was still going on peacefully. The cuddy lamp was burning over the table on which stood a vase with flowers, a polite attention from the ship’s provision merchant – the last flowers we should see for the next three months at the very least. Two bunches of bananas hung from the beam symmetrically, one on each side of the rudder casing. Everything was as before in the ship – except that two of her captain’s sleeping suits were simultaneously in use, one motionless in the cuddy, the other keeping very still in the captain’s stateroom.

It must be explained here that my cabin had the form of the capital letter L, the door being within the angle and opening into the short part of the letter. A couch was to the left, the bed place to the right; my writing desk and the chronometers’ table faced the door. But anyone opening it, unless he stepped right inside, had no view of what I call the long (or vertical) part of the letter. It contained some lockers surmounted by a bookcase; and a few clothes, a thick jacket or two, caps, oilskin coat, and such like, hung on hooks. There was at the bottom of that part a door opening into my bathroom, which could be entered also directly from the saloon. But that way was never used.

The mysterious arrival had discovered the advantage of this particular shape. Entering my room, lighted strongly by a big bulkhead lamp swung on gimbals above my writing desk, I did not see him anywhere till he stepped out quietly from behind the coats hung in the recessed part.

“I heard somebody moving about, and went in there at once,” he whispered.

I, too, spoke under my breath.

“Nobody is likely to come in here without knocking and getting permission.”

He nodded. His face was thin and the sunburn faded, as though he had been ill. And no wonder. He had been, I heard presently, kept under arrest in his cabin for nearly seven weeks. But there was nothing sickly in his eyes or in his expression. He was not a bit like me, really; yet, as we stood leaning over my bed place, whispering side by side, with our dark heads together and our backs to the door, anybody bold enough to open it stealthily would have been treated to the uncanny sight of a double captain busy talking in whispers with his other self.

“But all this doesn’t tell me how you came to hang on to our side ladder,” I inquired, in the hardly audible murmurs we used, after he had told me something more of the proceedings on board the Sephora once the bad weather was over.

“When we sighted Java Head I had had time to think all those matters out several times over. I had six weeks of doing nothing else, and with only an hour or so every evening for a tramp on the quarter-deck.”

He whispered, his arms folded on the side of my bed place, staring through the open port. And I could imagine perfectly the manner of this thinking out – a stubborn if not a steadfast operation; something of which I should have been perfectly incapable.

“I reckoned it would be dark before we closed with the land,” he continued, so low that I had to strain my hearing near as we were to each other, shoulder touching shoulder almost. “So I asked to speak to the old man. He always seemed very sick when he came to see me – as if he could not look me in the face. You know, that foresail saved the ship. She was too deep to have run long under bare poles. And it was I that managed to set it for him. Anyway, he came. When I had him in my cabin – he stood by the door looking at me as if I had the halter round my neck already – I asked him right away to leave my cabin door unlocked at night while the ship was going through Sunda Straits. There would be the Java coast within two or three miles, off Angier Point. I wanted nothing more. I’ve had a prize for swimming my second year in the Conway.”

“I can believe it,” I breathed out.

“God only knows why they locked me in every night. To see some of their faces you’d have thought they were afraid I’d go about at night strangling people. Am I a murdering brute? Do I look it? By Jove! If I had been he wouldn’t have trusted himself like that into my room. You’ll say I might have chucked him aside and bolted out, there and then – it was dark already. Well, no. And for the same reason I wouldn’t think of trying to smash the door. There would have been a rush to stop me at the noise, and I did not mean to get into a confounded scrimmage. Somebody else might have got killed – for I would not have broken out only to get chucked back, and I did not want any more of that work. He refused, looking more sick than ever. He was afraid of the men, and also of that old second mate of his who had been sailing with him for years – a gray-headed old humbug; and his steward, too, had been with him devil knows how long – seventeen years or more – a dogmatic sort of loafer who hated me like poison, just because I was the chief mate. No chief mate ever made more than one voyage in the Sephora, you know. Those two old chaps ran the ship. Devil only knows what the skipper wasn’t afraid of (all his nerve went to pieces altogether in that hellish spell of bad weather we had) – of what the law would do to him – of his wife, perhaps. Oh, yes! she’s on board. Though I don’t think she would have meddled. She would have been only too glad to have me out of the ship in any way. The ‘brand of Cain’ business, don’t you see. That’s all right. I was ready enough to go off wandering on the face of the earth – and that was price enough to pay for an Abel of that sort. Anyhow, he wouldn’t listen to me. ‘This thing must take its course. I represent the law here.’ He was shaking like a leaf. ‘So you won’t?’ ‘No!’ ‘Then I hope you will be able to sleep on that,’ I said, and turned my back on him. ‘I wonder that you can,’ cries he, and locks the door.

“Well after that, I couldn’t. Not very well. That was three weeks ago. We have had a slow passage through the Java Sea; drifted about Carimata for ten days. When we anchored here they thought, I suppose, it was all right. The nearest land (and that’s five miles) is the ship’s destination; the consul would soon set about catching me; and there would have been no object in bolding to these islets there. I don’t suppose there’s a drop of water on them. I don’t know how it was, but tonight that steward, after bringing me my supper, went out to let me eat it, and left the door unlocked. And I ate it – all there was, too. After I had finished I strolled out on the quarter-deck. I don’t know that I meant to do anything. A breath of fresh air was all I wanted, I believe. Then a sudden temptation came over me. I kicked off my slippers and was in the water before I had made up my mind fairly. Somebody heard the splash and they raised an awful hullabaloo. ‘He’s gone! Lower the boats! He’s committed suicide! No, he’s swimming.’ Certainly I was swimming. It’s not so easy for a swimmer like me to commit suicide by drowning. I landed on the nearest islet before the boat left the ship’s side. I heard them pulling about in the dark, hailing, and so on, but after a bit they gave up. Everything quieted down and the anchorage became still as death. I sat down on a stone and began to think. I felt certain they would start searching for me at daylight. There was no place to hide on those stony things – and if there had been, what would have been the good? But now I was clear of that ship, I was not going back. So after a while I took off all my clothes, tied them up in a bundle with a stone inside, and dropped them in the deep water on the outer side of that islet. That was suicide enough for me. Let them think what they liked, but I didn’t mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank – but that’s not the same thing. I struck out for another of these little islands, and it was from that one that I first saw your riding light. Something to swim for. I went on easily, and on the way I came upon a flat rock a foot or two above water. In the daytime, I dare say, you might make it out with a glass from your poop. I scrambled up on it and rested myself for a bit. Then I made another start. That last spell must have been over a mile.”

His whisper was getting fainter and fainter, and all the time he stared straight out through the porthole, in which there was not even a star to be seen. I had not interrupted him. There was something that made comment impossible in his narrative, or perhaps in himself; a sort of feeling, a quality, which I can’t find a name for. And when he ceased, all I found was a futile whisper: “So you swam for our light?”

“Yes – straight for it. It was something to swim for. I couldn’t see any stars low down because the coast was in the way, and I couldn’t see the land, either. The water was like glass. One might have been swimming in a confounded thousand-feet deep cistern with no place for scrambling out anywhere; but what I didn’t like was the notion of swimming round and round like a crazed bullock before I gave out; and as I didn’t mean to go back. . . No. Do you see me being hauled back, stark naked, off one of these little islands by the scruff of the neck and fighting like a wild beast? Somebody would have got killed for certain, and I did not want any of that. So I went on. Then your ladder – ”

“Why didn’t you hail the ship?” I asked, a little louder.

He touched my shoulder lightly. Lazy footsteps came right over our heads and stopped. The second mate had crossed from the other side of the poop and might have been hanging over the rail for all we knew.

“He couldn’t hear us talking – could he?” My double breathed into my very ear, anxiously.

His anxiety was in answer, a sufficient answer, to the question I had put to him. An answer containing all the difficulty of that situation. I closed the porthole quietly, to make sure. A louder word might have been overheard.

“Who’s that?” he whispered then.

“My second mate. But I don’t know much more of the fellow than you do.”

And I told him a little about myself. I had been appointed to take charge while I least expected anything of the sort, not quite a fortnight ago. I didn’t know either the ship or the people. Hadn’t had the time in port to look about me or size anybody up. And as to the crew, all they knew was that I was appointed to take the ship home. For the rest, I was almost as much of a stranger on board as himself, I said. And at the moment I felt it most acutely. I felt that it would take very little to make me a suspect person in the eyes of the ship’s company.

He had turned about meantime; and we, the two strangers in the ship, faced each other in identical attitudes.

“Your ladder – ” he murmured, after a silence. “Who’d have thought of finding a ladder hanging over at night in a ship anchored out here! I felt just then a very unpleasant faintness. After the life I’ve been leading for nine weeks, anybody would have got out of condition. I wasn’t capable of swimming round as far as your rudder chains. And, lo and behold! there was a ladder to get hold of. After I gripped it I said to myself, ‘What’s the good?’ When I saw a man’s head looking over I thought I would swim away presently and leave him shouting – in whatever language it was. I didn’t mind being looked at. I – I liked it. And then you speaking to me so quietly – as if you had expected me – made me hold on a little longer. It had been a confounded lonely time – I don’t mean while swimming. I was glad to talk a little to somebody that didn’t belong to the Sephora. As to asking for the captain, that was a mere impulse. It could have been no use, with all the ship knowing about me and the other people pretty certain to be round here in the morning. I don’t know – I wanted to be seen, to talk with somebody, before I went on. I don’t know what I would have said. … ‘Fine night, isn’t it?’ or something of the sort.”

“Do you think they will be round here presently?” I asked with some incredulity.

“Quite likely,” he said, faintly.

“He looked extremely haggard all of a sudden. His head rolled on his shoulders.

“H’m. We shall see then. Meantime get into that bed,” I whispered. “Want help? There.”

It was a rather high bed place with a set of drawers underneath. This amazing swimmer really needed the lift I gave him by seizing his leg. He tumbled in, rolled over on his back, and flung one arm across his eyes. And then, with his face nearly hidden, he must have looked exactly as I used to look in that bed. I gazed upon my other self for a while before drawing across carefully the two green serge curtains which ran on a brass rod. I thought for a moment of pinning them together for greater safety, but I sat down on the couch, and once there I felt unwilling to rise and hunt for a pin. I would do it in a moment. I was extremely tired, in a peculiarly intimate way, by the strain of stealthiness, by the effort of whispering and the general secrecy of this excitement. It was three o’clock by now and I had been on my feet since nine, but I was not sleepy; I could not have gone to sleep. I sat there, fagged out, looking at the curtains, trying to clear my mind of the confused sensation of being in two places at once, and greatly bothered by an exasperating knocking in my head. It was a relief to discover suddenly that it was not in my head at all, but on the outside of the door. Before I could collect myself the words “Come in” were out of my mouth, and the steward entered with a tray, bringing in my morning coffee. I had slept, after all, and I was so frightened that I shouted, “This way! I am here, steward,” as though he had been miles away. He put down the tray on the table next the couch and only then said, very quietly, “I can see you are here, sir.” I felt him give me a keen look, but I dared not meet his eyes just then. He must have wondered why I had drawn the curtains of my bed before going to sleep on the couch. He went out, hooking the door open as usual.

I heard the crew washing decks above me. I knew I would have been told at once if there had been any wind. Calm, I thought, and I was doubly vexed. Indeed, I felt dual more than ever. The steward reappeared suddenly in the doorway. I jumped up from the couch so quickly that he gave a start.

“What do you want here?”

“Close your port, sir – they are washing decks.”

“It is closed,” I said, reddening.

“Very well, sir.” But he did not move from the doorway and returned my stare in an extraordinary, equivocal manner for a time. Then his eyes wavered, all his expression changed, and in a voice unusually gentle, almost coaxingly:

“May I come in to take the empty cup away, sir?”

“Of course!” I turned my back on him while he popped in and out. Then I unhooked and closed the door and even pushed the bolt. This sort of thing could not go on very long. The cabin was as hot as an oven, too. I took a peep at my double, and discovered that he had not moved, his arm was still over his eyes; but his chest heaved; his hair was wet; his chin glistened with perspiration. I reached over him and opened the port.

“I must show myself on deck,” I reflected.

Of course, theoretically, I could do what I liked, with no one to say nay to me within the whole circle of the horizon; but to lock my cabin door and take the key away I did not dare. Directly I put my head out of the companion I saw the group of my two officers, the second mate barefooted, the chief mate in long India-rubber boots, near the break of the poop, and the steward halfway down the poop ladder talking to them eagerly. He happened to catch sight of me and dived, the second ran down on the main-deck shouting some order or other, and the chief mate came to meet me, touching his cap.

There was a sort of curiosity in his eye that I did not like. I don’t know whether the steward had told them that I was “queer” only, or downright drunk, but I know the man meant to have a good look at me. I watched him coming with a smile which, as he got into point-blank range, took effect and froze his very whiskers. I did not give him time to open his lips.

“Square the yards by lifts and braces before the hands go to breakfast.”

It was the first particular order I had given on board that ship; and I stayed on deck to see it executed, too. I had felt the need of asserting myself without loss of time. That sneering young cub got taken down a peg or two on that occasion, and I also seized the opportunity of having a good look at the face of every foremast man as they filed past me to go to the after braces. At breakfast time, eating nothing myself, I presided with such frigid dignity that the two mates were only too glad to escape from the cabin as soon as decency permitted; and all the time the dual working of my mind distracted me almost to the point of insanity. I was constantly watching myself, my secret self, as dependent on my actions as my own personality, sleeping in that bed, behind that door which faced me as I sat at the head of the table. It was very much like being mad, only it was worse because one was aware of it.

I had to shake him for a solid minute, but when at last he opened his eyes it was in the full possession of his senses, with an inquiring look.

“All’s well so far,” I whispered. “Now you must vanish into the bathroom.”

He did so, as noiseless as a ghost, and then I rang for the steward, and facing him boldly, directed him to tidy up my stateroom while I was having my bath – “and be quick about it.” As my tone admitted of no excuses, he said, “Yes, sir,” and ran off to fetch his dustpan and brushes. I took a bath and did most of my dressing, splashing, and whistling softly for the steward’s edification, while the secret sharer of my life stood drawn up bolt upright in that little space, his face looking very sunken in daylight, his eyelids lowered under the stern, dark line of his eyebrows drawn together by a slight frown.

When I left him there to go back to my room the steward was finishing dusting. I sent for the mate and engaged him in some insignificant conversation. It was, as it were, trifling with the terrific character of his whiskers; but my object was to give him an opportunity for a good look at my cabin. And then I could at last shut, with a clear conscience, the door of my stateroom and get my double back into the recessed part. There was nothing else for it. He had to sit still on a small folding stool, half smothered by the heavy coats hanging there. We listened to the steward going into the bathroom out of the saloon, filling the water bottles there, scrubbing the bath, setting things to rights, whisk, bang, clatter – out again into the saloon – turn the key – click. Such was my scheme for keeping my second self invisible. Nothing better could be contrived under the circumstances. And there we sat; I at my writing desk ready to appear busy with some papers, he behind me out of sight of the door. It would not have been prudent to talk in daytime; and I could not have stood the excitement of that queer sense of whispering to myself. Now and then, glancing over my shoulder, I saw him far back there, sitting rigidly on the low stool, his bare feet close together, his arms folded, his head hanging on his breast – and perfectly still. Anybody would have taken him for me.

I was fascinated by it myself. Every moment I had to glance over my shoulder. I was looking at him when a voice outside the door said:

“Beg pardon, sir.”

“Well! … I kept my eyes on him, and so when the voice outside the door announced, “There’s a ship’s boat coming our way, sir,” I saw him give a start – the first movement he had made for hours. But he did not raise his bowed head.

“All right. Get the ladder over.”

I hesitated. Should I whisper something to him? But what? His immobility seemed to have been never disturbed. What could I tell him he did not know already? … Finally I went on deck.

 

II

The skipper of the Sephora had a thin red whisker all round his face, and the sort of complexion that goes with hair of that color; also the particular, rather smeary shade of blue in the eyes. He was not exactly a showy figure; his shoulders were high, his stature but middling – one leg slightly more bandy than the other. He shook hands, looking vaguely around. A spiritless tenacity was his main characteristic, I judged. I behaved with a politeness which seemed to disconcert him. Perhaps he was shy. He mumbled to me as if he were ashamed of what he was saying; gave his name (it was something like Archbold – but at this distance of years I hardly am sure), his ship’s name, and a few other particulars of that sort, in the manner of a criminal making a reluctant and doleful confession. He had had terrible weather on the passage out – terrible – terrible – wife aboard, too.

By this time we were seated in the cabin and the steward brought in a tray with a bottle and glasses. “Thanks! No.” Never took liquor. Would have some water, though. He drank two tumblerfuls. Terrible thirsty work. Ever since daylight had been exploring the islands round his ship.

“What was that for – fun?” I asked, with an appearance of polite interest.

“No!” He sighed. “Painful duty.”

As he persisted in his mumbling and I wanted my double to hear every word, I hit upon the notion of informing him that I regretted to say I was hard of hearing.

“Such a young man, too!” he nodded, keeping his smeary blue, unintelligent eyes fastened upon me. “What was the cause of it – some disease?” he inquired, without the least sympathy and as if he thought that, if so, I’d got no more than I deserved.

“Yes; disease,” I admitted in a cheerful tone which seemed to shock him. But my point was gained, because he had to raise his voice to give me his tale. It is not worth while to record his version. It was just over two months since all this had happened, and he had thought so much about it that he seemed completely muddled as to its bearings, but still immensely impressed.

“What would you think of such a thing happening on board your own ship? I’ve had the Sephora for these fifteen years. I am a well-known shipmaster.”

He was densely distressed – and perhaps I should have sympathized with him if I had been able to detach my mental vision from the unsuspected sharer of my cabin as though he were my second self. There he was on the other side of the bulkhead, four or five feet from us, no more, as we sat in the saloon. I looked politely at Captain Archbold (if that was his name), but it was the other I saw, in a gray sleeping suit, seated on a low stool, his bare feet close together, his arms folded, and every word said between us falling into the ears of his dark head bowed on his chest.

“I have been at sea now, man and boy, for seven-and-thirty years, and I’ve never heard of such a thing happening in an English ship. And that it should be my ship. Wife on board, too.”

I was hardly listening to him.

“Don’t you think,” I said, “that the heavy sea which, you told me, came aboard just then might have killed the man? I have seen the sheer weight of a sea kill a man very neatly, by simply breaking his neck.”

“Good God!” he uttered, impressively, fixing his smeary blue eyes on me. “The sea! No man killed by the sea ever looked like that.” He seemed positively scandalized at my suggestion. And as I gazed at him certainly not prepared for anything original on his part, he advanced his head close to mine and thrust his tongue out at me so suddenly that I couldn’t help starting back.

After scoring over my calmness in this graphic way he nodded wisely. If I had seen the sight, he assured me, I would never forget it as long as I lived. The weather was too bad to give the corpse a proper sea burial. So next day at dawn they took it up on the poop, covering its face with a bit of bunting; he read a short prayer, and then, just as it was, in its oilskins and long boots, they launched it amongst those mountainous seas that seemed ready every moment to swallow up the ship herself and the terrified lives on board of her.

“That reefed foresail saved you,” I threw in.

“Under God – it did,” he exclaimed fervently. “It was by a special mercy, I firmly believe, that it stood some of those hurricane squalls.”

“It was the setting of that sail which – ” I began.

“God’s own hand in it,” he interrupted me. “Nothing less could have done it. I don’t mind telling you that I hardly dared give the order. It seemed impossible that we could touch anything without losing it, and then our last hope would have been gone.”

The terror of that gale was on him yet. I let him go on for a bit, then said, casually – as if returning to a minor subject:

“You were very anxious to give up your mate to the shore people, I believe?”

He was. To the law. His obscure tenacity on that point had in it something incomprehensible and a little awful; something, as it were, mystical, quite apart from his anxiety that he should not be suspected of “countenancing any doings of that sort.” Seven-and-thirty virtuous years at sea, of which over twenty of immaculate command, and the last fifteen in the Sephora, seemed to have laid him under some pitiless obligation.

“And you know,” he went on, groping shame-facedly amongst his feelings, “I did not engage that young fellow. His people had some interest with my owners. I was in a way forced to take him on. He looked very smart, very gentlemanly, and all that. But do you know – I never liked him, somehow. I am a plain man. You see, he wasn’t exactly the sort for the chief mate of a ship like the Sephora.”

I had become so connected in thoughts and impressions with the secret sharer of my cabin that I felt as if I, personally, were being given to understand that I, too, was not the sort that would have done for the chief mate of a ship like the Sephora. I had no doubt of it in my mind.

“Not at all the style of man. You understand,” he insisted, superfluously, looking hard at me.

I smiled urbanely. He seemed at a loss for a while.

“I suppose I must report a suicide.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Suicide! That’s what I’ll have to write to my owners directly I get in.”

“Unless you manage to recover him before tomorrow,” I assented, dispassionately. … “I mean, alive.”

He mumbled something which I really did not catch, and I turned my ear to him in a puzzled manner. He fairly bawled:

“The land – I say, the mainland is at least seven miles off my anchorage.”

“About that.”

My lack of excitement, of curiosity, of surprise, of any sort of pronounced interest, began to arouse his distrust. But except for the felicitous pretense of deafness I had not tried to pretend anything. I had felt utterly incapable of playing the part of ignorance properly, and therefore was afraid to try. It is also certain that he had brought some ready-made suspicions with him, and that he viewed my politeness as a strange and unnatural phenomenon. And yet how else could I have received him? Not heartily! That was impossible for psychological reasons, which I need not state here. My only object was to keep off his inquiries. Surlily? Yes, but surliness might have provoked a point-blank question. From its novelty to him and from its nature, punctilious courtesy was the manner best calculated to restrain the man. But there was the danger of his breaking through my defense bluntly. I could not, I think, have met him by a direct lie, also for psychological (not moral) reasons. If he had only known how afraid I was of his putting my feeling of identity with the other to the test! But, strangely enough – (I thought of it only afterwards) – I believe that he was not a little disconcerted by the reverse side of that weird situation, by something in me that reminded him of the man he was seeking – suggested a mysterious similitude to the young fellow he had distrusted and disliked from the first.

However that might have been, the silence was not very prolonged. He took another oblique step.

“I reckon I had no more than a two-mile pull to your ship. Not a bit more.”

“And quite enough, too, in this awful heat,” I said.

Another pause full of mistrust followed. Necessity, they say, is mother of invention, but fear, too, is not barren of ingenious suggestions. And I was afraid he would ask me point-blank for news of my other self.

“Nice little saloon, isn’t it?” I remarked, as if noticing for the first time the way his eyes roamed from one closed door to the other. “And very well fitted out, too. Here, for instance,” I continued, reaching over the back of my seat negligently and flinging the door open, “is my bathroom.”

He made an eager movement, but hardly gave it a glance. I got up, shut the door of the bathroom, and invited him to have a look round, as if I were very proud of my accomodation. He had to rise and be shown round, but he went through the business without any raptures whatever.

“And now we’ll have a look at my stateroom,” I declared, in a voice as loud as I dared to make it, crossing the cabin to the starboard side with purposely heavy steps.

He followed me in and gazed around. My intelligent double had vanished. I played my part.

“Very convenient – isn’t it?”

“Very nice. Very comf …” He didn’t finish and went out brusquely as if to escape from some unrighteous wiles of mine. But it was not to be. I had been too frightened not to feel vengeful; I felt I had him on the run, and I meant to keep him on the run. My polite insistence must have had something menacing in it, because he gave in suddenly. And I did not let him off a single item; mate’s room, pantry, storerooms, the very sail locker which was also under the poop – he had to look into them all. When at last I showed him out on the quarter-deck he drew a long, spiritless sigh, and mumbled dismally that he must really be going back to his ship now. I desired my mate, who had joined us, to see to the captain’s boat.

The man of whiskers gave a blast on the whistle which he used to wear hanging round his neck, and yelled, “Sephora’s away!” My double down there in my cabin must have heard, and certainly could not feel more relieved than I. Four fellows came running out from somewhere forward and went over the side, while my own men, appearing on deck too, lined the rail. I escorted my visitor to the gangway ceremoniously, and nearly overdid it. He was a tenacious beast. On the very ladder he lingered, and in that unique, guiltily conscientious manner of sticking to the point:

“I say … you … you don’t think that – ”

I covered his voice loudly:

“Certainly not. … I am delighted. Good-by.”

I had an idea of what he meant to say, and just saved myself by the privilege of defective hearing. He was too shaken generally to insist, but my mate, close witness of that parting, looked mystified and his face took on a thoughtful cast. As I did not want to appear as if I wished to avoid all communication with my officers, he had the opportunity to address me.

“Seems a very nice man. His boat’s crew told our chaps a very extraordinary story, if what I am told by the steward is true. I suppose you had it from the captain, sir?”

“Yes. I had a story from the captain.”

“A very horrible affair – isn’t it, sir?”

“It is.”

“Beats all these tales we hear about murders in Yankee ships.”

“I don’t think it beats them. I don’t think it resembles them in the least.”

“Bless my soul – you don’t say so! But of course I’ve no acquaintance whatever with American ships, not I so I couldn’t go against your knowledge. It’s horrible enough for me. … But the queerest part is that those fellows seemed to have some idea the man was hidden aboard here. They had really. Did you ever hear of such a thing?”

“Preposterous – isn’t it?”

We were walking to and fro athwart the quarter-deck. No one of the crew forward could be seen (the day was Sunday), and the mate pursued:

“There was some little dispute about it. Our chaps took offense. ‘As if we would harbor a thing like that,’ they said. ‘Wouldn’t you like to look for him in our coal-hole?’ Quite a tiff. But they made it up in the end. I suppose he did drown himself. Don’t you, sir?”

“I don’t suppose anything.”

“You have no doubt in the matter, sir?”

“None whatever.”

I left him suddenly. I felt I was producing a bad impression, but with my double down there it was most trying to be on deck. And it was almost as trying to be below. Altogether a nerve-trying situation. But on the whole I felt less torn in two when I was with him. There was no one in the whole ship whom I dared take into my confidence. Since the hands had got to know his story, it would have been impossible to pass him off for anyone else, and an accidental discovery was to be dreaded now more than ever. …

The steward being engaged in laying the table for dinner, we could talk only with our eyes when I first went down. Later in the afternoon we had a cautious try at whispering. The Sunday quietness of the ship was against us; the stillness of air and water around her was against us; the elements, the men were against us – everything was against us in our secret partnership; time itself – for this could not go on forever. The very trust in Providence was, I suppose, denied to his guilt. Shall I confess that this thought cast me down very much? And as to the chapter of accidents which counts for so much in the book of success, I could only hope that it was closed. For what favorable accident could be expected?

“Did you hear everything?” were my first words as soon as we took up our position side by side, leaning over my bed place.

He had. And the proof of it was his earnest whisper, “The man told you he hardly dared to give the order.”

I understood the reference to be to that saving foresail.

“Yes. He was afraid of it being lost in the setting.”

“I assure you he never gave the order. He may think he did, but he never gave it. He stood there with me on the break of the poop after the main topsail blew away, and whimpered about our last hope – positively whimpered about it and nothing else – and the night coming on! To hear one’s skipper go on like that in such weather was enough to drive any fellow out of his mind. It worked me up into a sort of desperation. I just took it into my own hands and went away from him, boiling, and – But what’s the use telling you? You know! … Do you think that if I had not been pretty fierce with them I should have got the men to do anything? Not It! The bo’s’n perhaps? Perhaps! It wasn’t a heavy sea – it was a sea gone mad! I suppose the end of the world will be something like that; and a man may have the heart to see it coming once and be done with it – but to have to face it day after day – I don’t blame anybody. I was precious little better than the rest. Only – I was an officer of that old coal wagon, anyhow – ”

“I quite understand,” I conveyed that sincere assurance into his ear. He was out of breath with whispering; I could hear him pant slightly. It was all very simple. The same strung-up force which had given twenty-four men a chance, at least, for their lives, had, in a sort of recoil, crushed an unworthy mutinous existence.

But I had no leisure to weigh the merits of the matter – footsteps in the saloon, a heavy knock. “There’s enough wind to get under way with, sir.” Here was the call of a new claim upon my thoughts and even upon my feelings.

“Turn the hands up,” I cried through the door. “I’ll be on deck directly.”

I was going out to make the acquaintance of my ship. Before I left the cabin our eyes met – the eyes of the only two strangers on board. I pointed to the recessed part where the little campstool awaited him and laid my finger on my lips. He made a gesture – somewhat vague – a little mysterious, accompanied by a faint smile, as if of regret.

This is not the place to enlarge upon the sensations of a man who feels for the first time a ship move under his feet to his own independent word. In my case they were not unalloyed. I was not wholly alone with my command; for there was that stranger in my cabin. Or rather, I was not completely and wholly with her. Part of me was absent. That mental feeling of being in two places at once affected me physically as if the mood of secrecy had penetrated my very soul. Before an hour had elapsed since the ship had begun to move, having occasion to ask the mate (he stood by my side) to take a compass bearing of the pagoda, I caught myself reaching up to his ear in whispers. I say I caught myself, but enough had escaped to startle the man. I can’t describe it otherwise than by saying that he shied. A grave, preoccupied manner, as though he were in possession of some perplexing intelligence, did not leave him henceforth. A little later I moved away from the rail to look at the compass with such a stealthy gait that the helmsman noticed it – and I could not help noticing the unusual roundness of his eyes. These are trifling instances, though it’s to no commander’s advantage to be suspected of ludicrous eccentricities. But I was also more seriously affected. There are to a seaman certain words, gestures, that should in given conditions come as naturally, as instinctively as the winking of a menaced eye. A certain order should spring on to his lips without thinking; a certain sign should get itself made, so to speak, without reflection. But all unconscious alertness had abandoned me. I had to make an effort of will to recall myself back (from the cabin) to the conditions of the moment. I felt that I was appearing an irresolute commander to those people who were watching me more or less critically.

And, besides, there were the scares. On the second day out, for instance, coming off the deck in the afternoon (I had straw slippers on my bare feet) I stopped at the open pantry door and spoke to the steward. He was doing something there with his back to me. At the sound of my voice he nearly jumped out of his skin, as the saying is, and incidentally broke a cup.

“What on earth’s the matter with you?” I asked, astonished.

He was extremely confused. “Beg your pardon, sir. I made sure you were in your cabin.”

“You see I wasn’t.”

“No, sir. I could have sworn I had heard you moving in there not a moment ago. It’s most extraordinary … very sorry, sir.”

I passed on with an inward shudder. I was so identified with my secret double that I did not even mention the fact in those scanty, fearful whispers we exchanged. I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other. It would have been miraculous if he hadn’t at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm – almost invulnerable. On my suggestion he remained almost entirely in the bathroom, which, upon the whole, was the safest place. There could be really no shadow of an excuse for anyone ever wanting to go in there, once the steward had done with it. It was a very tiny place. Sometimes he reclined on the floor, his legs bent, his head sustained on one elbow. At others I would find him on the campstool, sitting in his gray sleeping suit and with his cropped dark hair like a patient, unmoved convict. At night I would smuggle him into my bed place, and we would whisper together, with the regular footfalls of the officer of the watch passing and repassing over our heads. It was an infinitely miserable time. It was lucky that some tins of fine preserves were stowed in a locker in my stateroom; hard bread I could always get hold of; and so he lived on stewed chicken, PATE DE FOIE GRAS, asparagus, cooked oysters, sardines – on all sorts of abominable sham delicacies out of tins. My early-morning coffee he always drank; and it was all I dared do for him in that respect.

Every day there was the horrible maneuvering to go through so that my room and then the bathroom should be done in the usual way. I came to hate the sight of the steward, to abhor the voice of that harmless man. I felt that it was he who would bring on the disaster of discovery. It hung like a sword over our heads.

The fourth day out, I think (we were then working down the east side of the Gulf of Siam, tack for tack, in light winds and smooth water) – the fourth day, I say, of this miserable juggling with the unavoidable, as we sat at our evening meal, that man, whose slightest movement I dreaded, after putting down the dishes ran up on deck busily. This could not be dangerous. Presently he came down again; and then it appeared that he had remembered a coat of mine which I had thrown over a rail to dry after having been wetted in a shower which had passed over the ship in the afternoon. Sitting stolidly at the head of the table I became terrified at the sight of the garment on his arm. Of course he made for my door. There was no time to lose.

“Steward,” I thundered. My nerves were so shaken that I could not govern my voice and conceal my agitation. This was the sort of thing that made my terrifically whiskered mate tap his forehead with his forefinger. I had detected him using that gesture while talking on deck with a confidential air to the carpenter. It was too far to hear a word, but I had no doubt that this pantomime could only refer to the strange new captain.

“Yes, sir,” the pale-faced steward turned resignedly to me. It was this maddening course of being shouted at, checked without rhyme or reason, arbitrarily chased out of my cabin, suddenly called into it, sent flying out of his pantry on incomprehensible errands, that accounted for the growing wretchedness of his expression.

“Where are you going with that coat?”

“To your room, sir.”

“Is there another shower coming?”

“I’m sure I don’t know, sir. Shall I go up again and see, sir?”

“No! never mind.”

My object was attained, as of course my other self in there would have heard everything that passed. During this interlude my two officers never raised their eyes off their respective plates; but the lip of that confounded cub, the second mate, quivered visibly.

I expected the steward to hook my coat on and come out at once. He was very slow about it; but I dominated my nervousness sufficiently not to shout after him. Suddenly I became aware (it could be heard plainly enough) that the fellow for some reason or other was opening the door of the bathroom. It was the end. The place was literally not big enough to swing a cat in. My voice died in my throat and I went stony all over. I expected to hear a yell of surprise and terror, and made a movement, but had not the strength to get on my legs. Everything remained still. Had my second self taken the poor wretch by the throat? I don’t know what I could have done next moment if I had not seen the steward come out of my room, close the door, and then stand quietly by the sideboard.

“Saved,” I thought. “But, no! Lost! Gone! He was gone!”

I laid my knife and fork down and leaned back in my chair. My head swam. After a while, when sufficiently recovered to speak in a steady voice, I instructed my mate to put the ship round at eight o’clock himself.

“I won’t come on deck,” I went on. “I think I’ll turn in, and unless the wind shifts I don’t want to be disturbed before midnight. I feel a bit seedy.”

“You did look middling bad a little while ago,” the chief mate remarked without showing any great concern.

They both went out, and I stared at the steward clearing the table. There was nothing to be read on that wretched man’s face. But why did he avoid my eyes, I asked myself. Then I thought I should like to hear the sound of his voice.

“Steward!”

“Sir!” Startled as usual.

“Where did you hang up that coat?”

“In the bathroom, sir.” The usual anxious tone. “It’s not quite dry yet, sir.”

For some time longer I sat in the cuddy. Had my double vanished as he had come? But of his coming there was an explanation, whereas his disappearance would be inexplicable. … I went slowly into my dark room, shut the door, lighted the lamp, and for a time dared not turn round. When at last I did I saw him standing bolt-upright in the narrow recessed part. It would not be true to say I had a shock, but an irresistible doubt of his bodily existence flitted through my mind. Can it be, I asked myself, that he is not visible to other eyes than mine? It was like being haunted. Motionless, with a grave face, he raised his hands slightly at me in a gesture which meant clearly, “Heavens! what a narrow escape!” Narrow indeed. I think I had come creeping quietly as near insanity as any man who has not actually gone over the border. That gesture restrained me, so to speak.

The mate with the terrific whiskers was now putting the ship on the other tack. In the moment of profound silence which follows upon the hands going to their stations I heard on the poop his raised voice: “Hard alee!” and the distant shout of the order repeated on the main-deck. The sails, in that light breeze, made but a faint fluttering noise. It ceased. The ship was coming round slowly: I held my breath in the renewed stillness of expectation; one wouldn’t have thought that there was a single living soul on her decks. A sudden brisk shout, “Mainsail haul!” broke the spell, and in the noisy cries and rush overhead of the men running away with the main brace we two, down in my cabin, came together in our usual position by the bed place.

He did not wait for my question. “I heard him fumbling here and just managed to squat myself down in the bath,” he whispered to me. “The fellow only opened the door and put his arm in to hang the coat up. All the same – ”

“I never thought of that,” I whispered back, even more appalled than before at the closeness of the shave, and marveling at that something unyielding in his character which was carrying him through so finely. There was no agitation in his whisper. Whoever was being driven distracted, it was not he. He was sane. And the proof of his sanity was continued when he took up the whispering again.

“It would never do for me to come to life again.”

It was something that a ghost might have said. But what he was alluding to was his old captain’s reluctant admission of the theory of suicide. It would obviously serve his turn – if I had understood at all the view which seemed to govern the unalterable purpose of his action.

“You must maroon me as soon as ever you can get amongst these islands off the Cambodge shore,” he went on.

“Maroon you! We are not living in a boy’s adventure tale,” I protested. His scornful whispering took me up.

“We aren’t indeed! There’s nothing of a boy’s tale in this. But there’s nothing else for it. I want no more. You don’t suppose I am afraid of what can be done to me? Prison or gallows or whatever they may please. But you don’t see me coming back to explain such things to an old fellow in a wig and twelve respectable tradesmen, do you? What can they know whether I am guilty or not – or of WHAT I am guilty, either? That’s my affair. What does the Bible say? ‘Driven off the face of the earth.’ Very well, I am off the face of the earth now. As I came at night so I shall go.”

“Impossible!” I murmured. “You can’t.”

“Can’t? … Not naked like a soul on the Day of Judgment. I shall freeze on to this sleeping suit. The Last Day is not yet – and … you have understood thoroughly. Didn’t you?”

I felt suddenly ashamed of myself. I may say truly that I understood – and my hesitation in letting that man swim away from my ship’s side had been a mere sham sentiment, a sort of cowardice.

“It can’t be done now till next night,” I breathed out. “The ship is on the off-shore tack and the wind may fail us.”

“As long as I know that you understand,” he whispered. “But of course you do. It’s a great satisfaction to have got somebody to understand. You seem to have been there on purpose.” And in the same whisper, as if we two whenever we talked had to say things to each other which were not fit for the world to hear, he added, “It’s very wonderful.”

We remained side by side talking in our secret way – but sometimes silent or just exchanging a whispered word or two at long intervals. And as usual he stared through the port. A breath of wind came now and again into our faces. The ship might have been moored in dock, so gently and on an even keel she slipped through the water, that did not murmur even at our passage, shadowy and silent like a phantom sea.

At midnight I went on deck, and to my mate’s great surprise put the ship round on the other tack. His terrible whiskers flitted round me in silent criticism. I certainly should not have done it if it had been only a question of getting out of that sleepy gulf as quickly as possible. I believe he told the second mate, who relieved him, that it was a great want of judgment. The other only yawned. That intolerable cub shuffled about so sleepily and lolled against the rails in such a slack, improper fashion that I came down on him sharply.

“Aren’t you properly awake yet?”

“Yes, sir! I am awake.”

“Well, then, be good enough to hold yourself as if you were. And keep a lookout. If there’s any current we’ll be closing with some islands before daylight.”

The east side of the gulf is fringed with islands, some solitary, others in groups. One the blue background of the high coast they seem to float on silvery patches of calm water, arid and gray, or dark green and rounded like clumps of evergreen bushes, with the larger ones, a mile or two long, showing the outlines of ridges, ribs of gray rock under the dark mantle of matted leafage. Unknown to trade, to travel, almost to geography, the manner of life they harbor is an unsolved secret. There must be villages – settlements of fishermen at least – on the largest of them, and some communication with the world is probably kept up by native craft. But all that forenoon, as we headed for them, fanned along by the faintest of breezes, I saw no sign of man or canoe in the field of the telescope I kept on pointing at the scattered group.

At noon I have no orders for a change of course, and the mate’s whiskers became much concerned and seemed to be offering themselves unduly to my notice. At last I said:

“I am going to stand right in. Quite in – as far as I can take her.”

The stare of extreme surprise imparted an air of ferocity also to his eyes, and he looked truly terrific for a moment.

“We’re not doing well in the middle of the gulf,” I continued, casually. “I am going to look for the land breezes tonight.”

“Bless my soul! Do you mean, sir, in the dark amongst the lot of all them islands and reefs and shoals?”

“Well – if there are any regular land breezes at all on this coast one must get close inshore to find them, mustn’t one?”

“Bless my soul!” he exclaimed again under his breath. All that afternoon he wore a dreamy, contemplative appearance which in him was a mark of perplexity. After dinner I went into my stateroom as if I meant to take some rest. There we two bent our dark heads over a half-unrolled chart lying on my bed.

“There,” I said. “It’s got to be Koh-ring. I’ve been looking at it ever since sunrise. It has got two hills and a low point. It must be inhabited. And on the coast opposite there is what looks like the mouth of a biggish river – with some towns, no doubt, not far up. It’s the best chance for you that I can see.”

“Anything. Koh-ring let it be.”

He looked thoughtfully at the chart as if surveying chances and distances from a lofty height – and following with his eyes his own figure wandering on the blank land of Cochin-China, and then passing off that piece of paper clean out of sight into uncharted regions. And it was as if the ship had two captains to plan her course for her. I had been so worried and restless running up and down that I had not had the patience to dress that day. I had remained in my sleeping suit, with straw slippers and a soft floppy hat. The closeness of the heat in the gulf had been most oppressive, and the crew were used to seeing me wandering in that airy attire.

“She will clear the south point as she heads now,” I whispered into his ear. “Goodness only knows when, though, but certainly after dark. I’ll edge her in to half a mile, as far as I may be able to judge in the dark – ”

“Be careful,” he murmured, warningly – and I realized suddenly that all my future, the only future for which I was fit, would perhaps go irretrievably to pieces in any mishap to my first command.

I could not stop a moment longer in the room. I motioned him to get out of sight and made my way on the poop. That unplayful cub had the watch. I walked up and down for a while thinking things out, then beckoned him over.

“Send a couple of hands to open the two quarter-deck ports,” I said, mildly.

He actually had the impudence, or else so forgot himself in his wonder at such an incomprehensible order, as to repeat:

“Open the quarter-deck ports! What for, sir?”

“The only reason you need concern yourself about is because I tell you to do so. Have them open wide and fastened properly.”

He reddened and went off, but I believe made some jeering remark to the carpenter as to the sensible practice of ventilating a ship’s quarter-deck. I know he popped into the mate’s cabin to impart the fact to him because the whiskers came on deck, as it were by chance, and stole glances at me from below – for signs of lunacy or drunkenness, I suppose.

A little before supper, feeling more restless than ever, I rejoined, for a moment, my second self. And to find him sitting so quietly was surprising, like something against nature, inhuman.

I developed my plan in a hurried whisper.

“I shall stand in as close as I dare and then put her round. I will presently find means to smuggle you out of here into the sail locker, which communicates with the lobby. But there is an opening, a sort of square for hauling the sails out, which gives straight on the quarter-deck and which is never closed in fine weather, so as to give air to the sails. When the ship’s way is deadened in stays and all the hands are aft at the main braces you will have a clear road to slip out and get overboard through the open quarter-deck port. I’ve had them both fastened up. Use a rope’s end to lower yourself into the water so as to avoid a splash – you know. It could be heard and cause some beastly complication.”

He kept silent for a while, then whispered, “I understand.”

“I won’t be there to see you go,” I began with an effort. “The rest … I only hope I have understood, too.”

“You have. From first to last” – and for the first time there seemed to be a faltering, something strained in his whisper. He caught hold of my arm, but the ringing of the supper bell made me start. He didn’t though; he only released his grip.

After supper I didn’t come below again till well past eight o’clock. The faint, steady breeze was loaded with dew; and the wet, darkened sails held all there was of propelling power in it. The night, clear and starry, sparkled darkly, and the opaque, lightless patches shifting slowly against the low stars were the drifting islets. On the port bow there was a big one more distant and shadowily imposing by the great space of sky it eclipsed.

On opening the door I had a back view of my very own self looking at a chart. He had come out of the recess and was standing near the table.

“Quite dark enough,” I whispered.

He stepped back and leaned against my bed with a level, quiet glance. I sat on the couch. We had nothing to say to each other. Over our heads the officer of the watch moved here and there. Then I heard him move quickly. I knew what that meant. He was making for the companion; and presently his voice was outside my door.

“We are drawing in pretty fast, sir. Land looks rather close.”

“Very well,” I answered. “I am coming on deck directly.”

I waited till he was gone out of the cuddy, then rose. My double moved too. The time had come to exchange our last whispers, for neither of us was ever to hear each other’s natural voice.

“Look here!” I opened a drawer and took out three sovereigns. “Take this anyhow. I’ve got six and I’d give you the lot, only I must keep a little money to buy some fruit and vegetables for the crew from native boats as we go through Sunda Straits.”

He shook his head.

“Take it,” I urged him, whispering desperately. “No one can tell what – ”

He smiled and slapped meaningly the only pocket of the sleeping jacket. It was not safe, certainly. But I produced a large old silk handkerchief of mine, and tying the three pieces of gold in a corner, pressed it on him. He was touched, I supposed, because he took it at last and tied it quickly round his waist under the jacket, on his bare skin.

Our eyes met; several seconds elapsed, till, our glances still mingled, I extended my hand and turned the lamp out. Then I passed through the cuddy, leaving the door of my room wide open. … “Steward!”

He was still lingering in the pantry in the greatness of his zeal, giving a rub-up to a plated cruet stand the last thing before going to bed. Being careful not to wake up the mate, whose room was opposite, I spoke in an undertone.

He looked round anxiously. “Sir!”

“Can you get me a little hot water from the galley?”

“I am afraid, sir, the galley fire’s been out for some time now.”

“Go and see.”

He flew up the stairs.

“Now,” I whispered, loudly, into the saloon – too loudly, perhaps, but I was afraid I couldn’t make a sound. He was by my side in an instant – the double captain slipped past the stairs – through a tiny dark passage … a sliding door. We were in the sail locker, scrambling on our knees over the sails. A sudden thought struck me. I saw myself wandering barefooted, bareheaded, the sun beating on my dark poll. I snatched off my floppy hat and tried hurriedly in the dark to ram it on my other self. He dodged and fended off silently. I wonder what he thought had come to me before he understood and suddenly desisted. Our hands met gropingly, lingered united in a steady, motionless clasp for a second. … No word was breathed by either of us when they separated.

I was standing quietly by the pantry door when the steward returned.

“Sorry, sir. Kettle barely warm. Shall I light the spirit lamp?”

“Never mind.”

I came out on deck slowly. It was now a matter of conscience to shave the land as close as possible – for now he must go overboard whenever the ship was put in stays. Must! There could be no going back for him. After a moment I walked over to leeward and my heart flew into my mouth at the nearness of the land on the bow. Under any other circumstances I would not have held on a minute longer. The second mate had followed me anxiously.

I looked on till I felt I could command my voice.

“She will weather,” I said then in a quiet tone.

“Are you going to try that, sir?” he stammered out incredulously.

I took no notice of him and raised my tone just enough to be heard by the helmsman.

“Keep her good full.”

“Good full, sir.”

The wind fanned my cheek, the sails slept, the world was silent. The strain of watching the dark loom of the land grow bigger and denser was too much for me. I had shut my eyes – because the ship must go closer. She must! The stillness was intolerable. Were we standing still?

When I opened my eyes the second view started my heart with a thump. The black southern hill of Koh-ring seemed to hang right over the ship like a towering fragment of everlasting night. On that enormous mass of blackness there was not a gleam to be seen, not a sound to be heard. It was gliding irresistibly towards us and yet seemed already within reach of the hand. I saw the vague figures of the watch grouped in the waist, gazing in awed silence.

“Are you going on, sir?” inquired an unsteady voice at my elbow.

I ignored it. I had to go on.

“Keep her full. Don’t check her way. That won’t do now,” I said warningly.

“I can’t see the sails very well,” the helmsman answered me, in strange, quavering tones.

Was she close enough? Already she was, I won’t say in the shadow of the land, but in the very blackness of it, already swallowed up as it were, gone too close to be recalled, gone from me altogether.

“Give the mate a call,” I said to the young man who stood at my elbow as still as death. “And turn all hands up.”

My tone had a borrowed loudness reverberated from the height of the land. Several voices cried out together: “We are all on deck, sir.”

Then stillness again, with the great shadow gliding closer, towering higher, without a light, without a sound. Such a hush had fallen on the ship that she might have been a bark of the dead floating in slowly under the very gate of Erebus.

“My God! Where are we?”

It was the mate moaning at my elbow. He was thunderstruck, and as it were deprived of the moral support of his whiskers. He clapped his hands and absolutely cried out, “Lost!”

“Be quiet,” I said, sternly.

He lowered his tone, but I saw the shadowy gesture of his despair. “What are we doing here?”

“Looking for the land wind.”

He made as if to tear his hair, and addressed me recklessly.

“She will never get out. You have done it, sir. I knew it’d end in something like this. She will never weather, and you are too close now to stay. She’ll drift ashore before she’s round. O my God!”

I caught his arm as he was raising it to batter his poor devoted head, and shook it violently.

“She’s ashore already,” he wailed, trying to tear himself away.

“Is she? … Keep good full there!”

“Good full, sir,” cried the helmsman in a frightened, thin, childlike voice.

I hadn’t let go the mate’s arm and went on shaking it. “Ready about, do you hear? You go forward” – shake – “and stop there” – shake – “and hold your noise” – shake – ” and see these head-sheets properly overhauled” – shake, shake – shake.

And all the time I dared not look towards the land lest my heart should fail me. I released my grip at last and he ran forward as if fleeing for dear life.

I wondered what my double there in the sail locker thought of this commotion. He was able to hear everything – and perhaps he was able to understand why, on my conscience, it had to be thus close – no less. My first order “Hard alee!” re-echoed ominously under the towering shadow of Koh-ring as if I had shouted in a mountain gorge. And then I watched the land intently. In that smooth water and light wind it was impossible to feel the ship coming-to. No! I could not feel her. And my second self was making now ready to ship out and lower himself overboard. Perhaps he was gone already … ?

The great black mass brooding over our very mastheads began to pivot away from the ship’s side silently. And now I forgot the secret stranger ready to depart, and remembered only that I was a total stranger to the ship. I did not know her. Would she do it? How was she to be handled?

I swung the mainyard and waited helplessly. She was perhaps stopped, and her very fate hung in the balance, with the black mass of Koh-ring like the gate of the everlasting night towering over her taffrail. What would she do now? Had she way on her yet? I stepped to the side swiftly, and on the shadowy water I could see nothing except a faint phosphorescent flash revealing the glassy smoothness of the sleeping surface. It was impossible to tell – and I had not learned yet the feel of my ship. Was she moving? What I needed was something easily seen, a piece of paper, which I could throw overboard and watch. I had nothing on me. To run down for it I didn’t dare. There was no time. All at once my strained, yearning stare distinguished a white object floating within a yard of the ship’s side. White on the black water. A phosphorescent flash passed under it. What was that thing? … I recognized my own floppy hat. It must have fallen off his head … and he didn’t bother. Now I had what I wanted – the saving mark for my eyes. But I hardly thought of my other self, now gone from the ship, to be hidden forever from all friendly faces, to be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, with no brand of the curse on his sane forehead to stay a slaying hand … too proud to explain.

And I watched the hat – the expression of my sudden pity for his mere flesh. It had been meant to save his homeless head from the dangers of the sun. And now – behold – it was saving the ship, by serving me for a mark to help out the ignorance of my strangeness. Ha! It was drifting forward, warning me just in time that the ship had gathered sternaway.

“Shift the helm,” I said in a low voice to the seaman standing still like a statue.

The man’s eyes glistened wildly in the binnacle light as he jumped round to the other side and spun round the wheel.

I walked to the break of the poop. On the over-shadowed deck all hands stood by the forebraces waiting for my order. The stars ahead seemed to be gliding from right to left. And all was so still in the world that I heard the quiet remark, “She’s round,” passed in a tone of intense relief between two seamen.

“Let go and haul.”

The foreyards ran round with a great noise, amidst cheery cries. And now the frightful whiskers made themselves heard giving various orders. Already the ship was drawing ahead. And I was alone with her. Nothing! no one in the world should stand now between us, throwing a shadow on the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.

Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus – yes, I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.


Joseph Conrad: The Secret Sharer
fleursdumal.nl magazine

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Joseph Conrad: The Return

Joseph Conrad

(1857-1924)

The Return

The inner circle train from the City rushed impetuously out of a black
hole and pulled up with a discordant, grinding racket in the smirched
twilight of a West-End station. A line of doors flew open and a lot of
men stepped out headlong. They had high hats, healthy pale faces,
dark overcoats and shiny boots; they held in their gloved hands thin
umbrellas and hastily folded evening papers that resembled stiff, dirty
rags of greenish, pinkish, or whitish colour. Alvan Hervey stepped out
with the rest, a smouldering cigar between his teeth. A disregarded
little woman in rusty black, with both arms full of parcels, ran along
in distress, bolted suddenly into a third-class compartment and the
train went on. The slamming of carriage doors burst out sharp and
spiteful like a fusillade; an icy draught mingled with acrid fumes swept
the whole length of the platform and made a tottering old man, wrapped
up to his ears in a woollen comforter, stop short in the moving throng
to cough violently over his stick. No one spared him a glance.

Alvan Hervey passed through the ticket gate. Between the bare walls of
a sordid staircase men clambered rapidly; their backs appeared
alike–almost as if they had been wearing a uniform; their indifferent
faces were varied but somehow suggested kinship, like the faces of a
band of brothers who through prudence, dignity, disgust, or foresight
would resolutely ignore each other; and their eyes, quick or slow; their
eyes gazing up the dusty steps; their eyes brown, black, gray, blue, had
all the same stare, concentrated and empty, satisfied and unthinking.

Outside the big doorway of the street they scattered in all directions,
walking away fast from one another with the hurried air of men fleeing
from something compromising; from familiarity or confidences; from
something suspected and concealed–like truth or pestilence. Alvan
Hervey hesitated, standing alone in the doorway for a moment; then
decided to walk home.

He strode firmly. A misty rain settled like silvery dust on clothes,
on moustaches; wetted the faces, varnished the flagstones, darkened the
walls, dripped from umbrellas. And he moved on in the rain with careless
serenity, with the tranquil ease of someone successful and disdainful,
very sure of himself–a man with lots of money and friends. He was tall,
well set-up, good-looking and healthy; and his clear pale face had under
its commonplace refinement that slight tinge of overbearing
brutality which is given by the possession of only partly difficult
accomplishments; by excelling in games, or in the art of making money;
by the easy mastery over animals and over needy men.

He was going home much earlier than usual, straight from the City and
without calling at his club. He considered himself well connected, well
educated and intelligent. Who doesn’t? But his connections, education
and intelligence were strictly on a par with those of the men with whom
he did business or amused himself. He had married five years ago. At the
time all his acquaintances had said he was very much in love; and he had
said so himself, frankly, because it is very well understood that every
man falls in love once in his life–unless his wife dies, when it may
be quite praiseworthy to fall in love again. The girl was healthy,
tall, fair, and in his opinion was well connected, well educated and
intelligent. She was also intensely bored with her home where, as
if packed in a tight box, her individuality–of which she was very
conscious–had no play. She strode like a grenadier, was strong and
upright like an obelisk, had a beautiful face, a candid brow, pure eyes,
and not a thought of her own in her head. He surrendered quickly to all
those charms, and she appeared to him so unquestionably of the right
sort that he did not hesitate for a moment to declare himself in love.
Under the cover of that sacred and poetical fiction he desired her
masterfully, for various reasons; but principally for the satisfaction
of having his own way. He was very dull and solemn about it–for no
earthly reason, unless to conceal his feelings–which is an eminently
proper thing to do. Nobody, however, would have been shocked had
he neglected that duty, for the feeling he experienced really was a
longing–a longing stronger and a little more complex no doubt, but no
more reprehensible in its nature than a hungry man’s appetite for his
dinner.

After their marriage they busied themselves, with marked success, in
enlarging the circle of their acquaintance. Thirty people knew them
by sight; twenty more with smiling demonstrations tolerated their
occasional presence within hospitable thresholds; at least fifty others
became aware of their existence. They moved in their enlarged world
amongst perfectly delightful men and women who feared emotion,
enthusiasm, or failure, more than fire, war, or mortal disease; who
tolerated only the commonest formulas of commonest thoughts, and
recognized only profitable facts. It was an extremely charming sphere,
the abode of all the virtues, where nothing is realized and where
all joys and sorrows are cautiously toned down into pleasures and
annoyances. In that serene region, then, where noble sentiments are
cultivated in sufficient profusion to conceal the pitiless materialism
of thoughts and aspirations Alvan Hervey and his wife spent five years
of prudent bliss unclouded by any doubt as to the moral propriety of
their existence. She, to give her individuality fair play, took up all
manner of philanthropic work and became a member of various rescuing and
reforming societies patronized or presided over by ladies of title. He
took an active interest in politics; and having met quite by chance a
literary man–who nevertheless was related to an earl–he was induced
to finance a moribund society paper. It was a semi-political, and wholly
scandalous publication, redeemed by excessive dulness; and as it was
utterly faithless, as it contained no new thought, as it never by any
chance had a flash of wit, satire, or indignation in its pages, he
judged it respectable enough, at first sight. Afterwards, when it paid,
he promptly perceived that upon the whole it was a virtuous undertaking.
It paved the way of his ambition; and he enjoyed also the special kind
of importance he derived from this connection with what he imagined to
be literature.

This connection still further enlarged their world. Men who wrote or
drew prettily for the public came at times to their house, and his
editor came very often. He thought him rather an ass because he had such
big front teeth (the proper thing is to have small, even teeth) and
wore his hair a trifle longer than most men do. However, some dukes wear
their hair long, and the fellow indubitably knew his business. The worst
was that his gravity, though perfectly portentous, could not be trusted.
He sat, elegant and bulky, in the drawing-room, the head of his
stick hovering in front of his big teeth, and talked for hours with
a thick-lipped smile (he said nothing that could be considered
objectionable and not quite the thing) talked in an unusual manner–not
obviously irritatingly. His forehead was too lofty–unusually so–and
under it there was a straight nose, lost between the hairless cheeks,
that in a smooth curve ran into a chin shaped like the end of a
snow-shoe. And in this face that resembled the face of a fat and
fiendishly knowing baby there glittered a pair of clever, peering,
unbelieving black eyes. He wrote verses too. Rather an ass. But the band
of men who trailed at the skirts of his monumental frock-coat seemed to
perceive wonderful things in what he said. Alvan Hervey put it down
to affectation. Those artist chaps, upon the whole, were so affected.
Still, all this was highly proper–very useful to him–and his wife
seemed to like it–as if she also had derived some distinct and secret
advantage from this intellectual connection. She received her mixed and
decorous guests with a kind of tall, ponderous grace, peculiarly her own
and which awakened in the mind of intimidated strangers incongruous and
improper reminiscences of an elephant, a giraffe, a gazelle; of a gothic
tower–of an overgrown angel. Her Thursdays were becoming famous in
their world; and their world grew steadily, annexing street after
street. It included also Somebody’s Gardens, a Crescent–a couple of
Squares.

Thus Alvan Hervey and his wife for five prosperous years lived by the
side of one another. In time they came to know each other sufficiently
well for all the practical purposes of such an existence, but they were
no more capable of real intimacy than two animals feeding at the same
manger, under the same roof, in a luxurious stable. His longing was
appeased and became a habit; and she had her desire–the desire to get
away from under the paternal roof, to assert her individuality, to move
in her own set (so much smarter than the parental one); to have a
home of her own, and her own share of the world’s respect, envy, and
applause. They understood each other warily, tacitly, like a pair of
cautious conspirators in a profitable plot; because they were both
unable to look at a fact, a sentiment, a principle, or a belief
otherwise than in the light of their own dignity, of their own
glorification, of their own advantage. They skimmed over the surface
of life hand in hand, in a pure and frosty atmosphere–like two
skilful skaters cutting figures on thick ice for the admiration of
the beholders, and disdainfully ignoring the hidden stream, the stream
restless and dark; the stream of life, profound and unfrozen.

Alvan Hervey turned twice to the left, once to the right, walked along
two sides of a square, in the middle of which groups of tame-looking
trees stood in respectable captivity behind iron railings, and rang at
his door. A parlour-maid opened. A fad of his wife’s, this, to have only
women servants. That girl, while she took his hat and overcoat, said
something which made him look at his watch. It was five o’clock, and his
wife not at home. There was nothing unusual in that. He said, “No; no
tea,” and went upstairs.

He ascended without footfalls. Brass rods glimmered all up the red
carpet. On the first-floor landing a marble woman, decently covered from
neck to instep with stone draperies, advanced a row of lifeless toes
to the edge of the pedestal, and thrust out blindly a rigid white arm
holding a cluster of lights. He had artistic tastes–at home. Heavy
curtains caught back, half concealed dark corners. On the rich, stamped
paper of the walls hung sketches, water-colours, engravings. His tastes
were distinctly artistic. Old church towers peeped above green masses
of foliage; the hills were purple, the sands yellow, the seas sunny, the
skies blue. A young lady sprawled with dreamy eyes in a moored boat, in
company of a lunch basket, a champagne bottle, and an enamoured man in
a blazer. Bare-legged boys flirted sweetly with ragged maidens, slept
on stone steps, gambolled with dogs. A pathetically lean girl flattened
against a blank wall, turned up expiring eyes and tendered a flower for
sale; while, near by, the large photographs of some famous and mutilated
bas-reliefs seemed to represent a massacre turned into stone.

He looked, of course, at nothing, ascended another flight of stairs and
went straight into the dressing room. A bronze dragon nailed by the tail
to a bracket writhed away from the wall in calm convolutions, and
held, between the conventional fury of its jaws, a crude gas flame that
resembled a butterfly. The room was empty, of course; but, as he stepped
in, it became filled all at once with a stir of many people; because
the strips of glass on the doors of wardrobes and his wife’s large
pier-glass reflected him from head to foot, and multiplied his image
into a crowd of gentlemanly and slavish imitators, who were dressed
exactly like himself; had the same restrained and rare gestures; who
moved when he moved, stood still with him in an obsequious immobility,
and had just such appearances of life and feeling as he thought it
dignified and safe for any man to manifest. And like real people who are
slaves of common thoughts, that are not even their own, they affected a
shadowy independence by the superficial variety of their movements. They
moved together with him; but they either advanced to meet him, or walked
away from him; they appeared, disappeared; they seemed to dodge behind
walnut furniture, to be seen again, far within the polished panes,
stepping about distinct and unreal in the convincing illusion of a
room. And like the men he respected they could be trusted to do nothing
individual, original, or startling–nothing unforeseen and nothing
improper.

He moved for a time aimlessly in that good company, humming a popular
but refined tune, and thinking vaguely of a business letter from abroad,
which had to be answered on the morrow with cautious prevarication.
Then, as he walked towards a wardrobe, he saw appearing at his back, in
the high mirror, the corner of his wife’s dressing-table, and amongst
the glitter of silver-mounted objects on it, the square white patch of
an envelope. It was such an unusual thing to be seen there that he spun
round almost before he realized his surprise; and all the sham men
about him pivoted on their heels; all appeared surprised; and all moved
rapidly towards envelopes on dressing-tables.

He recognized his wife’s handwriting and saw that the envelope was
addressed to himself. He muttered, “How very odd,” and felt annoyed.
Apart from any odd action being essentially an indecent thing in itself,
the fact of his wife indulging in it made it doubly offensive. That she
should write to him at all, when she knew he would be home for dinner,
was perfectly ridiculous; but that she should leave it like this–in
evidence for chance discovery–struck him as so outrageous that,
thinking of it, he experienced suddenly a staggering sense of
insecurity, an absurd and bizarre flash of a notion that the house had
moved a little under his feet. He tore the envelope open, glanced at the
letter, and sat down in a chair near by.

He held the paper before his eyes and looked at half a dozen lines
scrawled on the page, while he was stunned by a noise meaningless
and violent, like the clash of gongs or the beating of drums; a great
aimless uproar that, in a manner, prevented him from hearing himself
think and made his mind an absolute blank. This absurd and distracting
tumult seemed to ooze out of the written words, to issue from between
his very fingers that trembled, holding the paper. And suddenly he
dropped the letter as though it had been something hot, or venomous, or
filthy; and rushing to the window with the unreflecting precipitation
of a man anxious to raise an alarm of fire or murder, he threw it up and
put his head out.

A chill gust of wind, wandering through the damp and sooty obscurity
over the waste of roofs and chimney-pots, touched his face with a clammy
flick. He saw an illimitable darkness, in which stood a black jumble of
walls, and, between them, the many rows of gaslights stretched far away
in long lines, like strung-up beads of fire. A sinister loom as of a
hidden conflagration lit up faintly from below the mist, falling upon
a billowy and motionless sea of tiles and bricks. At the rattle of the
opened window the world seemed to leap out of the night and confront
him, while floating up to his ears there came a sound vast and faint;
the deep mutter of something immense and alive. It penetrated him with
a feeling of dismay and he gasped silently. From the cab-stand in the
square came distinct hoarse voices and a jeering laugh which sounded
ominously harsh and cruel. It sounded threatening. He drew his head in,
as if before an aimed blow, and flung the window down quickly. He made
a few steps, stumbled against a chair, and with a great effort, pulled
himself together to lay hold of a certain thought that was whizzing
about loose in his head.

He got it at last, after more exertion than he expected; he was flushed
and puffed a little as though he had been catching it with his hands,
but his mental hold on it was weak, so weak that he judged it necessary
to repeat it aloud–to hear it spoken firmly–in order to insure a
perfect measure of possession. But he was unwilling to hear his own
voice–to hear any sound whatever–owing to a vague belief, shaping
itself slowly within him, that solitude and silence are the greatest
felicities of mankind. The next moment it dawned upon him that they are
perfectly unattainable–that faces must be seen, words spoken, thoughts
heard. All the words–all the thoughts!

He said very distinctly, and looking at the carpet, “She’s gone.”

It was terrible–not the fact but the words; the words charged with the
shadowy might of a meaning, that seemed to possess the tremendous power
to call Fate down upon the earth, like those strange and appalling words
that sometimes are heard in sleep. They vibrated round him in a metallic
atmosphere, in a space that had the hardness of iron and the resonance
of a bell of bronze. Looking down between the toes of his boots he
seemed to listen thoughtfully to the receding wave of sound; to the
wave spreading out in a widening circle, embracing streets, roofs,
church-steeples, fields–and travelling away, widening endlessly,
far, very far, where he could not hear–where he could not imagine
anything–where . . .

“And–with that . . . ass,” he said again without stirring in the least.
And there was nothing but humiliation. Nothing else. He could derive no
moral solace from any aspect of the situation, which radiated pain only
on every side. Pain. What kind of pain? It occurred to him that he ought
to be heart-broken; but in an exceedingly short moment he perceived that
his suffering was nothing of so trifling and dignified a kind. It was
altogether a more serious matter, and partook rather of the nature
of those subtle and cruel feelings which are awakened by a kick or a
horse-whipping.

He felt very sick–physically sick–as though he had bitten through
something nauseous. Life, that to a well-ordered mind should be a
matter of congratulation, appeared to him, for a second or so, perfectly
intolerable. He picked up the paper at his feet, and sat down with the
wish to think it out, to understand why his wife–his wife!–should
leave him, should throw away respect, comfort, peace, decency, position
throw away everything for nothing! He set himself to think out the
hidden logic of her action–a mental undertaking fit for the leisure
hours of a madhouse, though he couldn’t see it. And he thought of his
wife in every relation except the only fundamental one. He thought
of her as a well-bred girl, as a wife, as a cultured person, as the
mistress of a house, as a lady; but he never for a moment thought of her
simply as a woman.

Then a fresh wave, a raging wave of humiliation, swept through his mind,
and left nothing there but a personal sense of undeserved abasement. Why
should he be mixed up with such a horrid exposure! It annihilated all
the advantages of his well-ordered past, by a truth effective and unjust
like a calumny–and the past was wasted. Its failure was disclosed–a
distinct failure, on his part, to see, to guard, to understand. It could
not be denied; it could not be explained away, hustled out of sight. He
could not sit on it and look solemn. Now–if she had only died!

If she had only died! He was driven to envy such a respectable
bereavement, and one so perfectly free from any taint of misfortune that
even his best friend or his best enemy would not have felt the slightest
thrill of exultation. No one would have cared. He sought comfort in
clinging to the contemplation of the only fact of life that the resolute
efforts of mankind had never failed to disguise in the clatter and
glamour of phrases. And nothing lends itself more to lies than death.
If she had only died! Certain words would have been said to him in a
sad tone, and he, with proper fortitude, would have made appropriate
answers. There were precedents for such an occasion. And no one would
have cared. If she had only died! The promises, the terrors, the hopes
of eternity, are the concern of the corrupt dead; but the obvious
sweetness of life belongs to living, healthy men. And life was his
concern: that sane and gratifying existence untroubled by too much love
or by too much regret. She had interfered with it; she had defaced it.
And suddenly it occurred to him he must have been mad to marry. It was
too much in the nature of giving yourself away, of wearing–if for
a moment–your heart on your sleeve. But every one married. Was all
mankind mad!

In the shock of that startling thought he looked up, and saw to the
left, to the right, in front, men sitting far off in chairs and looking
at him with wild eyes–emissaries of a distracted mankind intruding to
spy upon his pain and his humiliation. It was not to be borne. He rose
quickly, and the others jumped up, too, on all sides. He stood still in
the middle of the room as if discouraged by their vigilance. No escape!
He felt something akin to despair. Everybody must know. The servants
must know to-night. He ground his teeth . . . And he had never noticed,
never guessed anything. Every one will know. He thought: “The woman’s a
monster, but everybody will think me a fool”; and standing still in the
midst of severe walnut-wood furniture, he felt such a tempest of anguish
within him that he seemed to see himself rolling on the carpet, beating
his head against the wall. He was disgusted with himself, with the
loathsome rush of emotion breaking through all the reserves that guarded
his manhood. Something unknown, withering and poisonous, had entered
his life, passed near him, touched him, and he was deteriorating. He was
appalled. What was it? She was gone. Why? His head was ready to burst
with the endeavour to understand her act and his subtle horror of it.
Everything was changed. Why? Only a woman gone, after all; and yet he
had a vision, a vision quick and distinct as a dream: the vision of
everything he had thought indestructible and safe in the world crashing
down about him, like solid walls do before the fierce breath of
a hurricane. He stared, shaking in every limb, while he felt the
destructive breath, the mysterious breath, the breath of passion, stir
the profound peace of the house. He looked round in fear. Yes. Crime may
be forgiven; uncalculating sacrifice, blind trust, burning faith, other
follies, may be turned to account; suffering, death itself, may with a
grin or a frown be explained away; but passion is the unpardonable and
secret infamy of our hearts, a thing to curse, to hide and to deny; a
shameless and forlorn thing that tramples upon the smiling promises,
that tears off the placid mask, that strips the body of life. And it had
come to him! It had laid its unclean hand upon the spotless draperies
of his existence, and he had to face it alone with all the world looking
on. All the world! And he thought that even the bare suspicion of
such an adversary within his house carried with it a taint and a
condemnation. He put both his hands out as if to ward off the reproach
of a defiling truth; and, instantly, the appalled conclave of unreal
men, standing about mutely beyond the clear lustre of mirrors, made at
him the same gesture of rejection and horror.

He glanced vainly here and there, like a man looking in desperation
for a weapon or for a hiding place, and understood at last that he was
disarmed and cornered by the enemy that, without any squeamishness,
would strike so as to lay open his heart. He could get help nowhere,
or even take counsel with himself, because in the sudden shock of her
desertion the sentiments which he knew that in fidelity to his bringing
up, to his prejudices and his surroundings, he ought to experience, were
so mixed up with the novelty of real feelings, of fundamental feelings
that know nothing of creed, class, or education, that he was unable to
distinguish clearly between what is and what ought to be; between the
inexcusable truth and the valid pretences. And he knew instinctively
that truth would be of no use to him. Some kind of concealment seemed a
necessity because one cannot explain. Of course not! Who would listen?
One had simply to be without stain and without reproach to keep one’s
place in the forefront of life.

He said to himself, “I must get over it the best I can,” and began to
walk up and down the room. What next? What ought to be done? He thought:
“I will travel–no I won’t. I shall face it out.” And after that resolve
he was greatly cheered by the reflection that it would be a mute and an
easy part to play, for no one would be likely to converse with him about
the abominable conduct of–that woman. He argued to himself that
decent people–and he knew no others–did not care to talk about such
indelicate affairs. She had gone off–with that unhealthy, fat ass of a
journalist. Why? He had been all a husband ought to be. He had given her
a good position–she shared his prospects–he had treated her invariably
with great consideration. He reviewed his conduct with a kind of dismal
pride. It had been irreproachable. Then, why? For love? Profanation!
There could be no love there. A shameful impulse of passion. Yes,
passion. His own wife! Good God! . . . And the indelicate aspect of his
domestic misfortune struck him with such shame that, next moment, he
caught himself in the act of pondering absurdly over the notion whether
it would not be more dignified for him to induce a general belief that
he had been in the habit of beating his wife. Some fellows do . . . and
anything would be better than the filthy fact; for it was clear he
had lived with the root of it for five years–and it was too shameful.
Anything! Anything! Brutality . . . But he gave it up directly, and
began to think of the Divorce Court. It did not present itself to him,
notwithstanding his respect for law and usage, as a proper refuge for
dignified grief. It appeared rather as an unclean and sinister cavern
where men and women are haled by adverse fate to writhe ridiculously
in the presence of uncompromising truth. It should not be allowed. That
woman! Five . . . years . . . married five years . . . and never to see
anything. Not to the very last day . . . not till she coolly went off.
And he pictured to himself all the people he knew engaged in speculating
as to whether all that time he had been blind, foolish, or infatuated.
What a woman! Blind! . . . Not at all. Could a clean-minded man imagine
such depravity? Evidently not. He drew a free breath. That was the
attitude to take; it was dignified enough; it gave him the advantage,
and he could not help perceiving that it was moral. He yearned
unaffectedly to see morality (in his person) triumphant before the
world. As to her she would be forgotten. Let her be forgotten–buried in
oblivion–lost! No one would allude . . . Refined people–and every man
and woman he knew could be so described–had, of course, a horror of
such topics. Had they? Oh, yes. No one would allude to her . . . in his
hearing. He stamped his foot, tore the letter across, then again and
again. The thought of sympathizing friends excited in him a fury
of mistrust. He flung down the small bits of paper. They settled,
fluttering at his feet, and looked very white on the dark carpet, like a
scattered handful of snow-flakes.

This fit of hot anger was succeeded by a sudden sadness, by the
darkening passage of a thought that ran over the scorched surface of his
heart, like upon a barren plain, and after a fiercer assault of sunrays,
the melancholy and cooling shadow of a cloud. He realized that he had
had a shock–not a violent or rending blow, that can be seen, resisted,
returned, forgotten, but a thrust, insidious and penetrating, that had
stirred all those feelings, concealed and cruel, which the arts of the
devil, the fears of mankind–God’s infinite compassion, perhaps–keep
chained deep down in the inscrutable twilight of our breasts. A dark
curtain seemed to rise before him, and for less than a second he looked
upon the mysterious universe of moral suffering. As a landscape is seen
complete, and vast, and vivid, under a flash of lightning, so he
could see disclosed in a moment all the immensity of pain that can be
contained in one short moment of human thought. Then the curtain fell
again, but his rapid vision left in Alvan Hervey’s mind a trail of
invincible sadness, a sense of loss and bitter solitude, as though he
had been robbed and exiled. For a moment he ceased to be a member of
society with a position, a career, and a name attached to all this, like
a descriptive label of some complicated compound. He was a simple human
being removed from the delightful world of crescents and squares. He
stood alone, naked and afraid, like the first man on the first day of
evil. There are in life events, contacts, glimpses, that seem brutally
to bring all the past to a close. There is a shock and a crash, as of
a gate flung to behind one by the perfidious hand of fate. Go and seek
another paradise, fool or sage. There is a moment of dumb dismay, and
the wanderings must begin again; the painful explaining away of facts,
the feverish raking up of illusions, the cultivation of a fresh crop
of lies in the sweat of one’s brow, to sustain life, to make it
supportable, to make it fair, so as to hand intact to another generation
of blind wanderers the charming legend of a heartless country, of a
promised land, all flowers and blessings . . .

He came to himself with a slight start, and became aware of an
oppressive, crushing desolation. It was only a feeling, it is true,
but it produced on him a physical effect, as though his chest had
been squeezed in a vice. He perceived himself so extremely forlorn
and lamentable, and was moved so deeply by the oppressive sorrow, that
another turn of the screw, he felt, would bring tears out of his eyes.
He was deteriorating. Five years of life in common had appeased his
longing. Yes, long-time ago. The first five months did that–but . . .
There was the habit–the habit of her person, of her smile, of her
gestures, of her voice, of her silence. She had a pure brow and
good hair. How utterly wretched all this was. Good hair and fine
eyes–remarkably fine. He was surprised by the number of details that
intruded upon his unwilling memory. He could not help remembering her
footsteps, the rustle of her dress, her way of holding her head, her
decisive manner of saying “Alvan,” the quiver of her nostrils when she
was annoyed. All that had been so much his property, so intimately and
specially his! He raged in a mournful, silent way, as he took stock
of his losses. He was like a man counting the cost of an unlucky
speculation–irritated, depressed–exasperated with himself and with
others, with the fortunate, with the indifferent, with the callous; yet
the wrong done him appeared so cruel that he would perhaps have dropped
a tear over that spoliation if it had not been for his conviction
that men do not weep. Foreigners do; they also kill sometimes in such
circumstances. And to his horror he felt himself driven to regret almost
that the usages of a society ready to forgive the shooting of a burglar
forbade him, under the circumstances, even as much as a thought of
murder. Nevertheless, he clenched his fists and set his teeth hard.
And he was afraid at the same time. He was afraid with that penetrating
faltering fear that seems, in the very middle of a beat, to turn one’s
heart into a handful of dust. The contamination of her crime spread out,
tainted the universe, tainted himself; woke up all the dormant infamies
of the world; caused a ghastly kind of clairvoyance in which he could
see the towns and fields of the earth, its sacred places, its temples
and its houses, peopled by monsters–by monsters of duplicity, lust, and
murder. She was a monster–he himself was thinking monstrous thoughts
. . . and yet he was like other people. How many men and women at this
very moment were plunged in abominations–meditated crimes. It was
frightful to think of. He remembered all the streets–the well-to-do
streets he had passed on his way home; all the innumerable houses with
closed doors and curtained windows. Each seemed now an abode of anguish
and folly. And his thought, as if appalled, stood still, recalling with
dismay the decorous and frightful silence that was like a conspiracy;
the grim, impenetrable silence of miles of walls concealing passions,
misery, thoughts of crime. Surely he was not the only man; his was not
the only house . . . and yet no one knew–no one guessed. But he knew.
He knew with unerring certitude that could not be deceived by the
correct silence of walls, of closed doors, of curtained windows. He was
beside himself with a despairing agitation, like a man informed of
a deadly secret–the secret of a calamity threatening the safety of
mankind–the sacredness, the peace of life.

He caught sight of himself in one of the looking-glasses. It was a
relief. The anguish of his feeling had been so powerful that he more
than half expected to see some distorted wild face there, and he was
pleasantly surprised to see nothing of the kind. His aspect, at any
rate, would let no one into the secret of his pain. He examined himself
with attention. His trousers were turned up, and his boots a little
muddy, but he looked very much as usual. Only his hair was slightly
ruffled, and that disorder, somehow, was so suggestive of trouble
that he went quickly to the table, and began to use the brushes, in an
anxious desire to obliterate the compromising trace, that only vestige
of his emotion. He brushed with care, watching the effect of his
smoothing; and another face, slightly pale and more tense than was
perhaps desirable, peered back at him from the toilet glass. He laid the
brushes down, and was not satisfied. He took them up again and brushed,
brushed mechanically–forgot himself in that occupation. The tumult of
his thoughts ended in a sluggish flow of reflection, such as, after the
outburst of a volcano, the almost imperceptible progress of a stream
of lava, creeping languidly over a convulsed land and pitilessly
obliterating any landmark left by the shock of the earthquake. It is
a destructive but, by comparison, it is a peaceful phenomenon. Alvan
Hervey was almost soothed by the deliberate pace of his thoughts. His
moral landmarks were going one by one, consumed in the fire of his
experience, buried in hot mud, in ashes. He was cooling–on the surface;
but there was enough heat left somewhere to make him slap the brushes on
the table, and turning away, say in a fierce whisper: “I wish him joy
. . . Damn the woman.”

He felt himself utterly corrupted by her wickedness, and the most
significant symptom of his moral downfall was the bitter, acrid
satisfaction with which he recognized it. He, deliberately, swore in his
thoughts; he meditated sneers; he shaped in profound silence words of
cynical unbelief, and his most cherished convictions stood revealed
finally as the narrow prejudices of fools. A crowd of shapeless, unclean
thoughts crossed his mind in a stealthy rush, like a band of veiled
malefactors hastening to a crime. He put his hands deep into his
pockets. He heard a faint ringing somewhere, and muttered to himself:
“I am not the only one . . . not the only one.” There was another ring.
Front door!

His heart leaped up into his throat, and forthwith descended as low as
his boots. A call! Who? Why? He wanted to rush out on the landing and
shout to the servant: “Not at home! Gone away abroad!” . . . Any excuse.
He could not face a visitor. Not this evening. No. To-morrow. . . .
Before he could break out of the numbness that enveloped him like a
sheet of lead, he heard far below, as if in the entrails of the earth,
a door close heavily. The house vibrated to it more than to a clap of
thunder. He stood still, wishing himself invisible. The room was very
chilly. He did not think he would ever feel like that. But people must
be met–they must be faced–talked to–smiled at. He heard another door,
much nearer–the door of the drawing-room–being opened and flung to
again. He imagined for a moment he would faint. How absurd! That kind
of thing had to be gone through. A voice spoke. He could not catch the
words. Then the voice spoke again, and footsteps were heard on the
first floor landing. Hang it all! Was he to hear that voice and those
footsteps whenever any one spoke or moved? He thought: “This is like
being haunted–I suppose it will last for a week or so, at least. Till
I forget. Forget! Forget!” Someone was coming up the second flight of
stairs. Servant? He listened, then, suddenly, as though an incredible,
frightful revelation had been shouted to him from a distance, he
bellowed out in the empty room: “What! What!” in such a fiendish tone
as to astonish himself. The footsteps stopped outside the door. He stood
openmouthed, maddened and still, as if in the midst of a catastrophe.
The door-handle rattled lightly. It seemed to him that the walls were
coming apart, that the furniture swayed at him; the ceiling slanted
queerly for a moment, a tall wardrobe tried to topple over. He caught
hold of something and it was the back of a chair. So he had reeled
against a chair! Oh! Confound it! He gripped hard.

The flaming butterfly poised between the jaws of the bronze dragon
radiated a glare, a glare that seemed to leap up all at once into a
crude, blinding fierceness, and made it difficult for him to distinguish
plainly the figure of his wife standing upright with her back to the
closed door. He looked at her and could not detect her breathing. The
harsh and violent light was beating on her, and he was amazed to see her
preserve so well the composure of her upright attitude in that scorching
brilliance which, to his eyes, enveloped her like a hot and consuming
mist. He would not have been surprised if she had vanished in it as
suddenly as she had appeared. He stared and listened; listened for some
sound, but the silence round him was absolute–as though he had in
a moment grown completely deaf as well as dim-eyed. Then his hearing
returned, preternaturally sharp. He heard the patter of a rain-shower on
the window panes behind the lowered blinds, and below, far below, in
the artificial abyss of the square, the deadened roll of wheels and the
splashy trotting of a horse. He heard a groan also–very distinct–in
the room–close to his ear.

He thought with alarm: “I must have made that noise myself;” and at the
same instant the woman left the door, stepped firmly across the floor
before him, and sat down in a chair. He knew that step. There was no
doubt about it. She had come back! And he very nearly said aloud
“Of course!”–such was his sudden and masterful perception of the
indestructible character of her being. Nothing could destroy her–and
nothing but his own destruction could keep her away. She was the
incarnation of all the short moments which every man spares out of his
life for dreams, for precious dreams that concrete the most cherished,
the most profitable of his illusions. He peered at her with inward
trepidation. She was mysterious, significant, full of obscure meaning
–like a symbol. He peered, bending forward, as though he had been
discovering about her things he had never seen before. Unconsciously
he made a step towards her–then another. He saw her arm make an ample,
decided movement and he stopped. She had lifted her veil. It was like
the lifting of a vizor.

The spell was broken. He experienced a shock as though he had been
called out of a trance by the sudden noise of an explosion. It was even
more startling and more distinct; it was an infinitely more intimate
change, for he had the sensation of having come into this room only that
very moment; of having returned from very far; he was made aware that
some essential part of himself had in a flash returned into his
body, returned finally from a fierce and lamentable region, from the
dwelling-place of unveiled hearts. He woke up to an amazing infinity of
contempt, to a droll bitterness of wonder, to a disenchanted conviction
of safety. He had a glimpse of the irresistible force, and he saw also
the barrenness of his convictions–of her convictions. It seemed to him
that he could never make a mistake as long as he lived. It was morally
impossible to go wrong. He was not elated by that certitude; he was
dimly uneasy about its price; there was a chill as of death in this
triumph of sound principles, in this victory snatched under the very
shadow of disaster.

The last trace of his previous state of mind vanished, as the
instantaneous and elusive trail of a bursting meteor vanishes on the
profound blackness of the sky; it was the faint flicker of a painful
thought, gone as soon as perceived, that nothing but her presence–after
all–had the power to recall him to himself. He stared at her. She sat
with her hands on her lap, looking down; and he noticed that her boots
were dirty, her skirts wet and splashed, as though she had been driven
back there by a blind fear through a waste of mud. He was indignant,
amazed and shocked, but in a natural, healthy way now; so that he
could control those unprofitable sentiments by the dictates of cautious
self-restraint. The light in the room had no unusual brilliance now; it
was a good light in which he could easily observe the expression of her
face. It was that of dull fatigue. And the silence that surrounded them
was the normal silence of any quiet house, hardly disturbed by the faint
noises of a respectable quarter of the town. He was very cool–and it
was quite coolly that he thought how much better it would be if neither
of them ever spoke again. She sat with closed lips, with an air of
lassitude in the stony forgetfulness of her pose, but after a moment she
lifted her drooping eyelids and met his tense and inquisitive stare by
a look that had all the formless eloquence of a cry. It penetrated, it
stirred without informing; it was the very essence of anguish stripped
of words that can be smiled at, argued away, shouted down, disdained.
It was anguish naked and unashamed, the bare pain of existence let loose
upon the world in the fleeting unreserve of a look that had in it an
immensity of fatigue, the scornful sincerity, the black impudence of an
extorted confession. Alvan Hervey was seized with wonder, as though he
had seen something inconceivable; and some obscure part of his being
was ready to exclaim with him: “I would never have believed it!” but
an instantaneous revulsion of wounded susceptibilities checked the
unfinished thought.

He felt full of rancorous indignation against the woman who could look
like this at one. This look probed him; it tampered with him. It was
dangerous to one as would be a hint of unbelief whispered by a priest in
the august decorum of a temple; and at the same time it was impure,
it was disturbing, like a cynical consolation muttered in the dark,
tainting the sorrow, corroding the thought, poisoning the heart. He
wanted to ask her furiously: “Who do you take me for? How dare you look
at me like this?” He felt himself helpless before the hidden meaning of
that look; he resented it with pained and futile violence as an injury
so secret that it could never, never be redressed. His wish was to crush
her by a single sentence. He was stainless. Opinion was on his side;
morality, men and gods were on his side; law, conscience–all the world!
She had nothing but that look. And he could only say:

“How long do you intend to stay here?”

Her eyes did not waver, her lips remained closed; and for any effect
of his words he might have spoken to a dead woman, only that this one
breathed quickly. He was profoundly disappointed by what he had said.
It was a great deception, something in the nature of treason. He had
deceived himself. It should have been altogether different–other
words–another sensation. And before his eyes, so fixed that at times
they saw nothing, she sat apparently as unconscious as though she had
been alone, sending that look of brazen confession straight at him–with
an air of staring into empty space. He said significantly:

“Must I go then?” And he knew he meant nothing of what he implied.

One of her hands on her lap moved slightly as though his words had
fallen there and she had thrown them off on the floor. But her silence
encouraged him. Possibly it meant remorse–perhaps fear. Was she
thunderstruck by his attitude? . . . Her eyelids dropped. He seemed to
understand ever so much–everything! Very well–but she must be made to
suffer. It was due to him. He understood everything, yet he judged it
indispensable to say with an obvious affectation of civility:

“I don’t understand–be so good as to . . .”

She stood up. For a second he believed she intended to go away, and
it was as though someone had jerked a string attached to his heart. It
hurt. He remained open-mouthed and silent. But she made an irresolute
step towards him, and instinctively he moved aside. They stood before
one another, and the fragments of the torn letter lay between them–at
their feet–like an insurmountable obstacle, like a sign of eternal
separation! Around them three other couples stood still and face to
face, as if waiting for a signal to begin some action–a struggle, a
dispute, or a dance.

She said: “Don’t–Alvan!” and there was something that resembled a
warning in the pain of her tone. He narrowed his eyes as if trying to
pierce her with his gaze. Her voice touched him. He had aspirations
after magnanimity, generosity, superiority–interrupted, however, by
flashes of indignation and anxiety–frightful anxiety to know how far
she had gone. She looked down at the torn paper. Then she looked up, and
their eyes met again, remained fastened together, like an unbreakable
bond, like a clasp of eternal complicity; and the decorous silence, the
pervading quietude of the house which enveloped this meeting of their
glances became for a moment inexpressibly vile, for he was afraid she
would say too much and make magnanimity impossible, while behind the
profound mournfulness of her face there was a regret–a regret of things
done–the regret of delay–the thought that if she had only turned back
a week sooner–a day sooner–only an hour sooner. . . . They were afraid
to hear again the sound of their voices; they did not know what they
might say–perhaps something that could not be recalled; and words are
more terrible than facts. But the tricky fatality that lurks in obscure
impulses spoke through Alvan Hervey’s lips suddenly; and he heard
his own voice with the excited and sceptical curiosity with which one
listens to actors’ voices speaking on the stage in the strain of a
poignant situation.

“If you have forgotten anything . . . of course . . . I . . .”

Her eyes blazed at him for an instant; her lips trembled–and then she
also became the mouth-piece of the mysterious force forever hovering
near us; of that perverse inspiration, wandering capricious and
uncontrollable, like a gust of wind.

“What is the good of this, Alvan? . . . You know why I came back. . . .
You know that I could not . . .”

He interrupted her with irritation.

“Then! what’s this?” he asked, pointing downwards at the torn letter.

“That’s a mistake,” she said hurriedly, in a muffled voice.

This answer amazed him. He remained speechless, staring at her. He had
half a mind to burst into a laugh. It ended in a smile as involuntary as
a grimace of pain.

“A mistake . . .” he began, slowly, and then found himself unable to say
another word.

“Yes . . . it was honest,” she said very low, as if speaking to the
memory of a feeling in a remote past.

He exploded.

“Curse your honesty! . . . Is there any honesty in all this! . . . When
did you begin to be honest? Why are you here? What are you now? . . .
Still honest? . . .”

He walked at her, raging, as if blind; during these three quick strides
he lost touch of the material world and was whirled interminably through
a kind of empty universe made up of nothing but fury and anguish, till
he came suddenly upon her face–very close to his. He stopped short, and
all at once seemed to remember something heard ages ago.

“You don’t know the meaning of the word,” he shouted.

She did not flinch. He perceived with fear that everything around him
was still. She did not move a hair’s breadth; his own body did not stir.
An imperturbable calm enveloped their two motionless figures, the house,
the town, all the world–and the trifling tempest of his feelings. The
violence of the short tumult within him had been such as could well have
shattered all creation; and yet nothing was changed. He faced his wife
in the familiar room in his own house. It had not fallen. And right and
left all the innumerable dwellings, standing shoulder to shoulder,
had resisted the shock of his passion, had presented, unmoved, to the
loneliness of his trouble, the grim silence of walls, the impenetrable
and polished discretion of closed doors and curtained windows.
Immobility and silence pressed on him, assailed him, like two
accomplices of the immovable and mute woman before his eyes. He was
suddenly vanquished. He was shown his impotence. He was soothed by the
breath of a corrupt resignation coming to him through the subtle irony
of the surrounding peace.

He said with villainous composure:

“At any rate it isn’t enough for me. I want to know more–if you’re
going to stay.”

“There is nothing more to tell,” she answered, sadly.

It struck him as so very true that he did not say anything. She went on:

“You wouldn’t understand. . . .”

“No?” he said, quietly. He held himself tight not to burst into howls
and imprecations.

“I tried to be faithful . . .” she began again.

“And this?” he exclaimed, pointing at the fragments of her letter.

“This–this is a failure,” she said.

“I should think so,” he muttered, bitterly.

“I tried to be faithful to myself–Alvan–and . . . and honest to
you. . . .”

“If you had tried to be faithful to me it would have been more to the
purpose,” he interrupted, angrily. “I’ve been faithful to you and you
have spoiled my life–both our lives . . .” Then after a pause the
unconquerable preoccupation of self came out, and he raised his voice to
ask resentfully, “And, pray, for how long have you been making a fool of
me?”

She seemed horribly shocked by that question. He did not wait for an
answer, but went on moving about all the time; now and then coming up to
her, then wandering off restlessly to the other end of the room.

“I want to know. Everybody knows, I suppose, but myself–and that’s your
honesty!”

“I have told you there is nothing to know,” she said, speaking
unsteadily as if in pain. “Nothing of what you suppose. You don’t
understand me. This letter is the beginning–and the end.”

“The end–this thing has no end,” he clamoured, unexpectedly. “Can’t you
understand that? I can . . . The beginning . . .”

He stopped and looked into her eyes with concentrated intensity, with
a desire to see, to penetrate, to understand, that made him positively
hold his breath till he gasped.

“By Heavens!” he said, standing perfectly still in a peering attitude
and within less than a foot from her.

“By Heavens!” he repeated, slowly, and in a tone whose involuntary
strangeness was a complete mystery to himself. “By Heavens–I could
believe you–I could believe anything–now!”

He turned short on his heel and began to walk up and down the room with
an air of having disburdened himself of the final pronouncement of his
life–of having said something on which he would not go back, even if
he could. She remained as if rooted to the carpet. Her eyes followed
the restless movements of the man, who avoided looking at her. Her wide
stare clung to him, inquiring, wondering and doubtful.

“But the fellow was forever sticking in here,” he burst out,
distractedly. “He made love to you, I suppose–and, and . . .” He
lowered his voice. “And–you let him.”

“And I let him,” she murmured, catching his intonation, so that her
voice sounded unconscious, sounded far off and slavish, like an echo.

He said twice, “You! You!” violently, then calmed down. “What could you
see in the fellow?” he asked, with unaffected wonder. “An effeminate,
fat ass. What could you . . . Weren’t you happy? Didn’t you have all you
wanted? Now–frankly; did I deceive your expectations in any way? Were
you disappointed with our position–or with our prospects–perhaps? You
know you couldn’t be–they are much better than you could hope for when
you married me. . . .”

He forgot himself so far as to gesticulate a little while he went on
with animation:

“What could you expect from such a fellow? He’s an outsider–a rank
outsider. . . . If it hadn’t been for my money . . . do you hear? . . .
for my money, he wouldn’t know where to turn. His people won’t have
anything to do with him. The fellow’s no class–no class at all.
He’s useful, certainly, that’s why I . . . I thought you had enough
intelligence to see it. . . . And you . . . No! It’s incredible!
What did he tell you? Do you care for no one’s opinion–is there no
restraining influence in the world for you–women? Did you ever give me
a thought? I tried to be a good husband. Did I fail? Tell me–what have
I done?”

Carried away by his feelings he took his head in both his hands and
repeated wildly:

“What have I done? . . . Tell me! What? . . .”

“Nothing,” she said.

“Ah! You see . . . you can’t . . .” he began, triumphantly, walking
away; then suddenly, as though he had been flung back at her by
something invisible he had met, he spun round and shouted with
exasperation:

“What on earth did you expect me to do?”

Without a word she moved slowly towards the table, and, sitting down,
leaned on her elbow, shading her eyes with her hand. All that time he
glared at her watchfully as if expecting every moment to find in her
deliberate movements an answer to his question. But he could not read
anything, he could gather no hint of her thought. He tried to suppress
his desire to shout, and after waiting awhile, said with incisive scorn:

“Did you want me to write absurd verses; to sit and look at you for
hours–to talk to you about your soul? You ought to have known I wasn’t
that sort. . . . I had something better to do. But if you think I was
totally blind . . .”

He perceived in a flash that he could remember an infinity of
enlightening occurrences. He could recall ever so many distinct
occasions when he came upon them; he remembered the absurdly interrupted
gesture of his fat, white hand, the rapt expression of her face, the
glitter of unbelieving eyes; snatches of incomprehensible conversations
not worth listening to, silences that had meant nothing at the time
and seemed now illuminating like a burst of sunshine. He remembered all
that. He had not been blind. Oh! No! And to know this was an exquisite
relief: it brought back all his composure.

“I thought it beneath me to suspect you,” he said, loftily.

The sound of that sentence evidently possessed some magical power,
because, as soon as he had spoken, he felt wonderfully at ease; and
directly afterwards he experienced a flash of joyful amazement at
the discovery that he could be inspired to such noble and truthful
utterance. He watched the effect of his words. They caused her to glance
to him quickly over her shoulder. He caught a glimpse of wet eyelashes,
of a red cheek with a tear running down swiftly; and then she turned
away again and sat as before, covering her face with her hands.

“You ought to be perfectly frank with me,” he said, slowly.

“You know everything,” she answered, indistinctly, through her fingers.

“This letter. . . . Yes . . . but . . .”

“And I came back,” she exclaimed in a stifled voice; “you know
everything.”

“I am glad of it–for your sake,” he said with impressive gravity. He
listened to himself with solemn emotion. It seemed to him that something
inexpressibly momentous was in progress within the room, that every
word and every gesture had the importance of events preordained from
the beginning of all things, and summing up in their finality the whole
purpose of creation.

“For your sake,” he repeated.

Her shoulders shook as though she had been sobbing, and he forgot
himself in the contemplation of her hair. Suddenly he gave a start, as
if waking up, and asked very gently and not much above a whisper–

“Have you been meeting him often?”

“Never!” she cried into the palms of her hands.

This answer seemed for a moment to take from him the power of speech.
His lips moved for some time before any sound came.

“You preferred to make love here–under my very nose,” he said,
furiously. He calmed down instantly, and felt regretfully uneasy, as
though he had let himself down in her estimation by that outburst. She
rose, and with her hand on the back of the chair confronted him with
eyes that were perfectly dry now. There was a red spot on each of her
cheeks.

“When I made up my mind to go to him–I wrote,” she said.

“But you didn’t go to him,” he took up in the same tone. “How far did
you go? What made you come back?”

“I didn’t know myself,” she murmured. Nothing of her moved but her lips.
He fixed her sternly.

“Did he expect this? Was he waiting for you?” he asked.

She answered him by an almost imperceptible nod, and he continued to
look at her for a good while without making a sound. Then, at last–

“And I suppose he is waiting yet?” he asked, quickly.

Again she seemed to nod at him. For some reason he felt he must know the
time. He consulted his watch gloomily. Half-past seven.

“Is he?” he muttered, putting the watch in his pocket. He looked up at
her, and, as if suddenly overcome by a sense of sinister fun, gave a
short, harsh laugh, directly repressed.

“No! It’s the most unheard! . . .” he mumbled while she stood before him
biting her lower lip, as if plunged in deep thought. He laughed again
in one low burst that was as spiteful as an imprecation. He did not know
why he felt such an overpowering and sudden distaste for the facts of
existence–for facts in general–such an immense disgust at the thought
of all the many days already lived through. He was wearied. Thinking
seemed a labour beyond his strength. He said–

“You deceived me–now you make a fool of him . . . It’s awful! Why?”

“I deceived myself!” she exclaimed.

“Oh! Nonsense!” he said, impatiently.

“I am ready to go if you wish it,” she went on, quickly. “It was due to
you–to be told–to know. No! I could not!” she cried, and stood still
wringing her hands stealthily.

“I am glad you repented before it was too late,” he said in a dull
tone and looking at his boots. “I am glad . . . some spark of better
feeling,” he muttered, as if to himself. He lifted up his head after a
moment of brooding silence. “I am glad to see that there is some sense
of decency left in you,” he added a little louder. Looking at her he
appeared to hesitate, as if estimating the possible consequences of what
he wished to say, and at last blurted out–

“After all, I loved you. . . .”

“I did not know,” she whispered.

“Good God!” he cried. “Why do you imagine I married you?”

The indelicacy of his obtuseness angered her.

“Ah–why?” she said through her teeth.

He appeared overcome with horror, and watched her lips intently as
though in fear.

“I imagined many things,” she said, slowly, and paused. He watched,
holding his breath. At last she went on musingly, as if thinking aloud,
“I tried to understand. I tried honestly. . . . Why? . . . To do the
usual thing–I suppose. . . . To please yourself.”

He walked away smartly, and when he came back, close to her, he had a
flushed face.

“You seemed pretty well pleased, too–at the time,” he hissed, with
scathing fury. “I needn’t ask whether you loved me.”

“I know now I was perfectly incapable of such a thing,” she said,
calmly, “If I had, perhaps you would not have married me.”

“It’s very clear I would not have done it if I had known you–as I know
you now.”

He seemed to see himself proposing to her–ages ago. They were strolling
up the slope of a lawn. Groups of people were scattered in sunshine.
The shadows of leafy boughs lay still on the short grass. The coloured
sunshades far off, passing between trees, resembled deliberate and
brilliant butterflies moving without a flutter. Men smiling amiably,
or else very grave, within the impeccable shelter of their black coats,
stood by the side of women who, clustered in clear summer toilettes,
recalled all the fabulous tales of enchanted gardens where animated
flowers smile at bewitched knights. There was a sumptuous serenity in
it all, a thin, vibrating excitement, the perfect security, as of an
invincible ignorance, that evoked within him a transcendent belief in
felicity as the lot of all mankind, a recklessly picturesque desire to
get promptly something for himself only, out of that splendour unmarred
by any shadow of a thought. The girl walked by his side across an open
space; no one was near, and suddenly he stood still, as if inspired, and
spoke. He remembered looking at her pure eyes, at her candid brow; he
remembered glancing about quickly to see if they were being observed,
and thinking that nothing could go wrong in a world of so much charm,
purity, and distinction. He was proud of it. He was one of its makers,
of its possessors, of its guardians, of its extollers. He wanted to
grasp it solidly, to get as much gratification as he could out of it;
and in view of its incomparable quality, of its unstained atmosphere,
of its nearness to the heaven of its choice, this gust of brutal desire
seemed the most noble of aspirations. In a second he lived again through
all these moments, and then all the pathos of his failure presented
itself to him with such vividness that there was a suspicion of tears in
his tone when he said almost unthinkingly, “My God! I did love you!”

She seemed touched by the emotion of his voice. Her lips quivered a
little, and she made one faltering step towards him, putting out her
hands in a beseeching gesture, when she perceived, just in time, that
being absorbed by the tragedy of his life he had absolutely forgotten
her very existence. She stopped, and her outstretched arms fell slowly.
He, with his features distorted by the bitterness of his thought, saw
neither her movement nor her gesture. He stamped his foot in vexation,
rubbed his head–then exploded.

“What the devil am I to do now?”

He was still again. She seemed to understand, and moved to the door
firmly.

“It’s very simple–I’m going,” she said aloud.

At the sound of her voice he gave a start of surprise, looked at her
wildly, and asked in a piercing tone–

“You. . . . Where? To him?”

“No–alone–good-bye.”

The door-handle rattled under her groping hand as though she had been
trying to get out of some dark place.

“No–stay!” he cried.

She heard him faintly. He saw her shoulder touch the lintel of the door.
She swayed as if dazed. There was less than a second of suspense while
they both felt as if poised on the very edge of moral annihilation,
ready to fall into some devouring nowhere. Then, almost simultaneously,
he shouted, “Come back!” and she let go the handle of the door. She
turned round in peaceful desperation like one who deliberately has
thrown away the last chance of life; and, for a moment, the room she
faced appeared terrible, and dark, and safe–like a grave.

He said, very hoarse and abrupt: “It can’t end like this. . . . Sit
down;” and while she crossed the room again to the low-backed chair
before the dressing-table, he opened the door and put his head out to
look and listen. The house was quiet. He came back pacified, and asked–

“Do you speak the truth?”

She nodded.

“You have lived a lie, though,” he said, suspiciously.

“Ah! You made it so easy,” she answered.

“You reproach me–me!”

“How could I?” she said; “I would have you no other–now.”

“What do you mean by . . .” he began, then checked himself, and without
waiting for an answer went on, “I won’t ask any questions. Is this
letter the worst of it?”

She had a nervous movement of her hands.

“I must have a plain answer,” he said, hotly.

“Then, no! The worst is my coming back.”

There followed a period of dead silence, during which they exchanged
searching glances.

He said authoritatively–

“You don’t know what you are saying. Your mind is unhinged. You are
beside yourself, or you would not say such things. You can’t control
yourself. Even in your remorse . . .” He paused a moment, then said with
a doctoral air: “Self-restraint is everything in life, you know. It’s
happiness, it’s dignity . . . it’s everything.”

She was pulling nervously at her handkerchief while he went on watching
anxiously to see the effect of his words. Nothing satisfactory happened.
Only, as he began to speak again, she covered her face with both her
hands.

“You see where the want of self-restraint leads to.
Pain–humiliation–loss of respect–of friends, of everything that
ennobles life, that . . . All kinds of horrors,” he concluded, abruptly.

She made no stir. He looked at her pensively for some time as though he
had been concentrating the melancholy thoughts evoked by the sight of
that abased woman. His eyes became fixed and dull. He was profoundly
penetrated by the solemnity of the moment; he felt deeply the greatness
of the occasion. And more than ever the walls of his house seemed
to enclose the sacredness of ideals to which he was about to offer a
magnificent sacrifice. He was the high priest of that temple, the severe
guardian of formulas, of rites, of the pure ceremonial concealing the
black doubts of life. And he was not alone. Other men, too–the best of
them–kept watch and ward by the hearthstones that were the altars of
that profitable persuasion. He understood confusedly that he was part
of an immense and beneficent power, which had a reward ready for every
discretion. He dwelt within the invincible wisdom of silence; he was
protected by an indestructible faith that would last forever, that would
withstand unshaken all the assaults–the loud execrations of apostates,
and the secret weariness of its confessors! He was in league with a
universe of untold advantages. He represented the moral strength of a
beautiful reticence that could vanquish all the deplorable crudities of
life–fear, disaster, sin–even death itself. It seemed to him he was
on the point of sweeping triumphantly away all the illusory mysteries of
existence. It was simplicity itself.

“I hope you see now the folly–the utter folly of wickedness,” he began
in a dull, solemn manner. “You must respect the conditions of your life
or lose all it can give you. All! Everything!”

He waved his arm once, and three exact replicas of his face, of his
clothes, of his dull severity, of his solemn grief, repeated the wide
gesture that in its comprehensive sweep indicated an infinity of moral
sweetness, embraced the walls, the hangings, the whole house, all the
crowd of houses outside, all the flimsy and inscrutable graves of the
living, with their doors numbered like the doors of prison-cells, and as
impenetrable as the granite of tombstones.

“Yes! Restraint, duty, fidelity–unswerving fidelity to what is expected
of you. This–only this–secures the reward, the peace. Everything else
we should labour to subdue–to destroy. It’s misfortune; it’s disease.
It is terrible–terrible. We must not know anything about it–we
needn’t. It is our duty to ourselves–to others. You do not live all
alone in the world–and if you have no respect for the dignity of life,
others have. Life is a serious matter. If you don’t conform to the
highest standards you are no one–it’s a kind of death. Didn’t this
occur to you? You’ve only to look round you to see the truth of what I
am saying. Did you live without noticing anything, without understanding
anything? From a child you had examples before your eyes–you could see
daily the beauty, the blessings of morality, of principles. . . .”

His voice rose and fell pompously in a strange chant. His eyes were
still, his stare exalted and sullen; his face was set, was hard, was
woodenly exulting over the grim inspiration that secretly possessed him,
seethed within him, lifted him up into a stealthy frenzy of belief. Now
and then he would stretch out his right arm over her head, as it were,
and he spoke down at that sinner from a height, and with a sense of
avenging virtue, with a profound and pure joy as though he could
from his steep pinnacle see every weighty word strike and hurt like a
punishing stone.

“Rigid principles–adherence to what is right,” he finished after a
pause.

“What is right?” she said, distinctly, without uncovering her face.

“Your mind is diseased!” he cried, upright and austere. “Such a question
is rot–utter rot. Look round you–there’s your answer, if you only care
to see. Nothing that outrages the received beliefs can be right. Your
conscience tells you that. They are the received beliefs because they
are the best, the noblest, the only possible. They survive. . . .”

He could not help noticing with pleasure the philosophic breadth of his
view, but he could not pause to enjoy it, for his inspiration, the call
of august truth, carried him on.

“You must respect the moral foundations of a society that has made
you what you are. Be true to it. That’s duty–that’s honour–that’s
honesty.”

He felt a great glow within him, as though he had swallowed something
hot. He made a step nearer. She sat up and looked at him with an ardour
of expectation that stimulated his sense of the supreme importance of
that moment. And as if forgetting himself he raised his voice very much.

“‘What’s right?’ you ask me. Think only. What would you have been if
you had gone off with that infernal vagabond? . . . What would you have
been? . . . You! My wife! . . .”

He caught sight of himself in the pier glass, drawn up to his full
height, and with a face so white that his eyes, at the distance,
resembled the black cavities in a skull. He saw himself as if about to
launch imprecations, with arms uplifted above her bowed head. He was
ashamed of that unseemly posture, and put his hands in his pockets
hurriedly. She murmured faintly, as if to herself–

“Ah! What am I now?”

“As it happens you are still Mrs. Alvan Hervey–uncommonly lucky for
you, let me tell you,” he said in a conversational tone. He walked up to
the furthest corner of the room, and, turning back, saw her sitting very
upright, her hands clasped on her lap, and with a lost, unswerving gaze
of her eyes which stared unwinking like the eyes of the blind, at the
crude gas flame, blazing and still, between the jaws of the bronze
dragon.

He came up quite close to her, and straddling his legs a little, stood
looking down at her face for some time without taking his hands out of
his pockets. He seemed to be turning over in his mind a heap of words,
piecing his next speech out of an overpowering abundance of thoughts.

“You’ve tried me to the utmost,” he said at last; and as soon as he said
these words he lost his moral footing, and felt himself swept away from
his pinnacle by a flood of passionate resentment against the bungling
creature that had come so near to spoiling his life. “Yes; I’ve
been tried more than any man ought to be,” he went on with righteous
bitterness. “It was unfair. What possessed you to? . . . What possessed
you? . . . Write such a . . . After five years of perfect happiness!
‘Pon my word, no one would believe. . . . Didn’t you feel you couldn’t?
Because you couldn’t . . . it was impossible–you know. Wasn’t it?
Think. Wasn’t it?”

“It was impossible,” she whispered, obediently.

This submissive assent given with such readiness did not soothe him,
did not elate him; it gave him, inexplicably, that sense of terror
we experience when in the midst of conditions we had learned to think
absolutely safe we discover all at once the presence of a near and
unsuspected danger. It was impossible, of course! He knew it. She knew
it. She confessed it. It was impossible! That man knew it, too–as well
as any one; couldn’t help knowing it. And yet those two had been engaged
in a conspiracy against his peace–in a criminal enterprise for which
there could be no sanction of belief within themselves. There could not
be! There could not be! And yet how near to . . . With a short thrill
he saw himself an exiled forlorn figure in a realm of ungovernable,
of unrestrained folly. Nothing could be foreseen, foretold–guarded
against. And the sensation was intolerable, had something of the
withering horror that may be conceived as following upon the utter
extinction of all hope. In the flash of thought the dishonouring
episode seemed to disengage itself from everything actual, from
earthly conditions, and even from earthly suffering; it became purely a
terrifying knowledge, an annihilating knowledge of a blind and infernal
force. Something desperate and vague, a flicker of an insane desire to
abase himself before the mysterious impulses of evil, to ask for mercy
in some way, passed through his mind; and then came the idea, the
persuasion, the certitude, that the evil must be forgotten–must be
resolutely ignored to make life possible; that the knowledge must be
kept out of mind, out of sight, like the knowledge of certain death is
kept out of the daily existence of men. He stiffened himself inwardly
for the effort, and next moment it appeared very easy, amazingly
feasible, if one only kept strictly to facts, gave one’s mind to their
perplexities and not to their meaning. Becoming conscious of a long
silence, he cleared his throat warningly, and said in a steady voice–

“I am glad you feel this . . . uncommonly glad . . . you felt this in
time. For, don’t you see . . .” Unexpectedly he hesitated.

“Yes . . . I see,” she murmured.

“Of course you would,” he said, looking at the carpet and speaking
like one who thinks of something else. He lifted his head. “I
cannot believe–even after this–even after this–that you are
altogether–altogether . . . other than what I thought you. It seems
impossible–to me.”

“And to me,” she breathed out.

“Now–yes,” he said, “but this morning? And to-morrow? . . . This is
what . . .”

He started at the drift of his words and broke off abruptly. Every train
of thought seemed to lead into the hopeless realm of ungovernable folly,
to recall the knowledge and the terror of forces that must be ignored.
He said rapidly–

“My position is very painful–difficult . . . I feel . . .”

He looked at her fixedly with a pained air, as though frightfully
oppressed by a sudden inability to express his pent-up ideas.

“I am ready to go,” she said very low. “I have forfeited everything
. . . to learn . . . to learn . . .”

Her chin fell on her breast; her voice died out in a sigh. He made a
slight gesture of impatient assent.

“Yes! Yes! It’s all very well . . . of course. Forfeited–ah! Morally
forfeited–only morally forfeited . . . if I am to believe you . . .”

She startled him by jumping up.

“Oh! I believe, I believe,” he said, hastily, and she sat down as
suddenly as she had got up. He went on gloomily–

“I’ve suffered–I suffer now. You can’t understand how much. So much
that when you propose a parting I almost think. . . . But no. There is
duty. You’ve forgotten it; I never did. Before heaven, I never did. But
in a horrid exposure like this the judgment of mankind goes astray–at
least for a time. You see, you and I–at least I feel that–you and I
are one before the world. It is as it should be. The world is right–in
the main–or else it couldn’t be–couldn’t be–what it is. And we are
part of it. We have our duty to–to our fellow beings who don’t want to
. . . to . . . er.”

He stammered. She looked up at him with wide eyes, and her lips were
slightly parted. He went on mumbling–

“. . . Pain. . . . Indignation. . . . Sure to misunderstand. I’ve
suffered enough. And if there has been nothing irreparable–as you
assure me . . . then . . .”

“Alvan!” she cried.

“What?” he said, morosely. He gazed down at her for a moment with a
sombre stare, as one looks at ruins, at the devastation of some natural
disaster.

“Then,” he continued after a short pause, “the best thing is . . .
the best for us . . . for every one. . . . Yes . . . least pain–most
unselfish. . . .” His voice faltered, and she heard only detached words.
“. . . Duty. . . . Burden. . . . Ourselves. . . . Silence.”

A moment of perfect stillness ensued.

“This is an appeal I am making to your conscience,” he said, suddenly,
in an explanatory tone, “not to add to the wretchedness of all this:
to try loyally and help me to live it down somehow. Without any
reservations–you know. Loyally! You can’t deny I’ve been cruelly
wronged and–after all–my affection deserves . . .” He paused with
evident anxiety to hear her speak.

“I make no reservations,” she said, mournfully. “How could I? I found
myself out and came back to . . .” her eyes flashed scornfully for an
instant “. . . to what–to what you propose. You see . . . I . . . I can
be trusted . . . now.”

He listened to every word with profound attention, and when she ceased
seemed to wait for more.

“Is that all you’ve got to say?” he asked.

She was startled by his tone, and said faintly–

“I spoke the truth. What more can I say?”

“Confound it! You might say something human,” he burst out. “It isn’t
being truthful; it’s being brazen–if you want to know. Not a word
to show you feel your position, and–and mine. Not a single word of
acknowledgment, or regret–or remorse . . . or . . . something.”

“Words!” she whispered in a tone that irritated him. He stamped his
foot.

“This is awful!” he exclaimed. “Words? Yes, words. Words mean
something–yes–they do–for all this infernal affectation. They mean
something to me–to everybody–to you. What the devil did you use to
express those sentiments–sentiments–pah!–which made you forget me,
duty, shame!” . . . He foamed at the mouth while she stared at him,
appalled by this sudden fury. “Did you two talk only with your eyes?” he
spluttered savagely. She rose.

“I can’t bear this,” she said, trembling from head to foot. “I am
going.”

They stood facing one another for a moment.

“Not you,” he said, with conscious roughness, and began to walk up
and down the room. She remained very still with an air of listening
anxiously to her own heart-beats, then sank down on the chair slowly,
and sighed, as if giving up a task beyond her strength.

“You misunderstand everything I say,” he began quietly, “but I prefer
to think that–just now–you are not accountable for your actions.”
He stopped again before her. “Your mind is unhinged,” he said, with
unction. “To go now would be adding crime–yes, crime–to folly. I’ll
have no scandal in my life, no matter what’s the cost. And why? You are
sure to misunderstand me–but I’ll tell you. As a matter of duty. Yes.
But you’re sure to misunderstand me–recklessly. Women always do–they
are too–too narrow-minded.”

He waited for a while, but she made no sound, didn’t even look at
him; he felt uneasy, painfully uneasy, like a man who suspects he
is unreasonably mistrusted. To combat that exasperating sensation
he recommenced talking very fast. The sound of his words excited his
thoughts, and in the play of darting thoughts he had glimpses now and
then of the inexpugnable rock of his convictions, towering in solitary
grandeur above the unprofitable waste of errors and passions.

“For it is self-evident,” he went on with anxious vivacity, “it is
self-evident that, on the highest ground we haven’t the right–no, we
haven’t the right to intrude our miseries upon those who–who naturally
expect better things from us. Every one wishes his own life and the life
around him to be beautiful and pure. Now, a scandal amongst people of
our position is disastrous for the morality–a fatal influence–don’t
you see–upon the general tone of the class–very important–the
most important, I verily believe, in–in the community. I feel
this–profoundly. This is the broad view. In time you’ll give me . . .
when you become again the woman I loved–and trusted. . . .”

He stopped short, as though unexpectedly suffocated, then in a
completely changed voice said, “For I did love and trust you”–and again
was silent for a moment. She put her handkerchief to her eyes.

“You’ll give me credit for–for–my motives. It’s mainly loyalty to–to
the larger conditions of our life–where you–you! of all women–failed.
One doesn’t usually talk like this–of course–but in this case you’ll
admit . . . And consider–the innocent suffer with the guilty. The world
is pitiless in its judgments. Unfortunately there are always those in
it who are only too eager to misunderstand. Before you and before my
conscience I am guiltless, but any–any disclosure would impair my
usefulness in the sphere–in the larger sphere in which I hope soon to
. . . I believe you fully shared my views in that matter–I don’t want
to say any more . . . on–on that point–but, believe me, true
unselfishness is to bear one’s burdens in–in silence. The ideal
must–must be preserved–for others, at least. It’s clear as daylight.
If I’ve a–a loathsome sore, to gratuitously display it would be
abominable–abominable! And often in life–in the highest conception
of life–outspokenness in certain circumstances is nothing less than
criminal. Temptation, you know, excuses no one. There is no such thing
really if one looks steadily to one’s welfare–which is grounded in
duty. But there are the weak.” . . . His tone became ferocious for an
instant . . . “And there are the fools and the envious–especially for
people in our position. I am guiltless of this terrible–terrible . . .
estrangement; but if there has been nothing irreparable.” . . .
Something gloomy, like a deep shadow passed over his face. . . .
“Nothing irreparable–you see even now I am ready to trust you
implicitly–then our duty is clear.”

He looked down. A change came over his expression and straightway
from the outward impetus of his loquacity he passed into the dull
contemplation of all the appeasing truths that, not without some wonder,
he had so recently been able to discover within himself. During this
profound and soothing communion with his innermost beliefs he remained
staring at the carpet, with a portentously solemn face and with a dull
vacuity of eyes that seemed to gaze into the blankness of an empty hole.
Then, without stirring in the least, he continued:

“Yes. Perfectly clear. I’ve been tried to the utmost, and I can’t
pretend that, for a time, the old feelings–the old feelings are not.
. . .” He sighed. . . . “But I forgive you. . . .”

She made a slight movement without uncovering her eyes. In his profound
scrutiny of the carpet he noticed nothing. And there was silence,
silence within and silence without, as though his words had stilled the
beat and tremor of all the surrounding life, and the house had stood
alone–the only dwelling upon a deserted earth.

He lifted his head and repeated solemnly:

“I forgive you . . . from a sense of duty–and in the hope . . .”

He heard a laugh, and it not only interrupted his words but also
destroyed the peace of his self-absorption with the vile pain of a
reality intruding upon the beauty of a dream. He couldn’t understand
whence the sound came. He could see, foreshortened, the tear-stained,
dolorous face of the woman stretched out, and with her head thrown over
the back of the seat. He thought the piercing noise was a delusion.
But another shrill peal followed by a deep sob and succeeded by another
shriek of mirth positively seemed to tear him out from where he stood.
He bounded to the door. It was closed. He turned the key and thought:
that’s no good. . . . “Stop this!” he cried, and perceived with alarm
that he could hardly hear his own voice in the midst of her screaming.
He darted back with the idea of stifling that unbearable noise with his
hands, but stood still distracted, finding himself as unable to touch
her as though she had been on fire. He shouted, “Enough of this!” like
men shout in the tumult of a riot, with a red face and starting eyes;
then, as if swept away before another burst of laughter, he disappeared
in a flash out of three looking-glasses, vanished suddenly from before
her. For a time the woman gasped and laughed at no one in the luminous
stillness of the empty room.

He reappeared, striding at her, and with a tumbler of water in his hand.
He stammered: “Hysterics–Stop–They will hear–Drink this.” She laughed
at the ceiling. “Stop this!” he cried. “Ah!”

He flung the water in her face, putting into the action all the secret
brutality of his spite, yet still felt that it would have been
perfectly excusable–in any one–to send the tumbler after the water. He
restrained himself, but at the same time was so convinced nothing could
stop the horror of those mad shrieks that, when the first sensation of
relief came, it did not even occur to him to doubt the impression of
having become suddenly deaf. When, next moment, he became sure that she
was sitting up, and really very quiet, it was as though everything–men,
things, sensations, had come to a rest. He was prepared to be grateful.
He could not take his eyes off her, fearing, yet unwilling to admit,
the possibility of her beginning again; for, the experience, however
contemptuously he tried to think of it, had left the bewilderment of a
mysterious terror. Her face was streaming with water and tears; there
was a wisp of hair on her forehead, another stuck to her cheek; her hat
was on one side, undecorously tilted; her soaked veil resembled a sordid
rag festooning her forehead. There was an utter unreserve in her aspect,
an abandonment of safeguards, that ugliness of truth which can only be
kept out of daily life by unremitting care for appearances. He did not
know why, looking at her, he thought suddenly of to-morrow, and why
the thought called out a deep feeling of unutterable, discouraged
weariness–a fear of facing the succession of days. To-morrow! It was as
far as yesterday. Ages elapsed between sunrises–sometimes. He scanned
her features like one looks at a forgotten country. They were not
distorted–he recognized landmarks, so to speak; but it was only a
resemblance that he could see, not the woman of yesterday–or was
it, perhaps, more than the woman of yesterday? Who could tell? Was
it something new? A new expression–or a new shade of expression?
or something deep–an old truth unveiled, a fundamental and hidden
truth–some unnecessary, accursed certitude? He became aware that he was
trembling very much, that he had an empty tumbler in his hand–that time
was passing. Still looking at her with lingering mistrust he reached
towards the table to put the glass down and was startled to feel it
apparently go through the wood. He had missed the edge. The surprise,
the slight jingling noise of the accident annoyed him beyond expression.
He turned to her irritated.

“What’s the meaning of this?” he asked, grimly.

She passed her hand over her face and made an attempt to get up.

“You’re not going to be absurd again,” he said. “‘Pon my soul, I did not
know you could forget yourself to that extent.” He didn’t try to conceal
his physical disgust, because he believed it to be a purely moral
reprobation of every unreserve, of anything in the nature of a scene.
“I assure you–it was revolting,” he went on. He stared for a moment at
her. “Positively degrading,” he added with insistence.

She stood up quickly as if moved by a spring and tottered. He started
forward instinctively. She caught hold of the back of the chair
and steadied herself. This arrested him, and they faced each other
wide-eyed, uncertain, and yet coming back slowly to the reality of
things with relief and wonder, as though just awakened after tossing
through a long night of fevered dreams.

“Pray, don’t begin again,” he said, hurriedly, seeing her open her lips.
“I deserve some little consideration–and such unaccountable behaviour
is painful to me. I expect better things. . . . I have the right. . . .”

She pressed both her hands to her temples.

“Oh, nonsense!” he said, sharply. “You are perfectly capable of coming
down to dinner. No one should even suspect; not even the servants. No
one! No one! . . . I am sure you can.”

She dropped her arms; her face twitched. She looked straight into his
eyes and seemed incapable of pronouncing a word. He frowned at her.

“I–wish–it,” he said, tyrannically. “For your own sake also. . . .”
He meant to carry that point without any pity. Why didn’t she speak?
He feared passive resistance. She must. . . . Make her come. His frown
deepened, and he began to think of some effectual violence, when most
unexpectedly she said in a firm voice, “Yes, I can,” and clutched the
chair-back again. He was relieved, and all at once her attitude ceased
to interest him. The important thing was that their life would
begin again with an every-day act–with something that could not be
misunderstood, that, thank God, had no moral meaning, no perplexity–and
yet was symbolic of their uninterrupted communion in the past–in all
the future. That morning, at that table, they had breakfast together;
and now they would dine. It was all over! What had happened between
could be forgotten–must be forgotten, like things that can only happen
once–death for instance.

“I will wait for you,” he said, going to the door. He had some
difficulty with it, for he did not remember he had turned the key. He
hated that delay, and his checked impatience to be gone out of the
room made him feel quite ill as, with the consciousness of her presence
behind his back, he fumbled at the lock. He managed it at last; then in
the doorway he glanced over his shoulder to say, “It’s rather late–you
know–” and saw her standing where he had left her, with a face white as
alabaster and perfectly still, like a woman in a trance.

He was afraid she would keep him waiting, but without any breathing
time, he hardly knew how, he found himself sitting at table with her.
He had made up his mind to eat, to talk, to be natural. It seemed to
him necessary that deception should begin at home. The servants must not
know–must not suspect. This intense desire of secrecy; of secrecy dark,
destroying, profound, discreet like a grave, possessed him with the
strength of a hallucination–seemed to spread itself to inanimate
objects that had been the daily companions of his life, affected with a
taint of enmity every single thing within the faithful walls that would
stand forever between the shamelessness of facts and the indignation of
mankind. Even when–as it happened once or twice–both the servants left
the room together he remained carefully natural, industriously hungry,
laboriously at his ease, as though he had wanted to cheat the black oak
sideboard, the heavy curtains, the stiff-backed chairs, into the
belief of an unstained happiness. He was mistrustful of his wife’s
self-control, unwilling to look at her and reluctant to speak, for it
seemed to him inconceivable that she should not betray herself by the
slightest movement, by the very first word spoken. Then he thought
the silence in the room was becoming dangerous, and so excessive as to
produce the effect of an intolerable uproar. He wanted to end it, as one
is anxious to interrupt an indiscreet confession; but with the memory of
that laugh upstairs he dared not give her an occasion to open her lips.
Presently he heard her voice pronouncing in a calm tone some unimportant
remark. He detached his eyes from the centre of his plate and felt
excited as if on the point of looking at a wonder. And nothing could be
more wonderful than her composure. He was looking at the candid eyes,
at the pure brow, at what he had seen every evening for years in that
place; he listened to the voice that for five years he had heard every
day. Perhaps she was a little pale–but a healthy pallor had always
been for him one of her chief attractions. Perhaps her face was rigidly
set–but that marmoreal impassiveness, that magnificent stolidity, as of
a wonderful statue by some great sculptor working under the curse of the
gods; that imposing, unthinking stillness of her features, had till then
mirrored for him the tranquil dignity of a soul of which he had thought
himself–as a matter of course–the inexpugnable possessor. Those were
the outward signs of her difference from the ignoble herd that feels,
suffers, fails, errs–but has no distinct value in the world except as a
moral contrast to the prosperity of the elect. He had been proud of her
appearance. It had the perfectly proper frankness of perfection–and
now he was shocked to see it unchanged. She looked like this, spoke like
this, exactly like this, a year ago, a month ago–only yesterday when
she. . . . What went on within made no difference. What did she think?
What meant the pallor, the placid face, the candid brow, the pure
eyes? What did she think during all these years? What did she think
yesterday–to-day; what would she think to-morrow? He must find out.
. . . And yet how could he get to know? She had been false to him, to that
man, to herself; she was ready to be false–for him. Always false. She
looked lies, breathed lies, lived lies–would tell lies–always–to the
end of life! And he would never know what she meant. Never! Never! No
one could. Impossible to know.

He dropped his knife and fork, brusquely, as though by the virtue of a
sudden illumination he had been made aware of poison in his plate, and
became positive in his mind that he could never swallow another morsel
of food as long as he lived. The dinner went on in a room that had been
steadily growing, from some cause, hotter than a furnace. He had to
drink. He drank time after time, and, at last, recollecting himself,
was frightened at the quantity, till he perceived that what he had
been drinking was water–out of two different wine glasses; and the
discovered unconsciousness of his actions affected him painfully. He was
disturbed to find himself in such an unhealthy state of mind. Excess of
feeling–excess of feeling; and it was part of his creed that any excess
of feeling was unhealthy–morally unprofitable; a taint on practical
manhood. Her fault. Entirely her fault. Her sinful self-forgetfulness
was contagious. It made him think thoughts he had never had before;
thoughts disintegrating, tormenting, sapping to the very core of
life–like mortal disease; thoughts that bred the fear of air, of
sunshine, of men–like the whispered news of a pestilence.

The maids served without noise; and to avoid looking at his wife and
looking within himself, he followed with his eyes first one and then
the other without being able to distinguish between them. They moved
silently about, without one being able to see by what means, for
their skirts touched the carpet all round; they glided here and there,
receded, approached, rigid in black and white, with precise gestures,
and no life in their faces, like a pair of marionettes in mourning;
and their air of wooden unconcern struck him as unnatural, suspicious,
irremediably hostile. That such people’s feelings or judgment could
affect one in any way, had never occurred to him before. He understood
they had no prospects, no principles–no refinement and no power. But
now he had become so debased that he could not even attempt to disguise
from himself his yearning to know the secret thoughts of his servants.
Several times he looked up covertly at the faces of those girls.
Impossible to know. They changed his plates and utterly ignored his
existence. What impenetrable duplicity. Women–nothing but women round
him. Impossible to know. He experienced that heart-probing, fiery
sense of dangerous loneliness, which sometimes assails the courage of
a solitary adventurer in an unexplored country. The sight of a man’s
face–he felt–of any man’s face, would have been a profound relief. One
would know then–something–could understand. . . . He would engage a
butler as soon as possible. And then the end of that dinner–which
had seemed to have been going on for hours–the end came, taking him
violently by surprise, as though he had expected in the natural course
of events to sit at that table for ever and ever.

But upstairs in the drawing-room he became the victim of a restless
fate, that would, on no account, permit him to sit down. She had sunk
on a low easy-chair, and taking up from a small table at her elbow a
fan with ivory leaves, shaded her face from the fire. The coals glowed
without a flame; and upon the red glow the vertical bars of the grate
stood out at her feet, black and curved, like the charred ribs of a
consumed sacrifice. Far off, a lamp perched on a slim brass rod, burned
under a wide shade of crimson silk: the centre, within the shadows of
the large room, of a fiery twilight that had in the warm quality of its
tint something delicate, refined and infernal. His soft footfalls and
the subdued beat of the clock on the high mantel-piece answered each
other regularly–as if time and himself, engaged in a measured contest,
had been pacing together through the infernal delicacy of twilight
towards a mysterious goal.

He walked from one end of the room to the other without a pause, like a
traveller who, at night, hastens doggedly upon an interminable journey.
Now and then he glanced at her. Impossible to know. The gross precision
of that thought expressed to his practical mind something illimitable
and infinitely profound, the all-embracing subtlety of a feeling, the
eternal origin of his pain. This woman had accepted him, had abandoned
him–had returned to him. And of all this he would never know the truth.
Never. Not till death–not after–not on judgment day when all shall be
disclosed, thoughts and deeds, rewards and punishments, but the secret
of hearts alone shall return, forever unknown, to the Inscrutable
Creator of good and evil, to the Master of doubts and impulses.

He stood still to look at her. Thrown back and with her face turned away
from him, she did not stir–as if asleep. What did she think? What
did she feel? And in the presence of her perfect stillness, in the
breathless silence, he felt himself insignificant and powerless before
her, like a prisoner in chains. The fury of his impotence called out
sinister images, that faculty of tormenting vision, which in a moment
of anguishing sense of wrong induces a man to mutter threats or make
a menacing gesture in the solitude of an empty room. But the gust of
passion passed at once, left him trembling a little, with the wondering,
reflective fear of a man who has paused on the very verge of suicide.
The serenity of truth and the peace of death can be only secured through
a largeness of contempt embracing all the profitable servitudes of life.
He found he did not want to know. Better not. It was all over. It was
as if it hadn’t been. And it was very necessary for both of them, it was
morally right, that nobody should know.

He spoke suddenly, as if concluding a discussion.

“The best thing for us is to forget all this.”

She started a little and shut the fan with a click.

“Yes, forgive–and forget,” he repeated, as if to himself.

“I’ll never forget,” she said in a vibrating voice. “And I’ll never
forgive myself. . . .”

“But I, who have nothing to reproach myself . . .” He began, making a
step towards her. She jumped up.

“I did not come back for your forgiveness,” she exclaimed, passionately,
as if clamouring against an unjust aspersion.

He only said “oh!” and became silent. He could not understand this
unprovoked aggressiveness of her attitude, and certainly was very
far from thinking that an unpremeditated hint of something resembling
emotion in the tone of his last words had caused that uncontrollable
burst of sincerity. It completed his bewilderment, but he was not at
all angry now. He was as if benumbed by the fascination of the
incomprehensible. She stood before him, tall and indistinct, like a
black phantom in the red twilight. At last poignantly uncertain as to
what would happen if he opened his lips, he muttered:

“But if my love is strong enough . . .” and hesitated.

He heard something snap loudly in the fiery stillness. She had broken
her fan. Two thin pieces of ivory fell, one after another, without a
sound, on the thick carpet, and instinctively he stooped to pick them
up. While he groped at her feet it occurred to him that the woman there
had in her hands an indispensable gift which nothing else on earth could
give; and when he stood up he was penetrated by an irresistible belief
in an enigma, by the conviction that within his reach and passing away
from him was the very secret of existence–its certitude, immaterial and
precious! She moved to the door, and he followed at her elbow, casting
about for a magic word that would make the enigma clear, that would
compel the surrender of the gift. And there is no such word! The enigma
is only made clear by sacrifice, and the gift of heaven is in the hands
of every man. But they had lived in a world that abhors enigmas, and
cares for no gifts but such as can be obtained in the street. She was
nearing the door. He said hurriedly:

“‘Pon my word, I loved you–I love you now.”

She stopped for an almost imperceptible moment to give him an indignant
glance, and then moved on. That feminine penetration–so clever and
so tainted by the eternal instinct of self-defence, so ready to see an
obvious evil in everything it cannot understand–filled her with bitter
resentment against both the men who could offer to the spiritual and
tragic strife of her feelings nothing but the coarseness of their
abominable materialism. In her anger against her own ineffectual
self-deception she found hate enough for them both. What did they want?
What more did this one want? And as her husband faced her again,
with his hand on the door-handle, she asked herself whether he was
unpardonably stupid, or simply ignoble.

She said nervously, and very fast:

“You are deceiving yourself. You never loved me. You wanted a wife–some
woman–any woman that would think, speak, and behave in a certain
way–in a way you approved. You loved yourself.”

“You won’t believe me?” he asked, slowly.

“If I had believed you loved me,” she began, passionately, then drew in
a long breath; and during that pause he heard the steady beat of blood
in his ears. “If I had believed it . . . I would never have come back,”
she finished, recklessly.

He stood looking down as though he had not heard. She waited. After a
moment he opened the door, and, on the landing, the sightless woman of
marble appeared, draped to the chin, thrusting blindly at them a cluster
of lights.

He seemed to have forgotten himself in a meditation so deep that on the
point of going out she stopped to look at him in surprise. While she
had been speaking he had wandered on the track of the enigma, out of the
world of senses into the region of feeling. What did it matter what she
had done, what she had said, if through the pain of her acts and words
he had obtained the word of the enigma! There can be no life without
faith and love–faith in a human heart, love of a human being! That
touch of grace, whose help once in life is the privilege of the
most undeserving, flung open for him the portals of beyond, and in
contemplating there the certitude immaterial and precious he forgot
all the meaningless accidents of existence: the bliss of getting, the
delight of enjoying; all the protean and enticing forms of the cupidity
that rules a material world of foolish joys, of contemptible sorrows.
Faith!–Love!–the undoubting, clear faith in the truth of a soul–the
great tenderness, deep as the ocean, serene and eternal, like the
infinite peace of space above the short tempests of the earth. It was
what he had wanted all his life–but he understood it only then for the
first time. It was through the pain of losing her that the knowledge had
come. She had the gift! She had the gift! And in all the world she was
the only human being that could surrender it to his immense desire.
He made a step forward, putting his arms out, as if to take her to
his breast, and, lifting his head, was met by such a look of blank
consternation that his arms fell as though they had been struck down by
a blow. She started away from him, stumbled over the threshold, and
once on the landing turned, swift and crouching. The train of her gown
swished as it flew round her feet. It was an undisguised panic. She
panted, showing her teeth, and the hate of strength, the disdain of
weakness, the eternal preoccupation of sex came out like a toy demon out
of a box.

“This is odious,” she screamed.

He did not stir; but her look, her agitated movements, the sound of her
voice were like a mist of facts thickening between him and the vision
of love and faith. It vanished; and looking at that face triumphant and
scornful, at that white face, stealthy and unexpected, as if discovered
staring from an ambush, he was coming back slowly to the world of
senses. His first clear thought was: I am married to that woman; and the
next: she will give nothing but what I see. He felt the need not to see.
But the memory of the vision, the memory that abides forever within the
seer made him say to her with the naive austerity of a convert awed by
the touch of a new creed, “You haven’t the gift.” He turned his back
on her, leaving her completely mystified. And she went upstairs slowly,
struggling with a distasteful suspicion of having been confronted by
something more subtle than herself–more profound than the misunderstood
and tragic contest of her feelings.

He shut the door of the drawing-room and moved at hazard, alone amongst
the heavy shadows and in the fiery twilight as of an elegant place of
perdition. She hadn’t the gift–no one had. . . . He stepped on a book
that had fallen off one of the crowded little tables. He picked up the
slender volume, and holding it, approached the crimson-shaded lamp. The
fiery tint deepened on the cover, and contorted gold letters sprawling
all over it in an intricate maze, came out, gleaming redly. “Thorns
and Arabesques.” He read it twice, “Thorns and Ar . . . . . . . .” The
other’s book of verses. He dropped it at his feet, but did not feel the
slightest pang of jealousy or indignation. What did he know? . . . What?
. . . The mass of hot coals tumbled down in the grate, and he turned to
look at them . . . Ah! That one was ready to give up everything he had
for that woman–who did not come–who had not the faith, the love, the
courage to come. What did that man expect, what did he hope, what did
he want? The woman–or the certitude immaterial and precious! The first
unselfish thought he had ever given to any human being was for that
man who had tried to do him a terrible wrong. He was not angry. He was
saddened by an impersonal sorrow, by a vast melancholy as of all mankind
longing for what cannot be attained. He felt his fellowship with every
man–even with that man–especially with that man. What did he think
now? Had he ceased to wait–and hope? Would he ever cease to wait and
hope? Would he understand that the woman, who had no courage, had not
the gift–had not the gift!

The clock began to strike, and the deep-toned vibration filled the
room as though with the sound of an enormous bell tolling far away. He
counted the strokes. Twelve. Another day had begun. To-morrow had come;
the mysterious and lying to-morrow that lures men, disdainful of love
and faith, on and on through the poignant futilities of life to the
fitting reward of a grave. He counted the strokes, and gazing at the
grate seemed to wait for more. Then, as if called out, left the room,
walking firmly.

When outside he heard footsteps in the hall and stood still. A bolt was
shot–then another. They were locking up–shutting out his desire and
his deception from the indignant criticism of a world full of noble
gifts for those who proclaim themselves without stain and without
reproach. He was safe; and on all sides of his dwelling servile
fears and servile hopes slept, dreaming of success, behind the severe
discretion of doors as impenetrable to the truth within as the granite
of tombstones. A lock snapped–a short chain rattled. Nobody shall know!

Why was this assurance of safety heavier than a burden of fear, and why
the day that began presented itself obstinately like the last day of
all–like a to-day without a to-morrow? Yet nothing was changed, for
nobody would know; and all would go on as before–the getting, the
enjoying, the blessing of hunger that is appeased every day; the noble
incentives of unappeasable ambitions. All–all the blessings of life.
All–but the certitude immaterial and precious–the certitude of love
and faith. He believed the shadow of it had been with him as long as he
could remember; that invisible presence had ruled his life. And now the
shadow had appeared and faded he could not extinguish his longing for
the truth of its substance. His desire of it was naive; it was masterful
like the material aspirations that are the groundwork of existence, but,
unlike these, it was unconquerable. It was the subtle despotism of
an idea that suffers no rivals, that is lonely, inconsolable, and
dangerous. He went slowly up the stairs. Nobody shall know. The days
would go on and he would go far–very far. If the idea could not be
mastered, fortune could be, man could be–the whole world. He was
dazzled by the greatness of the prospect; the brutality of a practical
instinct shouted to him that only that which could be had was worth
having. He lingered on the steps. The lights were out in the hall, and
a small yellow flame flitted about down there. He felt a sudden contempt
for himself which braced him up. He went on, but at the door of their
room and with his arm advanced to open it, he faltered. On the flight of
stairs below the head of the girl who had been locking up appeared. His
arm fell. He thought, “I’ll wait till she is gone”–and stepped back
within the perpendicular folds of a portiere.

He saw her come up gradually, as if ascending from a well. At every step
the feeble flame of the candle swayed before her tired, young face, and
the darkness of the hall seemed to cling to her black skirt, followed
her, rising like a silent flood, as though the great night of the world
had broken through the discreet reserve of walls, of closed doors, of
curtained windows. It rose over the steps, it leaped up the walls like
an angry wave, it flowed over the blue skies, over the yellow sands,
over the sunshine of landscapes, and over the pretty pathos of ragged
innocence and of meek starvation. It swallowed up the delicious idyll
in a boat and the mutilated immortality of famous bas-reliefs. It flowed
from outside–it rose higher, in a destructive silence. And, above it,
the woman of marble, composed and blind on the high pedestal, seemed to
ward off the devouring night with a cluster of lights.

He watched the rising tide of impenetrable gloom with impatience, as if
anxious for the coming of a darkness black enough to conceal a shameful
surrender. It came nearer. The cluster of lights went out. The girl
ascended facing him. Behind her the shadow of a colossal woman danced
lightly on the wall. He held his breath while she passed by, noiseless
and with heavy eyelids. And on her track the flowing tide of a tenebrous
sea filled the house, seemed to swirl about his feet, and rising
unchecked, closed silently above his head.

The time had come but he did not open the door. All was still; and
instead of surrendering to the reasonable exigencies of life he stepped
out, with a rebelling heart, into the darkness of the house. It was the
abode of an impenetrable night; as though indeed the last day had come
and gone, leaving him alone in a darkness that has no to-morrow. And
looming vaguely below the woman of marble, livid and still like a
patient phantom, held out in the night a cluster of extinguished lights.

His obedient thought traced for him the image of an uninterrupted life,
the dignity and the advantages of an uninterrupted success; while his
rebellious heart beat violently within his breast, as if maddened by the
desire of a certitude immaterial and precious–the certitude of love and
faith. What of the night within his dwelling if outside he could find
the sunshine in which men sow, in which men reap! Nobody would know. The
days, the years would pass, and . . . He remembered that he had loved
her. The years would pass . . . And then he thought of her as we think
of the dead–in a tender immensity of regret, in a passionate longing
for the return of idealized perfections. He had loved her–he had loved
her–and he never knew the truth . . . The years would pass in the
anguish of doubt . . . He remembered her smile, her eyes, her voice, her
silence, as though he had lost her forever. The years would pass and
he would always mistrust her smile, suspect her eyes; he would always
misbelieve her voice, he would never have faith in her silence. She had
no gift–she had no gift! What was she? Who was she? . . . The years
would pass; the memory of this hour would grow faint–and she would
share the material serenity of an unblemished life. She had no love and
no faith for any one. To give her your thought, your belief, was like
whispering your confession over the edge of the world. Nothing came
back–not even an echo.

In the pain of that thought was born his conscience; not that fear of
remorse which grows slowly, and slowly decays amongst the complicated
facts of life, but a Divine wisdom springing full-grown, armed and
severe out of a tried heart, to combat the secret baseness of motives.
It came to him in a flash that morality is not a method of happiness.
The revelation was terrible. He saw at once that nothing of what he knew
mattered in the least. The acts of men and women, success, humiliation,
dignity, failure–nothing mattered. It was not a question of more or
less pain, of this joy, of that sorrow. It was a question of truth or
falsehood–it was a question of life or death.

He stood in the revealing night–in the darkness that tries the hearts,
in the night useless for the work of men, but in which their gaze,
undazzled by the sunshine of covetous days, wanders sometimes as far as
the stars. The perfect stillness around him had something solemn in it,
but he felt it was the lying solemnity of a temple devoted to the rites
of a debasing persuasion. The silence within the discreet walls was
eloquent of safety but it appeared to him exciting and sinister, like
the discretion of a profitable infamy; it was the prudent peace of a
den of coiners–of a house of ill-fame! The years would pass–and nobody
would know. Never! Not till death–not after . . .

“Never!” he said aloud to the revealing night.

And he hesitated. The secret of hearts, too terrible for the timid eyes
of men, shall return, veiled forever, to the Inscrutable Creator of
good and evil, to the Master of doubts and impulses. His conscience
was born–he heard its voice, and he hesitated, ignoring the strength
within, the fateful power, the secret of his heart! It was an awful
sacrifice to cast all one’s life into the flame of a new belief. He
wanted help against himself, against the cruel decree of salvation. The
need of tacit complicity, where it had never failed him, the habit of
years affirmed itself. Perhaps she would help . . . He flung the door
open and rushed in like a fugitive.

He was in the middle of the room before he could see anything but the
dazzling brilliance of the light; and then, as if detached and floating
in it on the level of his eyes, appeared the head of a woman. She had
jumped up when he burst into the room.

For a moment they contemplated each other as if struck dumb with
amazement. Her hair streaming on her shoulders glinted like burnished
gold. He looked into the unfathomable candour of her eyes. Nothing
within–nothing–nothing.

He stammered distractedly.

“I want . . . I want . . . to . . . to . . . know . . .”

On the candid light of the eyes flitted shadows; shadows of doubt,
of suspicion, the ready suspicion of an unquenchable antagonism, the
pitiless mistrust of an eternal instinct of defence; the hate, the
profound, frightened hate of an incomprehensible–of an abominable
emotion intruding its coarse materialism upon the spiritual and tragic
contest of her feelings.

“Alvan . . . I won’t bear this . . .” She began to pant suddenly, “I’ve
a right–a right to–to–myself . . .”

He lifted one arm, and appeared so menacing that she stopped in a fright
and shrank back a little.

He stood with uplifted hand . . . The years would pass–and he would
have to live with that unfathomable candour where flit shadows of
suspicions and hate . . . The years would pass–and he would never
know–never trust . . . The years would pass without faith and
love. . . .

“Can you stand it?” he shouted, as though she could have heard all his
thoughts.

He looked menacing. She thought of violence, of danger–and, just for
an instant, she doubted whether there were splendours enough on earth to
pay the price of such a brutal experience. He cried again:

“Can you stand it?” and glared as if insane. Her eyes blazed, too. She
could not hear the appalling clamour of his thoughts. She suspected
in him a sudden regret, a fresh fit of jealousy, a dishonest desire of
evasion. She shouted back angrily–

“Yes!”

He was shaken where he stood as if by a struggle to break out of
invisible bonds. She trembled from head to foot.

“Well, I can’t!” He flung both his arms out, as if to push her away,
and strode from the room. The door swung to with a click. She made three
quick steps towards it and stood still, looking at the white and gold
panels. No sound came from beyond, not a whisper, not a sigh; not even
a footstep was heard outside on the thick carpet. It was as though no
sooner gone he had suddenly expired–as though he had died there and his
body had vanished on the instant together with his soul. She listened,
with parted lips and irresolute eyes. Then below, far below her, as
if in the entrails of the earth, a door slammed heavily; and the quiet
house vibrated to it from roof to foundations, more than to a clap of
thunder.

He never returned.

Joseph Conrad: The Return
fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive C-D, Conrad, Joseph, Joseph Conrad


Joseph Conrad: Amy Foster

Joseph Conrad
(1857-1924)

Amy Foster

Kennedy is a country doctor, and lives in Colebrook, on the shores of Eastbay. The high ground rising abruptly behind the red roofs of the little town crowds the quaint High Street against the wall which defends it from the sea. Beyond the sea-wall there curves for miles in a vast and regular sweep the barren beach of shingle, with the village of Brenzett standing out darkly across the water, a spire in a clump of trees; and still further out the perpendicular column of a lighthouse, looking in the distance no bigger than a lead pencil, marks the vanishing-point of the land. The country at the back of Brenzett is low and flat, but the bay is fairly well sheltered from the seas, and occasionally a big ship, windbound or through stress of weather, makes use of the anchoring ground a mile and a half due north from you as you stand at the back door of the “Ship Inn” in Brenzett. A dilapidated windmill near by lifting its shattered arms from a mound no loftier than a rubbish heap, and a Martello tower squatting at the water’s edge half a mile to the south of the Coastguard cottages, are familiar to the skippers of small craft. These are the official seamarks for the patch of trustworthy bottom represented on the Admiralty charts by an irregular oval of dots enclosing several figures six, with a tiny anchor engraved among them, and the legend “mud and shells” over all.

The brow of the upland overtops the square tower of the Colebrook Church. The slope is green and looped by a white road. Ascending along this road, you open a valley broad and shallow, a wide green trough of pastures and hedges merging inland into a vista of purple tints and flowing lines closing the view.

In this valley down to Brenzett and Colebrook and up to Darnford, the market town fourteen miles away, lies the practice of my friend Kennedy. He had begun life as surgeon in the Navy, and afterwards had been the companion of a famous traveler, in the days when there were continents with unexplored interiors. His papers on the fauna and flora made him known to scientific societies. And now he had come to a country practice – from choice. The penetrating power of his mind, acting like a corrosive fluid, had destroyed his ambition, I fancy. His intelligence is of a scientific order, of an investigating habit, and of that unappeasable curiosity which believes that there is a particle of a general truth in every mystery.

A good many years ago now, on my return from abroad, he invited me to stay with him. I came readily enough, and as he could not neglect his patients to keep me company, he took me on his rounds – thirty miles or so of an afternoon, sometimes. I waited for him on the roads; the horse reached after the leafy twigs, and, sitting in the dogcart, I could hear Kennedy’s laugh through the half-open door left open of some cottage. He had a big, hearty laugh that would have fitted a man twice his size, a brisk manner, a bronzed face, and a pair of gray, profoundly attentive eyes. He had the talent of making people talk to him freely, and an inexhaustible patience in listening to their tales.

One day, as we trotted out of a large village into a shady bit of road, I saw on our left hand a low, black cottage, with diamond panes in the windows, a creeper on the end wall, a roof of shingle, and some roses climbing on the rickety trellis-work of the tiny porch. Kennedy pulled up to a walk. A woman, in full sunlight, was throwing a dripping blanket over a line stretched between two old apple-trees. And as the bobtailed, long-necked chestnut, trying to get his head, jerked the left hand, covered by a thick dogskin glove, the doctor raised his voice over the hedge: “How’s your child, Amy?”

I had the time to see her dull face, red, not with a mantling blush, but as if her flat cheeks had been vigorously slapped, and to take in the squat figure, the scanty, dusty brown hair drawn into a tight knot at the back of the head. She looked quite young. With a distinct catch in her breath, her voice sounded low and timid.

“He’s well, thank you.”

We trotted again. “A young patient of yours,” I said; and the doctor, flicking the chestnut absently, muttered, “Her husband used to be.”

“She seems a dull creature,” I remarked listlessly.

“Precisely,” said Kennedy. “She is very passive. It’s enough to look at the red hands hanging at the end of those short arms, at those slow, prominent brown eyes, to know the inertness of her mind – an inertness that one would think made it everlastingly safe from all the surprises of imagination. And yet which of us is safe? At any rate, such as you see her, she had enough imagination to fall in love. She’s the daughter of one Isaac Foster, who from a small farmer has sunk into a shepherd; the beginning of his misfortunes dating from his runaway marriage with the cook of his widowed father – a well-to-do, apoplectic grazier, who passionately struck his name off his will, and had been heard to utter threats against his life. But this old affair, scandalous enough to serve as a motive for a Greek tragedy, arose from the similarity of their characters. There are other tragedies, less scandalous and of a subtler poignancy, arising from irreconcilable differences and from that fear of the Incomprehensible that hangs over all our heads – over all our heads…”

The tired chestnut dropped into a walk; and the rim of the sun, all red in a speckless sky, touched familiarly the smooth top of a ploughed rise near the road as I had seen it times innumerable touch the distant horizon of the sea. The uniform brownness of the harrowed field glowed with a rosy tinge, as though the powdered clods had sweated out in minute pearls of blood the toil of uncounted ploughmen. From the edge of a copse a wagon with two horses was rolling gently along the ridge. Raised above our heads upon the sky-line, it loomed up against the red sun, triumphantly big, enormous, like a chariot of giants drawn by two slow-stepping steeds of legendary proportions. And the clumsy figure of the man plodding at the head of the leading horse projected itself on the background of the Infinite with a heroic uncouthness. The end of his carter’s whip quivered high up in the blue. Kennedy discoursed.

“She’s the eldest of a large family. At the age of fifteen they put her out to service at the New Barns Farm. I attended Mrs. Smith, the tenant’s wife, and saw that girl there for the first time. Mrs. Smith, a genteel person with a sharp nose, made her put on a black dress every afternoon. I don’t know what induced me to notice her at all. There are faces that call your attention by a curious want of definiteness in their whole aspect, as, walking in a mist, you peer attentively at a vague shape which, after all, may be nothing more curious or strange than a signpost. The only peculiarity I perceived in her was a slight hesitation in her utterance, a sort of preliminary stammer which passes away with the first word. When sharply spoken to, she was apt to lose her head at once; but her heart was of the kindest. She had never been heard to express a dislike for a single human being, and she was tender to every living creature. She was devoted to Mrs. Smith, to Mr. Smith, to their dogs, cats, canaries; and as to Mrs. Smith’s gray parrot, its peculiarities exercised upon her a positive fascination. Nevertheless, when that outlandish bird, attacked by the cat, shrieked for help in human accents, she ran out into the yard stopping her ears, and did not prevent the crime. For Mrs. Smith this was another evidence of her stupidity; on the other hand, her want of charm, in view of Smith’s well-known frivolousness, was a great recommendation. Her short-sighted eyes would swim with pity for a poor mouse in a trap, and she had been seen once by some boys on her knees in the wet grass helping a toad in difficulties. If it’s true, as some German fellow has said, that without phosphorus there is no thought, it is still more true that there is no kindness of heart without a certain amount of imagination. She had some. She had even more than is necessary to understand suffering and to be moved by pity. She fell in love under circumstances that leave no room for doubt in the matter; for you need imagination to form a notion of beauty at all, and still more to discover your ideal in an unfamiliar shape.

“How this aptitude came to her, what it did feed upon, is an inscrutable mystery. She was born in the village, and had never been further away from it than Colebrook or perhaps Darnford. She lived for four years with the Smiths. New Barns is an isolated farmhouse a mile away from the road, and she was content to look day after day at the same fields, hollows, rises; at the trees and the hedgerows; at the faces of the four men about the farm, always the same – day after day, month after month, year after year. She never showed a desire for conversation, and, as it seemed to me, she did not know how to smile. Sometimes of a fine Sunday afternoon she would put on her best dress, a pair of stout boots, a large gray hat trimmed with a black feather (I’ve seen her in that finery), seize an absurdly slender parasol, climb over two stiles, tramp over three fields and along two hundred yards of road – never further. There stood Foster’s cottage. She would help her mother to give their tea to the younger children, wash up the crockery, kiss the little ones, and go back to the farm. That was all. All the rest, all the change, all the relaxation. She never seemed to wish for anything more. And then she fell in love. She fell in love silently, obstinately – perhaps helplessly. It came slowly, but when it came it worked like a powerful spell; it was love as the Ancients understood it: an irresistible and fateful impulse – a possession! Yes, it was in her to become haunted and possessed by a face, by a presence, fatally, as though she had been a pagan worshipper of form under a joyous sky – and to be awakened at last from that mysterious forgetfulness of self, from that enchantment, from that transport, by a fear resembling the unaccountable terror of a brute…”

With the sun hanging low on its western limit, the expanse of the grass-lands framed in the counter-scarps of the rising ground took on a gorgeous and somber aspect. A sense of penetrating sadness, like that inspired by a grave strain of music, disengaged itself from the silence of the fields. The men we met walked past slow, unsmiling, with downcast eyes, as if the melancholy of an over-burdened earth had weighted their feet, bowed their shoulders, borne down their glances.

“Yes,” said the doctor to my remark, “one would think the earth is under a curse, since of all her children these that cling to her the closest are uncouth in body and as leaden of gait as if their very hearts were loaded with chains. But here on this same road you might have seen amongst these heavy men a being lithe, supple, and long-limbed, straight like a pine with something striving upwards in his appearance as though the heart within him had been buoyant. Perhaps it was only the force of the contrast, but when he was passing one of these villagers here, the soles of his feet did not seem to me to touch the dust of the road. He vaulted over the stiles, paced these slopes with a long elastic stride that made him noticeable at a great distance, and had lustrous black eyes. He was so different from the mankind around that, with his freedom of movement, his soft – a little startled – glance, his olive complexion and graceful bearing, his humanity suggested to me the nature of a woodland creature. He came from there.”

The doctor pointed with his whip, and from the summit of the descent seen over the rolling tops of the trees in a park by the side of the road, appeared the level sea far below us, like the floor of an immense edifice inlaid with bands of dark ripple, with still trails of glitter, ending in a belt of glassy water at the foot of the sky. The light blur of smoke, from an invisible steamer, faded on the great clearness of the horizon like the mist of a breath on a mirror; and, inshore, the white sails of a coaster, with the appearance of disentangling themselves slowly from under the branches, floated clear of the foliage of the trees.

“Shipwrecked in the bay?” I said.

“Yes; he was a castaway. A poor emigrant from Central Europe bound to America and washed ashore here in a storm. And for him, who knew nothing of the earth, England was an undiscovered country. It was some time before he learned its name; and for all I know he might have expected to find wild beasts or wild men here, when, crawling in the dark over the sea-wall, he rolled down the other side into a dyke, where it was another miracle he didn’t get drowned. But he struggled instinctively like an animal under a net, and this blind struggle threw him out into a field. He must have been, indeed, of a tougher fiber than he looked to withstand without expiring such buffetings, the violence of his exertions, and so much fear. Later on, in his broken English that resembled curiously the speech of a young child, he told me himself that he put his trust in God, believing he was no longer in this world. And truly – he would add – how was he to know? He fought his way against the rain and the gale on all fours, and crawled at last among some sheep huddled close under the lee of a hedge. They ran off in all directions, bleating in the darkness, and he welcomed the first familiar sound he heard on these shores. It must have been two in the morning then. And this is all we know of the manner of his landing, though he did not arrive unattended by any means. Only his grisly company did not begin to come ashore till much later in the day…”

The doctor gathered the reins, clicked his tongue; we trotted down the hill. Then turning, almost directly, a sharp corner into the High Street, we rattled over the stones and were home.

Late in the evening Kennedy, breaking a spell of moodiness that had come over him, returned to the story. Smoking his pipe, he paced the long room from end to end. A reading-lamp concentrated all its light upon the papers on his desk; and, sitting by the open window, I saw, after the windless, scorching day, the frigid splendor of a hazy sea lying motionless under the moon. Not a whisper, not a splash, not a stir of the shingle, not a footstep, not a sigh came up from the earth below – never a sign of life but the scent of climbing jasmine; and Kennedy’s voice, speaking behind me, passed through the wide casement, to vanish outside in a chill and sumptuous stillness.

“… The relations of shipwrecks in the olden time tell us of much suffering. Often the castaways were only saved from drowning to die miserably from starvation on a barren coast; others suffered violent death or else slavery, passing through years of precarious existence with people to whom their strangeness was an object of suspicion, dislike or fear. We read about these things, and they are very pitiful. It is indeed hard upon a man to find himself a lost stranger, helpless, incomprehensible, and of a mysterious origin, in some obscure corner of the earth. Yet amongst all the adventurers shipwrecked in all the wild parts of the world there is not one, it seems to me, that ever had to suffer a fate so simply tragic as the man I am speaking of, the most innocent of adventurers cast out by the sea in the bight of this bay, almost within sight from this very window.

“He did not know the name of his ship. Indeed, in the course of time we discovered he did not even know that ships had names – ‘like Christian people’; and when, one day, from the top of the Talfourd Hill, he beheld the sea lying open to his view, his eyes roamed afar, lost in an air of wild surprise, as though he had never seen such a sight before. And probably he had not. As far as I could make out, he had been hustled together with many others on board an emigrant-ship lying at the mouth of the Elbe, too bewildered to take note of his surroundings, too weary to see anything, too anxious to care. They were driven below into the ‘tweendeck and battened down from the very start. It was a low timber dwelling – he would say – with wooden beams overhead, like the houses in his country, but you went into it down a ladder. It was very large, very cold, damp and somber, with places in the manner of wooden boxes where people had to sleep, one above another, and it kept on rocking all ways at once all the time. He crept into one of these boxes and laid down there in the clothes in which he had left his home many days before, keeping his bundle and his stick by his side. People groaned, children cried, water dripped, the lights went out, the walls of the place creaked, and everything was being shaken so that in one’s little box one dared not lift one’s head. He had lost touch with his only companion (a young man from the same valley, he said), and all the time a great noise of wind went on outside and heavy blows fell – boom! boom! An awful sickness overcame him, even to the point of making him neglect his prayers. Besides, one could not tell whether it was morning or evening. It seemed always to be night in that place.

“Before that he had been travelling a long, long time on the iron track. He looked out of the window, which had a wonderfully clear glass in it, and the trees, the houses, the fields, and the long roads seemed to fly round and round about him till his head swam. He gave me to understand that he had on his passage beheld uncounted multitudes of people – whole nations – all dressed in such clothes as the rich wear. Once he was made to get out of the carriage, and slept through a night on a bench in a house of bricks with his bundle under his head; and once for many hours he had to sit on a floor of flat stones dozing, with his knees up and with his bundle between his feet. There was a roof over him, which seemed made of glass, and was so high that the tallest mountain-pine he had ever seen would have had room to grow under it. Steam-machines rolled in at one end and out at the other. People swarmed more than you can see on a feast-day round the miraculous Holy Image in the yard of the Carmelite Convent down in the plains where, before he left his home, he drove his mother in a wooden cart – a pious old woman who wanted to offer prayers and make a vow for his safety. He could not give me an idea of how large and lofty and full of noise and smoke and gloom, and clang of iron, the place was, but some one had told him it was called Berlin. Then they rang a bell, and another steam-machine came in, and again he was taken on and on through a land that wearied his eyes by its flatness without a single bit of a hill to be seen anywhere. One more night he spent shut up in a building like a good stable with a litter of straw on the floor, guarding his bundle amongst a lot of men, of whom not one could understand a single word he said. In the morning they were all led down to the stony shores of an extremely broad muddy river, flowing not between hills but between houses that seemed immense. There was a steammachine that went on the water, and they all stood upon it packed tight, only now there were with them many women and children who made much noise. A cold rain fell, the wind blew in his face; he was wet through, and his teeth chattered. He and the young man from the same valley took each other by the hand.

“They thought they were being taken to America straight away, but suddenly the steam-machine bumped against the side of a thing like a house on the water. The walls were smooth and black, and there uprose, growing from the roof as it were, bare trees in the shape of crosses, extremely high. That’s how it appeared to him then, for he had never seen a ship before. This was the ship that was going to swim all the way to America. Voices shouted, everything swayed; there was a ladder dipping up and down. He went up on his hands and knees in mortal fear of falling into the water below, which made a great splashing. He got separated from his companion, and when he descended into the bottom of that ship his heart seemed to melt suddenly within him.

“It was then also, as he told me, that he lost contact for good and all with one of those three men who the summer before had been going about through all the little towns in the foothills of his country. They would arrive on market days driving in a peasant’s cart, and would set up an office in an inn or some other Jew’s house. There were three of them, of whom one with a long beard looked venerable; and they had red cloth collars round their necks and gold lace on their sleeves like Government officials. They sat proudly behind a long table; and in the next room, so that the common people shouldn’t hear, they kept a cunning telegraph machine, through which they could talk to the Emperor of America. The fathers hung about the door, but the young men of the mountains would crowd up to the table asking many questions, for there was work to be got all the year round at three dollars a day in America, and no military service to do.

“But the American Kaiser would not take everybody. Oh, no! He himself had a great difficulty in getting accepted, and the venerable man in uniform had to go out of the room several times to work the telegraph on his behalf. The American Kaiser engaged him at last at three dollars, he being young and strong. However, many able young men backed out, afraid of the great distance; besides, those only who had some money could be taken. There were some who sold their huts and their land because it cost a lot of money to get to America; but then, once there, you had three dollars a day, and if you were clever you could find places where true gold could be picked up on the ground. His father’s house was getting over full. Two of his brothers were married and had children. He promised to send money home from America by post twice a year. His father sold an old cow, a pair of piebald mountain ponies of his own raising, and a cleared plot of fair pasture land on the sunny slope of a pine-clad pass to a Jew inn-keeper in order to pay the people of the ship that took men to America to get rich in a short time.

“He must have been a real adventurer at heart, for how many of the greatest enterprises in the conquest of the earth had for their beginning just such a bargaining away of the paternal cow for the mirage or true gold far away! I have been telling you more or less in my own words what I learned fragmentarily in the course of two or three years, during which I seldom missed an opportunity of a friendly chat with him. He told me this story of his adventure with many flashes of white teeth and lively glances of black eyes, at first in a sort of anxious baby-talk, then, as he acquired the language, with great fluency, but always with that singing, soft, and at the same time vibrating intonation that instilled a strangely penetrating power into the sound of the most familiar English words, as if they had been the words of an unearthly language. And he always would come to an end, with many emphatic shakes of his head, upon that awful sensation of his heart melting within him directly he set foot on board that ship. Afterwards there seemed to come for him a period of blank ignorance, at any rate as to facts. No doubt he must have been abominably sea-sick and abominably unhappy – this soft and passionate adventurer, taken thus out of his knowledge, and feeling bitterly as he lay in his emigrant bunk his utter loneliness; for his was a highly sensitive nature. The next thing we know of him for certain is that he had been hiding in Hammond’s pig-pound by the side of the road to Norton six miles, as the crow flies, from the sea. Of these experiences he was unwilling to speak: they seemed to have seared into his soul a somber sort of wonder and indignation. Through the rumors of the country-side, which lasted for a good many days after his arrival, we know that the fishermen of West Colebrook had been disturbed and startled by heavy knocks against the walls of weatherboard cottages, and by a voice crying piercingly strange words in the night. Several of them turned out even, but, no doubt, he had fled in sudden alarm at their rough angry tones hailing each other in the darkness. A sort of frenzy must have helped him up the steep Norton hill. It was he, no doubt, who early the following morning had been seen lying (in a swoon, I should say) on the roadside grass by the Brenzett carrier, who actually got down to have a nearer look, but drew back, intimidated by the perfect immobility, and by something queer in the aspect of that tramp, sleeping so still under the showers. As the day advanced, some children came dashing into school at Norton in such a fright that the schoolmistress went out and spoke indignantly to a ‘horrid-looking man’ on the road. He edged away, hanging his head, for a few steps, and then suddenly ran off with extraordinary fleetness. The driver of Mr. Bradley’s milk-cart made no secret of it that he had lashed with his whip at a hairy sort of gypsy fellow who, jumping up at a turn of the road by the Vents, made a snatch at the pony’s bridle. And he caught him a good one too, right over the face, he said, that made him drop down in the mud a jolly sight quicker than he had jumped up; but it was a good half-a-mile before he could stop the pony. Maybe that in his desperate endeavors to get help, and in his need to get in touch with some one, the poor devil had tried to stop the cart. Also three boys confessed afterwards to throwing stones at a funny tramp, knocking about all wet and muddy, and, it seemed, very drunk, in the narrow deep lane by the limekilns. All this was the talk of three villages for days; but we have Mrs. Finn’s (the wife of Smith’s wagoner) unimpeachable testimony that she saw him get over the low wall of Hammond’s pig-pound and lurch straight at her, babbling aloud in a voice that was enough to make one die of fright. Having the baby with her in a perambulator, Mrs. Finn called out to him to go away, and as he persisted in coming nearer, she hit him courageously with her umbrella over the head and, without once looking back, ran like the wind with the perambulator as far as the first house in the village. She stopped then, out of breath, and spoke to old Lewis, hammering there at a heap of stones; and the old chap, taking off his immense black wire goggles, got up on his shaky legs to look where she pointed. Together they followed with their eyes the figure of the man running over a field; they saw him fall down, pick himself up, and run on again, staggering and waving his long arms above his head, in the direction of the New Barns Farm. From that moment he is plainly in the toils of his obscure and touching destiny. There is no doubt after this of what happened to him. All is certain now: Mrs. Smith’s intense terror; Amy Foster’s stolid conviction held against the other’s nervous attack, that the man ‘meant no harm’; Smith’s exasperation (on his return from Darnford Market) at finding the dog barking himself into a fit, the back-door locked, his wife in hysterics; and all for an unfortunate dirty tramp, supposed to be even then lurking in his stackyard. Was he? He would teach him to frighten women.

“Smith is notoriously hot-tempered, but the sight of some nondescript and miry creature sitting cross-legged amongst a lot of loose straw, and swinging itself to and fro like a bear in a cage, made him pause. Then this tramp stood up silently before him, one mass of mud and filth from head to foot. Smith, alone amongst his stacks with this apparition, in the stormy twilight ringing with the infuriated barking of the dog, felt the dread of an inexplicable strangeness. But when that being, parting with his black hands the long matted locks that hung before his face, as you part the two halves of a curtain, looked out at him with glistening, wild, black-and-white eyes, the weirdness of this silent encounter fairly staggered him. He had admitted since (for the story has been a legitimate subject of conversation about here for years) that he made more than one step backwards. Then a sudden burst of rapid, senseless speech persuaded him at once that he had to do with an escaped lunatic. In fact, that impression never wore off completely. Smith has not in his heart given up his secret conviction of the man’s essential insanity to this very day.

“As the creature approached him, jabbering in a most discomposing manner, Smith (unaware that he was being addressed as ‘gracious lord,’ and adjured in God’s name to afford food and shelter) kept on speaking firmly but gently to it, and retreating all the time into the other yard. At last, watching his chance, by a sudden charge he bundled him headlong into the wood-lodge, and instantly shot the bolt. Thereupon he wiped his brow, though the day was cold. He had done his duty to the community by shutting up a wandering and probably dangerous maniac. Smith isn’t a hard man at all, but he had room in his brain only for that one idea of lunacy. He was not imaginative enough to ask himself whether the man might not be perishing with cold and hunger. Meantime, at first, the maniac made a great deal of noise in the lodge. Mrs. Smith was screaming upstairs, where she had locked herself in her bedroom; but Amy Foster sobbed piteously at the kitchen door, wringing her hands and muttering, ‘Don’t! don’t!’ I daresay Smith had a rough time of it that evening with one noise and another, and this insane, disturbing voice crying obstinately through the door only added to his irritation. He couldn’t possibly have connected this troublesome lunatic with the sinking of a ship in Eastbay, of which there had been a rumor in the Darnford market-place. And I daresay the man inside had been very near to insanity on that night. Before his excitement collapsed and he became unconscious he was throwing himself violently about in the dark, rolling on some dirty sacks, and biting his fists with rage, cold, hunger, amazement, and despair.

“He was a mountaineer of the eastern range of the Carpathians, and the vessel sunk the night before in Eastbay was the Hamburg emigrant-ship Herzogin Sophia-Dorothea, of appalling memory.

“A few months later we could read in the papers the accounts of the bogus ‘Emigration Agencies’ among the Sclavonian peasantry in the more remote provinces of Austria. The object of these scoundrels was to get hold of the poor ignorant people’s homesteads, and they were in league with the local usurers. They exported their victims through Hamburg mostly. As to the ship, I had watched her out of this very window, reaching close – hauled under short canvas into the bay on a dark, threatening afternoon. She came to an anchor, correctly by the chart, off the Brenzett Coastguard station. I remember before the night fell looking out again at the outlines of her spars and rigging that stood out dark and pointed on a background of ragged, slaty clouds like another and a slighter spire to the left of the Brenzett church-tower. In the evening the wind rose. At midnight I could hear in my bed the terrific gusts and the sounds of a driving deluge.

“About that time the Coastguardmen thought they saw the lights of a steamer over the anchoring-ground. In a moment they vanished; but it is clear that another vessel of some sort had tried for shelter in the bay on that awful, blind night, had rammed the German ship amidships (a breach – as one of the divers told me afterwards – ‘that you could sail a Thames barge through’), and then had gone out either scathless or damaged, who shall say; but had gone out, unknown, unseen, and fatal, to perish mysteriously at sea. Of her nothing ever came to light, and yet the hue and cry that was raised all over the world would have found her out if she had been in existence anywhere on the face of the waters.

“A completeness without a clue, and a stealthy silence as of a neatly executed crime, characterize this murderous disaster, which, as you may remember, had its gruesome celebrity. The wind would have prevented the loudest outcries from reaching the shore; there had been evidently no time for signals of distress. It was death without any sort of fuss. The Hamburg ship, filling all at once, capsized as she sank, and at daylight there was not even the end of a spar to be seen above water. She was missed, of course, and at first the Coastguardmen surmised that she had either dragged her anchor or parted her cable some time during the night, and had been blown out to sea. Then, after the tide turned, the wreck must have shifted a little and released some of the bodies, because a child – a little fair-haired child in a red frock – came ashore abreast of the Martello tower. By the afternoon you could see along three miles of beach dark figures with bare legs dashing in and out of the tumbling foam, and rough-looking men, women with hard faces, children, mostly fair-haired, were being carried, stiff and dripping, on stretchers, on wattles, on ladders, in a long procession past the door of the ‘Ship Inn,’ to be laid out in a row under the north wall of the Brenzett Church.

“Officially, the body of the little girl in the red frock is the first thing that came ashore from that ship. But I have patients amongst the seafaring population of West Colebrook, and, unofficially, I am informed that very early that morning two brothers, who went down to look after their cobble hauled up on the beach, found, a good way from Brenzett, an ordinary ship’s hencoop lying high and dry on the shore, with eleven drowned ducks inside. Their families ate the birds, and the hencoop was split into firewood with a hatchet. It is possible that a man (supposing he happened to be on deck at the time of the accident) might have floated ashore on that hencoop. He might. I admit it is improbable, but there was the man – and for days, nay, for weeks – it didn’t enter our heads that we had amongst us the only living soul that had escaped from that disaster. The man himself, even when he learned to speak intelligibly, could tell us very little. He remembered he had felt better (after the ship had anchored, I suppose), and that the darkness, the wind, and the rain took his breath away. This looks as if he had been on deck some time during that night. But we mustn’t forget he had been taken out of his knowledge, that he had been sea-sick and battened down below for four days, that he had no general notion of a ship or of the sea, and therefore could have no definite idea of what was happening to him. The rain, the wind, the darkness he knew; he understood the bleating of the sheep, and he remembered the pain of his wretchedness and misery, his heartbroken astonishment that it was neither seen nor understood, his dismay at finding all the men angry and all the women fierce. He had approached them as a beggar, it is true, he said; but in his country, even if they gave nothing, they spoke gently to beggars. The children in his country were not taught to throw stones at those who asked for compassion. Smith’s strategy overcame him completely. The wood-lodge presented the horrible aspect of a dungeon. What would be done to him next?… No wonder that Amy Foster appeared to his eyes with the aureole of an angel of light. The girl had not been able to sleep for thinking of the poor man, and in the morning, before the Smiths were up, she slipped out across the back yard. Holding the door of the wood-lodge ajar, she looked in and extended to him half a loaf of white bread – ‘such bread as the rich eat in my country,’ he used to say.

“At this he got up slowly from amongst all sorts of rubbish, stiff, hungry, trembling, miserable, and doubtful. ‘Can you eat this?’ she asked in her soft and timid voice. He must have taken her for a ‘gracious lady.’ He devoured ferociously, and tears were falling on the crust. Suddenly he dropped the bread, seized her wrist, and imprinted a kiss on her hand. She was not frightened. Through his forlorn condition she had observed that he was good-looking. She shut the door and walked back slowly to the kitchen. Much later on, she told Mrs. Smith, who shuddered at the bare idea of being touched by that creature.

“Through this act of impulsive pity he was brought back again within the pale of human relations with his new surroundings. He never forgot it – never.

“That very same morning old Mr. Swaffer (Smith’s nearest neighbor) came over to give his advice, and ended by carrying him off. He stood, unsteady on his legs, meek, and caked over in half-dried mud, while the two men talked around him in an incomprehensible tongue. Mrs. Smith had refused to come downstairs till the madman was off the premises; Amy Foster, far from within the dark kitchen, watched through the open back door; and he obeyed the signs that were made to him to the best of his ability. But Smith was full of mistrust. ‘Mind, sir! It may be all his cunning,’ he cried repeatedly in a tone of warning. When Mr. Swaffer started the mare, the deplorable being sitting humbly by his side, through weakness, nearly fell out over the back of the high two-wheeled cart. Swaffer took him straight home. And it is then that I come upon the scene.

“I was called in by the simple process of the old man beckoning to me with his forefinger over the gate of his house as I happened to be driving past. I got down, of course.

“‘I’ve got something here,’ he mumbled, leading the way to an outhouse at a little distance from his other farm-buildings.

“It was there that I saw him first, in a long low room taken upon the space of that sort of coach-house. It was bare and whitewashed, with a small square aperture glazed with one cracked, dusty pane at its further end. He was lying on his back upon a straw pallet; they had given him a couple of horse-blankets, and he seemed to have spent the remainder of his strength in the exertion of cleaning himself. He was almost speechless; his quick breathing under the blankets pulled up to his chin, his glittering, restless black eyes reminded me of a wild bird caught in a snare. While I was examining him, old Swaffer stood silently by the door, passing the tips of his fingers along his shaven upper lip. I gave some directions, promised to send a bottle of medicine, and naturally made some inquiries.

“‘Smith caught him in the stackyard at New Barns,’ said the old chap in his deliberate, unmoved manner, and as if the other had been indeed a sort of wild animal. ‘That’s how I came by him. Quite a curiosity, isn’t he? Now tell me, doctor – you’ve been all over the world – don’t you think that’s a bit of a Hindoo we’ve got hold of here.’

“I was greatly surprised. His long black hair scattered over the straw bolster contrasted with the olive pallor of his face. It occurred to me he might be a Basque. It didn’t necessarily follow that he should understand Spanish; but I tried him with the few words I know, and also with some French. The whispered sounds I caught by bending my ear to his lips puzzled me utterly. That afternoon the young ladies from the Rectory (one of them read Goethe with a dictionary, and the other had struggled with Dante for years), coming to see Miss Swaffer, tried their German and Italian on him from the doorway. They retreated, just the least bit scared by the flood of passionate speech which, turning on his pallet, he let out at them. They admitted that the sound was pleasant, soft, musical – but, in conjunction with his looks perhaps, it was startling – so excitable, so utterly unlike anything one had ever heard. The village boys climbed up the bank to have a peep through the little square aperture. Everybody was wondering what Mr. Swaffer would do with him.

“He simply kept him.

“Swaffer would be called eccentric were he not so much respected. They will tell you that Mr. Swaffer sits up as late as ten o’clock at night to read books, and they will tell you also that he can write a check for two hundred pounds without thinking twice about it. He himself would tell you that the Swaffers had owned land between this and Darnford for these three hundred years. He must be eighty-five to-day, but he does not look a bit older than when I first came here. He is a great breeder of sheep, and deals extensively in cattle. He attends market days for miles around in every sort of weather, and drives sitting bowed low over the reins, his lank gray hair curling over the collar of his warm coat, and with a green plaid rug round his legs. The calmness of advanced age gives a solemnity to his manner. He is clean-shaved; his lips are thin and sensitive; something rigid and monarchal in the set of his features lends a certain elevation to the character of his face. He has been known to drive miles in the rain to see a new kind of rose in somebody’s garden, or a monstrous cabbage grown by a cottager. He loves to hear tell of or to be shown something that he calls ‘outlandish.’ Perhaps it was just that outlandishness of the man which influenced old Swaffer. Perhaps it was only an inexplicable caprice. All I know is that at the end of three weeks I caught sight of Smith’s lunatic digging in Swaffer’s kitchen garden. They had found out he could use a spade. He dug barefooted.

“His black hair flowed over his shoulders. I suppose it was Swaffer who had given him the striped old cotton shirt; but he wore still the national brown cloth trousers (in which he had been washed ashore) fitting to the leg almost like tights; was belted with a broad leathern belt studded with little brass discs; and had never yet ventured into the village. The land he looked upon seemed to him kept neatly, like the grounds round a landowner’s house; the size of the cart-horses struck him with astonishment; the roads resembled garden walks, and the aspect of the people, especially on Sundays, spoke of opulence. He wondered what made them so hardhearted and their children so bold. He got his food at the back door, carried it in both hands carefully to his outhouse, and, sitting alone on his pallet, would make the sign of the cross before he began. Beside the same pallet, kneeling in the early darkness of the short days, he recited aloud the Lord’s Prayer before he slept. Whenever he saw old Swaffer he would bow with veneration from the waist, and stand erect while the old man, with his fingers over his upper lip, surveyed him silently. He bowed also to Miss Swaffer, who kept house frugally for her father – a broad-shouldered, big-boned woman of forty-five, with the pocket of her dress full of keys, and a gray, steady eye. She was Church – as people said (while her father was one of the trustees of the Baptist Chapel) – and wore a little steel cross at her waist. She dressed severely in black, in memory of one of the innumerable Bradleys of the neighborhood, to whom she had been engaged some twenty-five years ago – a young farmer who broke his neck out hunting on the eve of the wedding day. She had the unmoved countenance of the deaf, spoke very seldom, and her lips, thin like her father’s, astonished one sometimes by a mysteriously ironic curl.

“These were the people to whom he owed allegiance, and an overwhelming loneliness seemed to fall from the leaden sky of that winter without sunshine. All the faces were sad. He could talk to no one, and had no hope of ever understanding anybody. It was as if these had been the faces of people from the other world-dead people – he used to tell me years afterwards. Upon my word, I wonder he did not go mad. He didn’t know where he was. Somewhere very far from his mountains – somewhere over the water. Was this America, he wondered?

“If it hadn’t been for the steel cross at Miss Swaffer’s belt he would not, he confessed, have known whether he was in a Christian country at all. He used to cast stealthy glances at it, and feel comforted. There was nothing here the same as in his country! The earth and the water were different; there were no images of the Redeemer by the roadside. The very grass was different, and the trees. All the trees but the three old Norway pines on the bit of lawn before Swaffer’s house, and these reminded him of his country. He had been detected once, after dusk, with his forehead against the trunk of one of them, sobbing, and talking to himself. They had been like brothers to him at that time, he affirmed. Everything else was strange. Conceive you the kind of an existence overshadowed, oppressed, by the everyday material appearances, as if by the visions of a nightmare. At night, when he could not sleep, he kept on thinking of the girl who gave him the first piece of bread he had eaten in this foreign land. She had been neither fierce nor angry, nor frightened. Her face he remembered as the only comprehensible face amongst all these faces that were as closed, as mysterious, and as mute as the faces of the dead who are possessed of a knowledge beyond the comprehension of the living. I wonder whether the memory of her compassion prevented him from cutting his throat. But there! I suppose I am an old sentimentalist, and forget the instinctive love of life which it takes all the strength of an uncommon despair to overcome.

“He did the work which was given him with an intelligence which surprised old Swaffer. By-and-by it was discovered that he could help at the ploughing, could milk the cows, feed the bullocks in the cattle-yard, and was of some use with the sheep. He began to pick up words, too, very fast; and suddenly, one fine morning in spring, he rescued from an untimely death a grand-child of old Swaffer.

“Swaffer’s younger daughter is married to Willcox, a solicitor and the Town Clerk of Colebrook. Regularly twice a year they come to stay with the old man for a few days. Their only child, a little girl not three years old at the time, ran out of the house alone in her little white pinafore, and, toddling across the grass of a terraced garden, pitched herself over a low wall head first into the horsepond in the yard below.

“Our man was out with the wagoner and the plough in the field nearest to the house, and as he was leading the team round to begin a fresh furrow, he saw, through the gap of the gate, what for anybody else would have been a mere flutter of something white. But he had straight-glancing, quick, far-reaching eyes, that only seemed to flinch and lose their amazing power before the immensity of the sea. He was barefooted, and looking as outlandish as the heart of Swaffer could desire. Leaving the horses on the turn, to the inexpressible disgust of the wagoner he bounded off, going over the ploughed ground in long leaps, and suddenly appeared before the mother, thrust the child into her arms, and strode away.

“The pond was not very deep; but still, if he had not had such good eyes, the child would have perished – miserably suffocated in the foot or so of sticky mud at the bottom. Old Swaffer walked out slowly into the field, waited till the plough came over to his side, had a good look at him, and without saying a word went back to the house. But from that time they laid out his meals on the kitchen table; and at first, Miss Swaffer, all in black and with an inscrutable face, would come and stand in the doorway of the living-room to see him make a big sign of the cross before he fell to. I believe that from that day, too, Swaffer began to pay him regular wages.

“I can’t follow step by step his development. He cut his hair short, was seen in the village and along the road going to and fro to his work like any other man. Children ceased to shout after him. He became aware of social differences, but remained for a long time surprised at the bare poverty of the churches among so much wealth. He couldn’t understand either why they were kept shut up on week days. There was nothing to steal in them. Was it to keep people from praying too often? The rectory took much notice of him about that time, and I believe the young ladies attempted to prepare the ground for his conversion. They could not, however, break him of his habit of crossing himself, but he went so far as to take off the string with a couple of brass medals the size of a sixpence, a tiny metal cross, and a square sort of scapulary which he wore round his neck. He hung them on the wall by the side of his bed, and he was still to be heard every evening reciting the Lord’s Prayer, in incomprehensible words and in a slow, fervent tone, as he had heard his old father do at the head of all the kneeling family, big and little, on every evening of his life. And though he wore corduroys at work, and a slop-made pepper-and-salt suit on Sundays, strangers would turn round to look after him on the road. His foreignness had a peculiar and indelible stamp. At last people became used to see him. But they never became used to him. His rapid, skimming walk; his swarthy complexion; his hat cocked on the left ear; his habit, on warm evenings, of wearing his coat over one shoulder, like a hussar’s dolman; his manner of leaping over the stiles, not as a feat of agility, but in the ordinary course of progression – all these peculiarities were, as one may say, so many causes of scorn and offence to the inhabitants of the village. They wouldn’t in their dinner hour lie flat on their backs on the grass to stare at the sky. Neither did they go about the fields screaming dismal tunes. Many times have I heard his high-pitched voice from behind the ridge of some sloping sheep-walk, a voice light and soaring, like a lark’s, but with a melancholy human note, over our fields that hear only the song of birds. And I should be startled myself. Ah! He was different: innocent of heart, and full of good will, which nobody wanted, this castaway, that, like a man transplanted into another planet, was separated by an immense space from his past and by an immense ignorance from his future. His quick, fervent utterance positively shocked everybody. ‘An excitable devil,’ they called him. One evening, in the tap-room of the Coach and Horses (having drunk some whisky), he upset them all by singing a love song of his country. They hooted him down, and he was pained; but Preble, the lame wheelwright, and Vincent, the fat blacksmith, and the other notables too, wanted to drink their evening beer in peace. On another occasion he tried to show them how to dance. The dust rose in clouds from the sanded floor; he leaped straight up amongst the deal tables, struck his heels together, squatted on one heel in front of old Preble, shooting out the other leg, uttered wild and exulting cries, jumped up to whirl on one foot, snapping his fingers above his head – and a strange carter who was having a drink in there began to swear, and cleared out with his half-pint in his hand into the bar. But when suddenly he sprang upon a table and continued to dance among the glasses, the landlord interfered. He didn’t want any ‘acrobat tricks in the tap-room.’ They laid their hands on him. Having had a glass or two, Mr. Swaffer’s foreigner tried to expostulate: was ejected forcibly: got a black eye.

“I believe he felt the hostility of his human surroundings. But he was tough – tough in spirit, too, as well as in body. Only the memory of the sea frightened him, with that vague terror that is left by a bad dream. His home was far away; and he did not want now to go to America. I had often explained to him that there is no place on earth where true gold can be found lying ready and to be got for the trouble of the picking up. How then, he asked, could he ever return home with empty hands when there had been sold a cow, two ponies, and a bit of land to pay for his going? His eyes would fill with tears, and, averting them from the immense shimmer of the sea, he would throw himself face down on the grass. But sometimes, cocking his hat with a little conquering air, he would defy my wisdom. He had found his bit of true gold. That was Amy Foster’s heart; which was ‘a golden heart, and soft to people’s misery,’ he would say in the accents of overwhelming conviction.

“He was called Yanko. He had explained that this meant little John; but as he would also repeat very often that he was a mountaineer (some word sounding in the dialect of his country like Goorall) he got it for his surname. And this is the only trace of him that the succeeding ages may find in the marriage register of the parish. There it stands – Yanko Goorall – in the rector’s handwriting. The crooked cross made by the castaway, a cross whose tracing no doubt seemed to him the most solemn part of the whole ceremony, is all that remains now to perpetuate the memory of his name.

“His courtship had lasted some time – ever since he got his precarious footing in the community. It began by his buying for Amy Foster a green satin ribbon in Darnford. This was what you did in his country. You bought a ribbon at a Jew’s stall on a fair-day. I don’t suppose the girl knew what to do with it, but he seemed to think that his honorable intentions could not be mistaken.

“It was only when he declared his purpose to get married that I fully understood how, for a hundred futile and inappreciable reasons, how – shall I say odious? – he was to all the countryside. Every old woman in the village was up in arms. Smith, coming upon him near the farm, promised to break his head for him if he found him about again. But he twisted his little black moustache with such a bellicose air and rolled such big, black fierce eyes at Smith that this promise came to nothing. Smith, however, told the girl that she must be mad to take up with a man who was surely wrong in his head. All the same, when she heard him in the gloaming whistle from beyond the orchard a couple of bars of a weird and mournful tune, she would drop whatever she had in her hand – she would leave Mrs. Smith in the middle of a sentence – and she would run out to his call. Mrs. Smith called her a shameless hussy. She answered nothing. She said nothing at all to anybody, and went on her way as if she had been deaf. She and I alone all in the land, I fancy, could see his very real beauty. He was very good-looking, and most graceful in his bearing, with that something wild as of a woodland creature in his aspect. Her mother moaned over her dismally whenever the girl came to see her on her day out. The father was surly, but pretended not to know; and Mrs. Finn once told her plainly that ‘this man, my dear, will do you some harm some day yet.’ And so it went on. They could be seen on the roads, she tramping stolidly in her finery – gray dress, black feather, stout boots, prominent white cotton gloves that caught your eye a hundred yards away; and he, his coat slung picturesquely over one shoulder, pacing by her side, gallant of bearing and casting tender glances upon the girl with the golden heart. I wonder whether he saw how plain she was. Perhaps among types so different from what he had ever seen, he had not the power to judge; or perhaps he was seduced by the divine quality of her pity.

“Yanko was in great trouble meantime. In his country you get an old man for an ambassador in marriage affairs. He did not know how to proceed. However, one day in the midst of sheep in a field (he was now Swaffer’s under-shepherd with Foster) he took off his hat to the father and declared himself humbly. ‘I daresay she’s fool enough to marry you,’ was all Foster said. ‘And then,’ he used to relate, ‘he puts his hat on his head, looks black at me as if he wanted to cut my throat, whistles the dog, and off he goes, leaving me to do the work.’ The Fosters, of course, didn’t like to lose the wages the girl earned: Amy used to give all her money to her mother. But there was in Foster a very genuine aversion to that match. He contended that the fellow was very good with sheep, but was not fit for any girl to marry. For one thing, he used to go along the hedges muttering to himself like a dam’ fool; and then, these foreigners behave very queerly to women sometimes. And perhaps he would want to carry her off somewhere – or run off himself. It was not safe. He preached it to his daughter that the fellow might ill-use her in some way. She made no answer. It was, they said in the village, as if the man had done something to her. People discussed the matter. It was quite an excitement, and the two went on ‘walking out’ together in the face of opposition. Then something unexpected happened.

“I don’t know whether old Swaffer ever understood how much he was regarded in the light of a father by his foreign retainer. Anyway the relation was curiously feudal. So when Yanko asked formally for an interview – ‘and the Miss too’ (he called the severe, deaf Miss Swaffer simply Miss) – it was to obtain their permission to marry. Swaffer heard him unmoved, dismissed him by a nod, and then shouted the intelligence into Miss Swaffer’s best ear. She showed no surprise, and only remarked grimly, in a veiled blank voice, ‘He certainly won’t get any other girl to marry him.’

“It is Miss Swaffer who has all the credit of the munificence: but in a very few days it came out that Mr. Swaffer had presented Yanko with a cottage (the cottage you’ve seen this morning) and something like an acre of ground – had made it over to him in absolute property. Willcox expedited the deed, and I remember him telling me he had a great pleasure in making it ready. It recited: ‘In consideration of saving the life of my beloved grandchild, Bertha Willcox.’

“Of course, after that no power on earth could prevent them from getting married.

“Her infatuation endured. People saw her going out to meet him in the evening. She stared with unblinking, fascinated eyes up the road where he was expected to appear, walking freely, with a swing from the hip, and humming one of the lovetunes of his country. When the boy was born, he got elevated at the ‘Coach and Horses,’ essayed again a song and a dance, and was again ejected. People expressed their commiseration for a woman married to that Jack-in-the-box. He didn’t care. There was a man now (he told me boastfully) to whom he could sing and talk in the language of his country, and show how to dance by-and-by.

“But I don’t know. To me he appeared to have grown less springy of step, heavier in body, less keen of eye. Imagination, no doubt; but it seems to me now as if the net of fate had been drawn closer round him already.

“One day I met him on the footpath over the Talfourd Hill. He told me that ‘women were funny.’ I had heard already of domestic differences. People were saying that Amy Foster was beginning to find out what sort of man she had married. He looked upon the sea with indifferent, unseeing eyes. His wife had snatched the child out of his arms one day as he sat on the doorstep crooning to it a song such as the mothers sing to babies in his mountains. She seemed to think he was doing it some harm. Women are funny. And she had objected to him praying aloud in the evening. Why? He expected the boy to repeat the prayer aloud after him by-and-by, as he used to do after his old father when he was a child – in his own country. And I discovered he longed for their boy to grow up so that he could have a man to talk with in that language that to our ears sounded so disturbing, so passionate, and so bizarre. Why his wife should dislike the idea he couldn’t tell. But that would pass, he said. And tilting his head knowingly, he tapped his breastbone to indicate that she had a good heart: not hard, not fierce, open to compassion, charitable to the poor!

“I walked away thoughtfully; I wondered whether his difference, his strangeness, were not penetrating with repulsion that dull nature they had begun by irresistibly attracting. I wondered…”

The Doctor came to the window and looked out at the frigid splendor of the sea, immense in the haze, as if enclosing all the earth with all the hearts lost among the passions of love and fear.

“Physiologically, now,” he said, turning away abruptly, “it was possible. It was possible.”

He remained silent. Then went on–

“At all events, the next time I saw him he was ill – lung trouble. He was tough, but I daresay he was not acclimatized as well as I had supposed. It was a bad winter; and, of course, these mountaineers do get fits of home sickness; and a state of depression would make him vulnerable. He was lying half dressed on a couch downstairs.

“A table covered with a dark oilcloth took up all the middle of the little room. There was a wicker cradle on the floor, a kettle spouting steam on the hob, and some child’s linen lay drying on the fender. The room was warm, but the door opens right into the garden, as you noticed perhaps.

“He was very feverish, and kept on muttering to himself. She sat on a chair and looked at him fixedly across the table with her brown, blurred eyes. ‘Why don’t you have him upstairs?’ I asked. With a start and a confused stammer she said, ‘Oh! ah! I couldn’t sit with him upstairs, Sir.’

“I gave her certain directions; and going outside, I said again that he ought to be in bed upstairs. She wrung her hands. ‘I couldn’t. I couldn’t. He keeps on saying something – I don’t know what.’ With the memory of all the talk against the man that had been dinned into her ears, I looked at her narrowly. I looked into her short-sighted eyes, at her dumb eyes that once in her life had seen an enticing shape, but seemed, staring at me, to see nothing at all now. But I saw she was uneasy.

“‘What’s the matter with him?’ she asked in a sort of vacant trepidation. ‘He doesn’t look very ill. I never did see anybody look like this before…’

“‘Do you think,’ I asked indignantly, ‘he is shamming?’

“‘I can’t help it, sir,’ she said stolidly. And suddenly she clapped her hands and looked right and left. ‘And there’s the baby. I am so frightened. He wanted me just now to give him the baby. I can’t understand what he says to it.’

“‘Can’t you ask a neighbor to come in tonight?’ I asked.

“‘Please, sir, nobody seems to care to come,’ she muttered, dully resigned all at once.

“I impressed upon her the necessity of the greatest care, and then had to go. There was a good deal of sickness that winter. ‘Oh, I hope he won’t talk!’ she exclaimed softly just as I was going away.

“I don’t know how it is I did not see – but I didn’t. And yet, turning in my trap, I saw her lingering before the door, very still, and as if meditating a flight up the miry road.

“Towards the night his fever increased.

“He tossed, moaned, and now and then muttered a complaint. And she sat with the table between her and the couch, watching every movement and every sound, with the terror, the unreasonable terror, of that man she could not understand creeping over her. She had drawn the wicker cradle close to her feet. There was nothing in her now but the maternal instinct and that unaccountable fear.

“Suddenly coming to himself, parched, he demanded a drink of water. She did not move. She had not understood, though he may have thought he was speaking in English. He waited, looking at her, burning with fever, amazed at her silence and immobility, and then he shouted impatiently, ‘Water! Give me water!’

“She jumped to her feet, snatched up the child, and stood still. He spoke to her, and his passionate remonstrances only increased her fear of that strange man. I believe he spoke to her for a long time, entreating, wondering, pleading, ordering, I suppose. She says she bore it as long as she could. And then a gust of rage came over him.

“He sat up and called out terribly one word – some word. Then he got up as though he hadn’t been ill at all, she says. And as in fevered dismay, indignation, and wonder he tried to get to her round the table, she simply opened the door and ran out with the child in her arms. She heard him call twice after her down the road in a terrible voice – and fled… Ah! but you should have seen stirring behind the dull, blurred glance of these eyes the specter of the fear which had hunted her on that night three miles and a half to the door of Foster’s cottage! I did the next day.

“And it was I who found him lying face down and his body in a puddle, just outside the little wicket-gate.

“I had been called out that night to an urgent case in the village, and on my way home at daybreak passed by the cottage. The door stood open. My man helped me to carry him in. We laid him on the couch. The lamp smoked, the fire was out, the chill of the stormy night oozed from the cheerless yellow paper on the wall. ‘Amy!’ I called aloud, and my voice seemed to lose itself in the emptiness of this tiny house as if I had cried in a desert. He opened his eyes. ‘Gone!’ he said distinctly. ‘I had only asked for water – only for a little water…’

“He was muddy. I covered him up and stood waiting in silence, catching a painfully gasped word now and then. They were no longer in his own language. The fever had left him, taking with it the heat of life. And with his panting breast and lustrous eyes he reminded me again of a wild creature under the net; of a bird caught in a snare. She had left him. She had left him – sick – helpless – thirsty. The spear of the hunter had entered his very soul. ‘Why?’ he cried in the penetrating and indignant voice of a man calling to a responsible Maker. A gust of wind and a swish of rain answered.

“And as I turned away to shut the door he pronounced the word ‘Merciful!’ and expired.

“Eventually I certified heart-failure as the immediate cause of death. His heart must have indeed failed him, or else he might have stood this night of storm and exposure, too. I closed his eyes and drove away. Not very far from the cottage I met Foster walking sturdily between the dripping hedges with his collie at his heels.

“‘Do you know where your daughter is?’ I asked.

“‘Don’t I!’ he cried. ‘I am going to talk to him a bit. Frightening a poor woman like this.’

“‘He won’t frighten her any more,’ I said. ‘He is dead.’

“He struck with his stick at the mud.

“‘And there’s the child.’

“Then, after thinking deeply for a while–

“‘I don’t know that it isn’t for the best.’

“That’s what he said. And she says nothing at all now. Not a word of him. Never. Is his image as utterly gone from her mind as his lithe and striding figure, his caroling voice are gone from our fields? He is no longer before her eyes to excite her imagination into a passion of love or fear; and his memory seems to have vanished from her dull brain as a shadow passes away upon a white screen. She lives in the cottage and works for Miss Swaffer. She is Amy Foster for everybody, and the child is ‘Amy Foster’s boy.’ She calls him Johnny – which means Little John.

“It is impossible to say whether this name recalls anything to her. Does she ever think of the past? I have seen her hanging over the boy’s cot in a very passion of maternal tenderness. The little fellow was lying on his back, a little frightened at me, but very still, with his big black eyes, with his fluttered air of a bird in a snare. And looking at him I seemed to see again the other one – the father, cast out mysteriously by the sea to perish in the supreme disaster of loneliness and despair.”

Joseph Conrad: Amy Foster
fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive C-D, Conrad, Joseph, Joseph Conrad


Joseph Conrad: The Idiots

Joseph Conrad

(1857-1924)

The Idiots

We were driving along the road from Treguier to Kervanda. We passed at a
smart trot between the hedges topping an earth wall on each side of
the road; then at the foot of the steep ascent before Ploumar the horse
dropped into a walk, and the driver jumped down heavily from the box.
He flicked his whip and climbed the incline, stepping clumsily uphill
by the side of the carriage, one hand on the footboard, his eyes on the
ground. After a while he lifted his head, pointed up the road with the
end of the whip, and said–

“The idiot!”

The sun was shining violently upon the undulating surface of the land.
The rises were topped by clumps of meagre trees, with their branches
showing high on the sky as if they had been perched upon stilts. The
small fields, cut up by hedges and stone walls that zig-zagged over
the slopes, lay in rectangular patches of vivid greens and yellows,
resembling the unskilful daubs of a naive picture. And the landscape was
divided in two by the white streak of a road stretching in long loops
far away, like a river of dust crawling out of the hills on its way to
the sea.

“Here he is,” said the driver, again.

In the long grass bordering the road a face glided past the carriage
at the level of the wheels as we drove slowly by. The imbecile face was
red, and the bullet head with close-cropped hair seemed to lie alone,
its chin in the dust. The body was lost in the bushes growing thick
along the bottom of the deep ditch.

It was a boy’s face. He might have been sixteen, judging from the
size–perhaps less, perhaps more. Such creatures are forgotten by
time, and live untouched by years till death gathers them up into its
compassionate bosom; the faithful death that never forgets in the press
of work the most insignificant of its children.

“Ah! there’s another,” said the man, with a certain satisfaction in his
tone, as if he had caught sight of something expected.

There was another. That one stood nearly in the middle of the road in
the blaze of sunshine at the end of his own short shadow. And he stood
with hands pushed into the opposite sleeves of his long coat, his head
sunk between the shoulders, all hunched up in the flood of heat. From a
distance he had the aspect of one suffering from intense cold.

“Those are twins,” explained the driver.

The idiot shuffled two paces out of the way and looked at us over his
shoulder when we brushed past him. The glance was unseeing and staring,
a fascinated glance; but he did not turn to look after us. Probably the
image passed before the eyes without leaving any trace on the misshapen
brain of the creature. When we had topped the ascent I looked over the
hood. He stood in the road just where we had left him.

The driver clambered into his seat, clicked his tongue, and we went
downhill. The brake squeaked horribly from time to time. At the foot he
eased off the noisy mechanism and said, turning half round on his box–

“We shall see some more of them by-and-by.”

“More idiots? How many of them are there, then?” I asked.

“There’s four of them–children of a farmer near Ploumar here. . . . The
parents are dead now,” he added, after a while. “The grandmother lives
on the farm. In the daytime they knock about on this road, and they come
home at dusk along with the cattle. . . . It’s a good farm.”

We saw the other two: a boy and a girl, as the driver said. They were
dressed exactly alike, in shapeless garments with petticoat-like skirts.
The imperfect thing that lived within them moved those beings to howl
at us from the top of the bank, where they sprawled amongst the tough
stalks of furze. Their cropped black heads stuck out from the bright
yellow wall of countless small blossoms. The faces were purple with
the strain of yelling; the voices sounded blank and cracked like a
mechanical imitation of old people’s voices; and suddenly ceased when we
turned into a lane.

I saw them many times in my wandering about the country. They lived on
that road, drifting along its length here and there, according to the
inexplicable impulses of their monstrous darkness. They were an
offence to the sunshine, a reproach to empty heaven, a blight on the
concentrated and purposeful vigour of the wild landscape. In time the
story of their parents shaped itself before me out of the listless
answers to my questions, out of the indifferent words heard in wayside
inns or on the very road those idiots haunted. Some of it was told by
an emaciated and sceptical old fellow with a tremendous whip, while we
trudged together over the sands by the side of a two-wheeled cart loaded
with dripping seaweed. Then at other times other people confirmed and
completed the story: till it stood at last before me, a tale formidable
and simple, as they always are, those disclosures of obscure trials
endured by ignorant hearts.

When he returned from his military service Jean-Pierre Bacadou found the
old people very much aged. He remarked with pain that the work of the
farm was not satisfactorily done. The father had not the energy of
old days. The hands did not feel over them the eye of the master.
Jean-Pierre noted with sorrow that the heap of manure in the courtyard
before the only entrance to the house was not so large as it should
have been. The fences were out of repair, and the cattle suffered from
neglect. At home the mother was practically bedridden, and the girls
chattered loudly in the big kitchen, unrebuked, from morning to night.
He said to himself: “We must change all this.” He talked the matter over
with his father one evening when the rays of the setting sun entering
the yard between the outhouses ruled the heavy shadows with luminous
streaks. Over the manure heap floated a mist, opal-tinted and odorous,
and the marauding hens would stop in their scratching to examine with
a sudden glance of their round eye the two men, both lean and tall,
talking in hoarse tones. The old man, all twisted with rheumatism and
bowed with years of work, the younger bony and straight, spoke without
gestures in the indifferent manner of peasants, grave and slow.
But before the sun had set the father had submitted to the sensible
arguments of the son. “It is not for me that I am speaking,” insisted
Jean-Pierre. “It is for the land. It’s a pity to see it badly used. I am
not impatient for myself.” The old fellow nodded over his stick. “I dare
say; I dare say,” he muttered. “You may be right. Do what you like. It’s
the mother that will be pleased.”

The mother was pleased with her daughter-in-law. Jean-Pierre brought
the two-wheeled spring-cart with a rush into the yard. The gray horse
galloped clumsily, and the bride and bridegroom, sitting side by side,
were jerked backwards and forwards by the up and down motion of the
shafts, in a manner regular and brusque. On the road the distanced
wedding guests straggled in pairs and groups. The men advanced with
heavy steps, swinging their idle arms. They were clad in town clothes;
jackets cut with clumsy smartness, hard black hats, immense boots,
polished highly. Their women all in simple black, with white caps and
shawls of faded tints folded triangularly on the back, strolled lightly
by their side. In front the violin sang a strident tune, and the biniou
snored and hummed, while the player capered solemnly, lifting high his
heavy clogs. The sombre procession drifted in and out of the narrow
lanes, through sunshine and through shade, between fields and hedgerows,
scaring the little birds that darted away in troops right and left. In
the yard of Bacadou’s farm the dark ribbon wound itself up into a mass
of men and women pushing at the door with cries and greetings. The
wedding dinner was remembered for months. It was a splendid feast in the
orchard. Farmers of considerable means and excellent repute were to be
found sleeping in ditches, all along the road to Treguier, even as late
as the afternoon of the next day. All the countryside participated in
the happiness of Jean-Pierre. He remained sober, and, together with his
quiet wife, kept out of the way, letting father and mother reap their
due of honour and thanks. But the next day he took hold strongly, and
the old folks felt a shadow–precursor of the grave–fall upon them
finally. The world is to the young.

When the twins were born there was plenty of room in the house, for the
mother of Jean-Pierre had gone away to dwell under a heavy stone in the
cemetery of Ploumar. On that day, for the first time since his son’s
marriage, the elder Bacadou, neglected by the cackling lot of strange
women who thronged the kitchen, left in the morning his seat under the
mantel of the fireplace, and went into the empty cow-house, shaking his
white locks dismally. Grandsons were all very well, but he wanted his
soup at midday. When shown the babies, he stared at them with a fixed
gaze, and muttered something like: “It’s too much.” Whether he meant too
much happiness, or simply commented upon the number of his descendants,
it is impossible to say. He looked offended–as far as his old wooden
face could express anything; and for days afterwards could be seen,
almost any time of the day, sitting at the gate, with his nose over his
knees, a pipe between his gums, and gathered up into a kind of raging
concentrated sulkiness. Once he spoke to his son, alluding to the
newcomers with a groan: “They will quarrel over the land.” “Don’t bother
about that, father,” answered Jean-Pierre, stolidly, and passed, bent
double, towing a recalcitrant cow over his shoulder.

He was happy, and so was Susan, his wife. It was not an ethereal joy
welcoming new souls to struggle, perchance to victory. In fourteen years
both boys would be a help; and, later on, Jean-Pierre pictured two big
sons striding over the land from patch to patch, wringing tribute from
the earth beloved and fruitful. Susan was happy too, for she did not
want to be spoken of as the unfortunate woman, and now she had children
no one could call her that. Both herself and her husband had seen
something of the larger world–he during the time of his service; while
she had spent a year or so in Paris with a Breton family; but had been
too home-sick to remain longer away from the hilly and green country,
set in a barren circle of rocks and sands, where she had been born.
She thought that one of the boys ought perhaps to be a priest, but said
nothing to her husband, who was a republican, and hated the “crows,”
as he called the ministers of religion. The christening was a splendid
affair. All the commune came to it, for the Bacadous were rich
and influential, and, now and then, did not mind the expense. The
grandfather had a new coat.

Some months afterwards, one evening when the kitchen had been swept,
and the door locked, Jean-Pierre, looking at the cot, asked his wife:
“What’s the matter with those children?” And, as if these words, spoken
calmly, had been the portent of misfortune, she answered with a loud
wail that must have been heard across the yard in the pig-sty; for
the pigs (the Bacadous had the finest pigs in the country) stirred and
grunted complainingly in the night. The husband went on grinding his
bread and butter slowly, gazing at the wall, the soup-plate smoking
under his chin. He had returned late from the market, where he had
overheard (not for the first time) whispers behind his back. He revolved
the words in his mind as he drove back. “Simple! Both of them. . . .
Never any use! . . . Well! May be, may be. One must see. Would ask his
wife.” This was her answer. He felt like a blow on his chest, but said
only: “Go, draw me some cider. I am thirsty!”

She went out moaning, an empty jug in her hand. Then he arose, took up
the light, and moved slowly towards the cradle. They slept. He looked at
them sideways, finished his mouthful there, went back heavily, and sat
down before his plate. When his wife returned he never looked up,
but swallowed a couple of spoonfuls noisily, and remarked, in a dull
manner–

“When they sleep they are like other people’s children.”

She sat down suddenly on a stool near by, and shook with a silent
tempest of sobs, unable to speak. He finished his meal, and remained
idly thrown back in his chair, his eyes lost amongst the black rafters
of the ceiling. Before him the tallow candle flared red and straight,
sending up a slender thread of smoke. The light lay on the rough,
sunburnt skin of his throat; the sunk cheeks were like patches of
darkness, and his aspect was mournfully stolid, as if he had ruminated
with difficulty endless ideas. Then he said, deliberately–

“We must see . . . consult people. Don’t cry. . . . They won’t all be
like that . . . surely! We must sleep now.”

After the third child, also a boy, was born, Jean-Pierre went about his
work with tense hopefulness. His lips seemed more narrow, more tightly
compressed than before; as if for fear of letting the earth he tilled
hear the voice of hope that murmured within his breast. He watched the
child, stepping up to the cot with a heavy clang of sabots on the stone
floor, and glanced in, along his shoulder, with that indifference which
is like a deformity of peasant humanity. Like the earth they master and
serve, those men, slow of eye and speech, do not show the inner fire; so
that, at last, it becomes a question with them as with the earth,
what there is in the core: heat, violence, a force mysterious and
terrible–or nothing but a clod, a mass fertile and inert, cold and
unfeeling, ready to bear a crop of plants that sustain life or give
death.

The mother watched with other eyes; listened with otherwise expectant
ears. Under the high hanging shelves supporting great sides of bacon
overhead, her body was busy by the great fireplace, attentive to the pot
swinging on iron gallows, scrubbing the long table where the field hands
would sit down directly to their evening meal. Her mind remained by the
cradle, night and day on the watch, to hope and suffer. That child, like
the other two, never smiled, never stretched its hands to her, never
spoke; never had a glance of recognition for her in its big black eyes,
which could only stare fixedly at any glitter, but failed hopelessly to
follow the brilliance of a sun-ray slipping slowly along the floor.
When the men were at work she spent long days between her three idiot
children and the childish grandfather, who sat grim, angular, and
immovable, with his feet near the warm ashes of the fire. The feeble
old fellow seemed to suspect that there was something wrong with his
grandsons. Only once, moved either by affection or by the sense of
proprieties, he attempted to nurse the youngest. He took the boy up from
the floor, clicked his tongue at him, and essayed a shaky gallop of his
bony knees. Then he looked closely with his misty eyes at the child’s
face and deposited him down gently on the floor again. And he sat, his
lean shanks crossed, nodding at the steam escaping from the cooking-pot
with a gaze senile and worried.

Then mute affliction dwelt in Bacadou’s farmhouse, sharing the breath
and the bread of its inhabitants; and the priest of the Ploumar parish
had great cause for congratulation. He called upon the rich landowner,
the Marquis de Chavanes, on purpose to deliver himself with joyful
unction of solemn platitudes about the inscrutable ways of Providence.
In the vast dimness of the curtained drawing-room, the little man,
resembling a black bolster, leaned towards a couch, his hat on
his knees, and gesticulated with a fat hand at the elongated,
gracefully-flowing lines of the clear Parisian toilette from which the
half-amused, half-bored marquise listened with gracious languor. He was
exulting and humble, proud and awed. The impossible had come to pass.
Jean-Pierre Bacadou, the enraged republican farmer, had been to mass
last Sunday–had proposed to entertain the visiting priests at the next
festival of Ploumar! It was a triumph for the Church and for the good
cause. “I thought I would come at once to tell Monsieur le Marquis. I
know how anxious he is for the welfare of our country,” declared the
priest, wiping his face. He was asked to stay to dinner.

The Chavanes returning that evening, after seeing their guest to the
main gate of the park, discussed the matter while they strolled in
the moonlight, trailing their long shadows up the straight avenue of
chestnuts. The marquise, a royalist of course, had been mayor of the
commune which includes Ploumar, the scattered hamlets of the coast, and
the stony islands that fringe the yellow flatness of the sands. He had
felt his position insecure, for there was a strong republican element in
that part of the country; but now the conversion of Jean-Pierre made
him safe. He was very pleased. “You have no idea how influential
those people are,” he explained to his wife. “Now, I am sure, the next
communal election will go all right. I shall be re-elected.” “Your
ambition is perfectly insatiable, Charles,” exclaimed the marquise,
gaily. “But, ma chere amie,” argued the husband, seriously, “it’s most
important that the right man should be mayor this year, because of the
elections to the Chamber. If you think it amuses me . . .”

Jean-Pierre had surrendered to his wife’s mother. Madame Levaille was
a woman of business, known and respected within a radius of at least
fifteen miles. Thick-set and stout, she was seen about the country, on
foot or in an acquaintance’s cart, perpetually moving, in spite of her
fifty-eight years, in steady pursuit of business. She had houses in all
the hamlets, she worked quarries of granite, she freighted coasters
with stone–even traded with the Channel Islands. She was broad-cheeked,
wide-eyed, persuasive in speech: carrying her point with the placid and
invincible obstinacy of an old woman who knows her own mind. She very
seldom slept for two nights together in the same house; and the wayside
inns were the best places to inquire in as to her whereabouts. She had
either passed, or was expected to pass there at six; or somebody, coming
in, had seen her in the morning, or expected to meet her that evening.
After the inns that command the roads, the churches were the buildings
she frequented most. Men of liberal opinions would induce small children
to run into sacred edifices to see whether Madame Levaille was there,
and to tell her that so-and-so was in the road waiting to speak to her
about potatoes, or flour, or stones, or houses; and she would curtail
her devotions, come out blinking and crossing herself into the sunshine;
ready to discuss business matters in a calm, sensible way across a table
in the kitchen of the inn opposite. Latterly she had stayed for a few
days several times with her son-in-law, arguing against sorrow and
misfortune with composed face and gentle tones. Jean-Pierre felt the
convictions imbibed in the regiment torn out of his breast–not by
arguments but by facts. Striding over his fields he thought it over.
There were three of them. Three! All alike! Why? Such things did not
happen to everybody–to nobody he ever heard of. One–might pass. But
three! All three. Forever useless, to be fed while he lived and . . .
What would become of the land when he died? This must be seen to. He
would sacrifice his convictions. One day he told his wife–

“See what your God will do for us. Pay for some masses.”

Susan embraced her man. He stood unbending, then turned on his heels and
went out. But afterwards, when a black soutane darkened his doorway,
he did not object; even offered some cider himself to the priest.
He listened to the talk meekly; went to mass between the two women;
accomplished what the priest called “his religious duties” at Easter.
That morning he felt like a man who had sold his soul. In the afternoon
he fought ferociously with an old friend and neighbour who had remarked
that the priests had the best of it and were now going to eat the
priest-eater. He came home dishevelled and bleeding, and happening to
catch sight of his children (they were kept generally out of the way),
cursed and swore incoherently, banging the table. Susan wept. Madame
Levaille sat serenely unmoved. She assured her daughter that “It will
pass;” and taking up her thick umbrella, departed in haste to see after
a schooner she was going to load with granite from her quarry.

A year or so afterwards the girl was born. A girl. Jean-Pierre heard of
it in the fields, and was so upset by the news that he sat down on the
boundary wall and remained there till the evening, instead of going home
as he was urged to do. A girl! He felt half cheated. However, when he
got home he was partly reconciled to his fate. One could marry her to
a good fellow–not to a good for nothing, but to a fellow with some
understanding and a good pair of arms. Besides, the next may be a boy,
he thought. Of course they would be all right. His new credulity knew
of no doubt. The ill luck was broken. He spoke cheerily to his wife.
She was also hopeful. Three priests came to that christening, and Madame
Levaille was godmother. The child turned out an idiot too.

Then on market days Jean-Pierre was seen bargaining bitterly,
quarrelsome and greedy; then getting drunk with taciturn earnestness;
then driving home in the dusk at a rate fit for a wedding, but with a
face gloomy enough for a funeral. Sometimes he would insist on his wife
coming with him; and they would drive in the early morning, shaking side
by side on the narrow seat above the helpless pig, that, with tied legs,
grunted a melancholy sigh at every rut. The morning drives were silent;
but in the evening, coming home, Jean-Pierre, tipsy, was viciously
muttering, and growled at the confounded woman who could not rear
children that were like anybody else’s. Susan, holding on against the
erratic swayings of the cart, pretended not to hear. Once, as they were
driving through Ploumar, some obscure and drunken impulse caused him to
pull up sharply opposite the church. The moon swam amongst light white
clouds. The tombstones gleamed pale under the fretted shadows of
the trees in the churchyard. Even the village dogs slept. Only the
nightingales, awake, spun out the thrill of their song above the silence
of graves. Jean-Pierre said thickly to his wife–

“What do you think is there?”

He pointed his whip at the tower–in which the big dial of the clock
appeared high in the moonlight like a pallid face without eyes–and
getting out carefully, fell down at once by the wheel. He picked
himself up and climbed one by one the few steps to the iron gate of the
churchyard. He put his face to the bars and called out indistinctly–

“Hey there! Come out!”

“Jean! Return! Return!” entreated his wife in low tones.

He took no notice, and seemed to wait there. The song of nightingales
beat on all sides against the high walls of the church, and flowed back
between stone crosses and flat gray slabs, engraved with words of hope
and sorrow.

“Hey! Come out!” shouted Jean-Pierre, loudly.

The nightingales ceased to sing.

“Nobody?” went on Jean-Pierre. “Nobody there. A swindle of the crows.
That’s what this is. Nobody anywhere. I despise it. _Allez! Houp!_”

He shook the gate with all his strength, and the iron bars rattled with
a frightful clanging, like a chain dragged over stone steps. A dog
near by barked hurriedly. Jean-Pierre staggered back, and after three
successive dashes got into his cart. Susan sat very quiet and still. He
said to her with drunken severity–

“See? Nobody. I’ve been made a fool! _Malheur!_ Somebody will pay for it.
The next one I see near the house I will lay my whip on . . . on the
black spine . . . I will. I don’t want him in there . . . he only helps
the carrion crows to rob poor folk. I am a man. . . . We will see if
I can’t have children like anybody else . . . now you mind. . . . They
won’t be all . . . all . . . we see. . . .”

She burst out through the fingers that hid her face–

“Don’t say that, Jean; don’t say that, my man!”

He struck her a swinging blow on the head with the back of his hand
and knocked her into the bottom of the cart, where she crouched,
thrown about lamentably by every jolt. He drove furiously, standing
up, brandishing his whip, shaking the reins over the gray horse that
galloped ponderously, making the heavy harness leap upon his broad
quarters. The country rang clamorous in the night with the irritated
barking of farm dogs, that followed the rattle of wheels all along the
road. A couple of belated wayfarers had only just time to step into the
ditch. At his own gate he caught the post and was shot out of the cart
head first. The horse went on slowly to the door. At Susan’s piercing
cries the farm hands rushed out. She thought him dead, but he was only
sleeping where he fell, and cursed his men, who hastened to him, for
disturbing his slumbers.

Autumn came. The clouded sky descended low upon the black contours
of the hills; and the dead leaves danced in spiral whirls under naked
trees, till the wind, sighing profoundly, laid them to rest in the
hollows of bare valleys. And from morning till night one could see all
over the land black denuded boughs, the boughs gnarled and twisted, as
if contorted with pain, swaying sadly between the wet clouds and
the soaked earth. The clear and gentle streams of summer days rushed
discoloured and raging at the stones that barred the way to the sea,
with the fury of madness bent upon suicide. From horizon to horizon the
great road to the sands lay between the hills in a dull glitter of empty
curves, resembling an unnavigable river of mud.

Jean-Pierre went from field to field, moving blurred and tall in the
drizzle, or striding on the crests of rises, lonely and high upon the
gray curtain of drifting clouds, as if he had been pacing along the very
edge of the universe. He looked at the black earth, at the earth
mute and promising, at the mysterious earth doing its work of life in
death-like stillness under the veiled sorrow of the sky. And it seemed
to him that to a man worse than childless there was no promise in
the fertility of fields, that from him the earth escaped, defied him,
frowned at him like the clouds, sombre and hurried above his head.
Having to face alone his own fields, he felt the inferiority of man who
passes away before the clod that remains. Must he give up the hope of
having by his side a son who would look at the turned-up sods with a
master’s eye? A man that would think as he thought, that would feel as
he felt; a man who would be part of himself, and yet remain to trample
masterfully on that earth when he was gone? He thought of some distant
relations, and felt savage enough to curse them aloud. They! Never! He
turned homewards, going straight at the roof of his dwelling, visible
between the enlaced skeletons of trees. As he swung his legs over the
stile a cawing flock of birds settled slowly on the field; dropped down
behind his back, noiseless and fluttering, like flakes of soot.

That day Madame Levaille had gone early in the afternoon to the house
she had near Kervanion. She had to pay some of the men who worked in her
granite quarry there, and she went in good time because her little house
contained a shop where the workmen could spend their wages without the
trouble of going to town. The house stood alone amongst rocks. A lane
of mud and stones ended at the door. The sea-winds coming ashore on
Stonecutter’s point, fresh from the fierce turmoil of the waves, howled
violently at the unmoved heaps of black boulders holding up steadily
short-armed, high crosses against the tremendous rush of the invisible.
In the sweep of gales the sheltered dwelling stood in a calm resonant
and disquieting, like the calm in the centre of a hurricane. On stormy
nights, when the tide was out, the bay of Fougere, fifty feet below the
house, resembled an immense black pit, from which ascended mutterings
and sighs as if the sands down there had been alive and complaining.
At high tide the returning water assaulted the ledges of rock in short
rushes, ending in bursts of livid light and columns of spray, that flew
inland, stinging to death the grass of pastures.

The darkness came from the hills, flowed over the coast, put out the red
fires of sunset, and went on to seaward pursuing the retiring tide. The
wind dropped with the sun, leaving a maddened sea and a devastated sky.
The heavens above the house seemed to be draped in black rags, held up
here and there by pins of fire. Madame Levaille, for this evening the
servant of her own workmen, tried to induce them to depart. “An old
woman like me ought to be in bed at this late hour,” she good-humouredly
repeated. The quarrymen drank, asked for more. They shouted over the
table as if they had been talking across a field. At one end four
of them played cards, banging the wood with their hard knuckles, and
swearing at every lead. One sat with a lost gaze, humming a bar of
some song, which he repeated endlessly. Two others, in a corner, were
quarrelling confidentially and fiercely over some woman, looking close
into one another’s eyes as if they had wanted to tear them out, but
speaking in whispers that promised violence and murder discreetly, in a
venomous sibillation of subdued words. The atmosphere in there was thick
enough to slice with a knife. Three candles burning about the long room
glowed red and dull like sparks expiring in ashes.

The slight click of the iron latch was at that late hour as unexpected
and startling as a thunder-clap. Madame Levaille put down a bottle
she held above a liqueur glass; the players turned their heads; the
whispered quarrel ceased; only the singer, after darting a glance at the
door, went on humming with a stolid face. Susan appeared in the doorway,
stepped in, flung the door to, and put her back against it, saying, half
aloud–

“Mother!”

Madame Levaille, taking up the bottle again, said calmly: “Here you are,
my girl. What a state you are in!” The neck of the bottle rang on the
rim of the glass, for the old woman was startled, and the idea that the
farm had caught fire had entered her head. She could think of no other
cause for her daughter’s appearance.

Susan, soaked and muddy, stared the whole length of the room towards the
men at the far end. Her mother asked–

“What has happened? God guard us from misfortune!”

Susan moved her lips. No sound came. Madame Levaille stepped up to her
daughter, took her by the arm, looked into her face.

“In God’s name,” she said, shakily, “what’s the matter? You have been
rolling in mud. . . . Why did you come? . . . Where’s Jean?”

The men had all got up and approached slowly, staring with dull
surprise. Madame Levaille jerked her daughter away from the door, swung
her round upon a seat close to the wall. Then she turned fiercely to the
men–

“Enough of this! Out you go–you others! I close.”

One of them observed, looking down at Susan collapsed on the seat: “She
is–one may say–half dead.”

Madame Levaille flung the door open.

“Get out! March!” she cried, shaking nervously.

They dropped out into the night, laughing stupidly. Outside, the two
Lotharios broke out into loud shouts. The others tried to soothe them,
all talking at once. The noise went away up the lane with the men,
who staggered together in a tight knot, remonstrating with one another
foolishly.

“Speak, Susan. What is it? Speak!” entreated Madame Levaille, as soon as
the door was shut.

Susan pronounced some incomprehensible words, glaring at the table. The
old woman clapped her hands above her head, let them drop, and stood
looking at her daughter with disconsolate eyes. Her husband had been
“deranged in his head” for a few years before he died, and now she began
to suspect her daughter was going mad. She asked, pressingly–

“Does Jean know where you are? Where is Jean?”

“He knows . . . he is dead.”

“What!” cried the old woman. She came up near, and peering at her
daughter, repeated three times: “What do you say? What do you say? What
do you say?”

Susan sat dry-eyed and stony before Madame Levaille, who contemplated
her, feeling a strange sense of inexplicable horror creep into the
silence of the house. She had hardly realised the news, further than to
understand that she had been brought in one short moment face to face
with something unexpected and final. It did not even occur to her to ask
for any explanation. She thought: accident–terrible accident–blood to
the head–fell down a trap door in the loft. . . . She remained there,
distracted and mute, blinking her old eyes.

Suddenly, Susan said–

“I have killed him.”

For a moment the mother stood still, almost unbreathing, but with
composed face. The next second she burst out into a shout–

“You miserable madwoman . . . they will cut your neck. . . .”

She fancied the gendarmes entering the house, saying to her: “We want
your daughter; give her up:” the gendarmes with the severe, hard faces
of men on duty. She knew the brigadier well–an old friend, familiar
and respectful, saying heartily, “To your good health, Madame!” before
lifting to his lips the small glass of cognac–out of the special bottle
she kept for friends. And now! . . . She was losing her head. She rushed
here and there, as if looking for something urgently needed–gave that
up, stood stock still in the middle of the room, and screamed at her
daughter–

“Why? Say! Say! Why?”

The other seemed to leap out of her strange apathy.

“Do you think I am made of stone?” she shouted back, striding towards
her mother.

“No! It’s impossible . . .” said Madame Levaille, in a convinced tone.

“You go and see, mother,” retorted Susan, looking at her with blazing
eyes. “There’s no money in heaven–no justice. No! . . . I did not know.
. . . Do you think I have no heart? Do you think I have never heard
people jeering at me, pitying me, wondering at me? Do you know how some
of them were calling me? The mother of idiots–that was my nickname!
And my children never would know me, never speak to me. They would know
nothing; neither men–nor God. Haven’t I prayed! But the Mother of God
herself would not hear me. A mother! . . . Who is accursed–I, or the
man who is dead? Eh? Tell me. I took care of myself. Do you think I
would defy the anger of God and have my house full of those things–that
are worse than animals who know the hand that feeds them? Who blasphemed
in the night at the very church door? Was it I? . . . I only wept and
prayed for mercy . . . and I feel the curse at every moment of the
day–I see it round me from morning to night . . . I’ve got to keep them
alive–to take care of my misfortune and shame. And he would come. I
begged him and Heaven for mercy. . . . No! . . . Then we shall see. . . .
He came this evening. I thought to myself: ‘Ah! again!’ . . . I had
my long scissors. I heard him shouting . . . I saw him near. . . . I
must–must I? . . . Then take! . . . And I struck him in the throat
above the breastbone. . . . I never heard him even sigh. . . . I left
him standing. . . . It was a minute ago. How did I come here?”

Madame Levaille shivered. A wave of cold ran down her back, down her
fat arms under her tight sleeves, made her stamp gently where she stood.
Quivers ran over the broad cheeks, across the thin lips, ran amongst the
wrinkles at the corners of her steady old eyes. She stammered–

“You wicked woman–you disgrace me. But there! You always resembled your
father. What do you think will become of you . . . in the other world?
In this . . . Oh misery!”

She was very hot now. She felt burning inside. She wrung her perspiring
hands–and suddenly, starting in great haste, began to look for her big
shawl and umbrella, feverishly, never once glancing at her daughter, who
stood in the middle of the room following her with a gaze distracted and
cold.

“Nothing worse than in this,” said Susan.

Her mother, umbrella in hand and trailing the shawl over the floor,
groaned profoundly.

“I must go to the priest,” she burst out passionately. “I do not know
whether you even speak the truth! You are a horrible woman. They will
find you anywhere. You may stay here–or go. There is no room for you in
this world.”

Ready now to depart, she yet wandered aimlessly about the room, putting
the bottles on the shelf, trying to fit with trembling hands the covers
on cardboard boxes. Whenever the real sense of what she had heard
emerged for a second from the haze of her thoughts she would fancy that
something had exploded in her brain without, unfortunately, bursting her
head to pieces–which would have been a relief. She blew the candles
out one by one without knowing it, and was horribly startled by the
darkness. She fell on a bench and began to whimper. After a while she
ceased, and sat listening to the breathing of her daughter, whom she
could hardly see, still and upright, giving no other sign of life. She
was becoming old rapidly at last, during those minutes. She spoke in
tones unsteady, cut about by the rattle of teeth, like one shaken by a
deadly cold fit of ague.

“I wish you had died little. I will never dare to show my old head in
the sunshine again. There are worse misfortunes than idiot children. I
wish you had been born to me simple–like your own. . . .”

She saw the figure of her daughter pass before the faint and livid
clearness of a window. Then it appeared in the doorway for a second, and
the door swung to with a clang. Madame Levaille, as if awakened by the
noise from a long nightmare, rushed out.

“Susan!” she shouted from the doorstep.

She heard a stone roll a long time down the declivity of the rocky beach
above the sands. She stepped forward cautiously, one hand on the wall
of the house, and peered down into the smooth darkness of the empty bay.
Once again she cried–

“Susan! You will kill yourself there.”

The stone had taken its last leap in the dark, and she heard nothing
now. A sudden thought seemed to strangle her, and she called no more.
She turned her back upon the black silence of the pit and went up the
lane towards Ploumar, stumbling along with sombre determination, as if
she had started on a desperate journey that would last, perhaps, to the
end of her life. A sullen and periodic clamour of waves rolling over
reefs followed her far inland between the high hedges sheltering the
gloomy solitude of the fields.

Susan had run out, swerving sharp to the left at the door, and on the
edge of the slope crouched down behind a boulder. A dislodged stone went
on downwards, rattling as it leaped. When Madame Levaille called out,
Susan could have, by stretching her hand, touched her mother’s skirt,
had she had the courage to move a limb. She saw the old woman go away,
and she remained still, closing her eyes and pressing her side to the
hard and rugged surface of the rock. After a while a familiar face with
fixed eyes and an open mouth became visible in the intense obscurity
amongst the boulders. She uttered a low cry and stood up. The face
vanished, leaving her to gasp and shiver alone in the wilderness of
stone heaps. But as soon as she had crouched down again to rest, with
her head against the rock, the face returned, came very near, appeared
eager to finish the speech that had been cut short by death, only a
moment ago. She scrambled quickly to her feet and said: “Go away, or I
will do it again.” The thing wavered, swung to the right, to the left.
She moved this way and that, stepped back, fancied herself screaming
at it, and was appalled by the unbroken stillness of the night. She
tottered on the brink, felt the steep declivity under her feet, and
rushed down blindly to save herself from a headlong fall. The shingle
seemed to wake up; the pebbles began to roll before her, pursued her
from above, raced down with her on both sides, rolling past with an
increasing clatter. In the peace of the night the noise grew, deepening
to a rumour, continuous and violent, as if the whole semicircle of the
stony beach had started to tumble down into the bay. Susan’s feet hardly
touched the slope that seemed to run down with her. At the bottom she
stumbled, shot forward, throwing her arms out, and fell heavily. She
jumped up at once and turned swiftly to look back, her clenched hands
full of sand she had clutched in her fall. The face was there, keeping
its distance, visible in its own sheen that made a pale stain in the
night. She shouted, “Go away!”–she shouted at it with pain, with fear,
with all the rage of that useless stab that could not keep him quiet,
keep him out of her sight. What did he want now? He was dead. Dead
men have no children. Would he never leave her alone? She shrieked
at it–waved her outstretched hands. She seemed to feel the breath of
parted lips, and, with a long cry of discouragement, fled across the
level bottom of the bay.

She ran lightly, unaware of any effort of her body. High sharp rocks
that, when the bay is full, show above the glittering plain of blue
water like pointed towers of submerged churches, glided past her,
rushing to the land at a tremendous pace. To the left, in the distance,
she could see something shining: a broad disc of light in which narrow
shadows pivoted round the centre like the spokes of a wheel. She heard
a voice calling, “Hey! There!” and answered with a wild scream. So, he
could call yet! He was calling after her to stop. Never! . . . She tore
through the night, past the startled group of seaweed-gatherers who
stood round their lantern paralysed with fear at the unearthly screech
coming from that fleeing shadow. The men leaned on their pitchforks
staring fearfully. A woman fell on her knees, and, crossing herself,
began to pray aloud. A little girl with her ragged skirt full of slimy
seaweed began to sob despairingly, lugging her soaked burden close to
the man who carried the light. Somebody said: “The thing ran out towards
the sea.” Another voice exclaimed: “And the sea is coming back! Look at
the spreading puddles. Do you hear–you woman–there! Get up!” Several
voices cried together. “Yes, let us be off! Let the accursed thing go to
the sea!” They moved on, keeping close round the light. Suddenly a man
swore loudly. He would go and see what was the matter. It had been a
woman’s voice. He would go. There were shrill protests from women–but
his high form detached itself from the group and went off running. They
sent an unanimous call of scared voices after him. A word, insulting and
mocking, came back, thrown at them through the darkness. A woman moaned.
An old man said gravely: “Such things ought to be left alone.” They went
on slower, shuffling in the yielding sand and whispering to one another
that Millot feared nothing, having no religion, but that it would end
badly some day.

Susan met the incoming tide by the Raven islet and stopped, panting,
with her feet in the water. She heard the murmur and felt the cold
caress of the sea, and, calmer now, could see the sombre and confused
mass of the Raven on one side and on the other the long white streak of
Molene sands that are left high above the dry bottom of Fougere Bay
at every ebb. She turned round and saw far away, along the starred
background of the sky, the ragged outline of the coast. Above it, nearly
facing her, appeared the tower of Ploumar Church; a slender and tall
pyramid shooting up dark and pointed into the clustered glitter of the
stars. She felt strangely calm. She knew where she was, and began
to remember how she came there–and why. She peered into the smooth
obscurity near her. She was alone. There was nothing there; nothing near
her, either living or dead.

The tide was creeping in quietly, putting out long impatient arms of
strange rivulets that ran towards the land between ridges of sand. Under
the night the pools grew bigger with mysterious rapidity, while
the great sea, yet far off, thundered in a regular rhythm along the
indistinct line of the horizon. Susan splashed her way back for a
few yards without being able to get clear of the water that murmured
tenderly all around and, suddenly, with a spiteful gurgle, nearly took
her off her feet. Her heart thumped with fear. This place was too big
and too empty to die in. To-morrow they would do with her what they
liked. But before she died she must tell them–tell the gentlemen in
black clothes that there are things no woman can bear. She must explain
how it happened. . . . She splashed through a pool, getting wet to the
waist, too preoccupied to care. . . . She must explain. “He came in the
same way as ever and said, just so: ‘Do you think I am going to leave
the land to those people from Morbihan that I do not know? Do you? We
shall see! Come along, you creature of mischance!’ And he put his arms
out. Then, Messieurs, I said: ‘Before God–never!’ And he said, striding
at me with open palms: ‘There is no God to hold me! Do you understand,
you useless carcase. I will do what I like.’ And he took me by the
shoulders. Then I, Messieurs, called to God for help, and next minute,
while he was shaking me, I felt my long scissors in my hand. His shirt
was unbuttoned, and, by the candle-light, I saw the hollow of his
throat. I cried: ‘Let go!’ He was crushing my shoulders. He was strong,
my man was! Then I thought: No! . . . Must I? . . . Then take!–and I
struck in the hollow place. I never saw him fall. . . . The old father
never turned his head. He is deaf and childish, gentlemen. . . . Nobody
saw him fall. I ran out . . . Nobody saw. . . .”

She had been scrambling amongst the boulders of the Raven and now found
herself, all out of breath, standing amongst the heavy shadows of the
rocky islet. The Raven is connected with the main land by a natural pier
of immense and slippery stones. She intended to return home that way.
Was he still standing there? At home. Home! Four idiots and a corpse.
She must go back and explain. Anybody would understand. . . .

Below her the night or the sea seemed to pronounce distinctly–

“Aha! I see you at last!”

She started, slipped, fell; and without attempting to rise, listened,
terrified. She heard heavy breathing, a clatter of wooden clogs. It
stopped.

“Where the devil did you pass?” said an invisible man, hoarsely.

She held her breath. She recognized the voice. She had not seen him
fall. Was he pursuing her there dead, or perhaps . . . alive?

She lost her head. She cried from the crevice where she lay huddled,
“Never, never!”

“Ah! You are still there. You led me a fine dance. Wait, my beauty, I
must see how you look after all this. You wait. . . .”

Millot was stumbling, laughing, swearing meaninglessly out of
pure satisfaction, pleased with himself for having run down that
fly-by-night. “As if there were such things as ghosts! Bah! It took an
old African soldier to show those clodhoppers. . . . But it was curious.
Who the devil was she?”

Susan listened, crouching. He was coming for her, this dead man. There
was no escape. What a noise he made amongst the stones. . . . She saw
his head rise up, then the shoulders. He was tall–her own man! His long
arms waved about, and it was his own voice sounding a little strange
. . . because of the scissors. She scrambled out quickly, rushed to the
edge of the causeway, and turned round. The man stood still on a high
stone, detaching himself in dead black on the glitter of the sky.

“Where are you going to?” he called, roughly.

She answered, “Home!” and watched him intensely. He made a striding,
clumsy leap on to another boulder, and stopped again, balancing himself,
then said–

“Ha! ha! Well, I am going with you. It’s the least I can do. Ha! ha!
ha!”

She stared at him till her eyes seemed to become glowing coals that
burned deep into her brain, and yet she was in mortal fear of making
out the well-known features. Below her the sea lapped softly against the
rock with a splash continuous and gentle.

The man said, advancing another step–

“I am coming for you. What do you think?”

She trembled. Coming for her! There was no escape, no peace, no hope.
She looked round despairingly. Suddenly the whole shadowy coast, the
blurred islets, the heaven itself, swayed about twice, then came to a
rest. She closed her eyes and shouted–

“Can’t you wait till I am dead!”

She was shaken by a furious hate for that shade that pursued her in this
world, unappeased even by death in its longing for an heir that would be
like other people’s children.

“Hey! What?” said Millot, keeping his distance prudently. He was saying
to himself: “Look out! Some lunatic. An accident happens soon.”

She went on, wildly–

“I want to live. To live alone–for a week–for a day. I must explain
to them. . . . I would tear you to pieces, I would kill you twenty times
over rather than let you touch me while I live. How many times must I
kill you–you blasphemer! Satan sends you here. I am damned too!”

“Come,” said Millot, alarmed and conciliating. “I am perfectly alive!
. . . Oh, my God!”

She had screamed, “Alive!” and at once vanished before his eyes, as if
the islet itself had swerved aside from under her feet. Millot rushed
forward, and fell flat with his chin over the edge. Far below he saw the
water whitened by her struggles, and heard one shrill cry for help that
seemed to dart upwards along the perpendicular face of the rock, and
soar past, straight into the high and impassive heaven.

Madame Levaille sat, dry-eyed, on the short grass of the hill side, with
her thick legs stretched out, and her old feet turned up in their black
cloth shoes. Her clogs stood near by, and further off the umbrella
lay on the withered sward like a weapon dropped from the grasp of a
vanquished warrior. The Marquis of Chavanes, on horseback, one gloved
hand on thigh, looked down at her as she got up laboriously, with
groans. On the narrow track of the seaweed-carts four men were carrying
inland Susan’s body on a hand-barrow, while several others straggled
listlessly behind. Madame Levaille looked after the procession. “Yes,
Monsieur le Marquis,” she said dispassionately, in her usual calm tone
of a reasonable old woman. “There are unfortunate people on this earth.
I had only one child. Only one! And they won’t bury her in consecrated
ground!”

Her eyes filled suddenly, and a short shower of tears rolled down the
broad cheeks. She pulled the shawl close about her. The Marquis leaned
slightly over in his saddle, and said–

“It is very sad. You have all my sympathy. I shall speak to the Cure.
She was unquestionably insane, and the fall was accidental. Millot says
so distinctly. Good-day, Madame.”

And he trotted off, thinking to himself: “I must get this old woman
appointed guardian of those idiots, and administrator of the farm.
It would be much better than having here one of those other Bacadous,
probably a red republican, corrupting my commune.”

Joseph Conrad: The Idiots
fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive C-D, Conrad, Joseph, Joseph Conrad


Joseph Conrad: The Lagoon

Joseph Conrad
(1857-1924)

The Lagoon

The white man, leaning with both arms over the roof of the little house
in the stern of the boat, said to the steersman–

“We will pass the night in Arsat’s clearing. It is late.”

The Malay only grunted, and went on looking fixedly at the river. The
white man rested his chin on his crossed arms and gazed at the wake
of the boat. At the end of the straight avenue of forests cut by the
intense glitter of the river, the sun appeared unclouded and dazzling,
poised low over the water that shone smoothly like a band of metal. The
forests, sombre and dull, stood motionless and silent on each side of
the broad stream. At the foot of big, towering trees, trunkless nipa
palms rose from the mud of the bank, in bunches of leaves enormous
and heavy, that hung unstirring over the brown swirl of eddies. In the
stillness of the air every tree, every leaf, every bough, every tendril
of creeper and every petal of minute blossoms seemed to have been
bewitched into an immobility perfect and final. Nothing moved on
the river but the eight paddles that rose flashing regularly, dipped
together with a single splash; while the steersman swept right and left
with a periodic and sudden flourish of his blade describing a glinting
semicircle above his head. The churned-up water frothed alongside with
a confused murmur. And the white man’s canoe, advancing upstream in the
short-lived disturbance of its own making, seemed to enter the portals
of a land from which the very memory of motion had forever departed.

The white man, turning his back upon the setting sun, looked along the
empty and broad expanse of the sea-reach. For the last three miles of
its course the wandering, hesitating river, as if enticed irresistibly
by the freedom of an open horizon, flows straight into the sea, flows
straight to the east–to the east that harbours both light and darkness.
Astern of the boat the repeated call of some bird, a cry discordant and
feeble, skipped along over the smooth water and lost itself, before it
could reach the other shore, in the breathless silence of the world.

The steersman dug his paddle into the stream, and held hard with
stiffened arms, his body thrown forward. The water gurgled aloud; and
suddenly the long straight reach seemed to pivot on its centre, the
forests swung in a semicircle, and the slanting beams of sunset touched
the broadside of the canoe with a fiery glow, throwing the slender and
distorted shadows of its crew upon the streaked glitter of the river.
The white man turned to look ahead. The course of the boat had been
altered at right-angles to the stream, and the carved dragon-head of its
prow was pointing now at a gap in the fringing bushes of the bank. It
glided through, brushing the overhanging twigs, and disappeared from the
river like some slim and amphibious creature leaving the water for its
lair in the forests.

The narrow creek was like a ditch: tortuous, fabulously deep; filled
with gloom under the thin strip of pure and shining blue of the heaven.
Immense trees soared up, invisible behind the festooned draperies of
creepers. Here and there, near the glistening blackness of the water,
a twisted root of some tall tree showed amongst the tracery of small
ferns, black and dull, writhing and motionless, like an arrested snake.
The short words of the paddlers reverberated loudly between the thick
and sombre walls of vegetation. Darkness oozed out from between the
trees, through the tangled maze of the creepers, from behind the
great fantastic and unstirring leaves; the darkness, mysterious and
invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous of impenetrable forests.

The men poled in the shoaling water. The creek broadened, opening out
into a wide sweep of a stagnant lagoon. The forests receded from the
marshy bank, leaving a level strip of bright green, reedy grass to frame
the reflected blueness of the sky. A fleecy pink cloud drifted high
above, trailing the delicate colouring of its image under the floating
leaves and the silvery blossoms of the lotus. A little house, perched
on high piles, appeared black in the distance. Near it, two tall nibong
palms, that seemed to have come out of the forests in the background,
leaned slightly over the ragged roof, with a suggestion of sad
tenderness and care in the droop of their leafy and soaring heads.

The steersman, pointing with his paddle, said, “Arsat is there. I see
his canoe fast between the piles.”

The polers ran along the sides of the boat glancing over their shoulders
at the end of the day’s journey. They would have preferred to spend the
night somewhere else than on this lagoon of weird aspect and ghostly
reputation. Moreover, they disliked Arsat, first as a stranger, and also
because he who repairs a ruined house, and dwells in it, proclaims
that he is not afraid to live amongst the spirits that haunt the places
abandoned by mankind. Such a man can disturb the course of fate by
glances or words; while his familiar ghosts are not easy to propitiate
by casual wayfarers upon whom they long to wreak the malice of their
human master. White men care not for such things, being unbelievers and
in league with the Father of Evil, who leads them unharmed through the
invisible dangers of this world. To the warnings of the righteous they
oppose an offensive pretence of disbelief. What is there to be done?

So they thought, throwing their weight on the end of their long poles.
The big canoe glided on swiftly, noiselessly, and smoothly, towards
Arsat’s clearing, till, in a great rattling of poles thrown down, and
the loud murmurs of “Allah be praised!” it came with a gentle knock
against the crooked piles below the house.

The boatmen with uplifted faces shouted discordantly, “Arsat! O Arsat!”
Nobody came. The white man began to climb the rude ladder giving access
to the bamboo platform before the house. The juragan of the boat said
sulkily, “We will cook in the sampan, and sleep on the water.”

“Pass my blankets and the basket,” said the white man, curtly.

He knelt on the edge of the platform to receive the bundle. Then the
boat shoved off, and the white man, standing up, confronted Arsat,
who had come out through the low door of his hut. He was a man young,
powerful, with broad chest and muscular arms. He had nothing on but
his sarong. His head was bare. His big, soft eyes stared eagerly at
the white man, but his voice and demeanour were composed as he asked,
without any words of greeting–

“Have you medicine, Tuan?”

“No,” said the visitor in a startled tone. “No. Why? Is there sickness
in the house?”

“Enter and see,” replied Arsat, in the same calm manner, and turning
short round, passed again through the small doorway. The white man,
dropping his bundles, followed.

In the dim light of the dwelling he made out on a couch of bamboos a
woman stretched on her back under a broad sheet of red cotton cloth.
She lay still, as if dead; but her big eyes, wide open, glittered in the
gloom, staring upwards at the slender rafters, motionless and unseeing.
She was in a high fever, and evidently unconscious. Her cheeks were sunk
slightly, her lips were partly open, and on the young face there was the
ominous and fixed expression–the absorbed, contemplating expression of
the unconscious who are going to die. The two men stood looking down at
her in silence.

“Has she been long ill?” asked the traveller.

“I have not slept for five nights,” answered the Malay, in a deliberate
tone. “At first she heard voices calling her from the water and
struggled against me who held her. But since the sun of to-day rose she
hears nothing–she hears not me. She sees nothing. She sees not me–me!”

He remained silent for a minute, then asked softly–

“Tuan, will she die?”

“I fear so,” said the white man, sorrowfully. He had known Arsat years
ago, in a far country in times of trouble and danger, when no friendship
is to be despised. And since his Malay friend had come unexpectedly to
dwell in the hut on the lagoon with a strange woman, he had slept many
times there, in his journeys up and down the river. He liked the man who
knew how to keep faith in council and how to fight without fear by the
side of his white friend. He liked him–not so much perhaps as a man
likes his favourite dog–but still he liked him well enough to help and
ask no questions, to think sometimes vaguely and hazily in the midst of
his own pursuits, about the lonely man and the long-haired woman with
audacious face and triumphant eyes, who lived together hidden by the
forests–alone and feared.

The white man came out of the hut in time to see the enormous
conflagration of sunset put out by the swift and stealthy shadows that,
rising like a black and impalpable vapour above the tree-tops, spread
over the heaven, extinguishing the crimson glow of floating clouds and
the red brilliance of departing daylight. In a few moments all the stars
came out above the intense blackness of the earth and the great lagoon
gleaming suddenly with reflected lights resembled an oval patch of night
sky flung down into the hopeless and abysmal night of the wilderness.
The white man had some supper out of the basket, then collecting a
few sticks that lay about the platform, made up a small fire, not
for warmth, but for the sake of the smoke, which would keep off the
mosquitos. He wrapped himself in the blankets and sat with his back
against the reed wall of the house, smoking thoughtfully.

Arsat came through the doorway with noiseless steps and squatted down by
the fire. The white man moved his outstretched legs a little.

“She breathes,” said Arsat in a low voice, anticipating the expected
question. “She breathes and burns as if with a great fire. She speaks
not; she hears not–and burns!”

He paused for a moment, then asked in a quiet, incurious tone–

“Tuan . . . will she die?”

The white man moved his shoulders uneasily and muttered in a hesitating
manner–

“If such is her fate.”

“No, Tuan,” said Arsat, calmly. “If such is my fate. I hear, I see,
I wait. I remember . . . Tuan, do you remember the old days? Do you
remember my brother?”

“Yes,” said the white man. The Malay rose suddenly and went in. The
other, sitting still outside, could hear the voice in the hut. Arsat
said: “Hear me! Speak!” His words were succeeded by a complete silence.
“O Diamelen!” he cried, suddenly. After that cry there was a deep sigh.
Arsat came out and sank down again in his old place.

They sat in silence before the fire. There was no sound within the
house, there was no sound near them; but far away on the lagoon they
could hear the voices of the boatmen ringing fitful and distinct on
the calm water. The fire in the bows of the sampan shone faintly in the
distance with a hazy red glow. Then it died out. The voices ceased.
The land and the water slept invisible, unstirring and mute. It was as
though there had been nothing left in the world but the glitter of stars
streaming, ceaseless and vain, through the black stillness of the night.

The white man gazed straight before him into the darkness with wide-open
eyes. The fear and fascination, the inspiration and the wonder of
death–of death near, unavoidable, and unseen, soothed the unrest of his
race and stirred the most indistinct, the most intimate of his thoughts.
The ever-ready suspicion of evil, the gnawing suspicion that lurks in
our hearts, flowed out into the stillness round him–into the stillness
profound and dumb, and made it appear untrustworthy and infamous, like
the placid and impenetrable mask of an unjustifiable violence. In that
fleeting and powerful disturbance of his being the earth enfolded in
the starlight peace became a shadowy country of inhuman strife, a
battle-field of phantoms terrible and charming, august or ignoble,
struggling ardently for the possession of our helpless hearts. An
unquiet and mysterious country of inextinguishable desires and fears.

A plaintive murmur rose in the night; a murmur saddening and startling,
as if the great solitudes of surrounding woods had tried to whisper
into his ear the wisdom of their immense and lofty indifference. Sounds
hesitating and vague floated in the air round him, shaped themselves
slowly into words; and at last flowed on gently in a murmuring stream
of soft and monotonous sentences. He stirred like a man waking up and
changed his position slightly. Arsat, motionless and shadowy, sitting
with bowed head under the stars, was speaking in a low and dreamy tone–

“. . . for where can we lay down the heaviness of our trouble but in
a friend’s heart? A man must speak of war and of love. You, Tuan, know
what war is, and you have seen me in time of danger seek death as other
men seek life! A writing may be lost; a lie may be written; but what the
eye has seen is truth and remains in the mind!”

“I remember,” said the white man, quietly. Arsat went on with mournful
composure–

“Therefore I shall speak to you of love. Speak in the night. Speak
before both night and love are gone–and the eye of day looks upon my
sorrow and my shame; upon my blackened face; upon my burnt-up heart.”

A sigh, short and faint, marked an almost imperceptible pause, and then
his words flowed on, without a stir, without a gesture.

“After the time of trouble and war was over and you went away from my
country in the pursuit of your desires, which we, men of the islands,
cannot understand, I and my brother became again, as we had been
before, the sword-bearers of the Ruler. You know we were men of family,
belonging to a ruling race, and more fit than any to carry on our right
shoulder the emblem of power. And in the time of prosperity Si Dendring
showed us favour, as we, in time of sorrow, had showed to him the
faithfulness of our courage. It was a time of peace. A time of
deer-hunts and cock-fights; of idle talks and foolish squabbles between
men whose bellies are full and weapons are rusty. But the sower watched
the young rice-shoots grow up without fear, and the traders came and
went, departed lean and returned fat into the river of peace. They
brought news, too. Brought lies and truth mixed together, so that no man
knew when to rejoice and when to be sorry. We heard from them about you
also. They had seen you here and had seen you there. And I was glad to
hear, for I remembered the stirring times, and I always remembered you,
Tuan, till the time came when my eyes could see nothing in the past,
because they had looked upon the one who is dying there–in the house.”

He stopped to exclaim in an intense whisper, “O Mara bahia! O Calamity!”
then went on speaking a little louder:

“There’s no worse enemy and no better friend than a brother, Tuan, for
one brother knows another, and in perfect knowledge is strength for good
or evil. I loved my brother. I went to him and told him that I could see
nothing but one face, hear nothing but one voice. He told me: ‘Open your
heart so that she can see what is in it–and wait. Patience is wisdom.
Inchi Midah may die or our Ruler may throw off his fear of a woman!’
. . . I waited! . . . You remember the lady with the veiled face, Tuan, and
the fear of our Ruler before her cunning and temper. And if she wanted
her servant, what could I do? But I fed the hunger of my heart on short
glances and stealthy words. I loitered on the path to the bath-houses in
the daytime, and when the sun had fallen behind the forest I crept along
the jasmine hedges of the women’s courtyard. Unseeing, we spoke to
one another through the scent of flowers, through the veil of leaves,
through the blades of long grass that stood still before our lips; so
great was our prudence, so faint was the murmur of our great longing.
The time passed swiftly . . . and there were whispers amongst women–and
our enemies watched–my brother was gloomy, and I began to think of
killing and of a fierce death. . . . We are of a people who take what
they want–like you whites. There is a time when a man should forget
loyalty and respect. Might and authority are given to rulers, but to all
men is given love and strength and courage. My brother said, ‘You shall
take her from their midst. We are two who are like one.’ And I answered,
‘Let it be soon, for I find no warmth in sunlight that does not shine
upon her.’ Our time came when the Ruler and all the great people went
to the mouth of the river to fish by torchlight. There were hundreds
of boats, and on the white sand, between the water and the forests,
dwellings of leaves were built for the households of the Rajahs. The
smoke of cooking-fires was like a blue mist of the evening, and many
voices rang in it joyfully. While they were making the boats ready to
beat up the fish, my brother came to me and said, ‘To-night!’ I looked
to my weapons, and when the time came our canoe took its place in the
circle of boats carrying the torches. The lights blazed on the water,
but behind the boats there was darkness. When the shouting began and the
excitement made them like mad we dropped out. The water swallowed our
fire, and we floated back to the shore that was dark with only here
and there the glimmer of embers. We could hear the talk of slave-girls
amongst the sheds. Then we found a place deserted and silent. We waited
there. She came. She came running along the shore, rapid and leaving
no trace, like a leaf driven by the wind into the sea. My brother said
gloomily, ‘Go and take her; carry her into our boat.’ I lifted her in
my arms. She panted. Her heart was beating against my breast. I said, ‘I
take you from those people. You came to the cry of my heart, but my arms
take you into my boat against the will of the great!’ ‘It is right,’
said my brother. ‘We are men who take what we want and can hold it
against many. We should have taken her in daylight.’ I said, ‘Let us be
off’; for since she was in my boat I began to think of our Ruler’s many
men. ‘Yes. Let us be off,’ said my brother. ‘We are cast out and this
boat is our country now–and the sea is our refuge.’ He lingered with
his foot on the shore, and I entreated him to hasten, for I remembered
the strokes of her heart against my breast and thought that two men
cannot withstand a hundred. We left, paddling downstream close to the
bank; and as we passed by the creek where they were fishing, the great
shouting had ceased, but the murmur of voices was loud like the humming
of insects flying at noonday. The boats floated, clustered together, in
the red light of torches, under a black roof of smoke; and men talked of
their sport. Men that boasted, and praised, and jeered–men that would
have been our friends in the morning, but on that night were already our
enemies. We paddled swiftly past. We had no more friends in the country
of our birth. She sat in the middle of the canoe with covered face;
silent as she is now; unseeing as she is now–and I had no regret at
what I was leaving because I could hear her breathing close to me–as I
can hear her now.”

He paused, listened with his ear turned to the doorway, then shook his
head and went on:

“My brother wanted to shout the cry of challenge–one cry only–to let
the people know we were freeborn robbers who trusted our arms and the
great sea. And again I begged him in the name of our love to be silent.
Could I not hear her breathing close to me? I knew the pursuit would
come quick enough. My brother loved me. He dipped his paddle without a
splash. He only said, ‘There is half a man in you now–the other half is
in that woman. I can wait. When you are a whole man again, you will come
back with me here to shout defiance. We are sons of the same mother.’ I
made no answer. All my strength and all my spirit were in my hands that
held the paddle–for I longed to be with her in a safe place beyond the
reach of men’s anger and of women’s spite. My love was so great, that
I thought it could guide me to a country where death was unknown, if I
could only escape from Inchi Midah’s fury and from our Ruler’s sword.
We paddled with haste, breathing through our teeth. The blades bit deep
into the smooth water. We passed out of the river; we flew in clear
channels amongst the shallows. We skirted the black coast; we skirted
the sand beaches where the sea speaks in whispers to the land; and the
gleam of white sand flashed back past our boat, so swiftly she ran upon
the water. We spoke not. Only once I said, ‘Sleep, Diamelen, for soon
you may want all your strength.’ I heard the sweetness of her voice, but
I never turned my head. The sun rose and still we went on. Water fell
from my face like rain from a cloud. We flew in the light and heat. I
never looked back, but I knew that my brother’s eyes, behind me, were
looking steadily ahead, for the boat went as straight as a bushman’s
dart, when it leaves the end of the sumpitan. There was no better
paddler, no better steersman than my brother. Many times, together, we
had won races in that canoe. But we never had put out our strength as we
did then–then, when for the last time we paddled together! There was no
braver or stronger man in our country than my brother. I could not spare
the strength to turn my head and look at him, but every moment I heard
the hiss of his breath getting louder behind me. Still he did not speak.
The sun was high. The heat clung to my back like a flame of fire. My
ribs were ready to burst, but I could no longer get enough air into
my chest. And then I felt I must cry out with my last breath, ‘Let us
rest!’ . . . ‘Good!’ he answered; and his voice was firm. He was strong.
He was brave. He knew not fear and no fatigue . . . My brother!”

A murmur powerful and gentle, a murmur vast and faint; the murmur of
trembling leaves, of stirring boughs, ran through the tangled depths of
the forests, ran over the starry smoothness of the lagoon, and the water
between the piles lapped the slimy timber once with a sudden splash.
A breath of warm air touched the two men’s faces and passed on with
a mournful sound–a breath loud and short like an uneasy sigh of the
dreaming earth.

Arsat went on in an even, low voice.

“We ran our canoe on the white beach of a little bay close to a long
tongue of land that seemed to bar our road; a long wooded cape going far
into the sea. My brother knew that place. Beyond the cape a river has
its entrance, and through the jungle of that land there is a narrow
path. We made a fire and cooked rice. Then we lay down to sleep on the
soft sand in the shade of our canoe, while she watched. No sooner had I
closed my eyes than I heard her cry of alarm. We leaped up. The sun was
halfway down the sky already, and coming in sight in the opening of the
bay we saw a prau manned by many paddlers. We knew it at once; it was
one of our Rajah’s praus. They were watching the shore, and saw us. They
beat the gong, and turned the head of the prau into the bay. I felt my
heart become weak within my breast. Diamelen sat on the sand and covered
her face. There was no escape by sea. My brother laughed. He had the
gun you had given him, Tuan, before you went away, but there was only a
handful of powder. He spoke to me quickly: ‘Run with her along the path.
I shall keep them back, for they have no firearms, and landing in the
face of a man with a gun is certain death for some. Run with her. On the
other side of that wood there is a fisherman’s house–and a canoe.
When I have fired all the shots I will follow. I am a great runner, and
before they can come up we shall be gone. I will hold out as long as I
can, for she is but a woman–that can neither run nor fight, but she has
your heart in her weak hands.’ He dropped behind the canoe. The prau was
coming. She and I ran, and as we rushed along the path I heard shots.
My brother fired–once–twice–and the booming of the gong ceased. There
was silence behind us. That neck of land is narrow. Before I heard my
brother fire the third shot I saw the shelving shore, and I saw the
water again; the mouth of a broad river. We crossed a grassy glade. We
ran down to the water. I saw a low hut above the black mud, and a small
canoe hauled up. I heard another shot behind me. I thought, ‘That is his
last charge.’ We rushed down to the canoe; a man came running from the
hut, but I leaped on him, and we rolled together in the mud. Then I got
up, and he lay still at my feet. I don’t know whether I had killed him
or not. I and Diamelen pushed the canoe afloat. I heard yells behind me,
and I saw my brother run across the glade. Many men were bounding after
him, I took her in my arms and threw her into the boat, then leaped in
myself. When I looked back I saw that my brother had fallen. He fell
and was up again, but the men were closing round him. He shouted, ‘I am
coming!’ The men were close to him. I looked. Many men. Then I looked
at her. Tuan, I pushed the canoe! I pushed it into deep water. She was
kneeling forward looking at me, and I said, ‘Take your paddle,’ while
I struck the water with mine. Tuan, I heard him cry. I heard him cry my
name twice; and I heard voices shouting, ‘Kill! Strike!’ I never turned
back. I heard him calling my name again with a great shriek, as when
life is going out together with the voice–and I never turned my head.
My own name! . . . My brother! Three times he called–but I was not
afraid of life. Was she not there in that canoe? And could I not with
her find a country where death is forgotten–where death is unknown!”

The white man sat up. Arsat rose and stood, an indistinct and silent
figure above the dying embers of the fire. Over the lagoon a mist
drifting and low had crept, erasing slowly the glittering images of
the stars. And now a great expanse of white vapour covered the land: it
flowed cold and gray in the darkness, eddied in noiseless whirls round
the tree-trunks and about the platform of the house, which seemed to
float upon a restless and impalpable illusion of a sea. Only far away
the tops of the trees stood outlined on the twinkle of heaven, like a
sombre and forbidding shore–a coast deceptive, pitiless and black.

Arsat’s voice vibrated loudly in the profound peace.

“I had her there! I had her! To get her I would have faced all mankind.
But I had her–and–”

His words went out ringing into the empty distances. He paused, and
seemed to listen to them dying away very far–beyond help and beyond
recall. Then he said quietly–

“Tuan, I loved my brother.”

A breath of wind made him shiver. High above his head, high above the
silent sea of mist the drooping leaves of the palms rattled together
with a mournful and expiring sound. The white man stretched his legs.
His chin rested on his chest, and he murmured sadly without lifting his
head–

“We all love our brothers.”

Arsat burst out with an intense whispering violence–

“What did I care who died? I wanted peace in my own heart.”

He seemed to hear a stir in the house–listened–then stepped in
noiselessly. The white man stood up. A breeze was coming in fitful
puffs. The stars shone paler as if they had retreated into the frozen
depths of immense space. After a chill gust of wind there were a few
seconds of perfect calm and absolute silence. Then from behind the black
and wavy line of the forests a column of golden light shot up into the
heavens and spread over the semicircle of the eastern horizon. The sun
had risen. The mist lifted, broke into drifting patches, vanished into
thin flying wreaths; and the unveiled lagoon lay, polished and black, in
the heavy shadows at the foot of the wall of trees. A white eagle rose
over it with a slanting and ponderous flight, reached the clear sunshine
and appeared dazzlingly brilliant for a moment, then soaring higher,
became a dark and motionless speck before it vanished into the blue as
if it had left the earth forever. The white man, standing gazing upwards
before the doorway, heard in the hut a confused and broken murmur of
distracted words ending with a loud groan. Suddenly Arsat stumbled out
with outstretched hands, shivered, and stood still for some time with
fixed eyes. Then he said–

“She burns no more.”

Before his face the sun showed its edge above the tree-tops rising
steadily. The breeze freshened; a great brilliance burst upon the
lagoon, sparkled on the rippling water. The forests came out of the
clear shadows of the morning, became distinct, as if they had rushed
nearer–to stop short in a great stir of leaves, of nodding boughs, of
swaying branches. In the merciless sunshine the whisper of unconscious
life grew louder, speaking in an incomprehensible voice round the dumb
darkness of that human sorrow. Arsat’s eyes wandered slowly, then stared
at the rising sun.

“I can see nothing,” he said half aloud to himself.

“There is nothing,” said the white man, moving to the edge of the
platform and waving his hand to his boat. A shout came faintly over the
lagoon and the sampan began to glide towards the abode of the friend of
ghosts.

“If you want to come with me, I will wait all the morning,” said the
white man, looking away upon the water.

“No, Tuan,” said Arsat, softly. “I shall not eat or sleep in this house,
but I must first see my road. Now I can see nothing–see nothing! There
is no light and no peace in the world; but there is death–death for
many. We are sons of the same mother–and I left him in the midst of
enemies; but I am going back now.”

He drew a long breath and went on in a dreamy tone:

“In a little while I shall see clear enough to strike–to strike. But
she has died, and . . . now . . . darkness.”

He flung his arms wide open, let them fall along his body, then stood
still with unmoved face and stony eyes, staring at the sun. The white
man got down into his canoe. The polers ran smartly along the sides
of the boat, looking over their shoulders at the beginning of a weary
journey. High in the stern, his head muffled up in white rags, the
juragan sat moody, letting his paddle trail in the water. The white man,
leaning with both arms over the grass roof of the little cabin, looked
back at the shining ripple of the boat’s wake. Before the sampan passed
out of the lagoon into the creek he lifted his eyes. Arsat had not
moved. He stood lonely in the searching sunshine; and he looked beyond
the great light of a cloudless day into the darkness of a world of
illusions.

Joseph Conrad: The Lagoon
fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive C-D, Conrad, Joseph, Joseph Conrad


Joseph Conrad: An Anarchist

Joseph Conrad

(1857-1924)

A Desperate Tale

An Anarchist

That year I spent the best two months of the dry season on one of
the estates–in fact, on the principal cattle estate–of a famous
meat-extract manufacturing company.

B.O.S. Bos. You have seen the three magic letters on the advertisement
pages of magazines and newspapers, in the windows of provision
merchants, and on calendars for next year you receive by post in the
month of November. They scatter pamphlets also, written in a sickly
enthusiastic style and in several languages, giving statistics of
slaughter and bloodshed enough to make a Turk turn faint. The “art”
illustrating that “literature” represents in vivid and shining colours
a large and enraged black bull stamping upon a yellow snake writhing
in emerald-green grass, with a cobalt-blue sky for a background. It
is atrocious and it is an allegory. The snake symbolizes disease,
weakness–perhaps mere hunger, which last is the chronic disease of the
majority of mankind. Of course everybody knows the B. O. S. Ltd., with
its unrivalled products: Vinobos, Jellybos, and the latest unequalled
perfection, Tribos, whose nourishment is offered to you not only highly
concentrated, but already half digested. Such apparently is the love
that Limited Company bears to its fellowmen–even as the love of the
father and mother penguin for their hungry fledglings.

Of course the capital of a country must be productively employed. I
have nothing to say against the company. But being myself animated by
feelings of affection towards my fellow-men, I am saddened by the
modern system of advertising. Whatever evidence it offers of enterprise,
ingenuity, impudence, and resource in certain individuals, it proves to
my mind the wide prevalence of that form of mental degradation which is
called gullibility.

In various parts of the civilized and uncivilized world I have had to
swallow B. O. S. with more or less benefit to myself, though without
great pleasure. Prepared with hot water and abundantly peppered to bring
out the taste, this extract is not really unpalatable. But I have never
swallowed its advertisements. Perhaps they have not gone far enough. As
far as I can remember they make no promise of everlasting youth to the
users of B. O. S., nor yet have they claimed the power of raising the
dead for their estimable products. Why this austere reserve, I wonder?
But I don’t think they would have had me even on these terms. Whatever
form of mental degradation I may (being but human) be suffering from, it
is not the popular form. I am not gullible.

I have been at some pains to bring out distinctly this statement about
myself in view of the story which follows. I have checked the facts as
far as possible. I have turned up the files of French newspapers, and I
have also talked with the officer who commands the military guard on
the Ile Royale, when in the course of my travels I reached Cayenne. I
believe the story to be in the main true. It is the sort of story that
no man, I think, would ever invent about himself, for it is neither
grandiose nor flattering, nor yet funny enough to gratify a perverted
vanity.

It concerns the engineer of the steam-launch belonging to the Maranon
cattle estate of the B. O. S. Co., Ltd. This estate is also an
island–an island as big as a small province, lying in the estuary of a
great South American river. It is wild and not beautiful, but the grass
growing on its low plains seems to possess exceptionally nourishing
and flavouring qualities. It resounds with the lowing of innumerable
herds–a deep and distressing sound under the open sky, rising like
a monstrous protest of prisoners condemned to death. On the mainland,
across twenty miles of discoloured muddy water, there stands a city
whose name, let us say, is Horta.

But the most interesting characteristic of this island (which seems like
a sort of penal settlement for condemned cattle) consists in its being
the only known habitat of an extremely rare and gorgeous butterfly.
The species is even more rare than it is beautiful, which is not saying
little. I have already alluded to my travels. I travelled at that time,
but strictly for myself and with a moderation unknown in our days of
round-the-world tickets. I even travelled with a purpose. As a matter of
fact, I am–“Ha, ha, ha!–a desperate butterfly-slayer. Ha, ha, ha!”

This was the tone in which Mr. Harry Gee, the manager of the cattle
station, alluded to my pursuits. He seemed to consider me the greatest
absurdity in the world. On the other hand, the B. O. S. Co., Ltd.,
represented to him the acme of the nineteenth century’s achievement. I
believe that he slept in his leggings and spurs. His days he spent in
the saddle flying over the plains, followed by a train of half-wild
horsemen, who called him Don Enrique, and who had no definite idea of
the B. O. S. Co., Ltd., which paid their wages. He was an excellent
manager, but I don’t see why, when we met at meals, he should have
thumped me on the back, with loud, derisive inquiries: “How’s the deadly
sport to-day? Butterflies going strong? Ha, ha, ha!”–especially as he
charged me two dollars per diem for the hospitality of the B. O. S. Co.,
Ltd., (capital L1,500,000, fully paid up), in whose balance-sheet for
that year those monies are no doubt included. “I don’t think I can
make it anything less in justice to my company,” he had remarked, with
extreme gravity, when I was arranging with him the terms of my stay on
the island.

His chaff would have been harmless enough if intimacy of intercourse
in the absence of all friendly feeling were not a thing detestable in
itself. Moreover, his facetiousness was not very amusing. It consisted
in the wearisome repetition of descriptive phrases applied to people
with a burst of laughter. “Desperate butterfly-slayer. Ha, ha, ha!” was
one sample of his peculiar wit which he himself enjoyed so much. And in
the same vein of exquisite humour he called my attention to the engineer
of the steam-launch, one day, as we strolled on the path by the side of
the creek.

The man’s head and shoulders emerged above the deck, over which were
scattered various tools of his trade and a few pieces of machinery. He
was doing some repairs to the engines. At the sound of our footsteps
he raised anxiously a grimy face with a pointed chin and a tiny fair
moustache. What could be seen of his delicate features under the black
smudges appeared to me wasted and livid in the greenish shade of the
enormous tree spreading its foliage over the launch moored close to the
bank.

To my great surprise, Harry Gee addressed him as “Crocodile,” in
that half-jeering, half-bullying tone which is characteristic of
self-satisfaction in his delectable kind:

“How does the work get on, Crocodile?”

I should have said before that the amiable Harry had picked up French
of a sort somewhere–in some colony or other–and that he pronounced
it with a disagreeable forced precision as though he meant to guy the
language. The man in the launch answered him quickly in a pleasant
voice. His eyes had a liquid softness and his teeth flashed dazzlingly
white between his thin, drooping lips. The manager turned to me, very
cheerful and loud, explaining:

“I call him Crocodile because he lives half in, half out of the creek.
Amphibious–see? There’s nothing else amphibious living on the island
except crocodiles; so he must belong to the species–eh? But in reality
he’s nothing less than un citoyen anarchiste de Barcelone.”

“A citizen anarchist from Barcelona?” I repeated, stupidly, looking down
at the man. He had turned to his work in the engine-well of the launch
and presented his bowed back to us. In that attitude I heard him
protest, very audibly:

“I do not even know Spanish.”

“Hey? What? You dare to deny you come from over there?” the accomplished
manager was down on him truculently.

At this the man straightened himself up, dropping a spanner he had been
using, and faced us; but he trembled in all his limbs.

“I deny nothing, nothing, nothing!” he said, excitedly.

He picked up the spanner and went to work again without paying any
further attention to us. After looking at him for a minute or so, we
went away.

“Is he really an anarchist?” I asked, when out of ear-shot.

“I don’t care a hang what he is,” answered the humorous official of the
B. O. S. Co. “I gave him the name because it suited me to label him in
that way, It’s good for the company.”

“For the company!” I exclaimed, stopping short.

“Aha!” he triumphed, tilting up his hairless pug face and straddling his
thin, long legs. “That surprises you. I am bound to do my best for my
company. They have enormous expenses. Why–our agent in Horta tells me
they spend fifty thousand pounds every year in advertising all over the
world! One can’t be too economical in working the show. Well, just you
listen. When I took charge here the estate had no steam-launch. I asked
for one, and kept on asking by every mail till I got it; but the man
they sent out with it chucked his job at the end of two months, leaving
the launch moored at the pontoon in Horta. Got a better screw at a
sawmill up the river–blast him! And ever since it has been the same
thing. Any Scotch or Yankee vagabond that likes to call himself a
mechanic out here gets eighteen pounds a month, and the next you know
he’s cleared out, after smashing something as likely as not. I give you
my word that some of the objects I’ve had for engine-drivers couldn’t
tell the boiler from the funnel. But this fellow understands his trade,
and I don’t mean him to clear out. See?”

And he struck me lightly on the chest for emphasis. Disregarding his
peculiarities of manner, I wanted to know what all this had to do with
the man being an anarchist.

“Come!” jeered the manager. “If you saw suddenly a barefooted, unkempt
chap slinking amongst the bushes on the sea face of the island, and at
the same time observed less than a mile from the beach, a small schooner
full of niggers hauling off in a hurry, you wouldn’t think the man fell
there from the sky, would you? And it could be nothing else but either
that or Cayenne. I’ve got my wits about me. Directly I sighted this
queer game I said to myself–‘Escaped Convict.’ I was as certain of
it as I am of seeing you standing here this minute. So I spurred on
straight at him. He stood his ground for a bit on a sand hillock crying
out: ‘Monsieur! Monsieur! Arretez!’ then at the last moment broke and
ran for life. Says I to myself, ‘I’ll tame you before I’m done with
you.’ So without a single word I kept on, heading him off here and
there. I rounded him up towards the shore, and at last I had him
corralled on a spit, his heels in the water and nothing but sea and sky
at his back, with my horse pawing the sand and shaking his head within a
yard of him.

“He folded his arms on his breast then and stuck his chin up in a
sort of desperate way; but I wasn’t to be impressed by the beggar’s
posturing.

“Says I, ‘You’re a runaway convict.’

“When he heard French, his chin went down and his face changed.

“‘I deny nothing,’ says he, panting yet, for I had kept him skipping
about in front of my horse pretty smartly. I asked him what he was doing
there. He had got his breath by then, and explained that he had meant to
make his way to a farm which he understood (from the schooner’s people,
I suppose) was to be found in the neighbourhood. At that I laughed
aloud and he got uneasy. Had he been deceived? Was there no farm within
walking distance?

“I laughed more and more. He was on foot, and of course the first bunch
of cattle he came across would have stamped him to rags under their
hoofs. A dismounted man caught on the feeding-grounds hasn’t got the
ghost of a chance.

“‘My coming upon you like this has certainly saved your life,’ I
said. He remarked that perhaps it was so; but that for his part he had
imagined I had wanted to kill him under the hoofs of my horse. I assured
him that nothing would have been easier had I meant it. And then we came
to a sort of dead stop. For the life of me I didn’t know what to do with
this convict, unless I chucked him into the sea. It occurred to me to
ask him what he had been transported for. He hung his head.

“‘What is it?’ says I. ‘Theft, murder, rape, or what?’ I wanted to hear
what he would have to say for himself, though of course I expected it
would be some sort of lie. But all he said was–

“‘Make it what you like. I deny nothing. It is no good denying
anything.’

“I looked him over carefully and a thought struck me.

“‘They’ve got anarchists there, too,’ I said. ‘Perhaps you’re one of
them.’

“‘I deny nothing whatever, monsieur,’ he repeats.

“This answer made me think that perhaps he was not an anarchist. I
believe those damned lunatics are rather proud of themselves. If he had
been one, he would have probably confessed straight out.

“‘What were you before you became a convict?’

“‘Ouvrier,’ he says. ‘And a good workman, too.’

“At that I began to think he must be an anarchist, after all. That’s the
class they come mostly from, isn’t it? I hate the cowardly bomb-throwing
brutes. I almost made up my mind to turn my horse short round and leave
him to starve or drown where he was, whichever he liked best. As to
crossing the island to bother me again, the cattle would see to that. I
don’t know what induced me to ask–

“‘What sort of workman?’

“I didn’t care a hang whether he answered me or not. But when he said
at once, ‘Mecanicien, monsieur,’ I nearly jumped out of the saddle with
excitement. The launch had been lying disabled and idle in the creek for
three weeks. My duty to the company was clear. He noticed my start,
too, and there we were for a minute or so staring at each other as if
bewitched.

“‘Get up on my horse behind me,’ I told him. ‘You shall put my
steam-launch to rights.'”

These are the words in which the worthy manager of the Maranon estate
related to me the coming of the supposed anarchist. He meant to keep
him–out of a sense of duty to the company–and the name he had given
him would prevent the fellow from obtaining employment anywhere in
Horta. The vaqueros of the estate, when they went on leave, spread it
all over the town. They did not know what an anarchist was, nor yet what
Barcelona meant. They called him Anarchisto de Barcelona, as if it were
his Christian name and surname. But the people in town had been reading
in their papers about the anarchists in Europe and were very much
impressed. Over the jocular addition of “de Barcelona” Mr. Harry
Gee chuckled with immense satisfaction. “That breed is particularly
murderous, isn’t it? It makes the sawmills crowd still more afraid of
having anything to do with him–see?” he exulted, candidly. “I hold him
by that name better than if I had him chained up by the leg to the deck
of the steam-launch.

“And mark,” he added, after a pause, “he does not deny it. I am not
wronging him in any way. He is a convict of some sort, anyhow.”

“But I suppose you pay him some wages, don’t you?” I asked.

“Wages! What does he want with money here? He gets his food from
my kitchen and his clothing from the store. Of course I’ll give him
something at the end of the year, but you don’t think I’d employ a
convict and give him the same money I would give an honest man? I am
looking after the interests of my company first and last.”

I admitted that, for a company spending fifty thousand pounds every
year in advertising, the strictest economy was obviously necessary. The
manager of the Maranon Estancia grunted approvingly.

“And I’ll tell you what,” he continued: “if I were certain he’s an
anarchist and he had the cheek to ask me for money, I would give him
the toe of my boot. However, let him have the benefit of the doubt. I
am perfectly willing to take it that he has done nothing worse than
to stick a knife into somebody–with extenuating circumstances–French
fashion, don’t you know. But that subversive sanguinary rot of doing
away with all law and order in the world makes my blood boil. It’s
simply cutting the ground from under the feet of every decent,
respectable, hard-working person. I tell you that the consciences of
people who have them, like you or I, must be protected in some way; or
else the first low scoundrel that came along would in every respect be
just as good as myself. Wouldn’t he, now? And that’s absurd!”

He glared at me. I nodded slightly and murmured that doubtless there was
much subtle truth in his view.

The principal truth discoverable in the views of Paul the engineer was
that a little thing may bring about the undoing of a man.

“_Il ne faut pas beaucoup pour perdre un homme_,” he said to me,
thoughtfully, one evening.

I report this reflection in French, since the man was of Paris, not of
Barcelona at all. At the Maranon he lived apart from the station, in
a small shed with a metal roof and straw walls, which he called
mon atelier. He had a work-bench there. They had given him several
horse-blankets and a saddle–not that he ever had occasion to ride, but
because no other bedding was used by the working-hands, who were all
vaqueros–cattlemen. And on this horseman’s gear, like a son of the
plains, he used to sleep amongst the tools of his trade, in a litter
of rusty scrap-iron, with a portable forge at his head, under the
work-bench sustaining his grimy mosquito-net.

Now and then I would bring him a few candle ends saved from the scant
supply of the manager’s house. He was very thankful for these. He did
not like to lie awake in the dark, he confessed. He complained that
sleep fled from him. “Le sommeil me fuit,” he declared, with his
habitual air of subdued stoicism, which made him sympathetic and
touching. I made it clear to him that I did not attach undue importance
to the fact of his having been a convict.

Thus it came about that one evening he was led to talk about himself.
As one of the bits of candle on the edge of the bench burned down to the
end, he hastened to light another.

He had done his military service in a provincial garrison and returned
to Paris to follow his trade. It was a well-paid one. He told me with
some pride that in a short time he was earning no less than ten francs a
day. He was thinking of setting up for himself by and by and of getting
married.

Here he sighed deeply and paused. Then with a return to his stoical
note:

“It seems I did not know enough about myself.”

On his twenty-fifth birthday two of his friends in the repairing shop
where he worked proposed to stand him a dinner. He was immensely touched
by this attention.

“I was a steady man,” he remarked, “but I am not less sociable than any
other body.”

The entertainment came off in a little cafe on the Boulevard de la
Chapelle. At dinner they drank some special wine. It was excellent.
Everything was excellent; and the world–in his own words–seemed a very
good place to live in. He had good prospects, some little money laid by,
and the affection of two excellent friends. He offered to pay for all
the drinks after dinner, which was only proper on his part.

They drank more wine; they drank liqueurs, cognac, beer, then more
liqueurs and more cognac. Two strangers sitting at the next table looked
at him, he said, with so much friendliness, that he invited them to join
the party.

He had never drunk so much in his life. His elation was extreme, and so
pleasurable that whenever it flagged he hastened to order more drinks.

“It seemed to me,” he said, in his quiet tone and looking on the ground
in the gloomy shed full of shadows, “that I was on the point of just
attaining a great and wonderful felicity. Another drink, I felt, would
do it. The others were holding out well with me, glass for glass.”

But an extraordinary thing happened. At something the strangers said his
elation fell. Gloomy ideas–des idees noires–rushed into his head. All
the world outside the cafe; appeared to him as a dismal evil place where
a multitude of poor wretches had to work and slave to the sole end
that a few individuals should ride in carriages and live riotously in
palaces. He became ashamed of his happiness. The pity of mankind’s cruel
lot wrung his heart. In a voice choked with sorrow he tried to express
these sentiments. He thinks he wept and swore in turns.

The two new acquaintances hastened to applaud his humane indignation.
Yes. The amount of injustice in the world was indeed scandalous. There
was only one way of dealing with the rotten state of society. Demolish
the whole sacree boutique. Blow up the whole iniquitous show.

Their heads hovered over the table. They whispered to him eloquently; I
don’t think they quite expected the result. He was extremely drunk–mad
drunk. With a howl of rage he leaped suddenly upon the table. Kicking
over the bottles and glasses, he yelled: “Vive l’anarchie! Death to the
capitalists!” He yelled this again and again. All round him broken glass
was falling, chairs were being swung in the air, people were taking each
other by the throat. The police dashed in. He hit, bit, scratched and
struggled, till something crashed down upon his head. . . .

He came to himself in a police cell, locked up on a charge of assault,
seditious cries, and anarchist propaganda.

He looked at me fixedly with his liquid, shining eyes, that seemed very
big in the dim light.

“That was bad. But even then I might have got off somehow, perhaps,” he
said, slowly.

I doubt it. But whatever chance he had was done away with by a young
socialist lawyer who volunteered to undertake his defence. In vain he
assured him that he was no anarchist; that he was a quiet, respectable
mechanic, only too anxious to work ten hours per day at his trade. He
was represented at the trial as the victim of society and his drunken
shoutings as the expression of infinite suffering. The young lawyer had
his way to make, and this case was just what he wanted for a start. The
speech for the defence was pronounced magnificent.

The poor fellow paused, swallowed, and brought out the statement:

“I got the maximum penalty applicable to a first offence.”

I made an appropriate murmur. He hung his head and folded his arms.

“When they let me out of prison,” he began, gently, “I made tracks, of
course, for my old workshop. My patron had a particular liking for me
before; but when he saw me he turned green with fright and showed me the
door with a shaking hand.”

While he stood in the street, uneasy and disconcerted, he was accosted
by a middle-aged man who introduced himself as an engineer’s fitter,
too. “I know who you are,” he said. “I have attended your trial. You are
a good comrade and your ideas are sound. But the devil of it is that you
won’t be able to get work anywhere now. These bourgeois’ll conspire to
starve you. That’s their way. Expect no mercy from the rich.”

To be spoken to so kindly in the street had comforted him very much. His
seemed to be the sort of nature needing support and sympathy. The idea
of not being able to find work had knocked him over completely. If his
patron, who knew him so well for a quiet, orderly, competent workman,
would have nothing to do with him now–then surely nobody else would.
That was clear. The police, keeping their eye on him, would hasten to
warn every employer inclined to give him a chance. He felt suddenly very
helpless, alarmed and idle; and he followed the middle-aged man to the
estaminet round the corner where he met some other good companions. They
assured him that he would not be allowed to starve, work or no work.
They had drinks all round to the discomfiture of all employers of labour
and to the destruction of society.

He sat biting his lower lip.

“That is, monsieur, how I became a compagnon,” he said. The hand he
passed over his forehead was trembling. “All the same, there’s something
wrong in a world where a man can get lost for a glass more or less.”

He never looked up, though I could see he was getting excited under his
dejection. He slapped the bench with his open palm.

“No!” he cried. “It was an impossible existence! Watched by the police,
watched by the comrades, I did not belong to myself any more! Why, I
could not even go to draw a few francs from my savings-bank without a
comrade hanging about the door to see that I didn’t bolt! And most of
them were neither more nor less than housebreakers. The intelligent, I
mean. They robbed the rich; they were only getting back their own, they
said. When I had had some drink I believed them. There were also the
fools and the mad. Des exaltes–quoi! When I was drunk I loved them.
When I got more drink I was angry with the world. That was the best
time. I found refuge from misery in rage. But one can’t be always
drunk–n’est-ce pas, monsieur? And when I was sober I was afraid to
break away. They would have stuck me like a pig.”

He folded his arms again and raised his sharp chin with a bitter smile.

“By and by they told me it was time to go to work. The work was to rob
a bank. Afterwards a bomb would be thrown to wreck the place. My
beginner’s part would be to keep watch in a street at the back and to
take care of a black bag with the bomb inside till it was wanted. After
the meeting at which the affair was arranged a trusty comrade did not
leave me an inch. I had not dared to protest; I was afraid of being
done away with quietly in that room; only, as we were walking together I
wondered whether it would not be better for me to throw myself suddenly
into the Seine. But while I was turning it over in my mind we had
crossed the bridge, and afterwards I had not the opportunity.”

In the light of the candle end, with his sharp features, fluffy little
moustache, and oval face, he looked at times delicately and gaily young,
and then appeared quite old, decrepit, full of sorrow, pressing his
folded arms to his breast.

As he remained silent I felt bound to ask:

“Well! And how did it end?”

“Deportation to Cayenne,” he answered.

He seemed to think that somebody had given the plot away. As he was
keeping watch in the back street, bag in hand, he was set upon by the
police. “These imbeciles,” had knocked him down without noticing what he
had in his hand. He wondered how the bomb failed to explode as he fell.
But it didn’t explode.

“I tried to tell my story in court,” he continued. “The president was
amused. There were in the audience some idiots who laughed.”

I expressed the hope that some of his companions had been caught, too.
He shuddered slightly before he told me that there were two–Simon,
called also Biscuit, the middle-aged fitter who spoke to him in the
street, and a fellow of the name of Mafile, one of the sympathetic
strangers who had applauded his sentiments and consoled his humanitarian
sorrows when he got drunk in the cafe.

“Yes,” he went on, with an effort, “I had the advantage of their company
over there on St. Joseph’s Island, amongst some eighty or ninety other
convicts. We were all classed as dangerous.”

St. Joseph’s Island is the prettiest of the Iles de Salut. It is
rocky and green, with shallow ravines, bushes, thickets, groves of
mango-trees, and many feathery palms. Six warders armed with revolvers
and carbines are in charge of the convicts kept there.

An eight-oared galley keeps up the communication in the daytime, across
a channel a quarter of a mile wide, with the Ile Royale, where there is
a military post. She makes the first trip at six in the morning. At four
in the afternoon her service is over, and she is then hauled up into
a little dock on the Ile Royale and a sentry put over her and a few
smaller boats. From that time till next morning the island of St. Joseph
remains cut off from the rest of the world, with the warders patrolling
in turn the path from the warders’ house to the convict huts, and a
multitude of sharks patrolling the waters all round.

Under these circumstances the convicts planned a mutiny. Such a thing
had never been known in the penitentiary’s history before. But their
plan was not without some possibility of success. The warders were to be
taken by surprise and murdered during the night. Their arms would
enable the convicts to shoot down the people in the galley as she came
alongside in the morning. The galley once in their possession, other
boats were to be captured, and the whole company was to row away up the
coast.

At dusk the two warders on duty mustered the convicts as usual. Then
they proceeded to inspect the huts to ascertain that everything was
in order. In the second they entered they were set upon and absolutely
smothered under the numbers of their assailants. The twilight faded
rapidly. It was a new moon; and a heavy black squall gathering over
the coast increased the profound darkness of the night. The convicts
assembled in the open space, deliberating upon the next step to be
taken, argued amongst themselves in low voices.

“You took part in all this?” I asked.

“No. I knew what was going to be done, of course. But why should I
kill these warders? I had nothing against them. But I was afraid of the
others. Whatever happened, I could not escape from them. I sat alone
on the stump of a tree with my head in my hands, sick at heart at the
thought of a freedom that could be nothing but a mockery to me. Suddenly
I was startled to perceive the shape of a man on the path near by. He
stood perfectly still, then his form became effaced in the night. It
must have been the chief warder coming to see what had become of his
two men. No one noticed him. The convicts kept on quarrelling over
their plans. The leaders could not get themselves obeyed. The fierce
whispering of that dark mass of men was very horrible.

“At last they divided into two parties and moved off. When they had
passed me I rose, weary and hopeless. The path to the warders’ house was
dark and silent, but on each side the bushes rustled slightly. Presently
I saw a faint thread of light before me. The chief warder, followed by
his three men, was approaching cautiously. But he had failed to close
his dark lantern properly. The convicts had seen that faint gleam, too.
There was an awful savage yell, a turmoil on the dark path, shots fired,
blows, groans: and with the sound of smashed bushes, the shouts of the
pursuers and the screams of the pursued, the man-hunt, the warder-hunt,
passed by me into the interior of the island. I was alone. And I assure
you, monsieur, I was indifferent to everything. After standing still
for a while, I walked on along the path till I kicked something hard. I
stooped and picked up a warder’s revolver. I felt with my fingers
that it was loaded in five chambers. In the gusts of wind I heard the
convicts calling to each other far away, and then a roll of thunder
would cover the soughing and rustling of the trees. Suddenly, a big
light ran across my path very low along the ground. And it showed a
woman’s skirt with the edge of an apron.

“I knew that the person who carried it must be the wife of the head
warder. They had forgotten all about her, it seems. A shot rang out in
the interior of the island, and she cried out to herself as she ran. She
passed on. I followed, and presently I saw her again. She was pulling
at the cord of the big bell which hangs at the end of the landing-pier,
with one hand, and with the other she was swinging the heavy lantern to
and fro. This is the agreed signal for the Ile Royale should assistance
be required at night. The wind carried the sound away from our island
and the light she swung was hidden on the shore side by the few trees
that grow near the warders’ house.

“I came up quite close to her from behind. She went on without stopping,
without looking aside, as though she had been all alone on the island.
A brave woman, monsieur. I put the revolver inside the breast of my blue
blouse and waited. A flash of lightning and a clap of thunder destroyed
both the sound and the light of the signal for an instant, but she never
faltered, pulling at the cord and swinging the lantern as regularly as a
machine. She was a comely woman of thirty–no more. I thought to myself,
‘All that’s no good on a night like this.’ And I made up my mind that
if a body of my fellow-convicts came down to the pier–which was sure to
happen soon–I would shoot her through the head before I shot myself. I
knew the ‘comrades’ well. This idea of mine gave me quite an interest
in life, monsieur; and at once, instead of remaining stupidly exposed on
the pier, I retreated a little way and crouched behind a bush. I did not
intend to let myself be pounced upon unawares and be prevented perhaps
from rendering a supreme service to at least one human creature before I
died myself.

“But we must believe the signal was seen, for the galley from Ile Royale
came over in an astonishingly short time. The woman kept right on till
the light of her lantern flashed upon the officer in command and the
bayonets of the soldiers in the boat. Then she sat down and began to
cry.

“She didn’t need me any more. I did not budge. Some soldiers were only
in their shirt-sleeves, others without boots, just as the call to arms
had found them. They passed by my bush at the double. The galley had
been sent away for more; and the woman sat all alone crying at the end
of the pier, with the lantern standing on the ground near her.

“Then suddenly I saw in the light at the end of the pier the red
pantaloons of two more men. I was overcome with astonishment. They,
too, started off at a run. Their tunics flapped unbuttoned and they were
bare-headed. One of them panted out to the other, ‘Straight on, straight
on!’

“Where on earth did they spring from, I wondered. Slowly I walked down
the short pier. I saw the woman’s form shaken by sobs and heard her
moaning more and more distinctly, ‘Oh, my man! my poor man! my poor
man!’ I stole on quietly. She could neither hear nor see anything. She
had thrown her apron over her head and was rocking herself to and fro in
her grief. But I remarked a small boat fastened to the end of the pier.

“Those two men–they looked like sous-officiers–must have come in it,
after being too late, I suppose, for the galley. It is incredible that
they should have thus broken the regulations from a sense of duty. And
it was a stupid thing to do. I could not believe my eyes in the very
moment I was stepping into that boat.

“I pulled along the shore slowly. A black cloud hung over the Iles de
Salut. I heard firing, shouts. Another hunt had begun–the convict-hunt.
The oars were too long to pull comfortably. I managed them with
difficulty, though the boat herself was light. But when I got round to
the other side of the island the squall broke in rain and wind. I was
unable to make head against it. I let the boat drift ashore and secured
her.

“I knew the spot. There was a tumbledown old hovel standing near the
water. Cowering in there I heard through the noises of the wind and the
falling downpour some people tearing through the bushes. They came out
on the strand. Soldiers perhaps. A flash of lightning threw everything
near me into violent relief. Two convicts!

“And directly an amazed voice exclaimed. ‘It’s a miracle!’ It was the
voice of Simon, otherwise Biscuit.

“And another voice growled, ‘What’s a miracle?’

“‘Why, there’s a boat lying here!’

“‘You must be mad, Simon! But there is, after all. . . . A boat.’

“They seemed awed into complete silence. The other man was Mafile. He
spoke again, cautiously.

“‘It is fastened up. There must be somebody here.’

“I spoke to them from within the hovel: ‘I am here.’

“They came in then, and soon gave me to understand that the boat was
theirs, not mine. ‘There are two of us,’ said Mafile, ‘against you
alone.’

“I got out into the open to keep clear of them for fear of getting a
treacherous blow on the head. I could have shot them both where they
stood. But I said nothing. I kept down the laughter rising in my throat.
I made myself very humble and begged to be allowed to go. They consulted
in low tones about my fate, while with my hand on the revolver in the
bosom of my blouse I had their lives in my power. I let them live. I
meant them to pull that boat. I represented to them with abject humility
that I understood the management of a boat, and that, being three to
pull, we could get a rest in turns. That decided them at last. It was
time. A little more and I would have gone into screaming fits at the
drollness of it.”

At this point his excitement broke out. He jumped off the bench and
gesticulated. The great shadows of his arms darting over roof and walls
made the shed appear too small to contain his agitation.

“I deny nothing,” he burst out. “I was elated, monsieur. I tasted a
sort of felicity. But I kept very quiet. I took my turns at pulling
all through the night. We made for the open sea, putting our trust in
a passing ship. It was a foolhardy action. I persuaded them to it. When
the sun rose the immensity of water was calm, and the Iles de Salut
appeared only like dark specks from the top of each swell. I was
steering then. Mafile, who was pulling bow, let out an oath and said,
‘We must rest.’

“The time to laugh had come at last. And I took my fill of it, I can
tell you. I held my sides and rolled in my seat, they had such startled
faces. ‘What’s got into him, the animal?’ cries Mafile.

“And Simon, who was nearest to me, says over his shoulder to him, ‘Devil
take me if I don’t think he’s gone mad!’

“Then I produced the revolver. Aha! In a moment they both got the
stoniest eyes you can imagine. Ha, ha! They were frightened. But
they pulled. Oh, yes, they pulled all day, sometimes looking wild and
sometimes looking faint. I lost nothing of it because I had to keep my
eyes on them all the time, or else–crack!–they would have been on top
of me in a second. I rested my revolver hand on my knee all ready and
steered with the other. Their faces began to blister. Sky and sea
seemed on fire round us and the sea steamed in the sun. The boat made a
sizzling sound as she went through the water. Sometimes Mafile foamed
at the mouth and sometimes he groaned. But he pulled. He dared not stop.
His eyes became blood-shot all over, and he had bitten his lower lip to
pieces. Simon was as hoarse as a crow.

“‘Comrade–‘ he begins.

“‘There are no comrades here. I am your patron.’

“‘Patron, then,’ he says, ‘in the name of humanity let us rest.’

“I let them. There was a little rainwater washing about the bottom of
the boat. I permitted them to snatch some of it in the hollow of their
palms. But as I gave the command, ‘En route!’ I caught them exchanging
significant glances. They thought I would have to go to sleep sometime!
Aha! But I did not want to go to sleep. I was more awake than ever. It
is they who went to sleep as they pulled, tumbling off the thwarts head
over heels suddenly, one after another. I let them lie. All the stars
were out. It was a quiet world. The sun rose. Another day. Allez! En
route!

“They pulled badly. Their eyes rolled about and their tongues hung out.
In the middle of the forenoon Mafile croaks out: ‘Let us make a rush at
him, Simon. I would just as soon be shot at once as to die of thirst,
hunger, and fatigue at the oar.’

“But while he spoke he pulled; and Simon kept on pulling too. It made
me smile. Ah! They loved their life these two, in this evil world of
theirs, just as I used to love my life, too, before they spoiled it for
me with their phrases. I let them go on to the point of exhaustion, and
only then I pointed at the sails of a ship on the horizon.

“Aha! You should have seen them revive and buckle to their work! For
I kept them at it to pull right across that ship’s path. They were
changed. The sort of pity I had felt for them left me. They looked
more like themselves every minute. They looked at me with the glances I
remembered so well. They were happy. They smiled.

“‘Well,’ says Simon, ‘the energy of that youngster has saved our lives.
If he hadn’t made us, we could never have pulled so far out into the
track of ships. Comrade, I forgive you. I admire you.’

“And Mafile growls from forward: ‘We owe you a famous debt of gratitude,
comrade. You are cut out for a chief.’

“Comrade! Monsieur! Ah, what a good word! And they, such men as these
two, had made it accursed. I looked at them. I remembered their lies,
their promises, their menaces, and all my days of misery. Why could they
not have left me alone after I came out of prison? I looked at them and
thought that while they lived I could never be free. Never. Neither I
nor others like me with warm hearts and weak heads. For I know I have
not a strong head, monsieur. A black rage came upon me–the rage of
extreme intoxication–but not against the injustice of society. Oh, no!

“‘I must be free!’ I cried, furiously.

“‘Vive la liberte!” yells that ruffian Mafile. ‘Mort aux bourgeois who
send us to Cayenne! They shall soon know that we are free.’

“The sky, the sea, the whole horizon, seemed to turn red, blood red all
round the boat. My temples were beating so loud that I wondered they
did not hear. How is it that they did not? How is it they did not
understand?

“I heard Simon ask, ‘Have we not pulled far enough out now?’

“‘Yes. Far enough,’ I said. I was sorry for him; it was the other I
hated. He hauled in his oar with a loud sigh, and as he was raising his
hand to wipe his forehead with the air of a man who has done his work,
I pulled the trigger of my revolver and shot him like this off the knee,
right through the heart.

“He tumbled down, with his head hanging over the side of the boat. I did
not give him a second glance. The other cried out piercingly. Only one
shriek of horror. Then all was still.

“He slipped off the thwart on to his knees and raised his clasped hands
before his face in an attitude of supplication. ‘Mercy,’ he whispered,
faintly. ‘Mercy for me!–comrade.’

“‘Ah, comrade,’ I said, in a low tone. ‘Yes, comrade, of course. Well,
then, shout Vive l’anarchie.’

“He flung up his arms, his face up to the sky and his mouth wide open in
a great yell of despair. ‘Vive l’anarchie! Vive–‘

“He collapsed all in a heap, with a bullet through his head.

“I flung them both overboard. I threw away the revolver, too. Then I sat
down quietly. I was free at last! At last. I did not even look towards
the ship; I did not care; indeed, I think I must have gone to sleep,
because all of a sudden there were shouts and I found the ship almost
on top of me. They hauled me on board and secured the boat astern. They
were all blacks, except the captain, who was a mulatto. He alone knew a
few words of French. I could not find out where they were going nor who
they were. They gave me something to eat every day; but I did not like
the way they used to discuss me in their language. Perhaps they were
deliberating about throwing me overboard in order to keep possession of
the boat. How do I know? As we were passing this island I asked whether
it was inhabited. I understood from the mulatto that there was a house
on it. A farm, I fancied, they meant. So I asked them to put me ashore
on the beach and keep the boat for their trouble. This, I imagine, was
just what they wanted. The rest you know.”

After pronouncing these words he lost suddenly all control over himself.
He paced to and fro rapidly, till at last he broke into a run; his arms
went like a windmill and his ejaculations became very much like raving.
The burden of them was that he “denied nothing, nothing!” I could only
let him go on, and sat out of his way, repeating, “Calmez vous, calmez
vous,” at intervals, till his agitation exhausted itself.

I must confess, too, that I remained there long after he had crawled
under his mosquito-net. He had entreated me not to leave him; so, as
one sits up with a nervous child, I sat up with him–in the name of
humanity–till he fell asleep.

On the whole, my idea is that he was much more of an anarchist than he
confessed to me or to himself; and that, the special features of his
case apart, he was very much like many other anarchists. Warm heart and
weak head–that is the word of the riddle; and it is a fact that the
bitterest contradictions and the deadliest conflicts of the world are
carried on in every individual breast capable of feeling and passion.

From personal inquiry I can vouch that the story of the convict mutiny
was in every particular as stated by him.

When I got back to Horta from Cayenne and saw the “Anarchist” again, he
did not look well. He was more worn, still more frail, and very livid
indeed under the grimy smudges of his calling. Evidently the meat of the
company’s main herd (in its unconcentrated form) did not agree with him
at all.

It was on the pontoon in Horta that we met; and I tried to induce him to
leave the launch moored where she was and follow me to Europe there and
then. It would have been delightful to think of the excellent manager’s
surprise and disgust at the poor fellow’s escape. But he refused with
unconquerable obstinacy.

“Surely you don’t mean to live always here!” I cried. He shook his head.

“I shall die here,” he said. Then added moodily, “Away from them.”

Sometimes I think of him lying open-eyed on his horseman’s gear in the
low shed full of tools and scraps of iron–the anarchist slave of the
Maranon estate, waiting with resignation for that sleep which “fled”
from him, as he used to say, in such an unaccountable manner.

Joseph Conrad: An Anarchist

fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive C-D, Conrad, Joseph, Joseph Conrad


Joseph Conrad: Youth

Joseph Conrad
(1857-1924)

Youth

THIS could have occurred nowhere but in England, where men and sea interpenetrate, so to speak–the sea entering into the life of most men, and the men knowing something or everything about the sea, in the way of amusement, of travel, or of bread-winning.

We were sitting round a mahogany table that reflected the bottle, the claret-glasses, and our faces as we leaned on our elbows. There was a director of companies, an accountant, a lawyer, Marlow, and myself. The director had been a Conway boy, the accountant had served four years at sea, the lawyer–a fine crusted Tory, High Churchman, the best of old fellows, the soul of honor– had been chief officer in the P. & O. service in the good old days when mail-boats were square-rigged at least on two masts, and used to come down the China Sea before a fair monsoon with stun’-sails set alow and aloft. We all began life in the merchant service. Between the five of us there was the strong bond of the sea, and also the fellowship of the craft, which no amount of enthusiasm for yachting, cruising, and so on can give, since one is only the amusement of life and the other is life itself.

Marlow (at least I think that is how he spelt his name) told the story, or rather the chronicle, of a voyage:

“Yes, I have seen a little of the Eastern seas; but what I remember best is my first voyage there. You fellows know there are those voyages that seem ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence. You fight, work, sweat, nearly kill yourself, sometimes do kill yourself, trying to accomplish something- and you can’t. Not from any fault of yours. You simply can do nothing, neither great nor little– not a thing in the world–not even marry an old maid, or get a wretched 600-ton cargo of coal to its port of destination.

It was altogether a memorable affair. It was my first voyage to the East, and my first voyage as second mate; it was also my skipper’s first command. You’ll admit it was time. He was sixty if a day; a little man, with a broad, not very straight back, with bowed shoulders and one leg more bandy than the other, he had that queer twisted-about appearance you see so often in men who work in the fields. He had a nut-cracker face–chin and nose trying to come together over a sunken mouth– and it was framed in iron-gray fluffy hair, that looked like a chin strap of cotton-wool sprinkled with coal-dust. And he had blue eyes in that old face of his, which were amazingly like a boy’s, with that candid expression some quite common men preserve to the end of their days by a rare internal gift of simplicity of heart and rectitude of soul. What induced him to accept me was a wonder. I had come out of a crack Australian clipper, where I had been third officer, and he seemed to have a prejudice against crack clippers as aristocratic and high-toned. He said to me, ‘You know, in this ship you will have to work.’ I said I had to work in every ship I had ever been in. ‘Ah, but this is different, and you gentlemen out of them big ships; . . . but there! I dare say you will do. Join to-morrow.’

“I joined to-morrow. It was twenty-two years ago; and I was just twenty. How time passes! It was one of the happiest days of my life. Fancy! Second mate for the first time–a really responsible officer! I wouldn’t have thrown up my new billet for a fortune. The mate looked me over carefully. He was also an old chap, but of another stamp. He had a Roman nose, a snow-white, long beard, and his name was Mahon, but he insisted that it should be pronounced Mann. He was well connected; yet there was something wrong with his luck, and he had never got on.

“As to the captain, he had been for years in coasters, then in the Mediterranean, and last in the West Indian trade. He had never been round the Capes. He could just write a kind of sketchy hand, and didn’t care for writing at all. Both were thorough good seamen of course, and between those two old chaps I felt like a small boy between two grandfathers.

“The ship also was old. Her name was the Judea. Queer name, isn’t it? She belonged to a man Wilmer, Wilcox–some name like that; but he has been bankrupt and dead these twenty years or more, and his name don’t matter. She had been laid up in Shadwell basin for ever so long. You can imagine her state. She was all rust, dust, grime–soot aloft, dirt on deck. To me it was like coming out of a palace into a ruined cottage. She was about 400 tons, had a primitive windlass, wooden latches to the doors, not a bit of brass about her, and a big square stern. There was on it, below her name in big letters, a lot of scroll work, with the gilt off, and some sort of a coat of arms, with the motto ‘Do or Die’ underneath. I remember it took my fancy immensely. There was a touch of romance in it, something that made me love the old thing–something that appealed to my youth!

“We left London in ballast–sand ballast–to load a cargo of coal in a northern port for Bankok. Bankok! I thrilled. I had been six years at sea, but had only seen Melbourne and Sydney, very good places, charming places in their way–but Bankok!

“We worked out of the Thames under canvas, with a North Sea pilot on board. His name was Jermyn, and he dodged all day long about the galley drying his handkerchief before the stove. Apparently he never slept. He was a dismal man, with a perpetual tear sparkling at the end of his nose, who either had been in trouble, or was in trouble, or expected to be in trouble–couldn’t be happy unless something went wrong. He mistrusted my youth, my common-sense, and my seamanship, and made a point of showing it in a hundred little ways. I dare say he was right. It seems to me I knew very little then, and I know not much more now; but I cherish a hate for that Jermyn to this day.

“We were a week working up as far as Yarmouth Roads, and then we got into a gale–the famous October gale of twenty-two years ago. It was wind, lightning, sleet, snow, and a terrific sea. We were flying light, and you may imagine how bad it was when I tell you we had smashed bulwarks and a flooded deck. On the second night she shifted her ballast into the lee bow, and by that time we had been blown off somewhere on the Dogger Bank. There was nothing for it but go below with shovels and try to right her, and there we were in that vast hold, gloomy like a cavern, the tallow dips stuck and flickering on the beams, the gale howling above, the ship tossing about like mad on her side; there we all were, Jermyn, the captain, everyone, hardly able to keep our feet, engaged on that gravedigger’s work, and trying to toss shovelfuls of wet sand up to windward. At every tumble of the ship you could see vaguely in the dim light men falling down with a great flourish of shovels. One of the ship’s boys (we had two), impressed by the weirdness of the scene, wept as if his heart would break. We could hear him blubbering somewhere in the shadows.

“On the third day the gale died out, and by-and-by a north-country tug picked us up. We took sixteen days in all to get from London to the Tyne! When we got into dock we had lost our turn for loading, and they hauled us off to a tier where we remained for a month. Mrs. Beard (the captain’s name was Beard) came from Colchester to see the old man. She lived on board. The crew of runners had left, and there remained only the officers, one boy, and the steward, a mulatto who answered to the name of Abraham. Mrs. Beard was an old woman, with a race all wrinkled and ruddy like a winter apple, and the figure of a young girl. She caught sight of me once, sewing on a button, and insisted on having my shirts to repair. This was something different from the captains’ wives I had known on board crack clippers. When I brought her the shirts, she said: ‘And the socks? They want mending, I am sure, and John’s– Captain Beard’s–things are all in order now. I would be glad of something to do.’ Bless the old woman. She overhauled my outfit for me, and meantime I read for the first time ‘Sartor Resartus’ and Burnaby’s ‘Ride to Khiva.’ I didn’t understand much of the first then; but I remember I preferred the soldier to the philosopher at the time; a preference which life has only confirmed. One was a man, and the other was either more–or less. However, they are both dead, and Mrs. Beard is dead, and youth, strength, genius, thoughts, achievements, simple hearts–all die . . . . No matter.

“They loaded us at last. We shipped a crew. Eight able seamen and two boys. We hauled off one evening to the buoys at the dock-gates, ready to go out, and with a fair prospect of beginning the voyage next day. Mrs. Beard was to start for home by a late train. When the ship was fast we went to tea. We sat rather silent through the meal–Mahon, the old couple, and I. I finished first, and slipped away for a smoke, my cabin being in a deck-house just against the poop. It was high water, blowing fresh with a drizzle; the double dock-gates were opened, and the steam colliers were going in and out in the darkness with their lights burning bright, a great plashing of propellers, rattling of winches, and a lot of hailing on the pier-heads. I watched the procession of head-lights gliding high and of green lights gliding low in the night, when suddenly a red gleam flashed at me, vanished, came into view again, and remained. The fore-end of a steamer loomed up close. I shouted down the cabin, ‘Come up, quick!’ and then heard a startled voice saying afar in the dark, ‘Stop her, sir.’ A bell jingled. Another voice cried warningly, ‘We are going right into that bark, sir.’ The answer to this was a gruff ‘All right,’ and the next thing was a heavy crash as the steamer struck a glancing blow with the bluff of her bow about our fore-rigging. There was a moment of confusion, yelling, and running about. Steam roared. Then somebody was heard saying, ‘All clear, sir.’ . . . ‘Are you all right?’ asked the gruff voice. I had jumped forward to see the damage, and hailed back, ‘I think so.’ ‘Easy astern,’ said the gruff voice. A bell jingled. ‘What steamer is that?’ screamed Mahon. By that time she was no more to us than a bulky shadow maneuvering a little way off. They shouted at us some name–a woman’s name, Miranda or Melissa–or some such thing. ‘This means another month in this beastly hole,’ said Mahon to me, as we peered with lamps about the splintered bulwarks and broken braces. ‘But where’s the captain?’

“We had not heard or seen anything of him all that time. We went aft to look. A doleful voice arose hailing somewhere in the middle of the dock, ‘Judea ahoy!’ . . . How the devil did he get there? . . . ‘Hallo!’ we shouted. ‘I am adrift in our boat without oars,’ he cried. A belated waterman offered his services, and Mahon struck a bargain with him for half-a-crown to tow our skipper alongside; but it was Mrs. Beard that came up the ladder first. They had been floating about the dock in that mizzly cold rain for nearly an hour. I was never so surprised in my life.

“It appears that when he heard my shout ‘Come up,’ he understood at once what was the matter, caught up his wife, ran on deck, and across, and down into our boat, which was fast to the ladder. Not bad for a sixty-year-old. Just imagine that old fellow saving heroically in his arms that old woman–the woman of his life. He set her down on a thwart, and was ready to climb back on board when the painter came adrift somehow, and away they went together. Of course in the confusion we did not hear him shouting. He looked abashed. She said cheerfully, ‘I suppose it does not matter my losing the train now?’ ‘No, Jenny–you go below and get warm,’ he growled. Then to us: ‘A sailor has no business with a wife–I say. There I was, out of the ship. Well, no harm done this time. Let’s go and look at what that fool of a steamer smashed.’

“It wasn’t much, but it delayed us three weeks. At the end of that time, the captain being engaged with his agents, I carried Mrs. Beard’s bag to the railway-station and put her all comfy into a third-class carriage. She lowered the window to say, ‘You are a good young man. If you see John–Captain Beard–without his muffler at night, just remind him from me to keep his throat well wrapped up.’ ‘Certainly, Mrs. Beard,’ I said. ‘You are a good young man; I noticed how attentive you are to John–to Captain–‘ The train pulled out suddenly; I took my cap off to the old woman: I never saw her again. . . . Pass the bottle.

“We went to sea next day. When we made that start for Bankok we had been already three months out of London. We had expected to be a fortnight or so–at the outside.

“It was January, and the weather was beautiful–the beautiful sunny winter weather that has more charm than in the summer-time, because it is unexpected, and crisp, and you know it won’t, it can’t, last long. It’s like a windfall, like a godsend, like an unexpected piece of luck.

“It lasted all down the North Sea, all down Channel; and it lasted till we were three hundred miles or so to the westward of the Lizards: then the wind went round to the sou’west and began to pipe up. In two days it blew a gale. The Judea, hove to, wallowed on the Atlantic like an old candlebox. It blew day after day: it blew with spite, without interval, without mercy, without rest. The world was nothing but an immensity of great foaming waves rushing at us, under a sky low enough to touch with the hand and dirty like a smoked ceiling. In the stormy space surrounding us there was as much flying spray as air. Day after day and night after night there was nothing round the ship but the howl of the wind, the tumult of the sea, the noise of water pouring over her deck. There was no rest for her and no rest for us. She tossed, she pitched, she stood on her head, she sat on her tail, she rolled, she groaned, and we had to hold on while on deck and cling to our bunks when below, in a constant effort of body and worry of mind.

“One night Mahon spoke through the small window of my berth. It opened right into my very bed, and I was lying there sleepless, in my boots, feeling as though I had not slept for years, and could not if I tried. He said excitedly–

“‘You got the sounding-rod in here, Marlow? I can’t get the pumps to suck. By God! it’s no child’s play.’

“I gave him the sounding-rod and lay down again, trying to think of various things–but I thought only of the pumps. When I came on deck they were still at it, and my watch relieved at the pumps. By the light of the lantern brought on deck to examine the sounding-rod I caught a glimpse of their weary, serious faces. We pumped all the four hours. We pumped all night, all day, all the week,–watch and watch. She was working herself loose, and leaked badly–not enough to drown us at once, but enough to kill us with the work at the pumps. And while we pumped the ship was going from us piecemeal: the bulwarks went, the stanchions were torn out, the ventilators smashed, the cabin-door burst in. There was not a dry spot in the ship. She was being gutted bit by bit. The long-boat changed, as if by magic, into matchwood where she stood in her gripes. I had lashed her myself, and was rather proud of my handiwork, which had withstood so long the malice of the sea. And we pumped. And there was no break in the weather. The sea was white like a sheet of foam, like a caldron of boiling milk; there was not a break in the clouds, no–not the size of a man’s hand–no, not for so much as ten seconds. There was for us no sky, there were for us no stars, no sun, no universe–nothing but angry clouds and an infuriated sea. We pumped watch and watch, for dear life; and it seemed to last for months, for years, for all eternity, as though we had been dead and gone to a hell for sailors. We forgot the day of the week, the name of the month, what year it was, and whether we had ever been ashore. The sails blew away, she lay broadside on under a weather-cloth, the ocean poured over her, and we did not care. We turned those handles, and had the eyes of idiots. As soon as we had crawled on deck I used to take a round turn with a rope about the men, the pumps, and the mainmast, and we turned, we turned incessantly, with the water to our waists, to our necks, over our heads. It was all one. We had forgotten how it felt to be dry.

“And there was somewhere in me the thought: By Jove! this is the deuce of an adventure–something you read about; and it is my first voyage as second mate– and I am only twenty–and here I am lasting it out as well as any of these men, and keeping my chaps up to the mark. I was pleased. I would not have given up the experience for worlds. I had moments of exultation. Whenever the old dismantled craft pitched heavily with her counter high in the air, she seemed to me to throw up, like an appeal, like a defiance, like a cry to the clouds without mercy, the words written on her stern: ‘Judea, London. Do or Die.’

“O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it! To me she was not an old rattle-trap carting about the world a lot of coal for a freight–to me she was the endeavor, the test, the trial of life. I think of her with pleasure, with affection, with regret– as you would think of someone dead you have loved. I shall never forget her. . . . Pass the bottle.

“One night when tied to the mast, as I explained, we were pumping on, deafened with the wind, and without spirit enough in us to wish ourselves dead, a heavy sea crashed aboard and swept clean over us. As soon as I got my breath I shouted, as in duty bound, ‘Keep on, boys!’ when suddenly I felt something hard floating on deck strike the calf of my leg. I made a grab at it and missed. It was so dark we could not see each other’s faces within a foot–you understand.

“After that thump the ship kept quiet for a while, and the thing, whatever it was, struck my leg again. This time I caught it–and it was a sauce-pan. At first, being stupid with fatigue and thinking of nothing but the pumps, I did not understand what I had in my hand. Suddenly it dawned upon me, and I shouted, ‘Boys, the house on deck is gone. Leave this, and let’s look for the cook.’

“There was a deck-house forward, which contained the galley, the cook’s berth, and the quarters of the crew. As we had expected for days to see it swept away, the hands had been ordered to sleep in the cabin–the only safe place in the ship. The steward, Abraham, however, persisted in clinging to his berth, stupidly, like a mule–from sheer fright I believe, like an animal that on’t leave a stable falling in an earthquake. So we went to look for him. It was chancing death, since once out of our lashings we were as exposed as if on a raft. But we went. The house was shattered as if a shell had exploded inside. Most of it had gone overboard–stove, men’s quarters, and their property, all was gone; but two posts, holding a portion of the bulkhead to which Abraham’s bunk was attached, remained as if by a miracle. We groped in the ruins and came upon this, and there he was, sitting in his bunk, surrounded by foam and wreckage, jabbering cheerfully to himself. He was out of his mind; completely and for ever mad, with this sudden shock coming upon the fag-end of his endurance. We snatched him up, lugged him aft, and pitched him head-first down the cabin companion. You understand there was no time to carry him down with infinite precautions and wait to see how he got on. Those below would pick him up at the bottom of the stairs all right. We were in a hurry to go back to the pumps. That business could not wait. A bad leak is an inhuman thing.

“One would think that the sole purpose of that fiendish gale had been to make a lunatic of that poor devil of a mulatto. It eased before morning, and next day the sky cleared, and as the sea went down the leak took up. When it came to bending a fresh set of sails the crew demanded to put back–and really there was nothing else to do. Boats gone, decks swept clean, cabin gutted, men without a stitch but what they stood in, stores spoiled, ship strained. We put her head for home, and–would you believe it? The wind came east right in our teeth. It blew fresh, it blew continuously. We had to beat up every inch of the way, but she did not leak so badly, the water keeping comparatively smooth. Two hours’ pumping in every four is no joke–but it kept her afloat as far as Falmouth.

“The good people there live on casualties of the sea, and no doubt were glad to see us. A hungry crowd of shipwrights sharpened their chisels at the sight of that carcass of a ship. And, by Jove! they had pretty pickings off us before they were done. I fancy the owner was already in a tight place. There were delays. Then it was decided to take part of the cargo out and calk her topsides. This was done, the repairs finished, cargo re-shipped; a new crew came on board, and we went out– for Bankok. At the end of a week we were back again. The crew said they weren’t going to Bankok–a hundred and fifty days’ passage–in a something hooker that wanted pumping eight hours out of the twenty-four; and the nautical papers inserted again the little paragraph: Judea. Bark. Tyne to Bankok; coals; put back to Falmouth leaky and with crew refusing duty.’

“There were more delays–more tinkering. The owner came down for a day, and said she was as right as a little fiddle. Poor old Captain Beard looked like the ghost of a Geordie skipper–through the worry and humiliation of it. Remember he was sixty, and it was his first command. Mahon said it was a foolish business, and would end badly. I loved the ship more than ever, and wanted awfully to get to Bankok. To Bankok! Magic name, blessed name. Mesopotamia wasn’t a patch n it. Remember I was twenty, and it was my first second mate’s billet, and the East was waiting for me.

“We went out and anchored in the outer roads with a fresh crew–the third. She leaked worse than ever. It was as if those confounded shipwrights had actually made a hole in her. This time we did not even go outside. The crew simply refused to man the windlass.

“They towed us back to the inner harbor, and we became a fixture, a feature, an institution of the place. People pointed us out to visitors as ‘That ‘ere bark that’s going to Bankok–has been here six months–put back three times.’ On holidays the small boys pulling about in boats would hail, ‘Judea, ahoy!’ and if a head showed above the rail shouted, ‘Where you bound to?– Bankok?’ and jeered. We were only three on board. The poor old skipper mooned in the cabin. Mahon undertook the cooking, and unexpectedly developed all a Frenchman’s genius for preparing nice little messes. I looked languidly after the rigging. We became citizens of Falmouth. Every shopkeeper knew us. At the barber s or tobacconist’s they asked familiarly, ‘Do you think you will ever get to Bankok?’ Meantime the owner, the underwriters, and the charterers squabbled amongst themselves in London, and our pay went on. . . . Pass the bottle.

“It was horrid. Morally it was worse than pumping for life. It seemed as though we had been forgotten by the world, belonged to nobody, would get nowhere; it seemed that, as if bewitched, we would have to live for ever and ever in that inner harbor, a derision and a byword to generations of long-shore loafers and dishonest boatmen. I obtained three months’ pay and a five days’ leave, and made a rush for London. It took me a day to get there and pretty well another to come back–but three months’ pay went all the same. I don’t know what I did with it. I went to a music-hall, I believe, lunched, dined, and supped in a swell place in Regent Street, and was back to time, with nothing but a complete set of Byron’s works and a new railway rug to show for three months’ work. The boatman who pulled me off to the ship said: ‘Hallo! I thought you had left the old thing. SHE will never get to Bankok.’ ‘That’s all YOU know about it,’ I said scornfully–but I didn’t like that prophecy at all.

“Suddenly a man, some kind of agent to somebody, appeared with full powers. He had grog blossoms all over his face, an indomitable energy, and was a jolly soul. We leaped into life again. A hulk came alongside, took our cargo, and then we went into dry dock to get our copper stripped. No wonder she leaked. The poor thing, strained beyond endurance by the gale, had, as if in disgust, spat out all the oakum of her lower seams. She was recalked, new coppered, and made as tight as a bottle. We went back to the hulk and re-shipped our cargo.

“Then on a fine moonlight night, all the rats left the ship.

“We had been infested with them. They had destroyed our sails, consumed more stores than the crew, affably shared our beds and our dangers, and now, when the ship was made seaworthy, concluded to clear out. I called Mahon to enjoy the spectacle. Rat after rat appeared on our rail, took a last look over his shoulder, and leaped with a hollow thud into the empty hulk. We tried to count them, but soon lost the tale. Mahon said: ‘Well, well! don’t talk to me about the intelligence of rats. They ought to have left before, when we had that narrow squeak from foundering. There you have the proof how silly is the superstition about them. They leave a good ship for an old rotten hulk, where there is nothing to eat, too, the fools! . . . I don’t believe they know what is safe or what is good for them, any more than you or I.’

“And after some more talk we agreed that the wisdom of rats had been grossly overrated, being in fact no greater than that of men.

“The story of the ship was known, by this, all up the Channel from Land’s End to the Forelands, and we could get no crew on the south coast. They sent us one all complete from Liverpool, and we left once more–for Bankok.

“We had fair breezes, smooth water right into the tropics, and the old Judea lumbered along in the sunshine. When she went eight knots everything cracked aloft, and we tied our caps to our heads; but mostly she strolled on at the rate of three miles an hour. What could you expect? She was tired–that old ship. Her youth was where mine is–where yours is–you fellows who listen to this yarn; and what friend would throw your years and your weariness in your face? We didn’t grumble at her. To us aft, at least, it seemed as though we had been born in her, reared in her, had lived in her for ages, had never known any other ship. I would just as soon have abused the old village church at home for not being a cathedral.

“And for me there was also my youth to make me patient. There was all the East before me, and all life, and the thought that I had been tried in that ship and had come out pretty well. And I thought of men of old who, centuries ago, went that road in ships that sailed no better, to the land of palms, and spices, and yellow sands, and of brown nations ruled by kings more cruel than Nero the Roman and more splendid than Solomon the Jew. The old bark lumbered on, heavy with her age and the burden of her cargo, while I lived the life of youth in ignorance and hope. She lumbered on through an interminable procession of days; and the fresh gilding flashed back at the setting sun, seemed to cry out over the darkening sea the words painted on her stern, ‘Judea, London. Do or Die.’

“Then we entered the Indian Ocean and steered northerly for Java Head. The winds were light. Weeks slipped by. She crawled on, do or die, and people at home began to think of posting us as overdue.

“One Saturday evening, I being off duty, the men asked me to give them an extra bucket of water or so– for washing clothes. As I did not wish to screw on the fresh-water pump so late, I went forward whistling, and with a key in my hand to unlock the forepeak scuttle, intending to serve the water out of a spare tank we kept there.

“The smell down below was as unexpected as it was frightful. One would have thought hundreds of paraffin-lamps had been flaring and smoking in that hole for days. I was glad to get out. The man with me coughed and said, ‘Funny smell, sir.’ I answered negligently, It’s good for the health, they say,’ and walked aft.

“The first thing I did was to put my head down the square of the midship ventilator. As I lifted the lid a visible breath, something like a thin fog, a puff of faint haze, rose from the opening. The ascending air was hot, and had a heavy, sooty, paraffiny smell. I gave one sniff, and put down the lid gently. It was no use choking myself. The cargo was on fire.

“Next day she began to smoke in earnest. You see it was to be expected, for though the coal was of a safe kind, that cargo had been so handled, so broken up with handling, that it looked more like smithy coal than anything else. Then it had been wetted–more than once. It rained all the time we were taking it back from the hulk, and now with this long passage it got heated, and there was another case of spontaneous combustion.

“The captain called us into the cabin. He had a chart spread on the table, and looked unhappy. He said, ‘The coast of West Australia is near, but I mean to proceed to our destination. It is the hurricane month too; but we will just keep her head for Bankok, and fight the fire. No more putting back anywhere, if we all get roasted. We will try first to stifle this ‘ere damned combustion by want of air.’

“We tried. We battened down everything, and still she smoked. The smoke kept coming out through imperceptible crevices; it forced itself through bulkheads and covers; it oozed here and there and everywhere in slender threads, in an invisible film, in an incomprehensible manner. It made its way into the cabin, into the forecastle; it poisoned the sheltered places on the deck, it could be sniffed as high as the mainyard. It was clear that if the smoke came out the air came in. This was disheartening. This combustion refused to be stifled.

“We resolved to try water, and took the hatches off. Enormous volumes of smoke, whitish, yellowish, thick, greasy, misty, choking, ascended as high as the trucks. All hands cleared out aft. Then the poisonous cloud blew away, and we went back to work in a smoke that was no thicker now than that of an ordinary factory chimney.

“We rigged the force pump, got the hose along, and by-and-by it burst. Well, it was as old as the ship–a prehistoric hose, and past repair. Then we pumped with the feeble head-pump, drew water with buckets, and in this way managed in time to pour lots of Indian Ocean into the main hatch. The bright stream flashed in sunshine, fell into a layer of white crawling smoke, and vanished on the black surface of coal. Steam ascended mingling with the smoke. We poured salt water as into a barrel without a bottom. It was our fate to pump in that ship, to pump out of her, to pump into her; and after keeping water out of her to save ourselves from being drowned, we frantically poured water into her to save ourselves from being burnt.

“And she crawled on, do or die, in the serene weather. The sky was a miracle of purity, a miracle of azure. The sea was polished, was blue, was pellucid, was sparkling like a precious stone, extending on all sides, all round to the horizon–as if the whole terrestrial globe had been one jewel, one colossal sapphire, a single gem fashioned into a planet. And on the luster of the great calm waters the Judea glided imperceptibly, enveloped in languid and unclean vapors, in a lazy cloud that drifted to leeward, light and slow: a pestiferous cloud defiling the splendor of sea and sky.

“All this time of course we saw no fire. The cargo smoldered at the bottom somewhere. Once Mahon, as we were working side by side, said to me with a queer smile: ‘Now, if she only would spring a tidy leak– like that time when we first left the Channel–it would put a stopper on this fire. Wouldn’t it?’ I remarked irrelevantly, ‘Do you remember the rats?’

“We fought the fire and sailed the ship too as carefully as though nothing had been the matter. The steward cooked and attended on us. Of the other twelve men, eight worked while four rested. Everyone took his turn, captain included. There was equality, and if not exactly fraternity, then a deal of good feeling. Sometimes a man, as he dashed a bucketful of water down the hatchway, would yell out, ‘Hurrah for Bankok!’ and the rest laughed. But generally we were taciturn and serious –and thirsty. Oh! how thirsty! And we had to be careful with the water. Strict allowance. The ship smoked, the sun blazed. . . . Pass the bottle.

“We tried everything. We even made an attempt to dig down to the fire. No good, of course. No man could remain more than a minute below. Mahon, who went first, fainted there, and the man who went to fetch him out did likewise. We lugged them out on deck. Then I leaped down to show how easily it could be done. They had learned wisdom by that time, and contented themselves by fishing for me with a chain-hook tied to a broom-handle, I believe. I did not offer to go and fetch up my shovel, which was left down below.

“Things began to look bad. We put the long-boat into the water. The second boat was ready to swing out. We had also another, a fourteen-foot thing, on davits aft, where it was quite safe.

“Then behold, the smoke suddenly decreased. We redoubled our efforts to flood the bottom of the ship. In two days there was no smoke at all. Everybody was on the broad grin. This was on a Friday. On Saturday no work, but sailing the ship of course was done. The men washed their clothes and their faces for the first time in a fortnight, and had a special dinner given them. They spoke of spontaneous combustion with contempt, and implied THEY were the boys to put out combustions. Somehow we all felt as though we each had inherited a large fortune. But a beastly smell of burning hung about the ship. Captain Beard had hollow eyes and sunken cheeks. I had never noticed so much before how twisted and bowed he was. He and Mahon prowled soberly about hatches and ventilators, sniffing. It struck me suddenly poor Mahon was a very, very old chap. As to me, I was as pleased and proud as though I had helped to win a great naval battle. O! Youth!

“The night was fine. In the morning a homeward-bound ship passed us hull down,–the first we had seen for months; but we were nearing the land at last, Java Head being about 190 miles off, and nearly due north.

“Next day it was my watch on deck from eight to twelve. At breakfast the captain observed, ‘It’s wonderful how that smell hangs about the cabin.’ About ten, the mate being on the poop, I stepped down on the maindeck for a moment. The carpenter’s bench stood abaft the mainmast: I leaned against it sucking at my pipe, and the carpenter, a young chap, came to talk to me. He remarked, ‘I think we have done very well, haven’t we?’ and then I perceived with annoyance the fool was trying to tilt the bench. I said curtly, ‘Don’t, Chips,’ and immediately became aware of a queer sensation, of an absurd delusion,–I seemed somehow to be in the air. I heard all round me like a pent-up breath released–as if a thousand giants simultaneously had said Phoo!– and felt a dull concussion which made my ribs ache suddenly. No doubt about it–I was in the air, and my body was describing a short parabola. But short as it was, I had the time to think several thoughts in, as far as I can remember, the following order: ‘This can’t be the carpenter–What is it?–Some accident–Submarine volcano?–Coals, gas!–By Jove! we are being blown up–Everybody’s dead–I am falling into the afterhatch –I see fire in it.’

“The coal-dust suspended in the air of the hold had glowed dull-red at the moment of the explosion. In the twinkling of an eye, in an infinitesimal fraction of a second since the first tilt of the bench, I was sprawling full length on the cargo. I picked myself up and scrambled out. It was quick like a rebound. The deck was a wilderness of smashed timber, lying crosswise like trees in a wood after a hurricane; an immense curtain of soiled rags waved gently before me–it was the mainsail blown to strips. I thought, The masts will be toppling over directly; and to get out of the way bolted on all-fours towards the poop-ladder. The first person I saw was Mahon, with eyes like saucers, his mouth open, and the long white hair standing straight on end round his head like a silver halo. He was just about to go down when the sight of the main-deck stirring, heaving up, and changing into splinters before his eyes, petrified him on the top step. I stared at him in unbelief, and he stared at me with a queer kind of shocked curiosity. I did not know that I had no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, that my young mustache was burnt off, that my face was black, one cheek laid open, my nose cut, and my chin bleeding. I had lost my cap, one of my slippers, and my shirt was torn to rags. Of all this I was not aware. I was amazed to see the ship still afloat, the poop-deck whole–and, most of all, to see anybody alive. Also the peace of the sky and the serenity of the sea were istinctly surprising. I suppose I expected to see them convulsed with horror. . . . Pass the bottle.

“There was a voice hailing the ship from somewhere –in the air, in the sky–I couldn’t tell. Presently I saw the captain–and he was mad. He asked me eagerly, ‘Where’s the cabin-table?’ and to hear such a question was a frightful shock. I had just been blown up, you understand, and vibrated with that experience,–I wasn’t quite sure whether I was alive. Mahon began to stamp with both feet and yelled at him, ‘Good God! don’t you see the deck’s blown out of her?’ I found my voice, and stammered out as if conscious of some gross neglect of duty, ‘I don’t know where the cabin-table is.’ It was like an absurd dream.

“Do you know what he wanted next? Well, he wanted to trim the yards. Very placidly, and as if lost in thought, he insisted on having the foreyard squared. ‘I don’t know if there’s anybody alive,’ said Mahon, almost tearfully. ‘Surely,’ he said gently, ‘there will be enough left to square the foreyard.’

“The old chap, it seems, was in his own berth, winding up the chronometers, when the shock sent him spinning. Immediately it occurred to him–as he said afterwards –that the ship had struck something, and he ran out into the cabin. There, he saw, the cabin-table had vanished somewhere. The deck being blown up, it had fallen down into the lazarette of course. Where we had our breakfast that morning he saw only a great hole in the floor. This appeared to him so awfully mysterious, and impressed him so immensely, that what he saw and heard after he got on deck were mere trifles in comparison. And, mark, he noticed directly the wheel deserted and his bark off her course–and his only thought was to get that miserable, stripped, undecked, smoldering shell of a ship back again with her head pointing at her port of destination. Bankok! That’s what he was after. I tell you this quiet, bowed, bandy-legged, almost deformed little man was immense in the singleness of his idea and in his placid ignorance of our agitation. He motioned us forward with a commanding gesture, and went to take the wheel himself.

“Yes; that was the first thing we did–trim the yards of that wreck! No one was killed, or even disabled, but everyone was more or less hurt. You should have seen them! Some were in rags, with black faces, like coalheavers, like sweeps, and had bullet heads that seemed closely cropped, but were in fact singed to the skin. Others, of the watch below, awakened by being shot out from their collapsing bunks, shivered incessantly, and kept on groaning even as we went about our work. But they all worked. That crew of Liverpool hard cases had in them the right stuff. It’s my experience they always have. It is the sea that gives it–the vastness, the loneliness surrounding their dark stolid souls. Ah! Well! we stumbled, we crept, we fell, we barked our shins on the wreckage, we hauled. The masts stood, but we did not know how much they might be charred down below. It was nearly calm, but a long swell ran from the west and made her roll. They might go at any moment. We looked at them with apprehension. One could not foresee which way they would fall.

“Then we retreated aft and looked about us. The deck was a tangle of planks on edge, of planks on end, of splinters, of ruined woodwork. The masts rose from that chaos like big trees above a matted undergrowth. The interstices of that mass of wreckage were full of something whitish, sluggish, stirring–of something that was like a greasy fog. The smoke of the invisible fire was coming up again, was trailing, like a poisonous thick mist in some valley choked with dead wood. Already lazy wisps were beginning to curl upwards amongst the mass of splinters. Here and there a piece of timber, stuck upright, resembled a post. Half of a fife-rail had been shot through the foresail, and the sky made a patch of glorious blue in the ignobly soiled canvas. A portion of several boards holding together had fallen across the rail, and one end protruded overboard, like a gangway leading upon nothing, like a gangway leading over the deep sea, leading to death–as if inviting us to walk the plank at once and be done with our ridiculous troubles. And still the air, the sky–a ghost, something invisible was hailing the ship.

“Someone had the sense to look over, and there was the helmsman, who had impulsively jumped overboard, anxious to come back. He yelled and swam lustily like a merman, keeping up with the ship. We threw him a rope, and presently he stood amongst us streaming with water and very crest-fallen. The captain had surrendered the wheel, and apart, elbow on rail and chin in hand, gazed at the sea wistfully. We asked ourselves, What next? I thought, Now, this is something like. This is great. I wonder what will happen. O youth!

“Suddenly Mahon sighted a steamer far astern. Captain Beard said, ‘We may do something with her yet.’ We hoisted two flags, which said in the international language of the sea, ‘On fire. Want immediate assistance.’ The steamer grew bigger rapidly, and by-and-by spoke with two flags on her foremast, ‘I am coming to your assistance.’

“In half an hour she was abreast, to windward, within hail, and rolling slightly, with her engines stopped. We lost our composure, and yelled all together with excitement, We’ve been blown up.’ A man in a white helmet, on the bridge, cried, ‘Yes! All right! all right!’ and he nodded his head, and smiled, and made soothing motions with his hand as though at a lot of frightened children. One of the boats dropped in the water, and walked towards us upon the sea with her long oars. Four Calashes pulled a swinging stroke. This was my first sight of Malay seamen. I’ve known them since, but what struck me then was their unconcern: they came alongside, and even the bowman standing up and holding to our main-chains with the boat-hook did not deign to lift his head for a glance. I thought people who had been blown up deserved more attention.

“A little man, dry like a chip and agile like a monkey, clambered up. It was the mate of the steamer. He gave one look, and cried, ‘O boys–you had better quit.’

“We were silent. He talked apart with the captain for a time,–seemed to argue with him. Then they went away together to the steamer.

“When our skipper came back we learned that the steamer was the Sommerville, Captain Nash, from West Australia to Singapore via Batavia with mails, and that the agreement was she should tow us to Anjer or Batavia, if possible, where we could extinguish the fire by scuttling, and then proceed on our voyage–to Bankok! The old man seemed excited. ‘We will do it yet,’ he said to Mahon, fiercely. He shook his fist at the sky. Nobody else said a word.

“At noon the steamer began to tow. She went ahead slim and high, and what was left of the Judea followed at the end of seventy fathom of tow-rope,–followed her swiftly like a cloud of smoke with mastheads protruding above. We went aloft to furl the sails. We coughed on the yards, and were careful about the bunts. Do you see the lot of us there, putting a neat furl on the sails of that ship doomed to arrive nowhere? There was not a man who didn’t think that at any moment the masts would topple over. From aloft we could not see the ship for smoke, and they worked carefully, passing the gaskets with even turns. ‘Harbor furl–aloft there!’ cried Mahon from below.

“You understand this? I don’t think one of those chaps expected to get down in the usual way. When we did I heard them saying to each other, ‘Well, I thought we would come down overboard, in a lump– sticks and all–blame me if I didn’t.’ ‘That’s what I was thinking to myself,’ would answer wearily another battered and bandaged scarecrow. And, mind, these were men without the drilled-in habit of obedience. To an onlooker they would be a lot of profane scallywags without a redeeming point. What made them do it– what made them obey me when I, thinking consciously how fine it was, made them drop the bunt of the foresail twice to try and do it better? What? They had no professional reputation–no examples, no praise. It wasn’t a sense of duty; they all knew well enough how to shirk, and laze, and dodge–when they had a mind to it–and mostly they had. Was it the two pounds ten a month that sent them there? They didn’t think their pay half good enough. No; it was something in them, something inborn and subtle and everlasting. I don’t say positively that the crew of a French or German merchantman wouldn’t have done it, but I doubt whether it would have been done in the same way. There was a completeness in it, something solid like a principle, and masterful like an instinct–a disclosure of something secret–of that hidden something, that gift, of good or evil that makes racial difference, that shapes the fate of nations.

“It was that night at ten that, for the first time since we had been fighting it, we saw the fire. The speed of the towing had fanned the smoldering destruction. A blue gleam appeared forward, shining below the wreck of the deck. It wavered in patches, it seemed to stir and creep like the light of a glowworm. I saw it first, and told Mahon. ‘Then the game’s up,’ he said. ‘We had better stop this towing, or she will burst out suddenly fore and aft before we can clear out.’ We set up a yell; rang bells to attract their attention; they towed on. At last Mahon and I had to crawl forward and cut the rope with an ax. There was no time to cast off the lashings. Red tongues could be seen licking the wilderness of splinters under our feet as we made our way back to the poop.

“Of course they very soon found out in the steamer that the rope was gone. She gave a loud blast of her whistle, her lights were seen sweeping in a wide circle, she came up ranging close alongside, and stopped. We were all in a tight group on the poop looking at her. Every man had saved a little bundle or a bag. Suddenly a conical flame with a twisted top shot up forward and threw upon the black sea a circle of light, with the two vessels side by side and heaving gently in its center. Captain Beard had been sitting on the gratings still and mute for hours, but now he rose slowly and advanced in front of us, to the mizzen-shrouds. Captain Nash hailed: ‘Come along! Look sharp. I have mail-bags on board. I will take you and your boats to Singapore.’

“‘Thank you! No!’ said our skipper. ‘We must see the last of the ship.’

“‘I can’t stand by any longer,’ shouted the other. ‘Mails–you know.’

“‘Ay! ay! We are all right.’

“‘Very well! I’ll report you in Singapore. . . . Good-by!’

“He waved his hand. Our men dropped their bundles quietly. The steamer moved ahead, and passing out of the circle of light, vanished at once from our sight, dazzled by the fire which burned fiercely. And then I knew that I would see the East first as commander of a small boat. I thought it fine; and the fidelity to the old ship was fine. We should see the last of her. Oh the glamour of youth! Oh the fire of it, more dazzling than the flames of the burning ship, throwing a magic light on the wide earth, leaping audaciously to the sky, presently to be quenched by time, more cruel, more pitiless, more bitter than the sea–and like the flames of the burning ship surrounded by an impenetrable night.

. . . . .

“The old man warned us in his gentle and inflexible way that it was part of our duty to save for the underwriters as much as we could of the ship’s gear. According we went to work aft, while she blazed forward to give us plenty of light. We lugged out a lot of rubbish. What didn’t we save? An old barometer fixed with an absurd quantity of screws nearly cost me my life: a sudden rush of smoke came upon me, and I just got away in time. There were various stores, bolts of canvas, coils of rope; the poop looked like a marine bazaar, and the boats were lumbered to the gunwales. One would have thought the old man wanted to take as much as he could of his first command with him. He was very very quiet, but off his balance evidently. Would you believe it? He wanted to take a length of old stream-cable and a kedge-anchor with him in the long-boat. We said, ‘Ay, ay, sir,’ deferentially, and on the quiet let the thing slip overboard. The heavy medicine-chest went that way, two bags of green coffee, tins of paint–fancy, paint!–a whole lot of things. Then I was ordered with two hands into the boats to make a stowage and get them ready against the time it would be proper for us to leave the ship.

“We put everything straight, stepped the long-boat’s mast for our skipper, who was in charge of her, and I was not sorry to sit down for a moment. My face felt raw, every limb ached as if broken, I was aware of all my ribs, and would have sworn to a twist in the backbone. The boats, fast astern, lay in a deep shadow, and all around I could see the circle of the sea lighted by the fire. A gigantic flame arose forward straight and clear. It flared there, with noises like the whir of wings, with rumbles as of thunder. There were cracks, detonations, and from the cone of flame the sparks flew upwards, as man is born to trouble, to leaky ships, and to ships that burn.

“What bothered me was that the ship, lying broadside to the swell and to such wind as there was–a mere breath– the boats would not keep astern where they were safe, but persisted, in a pig-headed way boats have, in getting under the counter and then swinging alongside. They were knocking about dangerously and coming near the flame, while the ship rolled on them, and, of course, there was always the danger of the masts going over the side at any moment. I and my two boat-keepers kept them off as best we could with oars and boat-hooks; but to be constantly at it became exasperating, since there was no reason why we should not leave at once. We could not see those on board, nor could we imagine what caused the delay. The boat-keepers were swearing feebly, and I had not only my share of the work, but also had to keep at it two men who showed a constant inclination to lay themselves down and let things slide.

“At last I hailed ‘On deck there,’ and someone looked over. ‘We’re ready here,’ I said. The head disappeared, and very soon popped up again. ‘The captain says, All right, sir, and to keep the boats well clear of the ship.’

“Half an hour passed. Suddenly there was a frightful racket, rattle, clanking of chain, hiss of water, and millions of sparks flew up into the shivering column of smoke that stood leaning slightly above the ship. The catheads had burned away, and the two red-hot anchors had gone to the bottom, tearing out after them two hundred fathom of red-hot chain. The ship trembled, the mass of flame swayed as if ready to collapse, and the fore top-gallant-mast fell. It darted down like an arrow of fire, shot under, and instantly leaping up within an oar’s-length of the boats, floated quietly, very black on the luminous sea. I hailed the deck again. After some time a man in an unexpectedly cheerful but also muffled tone, as though he had been trying to speak with his mouth shut, informed me, ‘Coming directly, sir,’ and vanished. For a long time I heard nothing but the whir and roar of the fire. There were also whistling sounds. The boats jumped, tugged at the painters, ran at each other playfully, knocked their sides together, or, do what we would, swung in a bunch against the ship’s side. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and swarming up a rope, clambered aboard over the stern.

“It was as bright as day. Coming up like this, the sheet of fire facing me, was a terrifying sight, and the heat seemed hardly bearable at first. On a settee cushion dragged out of the cabin, Captain Beard, with his legs drawn up and one arm under his head, slept with the light playing on him. Do you know what the rest were busy about? They were sitting on deck right aft, round an open case, eating bread and cheese and drinking bottled stout.

“On the background of flames twisting in fierce tongues above their heads they seemed at home like salamanders, and looked like a band of desperate pirates. The fire sparkled in the whites of their eyes, gleamed on patches of white skin seen through the torn shirts. Each had the marks as of a battle about him–bandaged heads, tied-up arms, a strip of dirty rag round a knee–and each man had a bottle between his legs and a chunk of cheese in his hand. Mahon got up. With his handsome and disreputable head, his hooked profile, his long white beard, and with an uncorked bottle in his hand, he resembled one of those reckless sea-robbers of old making merry amidst violence and disaster. ‘The last meal on board,’ he explained solemnly. ‘We had nothing to eat all day, and it was no use leaving all this.’ He flourished the bottle and indicated the sleeping skipper. ‘He said he couldn’t swallow anything, so I got him to lie down,’ he went on; and as I stared, ‘I don’t know whether you are aware, young fellow, the man had no sleep to speak of for days–and there will be dam’ little sleep in the boats.’ ‘There will be no boats by-and-by if you fool about much longer,’ I said, indignantly. I walked up to the skipper and shook him by the shoulder. At last he opened his eyes, but did not move. ‘Time to leave her, sir,’ I said, quietly.

“He got up painfully, looked at the flames, at the sea sparkling round the ship, and black, black as ink farther away; he looked at the stars shining dim through a thin veil of smoke in a sky black, black as Erebus.

“‘Youngest first,’ he said.

“And the ordinary seaman, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, got up, clambered over the taffrail, and vanished. Others followed. One, on the point of going over, stopped short to drain his bottle, and with a great swing of his arm flung it at the fire. ‘Take this!’ he cried.

“The skipper lingered disconsolately, and we left him to commune alone for awhile with his first command. Then I went up again and brought him away at last. It was time. The ironwork on the poop was hot to the touch.

“Then the painter of the long-boat was cut, and the three boats, tied together, drifted clear of the ship. It was just sixteen hours after the explosion when we abandoned her. Mahon had charge of the second boat, and I had the smallest–the 14-foot thing. The long-boat would have taken the lot of us; but the skipper said we must save as much property as we could–for the underwriters –and so I got my first command. I had two men with me, a bag of biscuits, a few tins of meat, and a breaker of water. I was ordered to keep close to the long-boat, that in case of bad weather we might be taken into her.

“And do you know what I thought? I thought I would part company as soon as I could. I wanted to have my first command all to myself. I wasn’t going to sail in a squadron if there were a chance for independent cruising. I would make land by myself. I would beat the other boats. Youth! All youth! The silly, charming, beautiful youth.

“But we did not make a start at once. We must see the last of the ship. And so the boats drifted about that night, heaving and setting on the swell. The men dozed, waked, sighed, groaned. I looked at the burning ship.

“Between the darkness of earth and heaven she was burning fiercely upon a disc of purple sea shot by the blood-red play of gleams; upon a disc of water glittering and sinister. A high, clear flame, an immense and lonely flame, ascended from the ocean, and from its summit the black smoke poured continuously at the sky. She burned furiously, mournful and imposing like a funeral pile kindled in the night, surrounded by the sea, watched over by the stars. A magnificent death had come like a grace, like a gift, like a reward to that old ship at the end of her laborious days. The surrender of her weary ghost to the keeping of stars and sea was stirring like the sight of a glorious triumph. The masts fell just before daybreak, and for a moment there was a burst and turmoil of sparks that seemed to fill with flying fire the night patient and watchful, the vast night lying silent upon the sea. At daylight she was only a charred shell, floating still under a cloud of smoke and bearing a glowing mass of coal within.

“Then the oars were got out, and the boats forming in a line moved round her remains as if in procession–the long-boat leading. As we pulled across her stern a slim dart of fire shot out viciously at us, and suddenly she went down, head first, in a great hiss of steam. The unconsumed stern was the last to sink; but the paint had gone, had cracked, had peeled off, and there were no letters, there was no word, no stubborn device that was like her soul, to flash at the rising sun her creed and her name.

“We made our way north. A breeze sprang up, and about noon all the boats came together for the last time. I had no mast or sail in mine, but I made a mast out of a spare oar and hoisted a boat-awning for a sail, with a boat-hook for a yard. She was certainly over-masted, but I had the satisfaction of knowing that with the wind aft I could beat the other two. I had to wait for them. Then we all had a look at the captain’s chart, and, after a sociable meal of hard bread and water, got our last instructions. These were simple: steer north, and keep together as much as possible. ‘Be careful with that jury rig, Marlow,’ said the captain; and Mahon, as I sailed proudly past his boat, wrinkled his curved nose and hailed, ‘You will sail that ship of yours under water, if you don’t look out, young fellow.’ He was a malicious old man–and may the deep sea where he sleeps now rock him gently, rock him tenderly to the end of time!

“Before sunset a thick rain-squall passed over the two boats, which were far astern, and that was the last I saw of them for a time. Next day I sat steering my cockle-shell–my first command–with nothing but water and sky around me. I did sight in the afternoon the upper sails of a ship far away, but said nothing, and my men did not notice her. You see I was afraid she might be homeward bound, and I had no mind to turn back from the portals of the East. I was steering for Java– another blessed name–like Bankok, you know. I steered many days.

“I need not tell you what it is to be knocking about in an open boat. I remember nights and days of calm when we pulled, we pulled, and the boat seemed to stand still, as if bewitched within the circle of the sea horizon. I remember the heat, the deluge of rain-squalls that kept us baling for dear life (but filled our water-cask), and I remember sixteen hours on end with a mouth dry as a cinder and a steering-oar over the stern to keep my first command head on to a breaking sea. I did not know how good a man I was till then. I remember the drawn faces, the dejected figures of my two men, and I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more–the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort–to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires–and expires, too soon–before life itself.

“And this is how I see the East. I have seen its secret places and have looked into its very soul; but now I see it always from a small boat, a high outline of mountains, blue and afar in the morning; like faint mist at noon; a jagged wall of purple at sunset. I have the feel of the oar in my hand, the vision of a scorching blue sea in my eyes. And I see a bay, a wide bay, smooth as glass and polished like ice, shimmering in the dark. A red light burns far off upon the gloom of the land, and the night is soft and warm. We drag at the oars with aching arms, and suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odors of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night–the first sigh of the East on my face. That I can never forget. It was impalpable and enslaving, like a charm, like a whispered promise of mysterious delight.

“We had been pulling this finishing spell for eleven hours. Two pulled, and he whose turn it was to rest sat at the tiller. We had made out the red light in that bay and steered for it, guessing it must mark some small coasting port. We passed two vessels, outlandish and high-sterned, sleeping at anchor, and, approaching the light, now very dim, ran the boat’s nose against the end of a jutting wharf. We were blind with fatigue. My men dropped the oars and fell off the thwarts as if dead. I made fast to a pile. A current rippled softly. The scented obscurity of the shore was grouped into vast masses, a density of colossal clumps of vegetation, probably –mute and fantastic shapes. And at their foot the semicircle of a beach gleamed faintly, like an illusion. There was not a light, not a stir, not a sound. The mysterious East faced me, perfumed like a flower, silent like death, dark like a grave.

“And I sat weary beyond expression, exulting like a conqueror, sleepless and entranced as if before a profound, a fateful enigma.

“A splashing of oars, a measured dip reverberating on the level of water, intensified by the silence of the shore into loud claps, made me jump up. A boat, a European boat, was coming in. I invoked the name of the dead; I hailed: Judea ahoy! A thin shout answered.

“It was the captain. I had beaten the flagship by three hours, and I was glad to hear the old man’s voice, tremulous and tired. ‘Is it you, Marlow?’ ‘Mind the end of that jetty, sir,’ I cried.

“He approached cautiously, and brought up with the deep-sea lead-line which we had saved–for the underwriters. I eased my painter and fell alongside. He sat, a broken figure at the stern, wet with dew, his hands clasped in his lap. His men were asleep already. ‘I had a terrible time of it,’ he murmured. ‘Mahon is behind –not very far.’ We conversed in whispers, in low whispers, as if afraid to wake up the land. Guns, thunder, earthquakes would not have awakened the men just then.

“Looking around as we talked, I saw away at sea a bright light traveling in the night. ‘There’s a steamer passing the bay,’ I said. She was not passing, she was entering, and she even came close and anchored. ‘I wish,’ said the old man, ‘you would find out whether she is English. Perhaps they could give us a passage somewhere.’ He seemed nervously anxious. So by dint of punching and kicking I started one of my men into a state of somnambulism, and giving him an oar, took another and pulled towards the lights of the steamer.

“There was a murmur of voices in her, metallic hollow clangs of the engine-room, footsteps on the deck. Her ports shone, round like dilated eyes. Shapes moved about, and there was a shadowy man high up on the bridge. He heard my oars.

“And then, before I could open my lips, the East spoke to me, but it was in a Western voice. A torrent of words was poured into the enigmatical, the fateful silence; outlandish, angry words, mixed with words and even whole sentences of good English, less strange but even more surprising. The voice swore and cursed violently; it riddled the solemn peace of the bay by a volley of abuse. It began by calling me Pig, and from that went crescendo into unmentionable adjectives–in English. The man up there raged aloud in two languages, and with a sincerity in his fury that almost convinced me I had, in some way, sinned against the harmony of the universe. I could hardly see him, but began to think he would work himself into a fit.

“Suddenly he ceased, and I could hear him snorting and blowing like a porpoise. I said–

“‘What steamer is this, pray?’

“‘Eh? What’s this? And who are you?’

“‘Castaway crew of an English bark burnt at sea. We came here to-night. I am the second mate. The captain is in the long-boat, and wishes to know if you would give us a passage somewhere.’

“‘Oh, my goodness! I say. . . . This is the Celestial from Singapore on her return trip. I’ll arrange with your captain in the morning, . . . and, . . . I say, . . . did you hear me just now?’

“‘I should think the whole bay heard you.’

“‘I thought you were a shore-boat. Now, look here– this infernal lazy scoundrel of a caretaker has gone to sleep again–curse him. The light is out, and I nearly ran foul of the end of this damned jetty. This is the third time he plays me this trick. Now, I ask you, can anybody stand this kind of thing? It’s enough to drive a man out of his mind. I’ll report him. . . . I’ll get the Assistant Resident to give him the sack, by . . . See– there’s no light. It’s out, isn’t it? I take you to witness the light’s out. There should be a light, you know. A red light on the–‘

“‘There was a light,’ I said, mildly.

“‘But it’s out, man! What’s the use of talking like this? You can see for yourself it’s out–don’t you? If you had to take a valuable steamer along this God-forsaken coast you would want a light too. I’ll kick him from end to end of his miserable wharf. You’ll see if I don’t. I will–‘

“‘So I may tell my captain you’ll take us?’ I broke in.

“‘Yes, I’ll take you. Good night,’ he said, brusquely.

“I pulled back, made fast again to the jetty, and then went to sleep at last. I had faced the silence of the East. I had heard some of its languages. But when I opened my eyes again the silence was as complete as though it had never been broken. I was lying in a flood of light, and the sky had never looked so far, so high, before. I opened my eyes and lay without moving.

“And then I saw the men of the East–they were looking at me. The whole length of the jetty was full of people. I saw brown, bronze, yellow faces, the black eyes, the glitter, the color of an Eastern crowd. And all these beings stared without a murmur, without a sigh, without a movement. They stared down at the boats, at the sleeping men who at night had come to them from the sea. Nothing moved. The fronds of palms stood still against the sky. Not a branch stirred along the shore, and the brown roofs of hidden houses peeped through the green foliage, through the big leaves that hung shining and still like leaves forged of heavy metal. This was the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise. And these were the men. I sat up suddenly. A wave of movement passed through the crowd from end to end, passed along the heads, swayed the bodies, ran along the jetty like a ripple on the water, like a breath of wind on a field–and all was still again. I see it now –the wide sweep of the bay, the glittering sands, the wealth of green infinite and varied, the sea blue like the sea of a dream, the crowd of attentive faces, the blaze of vivid color–the water reflecting it all, the curve of the shore, the jetty, the high-sterned outlandish craft floating still, and the three boats with tired men from the West sleeping unconscious of the land and the people and of the violence of sunshine. They slept thrown across the thwarts, curled on bottom-boards, in the careless attitudes of death. The head of the old skipper, leaning back in the stern of the long-boat, had fallen on his breast, and he looked as though he would never wake. Farther out old Mahon’s face was upturned to the sky, with the long white beard spread out on his breast, as though he had been shot where he sat at the tiller; and a man, all in a heap in the bows of the boat, slept with both arms embracing the stem-head and with his cheek laid on the gunwale. The East looked at them without a sound.

“I have known its fascinations since: I have seen the mysterious shores, the still water, the lands of brown nations, where a stealthy Nemesis lies in wait, pursues, overtakes so many of the conquering race, who are proud of their wisdom, of their knowledge, of their strength. But for me all the East is contained in that vision of my youth. It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with the sea– and I was young–and I saw it looking at me. And this is all that is left of it! Only a moment; a moment of strength, of romance, of glamour–of youth! . . . A flick of sunshine upon a strange shore, the time to remember, the time for a sigh, and–good-by!–Night– Good-by . . .!”

He drank.

“Ah! The good old time–the good old time. Youth and the sea. Glamour and the sea! The good, strong sea, the salt, bitter sea, that could whisper to you and roar at you and knock your breath out of you.”

He drank again.

“By all that’s wonderful, it is the sea, I believe, the sea itself–or is it youth alone? Who can tell? But you here–you all had something out of life: money, love– whatever one gets on shore–and, tell me, wasn’t that the best time, that time when we were young at sea; young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks–and sometimes a chance to feel your strength–that only–what you all regret?”

And we all nodded at him: the man of finance, the man of accounts, the man of law, we all nodded at him over the polished table that like a still sheet of brown water reflected our faces, lined, wrinkled; our faces marked by toil, by deceptions, by success, by love; our weary eyes looking still, looking always, looking anxiously for something out of life, that while it is expected is already gone–has passed unseen, in a sigh, in a flash–together with the youth, with the strength, with the romance of illusions.

Joseph Conrad: Youth
fleursdumal.nl magazine

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