By JOSEPH CONRAD
" . . . But the Dwarf answered: No; something human is dearer to me
than the wealth of all the world." GRIMM'S TALES.
TO MY WIFE
YOUTH: A NARRATIVE
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 honour--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
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
"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-grey 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 may 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
face 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 dies . . . . 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 barque, 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
"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
"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 endeavour, 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 saucepan. 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 won'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_. Barque. 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 on 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 harbour, 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 harbour, a derision and a
by-word 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
"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 vapours, in a lazy
cloud that drifted to leeward, light and slow: a pestiferous cloud
defiling the splendour 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 re-doubled 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
"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
main-deck 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 after-hatch--I see fire in
"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 moustache 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 distinctly 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 barque off
her course--and his only thought was to get that miserable, stripped,
undecked, smouldering 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 coal-heavers, 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
crestfallen. 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.
'Harbour 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
"'Thank you! No!' said our skipper. 'We must see the last of the
"'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-bye!'
"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 under-writers 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
back-bone. 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
"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 cat-heads 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
"'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!'
"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
"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 under-writers--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
"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
"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 under-writers. 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
"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 barque 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 colour 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 colour--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 fascination 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-bye!--Night--Good-bye . . .!"
"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
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
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.