Part 1 out of 8
This etext was prepared from the 1914 Methuen & Co. edition
by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
CHANCE--A TALE IN TWO PARTS
by Joseph Conrad
PART I--THE DAMSEL
CHAPTER ONE--YOUNG POWELL AND HIS CHANCE
I believe he had seen us out of the window coming off to dine in the
dinghy of a fourteen-ton yawl belonging to Marlow my host and
skipper. We helped the boy we had with us to haul the boat up on
the landing-stage before we went up to the riverside inn, where we
found our new acquaintance eating his dinner in dignified loneliness
at the head of a long table, white and inhospitable like a snow
The red tint of his clear-cut face with trim short black whiskers
under a cap of curly iron-grey hair was the only warm spot in the
dinginess of that room cooled by the cheerless tablecloth. We knew
him already by sight as the owner of a little five-ton cutter, which
he sailed alone apparently, a fellow yachtsman in the unpretending
band of fanatics who cruise at the mouth of the Thames. But the
first time he addressed the waiter sharply as 'steward' we knew him
at once for a sailor as well as a yachtsman.
Presently he had occasion to reprove that same waiter for the
slovenly manner in which the dinner was served. He did it with
considerable energy and then turned to us.
"If we at sea," he declared, "went about our work as people ashore
high and low go about theirs we should never make a living. No one
would employ us. And moreover no ship navigated and sailed in the
happy-go-lucky manner people conduct their business on shore would
ever arrive into port."
Since he had retired from the sea he had been astonished to discover
that the educated people were not much better than the others. No
one seemed to take any proper pride in his work: from plumbers who
were simply thieves to, say, newspaper men (he seemed to think them
a specially intellectual class) who never by any chance gave a
correct version of the simplest affair. This universal inefficiency
of what he called "the shore gang" he ascribed in general to the
want of responsibility and to a sense of security.
"They see," he went on, "that no matter what they do this tight
little island won't turn turtle with them or spring a leak and go to
the bottom with their wives and children."
From this point the conversation took a special turn relating
exclusively to sea-life. On that subject he got quickly in touch
with Marlow who in his time had followed the sea. They kept up a
lively exchange of reminiscences while I listened. They agreed that
the happiest time in their lives was as youngsters in good ships,
with no care in the world but not to lose a watch below when at sea
and not a moment's time in going ashore after work hours when in
harbour. They agreed also as to the proudest moment they had known
in that calling which is never embraced on rational and practical
grounds, because of the glamour of its romantic associations. It
was the moment when they had passed successfully their first
examination and left the seamanship Examiner with the little
precious slip of blue paper in their hands.
"That day I wouldn't have called the Queen my cousin," declared our
new acquaintance enthusiastically.
At that time the Marine Board examinations took place at the St.
Katherine's Dock House on Tower Hill, and he informed us that he had
a special affection for the view of that historic locality, with the
Gardens to the left, the front of the Mint to the right, the
miserable tumble-down little houses farther away, a cabstand, boot-
blacks squatting on the edge of the pavement and a pair of big
policemen gazing with an air of superiority at the doors of the
Black Horse public-house across the road. This was the part of the
world, he said, his eyes first took notice of, on the finest day of
his life. He had emerged from the main entrance of St. Katherine's
Dock House a full-fledged second mate after the hottest time of his
life with Captain R-, the most dreaded of the three seamanship
Examiners who at the time were responsible for the merchant service
officers qualifying in the Port of London.
"We all who were preparing to pass," he said, "used to shake in our
shoes at the idea of going before him. He kept me for an hour and a
half in the torture chamber and behaved as though he hated me. He
kept his eyes shaded with one of his hands. Suddenly he let it drop
saying, "You will do!" Before I realised what he meant he was
pushing the blue slip across the table. I jumped up as if my chair
had caught fire.
"Thank you, sir," says I, grabbing the paper.
"Good morning, good luck to you," he growls at me.
"The old doorkeeper fussed out of the cloak-room with my hat. They
always do. But he looked very hard at me before he ventured to ask
in a sort of timid whisper: "Got through all right, sir?" For all
answer I dropped a half-crown into his soft broad palm. "Well,"
says he with a sudden grin from ear to ear, "I never knew him keep
any of you gentlemen so long. He failed two second mates this
morning before your turn came. Less than twenty minutes each:
that's about his usual time."
"I found myself downstairs without being aware of the steps as if I
had floated down the staircase. The finest day in my life. The day
you get your first command is nothing to it. For one thing a man is
not so young then and for another with us, you know, there is
nothing much more to expect. Yes, the finest day of one's life, no
doubt, but then it is just a day and no more. What comes after is
about the most unpleasant time for a youngster, the trying to get an
officer's berth with nothing much to show but a brand-new
certificate. It is surprising how useless you find that piece of
ass's skin that you have been putting yourself in such a state
about. It didn't strike me at the time that a Board of Trade
certificate does not make an officer, not by a long long way. But
the slippers of the ships I was haunting with demands for a job knew
that very well. I don't wonder at them now, and I don't blame them
either. But this 'trying to get a ship' is pretty hard on a
youngster all the same . . . "
He went on then to tell us how tired he was and how discouraged by
this lesson of disillusion following swiftly upon the finest day of
his life. He told us how he went the round of all the ship-owners'
offices in the City where some junior clerk would furnish him with
printed forms of application which he took home to fill up in the
evening. He used to run out just before midnight to post them in
the nearest pillar-box. And that was all that ever came of it. In
his own words: he might just as well have dropped them all properly
addressed and stamped into the sewer grating.
Then one day, as he was wending his weary way to the docks, he met a
friend and former shipmate a little older than himself outside the
Fenchurch Street Railway Station.
He craved for sympathy but his friend had just "got a ship" that
very morning and was hurrying home in a state of outward joy and
inward uneasiness usual to a sailor who after many days of waiting
suddenly gets a berth. This friend had the time to condole with him
but briefly. He must be moving. Then as he was running off, over
his shoulder as it were, he suggested: "Why don't you go and speak
to Mr. Powell in the Shipping Office." Our friend objected that he
did not know Mr. Powell from Adam. And the other already pretty
near round the corner shouted back advice: "Go to the private door
of the Shipping Office and walk right up to him. His desk is by the
window. Go up boldly and say I sent you."
Our new acquaintance looking from one to the other of us declared:
"Upon my word, I had grown so desperate that I'd have gone boldly up
to the devil himself on the mere hint that he had a second mate's
job to give away."
It was at this point that interrupting his flow of talk to light his
pipe but holding us with his eye he inquired whether we had known
Powell. Marlow with a slight reminiscent smile murmured that he
"remembered him very well."
Then there was a pause. Our new acquaintance had become involved in
a vexatious difficulty with his pipe which had suddenly betrayed his
trust and disappointed his anticipation of self-indulgence. To keep
the ball rolling I asked Marlow if this Powell was remarkable in any
"He was not exactly remarkable," Marlow answered with his usual
nonchalance. "In a general way it's very difficult for one to
become remarkable. People won't take sufficient notice of one,
don't you know. I remember Powell so well simply because as one of
the Shipping Masters in the Port of London he dispatched me to sea
on several long stages of my sailor's pilgrimage. He resembled
Socrates. I mean he resembled him genuinely: that is in the face.
A philosophical mind is but an accident. He reproduced exactly the
familiar bust of the immortal sage, if you will imagine the bust
with a high top hat riding far on the back of the head, and a black
coat over the shoulders. As I never saw him except from the other
side of the long official counter bearing the five writing desks of
the five Shipping Masters, Mr. Powell has remained a bust to me."
Our new acquaintance advanced now from the mantelpiece with his pipe
in good working order.
"What was the most remarkable about Powell," he enunciated
dogmatically with his head in a cloud of smoke, "is that he should
have had just that name. You see, my name happens to be Powell
It was clear that this intelligence was not imparted to us for
social purposes. It required no acknowledgment. We continued to
gaze at him with expectant eyes.
He gave himself up to the vigorous enjoyment of his pipe for a
silent minute or two. Then picking up the thread of his story he
told us how he had started hot foot for Tower Hill. He had not been
that way since the day of his examination--the finest day of his
life--the day of his overweening pride. It was very different now.
He would not have called the Queen his cousin, still, but this time
it was from a sense of profound abasement. He didn't think himself
good enough for anybody's kinship. He envied the purple-nosed old
cab-drivers on the stand, the boot-black boys at the edge of the
pavement, the two large bobbies pacing slowly along the Tower
Gardens railings in the consciousness of their infallible might, and
the bright scarlet sentries walking smartly to and fro before the
Mint. He envied them their places in the scheme of world's labour.
And he envied also the miserable sallow, thin-faced loafers blinking
their obscene eyes and rubbing their greasy shoulders against the
door-jambs of the Black Horse pub, because they were too far gone to
feel their degradation.
I must render the man the justice that he conveyed very well to us
the sense of his youthful hopelessness surprised at not finding its
place in the sun and no recognition of its right to live.
He went up the outer steps of St. Katherine's Dock House, the very
steps from which he had some six weeks before surveyed the cabstand,
the buildings, the policemen, the boot-blacks, the paint, gilt, and
plateglass of the Black Horse, with the eye of a Conqueror. At the
time he had been at the bottom of his heart surprised that all this
had not greeted him with songs and incense, but now (he made no
secret of it) he made his entry in a slinking fashion past the
doorkeeper's glass box. "I hadn't any half-crowns to spare for
tips," he remarked grimly. The man, however, ran out after him
asking: "What do you require?" but with a grateful glance up at the
first floor in remembrance of Captain R-'s examination room (how
easy and delightful all that had been) he bolted down a flight
leading to the basement and found himself in a place of dusk and
mystery and many doors. He had been afraid of being stopped by some
rule of no-admittance. However he was not pursued.
The basement of St. Katherine's Dock House is vast in extent and
confusing in its plan. Pale shafts of light slant from above into
the gloom of its chilly passages. Powell wandered up and down there
like an early Christian refugee in the catacombs; but what little
faith he had in the success of his enterprise was oozing out at his
finger-tips. At a dark turn under a gas bracket whose flame was
half turned down his self-confidence abandoned him altogether.
"I stood there to think a little," he said. "A foolish thing to do
because of course I got scared. What could you expect? It takes
some nerve to tackle a stranger with a request for a favour. I
wished my namesake Powell had been the devil himself. I felt
somehow it would have been an easier job. You see, I never believed
in the devil enough to be scared of him; but a man can make himself
very unpleasant. I looked at a lot of doors, all shut tight, with a
growing conviction that I would never have the pluck to open one of
them. Thinking's no good for one's nerve. I concluded I would give
up the whole business. But I didn't give up in the end, and I'll
tell you what stopped me. It was the recollection of that
confounded doorkeeper who had called after me. I felt sure the
fellow would be on the look-out at the head of the stairs. If he
asked me what I had been after, as he had the right to do, I
wouldn't know what to answer that wouldn't make me look silly if no
worse. I got very hot. There was no chance of slinking out of this
"I had lost my bearings somehow down there. Of the many doors of
various sizes, right and left, a good few had glazed lights above;
some however must have led merely into lumber rooms or such like,
because when I brought myself to try one or two I was disconcerted
to find that they were locked. I stood there irresolute and uneasy
like a baffled thief. The confounded basement was as still as a
grave and I became aware of my heart beats. Very uncomfortable
sensation. Never happened to me before or since. A bigger door to
the left of me, with a large brass handle looked as if it might lead
into the Shipping Office. I tried it, setting my teeth. "Here
"It came open quite easily. And lo! the place it opened into was
hardly any bigger than a cupboard. Anyhow it wasn't more than ten
feet by twelve; and as I in a way expected to see the big shadowy
cellar-like extent of the Shipping Office where I had been once or
twice before, I was extremely startled. A gas bracket hung from the
middle of the ceiling over a dark, shabby writing-desk covered with
a litter of yellowish dusty documents. Under the flame of the
single burner which made the place ablaze with light, a plump,
little man was writing hard, his nose very near the desk. His head
was perfectly bald and about the same drab tint as the papers. He
appeared pretty dusty too.
"I didn't notice whether there were any cobwebs on him, but I
shouldn't wonder if there were because he looked as though he had
been imprisoned for years in that little hole. The way he dropped
his pen and sat blinking my way upset me very much. And his dungeon
was hot and musty; it smelt of gas and mushrooms, and seemed to be
somewhere 120 feet below the ground. Solid, heavy stacks of paper
filled all the corners half-way up to the ceiling. And when the
thought flashed upon me that these were the premises of the Marine
Board and that this fellow must be connected in some way with ships
and sailors and the sea, my astonishment took my breath away. One
couldn't imagine why the Marine Board should keep that bald, fat
creature slaving down there. For some reason or other I felt sorry
and ashamed to have found him out in his wretched captivity. I
asked gently and sorrowfully: "The Shipping Office, please."
He piped up in a contemptuous squeaky voice which made me start:
"Not here. Try the passage on the other side. Street side. This
is the Dock side. You've lost your way . . . "
He spoke in such a spiteful tone that I thought he was going to
round off with the words: "You fool" . . . and perhaps he meant to.
But what he finished sharply with was: "Shut the door quietly after
And I did shut it quietly--you bet. Quick and quiet. The
indomitable spirit of that chap impressed me. I wonder sometimes
whether he has succeeded in writing himself into liberty and a
pension at last, or had to go out of his gas-lighted grave straight
into that other dark one where nobody would want to intrude. My
humanity was pleased to discover he had so much kick left in him,
but I was not comforted in the least. It occurred to me that if Mr.
Powell had the same sort of temper . . . However, I didn't give
myself time to think and scuttled across the space at the foot of
the stairs into the passage where I'd been told to try. And I tried
the first door I came to, right away, without any hanging back,
because coming loudly from the hall above an amazed and scandalized
voice wanted to know what sort of game I was up to down there.
"Don't you know there's no admittance that way?" it roared. But if
there was anything more I shut it out of my hearing by means of a
door marked PRIVATE on the outside. It let me into a six-feet wide
strip between a long counter and the wall, taken off a spacious,
vaulted room with a grated window and a glazed door giving daylight
to the further end. The first thing I saw right in front of me were
three middle-aged men having a sort of romp together round about
another fellow with a thin, long neck and sloping shoulders who
stood up at a desk writing on a large sheet of paper and taking no
notice except that he grinned quietly to himself. They turned very
sour at once when they saw me. I heard one of them mutter 'Hullo!
What have we here?'
"'I want to see Mr. Powell, please,' I said, very civil but firm; I
would let nothing scare me away now. This was the Shipping Office
right enough. It was after 3 o'clock and the business seemed over
for the day with them. The long-necked fellow went on with his
writing steadily. I observed that he was no longer grinning. The
three others tossed their heads all together towards the far end of
the room where a fifth man had been looking on at their antics from
a high stool. I walked up to him as boldly as if he had been the
devil himself. With one foot raised up and resting on the cross-bar
of his seat he never stopped swinging the other which was well clear
of the stone floor. He had unbuttoned the top of his waistcoat and
he wore his tall hat very far at the back of his head. He had a
full unwrinkled face and such clear-shining eyes that his grey beard
looked quite false on him, stuck on for a disguise. You said just
now he resembled Socrates--didn't you? I don't know about that.
This Socrates was a wise man, I believe?"
"He was," assented Marlow. "And a true friend of youth. He
lectured them in a peculiarly exasperating manner. It was a way he
"Then give me Powell every time," declared our new acquaintance
sturdily. "He didn't lecture me in any way. Not he. He said:
'How do you do?' quite kindly to my mumble. Then says he looking
very hard at me: 'I don't think I know you--do I?'
"No, sir," I said and down went my heart sliding into my boots, just
as the time had come to summon up all my cheek. There's nothing
meaner in the world than a piece of impudence that isn't carried off
well. For fear of appearing shamefaced I started about it so free
and easy as almost to frighten myself. He listened for a while
looking at my face with surprise and curiosity and then held up his
hand. I was glad enough to shut up, I can tell you.
"Well, you are a cool hand," says he. "And that friend of yours
too. He pestered me coming here every day for a fortnight till a
captain I'm acquainted with was good enough to give him a berth.
And no sooner he's provided for than he turns you on. You
youngsters don't seem to mind whom you get into trouble."
"It was my turn now to stare with surprise and curiosity. He hadn't
been talking loud but he lowered his voice still more.
"Don't you know it's illegal?"
"I wondered what he was driving at till I remembered that procuring
a berth for a sailor is a penal offence under the Act. That clause
was directed of course against the swindling practices of the
boarding-house crimps. It had never struck me it would apply to
everybody alike no matter what the motive, because I believed then
that people on shore did their work with care and foresight.
"I was confounded at the idea, but Mr. Powell made me soon see that
an Act of Parliament hasn't any sense of its own. It has only the
sense that's put into it; and that's precious little sometimes. He
didn't mind helping a young man to a ship now and then, he said, but
if we kept on coming constantly it would soon get about that he was
doing it for money.
"A pretty thing that would be: the Senior Shipping-Master of the
Port of London hauled up in a police court and fined fifty pounds,"
says he. "I've another four years to serve to get my pension. It
could be made to look very black against me and don't you make any
mistake about it," he says.
"And all the time with one knee well up he went on swinging his
other leg like a boy on a gate and looking at me very straight with
his shining eyes. I was confounded I tell you. It made me sick to
hear him imply that somebody would make a report against him.
"Oh!" I asked shocked, "who would think of such a scurvy trick,
sir?" I was half disgusted with him for having the mere notion of
"Who?" says he, speaking very low. "Anybody. One of the office
messengers maybe. I've risen to be the Senior of this office and we
are all very good friends here, but don't you think that my
colleague that sits next to me wouldn't like to go up to this desk
by the window four years in advance of the regulation time? Or even
one year for that matter. It's human nature."
"I could not help turning my head. The three fellows who had been
skylarking when I came in were now talking together very soberly,
and the long-necked chap was going on with his writing still. He
seemed to me the most dangerous of the lot. I saw him sideface and
his lips were set very tight. I had never looked at mankind in that
light before. When one's young human nature shocks one. But what
startled me most was to see the door I had come through open slowly
and give passage to a head in a uniform cap with a Board of Trade
badge. It was that blamed old doorkeeper from the hall. He had run
me to earth and meant to dig me out too. He walked up the office
smirking craftily, cap in hand.
"What is it, Symons?" asked Mr. Powell.
"I was only wondering where this 'ere gentleman 'ad gone to, sir.
He slipped past me upstairs, sir."
I felt mighty uncomfortable.
"That's all right, Symons. I know the gentleman," says Mr. Powell
as serious as a judge.
"Very well, sir. Of course, sir. I saw the gentleman running races
all by 'isself down 'ere, so I . . ."
"It's all right I tell you," Mr. Powell cut him short with a wave of
his hand; and, as the old fraud walked off at last, he raised his
eyes to me. I did not know what to do: stay there, or clear out,
or say that I was sorry.
"Let's see," says he, "what did you tell me your name was?"
"Now, observe, I hadn't given him my name at all and his question
embarrassed me a bit. Somehow or other it didn't seem proper for me
to fling his own name at him as it were. So I merely pulled out my
new certificate from my pocket and put it into his hand unfolded, so
that he could read CHARLES POWELL written very plain on the
"He dropped his eyes on to it and after a while laid it quietly on
the desk by his side. I didn't know whether he meant to make any
remark on this coincidence. Before he had time to say anything the
glass door came open with a bang and a tall, active man rushed in
with great strides. His face looked very red below his high silk
hat. You could see at once he was the skipper of a big ship.
"Mr. Powell after telling me in an undertone to wait a little
addressed him in a friendly way.
"I've been expecting you in every moment to fetch away your
Articles, Captain. Here they are all ready for you." And turning
to a pile of agreements lying at his elbow he took up the topmost of
them. From where I stood I could read the words: "Ship Ferndale"
written in a large round hand on the first page.
"No, Mr. Powell, they aren't ready, worse luck," says that skipper.
"I've got to ask you to strike out my second officer." He seemed
excited and bothered. He explained that his second mate had been
working on board all the morning. At one o'clock he went out to get
a bit of dinner and didn't turn up at two as he ought to have done.
Instead there came a messenger from the hospital with a note signed
by a doctor. Collar bone and one arm broken. Let himself be
knocked down by a pair horse van while crossing the road outside the
dock gate, as if he had neither eyes nor ears. And the ship ready
to leave the dock at six o'clock to-morrow morning!
"Mr. Powell dipped his pen and began to turn the leaves of the
agreement over. "We must then take his name off," he says in a kind
of unconcerned sing-song.
"What am I to do?" burst out the skipper. "This office closes at
four o'clock. I can't find a man in half an hour."
"This office closes at four," repeats Mr. Powell glancing up and
down the pages and touching up a letter here and there with perfect
"Even if I managed to lay hold some time to-day of a man ready to go
at such short notice I couldn't ship him regularly here--could I?"
"Mr. Powell was busy drawing his pen through the entries relating to
that unlucky second mate and making a note in the margin.
"You could sign him on yourself on board," says he without looking
up. "But I don't think you'll find easily an officer for such a
"Upon this the fine-looking skipper gave signs of distress. The
ship mustn't miss the next morning's tide. He had to take on board
forty tons of dynamite and a hundred and twenty tons of gunpowder at
a place down the river before proceeding to sea. It was all
arranged for next day. There would be no end of fuss and
complications if the ship didn't turn up in time . . . I couldn't
help hearing all this, while wishing him to take himself off,
because I wanted to know why Mr. Powell had told me to wait. After
what he had been saying there didn't seem any object in my hanging
about. If I had had my certificate in my pocket I should have tried
to slip away quietly; but Mr. Powell had turned about into the same
position I found him in at first and was again swinging his leg. My
certificate open on the desk was under his left elbow and I couldn't
very well go up and jerk it away.
"I don't know," says he carelessly, addressing the helpless captain
but looking fixedly at me with an expression as if I hadn't been
there. "I don't know whether I ought to tell you that I know of a
disengaged second mate at hand."
"Do you mean you've got him here?" shouts the other looking all over
the empty public part of the office as if he were ready to fling
himself bodily upon anything resembling a second mate. He had been
so full of his difficulty that I verify believe he had never noticed
me. Or perhaps seeing me inside he may have thought I was some
understrapper belonging to the place. But when Mr. Powell nodded in
my direction he became very quiet and gave me a long stare. Then he
stooped to Mr. Powell's ear--I suppose he imagined he was
whispering, but I heard him well enough.
"Looks very respectable."
"Certainly," says the shipping-master quite calm and staring all the
time at me. "His name's Powell."
"Oh, I see!" says the skipper as if struck all of a heap. "But is
he ready to join at once?"
"I had a sort of vision of my lodgings--in the North of London, too,
beyond Dalston, away to the devil--and all my gear scattered about,
and my empty sea-chest somewhere in an outhouse the good people I
was staying with had at the end of their sooty strip of garden. I
heard the Shipping Master say in the coolest sort of way:
"He'll sleep on board to-night."
"He had better," says the Captain of the Ferndale very businesslike,
as if the whole thing were settled. I can't say I was dumb for joy
as you may suppose. It wasn't exactly that. I was more by way of
being out of breath with the quickness of it. It didn't seem
possible that this was happening to me. But the skipper, after he
had talked for a while with Mr. Powell, too low for me to hear
became visibly perplexed.
"I suppose he had heard I was freshly passed and without experience
as an officer, because he turned about and looked me over as if I
had been exposed for sale.
"He's young," he mutters. "Looks smart, though . . . You're smart
and willing (this to me very sudden and loud) and all that, aren't
"I just managed to open and shut my mouth, no more, being taken
unawares. But it was enough for him. He made as if I had deafened
him with protestations of my smartness and willingness.
"Of course, of course. All right." And then turning to the
Shipping Master who sat there swinging his leg, he said that he
certainly couldn't go to sea without a second officer. I stood by
as if all these things were happening to some other chap whom I was
seeing through with it. Mr. Powell stared at me with those shining
eyes of his. But that bothered skipper turns upon me again as
though he wanted to snap my head off.
"You aren't too big to be told how to do things--are you? You've a
lot to learn yet though you mayn't think so."
"I had half a mind to save my dignity by telling him that if it was
my seamanship he was alluding to I wanted him to understand that a
fellow who had survived being turned inside out for an hour and a
half by Captain R- was equal to any demand his old ship was likely
to make on his competence. However he didn't give me a chance to
make that sort of fool of myself because before I could open my
mouth he had gone round on another tack and was addressing himself
affably to Mr. Powell who swinging his leg never took his eyes off
"I'll take your young friend willingly, Mr. Powell. If you let him
sign on as second-mate at once I'll take the Articles away with me
"It suddenly dawned upon me that the innocent skipper of the
Ferndale had taken it for granted that I was a relative of the
Shipping Master! I was quite astonished at this discovery, though
indeed the mistake was natural enough under the circumstances. What
I ought to have admired was the reticence with which this
misunderstanding had been established and acted upon. But I was too
stupid then to admire anything. All my anxiety was that this should
be cleared up. I was ass enough to wonder exceedingly at Mr. Powell
failing to notice the misapprehension. I saw a slight twitch come
and go on his face; but instead of setting right that mistake the
Shipping Master swung round on his stool and addressed me as
'Charles.' He did. And I detected him taking a hasty squint at my
certificate just before, because clearly till he did so he was not
sure of my christian name. "Now then come round in front of the
desk, Charles," says he in a loud voice.
"Charles! At first, I declare to you, it didn't seem possible that
he was addressing himself to me. I even looked round for that
Charles but there was nobody behind me except the thin-necked chap
still hard at his writing, and the other three Shipping Masters who
were changing their coats and reaching for their hats, making ready
to go home. It was the industrious thin-necked man who without
laying down his pen lifted with his left hand a flap near his desk
and said kindly:
"Pass this way."
I walked through in a trance, faced Mr. Powell, from whom I learned
that we were bound to Port Elizabeth first, and signed my name on
the Articles of the ship Ferndale as second mate--the voyage not to
exceed two years.
"You won't fail to join--eh?" says the captain anxiously. "It would
cause no end of trouble and expense if you did. You've got a good
six hours to get your gear together, and then you'll have time to
snatch a sleep on board before the crew joins in the morning."
"It was easy enough for him to talk of getting ready in six hours
for a voyage that was not to exceed two years. He hadn't to do that
trick himself, and with his sea-chest locked up in an outhouse the
key of which had been mislaid for a week as I remembered. But
neither was I much concerned. The idea that I was absolutely going
to sea at six o'clock next morning hadn't got quite into my head
yet. It had been too sudden.
"Mr. Powell, slipping the Articles into a long envelope, spoke up
with a sort of cold half-laugh without looking at either of us.
"Mind you don't disgrace the name, Charles."
"And the skipper chimes in very kindly:
"He'll do well enough I dare say. I'll look after him a bit."
"Upon this he grabs the Articles, says something about trying to run
in for a minute to see that poor devil in the hospital, and off he
goes with his heavy swinging step after telling me sternly: "Don't
you go like that poor fellow and get yourself run over by a cart as
if you hadn't either eyes or ears."
"Mr. Powell," says I timidly (there was by then only the thin-necked
man left in the office with us and he was already by the door,
standing on one leg to turn the bottom of his trousers up before
going away). "Mr. Powell," says I, "I believe the Captain of the
Ferndale was thinking all the time that I was a relation of yours."
"I was rather concerned about the propriety of it, you know, but Mr.
Powell didn't seem to be in the least.
"Did he?" says he. "That's funny, because it seems to me too that
I've been a sort of good uncle to several of you young fellows
lately. Don't you think so yourself? However, if you don't like it
you may put him right--when you get out to sea." At this I felt a
bit queer. Mr. Powell had rendered me a very good service:- because
it's a fact that with us merchant sailors the first voyage as
officer is the real start in life. He had given me no less than
that. I told him warmly that he had done for me more that day than
all my relations put together ever did.
"Oh, no, no," says he. "I guess it's that shipment of explosives
waiting down the river which has done most for you. Forty tons of
dynamite have been your best friend to-day, young man."
"That was true too, perhaps. Anyway I saw clearly enough that I had
nothing to thank myself for. But as I tried to thank him, he
checked my stammering.
"Don't be in a hurry to thank me," says he. "The voyage isn't
Our new acquaintance paused, then added meditatively: "Queer man.
As if it made any difference. Queer man."
"It's certainly unwise to admit any sort of responsibility for our
actions, whose consequences we are never able to foresee," remarked
Marlow by way of assent.
"The consequence of his action was that I got a ship," said the
other. "That could not do much harm," he added with a laugh which
argued a probably unconscious contempt of general ideas.
But Marlow was not put off. He was patient and reflective. He had
been at sea many years and I verily believe he liked sea-life
because upon the whole it is favourable to reflection. I am
speaking of the now nearly vanished sea-life under sail. To those
who may be surprised at the statement I will point out that this
life secured for the mind of him who embraced it the inestimable
advantages of solitude and silence. Marlow had the habit of
pursuing general ideas in a peculiar manner, between jest and
"Oh, I wouldn't suggest," he said, "that your namesake Mr. Powell,
the Shipping Master, had done you much harm. Such was hardly his
intention. And even if it had been he would not have had the power.
He was but a man, and the incapacity to achieve anything distinctly
good or evil is inherent in our earthly condition. Mediocrity is
our mark. And perhaps it's just as well, since, for the most part,
we cannot be certain of the effect of our actions."
"I don't know about the effect," the other stood up to Marlow
manfully. "What effect did you expect anyhow? I tell you he did
something uncommonly kind."
"He did what he could," Marlow retorted gently, "and on his own
showing that was not a very great deal. I cannot help thinking that
there was some malice in the way he seized the opportunity to serve
you. He managed to make you uncomfortable. You wanted to go to
sea, but he jumped at the chance of accommodating your desire with a
vengeance. I am inclined to think your cheek alarmed him. And this
was an excellent occasion to suppress you altogether. For if you
accepted he was relieved of you with every appearance of humanity,
and if you made objections (after requesting his assistance, mind
you) it was open to him to drop you as a sort of impostor. You
might have had to decline that berth for some very valid reason.
From sheer necessity perhaps. The notice was too uncommonly short.
But under the circumstances you'd have covered yourself with
Our new friend knocked the ashes out of his pipe.
"Quite a mistake," he said. "I am not of the declining sort, though
I'll admit it was something like telling a man that you would like a
bath and in consequence being instantly knocked overboard to sink or
swim with your clothes on. However, I didn't feel as if I were in
deep water at first. I left the shipping office quietly and for a
time strolled along the street as easy as if I had a week before me
to fit myself out. But by and by I reflected that the notice was
even shorter than it looked. The afternoon was well advanced; I had
some things to get, a lot of small matters to attend to, one or two
persons to see. One of them was an aunt of mine, my only relation,
who quarrelled with poor father as long as he lived about some silly
matter that had neither right nor wrong to it. She left her money
to me when she died. I used always to go and see her for decency's
sake. I had so much to do before night that I didn't know where to
begin. I felt inclined to sit down on the kerb and hold my head in
my hands. It was as if an engine had been started going under my
skull. Finally I sat down in the first cab that came along and it
was a hard matter to keep on sitting there I can tell you, while we
rolled up and down the streets, pulling up here and there, the
parcels accumulating round me and the engine in my head gathering
more way every minute. The composure of the people on the pavements
was provoking to a degree, and as to the people in shops, they were
benumbed, more than half frozen--imbecile. Funny how it affects you
to be in a peculiar state of mind: everybody that does not act up
to your excitement seems so confoundedly unfriendly. And my state
of mind what with the hurry, the worry and a growing exultation was
peculiar enough. That engine in my head went round at its top speed
hour after hour till eleven at about at night it let up on me
suddenly at the entrance to the Dock before large iron gates in a
These gates were closed and locked. The cabby, after shooting his
things off the roof of his machine into young Powell's arms, drove
away leaving him alone with his sea-chest, a sail cloth bag and a
few parcels on the pavement about his feet. It was a dark, narrow
thoroughfare he told us. A mean row of houses on the other side
looked empty: there wasn't the smallest gleam of light in them.
The white-hot glare of a gin palace a good way off made the
intervening piece of the street pitch black. Some human shapes
appearing mysteriously, as if they had sprung up from the dark
ground, shunned the edge of the faint light thrown down by the
gateway lamps. These figures were wary in their movements and
perfectly silent of foot, like beasts of prey slinking about a camp
fire. Powell gathered up his belongings and hovered over them like
a hen over her brood. A gruffly insinuating voice said:
"Let's carry your things in, Capt'in! I've got my pal 'ere."
He was a tall, bony, grey-haired ruffian with a bulldog jaw, in a
torn cotton shirt and moleskin trousers. The shadow of his
hobnailed boots was enormous and coffinlike. His pal, who didn't
come up much higher than his elbow, stepping forward exhibited a
pale face with a long drooping nose and no chin to speak of. He
seemed to have just scrambled out of a dust-bin in a tam-o'shanter
cap and a tattered soldier's coat much too long for him. Being so
deadly white he looked like a horrible dirty invalid in a ragged
dressing gown. The coat flapped open in front and the rest of his
apparel consisted of one brace which crossed his naked, bony chest,
and a pair of trousers. He blinked rapidly as if dazed by the faint
light, while his patron, the old bandit, glowered at young Powell
from under his beetling brow.
"Say the word, Capt'in. The bobby'll let us in all right. 'E knows
both of us."
"I didn't answer him," continued Mr. Powell. "I was listening to
footsteps on the other side of the gate, echoing between the walls
of the warehouses as if in an uninhabited town of very high
buildings dark from basement to roof. You could never have guessed
that within a stone's throw there was an open sheet of water and big
ships lying afloat. The few gas lamps showing up a bit of brick
work here and there, appeared in the blackness like penny dips in a
range of cellars--and the solitary footsteps came on, tramp, tramp.
A dock policeman strode into the light on the other side of the
gate, very broad-chested and stern.
"Hallo! What's up here?"
"He was really surprised, but after some palaver he let me in
together with the two loafers carrying my luggage. He grumbled at
them however and slammed the gate violently with a loud clang. I
was startled to discover how many night prowlers had collected in
the darkness of the street in such a short time and without my being
aware of it. Directly we were through they came surging against the
bars, silent, like a mob of ugly spectres. But suddenly, up the
street somewhere, perhaps near that public-house, a row started as
if Bedlam had broken loose: shouts, yells, an awful shrill shriek--
and at that noise all these heads vanished from behind the bars.
"Look at this," marvelled the constable. "It's a wonder to me they
didn't make off with your things while you were waiting."
"I would have taken good care of that," I said defiantly. But the
constable wasn't impressed.
"Much you would have done. The bag going off round one dark corner;
the chest round another. Would you have run two ways at once? And
anyhow you'd have been tripped up and jumped upon before you had run
three yards. I tell you you've had a most extraordinary chance that
there wasn't one of them regular boys about to-night, in the High
Street, to twig your loaded cab go by. Ted here is honest . . . You
are on the honest lay, Ted, ain't you?"
"Always was, orficer," said the big ruffian with feeling. The other
frail creature seemed dumb and only hopped about with the edge of
its soldier coat touching the ground.
"Oh yes, I dare say," said the constable. "Now then, forward, march
. . . He's that because he ain't game for the other thing," he
confided to me. "He hasn't got the nerve for it. However, I ain't
going to lose sight of them two till they go out through the gate.
That little chap's a devil. He's got the nerve for anything, only
he hasn't got the muscle. Well! Well! You've had a chance to get
in with a whole skin and with all your things."
"I was incredulous a little. It seemed impossible that after
getting ready with so much hurry and inconvenience I should have
lost my chance of a start in life from such a cause. I asked:
"Does that sort of thing happen often so near the dock gates?"
"Often! No! Of course not often. But it ain't often either that a
man comes along with a cabload of things to join a ship at this time
of night. I've been in the dock police thirteen years and haven't
seen it done once."
"Meantime we followed my sea-chest which was being carried down a
sort of deep narrow lane, separating two high warehouses, between
honest Ted and his little devil of a pal who had to keep up a trot
to the other's stride. The skirt of his soldier's coat floating
behind him nearly swept the ground so that he seemed to be running
on castors. At the corner of the gloomy passage a rigged jib boom
with a dolphin-striker ending in an arrow-head stuck out of the
night close to a cast iron lamp-post. It was the quay side. They
set down their load in the light and honest Ted asked hoarsely:
"Where's your ship, guv'nor?"
"I didn't know. The constable was interested at my ignorance.
"Don't know where your ship is?" he asked with curiosity. "And you
the second officer! Haven't you been working on board of her?"
"I couldn't explain that the only work connected with my appointment
was the work of chance. I told him briefly that I didn't know her
at all. At this he remarked:
"So I see. Here she is, right before you. That's her."
"At once the head-gear in the gas light inspired me with interest
and respect; the spars were big, the chains and ropes stout and the
whole thing looked powerful and trustworthy. Barely touched by the
light her bows rose faintly alongside the narrow strip of the quay;
the rest of her was a black smudge in the darkness. Here I was face
to face with my start in life. We walked in a body a few steps on a
greasy pavement between her side and the towering wall of a
warehouse and I hit my shins cruelly against the end of the gangway.
The constable hailed her quietly in a bass undertone 'Ferndale
there!' A feeble and dismal sound, something in the nature of a
buzzing groan, answered from behind the bulwarks.
"I distinguished vaguely an irregular round knob, of wood, perhaps,
resting on the rail. It did not move in the least; but as another
broken-down buzz like a still fainter echo of the first dismal sound
proceeded from it I concluded it must be the head of the shipkeeper.
The stalwart constable jeered in a mock-official manner.
"Second officer coming to join. Move yourself a bit."
"The truth of the statement touched me in the pit of the stomach
(you know that's the spot where emotion gets home on a man) for it
was borne upon me that really and truly I was nothing but a second
officer of a ship just like any other second officer, to that
constable. I was moved by this solid evidence of my new dignity.
Only his tone offended me. Nevertheless I gave him the tip he was
looking for. Thereupon he lost all interest in me, humorous or
otherwise, and walked away driving sternly before him the honest
Ted, who went off grumbling to himself like a hungry ogre, and his
horrible dumb little pal in the soldier's coat, who, from first to
last, never emitted the slightest sound.
"It was very dark on the quarter deck of the Ferndale between the
deep bulwarks overshadowed by the break of the poop and frowned upon
by the front of the warehouse. I plumped down on to my chest near
the after hatch as if my legs had been jerked from under me. I felt
suddenly very tired and languid. The shipkeeper, whom I could
hardly make out hung over the capstan in a fit of weak pitiful
coughing. He gasped out very low 'Oh! dear! Oh! dear!' and
struggled for breath so long that I got up alarmed and irresolute.
"I've been took like this since last Christmas twelvemonth. It
"He seemed a hundred years old at least. I never saw him properly
because he was gone ashore and out of sight when I came on deck in
the morning; but he gave me the notion of the feeblest creature that
ever breathed. His voice was thin like the buzzing of a mosquito.
As it would have been cruel to demand assistance from such a shadowy
wreck I went to work myself, dragging my chest along a pitch-black
passage under the poop deck, while he sighed and moaned around me as
if my exertions were more than his weakness could stand. At last as
I banged pretty heavily against the bulkheads he warned me in his
faint breathless wheeze to be more careful.
"What's the matter?" I asked rather roughly, not relishing to be
admonished by this forlorn broken-down ghost.
"Nothing! Nothing, sir," he protested so hastily that he lost his
poor breath again and I felt sorry for him. "Only the captain and
his missus are sleeping on board. She's a lady that mustn't be
disturbed. They came about half-past eight, and we had a permit to
have lights in the cabin till ten to-night."
"This struck me as a considerable piece of news. I had never been
in a ship where the captain had his wife with him. I'd heard
fellows say that captains' wives could work a lot of mischief on
board ship if they happened to take a dislike to anyone; especially
the new wives if young and pretty. The old and experienced wives on
the other hand fancied they knew more about the ship than the
skipper himself and had an eye like a hawk's for what went on. They
were like an extra chief mate of a particularly sharp and unfeeling
sort who made his report in the evening. The best of them were a
nuisance. In the general opinion a skipper with his wife on board
was more difficult to please; but whether to show off his authority
before an admiring female or from loving anxiety for her safety or
simply from irritation at her presence--nobody I ever heard on the
subject could tell for certain.
"After I had bundled in my things somehow I struck a match and had a
dazzling glimpse of my berth; then I pitched the roll of my bedding
into the bunk but took no trouble to spread it out. I wasn't sleepy
now, neither was I tired. And the thought that I was done with the
earth for many many months to come made me feel very quiet and self-
contained as it were. Sailors will understand what I mean."
Marlow nodded. "It is a strictly professional feeling," he
commented. "But other professions or trades know nothing of it. It
is only this calling whose primary appeal lies in the suggestion of
restless adventure which holds out that deep sensation to those who
embrace it. It is difficult to define, I admit."
"I should call it the peace of the sea," said Mr. Charles Powell in
an earnest tone but looking at us as though he expected to be met by
a laugh of derision and were half prepared to salve his reputation
for common sense by joining in it. But neither of us laughed at Mr.
Charles Powell in whose start in life we had been called to take a
part. He was lucky in his audience.
"A very good name," said Marlow looking at him approvingly. "A
sailor finds a deep feeling of security in the exercise of his
calling. The exacting life of the sea has this advantage over the
life of the earth that its claims are simple and cannot be evaded."
"Gospel truth," assented Mr. Powell. "No! they cannot be evaded."
That an excellent understanding should have established itself
between my old friend and our new acquaintance was remarkable
enough. For they were exactly dissimilar--one individuality
projecting itself in length and the other in breadth, which is
already a sufficient ground for irreconcilable difference. Marlow
who was lanky, loose, quietly composed in varied shades of brown
robbed of every vestige of gloss, had a narrow, veiled glance, the
neutral bearing and the secret irritability which go together with a
predisposition to congestion of the liver. The other, compact,
broad and sturdy of limb, seemed extremely full of sound organs
functioning vigorously all the time in order to keep up the
brilliance of his colouring, the light curl of his coal-black hair
and the lustre of his eyes, which asserted themselves roundly in an
open, manly face. Between two such organisms one would not have
expected to find the slightest temperamental accord. But I have
observed that profane men living in ships like the holy men gathered
together in monasteries develop traits of profound resemblance.
This must be because the service of the sea and the service of a
temple are both detached from the vanities and errors of a world
which follows no severe rule. The men of the sea understand each
other very well in their view of earthly things, for simplicity is a
good counsellor and isolation not a bad educator. A turn of mind
composed of innocence and scepticism is common to them all, with the
addition of an unexpected insight into motives, as of disinterested
lookers-on at a game. Mr. Powell took me aside to say,
"I like the things he says."
"You understand each other pretty well," I observed.
"I know his sort," said Powell, going to the window to look at his
cutter still riding to the flood. "He's the sort that's always
chasing some notion or other round and round his head just for the
fun of the thing."
"Keeps them in good condition," I said.
"Lively enough I dare say," he admitted.
"Would you like better a man who let his notions lie curled up?"
"That I wouldn't," answered our new acquaintance. Clearly he was
not difficult to get on with. "I like him, very well," he
continued, "though it isn't easy to make him out. He seems to be up
to a thing or two. What's he doing?"
I informed him that our friend Marlow had retired from the sea in a
sort of half-hearted fashion some years ago.
Mr. Powell's comment was: "Fancied had enough of it?"
"Fancied's the very word to use in this connection," I observed,
remembering the subtly provisional character of Marlow's long
sojourn amongst us. From year to year he dwelt on land as a bird
rests on the branch of a tree, so tense with the power of brusque
flight into its true element that it is incomprehensible why it
should sit still minute after minute. The sea is the sailor's true
element, and Marlow, lingering on shore, was to me an object of
incredulous commiseration like a bird, which, secretly, should have
lost its faith in the high virtue of flying.
CHAPTER TWO--THE FYNES AND THE GIRL-FRIEND
We were on our feet in the room by then, and Marlow, brown and
deliberate, approached the window where Mr. Powell and I had
retired. "What was the name of your chance again?" he asked. Mr.
Powell stared for a moment.
"Oh! The Ferndale. A Liverpool ship. Composite built."
"Ferndale," repeated Marlow thoughtfully. "Ferndale."
"Our friend," I said, "knows something of every ship. He seems to
have gone about the seas prying into things considerably."
"I've seen her, at least once."
"The finest sea-boat ever launched," declared Mr. Powell sturdily.
"She looked a stout, comfortable ship," assented Marlow.
"Uncommonly comfortable. Not very fast tho'."
"She was fast enough for any reasonable man--when I was in her,"
growled Mr. Powell with his back to us.
"Any ship is that--for a reasonable man," generalized Marlow in a
conciliatory tone. "A sailor isn't a globe-trotter."
"No," muttered Mr. Powell.
"Time's nothing to him," advanced Marlow.
"I don't suppose it's much," said Mr. Powell. "All the same a quick
passage is a feather in a man's cap."
"True. But that ornament is for the use of the master only. And by
the by what was his name?"
"The master of the Ferndale? Anthony. Captain Anthony."
"Just so. Quite right," approved Marlow thoughtfully. Our new
acquaintance looked over his shoulder.
"What do you mean? Why is it more right than if it had been Brown?"
"He has known him probably," I explained. "Marlow here appears to
know something of every soul that ever went afloat in a sailor's
Mr. Powell seemed wonderfully amenable to verbal suggestions for
looking again out of the window, he muttered:
"He was a good soul."
This clearly referred to Captain Anthony of the Ferndale. Marlow
addressed his protest to me.
"I did not know him. I really didn't. He was a good soul. That's
nothing very much out of the way--is it? And I didn't even know
that much of him. All I knew of him was an accident called Fyne.
At this Mr. Powell who evidently could be rebellious too turned his
back squarely on the window.
"What on earth do you mean?" he asked. "An--accident--called Fyne,"
he repeated separating the words with emphasis.
Marlow was not disconcerted.
"I don't mean accident in the sense of a mishap. Not in the least.
Fyne was a good little man in the Civil Service. By accident I mean
that which happens blindly and without intelligent design. That's
generally the way a brother-in-law happens into a man's life."
Marlow's tone being apologetic and our new acquaintance having again
turned to the window I took it upon myself to say:
"You are justified. There is very little intelligent design in the
majority of marriages; but they are none the worse for that.
Intelligence leads people astray as far as passion sometimes. I
know you are not a cynic."
Marlow smiled his retrospective smile which was kind as though he
bore no grudge against people he used to know.
"Little Fyne's marriage was quite successful. There was no design
at all in it. Fyne, you must know, was an enthusiastic pedestrian.
He spent his holidays tramping all over our native land. His tastes
were simple. He put infinite conviction and perseverance into his
holidays. At the proper season you would meet in the fields, Fyne,
a serious-faced, broad-chested, little man, with a shabby knap-sack
on his back, making for some church steeple. He had a horror of
roads. He wrote once a little book called the 'Tramp's Itinerary,'
and was recognised as an authority on the footpaths of England. So
one year, in his favourite over-the-fields, back-way fashion he
entered a pretty Surrey village where he met Miss Anthony. Pure
accident, you see. They came to an understanding, across some
stile, most likely. Little Fyne held very solemn views as to the
destiny of women on this earth, the nature of our sublunary love,
the obligations of this transient life and so on. He probably
disclosed them to his future wife. Miss Anthony's views of life
were very decided too but in a different way. I don't know the
story of their wooing. I imagine it was carried on clandestinely
and, I am certain, with portentous gravity, at the back of copses,
behind hedges . . .
"Why was it carried on clandestinely?" I inquired.
"Because of the lady's father. He was a savage sentimentalist who
had his own decided views of his paternal prerogatives. He was a
terror; but the only evidence of imaginative faculty about Fyne was
his pride in his wife's parentage. It stimulated his ingenuity too.
Difficult--is it not?--to introduce one's wife's maiden name into
general conversation. But my simple Fyne made use of Captain
Anthony for that purpose, or else I would never even have heard of
the man. "My wife's sailor-brother" was the phrase. He trotted out
the sailor-brother in a pretty wide range of subjects: Indian and
colonial affairs, matters of trade, talk of travels, of seaside
holidays and so on. Once I remember "My wife's sailor-brother
Captain Anthony" being produced in connection with nothing less
recondite than a sunset. And little Fyne never failed to add "The
son of Carleon Anthony, the poet--you know." He used to lower his
voice for that statement, and people were impressed or pretended to
The late Carleon Anthony, the poet, sang in his time of the domestic
and social amenities of our age with a most felicitous
versification, his object being, in his own words, "to glorify the
result of six thousand years' evolution towards the refinement of
thought, manners and feelings." Why he fixed the term at six
thousand years I don't know. His poems read like sentimental novels
told in verse of a really superior quality. You felt as if you were
being taken out for a delightful country drive by a charming lady in
a pony carriage. But in his domestic life that same Carleon Anthony
showed traces of the primitive cave-dweller's temperament. He was a
massive, implacable man with a handsome face, arbitrary and exacting
with his dependants, but marvellously suave in his manner to
admiring strangers. These contrasted displays must have been
particularly exasperating to his long-suffering family. After his
second wife's death his boy, whom he persisted by a mere whim in
educating at home, ran away in conventional style and, as if
disgusted with the amenities of civilization, threw himself,
figuratively speaking, into the sea. The daughter (the elder of the
two children) either from compassion or because women are naturally
more enduring, remained in bondage to the poet for several years,
till she too seized a chance of escape by throwing herself into the
arms, the muscular arms, of the pedestrian Fyne. This was either
great luck or great sagacity. A civil servant is, I should imagine,
the last human being in the world to preserve those traits of the
cave-dweller from which she was fleeing. Her father would never
consent to see her after the marriage. Such unforgiving selfishness
is difficult to understand unless as a perverse sort of refinement.
There were also doubts as to Carleon Anthony's complete sanity for
some considerable time before he died.
Most of the above I elicited from Marlow, for all I knew of Carleon
Anthony was his unexciting but fascinating verse. Marlow assured me
that the Fyne marriage was perfectly successful and even happy, in
an earnest, unplayful fashion, being blessed besides by three
healthy, active, self-reliant children, all girls. They were all
pedestrians too. Even the youngest would wander away for miles if
not restrained. Mrs. Fyne had a ruddy out-of-doors complexion and
wore blouses with a starched front like a man's shirt, a stand-up
collar and a long necktie. Marlow had made their acquaintance one
summer in the country, where they were accustomed to take a cottage
for the holidays . . .
At this point we were interrupted by Mr. Powell who declared that he
must leave us. The tide was on the turn, he announced coming away
from the window abruptly. He wanted to be on board his cutter
before she swung and of course he would sleep on board. Never slept
away from the cutter while on a cruise. He was gone in a moment,
unceremoniously, but giving us no offence and leaving behind an
impression as though we had known him for a long time. The
ingenuous way he had told us of his start in life had something to
do with putting him on that footing with us. I gave no thought to
seeing him again.
Marlow expressed a confident hope of coming across him before long.
"He cruises about the mouth of the river all the summer. He will be
easy to find any week-end," he remarked ringing the bell so that we
might settle up with the waiter.
Later on I asked Marlow why he wished to cultivate this chance
acquaintance. He confessed apologetically that it was the commonest
sort of curiosity. I flatter myself that I understand all sorts of
curiosity. Curiosity about daily facts, about daily things, about
daily men. It is the most respectable faculty of the human mind--in
fact I cannot conceive the uses of an incurious mind. It would be
like a chamber perpetually locked up. But in this particular case
Mr. Powell seemed to have given us already a complete insight into
his personality such as it was; a personality capable of perception
and with a feeling for the vagaries of fate, but essentially simple
Marlow agreed with me so far. He explained however that his
curiosity was not excited by Mr. Powell exclusively. It originated
a good way further back in the fact of his accidental acquaintance
with the Fynes, in the country. This chance meeting with a man who
had sailed with Captain Anthony had revived it. It had revived it
to some purpose, to such purpose that to me too was given the
knowledge of its origin and of its nature. It was given to me in
several stages, at intervals which are not indicated here. On this
first occasion I remarked to Marlow with some surprise:
"But, if I remember rightly you said you didn't know Captain
"No. I never saw the man. It's years ago now, but I seem to hear
solemn little Fyne's deep voice announcing the approaching visit of
his wife's brother "the son of the poet, you know." He had just
arrived in London from a long voyage, and, directly his occupations
permitted, was coming down to stay with his relatives for a few
weeks. No doubt we two should find many things to talk about by
ourselves in reference to our common calling, added little Fyne
portentously in his grave undertones, as if the Mercantile Marine
were a secret society.
You must understand that I cultivated the Fynes only in the country,
in their holiday time. This was the third year. Of their existence
in town I knew no more than may be inferred from analogy. I played
chess with Fyne in the late afternoon, and sometimes came over to
the cottage early enough to have tea with the whole family at a big
round table. They sat about it, an unsmiling, sunburnt company of
very few words indeed. Even the children were silent and as if
contemptuous of each other and of their elders. Fyne muttered
sometimes deep down in his chest some insignificant remark. Mrs.
Fyne smiled mechanically (she had splendid teeth) while distributing
tea and bread and butter. A something which was not coldness, nor
yet indifference, but a sort of peculiar self-possession gave her
the appearance of a very trustworthy, very capable and excellent
governess; as if Fyne were a widower and the children not her own
but only entrusted to her calm, efficient, unemotional care. One
expected her to address Fyne as Mr. When she called him John it
surprised one like a shocking familiarity. The atmosphere of that
holiday was--if I may put it so--brightly dull. Healthy faces, fair
complexions, clear eyes, and never a frank smile in the whole lot,
unless perhaps from a girl-friend.
The girl-friend problem exercised me greatly. How and where the
Fynes got all these pretty creatures to come and stay with them I
can't imagine. I had at first the wild suspicion that they were
obtained to amuse Fyne. But I soon discovered that he could hardly
tell one from the other, though obviously their presence met with
his solemn approval. These girls in fact came for Mrs. Fyne. They
treated her with admiring deference. She answered to some need of
theirs. They sat at her feet. They were like disciples. It was
very curious. Of Fyne they took but scanty notice. As to myself I
was made to feel that I did not exist.
After tea we would sit down to chess and then Fyne's everlasting
gravity became faintly tinged by an attenuated gleam of something
inward which resembled sly satisfaction. Of the divine frivolity of
laughter he was only capable over a chess-board. Certain positions
of the game struck him as humorous, which nothing else on earth
could do . . .
"He used to beat you," I asserted with confidence.
"Yes. He used to beat me," Marlow owned up hastily.
So he and Fyne played two games after tea. The children romped
together outside, gravely, unplayfully, as one would expect from
Fyne's children, and Mrs. Fyne would be gone to the bottom of the
garden with the girl-friend of the week. She always walked off
directly after tea with her arm round the girl-friend's waist.
Marlow said that there was only one girl-friend with whom he had
conversed at all. It had happened quite unexpectedly, long after he
had given up all hope of getting into touch with these reserved
One day he saw a woman walking about on the edge of a high quarry,
which rose a sheer hundred feet, at least, from the road winding up
the hill out of which it had been excavated. He shouted warningly
to her from below where he happened to be passing. She was really
in considerable danger. At the sound of his voice she started back
and retreated out of his sight amongst some young Scotch firs
growing near the very brink of the precipice.
"I sat down on a bank of grass," Marlow went on. "She had given me
a turn. The hem of her skirt seemed to float over that awful sheer
drop, she was so close to the edge. An absurd thing to do. A
perfectly mad trick--for no conceivable object! I was reflecting on
the foolhardiness of the average girl and remembering some other
instances of the kind, when she came into view walking down the
steep curve of the road. She had Mrs. Fyne's walking-stick and was
escorted by the Fyne dog. Her dead white face struck me with
astonishment, so that I forgot to raise my hat. I just sat and
stared. The dog, a vivacious and amiable animal which for some
inscrutable reason had bestowed his friendship on my unworthy self,
rushed up the bank demonstratively and insinuated himself under my
The girl-friend (it was one of them) went past some way as though
she had not seen me, then stopped and called the dog to her several
times; but he only nestled closer to my side, and when I tried to
push him away developed that remarkable power of internal resistance
by which a dog makes himself practically immovable by anything short
of a kick. She looked over her shoulder and her arched eyebrows
frowned above her blanched face. It was almost a scowl. Then the
expression changed. She looked unhappy. "Come here!" she cried
once more in an angry and distressed tone. I took off my hat at
last, but the dog hanging out his tongue with that cheerfully
imbecile expression some dogs know so well how to put on when it
suits their purpose, pretended to be deaf.
She cried from the distance desperately.
"Perhaps you will take him to the cottage then. I can't wait."
"I won't be responsible for that dog," I protested getting down the
bank and advancing towards her. She looked very hurt, apparently by
the desertion of the dog. "But if you let me walk with you he will
follow us all right," I suggested.
She moved on without answering me. The dog launched himself
suddenly full speed down the road receding from us in a small cloud
of dust. It vanished in the distance, and presently we came up with
him lying on the grass. He panted in the shade of the hedge with
shining eyes but pretended not to see us. We had not exchanged a
word so far. The girl by my side gave him a scornful glance in
"He offered to come with me," she remarked bitterly.
"And then abandoned you!" I sympathized. "It looks very
unchivalrous. But that's merely his want of tact. I believe he
meant to protest against your reckless proceedings. What made you
come so near the edge of that quarry? The earth might have given
way. Haven't you noticed a smashed fir tree at the bottom? Tumbled
over only the other morning after a night's rain."
"I don't see why I shouldn't be as reckless as I please."
I was nettled by her brusque manner of asserting her folly, and I
told her that neither did I as far as that went, in a tone which
almost suggested that she was welcome to break her neck for all I
cared. This was considerably more than I meant, but I don't like
rude girls. I had been introduced to her only the day before--at
the round tea-table--and she had barely acknowledged the
introduction. I had not caught her name but I had noticed her fine,
arched eyebrows which, so the physiognomists say, are a sign of
I examined her appearance quietly. Her hair was nearly black, her
eyes blue, deeply shaded by long dark eyelashes. She had a little
colour now. She looked straight before her; the corner of her lip
on my side drooped a little; her chin was fine, somewhat pointed. I
went on to say that some regard for others should stand in the way
of one's playing with danger. I urged playfully the distress of the
poor Fynes in case of accident, if nothing else. I told her that
she did not know the bucolic mind. Had she given occasion for a
coroner's inquest the verdict would have been suicide, with the
implication of unhappy love. They would never be able to understand
that she had taken the trouble to climb over two post-and-rail
fences only for the fun of being reckless. Indeed even as I talked
chaffingly I was greatly struck myself by the fact.
She retorted that once one was dead what horrid people thought of
one did not matter. It was said with infinite contempt; but
something like a suppressed quaver in the voice made me look at her
again. I perceived then that her thick eyelashes were wet. This
surprising discovery silenced me as you may guess. She looked
unhappy. And--I don't know how to say it--well--it suited her. The
clouded brow, the pained mouth, the vague fixed glance! A victim.
And this characteristic aspect made her attractive; an individual
The dog had run on ahead and now gazed at us by the side of the
Fyne's garden-gate in a tense attitude and wagging his stumpy tail
very, very slowly, with an air of concentrated attention. The girl-
friend of the Fynes bolted violently through the aforesaid gate and
into the cottage leaving me on the road--astounded.
A couple of hours afterwards I returned to the cottage for chess as
usual. I saw neither the girl nor Mrs. Fyne then. We had our two
games and on parting I warned Fyne that I was called to town on
business and might be away for some time. He regretted it very
much. His brother-in-law was expected next day but he didn't know
whether he was a chess-player. Captain Anthony ("the son of the
poet--you know") was of a retiring disposition, shy with strangers,
unused to society and very much devoted to his calling, Fyne
explained. All the time they had been married he could be induced
only once before to come and stay with them for a few days. He had
had a rather unhappy boyhood; and it made him a silent man. But no
doubt, concluded Fyne, as if dealing portentously with a mystery, we
two sailors should find much to say to one another.
This point was never settled. I was detained in town from week to
week till it seemed hardly worth while to go back. But as I had
kept on my rooms in the farm-house I concluded to go down again for
a few days.
It was late, deep dusk, when I got out at our little country
station. My eyes fell on the unmistakable broad back and the
muscular legs in cycling stockings of little Fyne. He passed along
the carriages rapidly towards the rear of the train, which presently
pulled out and left him solitary at the end of the rustic platform.
When he came back to where I waited I perceived that he was much
perturbed, so perturbed as to forget the convention of the usual
greetings. He only exclaimed Oh! on recognizing me, and stopped
irresolute. When I asked him if he had been expecting somebody by
that train he didn't seem to know. He stammered disconnectedly. I
looked hard at him. To all appearances he was perfectly sober;
moreover to suspect Fyne of a lapse from the proprieties high or
low, great or small, was absurd. He was also a too serious and
deliberate person to go mad suddenly. But as he seemed to have
forgotten that he had a tongue in his head I concluded I would leave
him to his mystery. To my surprise he followed me out of the
station and kept by my side, though I did not encourage him. I did
not however repulse his attempts at conversation. He was no longer
expecting me, he said. He had given me up. The weather had been
uniformly fine--and so on. I gathered also that the son of the poet
had curtailed his stay somewhat and gone back to his ship the day
That information touched me but little. Believing in heredity in
moderation I knew well how sea-life fashions a man outwardly and
stamps his soul with the mark of a certain prosaic fitness--because
a sailor is not an adventurer. I expressed no regret at missing
Captain Anthony and we proceeded in silence till, on approaching the
holiday cottage, Fyne suddenly and unexpectedly broke it by the
hurried declaration that he would go on with me a little farther.
"Go with you to your door," he mumbled and started forward to the
little gate where the shadowy figure of Mrs. Fyne hovered, clearly
on the lookout for him. She was alone. The children must have been
already in bed and I saw no attending girl-friend shadow near her
vague but unmistakable form, half-lost in the obscurity of the
I heard Fyne exclaim "Nothing" and then Mrs. Fyne's well-trained,
responsible voice uttered the words, "It's what I have said," with
incisive equanimity. By that time I had passed on, raising my hat.
Almost at once Fyne caught me up and slowed down to my strolling
gait which must have been infinitely irksome to his high pedestrian
faculties. I am sure that all his muscular person must have
suffered from awful physical boredom; but he did not attempt to
charm it away by conversation. He preserved a portentous and dreary
silence. And I was bored too. Suddenly I perceived the menace of
even worse boredom. Yes! He was so silent because he had something
to tell me.
I became extremely frightened. But man, reckless animal, is so made
that in him curiosity, the paltriest curiosity, will overcome all
terrors, every disgust, and even despair itself. To my laconic
invitation to come in for a drink he answered by a deep, gravely
accented: "Thanks, I will" as though it were a response in church.
His face as seen in the lamplight gave me no clue to the character
of the impending communication; as indeed from the nature of things
it couldn't do, its normal expression being already that of the
utmost possible seriousness. It was perfect and immovable; and for
a certainty if he had something excruciatingly funny to tell me it
would be all the same.
He gazed at me earnestly and delivered himself of some weighty
remarks on Mrs. Fyne's desire to befriend, counsel, and guide young
girls of all sorts on the path of life. It was a voluntary mission.
He approved his wife's action and also her views and principles in
All this with a solemn countenance and in deep measured tones. Yet
somehow I got an irresistible conviction that he was exasperated by
something in particular. In the unworthy hope of being amused by
the misfortunes of a fellow-creature I asked him point-blank what
was wrong now.
What was wrong was that a girl-friend was missing. She had been
missing precisely since six o'clock that morning. The woman who did
the work of the cottage saw her going out at that hour, for a walk.
The pedestrian Fyne's ideas of a walk were extensive, but the girl
did not turn up for lunch, nor yet for tea, nor yet for dinner. She
had not turned up by footpath, road or rail. He had been reluctant
to make inquiries. It would have set all the village talking. The
Fynes had expected her to reappear every moment, till the shades of
the night and the silence of slumber had stolen gradually over the
wide and peaceful rural landscape commanded by the cottage.
After telling me that much Fyne sat helpless in unconclusive agony.
Going to bed was out of the question--neither could any steps be
taken just then. What to do with himself he did not know!
I asked him if this was the same young lady I saw a day or two
before I went to town? He really could not remember. Was she a
girl with dark hair and blue eyes? I asked further. He really
couldn't tell what colour her eyes were. He was very unobservant
except as to the peculiarities of footpaths, on which he was an
I thought with amazement and some admiration that Mrs. Fyne's young
disciples were to her husband's gravity no more than evanescent
shadows. However, with but little hesitation Fyne ventured to
affirm that--yes, her hair was of some dark shade.
"We had a good deal to do with that girl first and last," he
explained solemnly; then getting up as if moved by a spring he
snatched his cap off the table. "She may be back in the cottage,"
he cried in his bass voice. I followed him out on the road.
It was one of those dewy, clear, starry nights, oppressing our
spirit, crushing our pride, by the brilliant evidence of the awful
loneliness, of the hopeless obscure insignificance of our globe lost
in the splendid revelation of a glittering, soulless universe. I
hate such skies. Daylight is friendly to man toiling under a sun
which warms his heart; and cloudy soft nights are more kindly to our
littleness. I nearly ran back again to my lighted parlour; Fyne
fussing in a knicker-bocker suit before the hosts of heaven, on a
shadowy earth, about a transient, phantom-like girl, seemed too
ridiculous to associate with. On the other hand there was something
fascinating in the very absurdity. He cut along in his best
pedestrian style and I found myself let in for a spell of severe
exercise at eleven o'clock at night.
In the distance over the fields and trees smudging and blotching the
vast obscurity, one lighted window of the cottage with the blind up
was like a bright beacon kept alight to guide the lost wanderer.
Inside, at the table bearing the lamp, we saw Mrs. Fyne sitting with
folded arms and not a hair of her head out of place. She looked
exactly like a governess who had put the children to bed; and her
manner to me was just the neutral manner of a governess. To her
husband, too, for that matter.
Fyne told her that I was fully informed. Not a muscle of her ruddy
smooth handsome face moved. She had schooled herself into that sort
of thing. Having seen two successive wives of the delicate poet
chivied and worried into their graves, she had adopted that cool,
detached manner to meet her gifted father's outbreaks of selfish
temper. It had now become a second nature. I suppose she was
always like that; even in the very hour of elopement with Fyne.
That transaction when one remembered it in her presence acquired a
quaintly marvellous aspect to one's imagination. But somehow her
self-possession matched very well little Fyne's invariable
I was rather sorry for him. Wasn't he worried! The agony of
solemnity. At the same time I was amused. I didn't take a gloomy
view of that "vanishing girl" trick. Somehow I couldn't. But I
said nothing. None of us said anything. We sat about that big
round table as if assembled for a conference and looked at each
other in a sort of fatuous consternation. I would have ended by
laughing outright if I had not been saved from that impropriety by
poor Fyne becoming preposterous.
He began with grave anguish to talk of going to the police in the
morning, of printing descriptive bills, of setting people to drag
the ponds for miles around. It was extremely gruesome. I murmured
something about communicating with the young lady's relatives. It
seemed to me a very natural suggestion; but Fyne and his wife
exchanged such a significant glance that I felt as though I had made
a tactless remark.
But I really wanted to help poor Fyne; and as I could see that,
manlike, he suffered from the present inability to act, the passive
waiting, I said: "Nothing of this can be done till to-morrow. But
as you have given me an insight into the nature of your thoughts I
can tell you what may be done at once. We may go and look at the
bottom of the old quarry which is on the level of the road, about a
mile from here."
The couple made big eyes at this, and then I told them of my meeting
with the girl. You may be surprised but I assure you I had not
perceived this aspect of it till that very moment. It was like a
startling revelation; the past throwing a sinister light on the
future. Fyne opened his mouth gravely and as gravely shut it.
Nothing more. Mrs. Fyne said, "You had better go," with an air as
if her self-possession had been pricked with a pin in some secret
And I--you know how stupid I can be at times--I perceived with
dismay for the first time that by pandering to Fyne's morbid fancies
I had let myself in for some more severe exercise. And wasn't I
sorry I spoke! You know how I hate walking--at least on solid,
rural earth; for I can walk a ship's deck a whole foggy night
through, if necessary, and think little of it. There is some
satisfaction too in playing the vagabond in the streets of a big
town till the sky pales above the ridges of the roofs. I have done
that repeatedly for pleasure--of a sort. But to tramp the
slumbering country-side in the dark is for me a wearisome nightmare
With perfect detachment Mrs. Fyne watched me go out after her
husband. That woman was flint.
The fresh night had a smell of soil, of turned-up sods like a grave-
-an association particularly odious to a sailor by its idea of
confinement and narrowness; yes, even when he has given up the hope
of being buried at sea; about the last hope a sailor gives up
consciously after he has been, as it does happen, decoyed by some
chance into the toils of the land. A strong grave-like sniff. The
ditch by the side of the road must have been freshly dug in front of
Once clear of the garden Fyne gathered way like a racing cutter.
What was a mile to him--or twenty miles? You think he might have
gone shrinkingly on such an errand. But not a bit of it. The force
of pedestrian genius I suppose. I raced by his side in a mood of
profound self-derision, and infinitely vexed with that minx.
Because dead or alive I thought of her as a minx . . ."
I smiled incredulously at Marlow's ferocity; but Marlow pausing with
a whimsically retrospective air, never flinched.
"Yes, yes. Even dead. And now you are shocked. You see, you are
such a chivalrous masculine beggar. But there is enough of the
woman in my nature to free my judgment of women from glamorous
reticency. And then, why should I upset myself? A woman is not
necessarily either a doll or an angel to me. She is a human being,
very much like myself. And I have come across too many dead souls
lying so to speak at the foot of high unscaleable places for a
merely possible dead body at the bottom of a quarry to strike my
The cliff-like face of the quarry looked forbiddingly impressive. I
will admit that Fyne and I hung back for a moment before we made a
plunge off the road into the bushes growing in a broad space at the
foot of the towering limestone wall. These bushes were heavy with
dew. There were also concealed mudholes in there. We crept and
tumbled and felt about with our hands along the ground. We got wet,
scratched, and plastered with mire all over our nether garments.
Fyne fell suddenly into a strange cavity--probably a disused lime-
kiln. His voice uplifted in grave distress sounded more than
usually rich, solemn and profound. This was the comic relief of an
absurdly dramatic situation. While hauling him out I permitted
myself to laugh aloud at last. Fyne, of course, didn't.
I need not tell you that we found nothing after a most conscientious
search. Fyne even pushed his way into a decaying shed half-buried
in dew-soaked vegetation. He struck matches, several of them too,
as if to make absolutely sure that the vanished girl-friend of his
wife was not hiding there. The short flares illuminated his grave,
immovable countenance while I let myself go completely and laughed
I asked him if he really and truly supposed that any sane girl would
go and hide in that shed; and if so why?
Disdainful of my mirth he merely muttered his basso-profundo
thankfulness that we had not found her anywhere about there. Having
grown extremely sensitive (an effect of irritation) to the
tonalities, I may say, of this affair, I felt that it was only an
imperfect, reserved, thankfulness, with one eye still on the
possibilities of the several ponds in the neighbourhood. And I
remember I snorted, I positively snorted, at that poor Fyne.
What really jarred upon me was the rate of his walking. Differences
in politics, in ethics and even in aesthetics need not arouse angry
antagonism. One's opinion may change; one's tastes may alter--in
fact they do. One's very conception of virtue is at the mercy of
some felicitous temptation which may be sprung on one any day. All
these things are perpetually on the swing. But a temperamental
difference, temperament being immutable, is the parent of hate.
That's why religious quarrels are the fiercest of all. My
temperament, in matters pertaining to solid land, is the temperament
of leisurely movement, of deliberate gait. And there was that
little Fyne pounding along the road in a most offensive manner; a
man wedded to thick-soled, laced boots; whereas my temperament
demands thin shoes of the lightest kind. Of course there could
never have been question of friendship between us; but under the
provocation of having to keep up with his pace I began to dislike
him actively. I begged sarcastically to know whether he could tell
me if we were engaged in a farce or in a tragedy. I wanted to
regulate my feelings which, I told him, were in an unbecoming state
But Fyne was as impervious to sarcasm as a turtle. He tramped on,
and all he did was to ejaculate twice out of his deep chest,
"I am afraid . . . I am afraid! . . . "
This was tragic. The thump of his boots was the only sound in a
shadowy world. I kept by his side with a comparatively ghostly,
silent tread. By a strange illusion the road appeared to run up
against a lot of low stars at no very great distance, but as we
advanced new stretches of whitey-brown ribbon seemed to come up from
under the black ground. I observed, as we went by, the lamp in my
parlour in the farmhouse still burning. But I did not leave Fyne to
run in and put it out. The impetus of his pedestrian excellence
carried me past in his wake before I could make up my mind.
"Tell me, Fyne," I cried, "you don't think the girl was mad--do
He answered nothing. Soon the lighted beacon-like window of the
cottage came into view. Then Fyne uttered a solemn: "Certainly
not," with profound assurance. But immediately after he added a
"Very highly strung young person indeed," which unsettled me again.
Was it a tragedy?
"Nobody ever got up at six o'clock in the morning to commit
suicide," I declared crustily. "It's unheard of! This is a farce."
As a matter of fact it was neither farce nor tragedy.
Coming up to the cottage we had a view of Mrs. Fyne inside still
sitting in the strong light at the round table with folded arms. It
looked as though she had not moved her very head by as much as an
inch since we went away. She was amazing in a sort of unsubtle way;
crudely amazing--I thought. Why crudely? I don't know. Perhaps
because I saw her then in a crude light. I mean this materially--in
the light of an unshaded lamp. Our mental conclusions depend so
much on momentary physical sensations--don't they? If the lamp had
been shaded I should perhaps have gone home after expressing
politely my concern at the Fynes' unpleasant predicament.
Losing a girl-friend in that manner is unpleasant. It is also
mysterious. So mysterious that a certain mystery attaches to the
people to whom such a thing does happen. Moreover I had never
really understood the Fynes; he with his solemnity which extended to
the very eating of bread and butter; she with that air of detachment
and resolution in breasting the common-place current of their
unexciting life, in which the cutting of bread and butter appeared
to me, by a long way, the most dangerous episode. Sometimes I
amused myself by supposing that to their minds this world of ours
must be wearing a perfectly overwhelming aspect, and that their
heads contained respectively awfully serious and extremely desperate
thoughts--and trying to imagine what an exciting time they must be
having of it in the inscrutable depths of their being. This last
was difficult to a volatile person (I am sure that to the Fynes I
was a volatile person) and the amusement in itself was not very
great; but still--in the country--away from all mental stimulants! .
. . My efforts had invested them with a sort of amusing profundity.
But when Fyne and I got back into the room, then in the searching,
domestic, glare of the lamp, inimical to the play of fancy, I saw
these two stripped of every vesture it had amused me to put on them
for fun. Queer enough they were. Is there a human being that isn't
that--more or less secretly? But whatever their secret, it was
manifest to me that it was neither subtle nor profound. They were a
good, stupid, earnest couple and very much bothered. They were
that--with the usual unshaded crudity of average people. There was
nothing in them that the lamplight might not touch without the
slightest risk of indiscretion.
Directly we had entered the room Fyne announced the result by saying
"Nothing" in the same tone as at the gate on his return from the
railway station. And as then Mrs. Fyne uttered an incisive "It's
what I've said," which might have been the veriest echo of her words
in the garden. We three looked at each other as if on the brink of
a disclosure. I don't know whether she was vexed at my presence.
It could hardly be called intrusion--could it? Little Fyne began
it. It had to go on. We stood before her, plastered with the same
mud (Fyne was a sight!), scratched by the same brambles, conscious
of the same experience. Yes. Before her. And she looked at us
with folded arms, with an extraordinary fulness of assumed
responsibility. I addressed her.
"You don't believe in an accident, Mrs. Fyne, do you?"
She shook her head in curt negation while, caked in mud and
inexpressibly serious-faced, Fyne seemed to be backing her up with
all the weight of his solemn presence. Nothing more absurd could be
conceived. It was delicious. And I went on in deferential accents:
"Am I to understand then that you entertain the theory of suicide?"
I don't know that I am liable to fits of delirium but by a sudden
and alarming aberration while waiting for her answer I became
mentally aware of three trained dogs dancing on their hind legs. I
don't know why. Perhaps because of the pervading solemnity.
There's nothing more solemn on earth than a dance of trained dogs.
"She has chosen to disappear. That's all."
In these words Mrs. Fyne answered me. The aggressive tone was too
much for my endurance. In an instant I found myself out of the
dance and down on all-fours so to speak, with liberty to bark and
"The devil she has," I cried. "Has chosen to . . . Like this, all
at once, anyhow, regardless . . . I've had the privilege of meeting
that reckless and brusque young lady and I must say that with her
air of an angry victim . . . "
"Precisely," Mrs. Fyne said very unexpectedly like a steel trap
going off. I stared at her. How provoking she was! So I went on
to finish my tirade. "She struck me at first sight as the most
inconsiderate wrong-headed girl that I ever . . . "
"Why should a girl be more considerate than anyone else? More than
any man, for instance?" inquired Mrs. Fyne with a still greater
assertion of responsibility in her bearing.
Of course I exclaimed at this, not very loudly it is true, but
forcibly. Were then the feelings of friends, relations and even of
strangers to be disregarded? I asked Mrs. Fyne if she did not think
it was a sort of duty to show elementary consideration not only for
the natural feelings but even for the prejudices of one's fellow-
Her answer knocked me over.
"Not for a woman."
Just like that. I confess that I went down flat. And while in that
collapsed state I learned the true nature of Mrs. Fyne's feminist
doctrine. It was not political, it was not social. It was a knock-
me-down doctrine--a practical individualistic doctrine. You would
not thank me for expounding it to you at large. Indeed I think that
she herself did not enlighten me fully. There must have been things
not fit for a man to hear. But shortly, and as far as my
bewilderment allowed me to grasp its naive atrociousness, it was
something like this: that no consideration, no delicacy, no
tenderness, no scruples should stand in the way of a woman (who by
the mere fact of her sex was the predestined victim of conditions
created by men's selfish passions, their vices and their abominable
tyranny) from taking the shortest cut towards securing for herself
the easiest possible existence. She had even the right to go out of
existence without considering anyone's feelings or convenience since
some women's existences were made impossible by the shortsighted
baseness of men.
I looked at her, sitting before the lamp at one o'clock in the
morning, with her mature, smooth-cheeked face of masculine shape
robbed of its freshness by fatigue; at her eyes dimmed by this
senseless vigil. I looked also at Fyne; the mud was drying on him;
he was obviously tired. The weariness of solemnity. But he
preserved an unflinching, endorsing, gravity of expression.
Endorsing it all as became a good, convinced husband.
"Oh! I see," I said. "No consideration . . . Well I hope you like
They amused me beyond the wildest imaginings of which I was capable.
After the first shock, you understand, I recovered very quickly.
The order of the world was safe enough. He was a civil servant and
she his good and faithful wife. But when it comes to dealing with
human beings anything, anything may be expected. So even my
astonishment did not last very long. How far she developed and
illustrated that conscienceless and austere doctrine to the girl-
friends, who were mere transient shadows to her husband, I could not
tell. Any length I supposed. And he looked on, acquiesced,
approved, just for that very reason--because these pretty girls were
but shadows to him. O! Most virtuous Fyne! He cast his eyes down.
He didn't like it. But I eyed him with hidden animosity for he had
got me to run after him under somewhat false pretences.
Mrs. Fyne had only smiled at me very expressively, very self-
confidently. "Oh I quite understand that you accept the fullest
responsibility," I said. "I am the only ridiculous person in this--
this--I don't know how to call it--performance. However, I've
nothing more to do here, so I'll say good-night--or good morning,
for it must be past one."
But before departing, in common decency, I offered to take any wires
they might write. My lodgings were nearer the post-office than the
cottage and I would send them off the first thing in the morning. I
supposed they would wish to communicate, if only as to the disposal
of the luggage, with the young lady's relatives . . .
Fyne, he looked rather downcast by then, thanked me and declined.
"There is really no one," he said, very grave.
"No one," I exclaimed.
"Practically," said curt Mrs. Fyne.
And my curiosity was aroused again.
"Ah! I see. An orphan."
Mrs. Fyne looked away weary and sombre, and Fyne said "Yes"
impulsively, and then qualified the affirmative by the quaint
statement: "To a certain extent."
I became conscious of a languid, exhausted embarrassment, bowed to
Mrs. Fyne, and went out of the cottage to be confronted outside its
door by the bespangled, cruel revelation of the Immensity of the
Universe. The night was not sufficiently advanced for the stars to
have paled; and the earth seemed to me more profoundly asleep--
perhaps because I was alone now. Not having Fyne with me to set the
pace I let myself drift, rather than walk, in the direction of the
farmhouse. To drift is the only reposeful sort of motion (ask any
ship if it isn't) and therefore consistent with thoughtfulness. And
I pondered: How is one an orphan "to a certain extent"?
No amount of solemnity could make such a statement other than
bizarre. What a strange condition to be in. Very likely one of the
parents only was dead? But no; it couldn't be, since Fyne had said
just before that "there was really no one" to communicate with. No
one! And then remembering Mrs. Fyne's snappy "Practically" my
thoughts fastened upon that lady as a more tangible object of
I wondered--and wondering I doubted--whether she really understood
herself the theory she had propounded to me. Everything may be
said--indeed ought to be said--providing we know how to say it. She
probably did not. She was not intelligent enough for that. She had
no knowledge of the world. She had got hold of words as a child
might get hold of some poisonous pills and play with them for "dear,
tiny little marbles." No! The domestic-slave daughter of Carleon
Anthony and the little Fyne of the Civil Service (that flower of
civilization) were not intelligent people. They were commonplace,
earnest, without smiles and without guile. But he had his
solemnities and she had her reveries, her lurid, violent, crude
reveries. And I thought with some sadness that all these revolts
and indignations, all these protests, revulsions of feeling, pangs
of suffering and of rage, expressed but the uneasiness of sensual
beings trying for their share in the joys of form, colour,
sensations--the only riches of our world of senses. A poet may be a
simple being but he is bound to be various and full of wiles,
ingenious and irritable. I reflected on the variety of ways the
ingenuity of the late bard of civilization would be able to invent
for the tormenting of his dependants. Poets not being generally
foresighted in practical affairs, no vision of consequences would
restrain him. Yes. The Fynes were excellent people, but Mrs. Fyne
wasn't the daughter of a domestic tyrant for nothing. There were no
limits to her revolt. But they were excellent people. It was clear
that they must have been extremely good to that girl whose position
in the world seemed somewhat difficult, with her face of a victim,
her obvious lack of resignation and the bizarre status of orphan "to
a certain extent."
Such were my thoughts, but in truth I soon ceased to trouble about
all these people. I found that my lamp had gone out leaving behind
an awful smell. I fled from it up the stairs and went to bed in the
dark. My slumbers--I suppose the one good in pedestrian exercise,
confound it, is that it helps our natural callousness--my slumbers
were deep, dreamless and refreshing.
My appetite at breakfast was not affected by my ignorance of the
facts, motives, events and conclusions. I think that to understand
everything is not good for the intellect. A well-stocked
intelligence weakens the impulse to action; an overstocked one leads
gently to idiocy. But Mrs. Fyne's individualist woman-doctrine,
naively unscrupulous, flitted through my mind. The salad of
unprincipled notions she put into these girl-friends' heads! Good
innocent creature, worthy wife, excellent mother (of the strict
governess type), she was as guileless of consequences as any