Part 2 out of 3
He was capable, too, of philosophical reflections.
"Look at your Napoleon now. A great man. There is no denying it
that he was a great man as long as he was content to thrash those
Germans and Austrians and all those nations. But no! He must go
to Russia looking for trouble, and what's the consequence? Such
as you see me, I have rattled this sabre of mine on the pavements
After his return to Poland Mr. Nicholas B. described him as a
"worthy man but stupid," whenever he could be induced to speak of
the conditions of his exile. Declining the option offered him to
enter the Russian Army he was retired with only half the pension
of his rank. His nephew (my uncle and guardian) told me that the
first lasting impression on his memory as a child of four was the
glad excitement reigning in his parents' house on the day when
Mr. Nicholas B. arrived home from his detention in Russia.
Every generation has its memories. The first memories of Mr.
Nicholas B. might have been shaped by the events of the last
partition of Poland, and he lived long enough to suffer from the
last armed rising in 1863, an event which affected the future of
all my generation and has coloured my earliest impressions. His
brother, in whose house he had sheltered for some seventeen years
his misanthropical timidity before the commonest problems of
life, having died in the early fifties, Mr. Nicholas B. had to
screw his courage up to the sticking-point and come to some
decision as to the future. After a long and agonising hesitation
he was persuaded at last to become the tenant of some fifteen
hundred acres out of the estate of a friend in the neighbourhood.
The terms of the lease were very advantageous, but the retired
situation of the village and a plain comfortable house in good
repair were, I fancy, the greatest inducements. He lived there
quietly for about ten years, seeing very few people and taking no
part in the public life of the province, such as it could be
under an arbitrary bureaucratic tyranny. His character and his
patriotism were above suspicion; but the organisers of the rising
in their frequent journeys up and down the province scrupulously
avoided coming near his house. It was generally felt that the
repose of the old man's last years ought not to be disturbed.
Even such intimates as my paternal grandfather, a comrade-in-arms
during Napoleon's Moscow campaign and later on a fellow-officer
in the Polish Army, refrained from visiting his crony as the date
of the outbreak approached. My paternal grandfather's two sons
and his only daughter were all deeply involved in the
revolutionary work; he himself was of that type of Polish squire
whose only ideal of patriotic action was to "get into the saddle
and drive them out." But even he agreed that "dear Nicholas must
not be worried." All this considerate caution on the part of
friends, both conspirators and others, did not prevent Mr.
Nicholas B. being made to feel the misfortunes of that ill-omened
Less than forty-eight hours after the beginning of the rebellion
in that part of the country, a squadron of scouting Cossacks
passed through the village and invaded the homestead. Most of
them remained formed between the house and the stables, while
several, dismounting, ransacked the various outbuildings. The
officer in command, accompanied by two men, walked up to the
front door. All the blinds on that side were down. The officer
told the servant who received him that he wanted to see his
master. He was answered that the master was away from home,
which was perfectly true.
I follow here the tale as told afterwards by the servant to my
grand-uncle's friends and relatives, and as I have heard it
On receiving this answer the Cossack officer, who had been
standing in the porch, stepped into the house.
"Where is the master gone, then?"
"Our master went to J--" (the government town some fifty miles
off), "the day before yesterday."
"There are only two horses in the stables. Where are the
"Our master always travels with his own horses" (meaning: not by
post). "He will be away a week or more. He was pleased to
mention to me that he had to attend to some business in the Civil
While the servant was speaking the officer looked about the hall.
There was a door facing him, a door to the right and a door to
the left. The officer chose to enter the room on the left and
ordered the blinds to be pulled up. It was Mr. Nicholas B.'s
study with a couple of tall bookcases, some pictures on the
walls, and so on. Besides the big centre table, with books and
papers, there was a quite small writing-table with several
drawers, standing between the door and the window in a good
light; and at this table my grand-uncle usually sat either to
read or write.
On pulling up the blind the servant was startled by the discovery
that the whole male population of the village was massed in
front, trampling down the flower-beds. There were also a few
women amongst them. He was glad to observe the village priest
(of the Orthodox Church) coming up the drive. The good man in
his haste had tucked up his cassock as high as the top of his
The officer had been looking at the backs of the books in the
bookcases. Then he perched himself on the edge of the centre-
table and remarked easily:
"Your master did not take you to town with him, then."
"I am the head servant and he leaves me in charge of the house.
It's a strong, young chap that travels with our master. If--God
forbid--there was some accident on the road he would be of much
more use than I."
Glancing through the window he saw the priest arguing vehemently
in the thick of the crowd, which seemed subdued by his
interference. Three or four men, however, were talking with the
Cossacks at the door.
"And you don't think your master has gone to join the rebels
maybe--eh?" asked the officer.
"Our master would be too old for that surely. He's well over
seventy and he's getting feeble too. It's some years now since
he's been on horseback and he can't walk much either now."
The officer sat there swinging his leg, very quiet and
indifferent. By that time the peasants who had been talking with
the Cossack troopers at the door had been permitted to get into
the hall. One or two more left the crowd and followed them in.
They were seven in all and amongst them the blacksmith, an ex-
soldier. The servant appealed deferentially to the officer.
"Won't your honour be pleased to tell the people to go back to
their homes? What do they want to push themselves into the house
like this for? It's not proper for them to behave like this while
our master's away and I am responsible for everything here."
The officer only laughed a little, and after a while inquired:
"Have you any arms in the house?"
"Yes. We have. Some old things."
"Bring them all, here, on to this table."
The servant made another attempt to obtain protection.
"Won't your honour tell these chaps. . .?"
But the officer looked at him in silence in such a way that he
gave it up at once and hurried off to call the pantry-boy to help
him collect the arms. Meantime the officer walked slowly through
all the rooms in the house, examining them attentively but
touching nothing. The peasants in the hall fell back and took
off their caps when he passed through. He said nothing whatever
to them. When he came back to the study all the arms to be found
in the house were lying on the table. There was a pair of big
flint-lock holster pistols from Napoleonic times, two cavalry
swords, one of the French the other of the Polish Army pattern,
with a fowling-piece or two.
The officer, opening the window, flung out pistols, swords and
guns, one after another, and his troopers ran to pick them up.
The peasants in the hall, encouraged by his manner, had stolen
after him into the study. He gave not the slightest sign of
being conscious of their existence and, his business being
apparently concluded, strode out of the house without a word.
Directly he left, the peasants in the study put on their caps and
began to smile at each other.
The Cossacks rode away, passing through the yards of the home
farm straight into the fields. The priest, still arguing with
the peasants, moved gradually down the drive and his earnest
eloquence was drawing the silent mob after him, away from the
house. This justice must be rendered to the parish priests of
the Greek Church that, strangers to the country as they were
(being all drawn from the interior of Russia), the majority of
them used such influence as they had over their flocks in the
cause of peace and humanity. True to the spirit of their
calling, they tried to soothe the passions of the excited
peasantry and opposed rapine and violence whenever they could,
with all their might. And this conduct they pursued against the
express wishes of the authorities. Later on some of them were
made to suffer for this disobedience by being removed abruptly to
the far north or sent away to Siberian parishes.
The servant was anxious to get rid of the few peasants who had
got into the house. What sort of conduct was that, he asked
them, towards a man who was only a tenant, had been invariably
good and considerate to the villagers for years; and only the
other day had agreed to give up two meadows for the use of the
village herd? He reminded them, too, of Mr. Nicholas B.'s
devotion to the sick in the time of cholera. Every word of this
was true and so far effective that the fellows began to scratch
their heads and look irresolute. The speaker then pointed at the
window, exclaiming: "Look! there's all your crowd going away
quietly and you silly chaps had better go after them and pray God
to forgive you your evil thoughts."
This appeal was an unlucky inspiration. In crowding clumsily to
the window to see whether he was speaking the truth, the fellows
overturned the little writing-table. As it fell over a chink of
loose coin was heard. "There's money in that thing," cried the
blacksmith. In a moment the top of the delicate piece of
furniture was smashed and there lay exposed in a drawer eighty
half-imperials. Gold coin was a rare sight in Russia even at
that time; it put the peasants beside themselves. "There must be
more of that in the house and we shall have it," yelled the ex-
soldier blacksmith. "This is war time." The others were already
shouting out of the window urging the crowd to come back and
help. The priest, abandoned suddenly at the gate, flung his arms
up and hurried away so as not to see what was going to happen.
In their search for money that bucolic mob smashed everything in
the house, ripping with knives, splitting with hatchets, so that,
as the servant said, there were no two pieces of wood holding
together left in the whole house. They broke some very fine
mirrors, all the windows and every piece of glass and china.
They threw the books and papers out on the lawn and set fire to
the heap for the mere fun of the thing apparently. Absolutely
the only one solitary thing which they left whole was a small
ivory crucifix, which remained hanging on the wall in the wrecked
bedroom above a wild heap of rags, broken mahogany and splintered
boards which had been Mr. Nicholas B.'s bedstead. Detecting the
servant in the act of stealing away with a japanned tin box, they
tore it from him, and because he resisted they threw him out of
the dining-room window. The house was on one floor but raised
well above the ground, and the fall was so serious that the man
remained lying stunned till the cook and a stable-boy ventured
forth at dusk from their hiding-places and picked him up. By
that time the mob had departed carrying off the tin box, which
they supposed to be full of paper money. Some distance from the
house in the middle of a field they broke it open. They found
inside documents engrossed on parchment and the two crosses of
the Legion of Honour and For Valour. At the sight of these
objects, which, the blacksmith explained, were marks of honour
given only by the Tsar, they became extremely frightened at what
they had done. They threw the whole lot away into a ditch and
On learning of this particular loss Mr. Nicholas B. broke down
completely. The mere sacking of his house did not seem to affect
him much. While he was still in bed from the shock the two
crosses were found and returned to him. It helped somewhat his
slow convalescence, but the tin box and the parchments, though
searched for in all the ditches around, never turned up again.
He could not get over the loss of his Legion of Honour Patent,
whose preamble, setting forth his services, he knew by heart to
the very letter, and after this blow volunteered sometimes to
recite, tears standing in his eyes the while. Its terms haunted
him apparently during the last two years of his life to such an
extent that he used to repeat them to himself. This is confirmed
by the remark made more than once by his old servant to the more
intimate friends. "What makes my heart heavy is to hear our
master in his room at night walking up and down and praying aloud
in the French language."
It must have been somewhat over a year afterwards that I saw Mr.
Nicholas B., or, more correctly, that he saw me, for the last
time. It was, as I have already said, at the time when my mother
had a three months' leave from exile, which she was spending in
the house of her brother, and friends and relations were coming
from far and near to do her honour. It is inconceivable that Mr.
Nicholas B. should not have been of the number. The little child
a few months old he had taken up in his arms on the day of his
home-coming after years of war and exile was confessing her faith
in national salvation by suffering exile in her turn. I do not
know whether he was present on the very day of our departure. I
have already admitted that for me he is more especially the man
who in his youth had eaten roast dog in the depths of a gloomy
forest of snow-loaded pines. My memory cannot place him in any
remembered scene. A hooked nose, some sleek white hair, an
unrelated evanescent impression of a meagre, slight, rigid figure
militarily buttoned up to the throat, is all that now exists on
earth of Mr. Nicholas B.; only this vague shadow pursued by the
memory of his grand-nephew, the last surviving human being, I
suppose, of all those he had seen in the course of his taciturn
But I remember well the day of our departure back to exile. The
elongated, bizarre, shabby travelling-carriage with four post-
horses, standing before the long front of the house with its
eight columns, four on each side of the broad flight of stairs.
On the steps, groups of servants, a few relations, one or two
friends from the nearest neighbourhood, a perfect silence, on all
the faces an air of sober concentration; my grandmother all in
black gazing stoically, my uncle giving his arm to my mother down
to the carriage in which I had been placed already; at the top of
the flight my little cousin in a short skirt of a tartan pattern
with a deal of red in it, and like a small princess attended by
the women of her own household: the head gourvernante, our dear,
corpulent Francesca (who had been for thirty years in the service
of the B. family), the former nurse, now outdoor attendant, a
handsome peasant face wearing a compassionate expression, and the
good, ugly Mlle. Durand, the governess, with her black eyebrows
meeting over a short thick nose and a complexion like pale brown
paper. Of all the eyes turned towards the carriage, her good-
natured eyes only were dropping tears, and it was her sobbing
voice alone that broke the silence with an appeal to me:
"N'oublie pas ton francais, mon cheri." In three months, simply
by playing with us, she had taught me not only to speak French
but to read it as well. She was indeed an excellent playmate.
In the distance, half way down to the great gates, a light, open
trap, harnessed with three horses in Russian fashion, stood drawn
up on one side with the police-captain of the district sitting in
it, the vizor of his flat cap with a red band pulled down over
It seems strange that he should have been there to watch our
going so carefully. Without wishing to treat with levity the
just timidities of Imperialists all the world over, I may allow
myself the reflection that a woman, practically condemned by the
doctors, and a small boy not quite six years old could not be
regarded as seriously dangerous even for the largest of
conceivable empires saddled with the most sacred of
responsibilities. And this good man, I believe, did not think so
I learned afterwards why he was present on that day. I don't
remember any outward signs, but it seems that, about a month
before, my mother became so unwell that there was a doubt whether
she could be made fit to travel in the time. In this uncertainty
the Governor-General in Kiev was petitioned to grant her a
fortnight's extension of stay in her brother's house. No answer
whatever was returned to this prayer, but one day at dusk the
police-captain of the district drove up to the house and told my
uncle's valet, who ran out to meet him, that he wanted to speak
with the master in private, at once. Very much impressed (he
thought it was going to be an arrest) the servant, "more dead
than alive with fright," as he related afterwards, smuggled him
through the big drawing-room, which was dark (that room was not
lighted every evening), on tiptoe, so as not to attract the
attention of the ladies in the house, and led him by way of the
orangery to my uncle's private apartments.
The policeman, without any preliminaries, thrust a paper into my
"There. Pray read this. I have no business to show this paper
to you. It is wrong of me. But I can't either eat or sleep with
such a job hanging over me."
That police-captain, a native of Great Russia, had been for many
years serving in the district.
My uncle unfolded and read the document. It was a service order
issued from the Governor-General's secretariat, dealing with the
matter of the petition and directing the police-captain to
disregard all remonstrances and explanations in regard to that
illness either from medical men or others, "and if she has not
left her brother's house"--it went on to say--"on the morning of
the day specified on her permit, you are to despatch her at once
under escort, direct" (underlined) "to the prison-hospital in
Kiev, where she will be treated as her case demands."
"For God's sake, Mr. B., see that your sister goes away
punctually on that day. Don't give me this work to do with a
woman--and with one of your family too. I simply cannot bear to
think of it."
He was absolutely wringing his hands. My uncle looked at him in
"Thank you for this warning. I assure you that even if she were
dying she would be carried out to the carriage."
"Yes--indeed--and what difference would it make--travel to Kiev
or back to her husband. For she would have to go--death or no
death. And mind, Mr. B., I will be here on the day, not that I
doubt your promise, but because I must. I have got to. Duty.
All the same my trade is not fit for a dog since some of you
Poles will persist in rebelling, and all of you have got to
suffer for it."
This is the reason why he was there in an open three-horse trap
pulled up between the house and the great gates. I regret not
being able to give up his name to the scorn of all believers in
the rights of conquest, as a reprehensibly sensitive guardian of
Imperial greatness. On the other hand, I am in a position to
state the name of the Governor-General who signed the order with
the marginal note "to be carried out to the letter" in his own
handwriting. The gentleman's name was Bezak. A high dignitary,
an energetic official, the idol for a time of the Russian
Each generation has its memories.
It must not be supposed that in setting forth the memories of
this half-hour between the moment my uncle left my room till we
met again at dinner, I am losing sight of "Almayer's Folly."
Having confessed that my first novel was begun in idleness--a
holiday task--I think I have also given the impression that it
was a much-delayed book. It was never dismissed from my mind,
even when the hope of ever finishing it was very faint. Many
things came in its way: daily duties, new impressions, old
memories. It was not the outcome of a need--the famous need of
self-expression which artists find in their search for motives.
The necessity which impelled me was a hidden, obscure necessity,
a completely masked and unaccountable phenomenon. Or perhaps
some idle and frivolous magician (there must be magicians in
London) had cast a spell over me through his parlour window as I
explored the maze of streets east and west in solitary leisurely
walks without chart and compass. Till I began to write that
novel I had written nothing but letters and not very many these.
I never made a note of a fact, of an impression or of an anecdote
in my life. The conception of a planned book was entirely
outside my mental range when I sat down to write; the ambition of
being an author had never turned up amongst these gracious
imaginary existences one creates fondly for oneself at times in
the stillness and immobility of a day-dream: yet it stands clear
as the sun at noonday that from the moment I had done blackening
over the first manuscript page of "Almayer's Folly" (it contained
about two hundred words and this proportion of words to a page
has remained with me through the fifteen years of my writing
life), from the moment I had, in the simplicity of my heart and
the amazing ignorance of my mind, written that page the die was
cast. Never had Rubicon been more blindly forded, without
invocation to the gods, without fear of men.
That morning I got up from my breakfast, pushing the chair back,
and rang the bell violently, or perhaps I should say resolutely,
or perhaps I should say eagerly, I do not know. But manifestly
it must have been a special ring of the bell, a common sound made
impressive, like the ringing of a bell for the raising of the
curtain upon a new scene. It was an unusual thing for me to do.
Generally, I dawdled over my breakfast and I solemn took the
trouble to ring the bell for the table to be cleared away; but on
that morning for some reason hidden in the general mysteriousness
of the event I did not dawdle. And yet I was not in a hurry. I
pulled the cord casually and while the faint tinkling somewhere
down in the basement went on, I charged my pipe in the usual way
and I looked for the matchbox with glances distraught indeed but
exhibiting, I am ready to swear, no signs of a fine frenzy. I
was composed enough to perceive after some considerable time the
matchbox lying there on the mantelpiece right under my nose. And
all this was beautifully and safely usual. Before I had thrown
down the match my landlady's daughter appeared with her calm,
pale face and an inquisitive look, in the doorway. Of late it
was the landlady's daughter who answered my bell. I mention this
little fact with pride, because it proves that during the thirty
or forty days of my tenancy I had produced a favourable
impression. For a fortnight past I had been spared the
unattractive sight of the domestic slave. The girls in that
Bessborough Gardens house were often changed, but whether short
or long, fair or dark, they were always untidy and particularly
bedraggled as if in a sordid version of the fairy tale the ashbin
cat had been changed into a maid. I was infinitely sensible of
the privilege of being waited on by my landlady's daughter. She
was neat if anaemic.
"Will you please clear away all this at once?" I addressed her in
convulsive accents, being at the same time engaged in getting my
pipe to draw. This, I admit, was an unusual request. Generally
on getting up from breakfast I would sit down in the window with
a book and let them clear the table when they liked; but if you
think that on that morning I was in the least impatient, you are
mistaken. I remember that I was perfectly calm. As a matter of
fact I was not at all certain that I wanted to write, or that I
meant to write, or that I had anything to write about. No, I was
not impatient. I lounged between the mantelpiece and the window,
not even consciously waiting for the table to be cleared. It was
ten to one that before my landlady's daughter was done I would
pick up a book and sit down with it all the morning in a spirit
of enjoyable indolence. I affirm it with assurance, and I don't
even know now what were the books then lying about the room.
Whatever they were they were not the works of great masters,
where the secret of clear thought and exact expression can be
found. Since the age of five I have been a great reader, as is
not perhaps wonderful in a child who was never aware of learning
to read. At ten years of age I had read much of Victor Hugo and
other romantics. I had read in Polish and in French, history,
voyages, novels; I knew "Gil Blas" and "Don Quixote" in abridged
editions; I had read in early boyhood Polish poets and some
French poets, but I cannot say what I read on the evening before
I began to write myself. I believe it was a novel and it is
quite possible that it was one of Anthony Trollope's novels. It
is very likely. My acquaintance with him was then very recent.
He is one of the English novelists whose works I read for the
first time in English. With men of European reputation, with
Dickens and Walter Scott and Thackeray, it was otherwise. My
first introduction to English imaginative literature was
"Nicholas Nickleby." It is extraordinary how well Mrs. Nickleby
could chatter disconnectedly in Polish and the sinister Ralph
rage in that language. As to the Crummles family and the family
of the learned Squeers it seemed as natural to them as their
native speech. It was, I have no doubt, an excellent
translation. This must have been in the year '70. But I really
believe that I am wrong. That book was not my first introduction
to English literature. My first acquaintance was (or were) the
"Two Gentlemen of Verona," and that in the very MS. of my
father's translation. It was during our exile in Russia, and it
must have been less than a year after my mother's death, because
I remember myself in the black blouse with a white border of my
heavy mourning. We were living together, quite alone, in a small
house on the outskirts of the town of T--. That afternoon,
instead of going out to play in the large yard which we shared
with our landlord, I had lingered in the room in which my father
generally wrote. What emboldened me to clamber into his chair I
am sure I don't know, but a couple of hours afterwards he
discovered me kneeling in it with my elbows on the table and my
head held in both hands over the MS. of loose pages. I was
greatly confused, expecting to get into trouble. He stood in the
doorway looking at me with some surprise, but the only thing he
said after a moment of silence was:
"Read the page aloud."
Luckily the page lying before me was not overblotted with
erasures and corrections, and my father's handwriting was
otherwise extremely legible. When I got to the end he nodded and
I flew out of doors thinking myself lucky to have escaped reproof
for that piece of impulsive audacity. I have tried to discover
since the reason of this mildness, and I imagine that all unknown
to myself I had earned, in my father's mind, the right to some
latitude in my relations with his writing-table. It was only a
month before, or perhaps it was only a week before, that I had
read to him aloud from beginning to end, and to his perfect
satisfaction, as he lay on his bed, not being very well at the
time, the proofs of his translation of Victor Hugo's "Toilers of
the Sea." Such was my title to consideration, I believe, and
also my first introduction to the sea in literature. If I do not
remember where, how and when I learned to read, I am not likely
to forget the process of being trained in the art of reading
aloud. My poor father, an admirable reader himself, was the most
exacting of masters. I reflect proudly that I must have read
that page of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" tolerably well at the age
of eight. The next time I met them was in a 5s. one-volume
edition of the dramatic works of William Shakespeare, read in
Falmouth, at odd moments of the day, to the noisy accompaniment
of caulkers' mallets driving oakum into the deck-seams of a ship
in dry dock. We had run in, in a sinking condition and with the
crew refusing duty after a month of weary battling with the gales
of the North Atlantic. Books are an integral part of one's life
and my Shakespearean associations are with that first year of our
bereavement, the last I spent with my father in exile (he sent me
away to Poland to my mother's brother directly he could brace
himself up for the separation), and with the year of hard gales,
the year in which I came nearest to death at sea, first by water
and then by fire.
Those things I remember, but what I was reading the day before my
writing life began I have forgotten. I have only a vague notion
that it might have been one of Trollope's political novels. And
I remember, too, the character of the day. It was an autumn day
with an opaline atmosphere, a veiled, semi-opaque, lustrous day,
with fiery points and flashes of red sunlight on the roofs and
windows opposite, while the trees of the square with all their
leaves gone were like tracings of indian ink on a sheet of tissue
paper. It was one of those London days that have the charm of
mysterious amenity, of fascinating softness. The effect of
opaline mist was often repeated at Bessborough Gardens on account
of the nearness to the river.
There is no reason why I should remember that effect more on that
day than on any other day, except that I stood for a long time
looking out of the window after the landlady's daughter was gone
with her spoil of cups and saucers. I heard her put the tray
down in the passage and finally shut the door; and still I
remained smoking with my back to the room. It is very clear that
I was in no haste to take the plunge into my writing life, if as
plunge this first attempt may be described. My whole being was
steeped deep in the indolence of a sailor away from the sea, the
scene of never-ending labour and of unceasing duty. For utter
surrender to indolence you cannot beat a sailor ashore when that
mood is on him, the mood of absolute irresponsibility tasted to
the full. It seems to me that I thought of nothing whatever, but
this is an impression which is hardly to be believed at this
distance of years. What I am certain of is, that I was very far
from thinking of writing a story, though it is possible and even
likely that I was thinking of the man Almayer.
I had seen him for the first time some four years before from the
bridge of a steamer moored to a rickety little wharf forty miles
up, more or less, a Bornean river. It was very early morning and
a slight mist, an opaline mist as in Bessborough Gardens only
without the fiery flicks on roof and chimney-pot from the rays of
the red London sun, promised to turn presently into a woolly fog.
Barring a small dug-out canoe on the river there was nothing
moving within sight. I had just come up yawning from my cabin.
The serang and the Malay crew were overhauling the cargo chains
and trying the winches; their voices sounded subdued on the deck
below and their movements were languid. That tropical daybreak
was chilly. The Malay quartermaster, coming up to get something
from the lockers on the bridge, shivered visibly. The forests
above and below and on the opposite bank looked black and dank;
wet dripped from the rigging upon the tightly stretched deck
awnings, and it was in the middle of a shuddering yawn that I
caught sight of Almayer. He was moving across a patch of burnt
grass, a blurred shadowy shape with the blurred bulk of a house
behind him, a low house of mats, bamboos and palm-leaves with a
high-pitched roof of grass.
He stepped upon the jetty. He was clad simply in flapping
pyjamas of cretonne pattern (enormous flowers with yellow petals
on a disagreeable blue ground) and a thin cotton singlet with
short sleeves. His arms, bare to the elbow, were crossed on his
chest. His black hair looked as if it had not been cut for a
very long time and a curly wisp of it strayed across his
forehead. I had heard of him at Singapore; I had heard of him on
board; I had heard of him early in the morning and late at night;
I had heard of him at tiffin and at dinner; I had heard of him in
a place called Pulo Laut from a half-caste gentleman there, who
described himself as the manager of a coal-mine; which sounded
civilised and progressive till you heard that the mine could not
be worked at present because it was haunted by some particulary
atrocious ghosts. I had heard of him in a place called Dongola,
in the Island of Celebes, when the Rajah of that little-known
seaport (you can get no anchorage there in less than fifteen
fathom, which is extremely inconvenient) came on board in a
friendly way with only two attendants, and drank bottle after
bottle of soda-water on the after-skylight with my good friend
and commander, Captain C--. At least I heard his name distinctly
pronounced several times in a lot of talk in Malay language. Oh
yes, I heard it quite distinctly--Almayer, Almayer--and saw
Captain C-- smile while the fat dingy Rajah laughed audibly. To
hear a Malay Rajah laugh outright is a rare experience I can
assure you. And I overhead more of Almayer's name amongst our
deck passengers (mostly wandering traders of good repute) as they
sat all over the ship--each man fenced round with bundles and
boxes--on mats, on pillows, on quilts, on billets of wood,
conversing of Island affairs. Upon my word, I heard the mutter
of Almayer's name faintly at midnight, while making my way aft
from the bridge to look at the patent taffrail-log tinkling its
quarter-miles in the great silence of the sea. I don't mean to
say that our passengers dreamed aloud of Almayer, but it is
indubitable that two of them at least, who could not sleep
apparently and were trying to charm away the trouble of insomnia
by a little whispered talk at that ghostly hour, were referring
in some way or other to Almayer. It was really impossible on
board that ship to get away definitely from Almayer; and a very
small pony tied up forward and whisking its tail inside the
galley, to the great embarrassment of our Chinaman cook, was
destined for Almayer. What he wanted with a pony goodness only
knows, since I am perfectly certain he could not ride it; but
here you have the man, ambitious, aiming at the grandiose,
importing a pony, whereas in the whole settlement at which he
used to shake daily his impotent fist, there was only one path
that was practicable for a pony: a quarter of a mile at most,
hedged in by hundreds of square leagues of virgin forest. But
who knows? The importation of that Bali Pony might have been
part of some deep scheme, of some diplomatic plan, of some
hopeful intrigue. With Almayer one could never tell. He
governed his conduct by considerations removed from the obvious,
by incredible assumptions, which rendered his logic impenetrable
to any reasonable person. I learned all this later. That
morning seeing the figure in pyjamas moving in the mist I said to
myself: "That's the man."
He came quite close to the ship's side and raised a harassed
countenance, round and flat, with that curl of black hair over
the forehead and a heavy, pained glance.
He looked hard at me: I was a new face, having just replaced
the chief mate he was accustomed to see; and I think that this
novelty inspired him, as things generally did, with deep-seated
"Didn't expect you in till this evening," he remarked
I don't know why he should have been aggrieved, but he seemed to
be. I took pains to explain to him that having picked up the
beacon at the mouth of the river just before dark and the tide
serving, Captain C-- was enabled to cross the bar and there was
nothing to prevent him going up river at night.
"Captain C-- knows this river like his own pocket," I concluded
discursively, trying to get on terms.
"Better," said Almayer.
Leaning over the rail of the bridge I looked at Almayer, who
looked down at the wharf in aggrieved thought. He shuffled his
feet a little; he wore straw slippers with thick soles. The
morning fog had thickened considerably. Everything round us
dripped: the derricks, the rails, every single rope in the ship-
-as if a fit of crying had come upon the universe.
Almayer again raised his head and in the accents of a man
accustomed to the buffets of evil fortune asked hardly audibly:
"I suppose you haven't got such a thing as a pony on board?"
I told him almost in a whisper, for he attuned my communications
to his minor key, that we had such a thing as a pony, and I
hinted, as gently as I could, that he was confoundedly in the way
too. I was very anxious to have him landed before I began to
handle the cargo. Almayer remained looking up at me for a long
while with incredulous and melancholy eyes as though it were not
a safe thing to believe my statement. This pathetic mistrust in
the favourable issue of any sort of affair touched me deeply, and
"He doesn't seem a bit the worse for the passage. He's a nice
Almayer was not to be cheered up; for all answer he cleared his
throat and looked down again at his feet. I tried to close with
him on another tack.
"By Jove!" I said. "Aren't you afraid of catching pneumonia or
bronchitis or something, walking about in a singlet in such a wet
He was not to be propitiated by a show of interest in his health.
His answer was a sinister "No fear," as much as to say that even
that way of escape from inclement fortune was closed to him.
"I just came down. . ." he mumbled after a while.
"Well then, now you're here I will land that pony for you at once
and you can lead him home. I really don't want him on deck.
He's in the way."
Almayer seemed doubtful. I insisted:
"Why, I will just swing him out and land him on the wharf right
in front of you. I'd much rather do it before the hatches are
off. The little devil may jump down the hold or do some other
"There's a halter?" postulated Almayer.
"Yes, of course there's a halter." And without waiting any more
I leaned over the bridge rail.
"Serang, land Tuan Almayer's pony."
The cook hastened to shut the door of the galley and a moment
later a great scuffle began on deck. The pony kicked with
extreme energy, the kalashes skipped out of the way, the serang
issued many orders in a cracked voice. Suddenly the pony leaped
upon the fore-hatch. His little hoofs thundered tremendously; he
plunged and reared. He had tossed his mane and his forelock into
a state of amazing wildness, he dilated his nostrils, bits of
foam flecked his broad little chest, his eyes blazed. He was
something under eleven hands; he was fierce, terrible, angry,
warlike, he said ha! ha! distinctly, he raged and thumped--and
sixteen able-bodied kalashes stood round him like disconcerted
nurses round a spoilt and passionate child. He whisked his tail
incessantly; he arched his pretty neck; he was perfectly
delightful; he was charmingly naughty. There was not an atom of
vice in that performance; no savage baring of teeth and lying
back of ears. On the contrary, he pricked them forward in a
comically aggressive manner. He was totally unmoral and lovable;
I would have liked to give him bread, sugar, carrots. But life
is a stern thing and the sense of duty the only safe guide. So I
steeled my heart and from my elevated position on the bridge I
ordered the men to fling themselves upon him in a body.
The elderly serang, emitting a strange inarticulate cry, gave the
example. He was an excellent petty officer--very competent
indeed, and a moderate opium smoker. The rest of them in one
great rush smothered that pony. They hung on to his ears, to his
mane, to his tail; they lay in piles across his back, seventeen
in all. The carpenter, seizing the hook of the cargo-chain,
flung himself on top of them. A very satisfactory petty officer
too, but he stuttered. Have you ever heard a light-yellow, lean,
sad, earnest Chinaman stutter in pidgin-English? It's very weird
indeed. He made the eighteenth. I could not see the pony at all;
but from the swaying and heaving of that heap of men I knew that
there was something alive inside.
From the wharf Almayer hailed in quavering tones:
"Oh, I say!"
Where he stood he could not see what was going on on deck unless
perhaps the tops of the men's heads; he could only hear the
scuffle, the mighty thuds, as if the ship were being knocked to
pieces. I looked over: "What is it?"
"Don't let them break his legs," he entreated me plaintively.
"Oh, nonsense! He's all right now. He can't move."
By that time the cargo-chain had been hooked to the broad canvas
belt round the pony's body, the kalashes sprang off
simultaneously in all directions, rolling over each other, and
the worthy serang, making a dash behind the winch, turned the
"Steady!" I yelled, in great apprehension of seeing the animal
snatched up to the very head of the derrick.
On the wharf Almayer shuffled his straw slippers uneasily. The
rattle of the winch stopped, and in a tense, impressive silence
that pony began to swing across the deck.
How limp he was! Directly he felt himself in the air he relaxed
every muscle in a most wonderful manner. His four hoofs knocked
together in a bunch, his head hung down, and his tail remained
pendent in a nerveless and absolute immobility. He reminded me
vividly of the pathetic little sheep which hangs on the collar of
the Order of the Golden Fleece. I had no idea that anything in
the shape of a horse could be so limp as that, either living or
dead. His wild mane hung down lumpily, a mere mass of inanimate
horsehair; his aggressive ears had collapsed, but as he went
swaying slowly across the front of the bridge I noticed an astute
gleam in his dreamy, half-closed eye. A trustworthy
quartermaster, his glance anxious and his mouth on the broad
grin, was easing over the derrick watchfully. I superintended,
"So! That will do."
The derrick-head stopped. The kalashes lined the rail. The rope
of the halter hung perpendicular and motionless like a bell-pull
in front of Almayer. Everything was very still. I suggested
amicably that he should catch hold of the rope and mind what he
was about. He extended a provokingly casual and superior hand.
"Look out then! Lower away!"
Almayer gathered in the rope intelligently enough, but when the
pony's hoofs touched the wharf he gave way all at once to a most
foolish optimism. Without pausing, without thinking, almost
without looking, he disengaged the hook suddenly from the sling,
and the cargo-chain, after hitting the pony's quarters, swung
back against the ship's side with a noisy, rattling slap. I
suppose I must have blinked. I know I missed something, because
the next thing I saw was Almayer lying flat on his back on the
jetty. He was alone.
Astonishment deprived me of speech long enough to give Almayer
time to pick himself up in a leisurely and painful manner. The
kalashes lining the rail had all their mouths open. The mist
flew in the light breeze, and it had come over quite thick enough
to hide the shore completely.
"How on earth did you manage to let him get away?" I asked
Almayer looked into the smarting palm of his right hand, but did
not answer my inquiry.
"Where do you think he will get to?" I cried. "Are there any
fences anywhere in this fog? Can he bolt into the forest?
What's to be done now?"
Almayer shrugged his shoulders.
"Some of my men are sure to be about. They will get hold of him
sooner or later."
"Sooner or later! That's all very fine, but what about my canvas
sling--he's carried it off. I want it now, at once, to land two
Since Dongola we had on board a pair of the pretty little island
cattle in addition to the pony. Tied up on the other side of the
fore deck they had been whisking their tails into the other door
of the galley. These cows were not for Almayer, however; they
were invoiced to Abdullah bin Selim, his enemy. Almayer's
disregard of my requisites was complete.
"If I were you I would try to find out where he's gone," I
insisted. "Hadn't you better call your men together or
something? He will throw himself down and cut his knees. He may
even break a leg, you know."
But Almayer, plunged in abstracted thought, did not seem to want
that pony any more. Amazed at this sudden indifference I turned
all hands out on shore to hunt for him on my own account, or, at
any rate, to hunt for the canvas sling which he had round his
body. The whole crew of the steamer, with the exception of
firemen and engineers, rushed up the jetty past the thoughtful
Almayer and vanished from my sight. The white fog swallowed them
up; and again there was a deep silence that seemed to extend for
miles up and down the stream. Still taciturn, Almayer started to
climb on board, and I went down from the bridge to meet him on
the after deck.
"Would you mind telling the captain that I want to see him very
particularly?" he asked me in a low tone, letting his eyes stray
all over the place.
"Very well. I will go and see."
With the door of his cabin wide open Captain C--, just back from
the bathroom, big and broad-chested, was brushing his thick,
damp, iron-grey hair with two large brushes.
"Mr. Almayer told me he wanted to see you very particularly,
Saying these words I smiled. I don't know why I smiled except
that it seemed absolutely impossible to mention Almayer's name
without a smile of a sort. It had not to be necessarily a
mirthful smile. Turning his head towards me Captain C-- smiled
too, rather joylessly.
"The pony got away from him--eh?"
"Yes sir. He did."
"Where is he?"
"Goodness only knows."
"No. I mean Almayer. Let him come along."
The captain's stateroom opening straight on deck under the
bridge, I had only to beckon from the doorway to Almayer, who had
remained aft, with downcast eyes, on the very spot where I had
left him. He strolled up moodily, shook hands and at once asked
permission to shut the cabin door.
"I have a pretty story to tell you," were the last words I heard.
The bitterness of tone was remarkable.
I went away from the door, of course. For the moment I had no
crew on board; only the Chinaman carpenter, with a canvas bag
hung round his neck and a hammer in his hand, roamed about the
empty decks knocking out the wedges of the hatches and dropping
them into the bag conscientiously. Having nothing to do I joined
our two engineers at the door of the engine-room. It was near
"He's turned up early, hasn't he?" commented the second engineer,
and smiled indifferently. He was an abstemious man with a good
digestion and a placid, reasonable view of life even when hungry.
"Yes," I said. "Shut up with the old man. Some very particular
"He will spin him a damned endless yarn," observed the chief
He smiled rather sourly. He was dyspeptic and suffered from
gnawing hunger in the morning. The second smiled broadly, a
smile that made two vertical folds on his shaven cheeks. And I
smiled too, but I was not exactly amused. In that man, whose
name apparently could not be uttered anywhere in the Malay
Archipelago without a smile, there was nothing amusing whatever.
That morning he breakfasted with us silently, looking mostly into
his cup. I informed him that my men came upon his pony capering
in the fog on the very brink of the eight-foot-deep well in which
he kept his store of guttah. The cover was off with no one near
by, and the whole of my crew just missed going heels over head
into that beastly hole. Jurumudi Itam, our best quartermaster,
deft at fine needlework, he who mended the ship's flags and sewed
buttons on our coats, was disabled by a kick on the shoulder.
Both remorse and gratitude seemed foreign to Almayer's character.
"Do you mean that pirate fellow?"
"What pirate fellow? The man has been in the ship eleven years,"
I said indignantly.
"It's his looks," Almayer muttered for all apology.
The sun had eaten up the fog. From where we sat under the after
awning we could see in the distance the pony tied up in front of
Almayer's house, to a post of the verandah. We were silent for a
long time. All at once Almayer, alluding evidently to the
subject of his conversation in the captain's cabin, exclaimed
anxiously across the table:
"I really don't know what I can do now!"
Captain C-- only raised his eyebrows at him, and got up from his
chair. We dispersed to our duties, but Almayer, half dressed as
he was in his cretonne pyjamas and the thin cotton singlet,
remained on board, lingering near the gangway as though he could
not make up his mind whether to go home or stay with us for good.
Our Chinamen boys gave him side glances as they went to and fro;
and Ah Sing, our young chief steward, the handsomest and most
sympathetic of Chinamen, catching my eye, nodded knowingly at his
burly back. In the course of the morning I approached him for a
"Well, Mr. Almayer," I addressed him easily, "you haven't started
on your letters yet."
We had brought him his mail and he had held the bundle in his
hand ever since we got up from breakfast. He glanced at it when
I spoke and, for a moment, it looked as if he were on the point
of opening his fingers and letting the whole lot fall overboard.
I believe he was tempted to do so. I shall never forget that man
afraid of his letters.
"Have you been long out from Europe?" he asked me.
"Not very. Not quite eight months," I told him. "I left a ship
in Samarang with a hurt back and have been in the hospital in
Singapore some weeks."
"Trade is very bad here."
"Hopeless!. . .See these geese?"
With the hand holding the letters he pointed out to me what
resembled a patch of snow creeping and swaying across the distant
part of his compound. It disappeared behind some bushes.
"The only geese on the East Coast," Almayer informed me in a
perfunctory mutter without a spark of faith, hope or pride.
Thereupon, with the same absence of any sort of sustaining spirit
he declared his intention to silence a fat bird and send him on
board for us not later than next day.
I had heard of these largesses before. He conferred a goose as
if it were a sort of Court decoration given only to the tried
friends of the house. I had expected more pomp in the ceremony.
The gift had surely its special quality, multiple and rare. From
the only flock on the East Coast! He did not make half enough of
it. That man did not understand his opportunities. However, I
thanked him at some length.
"You see," he interrupted abruptly in a very peculiar tone, "the
worst of this country is that one is not able to realise. . .it's
impossible to realise. . ." His voice sank into a languid
mutter. "And when one has very large interests. . .very
important interests. . ." he finished faintly. . ."up the river."
We looked at each other. He astonished me by giving a start and
making a very queer grimace.
"Well, I must be off," he burst out hurriedly. "So long!"
At the moment of stepping over the gangway he checked himself
though, to give me a mumbled invitation to dine at his house that
evening with my captain, an invitation which I accepted. I don't
think it could have been possible for me to refuse.
I like the worthy folk who will talk to you of the exercise of
free will "at any rate for practical purposes." Free, is it?
For practical purposes! Bosh! How could I have refused to dine
with that man? I did not refuse simply because I could not
refuse. Curiosity, a healthy desire for a change of cooking,
common civility, the talk and the smiles of the previous twenty
days, every condition of my existence at that moment and place
made irresistibly for acceptance; and, crowning all that, there
was the ignorance, the ignorance, I say, the fatal want of
foreknowledge to counter-balance these imperative conditions of
the problem. A refusal would have appeared perverse and insane.
Nobody unless a surly lunatic would have refused. But if I had
not got to know Almayer pretty well it is almost certain there
would never have been a line of mine in print.
I accepted then--and I am paying yet the price of my sanity. The
possessor of the only flock of geese on the East Coast is
responsible for the existence of some fourteen volumes, so far.
The number of geese he had called into being under adverse
climatic conditions was considerably more than fourteen. The
tale of volumes will never overtake the counting of heads, I am
safe to say; but my ambitions point not exactly that way, and
whatever the pangs the toil of writing has cost me I have always
thought kindly of Almayer.
I wonder, had he known anything of it, what his attitude would
have been? This is something not to be discovered in this world.
But if we ever meet in the Elysian Fields--where I cannot depict
him to myself otherwise than attended in the distance by his
flock of geese (birds sacred to Jupiter)--and he addresses me in
the stillness of that passionless region, neither light nor
darkness, neither sound nor silence, and heaving endlessly with
billowy mists from the impalpable multitudes of the swarming
dead, I think I know what answer to make.
I would say, after listening courteously to the unvibrating tone
of his measured remonstrances, which should not disturb, of
course, the solemn eternity of stillness in the least--I would
say something like this:
"It is true, Almayer, that in the world below I have converted
your name to my own uses. But that is a very small larceny.
What's in a name, O Shade? If so much of your old mortal
weakness clings to you yet as to make you feel aggrieved (it was
the note of your earthly voice, Almayer), then, I entreat you,
seek speech without delay with our sublime fellow-Shade--with him
who, in his transient existence as a poet, commented upon the
smell of the rose. He will comfort you. You came to me stripped
of all prestige by men's queer smiles and the disrespectful
chatter of every vagrant trader in the Islands. Your name was
the common property of the winds: it, as it were, floated naked
over the waters about the Equator. I wrapped round its
unhonoured form the royal mantle of the tropics and have essayed
to put into the hollow sound the very anguish of paternity--feats
which you did not demand from me--but remember that all the toil
and all the pain were mine. In your earthly life you haunted me,
Almayer. Consider that this was taking a great liberty. Since
you were always complaining of being lost to the world, you
should remember that if I had not believed enough in your
existence to let you haunt my rooms in Bessborough Gardens, you
would have been much more lost. You affirm that had I been
capable of looking at you with a more perfect detachment and a
greater simplicity, I might have perceived better the inward
marvellousness which, you insist, attended your career upon that
tiny pin-point of light, hardly visible far, far below us, where
both our graves lie. No doubt! But reflect, O complaining
Shade! that this was not so much my fault as your crowning
misfortune. I believed in you in the only way it was possible
for me to believe. It was not worthy of your merits? So be it.
But you were always an unlucky man, Almayer. Nothing was ever
quite worthy of you. What made you so real to me was that you
held this lofty theory with some force of conviction and with an
It is with some such words translated into the proper shadowy
expressions that I am prepared to placate Almayer in the Elysian
Abode of Shades, since it has come to pass that having parted
many years ago, we are never to meet again in this world.
In the career of the most unliterary of writers, in the sense
that literary ambition had never entered the world of his
imagination, the coming into existence of the first book is quite
an inexplicable event. In my own case I cannot trace it back to
any mental or psychological cause which one could point out and
hold to. The greatest of my gifts being a consummate capacity
for doing nothing, I cannot even point to boredom as a rational
stimulus for taking up a pen. The pen at any rate was there, and
there is nothing wonderful in that. Everybody keeps a pen (the
cold steel of our days) in his rooms in this enlightened age of
penny stamps and halfpenny postcards. In fact, this was the
epoch when by means of postcard and pen Mr. Gladstone had made
the reputation of a novel or two. And I too had a pen rolling
about somewhere--the seldom-used, the reluctantly-taken-up pen of
a sailor ashore, the pen rugged with the dried ink of abandoned
attempts, of answers delayed longer than decency permitted, of
letters begun with infinite reluctance and put off suddenly till
next day--tell next week as likely as not! The neglected,
uncared-for pen, flung away at the slightest provocation, and
under the stress of dire necessity hunted for without enthusiasm,
in a perfunctory, grumpy worry, in the "Where the devil is the
beastly thing gone to?" ungracious spirit. Where indeed! It
might have been reposing behind the sofa for a day or so. My
landlady's anaemic daughter (as Ollendorff would have expressed
it), though commendably neat, had a lordly, careless manner of
approaching her domestic duties. Or it might even be resting
delicately poised on its point by the side of the table-leg, and
when picked up show a gaping, inefficient beak which would have
discouraged any man of literary instincts. But not me! "Never
mind. This will do."
O days without guile! If anybody had told me then that a devoted
household, having a generally exaggerated idea of my talents and
importance, would be put into a state of tremor and flurry by the
fuss I would make because of a suspicion that somebody had
touched my sacrosanct pen of authorship, I would have never
deigned as much as the contemptuous smile of unbelief. There are
imaginings too unlikely for any kind of notice, too wild for
indulgence itself, too absurd for a smile. Perhaps, had that
seer of the future been a friend, I should have been secretly
saddened. "Alas!" I would have thought, looking at him with an
unmoved face, "the poor fellow is going mad."
I would have been, without doubt, saddened; for in this world
where the journalists read the signs of the sky, and the wind of
heaven itself, blowing where it listeth, does so under the
prophetical management of the Meteorological Office, but where
the secret of human hearts cannot be captured either by prying or
praying, it was infinitely more likely that the sanest of my
friends should nurse the germ of incipient madness than that I
should turn into a writer of tales.
To survey with wonder the changes of one's own self is a
fascinating pursuit for idle hours. The field is so wide, the
surprises so varied, the subject so full of unprofitable but
curious hints as to the work of unseen forces, that one does not
weary easily of it. I am not speaking here of megalomaniacs who
rest uneasy under the crown of their unbounded conceit--who
really never rest in this world, and when out of it go on
fretting and fuming on the straitened circumstances of their last
habitation, where all men must lie in obscure equality. Neither
am I thinking of those ambitious minds who, always looking
forward to some aim of aggrandisement, can spare no time for a
detached, impersonal glance upon themselves.
And that's a pity. They are unlucky. These two kinds, together
with the much larger band of the totally unimaginative, of those
unfortunate beings in whose empty and unseeing gaze (as a great
French writer has put it) "the whole universe vanishes into blank
nothingness," miss, perhaps, the true task of us men whose day is
short on this earth, the abode of conflicting opinions. The
ethical view of the universe involves us at last in so many cruel
and absurd contradictions, where the last vestiges of faith,
hope, charity, and even of reason itself, seem ready to perish,
that I have come to suspect that the aim of creation cannot be
ethical at all. I would fondly believe that its object is purely
spectacular: a spectacle for awe, love, adoration, or hate, if
you like, but in this view--and in this view alone--never for
despair! Those visions, delicious or poignant, are a moral end
in themselves. The rest is our affair--the laughter, the tears,
the tenderness, the indignation, the high tranquillity of a
steeled heart, the detached curiosity of a subtle mind--that's
our affair! And the unwearied self-forgetful attention to every
phase of the living universe reflected in our consciousness may
be our appointed task on this earth. A task in which fate has
perhaps engaged nothing of us except our conscience, gifted with
a voice in order to bear true testimony to the visible wonder,
the haunting terror, the infinite passion and the illimitable
serenity; to the supreme law and the abiding mystery of the
Chi lo sa? It may be true. In this view there is room for every
religion except for the inverted creed of impiety, the mask and
cloak of arid despair; for every joy and every sorrow, for every
fair dream, for every charitable hope. The great aim is to
remain true to the emotions called out of the deep encircled by
the firmament of stars, whose infinite numbers and awful
distances may move us to laughter or tears (was it the Walrus or
the Carpenter, in the poem, who "wept to see such quantities of
sand"?), or, again, to a properly steeled heart, may matter
nothing at all.
The casual quotation, which had suggested itself out of a poem
full of merit, leads me to remark that in the conception of a
purely spectacular universe, where inspiration of every sort has
a rational existence, the artist of every kind finds a natural
place; and amongst them the poet as the seer par excellence.
Even the writer of prose, who in his less noble and more toilsome
task should be a man with the steeled heart, is worthy of a
place, providing he looks on with undimmed eyes and keeps
laughter out of his voice, let who will laugh or cry. Yes! Even
he, the prose artist of fiction, which after all is but truth
often dragged out of a well and clothed in the painted robe of
imaged phrases--even he has his place amongst kings, demagogues,
priests, charlatans, dukes, giraffes, Cabinet Ministers, Fabians,
bricklayers, apostles, ants, scientists, Kaffirs, soldiers,
sailors, elephants, lawyers, dandies, microbes and constellations
of a universe whose amazing spectacle is a moral end in itself.
Here I perceive (speaking without offence) the reader assuming a
subtle expression, as if the cat were out of the bag. I take the
novelist's freedom to observe the reader's mind formulating the
exclamation, "That's it! The fellow talks pro domo."
Indeed it was not the intention! When I shouldered the bag I was
not aware of the cat inside. But, after all, why not? The fair
courtyards of the House of Art are thronged by many humble
retainers. And there is no retainer so devoted as he who is
allowed to sit on the doorstep. The fellows who have got inside
are apt to think too much of themselves. This last remark, I beg
to state, is not malicious within the definition of the law of
libel. It's fair comment on a matter of public interest. But
never mind. Pro domo. So be it. For his house tant que vous
voudrez. And yet in truth I was by no means anxious to justify
my existence. The attempt would have been not only needless and
absurd, but almost inconceivable, in a purely spectacular
universe, where no such disagreeable necessity can possibly
arise. It is sufficient for me to say (and I am saying it at
some length in these pages): "J'ai vecu." I have existed,
obscure amongst the wonders and terrors of my time, as the Abbe
Sieyes, the original utterer of the quoted words, had managed to
exist through the violences, the crimes, and the enthusiasms of
the French Revolution. "J'ai vecu", as I apprehend most of us
manage to exist, missing all along the varied forms of
destruction by a hair's-breadth, saving my body, that's clear,
and perhaps my soul also, but not without some damage here and
there to the fine edge of my conscience, that heirloom of the
ages, of the race, of the group, of the family, colourable and
plastic, fashioned by the words, the looks, the acts, and even by
the silences and abstentions surrounding one's childhood; tinged
in a complete scheme of delicate shades and crude colours by the
inherited traditions, beliefs, or prejudices--unaccountable,
despotic, persuasive, and often, in its texture, romantic.
And often romantic!. . .The matter in hand, however, is to keep
these reminiscences from turning into confessions, a form of
literary activity discredited by Jean Jacques Rousseau on account
of the extreme thoroughness he brought to the work of justifying
his own existence; for that such was his purpose is palpably,
even grossly, visible to an unprejudiced eye. But then, you see,
the man was not a writer of fiction. He was an artless moralist,
as is clearly demonstrated by his anniversaries being celebrated
with marked emphasis by the heirs of the French Revolution, which
was not a political movement at all, but a great outburst of
morality. He had no imagination, as the most casual perusal of
"Emile" will prove. He was no novelist, whose first virtue is
the exact understanding of the limits traced by the reality of
his time to the play of his invention. Inspiration comes from
the earth, which has a past, a history, a future, not from the
cold and immutable heaven. A writer of imaginative prose (even
more than any other sort of artist) stands confessed in his
works. His conscience, his deeper sense of things, lawful and
unlawful, gives him his attitude before the world. Indeed, every
one who puts pen to paper for the reading of strangers (unless a
moralist, who, generally speaking, has no conscience except the
one he is at pains to produce for the use of others) can speak of
nothing else. It is M. Anatole France, the most eloquent and
just of French prose writers, who says that we must recognise at
last that, "failing the resolution to hold our peace, we can only
talk of ourselves."
This remark, if I remember rightly, was made in the course of a
sparring match with the late Ferdinand Brunetiere over the
principles and rules of literary criticism. As was fitting for a
man to whom we owe the memorable saying, "The good critic is he
who relates the adventures of his soul amongst masterpieces," M.
Anatole France maintained that there were no rules and no
principles. And that may be very true. Rules, principles and
standards die and vanish every day. Perhaps they are all dead
and vanished by this time. These, if ever, are the brave, free
days of destroyed landmarks, while the ingenious minds are busy
inventing the forms of the new beacons which, it is consoling to
think, will be set up presently in the old places. But what is
interesting to a writer is the possession of an inward certitude
that literary criticism will never die, for man (so variously
defined) is, before everything else, a critical animal. And, as
long as distinguished minds are ready to treat it in the spirit
of high adventure, literary criticism shall appeal to us with all
the charm and wisdom of a well-told tale of personal experience.
For Englishmen especially, of all the races of the earth, a task,
any task, undertaken in an adventurous spirit acquires the merit
of romance. But the critics as a rule exhibit but little of an
adventurous spirit. They take risks, of course--one can hardly
live without that. The daily bread is served out to us (however
sparingly) with a pinch of salt. Otherwise one would get sick of
the diet one prays for, and that would be not only improper, but
impious. From impiety of that or any other kind--save us! An
ideal of reserved manner, adhered to from a sense of proprieties,
from shyness, perhaps, or caution, or simply from weariness,
induces, I suspect, some writers of criticism to conceal the
adventurous side of their calling, and then the criticism becomes
a mere "notice," as it were the relation of a journey where
nothing but the distances and the geology of a new country should
be set down; the glimpses of strange beasts, the dangers of flood
and field, the hair's-breadth escapes, and the sufferings (oh,
the sufferings too! I have no doubt of the sufferings) of the
traveller being carefully kept out; no shady spot, no fruitful
plant being ever mentioned either; so that the whole performance
looks like a mere feat of agility on the part of a trained pen
running in a desert. A cruel spectacle--a most deplorable
adventure. "Life," in the words of an immortal thinker of, I
should say, bucolic origin, but whose perishable name is lost to
the worship of posterity--"life is not all beer and skittles."
Neither is the writing of novels. It isn't really. Je vous
donne ma parole d'honneur that it--is--not. Not all. I am thus
emphatic because some years ago, I remember, the daughter of a
general. . .
Sudden revelations of the profane world must have come now and
then to hermits in their cells, to the cloistered monks of Middle
Ages, to lonely sages, men of science, reformers; the revelations
of the world's superficial judgment, shocking to the souls
concentrated upon their own bitter labour in the cause of
sanctity, or of knowledge, or of temperance, let us say, or of
art, if only the art of cracking jokes or playing the flute. And
thus this general's daughter came to me--or I should say one of
the general's daughters did. There were three of these bachelor
ladies, of nicely graduated ages, who held a neighbouring
farmhouse in a united and more or less military occupation. The
eldest warred against the decay of manners in the village
children, and executed frontal attacks upon the village mothers
for the conquest of curtseys. It sounds futile, but it was
really a war for an idea. The second skirmished and scouted all
over the country; and it was that one who pushed a reconnaissance
right to my very table--I mean the one who wore stand-up collars.
She was really calling upon my wife in the soft spirit of
afternoon friendliness, but with her usual martial determination.
She marched into my room swinging her stick. . .but no--I mustn't
exaggerate. It is not my speciality. I am not a humoristic
writer. In all soberness, then, all I am certain of is that she
had a stick to swing.
No ditch or wall encompassed my abode. The window was open; the
door too stood open to that best friend of my work, the warm,
still sunshine of the wide fields. They lay around me infinitely
helpful, but truth to say I had not known for weeks whether the
sun shone upon the earth and whether the stars above still moved
on their appointed courses. I was just then giving up some days
of my allotted span to the last chapters of the novel "Nostromo,"
a tale of an imaginary (but true) seaboard, which is still
mentioned now and again, and indeed kindly, sometimes in
connection with the word "failure" and sometimes in conjunction
with the word "astonishing." I have no opinion on this
discrepancy. It's the sort of difference that can never be
settled. All I know is that, for twenty months, neglecting the
common joys of life that fall to the lot of the humblest on this
earth, I had, like the prophet of old, "wrestled with the Lord"
for my creation, for the headlands of the coast, for the darkness
of the Placid Gulf, the light on the snows, the clouds on the
sky, and for the breath of life that had to be blown into the
shapes of men and women, of Latin and Saxon, of Jew and Gentile.
These are, perhaps, strong words, but it is difficult to
characterise otherwise the intimacy and the strain of a creative
effort in which mind and will and conscience are engaged to the
full, hour after hour, day after day, away from the world, and to
the exclusion of all that makes life really lovable and gentle--
something for which a material parallel can only be found in the
everlasting sombre stress of the westward winter passage round
Cape Horn. For that too is the wrestling of men with the might
of their Creator, in a great isolation from the world, without
the amenities and consolations of life, a lonely struggle under a
sense of over-matched littleness, for no reward that could be
adequate, but for the mere winning of a longitude. Yet a certain
longitude, once won, cannot be disputed. The sun and the stars
and the shape of your earth are the witnesses of your gain;
whereas a handful of pages, no matter how much you have made them
your own, are at best but an obscure and questionable spoil.
Here they are. "Failure"--"Astonishing": take your choice; or
perhaps both, or neither--a mere rustle and flutter of pieces of
paper settling down in the night, and undistinguishable, like the
snowflakes of a great drift destined to melt away in the
"How do you do?"
It was the greeting of the general's daughter. I had heard
nothing--no rustle, no footsteps. I had felt only a moment
before a sort of premonition of evil; I had the sense of an
inauspicious presence--just that much warning and no more; and
then came the sound of the voice and the jar as of a terrible
fall from a great height--a fall, let us say, from the highest of
the clouds floating in gentle procession over the fields in the
faint westerly air of that July afternoon. I picked myself up
quickly, of course; in other words, I jumped up from my chair
stunned and dazed, every nerve quivering with the pain of being
uprooted out of one world and flung down into another--perfectly
"Oh! How do you do? Won't you sit down?"
That's what I said. This horrible but, I assure you, perfectly
true reminiscence tells you more than a whole volume of
confessions a la Jean Jacques Rousseau would do. Observe! I
didn't howl at her, or start upsetting furniture, or throw myself
on the floor and kick, or allow myself to hint in any other way
at the appalling magnitude of the disaster. The whole world of
Costaguana (the country, you may remember, of my seaboard tale),
men, women, headlands, houses, mountains, town, campo (there was
not a single brick, stone, or grain of sand of its soil I had not
placed in position with my own hands); all the history,
geography, politics, finance; the wealth of Charles Gould's
silver-mine, and the splendour of the magnificent Capataz de
Cargadores, whose name, cried out in the night (Dr. Monygham
heard it pass over his head--in Linda Viola's voice), dominated
even after death the dark gulf containing his conquests of
treasure and love--all that had come down crashing about my ears.
I felt I could never pick up the pieces--and in that very moment
I was saying, "Won't you sit down?"
The sea is strong medicine. Behold what the quarter-deck
training even in a merchant ship will do! This episode should
give you a new view of the English and Scots seamen (a much-
caricatured folk) who had the last say in the formation of my
character. One is nothing if not modest, but in this disaster I
think I have done some honour to their simple teaching. "Won't
you sit down?" Very fair; very fair indeed. She sat down. Her
amused glance strayed all over the room. There were pages of MS.
on the table and under the table, a batch of typed copy on a
chair, single leaves had fluttered away into distant corners;
there were there living pages, pages scored and wounded, dead
pages that would be burnt at the end of the day--the litter of a
cruel battlefield, of a long, long and desperate fray. Long! I
suppose I went to bed sometimes, and got up the same number of
times. Yes, I suppose I slept, and ate the food put before me,
and talked connectedly to my household on suitable occasions.
But I had never been aware of the even flow of daily life, made
easy and noiseless for me by a silent, watchful, tireless
affection. Indeed, it seemed to me that I had been sitting at
that table surrounded by the litter of a desperate fray for days
and nights on end. It seemed so, because of the intense
weariness of which that interruption had made me aware--the awful
disenchantment of a mind realising suddenly the futility of an
enormous task, joined to a bodily fatigue such as no ordinary
amount of fairly heavy physical labour could ever account for. I
have carried bags of wheat on my back, bent almost double under a
ship's deck-beams, from six in the morning till six in the
evening (with an hour and a half off for meals), so I ought to
And I love letters. I am jealous of their honour and concerned
for the dignity and comeliness of their service. I was, most
likely, the only writer that neat lady had ever caught in the
exercise of his craft, and it distressed me not to be able to
remember when it was that I dressed myself last, and how. No
doubt that would be all right in essentials. The fortune of the
house included a pair of grey-blue watchful eyes that would see
to that. But I felt somehow as grimy as a Costaguana lepero
after a day's fighting in the streets, rumpled all over and
dishevelled down to my very heels. And I am afraid I blinked
stupidly. All this was bad for the honour of letters and the
dignity of their service. Seen indistinctly through the dust of
my collapsed universe, the good lady glanced about the room with
a slightly amused serenity. And she was smiling. What on earth
was she smiling at? She remarked casually:
"I am afraid I interrupted you."
"Not at all."
She accepted the denial in perfect good faith. And it was
strictly true. Interrupted--indeed! She had robbed me of at
least twenty lives, each infinitely more poignant and real than
her own, because informed with passion, possessed of convictions,
involved in great affairs created out of my own substance for an
anxiously meditated end.
She remained silent for a while, then said with a last glance all
round at the litter of the fray:
"And you sit like this here writing your--your. . ."
"I--what? Oh, yes, I sit here all day."
"It must be perfectly delightful."
I suppose that, being no longer very young, I might have been on
the verge of having a stroke; but she had left her dog in the
porch, and my boy's dog, patrolling the field in front, had
espied him from afar. He came on straight and swift like a
cannon-ball, and the noise of the fight, which burst suddenly
upon our ears, was more than enough to scare away a fit of
apoplexy. We went out hastily and separated the gallant animals.
Afterwards I told the lady where she would find my wife--just
round the corner, under the trees. She nodded and went off with
her dog, leaving me appalled before the death and devastation she
had lightly made--and with the awfully instructive sound of the
word "delightful" lingering in my ears.
Nevertheless, later on, I duly escorted her to the field gate. I
wanted to be civil, of course (what are twenty lives in a mere
novel that one should be rude to a lady on their account?), but
mainly, to adopt the good sound Ollendorffian style, because I
did not want the dog of the general's daughter to fight again
(encore) with the faithful dog of my infant son (mon petit
garcon).--Was I afraid that the dog of the general's daughter
would be able to overcome (vaincre) the dog of my child?--No, I
was not afraid. . .But away with the Ollendorff method. However
appropriate and seemingly unavoidable when I touch upon anything
appertaining to the lady, it is most unsuitable to the origin,
character and history of the dog; for the dog was the gift to the
child from a man for whom words had anything but an Ollendorffian
value, a man almost childlike in the impulsive movements of his
untutored genius, the most single-minded of verbal
impressionists, using his great gifts of straight feeling and
right expression with a fine sincerity and a strong if, perhaps,
not fully conscious conviction. His art did not obtain, I fear,
all the credit its unsophisticated inspiration deserved. I am
alluding to the late Stephen Crane, the author of "The Red Badge
of Courage," a work of imagination which found its short moment
of celebrity in the last decade of the departed century. Other
books followed. Not many. He had not the time. It was an
individual and complete talent, which obtained but a grudging,
somewhat supercilious recognition from the world at large. For
himself one hesitates to regret his early death. Like one of the
men in his "Open Boat," one felt that he was of those whom fate
seldom allows to make a safe landing after much toil and
bitterness at the oar. I confess to an abiding affection for
that energetic, slight, fragile, intensely living and transient
figure. He liked me even before we met on the strength of a page
or two of my writing, and after we had met I am glad to think he
liked me still. He used to point out to me with great
earnestness, and even with some severity, that "a boy ought to
have a dog." I suspect that he was shocked at my neglect of
parental duties. Ultimately it was he who provided the dog.
Shortly afterwards, one day, after playing with the child on the
rug for an hour or so with the most intense absorption, he raised
his head and declared firmly: "I shall teach your boy to ride."
That was not to be. He was not given the time.
But here is the dog--an old dog now. Broad and low on his bandy
paws, with a black head on a white body and a ridiculous black
spot at the other end of him, he provokes, when he walks abroad,
smiles not altogether unkind. Grotesque and engaging in the
whole of his appearance, his usual attitudes are meek, but his
temperament discloses itself unexpectedly pugnacious in the
presence of his kind. As he lies in the firelight, his head well
up, and a fixed, far-away gaze directed at the shadows of the
room, he achieves a striking nobility of pose in the calm
consciousness of an unstained life. He has brought up one baby,
and now, after seeing his first charge off to school, he is
bringing up another with the same conscientious devotion, but
with a more deliberate gravity of manner, the sign of greater
wisdom and riper experience, but also of rheumatism, I fear.
From the morning bath to the evening ceremonies of the cot you
attend, old friend, the little two-legged creature of your
adoption, being yourself treated in the exercise of your duties
with every possible regard, with infinite consideration, by every
person in the house--even as I myself am treated; only you
deserve it more. The general's daughter would tell you that it
must be "perfectly delightful."
Aha! old dog. She never heard you yelp with acute pain (it's
that poor left ear) the while, with incredible self-command, you
preserve a rigid immobility for fear of overturning the little
two-legged creature. She has never seen your resigned smile when
the little two-legged creature, interrogated sternly, "What are
you doing to the good dog?" answers with a wide, innocent stare:
"Nothing. Only loving him, mamma dear!"
The general's daughter does not know the secret terms of self-
imposed tasks, good dog, the pain that may lurk in the very
rewards of rigid self-command. But we have lived together many
years. We have grown older, too; and though our work is not
quite done yet we may indulge now and then in a little
introspection before the fire--meditate on the art of bringing up
babies and on the perfect delight of writing tales where so many
lives come and go at the cost of one which slips imperceptibly
In the retrospect of a life which had, besides its preliminary
stage of childhood and early youth, two distinct developments,
and even two distinct elements, such as earth and water, for its
successive scenes, a certain amount of naiveness is unavoidable.
I am conscious of it in these pages. This remark is put forward
in no apologetic spirit. As years go by and the number of pages
grows steadily, the feeling grows upon one too that one can write
only for friends. Then why should one put them to the necessity
of protesting (as a friend would do) that no apology is
necessary, or put, perchance, into their heads the doubt of one's
discretion? So much as to the care due to those friends whom a
word here, a line there, a fortunate page of just feeling in the
right place, some happy simplicity, or even some lucky subtlety,
has drawn from the great multitude of fellow-beings even as a
fish is drawn from the depths of the sea. Fishing is notoriously
(I am talking now of the deep sea) a matter of luck. As to one's
enemies, those will take care of themselves.
There is a gentleman, for instance, who, metaphorically speaking,
jumps upon me with both feet. This image has no grace, but it is
exceedingly apt to the occasion--to the several occasions. I
don't know precisely how long he had been indulging in that
intermittent exercise, whose seasons are ruled by the custom of
the publishing trade. Somebody pointed him out (in printed
shape, of course) to my attention some time ago, and straightway
I experienced a sort of reluctant affection for that robust man.
He leaves not a shred of my substance untrodden: for the
writer's substance is his writing; the rest of him is but a vain
shadow, cherished or hated on uncritical grounds. Not a shred!
Yet the sentiment owned to is not a freak of affectation or
perversity. It has a deeper, and, I venture to think, a more
estimable origin than the caprice of emotional lawlessness. It
is, indeed, lawful, in so much that it is given (reluctantly) for
a consideration, for several considerations. There is that
robustness, for instance, so often the sign of good moral
balance. That's a consideration. It is not, indeed, pleasant to
be stamped upon, but the very thoroughness of the operation,
implying not only a careful reading, but some real insight into
work whose qualities and defects, whatever they may be, are not
so much on the surface, is something to be thankful for in view
of the fact that it may happen to one's work to be condemned
without being read at all. This is the most fatuous adventure
that can well happen to a writer venturing his soul amongst
criticisms. It can do one no harm, of course, but it is
disagreeable. It is disagreeable in the same way as discovering
a three-card-trick man amongst a decent lot of folk in a third-
class compartment. The open impudence of the whole transaction,
appealing insidiously to the folly and credulity of mankind, the
brazen, shameless patter, proclaiming the fraud openly while
insisting on the fairness of the game, give one a feeling of
sickening disgust. The honest violence of a plain man playing a
fair game fairly--even if he means to knock you over--may appear
shocking, but it remains within the pale of decency. Damaging as
it may be, it is in no sense offensive. One may well feel some
regard for honesty, even if practised upon one's own vile body.
But it is very obvious that an enemy of that sort will not be
stayed by explanations or placated by apologies. Were I to
advance the plea of youth in excuse of the naiveness to be found
in these pages, he would be likely to say "Bosh!" in a column and
a half of fierce print. Yet a writer is no older than his first
published book, and, notwithstanding the vain appearances of
decay which attend us in this transitory life, I stand here with
the wreath of only fifteen short summers on my brow.
With the remark, then, that at such tender age some naiveness of
feeling and expression is excusable, I proceed to admit that,
upon the whole, my previous state of existence was not a good
equipment for a literary life. Perhaps I should not have used the
word literary. That word presupposes an intimacy of acquaintance
with letters, a turn of mind and a manner of feeling to which I
dare lay no claim. I only love letters; but the love of letters
does not make a literary man, any more than the love of the sea
makes a seaman. And it is very possible, too, that I love the
letters in the same way a literary man may love the sea he looks
at from the shore--a scene of great endeavour and of great
achievements changing the face of the world, the great open way
to all sorts of undiscovered countries. No, perhaps I had better
say that the life at sea--and I don't mean a mere taste of it,
but a good broad span of years, something that really counts as
real service--is not, upon the whole, a good equipment for a
writing life. God forbid, though, that I should be thought of as
denying my masters of the quarter-deck. I am not capable of that
sort of apostasy. I have confessed my attitude of piety towards
their shades in three or four tales, and if any man on earth more
than another needs to be true to himself as he hopes to be saved,
it is certainly the writer of fiction.
What I meant to say, simply, is that the quarter-deck training
does not prepare one sufficiently for the reception of literary
criticism. Only that, and no more. But this defect is not
without gravity. If it be permissible to twist, invert, adapt
(and spoil) M. Anatole France's definition of a good critic, then
let us say that the good author is he who contemplates without
marked joy or excessive sorrow the adventures of his soul amongst
criticisms. Far be from me the intention to mislead an attentive
public into the belief that there is no criticism at sea. That
would be dishonest, and even impolite. Everything can be found
at sea, according to the spirit of your quest--strife, peace,
romance, naturalism of the most pronounced kind, ideals, boredom,
disgust, inspiration--and every conceivable opportunity,
including the opportunity to make a fool of yourself--exactly as
in the pursuit of literature. But the quarter-deck criticism is
somewhat different from literary criticism. This much they have
in common, that before the one and the other the answering back,
as a general rule, does not pay.
Yes, you find criticism at sea, and even appreciation--I tell you
everything is to be found on salt water--criticism generally
impromptu, and always viva voce, which is the outward, obvious
difference from the literary operation of that kind, with
consequent freshness and vigour which may be lacking in the
printed word. With appreciation, which comes at the end, when
the critic and the criticised are about to part, it is otherwise.
The sea appreciation of one's humble talents has the permanency
of the written word, seldom the charm of variety, is formal in
its phrasing. There the literary master has the superiority,
though he, too, can in effect but say--and often says it in the
very phrase--"I can highly recommend." Only usually he uses the
word "We," there being some occult virtue in the first person
plural, which makes it specially fit for critical and royal
declarations. I have a small handful of these sea appreciations,
signed by various masters, yellowing slowly in my writing-table's
left-hand drawer, rustling under my reverent touch, like a
handful of dry leaves plucked for a tender memento from the tree
of knowledge. Strange! It seems that it is for these few bits
of paper, headed by the names of a few ships and signed by the
names of a few Scots and English shipmasters, that I have faced
the astonished indignations, the mockeries and the reproaches of
a sort hard to bear for a boy of fifteen; that I have been
charged with the want of patriotism, the want of sense, and the
want of heart too; that I went through agonies of self-conflict
and shed secret tears not a few, and had the beauties of the
Furca Pass spoiled for me, and have been called an "incorrigible
Don Quixote," in allusion to the book-born madness of the knight.
For that spoil! They rustle, those bits of paper--some dozen of
them in all. In that faint, ghostly sound there live the
memories of twenty years, the voices of rough men now no more,
the strong voice of the everlasting winds, and the whisper of a
mysterious spell, the murmur of the great sea, which must have
somehow reached my inland cradle and entered my unconscious ear,
like that formula of Mohammedan faith the Mussulman father
whispers into the ear of his new-born infant, making him one of
the faithful almost with his first breath. I do not know whether
I have been a good seaman, but I know I have been a very faithful
one. And after all there is that handful of "characters" from
various ships to prove that all these years have not been
altogether a dream. There they are, brief, and monotonous in
tone, but as suggestive bits of writing to me as any inspired
page to be found in literature. But then, you see, I have been
called romantic. Well, that can't be helped. But stay. I seem
to remember that I have been called a realist also. And as that
charge too can be made out, let us try to live up to it, at
whatever cost, for a change. With this end in view, I will
confide to you coyly, and only because there is no one about to
see my blushes by the light of the midnight lamp, that these
suggestive bits of quarter-deck appreciation one and all contain
the words "strictly sober."
Did I overhear a civil murmur, "That's very gratifying, to be
sure"? Well, yes, it is gratifying--thank you. It is at least
as gratifying to be certified sober as to be certified romantic,
though such certificates would not qualify one for the
secretaryship of a temperance association or for the post of
official troubadour to some lordly democratic institution such as
the London County Council, for instance. The above prosaic
reflection is put down here only in order to prove the general
sobriety of my judgment in mundane affairs. I make a point of it
because a couple of years ago, a certain short story of mine
being published in a French translation, a Parisian critic--I am
almost certain it was M. Gustave Kahn in the "Gil-Blas"--giving
me a short notice, summed up his rapid impression of the writer's
quality in the words un puissant reveur. So be it! Who would
cavil at the words of a friendly reader? Yet perhaps not such an
unconditional dreamer as all that. I will make bold to say that
neither at sea nor ashore have I ever lost the sense of
responsibility. There is more than one sort of intoxication.
Even before the most seductive reveries I have remained mindful
of that sobriety of interior life, that asceticism of sentiment,
in which alone the naked form of truth, such as one conceives it,
such as one feels it, can be rendered without shame. It is but a
maudlin and indecent verity that comes out through the strength
of wine. I have tried to be a sober worker all my life--all my
two lives. I did so from taste, no doubt, having an instinctive
horror of losing my sense of full self-possession, but also from
artistic conviction. Yet there are so many pitfalls on each side
of the true path that, having gone some way, and feeling a little
battered and weary, as a middle-aged traveller will from the mere
daily difficulties of the march, I ask myself whether I have kept
always, always faithful to that sobriety wherein there is power,
and truth, and peace.
As to my sea-sobriety, that is quite properly certified under the
sign-manual of several trustworthy shipmasters of some standing
in their time. I seem to hear your polite murmur that "Surely
this might have been taken for granted." Well, no. It might not
have been. That august academical body the Marine Department of
the Board of Trade takes nothing for granted in the granting of
its learned degrees. By its regulations issued under the first
Merchant Shipping Act, the very word SOBER must be written, or a
whole sackful, a ton, a mountain of the most enthusiastic
appreciation will avail you nothing. The door of the examination
rooms shall remain closed to your tears and entreaties. The most
fanatical advocate of temperance could not be more pitilessly
fierce in his rectitude than the Marine Department of the Board
of Trade. As I have been face to face at various times with all
the examiners of the Port of London, in my generation, there can
be no doubt as to the force and the continuity of my
abstemiousness. Three of them were examiners in seamanship, and
it was my fate to be delivered into the hands of each of them at
proper intervals of sea service. The first of all, tall, spare,
with a perfectly white head and moustache, a quiet, kindly
manner, and an air of benign intelligence, must, I am forced to
conclude, have been unfavourably impressed by something in my
appearance. His old thin hands loosely clasped resting on his
crossed legs, he began by an elementary question in a mild voice,
and went on, went on. . .It lasted for hours, for hours. Had I
been a strange microbe with potentialities of deadly mischief to
the Merchant Service I could not have been submitted to a more
microscopic examination. Greatly reassured by his apparent
benevolence, I had been at first very alert in my answers. But
at length the feeling of my brain getting addled crept upon me.
And still the passionless process went on, with a sense of untold
ages having been spent already on mere preliminaries. Then I got
frightened. I was not frightened of being plucked; that
eventuality did not even present itself to my mind. It was
something much more serious, and weird. "This ancient person," I
said to myself, terrified, "is so near his grave that he must
have lost all notion of time. He is considering this examination
in terms of eternity. It is all very well for him. His race is
run. But I may find myself coming out of this room into the
world of men a stranger, friendless, forgotten by my very
landlady, even were I able after this endless experience to
remember the way to my hired home." This statement is not so
much of a verbal exaggeration as may be supposed. Some very
queer thoughts passed through my head while I was considering my
answers; thoughts which had nothing to do with seamanship, nor
yet with anything reasonable known to this earth. I verily
believe that at times I was lightheaded in a sort of languid way.
At last there fell a silence, and that, too, seemed to last for
ages, while, bending over his desk, the examiner wrote out my
pass-slip slowly with a noiseless pen. He extended the scrap of
paper to me without a word, inclined his white head gravely to my
parting bow. . .
When I got out of the room I felt limply flat, like a squeezed
lemon, and the door-keeper in his glass cage, where I stopped to
get my hat and tip him a shilling, said:
"Well! I thought you were never coming out."
"How long have I been in there?" I asked faintly.
He pulled out his watch.
"He kept you, sir, just under three hours. I don't think this
ever happened with any of the gentlemen before."
It was only when I got out of the building that I began to walk
on air. And the human animal being averse from change and timid
before the unknown, I said to myself that I would not mind really
being examined by the same man on a future occasion. But when
the time of ordeal came round again the doorkeeper let me into
another room, with the now familiar paraphernalia of models of
ships and tackle, a board for signals on the wall, a big long
table covered with official forms, and having an unrigged mast
fixed to the edge. The solitary tenant was unknown to me by
sight, though not by reputation, which was simply execrable.
Short and sturdy as far as I could judge, clad in an old, brown,
morning-suit, he sat leaning on his elbow, his hand shading his
eyes, and half averted from the chair I was to occupy on the
other side of the table. He was motionless, mysterious, remote,
enigmatical, with something mournful too in the pose, like that
statue of Giuliano (I think) de' Medici shading his face on the
tomb by Michael Angelo, though, of course, he was far, far from
being beautiful. He began by trying to make me talk nonsense.
But I had been warned of that fiendish trait, and contradicted
him with great assurance. After a while he left off. So far
good. But his immobility, the thick elbow on the table, the
abrupt, unhappy voice, the shaded and averted face grew more and
more impressive. He kept inscrutably silent for a moment, and
then, placing me in a ship of a certain size, at sea, under
certain conditions of weather, season, locality, &c. &c.--all
very clear and precise--ordered me to execute a certain
manoeuvre. Before I was half through with it he did some
material damage to the ship. Directly I had grappled with the
difficulty he caused another to present itself, and when that too
was met he stuck another ship before me, creating a very
dangerous situation. I felt slightly outraged by this ingenuity
in piling up trouble upon a man.
"I wouldn't have got into that mess," I suggested mildly. "I
could have seen that ship before."
He never stirred the least bit.
"No, you couldn't. The weather's thick."
"Oh! I didn't know," I apologised blankly.
I suppose that after all I managed to stave off the smash with
sufficient approach to verisimilitude, and the ghastly business
went on. You must understand that the scheme of the test he was
applying to me was, I gathered, a homeward passage--the sort of
passage I would not wish to my bitterest enemy. That imaginary
ship seemed to labour under a most comprehensive curse. It's no
use enlarging on these never-ending misfortunes; suffice it to
say that long before the end I would have welcomed with gratitude
an opportunity to exchange into the "Flying Dutchman." Finally
he shoved me into the North Sea (I suppose) and provided me with
a lee-shore with outlying sandbanks--the Dutch coast presumably.
Distance, eight miles. The evidence of such implacable animosity
deprived me of speech for quite half a minute.
"Well," he said--for our pace had been very smart indeed till
"I will have to think a little, sir."
"Doesn't look as if there were much time to think," he muttered
sardonically from under his hand.
"No, sir," I said with some warmth. "Not on board a ship I could
see. But so many accidents have happened that I really can't
remember what there's left for me to work with."
Still half averted, and with his eyes concealed, he made
unexpectedly a grunting remark.
"You've done very well."
"Have I the two anchors at the bow, sir?" I asked.
I prepared myself then, as a last hope for the ship, to let them
both go in the most effectual manner, when his infernal system of
testing resourcefulness came into play again.
"But there's only one cable. You've lost the other."
It was exasperating.
"Then I would back them, if I could, and tail the heaviest hawser
on board on the end of the chain before letting go, and if she
parted from that, which is quite likely, I would just do nothing.
She would have to go."
"Nothing more to do, eh?"
"No, sir. I could do no more."
He gave a bitter half-laugh.
"You could always say your prayers."
He got up, stretched himself, and yawned slightly. It was a
sallow, strong, unamiable face. He put me in a surly, bored
fashion through the usual questions as to lights and signals, and
I escaped from the room thankfully--passed! Forty minutes! And
again I walked on air along Tower Hill, where so many good men
had lost their heads, because, I suppose, they were not
resourceful enough to save them. And in my heart of hearts I had
no objection to meeting that examiner once more when the third
and last ordeal became due in another year or so. I even hoped I
should. I knew the worst of him now, and forty minutes is not an
unreasonable time. Yes, I distinctly hoped. . .
But not a bit of it. When I presented myself to be examined for
Master the examiner who received me was short, plump, with a
round, soft face in grey, fluffy whiskers, and fresh, loquacious
He commenced operations with an easy-going "Let's see. H'm.
Suppose you tell me all you know of charter-parties." He kept it
up in that style all through, wandering off in the shape of
comment into bits out of his own life, then pulling himself up
short and returning to the business in hand. It was very
interesting. "What's your idea of a jury-rudder now?" he queried
suddenly, at the end of an instructive anecdote bearing upon a
point of stowage.