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A Personal Record by Joseph Conrad

Part 3 out of 3

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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 thank fully--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 my self to be examined for
master the examiner who received me was short, plump, with a
round, soft face in gray, 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.

I warned him that I had no experience of a lost rudder at sea,
and gave him two classical examples of makeshifts out of a
text-book. In exchange he described to me a jury-rudder he had
invented himself years before, when in command of a
three-thousand-ton steamer. It was, I declare, the cleverest
contrivance imaginable. "May be of use to you some day," he
concluded. "You will go into steam presently. Everybody goes
into steam."

There he was wrong. I never went into steam--not really. If I
only live long enough I shall become a bizarre relic of a dead
barbarism, a sort of monstrous antiquity, the only seaman of the
dark ages who had never gone into steam--not really.

Before the examination was over he imparted to me a few
interesting details of the transport service in the time of the
Crimean War.

"The use of wire rigging became general about that time, too," he
observed. "I was a very young master then. That was before you
were born."

"Yes, sir. I am of the year of 1857."

"The Mutiny year," he commented, as if to himself, adding in a
louder tone that his ship happened then to be in the Gulf of
Bengal, employed under a government charter.

Clearly the transport service had been the making of this
examiner, who so unexpectedly had given me an insight into his
existence, awakening in me the sense of the continuity of that
sea life into which I had stepped from outside; giving a touch of
human intimacy to the machinery of official relations. I felt
adopted. His experience was for me, too, as though he had been
an ancestor.

Writing my long name (it has twelve letters) with laborious care
on the slip of blue paper, he remarked:

"You are of Polish extraction."

"Born there, sir."

He laid down the pen and leaned back to look at me as it were for
the first time.

"Not many of your nationality in our service, I should think. I
never remember meeting one either before or after I left the sea.
Don't remember ever hearing of one. An inland people, aren't

I said yes--very much so. We were remote from the sea not only
by situation, but also from a complete absence of indirect
association, not being a commercial nation at all, but purely
agricultural. He made then the quaint reflection that it was "a
long way for me to come out to begin a sea life"; as if sea life
were not precisely a life in which one goes a long way from home.

I told him, smiling, that no doubt I could have found a ship much
nearer my native place, but I had thought to myself that if I was
to be a seaman, then I would be a British seaman and no other.
It was a matter of deliberate choice.

He nodded slightly at that; and, as he kept on looking at me
interrogatively, I enlarged a little, confessing that I had spent
a little time on the way in the Mediterranean and in the West
Indies. I did not want to present myself to the British Merchant
Service in an altogether green state. It was no use telling him
that my mysterious vocation was so strong that my very wild oats
had to be sown at sea. It was the exact truth, but he would not
have understood the somewhat exceptional psychology of my
sea-going, I fear.

"I suppose you've never come across one of your countrymen at
sea. Have you, now?"

I admitted I never had. The examiner had given himself up to the
spirit of gossiping idleness. For myself, I was in no haste to
leave that room. Not in the least. The era of examinations was
over. I would never again see that friendly man who was a
professional ancestor, a sort of grandfather in the craft.
Moreover, I had to wait till he dismissed me, and of that there
was no sign. As he remained silent, looking at me, I added:

"But I have heard of one, some years ago. He seems to have been
a boy serving his time on board a Liverpool ship, if I am not

"What was his name?"

I told him.

"How did you say that?" he asked, puckering up his eyes at the
uncouth sound.

I repeated the name very distinctly.

"How do you spell it?"

I told him. He moved his head at the impracticable nature of
that name, and observed:

"It's quite as long as your own--isn't it?"

There was no hurry. I had passed for master, and I had all the
rest of my life before me to make the best of it. That seemed a
long time. I went leisurely through a small mental calculation,
and said:

"Not quite. Shorter by two letters, sir."

"Is it?" The examiner pushed the signed blue slip across the
table to me, and rose from his chair. Somehow this seemed a very
abrupt ending of our relations, and I felt almost sorry to part
from that excellent man, who was master of a ship before the
whisper of the sea had reached my cradle. He offered me his hand
and wished me well. He even made a few steps toward the door
with me, and ended with good-natured advice.

"I don't know what may be your plans, but you ought to go into
steam. When a man has got his master's certificate it's the
proper time. If I were you I would go into steam."

I thanked him, and shut the door behind me definitely on the era
of examinations. But that time I did not walk on air, as on the
first two occasions. I walked across the hill of many beheadings
with measured steps. It was a fact, I said to myself, that I was
now a British master mariner beyond a doubt. It was not that I
had an exaggerated sense of that very modest achievement, with
which, however, luck, opportunity, or any extraneous influence
could have had nothing to do. That fact, satisfactory and
obscure in itself, had for me a certain ideal significance. It
was an answer to certain outspoken scepticism and even to some
not very kind aspersions. I had vindicated myself from what had
been cried upon as a stupid obstinacy or a fantastic caprice. I
don't mean to say that a whole country had been convulsed by my
desire to go to sea. But for a boy between fifteen and sixteen,
sensitive enough, in all conscience, the commotion of his little
world had seemed a very considerable thing indeed. So
considerable that, absurdly enough, the echoes of it linger to
this day. I catch myself in hours of solitude and retrospect
meeting arguments and charges made thirty-five years ago by
voices now forever still; finding things to say that an assailed
boy could not have found, simply because of the mysteriousness of
his impulses to himself. I understood no more than the people who
called upon me to explain myself. There was no precedent. I
verily believe mine was the only case of a boy of my nationality
and antecedents taking a, so to speak, standing jump out of his
racial surroundings and associations. For you must understand
that there was no idea of any sort of "career" in my call. Of
Russia or Germany there could be no question. The nationality,
the antecedents, made it impossible. The feeling against the
Austrian service was not so strong, and I dare say there would
have been no difficulty in finding my way into the Naval School
at Pola. It would have meant six months' extra grinding at
German, perhaps; but I was not past the age of admission, and in
other respects I was well qualified. This expedient to palliate
my folly was thought of--but not by me. I must admit that in
that respect my negative was accepted at once. That order of
feeling was comprehensible enough to the most inimical of my
critics. I was not called upon to offer explanations; but the
truth is that what I had in view was not a naval career, but the
sea. There seemed no way open to it but through France. I had
the language, at any rate, and of all the countries in Europe it
is with France that Poland has most connection. There were some
facilities for having me a little looked after, at first.
Letters were being written, answers were being received,
arrangements were being made for my departure for Marseilles,
where an excellent fellow called Solary, got at in a round about
fashion through various French channels, had promised
good-naturedly to put le jeune homme in the way of getting a
decent ship for his first start if he really wanted a taste of ce
metier de chien.

I watched all these preparations gratefully, and kept my own
counsel. But what I told the last of my examiners was perfectly
true. Already the determined resolve that "if a seaman, then an
English seaman" was formulated in my head, though, of course, in
the Polish language. I did not know six words of English, and I
was astute enough to understand that it was much better to say
nothing of my purpose. As it was I was already looked upon as
partly insane, at least by the more distant acquaintances. The
principal thing was to get away. I put my trust in the
good-natured Solary's very civil letter to my uncle, though I was
shocked a little by the phrase about the metier de chien.

This Solary (Baptistin), when I beheld him in the flesh, turned
out a quite young man, very good-looking, with a fine black,
short beard, a fresh complexion, and soft, merry black eyes. He
was as jovial and good natured as any boy could desire. I was
still asleep in my room in a modest hotel near the quays of the
old port, after the fatigues of the journey via Vienna, Zurich,
Lyons, when he burst in, flinging the shutters open to the sun of
Provence and chiding me boisterously for lying abed. How
pleasantly he startled me by his noisy objurgations to be up and
off instantly for a "three years' campaign in the South Seas!" O
magic words! "Une campagne de trois ans dans les mers du
sud"--that is the French for a three years' deep-water voyage.

He gave me a delightful waking, and his friendliness was
unwearied; but I fear he did not enter upon the quest for a ship
for me in a very solemn spirit. He had been at sea himself, but
had left off at the age of twenty-five, finding he could earn his
living on shore in a much more agreeable manner. He was related
to an incredible number of Marseilles well-to-do families of a
certain class. One of his uncles was a ship-broker of good
standing, with a large connection among English ships; other
relatives of his dealt in ships' stores, owned sail-lofts, sold
chains and anchors, were master-stevedores, calkers, shipwrights.

His grandfather (I think) was a dignitary of a kind, the Syndic
of the Pilots. I made acquaintances among these people, but
mainly among the pilots. The very first whole day I ever spent
on salt water was by invitation, in a big half-decked pilot-boat,
cruising under close reefs on the lookout, in misty, blowing
weather, for the sails of ships and the smoke of steamers rising
out there, beyond the slim and tall Planier lighthouse cutting
the line of the wind-swept horizon with a white perpendicular
stroke. They were hospitable souls, these sturdy Provencal
seamen. Under the general designation of le petit ami de
Baptistin I was made the guest of the corporation of pilots, and
had the freedom of their boats night or day. And many a day and
a night, too, did I spend cruising with these rough, kindly men,
under whose auspices my intimacy with the sea began. Many a time
"the little friend of Baptistin" had the hooded cloak of the
Mediterranean sailor thrown over him by their honest hands while
dodging at night under the lee of Chateau daft on the watch for
the lights of ships. Their sea tanned faces, whiskered or
shaved, lean or full, with the intent, wrinkled sea eyes of the
pilot breed, and here and there a thin gold hoop at the lobe of a
hairy ear, bent over my sea infancy. The first operation of
seamanship I had an opportunity of observing was the boarding of
ships at sea, at all times, in all states of the weather. They
gave it to me to the full. And I have been invited to sit in
more than one tall, dark house of the old town at their
hospitable board, had the bouillabaisse ladled out into a thick
plate by their high-voiced, broad-browed wives, talked to their
daughters--thick-set girls, with pure profiles, glorious masses
of black hair arranged with complicated art, dark eyes, and
dazzlingly white teeth.

I had also other acquaintances of quite a different sort. One of
them, Madame Delestang, an imperious, handsome lady in a
statuesque style, would carry me off now and then on the front
seat of her carriage to the Prado, at the hour of fashionable
airing. She belonged to one of the old aristocratic families in
the south. In her haughty weariness she used to make me think of
Lady Dedlock in Dickens's "Bleak House," a work of the master for
which I have such an admiration, or rather such an intense and
unreasoning affection, dating from the days of my childhood, that
its very weaknesses are more precious to me than the strength of
other men's work. I have read it innumerable times, both in
Polish and in English; I have read it only the other day, and, by
a not very surprising inversion, the Lady Dedlock of the book
reminded me strongly of the "belle Madame Delestang."

Her husband (as I sat facing them both), with his thin, bony nose
and a perfectly bloodless, narrow physiognomy clamped together,
as it were, by short, formal side whiskers, had nothing of Sir
Leicester Dedlock's "grand air" and courtly solemnity. He
belonged to the haute bourgeoisie only, and was a banker, with
whom a modest credit had been opened for my needs. He was such
an ardent--no, such a frozen-up, mummified Royalist that he used
in current conversation turns of speech contemporary, I should
say, with the good Henri Quatre; and when talking of money
matters, reckoned not in francs, like the common, godless herd of
post-Revolutionary Frenchmen, but in obsolete and forgotten
ecus--ecus of all money units in the world!--as though Louis
Quatorze were still promenading in royal splendour the gardens of
Versailles, and Monsieur de Colbert busy with the direction of
maritime affairs. You must admit that in a banker of the
nineteenth century it was a quaint idiosyncrasy. Luckily, in the
counting-house (it occupied part of the ground floor of the
Delestang town residence, in a silent, shady street) the accounts
were kept in modern money, so that I never had any difficulty in
making my wants known to the grave, low-voiced, decorous,
Legitimist (I suppose) clerks, sitting in the perpetual gloom of
heavily barred windows behind the sombre, ancient counters,
beneath lofty ceilings with heavily molded cornices. I always
felt, on going out, as though I had been in the temple of some
very dignified but completely temporal religion. And it was
generally on these occasions that under the great carriage
gateway Lady Ded--I mean Madame Delestang--catching sight of my
raised hat, would beckon me with an amiable imperiousness to the
side of the carriage, and suggest with an air of amused
nonchalance, "Venez donc faire un tour avec nous," to which the
husband would add an encouraging "C'est ca. Allons, montez,
jeune homme." He questioned me some times, significantly but
with perfect tact and delicacy, as to the way I employed my time,
and never failed to express the hope that I wrote regularly to my
"honoured uncle." I made no secret of the way I employed my
time, and I rather fancy that my artless tales of the pilots and
so on entertained Madame Delestang so far as that ineffable woman
could be entertained by the prattle of a youngster very full of
his new experience among strange men and strange sensations. She
expressed no opinions, and talked to me very little; yet her
portrait hangs in the gallery of my intimate memories, fixed
there by a short and fleeting episode. One day, after putting me
down at the corner of a street, she offered me her hand, and
detained me, by a slight pressure, for a moment. While the
husband sat motionless and looking straight before him, she
leaned forward in the carriage to say, with just a shade of
warning in her leisurely tone: "Il faut, cependant, faire
attention a ne pas gater sa vie." I had never seen her face so
close to mine before. She made my heart beat and caused me to
remain thoughtful for a whole evening. Certainly one must, after
all, take care not to spoil one's life. But she did not know--
nobody could know--how impossible that danger seemed to me.


Can the transports of first love be calmed, checked, turned to a
cold suspicion of the future by a grave quotation from a work on
political economy? I ask--is it conceivable? Is it possible?
Would it be right? With my feet on the very shores of the sea
and about to embrace my blue-eyed dream, what could a
good-natured warning as to spoiling one's life mean to my
youthful passion? It was the most unexpected and the last, too,
of the many warnings I had received. It sounded to me very
bizarre--and, uttered as it was in the very presence of my
enchantress, like the voice of folly, the voice of ignorance.
But I was not so callous or so stupid as not to recognize there
also the voice of kindness. And then the vagueness of the
warning--because what can be the meaning of the phrase: to spoil
one's life?--arrested one's attention by its air of wise
profundity. At any rate, as I have said before, the words of la
belle Madame Delestang made me thoughtful for a whole evening. I
tried to understand and tried in vain, not having any notion of
life as an enterprise that could be mi managed. But I left off
being thoughtful shortly before midnight, at which hour, haunted
by no ghosts of the past and by no visions of the future, I
walked down the quay of the Vieux Port to join the pilot-boat of
my friends. I knew where she would be waiting for her crew, in
the little bit of a canal behind the fort at the entrance of the
harbour. The deserted quays looked very white and dry in the
moonlight, and as if frostbound in the sharp air of that December
night. A prowler or two slunk by noiselessly; a custom-house
guard, soldier-like, a sword by his side, paced close under the
bowsprits of the long row of ships moored bows on opposite the
long, slightly curved, continuous flat wall of the tall houses
that seemed to be one immense abandoned building with innumerable
windows shuttered closely. Only here and there a small, dingy
cafe for sailors cast a yellow gleam on the bluish sheen of the
flagstones. Passing by, one heard a deep murmur of voices
inside--nothing more. How quiet everything was at the end of the
quays on the last night on which I went out for a service cruise
as a guest of the Marseilles pilots! Not a footstep, except my
own, not a sigh, not a whispering echo of the usual revelry going
on in the narrow, unspeakable lanes of the Old Town reached my
ear--and suddenly, with a terrific jingling rattle of iron and
glass, the omnibus of the Jolliette on its last journey swung
around the corner of the dead wall which faces across the paved
road the characteristic angular mass of the Fort St. Jean. Three
horses trotted abreast, with the clatter of hoofs on the granite
setts, and the yellow, uproarious machine jolted violently behind
them, fantastic, lighted up, perfectly empty, and with the driver
apparently asleep on his swaying perch above that amazing racket.
I flattened myself against the wall and gasped. It was a stunning
experience. Then after staggering on a few paces in the shadow
of the fort, casting a darkness more intense than that of a
clouded night upon the canal, I saw the tiny light of a lantern
standing on the quay, and became aware of muffled figures making
toward it from various directions. Pilots of the Third Company
hastening to embark. Too sleepy to be talkative, they step on
board in silence. But a few low grunts and an enormous yawn are
heard. Somebody even ejaculates: "Ah! Coquin de sort!" and sighs
wearily at his hard fate.

The patron of the Third Company (there were five companies of
pilots at that time, I believe) is the brother-in-law of my
friend Solary (Baptistin), a broad-shouldered, deep chested man
of forty, with a keen, frank glance which always seeks your eyes.

He greets me by a low, hearty "He, l'ami. Comment va?" With his
clipped mustache and massive open face, energetic and at the same
time placid in expression, he is a fine specimen of the
southerner of the calm type. For there is such a type in which
the volatile southern passion is transmuted into solid force. He
is fair, but no one could mistake him for a man of the north even
by the dim gleam of the lantern standing on the quay. He is
worth a dozen of your ordinary Normans or Bretons, but then, in
the whole immense sweep of the Mediterranean shores, you could
not find half a dozen men of his stamp.

Standing by the tiller, he pulls out his watch from under a thick
jacket and bends his head over it in the light cast into the
boat. Time's up. His pleasant voice commands, in a quiet
undertone, "Larguez." A suddenly projected arm snatches the
lantern off the quay--and, warped along by a line at first, then
with the regular tug of four heavy sweeps in the bow, the big
half-decked boat full of men glides out of the black, breathless
shadow of the fort. The open water of the avant-port glitters
under the moon as if sown over with millions of sequins, and the
long white break water shines like a thick bar of solid silver.
With a quick rattle of blocks and one single silky swish, the
sail is filled by a little breeze keen enough to have come
straight down from the frozen moon, and the boat, after the
clatter of the hauled-in sweeps, seems to stand at rest,
surrounded by a mysterious whispering so faint and unearthly that
it may be the rustling of the brilliant, overpowering moon rays
breaking like a rain-shower upon the hard, smooth, shadowless

I may well remember that last night spent with the pilots of the
Third Company. I have known the spell of moonlight since, on
various seas and coasts--coasts of forests, of rocks, of sand
dunes--but no magic so perfect in its revelation of unsuspected
character, as though one were allowed to look upon the mystic
nature of material things. For hours I suppose no word was spoken
in that boat. The pilots, seated in two rows facing each other,
dozed, with their arms folded and their chins resting upon their
breasts. They displayed a great variety of caps: cloth, wool,
leather, peaks, ear-flaps, tassels, with a picturesque round
beret or two pulled down over the brows; and one grandfather,
with a shaved, bony face and a great beak of a nose, had a cloak
with a hood which made him look in our midst like a cowled monk
being carried off goodness knows where by that silent company of
seamen--quiet enough to be dead.

My fingers itched for the tiller, and in due course my friend,
the patron, surrendered it to me in the same spirit in which the
family coachman lets a boy hold the reins on an easy bit of road.

There was a great solitude around us; the islets ahead, Monte
Cristo and the Chateau daft in full light, seemed to float toward
us--so steady, so imperceptible was the progress of our boat.
"Keep her in the furrow of the moon," the patron directed me, in
a quiet murmur, sitting down ponderously in the stern-sheets and
reaching for his pipe.

The pilot station in weather like this was only a mile or two to
the westward of the islets; and presently, as we approached the
spot, the boat we were going to relieve swam into our view
suddenly, on her way home, cutting black and sinister into the
wake of the moon under a sable wing, while to them our sail must
have been a vision of white and dazzling radiance. Without
altering the course a hair's breadth we slipped by each other
within an oar's length. A drawling, sardonic hail came out of
her. Instantly, as if by magic, our dozing pilots got on their
feet in a body. An incredible babel of bantering shouts burst
out, a jocular, passionate, voluble chatter, which lasted till
the boats were stern to stern, theirs all bright now, and, with a
shining sail to our eyes, we turned all black to their vision,
and drew away from them under a sable wing. That extraordinary
uproar died away almost as suddenly as it had begun; first one
had enough of it and sat down, then another, then three or four
together; and when all had left off with mutters and growling
half-laughs the sound of hearty chuckling became audible,
persistent, unnoticed. The cowled grandfather was very much
entertained somewhere within his hood.

He had not joined in the shouting of jokes, neither had he moved
the least bit. He had remained quietly in his place against the
foot of the mast. I had been given to understand long before
that he had the rating of a second-class able seaman (matelot
leger) in the fleet which sailed from Toulon for the conquest of
Algeria in the year of grace 1830. And, indeed, I had seen and
examined one of the buttons of his old brown, patched coat, the
only brass button of the miscellaneous lot, flat and thin, with
the words Equipages de ligne engraved on it. That sort of
button, I believe, went out with the last of the French Bourbons.

"I preserved it from the time of my navy service," he explained,
nodding rapidly his frail, vulture-like head. It was not very
likely that he had picked up that relic in the street. He looked
certainly old enough to have fought at Trafalgar--or, at any
rate, to have played his little part there as a powder monkey.
Shortly after we had been introduced he had informed me in a
Franco-Provencal jargon, mumbling tremulously with his toothless
jaws, that when he was a "shaver no higher than that" he had seen
the Emperor Napoleon returning from Elba. It was at night, he
narrated vaguely, without animation, at a spot between Frejus and
Antibes, in the open country. A big fire had been lit at the
side of the cross-roads. The population from several villages
had collected there, old and young--down to the very children in
arms, because the women had refused to stay at home. Tall
soldiers wearing high, hairy caps stood in a circle, facing the
people silently, and their stern eyes and big mustaches were
enough to make everybody keep at a distance. He, "being an
impudent little shaver," wriggled out of the crowd, creeping on
his hands and knees as near as he dared to the grenadiers' legs,
and peeping through discovered, standing perfectly still in the
light of the fire, "a little fat fellow in a three-cornered hat,
buttoned up in a long straight coat, with a big, pale face
inclined on one shoulder, looking something like a priest. His
hands were clasped behind his back. . . . It appears that this
was the Emperor," the ancient commented, with a faint sigh. He
was staring from the ground with all his might, when "my poor
father," who had been searching for his boy frantically every
where, pounced upon him and hauled him away by the ear.

The tale seems an authentic recollection. He related it to me
many times, using the very same words. The grandfather honoured
me by a special and somewhat embarrassing predilection. Extremes
touch. He was the oldest member by a long way in that company,
and I was, if I may say so, its temporarily adopted baby. He had
been a pilot longer than any man in the boat could remember;
thirty--forty years. He did not seem certain himself, but it
could be found out, he suggested, in the archives of the
Pilot-office. He had been pensioned off years before, but he
went out from force of habit; and, as my friend the patron of the
company once confided to me in a whisper, "the old chap did no
harm. He was not in the way." They treated him with rough
deference. One and another would address some insignificant
remark to him now and again, but nobody really took any notice of
what he had to say. He had survived his strength, his
usefulness, his very wisdom. He wore long, green, worsted
stockings pulled up above the knee over his trousers, a sort of
woollen nightcap on his hairless cranium, and wooden clogs on his
feet. Without his hooded cloak he looked like a peasant. Half a
dozen hands would be extended to help him on board, but afterward
he was left pretty much to his own thoughts. Of course he never
did any work, except, perhaps, to cast off some rope when hailed,
"He, l'Ancien! let go the halyards there, at your hand"--or some
such request of an easy kind.

No one took notice in any way of the chuckling within the shadow
of the hood. He kept it up for a long time with intense
enjoyment. Obviously he had preserved intact the innocence of
mind which is easily amused. But when his hilarity had exhausted
itself, he made a professional remark in a self-assertive but
quavering voice:

"Can't expect much work on a night like this."

No one took it up. It was a mere truism. Nothing under canvas
could be expected to make a port on such an idle night of dreamy
splendour and spiritual stillness. We would have to glide idly
to and fro, keeping our station within the appointed bearings,
and, unless a fresh breeze sprang up with the dawn, we would land
before sunrise on a small islet that, within two miles of us,
shone like a lump of frozen moonlight, to "break a crust and take
a pull at the wine bottle." I was familiar with the procedure.
The stout boat emptied of her crowd would nestle her buoyant,
capable side against the very rock--such is the perfectly smooth
amenity of the classic sea when in a gentle mood. The crust
broken and the mouthful of wine swallowed--it was literally no
more than that with this abstemious race--the pilots would pass
the time stamping their feet on the slabs of sea-salted stone and
blowing into their nipped fingers. One or two misanthropists
would sit apart, perched on boulders like manlike sea-fowl of
solitary habits; the sociably disposed would gossip scandalously
in little gesticulating knots; and there would be perpetually one
or another of my hosts taking aim at the empty horizon with the
long, brass tube of the telescope, a heavy, murderous-looking
piece of collective property, everlastingly changing hands with
brandishing and levelling movements. Then about noon (it was a
short turn of duty--the long turn lasted twenty-four hours)
another boatful of pilots would relieve us--and we should steer
for the old Phoenician port, dominated, watched over from the
ridge of a dust-gray, arid hill by the red-and-white striped pile
of the Notre Dame de la Garde.

All this came to pass as I had foreseen in the fullness of my
very recent experience. But also something not foreseen by me
did happen, something which causes me to remember my last outing
with the pilots. It was on this occasion that my hand touched,
for the first time, the side of an English ship.

No fresh breeze had come with the dawn, only the steady little
draught got a more keen edge on it as the eastern sky became
bright and glassy with a clean, colourless light. I t was while
we were all ashore on the islet that a steamer was picked up by
the telescope, a black speck like an insect posed on the hard
edge of the offing. She emerged rapidly to her water-line and
came on steadily, a slim hull with a long streak of smoke
slanting away from the rising sun. We embarked in a hurry, and
headed the boat out for our prey, but we hardly moved three miles
an hour.

She was a big, high-class cargo-steamer of a type that is to be
met on the sea no more--black hull, with low, white
superstructures, powerfully rigged with three masts and a lot of
yards on the fore; two hands at her enormous wheel--steam
steering-gear was not a matter of course in these days--and with
them on the bridge three others, bulky in thick blue jackets,
ruddy-faced, muffled up, with peak caps--I suppose all her
officers. There are ships I have met more than once and known
well by sight whose names I have forgotten; but the name of that
ship seen once so many years ago in the clear flush of a cold,
pale sunrise I have not forgotten. How could I--the first
English ship on whose side I ever laid my hand! The name--I read
it letter by letter on the bow--was James Westoll. Not very
romantic, you will say. The name of a very considerable,
well-known, and universally respected North country ship-owner, I
believe. James Westoll! What better name could an honourable
hard-working ship have? To me the very grouping of the letters
is alive with the romantic feeling of her reality as I saw her
floating motionless and borrowing an ideal grace from the austere
purity of the light.

We were then very near her and, on a sudden impulse, I
volunteered to pull bow in the dinghy which shoved off at once to
put the pilot on board while our boat, fanned by the faint air
which had attended us all through the night, went on gliding
gently past the black, glistening length of the ship. A few
strokes brought us alongside, and it was then that, for the very
first time in my life, I heard myself addressed in English--the
speech of my secret choice, of my future, of long friendships, of
the deepest affections, of hours of toil and hours of ease, and
of solitary hours, too, of books read, of thoughts pursued, of
remembered emotions--of my very dreams! And if (after being thus
fashioned by it in that part of me which cannot decay) I dare not
claim it aloud as my own, then, at any rate, the speech of my
children. Thus small events grow memorable by the passage of
time. As to the quality of the address itself I cannot say it
was very striking. Too short for eloquence and devoid of all
charm of tone, it consisted precisely of the three words "Look
out there!" growled out huskily above my head.

It proceeded from a big fat fellow (he had an obtrusive, hairy
double chin) in a blue woollen shirt and roomy breeches pulled up
very high, even to the level of his breastbone, by a pair of
braces quite exposed to public view. As where he stood there was
no bulwark, but only a rail and stanchions, I was able to take in
at a glance the whole of his voluminous person from his feet to
the high crown of his soft black hat, which sat like an absurd
flanged cone on his big head. The grotesque and massive aspect
of that deck hand (I suppose he was that--very likely the
lamp-trimmer) surprised me very much. My course of reading, of
dreaming, and longing for the sea had not prepared me for a sea
brother of that sort. I never met again a figure in the least
like his except in the illustrations to Mr. W. W. Jacobs's most
entertaining tales of barges and coasters; but the inspired
talent of Mr. Jacobs for poking endless fun at poor, innocent
sailors in a prose which, however extravagant in its felicitous
invention, is always artistically adjusted to observed truth, was
not yet. Perhaps Mr. Jacobs himself was not yet. I fancy that,
at most, if he had made his nurse laugh it was about all he had
achieved at that early date.

Therefore, I repeat, other disabilities apart, I could not have
been prepared for the sight of that husky old porpoise. The
object of his concise address was to call my attention to a rope
which he incontinently flung down for me to catch. I caught it,
though it was not really necessary, the ship having no way on her
by that time. Then everything went on very swiftly. The dinghy
came with a slight bump against the steamer's side; the pilot,
grabbing for the rope ladder, had scrambled half-way up before I
knew that our task of boarding was done; the harsh, muffled
clanging of the engine-room telegraph struck my ear through the
iron plate; my companion in the dinghy was urging me to "shove
off--push hard"; and when I bore against the smooth flank of the
first English ship I ever touched in my life, I felt it already
throbbing under my open palm.

Her head swung a little to the west, pointing toward the
miniature lighthouse of the Jolliette breakwater, far away there,
hardly distinguishable against the land. The dinghy danced a
squashy, splashy jig in the wash of the wake; and, turning in my
seat, I followed the James Westoll with my eyes. Before she had
gone in a quarter of a mile she hoisted her flag, as the harbour
regulations prescribe for arriving and departing ships. I saw it
suddenly flicker and stream out on the flag staff. The Red
Ensign! In the pellucid, colourless atmosphere bathing the drab
and gray masses of that southern land, the livid islets, the sea
of pale, glassy blue under the pale, glassy sky of that cold
sunrise, it was, as far as the eye could reach, the only spot of
ardent colour--flame-like, intense, and presently as minute as
the tiny red spark the concentrated reflection of a great fire
kindles in the clear heart of a globe of crystal. The Red
Ensign--the symbolic, protecting, warm bit of bunting flung wide
upon the seas, and destined for so many years to be the only roof
over my head.

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