Chance a tale in two pa.., p.1
Chance: A Tale in Two Parts, p.1Joseph Conrad
Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England
Chance, A Tale in Two Parts, by Joseph Conrad.
________________________________________________________________________Although this story is written in fairly simple language it is strangelydifficult to follow. The setting is that of one man, an old ship'sofficer, telling another of the same a long story. The language slidesbetween the two men, lighting pipes, making and answering comments, andso forth, and then back into the detail of the story, and sometimesdeeper still, into conversations that take place in the story.
This has its effect on the use of quotation signs. This is the hardestpart of this book to edit. There are rules involving the use of thesesigns, and most books obey them all the way through, but in this bookeither the author was being experimental, or the typesetter was a bitconfused. Because of the sliding in and out of the depth of the story,the quotes rules often vary from one paragraph to the next. What wehave done is to make the quotes rules hold true for each individualparagraph right through the book, and as far as possible we have madethe rules consistent from paragraph to paragraph. This is the secondtime that we have scanned the same copy of this book, and we just hopethat we have made a good job of it.
________________________________________________________________________CHANCE, A TALE IN TWO PARTS, BY JOSEPH CONRAD.
PART ONE, CHAPTER 1.
YOUNG POWELL AND HIS CHANCE.
I believe he had seen us out of the window coming off to dine in thedinghy of a fourteen-ton yawl belonging to Marlow my host and skipper.We helped the boy we had with us to haul the boat up on thelanding-stage before we went up to the riverside inn, where we found ournew acquaintance eating his dinner in dignified loneliness at the headof a long table, white and inhospitable like a snow bank.
The red tint of his clear-cut face with trim short black whiskers undera cap of curly iron-grey hair was the only warm spot in the dinginess ofthat room cooled by the cheerless tablecloth. We knew him already bysight as the owner of a little five-ton cutter, which he sailed aloneapparently, a fellow yachtsman in the unpretending band of fanatics whocruise at the mouth of the Thames. But the first time he addressed thewaiter sharply as `steward' we knew him at once for a sailor as well asa yachtsman.
Presently he had occasion to reprove that same waiter for the slovenlymanner in which the dinner was served. He did it with considerableenergy and then turned to us.
"If we at sea," he declared, "went about our work as people ashore highand low go about theirs we should never make a living. No one wouldemploy us. And moreover no ship navigated and sailed in thehappy-go-lucky manner people conduct their business on shore would everarrive into port."
Since he had retired from the sea he had been astonished to discoverthat the educated people were not much better than the others. No oneseemed to take any proper pride in his work: from plumbers who weresimply thieves to, say, newspaper men (he seemed to think them aspecially intellectual class) who never by any chance gave a correctversion of the simplest affair. This universal inefficiency of what hecalled "the shore gang" he ascribed in general to the want ofresponsibility and to a sense of security.
"They see," he went on, "that no matter what they do this tight littleisland won't turn turtle with them or spring a leak and go to the bottomwith their wives and children."
From this point the conversation took a special turn relatingexclusively to sea-life. On that subject he got quickly in touch withMarlow who in his time had followed the sea. They kept up a livelyexchange of reminiscences while I listened. They agreed that thehappiest time in their lives was as youngsters in good ships, with nocare in the world but not to lose a watch below when at sea and not amoment's time in going ashore after work hours when in harbour. Theyagreed also as to the proudest moment they had known in that callingwhich is never embraced on rational and practical grounds, because ofthe glamour of its romantic associations. It was the moment when theyhad passed successfully their first examination and left the seamanshipExaminer with the little precious slip of blue paper in their hands.
"That day I wouldn't have called the Queen my cousin," declared our newacquaintance enthusiastically.
At that time the Marine Board examinations took place at the SaintKatherine's Dock House on Tower Hill, and he informed us that he had aspecial affection for the view of that historic locality, with theGardens to the left, the front of the Mint to the right, the miserabletumble-down little houses farther away, a cabstand, boot-blackssquatting on the edge of the pavement and a pair of big policemen gazingwith an air of superiority at the doors of the Black Horse public-houseacross the road. This was the part of the world, he said, his eyesfirst took notice of, on the finest day of his life. He had emergedfrom the main entrance of Saint Katherine's Dock House a full-fledgedsecond mate after the hottest time of his life with Captain R--, themost dreaded of the three seamanship Examiners who at the time wereresponsible for the merchant service officers qualifying in the Port ofLondon.
"We all who were preparing to pass," he said, "used to shake in ourshoes at the idea of going before him. He kept me for an hour and ahalf in the torture chamber and behaved as though he hated me. He kepthis eyes shaded with one of his hands. Suddenly he let it drop saying,`You will do!' Before I realised what he meant he was pushing the blueslip across the table. I jumped up as if my chair had caught fire.
"`Thank you, sir,' says I, grabbing the paper.
"`Good morning, good luck to you,' he growls at me.
"The old doorkeeper fussed out of the cloak-room with my hat. Theyalways do. But he looked very hard at me before he ventured to ask in asort of timid whisper: `Got through all right, sir?' For all answer Idropped a half-crown into his soft broad palm. `Well,' says he with asudden grin from ear to ear, `I never knew him keep any of you gentlemenso long. He failed two second mates this morning before your turn came.Less than twenty minutes each: that's about his usual time.'
"I found myself downstairs without being aware of the steps as if I hadfloated down the staircase. The finest day in my life. The day you getyour first command is nothing to it. For one thing a man is not soyoung then and for another with us, you know, there is nothing much moreto expect. Yes, the finest day of one's life, no doubt, but then it isjust a day and no more. What comes after is about the most unpleasanttime for a youngster, the trying to get an officer's berth with nothingmuch to show but a brand-new certificate. It is surprising how uselessyou find that piece of ass's skin that you have been putting yourself insuch a state about. It didn't strike me at the time that a Board ofTrade certificate does not make an officer, not by a long long way. Butthe skippers of the ships I was haunting with demands for a job knewthat very well. I don't wonder at them now, and I don't blame themeither. But this `trying to get a ship' is pretty hard on a youngsterall the same..."
He went on then to tell us how tired he was and how discouraged by thislesson of disillusion following swiftly upon the finest day of his life.He told us how he went the round of all the ship-owners' offices in theCity where some junior clerk would furnish him with printed forms ofapplication which he took home to fill up in the evening. He used torun out just before midnight to post them in the nearest pillar-box.And that was all that ever came of it. In his own words: he might justas well have dropped them all properly addressed and stamped into thesewer grating.
Then one day, as he was wending his weary way to the docks, he met afriend and former shipmate a little older than himself outside theFenchurch Street Railway Station.
He craved for sympathy but his friend had just "got a ship" that verymorning and was hurrying home in a state of outward joy and inwarduneasiness usual to a sailor wh
Our new acquaintance looking from one to the other of us declared: "Uponmy word, I had grown so desperate that I'd have gone boldly up to thedevil himself on the mere hint that he had a second mate's job to giveaway."
It was at this point that interrupting his flow of talk to light hispipe but holding us with his eye he inquired whether we had knownPowell. Marlow with a slight reminiscent smile murmured that heremembered him very well.
Then there was a pause. Our new acquaintance had become involved in avexatious difficulty with his pipe which had suddenly betrayed his trustand disappointed his anticipation of self-indulgence. To keep the ballrolling I asked Marlow if this Powell was remarkable in any way.
"He was not exactly remarkable," Marlow answered with his usualnonchalance. "In a general way it's very difficult for one to becomeremarkable. People won't take sufficient notice of one, don't you know.I remember Powell so well simply because as one of the Shipping Mastersin the Port of London he dispatched me to sea on several long stages ofmy sailor's pilgrimage. He resembled Socrates. I mean he resembled himgenuinely: that is in the face. A philosophical mind is but anaccident. He reproduced exactly, the familiar bust of, the immortalsage, if you will imagine the bust with a high top hat riding far on theback of the head, and a black coat over the shoulders. As I never sawhim except from the other side of the long official counter bearing thefive writing-desks of the five Shipping Masters, Mr Powell has remaineda bust to me."
Our new acquaintance advanced now from the mantelpiece with his pipe ingood working order.
"What was the most remarkable about Powell," he enunciated dogmaticallywith his head in a cloud of smoke, "is that he should have had just thatname. You see, my name happens to be Powell too."
It was clear that this intelligence was not imparted to us for socialpurposes. It required no acknowledgment. We continued to gaze at himwith expectant eyes.
He gave himself up to the vigorous enjoyment of his pipe for a silentminute or two. Then picking up the thread of his story he told us howhe had started hot foot for Tower Hill. He had not been that way sincethe day of his examination--the finest day of his life--the day of hisoverweening pride. It was very different now. He would not have calledthe Queen his cousin, still, but this time it was from a sense ofprofound abasement. He didn't think himself good enough for anybody'skinship. He envied the purple-nosed old cab-drivers on the stand, theboot-black boys at the edge of the pavement, the two large bobbiespacing slowly along the Tower Gardens railings in the consciousness oftheir infallible might, and the bright scarlet sentries walking smartlyto and fro before the Mint. He envied them their places in the schemeof world's labour. And he envied also the miserable sallow, thin-facedloafers blinking their obscene eyes and rubbing their greasy shouldersagainst the doorjambs of the Black Horse pub, because they were too fargone to feel their degradation.
I must render the man the justice that he conveyed very well to us thesense of his youthful hopelessness surprised at not finding its place inthe sun and no recognition of its right to live.
He went up the outer steps of Saint Katherine's Dock House, the verysteps from which he had some six weeks before surveyed the cabstand, thebuildings, the policemen, the boot-blacks, the paint, gilt, andplate-glass of the Black Horse, with the eye of a Conqueror. At thetime he had been at the bottom of his heart surprised that all this hadnot greeted him with songs and incense, but now (he made no secret ofit) he made his entry in a slinking fashion past the doorkeeper's glassbox. "I hadn't any half-crowns to spare for tips," he remarked grimly.The man, however, ran out after him asking: "What do you require?" butwith a grateful glance up at the first floor in remembrance of CaptainR--'s examination room (how easy and delightful all that had been) hebolted down a flight leading to the basement and found himself in aplace of dusk and mystery and many doors. He had been afraid of beingstopped by some rule of no-admittance. However he was not pursued.
The basement of Saint Katherine's Dock House is vast in extent andconfusing in its plan. Pale shafts of light slant from above into thegloom of its chilly passages. Powell wandered up and down there like anearly Christian refugee in the catacombs; but what little faith he hadin the success of his enterprise was oozing out at his finger-tips. Ata dark turn under a gas bracket whose flame was half turned down hisself-confidence abandoned him altogether.
"I stood there to think a little," he said. "A foolish thing to dobecause of course I got scared. What could you expect? It takes somenerve to tackle a stranger with a request for a favour. I wished mynamesake Powell had been the devil himself. I felt somehow it wouldhave been an easier job. You see, I never believed in the devil enoughto be scared of him; but a man can make himself very unpleasant. Ilooked at a lot of doors, all shut tight, with a growing conviction thatI would never have the pluck to open one of them. Thinking's no goodfor one's nerve. I concluded I would give up the whole business. But Ididn't give up in the end, and I'll tell you what stopped me. It wasthe recollection of that confounded doorkeeper who had called after me.I felt sure the fellow would be on the look-out at the head of thestairs. If he asked me what I had been after, as he had the right todo, I wouldn't know what to answer that wouldn't make me look silly ifno worse. I got very hot. There was no chance of slinking out of thisbusiness.
"I had lost my bearings somehow down there. Of the many doors ofvarious sizes, right and left, a good few had glazed lights above; somehowever must have led merely into lumber rooms or such like, becausewhen I brought myself to try one or two I was disconcerted to find thatthey were locked. I stood there irresolute and uneasy like a baffledthief. The confounded basement was as still as a grave and I becameaware of my heart beats. Very uncomfortable sensation. Never happenedto me before or since. A bigger door to the left of me, with a largebrass handle looked as if it might lead into the Shipping Office. Itried it, setting my teeth. `Here goes!'
"It came open quite easily. And lo! the place it opened into was hardlyany bigger than a cupboard. Anyhow it wasn't more than ten feet bytwelve; and as I in a way expected to see the big shadowy cellar-likeextent of the Shipping Office where I had been once or twice before, Iwas extremely startled. A gas bracket hung from the middle of theceiling over a dark, shabby writing-desk covered with a litter ofyellowish dusty documents. Under the flame of the single burner whichmade the place ablaze with light, a plump, little man was writing hard,his nose very near the desk. His head was perfectly bald and about thesame drab tint as the papers. He appeared pretty dusty too.
"I didn't notice whether there were any cobwebs on him, but I shouldn'twonder if there were because he looked as though he had been imprisonedfor years in that little hole. The way he dropped his pen and satblinking my way upset me very much. And his dungeon was hot and musty;it smelt of gas and mushrooms, and seemed to be somewhere 120 feet belowthe ground. Solid, heavy stacks of paper filled all the cornershalf-way up to the ceiling. And when the thought flashed upon me thatthese were the premises of the Marine Board and that this fellow must beconnected in some way with ships and sailors and the sea, myastonishment took my breath away. One couldn't imagine why the MarineBoard should keep that bald, fat creature slaving down there. For somereason or other I felt sorry and ashamed to have found him out in hiswretched captivity. I asked gently and sorrowfully: `The ShippingOffice, please.'
"He piped up in a contemptuous squeaky voice which made me start: `Nothere. Try the passage on the other side. Street side. This is theDock side. Yo
"He spoke in such a spiteful tone that I thought he was going to roundoff with the words: `You fool' ... and perhaps he meant to. But what hefinished sharply with was: `Shut the door quietly after you.'
"And I did shut it quietly--you bet. Quick and quiet. The indomitablespirit of that chap impressed me. I wonder sometimes whether he hassucceeded in writing himself into liberty and a pension at last, or hadto go out of his gas-lighted grave straight into that other dark onewhere nobody would want to intrude. My humanity was pleased to discoverhe had so much kick left in him, but I was not comforted in the least.It occurred to me that if Mr Powell had the same sort of temper...However, I didn't give myself time to think and scuttled across thespace at the foot of the stairs into the passage where I'd been told totry. And I tried the first door I came to, right away, without anyhanging back, because coming loudly from the hall above an amazed andscandalised voice wanted to know what sort of game I was up to downthere. `Don't you know there's no-admittance that way?' it roared. Butif there was anything more I shut it out of my hearing by means of adoor marked _Private_ on the outside. It let me into a six-feet widestrip between a long counter and the wall, taken off a spacious, vaultedroom with a grated window and a glazed door giving daylight to thefurther end. The first thing I saw right in front of me were threemiddle-aged men having a sort of romp together round about anotherfellow with a thin, long neck and sloping shoulders who stood up at adesk writing on a large sheet of paper and taking no notice except thathe grinned quietly to himself. They turned very sour at once when theysaw me. I heard one of them mutter: `Hullo! What have we here?'
"`I want to see Mr Powell, please,' I said, very civil but firm; Iwould let nothing scare me away now. This was the Shipping Office rightenough. It was after 3 o'clock and the business seemed over for the daywith them. The long-necked fellow went on with his writing steadily. Iobserved that he was no longer grinning. The three others tossed theirheads all together towards the far end of the room where a fifth man hadbeen looking on at their antics from a high stool. I walked up to himas boldly as if he had been the devil himself. With one foot raised upand resting on the cross-bar of his seat he never stopped swinging theother which was well clear of the stone floor. He had unbuttoned thetop of his waistcoat and he wore his tall hat very far at the back ofhis head. He had a full unwrinkled face and such clear-shining eyesthat his grey beard looked quite false on him, stuck on for a disguise.You said just now he resembled Socrates--didn't you? I don't know aboutthat. This Socrates was a wise man, I believe?"
"He was," assented Marlow. "And a true friend of youth. He lecturedthem in a peculiarly exasperating manner. It was a way he had."
"Then give me Powell every time," declared our new acquaintancesturdily. "He didn't lecture me in any way. Not he. He said: `How doyou do?' quite kindly to my mumble. Then says he looking very hard atme: `I don't think I know you--do I?'
"`No, sir,' I said and down went my heart sliding into my boots, just asthe time had come to summon up all my cheek. There's nothing meaner inthe world than a piece of impudence that isn't carried off well. Forfear of appearing shamefaced I started about it so free and easy asalmost to frighten myself. He listened for a while looking at my facewith surprise and curiosity and then held up his hand. I was gladenough to shut up, I can tell you.
"`Well, you are a cool hand,' says he. `And that friend of yours too.He pestered me coming here every day for a fortnight till a captain I'macquainted with was good enough to give him a berth. And no sooner he'sprovided for than he turns you on. You youngsters don't seem to mindwhom you get into trouble.'
"It was my turn now to stare with surprise and curiosity. He hadn'tbeen talking loud but he lowered his voice still more.
"`Don't you know it's illegal?'
"I wondered what he was driving at till I remembered that procuring aberth for a sailor is a penal offence under the Act. That clause wasdirected of course against the swindling practices of the boarding-housecrimps. It had never struck me it would apply to everybody alike nomatter what the motive, because I believed then that people on shore didtheir work with care and foresight.
"I was confounded at the idea, but Mr Powell made me soon see that anAct of Parliament hasn't any sense of its own. It has only the sensethat's put into it; and that's precious little sometimes. He didn'tmind helping a young man to a ship now and then, he said, but if we kepton coming constantly it would soon get about that he was doing it formoney.
"`A pretty thing that would be: the Senior Shipping Master of the Portof London hauled up in a police court and fined fifty pounds,' says he.`I've another four years to serve to get my pension. It could be madeto look very black against me and don't you make any mistake about it,'he says.
"And all the time with one knee well up he went on swinging his otherleg like a boy on a gate and looking at me very straight with hisshining eyes. I was confounded I tell you. It made me sick to hear himimply that somebody would make a report against him.
"`Oh!'--I asked shocked, `who would think of such a scurvy trick, sir?'I was half disgusted with him for having the mere notion of it.
"`Who?' says he, speaking very low. `Anybody. One of the officemessengers maybe. I've risen to be the Senior of this office and we areall very good friends here, but don't you think that my colleague thatsits next to me wouldn't like to go up to this desk by the window fouryears in advance of the regulation time? Or even one year for thatmatter. It's human nature.'
"I could not help turning my head. The three fellows who had beenskylarking when I came in were now talking together very soberly, andthe long-necked chap was going on with his writing still. He seemed tome the most dangerous of the lot. I saw him side-face and his lips wereset very tight. I had never looked at mankind in that light before.When one's young human nature shocks one. But what startled me most wasto see the door I had come through open slowly and give passage to ahead in a uniform cap with a Board of Trade badge. It was that blamedold doorkeeper from the hall. He had run me to earth and meant to digme out too. He walked up the office smirking craftily, cap in hand.
"`What is it, Symons?' asked Mr Powell.
"`I was only wondering where this 'ere gentleman 'ad gone to, sir. Heslipped past me upstairs, sir.'
"I felt mighty uncomfortable.
"`That's all right, Symons. I know the gentleman,' says Mr Powell asserious as a judge.
"`Very well, sir. Of course, sir. I saw the gentleman running racesall by 'isself down 'ere, so I...'
"`It's all right I tell you,' Mr Powell cut him short with a wave ofhis hand; and, as the old fraud walked off at last, he raised his eyesto me. I did not know what to do: stay there, or clear out, or say thatI was sorry.
"`Let's see,' says he, `what did you tell me your name was?'
"Now, observe, I hadn't given him my name at all and his questionembarrassed me a bit. Somehow or other it didn't seem proper for me tofling his own name at him as it were. So I merely pulled out my newcertificate from my pocket and put it into his hand unfolded, so that hecould read _Charles Powell_ written very plain on the parchment.
"He dropped his eyes on to it and after a while laid it quietly on thedesk by his side. I didn't know whether he meant to make any remark onthis coincidence. Before he had time to say anything the glass doorcame open with a bang and a tall, active man rushed in with greatstrides. His face looked very red below his high silk hat. You couldsee at once he was the skipper of a big ship.
"Mr Powell, after telling me in an undertone to wait a little,addressed him in a friendly way.
"`I've been expecting you in every moment to fetch away your Articles,Captain. Here they are all ready for you.' And turning to a pile ofagreements lying at his elbow he took up the topmost of them. Fromwhere I stood I could read the words: `Ship _Ferndale_' written in alarge round hand on the first page.
"`No, Mr Powell, they aren't ready, worse luck,' says
"Mr Powell dipped his pen and began to turn the leaves of the agreementover. `We must then take his name off,' he says in a kind ofunconcerned sing-song.
"`What am I to do?' burst out the skipper. `This office closes at fouro'clock. I can't find a man in half an hour.'
"`This office closes at four,' repeats Mr Powell glancing up and downthe pages and touching up a letter here and there with perfectindifference.
"`Even if I managed to lay hold some time to-day of a man ready to go atsuch short notice I couldn't ship him regularly here--could I?'
"Mr Powell was busy drawing his pen through the entries relating tothat unlucky second mate and making a note in the margin.
"`You could sign him on yourself on board,' says he without looking up.`But I don't think you'll find easily an officer for such a pier-headjump.'
"Upon this the fine-looking skipper gave signs of distress. The shipmustn't miss the next morning's tide. He had to take on board fortytons of dynamite and a hundred and twenty tons of gunpowder at a placedown the river before proceeding to sea. It was all arranged for nextday. There would be no end of fuss and complications if the ship didn'tturn up in time.--I couldn't help hearing all this, while wishing him totake himself off, because I wanted to know why Mr Powell had told me towait. After what he had been saying there didn't seem any object in myhanging about. If I had had my certificate in my pocket I should havetried to slip away quietly; but Mr Powell had turned about into thesame position I found him in at first and was again swinging his leg.My certificate open on the desk was under his left elbow and I couldn'tvery well go up and jerk it away.
"`I don't know,' says he carelessly, addressing the helpless captain butlooking fixedly at me with an expression as if I hadn't been there. `Idon't know whether I ought to tell you that I know of a disengagedsecond mate at hand.'
"`Do you mean you've got him here?' shouts the other looking all overthe empty public part of the office as if he were ready to fling himselfbodily upon anything resembling a second mate. He had been so full ofhis difficulty that I verily believe he had never noticed me. Orperhaps seeing me inside he may have thought I was some understrapperbelonging to the place. But when Mr Powell nodded in my direction hebecame very quiet and gave me a long stare. Then he stooped to MrPowell's ear--I suppose he imagined he was whispering, but I heard himwell enough.
"`Looks very respectable.'
"`Certainly,' says the Shipping Master quite calm and staring all thetime at me. `His name's Powell.'
"`Oh, I see!' says the skipper as if struck all of a heap. `But is heready to join at once?'
"I had a sort of vision of my lodgings--in the North of London, too,beyond Dalston, away to the devil--and all my gear scattered about, andmy empty sea-chest somewhere in an outhouse the good people I wasstaying with had at the end of their sooty strip of garden. I heard theShipping Master say in the coolest sort of way:--
"`He'll sleep on board to-night.'
"`He had better,' says the Captain of the _Ferndale_ very businesslike,as if the whole thing were settled. I can't say I was dumb for joy asyou may suppose. It wasn't exactly that. I was more by way of beingout of breath with the quickness of it. It didn't seem possible thatthis was happening to me. But the skipper, after he had talked for awhile with Mr Powell, too low for me to hear became visibly perplexed.
"I suppose he had heard I was freshly passed and without experience asan officer, because he turned about and looked me over as if I had beenexposed for sale.
"`He's young,' he mutters. `Looks smart, though... You're smart andwilling (this to me very sudden and loud) and all that, aren't you?'
"I just managed to open and shut my mouth, no more, being takenunawares. But it was enough for him. He made as if I had deafened himwith protestations of my smartness and willingness.
"`Of course, of course. All right.' And then turning to the ShippingMaster who sat there swinging his leg, he said that he certainlycouldn't go to sea without a second officer. I stood by as if all thesethings were happening to some other chap whom I was seeing through withit. Mr Powell stared at me with those shining eyes of his. But thatbothered skipper turns upon me again as though he wanted to snap my headoff.
"`You aren't too big to be told how to do things--are you? You've a lotto learn yet though you mayn't think so.'
"I had half a mind to save my dignity by telling him that if it was myseamanship he was alluding to I wanted him to understand that a fellowwho had survived being turned inside out for an hour and a half byCaptain R--was equal to any demand his old ship was likely to make onhis competence. However he didn't give me a chance to make that sort offool of myself because before I could open my mouth he had gone round onanother tack and was addressing himself affably to Mr Powell whoswinging his leg never took his eyes off me.
"`I'll take your young friend willingly, Mr Powell. If you let himsign on as second mate at once I'll take the Articles away with me now.'
"It suddenly dawned upon me that the innocent skipper of the _Ferndale_had taken it for granted that I was a relative of the Shipping Master!I was quite astonished at this discovery, though indeed the mistake wasnatural enough under the circumstances. What I ought to have admiredwas the reticence with which this misunderstanding had been establishedand acted upon. But I was too stupid then to admire anything. All myanxiety was that this should be cleared up. I was ass enough to wonderexceedingly at Mr Powell failing to notice the misapprehension. I sawa slight twitch come and go on his face; but instead of setting rightthat mistake the Shipping Master swung round on his stool and addressedme as `Charles.' He did. And I detected him taking a hasty squint atmy certificate just before, because clearly till he did so he was notsure of my christian name. `Now then come round in front of the desk,Charles,' says he in a loud voice.
"Charles! At first, I declare to you, it didn't seem possible that hewas addressing himself to me. I even looked round for that Charles butthere was nobody behind me except the thin-necked chap still hard at hiswriting, and the other three Shipping Masters who were changing theircoats and reaching for their hats, making ready to go home. It was theindustrious thin-necked man who without laying down his pen lifted withhis left hand a flap near his desk and said kindly:--
"`Pass this way.'
"I walked through in a trance, faced Mr Powell, from whom I learnedthat we were bound to Port Elizabeth first, and signed my name on theArticles of the ship _Ferndale_ as second mate--the voyage not to exceedtwo years.
"`You won't fail to join--eh?' says the captain anxiously. `It wouldcause no end of trouble and expense if you did. You've got a good sixhours to get your gear together, and then you'll have time to snatch asleep on board before the crew joins in the morning.'
"It was easy enough for him to talk of getting ready in six hours for avoyage that was not to exceed two years. He hadn't to do that trickhimself, and with his sea-chest locked up in an outhouse the key ofwhich had been mislaid for a week as I remembered. But neither was Imuch concerned. The idea that I was absolutely going to sea at sixo'clock next morning hadn't got quite into my head yet. It had been toosudden.
"Mr Powell, slipping the Articles into a long envelope, spoke up with asort of cold half-laugh without looking at either of us.
"`Mind you don't disgrace the name, Charles.'
"And the skipper chimes in very kindly:--
"`He'll do well enough I dare say. I'll look after
"Upon this he grabs the Articles, says something about trying to run infor a minute to see that poor devil in the hospital, and off he goeswith his heavy swinging step after telling me sternly: `Don't you golike that poor fellow and get yourself run over by a cart as if youhadn't either eyes or ears.'
"`Mr Powell,' says I timidly (there was by then only the thin-neckedman left in the office with us and he was already by the door, standingon one leg to turn the bottom of his trousers up before going away).`Mr Powell,' says I, `I believe the Captain of the _Ferndale_ wasthinking all the time that I was a relation of yours.'
"I was rather concerned about the propriety of it, you know, but MrPowell didn't seem to be in the least.
"`Did he?' says he. `That's funny, because it seems to me too that I'vebeen a sort of good uncle to several of you young fellows lately. Don'tyou think so yourself? However, if you don't like it you may put himright--when you get out to sea.' At this I felt a bit queer. MrPowell had rendered me a very good service:--because it's a fact thatwith us merchant sailors the first voyage as officer is the real startin life. He had given me no less than that. I told him warmly that hehad done for me more that day than all my relations put together everdid.
"`Oh, no, no,' says he. `I guess it's that shipment of explosiveswaiting down the river which has done most for you. Forty tons ofdynamite have been your best friend to-day, young man.'
"That was true too, perhaps. Anyway I saw clearly enough that I hadnothing to thank myself for. But as I tried to thank him, he checked mystammering.
"`Don't be in a hurry to thank me,' says he. `The voyage isn't finishedyet.'
"Our new acquaintance paused, then added meditatively: `Queer man. Asif it made any difference. Queer man.'"
"It's certainly unwise to admit any sort of responsibility for ouractions, whose consequences we are never able to foresee," remarkedMarlow by way of assent.
"The consequence of his action was that I got a ship," said the other."That could not do much harm," he added with a laugh which argued aprobably unconscious contempt of general ideas.
But Marlow was not put off. He was patient and reflective. He had beenat sea many years and I verily believe he liked sea-life because uponthe whole it is favourable to reflection. I am speaking of the nownearly vanished sea-life under sail. To those who may be surprised atthe statement I will point out that this life secured for the mind ofhim who embraced it the inestimable advantages of solitude and silence.Marlow had the habit of pursuing general ideas in a peculiar manner,between jest and earnest.
"Oh, I wouldn't suggest," he said, "that your namesake Mr Powell, theShipping Master, had done you much harm. Such was hardly his intention.And even if it had been he would not have had the power. He was but aman, and the incapacity to achieve anything distinctly good or evil isinherent in our earthly condition. Mediocrity is our mark. And perhapsit's just as well, since, for the most part, we cannot be certain of theeffect of our actions."
"I don't know about the effect," the other stood up to Marlow manfully."What effect did you expect anyhow? I tell you he did somethinguncommonly kind."
"He did what he could," Marlow retorted gently, "and on his own showingthat was not a very great deal. I cannot help thinking that there wassome malice in the way he seized the opportunity to serve you. Hemanaged to make you uncomfortable. You wanted to go to sea, but hejumped at the chance of accommodating your desire with a vengeance. Iam inclined to think your cheek alarmed him. And this was an excellentoccasion to suppress you altogether. For if you accepted he wasrelieved of you with every appearance of humanity, and if you madeobjections (after requesting his assistance, mind you) it was open tohim to drop you as a sort of impostor. You might have had to declinethat berth for some very valid reason. From sheer necessity perhaps!The notice was too uncommonly short. But under the circumstances you'dhave covered yourself with ignominy."
Our new friend knocked the ashes out of his pipe.
"Quite a mistake," he said. "I am not of the declining sort, thoughI'll admit it was something like telling a man that you would like abath and in consequence being instantly knocked overboard to sink orswim with your clothes on. However, I didn't feel as if I were in deepwater at first. I left the shipping office quietly and for a timestrolled along the street as easy as if I had a week before me to fitmyself out. But by and by I reflected that the notice was even shorterthan it looked. The afternoon was well advanced; I had some things toget, a lot of small matters to attend to, one or two persons to see: Oneof them was an aunt of mine, my only relation, who quarrelled with poorfather as long as he lived about some silly matter that had neitherright nor wrong to it. She left her money to me when she died. I usedalways to go and see her for decency's sake. I had so much to do beforenight that I didn't know where to begin. I felt inclined to sit down onthe kerb and hold my head in my hands. It was as if an engine had beenstarted going under my skull. Finally I sat down in the first cab thatcame along and it was a hard matter to keep on sitting there I can tellyou, while we rolled up and down the streets, pulling up here and there,the parcels accumulating round me and the engine in my head gatheringmore way every minute. The composure of the people on the pavements wasprovoking to a degree, and as to the people in shops, they werebenumbed, more than half frozen--imbecile. Funny how it affects you tobe in a peculiar state of mind: everybody that does not act up to yourexcitement seems so confoundedly unfriendly. And my state of mind whatwith the hurry, the worry and a growing exultation was peculiar enough.That engine in my head went round at its top speed hour after hour tillat about eleven at night it let up on me suddenly at the entrance to theDock before large iron gates in a dead wall."
These gates were closed and locked. The cabby, after shooting histhings off the roof of his machine into young Powell's arms, drove awayleaving him alone with his sea-chest, a sail cloth bag and a few parcelson the pavement about his feet. It was a dark, narrow thoroughfare hetold us. A mean row of houses on the other side looked empty: therewasn't the smallest gleam of light in them. The white-hot glare of agin palace a good way off made the intervening piece of the streetpitch-black. Some human shapes appearing mysteriously, as if they hadsprung up from the dark ground, shunned the edge of the faint lightthrown down by the gateway lamps. These figures were wary in theirmovements and perfectly silent of foot, like beasts of prey slinkingabout a camp fire. Powell gathered up his belongings and hovered overthem like a hen over her brood. A gruffly, insinuating voice said:
"Let's carry your things in, Capt'in! I've got my pal 'ere."
He was a tall, bony, grey-haired ruffian with a bulldog jaw, in a torncotton shirt and moleskin trousers. The shadow of his hobnailed bootswas enormous and coffin-like. His pal, who didn't come up much higherthan his elbow, stepping forward exhibited a pale face with a longdrooping nose and no chin to speak of. He seemed to have just scrambledout of a dust-bin in a tam-o'-shanter cap and a tattered soldier's coatmuch too long for him. Being so deadly white he looked like a horribledirty invalid in a ragged dressing-gown. The coat flapped open in frontand the rest of his apparel consisted of one brace which crossed hisnaked, bony chest, and a pair of trousers. He blinked rapidly as ifdazed by the faint light, while his patron, the old bandit, glowered atyoung Powell from under his beetling brow.
"Say the word, Capt'in. The bobby'll let us in all right. 'E knowsboth of us."
"I didn't answer him," continued Mr Powell. "I was listening tofootsteps on the other side of the gate, echoing between the walls ofthe warehouses as if in an uninhabited town of very high buildings darkfrom basement to roof. You could never have guessed that within astone's throw there was an open sheet of water and big ships lyingafloat. The few gas lamps showing up a bit of brick work here andthere, appeared in the blackness like penny dips in a range of cellars--and the solitary footsteps came on, tramp, tramp. A dock policemanstrode into the light on the other side of the gate, very broad-chest
"`Hallo! What's up here?'
"He was really surprised, but after some palaver he let me in togetherwith the two loafers carrying my luggage. He grumbled at them howeverand slammed the gate violently with a loud clang. I was startled todiscover how many night prowlers had collected in the darkness of thestreet in such a short time and without my being aware of it. Directlywe were through they came surging against the bars, silent, like a mobof ugly spectres. But suddenly, up the street somewhere, perhaps nearthat public-house, a row started as if Bedlam had broken loose: shouts,yells, an awful shrill shriek--and at that noise all these headsvanished from behind the bars.
"Look at this," marvelled the constable. "It's a wonder to me theydidn't make off with your things while you were waiting."
"I would have taken good care of that," I said defiantly. But theconstable wasn't impressed.
"`Much you would have done. The bag going off round one dark corner;the chest round another. Would you have run two ways at once? Andanyhow you'd have been tripped up and jumped upon before you had runthree yards. I tell you you've had a most extraordinary chance thatthere wasn't one of them regular boys about to-night, in the HighStreet, to twig your loaded cab go by. Ted here is honest... You areon the honest lay, Ted, ain't you?'
"`Always was, orficer,' said the big ruffian with feeling. The otherfrail creature seemed dumb and only hopped about with the edge of itssoldier coat touching the ground.
"`Oh yes, I dare say,' said the constable. `Now then, forward, march...He's that because he ain't game for the other thing,' he confided tome. `He hasn't got the nerve for it. However, I ain't going to losesight of them two till they go out through the gate. That little chap'sa devil. He's got the nerve for anything, only he hasn't got themuscle. Well! Well! You've had a chance to get in with a whole skinand with all your things.'
"I was incredulous a little. It seemed impossible that after gettingready with so much hurry and inconvenience I should have lost my chanceof a start in life from such a cause. I asked: `Does that sort of thinghappen often so near the dock-gates?'
"`Often! No! Of course not often. But it ain't often either that aman comes along with a cab-load of things to join a ship at this time ofnight. I've been in the dock police thirteen years and haven't seen itdone once.'
"Meantime we followed my sea-chest which was being carried down a sortof deep narrow lane, separating two high warehouses, between honest Tedand his little devil of a pal who had to keep up a trot to the other'sstride. The skirt of his soldier's coat floating behind him nearlyswept the ground so that he seemed to be running on castors. At thecorner of the gloomy passage a rigged jib boom with a dolphin-strikerending in an arrow-head stuck out of the night close to a cast ironlamp-post. It was the quay side. They set down their load in the lightand honest Ted asked hoarsely: `Where's your ship, guv'nor?'
"I didn't know. The constable was interested at my ignorance.
"`Don't know where your ship is?' he asked with curiosity. `And you thesecond officer! Haven't you been working on board of her?'
"I couldn't explain that the only work connected with my appointment wasthe work of chance. I told him briefly that I didn't know her at all.At this he remarked: `So I see. Here she is, right before you. That'sher.'
"At once the head-gear in the gas light inspired me with interest andrespect; the spars were big, the chains and ropes stout and the wholething looked powerful and trustworthy. Barely touched by the light herbows rose faintly alongside the narrow strip of the quay; the rest ofher was a black smudge in the darkness. Here I, was face to face withmy start in life. We walked in a body a few steps on a greasy pavementbetween her side and the towering wall of a warehouse and I hit my shinscruelly against the end of the gangway. The constable hailed herquietly in a bass undertone `_Ferndale_ there!' A feeble and dismalsound, something in the nature of a buzzing groan, answered from behindthe bulwarks.
"I distinguished vaguely an irregular round knob, of wood, perhaps,resting on the rail. It did not move in the least; but as anotherbroken-down buzz like a still fainter echo of the first dismal soundproceeded from it I concluded it must be the head of the ship-keeper.The stalwart constable jeered in a mock-official manner.
"`Second officer coming to join. Move yourself a bit.'
"The truth of the statement touched me in the pit of the stomach (youknow that's the spot where emotion gets home on a man) for it was borneupon me that really and truly I was nothing but a second officer of aship just like any other second officer, to that constable. I was movedby this solid evidence of my new dignity. Only his tone offended me.Nevertheless I gave him the tip he was looking for. Thereupon he lostall interest in me, humorous or otherwise, and walked away drivingsternly before him the honest Ted, who went off grumbling to himselflike a hungry ogre, and his horrible dumb little pal in the soldier'scoat, who, from first to last, never emitted the slightest sound.
"It was very dark on the quarter-deck of the _Ferndale_ between the deepbulwarks overshadowed by the break of the poop and frowned upon by thefront of the warehouse. I plumped down on to my chest near the afterhatch as if my legs had been jerked from under me. I felt suddenly verytired and languid. The ship-keeper, whom I could hardly make out hungover the capstan in a fit of weak pitiful coughing. He gasped out verylow `Oh! dear! Oh! dear!' and struggled for breath so long that I gotup alarmed and irresolute.
"`I've been took like this since last Christmas twelvemonth. It ain'tnothing.'
"He seemed a hundred years old at least. I never saw him properlybecause he was gone ashore and out of sight when I came on deck in themorning; but he gave me the notion of the feeblest creature that everbreathed. His voice was thin like the buzzing of a mosquito. As itwould have been cruel to demand assistance from such a shadowy wreck Iwent to work myself, dragging my chest along a pitch-black passage underthe poop deck, while he sighed and moaned around me as if my exertionswere more than his weakness could stand. At last as I banged prettyheavily against the bulkheads he warned me in his faint breathlesswheeze to be more careful.
"`What's the matter?' I asked rather roughly, not relishing to beadmonished by this forlorn broken-down ghost.
"`Nothing! Nothing, sir,' he protested so hastily that he lost his poorbreath again and I felt sorry for him. `Only the captain and his missusare sleeping on board. She's a lady that mustn't be disturbed. Theycame about half-past eight, and we had a permit to have lights in thecabin till ten to-night.'
"This struck me as a considerable piece of news. I had never been in aship where the captain had his wife with him. I'd heard fellows saythat captains' wives could work a lot of mischief on board ship if theyhappened to take a dislike to anyone; especially the new wives if youngand pretty. The old and experienced wives on the other hand fanciedthey knew more about the ship than the skipper himself and had an eyelike a hawk's for what went on. They were like an extra chief mate of aparticularly sharp and unfeeling sort who made his report in theevening. The best of them were a nuisance. In the general opinion askipper with his wife on board was more difficult to please; but whetherto show off his authority before an admiring female or from lovinganxiety for her safety or simply from irritation at her presence--nobodyI ever heard on the subject could tell for certain.
"After I had bundled in my things somehow I struck a match and had adazzling glimpse of my berth; then I pitched the roll of my bedding intothe bunk but took no trouble to spread it out. I wasn't sleepy now,neither was I tired. And the thought that I was done with the earth formany many months to come made me feel very quiet and self-contained asit were. Sailors will understand what I mean."
Marlow nodded. "It is a strictly professional feeling," he commented."But other professions or trades know nothing of it. It is only thiscalling whose primary appeal lies in the suggestion of restlessadventure which holds out that deep sensation to those who embrace it.It is difficult to define, I admit."
"A very good name," said Marlow looking at him approvingly. "A sailorfinds a deep feeling of security in the exercise of his calling. Theexacting life of the sea has this advantage over the life of the earththat its claims are simple and cannot be evaded."
"Gospel truth," assented Mr Powell. "No! they cannot be evaded."
That an excellent understanding should have established itself betweenmy old friend and our new acquaintance was remarkable enough. For theywere exactly dissimilar--one individuality projecting itself in lengthand the other in breadth, which is already a sufficient ground forirreconcilable difference. Marlow who was lanky, loose, quietlycomposed in varied shades of brown robbed of every vestige of gloss, hada narrow, veiled glance, the neutral bearing and the secret irritabilitywhich go together with a predisposition to congestion of the liver. Theother, compact, broad and sturdy of limb, seemed extremely full of soundorgans functioning vigorously all the time in order to keep up thebrilliance of his colouring, the light curl of his coal-black hair andthe lustre of his eyes, which asserted themselves roundly in an open,manly face. Between two such organisms one would not have expected tofind the slightest temperamental accord. But I have observed thatprofane men living in ships like the holy men gathered together inmonasteries develop traits of profound resemblance. This must bebecause the service of the sea and the service of a temple are bothdetached from the vanities and errors of a world which follows no severerule. The men of the sea understand each other very well in their viewof earthly things, for simplicity is a good counsellor and isolation nota bad educator. A turn of mind composed of innocence and scepticism iscommon to them all, with the addition of an unexpected insight intomotives, as of disinterested lookers-on at a game. Mr Powell took measide to say, "I like the things he says."
"You understand each other pretty well," I observed.
"I know his sort," said Powell, going to the window to look at hiscutter still riding to the flood. "He's the sort that's always chasingsome notion or other round and round his head just for the fun of thething."
"Keeps them in good condition," I said.
"Lively enough I dare say," he admitted.
"Would you like better a man who let his notions lie curled up?"
"That I wouldn't," answered our new acquaintance. Clearly he was notdifficult to get on with. "I like him, very well," he continued,"though it isn't easy to make him out. He seems to be up to a thing ortwo. What's he doing?"
I informed him that our friend Marlow had retired from the sea in a sortof half-hearted fashion some years ago.
Mr Powell's comment was: "Fancied he'd had enough of it?"
"Fancied's the very word to use in this connection," I observed,remembering the subtly provisional character of Marlow's long sojournamongst us. From year to year he dwelt on land as a bird rests on thebranch of a tree, so tense with the power of brusque flight into itstrue element that it is incomprehensible why it should sit still minuteafter minute. The sea is the sailor's true element, and Marlow,lingering on shore, was to me an object of incredulous commiserationlike a bird, which, secretly, should have lost its faith in the highvirtue of flying.
Chance: A Tale in Two Parts by Joseph Conrad / Romance & Love have rating 4.5 out of 5 / Based on18 votes