CHANCE--A TALE IN TWO PARTS
by Joseph Conrad
PART I--THE DAMSEL
CHAPTER ONE--YOUNG POWELL AND HIS CHANCE
I believe he had seen us out of the window coming off to dine in the
dinghy of a fourteen-ton yawl belonging to Marlow my host and
skipper. We helped the boy we had with us to haul the boat up on
the landing-stage before we went up to the riverside inn, where we
found our new acquaintance eating his dinner in dignified loneliness
at the head of a long table, white and inhospitable like a snow
The red tint of his clear-cut face with trim short black whiskers
under a cap of curly iron-grey hair was the only warm spot in the
dinginess of that room cooled by the cheerless tablecloth. We knew
him already by sight as the owner of a little five-ton cutter, which
he sailed alone apparently, a fellow yachtsman in the unpretending
band of fanatics who cruise at the mouth of the Thames. But the
first time he addressed the waiter sharply as 'steward' we knew him
at once for a sailor as well as a yachtsman.
Presently he had occasion to reprove that same waiter for the
slovenly manner in which the dinner was served. He did it with
considerable energy and then turned to us.
"If we at sea," he declared, "went about our work as people ashore
high and low go about theirs we should never make a living. No one
would employ us. And moreover no ship navigated and sailed in the
happy-go-lucky manner people conduct their business on shore would
ever arrive into port."
Since he had retired from the sea he had been astonished to discover
that the educated people were not much better than the others. No
one seemed to take any proper pride in his work: from plumbers who
were simply thieves to, say, newspaper men (he seemed to think them
a specially intellectual class) who never by any chance gave a
correct version of the simplest affair. This universal inefficiency
of what he called "the shore gang" he ascribed in general to the
want of responsibility and to a sense of security.
"They see," he went on, "that no matter what they do this tight
little island won't turn turtle with them or spring a leak and go to
the bottom with their wives and children."
From this point the conversation took a special turn relating
exclusively to sea-life. On that subject he got quickly in touch
with Marlow who in his time had followed the sea. They kept up a
lively exchange of reminiscences while I listened. They agreed that
the happiest time in their lives was as youngsters in good ships,
with no care in the world but not to lose a watch below when at sea
and not a moment's time in going ashore after work hours when in
harbour. They agreed also as to the proudest moment they had known
in that calling which is never embraced on rational and practical
grounds, because of the glamour of its romantic associations. It
was the moment when they had passed successfully their first
examination and left the seamanship Examiner with the little
precious slip of blue paper in their hands.
"That day I wouldn't have called the Queen my cousin," declared our
new acquaintance enthusiastically.
At that time the Marine Board examinations took place at the St.
Katherine's Dock House on Tower Hill, and he informed us that he had
a special affection for the view of that historic locality, with the
Gardens to the left, the front of the Mint to the right, the
miserable tumble-down little houses farther away, a cabstand, boot-
blacks squatting on the edge of the pavement and a pair of big
policemen gazing with an air of superiority at the doors of the
Black Horse public-house across the road. This was the part of the
world, he said, his eyes first took notice of, on the finest day of
his life. He had emerged from the main entrance of St. Katherine's
Dock House a full-fledged second mate after the hottest time of his
life with Captain R-, the most dreaded of the three seamanship
Examiners who at the time were responsible for the merchant service
officers qualifying in the Port of London.
"We all who were preparing to pass," he said, "used to shake in our
shoes at the idea of going before him. He kept me for an hour and a
half in the torture chamber and behaved as though he hated me. He
kept his eyes shaded with one of his hands. Suddenly he let it drop
saying, "You will do!" Before I realised what he meant he was
pushing the blue slip across the table. I jumped up as if my chair
had caught fire.
"Thank you, sir," says I, grabbing the paper.
"Good morning, good luck to you," he growls at me.
"The old doorkeeper fussed out of the cloak-room with my hat. They
always do. But he looked very hard at me before he ventured to ask
in a sort of timid whisper: "Got through all right, sir?" For all
answer I dropped a half-crown into his soft broad palm. "Well,"
says he with a sudden grin from ear to ear, "I never knew him keep
any of you gentlemen so long. He failed two second mates this
morning before your turn came. Less than twenty minutes each:
that's about his usual time."
"I found myself downstairs without being aware of the steps as if I
had floated down the staircase. The finest day in my life. The day
you get your first command is nothing to it. For one thing a man is
not so young then and for another with us, you know, there is
nothing much more to expect. Yes, the finest day of one's life, no
doubt, but then it is just a day and no more. What comes after is
about the most unpleasant time for a youngster, the trying to get an
officer's berth with nothing much to show but a brand-new
certificate. It is surprising how useless you find that piece of
ass's skin that you have been putting yourself in such a state
about. It didn't strike me at the time that a Board of Trade
certificate does not make an officer, not by a long long way. But
the slippers of the ships I was haunting with demands for a job knew
that very well. I don't wonder at them now, and I don't blame them
either. But this 'trying to get a ship' is pretty hard on a
youngster all the same . . . "
He went on then to tell us how tired he was and how discouraged by
this lesson of disillusion following swiftly upon the finest day of
his life. He told us how he went the round of all the ship-owners'
offices in the City where some junior clerk would furnish him with
printed forms of application which he took home to fill up in the
evening. He used to run out just before midnight to post them in
the nearest pillar-box. And that was all that ever came of it. In
his own words: he might just as well have dropped them all properly
addressed and stamped into the sewer grating.
Then one day, as he was wending his weary way to the docks, he met a
friend and former shipmate a little older than himself outside the
Fenchurch Street Railway Station.
He craved for sympathy but his friend had just "got a ship" that
very morning and was hurrying home in a state of outward joy and
inward uneasiness usual to a sailor who after many days of waiting
suddenly gets a berth. This friend had the time to condole with him
but briefly. He must be moving. Then as he was running off, over
his shoulder as it were, he suggested: "Why don't you go and speak
to Mr. Powell in the Shipping Office." Our friend objected that he
did not know Mr. Powell from Adam. And the other already pretty
near round the corner shouted back advice: "Go to the private door
of the Shipping Office and walk right up to him. His desk is by the
window. Go up boldly and say I sent you."
Our new acquaintance looking from one to the other of us declared:
"Upon my word, I had grown so desperate that I'd have gone boldly up
to the devil himself on the mere hint that he had a second mate's
job to give away."
It was at this point that interrupting his flow of talk to light his
pipe but holding us with his eye he inquired whether we had known
Powell. Marlow with a slight reminiscent smile murmured that he
"remembered him very well."
Then there was a pause. Our new acquaintance had become involved in
a vexatious difficulty with his pipe which had suddenly betrayed his
trust and disappointed his anticipation of self-indulgence. To keep
the ball rolling I asked Marlow if this Powell was remarkable in any
"He was not exactly remarkable," Marlow answered with his usual
nonchalance. "In a general way it's very difficult for one to
become remarkable. People won't take sufficient notice of one,
don't you know. I remember Powell so well simply because as one of
the Shipping Masters in the Port of London he dispatched me to sea
on several long stages of my sailor's pilgrimage. He resembled
Socrates. I mean he resembled him genuinely: that is in the face.
A philosophical mind is but an accident. He reproduced exactly the
familiar bust of the immortal sage, if you will imagine the bust
with a high top hat riding far on the back of the head, and a black
coat over the shoulders. As I never saw him except from the other
side of the long official counter bearing the five writing desks of
the five Shipping Masters, Mr. Powell has remained a bust to me."
Our new acquaintance advanced now from the mantelpiece with his pipe
in good working order.
"What was the most remarkable about Powell," he enunciated
dogmatically with his head in a cloud of smoke, "is that he should
have had just that name. You see, my name happens to be Powell
It was clear that this intelligence was not imparted to us for
social purposes. It required no acknowledgment. We continued to
gaze at him with expectant eyes.
He gave himself up to the vigorous enjoyment of his pipe for a
silent minute or two. Then picking up the thread of his story he
told us how he had started hot foot for Tower Hill. He had not been
that way since the day of his examination--the finest day of his
life--the day of his overweening pride. It was very different now.
He would not have called the Queen his cousin, still, but this time
it was from a sense of profound abasement. He didn't think himself
good enough for anybody's kinship. He envied the purple-nosed old
cab-drivers on the stand, the boot-black boys at the edge of the
pavement, the two large bobbies pacing slowly along the Tower
Gardens railings in the consciousness of their infallible might, and
the bright scarlet sentries walking smartly to and fro before the
Mint. He envied them their places in the scheme of world's labour.
And he envied also the miserable sallow, thin-faced loafers blinking
their obscene eyes and rubbing their greasy shoulders against the
door-jambs of the Black Horse pub, because they were too far gone to
feel their degradation.
I must render the man the justice that he conveyed very well to us
the sense of his youthful hopelessness surprised at not finding its
place in the sun and no recognition of its right to live.
He went up the outer steps of St. Katherine's Dock House, the very
steps from which he had some six weeks before surveyed the cabstand,
the buildings, the policemen, the boot-blacks, the paint, gilt, and
plateglass of the Black Horse, with the eye of a Conqueror. At the
time he had been at the bottom of his heart surprised that all this
had not greeted him with songs and incense, but now (he made no
secret of it) he made his entry in a slinking fashion past the
doorkeeper's glass box. "I hadn't any half-crowns to spare for
tips," he remarked grimly. The man, however, ran out after him
asking: "What do you require?" but with a grateful glance up at the
first floor in remembrance of Captain R-'s examination room (how
easy and delightful all that had been) he bolted down a flight
leading to the basement and found himself in a place of dusk and
mystery and many doors. He had been afraid of being stopped by some
rule of no-admittance. However he was not pursued.
The basement of St. Katherine's Dock House is vast in extent and
confusing in its plan. Pale shafts of light slant from above into
the gloom of its chilly passages. Powell wandered up and down there
like an early Christian refugee in the catacombs; but what little
faith he had in the success of his enterprise was oozing out at his
finger-tips. At a dark turn under a gas bracket whose flame was
half turned down his self-confidence abandoned him altogether.
"I stood there to think a little," he said. "A foolish thing to do
because of course I got scared. What could you expect? It takes
some nerve to tackle a stranger with a request for a favour. I
wished my namesake Powell had been the devil himself. I felt
somehow it would have been an easier job. You see, I never believed
in the devil enough to be scared of him; but a man can make himself
very unpleasant. I looked at a lot of doors, all shut tight, with a
growing conviction that I would never have the pluck to open one of
them. Thinking's no good for one's nerve. I concluded I would give
up the whole business. But I didn't give up in the end, and I'll
tell you what stopped me. It was the recollection of that
confounded doorkeeper who had called after me. I felt sure the
fellow would be on the look-out at the head of the stairs. If he
asked me what I had been after, as he had the right to do, I
wouldn't know what to answer that wouldn't make me look silly if no
worse. I got very hot. There was no chance of slinking out of this
"I had lost my bearings somehow down there. Of the many doors of
various sizes, right and left, a good few had glazed lights above;
some however must have led merely into lumber rooms or such like,
because when I brought myself to try one or two I was disconcerted
to find that they were locked. I stood there irresolute and uneasy
like a baffled thief. The confounded basement was as still as a
grave and I became aware of my heart beats. Very uncomfortable
sensation. Never happened to me before or since. A bigger door to
the left of me, with a large brass handle looked as if it might lead
into the Shipping Office. I tried it, setting my teeth. "Here
"It came open quite easily. And lo! the place it opened into was
hardly any bigger than a cupboard. Anyhow it wasn't more than ten
feet by twelve; and as I in a way expected to see the big shadowy
cellar-like extent of the Shipping Office where I had been once or
twice before, I was extremely startled. A gas bracket hung from the
middle of the ceiling over a dark, shabby writing-desk covered with
a litter of yellowish dusty documents. Under the flame of the
single burner which made the place ablaze with light, a plump,
little man was writing hard, his nose very near the desk. His head
was perfectly bald and about the same drab tint as the papers. He
appeared pretty dusty too.
"I didn't notice whether there were any cobwebs on him, but I
shouldn't wonder if there were because he looked as though he had
been imprisoned for years in that little hole. The way he dropped
his pen and sat blinking my way upset me very much. And his dungeon
was hot and musty; it smelt of gas and mushrooms, and seemed to be
somewhere 120 feet below the ground. Solid, heavy stacks of paper
filled all the corners half-way up to the ceiling. And when the
thought flashed upon me that these were the premises of the Marine
Board and that this fellow must be connected in some way with ships
and sailors and the sea, my astonishment took my breath away. One
couldn't imagine why the Marine Board should keep that bald, fat
creature slaving down there. For some reason or other I felt sorry
and ashamed to have found him out in his wretched captivity. I
asked gently and sorrowfully: "The Shipping Office, please."
He piped up in a contemptuous squeaky voice which made me start:
"Not here. Try the passage on the other side. Street side. This
is the Dock side. You've lost your way . . . "
He spoke in such a spiteful tone that I thought he was going to
round off with the words: "You fool" . . . and perhaps he meant to.
But what he finished sharply with was: "Shut the door quietly after
And I did shut it quietly--you bet. Quick and quiet. The
indomitable spirit of that chap impressed me. I wonder sometimes
whether he has succeeded in writing himself into liberty and a
pension at last, or had to go out of his gas-lighted grave straight
into that other dark one where nobody would want to intrude. My
humanity was pleased to discover he had so much kick left in him,
but I was not comforted in the least. It occurred to me that if Mr.
Powell had the same sort of temper . . . However, I didn't give
myself time to think and scuttled across the space at the foot of
the stairs into the passage where I'd been told to try. And I tried
the first door I came to, right away, without any hanging back,
because coming loudly from the hall above an amazed and scandalized
voice wanted to know what sort of game I was up to down there.
"Don't you know there's no admittance that way?" it roared. But if
there was anything more I shut it out of my hearing by means of a
door marked PRIVATE on the outside. It let me into a six-feet wide
strip between a long counter and the wall, taken off a spacious,
vaulted room with a grated window and a glazed door giving daylight
to the further end. The first thing I saw right in front of me were
three middle-aged men having a sort of romp together round about
another fellow with a thin, long neck and sloping shoulders who
stood up at a desk writing on a large sheet of paper and taking no
notice except that he grinned quietly to himself. They turned very
sour at once when they saw me. I heard one of them mutter 'Hullo!
What have we here?'
"'I want to see Mr. Powell, please,' I said, very civil but firm; I
would let nothing scare me away now. This was the Shipping Office
right enough. It was after 3 o'clock and the business seemed over
for the day with them. The long-necked fellow went on with his
writing steadily. I observed that he was no longer grinning. The
three others tossed their heads all together towards the far end of
the room where a fifth man had been looking on at their antics from
a high stool. I walked up to him as boldly as if he had been the
devil himself. With one foot raised up and resting on the cross-bar
of his seat he never stopped swinging the other which was well clear
of the stone floor. He had unbuttoned the top of his waistcoat and
he wore his tall hat very far at the back of his head. He had a
full unwrinkled face and such clear-shining eyes that his grey beard
looked quite false on him, stuck on for a disguise. You said just
now he resembled Socrates--didn't you? I don't know about that.
This Socrates was a wise man, I believe?"
"He was," assented Marlow. "And a true friend of youth. He
lectured them in a peculiarly exasperating manner. It was a way he
"Then give me Powell every time," declared our new acquaintance
sturdily. "He didn't lecture me in any way. Not he. He said:
'How do you do?' quite kindly to my mumble. Then says he looking
very hard at me: 'I don't think I know you--do I?'
"No, sir," I said and down went my heart sliding into my boots, just
as the time had come to summon up all my cheek. There's nothing
meaner in the world than a piece of impudence that isn't carried off
well. For fear of appearing shamefaced I started about it so free
and easy as almost to frighten myself. He listened for a while
looking at my face with surprise and curiosity and then held up his
hand. I was glad enough to shut up, I can tell you.
"Well, you are a cool hand," says he. "And that friend of yours
too. He pestered me coming here every day for a fortnight till a
captain I'm acquainted with was good enough to give him a berth.
And no sooner he's provided for than he turns you on. You
youngsters don't seem to mind whom you get into trouble."
"It was my turn now to stare with surprise and curiosity. He hadn't
been talking loud but he lowered his voice still more.
"Don't you know it's illegal?"
"I wondered what he was driving at till I remembered that procuring
a berth for a sailor is a penal offence under the Act. That clause
was directed of course against the swindling practices of the
boarding-house crimps. It had never struck me it would apply to
everybody alike no matter what the motive, because I believed then
that people on shore did their work with care and foresight.
"I was confounded at the idea, but Mr. Powell made me soon see that
an Act of Parliament hasn't any sense of its own. It has only the
sense that's put into it; and that's precious little sometimes. He
didn't mind helping a young man to a ship now and then, he said, but
if we kept on coming constantly it would soon get about that he was
doing it for money.
"A pretty thing that would be: the Senior Shipping-Master of the
Port of London hauled up in a police court and fined fifty pounds,"
says he. "I've another four years to serve to get my pension. It
could be made to look very black against me and don't you make any
mistake about it," he says.
"And all the time with one knee well up he went on swinging his
other leg like a boy on a gate and looking at me very straight with
his shining eyes. I was confounded I tell you. It made me sick to
hear him imply that somebody would make a report against him.
"Oh!" I asked shocked, "who would think of such a scurvy trick,
sir?" I was half disgusted with him for having the mere notion of
"Who?" says he, speaking very low. "Anybody. One of the office
messengers maybe. I've risen to be the Senior of this office and we
are all very good friends here, but don't you think that my
colleague that sits next to me wouldn't like to go up to this desk
by the window four years in advance of the regulation time? Or even
one year for that matter. It's human nature."
"I could not help turning my head. The three fellows who had been
skylarking when I came in were now talking together very soberly,
and the long-necked chap was going on with his writing still. He
seemed to me the most dangerous of the lot. I saw him sideface and
his lips were set very tight. I had never looked at mankind in that
light before. When one's young human nature shocks one. But what
startled me most was to see the door I had come through open slowly
and give passage to a head in a uniform cap with a Board of Trade
badge. It was that blamed old doorkeeper from the hall. He had run
me to earth and meant to dig me out too. He walked up the office
smirking craftily, cap in hand.
"What is it, Symons?" asked Mr. Powell.
"I was only wondering where this 'ere gentleman 'ad gone to, sir.
He slipped past me upstairs, sir."
I felt mighty uncomfortable.
"That's all right, Symons. I know the gentleman," says Mr. Powell
as serious as a judge.
"Very well, sir. Of course, sir. I saw the gentleman running races
all by 'isself down 'ere, so I . . ."
"It's all right I tell you," Mr. Powell cut him short with a wave of
his hand; and, as the old fraud walked off at last, he raised his
eyes to me. I did not know what to do: stay there, or clear out,
or say that I was sorry.
"Let's see," says he, "what did you tell me your name was?"
"Now, observe, I hadn't given him my name at all and his question
embarrassed me a bit. Somehow or other it didn't seem proper for me
to fling his own name at him as it were. So I merely pulled out my
new certificate from my pocket and put it into his hand unfolded, so
that he could read CHARLES POWELL written very plain on the
"He dropped his eyes on to it and after a while laid it quietly on
the desk by his side. I didn't know whether he meant to make any
remark on this coincidence. Before he had time to say anything the
glass door came open with a bang and a tall, active man rushed in
with great strides. His face looked very red below his high silk
hat. You could see at once he was the skipper of a big ship.
"Mr. Powell after telling me in an undertone to wait a little
addressed him in a friendly way.
"I've been expecting you in every moment to fetch away your
Articles, Captain. Here they are all ready for you." And turning
to a pile of agreements lying at his elbow he took up the topmost of
them. From where I stood I could read the words: "Ship Ferndale"
written in a large round hand on the first page.
"No, Mr. Powell, they aren't ready, worse luck," says that skipper.
"I've got to ask you to strike out my second officer." He seemed
excited and bothered. He explained that his second mate had been
working on board all the morning. At one o'clock he went out to get
a bit of dinner and didn't turn up at two as he ought to have done.
Instead there came a messenger from the hospital with a note signed
by a doctor. Collar bone and one arm broken. Let himself be
knocked down by a pair horse van while crossing the road outside the
dock gate, as if he had neither eyes nor ears. And the ship ready
to leave the dock at six o'clock to-morrow morning!
"Mr. Powell dipped his pen and began to turn the leaves of the
agreement over. "We must then take his name off," he says in a kind
of unconcerned sing-song.
"What am I to do?" burst out the skipper. "This office closes at
four o'clock. I can't find a man in half an hour."
"This office closes at four," repeats Mr. Powell glancing up and
down the pages and touching up a letter here and there with perfect
"Even if I managed to lay hold some time to-day of a man ready to go
at such short notice I couldn't ship him regularly here--could I?"
"Mr. Powell was busy drawing his pen through the entries relating to
that unlucky second mate and making a note in the margin.
"You could sign him on yourself on board," says he without looking
up. "But I don't think you'll find easily an officer for such a
"Upon this the fine-looking skipper gave signs of distress. The
ship mustn't miss the next morning's tide. He had to take on board
forty tons of dynamite and a hundred and twenty tons of gunpowder at
a place down the river before proceeding to sea. It was all
arranged for next day. There would be no end of fuss and
complications if the ship didn't turn up in time . . . I couldn't
help hearing all this, while wishing him to take himself off,
because I wanted to know why Mr. Powell had told me to wait. After
what he had been saying there didn't seem any object in my hanging
about. If I had had my certificate in my pocket I should have tried
to slip away quietly; but Mr. Powell had turned about into the same
position I found him in at first and was again swinging his leg. My
certificate open on the desk was under his left elbow and I couldn't
very well go up and jerk it away.
"I don't know," says he carelessly, addressing the helpless captain
but looking fixedly at me with an expression as if I hadn't been
there. "I don't know whether I ought to tell you that I know of a
disengaged second mate at hand."
"Do you mean you've got him here?" shouts the other looking all over
the empty public part of the office as if he were ready to fling
himself bodily upon anything resembling a second mate. He had been
so full of his difficulty that I verify believe he had never noticed
me. Or perhaps seeing me inside he may have thought I was some
understrapper belonging to the place. But when Mr. Powell nodded in
my direction he became very quiet and gave me a long stare. Then he
stooped to Mr. Powell's ear--I suppose he imagined he was
whispering, but I heard him well enough.
"Looks very respectable."
"Certainly," says the shipping-master quite calm and staring all the
time at me. "His name's Powell."
"Oh, I see!" says the skipper as if struck all of a heap. "But is
he ready to join at once?"
"I had a sort of vision of my lodgings--in the North of London, too,
beyond Dalston, away to the devil--and all my gear scattered about,
and my empty sea-chest somewhere in an outhouse the good people I
was staying with had at the end of their sooty strip of garden. I
heard the Shipping Master say in the coolest sort of way:
"He'll sleep on board to-night."
"He had better," says the Captain of the Ferndale very businesslike,
as if the whole thing were settled. I can't say I was dumb for joy
as you may suppose. It wasn't exactly that. I was more by way of
being out of breath with the quickness of it. It didn't seem
possible that this was happening to me. But the skipper, after he
had talked for a while with Mr. Powell, too low for me to hear
became visibly perplexed.
"I suppose he had heard I was freshly passed and without experience
as an officer, because he turned about and looked me over as if I
had been exposed for sale.
"He's young," he mutters. "Looks smart, though . . . You're smart
and willing (this to me very sudden and loud) and all that, aren't
"I just managed to open and shut my mouth, no more, being taken
unawares. But it was enough for him. He made as if I had deafened
him with protestations of my smartness and willingness.
"Of course, of course. All right." And then turning to the
Shipping Master who sat there swinging his leg, he said that he
certainly couldn't go to sea without a second officer. I stood by
as if all these things were happening to some other chap whom I was
seeing through with it. Mr. Powell stared at me with those shining
eyes of his. But that bothered skipper turns upon me again as
though he wanted to snap my head off.
"You aren't too big to be told how to do things--are you? You've a
lot to learn yet though you mayn't think so."
"I had half a mind to save my dignity by telling him that if it was
my seamanship he was alluding to I wanted him to understand that a
fellow who had survived being turned inside out for an hour and a
half by Captain R- was equal to any demand his old ship was likely
to make on his competence. However he didn't give me a chance to
make that sort of fool of myself because before I could open my
mouth he had gone round on another tack and was addressing himself
affably to Mr. Powell who swinging his leg never took his eyes off
"I'll take your young friend willingly, Mr. Powell. If you let him
sign on as second-mate at once I'll take the Articles away with me
"It suddenly dawned upon me that the innocent skipper of the
Ferndale had taken it for granted that I was a relative of the
Shipping Master! I was quite astonished at this discovery, though
indeed the mistake was natural enough under the circumstances. What
I ought to have admired was the reticence with which this
misunderstanding had been established and acted upon. But I was too
stupid then to admire anything. All my anxiety was that this should
be cleared up. I was ass enough to wonder exceedingly at Mr. Powell
failing to notice the misapprehension. I saw a slight twitch come
and go on his face; but instead of setting right that mistake the
Shipping Master swung round on his stool and addressed me as
'Charles.' He did. And I detected him taking a hasty squint at my
certificate just before, because clearly till he did so he was not
sure of my christian name. "Now then come round in front of the
desk, Charles," says he in a loud voice.
"Charles! At first, I declare to you, it didn't seem possible that
he was addressing himself to me. I even looked round for that
Charles but there was nobody behind me except the thin-necked chap
still hard at his writing, and the other three Shipping Masters who
were changing their coats and reaching for their hats, making ready
to go home. It was the industrious thin-necked man who without
laying down his pen lifted with his left hand a flap near his desk
and said kindly:
"Pass this way."
I walked through in a trance, faced Mr. Powell, from whom I learned
that we were bound to Port Elizabeth first, and signed my name on
the Articles of the ship Ferndale as second mate--the voyage not to
exceed two years.
"You won't fail to join--eh?" says the captain anxiously. "It would
cause no end of trouble and expense if you did. You've got a good
six hours to get your gear together, and then you'll have time to
snatch a sleep on board before the crew joins in the morning."
"It was easy enough for him to talk of getting ready in six hours
for a voyage that was not to exceed two years. He hadn't to do that
trick himself, and with his sea-chest locked up in an outhouse the
key of which had been mislaid for a week as I remembered. But
neither was I much concerned. The idea that I was absolutely going
to sea at six o'clock next morning hadn't got quite into my head
yet. It had been too sudden.
"Mr. Powell, slipping the Articles into a long envelope, spoke up
with a sort of cold half-laugh without looking at either of us.
"Mind you don't disgrace the name, Charles."
"And the skipper chimes in very kindly:
"He'll do well enough I dare say. I'll look after him a bit."
"Upon this he grabs the Articles, says something about trying to run
in for a minute to see that poor devil in the hospital, and off he
goes with his heavy swinging step after telling me sternly: "Don't
you go like that poor fellow and get yourself run over by a cart as
if you hadn't either eyes or ears."
"Mr. Powell," says I timidly (there was by then only the thin-necked
man left in the office with us and he was already by the door,
standing on one leg to turn the bottom of his trousers up before
going away). "Mr. Powell," says I, "I believe the Captain of the
Ferndale was thinking all the time that I was a relation of yours."
"I was rather concerned about the propriety of it, you know, but Mr.
Powell didn't seem to be in the least.
"Did he?" says he. "That's funny, because it seems to me too that
I've been a sort of good uncle to several of you young fellows
lately. Don't you think so yourself? However, if you don't like it
you may put him right--when you get out to sea." At this I felt a
bit queer. Mr. Powell had rendered me a very good service:- because
it's a fact that with us merchant sailors the first voyage as
officer is the real start in life. He had given me no less than
that. I told him warmly that he had done for me more that day than
all my relations put together ever did.
"Oh, no, no," says he. "I guess it's that shipment of explosives
waiting down the river which has done most for you. Forty tons of
dynamite have been your best friend to-day, young man."
"That was true too, perhaps. Anyway I saw clearly enough that I had
nothing to thank myself for. But as I tried to thank him, he
checked my stammering.
"Don't be in a hurry to thank me," says he. "The voyage isn't
Our new acquaintance paused, then added meditatively: "Queer man.
As if it made any difference. Queer man."
"It's certainly unwise to admit any sort of responsibility for our
actions, whose consequences we are never able to foresee," remarked
Marlow by way of assent.
"The consequence of his action was that I got a ship," said the
other. "That could not do much harm," he added with a laugh which
argued a probably unconscious contempt of general ideas.
But Marlow was not put off. He was patient and reflective. He had
been at sea many years and I verily believe he liked sea-life
because upon the whole it is favourable to reflection. I am
speaking of the now nearly vanished sea-life under sail. To those
who may be surprised at the statement I will point out that this
life secured for the mind of him who embraced it the inestimable
advantages of solitude and silence. Marlow had the habit of
pursuing general ideas in a peculiar manner, between jest and
"Oh, I wouldn't suggest," he said, "that your namesake Mr. Powell,
the Shipping Master, had done you much harm. Such was hardly his
intention. And even if it had been he would not have had the power.
He was but a man, and the incapacity to achieve anything distinctly
good or evil is inherent in our earthly condition. Mediocrity is
our mark. And perhaps it's just as well, since, for the most part,
we cannot be certain of the effect of our actions."
"I don't know about the effect," the other stood up to Marlow
manfully. "What effect did you expect anyhow? I tell you he did
something uncommonly kind."
"He did what he could," Marlow retorted gently, "and on his own
showing that was not a very great deal. I cannot help thinking that
there was some malice in the way he seized the opportunity to serve
you. He managed to make you uncomfortable. You wanted to go to
sea, but he jumped at the chance of accommodating your desire with a
vengeance. I am inclined to think your cheek alarmed him. And this
was an excellent occasion to suppress you altogether. For if you
accepted he was relieved of you with every appearance of humanity,
and if you made objections (after requesting his assistance, mind
you) it was open to him to drop you as a sort of impostor. You
might have had to decline that berth for some very valid reason.
From sheer necessity perhaps. The notice was too uncommonly short.
But under the circumstances you'd have covered yourself with
Our new friend knocked the ashes out of his pipe.
"Quite a mistake," he said. "I am not of the declining sort, though
I'll admit it was something like telling a man that you would like a
bath and in consequence being instantly knocked overboard to sink or
swim with your clothes on. However, I didn't feel as if I were in
deep water at first. I left the shipping office quietly and for a
time strolled along the street as easy as if I had a week before me
to fit myself out. But by and by I reflected that the notice was
even shorter than it looked. The afternoon was well advanced; I had
some things to get, a lot of small matters to attend to, one or two
persons to see. One of them was an aunt of mine, my only relation,
who quarrelled with poor father as long as he lived about some silly
matter that had neither right nor wrong to it. She left her money
to me when she died. I used always to go and see her for decency's
sake. I had so much to do before night that I didn't know where to
begin. I felt inclined to sit down on the kerb and hold my head in
my hands. It was as if an engine had been started going under my
skull. Finally I sat down in the first cab that came along and it
was a hard matter to keep on sitting there I can tell you, while we
rolled up and down the streets, pulling up here and there, the
parcels accumulating round me and the engine in my head gathering
more way every minute. The composure of the people on the pavements
was provoking to a degree, and as to the people in shops, they were
benumbed, more than half frozen--imbecile. Funny how it affects you
to be in a peculiar state of mind: everybody that does not act up
to your excitement seems so confoundedly unfriendly. And my state
of mind what with the hurry, the worry and a growing exultation was
peculiar enough. That engine in my head went round at its top speed
hour after hour till eleven at about at night it let up on me
suddenly at the entrance to the Dock before large iron gates in a
These gates were closed and locked. The cabby, after shooting his
things off the roof of his machine into young Powell's arms, drove
away leaving him alone with his sea-chest, a sail cloth bag and a
few parcels on the pavement about his feet. It was a dark, narrow
thoroughfare he told us. A mean row of houses on the other side
looked empty: there wasn't the smallest gleam of light in them.
The white-hot glare of a gin palace a good way off made the
intervening piece of the street pitch black. Some human shapes
appearing mysteriously, as if they had sprung up from the dark
ground, shunned the edge of the faint light thrown down by the
gateway lamps. These figures were wary in their movements and
perfectly silent of foot, like beasts of prey slinking about a camp
fire. Powell gathered up his belongings and hovered over them like
a hen over her brood. A gruffly insinuating voice said:
"Let's carry your things in, Capt'in! I've got my pal 'ere."
He was a tall, bony, grey-haired ruffian with a bulldog jaw, in a
torn cotton shirt and moleskin trousers. The shadow of his
hobnailed boots was enormous and coffinlike. His pal, who didn't
come up much higher than his elbow, stepping forward exhibited a
pale face with a long drooping nose and no chin to speak of. He
seemed to have just scrambled out of a dust-bin in a tam-o'shanter
cap and a tattered soldier's coat much too long for him. Being so
deadly white he looked like a horrible dirty invalid in a ragged
dressing gown. The coat flapped open in front and the rest of his
apparel consisted of one brace which crossed his naked, bony chest,
and a pair of trousers. He blinked rapidly as if dazed by the faint
light, while his patron, the old bandit, glowered at young Powell
from under his beetling brow.
"Say the word, Capt'in. The bobby'll let us in all right. 'E knows
both of us."
"I didn't answer him," continued Mr. Powell. "I was listening to
footsteps on the other side of the gate, echoing between the walls
of the warehouses as if in an uninhabited town of very high
buildings dark from basement to roof. You could never have guessed
that within a stone's throw there was an open sheet of water and big
ships lying afloat. The few gas lamps showing up a bit of brick
work here and there, appeared in the blackness like penny dips in a
range of cellars--and the solitary footsteps came on, tramp, tramp.
A dock policeman strode into the light on the other side of the
gate, very broad-chested and stern.
"Hallo! What's up here?"
"He was really surprised, but after some palaver he let me in
together with the two loafers carrying my luggage. He grumbled at
them however and slammed the gate violently with a loud clang. I
was startled to discover how many night prowlers had collected in
the darkness of the street in such a short time and without my being
aware of it. Directly we were through they came surging against the
bars, silent, like a mob of ugly spectres. But suddenly, up the
street somewhere, perhaps near that public-house, a row started as
if Bedlam had broken loose: shouts, yells, an awful shrill shriek--
and at that noise all these heads vanished from behind the bars.
"Look at this," marvelled the constable. "It's a wonder to me they
didn't make off with your things while you were waiting."
"I would have taken good care of that," I said defiantly. But the
constable wasn't impressed.
"Much you would have done. The bag going off round one dark corner;
the chest round another. Would you have run two ways at once? And
anyhow you'd have been tripped up and jumped upon before you had run
three yards. I tell you you've had a most extraordinary chance that
there wasn't one of them regular boys about to-night, in the High
Street, to twig your loaded cab go by. Ted here is honest . . . You
are on the honest lay, Ted, ain't you?"
"Always was, orficer," said the big ruffian with feeling. The other
frail creature seemed dumb and only hopped about with the edge of
its soldier coat touching the ground.
"Oh yes, I dare say," said the constable. "Now then, forward, march
. . . He's that because he ain't game for the other thing," he
confided to me. "He hasn't got the nerve for it. However, I ain't
going to lose sight of them two till they go out through the gate.
That little chap's a devil. He's got the nerve for anything, only
he hasn't got the muscle. Well! Well! You've had a chance to get
in with a whole skin and with all your things."
"I was incredulous a little. It seemed impossible that after
getting ready with so much hurry and inconvenience I should have
lost my chance of a start in life from such a cause. I asked:
"Does that sort of thing happen often so near the dock gates?"
"Often! No! Of course not often. But it ain't often either that a
man comes along with a cabload of things to join a ship at this time
of night. I've been in the dock police thirteen years and haven't
seen it done once."
"Meantime we followed my sea-chest which was being carried down a
sort of deep narrow lane, separating two high warehouses, between
honest Ted and his little devil of a pal who had to keep up a trot
to the other's stride. The skirt of his soldier's coat floating
behind him nearly swept the ground so that he seemed to be running
on castors. At the corner of the gloomy passage a rigged jib boom
with a dolphin-striker ending in an arrow-head stuck out of the
night close to a cast iron lamp-post. It was the quay side. They
set down their load in the light and honest Ted asked hoarsely:
"Where's your ship, guv'nor?"
"I didn't know. The constable was interested at my ignorance.
"Don't know where your ship is?" he asked with curiosity. "And you
the second officer! Haven't you been working on board of her?"
"I couldn't explain that the only work connected with my appointment
was the work of chance. I told him briefly that I didn't know her
at all. At this he remarked:
"So I see. Here she is, right before you. That's her."
"At once the head-gear in the gas light inspired me with interest
and respect; the spars were big, the chains and ropes stout and the
whole thing looked powerful and trustworthy. Barely touched by the
light her bows rose faintly alongside the narrow strip of the quay;
the rest of her was a black smudge in the darkness. Here I was face
to face with my start in life. We walked in a body a few steps on a
greasy pavement between her side and the towering wall of a
warehouse and I hit my shins cruelly against the end of the gangway.
The constable hailed her quietly in a bass undertone 'Ferndale
there!' A feeble and dismal sound, something in the nature of a
buzzing groan, answered from behind the bulwarks.
"I distinguished vaguely an irregular round knob, of wood, perhaps,
resting on the rail. It did not move in the least; but as another
broken-down buzz like a still fainter echo of the first dismal sound
proceeded from it I concluded it must be the head of the shipkeeper.
The stalwart constable jeered in a mock-official manner.
"Second officer coming to join. Move yourself a bit."
"The truth of the statement touched me in the pit of the stomach
(you know that's the spot where emotion gets home on a man) for it
was borne upon me that really and truly I was nothing but a second
officer of a ship just like any other second officer, to that
constable. I was moved by this solid evidence of my new dignity.
Only his tone offended me. Nevertheless I gave him the tip he was
looking for. Thereupon he lost all interest in me, humorous or
otherwise, and walked away driving sternly before him the honest
Ted, who went off grumbling to himself like a hungry ogre, and his
horrible dumb little pal in the soldier's coat, who, from first to
last, never emitted the slightest sound.
"It was very dark on the quarter deck of the Ferndale between the
deep bulwarks overshadowed by the break of the poop and frowned upon
by the front of the warehouse. I plumped down on to my chest near
the after hatch as if my legs had been jerked from under me. I felt
suddenly very tired and languid. The shipkeeper, whom I could
hardly make out hung over the capstan in a fit of weak pitiful
coughing. He gasped out very low 'Oh! dear! Oh! dear!' and
struggled for breath so long that I got up alarmed and irresolute.
"I've been took like this since last Christmas twelvemonth. It
"He seemed a hundred years old at least. I never saw him properly
because he was gone ashore and out of sight when I came on deck in
the morning; but he gave me the notion of the feeblest creature that
ever breathed. His voice was thin like the buzzing of a mosquito.
As it would have been cruel to demand assistance from such a shadowy
wreck I went to work myself, dragging my chest along a pitch-black
passage under the poop deck, while he sighed and moaned around me as
if my exertions were more than his weakness could stand. At last as
I banged pretty heavily against the bulkheads he warned me in his
faint breathless wheeze to be more careful.
"What's the matter?" I asked rather roughly, not relishing to be
admonished by this forlorn broken-down ghost.
"Nothing! Nothing, sir," he protested so hastily that he lost his
poor breath again and I felt sorry for him. "Only the captain and
his missus are sleeping on board. She's a lady that mustn't be
disturbed. They came about half-past eight, and we had a permit to
have lights in the cabin till ten to-night."
"This struck me as a considerable piece of news. I had never been
in a ship where the captain had his wife with him. I'd heard
fellows say that captains' wives could work a lot of mischief on
board ship if they happened to take a dislike to anyone; especially
the new wives if young and pretty. The old and experienced wives on
the other hand fancied they knew more about the ship than the
skipper himself and had an eye like a hawk's for what went on. They
were like an extra chief mate of a particularly sharp and unfeeling
sort who made his report in the evening. The best of them were a
nuisance. In the general opinion a skipper with his wife on board
was more difficult to please; but whether to show off his authority
before an admiring female or from loving anxiety for her safety or
simply from irritation at her presence--nobody I ever heard on the
subject could tell for certain.
"After I had bundled in my things somehow I struck a match and had a
dazzling glimpse of my berth; then I pitched the roll of my bedding
into the bunk but took no trouble to spread it out. I wasn't sleepy
now, neither was I tired. And the thought that I was done with the
earth for many many months to come made me feel very quiet and self-
contained as it were. Sailors will understand what I mean."
Marlow nodded. "It is a strictly professional feeling," he
commented. "But other professions or trades know nothing of it. It
is only this calling whose primary appeal lies in the suggestion of
restless adventure which holds out that deep sensation to those who
embrace it. It is difficult to define, I admit."
"I should call it the peace of the sea," said Mr. Charles Powell in
an earnest tone but looking at us as though he expected to be met by
a laugh of derision and were half prepared to salve his reputation
for common sense by joining in it. But neither of us laughed at Mr.
Charles Powell in whose start in life we had been called to take a
part. He was lucky in his audience.
"A very good name," said Marlow looking at him approvingly. "A
sailor finds a deep feeling of security in the exercise of his
calling. The exacting life of the sea has this advantage over the
life of the earth that its claims are simple and cannot be evaded."
"Gospel truth," assented Mr. Powell. "No! they cannot be evaded."
That an excellent understanding should have established itself
between my old friend and our new acquaintance was remarkable
enough. For they were exactly dissimilar--one individuality
projecting itself in length and the other in breadth, which is
already a sufficient ground for irreconcilable difference. Marlow
who was lanky, loose, quietly composed in varied shades of brown
robbed of every vestige of gloss, had a narrow, veiled glance, the
neutral bearing and the secret irritability which go together with a
predisposition to congestion of the liver. The other, compact,
broad and sturdy of limb, seemed extremely full of sound organs
functioning vigorously all the time in order to keep up the
brilliance of his colouring, the light curl of his coal-black hair
and the lustre of his eyes, which asserted themselves roundly in an
open, manly face. Between two such organisms one would not have
expected to find the slightest temperamental accord. But I have
observed that profane men living in ships like the holy men gathered
together in monasteries develop traits of profound resemblance.
This must be because the service of the sea and the service of a
temple are both detached from the vanities and errors of a world
which follows no severe rule. The men of the sea understand each
other very well in their view of earthly things, for simplicity is a
good counsellor and isolation not a bad educator. A turn of mind
composed of innocence and scepticism is common to them all, with the
addition of an unexpected insight into motives, as of disinterested
lookers-on at a game. Mr. Powell took me aside to say,
"I like the things he says."
"You understand each other pretty well," I observed.
"I know his sort," said Powell, going to the window to look at his
cutter still riding to the flood. "He's the sort that's always
chasing some notion or other round and round his head just for the
fun of the thing."
"Keeps them in good condition," I said.
"Lively enough I dare say," he admitted.
"Would you like better a man who let his notions lie curled up?"
"That I wouldn't," answered our new acquaintance. Clearly he was
not difficult to get on with. "I like him, very well," he
continued, "though it isn't easy to make him out. He seems to be up
to a thing or two. What's he doing?"
I informed him that our friend Marlow had retired from the sea in a
sort of half-hearted fashion some years ago.
Mr. Powell's comment was: "Fancied had enough of it?"
"Fancied's the very word to use in this connection," I observed,
remembering the subtly provisional character of Marlow's long
sojourn amongst us. From year to year he dwelt on land as a bird
rests on the branch of a tree, so tense with the power of brusque
flight into its true element that it is incomprehensible why it
should sit still minute after minute. The sea is the sailor's true
element, and Marlow, lingering on shore, was to me an object of
incredulous commiseration like a bird, which, secretly, should have
lost its faith in the high virtue of flying.