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Falk by Conrad, Joseph - Chapter 1

FALK

BY JOSEPH CONRAD





FALK

A REMINISCENCE

Several of us, all more or less connected with the
sea, were dining in a small river-hostelry not more
than thirty miles from London, and less than twenty
from that shallow and dangerous puddle to which
our coasting men give the grandiose name of "Ger-
man Ocean." And through the wide windows we
had a view of the Thames; an enfilading view down
the Lower Hope Reach. But the dinner was exe-
crable, and all the feast was for the eyes.

That flavour of salt-water which for so many of
us had been the very water of life permeated our
talk. He who hath known the bitterness of the
Ocean shall have its taste forever in his mouth. But
one or two of us, pampered by the life of the land,
complained of hunger. It was impossible to swal-
low any of that stuff. And indeed there was a
strange mustiness in everything. The wooden din-
ing-room stuck out over the mud of the shore like
a lacustrine dwelling; the planks of the floor seemed
rotten; a decrepit old waiter tottered pathetically
to and fro before an antediluvian and worm-eaten
sideboard; the chipped plates might have been dis-
interred from some kitchen midden near an inhab-
ited lake; and the chops recalled times more ancient
still. They brought forcibly to one's mind the
night of ages when the primeval man, evolving the
first rudiments of cookery from his dim conscious-
ness, scorched lumps of flesh at a fire of sticks in the
company of other good fellows; then, gorged and
happy, sat him back among the gnawed bones to
tell his artless tales of experience--the tales of hun-
ger and hunt--and of women, perhaps!

But luckily the wine happened to be as old as
the waiter. So, comparatively empty, but upon the
whole fairly happy, we sat back and told our artless
tales. We talked of the sea and all its works. The
sea never changes, and its works for all the talk of
men are wrapped in mystery. But we agreed that
the times were changed. And we talked of old
ships, of sea-accidents, of break-downs, dismast-
ings; and of a man who brought his ship safe to
Liverpool all the way from the River Platte under
a jury rudder. We talked of wrecks, of short ra-
tions and of heroism--or at least of what the news-
papers would have called heroism at sea--a mani-
festation of virtues quite different from the heroism
of primitive times. And now and then falling silent
all together we gazed at the sights of the river.

A P. & O. boat passed bound down. "One gets
jolly good dinners on board these ships," remarked
one of our band. A man with sharp eyes read out
the name on her bows: Arcadia. "What a beauti-
ful model of a ship!" murmured some of us. She
was followed by a small cargo steamer, and the flag
they hauled down aboard while we were looking
showed her to be a Norwegian. She made an awful
lot of smoke; and before it had quite blown away, a
high-sided, short, wooden barque, in ballast and
towed by a paddle-tug, appeared in front of the
windows. All her hands were forward busy setting
up the headgear; and aft a woman in a red hood,
quite alone with the man at the wheel, paced the
length of the poop back and forth, with the grey
wool of some knitting work in her hands.

"German I should think," muttered one. "The
skipper has his wife on board," remarked another;
and the light of the crimson sunset all ablaze behind
the London smoke, throwing a glow of Bengal light
upon the barque's spars, faded away from the Hope
Reach.

Then one of us, who had not spoken before, a
man of over fifty, that had commanded ships for a
quarter of a century, looking after the barque now
gliding far away, all black on the lustre of the river,
said:

This reminds me of an absurd episode in my life,
now many years ago, when I got first the command
of an iron barque, loading then in a certain Eastern
seaport. It was also the capital of an Eastern king-
dom, lying up a river as might be London lies up
this old Thames of ours. No more need be said of
the place; for this sort of thing might have hap-
pened anywhere where there are ships, skippers,
tugboats, and orphan nieces of indescribable splen-
dour. And the absurdity of the episode concerns
only me, my enemy Falk, and my friend Hermann.

There seemed to be something like peculiar em-
phasis on the words "My friend Hermann," which
caused one of us (for we had just been speaking of
heroism at sea) to say idly and nonchalantly:

"And was this Hermann a hero?"

Not at all, said our grizzled friend. No hero at
all. He was a Schiff-fuhrer: Ship-conductor.
That's how they call a Master Mariner in Germany.
I prefer our way. The alliteration is good, and
there is something in the nomenclature that gives
to us as a body the sense of corporate existence:
Apprentice, Mate, Master, in the ancient and hon-
ourable craft of the sea. As to my friend Hermann,
he might have been a consummate master of the
honourable craft, but he was called officially Schiff-
fuhrer, and had the simple, heavy appearance of a
well-to-do farmer, combined with the good-natured
shrewdness of a small shopkeeper. With his shaven
chin, round limbs, and heavy eyelids he did not look
like a toiler, and even less like an adventurer of the
sea. Still, he toiled upon the seas, in his own way,
much as a shopkeeper works behind his counter.
And his ship was the means by which he maintained
his growing family.

She was a heavy, strong, blunt-bowed affair,
awakening the ideas of primitive solidity, like the
wooden plough of our forefathers. And there were,
about her, other suggestions of a rustic and homely
nature. The extraordinary timber projections
which I have seen in no other vessel made her square
stern resemble the tail end of a miller's waggon.
But the four stern ports of her cabin, glazed with
six little greenish panes each, and framed in wooden
sashes painted brown, might have been the windows
of a cottage in the country. The tiny white cur-
tains and the greenery of flower pots behind the
glass completed the resemblance. On one or two
occasions when passing under stern I had de-
tected from my boat a round arm in the act of tilt-
ing a watering pot, and the bowed sleek head of a
maiden whom I shall always call Hermann's niece,
because as a matter of fact I've never heard her
name, for all my intimacy with the family.

This, however, sprang up later on. Meantime in
common with the rest of the shipping in that East-
ern port, I was left in no doubt as to Hermann's no-
tions of hygienic clothing. Evidently he believed
in wearing good stout flannel next his skin. On
most days little frocks and pinafores could be seen
drying in the mizzen rigging of his ship, or a tiny
row of socks fluttering on the signal halyards; but
once a fortnight the family washing was exhibited
in force. It covered the poop entirely. The after-
noon breeze would incite to a weird and flabby activ-
ity all that crowded mass of clothing, with its vague
suggestions of drowned, mutilated and flattened hu-
manity. Trunks without heads waved at you arms
without hands; legs without feet kicked fantasti-
cally with collapsible flourishes; and there were long
white garments that, taking the wind fairly
through their neck openings edged with lace, be-
came for a moment violently distended as by the
passage of obese and invisible bodies. On these days
you could make out that ship at a great distance
by the multi-coloured grotesque riot going on abaft
her mizzen mast.

She had her berth just ahead of me, and her
name was Diana,--Diana not of Ephesus but of
Bremen. This was proclaimed in white letters a
foot long spaced widely across the stern (somewhat
like the lettering of a shop-sign) under the cottage
windows. This ridiculously unsuitable name struck
one as an impertinence towards the memory of the
most charming of goddesses; for, apart from the
fact that the old craft was physically incapable of
engaging in any sort of chase, there was a gang of
four children belonging to her. They peeped over
the rail at passing boats and occasionally dropped
various objects into them. Thus, sometime before
I knew Hermann to speak to, I received on my hat
a horrid rag-doll belonging to Hermann's eldest
daughter. However, these youngsters were upon
the whole well behaved. They had fair heads, round
eyes, round little knobby noses, and they resembled
their father a good deal.

This Diana of Bremen was a most innocent old
ship, and seemed to know nothing of the wicked sea,
as there are on shore households that know nothing
of the corrupt world. And the sentiments she sug-
gested were unexceptionable and mainly of a do-
mestic order. She was a home. All these dear chil-
dren had learned to walk on her roomy quarter-deck.
In such thoughts there is something pretty, even
touching. Their teeth, I should judge, they had
cut on the ends of her running gear. I have many
times observed the baby Hermann (Nicholas) en-
gaged in gnawing the whipping of the fore-royal
brace. Nicholas' favourite place of residence was
under the main fife-rail. Directly he was let loose
he would crawl off there, and the first seaman who
came along would bring him, carefully held aloft
in tarry hands, back to the cabin door. I fancy
there must have been a standing order to that effect.
In the course of these transportations the baby,
who was the only peppery person in the ship, tried
to smite these stalwart young German sailors on the
face.

Mrs. Hermann, an engaging, stout housewife,
wore on board baggy blue dresses with white dots.
When, as happened once or twice I caught her at an
elegant little wash-tub rubbing hard on white col-
lars, baby's socks, and Hermann's summer neck-
ties, she would blush in girlish confusion, and rais-
ing her wet hands greet me from afar with many
friendly nods. Her sleeves would be rolled up to
the elbows, and the gold hoop of her wedding ring
glittered among the soapsuds. Her voice was
pleasant, she had a serene brow, smooth bands of
very fair hair, and a good-humoured expression of
the eyes. She was motherly and moderately talka-
tive. When this simple matron smiled, youthful
dimples broke out on her fresh broad cheeks. Her-
mann's niece on the other hand, an orphan and very
silent, I never saw attempt a smile. This, however,
was not gloom on her part but the restraint of
youthful gravity.

They had carried her about with them for the
last three years, to help with the children and be
company for Mrs. Hermann, as Hermann men-
tioned once to me. It had been very necessary while
they were all little, he had added in a vexed manner.
It was her arm and her sleek head that I had
glimpsed one morning, through the stern-windows
of the cabin, hovering over the pots of fuchsias and
mignonette; but the first time I beheld her full
length I surrendered to her proportions. They fix
her in my mind, as great beauty, great intelligence,
quickness of wit or kindness of heart might have
made some her other woman equally memorable.

With her it was form and size. It was her physi-
cal personality that had this imposing charm. She
might have been witty, intelligent, and kind to an
exceptional degree. I don't know, and this is not to
the point. All I know is that she was built on a
magnificent scale. Built is the only word. She was
constructed, she was erected, as it were, with a regal
lavishness. It staggered you to see this reckless ex-
penditure of material upon a chit of a girl. She
was youthful and also perfectly mature, as though
she had been some fortunate immortal. She was
heavy too, perhaps, but that's nothing. It only
added to that notion of permanence. She was bare-
ly nineteen. But such shoulders! Such round
arms! Such a shadowing forth of mighty limbs
when with three long strides she pounced across the
deck upon the overturned Nicholas--it's perfectly
indescribable! She seemed a good, quiet girl, vigi-
lant as to Lena's needs, Gustav's tumbles, the state
of Carl's dear little nose--conscientious, hardwork-
ing, and all that. But what magnificent hair she
had! Abundant, long, thick, of a tawny colour.
It had the sheen of precious metals. She wore it
plaited tightly into one single tress hanging girl-
ishly down her back and its end reached down to
her waist. The massiveness of it surprised you.
On my word it reminded one of a club. Her face
was big, comely, of an unruffled expression. She
had a good complexion, and her blue eyes were so
pale that she appeared to look at the world with
the empty white candour of a statue. You could
not call her good-looking. It was something much
more impressive. The simplicity of her apparel,
the opulence of her form, her imposing stature,
and the extraordinary sense of vigorous life that
seemed to emanate from her like a perfume exhaled
by a flower, made her beautiful with a beauty of a
rustic and olympian order. To watch her reaching
up to the clothes-line with both arms raised high
above her head, caused you to fall a musing in a
strain of pagan piety. Excellent Mrs. Hermann's
baggy cotton gowns had some sort of rudimentary
frills at neck and bottom, but this girl's print frocks
hadn't even a wrinkle; nothing but a few straight
folds in the skirt falling to her feet, and these, when
she stood still, had a severe and statuesque quality.
She was inclined naturally to be still whether sit-
ting or standing. However, I don't mean to say
she was statuesque. She was too generously alive;
but she could have stood for an allegoric statue of
the Earth. I don't mean the worn-out earth of our
possession, but a young Earth, a virginal planet
undisturbed by the vision of a future teeming with
the monstrous forms of life and death, clamorous
with the cruel battles of hunger and thought.

The worthy Hermann himself was not very en-
tertaining, though his English was fairly compre-
hensible. Mrs. Hermann, who always let off one
speech at least at me in an hospitable, cordial tone
(and in Platt-Deutsch I suppose) I could not un-
derstand. As to their niece, however satisfactory
to look upon (and she inspired you somehow with
a hopeful view as to the prospects of mankind)
she was a modest and silent presence, mostly en-
gaged in sewing, only now and then, as I observed,
falling over that work into a state of maidenly
meditation. Her aunt sat opposite her, sewing also,
with her feet propped on a wooden footstool. On
the other side of the deck Hermann and I would
get a couple of chairs out of the cabin and settle
down to a smoking match, accompanied at long in-
tervals by the pacific exchange of a few words. I
came nearly every evening. Hermann I would find
in his shirt sleeves. As soon as he returned from
the shore on board his ship he commenced operations
by taking off his coat; then he put on his head an
embroidered round cap with a tassel, and changed
his boots for a pair of cloth slippers. Afterwards
he smoked at the cabin-door, looking at his children
with an air of civic virtue, till they got caught one
after another and put to bed in various staterooms.
Lastly, we would drink some beer in the cabin, which
was furnished with a wooden table on cross legs, and
with black straight-backed chairs--more like a farm
kitchen than a ship's cuddy. The sea and all nauti-
cal affairs seemed very far removed from the hos-
pitality of this exemplary family.

And I liked this because I had a rather worrying
time on board my own ship. I had been appointed
ex-officio by the British Consul to take charge of
her after a man who had died suddenly, leaving for
the guidance of his successor some suspiciously un-
receipted bills, a few dry-dock estimates hinting at
bribery, and a quantity of vouchers for three years'
extravagant expenditure; all these mixed up to-
gether in a dusty old violin-case lined with ruby
velvet. I found besides a large account-book,
which, when opened, hopefully turned out to my
infinite consternation to be filled with verses--page
after page of rhymed doggerel of a jovial and im-
proper character, written in the neatest minute hand
I ever did see. In the same fiddle-case a photograph
of my predecessor, taken lately in Saigon, repre-
sented in front of a garden view, and in company
of a female in strange draperies, an elderly, squat,
rugged man of stern aspect in a clumsy suit of black
broadcloth, and with the hair brushed forward above
the temples in a manner reminding one of a boar's
tusks. Of a fiddle, however, the only trace on board
was the case, its empty husk as it were; but of the
two last freights the ship had indubitably earned
of late, there were not even the husks left. It was
impossible to say where all that money had gone to.
It wasn't on board. It had not been remitted home;
for a letter from the owners, preserved in a desk
evidently by the merest accident, complained mildly
enough that they had not been favoured by a
scratch of the pen for the last eighteen months.
There were next to no stores on board, not an inch
of spare rope or a yard of canvas. The ship had
been run bare, and I foresaw no end of difficulties
before I could get her ready for sea.

As I was young then--not thirty yet--I took
myself and my troubles very seriously. The old
mate, who had acted as chief mourner at the cap-
tain's funeral, was not particularly pleased at my
coming. But the fact is the fellow was not legally
qualified for command, and the Consul was bound,
if at all possible, to put a properly certificated man
on board. As to the second mate, all I can say his
name was Tottersen, or something like that. His
practice was to wear on his head, in that tropical
climate, a mangy fur cap. He was, without excep-
tion, the stupidest man I had ever seen on board
ship. And he looked it too. He looked so con-
foundedly stupid that it was a matter of surprise
for me when he answered to his name.

I drew no great comfort from their company, to
say the least of it; while the prospect of making a
long sea passage with those two fellows was depress-
ing. And my other thoughts in solitude could not
be of a gay complexion. The crew was sickly, the
cargo was coming very slow; I foresaw I would
have lots of trouble with the charterers, and doubted
whether they would advance me enough money for
the ship's expenses. Their attitude towards me was
unfriendly. Altogether I was not getting on. I
would discover at odd times (generally about mid-
night) that I was totally inexperienced, greatly ig-
norant of business, and hopelessly unfit for any
sort of command; and when the steward had to be
taken to the hospital ill with choleraic symptoms I
felt bereaved of the only decent person at the after
end of the ship. He was fully expected to recover,
but in the meantime had to be replaced by some sort
of servant. And on the recommendation of a cer-
tain Schomberg, the proprietor of the smaller of
the two hotels in the place, I engaged a Chinaman.
Schomberg, a brawny, hairy Alsatian, and an awful
gossip, assured me that it was all right. "First-
class boy that. Came in the suite of his Excellency
Tseng the Commissioner--you know. His Excel-
lency Tseng lodged with me here for three weeks."

He mouthed the Chinese Excellency at me with
great unction, though the specimen of the "suite"
did not seem very promising. At the time, however,
I did not know what an untrustworthy humbug
Schomberg was. The "boy" might have been forty
or a hundred and forty for all you could tell--
one of those Chinamen of the death's-head type of
face and completely inscrutable. Before the end of
the third day he had revealed himself as a confirmed
opium-smoker, a gambler, a most audacious thief,
and a first-class sprinter. When he departed at the
top of his speed with thirty-two golden sovereigns
of my own hard-earned savings it was the last straw.
I had reserved that money in case my difficulties
came to the worst. Now it was gone I felt as poor
and naked as a fakir. I clung to my ship, for all
the bother she caused me, but what I could not bear
were the long lonely evenings in her cuddy, where
the atmosphere, made smelly by a leaky lamp, was
agitated by the snoring of the mate. That fellow
shut himself up in his stuffy cabin punctually at
eight, and made gross and revolting noises like a
water-logged trump. It was odious not to be able
to worry oneself in comfort on board one's own
ship. Everything in this world, I reflected, even
the command of a nice little barque, may be made
a delusion and a snare for the unwary spirit of
pride in man.

From such reflections I was glad to make any es-
cape on board that Bremen Diana. There appar-
ently no whisper of the world's iniquities had ever
penetrated. And yet she lived upon the wide sea:
and the sea tragic and comic, the sea with its horrors
and its peculiar scandals, the sea peopled by men
and ruled by iron necessity is indubitably a part of
the world. But that patriarchal old tub, like some
saintly retreat, echoed nothing of it. She was world
proof. Her venerable innocence apparently had
put a restraint on the roaring lusts of the sea. And
yet I have known the sea too long to believe in its
respect for decency. An elemental force is ruthlessly
frank. It may, of course, have been Hermann's
skilful seamanship, but to me it looked as if the al-
lied oceans had refrained from smashing these high
bulwarks, unshipping the lumpy rudder, frighten-
ing the children, and generally opening this fam-
ily's eyes out of sheer reticence. It looked like reti-
cence. The ruthless disclosure was in the end left
for a man to make; a man strong and elemental
enough and driven to unveil some secrets of the sea
by the power of a simple and elemental desire.

This, however, occurred much later, and mean-
time I took sanctuary in that serene old ship early
every evening. The only person on board that
seemed to be in trouble was little Lena, and in due
course I perceived that the health of the rag-doll
was more than delicate. This object led a sort of
"in extremis" existence in a wooden box placed
against the starboard mooring-bitts, tended and
nursed with the greatest sympathy and care by all
the children, who greatly enjoyed pulling long faces
and moving with hushed footsteps. Only the baby
--Nicholas--looked on with a cold, ruffianly leer,
as if he had belonged to another tribe altogether.
Lena perpetually sorrowed over the box, and all of
them were in deadly earnest. It was wonderful the
way these children would work up their compassion
for that bedraggled thing I wouldn't have touched
with a pair of tongs. I suppose they were exercis-
ing and developing their racial sentimentalism by
the means of that dummy. I was only surprised
that Mrs. Hermann let Lena cherish and hug that
bundle of rags to that extent, it was so disreputably
and completely unclean. But Mrs. Hermann would
raise her fine womanly eyes from her needlework to
look on with amused sympathy, and did not seen to
see it, somehow, that this object of affection was a
disgrace to the ship's purity. Purity, not cleanli-
ness, is the word. It was pushed so far that I seemed
to detect in this too a sentimental excess, as if dirt
had been removed in very love. It is impossible to
give you an idea of such a meticulous neatness. It
was as if every morning that ship had been ardu-
ously explored with--with toothbrushes. Her very
bowsprit three times a week had its toilette made
with a cake of soap and a piece of soft flannel. Ar-
rayed--I MUST say arrayed--arrayed artlessly in
dazzling white paint as to wood and dark green as
to ironwork the simple-minded distribution of these
colours evoked the images of simple-minded peace,
of arcadian felicity; and the childish comedy of
disease and sorrow struck me sometimes as an abom-
inably real blot upon that ideal state.

I enjoyed it greatly, and on my part I brought
a little mild excitement into it. Our intimacy arose
from the pursuit of that thief. It was in the even-
ing, and Hermann, who, contrary to his habits, had
stayed on shore late that day, was extricating him-
self backwards out of a little gharry on the river
bank, opposite his ship, when the hunt passed.
Realising the situation as though he had eyes in his
shoulder-blades, he joined us with a leap and took
the lead. The Chinaman fled silent like a rapid
shadow on the dust of an extremely oriental road.
I followed. A long way in the rear my mate
whooped like a savage. A young moon threw a
bashful light on a plain like a monstrous waste
ground: the architectural mass of a Buddhist tem-
ple far away projected itself in dead black on the
sky. We lost the thief of course; but in my disap-
pointment I had to admire Hermann's presence of
mind. The velocity that stodgy man developed in
the interests of a complete stranger earned my
warm gratitude--there was something truly cordial
in his exertions.

He seemed as vexed as myself at our failure, and
would hardly listen to my thanks. He said it was
"nothings," and invited me on the spot to come on
board his ship and drink a glass of beer with him.
We poked sceptically for a while amongst the
bushes, peered without conviction into a ditch or
two. There was not a sound: patches of slime glim-
mered feebly amongst the reeds. Slowly we trudged
back, drooping under the thin sickle of the moon,
and I heard him mutter to himself, "Himmel! Zwei
und dreissig Pfund!" He was impressed by the
figure of my loss. For a long time we had ceased to
hear the mate's whoops and yells.

Then he said to me, "Everybody has his troub-
les," and as we went on remarked that he would
never have known anything of mine hadn't he by an
extraordinary chance been detained on shore by
Captain Falk. He didn't like to stay late ashore--
he added with a sigh. The something doleful in his
tone I put to his sympathy with my misfortune, of
course.

On board the Diana Mrs. Hermann's fine eyes
expressed much interest and commiseration. We
had found the two women sewing face to face under
the open skylight in the strong glare of the lamp.
Hermann walked in first, starting in the very door-
way to pull off his coat, and encouraging me with
loud, hospitable ejaculations: "Come in! This
way! Come in, captain!" At once, coat in hand,
he began to tell his wife all about it. Mrs. Hermann
put the palms of her plump hands together; I
smiled and bowed with a heavy heart: the niece got
up from her sewing to bring Hermann's slippers
and his embroidered calotte, which he assumed pon-
tifically, talking (about me) all the time. Billows
of white stuff lay between the chairs on the cabin
floor; I caught the words "Zwei und dreissig
Pfund" repeated several times, and presently came
the beer, which seemed delicious to my throat,
parched with running and the emotions of the chase.

I didn't get away till well past midnight, long
after the women had retired. Hermann had been
trading in the East for three years or more, carry-
ing freights of rice and timber mostly. His ship
was well known in all the ports from Vladivostok to
Singapore. She was his own property. The profits
had been moderate, but the trade answered well
enough while the children were small yet. In an-
other year or so he hoped he would be able to sell the
old Diana to a firm in Japan for a fair price. He
intended to return home, to Bremen, by mail boat,
second class, with Mrs. Hermann and the children.
He told me all this stolidly, with slow puffs at his
pipe. I was sorry when knocking the ashes out he
began to rub his eyes. I would have sat with him
till morning. What had I to hurry on board my
own ship for? To face the broken rifled drawer in
my state-room. Ugh! The very thought made me
feel unwell.