THE SHADOW LINE
By JOSEPH CONRAD
"Worthy of my undying regard"
AND ALL OTHERS WHO, LIKE HIMSELF, HAVE CROSSED
IN EARLY YOUTH THE SHADOW LINE OF
THEIR GENERATION WITH LOVE
THE SHADOW LINE
--D'autre fois, calme plat, grand miroir
De mon desespoir.
ONLY the young have such moments. I don't
mean the very young. No. The very young have,
properly speaking, no moments. It is the privi-
lege of early youth to live in advance of its days
in all the beautiful continuity of hope which
knows no pauses and no introspection.
One closes behind one the little gate of mere
boyishness--and enters an enchanted garden. Its
very shades glow with promise. Every turn of the
path has its seduction. And it isn't because it
is an undiscovered country. One knows well
enough that all mankind had streamed that way.
It is the charm of universal experience from which
one expects an uncommon or personal sensation--
a bit of one's own.
One goes on recognizing the landmarks of the
predecessors, excited, amused, taking the hard
luck and the good luck together--the kicks and
the halfpence, as the saying is--the picturesque
common lot that holds so many possibilities for
the deserving or perhaps for the lucky. Yes.
One goes on. And the time, too, goes on--till one
perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that
the region of early youth, too, must be left be-
This is the period of life in which such moments
of which I have spoken are likely to come. What
moments? Why, the moments of boredom, of
weariness, of dissatisfaction. Rash moments.
I mean moments when the still young are inclined
to commit rash actions, such as getting married
suddenly or else throwing up a job for no rea-
This is not a marriage story. It wasn't so bad
as that with me. My action, rash as it was, had
more the character of divorce--almost of deser-
tion. For no reason on which a sensible person
could put a finger I threw up my job--chucked
my berth--left the ship of which the worst that
could be said was that she was a steamship and
therefore, perhaps, not entitled to that blind
loyalty which. . . . However, it's no use try-
ing to put a gloss on what even at the time I myself
half suspected to be a caprice.
It was in an Eastern port. She was an Eastern
ship, inasmuch as then she belonged to that port.
She traded among dark islands on a blue reef-
scarred sea, with the Red Ensign over the taffrail
and at her masthead a house-flag, also red, but
with a green border and with a white crescent in
it. For an Arab owned her, and a Syed at that.
Hence the green border on the flag. He was the
head of a great House of Straits Arabs, but as
loyal a subject of the complex British Empire as
you could find east of the Suez Canal. World
politics did not trouble him at all, but he had a
great occult power amongst his own people.
It was all one to us who owned the ship. He
had to employ white men in the shipping part of
his business, and many of those he so employed
had never set eyes on him from the first to the
last day. I myself saw him but once, quite
accidentally on a wharf--an old, dark little man
blind in one eye, in a snowy robe and yellow
slippers. He was having his hand severely kissed
by a crowd of Malay pilgrims to whom he had
done some favour, in the way of food and money.
His alms-giving, I have heard, was most exten-
sive, covering almost the whole Archipelago. For
isn't it said that "The charitable man is the friend
Excellent (and picturesque) Arab owner, about
whom one needed not to trouble one's head, a
most excellent Scottish ship--for she was that
from the keep up--excellent sea-boat, easy to
keep clean, most handy in every way, and if it
had not been for her internal propulsion, worthy
of any man's love, I cherish to this day a profound
respect for her memory. As to the kind of trade
she was engaged in and the character of my ship-
mates, I could not have been happier if I had had
the life and the men made to my order by a
And suddenly I left all this. I left it in that,
to us, inconsequential manner in which a bird
flies away from a comfortable branch. It was as
though all unknowing I had heard a whisper or
seen something. Well--perhaps! One day I was
perfectly right and the next everything was gone
--glamour, flavour, interest, contentment--every-
thing. It was one of these moments, you know.
The green sickness of late youth descended on me
and carried me off. Carried me off that ship, I
We were only four white men on board, with a
large crew of Kalashes and two Malay petty
officers. The Captain stared hard as if wondering
what ailed me. But he was a sailor, and he, too,
had been young at one time. Presently a smile
came to lurk under his thick iron-gray moustache,
and he observed that, of course, if I felt I must
go he couldn't keep me by main force. And it was
arranged that I should be paid off the next morn-
ing. As I was going out of his cabin he added
suddenly, in a peculiar wistful tone, that he hoped
I would find what I was so anxious to go and look
for. A soft, cryptic utterance which seemed to
reach deeper than any diamond-hard tool could
have done. I do believe he understood my case.
But the second engineer attacked me differently.
He was a sturdy young Scot, with a smooth face and
light eyes. His honest red countenance emerged
out of the engine-room companion and then the
whole robust man, with shirt sleeves turned up,
wiping slowly the massive fore-arms with a lump
of cotton-waste. And his light eyes expressed
bitter distaste, as though our friendship had turned
to ashes. He said weightily: "Oh! Aye! I've
been thinking it was about time for you to run
away home and get married to some silly girl."
It was tacitly understood in the port that John
Nieven was a fierce misogynist; and the absurd
character of the sally convinced me that he meant
to be nasty--very nasty--had meant to say the
most crushing thing he could think of. My laugh
sounded deprecatory. Nobody but a friend could
be so angry as that. I became a little crestfallen.
Our chief engineer also took a characteristic view
of my action, but in a kindlier spirit.
He was young, too, but very thin, and with a
mist of fluffy brown beard all round his haggard
face. All day long, at sea or in harbour, he could
be seen walking hastily up and down the after-
deck, wearing an intense, spiritually rapt ex-
pression, which was caused by a perpetual con-
sciousness of unpleasant physical sensations in
his internal economy. For he was a confirmed
dyspeptic. His view of my case was very simple.
He said it was nothing but deranged liver. Of
course! He suggested I should stay for another
trip and meantime dose myself with a certain
patent medicine in which his own belief was ab-
solute. "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll buy you
two bottles, out of my own pocket. There. I
can't say fairer than that, can I?"
I believe he would have perpetrated the atrocity
(or generosity) at the merest sign of weakening
on my part. By that time, however, I was more
discontented, disgusted, and dogged than ever.
The past eighteen months, so full of new and varied
experience, appeared a dreary, prosaic waste of
days. I felt--how shall I express it?--that there
was no truth to be got out of them.
What truth? I should have been hard put to it to
explain. Probably, if pressed, I would have burst
into tears simply. I was young enough for that.
Next day the Captain and I transacted our busi-
ness in the Harbour Office. It was a lofty, big,
cool, white room, where the screened light of day
glowed serenely. Everybody in it--the officials,
the public--were in white. Only the heavy
polished desks gleamed darkly in a central avenue,
and some papers lying on them were blue. Enor-
mous punkahs sent from on high a gentle draught
through that immaculate interior and upon our
The official behind the desk we approached
grinned amiably and kept it up till, in answer to
his perfunctory question, "Sign off and on again?"
my Captain answered, "No! Signing off for good."
And then his grin vanished in sudden solemnity.
He did not look at me again till he handed me my
papers with a sorrowful expression, as if they had
been my passports for Hades.
While I was putting them away he murmured
some question to the Captain, and I heard the
latter answer good-humouredly:
"No. He leaves us to go home."
"Oh!" the other exclaimed, nodding mournfully
over my sad condition.
I didn't know him outside the official building,
but he leaned forward the desk to shake hands
with me, compassionately, as one would with some
poor devil going out to be hanged; and I am afraid
I performed my part ungraciously, in the hardened
manner of an impenitent criminal.
No homeward-bound mail-boat was due for
three or four days. Being now a man without a
ship, and having for a time broken my connection
with the sea--become, in fact, a mere potential
passenger--it would have been more appropriate
perhaps if I had gone to stay at an hotel. There
it was, too, within a stone's throw of the Harbour
Office, low, but somehow palatial, displaying its
white, pillared pavilions surrounded by trim grass
plots. I would have felt a passenger indeed in
there! I gave it a hostile glance and directed my
steps toward the Officers' Sailors' Home.
I walked in the sunshine, disregarding it, and in
the shade of the big trees on the esplanade without
enjoying it. The heat of the tropical East de-
scended through the leafy boughs, enveloping my
thinly-clad body, clinging to my rebellious dis-
content, as if to rob it of its freedom.
The Officers' Home was a large bungalow with
a wide verandah and a curiously suburban-looking
little garden of bushes and a few trees between it
and the street. That institution partook some-
what of the character of a residential club, but
with a slightly Governmental flavour about it,
because it was administered by the Harbour Office.
Its manager was officially styled Chief Steward.
He was an unhappy, wizened little man, who if put
into a jockey's rig would have looked the part to
perfection. But it was obvious that at some time
or other in his life, in some capacity or other, he
had been connected with the sea. Possibly in the
comprehensive capacity of a failure.
I should have thought his employment a very
easy one, but he used to affirm for some reason or
other that his job would be the death of him some
day. It was rather mysterious. Perhaps everything
naturally was too much trouble for him. He cer-
tainly seemed to hate having people in the house.
On entering it I thought he must be feeling
pleased. It was as still as a tomb. I could see no
one in the living rooms; and the verandah, too,
was empty, except for a man at the far end dozing
prone in a long chair. At the noise of my footsteps
he opened one horribly fish-like eye. He was a
stranger to me. I retreated from there, and cross-
ing the dining room--a very bare apartment with
a motionless punkah hanging over the centre table
--I knocked at a door labelled in black letters:
The answer to my knock being a vexed and dole-
ful plaint: "Oh, dear! Oh, dear! What is it
now?" I went in at once.
It was a strange room to find in the tropics.
Twilight and stuffiness reigned in there. The
fellow had hung enormously ample, dusty, cheap
lace curtains over his windows, which were shut.
Piles of cardboard boxes, such as milliners and
dressmakers use in Europe, cumbered the corners;
and by some means he had procured for himself
the sort of furniture that might have come out of
a respectable parlour in the East End of London
--a horsehair sofa, arm-chairs of the same. I
glimpsed grimy antimacassars scattered over that
horrid upholstery, which was awe-inspiring, in-
somuch that one could not guess what mysterious
accident, need, or fancy had collected it there.
Its owner had taken off his tunic, and in white
trousers and a thin, short-sleeved singlet prowled
behind the chair-backs nursing his meagre el-
An exclamation of dismay escaped him when he
heard that I had come for a stay; but he could not
deny that there were plenty of vacant rooms.
"Very well. Can you give me the one I had
He emitted a faint moan from behind a pile of
cardboard boxes on the table, which might have
contained gloves or handkerchies or neckties. I
wonder what the fellow did keep in them? There
was a smell of decaying coral, or Oriental dust
of zoological speciments in that den of his. I
could only see the top of his head and his un-
happy eyes levelled at me over the barrier.
"It's only for a couple of days," I said, intending
to cheer him up.
"Perhaps you would like to pay in advance?"
he suggested eagerly.
"Certainly not!" I burst out directly I could
speak. "Never heard of such a thing! This is
the most infernal cheek. . . ."
He had seized his head in both hands--a gesture
of despair which checked my indignation.
"Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Don't fly out like this.
I am asking everybody."
"I don't believe it," I said bluntly.
"Well, I am going to. And if you gentlemen
all agreed to pay in advance I could make Hamil-
ton pay up, too. He's always turning up ashore
dead broke, and even when he has some money
he won't settle his bills. I don't know what to do
with him. He swears at me and tells me I can't
chuck a white man out into the street here. So if
you only would. . . ."
I was amazed. Incredulous, too. I suspected
the fellow of gratuitous impertinence. I told him
with marked emphasis that I would see him and
Hamilton hanged first, and requested him to con-
duct me to my room with no more of his nonsense.
He produced then a key from somewhere and led
the way out of his lair, giving me a vicious sidelong
look in passing.
"Any one I know staying here?" I asked him
before he left my room.
He had recovered his usual pained impatient
tone, and said that Captain Giles was there, back
from a Solo Sea trip. Two other guests were stay-
ing also. He paused. And, of course, Hamilton,
"Oh, yes! Hamilton," I said, and the miserable
creature took himself off with a final groan.
His impudence still rankled when I came into the
dining room at tiffin time. He was there on duty
overlooking the Chinamen servants. The tiffin
was laid on one end only of the long table, and the
punkah was stirring the hot air lazily--mostly
above a barren waste of polished wood.
We were four around the cloth. The dozing
stranger from the chair was one. Both his eyes
were partly opened now, but they did not seem to
see anything. He was supine. The dignified
person next him, with short side whiskers and a
carefully scraped chin, was, of course, Hamilton.
I have never seen any one so full of dignity for the
station in life Providence had been pleased to
place him in. I had been told that he regarded me
as a rank outsider. He raised not only his eyes,
but his eyebrows as well, at the sound I made
pulling back my chair.
Captain Giles was at the head of the table. I
exchanged a few words of greeting with him and sat
down on his left. Stout and pale, with a great
shiny dome of a bald forehead and prominent
brown eyes, he might have been anything but a
seaman. You would not have been surprised to
learn that he was an architect. To me (I know
how absurd it is) to me he looked like a church-
warden. He had the appearance of a man from
whom you would expect sound advice, moral
sentiments, with perhaps a platitude or two thrown
in on occasion, not from a desire to dazzle, but
from honest conviction.
Though very well known and appreciated in the
shipping world, he had no regular employment.
He did not want it. He had his own peculiar
position. He was an expert. An expert in--how
shall I say it?--in intricate navigation. He was
supposed to know more about remote and im-
perfectly charted parts of the Archipelago than any
man living. His brain must have been a perfect
warehouse of reefs, positions, bearings, images of
headlands, shapes of obscure coasts, aspects of
innumerable islands, desert and otherwise. Any
ship, for instance, bound on a trip to Palawan or
somewhere that way would have Captain Giles on
board, either in temporary command or "to assist
the master." It was said that he had a retaining
fee from a wealthy firm of Chinese steamship
owners, in view of such services. Besides, he was
always ready to relieve any man who wished to
take a spell ashore for a time. No owner was ever
known to object to an arrangement of that sort.
For it seemed to be the established opinion at the
port that Captain Giles was as good as the best, if
not a little better. But in Hamilton's view he was
an "outsider." I believe that for Hamilton the
generalisation "outsider" covered the whole lot of
us; though I suppose that he made some dis-
tinctions in his mind.
I didn't try to make conversation with Captain
Giles, whom I had not seen more than twice in
my life. But, of course, he knew who I was.
After a while, inclining his big shiny head my way,
he addressed me first in his friendly fashion. He
presumed from seeing me there, he said, that I had
come ashore for a couple of days' leave.
He was a low-voiced man. I spoke a little
louder, saying that: No--I had left the ship for
"A free man for a bit," was his comment.
"I suppose I may call myself that--since eleven
o'clock," I said.
Hamilton had stopped eating at the sound of
our voices. He laid down his knife and fork gently,
got up, and muttering something about "this
infernal heat cutting one's appetite," went out of
the room. Almost immediately we heard him
leave the house down the verandah steps.
On this Captain Giles remarked easily that the
fellow had no doubt gone off to look after my old
job. The Chief Steward, who had been leaning
against the wall, brought his face of an unhappy
goat nearer to the table and addressed us dole-
fully. His object was to unburden himself of his
eternal grievance against Hamilton. The man
kept him in hot water with the Harbour Office as
to the state of his accounts. He wished to good-
ness he would get my job, though in truth what
would it be? Temporary relief at best.
I said: "You needn't worry. He won't get my
job. My successor is on board already."
He was surprised, and I believe his face fell
a little at the news. Captain Giles gave a soft
laugh. We got up and went out on the verandah,
leaving the supine stranger to be dealt with by
the Chinamen. The last thing I saw they had put
a plate with a slice of pine-apple on it before him
and stood back to watch what would happen.
But the experiment seemed a failure. He sat in-
It was imparted to me in a low voice by Captain
Giles that this was an officer of some Rajah's yacht
which had come into our port to be dry-docked.
Must have been "seeing life" last night, he added,
wrinkling his nose in an intimate, confidential way
which pleased me vastly. For Captain Giles had
prestige. He was credited with wonderful ad-
ventures and with some mysterious tragedy in his
life. And no man had a word to say against him.
"I remember him first coming ashore here some
years ago. Seems only the other day. He was a
nice boy. Oh! these nice boys!"
I could not help laughing aloud. He looked
startled, then joined in the laugh. "No! No!
I didn't mean that," he cried. "What I meant
is that some of them do go soft mighty quick out
Jocularly I suggested the beastly heat as the
first cause. But Captain Giles disclosed himself
possessed of a deeper philosophy. Things out
East were made easy for white men. That was
all right. The difficulty was to go on keeping
white, and some of these nice boys did not know
how. He gave me a searching look, and in a
benevolent, heavy-uncle manner asked point blank:
"Why did you throw up your berth?"
I became angry all of a sudden; for you can
understand how exasperating such a question was
to a man who didn't know. I said to myself that
I ought to shut up that moralist; and to him
aloud I said with challenging politeness:
"Why . . . ? Do you disapprove?"
He was too disconcerted to do more than mutter
confusedly: "I! . . . In a general way.
. . ." and then gave me up. But he retired in
good order, under the cover of a heavily humorous
remark that he, too, was getting soft, and that this
was his time for taking his little siesta--when he
was on shore. "Very bad habit. Very bad
There was a simplicity in the man which would
have disarmed a touchiness even more youthful
than mine. So when next day at tiffin he bent his
head toward me and said that he had met my
late Captain last evening, adding in an undertone:
"He's very sorry you left. He had never had a
mate that suited him so well," I answered him
earnestly, without any affectation, that I certainly
hadn't been so comfortable in any ship or with any
commander in all my sea-going days.
"Well--then," he murmured.
"Haven't you heard, Captain Giles, that I in-
tend to go home?"
"Yes," he said benevolently. "I have heard
that sort of thing so often before."
"What of that?" I cried. I thought he was the
most dull, unimaginative man I had ever met. I
don't know what more I would have said, but
the much-belated Hamilton came in just then
and took his usual seat. So I dropped into a mum-
"Anyhow, you shall see it done this time."
Hamilton, beautifully shaved, gave Captain
Giles a curt nod, but didn't even condescend to
raise his eyebrows at me; and when he spoke it was
only to tell the Chief Steward that the food on his
plate wasn't fit to be set before a gentleman. The
individual addressed seemed much too unhappy to
groan. He cast his eyes up to the punkah and
that was all.
Captain Giles and I got up from the table, and
the stranger next to Hamilton followed our ex-
ample, manoeuvring himself to his feet with
difficulty. He, poor fellow, not because he was
hungry but I verily believe only to recover his
self-respect, had tried to put some of that un-
worthy food into his mouth. But after dropping
his fork twice and generally making a failure of
it, he had sat still with an air of intense mortifica-
tion combined with a ghastly glazed stare. Both
Giles and I had avoided looking his way at
On the verandah he stopped short on purpose to
address to us anxiously a long remark which I
failed to understand completely. It sounded like
some horrible unknown language. But when
Captain Giles, after only an instant for reflection,
assured him with homely friendliness, "Aye, to be
sure. You are right there," he appeared very
much gratified indeed, and went away (pretty
straight, too) to seek a distant long chair.
"What was he trying to say?" I asked with
"I don't know. Mustn't be down too much on
a fellow. He's feeling pretty wretched, you may
be sure; and to-morrow he'll feel worse yet."
Judging by the man's appearance it seemed im-
possible. I wondered what sort of complicated de-
bauch had reduced him to that unspeakable con-
dition. Captain Giles' benevolence was spoiled by
a curious air of complacency which I disliked. I
said with a little laugh:
"Well, he will have you to look after him."
He made a deprecatory gesture, sat down, and
took up a paper. I did the same. The papers
were old and uninteresting, filled up mostly with
dreary stereotyped descriptions of Queen Victoria's
first jubilee celebrations. Probably we should
have quickly fallen into a tropical afternoon doze
if it had not been for Hamilton's voice raised in
the dining room. He was finishing his tiffin there.
The big double doors stood wide open permanently,
and he could not have had any idea how near to the
doorway our chairs were placed. He was heard in
a loud, supercilious tone answering some state-
ment ventured by the Chief Steward.
"I am not going to be rushed into anything.
They will be glad enough to get a gentleman I
imagine. There is no hurry."
A loud whispering from the Steward succeeded
and then again Hamilton was heard with even
"What? That young ass who fancies himself
for having been chief mate with Kent so long?
. . . Preposterous."
Giles and I looked at each other. Kent being
the came of my late commander, Captain Giles'
whisper, "He's talking of you," seemed to me sheer
waste of breath. The Chief Steward must have
stuck to his point, whatever it was, because Hamil-
ton was heard again more supercilious if possible,
and also very emphatic:
"Rubbish, my good man! One doesn't COMPETE with
a rank outsider like that. There's plenty of time."
Then there were pushing of chairs, footsteps in
the next room, and plaintive expostulations from
the Steward, who was pursuing Hamilton, even out
of doors through the main entrance.
"That's a very insulting sort of man," remarked
Captain Giles--superfluously, I thought. "Very
insulting. You haven't offended him in some way,
"Never spoke to him in my life," I said grumpily.
"Can't imagine what he means by competing. He
has been trying for my job after I left--and didn't
get it. But that isn't exactly competition."
Captain Giles balanced his big benevolent head
thoughtfully. "He didn't get it," he repeated
very slowly. "No, not likely either, with Kent.
Kent is no end sorry you left him. He gives you
the name of a good seaman, too."
I flung away the paper I was still holding. I sat
up, I slapped the table with my open palm. I
wanted to know why he would keep harping on
that, my absolutely private affair. It was exas-
Captain Giles silenced me by the perfect
equanimity of his gaze. "Nothing to be annoyed
about," he murmured reasonably, with an evident
desire to soothe the childish irritation he had
aroused. And he was really a man of an appear-
ance so inoffensive that I tried to explain myself
as much as I could. I told him that I did not want
to hear any more about what was past and gone.
It had been very nice while it lasted, but now it
was done with I preferred not to talk about it or
even think about it. I had made up my mind to go
He listened to the whole tirade in a particular
lending-the-ear attitude, as if trying to detect a
false note in it somewhere; then straightened him-
self up and appeared to ponder sagaciously over
"Yes. You told me you meant to go home.
Anything in view there?"
Instead of telling him that it was none of his
business I said sullenly:
"Nothing that I know of."
I had indeed considered that rather blank side of
the situation I had created for myself by leaving
suddenly my very satisfactory employment. And
I was not very pleased with it. I had it on the tip
of my tongue to say that common sense had noth-
ing to do with my action, and that therefore it
didn't deserve the interest Captain Giles seemed
to be taking in it. But he was puffing at a short
wooden pipe now, and looked so guileless, dense,
and commonplace, that it seemed hardly worth
while to puzzle him either with truth or sarcasm.
He blew a cloud of smoke, then surprised me
by a very abrupt: "Paid your passage money
Overcome by the shameless pertinacity of a
man to whom it was rather difficult to be rude,
I replied with exaggerated meekness that I had
not done so yet. I thought there would be plenty
of time to do that to-morrow.
And I was about to turn away, withdrawing
my privacy from his fatuous, objectless attempts
to test what sort of stuff it was made of, when he
laid down his pipe in an extremely significant
manner, you know, as if a critical moment had
come, and leaned sideways over the table be-
"Oh! You haven't yet!" He dropped his
voice mysteriously. "Well, then I think you
ought to know that there's something going on
I had never in my life felt more detached from
all earthly goings on. Freed from the sea for a
time, I preserved the sailor's consciousness of
complete independence from all land affairs.
How could they concern me? I gazed at Captain
Giles' animation with scorn rather than with
To his obviously preparatory question whether
our Steward had spoken to me that day I said he
hadn't. And what's more he would have had
precious little encouragement if he had tried to.
I didn't want the fellow to speak to me at all.
Unrebuked by my petulance, Captain Giles,
with an air of immense sagacity, began to tell me
a minute tale about a Harbour Office peon. It
was absolutely pointless. A peon was seen walk-
ing that morning on the verandah with a letter
in his hand. It was in an official envelope. As
the habit of these fellows is, he had shown it
to the first white man he came across. That man
was our friend in the arm-chair. He, as I knew,
was not in a state to interest himself in any sub-
lunary matters. He could only wave the peon
away. The peon then wandered on along the
verandah and came upon Captain Giles, who
was there by an extraordinary chance. . . .
At this point he stopped with a profound look.
The letter, he continued, was addressed to the
Chief Steward. Now what could Captain Ellis,
the Master Attendant, want to write to the
Steward for? The fellow went every morning,
anyhow, to the Harbour Office with his report,
for orders or what not. He hadn't been back
more than an hour before there was an office
peon chasing him with a note. Now what was
And he began to speculate. It was not for this
--and it could not be for that. As to that other
thing it was unthinkable.
The fatuousness of all this made me stare. If
the man had not been somehow a sympathetic
personality I would have resented it like an in-
sult. As it was, I felt only sorry for him. Some-
thing remarkably earnest in his gaze prevented
me from laughing in his face. Neither did I
yawn at him. I just stared.
His tone became a shade more mysterious.
Directly the fellow (meaning the Steward) got
that note he rushed for his hat and bolted out of
the house. But it wasn't because the note called
him to the Harbour Office. He didn't go there.
He was not absent long enough for that. He came
darting back in no time, flung his hat away, and
raced about the dining room moaning and slapping
his forehead. All these exciting facts and mani-
festations had been observed by Captain Giles.
He had, it seems, been meditating upon them
I began to pity him profoundly. And in a
tone which I tried to make as little sarcastic as
possible I said that I was glad he had found
something to occupy his morning hours.
With his disarming simplicity he made me ob-
serve, as if it were a matter of some consequence,
how strange it was that he should have spent
the morning indoors at all. He generally was
out before tiffin, visiting various offices, seeing his
friends in the harbour, and so on. He had felt
out of sorts somewhat on rising. Nothing much.
Just enough to make him feel lazy.
All this with a sustained, holding stare which,
in conjunction with the general inanity of the
discourse, conveyed the impression of mild, dreary
lunacy. And when he hitched his chair a little
and dropped his voice to the low note of mystery,
it flashed upon me that high professional reputa-
tion was not necessarily a guarantee of sound
It never occurred to me then that I didn't
know in what soundness of mind exactly con-
sisted and what a delicate and, upon the whole,
unimportant matter it was. With some idea of
not hurting his feelings I blinked at him in an
interested manner. But when he proceeded to
ask me mysteriously whether I remembered what
had passed just now between that Steward of
ours and "that man Hamilton," I only grunted
sourly assent and turned away my head.
"Aye. But do you remember every word?" he
"I don't know. It's none of my business," I
snapped out, consigning, moreover, the Steward
and Hamilton aloud to eternal perdition.
I meant to be very energetic and final, but
Captain Giles continued to gaze at me thought-
fully. Nothing could stop him. He went on to
point out that my personality was involved in
that conversation. When I tried to preserve the
semblance of unconcern he became positively
cruel. I heard what the man had said? Yes?
What did I think of it then?--he wanted to know.
Captain Giles' appearance excluding the sus-
picion of mere sly malice, I came to the conclusion
that he was simply the most tactless idiot on earth.
I almost despised myself for the weakness of
attempting to enlighten his common understand-
ing. I started to explain that I did not think
anything whatever. Hamilton was not worth a
thought. What such an offensive loafer . . .
"Aye! that he is," interjected Captain Giles
. . . thought or said was below any decent
man's contempt, and I did not propose to take
the slightest notice of it.
This attitude seemed to me so simple and ob-
vious that I was really astonished at Giles giving
no sign of assent. Such perfect stupidity was
"What would you like me to do?" I asked,
laughing. "I can't start a row with him because
of the opinion he has formed of me. Of course,
I've heard of the contemptuous way he alludes
to me. But he doesn't intrude his contempt on
my notice. He has never expressed it in my
hearing. For even just now he didn't know we
could hear him. I should only make myself
That hopeless Giles went on puffing at his pipe
moodily. All at once his face cleared, and he spoke.
"You missed my point."
"Have I? I am very glad to hear it," I said.
With increasing animation he stated again
that I had missed his point. Entirely. And in a
tone of growing self-conscious complacency he
told me that few things escaped his attention,
and he was rather used to think them out, and
generally from his experience of life and men ar-
rived at the right conclusion.
This bit of self-praise, of course, fitted excel-
lently the laborious inanity of the whole conversa-
tion. The whole thing strengthened in me that
obscure feeling of life being but a waste of days,
which, half-unconsciously, had driven me out of
a comfortable berth, away from men I liked, to
flee from the menace of emptiness . . . and
to find inanity at the first turn. Here was a man
of recognized character and achievement disclosed
as an absurd and dreary chatterer. And it was
probably like this everywhere--from east to west,
from the bottom to the top of the social scale.
A great discouragement fell on me. A spiritual
drowsiness. Giles' voice was going on compla-
cently; the very voice of the universal hollow
conceit. And I was no longer angry with it.
There was nothing original, nothing new, star-
tling, informing, to expect from the world; no op-
portunities to find out something about oneself,
no wisdom to acquire, no fun to enjoy. Every-
thing was stupid and overrated, even as Captain
Giles was. So be it.
The name of Hamilton suddenly caught my
ear and roused me up.
"I thought we had done with him," I said, with
the greatest possible distaste.
"Yes. But considering what we happened to
hear just now I think you ought to do it."
"Ought to do it?" I sat up bewildered. "Do
Captain Giles confronted me very much sur-
"Why! Do what I have been advising you to
try. You go and ask the Steward what was there
in that letter from the Harbour Office. Ask him
I remained speechless for a time. Here was
something unexpected and original enough to be
altogether incomprehensible. I murmured, as-
"But I thought it was Hamilton that you . . ."
"Exactly. Don't you let him. You do what I
tell you. You tackle that Steward. You'll make
him jump, I bet," insisted Captain Giles, waving
his smouldering pipe impressively at me. Then
he took three rapid puffs at it.
His aspect of triumphant acuteness was inde-
scribable. Yet the man remained a strangely
sympathetic creature. Benevolence radiated from
him ridiculously, mildly, impressively. It was
irritating, too. But I pointed out coldly, as one
who deals with the incomprehensible, that I
didn't see any reason to expose myself to a snub
from the fellow. He was a very unsatisfactory
steward and a miserable wretch besides, but I
would just as soon think of tweaking his nose.
"Tweaking his nose," said Captain Giles in a
scandalized tone. "Much use it would be to
That remark was so irrelevant that one could
make no answer to it. But the sense of the ab-
surdity was beginning at last to exercise its well-
known fascination. I felt I must not let the
man talk to me any more. I got up, observing
curtly that he was too much for me--that I
couldn't make him out.
Before I had time to move away he spoke
again in a changed tone of obstinacy and puffing
nervously at his pipe.
"Well--he's a--no account cuss--anyhow.
You just--ask him. That's all."
That new manner impressed me--or rather
made me pause. But sanity asserting its sway
at once I left the verandah after giving him a
mirthless smile. In a few strides I found myself
in the dining room, now cleared and empty. But
during that short time various thoughts occurred
to me, such as: that Giles had been making fun
of me, expecting some amusement at my expense;
that I probably looked silly and gullible; that I
knew very little of life. . . .
The door facing me across the dining room flew
open to my extreme surprise. It was the door
inscribed with the word "Steward" and the man
himself ran out of his stuffy, Philistinish lair in
his absurd, hunted-animal manner, making for the
To this day I don't know what made me call
after him. "I say! Wait a minute." Perhaps
it was the sidelong glance he gave me; or possibly
I was yet under the influence of Captain Giles'
mysterious earnestness. Well, it was an impulse
of some sort; an effect of that force somewhere
within our lives which shapes them this way or
that. For if these words had not escaped from my
lips (my will had nothing to do with that) my
existence would, to be sure, have been still a sea-
man's existence, but directed on now to me utterly
No. My will had nothing to do with it. In-
deed, no sooner had I made that fateful noise
than I became extremely sorry for it. Had the
man stopped and faced me I would have had to
retire in disorder. For I had no notion to carry
out Captain Giles' idiotic joke, either at my own
expense or at the expense of the Steward.
But here the old human instinct of the chase
came into play. He pretended to be deaf, and I,
without thinking a second about it, dashed along
my own side of the dining table and cut him off
at the very door.
"Why can't you answer when you are spoken
to?" I asked roughly.
He leaned against the lintel of the door. He
looked extremely wretched. Human nature is, I
fear, not very nice right through. There are ugly
spots in it. I found myself growing angry, and
that, I believe, only because my quarry looked
so woe-begone. Miserable beggar!
I went for him without more ado. "I under-
stand there was an official communication to the
Home from the Harbour Office this morning. Is
Instead of telling me to mind my own business,
as he might have done, he began to whine with
an undertone of impudence. He couldn't see me
anywhere this morning. He couldn't be expected
to run all over the town after me.
"Who wants you to?" I cried. And then my
eyes became opened to the inwardness of things
and speeches the triviality of which had been so
baffling and tiresome.
I told him I wanted to know what was in that
letter. My sternness of tone and behaviour was
only half assumed. Curiosity can be a very fierce
He took refuge in a silly, muttering sulkiness.
It was nothing to me, he mumbled. I had told
him I was going home. And since I was going
home he didn't see why he should. . . .
That was the line of his argument, and it was
irrelevant enough to be almost insulting. Insult-
ing to one's intelligence, I mean.
In that twilight region between youth and
maturity, in which I had my being then, one is
peculiarly sensitive to that kind of insult. I am
afraid my behaviour to the Steward became very
rough indeed. But it wasn't in him to face out
anything or anybody. Drug habit or solitary
tippling, perhaps. And when I forgot myself so
far as to swear at him he broke down and began to
I don't mean to say that he made a great out-
cry. It was a cynical shrieking confession, only
faint--piteously faint. It wasn't very coherent
either, but sufficiently so to strike me dumb at first.
I turned my eyes from him in righteous indig-
nation, and perceived Captain Giles in the ve-
randah doorway surveying quietly the scene, his
own handiwork, if I may express it in that way.
His smouldering black pipe was very noticeable
in his big, paternal fist. So, too, was the glitter of
his heavy gold watch-chain across the breast of his
white tunic. He exhaled an atmosphere of virtu-
ous sagacity serene enough for any innocent soul to
fly to confidently. I flew to him.
"You would never believe it," I cried. "It was
a notification that a master is wanted for some
ship. There's a command apparently going about
and this fellow puts the thing in his pocket."
The Steward screamed out in accents of loud
despair: "You will be the death of me!"
The mighty slap he gave his wretched forehead
was very loud, too. But when I turned to look at
him he was no longer there. He had rushed away
somewhere out of sight. This sudden disappear-
ance made me laugh.
This was the end of the incident--for me.
Captain Giles, however, staring at the place where
the Steward had been, began to haul at his gor-
geous gold chain till at last the watch came up
from the deep pocket like solid truth from a well.
Solemnly he lowered it down again and only then
"Just three o'clock. You will be in time--if
you don't lose any, that is."
"In time for what?" I asked.
"Good Lord! For the Harbour Office. This
must be looked into.
Strictly speaking, he was right. But I've never
had much taste for investigation, for showing
people up and all that no doubt ethically meri-
torious kind of work. And my view of the episode
was purely ethical. If any one had to be the death
of the Steward I didn't see why it shouldn't be
Captain Giles himself, a man of age and standing,
and a permanent resident. Whereas, I in com-
parison, felt myself a mere bird of passage in that
port. In fact, it might have been said that I had
already broken off my connection. I muttered
that I didn't think--it was nothing to me. . . .
"Nothing!" repeated Captain Giles, giving some
signs of quiet, deliberate indignation. "Kent
warned me you were a peculiar young fellow. You
will tell me next that a command is nothing to you
--and after all the trouble I've taken, too!"
"The trouble!" I murmured, uncomprehending.
What trouble? All I could remember was being
mystified and bored by his conversation for a solid
hour after tiffin. And he called that taking a lot
He was looking at me with a self-complacency
which would have been odious in any other man.
All at once, as if a page of a book had been turned
over disclosing a word which made plain all that
had gone before, I perceived that this matter had
also another than an ethical aspect.
And still I did not move. Captain Giles lost his
patience a little. With an angry puff at his pipe he
turned his back on my hesitation.
But it was not hesitation on my part. I had
been, if I may express myself so, put out of gear
mentally. But as soon as I had convinced my-
self that this stale, unprofitable world of my dis-
content contained such a thing as a command
to be seized, I recovered my powers of locomo-
It's a good step from the Officers' Home to the
Harbour Office; but with the magic word "Com-
mand" in my head I found myself suddenly on
the quay as if transported there in the twinkling of
an eye, before a portal of dressed white stone above
a flight of shallow white steps.
All this seemed to glide toward me swiftly. The
whole great roadstead to the right was just a mere
flicker of blue, and the dim cool hall swallowed
me up out of the heat and glare of which I had not
been aware till the very moment I passed in from it.
The broad inner staircase insinuated itself under
my feet somehow. Command is a strong magic.
The first human beings I perceived distinctly since
I had parted with the indignant back of Captain
Giles were the crew of the harbour steam-launch
lounging on the spacious landing about the cur-
tained archway of the shipping office.
It was there that my buoyancy abandoned me.
The atmosphere of officialdom would kill anything
that breathes the air of human endeavour, would
extinguish hope and fear alike in the supremacy of
paper and ink. I passed heavily under the curtain
which the Malay coxswain of the harbour launch
raised for me. There was nobody in the office
except the clerks, writing in two industrious rows.
But the head Shipping-Master hopped down from
his elevation and hurried along on the thick mats
to meet me in the broad central passage.
He had a Scottish name, but his complexion was
of a rich olive hue, his short beard was jet black,
and his eyes, also black, had a languishing ex-
pression. He asked confidentially:
"You want to see Him?"
All lightness of spirit and body having departed
from me at the touch of officialdom, I looked at
the scribe without animation and asked in my turn
"What do you think? Is it any use?"
"My goodness! He has asked for you twice to-
This emphatic He was the supreme authority,
the Marine Superintendent, the Harbour-Master
--a very great person in the eyes of every single
quill-driver in the room. But that was nothing to
the opinion he had of his own greatness.
Captain Ellis looked upon himself as a sort of
divine (pagan) emanation, the deputy-Neptune for
the circumambient seas. If he did not actually
rule the waves, he pretended to rule the fate of
the mortals whose lives were cast upon the
This uplifting illusion made him inquisitorial
and peremptory. And as his temperament was
choleric there were fellows who were actually afraid
of him. He was redoubtable, not in virtue of his
office, but because of his unwarrantable assump-
tions. I had never had anything to do with him
I said: "Oh! He has asked for me twice. Then
perhaps I had better go in."
"You must! You must!"
The Shipping-Master led the way with a mincing
gait around the whole system of desks to a tall and
important-looking door, which he opened with a
deferential action of the arm.
He stepped right in (but without letting go of
the handle) and, after gazing reverently down the
room for a while, beckoned me in by a silent jerk
of the head. Then he slipped out at once and shut
the door after me most delicately.
Three lofty windows gave on the harbour.
There was nothing in them but the dark-blue
sparkling sea and the paler luminous blue of the
sky. My eye caught in the depths and distances
of these blue tones the white speck of some big ship
just arrived and about to anchor in the outer road-
stead. A ship from home--after perhaps ninety
days at sea. There is something touching about a
ship coming in from sea and folding her white
wings for a rest.
The next thing I saw was the top-knot of silver
hair surmounting Captain Ellis' smooth red face,
which would have been apoplectic if it hadn't had
such a fresh appearance.
Our deputy-Neptune had no beard on his chin,
and there was no trident to be seen standing in a
corner anywhere, like an umbrella. But his hand
was holding a pen--the official pen, far mightier
than the sword in making or marring the fortune of
simple toiling men. He was looking over his
shoulder at my advance.
When I had come well within range he saluted
me by a nerve-shattering: "Where have you been
all this time?"
As it was no concern of his I did not take the
slightest notice of the shot. I said simply that I
had heard there was a master needed for some
vessel, and being a sailing-ship man I thought I
would apply. . . .
He interrupted me. "Why! Hang it! YOU are
the right man for that job--if there had been
twenty others after it. But no fear of that. They
are all afraid to catch hold. That's what's the
He was very irritated. I said innocently: "Are
they, sir. I wonder why?"
"Why!" he fumed. "Afraid of the sails.
Afraid of a white crew. Too much trouble. Too
much work. Too long out here. Easy life and
deck-chairs more their mark. Here I sit with the
Consul-General's cable before me, and the only
man fit for the job not to be found anywhere. I
began to think you were funking it, too. . . ."
"I haven't been long getting to the office," I
"You have a good name out here, though," he
growled savagely without looking at me.
"I am very glad to hear it from you, sir," I said.
"Yes. But you are not on the spot when you
are wanted. You know you weren't. That stew-
ard of yours wouldn't dare to neglect a message
from this office. Where the devil did you hide
yourself for the best part of the day?"
I only smiled kindly down on him, and he seemed
to recollect himself, and asked me to take a seat. He
explained that the master of a British ship having
died in Bangkok the Consul-General had cabled to
him a request for a competent man to be sent out to
Apparently, in his mind, I was the man from the
first, though for the looks of the thing the notifica-
tion addressed to the Sailors' Home was general.
An agreement had already been prepared. He
gave it to me to read, and when I handed it back to
him with the remark that I accepted its terms, the
deputy-Neptune signed it, stamped it with his own
exalted hand, folded it in four (it was a sheet of
blue foolscap) and presented it to me--a gift of ex-
traordinary potency, for, as I put it in my pocket,
my head swam a little.
"This is your appointment to the command," he
said with a certain gravity. "An official appoint-
ment binding the owners to conditions which you
have accepted. Now--when will you be ready to
I said I would be ready that very day if neces-
sary. He caught me at my word with great
alacrity. The steamer Melita was leaving for
Bangkok that evening about seven. He would
request her captain officially to give me a passage
and wait for me till ten o'clock.
Then he rose from his office chair, and I got up,
too. My head swam, there was no doubt about it,
and I felt a certain heaviness of limbs as if they
had grown bigger since I had sat down on that
chair. I made my bow.
A subtle change in Captain Ellis' manner became
perceptible as though he had laid aside the trident
of deputy-Neptune. In reality, it was only his
official pen that he had dropped on getting up.