By JOSEPH CONRAD
". . . But the Dwarf answered: No;
something human is dearer to me than the
wealth of all the world." GRIMM'S TALES.
TO MY WIFE
YOUTH: A NARRATIVE
THIS could have occurred nowhere but in England,
where men and sea interpenetrate, so to speak--the sea
entering into the life of most men, and the men know-
ing something or everything about the sea, in the way
of amusement, of travel, or of bread-winning.
We were sitting round a mahogany table that reflected
the bottle, the claret-glasses, and our faces as we leaned
on our elbows. There was a director of companies, an
accountant, a lawyer, Marlow, and myself. The direc-
tor had been a CONWAY boy, the accountant had served
four years at sea, the lawyer--a fine crusted Tory, High
Churchman, the best of old fellows, the soul of honor--
had been chief officer in the P. & O. service in the good
old days when mail-boats were square-rigged at least on
two masts, and used to come down the China Sea before
a fair monsoon with stun'-sails set alow and aloft. We
all began life in the merchant service. Between the five
of us there was the strong bond of the sea, and also the
fellowship of the craft, which no amount of enthusiasm
for yachting, cruising, and so on can give, since one is
only the amusement of life and the other is life itself.
Marlow (at least I think that is how he spelt his name)
told the story, or rather the chronicle, of a voyage:
"Yes, I have seen a little of the Eastern seas; but what
I remember best is my first voyage there. You fellows
know there are those voyages that seem ordered for the
illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of
existence. You fight, work, sweat, nearly kill yourself,
sometimes do kill yourself, trying to accomplish some-
thing--and you can't. Not from any fault of yours.
You simply can do nothing, neither great nor little--
not a thing in the world--not even marry an old maid, or
get a wretched 600-ton cargo of coal to its port of desti-
"It was altogether a memorable affair. It was my
first voyage to the East, and my first voyage as second
mate; it was also my skipper's first command. You'll
admit it was time. He was sixty if a day; a little man,
with a broad, not very straight back, with bowed shoul-
ders and one leg more bandy than the other, he had that
queer twisted-about appearance you see so often in men
who work in the fields. He had a nut-cracker face--chin
and nose trying to come together over a sunken mouth--
and it was framed in iron-gray fluffy hair, that looked
like a chin strap of cotton-wool sprinkled with coal-dust.
And he had blue eyes in that old face of his, which were
amazingly like a boy's, with that candid expression some
quite common men preserve to the end of their days by
a rare internal gift of simplicity of heart and rectitude
of soul. What induced him to accept me was a wonder.
I had come out of a crack Australian clipper, where I
had been third officer, and he seemed to have a prejudice
against crack clippers as aristocratic and high-toned.
He said to me, 'You know, in this ship you will have to
work.' I said I had to work in every ship I had ever
been in. 'Ah, but this is different, and you gentlemen
out of them big ships; . . . but there! I dare say you
will do. Join to-morrow.'
"I joined to-morrow. It was twenty-two years ago;
and I was just twenty. How time passes! It was one
of the happiest days of my life. Fancy! Second mate
for the first time--a really responsible officer! I wouldn't
have thrown up my new billet for a fortune. The mate
looked me over carefully. He was also an old chap, but
of another stamp. He had a Roman nose, a snow-white,
long beard, and his name was Mahon, but he insisted that
it should be pronounced Mann. He was well connected;
yet there was something wrong with his luck, and he
had never got on.
"As to the captain, he had been for years in coasters,
then in the Mediterranean, and last in the West Indian
trade. He had never been round the Capes. He could
just write a kind of sketchy hand, and didn't care for
writing at all. Both were thorough good seamen of
course, and between those two old chaps I felt like a
small boy between two grandfathers.
"The ship also was old. Her name was the Judea.
Queer name, isn't it? She belonged to a man Wilmer,
Wilcox--some name like that; but he has been bankrupt
and dead these twenty years or more, and his name don't
matter. She had been laid up in Shadwell basin for ever
so long. You can imagine her state. She was all rust,
dust, grime--soot aloft, dirt on deck. To me it was
like coming out of a palace into a ruined cottage. She
was about 400 tons, had a primitive windlass, wooden
latches to the doors, not a bit of brass about her, and a
big square stern. There was on it, below her name in
big letters, a lot of scroll work, with the gilt off, and some
sort of a coat of arms, with the motto 'Do or Die' under-
neath. I remember it took my fancy immensely. There
was a touch of romance in it, something that made me
love the old thing--something that appealed to my
"We left London in ballast--sand ballast--to load a
cargo of coal in a northern port for Bankok. Bankok!
I thrilled. I had been six years at sea, but had only seen
Melbourne and Sydney, very good places, charming
places in their way--but Bankok!
"We worked out of the Thames under canvas, with a
North Sea pilot on board. His name was Jermyn, and
he dodged all day long about the galley drying his hand-
kerchief before the stove. Apparently he never slept.
He was a dismal man, with a perpetual tear sparkling
at the end of his nose, who either had been in trouble, or
was in trouble, or expected to be in trouble--couldn't be
happy unless something went wrong. He mistrusted
my youth, my common-sense, and my seamanship, and
made a point of showing it in a hundred little ways. I
dare say he was right. It seems to me I knew very little
then, and I know not much more now; but I cherish a
hate for that Jermyn to this day.
"We were a week working up as far as Yarmouth
Roads, and then we got into a gale--the famous October
gale of twenty-two years ago. It was wind, lightning,
sleet, snow, and a terrific sea. We were flying light, and
you may imagine how bad it was when I tell you we had
smashed bulwarks and a flooded deck. On the second
night she shifted her ballast into the lee bow, and by
that time we had been blown off somewhere on the Dogger
Bank. There was nothing for it but go below with
shovels and try to right her, and there we were in that
vast hold, gloomy like a cavern, the tallow dips stuck
and flickering on the beams, the gale howling above, the
ship tossing about like mad on her side; there we all
were, Jermyn, the captain, everyone, hardly able to keep
our feet, engaged on that gravedigger's work, and try-
ing to toss shovelfuls of wet sand up to windward. At
every tumble of the ship you could see vaguely in the
dim light men falling down with a great flourish of shov-
els. One of the ship's boys (we had two), impressed by
the weirdness of the scene, wept as if his heart would
break. We could hear him blubbering somewhere in the
"On the third day the gale died out, and by-and-by a
north-country tug picked us up. We took sixteen days
in all to get from London to the Tyne! When we got
into dock we had lost our turn for loading, and they
hauled us off to a tier where we remained for a month.
Mrs. Beard (the captain's name was Beard) came from
Colchester to see the old man. She lived on board. The
crew of runners had left, and there remained only the
officers, one boy, and the steward, a mulatto who an-
swered to the name of Abraham. Mrs. Beard was an old
woman, with a race all wrinkled and ruddy like a winter
apple, and the figure of a young girl. She caught sight
of me once, sewing on a button, and insisted on having
my shirts to repair. This was something different from
the captains' wives I had known on board crack clippers.
When I brought her the shirts, she said: 'And the
socks? They want mending, I am sure, and John's--
Captain Beard's--things are all in order now. I would
be glad of something to do.' Bless the old woman. She
overhauled my outfit for me, and meantime I read for the
first time 'Sartor Resartus' and Burnaby's 'Ride to
Khiva.' I didn't understand much of the first then;
but I remember I preferred the soldier to the philosopher
at the time; a preference which life has only confirmed.
One was a man, and the other was either more--or less.
However, they are both dead, and Mrs. Beard is dead,
and youth, strength, genius, thoughts, achievements,
simple hearts--all die . . . . No matter.
"They loaded us at last. We shipped a crew. Eight
able seamen and two boys. We hauled off one evening
to the buoys at the dock-gates, ready to go out, and with
a fair prospect of beginning the voyage next day. Mrs.
Beard was to start for home by a late train. When the
ship was fast we went to tea. We sat rather silent
through the meal--Mahon, the old couple, and I. I
finished first, and slipped away for a smoke, my cabin
being in a deck-house just against the poop. It was high
water, blowing fresh with a drizzle; the double dock-
gates were opened, and the steam colliers were going in
and out in the darkness with their lights burning
bright, a great plashing of propellers, rattling of
winches, and a lot of hailing on the pier-heads. I watched
the procession of head-lights gliding high and of green
lights gliding low in the night, when suddenly a red
gleam flashed at me, vanished, came into view again, and
remained. The fore-end of a steamer loomed up close.
I shouted down the cabin, 'Come up, quick!' and then
heard a startled voice saying afar in the dark, 'Stop her,
sir.' A bell jingled. Another voice cried warningly,
'We are going right into that bark, sir.' The answer to
this was a gruff 'All right,' and the next thing was a
heavy crash as the steamer struck a glancing blow with
the bluff of her bow about our fore-rigging. There was
a moment of confusion, yelling, and running about.
Steam roared. Then somebody was heard saying, 'All
clear, sir.' . . . 'Are you all right?' asked the gruff
voice. I had jumped forward to see the damage, and
hailed back, 'I think so.' 'Easy astern,' said the gruff
voice. A bell jingled. 'What steamer is that?'
screamed Mahon. By that time she was no more to us
than a bulky shadow maneuvering a little way off. They
shouted at us some name--a woman's name, Miranda or
Melissa--or some such thing. 'This means another
month in this beastly hole,' said Mahon to me, as we
peered with lamps about the splintered bulwarks and
broken braces. 'But where's the captain?'
"We had not heard or seen anything of him all that
time. We went aft to look. A doleful voice arose hail-
ing somewhere in the middle of the dock, 'Judea ahoy!'
. . . How the devil did he get there? . . . 'Hallo!'
we shouted. 'I am adrift in our boat without oars,' he
cried. A belated waterman offered his services, and
Mahon struck a bargain with him for half-a-crown to
tow our skipper alongside; but it was Mrs. Beard that
came up the ladder first. They had been floating about
the dock in that mizzly cold rain for nearly an hour. I
was never so surprised in my life.
"It appears that when he heard my shout 'Come up,'
he understood at once what was the matter, caught up
his wife, ran on deck, and across, and down into our boat,
which was fast to the ladder. Not bad for a sixty-year-
old. Just imagine that old fellow saving heroically in
his arms that old woman--the woman of his life. He
set her down on a thwart, and was ready to climb back
on board when the painter came adrift somehow, and
away they went together. Of course in the confusion
we did not hear him shouting. He looked abashed. She
said cheerfully, 'I suppose it does not matter my losing
the train now?' 'No, Jenny--you go below and get
warm,' he growled. Then to us: 'A sailor has no busi-
ness with a wife--I say. There I was, out of the ship.
Well, no harm done this time. Let's go and look at what
that fool of a steamer smashed.'
"It wasn't much, but it delayed us three weeks. At
the end of that time, the captain being engaged with his
agents, I carried Mrs. Beard's bag to the railway-sta-
tion and put her all comfy into a third-class carriage.
She lowered the window to say, 'You are a good young
man. If you see John--Captain Beard--without his
muffler at night, just remind him from me to keep his
throat well wrapped up.' 'Certainly, Mrs. Beard,' I
said. 'You are a good young man; I noticed how at-
tentive you are to John--to Captain--' The train
pulled out suddenly; I took my cap off to the old
woman: I never saw her again. . . . Pass the bottle.
"We went to sea next day. When we made that start
for Bankok we had been already three months out of
London. We had expected to be a fortnight or so--at
"It was January, and the weather was beautiful--the
beautiful sunny winter weather that has more charm
than in the summer-time, because it is unexpected, and
crisp, and you know it won't, it can't, last long. It's
like a windfall, like a godsend, like an unexpected piece
"It lasted all down the North Sea, all down Channel;
and it lasted till we were three hundred miles or so to the
westward of the Lizards: then the wind went round to
the sou'west and began to pipe up. In two days it blew
a gale. The Judea, hove to, wallowed on the Atlantic
like an old candlebox. It blew day after day: it blew
with spite, without interval, without mercy, without rest.
The world was nothing but an immensity of great foam-
ing waves rushing at us, under a sky low enough to
touch with the hand and dirty like a smoked ceiling. In
the stormy space surrounding us there was as much flying
spray as air. Day after day and night after night there
was nothing round the ship but the howl of the wind,
the tumult of the sea, the noise of water pouring over
her deck. There was no rest for her and no rest for us.
She tossed, she pitched, she stood on her head, she sat on
her tail, she rolled, she groaned, and we had to hold on
while on deck and cling to our bunks when below, in a
constant effort of body and worry of mind.
"One night Mahon spoke through the small window
of my berth. It opened right into my very bed, and I
was lying there sleepless, in my boots, feeling as though
I had not slept for years, and could not if I tried. He
"'You got the sounding-rod in here, Marlow? I can't
get the pumps to suck. By God! it's no child's play.'
"I gave him the sounding-rod and lay down again,
trying to think of various things--but I thought only
of the pumps. When I came on deck they were still at
it, and my watch relieved at the pumps. By the light of
the lantern brought on deck to examine the sounding-
rod I caught a glimpse of their weary, serious faces.
We pumped all the four hours. We pumped all night,
all day, all the week,--watch and watch. She was work-
ing herself loose, and leaked badly--not enough to
drown us at once, but enough to kill us with the work at
the pumps. And while we pumped the ship was going
from us piecemeal: the bulwarks went, the stanchions
were torn out, the ventilators smashed, the cabin-door
burst in. There was not a dry spot in the ship. She was
being gutted bit by bit. The long-boat changed, as if
by magic, into matchwood where she stood in her gripes.
I had lashed her myself, and was rather proud of my
handiwork, which had withstood so long the malice of
the sea. And we pumped. And there was no break in
the weather. The sea was white like a sheet of foam,
like a caldron of boiling milk; there was not a break in
the clouds, no--not the size of a man's hand--no, not
for so much as ten seconds. There was for us no sky,
there were for us no stars, no sun, no universe--nothing
but angry clouds and an infuriated sea. We pumped
watch and watch, for dear life; and it seemed to last for
months, for years, for all eternity, as though we had been
dead and gone to a hell for sailors. We forgot the day
of the week, the name of the month, what year it was,
and whether we had ever been ashore. The sails blew
away, she lay broadside on under a weather-cloth, the
ocean poured over her, and we did not care. We turned
those handles, and had the eyes of idiots. As soon as we
had crawled on deck I used to take a round turn with a
rope about the men, the pumps, and the mainmast, and
we turned, we turned incessantly, with the water to our
waists, to our necks, over our heads. It was all one.
We had forgotten how it felt to be dry.
"And there was somewhere in me the thought: By
Jove! this is the deuce of an adventure--something you
read about; and it is my first voyage as second mate--
and I am only twenty--and here I am lasting it out as
well as any of these men, and keeping my chaps up to
the mark. I was pleased. I would not have given up
the experience for worlds. I had moments of exultation.
Whenever the old dismantled craft pitched heavily with
her counter high in the air, she seemed to me to throw
up, like an appeal, like a defiance, like a cry to the clouds
without mercy, the words written on her stern: 'Judea,
London. Do or Die.'
"O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the
imagination of it! To me she was not an old rattle-trap
carting about the world a lot of coal for a freight--to
me she was the endeavor, the test, the trial of life. I
think of her with pleasure, with affection, with regret--
as you would think of someone dead you have loved. I
shall never forget her. . . . Pass the bottle.
"One night when tied to the mast, as I explained, we
were pumping on, deafened with the wind, and without
spirit enough in us to wish ourselves dead, a heavy sea
crashed aboard and swept clean over us. As soon as I
got my breath I shouted, as in duty bound, 'Keep on,
boys!' when suddenly I felt something hard floating on
deck strike the calf of my leg. I made a grab at it and
missed. It was so dark we could not see each other's
faces within a foot--you understand.
"After that thump the ship kept quiet for a while,
and the thing, whatever it was, struck my leg again.
This time I caught it--and it was a sauce-pan. At first,
being stupid with fatigue and thinking of nothing but
the pumps, I did not understand what I had in my hand.
Suddenly it dawned upon me, and I shouted, 'Boys, the
house on deck is gone. Leave this, and let's look for the
"There was a deck-house forward, which contained
the galley, the cook's berth, and the quarters of the
crew. As we had expected for days to see it swept away,
the hands had been ordered to sleep in the cabin--the
only safe place in the ship. The steward, Abraham,
however, persisted in clinging to his berth, stupidly, like
a mule--from sheer fright I believe, like an animal that
on't leave a stable falling in an earthquake. So we
went to look for him. It was chancing death, since once
out of our lashings we were as exposed as if on a raft.
But we went. The house was shattered as if a shell had
exploded inside. Most of it had gone overboard--stove,
men's quarters, and their property, all was gone; but
two posts, holding a portion of the bulkhead to which
Abraham's bunk was attached, remained as if by a mir-
acle. We groped in the ruins and came upon this, and
there he was, sitting in his bunk, surrounded by foam and
wreckage, jabbering cheerfully to himself. He was out
of his mind; completely and for ever mad, with this
sudden shock coming upon the fag-end of his endurance.
We snatched him up, lugged him aft, and pitched him
head-first down the cabin companion. You understand
there was no time to carry him down with infinite pre-
cautions and wait to see how he got on. Those below
would pick him up at the bottom of the stairs all right.
We were in a hurry to go back to the pumps. That busi-
ness could not wait. A bad leak is an inhuman thing.
"One would think that the sole purpose of that fiend-
ish gale had been to make a lunatic of that poor devil of
a mulatto. It eased before morning, and next day the
sky cleared, and as the sea went down the leak took up.
When it came to bending a fresh set of sails the crew
demanded to put back--and really there was nothing else
to do. Boats gone, decks swept clean, cabin gutted, men
without a stitch but what they stood in, stores spoiled,
ship strained. We put her head for home, and--would
you believe it? The wind came east right in our teeth.
It blew fresh, it blew continuously. We had to beat up
every inch of the way, but she did not leak so badly,
the water keeping comparatively smooth. Two hours'
pumping in every four is no joke--but it kept her afloat
as far as Falmouth.
"The good people there live on casualties of the sea,
and no doubt were glad to see us. A hungry crowd of
shipwrights sharpened their chisels at the sight of that
carcass of a ship. And, by Jove! they had pretty pick-
ings off us before they were done. I fancy the owner
was already in a tight place. There were delays. Then
it was decided to take part of the cargo out and calk her
topsides. This was done, the repairs finished, cargo re-
shipped; a new crew came on board, and we went out--
for Bankok. At the end of a week we were back again.
The crew said they weren't going to Bankok--a hundred
and fifty days' passage--in a something hooker that
wanted pumping eight hours out of the twenty-four;
and the nautical papers inserted again the little para-
graph: 'Judea. Bark. Tyne to Bankok; coals; put
back to Falmouth leaky and with crew refusing duty.'
"There were more delays--more tinkering. The
owner came down for a day, and said she was as right as
a little fiddle. Poor old Captain Beard looked like the
ghost of a Geordie skipper--through the worry and
humiliation of it. Remember he was sixty, and it was his
first command. Mahon said it was a foolish business,
and would end badly. I loved the ship more than ever,
and wanted awfully to get to Bankok. To Bankok!
Magic name, blessed name. Mesopotamia wasn't a patch
n it. Remember I was twenty, and it was my first second
mate's billet, and the East was waiting for me.
"We went out and anchored in the outer roads with a
fresh crew--the third. She leaked worse than ever.
It was as if those confounded shipwrights had actually
made a hole in her. This time we did not even
go outside. The crew simply refused to man the
"They towed us back to the inner harbor, and we be-
came a fixture, a feature, an institution of the place.
People pointed us out to visitors as 'That 'ere bark
that's going to Bankok--has been here six months--put
back three times.' On holidays the small boys pulling
about in boats would hail, 'Judea, ahoy!' and if a head
showed above the rail shouted, 'Where you bound to?--
Bankok?' and jeered. We were only three on board.
The poor old skipper mooned in the cabin. Mahon un-
dertook the cooking, and unexpectedly developed all a
Frenchman's genius for preparing nice little messes. I
looked languidly after the rigging. We became citizens
of Falmouth. Every shopkeeper knew us. At the bar-
ber's or tobacconist's they asked familiarly, 'Do you
think you will ever get to Bankok?' Meantime the
owner, the underwriters, and the charterers squabbled
amongst themselves in London, and our pay went on.
. . . Pass the bottle.
"It was horrid. Morally it was worse than pumping
for life. It seemed as though we had been forgotten by
the world, belonged to nobody, would get nowhere; it
seemed that, as if bewitched, we would have to live for
ever and ever in that inner harbor, a derision and a by-
word to generations of long-shore loafers and dishonest
boatmen. I obtained three months' pay and a five days'
leave, and made a rush for London. It took me a day
to get there and pretty well another to come back--but
three months' pay went all the same. I don't know what
I did with it. I went to a music-hall, I believe, lunched,
dined, and supped in a swell place in Regent Street, and
was back to time, with nothing but a complete set of
Byron's works and a new railway rug to show for three
months' work. The boatman who pulled me off to the
ship said: 'Hallo! I thought you had left the old thing.
SHE will never get to Bankok.' 'That's all YOU know
about it,' I said scornfully--but I didn't like that proph-
ecy at all.
"Suddenly a man, some kind of agent to somebody,
appeared with full powers. He had grog blossoms all
over his face, an indomitable energy, and was a jolly
soul. We leaped into life again. A hulk came along-
side, took our cargo, and then we went into dry dock to
get our copper stripped. No wonder she leaked. The
poor thing, strained beyond endurance by the gale, had,
as if in disgust, spat out all the oakum of her lower
seams. She was recalked, new coppered, and made as
tight as a bottle. We went back to the hulk and re-
shipped our cargo.
"Then on a fine moonlight night, all the rats left the
"We had been infested with them. They had destroyed
our sails, consumed more stores than the crew, affably
shared our beds and our dangers, and now, when the
ship was made seaworthy, concluded to clear out. I
called Mahon to enjoy the spectacle. Rat after rat ap-
peared on our rail, took a last look over his shoulder,
and leaped with a hollow thud into the empty hulk.
We tried to count them, but soon lost the tale. Mahon
said: 'Well, well! don't talk to me about the intelligence
of rats. They ought to have left before, when we had
that narrow squeak from foundering. There you have
the proof how silly is the superstition about them. They
leave a good ship for an old rotten hulk, where there is
nothing to eat, too, the fools! . . . I don't believe they
know what is safe or what is good for them, any more
than you or I.'
"And after some more talk we agreed that the wisdom
of rats had been grossly overrated, being in fact no
greater than that of men.
"The story of the ship was known, by this, all up the
Channel from Land's End to the Forelands, and we
could get no crew on the south coast. They sent us one
all complete from Liverpool, and we left once more--for
"We had fair breezes, smooth water right into the
tropics, and the old Judea lumbered along in the sun-
shine. When she went eight knots everything cracked
aloft, and we tied our caps to our heads; but mostly she
strolled on at the rate of three miles an hour. What
could you expect? She was tired--that old ship. Her
youth was where mine is--where yours is--you fellows
who listen to this yarn; and what friend would throw
your years and your weariness in your face? We didn't
grumble at her. To us aft, at least, it seemed as though
we had been born in her, reared in her, had lived in her
for ages, had never known any other ship. I would
just as soon have abused the old village church at home
for not being a cathedral.
"And for me there was also my youth to make me pa-
tient. There was all the East before me, and all life, and
the thought that I had been tried in that ship and had
come out pretty well. And I thought of men of old who,
centuries ago, went that road in ships that sailed no
better, to the land of palms, and spices, and yellow sands,
and of brown nations ruled by kings more cruel than
Nero the Roman and more splendid than Solomon the
Jew. The old bark lumbered on, heavy with her age
and the burden of her cargo, while I lived the life of
youth in ignorance and hope. She lumbered on through
an interminable procession of days; and the fresh gild-
ing flashed back at the setting sun, seemed to cry out
over the darkening sea the words painted on her stern,
'Judea, London. Do or Die.'
"Then we entered the Indian Ocean and steered north-
erly for Java Head. The winds were light. Weeks
slipped by. She crawled on, do or die, and people at
home began to think of posting us as overdue.
"One Saturday evening, I being off duty, the men
asked me to give them an extra bucket of water or so--
for washing clothes. As I did not wish to screw on the
fresh-water pump so late, I went forward whistling, and
with a key in my hand to unlock the forepeak scuttle,
intending to serve the water out of a spare tank we kept
"The smell down below was as unexpected as it was
frightful. One would have thought hundreds of par-
affin-lamps had been flaring and smoking in that hole
for days. I was glad to get out. The man with me
coughed and said, 'Funny smell, sir.' I answered negli-
gently, 'It's good for the health, they say,' and walked
"The first thing I did was to put my head down the
square of the midship ventilator. As I lifted the lid a
visible breath, something like a thin fog, a puff of faint
haze, rose from the opening. The ascending air was hot,
and had a heavy, sooty, paraffiny smell. I gave one sniff,
and put down the lid gently. It was no use choking my-
self. The cargo was on fire.
"Next day she began to smoke in earnest. You see it
was to be expected, for though the coal was of a safe
kind, that cargo had been so handled, so broken up with
handling, that it looked more like smithy coal than any-
thing else. Then it had been wetted--more than once.
It rained all the time we were taking it back from the
hulk, and now with this long passage it got heated, and
there was another case of spontaneous combustion.
"The captain called us into the cabin. He had a chart
spread on the table, and looked unhappy. He said, 'The
coast of West Australia is near, but I mean to proceed
to our destination. It is the hurricane month too; but
we will just keep her head for Bankok, and fight the fire.
No more putting back anywhere, if we all get roasted.
We will try first to stifle this 'ere damned combustion by
want of air.'
"We tried. We battened down everything, and still
she smoked. The smoke kept coming out through im-
perceptible crevices; it forced itself through bulkheads
and covers; it oozed here and there and everywhere in
slender threads, in an invisible film, in an incomprehen-
sible manner. It made its way into the cabin, into the
forecastle; it poisoned the sheltered places on the deck,
it could be sniffed as high as the mainyard. It was
clear that if the smoke came out the air came in. This
was disheartening. This combustion refused to be stifled.
"We resolved to try water, and took the hatches off.
Enormous volumes of smoke, whitish, yellowish, thick,
greasy, misty, choking, ascended as high as the trucks.
All hands cleared out aft. Then the poisonous cloud
blew away, and we went back to work in a smoke that
was no thicker now than that of an ordinary factory
"We rigged the force pump, got the hose along, and
by-and-by it burst. Well, it was as old as the ship--a
prehistoric hose, and past repair. Then we pumped with
the feeble head-pump, drew water with buckets, and in
this way managed in time to pour lots of Indian Ocean
into the main hatch. The bright stream flashed in sun-
shine, fell into a layer of white crawling smoke, and van-
ished on the black surface of coal. Steam ascended
mingling with the smoke. We poured salt water as into
a barrel without a bottom. It was our fate to pump in
that ship, to pump out of her, to pump into her; and
after keeping water out of her to save ourselves from
being drowned, we frantically poured water into her to
save ourselves from being burnt.
"And she crawled on, do or die, in the serene weather.
The sky was a miracle of purity, a miracle of azure.
The sea was polished, was blue, was pellucid, was spark-
ling like a precious stone, extending on all sides, all
round to the horizon--as if the whole terrestrial globe
had been one jewel, one colossal sapphire, a single gem
fashioned into a planet. And on the luster of the great
calm waters the Judea glided imperceptibly, enveloped
in languid and unclean vapors, in a lazy cloud that
drifted to leeward, light and slow: a pestiferous cloud
defiling the splendor of sea and sky.
"All this time of course we saw no fire. The cargo
smoldered at the bottom somewhere. Once Mahon, as
we were working side by side, said to me with a queer
smile: 'Now, if she only would spring a tidy leak--
like that time when we first left the Channel--it would
put a stopper on this fire. Wouldn't it?' I remarked
irrelevantly, 'Do you remember the rats?'
"We fought the fire and sailed the ship too as carefully
as though nothing had been the matter. The steward
cooked and attended on us. Of the other twelve men,
eight worked while four rested. Everyone took his
turn, captain included. There was equality, and if not
exactly fraternity, then a deal of good feeling. Some-
times a man, as he dashed a bucketful of water down the
hatchway, would yell out, 'Hurrah for Bankok!' and the
rest laughed. But generally we were taciturn and seri-
ous--and thirsty. Oh! how thirsty! And we had to be
careful with the water. Strict allowance. The ship
smoked, the sun blazed. . . . Pass the bottle.
"We tried everything. We even made an attempt to
dig down to the fire. No good, of course. No man
could remain more than a minute below. Mahon, who
went first, fainted there, and the man who went to fetch
him out did likewise. We lugged them out on deck.
Then I leaped down to show how easily it could be done.
They had learned wisdom by that time, and contented
themselves by fishing for me with a chain-hook tied to a
broom-handle, I believe. I did not offer to go and fetch
up my shovel, which was left down below.
"Things began to look bad. We put the long-boat
into the water. The second boat was ready to swing out.
We had also another, a fourteen-foot thing, on davits
aft, where it was quite safe.
"Then behold, the smoke suddenly decreased. We re-
doubled our efforts to flood the bottom of the ship. In
two days there was no smoke at all. Everybody was on
the broad grin. This was on a Friday. On Saturday no
work, but sailing the ship of course was done. The men
washed their clothes and their faces for the first time in
a fortnight, and had a special dinner given them. They
spoke of spontaneous combustion with contempt, and
implied THEY were the boys to put out combustions. Some-
how we all felt as though we each had inherited a large
fortune. But a beastly smell of burning hung about the
ship. Captain Beard had hollow eyes and sunken cheeks.
I had never noticed so much before how twisted and
bowed he was. He and Mahon prowled soberly about
hatches and ventilators, sniffing. It struck me suddenly
poor Mahon was a very, very old chap. As to me, I was
as pleased and proud as though I had helped to win a
great naval battle. O! Youth!
"The night was fine. In the morning a homeward-
bound ship passed us hull down,--the first we had seen
for months; but we were nearing the land at last, Java
Head being about 190 miles off, and nearly due
"Next day it was my watch on deck from eight to
twelve. At breakfast the captain observed, 'It's wonder-
ful how that smell hangs about the cabin.' About ten,
the mate being on the poop, I stepped down on the main-
deck for a moment. The carpenter's bench stood abaft
the mainmast: I leaned against it sucking at my pipe,
and the carpenter, a young chap, came to talk to me. He
remarked, 'I think we have done very well, haven't we?'
and then I perceived with annoyance the fool was try-
ing to tilt the bench. I said curtly, 'Don't, Chips,' and
immediately became aware of a queer sensation, of an
absurd delusion,--I seemed somehow to be in the air. I
heard all round me like a pent-up breath released--as
if a thousand giants simultaneously had said Phoo!--
and felt a dull concussion which made my ribs ache sud-
denly. No doubt about it--I was in the air, and my
body was describing a short parabola. But short as it
was, I had the time to think several thoughts in, as far
as I can remember, the following order: 'This can't be
the carpenter--What is it?--Some accident--Submarine
volcano?--Coals, gas!--By Jove! we are being blown
up--Everybody's dead--I am falling into the after-
hatch--I see fire in it.'
"The coal-dust suspended in the air of the hold had
glowed dull-red at the moment of the explosion. In
the twinkling of an eye, in an infinitesimal fraction of a
second since the first tilt of the bench, I was sprawling
full length on the cargo. I picked myself up and scram-
bled out. It was quick like a rebound. The deck was a
wilderness of smashed timber, lying crosswise like trees in
a wood after a hurricane; an immense curtain of soiled
rags waved gently before me--it was the mainsail blown
to strips. I thought, The masts will be toppling over
directly; and to get out of the way bolted on all-fours
towards the poop-ladder. The first person I saw was
Mahon, with eyes like saucers, his mouth open, and the
long white hair standing straight on end round his head
like a silver halo. He was just about to go down when
the sight of the main-deck stirring, heaving up, and
changing into splinters before his eyes, petrified him on
the top step. I stared at him in unbelief, and he stared
at me with a queer kind of shocked curiosity. I did not
know that I had no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, that
my young mustache was burnt off, that my face was
black, one cheek laid open, my nose cut, and my chin
bleeding. I had lost my cap, one of my slippers, and
my shirt was torn to rags. Of all this I was not aware.
I was amazed to see the ship still afloat, the poop-deck
whole--and, most of all, to see anybody alive. Also
the peace of the sky and the serenity of the sea were
istinctly surprising. I suppose I expected to see them
convulsed with horror. . . . Pass the bottle.
"There was a voice hailing the ship from somewhere
--in the air, in the sky--I couldn't tell. Presently I
saw the captain--and he was mad. He asked me eagerly,
'Where's the cabin-table?' and to hear such a question
was a frightful shock. I had just been blown up, you
understand, and vibrated with that experience,--I wasn't
quite sure whether I was alive. Mahon began to stamp
with both feet and yelled at him, 'Good God! don't you
see the deck's blown out of her?' I found my voice, and
stammered out as if conscious of some gross neglect of
duty, 'I don't know where the cabin-table is.' It was
like an absurd dream.
"Do you know what he wanted next? Well, he
wanted to trim the yards. Very placidly, and as if lost
in thought, he insisted on having the foreyard squared.
'I don't know if there's anybody alive,' said Mahon,
almost tearfully. 'Surely,' he said gently, 'there will
be enough left to square the foreyard.'
"The old chap, it seems, was in his own berth, wind-
ing up the chronometers, when the shock sent him spin-
ning. Immediately it occurred to him--as he said after-
wards--that the ship had struck something, and he ran
out into the cabin. There, he saw, the cabin-table had
vanished somewhere. The deck being blown up, it had
fallen down into the lazarette of course. Where we had
our breakfast that morning he saw only a great hole in
the floor. This appeared to him so awfully mysterious,
and impressed him so immensely, that what he saw and
heard after he got on deck were mere trifles in com-
parison. And, mark, he noticed directly the wheel de-
serted and his bark off her course--and his only
thought was to get that miserable, stripped, undecked,
smoldering shell of a ship back again with her head
pointing at her port of destination. Bankok! That's
what he was after. I tell you this quiet, bowed, bandy-
legged, almost deformed little man was immense in the
singleness of his idea and in his placid ignorance of
our agitation. He motioned us forward with a com-
manding gesture, and went to take the wheel him-
"Yes; that was the first thing we did--trim the yards
of that wreck! No one was killed, or even disabled, but
everyone was more or less hurt. You should have seen
them! Some were in rags, with black faces, like coal-
heavers, like sweeps, and had bullet heads that seemed
closely cropped, but were in fact singed to the skin.
Others, of the watch below, awakened by being shot out
from their collapsing bunks, shivered incessantly, and
kept on groaning even as we went about our work. But
they all worked. That crew of Liverpool hard cases had
in them the right stuff. It's my experience they always
have. It is the sea that gives it--the vastness, the lone-
liness surrounding their dark stolid souls. Ah! Well!
we stumbled, we crept, we fell, we barked our shins on
the wreckage, we hauled. The masts stood, but we did
not know how much they might be charred down below.
It was nearly calm, but a long swell ran from the west
and made her roll. They might go at any moment. We
looked at them with apprehension. One could not fore-
see which way they would fall.
"Then we retreated aft and looked about us. The
deck was a tangle of planks on edge, of planks on end,
of splinters, of ruined woodwork. The masts rose from
that chaos like big trees above a matted undergrowth.
The interstices of that mass of wreckage were full of
something whitish, sluggish, stirring--of something that
was like a greasy fog. The smoke of the invisible fire
was coming up again, was trailing, like a poisonous thick
mist in some valley choked with dead wood. Already
lazy wisps were beginning to curl upwards amongst the
mass of splinters. Here and there a piece of timber,
stuck upright, resembled a post. Half of a fife-rail had
been shot through the foresail, and the sky made a
patch of glorious blue in the ignobly soiled canvas. A
portion of several boards holding together had fallen
across the rail, and one end protruded overboard, like a
gangway leading upon nothing, like a gangway leading
over the deep sea, leading to death--as if inviting us to
walk the plank at once and be done with our ridiculous
troubles. And still the air, the sky--a ghost, something
invisible was hailing the ship.
"Someone had the sense to look over, and there was
the helmsman, who had impulsively jumped overboard,
anxious to come back. He yelled and swam lustily like
a merman, keeping up with the ship. We threw him a
rope, and presently he stood amongst us streaming with
water and very crest-fallen. The captain had surren-
dered the wheel, and apart, elbow on rail and chin in
hand, gazed at the sea wistfully. We asked ourselves,
What next? I thought, Now, this is something like.
This is great. I wonder what will happen. O youth!
"Suddenly Mahon sighted a steamer far astern. Cap-
tain Beard said, 'We may do something with her yet.'
We hoisted two flags, which said in the international
language of the sea, 'On fire. Want immediate assis-
tance.' The steamer grew bigger rapidly, and by-and-
by spoke with two flags on her foremast, 'I am coming
to your assistance.'
"In half an hour she was abreast, to windward, within
hail, and rolling slightly, with her engines stopped. We
lost our composure, and yelled all together with excite-
ment, 'We've been blown up.' A man in a white helmet,
on the bridge, cried, 'Yes! All right! all right!' and
he nodded his head, and smiled, and made soothing mo-
tions with his hand as though at a lot of frightened chil-
dren. One of the boats dropped in the water, and
walked towards us upon the sea with her long oars. Four
Calashes pulled a swinging stroke. This was my first
sight of Malay seamen. I've known them since, but
what struck me then was their unconcern: they came
alongside, and even the bowman standing up and holding
to our main-chains with the boat-hook did not deign to
lift his head for a glance. I thought people who had
been blown up deserved more attention.
"A little man, dry like a chip and agile like a monkey,
clambered up. It was the mate of the steamer. He
gave one look, and cried, 'O boys--you had better quit.'
"We were silent. He talked apart with the captain
for a time,--seemed to argue with him. Then they went
away together to the steamer.
"When our skipper came back we learned that the
steamer was the Sommerville, Captain Nash, from West
Australia to Singapore via Batavia with mails, and that
the agreement was she should tow us to Anjer or Ba-
tavia, if possible, where we could extinguish the fire by
scuttling, and then proceed on our voyage--to Bankok!
The old man seemed excited. 'We will do it yet,' he
said to Mahon, fiercely. He shook his fist at the sky.
Nobody else said a word.
"At noon the steamer began to tow. She went ahead
slim and high, and what was left of the Judea followed
at the end of seventy fathom of tow-rope,--followed
her swiftly like a cloud of smoke with mastheads pro-
truding above. We went aloft to furl the sails. We
coughed on the yards, and were careful about the bunts.
Do you see the lot of us there, putting a neat furl on the
sails of that ship doomed to arrive nowhere? There
was not a man who didn't think that at any moment the
masts would topple over. From aloft we could not see
the ship for smoke, and they worked carefully, passing
the gaskets with even turns. 'Harbor furl--aloft
there!' cried Mahon from below.
"You understand this? I don't think one of those
chaps expected to get down in the usual way. When
we did I heard them saying to each other, 'Well, I
thought we would come down overboard, in a lump--
sticks and all--blame me if I didn't.' 'That's what I
was thinking to myself,' would answer wearily another
battered and bandaged scarecrow. And, mind, these were
men without the drilled-in habit of obedience. To an
onlooker they would be a lot of profane scallywags
without a redeeming point. What made them do it--
what made them obey me when I, thinking consciously
how fine it was, made them drop the bunt of the foresail
twice to try and do it better? What? They had no pro-
fessional reputation--no examples, no praise. It wasn't
a sense of duty; they all knew well enough how to shirk,
and laze, and dodge--when they had a mind to it--and
mostly they had. Was it the two pounds ten a month
that sent them there? They didn't think their pay half
good enough. No; it was something in them, something
inborn and subtle and everlasting. I don't say posi-
tively that the crew of a French or German merchant-
man wouldn't have done it, but I doubt whether it would
have been done in the same way. There was a complete-
ness in it, something solid like a principle, and masterful
like an instinct--a disclosure of something secret--of
that hidden something, that gift, of good or evil that
makes racial difference, that shapes the fate of nations.
"It was that night at ten that, for the first time since
we had been fighting it, we saw the fire. The speed of
the towing had fanned the smoldering destruction. A
blue gleam appeared forward, shining below the wreck
of the deck. It wavered in patches, it seemed to stir and
creep like the light of a glowworm. I saw it first, and
told Mahon. 'Then the game's up,' he said. 'We had
better stop this towing, or she will burst out suddenly
fore and aft before we can clear out.' We set up a yell;
rang bells to attract their attention; they towed on. At
last Mahon and I had to crawl forward and cut the rope
with an ax. There was no time to cast off the lashings.
Red tongues could be seen licking the wilderness of
splinters under our feet as we made our way back to the
"Of course they very soon found out in the steamer
that the rope was gone. She gave a loud blast of her
whistle, her lights were seen sweeping in a wide circle, she
came up ranging close alongside, and stopped. We were
all in a tight group on the poop looking at her. Every
man had saved a little bundle or a bag. Suddenly a con-
ical flame with a twisted top shot up forward and threw
upon the black sea a circle of light, with the two vessels
side by side and heaving gently in its center. Captain
Beard had been sitting on the gratings still and mute for
hours, but now he rose slowly and advanced in front of
us, to the mizzen-shrouds. Captain Nash hailed: 'Come
along! Look sharp. I have mail-bags on board. I will
take you and your boats to Singapore.'
"'Thank you! No!' said our skipper. 'We must see
the last of the ship.'
"'I can't stand by any longer,' shouted the other.
"'Ay! ay! We are all right.'
"'Very well! I'll report you in Singapore. . . .
"He waved his hand. Our men dropped their bundles
quietly. The steamer moved ahead, and passing out of
the circle of light, vanished at once from our sight, daz-
zled by the fire which burned fiercely. And then I knew
that I would see the East first as commander of a small
boat. I thought it fine; and the fidelity to the old ship
was fine. We should see the last of her. Oh the glamour
of youth! Oh the fire of it, more dazzling than the
flames of the burning ship, throwing a magic light on the
wide earth, leaping audaciously to the sky, presently to
be quenched by time, more cruel, more pitiless, more
bitter than the sea--and like the flames of the burning
ship surrounded by an impenetrable night.
. . . . .
"The old man warned us in his gentle and inflexible
way that it was part of our duty to save for the under-
writers as much as we could of the ship's gear. Accord-
ing we went to work aft, while she blazed forward to give
us plenty of light. We lugged out a lot of rubbish.
What didn't we save? An old barometer fixed with an
absurd quantity of screws nearly cost me my life: a
sudden rush of smoke came upon me, and I just got
away in time. There were various stores, bolts of canvas,
coils of rope; the poop looked like a marine bazaar, and
the boats were lumbered to the gunwales. One would
have thought the old man wanted to take as much as he
could of his first command with him. He was very very
quiet, but off his balance evidently. Would you believe
it? He wanted to take a length of old stream-cable and
a kedge-anchor with him in the long-boat. We said,
'Ay, ay, sir,' deferentially, and on the quiet let the
thing slip overboard. The heavy medicine-chest went
that way, two bags of green coffee, tins of paint--fancy,
paint!--a whole lot of things. Then I was ordered with
two hands into the boats to make a stowage and get them
ready against the time it would be proper for us to leave
"We put everything straight, stepped the long-boat's
mast for our skipper, who was in charge of her, and I
was not sorry to sit down for a moment. My face felt
raw, every limb ached as if broken, I was aware of all
my ribs, and would have sworn to a twist in the back-
bone. The boats, fast astern, lay in a deep shadow, and
all around I could see the circle of the sea lighted by the
fire. A gigantic flame arose forward straight and clear.
It flared there, with noises like the whir of wings, with
rumbles as of thunder. There were cracks, detonations,
and from the cone of flame the sparks flew upwards, as
man is born to trouble, to leaky ships, and to ships that
"What bothered me was that the ship, lying broadside
to the swell and to such wind as there was--a mere breath--
the boats would not keep astern where they were safe,
but persisted, in a pig-headed way boats have, in getting
under the counter and then swinging alongside. They
were knocking about dangerously and coming near the
flame, while the ship rolled on them, and, of course, there
was always the danger of the masts going over the side
at any moment. I and my two boat-keepers kept them
off as best we could with oars and boat-hooks; but to be
constantly at it became exasperating, since there was no
reason why we should not leave at once. We could not
see those on board, nor could we imagine what caused the
delay. The boat-keepers were swearing feebly, and I
had not only my share of the work, but also had to keep
at it two men who showed a constant inclination to lay
themselves down and let things slide.
"At last I hailed 'On deck there,' and someone looked
over. 'We're ready here,' I said. The head disap-
peared, and very soon popped up again. 'The captain
says, All right, sir, and to keep the boats well clear of the
"Half an hour passed. Suddenly there was a frightful
racket, rattle, clanking of chain, hiss of water, and mil-
lions of sparks flew up into the shivering column of smoke
that stood leaning slightly above the ship. The cat-
heads had burned away, and the two red-hot anchors had
gone to the bottom, tearing out after them two hundred
fathom of red-hot chain. The ship trembled, the mass of
flame swayed as if ready to collapse, and the fore top-
gallant-mast fell. It darted down like an arrow of fire,
shot under, and instantly leaping up within an oar's-
length of the boats, floated quietly, very black on the
luminous sea. I hailed the deck again. After some time
a man in an unexpectedly cheerful but also muffled tone,
as though he had been trying to speak with his mouth
shut, informed me, 'Coming directly, sir,' and vanished.
For a long time I heard nothing but the whir and roar
of the fire. There were also whistling sounds. The boats
jumped, tugged at the painters, ran at each other play-
fully, knocked their sides together, or, do what we would,
swung in a bunch against the ship's side. I couldn't
stand it any longer, and swarming up a rope, clambered
aboard over the stern.
"It was as bright as day. Coming up like this, the
sheet of fire facing me, was a terrifying sight, and the
heat seemed hardly bearable at first. On a settee cushion
dragged out of the cabin, Captain Beard, with his legs
drawn up and one arm under his head, slept with the light
playing on him. Do you know what the rest were busy
about? They were sitting on deck right aft, round an
open case, eating bread and cheese and drinking bottled
"On the background of flames twisting in fierce tongues
above their heads they seemed at home like salamanders,
and looked like a band of desperate pirates. The fire
sparkled in the whites of their eyes, gleamed on patches
of white skin seen through the torn shirts. Each had
the marks as of a battle about him--bandaged heads,
tied-up arms, a strip of dirty rag round a knee--and
each man had a bottle between his legs and a chunk of
cheese in his hand. Mahon got up. With his handsome
and disreputable head, his hooked profile, his long white
beard, and with an uncorked bottle in his hand, he re-
sembled one of those reckless sea-robbers of old making
merry amidst violence and disaster. 'The last meal on
board,' he explained solemnly. 'We had nothing to eat
all day, and it was no use leaving all this.' He flourished
the bottle and indicated the sleeping skipper. 'He said
he couldn't swallow anything, so I got him to lie down,'
he went on; and as I stared, 'I don't know whether you
are aware, young fellow, the man had no sleep to speak
of for days--and there will be dam' little sleep in the
boats.' 'There will be no boats by-and-by if you fool
about much longer,' I said, indignantly. I walked up to
the skipper and shook him by the shoulder. At last he
opened his eyes, but did not move. 'Time to leave her,
sir,' I said, quietly.
"He got up painfully, looked at the flames, at the sea
sparkling round the ship, and black, black as ink farther
away; he looked at the stars shining dim through a thin
veil of smoke in a sky black, black as Erebus.
"'Youngest first,' he said.
"And the ordinary seaman, wiping his mouth with the
back of his hand, got up, clambered over the taffrail, and
vanished. Others followed. One, on the point of going
over, stopped short to drain his bottle, and with a great
swing of his arm flung it at the fire. 'Take this!' he
"The skipper lingered disconsolately, and we left him
to commune alone for awhile with his first command.
Then I went up again and brought him away at last. It
was time. The ironwork on the poop was hot to the
"Then the painter of the long-boat was cut, and the
three boats, tied together, drifted clear of the ship. It
was just sixteen hours after the explosion when we aban-
doned her. Mahon had charge of the second boat, and I
had the smallest--the 14-foot thing. The long-boat
would have taken the lot of us; but the skipper said we
must save as much property as we could--for the under-
writers--and so I got my first command. I had two men
with me, a bag of biscuits, a few tins of meat, and a
breaker of water. I was ordered to keep close to the
long-boat, that in case of bad weather we might be taken
"And do you know what I thought? I thought I
would part company as soon as I could. I wanted to
have my first command all to myself. I wasn't going to
sail in a squadron if there were a chance for independ-
ent cruising. I would make land by myself. I would
beat the other boats. Youth! All youth! The silly,
charming, beautiful youth.
"But we did not make a start at once. We must see
the last of the ship. And so the boats drifted about that
night, heaving and setting on the swell. The men dozed,
waked, sighed, groaned. I looked at the burning ship.
"Between the darkness of earth and heaven she was
burning fiercely upon a disc of purple sea shot by the
blood-red play of gleams; upon a disc of water glitter-
ing and sinister. A high, clear flame, an immense and
lonely flame, ascended from the ocean, and from its sum-
mit the black smoke poured continuously at the sky. She
burned furiously, mournful and imposing like a funeral
pile kindled in the night, surrounded by the sea, watched
over by the stars. A magnificent death had come like a
grace, like a gift, like a reward to that old ship at the
end of her laborious days. The surrender of her weary
ghost to the keeping of stars and sea was stirring like the
sight of a glorious triumph. The masts fell just before
daybreak, and for a moment there was a burst and tur-
moil of sparks that seemed to fill with flying fire the night
patient and watchful, the vast night lying silent upon
the sea. At daylight she was only a charred shell, float-
ing still under a cloud of smoke and bearing a glowing
mass of coal within.
"Then the oars were got out, and the boats forming in
a line moved round her remains as if in procession--the
long-boat leading. As we pulled across her stern a slim
dart of fire shot out viciously at us, and suddenly she
went down, head first, in a great hiss of steam. The
unconsumed stern was the last to sink; but the paint had
gone, had cracked, had peeled off, and there were no
letters, there was no word, no stubborn device that was
like her soul, to flash at the rising sun her creed and her
"We made our way north. A breeze sprang up, and
about noon all the boats came together for the last time.
I had no mast or sail in mine, but I made a mast out of a
spare oar and hoisted a boat-awning for a sail, with a
boat-hook for a yard. She was certainly over-masted,
but I had the satisfaction of knowing that with the wind
aft I could beat the other two. I had to wait for them.
Then we all had a look at the captain's chart, and, after
a sociable meal of hard bread and water, got our last
instructions. These were simple: steer north, and keep
together as much as possible. 'Be careful with that
jury rig, Marlow,' said the captain; and Mahon, as I
sailed proudly past his boat, wrinkled his curved nose
and hailed, 'You will sail that ship of yours under
water, if you don't look out, young fellow.' He was a
malicious old man--and may the deep sea where he sleeps
now rock him gently, rock him tenderly to the end of time!
"Before sunset a thick rain-squall passed over the two
boats, which were far astern, and that was the last I
saw of them for a time. Next day I sat steering my
cockle-shell--my first command--with nothing but water
and sky around me. I did sight in the afternoon the
upper sails of a ship far away, but said nothing, and my
men did not notice her. You see I was afraid she might
be homeward bound, and I had no mind to turn back
from the portals of the East. I was steering for Java--
another blessed name--like Bankok, you know. I steered
"I need not tell you what it is to be knocking about in
an open boat. I remember nights and days of calm when
we pulled, we pulled, and the boat seemed to stand still,
as if bewitched within the circle of the sea horizon. I
remember the heat, the deluge of rain-squalls that kept
us baling for dear life (but filled our water-cask), and I
remember sixteen hours on end with a mouth dry as a
cinder and a steering-oar over the stern to keep my first
command head on to a breaking sea. I did not know how
good a man I was till then. I remember the drawn faces,
the dejected figures of my two men, and I remember my
youth and the feeling that will never come back any
more--the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the
sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that
lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort--to
death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat
of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that
with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and
expires--and expires, too soon--before life itself.
"And this is how I see the East. I have seen its secret
places and have looked into its very soul; but now I see
it always from a small boat, a high outline of mountains,
blue and afar in the morning; like faint mist at noon; a
jagged wall of purple at sunset. I have the feel of the
oar in my hand, the vision of a scorching blue sea in my
eyes. And I see a bay, a wide bay, smooth as glass and
polished like ice, shimmering in the dark. A red light
burns far off upon the gloom of the land, and the night
is soft and warm. We drag at the oars with aching arms,
and suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and
laden with strange odors of blossoms, of aromatic wood,
comes out of the still night--the first sigh of the East on
my face. That I can never forget. It was impalpable
and enslaving, like a charm, like a whispered promise of
"We had been pulling this finishing spell for eleven
hours. Two pulled, and he whose turn it was to rest sat
at the tiller. We had made out the red light in that bay
and steered for it, guessing it must mark some small
coasting port. We passed two vessels, outlandish and
high-sterned, sleeping at anchor, and, approaching the
light, now very dim, ran the boat's nose against the end
of a jutting wharf. We were blind with fatigue. My
men dropped the oars and fell off the thwarts as if dead.
I made fast to a pile. A current rippled softly. The
scented obscurity of the shore was grouped into vast
masses, a density of colossal clumps of vegetation, prob-
ably--mute and fantastic shapes. And at their foot the
semicircle of a beach gleamed faintly, like an illusion.
There was not a light, not a stir, not a sound. The mys-
terious East faced me, perfumed like a flower, silent like
death, dark like a grave.
"And I sat weary beyond expression, exulting like a
conqueror, sleepless and entranced as if before a pro-
found, a fateful enigma.
"A splashing of oars, a measured dip reverberating
on the level of water, intensified by the silence of the
shore into loud claps, made me jump up. A boat, a
European boat, was coming in. I invoked the name
of the dead; I hailed: Judea ahoy! A thin shout an-
"It was the captain. I had beaten the flagship by three
hours, and I was glad to hear the old man's voice, tremu-
lous and tired. 'Is it you, Marlow?' 'Mind the end of
that jetty, sir,' I cried.
"He approached cautiously, and brought up with the
deep-sea lead-line which we had saved--for the under-
writers. I eased my painter and fell alongside. He
sat, a broken figure at the stern, wet with dew, his hands
clasped in his lap. His men were asleep already. 'I
had a terrible time of it,' he murmured. 'Mahon is be-
hind--not very far.' We conversed in whispers, in low
whispers, as if afraid to wake up the land. Guns, thun-
der, earthquakes would not have awakened the men just
"Looking around as we talked, I saw away at sea a
bright light traveling in the night. 'There's a steamer
passing the bay,' I said. She was not passing, she was
entering, and she even came close and anchored. 'I
wish,' said the old man, 'you would find out whether she
is English. Perhaps they could give us a passage some-
where.' He seemed nervously anxious. So by dint of
punching and kicking I started one of my men into a
state of somnambulism, and giving him an oar, took
another and pulled towards the lights of the steamer.
"There was a murmur of voices in her, metallic hollow
clangs of the engine-room, footsteps on the deck. Her
ports shone, round like dilated eyes. Shapes moved
about, and there was a shadowy man high up on the
bridge. He heard my oars.
"And then, before I could open my lips, the East spoke
to me, but it was in a Western voice. A torrent of words
was poured into the enigmatical, the fateful silence;
outlandish, angry words, mixed with words and even
whole sentences of good English, less strange but even
more surprising. The voice swore and cursed violently;
it riddled the solemn peace of the bay by a volley of
abuse. It began by calling me Pig, and from that went
crescendo into unmentionable adjectives--in English.
The man up there raged aloud in two languages, and
with a sincerity in his fury that almost convinced me I
had, in some way, sinned against the harmony of the
universe. I could hardly see him, but began to think he
would work himself into a fit.
"Suddenly he ceased, and I could hear him snorting and
blowing like a porpoise. I said--
"'What steamer is this, pray?'
"'Eh? What's this? And who are you?'
"'Castaway crew of an English bark burnt at sea.
We came here to-night. I am the second mate. The
captain is in the long-boat, and wishes to know if you
would give us a passage somewhere.'
"'Oh, my goodness! I say. . . . This is the Celestial
from Singapore on her return trip. I'll arrange with
your captain in the morning, . . . and, . . . I say,
. . . did you hear me just now?'
"'I should think the whole bay heard you.'
"'I thought you were a shore-boat. Now, look here--
this infernal lazy scoundrel of a caretaker has gone to
sleep again--curse him. The light is out, and I nearly
ran foul of the end of this damned jetty. This is the
third time he plays me this trick. Now, I ask you, can
anybody stand this kind of thing? It's enough to drive
a man out of his mind. I'll report him. . . . I'll get the
Assistant Resident to give him the sack, by . . . See--
there's no light. It's out, isn't it? I take you to witness
the light's out. There should be a light, you know. A
red light on the--'
"'There was a light,' I said, mildly.
"'But it's out, man! What's the use of talking like
this? You can see for yourself it's out--don't you? If
you had to take a valuable steamer along this God-for-
saken coast you would want a light too. I'll kick him
from end to end of his miserable wharf. You'll see if I
don't. I will--'
"'So I may tell my captain you'll take us?' I broke in.
"'Yes, I'll take you. Good night,' he said, brusquely.
"I pulled back, made fast again to the jetty, and then
went to sleep at last. I had faced the silence of the
East. I had heard some of its languages. But when I
opened my eyes again the silence was as complete as
though it had never been broken. I was lying in a
flood of light, and the sky had never looked so far, so
high, before. I opened my eyes and lay without moving.
"And then I saw the men of the East--they were
looking at me. The whole length of the jetty was
full of people. I saw brown, bronze, yellow faces,
the black eyes, the glitter, the color of an Eastern
crowd. And all these beings stared without a mur-
mur, without a sigh, without a movement. They
stared down at the boats, at the sleeping men who at
night had come to them from the sea. Nothing moved.
The fronds of palms stood still against the sky. Not a
branch stirred along the shore, and the brown roofs of
hidden houses peeped through the green foliage, through
the big leaves that hung shining and still like leaves
forged of heavy metal. This was the East of the ancient
navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and
somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and prom-
ise. And these were the men. I sat up suddenly. A
wave of movement passed through the crowd from end
to end, passed along the heads, swayed the bodies, ran
along the jetty like a ripple on the water, like a breath
of wind on a field--and all was still again. I see it now
--the wide sweep of the bay, the glittering sands, the
wealth of green infinite and varied, the sea blue like the
sea of a dream, the crowd of attentive faces, the blaze of
vivid color--the water reflecting it all, the curve of the
shore, the jetty, the high-sterned outlandish craft float-
ing still, and the three boats with tired men from the
West sleeping unconscious of the land and the people
and of the violence of sunshine. They slept thrown
across the thwarts, curled on bottom-boards, in the care-
less attitudes of death. The head of the old skipper,
leaning back in the stern of the long-boat, had fallen on
his breast, and he looked as though he would never wake.
Farther out old Mahon's face was upturned to the sky,
with the long white beard spread out on his breast, as
though he had been shot where he sat at the tiller; and a
man, all in a heap in the bows of the boat, slept with both
arms embracing the stem-head and with his cheek laid on
the gunwale. The East looked at them without a sound.
"I have known its fascinations since: I have seen the
mysterious shores, the still water, the lands of brown na-
tions, where a stealthy Nemesis lies in wait, pursues,
overtakes so many of the conquering race, who are proud
of their wisdom, of their knowledge, of their strength.
But for me all the East is contained in that vision of my
youth. It is all in that moment when I opened my young
eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with the sea--
and I was young--and I saw it looking at me. And this
is all that is left of it! Only a moment; a moment of
strength, of romance, of glamour--of youth! . . . A
flick of sunshine upon a strange shore, the time to re-
member, the time for a sigh, and--good-by!--Night--
Good-by . . .!"
"Ah! The good old time--the good old time. Youth
and the sea. Glamour and the sea! The good, strong
sea, the salt, bitter sea, that could whisper to you and
roar at you and knock your breath out of you."
He drank again.
"By all that's wonderful, it is the sea, I believe, the sea
itself--or is it youth alone? Who can tell? But you
here--you all had something out of life: money, love--
whatever one gets on shore--and, tell me, wasn't that the
best time, that time when we were young at sea; young
and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except
hard knocks--and sometimes a chance to feel your
strength--that only--what you all regret?"
And we all nodded at him: the man of finance, the man
of accounts, the man of law, we all nodded at him over
the polished table that like a still sheet of brown water
reflected our faces, lined, wrinkled; our faces marked
by toil, by deceptions, by success, by love; our weary
eyes looking still, looking always, looking anxiously for
something out of life, that while it is expected is already
gone--has passed unseen, in a sigh, in a flash--together
with the youth, with the strength, with the romance of illusions.