Tuesday, October 9, 2007



As a general rule we do not want much encouragement to talk about
ourselves; yet this little book is the result of a friendly
suggestion, and even of a little friendly pressure. I defended
myself with some spirit; but, with characteristic tenacity, the
friendly voice insisted, "You know, you really must."
It was not an argument, but I submitted at once. If one must! .
. .
You perceive the force of a word. He who wants to persuade
should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right
word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power
of sense. I don't say this by way of disparagement. It is
better for mankind to be impressionable than reflective. Nothing
humanely great--great, I mean, as affecting a whole mass of
lives--has come from reflection. On the other hand, you cannot
fail to see the power of mere words; such words as Glory, for
instance, or Pity. I won't mention any more. They are not far
to seek. Shouted with perseverance, with ardour, with
conviction, these two by their sound alone have set whole nations
in motion and upheaved the dry, hard ground on which rests our
whole social fabric. There's "virtue" for you if you like! . . .
Of course the accent must be attended to. The right accent.
That's very important. The capacious lung, the thundering or the
tender vocal chords. Don't talk to me of your Archimedes' lever.
He was an absent-minded person with a mathematical imagination.
Mathematics commands all my respect, but I have no use for
engines. Give me the right word and the right accent and I will
move the world.
What a dream for a writer! Because written words have their
accent, too. Yes! Let me only find the right word! Surely it
must be lying somewhere among the wreckage of all the plaints and
all the exultations poured out aloud since the first day when
hope, the undying, came down on earth. It may be there, close
by, disregarded, invisible, quite at hand. But it's no good. I
believe there are men who can lay hold of a needle in a pottle of
hay at the first try. For myself, I have never had such luck.
And then there is that accent. Another difficulty. For who is
going to tell whether the accent is right or wrong till the word
is shouted, and fails to be heard, perhaps, and goes down-wind,
leaving the world unmoved? Once upon a time there lived an
emperor who was a sage and something of a literary man. He
jotted down on ivory tablets thoughts, maxims, reflections which
chance has preserved for the edification of posterity. Among
other sayings--I am quoting from memory--I remember this solemn
admonition: "Let all thy words have the accent of heroic truth."
The accent of heroic truth! This is very fine, but I am thinking
that it is an easy matter for an austere emperor to jot down
grandiose advice. Most of the working truths on this earth are
humble, not heroic; and there have been times in the history of
mankind when the accents of heroic truth have moved it to nothing
but derision.
Nobody will expect to find between the covers of this little book
words of extraordinary potency or accents of irresistible
heroism. However humiliating for my self esteem, I must confess
that the counsels of Marcus Aurelius are not for me. They are
more fit for a moralist than for an artist. Truth of a modest
sort I can promise you, and also sincerity. That complete,
praise worthy sincerity which, while it delivers one into the
hands of one's enemies, is as likely as not to embroil one with
one's friends.
"Embroil" is perhaps too strong an expression. I can't imagine
among either my enemies or my friends a being so hard up for
something to do as to quarrel with me. "To disappoint one's
friends" would be nearer the mark. Most, almost all, friend
ships of the writing period of my life have come to me through my
books; and I know that a novelist lives in his work. He stands
there, the only reality in an invented world, among imaginary
things, happenings, and people. Writing about them, he is only
writing about himself. But the disclosure is not complete. He
remains, to a certain extent, a figure behind the veil; a
suspected rather than a seen presence--a movement and a voice
behind the draperies of fiction. In these personal notes there is
no such veil. And I cannot help thinking of a passage in the
"Imitation of Christ" where the ascetic author, who knew life so
profoundly, says that "there are persons esteemed on their
reputation who by showing themselves destroy the opinion one had
of them." This is the danger incurred by an author of fiction
who sets out to talk about himself without disguise.
While these reminiscent pages were appearing serially I was
remonstrated with for bad economy; as if such writing were a form
of self-indulgence wasting the substance of future volumes. It
seems that I am not sufficiently literary. Indeed, a man who
never wrote a line for print till he was thirty-six cannot bring
himself to look upon his existence and his experience, upon the
sum of his thoughts, sensations, and emotions, upon his memories
and his regrets, and the whole possession of his past, as only so
much material for his hands. Once before, some three years ago,
when I published "The Mirror of the Sea," a volume of impressions
and memories, the same remarks were made to me. Practical
remarks. But, truth to say, I have never understood the kind of
thrift they recommend. I wanted to pay my tribute to the sea,
its ships and its men, to whom I remain indebted for so much
which has gone to make me what I am. That seemed to me the only
shape in which I could offer it to their shades. There could not
be a question in my mind of anything else. It is quite possible
that I am a bad economist; but it is certain that I am
Having matured in the surroundings and under the special
conditions of sea life, I have a special piety toward that form
of my past; for its impressions were vivid, its appeal direct,
its demands such as could be responded to with the natural
elation of youth and strength equal to the call. There was
nothing in them to perplex a young conscience. Having broken
away from my origins under a storm of blame from every quarter
which had the merest shadow of right to voice an opinion, removed
by great distances from such natural affections as were still
left to me, and even estranged, in a measure, from them by the
totally unintelligible character of the life which had seduced me
so mysteriously from my allegiance, I may safely say that through
the blind force of circumstances the sea was to be all my world
and the merchant service my only home for a long succession of
years. No wonder, then, that in my two exclusively sea
books--"The Nigger of the Narcissus," and "The Mirror of the Sea"
(and in the few short sea stories like "Youth" and "Typhoon"--I
have tried with an almost filial regard to render the vibration
of life in the great world of waters, in the hearts of the simple
men who have for ages traversed its solitudes, and also that
something sentient which seems to dwell in ships--the creatures
of their hands and the objects of their care.
One's literary life must turn frequently for sustenance to
memories and seek discourse with the shades, unless one has made
up one's mind to write only in order to reprove mankind for what
it is, or praise it for what it is not, or--generally--to teach
it how to behave. Being neither quarrelsome, nor a flatterer,
nor a sage, I have done none of these things, and I am prepared
to put up serenely with the insignificance which attaches to
persons who are not meddlesome in some way or other. But
resignation is not indifference. I would not like to be left
standing as a mere spectator on the bank of the great stream
carrying onward so many lives. I would fain claim for myself the
faculty of so much insight as can be expressed in a voice of
sympathy and compassion.
It seems to me that in one, at least, authoritative quarter of
criticism I am suspected of a certain unemotional, grim
acceptance of facts--of what the French would call secheresse du
coeur. Fifteen years of unbroken silence before praise or blame
testify sufficiently to my respect for criticism, that fine
flower of personal expression in the garden of letters. But this
is more of a personal matter, reaching the man behind the work,
and therefore it may be alluded to in a volume which is a
personal note in the margin of the public page. Not that I feel
hurt in the least. The charge--if it amounted to a charge at
all--was made in the most considerate terms; in a tone of regret.
My answer is that if it be true that every novel contains an
element of autobiography--and this can hardly be denied, since
the creator can only express himself in his creation--then there
are some of us to whom an open display of sentiment is repugnant.
I would not unduly praise the virtue of restraint. It is often
merely temperamental. But it is not always a sign of coldness.
It may be pride. There can be nothing more humiliating than to
see the shaft of one's emotion miss the mark of either laughter
or tears. Nothing more humiliating! And this for the reason
that should the mark be missed, should the open display of
emotion fail to move, then it must perish unavoidably in disgust
or contempt. No artist can be reproached for shrinking from a
risk which only fools run to meet and only genius dare confront
with impunity. In a task which mainly consists in laying one's
soul more or less bare to the world, a regard for decency, even
at the cost of success, is but the regard for one's own dignity
which is inseparably united with the dignity of one's work.
And then--it is very difficult to be wholly joyous or wholly sad
on this earth. The comic, when it is human, soon takes upon
itself a face of pain; and some of our griefs (some only, not
all, for it is the capacity for suffering which makes man August
in the eyes of men) have their source in weaknesses which must be
recognized with smiling com passion as the common inheritance of
us all. Joy and sorrow in this world pass into each other,
mingling their forms and their murmurs in the twilight of life as
mysterious as an over shadowed ocean, while the dazzling
brightness of supreme hopes lies far off, fascinating and still,
on the distant edge of the horizon.
Yes! I, too, would like to hold the magic wand giving that
command over laughter and tears which is declared to be the
highest achievement of imaginative literature. Only, to be a
great magician one must surrender oneself to occult and
irresponsible powers, either outside or within one's breast. We
have all heard of simple men selling their souls for love or
power to some grotesque devil. The most ordinary intelligence
can perceive without much reflection that anything of the sort is
bound to be a fool's bargain. I don't lay claim to particular
wisdom because of my dislike and distrust of such transactions.
It may be my sea training acting upon a natural disposition to
keep good hold on the one thing really mine, but the fact is that
I have a positive horror of losing even for one moving moment
that full possession of my self which is the first condition of
good service. And I have carried my notion of good service from
my earlier into my later existence. I, who have never sought in
the written word anything else but a form of the Beautiful--I
have carried over that article of creed from the decks of ships
to the more circumscribed space of my desk, and by that act, I
suppose, I have become permanently imperfect in the eyes of the
ineffable company of pure esthetes.
As in political so in literary action a man wins friends for
himself mostly by the passion of his prejudices and by the
consistent narrowness of his outlook. But I have never been able
to love what was not lovable or hate what was not hateful out of
deference for some general principle. Whether there be any
courage in making this admission I know not. After the middle
turn of life's way we consider dangers and joys with a tranquil
mind. So I proceed in peace to declare that I have always
suspected in the effort to bring into play the extremities of
emotions the debasing touch of insincerity. In order to move
others deeply we must deliberately allow ourselves to be carried
away beyond the bounds of our normal sensibility--innocently
enough, perhaps, and of necessity, like an actor who raises his
voice on the stage above the pitch of natural conversation--but
still we have to do that. And surely this is no great sin. But
the danger lies in the writer becoming the victim of his own
exaggeration, losing the exact notion of sincerity, and in the
end coming to despise truth itself as something too cold, too
blunt for his purpose--as, in fact, not good enough for his
insistent emotion. From laughter and tears the descent is easy
to snivelling and giggles.
These may seem selfish considerations; but you can't, in sound
morals, condemn a man for taking care of his own integrity. It
is his clear duty. And least of all can you condemn an artist
pursuing, however humbly and imperfectly, a creative aim. In
that interior world where his thought and his emotions go seeking
for the experience of imagined adventures, there are no
policemen, no law, no pressure of circumstance or dread of
opinion to keep him within bounds. Who then is going to say Nay
to his temptations if not his conscience?
And besides--this, remember, is the place and the moment of
perfectly open talk--I think that all ambitions are lawful except
those which climb upward on the miseries or credulities of
mankind. All intellectual and artistic ambitions are
permissible, up to and even beyond the limit of prudent sanity.
They can hurt no one. If they are mad, then so much the worse
for the artist. Indeed, as virtue is said to be, such ambitions
are their own reward. Is it such a very mad presumption to
believe in the sovereign power of one's art, to try for other
means, for other ways of affirming this belief in the deeper
appeal of one's work? To try to go deeper is not to be
insensible. A historian of hearts is not a historian of
emotions, yet he penetrates further, restrained as he may be,
since his aim is to reach the very fount of laughter and tears.
The sight of human affairs deserves admiration and pity. They
are worthy of respect, too. And he is not insensible who pays
them the undemonstrative tribute of a sigh which is not a sob,
and of a smile which is not a grin. Resignation, not mystic, not
detached, but resignation open-eyed, conscious, and informed by
love, is the only one of our feelings for which it is impossible
to become a sham.
Not that I think resignation the last word of wisdom. I am too
much the creature of my time for that. But I think that the
proper wisdom is to will what the gods will without, perhaps,
being certain what their will is--or even if they have a will of
their own. And in this matter of life and art it is not the Why
that matters so much to our happiness as the How. As the
Frenchman said, "Il y a toujours la maniere." Very true. Yes.
There is the manner. The manner in laughter, in tears, in irony,
in indignations and enthusiasms, in judgments--and even in love.
The manner in which, as in the features and character of a human
face, the inner truth is foreshadowed for those who know how to
look at their kind.
Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the temporal
world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must
be as old as the hills. It rests notably, among others, on the
idea of Fidelity. At a time when nothing which is not
revolutionary in some way or other can expect to attract much
attention I have not been revolutionary in my writings. The
revolutionary spirit is mighty convenient in this, that it frees
one from all scruples as regards ideas. Its hard, absolute
optimism is repulsive to my mind by the menace of fanaticism and
intolerance it contains. No doubt one should smile at these
things; but, imperfect Esthete, I am no better Philosopher.
All claim to special righteousness awakens in me that scorn and
danger from which a philosophical mind should be free. . . .
I fear that trying to be conversational I have only managed to be
unduly discursive. I have never been very well acquainted with
the art of conversation--that art which, I understand, is
supposed to be lost now. My young days, the days when one's
habits and character are formed, have been rather familiar with
long silences. Such voices as broke into them were anything but
conversational. No. I haven't got the habit. Yet this
discursiveness is not so irrelevant to the handful of pages which
follow. They, too, have been charged with discursiveness, with
disregard of chronological order (which is in itself a crime),
with unconventionality of form (which is an impropriety). I was
told severely that the public would view with displeasure the
informal character of my recollections. "Alas!" I protested,
mildly. "Could I begin with the sacramental words, 'I was born
on such a date in such a place'? The remoteness of the locality
would have robbed the statement of all interest. I haven't lived
through wonderful adventures to be related seriatim. I haven't
known distinguished men on whom I could pass fatuous remarks. I
haven't been mixed up with great or scandalous affairs. This is
but a bit of psychological document, and even so, I haven't
written it with a view to put forward any conclusion of my own."
But my objector was not placated. These were good reasons for
not writing at all--not a defense of what stood written already,
he said.
I admit that almost anything, anything in the world, would serve
as a good reason for not writing at all. But since I have
written them, all I want to say in their defense is that these
memories put down without any regard for established conventions
have not been thrown off without system and purpose. They have
their hope and their aim. The hope that from the reading of
these pages there may emerge at last the vision of a personality;
the man behind the books so fundamentally dissimilar as, for
instance, "Almayer's Folly" and "The Secret Agent," and yet a
coherent, justifiable personality both in its origin and in its
action. This is the hope. The immediate aim, closely associated
with the hope, is to give the record of personal memories by
presenting faithfully the feelings and sensations connected with
the writing of my first book and with my first contact with the
In the purposely mingled resonance of this double strain a friend
here and there will perhaps detect a subtle accord.
J. C. K.
Books may be written in all sorts of places. Verbal inspiration
may enter the berth of a mariner on board a ship frozen fast in a
river in the middle of a town; and since saints are supposed to
look benignantly on humble believers, I indulge in the pleasant
fancy that the shade of old Flaubert--who imagined himself to be
(among other things) a descendant of Vikings--might have hovered
with amused interest over the docks of a 2,000-ton steamer called
the Adowa, on board of which, gripped by the inclement winter
alongside a quay in Rouen, the tenth chapter of "Almayer's Folly"
was begun. With interest, I say, for was not the kind Norman
giant with enormous mustaches and a thundering voice the last of
the Romantics? Was he not, in his unworldly, almost ascetic,
devotion to his art, a sort of literary, saint-like hermit?
"'It has set at last,' said Nina to her mother, pointing to the
hills behind which the sun had sunk." . . . These words of
Almayer's romantic daughter I remember tracing on the gray paper
of a pad which rested on the blanket of my bed-place. They
referred to a sunset in Malayan Isles and shaped themselves in my
mind, in a hallucinated vision of forests and rivers and seas,
far removed from a commercial and yet romantic town of the
northern hemisphere. But at that moment the mood of visions and
words was cut short by the third officer, a cheerful and casual
youth, coming in with a bang of the door and the exclamation:
"You've made it jolly warm in here."
It was warm. I had turned on the steam heater after placing a
tin under the leaky water-cock--for perhaps you do not know that
water will leak where steam will not. I am not aware of what my
young friend had been doing on deck all that morning, but the
hands he rubbed together vigorously were very red and imparted to
me a chilly feeling by their mere aspect. He has remained the
only banjoist of my acquaintance, and being also a younger son of
a retired colonel, the poem of Mr. Kipling, by a strange
aberration of associated ideas, always seems to me to have been
written with an exclusive view to his person. When he did not
play the banjo he loved to sit and look at it. He proceeded to
this sentimental inspection, and after meditating a while over
the strings under my silent scrutiny inquired, airily:
"What are you always scribbling there, if it's fair to ask?"
It was a fair enough question, but I did not answer him, and
simply turned the pad over with a movement of instinctive
secrecy: I could not have told him he had put to flight the
psychology of Nina Almayer, her opening speech of the tenth
chapter, and the words of Mrs. Almayer's wisdom which were to
follow in the ominous oncoming of a tropical night. I could not
have told him that Nina had said, "It has set at last." He would
have been extremely surprised and perhaps have dropped his
precious banjo. Neither could I have told him that the sun of my
sea-going was setting, too, even as I wrote the words expressing
the impatience of passionate youth bent on its desire. I did not
know this myself, and it is safe to say he would not have cared,
though he was an excellent young fellow and treated me with more
deference than, in our relative positions, I was strictly
entitled to.
He lowered a tender gaze on his banjo, and I went on looking
through the port-hole. The round opening framed in its brass rim
a fragment of the quays, with a row of casks ranged on the frozen
ground and the tail end of a great cart. A red-nosed carter in a
blouse and a woollen night-cap leaned against the wheel. An
idle, strolling custom house guard, belted over his blue capote,
had the air of being depressed by exposure to the weather and the
monotony of official existence. The background of grimy houses
found a place in the picture framed by my port-hole, across a
wide stretch of paved quay brown with frozen mud. The colouring
was sombre, and the most conspicuous feature was a little cafe
with curtained windows and a shabby front of white woodwork,
corresponding with the squalor of these poorer quarters bordering
the river. We had been shifted down there from another berth in
the neighbourhood of the Opera House, where that same port-hole
gave me a view of quite another soft of cafe--the best in the
town, I believe, and the very one where the worthy Bovary and his
wife, the romantic daughter of old Pere Renault, had some
refreshment after the memorable performance of an opera which was
the tragic story of Lucia di Lammermoor in a setting of light
I could recall no more the hallucination of the Eastern
Archipelago which I certainly hoped to see again. The story of
"Almayer's Folly" got put away under the pillow for that day. I
do not know that I had any occupation to keep me away from it;
the truth of the matter is that on board that ship we were
leading just then a contemplative life. I will not say anything
of my privileged position. I was there "just to oblige," as an
actor of standing may take a small part in the benefit
performance of a friend.
As far as my feelings were concerned I did not wish to be in that
steamer at that time and in those circumstances. And perhaps I
was not even wanted there in the usual sense in which a ship
"wants" an officer. It was the first and last instance in my sea
life when I served ship-owners who have remained completely
shadowy to my apprehension. I do not mean this for the
well-known firm of London ship-brokers which had chartered the
ship to the, I will not say short-lived, but ephemeral
Franco-Canadian Transport Company. A death leaves something
behind, but there was never anything tangible left from the F. C.
T. C. It flourished no longer than roses live, and unlike the
roses it blossomed in the dead of winter, emitted a sort of faint
perfume of adventure, and died before spring set in. But
indubitably it was a company, it had even a house-flag, all white
with the letters F. C. T. C. artfully tangled up in a complicated
monogram. We flew it at our mainmast head, and now I have come
to the conclusion that it was the only flag of its kind in
existence. All the same we on board, for many days, had the
impression of being a unit of a large fleet with fortnightly
departures for Montreal and Quebec as advertised in pamphlets and
prospectuses which came aboard in a large package in Victoria
Dock, London, just before we started for Rouen, France. And in
the shadowy life of the F. C. T. C. lies the secret of that, my
last employment in my calling, which in a remote sense
interrupted the rhythmical development of Nina Almayer's story.
The then secretary of the London Shipmasters' Society, with its
modest rooms in Fenchurch Street, was a man of indefatigable
activity and the greatest devotion to his task. He is
responsible for what was my last association with a ship. I call
it that be cause it can hardly be called a sea-going experience.
Dear Captain Froud--it is impossible not to pay him the tribute
of affectionate familiarity at this distance of years--had very
sound views as to the advancement of knowledge and status for the
whole body of the officers of the mercantile marine. He organized
for us courses of professional lectures, St. John ambulance
classes, corresponded industriously with public bodies and
members of Parliament on subjects touching the interests of the
service; and as to the oncoming of some inquiry or commission
relating to matters of the sea and to the work of seamen, it was
a perfect godsend to his need of exerting himself on our
corporate behalf. Together with this high sense of his official
duties he had in him a vein of personal kindness, a strong
disposition to do what good he could to the individual members of
that craft of which in his time he had been a very excellent
master. And what greater kindness can one do to a seaman than to
put him in the way of employment? Captain Froud did not see why
the Shipmasters' Society, besides its general guardianship of our
interests, should not be unofficially an employment agency of the
very highest class.
"I am trying to persuade all our great ship-owning firms to come
to us for their men. There is nothing of a trade-union spirit
about our society, and I really don't see why they should not,"
he said once to me. "I am always telling the captains, too,
that, all things being equal, they ought to give preference to
the members of the society. In my position I can generally find
for them what they want among our members or our associate
In my wanderings about London from west to east and back again (I
was very idle then) the two little rooms in Fenchurch Street were
a sort of resting-place where my spirit, hankering after the sea,
could feel itself nearer to the ships, the men, and the life of
its choice--nearer there than on any other spot of the solid
earth. This resting-place used to be, at about five o'clock in
the afternoon, full of men and tobacco smoke, but Captain Froud
had the smaller room to himself and there he granted private
interviews, whose principal motive was to render service. Thus,
one murky November afternoon he beckoned me in with a crooked
finger and that peculiar glance above his spectacles which is
perhaps my strongest physical recollection of the man.
"I have had in here a shipmaster, this morning," he said, getting
back to his desk and motioning me to a chair, "who is in want of
an officer. It's for a steamship. You know, nothing pleases me
more than to be asked, but, unfortunately, I do not quite see my
way . . ."
As the outer room was full of men I cast a wondering glance at
the closed door; but he shook his head.
"Oh, yes, I should be only too glad to get that berth for one of
them. But the fact of the matter is, the captain of that ship
wants an officer who can speak French fluently, and that's not so
easy to find. I do not know anybody myself but you. It's a
second officer's berth and, of course, you would not care . . .
would you now? I know that it isn't what you are looking for."
It was not. I had given myself up to the idleness of a haunted
man who looks for nothing but words wherein to capture his
visions. But I admit that outwardly I resembled sufficiently a
man who could make a second officer for a steamer chartered by a
French company. I showed no sign of being haunted by the fate of
Nina and by the murmurs of tropical forests; and even my intimate
intercourse with Almayer (a person of weak character) had not put
a visible mark upon my features. For many years he and the world
of his story had been the companions of my imagination without, I
hope, impairing my ability to deal with the realities of sea
life. I had had the man and his surroundings with me ever since
my return from the eastern waters--some four years before the day
of which I speak.
It was in the front sitting-room of furnished apartments in a
Pimlico square that they first began to live again with a
vividness and poignancy quite foreign to our former real
intercourse. I had been treating myself to a long stay on shore,
and in the necessity of occupying my mornings Almayer (that old
acquaintance) came nobly to the rescue.
Before long, as was only proper, his wife and daughter joined him
round my table, and then the rest of that Pantai band came full
of words and gestures. Unknown to my respectable landlady, it
was my practice directly after my breakfast to hold animated
receptions of Malays, Arabs, and half-castes. They did not
clamour aloud for my attention. They came with a silent and
irresistible appeal--and the appeal, I affirm here, was not to my
self-love or my vanity. It seems now to have had a moral
character, for why should the memory of these beings, seen in
their obscure, sun-bathed existence, demand to express itself in
the shape of a novel, except on the ground of that mysterious
fellowship which unites in a community of hopes and fears all the
dwellers on this earth?
I did not receive my visitors with boisterous rapture as the
bearers of any gifts of profit or fame. There was no vision of a
printed book before me as I sat writing at that table, situated
in a decayed part of Belgravia. After all these years, each
leaving its evidence of slowly blackened pages, I can honestly
say that it is a sentiment akin to pity which prompted me to
render in words assembled with conscientious care the memory of
things far distant and of men who had lived.
But, coming back to Captain Froud and his fixed idea of never
disappointing ship owners or ship-captains, it was not likely
that I should fail him in his ambition--to satisfy at a few
hours' notice the unusual demand for a French-speaking officer.
He explained to me that the ship was chartered by a French
company intending to establish a regular monthly line of sailings
from Rouen, for the transport of French emigrants to Canada.
But, frankly, this sort of thing did not interest me very much.
I said gravely that if it were really a matter of keeping up the
reputation of the Shipmasters' Society I would consider it. But
the consideration was just for form's sake. The next day I
interviewed the captain, and I believe we were impressed
favourably with each other. He explained that his chief mate was
an excellent man in every respect and that he could not think of
dismissing him so as to give me the higher position; but that if
I consented to come as second officer I would be given certain
special advantages--and so on.
I told him that if I came at all the rank really did not matter.
"I am sure," he insisted, "you will get on first rate with Mr.
I promised faithfully to stay for two trips at least, and it was
in those circumstances that what was to be my last connection
with a ship began. And after all there was not even one single
trip. It may be that it was simply the fulfilment of a fate, of
that written word on my forehead which apparently for bade me,
through all my sea wanderings, ever to achieve the crossing of
the Western Ocean--using the words in that special sense in which
sailors speak of Western Ocean trade, of Western Ocean packets,
of Western Ocean hard cases. The new life attended closely upon
the old, and the nine chapters of "Almayer's Folly" went with me
to the Victoria Dock, whence in a few days we started for Rouen.
I won't go so far as saying that the engaging of a man fated
never to cross the Western Ocean was the absolute cause of the
Franco-Canadian Transport Company's failure to achieve even a
single passage. It might have been that of course; but the
obvious, gross obstacle was clearly the want of money. Four
hundred and sixty bunks for emigrants were put together in the
'tween decks by industrious carpenters while we lay in the
Victoria Dock, but never an emigrant turned up in Rouen--of
which, being a humane person, I confess I was glad. Some
gentlemen from Paris--I think there were three of them, and one
was said to be the chairman--turned up, indeed, and went from end
to end of the ship, knocking their silk hats cruelly against the
deck beams. I attended them personally, and I can vouch for it
that the interest they took in things was intelligent enough,
though, obviously, they had never seen anything of the sort
before. Their faces as they went ashore wore a cheerfully
inconclusive expression. Notwithstanding that this inspecting
ceremony was supposed to be a preliminary to immediate sailing,
it was then, as they filed down our gangway, that I received the
inward monition that no sailing within the meaning of our charter
party would ever take place.
It must be said that in less than three weeks a move took place.
When we first arrived we had been taken up with much ceremony
well toward the centre of the town, and, all the street corners
being placarded with the tricolor posters announcing the birth of
our company, the petit bourgeois with his wife and family made a
Sunday holiday from the inspection of the ship. I was always in
evidence in my best uniform to give information as though I had
been a Cook's tourists' interpreter, while our quartermasters
reaped a harvest of small change from personally conducted
parties. But when the move was made--that move which carried us
some mile and a half down the stream to be tied up to an
altogether muddier and shabbier quay--then indeed the desolation
of solitude became our lot. It was a complete and soundless
stagnation; for as we had the ship ready for sea to the smallest
detail, as the frost was hard and the days short, we were
absolutely idle--idle to the point of blushing with shame when
the thought struck us that all the time our salaries went on.
Young Cole was aggrieved because, as he said, we could not enjoy
any sort of fun in the evening after loafing like this all day;
even the banjo lost its charm since there was nothing to prevent
his strumming on it all the time between the meals. The good
Paramor--he was really a most excellent fellow--became unhappy as
far as was possible to his cheery nature, till one dreary day I
suggested, out of sheer mischief, that he should employ the
dormant energies of the crew in hauling both cables up on deck
and turning them end for end.
For a moment Mr. Paramor was radiant. "Excellent idea!" but
directly his face fell. "Why . . . Yes! But we can't make that
job last more than three days," he muttered, discontentedly. I
don't know how long he expected us to be stuck on the riverside
outskirts of Rouen, but I know that the cables got hauled up and
turned end for end according to my satanic suggestion, put down
again, and their very existence utterly forgotten, I believe,
before a French river pilot came on board to take our ship down,
empty as she came, into the Havre roads. You may think that this
state of forced idleness favoured some advance in the fortunes of
Almayer and his daughter. Yet it was not so. As if it were some
sort of evil spell, my banjoist cabin mate's interruption, as
related above, had arrested them short at the point of that
fateful sunset for many weeks together. It was always thus with
this book, begun in '89 and finished in '94--with that shortest
of all the novels which it was to be my lot to write. Between
its opening exclamation calling Almayer to his dinner in his
wife's voice and Abdullah's (his enemy) mental reference to the
God of Islam--"The Merciful, the Compassionate"--which closes the
book, there were to come several long sea passages, a visit (to
use the elevated phraseology suitable to the occasion) to the
scenes (some of them) of my childhood and the realization of
childhood's vain words, expressing a light-hearted and romantic
It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while
looking at a map of Africa of the time and putting my finger on
the blank space then representing the unsolved mystery of that
continent, I said to myself, with absolute assurance and an
amazing audacity which are no longer in my character now:
"When I grow up I shall go THERE."
And of course I thought no more about it till after a quarter of
a century or so an opportunity offered to go there--as if the sin
of childish audacity were to be visited on my mature head. Yes.
I did go there: THERE being the region of Stanley Falls, which in
'68 was the blankest of blank spaces on the earth's figured
surface. And the MS. of "Almayer's Folly," carried about me as
if it were a talisman or a treasure, went THERE, too. That it
ever came out of THERE seems a special dispensation of
Providence, because a good many of my other properties,
infinitely more valuable and useful to me, remained behind
through unfortunate accidents of transportation. I call to mind,
for instance, a specially awkward turn of the Congo between
Kinchassa and Leopoldsville--more particularly when one had to
take it at night in a big canoe with only half the proper number
of paddlers. I failed in being the second white man on record
drowned at that interesting spot through the upsetting of a
canoe. The first was a young Belgian officer, but the accident
happened some months before my time, and he, too, I believe, was
going home; not perhaps quite so ill as myself--but still he was
going home. I got round the turn more or less alive, though I
was too sick to care whether I did or not, and, always with
"Almayer's Folly" among my diminishing baggage, I arrived at that
delectable capital, Boma, where, before the departure of the
steamer which was to take me home, I had the time to wish myself
dead over and over again with perfect sincerity. At that date
there were in existence only seven chapters of "Almayer's Folly,"
but the chapter in my history which followed was that of a long,
long illness and very dismal convalescence. Geneva, or more
precisely the hydropathic establishment of Champel, is rendered
forever famous by the termination of the eighth chapter in the
history of Almayer's decline and fall. The events of the ninth
are inextricably mixed up with the details of the proper
management of a waterside warehouse owned by a certain city firm
whose name does not matter. But that work, undertaken to
accustom myself again to the activities of a healthy existence,
soon came to an end. The earth had nothing to hold me with for
very long. And then that memorable story, like a cask of choice
Madeira, got carried for three years to and fro upon the sea.
Whether this treatment improved its flavour or not, of course I
would not like to say. As far as appearance is concerned it
certainly did nothing of the kind. The whole MS. acquired a
faded look and an ancient, yellowish complexion. It became at
last unreasonable to suppose that anything in the world would
ever happen to Almayer and Nina. And yet something most unlikely
to happen on the high seas was to wake them up from their state
of suspended animation.
What is it that Novalis says: "It is certain my conviction gains
infinitely the moment an other soul will believe in it." And
what is a novel if not a conviction of our fellow-men's existence
strong enough to take upon itself a form of imagined life clearer
than reality and whose accumulated verisimilitude of selected
episodes puts to shame the pride of documentary history.
Providence which saved my MS. from the Congo rapids brought it to
the knowledge of a helpful soul far out on the open sea. It
would be on my part the greatest ingratitude ever to forget the
sallow, sunken face and the deep-set, dark eyes of the young
Cambridge man (he was a "passenger for his health" on board the
good ship Torrens outward bound to Australia) who was the first
reader of "Almayer's Folly"--the very first reader I ever had.
"Would it bore you very much in reading a MS. in a handwriting
like mine?" I asked him one evening, on a sudden impulse at the
end of a longish conversation whose subject was Gibbon's History.
Jacques (that was his name) was sitting in my cabin one stormy
dog-watch below, after bring me a book to read from his own
travelling store.
"Not at all," he answered, with his courteous intonation and a
faint smile. As I pulled a drawer open his suddenly aroused
curiosity gave him a watchful expression. I wonder what he
expected to see. A poem, maybe. All that's beyond guessing now.
He was not a cold, but a calm man, still more subdued by
disease--a man of few words and of an unassuming modesty in
general intercourse, but with something uncommon in the whole of
his person which set him apart from the undistinguished lot of
our sixty passengers. His eyes had a thoughtful, introspective
look. In his attractive reserved manner and in a veiled
sympathetic voice he asked:
"What is this?" "It is a sort of tale," I answered, with an
effort. "It is not even finished yet. Nevertheless, I would
like to know what you think of it." He put the MS. in the
breast-pocket of his jacket; I remember perfectly his thin, brown
fingers folding it lengthwise. "I will read it to-morrow," he
remarked, seizing the door handle; and then watching the roll of
the ship for a propitious moment, he opened the door and was
gone. In the moment of his exit I heard the sustained booming of
the wind, the swish of the water on the decks of the Torrens, and
the subdued, as if distant, roar of the rising sea. I noted the
growing disquiet in the great restlessness of the ocean, and
responded professionally to it with the thought that at eight
o'clock, in another half hour or so at the farthest, the
topgallant sails would have to come off the ship.
Next day, but this time in the first dog watch, Jacques entered
my cabin. He had a thick woollen muffler round his throat, and
the MS. was in his hand. He tendered it to me with a steady
look, but without a word. I took it in silence. He sat down on
the couch and still said nothing. I opened and shut a drawer
under my desk, on which a filled-up log-slate lay wide open in
its wooden frame waiting to be copied neatly into the sort of
book I was accustomed to write with care, the ship's log-book. I
turned my back squarely on the desk. And even then Jacques never
offered a word. "Well, what do you say?" I asked at last. "Is
it worth finishing?" This question expressed exactly the whole
of my thoughts.
"Distinctly," he answered, in his sedate, veiled voice, and then
coughed a little.
"Were you interested?" I inquired further, almost in a whisper.
"Very much!"
In a pause I went on meeting instinctively the heavy rolling of
the ship, and Jacques put his feet upon the couch. The curtain
of my bed-place swung to and fro as if it were a punkah, the
bulkhead lamp circled in its gimbals, and now and then the cabin
door rattled slightly in the gusts of wind. It was in latitude
40 south, and nearly in the longitude of Greenwich, as far as I
can remember, that these quiet rites of Almayer's and Nina's
resurrection were taking place. In the prolonged silence it
occurred to me that there was a good deal of retrospective
writing in the story as far as it went. Was it intelligible in
its action, I asked myself, as if already the story-teller were
being born into the body of a seaman. But I heard on deck the
whistle of the officer of the watch and remained on the alert to
catch the order that was to follow this call to attention. It
reached me as a faint, fierce shout to "Square the yards." "Aha!"
I thought to myself, "a westerly blow coming on." Then I turned
to my very first reader, who, alas! was not to live long enough
to know the end of the tale.
"Now let me ask you one more thing: is the story quite clear to
you as it stands?"
He raised his dark, gentle eyes to my face and seemed surprised.
"Yes! Perfectly."
This was all I was to hear from his lips concerning the merits of
"Almayer's Folly." We never spoke together of the book again. A
long period of bad weather set in and I had no thoughts left but
for my duties, while poor Jacques caught a fatal cold and had to
keep close in his cabin. When we arrived in Adelaide the first
reader of my prose went at once up-country, and died rather
suddenly in the end, either in Australia or it may be on the
passage while going home through the Suez Canal. I am not sure
which it was now, and I do not think I ever heard precisely;
though I made inquiries about him from some of our return
passengers who, wandering about to "see the country" during the
ship's stay in port, had come upon him here and there. At last
we sailed, homeward bound, and still not one line was added to
the careless scrawl of the many pages which poor Jacques had had
the patience to read with the very shadows of Eternity gathering
already in the hollows of his kind, steadfast eyes.
The purpose instilled into me by his simple and final
"Distinctly" remained dormant, yet alive to await its
opportunity. I dare say I am compelled--unconsciously
compelled--now to write volume after volume, as in past years I
was compelled to go to sea voyage after voyage. Leaves must
follow upon one an other as leagues used to follow in the days
gone by, on and on to the appointed end, which, being Truth
itself, is One--one for all men and for all occupations.
I do not know which of the two impulses has appeared more
mysterious and more wonderful to me. Still, in writing, as in
going to sea, I had to wait my opportunity. Let me confess here
that I was never one of those wonderful fellows that would go
afloat in a wash-tub for the sake of the fun, and if I may pride
myself upon my consistency, it was ever just the same with my
writing. Some men, I have heard, write in railway carriages, and
could do it, perhaps, sitting crossed-legged on a clothes-line;
but I must confess that my sybaritic disposition will not consent
to write without something at least resembling a chair. Line by
line, rather than page by page, was the growth of "Almayer's
And so it happened that I very nearly lost the MS., advanced now
to the first words of the ninth chapter, in the Friedrichstrasse
Poland, or more precisely to Ukraine. On an early, sleepy
morning changing trains in a hurry I left my Gladstone bag in a
refreshment-room. A worthy and intelligent Koffertrager rescued
it. Yet in my anxiety I was not thinking of the MS., but of all
the other things that were packed in the bag.
In Warsaw, where I spent two days, those wandering pages were
never exposed to the light, except once to candle-light, while
the bag lay open on the chair. I was dressing hurriedly to dine
at a sporting club. A friend of my childhood (he had been in the
Diplomatic Service, but had turned to growing wheat on paternal
acres, and we had not seen each other for over twenty years) was
sitting on the hotel sofa waiting to carry me off there.
"You might tell me something of your life while you are
dressing," he suggested, kindly.
I do not think I told him much of my life story either then or
later. The talk of the select little party with which he made me
dine was extremely animated and embraced most subjects under
heaven, from big-game shooting in Africa to the last poem
published in a very modernist review, edited by the very young
and patronized by the highest society. But it never touched upon
"Almayer's Folly," and next morning, in uninterrupted obscurity,
this inseparable companion went on rolling with me in the
southeast direction toward the government of Kiev.
At that time there was an eight hours' drive, if not more, from
the railway station to the country-house which was my
"Dear boy" (these words were always written in English), so ran
the last letter from that house received in London--"Get yourself
driven to the only inn in the place, dine as well as you can, and
some time in the evening my own confidential servant, factotum
and majordomo, a Mr. V. S. (I warn you he is of noble
extraction), will present himself before you, reporting the
arrival of the small sledge which will take you here on the next
day. I send with him my heaviest fur, which I suppose with such
overcoats as you may have with you will keep you from freezing on
the road."
Sure enough, as I was dining, served by a Hebrew waiter, in an
enormous barn-like bedroom with a freshly painted floor, the door
opened and, in a travelling costume of long boots, big sheepskin
cap, and a short coat girt with a leather belt, the Mr. V. S. (of
noble extraction), a man of about thirty-five, appeared with an
air of perplexity on his open and mustached countenance. I got
up from the table and greeted him in Polish, with, I hope, the
right shade of consideration demanded by his noble blood and his
confidential position. His face cleared up in a wonderful way.
It appeared that, notwithstanding my uncle's earnest assurances,
the good fellow had remained in doubt of our understanding each
other. He imagined I would talk to him in some foreign language.
I was told that his last words on getting into the sledge to come
to meet me shaped an anxious exclamation:
"Well! Well! Here I am going, but God only knows how I am to
make myself understood to our master's nephew."
We understood each other very well from the first. He took
charge of me as if I were not quite of age. I had a delightful
boyish feeling of coming home from school when he muffled me up
next morning in an enormous bearskin travelling-coat and took his
seat protectively by my side. The sledge was a very small one,
and it looked utterly insignificant, almost like a toy behind the
four big bays harnessed two and two. We three, counting the
coachman, filled it completely. He was a young fellow with clear
blue eyes; the high collar of his livery fur coat framed his
cheery countenance and stood all round level with the top of his
"Now, Joseph," my companion addressed him, "do you think we shall
manage to get home before six?" His answer was that we would
surely, with God's help, and providing there were no heavy drifts
in the long stretch between certain villages whose names came
with an extremely familiar sound to my ears. He turned out an
excellent coachman, with an instinct for keeping the road among
the snow-covered fields and a natural gift of getting the best
out of his horses.
"He is the son of that Joseph that I suppose the Captain
remembers. He who used to drive the Captain's late grandmother
of holy memory," remarked V. S., busy tucking fur rugs about my
I remembered perfectly the trusty Joseph who used to drive my
grandmother. Why! he it was who let me hold the reins for the
first time in my life and allowed me to play with the great
four-in-hand whip outside the doors of the coach-house.
"What became of him?" I asked. "He is no longer serving, I
"He served our master," was the reply. "But he died of cholera
ten years ago now--that great epidemic that we had. And his wife
died at the same time--the whole houseful of them, and this is
the only boy that was left."
The MS. of "Almayer's Folly" was reposing in the bag under our
I saw again the sun setting on the plains as I saw it in the
travels of my childhood. It set, clear and red, dipping into the
snow in full view as if it were setting on the sea. It was
twenty-three years since I had seen the sun set over that land;
and we drove on in the darkness which fell swiftly upon the livid
expanse of snows till, out of the waste of a white earth joining
a bestarred sky, surged up black shapes, the clumps of trees
about a village of the Ukrainian plain. A cottage or two glided
by, a low interminable wall, and then, glimmering and winking
through a screen of fir-trees, the lights of the master's house.
That very evening the wandering MS. of "Almayer's Folly" was
unpacked and unostentatiously laid on the writing-table in my
room, the guest-room which had been, I was informed in an
affectionately careless tone, awaiting me for some fifteen years
or so. It attracted no attention from the affectionate presence
hovering round the son of the favourite sister.
"You won't have many hours to yourself while you are staying with
me, brother," he said--this form of address borrowed from the
speech of our peasants being the usual expression of the highest
good humour in a moment of affectionate elation. "I shall be
always coming in for a chat."
As a matter of fact, we had the whole house to chat in, and were
everlastingly intruding upon each other. I invaded the
retirement of his study where the principal feature was a
colossal silver inkstand presented to him on his fiftieth year by
a subscription of all his wards then living. He had been
guardian of many orphans of land-owning families from the three
southern provinces--ever since the year 1860. Some of them had
been my school fellows and playmates, but not one of them, girls
or boys, that I know of has ever written a novel. One or two
were older than myself--considerably older, too. One of them, a
visitor I remember in my early years, was the man who first put
me on horseback, and his four-horse bachelor turnout, his perfect
horsemanship and general skill in manly exercises, was one of my
earliest admirations. I seem to remember my mother looking on
from a colonnade in front of the dining-room windows as I was
lifted upon the pony, held, for all I know, by the very Joseph--
the groom attached specially to my grandmother's service--who
died of cholera. It was certainly a young man in a dark-blue,
tailless coat and huge Cossack trousers, that being the livery of
the men about the stables. It must have been in 1864, but
reckoning by another mode of calculating time, it was certainly
in the year in which my mother obtained permission to travel
south and visit her family, from the exile into which she had
followed my father. For that, too, she had had to ask
permission, and I know that one of the conditions of that favour
was that she should be treated exactly as a condemned exile
herself. Yet a couple of years later, in memory of her eldest
brother, who had served in the Guards and dying early left hosts
of friends and a loved memory in the great world of St.
Petersburg, some influential personages procured for her this
permission--it was officially called the "Highest Grace"--of a
four months' leave from exile.
This is also the year in which I first begin to remember my
mother with more distinctness than a mere loving, wide-browed,
silent, protecting presence, whose eyes had a sort of commanding
sweetness; and I also remember the great gathering of all the
relations from near and far, and the gray heads of the family
friends paying her the homage of respect and love in the house of
her favourite brother, who, a few years later, was to take the
place for me of both my parents.
I did not understand the tragic significance of it all at the
time, though, indeed, I remember that doctors also came. There
were no signs of invalidism about her--but I think that already
they had pronounced her doom unless perhaps the change to a
southern climate could re-establish her declining strength. For
me it seems the very happiest period of my existence. There was
my cousin, a delightful, quick-tempered little girl, some months
younger than myself, whose life, lovingly watched over as if she
were a royal princess, came to an end with her fifteenth year.
There were other children, too, many of whom are dead now, and
not a few whose very names I have forgotten. Over all this hung
the oppressive shadow of the great Russian empire--the shadow
lowering with the darkness of a new-born national hatred fostered
by the Moscow school of journalists against the Poles after the
ill-omened rising of 1863.
This is a far cry back from the MS. of "Almayer's Folly," but the
public record of these formative impressions is not the whim of
an uneasy egotism. These, too, are things human, already distant
in their appeal. It is meet that something more should be left
for the novelist's children than the colours and figures of his
own hard-won creation. That which in their grown-up years may
appear to the world about them as the most enigmatic side of
their natures and perhaps must remain forever obscure even to
themselves, will be their unconscious response to the still voice
of that inexorable past from which his work of fiction and their
personalities are remotely derived.
Only in men's imagination does every truth find an effective and
undeniable existence. Imagination, not invention, is the supreme
master of art as of life. An imaginative and exact rendering of
authentic memories may serve worthily that spirit of piety toward
all things human which sanctions the conceptions of a writer of
tales, and the emotions of the man reviewing his own experience.
As I have said, I was unpacking my luggage after a journey from
London into Ukraine. The MS. of "Almayer's Folly"--my companion
already for some three years or more, and then in the ninth
chapter of its age--was deposited unostentatiously on the
writing-table placed between two windows. It didn't occur to me
to put it away in the drawer the table was fitted with, but my
eye was attracted by the good form of the same drawer's brass
handles. Two candelabra, with four candles each, lighted up
festally the room which had waited so many years for the
wandering nephew. The blinds were down.
Within five hundred yards of the chair on which I sat stood the
first peasant hut of the village--part of my maternal
grandfather's estate, the only part remaining in the possession
of a member of the family; and beyond the village in the
limitless blackness of a winter's night there lay the great
unfenced fields--not a flat and severe plain, but a kindly breadgiving
land of low rounded ridges, all white now, with the black
patches of timber nestling in the hollows. The road by which I
had come ran through the village with a turn just outside the
gates closing the short drive. Somebody was abroad on the deep
snow track; a quick tinkle of bells stole gradually into the
stillness of the room like a tuneful whisper.
My unpacking had been watched over by the servant who had come to
help me, and, for the most part, had been standing attentive but
unnecessary at the door of the room. I did not want him in the
least, but I did not like to tell him to go away. He was a young
fellow, certainly more than ten years younger than myself; I had
not been--I won't say in that place, but within sixty miles of
it, ever since the year '67; yet his guileless physiognomy of the
open peasant type seemed strangely familiar. It was quite
possible that he might have been a descendant, a son, or even a
grandson, of the servants whose friendly faces had been familiar
to me in my early childhood. As a matter of fact he had no such
claim on my consideration. He was the product of some village
near by and was there on his promotion, having learned the
service in one or two houses as pantry boy. I know this because
I asked the worthy V---- next day. I might well have spared the
question. I discovered before long that all the faces about the
house and all the faces in the village: the grave faces with long
mustaches of the heads of families, the downy faces of the young
men, the faces of the little fair-haired children, the handsome,
tanned, wide-browed faces of the mothers seen at the doors of the
huts, were as familiar to me as though I had known them all from
childhood and my childhood were a matter of the day before
The tinkle of the traveller's bells, after growing louder, had
faded away quickly, and the tumult of barking dogs in the village
had calmed down at last. My uncle, lounging in the corner of a
small couch, smoked his long Turkish chibouk in silence.
"This is an extremely nice writing-table you have got for my
room," I remarked.
"It is really your property," he said, keeping his eyes on me,
with an interested and wistful expression, as he had done ever
since I had entered the house. "Forty years ago your mother used
to write at this very table. In our house in Oratow, it stood in
the little sitting-room which, by a tacit arrangement, was given
up to the girls--I mean to your mother and her sister who died so
young. It was a present to them jointly from your uncle Nicholas
B. when your mother was seventeen and your aunt two years
younger. She was a very dear, delightful girl, that aunt of
yours, of whom I suppose you know nothing more than the name.
She did not shine so much by personal beauty and a cultivated
mind in which your mother was far superior. It was her good
sense, the admirable sweetness of her nature, her exceptional
facility and ease in daily relations, that endeared her to every
body. Her death was a terrible grief and a serious moral loss
for us all. Had she lived she would have brought the greatest
blessings to the house it would have been her lot to enter, as
wife, mother, and mistress of a household. She would have
created round herself an atmosphere of peace and content which
only those who can love unselfishly are able to evoke. Your
mother--of far greater beauty, exceptionally distinguished in
person, manner, and intellect--had a less easy disposition.
Being more brilliantly gifted, she also expected more from life.
At that trying time especially, we were greatly concerned about
her state. Suffering in her health from the shock of her
father's death (she was alone in the house with him when he died
suddenly), she was torn by the inward struggle between her love
for the man whom she was to marry in the end and her knowledge of
her dead father's declared objection to that match. Unable to
bring herself to disregard that cherished memory and that
judgment she had always respected and trusted, and, on the other
hand, feeling the impossibility to resist a sentiment so deep and
so true, she could not have been expected to preserve her mental
and moral balance. At war with herself, she could not give to
others that feeling of peace which was not her own. It was only
later, when united at last with the man of her choice, that she
developed those uncommon gifts of mind and heart which compelled
the respect and admiration even of our foes. Meeting with calm
fortitude the cruel trials of a life reflecting all the national
and social misfortunes of the community, she realized the highest
conceptions of duty as a wife, a mother, and a patriot, sharing
the exile of her husband and representing nobly the ideal of
Polish womanhood. Our uncle Nicholas was not a man very
accessible to feelings of affection. Apart from his worship for
Napoleon the Great, he loved really, I believe, only three people
in the world: his mother--your great-grandmother, whom you have
seen but cannot possibly remember; his brother, our father, in
whose house he lived for so many years; and of all of us, his
nephews and nieces grown up around him, your mother alone. The
modest, lovable qualities of the youngest sister he did not seem
able to see. It was I who felt most profoundly this unexpected
stroke of death falling upon the family less than a year after I
had become its head. It was terribly unexpected. Driving home
one wintry afternoon to keep me company in our empty house, where
I had to remain permanently administering the estate and at
tending to the complicated affairs--(the girls took it in turn
week and week about)--driving, as I said, from the house of the
Countess Tekla Potocka, where our invalid mother was staying then
to be near a doctor, they lost the road and got stuck in a snow
drift. She was alone with the coachman and old Valery, the
personal servant of our late father. Impatient of delay while
they were trying to dig themselves out, she jumped out of the
sledge and went to look for the road herself. All this happened
in '51, not ten miles from the house in which we are sitting now.
The road was soon found, but snow had begun to fall thickly
again, and they were four more hours getting home. Both the men
took off their sheepskin lined greatcoats and used all their own
rugs to wrap her up against the cold, notwithstanding her
protests, positive orders, and even struggles, as Valery
afterward related to me. 'How could I,' he remonstrated with
her, 'go to meet the blessed soul of my late master if I let any
harm come to you while there's a spark of life left in my body?'
When they reached home at last the poor old man was stiff and
speechless from exposure, and the coachman was in not much better
plight, though he had the strength to drive round to the stables
himself. To my reproaches for venturing out at all in such
weather, she answered, characteristically, that she could not
bear the thought of abandoning me to my cheerless solitude. It
is incomprehensible how it was that she was allowed to start. I
suppose it had to be! She made light of the cough which came on
next day, but shortly afterward inflammation of the lungs set in,
and in three weeks she was no more! She was the first to be
taken away of the young generation under my care. Behold the
vanity of all hopes and fears! I was the most frail at birth of
all the children. For years I remained so delicate that my
parents had but little hope of bringing me up; and yet I have
survived five brothers and two sisters, and many of my
contemporaries; I have outlived my wife and daughter, too--and
from all those who have had some knowledge at least of these old
times you alone are left. It has been my lot to lay in an early
grave many honest hearts, many brilliant promises, many hopes
full of life."
He got up briskly, sighed, and left me saying, "We will dine in
half an hour."
Without moving, I listened to his quick steps resounding on the
waxed floor of the next room, traversing the anteroom lined with
bookshelves, where he paused to put his chibouk in the pipe-stand
before passing into the drawing-room (these were all en suite),
where he became inaudible on the thick carpet. But I heard the
door of his study-bedroom close. He was then sixty-two years old
and had been for a quarter of a century the wisest, the firmest,
the most indulgent of guardians, extending over me a paternal
care and affection, a moral support which I seemed to feel always
near me in the most distant parts of the earth.
As to Mr. Nicholas B., sub-lieutenant of 1808, lieutenant of 1813
in the French army, and for a short time Officier d'Ordonnance of
Marshal Marmont; afterward captain in the 2d Regiment of Mounted
Rifles in the Polish army--such as it existed up to 1830 in the
reduced kingdom established by the Congress of Vienna--I must say
that from all that more distant past, known to me traditionally
and a little de visu, and called out by the words of the man just
gone away, he remains the most incomplete figure. It is obvious
that I must have seen him in '64, for it is certain that he would
not have missed the opportunity of seeing my mother for what he
must have known would be the last time. From my early boyhood to
this day, if I try to call up his image, a sort of mist rises
before my eyes, mist in which I perceive vaguely only a neatly
brushed head of white hair (which is exceptional in the case of
the B. family, where it is the rule for men to go bald in a
becoming manner before thirty) and a thin, curved, dignified
nose, a feature in strict accordance with the physical tradition
of the B. family. But it is not by these fragmentary remains of
perishable mortality that he lives in my memory. I knew, at a
very early age, that my granduncle Nicholas B. was a Knight of
the Legion of Honour and that he had also the Polish Cross for
valour Virtuti Militari. The knowledge of these glorious facts
inspired in me an admiring veneration; yet it is not that
sentiment, strong as it was, which resumes for me the force and
the significance of his personality. It is over borne by another
and complex impression of awe, compassion, and horror. Mr.
Nicholas B. remains for me the unfortunate and miserable (but
heroic) being who once upon a time had eaten a dog.
It is a good forty years since I heard the tale, and the effect
has not worn off yet. I believe this is the very first, say,
realistic, story I heard in my life; but all the same I don't
know why I should have been so frightfully impressed. Of course
I know what our village dogs look like--but still. . . . No! At
this very day, recalling the horror and compassion of my
childhood, I ask myself whether I am right in disclosing to a
cold and fastidious world that awful episode in the family
history. I ask myself--is it right?--especially as the B. family
had always been honourably known in a wide countryside for the
delicacy of their tastes in the matter of eating and drinking.
But upon the whole, and considering that this gastronomical
degradation overtaking a gallant young officer lies really at the
door of the Great Napoleon, I think that to cover it up by
silence would be an exaggeration of literary restraint. Let the
truth stand here. The responsibility rests with the Man of St.
Helena in view of his deplorable levity in the conduct of the
Russian campaign. It was during the memorable retreat from
Moscow that Mr. Nicholas B., in company of two brother
officers--as to whose morality and natural refinement I know
nothing--bagged a dog on the outskirts of a village and
subsequently devoured him. As far as I can remember the weapon
used was a cavalry sabre, and the issue of the sporting episode
was rather more of a matter of life and death than if it had been
an encounter with a tiger. A picket of Cossacks was sleeping in
that village lost in the depths of the great Lithuanian forest.
The three sportsmen had observed them from a hiding-place making
themselves very much at home among the huts just before the early
winter darkness set in at four o'clock. They had observed them
with disgust and, perhaps, with despair. Late in the night the
rash counsels of hunger overcame the dictates of prudence.
Crawling through the snow they crept up to the fence of dry
branches which generally encloses a village in that part of
Lithuania. What they expected to get and in what manner, and
whether this expectation was worth the risk, goodness only knows.
However, these Cossack parties, in most cases wandering without
an officer, were known to guard themselves badly and often not at
all. In addition, the village lying at a great distance from the
line of French retreat, they could not suspect the presence of
stragglers from the Grand Army. The three officers had strayed
away in a blizzard from the main column and had been lost for
days in the woods, which explains sufficiently the terrible
straits to which they were reduced. Their plan was to try and
attract the attention of the peasants in that one of the huts
which was nearest to the enclosure; but as they were preparing to
venture into the very jaws of the lion, so to speak, a dog (it is
mighty strange that there was but one), a creature quite as
formidable under the circumstances as a lion, began to bark on
the other side of the fence. . . .
At this stage of the narrative, which I heard many times (by
request) from the lips of Captain Nicholas B.'s sister-in-law, my
grandmother, I used to tremble with excitement.
The dog barked. And if he had done no more than bark, three
officers of the Great Napoleon's army would have perished
honourably on the points of Cossacks' lances, or perchance
escaping the chase would have died decently of starvation. But
before they had time to think of running away that fatal and
revolting dog, being carried away by the excess of the zeal,
dashed out through a gap in the fence. He dashed out and died.
His head, I understand, was severed at one blow from his body. I
understand also that later on, within the gloomy solitudes of the
snow-laden woods, when, in a sheltering hollow, a fire had been
lit by the party, the condition of the quarry was discovered to
be distinctly unsatisfactory. It was not thin--on the contrary,
it seemed unhealthily obese; its skin showed bare patches of an
unpleasant character. However, they had not killed that dog for
the sake of the pelt. He was large. . . . He was eaten. . . .
The rest is silence. . . .
A silence in which a small boy shudders and says firmly:
"I could not have eaten that dog."
And his grandmother remarks with a smile:
"Perhaps you don't know what it is to be hungry."
I have learned something of it since. Not that I have been
reduced to eat dog. I have fed on the emblematical animal,
which, in the language of the volatile Gauls, is called la vache
enragee; I have lived on ancient salt junk, I know the taste of
shark, of trepang, of snake, of nondescript dishes containing
things without a name--but of the Lithuanian village dog--never!
I wish it to be distinctly understood that it is not I, but my
granduncle Nicholas, of the Polish landed gentry, Chevalier de la
Legion d'Honneur, etc., who in his young days, had eaten the
Lithuanian dog.
I wish he had not. The childish horror of the deed clings
absurdly to the grizzled man. I am perfectly helpless against
it. Still, if he really had to, let us charitably remember that
he had eaten him on active service, while bearing up bravely
against the greatest military disaster of modern history, and, in
a manner, for the sake of his country. He had eaten him to
appease his hunger, no doubt, but also for the sake of an
unappeasable and patriotic desire, in the glow of a great faith
that lives still, and in the pursuit of a great illusion kindled
like a false beacon by a great man to lead astray the effort of a
brave nation.
Pro patria!
Looked at in that light, it appears a sweet and decorous meal.
And looked at in the same light, my own diet of la vache enragee
appears a fatuous and extravagant form of self-indulgence; for
why should I, the son of a land which such men as these have
turned up with their plowshares and bedewed with their blood,
undertake the pursuit of fantastic meals of salt junk and
hardtack upon the wide seas? On the kindest view it seems an
unanswerable question. Alas! I have the conviction that there
are men of unstained rectitude who are ready to murmur scornfully
the word desertion. Thus the taste of innocent adventure may be
made bitter to the palate. The part of the inexplicable should
be al lowed for in appraising the conduct of men in a world where
no explanation is final. No charge of faithlessness ought to be
lightly uttered. The appearances of this perishable life are
deceptive, like everything that falls under the judgment of our
imperfect senses. The inner voice may remain true enough in its
secret counsel. The fidelity to a special tradition may last
through the events of an unrelated existence, following
faithfully, too, the traced way of an inexplicable impulse.
It would take too long to explain the intimate alliance of
contradictions in human nature which makes love itself wear at
times the desperate shape of betrayal. And perhaps there is no
possible explanation. Indulgence--as somebody said--is the most
intelligent of all the virtues. I venture to think that it is
one of the least common, if not the most uncommon of all. I
would not imply by this that men are foolish--or even most men.
Far from it. The barber and the priest, backed by the whole
opinion of the village, condemned justly the conduct of the
ingenious hidalgo, who, sallying forth from his native place,
broke the head of the muleteer, put to death a flock of
inoffensive sheep, and went through very doleful experiences in a
certain stable. God forbid that an unworthy churl should escape
merited censure by hanging on to the stirrup-leather of the
sublime caballero. His was a very noble, a very unselfish
fantasy, fit for nothing except to raise the envy of baser
mortals. But there is more than one aspect to the charm of that
exalted and dangerous figure. He, too, had his frailties. After
reading so many romances he desired naively to escape with his
very body from the intolerable reality of things. He wished to
meet, eye to eye, the valorous giant Brandabarbaran, Lord of
Arabia, whose armour is made of the skin of a dragon, and whose
shield, strapped to his arm, is the gate of a fortified city.
Oh, amiable and natural weakness! Oh, blessed simplicity of a
gentle heart without guile! Who would not succumb to such a
consoling temptation? Nevertheless, it was a form of
self-indulgence, and the ingenious hidalgo of La Mancha was not a
good citizen. The priest and the barber were not unreasonable in
their strictures. Without going so far as the old King
Louis-Philippe, who used to say in his exile, "The people are
never in fault"--one may admit that there must be some
righteousness in the assent of a whole village. Mad! Mad! He
who kept in pious meditation the ritual vigil-of-arms by the well
of an inn and knelt reverently to be knighted at daybreak by the
fat, sly rogue of a landlord has come very near perfection. He
rides forth, his head encircled by a halo--the patron saint of
all lives spoiled or saved by the irresistible grace of
imagination. But he was not a good citizen.
Perhaps that and nothing else was meant by the well-remembered
exclamation of my tutor.
It was in the jolly year 1873, the very last year in which I have
had a jolly holiday. There have been idle years afterward, jolly
enough in a way and not altogether without their lesson, but this
year of which I speak was the year of my last school-boy holiday.
There are other reasons why I should remember that year, but they
are too long to state formally in this place. Moreover, they
have nothing to do with that holiday. What has to do with the
holiday is that before the day on which the remark was made we
had seen Vienna, the Upper Danube, Munich, the Falls of the
Rhine, the Lake of Constance,--in fact, it was a memorable
holiday of travel. Of late we had been tramping slowly up the
Valley of the Reuss. It was a delightful time. It was much more
like a stroll than a tramp. Landing from a Lake of Lucerne
steamer in Fluelen, we found ourselves at the end of the second
day, with the dusk overtaking our leisurely footsteps, a little
way beyond Hospenthal. This is not the day on which the remark
was made: in the shadows of the deep valley and with the
habitations of men left some way behind, our thoughts ran not
upon the ethics of conduct, but upon the simpler human problem of
shelter and food. There did not seem anything of the kind in
sight, and we were thinking of turning back when suddenly, at a
bend of the road, we came upon a building, ghostly in the
At that time the work on the St. Gothard Tunnel was going on, and
that magnificent enterprise of burrowing was directly responsible
for the unexpected building, standing all alone upon the very
roots of the mountains. It was long, though not big at all; it
was low; it was built of boards, without ornamentation, in
barrack-hut style, with the white window-frames quite flush with
the yellow face of its plain front. And yet it was a hotel; it
had even a name, which I have forgotten. But there was no gold
laced doorkeeper at its humble door. A plain but vigorous
servant-girl answered our inquiries, then a man and woman who
owned the place appeared. It was clear that no travellers were
expected, or perhaps even desired, in this strange hostelry,
which in its severe style resembled the house which sur mounts
the unseaworthy-looking hulls of the toy Noah's Arks, the
universal possession of European childhood. However, its roof
was not hinged and it was not full to the brim of slab-sided and
painted animals of wood. Even the live tourist animal was
nowhere in evidence. We had something to eat in a long, narrow
room at one end of a long, narrow table, which, to my tired
perception and to my sleepy eyes, seemed as if it would tilt up
like a see saw plank, since there was no one at the other end to
balance it against our two dusty and travel-stained figures.
Then we hastened up stairs to bed in a room smelling of pine
planks, and I was fast asleep before my head touched the pillow.
In the morning my tutor (he was a student of the Cracow
University) woke me up early, and as we were dressing remarked:
"There seems to be a lot of people staying in this hotel. I have
heard a noise of talking up till eleven o'clock." This statement
surprised me; I had heard no noise whatever, having slept like a
We went down-stairs into the long and narrow dining-room with its
long and narrow table. There were two rows of plates on it. At
one of the many curtained windows stood a tall, bony man with a
bald head set off by a bunch of black hair above each ear, and
with a long, black beard. He glanced up from the paper he was
reading and seemed genuinely astonished at our intrusion. By and
by more men came in. Not one of them looked like a tourist. Not
a single woman appeared. These men seemed to know each other
with some intimacy, but I cannot say they were a very talkative
lot. The bald-headed man sat down gravely at the head of the
table. It all had the air of a family party. By and by, from
one of the vigorous servant-girls in national costume, we
discovered that the place was really a boarding house for some
English engineers engaged at the works of the St. Gothard Tunnel;
and I could listen my fill to the sounds of the English language,
as far as it is used at a breakfast-table by men who do not
believe in wasting many words on the mere amenities of life.
This was my first contact with British mankind apart from the
tourist kind seen in the hotels of Zurich and Lucerne--the kind
which has no real existence in a workaday world. I know now that
the bald-headed man spoke with a strong Scotch accent. I have
met many of his kind ashore and afloat. The second engineer of
the steamer Mavis, for instance, ought to have been his twin
brother. I cannot help thinking that he really was, though for
some reason of his own he assured me that he never had a twin
brother. Anyway, the deliberate, bald-headed Scot with the
coal-black beard appeared to my boyish eyes a very romantic and
mysterious person.
We slipped out unnoticed. Our mapped-out route led over the
Furca Pass toward the Rhone Glacier, with the further intention
of following down the trend of the Hasli Valley. The sun was
already declining when we found ourselves on the top of the pass,
and the remark alluded to was presently uttered.
We sat down by the side of the road to continue the argument
begun half a mile or so before. I am certain it was an argument,
because I remember perfectly how my tutor argued and how without
the power of reply I listened, with my eyes fixed obstinately on
the ground. A stir on the road made me look up--and then I saw
my unforgettable Englishman. There are acquaintances of later
years, familiars, shipmates, whom I remember less clearly. He
marched rapidly toward the east (attended by a hang-dog Swiss
guide), with the mien of an ardent and fearless traveller. He
was clad in a knickerbocker suit, but as at the same time he wore
short socks under his laced boots, for reasons which, whether
hygienic or conscientious, were surely imaginative, his calves,
exposed to the public gaze and to the tonic air of high
altitudes, dazzled the beholder by the splendour of their
marble-like condition and their rich tone of young ivory. He was
the leader of a small caravan. The light of a headlong, exalted
satisfaction with the world of men and the scenery of mountains
illumined his clean-cut, very red face, his short, silver-white
whiskers, his innocently eager and triumphant eyes. In passing
he cast a glance of kindly curiosity and a friendly gleam of big,
sound, shiny teeth toward the man and the boy sitting like dusty
tramps by the roadside, with a modest knapsack lying at their
feet. His white calves twinkled sturdily, the uncouth Swiss
guide with a surly mouth stalked like an unwilling bear at his
elbow; a small train of three mules followed in single file the
lead of this inspiring enthusiast. Two ladies rode past, one
behind the other, but from the way they sat I saw only their
calm, uniform backs, and the long ends of blue veils hanging
behind far down over their identical hat-brims. His two
daughters, surely. An industrious luggage-mule, with unstarched
ears and guarded by a slouching, sallow driver, brought up the
rear. My tutor, after pausing for a look and a faint smile,
resumed his earnest argument.
I tell you it was a memorable year! One does not meet such an
Englishman twice in a lifetime. Was he in the mystic ordering of
common events the ambassador of my future, sent out to turn the
scale at a critical moment on the top of an Alpine pass, with the
peaks of the Bernese Oberland for mute and solemn witnesses? His
glance, his smile, the unextinguishable and comic ardour of his
striving-forward appearance, helped me to pull myself together.
It must be stated that on that day and in the exhilarating
atmosphere of that elevated spot I had been feeling utterly
crushed. It was the year in which I had first spoken aloud of my
desire to go to sea. At first like those sounds that, ranging
outside the scale to which men's ears are attuned, remain
inaudible to our sense of hearing, this declaration passed
unperceived. It was as if it had not been. Later on, by trying
various tones, I managed to arouse here and there a surprised
momentary attention--the "What was that funny noise?"--sort of
inquiry. Later on it was: "Did you hear what that boy said?
What an extraordinary outbreak!" Presently a wave of scandalized
astonishment (it could not have been greater if I had announced
the intention of entering a Carthusian monastery) ebbing out of
the educational and academical town of Cracow spread itself over
several provinces. It spread itself shallow but far-reaching.
It stirred up a mass of remonstrance, indignation, pitying
wonder, bitter irony, and downright chaff. I could hardly
breathe under its weight, and certainly had no words for an
answer. People wondered what Mr. T. B. would do now with his
worrying nephew and, I dare say, hoped kindly that he would make
short work of my nonsense.
What he did was to come down all the way from Ukraine to have it
out with me and to judge by himself, unprejudiced, impartial, and
just, taking his stand on the ground of wisdom and affection. As
far as is possible for a boy whose power of expression is still
unformed I opened the secret of my thoughts to him, and he in
return allowed me a glimpse into his mind and heart; the first
glimpse of an inexhaustible and noble treasure of clear thought
and warm feeling, which through life was to be mine to draw upon
with a never-deceived love and confidence. Practically, after
several exhaustive conversations, he concluded that he would not
have me later on reproach him for having spoiled my life by an
unconditional opposition. But I must take time for serious
reflection. And I must think not only of myself but of others;
weigh the claims of affection and conscience against my own
sincerity of purpose. "Think well what it all means in the
larger issues--my boy," he exhorted me, finally, with special
friendliness. "And meantime try to get the best place you can at
the yearly examinations."
The scholastic year came to an end. I took a fairly good place
at the exams, which for me (for certain reasons) happened to be a
more difficult task than for other boys. In that respect I could
enter with a good conscience upon that holiday which was like a
long visit pour prendre conge of the mainland of old Europe I was
to see so little of for the next four-and-twenty years. Such,
however, was not the avowed purpose of that tour. It was rather,
I suspect, planned in order to distract and occupy my thoughts in
other directions. Nothing had been said for months of my going
to sea. But my attachment to my young tutor and his influence
over me were so well known that he must have received a
confidential mission to talk me out of my romantic folly. It was
an excellently appropriate arrangement, as neither he nor I had
ever had a single glimpse of the sea in our lives. That was to
come by and by for both of us in Venice, from the outer shore of
Lido. Meantime he had taken his mission to heart so well that I
began to feel crushed before we reached Zurich. He argued in
railway trains, in lake steamboats, he had argued away for me the
obligatory sunrise on the Righi, by Jove! Of his devotion to his
unworthy pupil there can be no doubt. He had proved it already
by two years of unremitting and arduous care. I could not hate
him. But he had been crushing me slowly, and when he started to
argue on the top of the Furca Pass he was perhaps nearer a
success than either he or I imagined. I listened to him in
despairing silence, feeling that ghostly, unrealized, and desired
sea of my dreams escape from the unnerved grip of my will.
The enthusiastic old Englishman had passed--and the argument went
on. What reward could I expect from such a life at the end of my
years, either in ambition, honour, or conscience? An
unanswerable question. But I felt no longer crushed. Then our
eyes met and a genuine emotion was visible in his as well as in
mine. The end came all at once. He picked up the knapsack
suddenly and got onto his feet.
"You are an incorrigible, hopeless Don Quixote. That's what you
I was surprised. I was only fifteen and did not know what he
meant exactly. But I felt vaguely flattered at the name of the
immortal knight turning up in connection with my own folly, as
some people would call it to my face. Alas! I don't think there
was anything to be proud of. Mine was not the stuff of
protectors of forlorn damsels, the redressers of this world's
wrong are made of; and my tutor was the man to know that best.
Therein, in his indignation, he was superior to the barber and
the priest when he flung at me an honoured name like a reproach.
I walked behind him for full five minutes; then without looking
back he stopped. The shadows of distant peaks were lengthening
over the Furca Pass. When I came up to him he turned to me and
in full view of the Finster Aarhorn, with his band of giant
brothers rearing their monstrous heads against a brilliant sky,
put his hand on my shoulder affectionately.
"Well! That's enough. We will have no more of it."
And indeed there was no more question of my mysterious vocation
between us. There was to be no more question of it at all, no
where or with any one. We began the descent of the Furca Pass
conversing merrily.
Eleven years later, month for month, I stood on Tower Hill on the
steps of the St. Katherine's Dockhouse, a master in the British
Merchant Service. But the man who put his hand on my shoulder at
the top of the Furca Pass was no longer living.
That very year of our travels he took his degree of the
Philosophical Faculty--and only then his true vocation declared
itself. Obedient to the call, he entered at once upon the
four-year course of the Medical Schools. A day came when, on the
deck of a ship moored in Calcutta, I opened a letter telling me
of the end of an enviable existence. He had made for himself a
practice in some obscure little town of Austrian Galicia. And
the letter went on to tell me how all the bereaved poor of the
district, Christians and Jews alike, had mobbed the good doctor's
coffin with sobs and lamentations at the very gate of the
How short his years and how clear his vision! What greater
reward in ambition, honour, and conscience could he have hoped to
win for himself when, on the top of the Furca Pass, he bade me
look well to the end of my opening life?
The devouring in a dismal forest of a luckless Lithuanian dog by
my granduncle Nicholas B. in company of two other military and
famished scarecrows, symbolized, to my childish imagination, the
whole horror of the retreat from Moscow, and the immorality of a
conqueror's ambition. An extreme distaste for that objectionable
episode has tinged the views I hold as to the character and
achievements of Napoleon the Great. I need not say that these
are unfavourable. It was morally reprehensible for that great
captain to induce a simple-minded Polish gentleman to eat dog by
raising in his breast a false hope of national independence. It
has been the fate of that credulous nation to starve for upward
of a hundred years on a diet of false hopes and--well--dog. It
is, when one thinks of it, a singularly poisonous regimen. Some
pride in the national constitution which has survived a long
course of such dishes is really excusable.
But enough of generalizing. Returning to particulars, Mr.
Nicholas B. confided to his sister-in-law (my grandmother) in his
misanthropically laconic manner that this supper in the woods had
been nearly "the death of him." This is not surprising. What
surprises me is that the story was ever heard of; for granduncle
Nicholas differed in this from the generality of military men of
Napoleon's time (and perhaps of all time) that he did not like to
talk of his campaigns, which began at Friedland and ended some
where in the neighbourhood of Bar-le-Duc. His admiration of the
great Emperor was unreserved in everything but expression. Like
the religion of earnest men, it was too profound a sentiment to
be displayed before a world of little faith. Apart from that he
seemed as completely devoid of military anecdotes as though he
had hardly ever seen a soldier in his life. Proud of his
decorations earned before he was twenty-five, he refused to wear
the ribbons at the buttonhole in the manner practised to this day
in Europe and even was unwilling to display the insignia on
festive occasions, as though he wished to conceal them in the
fear of appearing boastful.
"It is enough that I have them," he used to mutter. In the
course of thirty years they were seen on his breast only
twice--at an auspicious marriage in the family and at the funeral
of an old friend. That the wedding which was thus honoured was
not the wedding of my mother I learned only late in life, too
late to bear a grudge against Mr. Nicholas B., who made amends at
my birth by a long letter of congratulation containing the
following prophecy: "He will see better times." Even in his
embittered heart there lived a hope. But he was not a true
He was a man of strange contradictions. Living for many years in
his brother's house, the home of many children, a house full of
life, of animation, noisy with a constant coming and going of
many guests, he kept his habits of solitude and silence.
Considered as obstinately secretive in all his purposes, he was
in reality the victim of a most painful irresolution in all
matters of civil life. Under his taciturn, phlegmatic behaviour
was hidden a faculty of short-lived passionate anger. I suspect
he had no talent for narrative; but it seemed to afford him
sombre satisfaction to declare that he was the last man to ride
over the bridge of the river Elster after the battle of Leipsic.
Lest some construction favourable to his valour should be put on
the fact he condescended to explain how it came to pass. It
seems that shortly after the retreat began he was sent back to
the town where some divisions of the French army (and among them
the Polish corps of Prince Joseph Poniatowski), jammed hopelessly
in the streets, were being simply exterminated by the troops of
the Allied Powers. When asked what it was like in there, Mr.
Nicholas B. muttered only the word "Shambles." Having delivered
his message to the Prince he hastened away at once to render an
account of his mission to the superior who had sent him. By that
time the advance of the enemy had enveloped the town, and he was
shot at from houses and chased all the way to the river-bank by a
disorderly mob of Austrian Dragoons and Prussian Hussars. The
bridge had been mined early in the morning, and his opinion was
that the sight of the horsemen converging from many sides in the
pursuit of his person alarmed the officer in command of the
sappers and caused the premature firing of the charges. He had
not gone more than two hundred yards on the other side when he
heard the sound of the fatal explosions. Mr. Nicholas B.
concluded his bald narrative with the word "Imbecile," uttered
with the utmost deliberation. It testified to his indignation at
the loss of so many thousands of lives. But his phlegmatic
physiognomy lighted up when he spoke of his only wound, with
something resembling satisfaction. You will see that there was
some reason for it when you learn that he was wounded in the
heel. "Like his Majesty the Emperor Napoleon himself," he
reminded his hearers, with assumed indifference. There can be no
doubt that the indifference was assumed, if one thinks what a
very distinguished sort of wound it was. In all the history of
warfare there are, I believe, only three warriors publicly known
to have been wounded in the heel--Achilles and Napoleon--demigods
indeed--to whom the familial piety of an unworthy descendant adds
the name of the simple mortal, Nicholas B.
The Hundred Days found Mr. Nicholas B. staying with a distant
relative of ours, owner of a small estate in Galicia. How he got
there across the breadth of an armed Europe, and after what
adventures, I am afraid will never be known now. All his papers
were destroyed shortly before his death; but if there was among
them, as he affirmed, a concise record of his life, then I am
pretty sure it did not take up more than a half sheet of foolscap
or so. This relative of ours happened to be an Austrian officer
who had left the service after the battle of Austerlitz. Unlike
Mr. Nicholas B., who concealed his decorations, he liked to
display his honourable discharge in which he was mentioned as un
schreckbar (fearless) before the enemy. No conjunction could
seem more unpromising, yet it stands in the family tradition that
these two got on very well together in their rural solitude.
When asked whether he had not been sorely tempted during the
Hundred Days to make his way again to France and join the service
of his beloved Emperor, Mr. Nicholas B. used to mutter: "No
money. No horse. Too far to walk."
The fall of Napoleon and the ruin of national hopes affected
adversely the character of Mr. Nicholas B. He shrank from
returning to his province. But for that there was also another
reason. Mr. Nicholas B. and his brother--my maternal grand
father--had lost their father early, while they were quite
children. Their mother, young still and left very well off,
married again a man of great charm and of an amiable disposition,
but without a penny. He turned out an affectionate and careful
stepfather; it was unfortunate, though, that while directing the
boys' education and forming their character by wise counsel, he
did his best to get hold of the fortune by buying and selling
land in his own name and investing capital in such a manner as to
cover up the traces of the real ownership. It seems that such
practices can be successful if one is charming enough to dazzle
one's own wife permanently, and brave enough to defy the vain
terrors of public opinion. The critical time came when the elder
of the boys on attaining his majority, in the year 1811, asked
for the accounts and some part at least of the inheritance to
begin life upon. It was then that the stepfather declared with
calm finality that there were no accounts to render and no
property to inherit. The whole fortune was his very own. He was
very good-natured about the young man's misapprehension of the
true state of affairs, but, of course, felt obliged to maintain
his position firmly. Old friends came and went busily, voluntary
mediators appeared travelling on most horrible roads from the
most distant corners of the three provinces; and the Marshal of
the Nobility (ex-officio guardian of all well-born orphans)
called a meeting of landowners to "ascertain in a friendly way
how the misunderstanding between X and his stepsons had arisen
and devise proper measures to remove the same." A deputation to
that effect visited X, who treated them to excellent wines, but
absolutely refused his ear to their remonstrances. As to the
proposals for arbitration he simply laughed at them; yet the
whole province must have been aware that fourteen years before,
when he married the widow, all his visible fortune consisted
(apart from his social qualities) in a smart four-horse turnout
with two servants, with whom he went about visiting from house to
house; and as to any funds he might have possessed at that time
their existence could only be inferred from the fact that he was
very punctual in settling his modest losses at cards. But by the
magic power of stubborn and constant assertion, there were found
presently, here and there, people who mumbled that surely "there
must be some thing in it." However, on his next name-day (which
he used to celebrate by a great three days' shooting party), of
all the invited crowd only two guests turned up, distant
neighbours of no importance; one notoriously a fool, and the
other a very pious and honest person, but such a passionate lover
of the gun that on his own confession he could not have refused
an invitation to a shooting party from the devil himself. X met
this manifestation of public opinion with the serenity of an
unstained conscience. He refused to be crushed. Yet he must
have been a man of deep feeling, because, when his wife took
openly the part of her children, he lost his beautiful
tranquillity, proclaimed himself heartbroken, and drove her out
of the house, neglecting in his grief to give her enough time to
pack her trunks.
This was the beginning of a lawsuit, an abominable marvel of
chicane, which by the use of every legal subterfuge was made to
last for many years. It was also the occasion for a display of
much kindness and sympathy. All the neighbouring houses flew
open for the reception of the homeless. Neither legal aid nor
material assistance in the prosecution of the suit was ever
wanting. X, on his side, went about shedding tears publicly over
his stepchildren's ingratitude and his wife's blind infatuation;
but as at the same time he displayed great cleverness in the art
of concealing material documents (he was even suspected of having
burned a lot of historically interesting family papers) this
scandalous litigation had to be ended by a compromise lest worse
should befall. It was settled finally by a surrender, out of the
disputed estate, in full satisfaction of all claims, of two
villages with the names of which I do not intend to trouble my
readers. After this lame and impotent conclusion neither the
wife nor the stepsons had anything to say to the man who had
presented the world with such a successful example of self-help
based on character, determination, and industry; and my
great-grandmother, her health completely broken down, died a
couple of years later in Carlsbad. Legally secured by a decree
in the possession of his plunder, X regained his wonted serenity,
and went on living in the neighbourhood in a comfortable style
and in apparent peace of mind. His big shoots were fairly well
attended again. He was never tired of assuring people that he
bore no grudge for what was past; he protested loudly of his
constant affection for his wife and stepchildren. It was true,
he said, that they had tried to strip him as naked as a Turkish
saint in the decline of his days; and because he had defended
himself from spoliation, as anybody else in his place would have
done, they had abandoned him now to the horrors of a solitary old
age. Nevertheless, his love for them survived these cruel blows.
And there might have been some truth in his protestations. Very
soon he began to make overtures of friendship to his eldest
stepson, my maternal grandfather; and when these were
peremptorily rejected he went on renewing them again and again
with characteristic obstinacy. For years he persisted in his
efforts at reconciliation, promising my grandfather to execute a
will in his favour if he only would be friends again to the
extent of calling now and then (it was fairly close neighbourhood
for these parts, forty miles or so), or even of putting in an
appearance for the great shoot on the name-day. My grandfather
was an ardent lover of every sport. His temperament was as free
from hardness and animosity as can be imagined. Pupil of the
liberal-minded Benedictines who directed the only public school
of some standing then in the south, he had also read deeply the
authors of the eighteenth century. In him Christian charity was
joined to a philosophical indulgence for the failings of human
nature. But the memory of those miserably anxious early years,
his young man's years robbed of all generous illusions by the
cynicism of the sordid lawsuit, stood in the way of forgiveness.
He never succumbed to the fascination of the great shoot; and X,
his heart set to the last on reconciliation, with the draft of
the will ready for signature kept by his bedside, died intestate.
The fortune thus acquired and augmented by a wise and careful
management passed to some distant relatives whom he had never
seen and who even did not bear his name.
Meantime the blessing of general peace descended upon Europe.
Mr. Nicholas B., bidding good-bye to his hospitable relative,
the "fearless" Austrian officer, departed from Galicia, and
without going near his native place, where the odious lawsuit was
still going on, proceeded straight to Warsaw and entered the army
of the newly constituted Polish kingdom under the sceptre of
Alexander I, Autocrat of all the Russias.
This kingdom, created by the Vienna Congress as an acknowledgment
to a nation of its former independent existence, included only
the central provinces of the old Polish patrimony. A brother of
the Emperor, the Grand Duke Constantine (Pavlovitch), its Viceroy
and Commander-in-Chief, married morganatically to a Polish lady
to whom he was fiercely attached, extended this affection to what
he called "My Poles" in a capricious and savage manner. Sallow
in complexion, with a Tartar physiognomy and fierce little eyes,
he walked with his fists clenched, his body bent forward, darting
suspicious glances from under an enormous cocked hat. His
intelligence was limited, and his sanity itself was doubtful.
The hereditary taint expressed itself, in his case, not by mystic
leanings as in his two brothers, Alexander and Nicholas (in their
various ways, for one was mystically liberal and the other
mystically autocratic), but by the fury of an uncontrollable
temper which generally broke out in disgusting abuse on the
parade ground. He was a passionate militarist and an amazing
drill-master. He treated his Polish army as a spoiled child
treats a favourite toy, except that he did not take it to bed
with him at night. It was not small enough for that. But he
played with it all day and every day, delighting in the variety
of pretty uniforms and in the fun of incessant drilling. This
childish passion, not for war, but for mere militarism, achieved
a desirable result. The Polish army, in its equipment, in its
armament, and in its battle-field efficiency, as then understood,
became, by the end of the year 1830, a first-rate tactical
instrument. Polish peasantry (not serfs) served in the ranks by
enlistment, and the officers belonged mainly to the smaller
nobility. Mr. Nicholas B., with his Napoleonic record, had no
difficulty in obtaining a lieutenancy, but the promotion in the
Polish army was slow, because, being a separate organization, it
took no part in the wars of the Russian Empire against either
Persia or Turkey. Its first campaign, against Russia itself, was
to be its last. In 1831, on the outbreak of the Revolution, Mr.
Nicholas B. was the senior captain of his regiment. Some time
before he had been made head of the remount establishment
quartered outside the kingdom in our southern provinces, whence
almost all the horses for the Polish cavalry were drawn. For the
first time since he went away from home at the age of eighteen to
begin his military life by the battle of Friedland, Mr. Nicholas
B. breathed the air of the "Border," his native air. Unkind fate
was lying in wait for him among the scenes of his youth. At the
first news of the rising in Warsaw all the remount establishment,
officers, "vets.," and the very troopers, were put promptly under
arrest and hurried off in a body beyond the Dnieper to the
nearest town in Russia proper. From there they were dispersed to
the distant parts of the empire. On this occasion poor Mr.
Nicholas B. penetrated into Russia much farther than he ever did
in the times of Napoleonic invasion, if much less willingly.
Astrakan was his destination. He remained there three years,
allowed to live at large in the town, but having to report
himself every day at noon to the military commandant, who used to
detain him frequently for a pipe and a chat. It is difficult to
form a just idea of what a chat with Mr. Nicholas B. could have
been like. There must have been much compressed rage under his
taciturnity, for the commandant communicated to him the news from
the theatre of war, and this news was such as it could be--that
is, very bad for the Poles. Mr. Nicholas B. received these
communications with outward phlegm, but the Russian showed a warm
sympathy for his prisoner. "As a soldier myself I understand
your feelings. You, of course, would like to be in the thick of
it. By heavens! I am fond of you. If it were not for the terms
of the military oath I would let you go on my own responsibility.
What difference could it make to us, one more or less of you?"
At other times he wondered with simplicity.
"Tell me, Nicholas Stepanovitch" (my great-grandfather's name was
Stephen, and the commandant used the Russian form of polite
address)--"tell me why is it that you Poles are always looking
for trouble? What else could you expect from running up against
He was capable, too, of philosophical reflections.
"Look at your Napoleon now. A great man. There is no denying it
that he was a great man as long as he was content to thrash those
Germans and Austrians and all those nations. But no! He must go
to Russia looking for trouble, and what's the consequence? Such
as you see me; I have rattled this sabre of mine on the pavements
of Paris."
After his return to Poland Mr. Nicholas B. described him as a
"worthy man but stupid," whenever he could be induced to speak of
the conditions of his exile. Declining the option offered him to
enter the Russian army, he was retired with only half the pension
of his rank. His nephew (my uncle and guardian) told me that the
first lasting impression on his memory as a child of four was the
glad excitement reigning in his parents' house on the day when
Mr. Nicholas B. arrived home from his detention in Russia.
Every generation has its memories. The first memories of Mr.
Nicholas B. might have been shaped by the events of the last
partition of Poland, and he lived long enough to suffer from the
last armed rising in 1863, an event which affected the future of
all my generation and has coloured my earliest impressions. His
brother, in whose house he had sheltered for some seventeen years
his misanthropical timidity before the commonest problems of
life, having died in the early fifties, Mr. Nicholas B. had to
screw his courage up to the sticking-point and come to some
decision as to the future. After a long and agonizing hesitation
he was persuaded at last to become the tenant of some fifteen
hundred acres out of the estate of a friend in the neighbourhood.
The terms of the lease were very advantageous, but the retired
situation of the village and a plain, comfortable house in good
repair were, I fancy, the greatest inducements. He lived there
quietly for about ten years, seeing very few people and taking no
part in the public life of the province, such as it could be
under an arbitrary bureaucratic tyranny. His character and his
patriotism were above suspicion; but the organizers of the rising
in their frequent journeys up and down the province scrupulously
avoided coming near his house. It was generally felt that the
repose of the old man's last years ought not to be disturbed.
Even such intimates as my paternal grandfather, comrade-in-arms
during Napoleon's Moscow campaign, and later on a fellow officer
in the Polish army, refrained from visiting his crony as the date
of the outbreak approached. My paternal grandfather's two sons
and his only daughter were all deeply involved in the
revolutionary work; he himself was of that type of Polish squire
whose only ideal of patriotic action was to "get into the saddle
and drive them out." But even he agreed that "dear Nicholas must
not be worried." All this considerate caution on the part of
friends, both conspirators and others, did not prevent Mr.
Nicholas B. being made to feel the misfortunes of that ill-omened
Less than forty-eight hours after the beginning of the rebellion
in that part of the country, a squadron of scouting Cossacks
passed through the village and invaded the homestead. Most of
them remained, formed between the house and the stables, while
several, dismounting, ransacked the various outbuildings. The
officer in command, accompanied by two men, walked up to the
front door. All the blinds on that side were down. The officer
told the servant who received him that he wanted to see his
master. He was answered that the master was away from home, which
was perfectly true.
I follow here the tale as told afterward by the servant to my
granduncle's friends and relatives, and as I have heard it
On receiving this answer the Cossack officer, who had been
standing in the porch, stepped into the house.
"Where is the master gone, then?"
"Our master went to J----" (the government town some fifty miles
off) "the day before yesterday."
"There are only two horses in the stables. Where are the
"Our master always travels with his own horses" (meaning: not by
post). "He will be away a week or more. He was pleased to
mention to me that he had to attend to some business in the Civil
While the servant was speaking the officer looked about the hall.
There was a door facing him, a door to the right, and a door to
the left. The officer chose to enter the room on the left, and
ordered the blinds to be pulled up. It was Mr. Nicholas B.'s
study, with a couple of tall bookcases, some pictures on the
walls, and so on. Besides the big centre-table, with books and
papers, there was a quite small writing-table, with several
drawers, standing between the door and the window in a good
light; and at this table my granduncle usually sat either to read
or write.
On pulling up the blind the servant was startled by the discovery
that the whole male population of the village was massed in
front, trampling down the flower-beds. There were also a few
women among them. He was glad to observe the village priest (of
the Orthodox Church) coming up the drive. The good man in his
haste had tucked up his cassock as high as the top of his boots.
The officer had been looking at the backs of the books in the
bookcases. Then he perched himself on the edge of the centre
table and remarked easily:
"Your master did not take you to town with him, then?"
"I am the head servant, and he leaves me in charge of the house.
It's a strong, young chap that travels with our master. If--God
forbid--there was some accident on the road, he would be of much
more use than I."
Glancing through the window, he saw the priest arguing vehemently
in the thick of the crowd, which seemed subdued by his
interference. Three or four men, however, were talking with the
Cossacks at the door.
"And you don't think your master has gone to join the rebels
maybe--eh?" asked the officer.
"Our master would be too old for that, surely. He's well over
seventy, and he's getting feeble, too. It's some years now since
he's been on horseback, and he can't walk much, either, now."
The officer sat there swinging his leg, very quiet and
indifferent. By that time the peasants who had been talking with
the Cossack troopers at the door had been permitted to get into
the hall. One or two more left the crowd and followed them in.
They were seven in all, and among them the blacksmith, an
ex-soldier. The servant appealed deferentially to the officer.
"Won't your honour be pleased to tell the people to go back to
their homes? What do they want to push themselves into the house
like this for? It's not proper for them to behave like this
while our master's away and I am responsible for everything
The officer only laughed a little, and after a while inquired:
"Have you any arms in the house?"
"Yes. We have. Some old things."
"Bring them all here, onto this table."
The servant made another attempt to obtain protection.
"Won't your honour tell these chaps. . . ?"
But the officer looked at him in silence, in such a way that he
gave it up at once and hurried off to call the pantry-boy to help
him collect the arms. Meantime, the officer walked slowly
through all the rooms in the house, examining them attentively
but touching nothing. The peasants in the hall fell back and
took off their caps when he passed through. He said nothing
whatever to them. When he came back to the study all the arms to
be found in the house were lying on the table. There was a pair
of big, flint-lock holster pistols from Napoleonic times, two
cavalry swords, one of the French, the other of the Polish army
pattern, with a fowling-piece or two.
The officer, opening the window, flung out pistols, swords, and
guns, one after another, and his troopers ran to pick them up.
The peasants in the hall, encouraged by his manner, had stolen
after him into the study. He gave not the slightest sign of
being conscious of their existence, and, his business being
apparently concluded, strode out of the house without a word.
Directly he left, the peasants in the study put on their caps and
began to smile at each other.
The Cossacks rode away, passing through the yards of the home
farm straight into the fields. The priest, still arguing with
the peasants, moved gradually down the drive and his earnest
eloquence was drawing the silent mob after him, away from the
house. This justice must be rendered to the parish priests of
the Greek Church that, strangers to the country as they were
(being all drawn from the interior of Russia), the majority of
them used such influence as they had over their flocks in the
cause of peace and humanity. True to the spirit of their
calling, they tried to soothe the passions of the excited
peasantry, and opposed rapine and violence, whenever they could,
with all their might. And this conduct they pursued against the
express wishes of the authorities. Later on some of them were
made to suffer for this disobedience by being removed abruptly to
the far north or sent away to Siberian parishes.
The servant was anxious to get rid of the few peasants who had
got into the house. What sort of conduct was that, he asked
them, toward a man who was only a tenant, had been invariably
good and considerate to the villagers for years, and only the
other day had agreed to give up two meadows for the use of the
village herd? He reminded them, too, of Mr. Nicholas B.'s
devotion to the sick in time of cholera. Every word of this was
true, and so far effective that the fellows began to scratch
their heads and look irresolute. The speaker then pointed at the
window, exclaiming: "Look! there's all your crowd going away
quietly, and you silly chaps had better go after them and pray
God to forgive you your evil thoughts."
This appeal was an unlucky inspiration.
In crowding clumsily to the window to see whether he was speaking
the truth, the fellows overturned the little writing-table. As
it fell over a chink of loose coin was heard. "There's money in
that thing," cried the blacksmith. In a moment the top of the
delicate piece of furniture was smashed and there lay exposed in
a drawer eighty half imperials. Gold coin was a rare sight in
Russia even at that time; it put the peasants beside themselves.
"There must be more of that in the house, and we shall have it,"
yelled the ex-soldier blacksmith. "This is war-time." The
others were already shouting out of the window, urging the crowd
to come back and help. The priest, abandoned suddenly at the
gate, flung his arms up and hurried away so as not to see what
was going to happen.
In their search for money that bucolic mob smashed everything in
the house, ripping with knives, splitting with hatchets, so that,
as the servant said, there were no two pieces of wood holding
together left in the whole house. They broke some very fine
mirrors, all the windows, and every piece of glass and china.
They threw the books and papers out on the lawn and set fire to
the heap for the mere fun of the thing, apparently. Absolutely
the only one solitary thing which they left whole was a small
ivory crucifix, which remained hanging on the wall in the wrecked
bedroom above a wild heap of rags, broken mahogany, and
splintered boards which had been Mr. Nicholas B.'s bedstead.
Detecting the servant in the act of stealing away with a japanned
tin box, they tore it from him, and because he resisted they
threw him out of the dining-room window. The house was on one
floor, but raised well above the ground, and the fall was so
serious that the man remained lying stunned till the cook and a
stable-boy ventured forth at dusk from their hiding-places and
picked him up. But by that time the mob had departed, carrying
off the tin box, which they supposed to be full of paper money.
Some distance from the house, in the middle of a field, they
broke it open. They found in side documents engrossed on
parchment and the two crosses of the Legion of Honour and For
Valour. At the sight of these objects, which, the blacksmith
explained, were marks of honour given only by the Tsar, they
became extremely frightened at what they had done. They threw the
whole lot away into a ditch and dispersed hastily.
On learning of this particular loss Mr. Nicholas B. broke down
completely. The mere sacking of his house did not seem to affect
him much. While he was still in bed from the shock, the two
crosses were found and returned to him. It helped somewhat his
slow convalescence, but the tin box and the parchments, though
searched for in all the ditches around, never turned up again.
He could not get over the loss of his Legion of Honour Patent,
whose preamble, setting forth his services, he knew by heart to
the very letter, and after this blow volunteered sometimes to
recite, tears standing in his eyes the while. Its terms haunted
him apparently during the last two years of his life to such an
extent that he used to repeat them to himself. This is confirmed
by the remark made more than once by his old servant to the more
intimate friends. "What makes my heart heavy is to hear our
master in his room at night walking up and down and praying aloud
in the French language."
It must have been somewhat over a year afterward that I saw Mr.
Nicholas B.--or, more correctly, that he saw me--for the last
time. It was, as I have already said, at the time when my mother
had a three months' leave from exile, which she was spending in
the house of her brother, and friends and relations were coming
from far and near to do her honour. It is inconceivable that Mr.
Nicholas B. should not have been of the number. The little child
a few months old he had taken up in his arms on the day of his
home-coming, after years of war and exile, was confessing her
faith in national salvation by suffering exile in her turn. I do
not know whether he was present on the very day of our departure.
I have already admitted that for me he is more especially the man
who in his youth had eaten roast dog in the depths of a gloomy
forest of snow-loaded pines. My memory cannot place him in any
remembered scene. A hooked nose, some sleek white hair, an
unrelated evanescent impression of a meagre, slight, rigid figure
militarily buttoned up to the throat, is all that now exists on
earth of Mr. Nicholas B.; only this vague shadow pursued by the
memory of his grandnephew, the last surviving human being, I
suppose, of all those he had seen in the course of his taciturn
But I remember well the day of our departure back to exile. The
elongated, bizarre, shabby travelling-carriage with four
post-horses, standing before the long front of the house with its
eight columns, four on each side of the broad flight of stairs.
On the steps, groups of servants, a few relations, one or two
friends from the nearest neighbourhood, a perfect silence; on all
the faces an air of sober concentration; my grandmother, all in
black, gazing stoically; my uncle giving his arm to my mother
down to the carriage in which I had been placed already; at the
top of the flight my little cousin in a short skirt of a tartan
pattern with a deal of red in it, and like a small princess
attended by the women of her own household; the head gouvernante,
our dear, corpulent Francesca (who had been for thirty years in
the service of the B. family), the former nurse, now outdoor
attendant, a handsome peasant face wearing a compassionate
expression, and the good, ugly Mlle. Durand, the governess, with
her black eyebrows meeting over a short, thick nose, and a
complexion like pale-brown paper. Of all the eyes turned toward
the carriage, her good-natured eyes only were dropping tears, and
it was her sobbing voice alone that broke the silence with an
appeal to me: "N'oublie pas ton francais, mon cheri." In three
months, simply by playing with us, she had taught me not only to
speak French, but to read it as well. She was indeed an
excellent playmate. In the distance, half-way down to the great
gates, a light, open trap, harnessed with three horses in Russian
fashion, stood drawn up on one side, with the police captain of
the district sitting in it, the vizor of his flat cap with a red
band pulled down over his eyes.
It seems strange that he should have been there to watch our
going so carefully. Without wishing to treat with levity the
just timidites of Imperialists all the world over, I may allow
myself the reflection that a woman, practically condemned by the
doctors, and a small boy not quite six years old, could not be
regarded as seriously dangerous, even for the largest of
conceivable empires saddled with the most sacred of
responsibilities. And this good man I believe did not think so,
I learned afterward why he was present on that day. I don't
remember any outward signs; but it seems that, about a month
before, my mother became so unwell that there was a doubt whether
she could be made fit to travel in the time. In this uncertainty
the Governor-General in Kiev was petitioned to grant her a
fortnight's extension of stay in her brother's house. No answer
whatever was returned to this prayer, but one day at dusk the
police captain of the district drove up to the house and told my
uncle's valet, who ran out to meet him, that he wanted to speak
with the master in private, at once. Very much impressed (he
thought it was going to be an arrest), the servant, "more dead
than alive with fright," as he related afterward, smuggled him
through the big drawing-room, which was dark (that room was not
lighted every evening), on tiptoe, so as not to attract the
attention of the ladies in the house, and led him by way of the
orangery to my uncle's private apartments.
The policeman, without any preliminaries, thrust a paper into my
uncle's hands.
"There. Pray read this. I have no business to show this paper
to you. It is wrong of me. But I can't either eat or sleep with
such a job hanging over me."
That police captain, a native of Great Russia, had been for many
years serving in the district.
My uncle unfolded and read the document. It was a service order
issued from the Governor-General's secretariat, dealing with the
matter of the petition and directing the police captain to
disregard all remonstrances and explanations in regard to that
illness either from medical men or others, "and if she has not
left her brother's house"--it went on to say--"on the morning of
the day specified on her permit, you are to despatch her at once
under escort, direct" (underlined) "to the prison-hospital in
Kiev, where she will be treated as her case demands."
"For God's sake, Mr. B., see that your sister goes away
punctually on that day. Don't give me this work to do with a
woman--and with one of your family, too. I simply cannot bear to
think of it."
He was absolutely wringing his hands. My uncle looked at him in
"Thank you for this warning. I assure you that even if she were
dying she would be carried out to the carriage."
"Yes--indeed--and what difference would it make--travel to Kiev
or back to her husband? For she would have to go--death or no
death. And mind, Mr. B., I will be here on the day, not that I
doubt your promise, but because I must. I have got to. Duty.
All the same my trade is not fit for a dog since some of you
Poles will persist in rebelling, and all of you have got to
suffer for it."
This is the reason why he was there in an open three-horse trap
pulled up between the house and the great gates. I regret not
being able to give up his name to the scorn of all believers in
the right of conquest, as a reprehensibly sensitive guardian of
Imperial greatness. On the other hand, I am in a position to
state the name of the Governor-General who signed the order with
the marginal note "to be carried out to the letter" in his own
handwriting. The gentleman's name was Bezak. A high dignitary,
an energetic official, the idol for a time of the Russian
patriotic press.
Each generation has its memories.
It must not be supposed that, in setting forth the memories of
this half-hour between the moment my uncle left my room till we
met again at dinner, I am losing sight of "Almayer's Folly."
Having confessed that my first novel was begun in idleness--a
holiday task--I think I have also given the impression that it
was a much-delayed book. It was never dismissed from my mind,
even when the hope of ever finishing it was very faint. Many
things came in its way: daily duties, new impressions, old
memories. It was not the outcome of a need--the famous need of
self-expression which artists find in their search for motives.
The necessity which impelled me was a hidden, obscure necessity,
a completely masked and unaccountable phenomenon. Or perhaps
some idle and frivolous magician (there must be magicians in
London) had cast a spell over me through his parlour window as I
explored the maze of streets east and west in solitary leisurely
walks without chart and compass. Till I began to write that
novel I had written nothing but letters, and not very many of
these. I never made a note of a fact, of an impression, or of an
anecdote in my life. The conception of a planned book was
entirely outside my mental range when I sat down to write; the
ambition of being an author had never turned up among those
gracious imaginary existences one creates fondly for oneself at
times in the stillness and immobility of a day-dream: yet it
stands clear as the sun at noonday that from the moment I had
done blackening over the first manuscript page of "Almayer's
Folly" (it contained about two hundred words and this proportion
of words to a page has remained with me through the fifteen years
of my writing life), from the moment I had, in the simplicity of
my heart and the amazing ignorance of my mind, written that page
the die was cast. Never had Rubicon been more blindly forded
without invocation to the gods, without fear of men.
That morning I got up from my breakfast, pushing the chair back,
and rang the bell violently, or perhaps I should say resolutely,
or perhaps I should say eagerly--I do not know. But manifestly
it must have been a special ring of the bell, a common sound made
impressive, like the ringing of a bell for the raising of the
curtain upon a new scene. It was an unusual thing for me to do.
Generally, I dawdled over my breakfast and I seldom took the
trouble to ring the bell for the table to be cleared away; but on
that morning, for some reason hidden in the general
mysteriousness of the event, I did not dawdle. And yet I was not
in a hurry. I pulled the cord casually, and while the faint
tinkling somewhere down in the basement went on, I charged my
pipe in the usual way and I looked for the match-box with glances
distraught indeed, but exhibiting, I am ready to swear, no signs
of a fine frenzy. I was composed enough to perceive after some
considerable time the match-box lying there on the mantelpiece
right under my nose. And all this was beautifully and safely
usual. Before I had thrown down the match my landlady's daughter
appeared with her calm, pale face and an inquisitive look, in the
doorway. Of late it was the landlady's daughter who answered my
bell. I mention this little fact with pride, because it proves
that during the thirty or forty days of my tenancy I had produced
a favourable impression. For a fortnight past I had been spared
the unattractive sight of the domestic slave. The girls in that
Bessborough Gardens house were often changed, but whether short
or long, fair or dark, they were always untidy and particularly
bedraggled, as if in a sordid version of the fairy tale the
ash-bin cat had been changed into a maid. I was infinitely
sensible of the privilege of being waited on by my landlady's
daughter. She was neat if anemic.
"Will you please clear away all this at once?" I addressed her
in convulsive accents, being at the same time engaged in getting
my pipe to draw. This, I admit, was an unusual request.
Generally, on getting up from breakfast I would sit down in the
window with a book and let them clear the table when they liked;
but if you think that on that morning I was in the least
impatient, you are mistaken. I remember that I was perfectly
calm. As a matter of fact I was not at all certain that I wanted
to write, or that I meant to write, or that I had anything to
write about. No, I was not impatient. I lounged between the
mantelpiece and the window, not even consciously waiting for the
table to be cleared. It was ten to one that before my landlady's
daughter was done I would pick up a book and sit down with it all
the morning in a spirit of enjoyable indolence. I affirm it with
assurance, and I don't even know now what were the books then
lying about the room. What ever they were, they were not the
works of great masters, where the secret of clear thought and
exact expression can be found. Since the age of five I have been
a great reader, as is not perhaps wonderful in a child who was
never aware of learning to read. At ten years of age I had read
much of Victor Hugo and other romantics. I had read in Polish
and in French, history, voyages, novels; I knew "Gil Blas" and
"Don Quixote" in abridged editions; I had read in early boyhood
Polish poets and some French poets, but I cannot say what I read
on the evening before I began to write myself. I believe it was
a novel, and it is quite possible that it was one of Anthony
Trollope's novels. It is very likely. My acquaintance with him
was then very recent. He is one of the English novelists whose
works I read for the first time in English. With men of European
reputation, with Dickens and Walter Scott and Thackeray, it was
otherwise. My first introduction to English imaginative
literature was "Nicholas Nickleby." It is extraordinary how well
Mrs. Nickleby could chatter disconnectedly in Polish and the
sinister Ralph rage in that language. As to the Crummles family
and the family of the learned Squeers it seemed as natural to
them as their native speech. It was, I have no doubt, an
excellent translation. This must have been in the year '70. But
I really believe that I am wrong. That book was not my first
introduction to English literature. My first acquaintance was
(or were) the "Two Gentlemen of Verona," and that in the very MS.
of my father's translation. It was during our exile in Russia,
and it must have been less than a year after my mother's death,
because I remember myself in the black blouse with a white border
of my heavy mourning. We were living together, quite alone, in a
small house on the outskirts of the town of T----. That
afternoon, instead of going out to play in the large yard which
we shared with our landlord, I had lingered in the room in which
my father generally wrote. What emboldened me to clamber into
his chair I am sure I don't know, but a couple of hours afterward
he discovered me kneeling in it with my elbows on the table and
my head held in both hands over the MS. of loose pages. I was
greatly confused, expecting to get into trouble. He stood in the
doorway looking at me with some surprise, but the only thing he
said after a moment of silence was:
"Read the page aloud."
Luckily the page lying before me was not overblotted with
erasures and corrections, and my father's handwriting was
otherwise extremely legible. When I got to the end he nodded,
and I flew out-of-doors, thinking myself lucky to have escaped
reproof for that piece of impulsive audacity. I have tried to
discover since the reason for this mildness, and I imagine that
all unknown to myself I had earned, in my father's mind, the
right to some latitude in my relations with his writing-table.
It was only a month before--or perhaps it was only a week
before--that I had read to him aloud from beginning to end, and
to his perfect satisfaction, as he lay on his bed, not being very
well at the time, the proofs of his translation of Victor Hugo's
"Toilers of the Sea." Such was my title to consideration, I
believe, and also my first introduction to the sea in literature.
If I do not remember where, how, and when I learned to read, I am
not likely to forget the process of being trained in the art of
reading aloud. My poor father, an admirable reader himself, was
the most exacting of masters. I reflect proudly that I must have
read that page of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" tolerably well at the
age of eight. The next time I met them was in a 5s. one-volume
edition of the dramatic works of William Shakespeare, read in
Falmouth, at odd moments of the day, to the noisy accompaniment
of calkers' mallets driving oakum into the deck-seams of a ship
in dry-dock. We had run in, in a sinking condition and with the
crew refusing duty after a month of weary battling with the gales
of the North Atlantic. Books are an integral part of one's life,
and my Shakespearian associations are with that first year of our
bereavement, the last I spent with my father in exile (he sent me
away to Poland to my mother's brother directly he could brace
himself up for the separation), and with the year of hard gales,
the year in which I came nearest to death at sea, first by water
and then by fire.
Those things I remember, but what I was reading the day before my
writing life began I have forgotten. I have only a vague notion
that it might have been one of Trollope's political novels. And
I remember, too, the character of the day. It was an autumn day
with an opaline atmosphere, a veiled, semi-opaque, lustrous day,
with fiery points and flashes of red sunlight on the roofs and
windows opposite, while the trees of the square, with all their
leaves gone, were like the tracings of India ink on a sheet of
tissue-paper. It was one of those London days that have the charm
of mysterious amenity, of fascinating softness. The effect of
opaline mist was often repeated at Bessborough Gardens on account
of the nearness to the river.
There is no reason why I should remember that effect more on that
day than on any other day, except that I stood for a long time
looking out of the window after the landlady's daughter was gone
with her spoil of cups and saucers. I heard her put the tray
down in the passage and finally shut the door; and still I
remained smoking, with my back to the room. It is very clear
that I was in no haste to take the plunge into my writing life,
if as plunge this first attempt may be described. My whole being
was steeped deep in the indolence of a sailor away from the sea,
the scene of never-ending labour and of unceasing duty. For
utter surrender to in indolence you cannot beat a sailor ashore
when that mood is on him--the mood of absolute irresponsibility
tasted to the full. It seems to me that I thought of nothing
whatever, but this is an impression which is hardly to be
believed at this distance of years. What I am certain of is that
I was very far from thinking of writing a story, though it is
possible and even likely that I was thinking of the man Almayer.
I had seen him for the first time, some four years before, from
the bridge of a steamer moored to a rickety little wharf forty
miles up, more or less, a Bornean river. It was very early
morning, and a slight mist--an opaline mist as in Bessborough
Gardens, only without the fiery flicks on roof and chimney-pot
from the rays of the red London sun--promised to turn presently
into a woolly fog. Barring a small dug-out canoe on the river
there was nothing moving within sight. I had just come up
yawning from my cabin. The serang and the Malay crew were
overhauling the cargo chains and trying the winches; their voices
sounded subdued on the deck below, and their movements were
languid. That tropical daybreak was chilly. The Malay
quartermaster, coming up to get something from the lockers on the
bridge, shivered visibly. The forests above and below and on the
opposite bank looked black and dank; wet dripped from the rigging
upon the tightly stretched deck awnings, and it was in the middle
of a shuddering yawn that I caught sight of Almayer. He was
moving across a patch of burned grass, a blurred, shadowy shape
with the blurred bulk of a house behind him, a low house of mats,
bamboos, and palm leaves, with a high-pitched roof of grass.
He stepped upon the jetty. He was clad simply in flapping
pajamas of cretonne pattern (enormous flowers with yellow petals
on a disagreeable blue ground) and a thin cotton singlet with
short sleeves. His arms, bare to the elbow, were crossed on his
chest. His black hair looked as if it had not been cut for a
very long time, and a curly wisp of it strayed across his
forehead. I had heard of him at Singapore; I had heard of him on
board; I had heard of him early in the morning and late at night;
I had heard of him at tiffin and at dinner; I had heard of him in
a place called Pulo Laut from a half-caste gentleman there, who
described himself as the manager of a coal-mine; which sounded
civilized and progressive till you heard that the mine could not
be worked at present because it was haunted by some particularly
atrocious ghosts. I had heard of him in a place called Dongola,
in the Island of Celebes, when the Rajah of that little-known
seaport (you can get no anchorage there in less than fifteen
fathom, which is extremely inconvenient) came on board in a
friendly way, with only two attendants, and drank bottle after
bottle of soda-water on the after-sky light with my good friend
and commander, Captain C----. At least I heard his name
distinctly pronounced several times in a lot of talk in Malay
language. Oh, yes, I heard it quite distinctly--Almayer,
Almayer--and saw Captain C---- smile, while the fat, dingy Rajah
laughed audibly. To hear a Malay Rajah laugh outright is a rare
experience, I can as sure you. And I overheard more of Almayer's
name among our deck passengers (mostly wandering traders of good
repute) as they sat all over the ship--each man fenced round with
bundles and boxes--on mats, on pillows, on quilts, on billets of
wood, conversing of Island affairs. Upon my word, I heard the
mutter of Almayer's name faintly at midnight, while making my way
aft from the bridge to look at the patent taffrail-log tinkling
its quarter miles in the great silence of the sea. I don't mean
to say that our passengers dreamed aloud of Almayer, but it is
indubitable that two of them at least, who could not sleep,
apparently, and were trying to charm away the trouble of insomnia
by a little whispered talk at that ghostly hour, were referring
in some way or other to Almayer. It was really impossible on
board that ship to get away definitely from Almayer; and a very
small pony tied up forward and whisking its tail inside the
galley, to the great embarrassment of our Chinaman cook, was
destined for Almayer. What he wanted with a pony goodness only
knows, since I am perfectly certain he could not ride it; but
here you have the man, ambitious, aiming at the grandiose,
importing a pony, whereas in the whole settlement at which he
used to shake daily his impotent fist there was only one path
that was practicable for a pony: a quarter of a mile at most,
hedged in by hundreds of square leagues of virgin forest. But
who knows? The importation of that Bali pony might have been
part of some deep scheme, of some diplomatic plan, of some
hopeful intrigue. With Almayer one could never tell. He
governed his conduct by considerations removed from the obvious,
by incredible assumptions, which rendered his logic impenetrable
to any reasonable person. I learned all this later. That
morning, seeing the figure in pajamas moving in the mist, I said
to myself, "That's the man."
He came quite close to the ship's side and raised a harassed
countenance, round and flat, with that curl of black hair over
the forehead and a heavy, pained glance.
"Good morning."
"Good morning."
He looked hard at me: I was a new face, having just replaced the
chief mate he was accustomed to see; and I think that this
novelty inspired him, as things generally did, with deep-seated
"Didn't expect you till this evening," he remarked, suspiciously.
I didn't know why he should have been aggrieved, but he seemed to
be. I took pains to explain to him that, having picked up the
beacon at the mouth of the river just before dark and the tide
serving, Captain C---- was enabled to cross the bar and there was
nothing to prevent him going up the river at night.
"Captain C---- knows this river like his own pocket," I
concluded, discursively, trying to get on terms.
"Better," said Almayer.
Leaning over the rail of the bridge, I looked at Almayer, who
looked down at the wharf in aggrieved thought. He shuffled his
feet a little; he wore straw slippers with thick soles. The
morning fog had thickened considerably. Everything round us
dripped--the derricks, the rails, every single rope in the
ship--as if a fit of crying had come upon the universe.
Almayer again raised his head and, in the accents of a man
accustomed to the buffets of evil fortune, asked, hardly audibly:
"I suppose you haven't got such a thing as a pony on board?"
I told him, almost in a whisper, for he attuned my communications
to his minor key, that we had such a thing as a pony, and I
hinted, as gently as I could, that he was confoundedly in the
way, too. I was very anxious to have him landed before I began
to handle the cargo. Almayer remained looking up at me for a
long while, with incredulous and melancholy eyes, as though it
were not a safe thing to believe in my statement. This pathetic
mistrust in the favourable issue of any sort of affair touched me
deeply, and I added:
"He doesn't seem a bit the worse for the passage. He's a nice
pony, too."
Almayer was not to be cheered up; for all answer he cleared his
throat and looked down again at his feet. I tried to close with
him on another tack.
"By Jove!" I said. "Aren't you afraid of catching pneumonia or
bronchitis or some thing, walking about in a singlet in such a
wet fog?"
He was not to be propitiated by a show of interest in his health.
His answer was a sinister "No fear," as much as to say that even
that way of escape from inclement fortune was closed to him.
"I just came down . . ." he mumbled after a while.
"Well, then, now you're here I will land that pony for you at
once, and you can lead him home. I really don't want him on
deck. He's in the way."
Almayer seemed doubtful. I insisted:
"Why, I will just swing him out and land him on the wharf right
in front of you. I'd much rather do it before the hatches are
off. The little devil may jump down the hold or do some other
deadly thing."
"There's a halter?" postulated Almayer.
"Yes, of course there's a halter." And without waiting any more
I leaned over the bridge rail.
"Serang, land Tuan Almayer's pony."
The cook hastened to shut the door of the galley, and a moment
later a great scuffle began on deck. The pony kicked with
extreme energy, the kalashes skipped out of the way, the serang
issued many orders in a cracked voice. Suddenly the pony leaped
upon the fore-hatch. His little hoofs thundered tremendously; he
plunged and reared. He had tossed his mane and his forelock into
a state of amazing wildness, he dilated his nostrils, bits of
foam flecked his broad little chest, his eyes blazed. He was
something under eleven hands; he was fierce, terrible, angry,
warlike; he said ha! ha! distinctly; he raged and thumped--and
sixteen able-bodied kalashes stood round him like disconcerted
nurses round a spoiled and passionate child. He whisked his tail
incessantly; he arched his pretty neck; he was perfectly
delightful; he was charmingly naughty. There was not an atom of
vice in that performance; no savage baring of teeth and laying
back of ears. On the contrary, he pricked them forward in a
comically aggressive manner. He was totally unmoral and lovable;
I would have liked to give him bread, sugar, carrots. But life
is a stern thing and the sense of duty the only safe guide. So I
steeled my heart, and from my elevated position on the bridge I
ordered the men to fling themselves upon him in a body.
The elderly serang, emitting a strange, inarticulate cry, gave
the example. He was an excellent petty officer--very competent,
indeed, and a moderate opium-smoker. The rest of them in one
great rush smothered that pony. They hung on to his ears, to his
mane, to his tail; they lay in piles across his back, seventeen
in all. The carpenter, seizing the hook of the cargo-chain,
flung himself on the top of them. A very satisfactory petty
officer, too, but he stuttered. Have you ever heard a
light-yellow, lean, sad, earnest Chinaman stutter in
Pidgin-English? It's very weird, indeed. He made the
eighteenth. I could not see the pony at all; but from the
swaying and heaving of that heap of men I knew that there was
something alive inside.
From the wharf Almayer hailed, in quavering tones:
"Oh, I say!"
Where he stood he could not see what was going on on deck,
unless, perhaps, the tops of the men's heads; he could only hear
the scuffle, the mighty thuds, as if the ship were being knocked
to pieces. I looked over: "What is it?"
"Don't let them break his legs," he entreated me, plaintively.
"Oh, nonsense! He's all right now. He can't move."
By that time the cargo-chain had been hooked to the broad canvas
belt round the pony's body; the kalashes sprang off
simultaneously in all directions, rolling over each other; and
the worthy serang, making a dash behind the winch, turned the
steam on.
"Steady!" I yelled, in great apprehension of seeing the animal
snatched up to the very head of the derrick.
On the wharf Almayer shuffled his straw slippers uneasily. The
rattle of the winch stopped, and in a tense, impressive silence
that pony began to swing across the deck.
How limp he was! Directly he felt himself in the air he relaxed
every muscle in a most wonderful manner. His four hoofs knocked
together in a bunch, his head hung down, and his tail remained
pendent in a nerveless and absolute immobility. He reminded me
vividly of the pathetic little sheep which hangs on the collar of
the Order of the Golden Fleece. I had no idea that anything in
the shape of a horse could be so limp as that, either living or
dead. His wild mane hung down lumpily, a mere mass of inanimate
horsehair; his aggressive ears had collapsed, but as he went
swaying slowly across the front of the bridge I noticed an astute
gleam in his dreamy, half-closed eye. A trustworthy
quartermaster, his glance anxious and his mouth on the broad
grin, was easing over the derrick watchfully. I superintended,
greatly interested.
"So! That will do."
The derrick-head stopped. The kalashes lined the rail. The rope
of the halter hung perpendicular and motionless like a bell-pull
in front of Almayer. Everything was very still. I suggested
amicably that he should catch hold of the rope and mind what he
was about. He extended a provokingly casual and superior hand.
"Look out, then! Lower away!"
Almayer gathered in the rope intelligently enough, but when the
pony's hoofs touched the wharf he gave way all at once to a most
foolish optimism. Without pausing, without thinking, almost
without looking, he disengaged the hook suddenly from the sling,
and the cargo-chain, after hitting the pony's quarters, swung
back against the ship's side with a noisy, rattling slap. I
suppose I must have blinked. I know I missed something, because
the next thing I saw was Almayer lying flat on his back on the
jetty. He was alone.
Astonishment deprived me of speech long enough to give Almayer
time to pick himself up in a leisurely and painful manner. The
kalashes lining the rail all had their mouths open. The mist
flew in the light breeze, and it had come over quite thick enough
to hide the shore completely.
"How on earth did you manage to let him get away?" I asked,
Almayer looked into the smarting palm of his right hand, but did
not answer my inquiry.
"Where do you think he will get to?" I cried. "Are there any
fences anywhere in this fog? Can he bolt into the forest?
What's to be done now?"
Almayer shrugged his shoulders.
"Some of my men are sure to be about. They will get hold of him
sooner or later."
"Sooner or later! That's all very fine, but what about my canvas
sling?--he's carried it off. I want it now, at once, to land two
Celebes cows."
Since Dongola we had on board a pair of the pretty little island
cattle in addition to the pony. Tied up on the other side of the
fore-deck they had been whisking their tails into the other door
of the galley. These cows were not for Almayer, however; they
were invoiced to Abdullah bin Selim, his enemy. Almayer's
disregard of my requirements was complete.
"If I were you I would try to find out where he's gone," I
insisted. "Hadn't you better call your men together or
something? He will throw himself down and cut his knees. He may
even break a leg, you know."
But Almayer, plunged in abstracted thought, did not seem to want
that pony any more. Amazed at this sudden indifference, I turned
all hands out on shore to hunt for him on my own account, or, at
any rate, to hunt for the canvas sling which he had round his
body. The whole crew of the steamer, with the exception of
firemen and engineers, rushed up the jetty, past the thoughtful
Almayer, and vanished from my sight. The white fog swallowed
them up; and again there was a deep silence that seemed to extend
for miles up and down the stream. Still taciturn, Almayer
started to climb on board, and I went down from the bridge to
meet him on the after-deck.
"Would you mind telling the captain that I want to see him very
particularly?" he asked me, in a low tone, letting his eyes stray
all over the place.
"Very well. I will go and see."
With the door of his cabin wide open, Captain C----, just back
from the bath-room, big and broad-chested, was brushing his
thick, damp, iron-gray hair with two large brushes.
"Mr. Almayer told me he wanted to see you very particularly,
Saying these words, I smiled. I don't know why I smiled, except
that it seemed absolutely impossible to mention Almayer's name
without a smile of a sort. It had not to be necessarily a
mirthful smile. Turning his head toward me, Captain C----
smiled, too, rather joylessly.
"The pony got away from him--eh?"
"Yes, sir. He did."
"Where is he?"
"Goodness only knows."
"No. I mean Almayer. Let him come along."
The captain's stateroom opening straight on deck under the
bridge, I had only to beckon from the doorway to Almayer, who had
remained aft, with downcast eyes, on the very spot where I had
left him. He strolled up moodily, shook hands, and at once asked
permission to shut the cabin door.
"I have a pretty story to tell you," were the last words I heard.
The bitterness of tone was remarkable.
I went away from the door, of course. For the moment I had no
crew on board; only the Chinaman carpenter, with a canvas bag
hung round his neck and a hammer in his hand, roamed about the
empty decks, knocking out the wedges of the hatches and dropping
them into the bag conscientiously. Having nothing to do I joined
our two engineers at the door of the engine-room. It was near
"He's turned up early, hasn't he?" commented the second engineer,
and smiled indifferently. He was an abstemious man, with a good
digestion and a placid, reasonable view of life even when hungry.
"Yes," I said. "Shut up with the old man. Some very particular
"He will spin him a damned endless yarn," observed the chief
He smiled rather sourly. He was dyspeptic, and suffered from
gnawing hunger in the morning. The second smiled broadly, a
smile that made two vertical folds on his shaven cheeks. And I
smiled, too, but I was not exactly amused. In that man, whose
name apparently could not be uttered anywhere in the Malay
Archipelago without a smile, there was nothing amusing whatever.
That morning he breakfasted with us silently, looking mostly into
his cup. I informed him that my men came upon his pony capering
in the fog on the very brink of the eight-foot-deep well in which
he kept his store of guttah. The cover was off, with no one near
by, and the whole of my crew just missed going heels over head
into that beastly hole. Jurumudi Itam, our best quartermaster,
deft at fine needlework, he who mended the ship's flags and sewed
buttons on our coats, was disabled by a kick on the shoulder.
Both remorse and gratitude seemed foreign to Almayer's character.
He mumbled:
"Do you mean that pirate fellow?"
"What pirate fellow? The man has been in the ship eleven years,"
I said, indignantly.
"It's his looks," Almayer muttered, for all apology.
The sun had eaten up the fog. From where we sat under the
after-awning we could see in the distance the pony tied up, in
front of Almayer's house, to a post of the veranda. We were
silent for a long time. All at once Almayer, alluding evidently
to the subject of his conversation in the captain's cabin,
exclaimed anxiously across the table:
"I really don't know what I can do now!"
Captain C---- only raised his eyebrows at him, and got up from
his chair. We dispersed to our duties, but Almayer, half dressed
as he was in his cretonne pajamas and the thin cotton singlet,
remained on board, lingering near the gangway, as though he could
not make up his mind whether to go home or stay with us for good.
Our Chinamen boys gave him side glances as they went to and fro;
and Ah Sing, our chief steward, the handsomest and most
sympathetic of Chinamen, catching my eye, nodded knowingly at his
burly back. In the course of the morning I approached him for a
"Well, Mr. Almayer," I addressed him, easily, "you haven't
started on your letters yet."
We had brought him his mail, and he had held the bundle in his
hand ever since we got up from breakfast. He glanced at it when
I spoke, and for a moment it looked as if he were on the point of
opening his fingers and letting the whole lot fall overboard. I
believe he was tempted to do so. I shall never forget that man
afraid of his letters.
"Have you been long out from Europe?" he asked me.
"Not very. Not quite eight months," I told him. "I left a ship
in Samarang with a hurt back, and have been in the hospital in
Singapore some weeks."
He sighed.
"Trade is very bad here."
"Hopeless! . . . See these geese?"
With the hand holding the letters he pointed out to me what
resembled a patch of snow creeping and swaying across the distant
part of his compound. It disappeared behind some bushes.
"The only geese on the East Coast," Almayer informed me, in a
perfunctory mutter without a spark of faith, hope, or pride.
Thereupon, with the same absence of any sort of sustaining
spirit, he declared his intention to select a fat bird and send
him on board for us not later than next day.
I had heard of these largesses before. He conferred a goose as
if it were a sort of court decoration given only to the tried
friends of the house. I had expected more pomp in the ceremony.
The gift had surely its special quality, multiple and rare. From
the only flock on the East Coast! He did not make half enough of
it. That man did not understand his opportunities. However, I
thanked him at some length.
"You see," he interrupted, abruptly, in a very peculiar tone,
"the worst of this country is that one is not able to realize . .
. it's impossible to realize. . . ." His voice sank into a
languid mutter. "And when one has very large interests . . .
very important interests . . ." he finished, faintly . . . "up
the river."
We looked at each other. He astonished me by giving a start and
making a very queer grimace.
"Well, I must be off," he burst out, hurriedly. "So long!"
At the moment of stepping over the gang way he checked himself,
though, to give me a mumbled invitation to dine at his house that
evening with my captain, an invitation which I accepted. I don't
think it could have been possible for me to refuse.
I like the worthy folk who will talk to you of the exercise of
free-will, "at any rate for practical purposes." Free, is it?
For practical purposes! Bosh! How could I have refused to dine
with that man? I did not refuse, simply because I could not
refuse. Curiosity, a healthy desire for a change of cooking,
common civility, the talk and the smiles of the previous twenty
days, every condition of my existence at that moment and place
made irresistibly for acceptance; and, crowning all that, there
was the ignorance--the ignorance, I say--the fatal want of fore
knowledge to counterbalance these imperative conditions of the
problem. A refusal would have appeared perverse and insane.
Nobody, unless a surly lunatic, would have refused. But if I had
not got to know Almayer pretty well it is almost certain there
would never have been a line of mine in print.
I accepted then--and I am paying yet the price of my sanity. The
possessor of the only flock of geese on the East Coast is
responsible for the existence of some fourteen volumes, so far.
The number of geese he had called into being under adverse
climatic conditions was considerably more than fourteen. The
tale of volumes will never overtake the counting of heads, I am
safe to say; but my ambitions point not exactly that way, and
whatever the pangs the toil of writing has cost me I have always
thought kindly of Almayer.
I wonder, had he known anything of it, what his attitude would
have been? This is something not to be discovered in this world.
But if we ever meet in the Elysian Fields--where I cannot depict
him to myself otherwise than attended in the distance by his
flock of geese (birds sacred to Jupiter)--and he addresses me in
the stillness of that passionless region, neither light nor
darkness, neither sound nor silence, and heaving endlessly with
billowy mists from the impalpable multitudes of the swarming
dead, I think I know what answer to make.
I would say, after listening courteously to the unvibrating tone
of his measured remonstrances, which should not disturb, of
course, the solemn eternity of stillness in the least--I would
say something like this:
"It is true, Almayer, that in the world below I have converted
your name to my own uses. But that is a very small larceny.
What's in a name, O Shade? If so much of your old mortal
weakness clings to you yet as to make you feel aggrieved (it was
the note of your earthly voice, Almayer), then, I entreat you,
seek speech without delay with our sublime fellow-Shade--with him
who, in his transient existence as a poet, commented upon the
smell of the rose. He will comfort you. You came to me stripped
of all prestige by men's queer smiles and the disrespectful
chatter of every vagrant trader in the Islands. Your name was
the common property of the winds; it, as it were, floated naked
over the waters about the equator. I wrapped round its
unhonoured form the royal mantle of the tropics, and have essayed
to put into the hollow sound the very anguish of paternity--feats
which you did not demand from me--but remember that all the toil
and all the pain were mine. In your earthly life you haunted me,
Almayer. Consider that this was taking a great liberty. Since
you were always complaining of being lost to the world, you
should remember that if I had not believed enough in your
existence to let you haunt my rooms in Bessborough Gardens, you
would have been much more lost. You affirm that had I been
capable of looking at you with a more perfect detachment and a
greater simplicity, I might have perceived better the inward
marvellousness which, you insist, attended your career upon that
tiny pin-point of light, hardly visible far, far below us, where
both our graves lie. No doubt! But reflect, O complaining
Shade! that this was not so much my fault as your crowning
misfortune. I believed in you in the only way it was possible
for me to believe. It was not worthy of your merits? So be it.
But you were always an unlucky man, Almayer. Nothing was ever
quite worthy of you. What made you so real to me was that you
held this lofty theory with some force of conviction and with an
admirable consistency."
It is with some such words translated into the proper shadowy
expressions that I am prepared to placate Almayer in the Elysian
Abode of Shades, since it has come to pass that, having parted
many years ago, we are never to meet again in this world.
In the career of the most unliterary of writers, in the sense
that literary ambition had never entered the world of his
imagination, the coming into existence of the first book is quite
an inexplicable event. In my own case I cannot trace it back to
any mental or psychological cause which one could point out and
hold to. The greatest of my gifts being a consummate capacity
for doing nothing, I cannot even point to boredom as a rational
stimulus for taking up a pen. The pen, at any rate, was there,
and there is nothing wonderful in that. Everybody keeps a pen
(the cold steel of our days) in his rooms, in this enlightened
age of penny stamps and halfpenny post-cards. In fact, this was
the epoch when by means of postcard and pen Mr. Gladstone had
made the reputation of a novel or two. And I, too, had a pen
rolling about somewhere--the seldom-used, the reluctantly
taken-up pen of a sailor ashore, the pen rugged with the dried
ink of abandoned attempts, of answers delayed longer than decency
permitted, of letters begun with infinite reluctance, and put off
suddenly till next day--till next week, as like as not! The
neglected, uncared-for pen, flung away at the slightest
provocation, and under the stress of dire necessity hunted for
without enthusiasm, in a perfunctory, grumpy worry, in the "Where
the devil IS the beastly thing gone to?" ungracious spirit.
Where, indeed! It might have been reposing behind the sofa for a
day or so. My landlady's anemic daughter (as Ollendorff would
have expressed it), though commendably neat, had a lordly,
careless manner of approaching her domestic duties. Or it might
even be resting delicately poised on its point by the side of the
table-leg, and when picked up show a gaping, inefficient beak
which would have discouraged any man of literary instincts. But
not me! "Never mind. This will do."
O days without guile! If anybody had told me then that a devoted
household, having a generally exaggerated idea of my talents and
importance, would be put into a state of tremor and flurry by the
fuss I would make because of a suspicion that somebody had
touched my sacrosanct pen of authorship, I would have never
deigned as much as the contemptuous smile of unbelief. There are
imaginings too unlikely for any kind of notice, too wild for
indulgence itself, too absurd for a smile. Perhaps, had that
seer of the future been a friend, I should have been secretly
saddened. "Alas!" I would have thought, looking at him with an
unmoved face, "the poor fellow is going mad."
I would have been, without doubt, saddened; for in this world
where the journalists read the signs of the sky, and the wind of
heaven itself, blowing where it listeth, does so under the
prophetical management of the meteorological office, but where
the secret of human hearts cannot be captured by prying or
praying, it was infinitely more likely that the sanest of my
friends should nurse the germ of incipient madness than that I
should turn into a writer of tales.
To survey with wonder the changes of one's own self is a
fascinating pursuit for idle hours. The field is so wide, the
surprises so varied, the subject so full of unprofitable but
curious hints as to the work of unseen forces, that one does not
weary easily of it. I am not speaking here of megalomaniacs who
rest uneasy under the crown of their unbounded conceit--who
really never rest in this world, and when out of it go on
fretting and fuming on the straitened circumstances of their last
habitation, where all men must lie in obscure equality. Neither
am I thinking of those ambitious minds who, always looking
forward to some aim of aggrandizement, can spare no time for a
detached, impersonal glance upon them selves.
And that's a pity. They are unlucky. These two kinds, together
with the much larger band of the totally unimaginative, of those
unfortunate beings in whose empty and unseeing gaze (as a great
French writer has put it) "the whole universe vanishes into blank
nothingness," miss, perhaps, the true task of us men whose day is
short on this earth, the abode of conflicting opinions. The
ethical view of the universe involves us at last in so many cruel
and absurd contradictions, where the last vestiges of faith,
hope, charity, and even of reason itself, seem ready to perish,
that I have come to suspect that the aim of creation cannot be
ethical at all. I would fondly believe that its object is purely
spectacular: a spectacle for awe, love, adoration, or hate, if
you like, but in this view--and in this view alone--never for
despair! Those visions, delicious or poignant, are a moral end
in themselves. The rest is our affair--the laughter, the tears,
the tenderness, the indignation, the high tranquillity of a
steeled heart, the detached curiosity of a subtle mind--that's
our affair! And the unwearied self-forgetful attention to every
phase of the living universe reflected in our consciousness may
be our appointed task on this earth--a task in which fate has
perhaps engaged nothing of us except our conscience, gifted with
a voice in order to bear true testimony to the visible wonder,
the haunting terror, the infinite passion, and the illimitable
serenity; to the supreme law and the abiding mystery of the
sublime spectacle.
Chi lo sa? It may be true. In this view there is room for every
religion except for the inverted creed of impiety, the mask and
cloak of arid despair; for every joy and every sorrow, for every
fair dream, for every charitable hope. The great aim is to
remain true to the emotions called out of the deep encircled by
the firmament of stars, whose infinite numbers and awful
distances may move us to laughter or tears (was it the Walrus or
the Carpenter, in the poem, who "wept to see such quantities of
sand"?), or, again, to a properly steeled heart, may matter
nothing at all.
The casual quotation, which had suggested itself out of a poem
full of merit, leads me to remark that in the conception of a
purely spectacular universe, where inspiration of every sort has
a rational existence, the artist of every kind finds a natural
place; and among them the poet as the seer par excellence. Even
the writer of prose, who in his less noble and more toilsome task
should be a man with the steeled heart, is worthy of a place,
providing he looks on with undimmed eyes and keeps laughter out
of his voice, let who will laugh or cry. Yes! Even he, the
prose artist of fiction, which after all is but truth often
dragged out of a well and clothed in the painted robe of imagined
phrases--even he has his place among kings, demagogues, priests,
charlatans, dukes, giraffes, cabinet ministers, Fabians,
bricklayers, apostles, ants, scientists, Kafirs, soldiers,
sailors, elephants, lawyers, dandies, microbes, and
constellations of a universe whose amazing spectacle is a moral
end in itself.
Here I perceive (without speaking offense) the reader assuming a
subtle expression, as if the cat were out of the bag. I take the
novelist's freedom to observe the reader's mind formulating the
exclamation: "That's it! The fellow talks pro domo."
Indeed it was not the intention! When I shouldered the bag I was
not aware of the cat inside. But, after all, why not? The fair
courtyards of the House of Art are thronged by many humble
retainers. And there is no retainer so devoted as he who is
allowed to sit on the doorstep. The fellows who have got inside
are apt to think too much of themselves. This last remark, I beg
to state, is not malicious within the definition of the law of
libel. It's fair comment on a matter of public interest. But
never mind. Pro domo. So be it. For his house tant que vous
voudrez. And yet in truth I was by no means anxious to justify
my existence. The attempt would have been not only needless and
absurd, but almost inconceivable, in a purely spectacular
universe, where no such disagreeable necessity can possibly
arise. It is sufficient for me to say (and I am saying it at
some length in these pages): J'ai vecu. I have existed, obscure
among the wonders and terrors of my time, as the Abbe Sieyes, the
original utterer of the quoted words, had managed to exist
through the violences, the crimes, and the enthusiasms of the
French Revolution. J'ai vecu, as I apprehend most of us manage
to exist, missing all along the varied forms of destruction by a
hair's-breadth, saving my body, that's clear, and perhaps my soul
also, but not without some damage here and there to the fine edge
of my conscience, that heirloom of the ages, of the race, of the
group, of the family, colourable and plastic, fashioned by the
words, the looks, the acts, and even by the silences and
abstentions surrounding one's childhood; tinged in a complete
scheme of delicate shades and crude colours by the inherited
traditions, beliefs, or prejudices--unaccountable, despotic,
persuasive, and often, in its texture, romantic.
And often romantic! . . . The matter in hand, however, is to
keep these reminiscences from turning into confessions, a form of
literary activity discredited by Jean Jacques Rousseau on account
of the extreme thoroughness he brought to the work of justifying
his own existence; for that such was his purpose is palpably,
even grossly, visible to an unprejudiced eye. But then, you see,
the man was not a writer of fiction. He was an artless moralist,
as is clearly demonstrated by his anniversaries being celebrated
with marked emphasis by the heirs of the French Revolution, which
was not a political movement at all, but a great outburst of
morality. He had no imagination, as the most casual perusal of
"Emile" will prove. He was no novelist, whose first virtue is
the exact understanding of the limits traced by the reality of
his time to the play of his invention. Inspiration comes from
the earth, which has a past, a history, a future, not from the
cold and immutable heaven. A writer of imaginative prose (even
more than any other sort of artist) stands confessed in his
works. His conscience, his deeper sense of things, lawful and
unlawful, gives him his attitude before the world. Indeed,
everyone who puts pen to paper for the reading of strangers
(unless a moralist, who, generally speaking, has no conscience
except the one he is at pains to produce for the use of others)
can speak of nothing else. It is M. Anatole France, the most
eloquent and just of French prose-writers, who says that we must
recognize at last that, "failing the resolution to hold our
peace, we can only talk of ourselves."
This remark, if I remember rightly, was made in the course of a
sparring match with the late Ferdinand Brunetiere over the
principles and rules of literary criticism. As was fitting for a
man to whom we owe the memorable saying, "The good critic is he
who relates the adventures of his soul among masterpieces," M.
Anatole France maintained that there were no rules and no
principles. And that may be very true. Rules, principles, and
standards die and vanish every day. Perhaps they are all dead
and vanished by this time. These, if ever, are the brave, free
days of destroyed landmarks, while the ingenious minds are busy
inventing the forms of the new beacons which, it is consoling to
think, will be set up presently in the old places. But what is
interesting to a writer is the possession of an inward certitude
that literary criticism will never die, for man (so variously
defined) is, before everything else, a critical animal. And as
long as distinguished minds are ready to treat it in the spirit
of high adventure literary criticism shall appeal to us with all
the charm and wisdom of a well-told tale of personal experience.
For Englishmen especially, of all the races of the earth, a task,
any task, undertaken in an adventurous spirit acquires the merit
of romance. But the critics as a rule exhibit but little of an
adventurous spirit. They take risks, of course--one can hardly
live with out that. The daily bread is served out to us (however
sparingly) with a pinch of salt. Otherwise one would get sick of
the diet one prays for, and that would be not only improper, but
impious. From impiety of that or any other kind--save us! An
ideal of reserved manner, adhered to from a sense of proprieties,
from shyness, perhaps, or caution, or simply from weariness,
induces, I suspect, some writers of criticism to conceal the
adventurous side of their calling, and then the criticism becomes
a mere "notice," as it were, the relation of a journey where
nothing but the distances and the geology of a new country should
be set down; the glimpses of strange beasts, the dangers of flood
and field, the hairbreadth escapes, and the sufferings (oh, the
sufferings, too! I have no doubt of the sufferings) of the
traveller being carefully kept out; no shady spot, no fruitful
plant being ever mentioned either; so that the whole performance
looks like a mere feat of agility on the part of a trained pen
running in a desert. A cruel spectacle--a most deplorable
adventure! "Life," in the words of an immortal thinker of, I
should say, bucolic origin, but whose perishable name is lost to
the worship of posterity--"life is not all beer and skittles."
Neither is the writing of novels. It isn't, really. Je vous
donne ma parole d'honneur that it--is--not. Not ALL. I am thus
emphatic because some years ago, I remember, the daughter of a
general. . . .
Sudden revelations of the profane world must have come now and
then to hermits in their cells, to the cloistered monks of middle
ages, to lonely sages, men of science, reformers; the revelations
of the world's superficial judgment, shocking to the souls
concentrated upon their own bitter labour in the cause of
sanctity, or of knowledge, or of temperance, let us say, or of
art, if only the art of cracking jokes or playing the flute. And
thus this general's daughter came to me--or I should say one of
the general's daughters did. There were three of these bachelor
ladies, of nicely graduated ages, who held a neighbouring
farm-house in a united and more or less military occupation. The
eldest warred against the decay of manners in the village
children, and executed frontal attacks upon the village mothers
for the conquest of courtesies. It sounds futile, but it was
really a war for an idea. The second skirmished and scouted all
over the country; and it was that one who pushed a reconnaissance
right to my very table--I mean the one who wore stand-up collars.
She was really calling upon my wife in the soft spirit of
afternoon friendliness, but with her usual martial determination.
She marched into my room swinging her stick . . . but no--I
mustn't exaggerate. It is not my specialty. I am not a
humoristic writer. In all soberness, then, all I am certain of
is that she had a stick to swing.
No ditch or wall encompassed my abode. The window was open; the
door, too, stood open to that best friend of my work, the warm,
still sunshine of the wide fields. They lay around me infinitely
helpful, but, truth to say, I had not known for weeks whether the
sun shone upon the earth and whether the stars above still moved
on their appointed courses. I was just then giving up some days
of my allotted span to the last chapters of the novel "Nostromo,"
a tale of an imaginary (but true) seaboard, which is still
mentioned now and again, and indeed kindly, sometimes in
connection with the word "failure" and sometimes in conjunction
with the word "astonishing." I have no opinion on this
discrepancy. It's the sort of difference that can never be
settled. All I know is that, for twenty months, neglecting the
common joys of life that fall to the lot of the humblest on this
earth, I had, like the prophet of old, "wrestled with the Lord"
for my creation, for the headlands of the coast, for the darkness
of the Placid Gulf, the light on the snows, the clouds in the
sky, and for the breath of life that had to be blown into the
shapes of men and women, of Latin and Saxon, of Jew and Gentile.
These are, perhaps, strong words, but it is difficult to
characterize other wise the intimacy and the strain of a creative
effort in which mind and will and conscience are engaged to the
full, hour after hour, day after day, away from the world, and to
the exclusion of all that makes life really lovable and
gentle--something for which a material parallel can only be found
in the everlasting sombre stress of the westward winter passage
round Cape Horn. For that, too, is the wrestling of men with the
might of their Creator, in a great isolation from the world,
without the amenities and consolations of life, a lonely struggle
under a sense of overmatched littleness, for no reward that could
be adequate, but for the mere winning of a longitude. Yet a
certain longitude, once won, cannot be disputed. The sun and the
stars and the shape of your earth are the witnesses of your gain;
whereas a handful of pages, no matter how much you have made them
your own, are at best but an obscure and questionable spoil.
Here they are. "Failure"--"Astonishing": take your choice; or
perhaps both, or neither--a mere rustle and flutter of pieces of
paper settling down in the night, and undistinguishable, like the
snowflakes of a great drift destined to melt away in sunshine.
"How do you do?"
It was the greeting of the general's daughter. I had heard
nothing--no rustle, no footsteps. I had felt only a moment
before a sort of premonition of evil; I had the sense of an
inauspicious presence--just that much warning and no more; and
then came the sound of the voice and the jar as of a terrible
fall from a great height--a fall, let us say, from the highest of
the clouds floating in gentle procession over the fields in the
faint westerly air of that July afternoon. I picked myself up
quickly, of course; in other words, I jumped up from my chair
stunned and dazed, every nerve quivering with the pain of being
uprooted out of one world and flung down into another--perfectly
"Oh! How do you do? Won't you sit down?"
That's what I said. This horrible but, I assure you, perfectly
true reminiscence tells you more than a whole volume of
confessions a la Jean Jacques Rousseau would do. Observe! I
didn't howl at her, or start up setting furniture, or throw
myself on the floor and kick, or allow myself to hint in any
other way at the appalling magnitude of the disaster. The whole
world of Costaguana (the country, you may remember, of my
seaboard tale), men, women, headlands, houses, mountains, town,
campo(there was not a single brick, stone, or grain of sand of
its soil I had not placed in position with my own hands); all the
history, geography, politics, finance; the wealth of Charles
Gould's silver-mine, and the splendour of the magnificent Capataz
de Cargadores, whose name, cried out in the night (Dr. Monygham
heard it pass over his head--in Linda Viola's voice), dominated
even after death the dark gulf containing his conquests of
treasure and love--all that had come down crashing about my ears.
I felt I could never pick up the pieces--and in that very moment
I was saying, "Won't you sit down?"
The sea is strong medicine. Behold what the quarter-deck
training even in a merchant ship will do! This episode should
give you a new view of the English and Scots seamen (a
much-caricatured folk) who had the last say in the formation of
my character. One is nothing if not modest, but in this disaster
I think I have done some honour to their simple teaching. "Won't
you sit down?" Very fair; very fair, indeed. She sat down. Her
amused glance strayed all over the room.
There were pages of MS. on the table and under the table, a batch
of typed copy on a chair, single leaves had fluttered away into
distant corners; there were there living pages, pages scored and
wounded, dead pages that would be burned at the end of the
day--the litter of a cruel battle-field, of a long, long, and
desperate fray. Long! I suppose I went to bed sometimes, and
got up the same number of times. Yes, I suppose I slept, and ate
the food put before me, and talked connectedly to my household on
suitable occasions. But I had never been aware of the even flow
of daily life, made easy and noiseless for me by a silent,
watchful, tireless affection. Indeed, it seemed to me that I had
been sitting at that table surrounded by the litter of a
desperate fray for days and nights on end. It seemed so, because
of the intense weariness of which that interruption had made me
aware--the awful disenchantment of a mind realizing suddenly the
futility of an enormous task, joined to a bodily fatigue such as
no ordinary amount of fairly heavy physical labour could ever
account for. I have carried bags of wheat on my back, bent
almost double under a ship's deck-beams, from six in the morning
till six in the evening (with an hour and a half off for meals),
so I ought to know.
And I love letters. I am jealous of their honour and concerned
for the dignity and comeliness of their service. I was, most
likely, the only writer that neat lady had ever caught in the
exercise of his craft, and it distressed me not to be able to
remember when it was that I dressed myself last, and how. No
doubt that would be all right in essentials. The fortune of the
house included a pair of gray-blue watchful eyes that would see
to that. But I felt, somehow, as grimy as a Costaguana lepero
after a day's fighting in the streets, rumpled all over and
dishevelled down to my very heels. And I am afraid I blinked
stupidly. All this was bad for the honour of letters and the
dignity of their service. Seen indistinctly through the dust of
my collapsed universe, the good lady glanced about the room with
a slightly amused serenity. And she was smiling. What on earth
was she smiling at? She remarked casually:
"I am afraid I interrupted you."
"Not at all."
She accepted the denial in perfect good faith. And it was
strictly true. Interrupted--indeed! She had robbed me of at
least twenty lives, each infinitely more poignant and real than
her own, because informed with passion, possessed of convictions,
involved in great affairs created out of my own substance for an
anxiously meditated end.
She remained silent for a while, then said, with a last glance
all round at the litter of the fray:
"And you sit like this here writing your--your . . ."
"I--what? Oh, yes! I sit here all day."
"It must be perfectly delightful."
I suppose that, being no longer very young, I might have been on
the verge of having a stroke; but she had left her dog in the
porch, and my boy's dog, patrolling the field in front, had
espied him from afar. He came on straight and swift like a
cannon-ball, and the noise of the fight, which burst suddenly
upon our ears, was more than enough to scare away a fit of
apoplexy. We went out hastily and separated the gallant animals.
Afterward I told the lady where she would find my wife--just
round the corner, under the trees. She nodded and went off with
her dog, leaving me appalled before the death and devastation she
had lightly made--and with the awfully instructive sound of the
word "delightful" lingering in my ears.
Nevertheless, later on, I duly escorted her to the field gate. I
wanted to be civil, of course (what are twenty lives in a mere
novel that one should be rude to a lady on their account?), but
mainly, to adopt the good, sound Ollendorffian style, because I
did not want the dog of the general's daughter to fight again
(encore) with the faithful dog of my infant son (mon petit
garcon).--Was I afraid that the dog of the general's daughter
would be able to overcome (vaincre) the dog of my child?--No, I
was not afraid. . . . But away with the Ollendorff method. How
ever appropriate and seemingly unavoidable when I touch upon
anything appertaining to the lady, it is most unsuitable to the
origin, character, and history of the dog; for the dog was the
gift to the child from a man for whom words had anything but an
Ollendorffian value, a man almost childlike in the impulsive
movements of his untutored genius, the most single-minded of
verbal impressionists, using his great gifts of straight feeling
and right expression with a fine sincerity and a strong if,
perhaps, not fully conscious conviction. His art did not obtain,
I fear, all the credit its unsophisticated inspiration deserved.
I am alluding to the late Stephen Crane, the author of "The Red
Badge of Courage," a work of imagination which found its short
moment of celebrity in the last decade of the departed century.
Other books followed. Not many. He had not the time. It was an
individual and complete talent which obtained but a grudging,
somewhat supercilious recognition from the world at large. For
himself one hesitates to regret his early death. Like one of the
men in his "Open Boat," one felt that he was of those whom fate
seldom allows to make a safe landing after much toil and
bitterness at the oar. I confess to an abiding affection for
that energetic, slight, fragile, intensely living and transient
figure. He liked me, even before we met, on the strength of a
page or two of my writing, and after we had met I am glad to
think he liked me still. He used to point out to me with great
earnestness, and even with some severity, that "a boy OUGHT to
have a dog." I suspect that he was shocked at my neglect of
parental duties.
Ultimately it was he who provided the dog. Shortly afterward,
one day, after playing with the child on the rug for an hour or
so with the most intense absorption, he raised his head and
declared firmly, "I shall teach your boy to ride." That was not
to be. He was not given the time.
But here is the dog--an old dog now. Broad and low on his bandy
paws, with a black head on a white body and a ridiculous black
spot at the other end of him, he provokes, when he walks abroad,
smiles not altogether unkind. Grotesque and engaging in the
whole of his appearance, his usual attitudes are meek, but his
temperament discloses itself unexpectedly pugnacious in the
presence of his kind. As he lies in the firelight, his head well
up, and a fixed, far away gaze directed at the shadows of the
room, he achieves a striking nobility of pose in the calm
consciousness of an unstained life. He has brought up one baby,
and now, after seeing his first charge off to school, he is
bringing up another with the same conscientious devotion, but
with a more deliberate gravity of manner, the sign of greater
wisdom and riper experience, but also of rheumatism, I fear.
From the morning bath to the evening ceremonies of the cot, you
attend the little two-legged creature of your adoption, being
yourself treated in the exercise of your duties with every
possible regard, with infinite consideration, by every person in
the house--even as I myself am treated; only you deserve it more.
The general's daughter would tell you that it must be "perfectly
Aha! old dog. She never heard you yelp with acute pain (it's
that poor left ear) the while, with incredible self-command, you
preserve a rigid immobility for fear of overturning the little
two-legged creature. She has never seen your resigned smile when
the little two-legged creature, interrogated, sternly, "What are
you doing to the good dog?" answers, with a wide, innocent stare:
"Nothing. Only loving him, mamma dear!"
The general's daughter does not know the secret terms of
self-imposed tasks, good dog, the pain that may lurk in the very
rewards of rigid self-command. But we have lived together many
years. We have grown older, too; and though our work is not
quite done yet we may indulge now and then in a little
introspection before the fire--meditate on the art of bringing up
babies and on the perfect delight of writing tales where so many
lives come and go at the cost of one which slips imperceptibly
In the retrospect of a life which had, besides its preliminary
stage of childhood and early youth, two distinct developments,
and even two distinct elements, such as earth and water, for its
successive scenes, a certain amount of naiveness is unavoidable.
I am conscious of it in these pages. This remark is put forward
in no apologetic spirit. As years go by and the number of pages
grows steadily, the feeling grows upon one, too, that one can
write only for friends. Then why should one put them to the
necessity of protesting (as a friend would do) that no apology is
necessary, or put, perchance, into their heads the doubt of one's
discretion? So much as to the care due to those friends whom a
word here, a line there, a fortunate page of just feeling in the
right place, some happy simplicity, or even some lucky subtlety,
has drawn from the great multitude of fellow beings even as a
fish is drawn from the depths of the sea. Fishing is notoriously
(I am talking now of the deep sea) a matter of luck. As to one's
enemies, they will take care of themselves.
There is a gentleman, for instance, who, metaphorically speaking,
jumps upon me with both feet. This image has no grace, but it is
exceedingly apt to the occasion--to the several occasions. I
don't know precisely how long he has been indulging in that
intermittent exercise, whose seasons are ruled by the custom of
the publishing trade. Somebody pointed him out (in printed
shape, of course) to my attention some time ago, and straightway
I experienced a sort of reluctant affection for that robust man.
He leaves not a shred of my substance untrodden: for the writer's
substance is his writing; the rest of him is but a vain shadow,
cherished or hated on uncritical grounds. Not a shred! Yet the
sentiment owned to is not a freak of affectation or perversity.
It has a deeper, and, I venture to think, a more estimable origin
than the caprice of emotional lawlessness. It is, indeed,
lawful, in so much that it is given (reluctantly) for a
consideration, for several considerations. There is that
robustness, for instance, so often the sign of good moral
balance. That's a consideration. It is not, indeed, pleasant to
be stamped upon, but the very thoroughness of the operation,
implying not only a careful reading, but some real insight into
work whose qualities and defects, whatever they may be, are not
so much on the surface, is something to be thankful for in view
of the fact that it may happen to one's work to be condemned
without being read at all. This is the most fatuous adventure
that can well happen to a writer venturing his soul among
criticisms. It can do one no harm, of course, but it is
disagreeable. It is disagreeable in the same way as discovering
a three-card-trick man among a decent lot of folk in a
third-class compartment. The open impudence of the whole
transaction, appealing insidiously to the folly and credulity of
man kind, the brazen, shameless patter, proclaiming the fraud
openly while insisting on the fairness of the game, give one a
feeling of sickening disgust. The honest violence of a plain man
playing a fair game fairly--even if he means to knock you
over--may appear shocking, but it remains within the pale of
decency. Damaging as it may be, it is in no sense offensive.
One may well feel some regard for honesty, even if practised upon
one's own vile body. But it is very obvious that an enemy of
that sort will not be stayed by explanations or placated by
apologies. Were I to advance the plea of youth in excuse of the
naiveness to be found in these pages, he would be likely to say
"Bosh!" in a column and a half of fierce print. Yet a writer is
no older than his first published book, and, not withstanding the
vain appearances of decay which attend us in this transitory
life, I stand here with the wreath of only fifteen short summers
on my brow.
With the remark, then, that at such tender age some naiveness of
feeling and expression is excusable, I proceed to admit that,
upon the whole, my previous state of existence was not a good
equipment for a literary life. Perhaps I should not have used the
word literary. That word presupposes an intimacy of acquaintance
with letters, a turn of mind, and a manner of feeling to which I
dare lay no claim. I only love letters; but the love of letters
does not make a literary man, any more than the love of the sea
makes a seaman. And it is very possible, too, that I love the
letters in the same way a literary man may love the sea he looks
at from the shore--a scene of great endeavour and of great
achievements changing the face of the world, the great open way
to all sorts of undiscovered countries. No, perhaps I had better
say that the life at sea--and I don't mean a mere taste of it,
but a good broad span of years, something that really counts as
real service--is not, upon the whole, a good equipment for a
writing life. God forbid, though, that I should be thought of as
denying my masters of the quarter-deck. I am not capable of that
sort of apostasy. I have confessed my attitude of piety toward
their shades in three or four tales, and if any man on earth more
than another needs to be true to himself as he hopes to be saved,
it is certainly the writer of fiction.
What I meant to say, simply, is that the quarter-deck training
does not prepare one sufficiently for the reception of literary
criticism. Only that, and no more. But this defect is not
without gravity. If it be permissible to twist, invert, adapt
(and spoil) Mr. Anatole France's definition of a good critic,
then let us say that the good author is he who contemplates
without marked joy or excessive sorrow the adventures of his soul
among criticisms. Far be from me the intention to mislead an
attentive public into the belief that there is no criticism at
sea. That would be dishonest, and even impolite. Ever thing can
be found at sea, according to the spirit of your quest--strife,
peace, romance, naturalism of the most pronounced kind, ideals,
boredom, disgust, inspiration--and every conceivable opportunity,
including the opportunity to make a fool of yourself, exactly as
in the pursuit of literature. But the quarter-deck criticism is
somewhat different from literary criticism. This much they have
in common, that before the one and the other the answering back,
as a general rule, does not pay.
Yes, you find criticism at sea, and even appreciation--I tell you
everything is to be found on salt water--criticism generally
impromptu, and always viva voce, which is the outward, obvious
difference from the literary operation of that kind, with
consequent freshness and vigour which may be lacking in the
printed word. With appreciation, which comes at the end, when
the critic and the criticised are about to part, it is otherwise.
The sea appreciation of one's humble talents has the permanency
of the written word, seldom the charm of variety, is formal in
its phrasing. There the literary master has the superiority,
though he, too, can in effect but say--and often says it in the
very phrase--"I can highly recommend." Only usually he uses the
word "We," there being some occult virtue in the first person
plural which makes it specially fit for critical and royal
declarations. I have a small handful of these sea appreciations,
signed by various masters, yellowing slowly in my writing-table's
left hand drawer, rustling under my reverent touch, like a
handful of dry leaves plucked for a tender memento from the tree
of knowledge. Strange! It seems that it is for these few bits
of paper, headed by the names of a few Scots and English
shipmasters, that I have faced the astonished indignations, the
mockeries, and the reproaches of a sort hard to bear for a boy of
fifteen; that I have been charged with the want of patriotism,
the want of sense, and the want of heart, too; that I went
through agonies of self-conflict and shed secret tears not a few,
and had the beauties of the Furca Pass spoiled for me, and have
been called an "incorrigible Don Quixote," in allusion to the
book-born madness of the knight. For that spoil! They rustle,
those bits of paper--some dozen of them in all. In that faint,
ghostly sound there live the memories of twenty years, the voices
of rough men now no more, the strong voice of the everlasting
winds, and the whisper of a mysterious spell, the murmur of the
great sea, which must have somehow reached my inland cradle and
entered my unconscious ear, like that formula of Mohammedan faith
the Mussulman father whispers into the ear of his new-born
infant, making him one of the faithful almost with his first
breath. I do not know whether I have been a good seaman, but I
know I have been a very faithful one. And, after all, there is
that handful of "characters" from various ships to prove that all
these years have not been altogether a dream. There they are,
brief, and monotonous in tone, but as suggestive bits of writing
to me as any inspired page to be found in literature. But then,
you see, I have been called romantic. Well, that can't be
helped. But stay. I seem to remember that I have been called a
realist, also. And as that charge, too, can be made out, let us
try to live up to it, at whatever cost, for a change. With this
end in view, I will confide to you coyly, and only because there
is no one about to see my blushes by the light of the midnight
lamp, that these suggestive bits of quarter-deck appreciation,
one and all, contain the words "strictly sober."
Did I overhear a civil murmur, "That's very gratifying, to be
sure?" Well, yes, it is gratifying--thank you. It is at least
as gratifying to be certified sober as to be certified romantic,
though such certificates would not qualify one for the
secretaryship of a temperance association or for the post of
official troubadour to some lordly democratic institution such as
the London County Council, for instance. The above prosaic
reflection is put down here only in order to prove the general
sobriety of my judgment in mundane affairs. I make a point of it
because a couple of years ago, a certain short story of mine
being published in a French translation, a Parisian critic--I am
almost certain it was M. Gustave Kahn in the "Gil Blas"--giving
me a short notice, summed up his rapid impression of the writer's
quality in the words un puissant reveur. So be it! Who could
cavil at the words of a friendly reader? Yet perhaps not such an
unconditional dreamer as all that. I will make bold to say that
neither at sea nor ashore have I ever lost the sense of
responsibility. There is more than one sort of intoxication.
Even before the most seductive reveries I have remained mindful
of that sobriety of interior life, that asceticism of sentiment,
in which alone the naked form of truth, such as one conceives it,
such as one feels it, can be rendered without shame. It is but a
maudlin and indecent verity that comes out through the strength
of wine. I have tried to be a sober worker all my life--all my
two lives. I did so from taste, no doubt, having an instinctive
horror of losing my sense of full self-possession, but also from
artistic conviction. Yet there are so many pitfalls on each side
of the true path that, having gone some way, and feeling a little
battered and weary, as a middle-aged traveller will from the mere
daily difficulties of the march, I ask myself whether I have kept
always, always faithful to that sobriety where in there is power
and truth and peace.
As to my sea sobriety, that is quite properly certified under the
sign-manual of several trustworthy shipmasters of some standing
in their time. I seem to hear your polite murmur that "Surely
this might have been taken for granted." Well, no. It might not
have been. That August academical body, the Marine Department of
the Board of Trade, takes nothing for granted in the granting of
its learned degrees. By its regulations issued under the first
Merchant Shipping Act, the very word SOBER must be written, or a
whole sackful, a ton, a mountain of the most enthusiastic
appreciation will avail you nothing. The door of the examination
rooms shall remain closed to your tears and entreaties. The most
fanatical advocate of temperance could not be more pitilessly
fierce in his rectitude than the Marine Department of the Board
of Trade. As I have been face to face at various times with all
the examiners of the Port of London in my generation, there can
be no doubt as to the force and the continuity of my
abstemiousness. Three of them were examiners in seamanship, and
it was my fate to be delivered into the hands of each of them at
proper intervals of sea service. The first of all, tall, spare,
with a perfectly white head and mustache, a quiet, kindly manner,
and an air of benign intelligence, must, I am forced to conclude,
have been unfavourably impressed by something in my appearance.
His old, thin hands loosely clasped resting on his crossed legs,
he began by an elementary question, in a mild voice, and went on,
went on. . . . It lasted for hours, for hours. Had I been a
strange microbe with potentialities of deadly mischief to the
Merchant Service I could not have been submitted to a more
microscopic examination. Greatly reassured by his apparent
benevolence, I had been at first very alert in my answers. But
at length the feeling of my brain getting addled crept upon me.
And still the passionless process went on, with a sense of untold
ages having been spent already on mere preliminaries. Then I got
frightened. I was not frightened of being plucked; that
eventuality did not even present itself to my mind. It was
something much more serious and weird. "This ancient person," I
said to myself, terrified, "is so near his grave that he must
have lost all notion of time. He is considering this examination
in terms of eternity. It is all very well for him. His race is
run. But I may find myself coming out of this room into the
world of men a stranger, friendless, forgotten by my very
landlady, even were I able after this endless experience to
remember the way to my hired home." This statement is not so
much of a verbal exaggeration as may be supposed. Some very
queer thoughts passed through my head while I was considering my
answers; thoughts which had nothing to do with seamanship, nor
yet with anything reasonable known to this earth. I verily
believe that at times I was light-headed in a sort of languid
way. At last there fell a silence, and that, too, seemed to last
for ages, while, bending over his desk, the examiner wrote out my
pass-slip slowly with a noiseless pen. He extended the scrap of
paper to me without a word, inclined his white head gravely to my
parting bow. . . .
When I got out of the room I felt limply flat, like a squeezed
lemon, and the doorkeeper in his glass cage, where I stopped to
get my hat and tip him a shilling, said:
"Well! I thought you were never coming out."
"How long have I been in there?" I asked, faintly.
He pulled out his watch.
"He kept you, sir, just under three hours. I don't think this
ever happened with any of the gentlemen before."
It was only when I got out of the building that I began to walk
on air. And the human animal being averse from change and timid
before the unknown, I said to myself that I really would not mind
being examined by the same man on a future occasion. But when
the time of ordeal came round again the doorkeeper let me into
another room, with the now familiar paraphernalia of models of
ships and tackle, a board for signals on the wall, a big, long
table covered with official forms and having an unrigged mast
fixed to the edge. The solitary tenant was unknown to me by
sight, though not by reputation, which was simply execrable.
Short and sturdy, as far as I could judge, clad in an old brown
morning-suit, he sat leaning on his elbow, his hand shading his
eyes, and half averted from the chair I was to occupy on the
other side of the table. He was motionless, mysterious, remote,
enigmatical, with something mournful, too, in the pose, like that
statue of Giugliano (I think) de Medici shading his face on the
tomb by Michael Angelo, though, of course, he was far, far from
being beautiful. He began by trying to make me talk nonsense.
But I had been warned of that fiendish trait, and contradicted
him with great assurance. After a while he left off. So far
good. But his immobility, the thick elbow on the table, the
abrupt, unhappy voice, the shaded and averted face grew more and
more impressive. He kept inscrutably silent for a moment, and
then, placing me in a ship of a certain size, at sea, under
conditions of weather, season, locality, etc.--all very clear and
precise--ordered me to execute a certain manoeuvre. Before I was
half through with it he did some material damage to the ship.
Directly I had grappled with the difficulty he caused another to
present itself, and when that, too, was met he stuck another ship
before me, creating a very dangerous situation. I felt slightly
outraged by this ingenuity in piling trouble upon a man.
"I wouldn't have got into that mess," I suggested, mildly. "I
could have seen that ship before."
He never stirred the least bit.
"No, you couldn't. The weather's thick."
"Oh! I didn't know," I apologized blankly.
I suppose that after all I managed to stave off the smash with
sufficient approach to verisimilitude, and the ghastly business
went on. You must understand that the scheme of the test he was
applying to me was, I gathered, a homeward passage--the sort of
passage I would not wish to my bitterest enemy. That imaginary
ship seemed to labour under a most comprehensive curse. It's no
use enlarging on these never-ending misfortunes; suffice it to
say that long before the end I would have welcomed with gratitude
an opportunity to exchange into the Flying Dutchman. Finally he
shoved me into the North Sea (I suppose) and provided me with a
lee shore with outlying sand-banks--the Dutch coast, presumably.
Distance, eight miles. The evidence of such implacable animosity
deprived me of speech for quite half a minute.
"Well," he said--for our pace had been very smart, indeed, till
"I will have to think a little, sir."
"Doesn't look as if there were much time to think," he muttered,
sardonically, from under his hand.
"No, sir," I said, with some warmth. "Not on board a ship, I
could see. But so many accidents have happened that I really
can't remember what there's left for me to work with."
Still half averted, and with his eyes concealed, he made
unexpectedly a grunting remark.
"You've done very well."
"Have I the two anchors at the bow, sir?" I asked.
I prepared myself then, as a last hope for the ship, to let them
both go in the most effectual manner, when his infernal system of
testing resourcefulness came into play again.
"But there's only one cable. You've lost the other."
It was exasperating.
"Then I would back them, if I could, and tail the heaviest hawser
on board on the end of the chain before letting go, and if she
parted from that, which is quite likely, I would just do nothing.
She would have to go."
"Nothing more to do, eh?"
"No, sir. I could do no more."
He gave a bitter half-laugh.
"You could always say your prayers."
He got up, stretched himself, and yawned slightly. It was a
sallow, strong, unamiable face. He put me, in a surly, bored
fashion, through the usual questions as to lights and signals,
and I escaped from the room thank fully--passed! Forty minutes!
And again I walked on air along Tower Hill, where so many good
men had lost their heads because, I suppose, they were not
resourceful enough to save them. And in my heart of hearts I had
no objection to meeting that examiner once more when the third
and last ordeal became due in another year or so. I even hoped I
should. I knew the worst of him now, and forty minutes is not an
unreasonable time. Yes, I distinctly hoped. . . .
But not a bit of it. When I presented my self to be examined for
master the examiner who received me was short, plump, with a
round, soft face in gray, fluffy whiskers, and fresh, loquacious
He commenced operations with an easy going "Let's see. H'm.
Suppose you tell me all you know of charter-parties." He kept it
up in that style all through, wandering off in the shape of
comment into bits out of his own life, then pulling himself up
short and returning to the business in hand. It was very
interesting. "What's your idea of a jury-rudder now?" he
queried, suddenly, at the end of an instructive anecdote bearing
upon a point of stowage.
I warned him that I had no experience of a lost rudder at sea,
and gave him two classical examples of makeshifts out of a
text-book. In exchange he described to me a jury-rudder he had
invented himself years before, when in command of a
three-thousand-ton steamer. It was, I declare, the cleverest
contrivance imaginable. "May be of use to you some day," he
concluded. "You will go into steam presently. Everybody goes
into steam."
There he was wrong. I never went into steam--not really. If I
only live long enough I shall become a bizarre relic of a dead
barbarism, a sort of monstrous antiquity, the only seaman of the
dark ages who had never gone into steam--not really.
Before the examination was over he imparted to me a few
interesting details of the transport service in the time of the
Crimean War.
"The use of wire rigging became general about that time, too," he
observed. "I was a very young master then. That was before you
were born."
"Yes, sir. I am of the year of 1857."
"The Mutiny year," he commented, as if to himself, adding in a
louder tone that his ship happened then to be in the Gulf of
Bengal, employed under a government charter.
Clearly the transport service had been the making of this
examiner, who so unexpectedly had given me an insight into his
existence, awakening in me the sense of the continuity of that
sea life into which I had stepped from outside; giving a touch of
human intimacy to the machinery of official relations. I felt
adopted. His experience was for me, too, as though he had been
an ancestor.
Writing my long name (it has twelve letters) with laborious care
on the slip of blue paper, he remarked:
"You are of Polish extraction."
"Born there, sir."
He laid down the pen and leaned back to look at me as it were for
the first time.
"Not many of your nationality in our service, I should think. I
never remember meeting one either before or after I left the sea.
Don't remember ever hearing of one. An inland people, aren't
I said yes--very much so. We were remote from the sea not only
by situation, but also from a complete absence of indirect
association, not being a commercial nation at all, but purely
agricultural. He made then the quaint reflection that it was "a
long way for me to come out to begin a sea life"; as if sea life
were not precisely a life in which one goes a long way from home.
I told him, smiling, that no doubt I could have found a ship much
nearer my native place, but I had thought to myself that if I was
to be a seaman, then I would be a British seaman and no other.
It was a matter of deliberate choice.
He nodded slightly at that; and, as he kept on looking at me
interrogatively, I enlarged a little, confessing that I had spent
a little time on the way in the Mediterranean and in the West
Indies. I did not want to present myself to the British Merchant
Service in an altogether green state. It was no use telling him
that my mysterious vocation was so strong that my very wild oats
had to be sown at sea. It was the exact truth, but he would not
have understood the somewhat exceptional psychology of my
sea-going, I fear.
"I suppose you've never come across one of your countrymen at
sea. Have you, now?"
I admitted I never had. The examiner had given himself up to the
spirit of gossiping idleness. For myself, I was in no haste to
leave that room. Not in the least. The era of examinations was
over. I would never again see that friendly man who was a
professional ancestor, a sort of grandfather in the craft.
Moreover, I had to wait till he dismissed me, and of that there
was no sign. As he remained silent, looking at me, I added:
"But I have heard of one, some years ago. He seems to have been
a boy serving his time on board a Liverpool ship, if I am not
"What was his name?"
I told him.
"How did you say that?" he asked, puckering up his eyes at the
uncouth sound.
I repeated the name very distinctly.
"How do you spell it?"
I told him. He moved his head at the impracticable nature of
that name, and observed:
"It's quite as long as your own--isn't it?"
There was no hurry. I had passed for master, and I had all the
rest of my life before me to make the best of it. That seemed a
long time. I went leisurely through a small mental calculation,
and said:
"Not quite. Shorter by two letters, sir."
"Is it?" The examiner pushed the signed blue slip across the
table to me, and rose from his chair. Somehow this seemed a very
abrupt ending of our relations, and I felt almost sorry to part
from that excellent man, who was master of a ship before the
whisper of the sea had reached my cradle. He offered me his hand
and wished me well. He even made a few steps toward the door
with me, and ended with good-natured advice.
"I don't know what may be your plans, but you ought to go into
steam. When a man has got his master's certificate it's the
proper time. If I were you I would go into steam."
I thanked him, and shut the door behind me definitely on the era
of examinations. But that time I did not walk on air, as on the
first two occasions. I walked across the hill of many beheadings
with measured steps. It was a fact, I said to myself, that I was
now a British master mariner beyond a doubt. It was not that I
had an exaggerated sense of that very modest achievement, with
which, however, luck, opportunity, or any extraneous influence
could have had nothing to do. That fact, satisfactory and
obscure in itself, had for me a certain ideal significance. It
was an answer to certain outspoken scepticism and even to some
not very kind aspersions. I had vindicated myself from what had
been cried upon as a stupid obstinacy or a fantastic caprice. I
don't mean to say that a whole country had been convulsed by my
desire to go to sea. But for a boy between fifteen and sixteen,
sensitive enough, in all conscience, the commotion of his little
world had seemed a very considerable thing indeed. So
considerable that, absurdly enough, the echoes of it linger to
this day. I catch myself in hours of solitude and retrospect
meeting arguments and charges made thirty-five years ago by
voices now forever still; finding things to say that an assailed
boy could not have found, simply because of the mysteriousness of
his impulses to himself. I understood no more than the people who
called upon me to explain myself. There was no precedent. I
verily believe mine was the only case of a boy of my nationality
and antecedents taking a, so to speak, standing jump out of his
racial surroundings and associations. For you must understand
that there was no idea of any sort of "career" in my call. Of
Russia or Germany there could be no question. The nationality,
the antecedents, made it impossible. The feeling against the
Austrian service was not so strong, and I dare say there would
have been no difficulty in finding my way into the Naval School
at Pola. It would have meant six months' extra grinding at
German, perhaps; but I was not past the age of admission, and in
other respects I was well qualified. This expedient to palliate
my folly was thought of--but not by me. I must admit that in
that respect my negative was accepted at once. That order of
feeling was comprehensible enough to the most inimical of my
critics. I was not called upon to offer explanations; but the
truth is that what I had in view was not a naval career, but the
sea. There seemed no way open to it but through France. I had
the language, at any rate, and of all the countries in Europe it
is with France that Poland has most connection. There were some
facilities for having me a little looked after, at first.
Letters were being written, answers were being received,
arrangements were being made for my departure for Marseilles,
where an excellent fellow called Solary, got at in a round about
fashion through various French channels, had promised
good-naturedly to put le jeune homme in the way of getting a
decent ship for his first start if he really wanted a taste of ce
metier de chien.
I watched all these preparations gratefully, and kept my own
counsel. But what I told the last of my examiners was perfectly
true. Already the determined resolve that "if a seaman, then an
English seaman" was formulated in my head, though, of course, in
the Polish language. I did not know six words of English, and I
was astute enough to understand that it was much better to say
nothing of my purpose. As it was I was already looked upon as
partly insane, at least by the more distant acquaintances. The
principal thing was to get away. I put my trust in the
good-natured Solary's very civil letter to my uncle, though I was
shocked a little by the phrase about the metier de chien.
This Solary (Baptistin), when I beheld him in the flesh, turned
out a quite young man, very good-looking, with a fine black,
short beard, a fresh complexion, and soft, merry black eyes. He
was as jovial and good natured as any boy could desire. I was
still asleep in my room in a modest hotel near the quays of the
old port, after the fatigues of the journey via Vienna, Zurich,
Lyons, when he burst in, flinging the shutters open to the sun of
Provence and chiding me boisterously for lying abed. How
pleasantly he startled me by his noisy objurgations to be up and
off instantly for a "three years' campaign in the South Seas!" O
magic words! "Une campagne de trois ans dans les mers du
sud"--that is the French for a three years' deep-water voyage.
He gave me a delightful waking, and his friendliness was
unwearied; but I fear he did not enter upon the quest for a ship
for me in a very solemn spirit. He had been at sea himself, but
had left off at the age of twenty-five, finding he could earn his
living on shore in a much more agreeable manner. He was related
to an incredible number of Marseilles well-to-do families of a
certain class. One of his uncles was a ship-broker of good
standing, with a large connection among English ships; other
relatives of his dealt in ships' stores, owned sail-lofts, sold
chains and anchors, were master-stevedores, calkers, shipwrights.
His grandfather (I think) was a dignitary of a kind, the Syndic
of the Pilots. I made acquaintances among these people, but
mainly among the pilots. The very first whole day I ever spent
on salt water was by invitation, in a big half-decked pilot-boat,
cruising under close reefs on the lookout, in misty, blowing
weather, for the sails of ships and the smoke of steamers rising
out there, beyond the slim and tall Planier lighthouse cutting
the line of the wind-swept horizon with a white perpendicular
stroke. They were hospitable souls, these sturdy Provencal
seamen. Under the general designation of le petit ami de
Baptistin I was made the guest of the corporation of pilots, and
had the freedom of their boats night or day. And many a day and
a night, too, did I spend cruising with these rough, kindly men,
under whose auspices my intimacy with the sea began. Many a time
"the little friend of Baptistin" had the hooded cloak of the
Mediterranean sailor thrown over him by their honest hands while
dodging at night under the lee of Chateau daft on the watch for
the lights of ships. Their sea tanned faces, whiskered or
shaved, lean or full, with the intent, wrinkled sea eyes of the
pilot breed, and here and there a thin gold hoop at the lobe of a
hairy ear, bent over my sea infancy. The first operation of
seamanship I had an opportunity of observing was the boarding of
ships at sea, at all times, in all states of the weather. They
gave it to me to the full. And I have been invited to sit in
more than one tall, dark house of the old town at their
hospitable board, had the bouillabaisse ladled out into a thick
plate by their high-voiced, broad-browed wives, talked to their
daughters--thick-set girls, with pure profiles, glorious masses
of black hair arranged with complicated art, dark eyes, and
dazzlingly white teeth.
I had also other acquaintances of quite a different sort. One of
them, Madame Delestang, an imperious, handsome lady in a
statuesque style, would carry me off now and then on the front
seat of her carriage to the Prado, at the hour of fashionable
airing. She belonged to one of the old aristocratic families in
the south. In her haughty weariness she used to make me think of
Lady Dedlock in Dickens's "Bleak House," a work of the master for
which I have such an admiration, or rather such an intense and
unreasoning affection, dating from the days of my childhood, that
its very weaknesses are more precious to me than the strength of
other men's work. I have read it innumerable times, both in
Polish and in English; I have read it only the other day, and, by
a not very surprising inversion, the Lady Dedlock of the book
reminded me strongly of the "belle Madame Delestang."
Her husband (as I sat facing them both), with his thin, bony nose
and a perfectly bloodless, narrow physiognomy clamped together,
as it were, by short, formal side whiskers, had nothing of Sir
Leicester Dedlock's "grand air" and courtly solemnity. He
belonged to the haute bourgeoisie only, and was a banker, with
whom a modest credit had been opened for my needs. He was such
an ardent--no, such a frozen-up, mummified Royalist that he used
in current conversation turns of speech contemporary, I should
say, with the good Henri Quatre; and when talking of money
matters, reckoned not in francs, like the common, godless herd of
post-Revolutionary Frenchmen, but in obsolete and forgotten
ecus--ecus of all money units in the world!--as though Louis
Quatorze were still promenading in royal splendour the gardens of
Versailles, and Monsieur de Colbert busy with the direction of
maritime affairs. You must admit that in a banker of the
nineteenth century it was a quaint idiosyncrasy. Luckily, in the
counting-house (it occupied part of the ground floor of the
Delestang town residence, in a silent, shady street) the accounts
were kept in modern money, so that I never had any difficulty in
making my wants known to the grave, low-voiced, decorous,
Legitimist (I suppose) clerks, sitting in the perpetual gloom of
heavily barred windows behind the sombre, ancient counters,
beneath lofty ceilings with heavily molded cornices. I always
felt, on going out, as though I had been in the temple of some
very dignified but completely temporal religion. And it was
generally on these occasions that under the great carriage
gateway Lady Ded--I mean Madame Delestang--catching sight of my
raised hat, would beckon me with an amiable imperiousness to the
side of the carriage, and suggest with an air of amused
nonchalance, "Venez donc faire un tour avec nous," to which the
husband would add an encouraging "C'est ca. Allons, montez,
jeune homme." He questioned me some times, significantly but
with perfect tact and delicacy, as to the way I employed my time,
and never failed to express the hope that I wrote regularly to my
"honoured uncle." I made no secret of the way I employed my
time, and I rather fancy that my artless tales of the pilots and
so on entertained Madame Delestang so far as that ineffable woman
could be entertained by the prattle of a youngster very full of
his new experience among strange men and strange sensations. She
expressed no opinions, and talked to me very little; yet her
portrait hangs in the gallery of my intimate memories, fixed
there by a short and fleeting episode. One day, after putting me
down at the corner of a street, she offered me her hand, and
detained me, by a slight pressure, for a moment. While the
husband sat motionless and looking straight before him, she
leaned forward in the carriage to say, with just a shade of
warning in her leisurely tone: "Il faut, cependant, faire
attention a ne pas gater sa vie." I had never seen her face so
close to mine before. She made my heart beat and caused me to
remain thoughtful for a whole evening. Certainly one must, after
all, take care not to spoil one's life. But she did not know--
nobody could know--how impossible that danger seemed to me.
Can the transports of first love be calmed, checked, turned to a
cold suspicion of the future by a grave quotation from a work on
political economy? I ask--is it conceivable? Is it possible?
Would it be right? With my feet on the very shores of the sea
and about to embrace my blue-eyed dream, what could a
good-natured warning as to spoiling one's life mean to my
youthful passion? It was the most unexpected and the last, too,
of the many warnings I had received. It sounded to me very
bizarre--and, uttered as it was in the very presence of my
enchantress, like the voice of folly, the voice of ignorance.
But I was not so callous or so stupid as not to recognize there
also the voice of kindness. And then the vagueness of the
warning--because what can be the meaning of the phrase: to spoil
one's life?--arrested one's attention by its air of wise
profundity. At any rate, as I have said before, the words of la
belle Madame Delestang made me thoughtful for a whole evening. I
tried to understand and tried in vain, not having any notion of
life as an enterprise that could be mi managed. But I left off
being thoughtful shortly before midnight, at which hour, haunted
by no ghosts of the past and by no visions of the future, I
walked down the quay of the Vieux Port to join the pilot-boat of
my friends. I knew where she would be waiting for her crew, in
the little bit of a canal behind the fort at the entrance of the
harbour. The deserted quays looked very white and dry in the
moonlight, and as if frostbound in the sharp air of that December
night. A prowler or two slunk by noiselessly; a custom-house
guard, soldier-like, a sword by his side, paced close under the
bowsprits of the long row of ships moored bows on opposite the
long, slightly curved, continuous flat wall of the tall houses
that seemed to be one immense abandoned building with innumerable
windows shuttered closely. Only here and there a small, dingy
cafe for sailors cast a yellow gleam on the bluish sheen of the
flagstones. Passing by, one heard a deep murmur of voices
inside--nothing more. How quiet everything was at the end of the
quays on the last night on which I went out for a service cruise
as a guest of the Marseilles pilots! Not a footstep, except my
own, not a sigh, not a whispering echo of the usual revelry going
on in the narrow, unspeakable lanes of the Old Town reached my
ear--and suddenly, with a terrific jingling rattle of iron and
glass, the omnibus of the Jolliette on its last journey swung
around the corner of the dead wall which faces across the paved
road the characteristic angular mass of the Fort St. Jean. Three
horses trotted abreast, with the clatter of hoofs on the granite
setts, and the yellow, uproarious machine jolted violently behind
them, fantastic, lighted up, perfectly empty, and with the driver
apparently asleep on his swaying perch above that amazing racket.
I flattened myself against the wall and gasped. It was a stunning
experience. Then after staggering on a few paces in the shadow
of the fort, casting a darkness more intense than that of a
clouded night upon the canal, I saw the tiny light of a lantern
standing on the quay, and became aware of muffled figures making
toward it from various directions. Pilots of the Third Company
hastening to embark. Too sleepy to be talkative, they step on
board in silence. But a few low grunts and an enormous yawn are
heard. Somebody even ejaculates: "Ah! Coquin de sort!" and sighs
wearily at his hard fate.
The patron of the Third Company (there were five companies of
pilots at that time, I believe) is the brother-in-law of my
friend Solary (Baptistin), a broad-shouldered, deep chested man
of forty, with a keen, frank glance which always seeks your eyes.
He greets me by a low, hearty "He, l'ami. Comment va?" With his
clipped mustache and massive open face, energetic and at the same
time placid in expression, he is a fine specimen of the
southerner of the calm type. For there is such a type in which
the volatile southern passion is transmuted into solid force. He
is fair, but no one could mistake him for a man of the north even
by the dim gleam of the lantern standing on the quay. He is
worth a dozen of your ordinary Normans or Bretons, but then, in
the whole immense sweep of the Mediterranean shores, you could
not find half a dozen men of his stamp.
Standing by the tiller, he pulls out his watch from under a thick
jacket and bends his head over it in the light cast into the
boat. Time's up. His pleasant voice commands, in a quiet
undertone, "Larguez." A suddenly projected arm snatches the
lantern off the quay--and, warped along by a line at first, then
with the regular tug of four heavy sweeps in the bow, the big
half-decked boat full of men glides out of the black, breathless
shadow of the fort. The open water of the avant-port glitters
under the moon as if sown over with millions of sequins, and the
long white break water shines like a thick bar of solid silver.
With a quick rattle of blocks and one single silky swish, the
sail is filled by a little breeze keen enough to have come
straight down from the frozen moon, and the boat, after the
clatter of the hauled-in sweeps, seems to stand at rest,
surrounded by a mysterious whispering so faint and unearthly that
it may be the rustling of the brilliant, overpowering moon rays
breaking like a rain-shower upon the hard, smooth, shadowless
I may well remember that last night spent with the pilots of the
Third Company. I have known the spell of moonlight since, on
various seas and coasts--coasts of forests, of rocks, of sand
dunes--but no magic so perfect in its revelation of unsuspected
character, as though one were allowed to look upon the mystic
nature of material things. For hours I suppose no word was spoken
in that boat. The pilots, seated in two rows facing each other,
dozed, with their arms folded and their chins resting upon their
breasts. They displayed a great variety of caps: cloth, wool,
leather, peaks, ear-flaps, tassels, with a picturesque round
beret or two pulled down over the brows; and one grandfather,
with a shaved, bony face and a great beak of a nose, had a cloak
with a hood which made him look in our midst like a cowled monk
being carried off goodness knows where by that silent company of
seamen--quiet enough to be dead.
My fingers itched for the tiller, and in due course my friend,
the patron, surrendered it to me in the same spirit in which the
family coachman lets a boy hold the reins on an easy bit of road.
There was a great solitude around us; the islets ahead, Monte
Cristo and the Chateau daft in full light, seemed to float toward
us--so steady, so imperceptible was the progress of our boat.
"Keep her in the furrow of the moon," the patron directed me, in
a quiet murmur, sitting down ponderously in the stern-sheets and
reaching for his pipe.
The pilot station in weather like this was only a mile or two to
the westward of the islets; and presently, as we approached the
spot, the boat we were going to relieve swam into our view
suddenly, on her way home, cutting black and sinister into the
wake of the moon under a sable wing, while to them our sail must
have been a vision of white and dazzling radiance. Without
altering the course a hair's breadth we slipped by each other
within an oar's length. A drawling, sardonic hail came out of
her. Instantly, as if by magic, our dozing pilots got on their
feet in a body. An incredible babel of bantering shouts burst
out, a jocular, passionate, voluble chatter, which lasted till
the boats were stern to stern, theirs all bright now, and, with a
shining sail to our eyes, we turned all black to their vision,
and drew away from them under a sable wing. That extraordinary
uproar died away almost as suddenly as it had begun; first one
had enough of it and sat down, then another, then three or four
together; and when all had left off with mutters and growling
half-laughs the sound of hearty chuckling became audible,
persistent, unnoticed. The cowled grandfather was very much
entertained somewhere within his hood.
He had not joined in the shouting of jokes, neither had he moved
the least bit. He had remained quietly in his place against the
foot of the mast. I had been given to understand long before
that he had the rating of a second-class able seaman (matelot
leger) in the fleet which sailed from Toulon for the conquest of
Algeria in the year of grace 1830. And, indeed, I had seen and
examined one of the buttons of his old brown, patched coat, the
only brass button of the miscellaneous lot, flat and thin, with
the words Equipages de ligne engraved on it. That sort of
button, I believe, went out with the last of the French Bourbons.
"I preserved it from the time of my navy service," he explained,
nodding rapidly his frail, vulture-like head. It was not very
likely that he had picked up that relic in the street. He looked
certainly old enough to have fought at Trafalgar--or, at any
rate, to have played his little part there as a powder monkey.
Shortly after we had been introduced he had informed me in a
Franco-Provencal jargon, mumbling tremulously with his toothless
jaws, that when he was a "shaver no higher than that" he had seen
the Emperor Napoleon returning from Elba. It was at night, he
narrated vaguely, without animation, at a spot between Frejus and
Antibes, in the open country. A big fire had been lit at the
side of the cross-roads. The population from several villages
had collected there, old and young--down to the very children in
arms, because the women had refused to stay at home. Tall
soldiers wearing high, hairy caps stood in a circle, facing the
people silently, and their stern eyes and big mustaches were
enough to make everybody keep at a distance. He, "being an
impudent little shaver," wriggled out of the crowd, creeping on
his hands and knees as near as he dared to the grenadiers' legs,
and peeping through discovered, standing perfectly still in the
light of the fire, "a little fat fellow in a three-cornered hat,
buttoned up in a long straight coat, with a big, pale face
inclined on one shoulder, looking something like a priest. His
hands were clasped behind his back. . . . It appears that this
was the Emperor," the ancient commented, with a faint sigh. He
was staring from the ground with all his might, when "my poor
father," who had been searching for his boy frantically every
where, pounced upon him and hauled him away by the ear.
The tale seems an authentic recollection. He related it to me
many times, using the very same words. The grandfather honoured
me by a special and somewhat embarrassing predilection. Extremes
touch. He was the oldest member by a long way in that company,
and I was, if I may say so, its temporarily adopted baby. He had
been a pilot longer than any man in the boat could remember;
thirty--forty years. He did not seem certain himself, but it
could be found out, he suggested, in the archives of the
Pilot-office. He had been pensioned off years before, but he
went out from force of habit; and, as my friend the patron of the
company once confided to me in a whisper, "the old chap did no
harm. He was not in the way." They treated him with rough
deference. One and another would address some insignificant
remark to him now and again, but nobody really took any notice of
what he had to say. He had survived his strength, his
usefulness, his very wisdom. He wore long, green, worsted
stockings pulled up above the knee over his trousers, a sort of
woollen nightcap on his hairless cranium, and wooden clogs on his
feet. Without his hooded cloak he looked like a peasant. Half a
dozen hands would be extended to help him on board, but afterward
he was left pretty much to his own thoughts. Of course he never
did any work, except, perhaps, to cast off some rope when hailed,
"He, l'Ancien! let go the halyards there, at your hand"--or some
such request of an easy kind.
No one took notice in any way of the chuckling within the shadow
of the hood. He kept it up for a long time with intense
enjoyment. Obviously he had preserved intact the innocence of
mind which is easily amused. But when his hilarity had exhausted
itself, he made a professional remark in a self-assertive but
quavering voice:
"Can't expect much work on a night like this."
No one took it up. It was a mere truism. Nothing under canvas
could be expected to make a port on such an idle night of dreamy
splendour and spiritual stillness. We would have to glide idly
to and fro, keeping our station within the appointed bearings,
and, unless a fresh breeze sprang up with the dawn, we would land
before sunrise on a small islet that, within two miles of us,
shone like a lump of frozen moonlight, to "break a crust and take
a pull at the wine bottle." I was familiar with the procedure.
The stout boat emptied of her crowd would nestle her buoyant,
capable side against the very rock--such is the perfectly smooth
amenity of the classic sea when in a gentle mood. The crust
broken and the mouthful of wine swallowed--it was literally no
more than that with this abstemious race--the pilots would pass
the time stamping their feet on the slabs of sea-salted stone and
blowing into their nipped fingers. One or two misanthropists
would sit apart, perched on boulders like manlike sea-fowl of
solitary habits; the sociably disposed would gossip scandalously
in little gesticulating knots; and there would be perpetually one
or another of my hosts taking aim at the empty horizon with the
long, brass tube of the telescope, a heavy, murderous-looking
piece of collective property, everlastingly changing hands with
brandishing and levelling movements. Then about noon (it was a
short turn of duty--the long turn lasted twenty-four hours)
another boatful of pilots would relieve us--and we should steer
for the old Phoenician port, dominated, watched over from the
ridge of a dust-gray, arid hill by the red-and-white striped pile
of the Notre Dame de la Garde.
All this came to pass as I had foreseen in the fullness of my
very recent experience. But also something not foreseen by me
did happen, something which causes me to remember my last outing
with the pilots. It was on this occasion that my hand touched,
for the first time, the side of an English ship.
No fresh breeze had come with the dawn, only the steady little
draught got a more keen edge on it as the eastern sky became
bright and glassy with a clean, colourless light. I t was while
we were all ashore on the islet that a steamer was picked up by
the telescope, a black speck like an insect posed on the hard
edge of the offing. She emerged rapidly to her water-line and
came on steadily, a slim hull with a long streak of smoke
slanting away from the rising sun. We embarked in a hurry, and
headed the boat out for our prey, but we hardly moved three miles
an hour.
She was a big, high-class cargo-steamer of a type that is to be
met on the sea no more--black hull, with low, white
superstructures, powerfully rigged with three masts and a lot of
yards on the fore; two hands at her enormous wheel--steam
steering-gear was not a matter of course in these days--and with
them on the bridge three others, bulky in thick blue jackets,
ruddy-faced, muffled up, with peak caps--I suppose all her
officers. There are ships I have met more than once and known
well by sight whose names I have forgotten; but the name of that
ship seen once so many years ago in the clear flush of a cold,
pale sunrise I have not forgotten. How could I--the first
English ship on whose side I ever laid my hand! The name--I read
it letter by letter on the bow--was James Westoll. Not very
romantic, you will say. The name of a very considerable,
well-known, and universally respected North country ship-owner, I
believe. James Westoll! What better name could an honourable
hard-working ship have? To me the very grouping of the letters
is alive with the romantic feeling of her reality as I saw her
floating motionless and borrowing an ideal grace from the austere
purity of the light.
We were then very near her and, on a sudden impulse, I
volunteered to pull bow in the dinghy which shoved off at once to
put the pilot on board while our boat, fanned by the faint air
which had attended us all through the night, went on gliding
gently past the black, glistening length of the ship. A few
strokes brought us alongside, and it was then that, for the very
first time in my life, I heard myself addressed in English--the
speech of my secret choice, of my future, of long friendships, of
the deepest affections, of hours of toil and hours of ease, and
of solitary hours, too, of books read, of thoughts pursued, of
remembered emotions--of my very dreams! And if (after being thus
fashioned by it in that part of me which cannot decay) I dare not
claim it aloud as my own, then, at any rate, the speech of my
children. Thus small events grow memorable by the passage of
time. As to the quality of the address itself I cannot say it
was very striking. Too short for eloquence and devoid of all
charm of tone, it consisted precisely of the three words "Look
out there!" growled out huskily above my head.
It proceeded from a big fat fellow (he had an obtrusive, hairy
double chin) in a blue woollen shirt and roomy breeches pulled up
very high, even to the level of his breastbone, by a pair of
braces quite exposed to public view. As where he stood there was
no bulwark, but only a rail and stanchions, I was able to take in
at a glance the whole of his voluminous person from his feet to
the high crown of his soft black hat, which sat like an absurd
flanged cone on his big head. The grotesque and massive aspect
of that deck hand (I suppose he was that--very likely the
lamp-trimmer) surprised me very much. My course of reading, of
dreaming, and longing for the sea had not prepared me for a sea
brother of that sort. I never met again a figure in the least
like his except in the illustrations to Mr. W. W. Jacobs's most
entertaining tales of barges and coasters; but the inspired
talent of Mr. Jacobs for poking endless fun at poor, innocent
sailors in a prose which, however extravagant in its felicitous
invention, is always artistically adjusted to observed truth, was
not yet. Perhaps Mr. Jacobs himself was not yet. I fancy that,
at most, if he had made his nurse laugh it was about all he had
achieved at that early date.
Therefore, I repeat, other disabilities apart, I could not have
been prepared for the sight of that husky old porpoise. The
object of his concise address was to call my attention to a rope
which he incontinently flung down for me to catch. I caught it,
though it was not really necessary, the ship having no way on her
by that time. Then everything went on very swiftly. The dinghy
came with a slight bump against the steamer's side; the pilot,
grabbing for the rope ladder, had scrambled half-way up before I
knew that our task of boarding was done; the harsh, muffled
clanging of the engine-room telegraph struck my ear through the
iron plate; my companion in the dinghy was urging me to "shove
off--push hard"; and when I bore against the smooth flank of the
first English ship I ever touched in my life, I felt it already
throbbing under my open palm.
Her head swung a little to the west, pointing toward the
miniature lighthouse of the Jolliette breakwater, far away there,
hardly distinguishable against the land. The dinghy danced a
squashy, splashy jig in the wash of the wake; and, turning in my
seat, I followed the James Westoll with my eyes. Before she had
gone in a quarter of a mile she hoisted her flag, as the harbour
regulations prescribe for arriving and departing ships. I saw it
suddenly flicker and stream out on the flag staff. The Red
Ensign! In the pellucid, colourless atmosphere bathing the drab
and gray masses of that southern land, the livid islets, the sea
of pale, glassy blue under the pale, glassy sky of that cold
sunrise, it was, as far as the eye could reach, the only spot of
ardent colour--flame-like, intense, and presently as minute as
the tiny red spark the concentrated reflection of a great fire
kindles in the clear heart of a globe of crystal. The Red
Ensign--the symbolic, protecting, warm bit of bunting flung wide
upon the seas, and destined for so many years to be the only roof
over my head.

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