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Transcribed form the 1914 Methuen & Co. edition by David Price, email
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CHANCE - A TALE IN TWO PARTS


Those that hold that all things are governed by Fortune had not erred,
had they not persisted there

SIR THOMAS BROWNE

TO SIR HUGH CLIFFORD, K.C.M.G. WHO STEADFAST FRIENDSHIP IS RESPONSIBLE
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF THESE PAGES




PART I - THE DAMSEL


CHAPTER ONE - YOUNG POWELL AND HIS CHANCE


I believe he had seen us out of the window coming off to dine in the
dinghy of a fourteen-ton yawl belonging to Marlow my host and skipper. We
helped the boy we had with us to haul the boat up on the landing-stage
before we went up to the riverside inn, where we found our new
acquaintance eating his dinner in dignified loneliness at the head of a
long table, white and inhospitable like a snow bank.

The red tint of his clear-cut face with trim short black whiskers under a
cap of curly iron-grey hair was the only warm spot in the dinginess of
that room cooled by the cheerless tablecloth. We knew him already by
sight as the owner of a little five-ton cutter, which he sailed alone
apparently, a fellow yachtsman in the unpretending band of fanatics who
cruise at the mouth of the Thames. But the first time he addressed the
waiter sharply as 'steward' we knew him at once for a sailor as well as a
yachtsman.

Presently he had occasion to reprove that same waiter for the slovenly
manner in which the dinner was served. He did it with considerable
energy and then turned to us.

"If we at sea," he declared, "went about our work as people ashore high
and low go about theirs we should never make a living. No one would
employ us. And moreover no ship navigated and sailed in the happy-go-
lucky manner people conduct their business on shore would ever arrive
into port."

Since he had retired from the sea he had been astonished to discover that
the educated people were not much better than the others. No one seemed
to take any proper pride in his work: from plumbers who were simply
thieves to, say, newspaper men (he seemed to think them a specially
intellectual class) who never by any chance gave a correct version of the
simplest affair. This universal inefficiency of what he called "the
shore gang" he ascribed in general to the want of responsibility and to a
sense of security.

"They see," he went on, "that no matter what they do this tight little
island won't turn turtle with them or spring a leak and go to the bottom
with their wives and children."

From this point the conversation took a special turn relating exclusively
to sea-life. On that subject he got quickly in touch with Marlow who in
his time had followed the sea. They kept up a lively exchange of
reminiscences while I listened. They agreed that the happiest time in
their lives was as youngsters in good ships, with no care in the world
but not to lose a watch below when at sea and not a moment's time in
going ashore after work hours when in harbour. They agreed also as to
the proudest moment they had known in that calling which is never
embraced on rational and practical grounds, because of the glamour of its
romantic associations. It was the moment when they had passed
successfully their first examination and left the seamanship Examiner
with the little precious slip of blue paper in their hands.

"That day I wouldn't have called the Queen my cousin," declared our new
acquaintance enthusiastically.

At that time the Marine Board examinations took place at the St.
Katherine's Dock House on Tower Hill, and he informed us that he had a
special affection for the view of that historic locality, with the
Gardens to the left, the front of the Mint to the right, the miserable
tumble-down little houses farther away, a cabstand, boot-blacks squatting
on the edge of the pavement and a pair of big policemen gazing with an
air of superiority at the doors of the Black Horse public-house across
the road. This was the part of the world, he said, his eyes first took
notice of, on the finest day of his life. He had emerged from the main
entrance of St. Katherine's Dock House a full-fledged second mate after
the hottest time of his life with Captain R-, the most dreaded of the
three seamanship Examiners who at the time were responsible for the
merchant service officers qualifying in the Port of London.

"We all who were preparing to pass," he said, "used to shake in our shoes
at the idea of going before him. He kept me for an hour and a half in
the torture chamber and behaved as though he hated me. He kept his eyes
shaded with one of his hands. Suddenly he let it drop saying, "You will
do!" Before I realised what he meant he was pushing the blue slip across
the table. I jumped up as if my chair had caught fire.

"Thank you, sir," says I, grabbing the paper.

"Good morning, good luck to you," he growls at me.

"The old doorkeeper fussed out of the cloak-room with my hat. They
always do. But he looked very hard at me before he ventured to ask in a
sort of timid whisper: "Got through all right, sir?" For all answer I
dropped a half-crown into his soft broad palm. "Well," says he with a
sudden grin from ear to ear, "I never knew him keep any of you gentlemen
so long. He failed two second mates this morning before your turn came.
Less than twenty minutes each: that's about his usual time."

"I found myself downstairs without being aware of the steps as if I had
floated down the staircase. The finest day in my life. The day you get
your first command is nothing to it. For one thing a man is not so young
then and for another with us, you know, there is nothing much more to
expect. Yes, the finest day of one's life, no doubt, but then it is just
a day and no more. What comes after is about the most unpleasant time
for a youngster, the trying to get an officer's berth with nothing much
to show but a brand-new certificate. It is surprising how useless you
find that piece of ass's skin that you have been putting yourself in such
a state about. It didn't strike me at the time that a Board of Trade
certificate does not make an officer, not by a long long way. But the
slippers of the ships I was haunting with demands for a job knew that
very well. I don't wonder at them now, and I don't blame them either.
But this 'trying to get a ship' is pretty hard on a youngster all the
same . . . "

He went on then to tell us how tired he was and how discouraged by this
lesson of disillusion following swiftly upon the finest day of his life.
He told us how he went the round of all the ship-owners' offices in the
City where some junior clerk would furnish him with printed forms of
application which he took home to fill up in the evening. He used to run
out just before midnight to post them in the nearest pillar-box. And
that was all that ever came of it. In his own words: he might just as
well have dropped them all properly addressed and stamped into the sewer
grating.

Then one day, as he was wending his weary way to the docks, he met a
friend and former shipmate a little older than himself outside the
Fenchurch Street Railway Station.

He craved for sympathy but his friend had just "got a ship" that very
morning and was hurrying home in a state of outward joy and inward
uneasiness usual to a sailor who after many days of waiting suddenly gets
a berth. This friend had the time to condole with him but briefly. He
must be moving. Then as he was running off, over his shoulder as it
were, he suggested: "Why don't you go and speak to Mr. Powell in the
Shipping Office." Our friend objected that he did not know Mr. Powell
from Adam. And the other already pretty near round the corner shouted
back advice: "Go to the private door of the Shipping Office and walk
right up to him. His desk is by the window. Go up boldly and say I sent
you."

Our new acquaintance looking from one to the other of us declared: "Upon
my word, I had grown so desperate that I'd have gone boldly up to the
devil himself on the mere hint that he had a second mate's job to give
away."

It was at this point that interrupting his flow of talk to light his pipe
but holding us with his eye he inquired whether we had known Powell.
Marlow with a slight reminiscent smile murmured that he "remembered him
very well."

Then there was a pause. Our new acquaintance had become involved in a
vexatious difficulty with his pipe which had suddenly betrayed his trust
and disappointed his anticipation of self-indulgence. To keep the ball
rolling I asked Marlow if this Powell was remarkable in any way.

"He was not exactly remarkable," Marlow answered with his usual
nonchalance. "In a general way it's very difficult for one to become
remarkable. People won't take sufficient notice of one, don't you know.
I remember Powell so well simply because as one of the Shipping Masters
in the Port of London he dispatched me to sea on several long stages of
my sailor's pilgrimage. He resembled Socrates. I mean he resembled him
genuinely: that is in the face. A philosophical mind is but an accident.
He reproduced exactly the familiar bust of the immortal sage, if you will
imagine the bust with a high top hat riding far on the back of the head,
and a black coat over the shoulders. As I never saw him except from the
other side of the long official counter bearing the five writing desks of
the five Shipping Masters, Mr. Powell has remained a bust to me."

Our new acquaintance advanced now from the mantelpiece with his pipe in
good working order.

"What was the most remarkable about Powell," he enunciated dogmatically
with his head in a cloud of smoke, "is that he should have had just that
name. You see, my name happens to be Powell too."

It was clear that this intelligence was not imparted to us for social
purposes. It required no acknowledgment. We continued to gaze at him
with expectant eyes.

He gave himself up to the vigorous enjoyment of his pipe for a silent
minute or two. Then picking up the thread of his story he told us how he
had started hot foot for Tower Hill. He had not been that way since the
day of his examination - the finest day of his life - the day of his
overweening pride. It was very different now. He would not have called
the Queen his cousin, still, but this time it was from a sense of
profound abasement. He didn't think himself good enough for anybody's
kinship. He envied the purple-nosed old cab-drivers on the stand, the
boot-black boys at the edge of the pavement, the two large bobbies pacing
slowly along the Tower Gardens railings in the consciousness of their
infallible might, and the bright scarlet sentries walking smartly to and
fro before the Mint. He envied them their places in the scheme of
world's labour. And he envied also the miserable sallow, thin-faced
loafers blinking their obscene eyes and rubbing their greasy shoulders
against the door-jambs of the Black Horse pub, because they were too far
gone to feel their degradation.

I must render the man the justice that he conveyed very well to us the
sense of his youthful hopelessness surprised at not finding its place in
the sun and no recognition of its right to live.

He went up the outer steps of St. Katherine's Dock House, the very steps
from which he had some six weeks before surveyed the cabstand, the
buildings, the policemen, the boot-blacks, the paint, gilt, and
plateglass of the Black Horse, with the eye of a Conqueror. At the time
he had been at the bottom of his heart surprised that all this had not
greeted him with songs and incense, but now (he made no secret of it) he
made his entry in a slinking fashion past the doorkeeper's glass box. "I
hadn't any half-crowns to spare for tips," he remarked grimly. The man,
however, ran out after him asking: "What do you require?" but with a
grateful glance up at the first floor in remembrance of Captain R-'s
examination room (how easy and delightful all that had been) he bolted
down a flight leading to the basement and found himself in a place of
dusk and mystery and many doors. He had been afraid of being stopped by
some rule of no-admittance. However he was not pursued.

The basement of St. Katherine's Dock House is vast in extent and
confusing in its plan. Pale shafts of light slant from above into the
gloom of its chilly passages. Powell wandered up and down there like an
early Christian refugee in the catacombs; but what little faith he had in
the success of his enterprise was oozing out at his finger-tips. At a
dark turn under a gas bracket whose flame was half turned down his self-
confidence abandoned him altogether.

"I stood there to think a little," he said. "A foolish thing to do
because of course I got scared. What could you expect? It takes some
nerve to tackle a stranger with a request for a favour. I wished my
namesake Powell had been the devil himself. I felt somehow it would have
been an easier job. You see, I never believed in the devil enough to be
scared of him; but a man can make himself very unpleasant. I looked at a
lot of doors, all shut tight, with a growing conviction that I would
never have the pluck to open one of them. Thinking's no good for one's
nerve. I concluded I would give up the whole business. But I didn't
give up in the end, and I'll tell you what stopped me. It was the
recollection of that confounded doorkeeper who had called after me. I
felt sure the fellow would be on the look-out at the head of the stairs.
If he asked me what I had been after, as he had the right to do, I
wouldn't know what to answer that wouldn't make me look silly if no
worse. I got very hot. There was no chance of slinking out of this
business.

"I had lost my bearings somehow down there. Of the many doors of various
sizes, right and left, a good few had glazed lights above; some however
must have led merely into lumber rooms or such like, because when I
brought myself to try one or two I was disconcerted to find that they
were locked. I stood there irresolute and uneasy like a baffled thief.
The confounded basement was as still as a grave and I became aware of my
heart beats. Very uncomfortable sensation. Never happened to me before
or since. A bigger door to the left of me, with a large brass handle
looked as if it might lead into the Shipping Office. I tried it, setting
my teeth. "Here goes!"

"It came open quite easily. And lo! the place it opened into was hardly
any bigger than a cupboard. Anyhow it wasn't more than ten feet by
twelve; and as I in a way expected to see the big shadowy cellar-like
extent of the Shipping Office where I had been once or twice before, I
was extremely startled. A gas bracket hung from the middle of the
ceiling over a dark, shabby writing-desk covered with a litter of
yellowish dusty documents. Under the flame of the single burner which
made the place ablaze with light, a plump, little man was writing hard,
his nose very near the desk. His head was perfectly bald and about the
same drab tint as the papers. He appeared pretty dusty too.

"I didn't notice whether there were any cobwebs on him, but I shouldn't
wonder if there were because he looked as though he had been imprisoned
for years in that little hole. The way he dropped his pen and sat
blinking my way upset me very much. And his dungeon was hot and musty;
it smelt of gas and mushrooms, and seemed to be somewhere 120 feet below
the ground. Solid, heavy stacks of paper filled all the corners half-way
up to the ceiling. And when the thought flashed upon me that these were
the premises of the Marine Board and that this fellow must be connected
in some way with ships and sailors and the sea, my astonishment took my
breath away. One couldn't imagine why the Marine Board should keep that
bald, fat creature slaving down there. For some reason or other I felt
sorry and ashamed to have found him out in his wretched captivity. I
asked gently and sorrowfully: "The Shipping Office, please."

He piped up in a contemptuous squeaky voice which made me start: "Not
here. Try the passage on the other side. Street side. This is the Dock
side. You've lost your way . . . "

He spoke in such a spiteful tone that I thought he was going to round off
with the words: "You fool" . . . and perhaps he meant to. But what he
finished sharply with was: "Shut the door quietly after you."

And I did shut it quietly - you bet. Quick and quiet. The indomitable
spirit of that chap impressed me. I wonder sometimes whether he has
succeeded in writing himself into liberty and a pension at last, or had
to go out of his gas-lighted grave straight into that other dark one
where nobody would want to intrude. My humanity was pleased to discover
he had so much kick left in him, but I was not comforted in the least. It
occurred to me that if Mr. Powell had the same sort of temper . . .
However, I didn't give myself time to think and scuttled across the space
at the foot of the stairs into the passage where I'd been told to try.
And I tried the first door I came to, right away, without any hanging
back, because coming loudly from the hall above an amazed and scandalized
voice wanted to know what sort of game I was up to down there. "Don't
you know there's no admittance that way?" it roared. But if there was
anything more I shut it out of my hearing by means of a door marked
_Private_ on the outside. It let me into a six-feet wide strip between a
long counter and the wall, taken off a spacious, vaulted room with a
grated window and a glazed door giving daylight to the further end. The
first thing I saw right in front of me were three middle-aged men having
a sort of romp together round about another fellow with a thin, long neck
and sloping shoulders who stood up at a desk writing on a large sheet of
paper and taking no notice except that he grinned quietly to himself.
They turned very sour at once when they saw me. I heard one of them
mutter 'Hullo! What have we here?'

"'I want to see Mr. Powell, please,' I said, very civil but firm; I would
let nothing scare me away now. This was the Shipping Office right
enough. It was after 3 o'clock and the business seemed over for the day
with them. The long-necked fellow went on with his writing steadily. I
observed that he was no longer grinning. The three others tossed their
heads all together towards the far end of the room where a fifth man had
been looking on at their antics from a high stool. I walked up to him as
boldly as if he had been the devil himself. With one foot raised up and
resting on the cross-bar of his seat he never stopped swinging the other
which was well clear of the stone floor. He had unbuttoned the top of
his waistcoat and he wore his tall hat very far at the back of his head.
He had a full unwrinkled face and such clear-shining eyes that his grey
beard looked quite false on him, stuck on for a disguise. You said just
now he resembled Socrates - didn't you? I don't know about that. This
Socrates was a wise man, I believe?"

"He was," assented Marlow. "And a true friend of youth. He lectured
them in a peculiarly exasperating manner. It was a way he had."

"Then give me Powell every time," declared our new acquaintance sturdily.
"He didn't lecture me in any way. Not he. He said: 'How do you do?'
quite kindly to my mumble. Then says he looking very hard at me: 'I
don't think I know you - do I?'

"No, sir," I said and down went my heart sliding into my boots, just as
the time had come to summon up all my cheek. There's nothing meaner in
the world than a piece of impudence that isn't carried off well. For
fear of appearing shamefaced I started about it so free and easy as
almost to frighten myself. He listened for a while looking at my face
with surprise and curiosity and then held up his hand. I was glad enough
to shut up, I can tell you.

"Well, you are a cool hand," says he. "And that friend of yours too. He
pestered me coming here every day for a fortnight till a captain I'm
acquainted with was good enough to give him a berth. And no sooner he's
provided for than he turns you on. You youngsters don't seem to mind
whom you get into trouble."

"It was my turn now to stare with surprise and curiosity. He hadn't been
talking loud but he lowered his voice still more.

"Don't you know it's illegal?"

"I wondered what he was driving at till I remembered that procuring a
berth for a sailor is a penal offence under the Act. That clause was
directed of course against the swindling practices of the boarding-house
crimps. It had never struck me it would apply to everybody alike no
matter what the motive, because I believed then that people on shore did
their work with care and foresight.

"I was confounded at the idea, but Mr. Powell made me soon see that an
Act of Parliament hasn't any sense of its own. It has only the sense
that's put into it; and that's precious little sometimes. He didn't mind
helping a young man to a ship now and then, he said, but if we kept on
coming constantly it would soon get about that he was doing it for money.

"A pretty thing that would be: the Senior Shipping-Master of the Port of
London hauled up in a police court and fined fifty pounds," says he.
"I've another four years to serve to get my pension. It could be made to
look very black against me and don't you make any mistake about it," he
says.

"And all the time with one knee well up he went on swinging his other leg
like a boy on a gate and looking at me very straight with his shining
eyes. I was confounded I tell you. It made me sick to hear him imply
that somebody would make a report against him.

"Oh!" I asked shocked, "who would think of such a scurvy trick, sir?" I
was half disgusted with him for having the mere notion of it.

"Who?" says he, speaking very low. "Anybody. One of the office
messengers maybe. I've risen to be the Senior of this office and we are
all very good friends here, but don't you think that my colleague that
sits next to me wouldn't like to go up to this desk by the window four
years in advance of the regulation time? Or even one year for that
matter. It's human nature."

"I could not help turning my head. The three fellows who had been
skylarking when I came in were now talking together very soberly, and the
long-necked chap was going on with his writing still. He seemed to me
the most dangerous of the lot. I saw him sideface and his lips were set
very tight. I had never looked at mankind in that light before. When
one's young human nature shocks one. But what startled me most was to
see the door I had come through open slowly and give passage to a head in
a uniform cap with a Board of Trade badge. It was that blamed old
doorkeeper from the hall. He had run me to earth and meant to dig me out
too. He walked up the office smirking craftily, cap in hand.

"What is it, Symons?" asked Mr. Powell.

"I was only wondering where this 'ere gentleman 'ad gone to, sir. He
slipped past me upstairs, sir."

I felt mighty uncomfortable.

"That's all right, Symons. I know the gentleman," says Mr. Powell as
serious as a judge.

"Very well, sir. Of course, sir. I saw the gentleman running races all
by 'isself down 'ere, so I . . ."

"It's all right I tell you," Mr. Powell cut him short with a wave of his
hand; and, as the old fraud walked off at last, he raised his eyes to me.
I did not know what to do: stay there, or clear out, or say that I was
sorry.

"Let's see," says he, "what did you tell me your name was?"

"Now, observe, I hadn't given him my name at all and his question
embarrassed me a bit. Somehow or other it didn't seem proper for me to
fling his own name at him as it were. So I merely pulled out my new
certificate from my pocket and put it into his hand unfolded, so that he
could read _Charles Powell_ written very plain on the parchment.

"He dropped his eyes on to it and after a while laid it quietly on the
desk by his side. I didn't know whether he meant to make any remark on
this coincidence. Before he had time to say anything the glass door came
open with a bang and a tall, active man rushed in with great strides. His
face looked very red below his high silk hat. You could see at once he
was the skipper of a big ship.

"Mr. Powell after telling me in an undertone to wait a little addressed
him in a friendly way.

"I've been expecting you in every moment to fetch away your Articles,
Captain. Here they are all ready for you." And turning to a pile of
agreements lying at his elbow he took up the topmost of them. From where



Online LibraryJoseph ConradChance → online text (page 1 of 32)