Joseph Conrad.

Tales Of Hearsay online

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it work. It isn't real to him. But he sees the gold. That's real. Of
course, nothing could induce me. I suffer from an internal disease. I
would either go crazy from anxiety - or - or - take to drink or something.
The risk is too great. Why - ruin!'

"'It should be death.' The commanding officer got up, after this curt
declaration, which the other received with a hard stare oddly combined
with an uncertain smile. The officer's gorge rose at the atmosphere of
murderous complicity which surrounded him, denser, more impenetrable,
more acrid than the fog outside.

"'It's nothing to me,' murmured the Northman, swaying visibly.

"'Of course not,' assented the commanding officer, with a great effort
to keep his voice calm and low. The certitude was strong within him.
'But I am going to clear all you fellows off this coast at once. And I
will begin with you. You must leave in half an hour.'

"By that time the officer was walking along the deck with the Northman
at his elbow.

"'What! In this fog?' the latter cried out, huskily.

"'Yes, you will have to go in this fog.'

"'But I don't know where I am. I really don't.'

"The commanding officer turned round. A sort of fury possessed him.
The eyes of the two men met. Those of the Northman expressed a profound

"'Oh, you don't know how to get out.' The commanding officer spoke with
composure, but his heart was beating with anger and dread. 'I will give
you your course. Steer south-by-east-half-east for about four miles
and then you will be clear to haul to the eastward for your port. The
weather will clear up before very long.'

"'Must I? What could induce me? I haven't the nerve.'

"'And yet you must go. Unless you want to - - - '

"'I don't want to,' panted the Northman. 'I've enough of it.'

"The commanding officer got over the side. The Northman remained
still as if rooted to the deck. Before his boat reached his ship the
commanding officer heard the steamer beginning to pick up her anchor.
Then, shadowy in the fog, she steamed out on the given course.

"'Yes,' he said to his officers, 'I let him go.'"

The narrator bent forward towards the couch, where no movement betrayed
the presence of a living person.

"Listen," he said, forcibly. "That course would lead the Northman
straight on a deadly ledge of rock. And the commanding officer gave it
to him. He steamed out - ran on it - and went down. So he had spoken the
truth. He did not know where he was. But it proves nothing. Nothing
either way. It may have been the only truth in all his story. And yet...
He seems to have been driven out by a menacing stare - nothing more."

He abandoned all pretence.

"Yes, I gave that course to him. It seemed to me a supreme test. I
believe - no, I don't believe. I don't know. At the time I was certain.
They all went down; and I don't know whether I have done stern
retribution - or murder; whether I have added to the corpses that litter
the bed of the unreadable sea the bodies of men completely innocent or
basely guilty. I don't know. I shall never know."

He rose. The woman on the couch got up and threw her arms round his
neck. Her eyes put two gleams in the deep shadow of the room. She knew
his passion for truth, his horror of deceit, his humanity.

"Oh, my poor, poor - - - "

"I shall never know," he repeated, sternly, disengaged himself, pressed
her hands to his lips, and went out.


A good many years ago there were several ships loading at the Jetty,
London Dock. I am speaking here of the 'eighties of the last century, of
the time when London had plenty of fine ships in the docks, though not
so many fine buildings in its streets.

The ships at the Jetty were fine enough; they lay one behind the other;
and the __Sapphire__, third from the end, was as good as the rest of
them, and nothing more. Each ship at the Jetty had, of course, her chief
officer on board. So had every other ship in dock.

The policeman at the gates knew them all by sight, without being able to
say at once, without thinking, to what ship any particular man belonged.
As a matter of fact, the mates of the ships then lying in the London
Dock were like the majority of officers in the Merchant Service - a
steady, hard-working, staunch, un-romantic-looking set of men,
belonging to various classes of society, but with the professional stamp
obliterating the personal characteristics, which were not very marked

This last was true of them all, with the exception of the mate of the
_Sapphire_. Of him the policemen could not be in doubt. This one had a

He was noticeable to them in the street from a great distance; and when
in the morning he strode down the Jetty to his ship, the lumpers and
the dock labourers rolling the bales and trundling the cases of cargo on
their hand-trucks would remark to each other:

"Here's the black mate coming along."

That was the name they gave him, being a gross lot, who could have no
appreciation of the man's dignified bearing. And to call him black was
the superficial impressionism of the ignorant.

Of course, Mr. Bunter, the mate of the _Sapphire_, was not black. He was
no more black than you or I, and certainly as white as any chief mate
of a ship in the whole of the Port of London. His complexion was of the
sort that did not take the tan easily; and I happen to know that
the poor fellow had had a month's illness just before he joined the

From this you will perceive that I knew Bunter. Of course I knew
him. And, what's more, I knew his secret at the time, this secret
which - never mind just now. Returning to Bunter's personal appearance,
it was nothing but ignorant prejudice on the part of the foreman
stevedore to say, as he did in my hearing: "I bet he's a furriner of
some sort." A man may have black hair without being set down for a Dago.
I have known a West-country sailor, boatswain of a fine ship, who looked
more Spanish than any Spaniard afloat I've ever met. He looked like a
Spaniard in a picture.

Competent authorities tell us that this earth is to be finally the
inheritance of men with dark hair and brown eyes. It seems that already
the great majority of mankind is dark-haired in various shades. But
it is only when you meet one that you notice how men with really black
hair, black as ebony, are rare. Bunter's hair was absolutely black,
black as a raven's wing. He wore, too, all his beard (clipped, but a
good length all the same), and his eyebrows were thick and bushy. Add
to this steely blue eyes, which in a fair-haired man would have been
nothing so extraordinary, but in that sombre framing made a startling
contrast, and you will easily understand that Bunter was noticeable

If it had not been for the quietness of his movements, for the general
soberness of his demeanour, one would have given him credit for a
fiercely passionate nature.

Of course, he was not in his first youth; but if the expression "in the
force of his age" has any meaning, he realized it completely. He was
a tall man, too, though rather spare. Seeing him from his poop
indefatigably busy with his duties, Captain Ashton, of the clipper
ship _Elsinore_, lying just ahead of the _Sapphire_, remarked once to a
friend that "Johns has got somebody there to hustle his ship along for

Captain Johns, master of the _Sapphire_, having commanded ships for
many years, was well known without being much respected or liked. In the
company of his fellows he was either neglected or chaffed. The chaffing
was generally undertaken by Captain Ashton, a cynical and teasing sort
of man. It was Captain Ashton who permitted himself the unpleasant joke
of proclaiming once in company that "Johns is of the opinion that every
sailor above forty years of age ought to be poisoned - shipmasters in
actual command excepted."

It was in a City restaurant, where several well-known shipmasters were
having lunch together. There was Captain Ashton, florid and jovial, in a
large white waistcoat and with a yellow rose in his buttonhole; Captain
Sellers in a sack-coat, thin and pale-faced, with his iron-gray hair
tucked behind his ears, and, but for the absence of spectacles, looking
like an ascetical mild man of books; Captain Hell, a bluff sea-dog with
hairy fingers, in blue serge and a black felt hat pushed far back off
his crimson forehead. There was also a very young shipmaster, with
a little fair moustache and serious eyes, who said nothing, and only
smiled faintly from time to time.

Captain Johns, very much startled, raised his perplexed and credulous
glance, which, together with a low and horizontally wrinkled brow, did
not make a very intellectual _ensemble_. This impression was by no means
mended by the slightly pointed form of his bald head.

Everybody laughed outright, and, thus guided, Captain Johns ended by
smiling rather sourly, and attempted to defend himself. It was all very
well to joke, but nowadays, when ships, to pay anything at all, had to
be driven hard on the passage and in harbour, the sea was no place for
elderly men. Only young men and men in their prime were equal to modern
conditions of push and hurry. Look at the great firms: almost every
single one of them was getting rid of men showing any signs of age. He,
for one, didn't want any oldsters on board his ship.

And, indeed, in this opinion Captain Johns was not singular. There was
at that time a lot of seamen, with nothing against them but that they
were grizzled, wearing out the soles of their last pair of boots on the
pavements of the City in the heart-breaking search for a berth.

Captain Johns added with a sort of ill-humoured innocence that from
holding that opinion to thinking of poisoning people was a very long

This seemed final but Captain Ashton would not let go his joke.

"Oh, yes. I am sure you would. You said distinctly 'of no use.' What's
to be done with men who are 'of no use?' You are a kind-hearted fellow,
Johns. I am sure that if only you thought it over carefully you would
consent to have them poisoned in some painless manner."

Captain Sellers twitched his thin, sinuous lips.

"Make ghosts of them," he suggested, pointedly.

At the mention of ghosts Captain Johns became shy, in his perplexed,
sly, and unlovely manner.

Captain Ashton winked.

"Yes. And then perhaps you would get a chance to have a communication
with the world of spirits. Surely the ghosts of seamen should haunt
ships. Some of them would be sure to call on an old shipmate."

Captain Sellers remarked drily:

"Don't raise his hopes like this. It's cruel. He won't see anything. You
know, Johns, that nobody has ever seen a ghost."

At this intolerable provocation Captain Johns came out of his reserve.
With no perplexity whatever, but with a positive passion of credulity
giving momentary lustre to his dull little eyes, he brought up a lot of
authenticated instances. There were books and books full of instances.
It was merest ignorance to deny supernatural apparitions. Cases were
published every month in a special newspaper. Professor Cranks saw
ghosts daily. And Professor Cranks was no small potatoes either. One
of the biggest scientific men living. And there was that newspaper
fellow - what's his name? - who had a girl-ghost visitor. He printed in
his paper things she said to him. And to say there were no ghosts after

"Why, they have been photographed! What more proof do you want?"

Captain Johns was indignant. Captain Bell's lips twitched, but Captain
Ashton protested now.

"For goodness' sake don't keep him going with that. And by the by,
Johns, who's that hairy pirate you've got for your new mate? Nobody in
the Dock seems to have seen him before."

Captain Johns, pacified by the change of subjects, answered simply that
Willy, the tobacconist at the corner of Fenchurch Street, had sent him

Willy, his shop, and the very house in Fenchurch Street, I believe, are
gone now. In his time, wearing a careworn, absent-minded look on his
pasty face, Willy served with tobacco many southern-going ships out of
the Port of London. At certain times of the day the shop would be full
of shipmasters. They sat on casks, they lounged against the counter.

Many a youngster found his first lift in life there; many a man got
a sorely needed berth by simply dropping in for four pennyworth of
birds'-eye at an auspicious moment. Even Willy's assistant, a redheaded,
uninterested, delicate-looking young fellow, would hand you across
the counter sometimes a bit of valuable intelligence with your box of
cigarettes, in a whisper, lips hardly moving, thus: "The _Bellona_,
South Dock. Second officer wanted. You may be in time for it if you
hurry up."

And didn't one just fly!

"Oh, Willy sent him," said Captain Ashton. "He's a very striking man. If
you were to put a red sash round his waist and a red handkerchief round
his head he would look exactly like one of them buccaneering chaps that
made men walk the plank and carried women off into captivity. Look out,
Johns, he don't cut your throat for you and run off with the _Sapphire_.
What ship has he come out of last?"

Captain Johns, after looking up credulously as usual, wrinkled his
brow, and said placidly that the man had seen better days. His name was

"He's had command of a Liverpool ship, the _Samaria_, some years ago. He
lost her in the Indian Ocean, and had his certificate suspended for a
year. Ever since then he has not been able to get another command. He's
been knocking about in the Western Ocean trade lately."

"That accounts for him being a stranger to everybody about the Docks,"
Captain Ashton concluded as they rose from table.

Captain Johns walked down to the Dock after lunch. He was short
of stature and slightly bandy. His appearance did not inspire the
generality of mankind with esteem; but it must have been otherwise
with his employers. He had the reputation of being an uncomfortable
commander, meticulous in trifles, always nursing a grievance of some
sort and incessantly nagging. He was not a man to kick up a row with you
and be done with it, but to say nasty things in a whining voice; a man
capable of making one's life a perfect misery if he took a dislike to an

That very evening I went to see Bunter on board, and sympathized with
him on his prospects for the voyage. He was subdued. I suppose a man
with a secret locked up in his breast loses his buoyancy. And there was
another reason why I could not expect Bunter to show a great
elasticity of spirits. For one thing he had been very seedy lately, and
besides - but of that later.

Captain Johns had been on board that afternoon and had loitered and
dodged about his chief mate in a manner which had annoyed Bunter

"What could he mean?" he asked with calm exasperation. "One would think
he suspected I had stolen something and tried to see in what pocket I
had stowed it away; or that somebody told him I had a tail and he wanted
to find out how I managed to conceal it. I don't like to be approached
from behind several times in one afternoon in that creepy way and then
to be looked up at suddenly in front from under my elbow. Is it a new
sort of peep-bo game? It doesn't amuse me. I am no longer a baby."

I assured him that if anyone were to tell Captain Johns that
he - Bunter - had a tail, Johns would manage to get himself to believe
the story in some mysterious manner. He would. He was suspicious and
credulous to an inconceivable degree. He would believe any silly tale,
suspect any man of anything, and crawl about with it and ruminate the
stuff, and turn it over and over in his mind in the most miserable,
inwardly whining perplexity. He would take the meanest possible view in
the end, and discover the meanest possible course of action by a sort of
natural genius for that sort of thing.

Bunter also told me that the mean creature had crept all over the ship
on his little, bandy legs, taking him along to grumble and whine
to about a lot of trifles. Crept about the decks like a wretched
insect - like a cockroach, only not so lively.

Thus did the self-possessed Bunter express himself with great disgust.
Then, going on with his usual stately deliberation, made sinister by the
frown of his jet-black eyebrows:

"And the fellow is mad, too. He tried to be sociable for a bit, and
could find nothing else but to make big eyes at me, and ask me if I
believed 'in communication beyond the grave.' Communication beyond - I
didn't know what he meant at first. I didn't know what to say. 'A very
solemn subject, Mr. Bunter,' says he. I've given a great deal of study
to it."

Had Johns lived on shore he would have been the predestined prey of
fraudulent mediums; or even if he had had any decent opportunities
between the voyages. Luckily for him, when in England, he lived
somewhere far away in Leytonstone, with a maiden sister ten years older
than himself, a fearsome virago twice his size, before whom he trembled.
It was said she bullied him terribly in general; and in the particular
instance of his spiritualistic leanings she had her own views.

These leanings were to her simply satanic. She was reported as having
declared that, "With God's help, she would prevent that fool from
giving himself up to the Devils." It was beyond doubt that Johns' secret
ambition was to get into personal communication with the spirits of the
dead - if only his sister would let him. But she was adamant. I was told
that while in London he had to account to her for every penny of the
money he took with him in the morning, and for every hour of his time.
And she kept the bankbook, too.

Bunter (he had been a wild youngster, but he was well connected;
had ancestors; there was a family tomb somewhere in the home
counties) - Bunter was indignant, perhaps on account of his own dead.
Those steely-blue eyes of his flashed with positive ferocity out of that
black-bearded face. He impressed me - there was so much dark passion in
his leisurely contempt.

"The cheek of the fellow! Enter into relations with... A mean little cad
like this! It would be an impudent intrusion. He wants to enter!... What
is it? A new sort of snobbishness or what?"

I laughed outright at this original view of spiritism - or whatever the
ghost craze is called. Even Bunter himself condescended to smile. But it
was an austere, quickly vanished smile. A man in his almost, I may say,
tragic position couldn't be expected - you understand. He was really
worried. He was ready eventually to put up with any dirty trick in the
course of the voyage. A man could not expect much consideration should
he find himself at the mercy of a fellow like Johns. A misfortune is
a misfortune, and there's an end of it. But to be bored by mean,
low-spirited, inane ghost stories in the Johns style, all the way out
to Calcutta and back again, was an intolerable apprehension to be under.
Spiritism was indeed a solemn subject to think about in that light.
Dreadful, even!

Poor fellow! Little we both thought that before very long he himself...
However, I could give him no comfort. I was rather appalled myself.

Bunter had also another annoyance that day. A confounded berthing master
came on board on some pretence or other, but in reality, Bunter thought,
simply impelled by an inconvenient curiosity - inconvenient to Bunter,
that is. After some beating about the bush, that man suddenly said:

"I can't help thinking. I've seen you before somewhere, Mr. Mate. If I
heard your name, perhaps Bunter - "

That's the worst of a life with a mystery in it - he was much alarmed. It
was very likely that the man had seen him before - worse luck to his
excellent memory. Bunter himself could not be expected to remember every
casual dock walloper he might have had to do with. Bunter brazened it
out by turning upon the man, making use of that impressive,
black-as-night sternness of expression his unusual hair furnished
him with:

"My name's Bunter, sir. Does that enlighten your inquisitive intellect?
And I don't ask what your name may be. I don't want to know. I've no
use for it, sir. An individual who calmly tells me to my face that he is
_not sure_ if he has seen me before, either means to be impudent or is
no better than a worm, sir. Yes, I said a worm - a blind worm!"

Brave Bunter. That was the line to take. He fairly drove the beggar out
of the ship, as if every word had been a blow. But the pertinacity of
that brass-bound Paul Pry was astonishing. He cleared out of the ship,
of course, before Bunter's ire, not saying anything, and only trying to
cover up his retreat by a sickly smile. But once on the Jetty he turned
deliberately round, and set himself to stare in dead earnest at
the ship. He remained planted there like a mooring-post, absolutely
motionless, and with his stupid eyes winking no more than a pair of
cabin portholes.

What could Bunter do? It was awkward for him, you know. He could not
go and put his head into the bread-locker. What he did was to take up
a position abaft the mizzen-rigging, and stare back as unwinking as
the other. So they remained, and I don't know which of them grew giddy
first; but the man on the Jetty, not having the advantage of something
to hold on to, got tired the soonest, flung his arm, giving the contest
up, as it were, and went away at last.

Bunter told me he was glad the _Sapphire_, "that gem amongst ships" as
he alluded to her sarcastically, was going to sea next day. He had had
enough of the Dock. I understood his impatience. He had steeled himself
against any possible worry the voyage might bring, though it is clear
enough now that he was not prepared for the extraordinary experience
that was awaiting him already, and in no other part of the world than
the Indian Ocean itself; the very part of the world where the poor
fellow had lost his ship and had broken his luck, as it seemed for good
and all, at the same time.

As to his remorse in regard to a certain secret action of his life,
well, I understand that a man of Bunter's fine character would suffer
not a little. Still, between ourselves, and without the slightest wish
to be cynical, it cannot be denied that with the noblest of us the fear
of being found out enters for some considerable part into the composition
of remorse. I didn't say this in so many words to Bunter, but, as the
poor fellow harped a bit on it, I told him that there were skeletons in
a good many honest cupboards, and that, as to his own particular guilt,
it wasn't writ large on his face for everybody to see - so he needn't
worry as to that. And besides, he would be gone to sea in about twelve
hours from now.

He said there was some comfort in that thought, and went off then
to spend his last evening for many months with his wife. For all his
wildness, Bunter had made no mistake in his marrying. He had married a
lady. A perfect lady. She was a dear little woman, too. As to her pluck,
I, who know what times they had to go through, I cannot admire her
enough for it. Real, hard-wearing every day and day after day pluck that
only a woman is capable of when she is of the right sort - the undismayed
sort I would call it.

The black mate felt this parting with his wife more than any of
the previous ones in all the years of bad luck. But she was of the
undismayed kind, and showed less trouble in her gentle face than the
black-haired, buccaneer-like, but dignified mate of the _Sapphire_. It
may be that her conscience was less disturbed than her husband's. Of
course, his life had no secret places for her; but a woman's conscience
is somewhat more resourceful in finding good and valid excuses. It
depends greatly on the person that needs them, too.

They had agreed that she should not come down to the Dock to see him
off. "I wonder you care to look at me at all," said the sensitive man.
And she did not laugh.

Bunter was very sensitive; he left her rather brusquely at the last.
He got on board in good time, and produced the usual impression on the
mud-pilot in the broken-down straw hat who took the _Sapphire_ out of
dock. The river-man was very polite to the dignified, striking-looking
chief mate. "The five-inch manilla for the check-rope, Mr. - Bunter,
thank you - Mr. Bunter, please." The sea-pilot who left the "gem of
ships" heading comfortably down Channel off Dover told some of his
friends that, this voyage, the _Sapphire_ had for chief mate a man
who seemed a jolly sight too good for old Johns. "Bunter's his name.
I wonder where he's sprung from? Never seen him before in any ship
I piloted in or out all these years. He's the sort of man you don't

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Online LibraryJoseph ConradTales Of Hearsay → online text (page 6 of 8)