Joseph Conrad.

'Twixt land and sea : tales online

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Life is a tragic folly
Let us laugh and be jolly
Away with melancholy
Bring me a branch of holly
Life is a tragic folly

A. Symons.



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A Smile of Fortune i

The Secret Sharer 99

Freya of the Seven Isles ..... 161




Ever since the sun rose I had been looking ahead.
The ship glided gently in smooth water. After a
sixty days' passage I was anxious to make my land-
fall, a fertile and beautiful island of the tropics. The
more enthusiastic of its inhabitants delight in describ-
ing it as the " Pearl of the Ocean." Well, let us call
it the " Pearl." It's a good name. A pearl distilling
much sweetness upon the world.

This is only a way of telling you that first-rate
sugar-cane is grown there. All the population of the
Pearl lives for it and by it. Sugar is their daily
bread, as it were. And I was coming to them for a
cargo of sugar in the hope of the crop having been
good and of the freights being high.

Mr. Burns, my chief mate, made out the land first;
and very soon I became entranced by this blue,
pinnacled apparition, almost transparent against the
light of the sky, a mere emanation, the astral body of
an island risen to greet me from afar. It is a rare
phenomenon, such a sight of the Pearl at sixty miles
off. And I wondered half seriously whether it was a
good omen, whether what would meet me in that
island would be as luckily exceptional as this beautiful,
dreamlike vision so very few seamen have been
privileged to behold.

. 3


But horrid thoughts of business interfered with my
enjoyment of an accomplished passage. I was anxious
for success and I wished, too, to do justice to the
flattering latitude of my owners' instructions con-
tained in one noble phrase: " We leave it to you to
do the best you can with the ship." . . . All the world
being thus given me for a stage, my abilities appeared
to me no bigger than a pinhead.

Meantime the wind dropped, and Mr. Burns began
to make disagreeable remarks about my usual bad
luck. I believe it was his devotion for me which
made him critically outspoken on every occasion. All
the same, I would not have put up with his humours
if it had not been my lot at one time to nurse him
through'a desperate illness at sea. After snatching him
out of the jaws of death, so to speak, it would have
been absurd to throw away such an efficient officer.
But sometimes I wished he would dismiss himself.

We were late in closing in with the land, and had to
anchor outside the harbour till next day. An un-
pleasant and unrestful night followed. In this road-
stead, strange to us both, Burns and I remained on
deck almost all the time. Clouds swirled down the
porphyry crags under which we lay. The rising wind
made a great bullying noise amongst the naked spars,
with interludes of sad moaning. I remarked that we
had been in luck to fetch the anchorage before dark.
It would have been a nasty, anxious night to hang off
a harbour under canvas. But my chief mate was
uncompromising in his attitude.

' Luck, you call it, sir! Ay — our usual luck. The
sort of luck to thank God it's no worse! "


And so he fretted through the dark hours, while I
drew on my fund of philosophy. Ah, but it was an
exasperating, weary, endless night, to be lying at
anchor close under that black coast! The agitated
water made snarling sounds all round the ship. At
times a wild gust of wind out of a gully high up on
the cliffs struck on our rigging a harsh and plaintive
note like the wail of a forsaken soul.

By half-past seven in the morning, the ship being then
inside the harbour at last and moored within a long
stone's-throw from the quay, my stock of philosophy
was nearly exhausted. I was dressing hurriedly in
my cabin when the steward came tripping in with a
morning suit over his arm.

Hungry, tired, and depressed, with my head engaged
inside a white shirt irritatingly stuck together by too
much starch, I desired him peevishly to " heave round
with that breakfast." I wanted to get ashore as soon
as possible.

" Yes, sir. Ready at eight, sir. There's a gentle-
man from the shore waiting to speak to you, sir."

This statement was curiously slurred over. I
dragged the shirt violently over my head and emerged

"So early!" I cried. "Who's he? What does
he want? "

On coming in from sea one has to pick up the
conditions of an utterly unrelated existence. Every


little event at first has the peculiar emphasis of
novelty. I was greatly surprised by that early caller;
but there was no reason for my steward to look so
particularly foolish.

" Didn't you ask for the name? " I inquired in a
stern tone.

" His name's Jacobus, I believe," he mumbled

" Mr. Jacobus! " I exclaimed loudly, more surprised
than ever, but with a total change of feeling. " Why
couldn't you say so at once? "

But the fellow had scuttled out of my room. Through
the momentarily opened door I had a glimpse of a
tall, stout man standing in the cuddy by the table on
which the cloth was already laid; a " harbour " table-
cloth, stainless and dazzlingly white. So far good.

I shouted courteously through the closed door, that
I was dressing and would be with him in a moment.
In return the assurance that there was no hurry reached
me in the visitor's deep, quiet undertone. His time
was my own. He dared say I would give him a cup
of coffee presently.

' I am afraid you will have a poor breakfast," I
cried apologetically. " We have been sixty-one days
at sea, you know."

A quiet little laugh, with a " That'll be all right,
Captain," was his answer. All this, words, intonation,
the glimpsed attitude of the man in the cuddy, had

an unexpected character, a something friendly in it

propitiatory. And my surprise was not diminished
thereby. What did this call mean? Was it the sign
of bomu dark design against my commercial innocence?


Ah ! These commercial interests — spoiling the finest
life under the sun. Why must the sea be used for
trade — and for war as well? Why kill and traffic on
it, pursuing selfish aims of no great importance after
all? It would have been so much nicer just to sail
about with here and there a port and a bit of land to
stretch one's legs on, buy a few books and get a change
of cooking for a while. But, living in a world more
or less homicidal and desperately mercantile, it was
plainly my duty to make the best of its opportunities.

My owners' letter had left it to me, as I have said
before, to do my best for the ship, according to my
own judgment. But it contained also a postscript
worded somewhat as follows:

' Without meaning to interfere with your liberty of
action we are writing by the outgoing mail to some of
our business friends there who may be of assistance
to you. We desire you particularly to call on Mr.
Jacobus, a prominent merchant and charterer. Should
you hit it off with him he may be able to put you in
the way of profitable employment for the ship."

Hit it off! Here was the prominent creature
absolutely on board asking for the favour of a cup of
coffee! And life not being a fairy-tale the improba-
bility of the event almost shocked me. Had I dis-
covered an enchanted nook of the earth where wealthy
merchants rush fasting on board ships before they are
fairly moored ? Was this white magic or merely some
black trick of trade ? I came in the end (while making
the bow of my tie) to suspect that perhaps I did not
get the name right. I had been thinking of the
prominent Mr. Jacobus pretty frequently during the


passage and my hearing might have been deceived by
some remote similarity of sound. . . . The steward
might have said Antrobus — or maybe Jackson.

But coming out of my stateroom with an inter-
rogative " Mr. Jacobus? " I was met by a quiet
" Yes," uttered with a gentle smile. The " yes " was
rather perfunctory. He did not seem to make much
of the fact that he was Mr. Jacobus. I took stock of
a big, pale face, hair thin on the top, whiskers also
thin, of a faded nondescript colour, heavy eyelids.
The thick, smooth lips in repose looked as if glued
together. The smile was faint. A heavy, tranquil
man. I named my two officers, who just then came
down to breakfast; but why Mr. Burns's silent de-
meanour should suggest suppressed indignation I could
not understand.

While we were taking our seats round the table
some disconnected words of an altercation going on
in the companionway reached my ear. A stranger
apparently wanted to come down to interview me,
and the steward was opposing him.

" You can't see him."

"Why can't I? "

' The Captain is at breakfast, I tell you. He'll be
going on shore presently, and you can speak to him
on deck."

" That's not fair. You let "

" I've had nothing to do with that."

' Oh, yes, you have. Everybody ought to have
the same chance. You let that fellow "

The rest I lost. The person having been repulsed
successfully, the steward came down. I can't say he


looked flushed — he was a mulatto — but he looked
flustered. After putting the dishes on the table he
remained by the sideboard with that lackadaisical air
of indifference he used to assume when he had done
something too clever by half and was afraid of getting
into a scrape over it. The contemptuous expression
of Mr. Burns's face as he looked from him to me was
really extraordinary. I couldn't imagine what new
bee had stung the mate now.

The Captain being silent, nobody else cared to speak,
as is the way in ships. And I was saying nothing
simply because I had been made dumb by the splendour
of the entertainment. I had expected the usual sea-
breakfast, whereas I beheld spread before us a veritable
feast of shore provisions : eggs, sausages, butter which
plainly did not come from a Danish tin, cutlets, and
even a dish of potatoes. It was three weeks since I
had seen a real, live potato. I contemplated them
with interest, and Mr. Jacobus disclosed himself as a
man of human, homely sympathies, and something of
a thought -reader.

" Try them, Captain," he encouraged me in a
friendly undertone. " They are excellent."

' They look that," I admitted. " Grown on the
island, I suppose."

" Oh, no, imported. Those grown here would be
more expensive."

I was grieved at the ineptitude of the conversation.
Were these the topics for a prominent and wealthy
merchant to discuss? I thought the simplicity with
which he made himself at home rather attractive ; but
what is one to talk about to a man who comes on one


suddenly, after sixty-one days at sea, out of a totally
unknown little town in an island one has never seen
before? What were (besides sugar) the interests of
that crumb of the earth, its gossip, its topics of con-
versation? To draw him on business at once would
have been almost indecent — or even worse: impolitic.
All I could do at the moment was to keep on in the
old groove.

" Are the provisions generally dear here? " I asked,
fretting inwardly at my inanity.

" I wouldn't say that," he answered placidly, with
that appearance of saving his breath his restrained
manner of speaking suggested.

He would not be more explicit, yet he did not evade
the subject. Eyeing the table in a spirit of complete
abstemiousness (he wouldn't let me help him to any
eatables) he went into details of supply. The beef was
for the most part imported from Madagascar; mutton
of course was rare and somewhat expensive, but good
goat's flesh

'Are these goat's cutlets?" I exclaimed hastily,
pointing at one of the dishes.

Posed sentimentally by the sideboard, the steward
gave a start.

" Lor', no, sir! It's real mutton! "

Mr. Burns got through his breakfast impatiently,
as if exasperated by being made a party to some
monstrous foolishness, muttered a curt excuse, and
went on deck. Shortly afterwards the second mate
took his smooth red countenance out of the cabin.
With the appetite of a schoolboy, and after two months
of sea-fare, he appreciated the generous spread. But


I did not. It smacked of extravagance. All the same,
it was a remarkable feat to have produced it so quickly,
and I congratulated the steward on his smartness in
a somewhat ominous tone. He gave me a deprecatory
smile and, in a way I didn't know what to make
of, blinked his fine dark eyes in the direction of the

The latter asked under his breath for another cup
of coffee, and nibbled ascetically at a piece of very
hard ship's biscuit. I don't think he consumed a
square inch in the end; but meantime he gave me,
casually as it were, a complete account of the sugar
crop, of the local business houses, of the state of the
freight market. All that talk was interspersed with
hints as to personalities, amounting to veiled warnings,
but his pale, fleshy face remained equable, without a
gleam, as if ignorant of his voice. As you may imagine
I opened my ears very wide. Every word was precious.
My ideas as to the value of business friendship were
being favourably modified. He gave me the names of
all the disponible ships together with their tonnage and
the names of their commanders. From that, which
was still commercial information, he condescended to
mere harbour gossip. The Hilda had unaccountably
lost her figurehead in the Bay of Bengal, and her
captain was greatly affected by this. He and the ship
had been getting on in years together and the old
gentleman imagined this strange event to be the fore-
runner of his own early dissolution. The Stella had
experienced awful weather off the Cape — had her decks
swept, and the chief officer washed overboard. And
only a few hours before reaching port the baby died.


Poor Captain H and his wife were terribly cut

up. If they had only been able to bring it into port
alive it could have been probably saved; but the
wind failed them for the last week or so, light breezes,
and . . . the baby was going to be buried this after-
noon. He supposed I would attend

" Do you think I ought to? " I asked, shrinkingly.

He thought so, decidedly. It would be greatly
appreciated. All the captains in the harbour were

going to attend. Poor Mrs. H was quite prostrated.

Pretty hard on H altogether.

" And you, Captain — you are not married I
suppose? "

" No, I am not married," I said. " Neither married
nor even engaged."

Mentally I thanked my stars; and while he smiled
in a musing, dreamy fashion, I expressed my acknow-
ledgments for his visit and for the interesting business
information he had been good enough to impart to
me. But I said nothing of my wonder thereat.

" Of course, I would have made a point of calling
on you in a day or two," I concluded.

He raised his eyelids distinctly at me, and somehow
managed to look rather more sleepy than before.

" In accordance with my owners' instructions," I
explained. " You have had their letter, of course? '

By that time he had raised his eyebrows too but
without any particular emotion. On the contrary he
struck me then as absolutely imperturbable.

"Oh! You must be thinking of my brother."

It was for me, then, to say "Oh! ' But I hope
that no more than civil surprise appeared in my voice


when I asked him to what, then, I owed the pleasure.
... He was reaching for an inside pocket leisurely.

" My brother's a very different person. But I am
well known in this part of the world. You've probably
heard "

I took a card he extended to me. A thick business
card, as I lived! Alfred Jacobus — the other was
Ernest — dealer in every description of ship's stores!
Provisions salt and fresh, oils, paints, rope, canvas,
etc., etc. Ships in harbour victualled by contract on
moderate terms

" I've never heard of you," I said brusquely.

His low-pitched assurance did not abandon him.

" You will be very well satisfied," he breathed out

I was not placated. I had the sense of having been
circumvented somehow. Yet I had deceived myself
— if there was any deception. But the confounded
cheek of inviting himself to breakfast was enough to
deceive any one. And the thought struck me : Why !
The fellow had provided all these eatables himself in
the way of business. I said :

" You must have got up mighty early this morning."

He admitted with simplicity that he was on the quay
before six o'clock waiting for my ship to come in. He
gave me the impression that it would be impossible
to get rid of him now.

" If you think we are going to live on that scale,"
I said, looking at the table with an irritated eye, " you
are jolly well mistaken."

" You'll find it all right, Captain. I quite under-


Nothing could disturb his equanimity. I felt dis-
satisfied, but I could not very well fly out at him. He
had told me many useful things — and besides he was
the brother of that wealthy merchant. That seemed
queer enough.

I rose and told him curtly that I must now go
ashore. At once he offered the use of his boat for all
the time of my stay in port.

" I only make a nominal charge," he continued
equably. " My man remains all day at the landing-
steps. You have only to blow a whistle when you
want the boat."

And, standing aside at every doorway to let me go
through first, he carried me off in his custody after all.
As we crossed the quarter-deck two shabby individuals
stepped forward and in mournful silence offered me
business cards which I took from them without a word
under his heavy eye. It was a useless and gloomy
ceremony. They were the touts of the other ship-
chandlers, and he, placid at my back, ignored their

We parted on the quay, after he had expressed
quietly the hope of seeing me often " at the store."
He had a smoking-room for captains there, with news-
papers and a box of " rather decent cigars." I left
him very unceremoniously.

My consignees received me with the usual business
heartiness, but their account of the state of the freight-
market was by no means so favourable as the talk of
the wrong Jacobus had led me to expect. Naturally
I became inclined now to put my trust in his version,
rather. As I closed the door of the private office


behind me I thought to myself: " H'm. A lot of
lies. Commercial diplomacy. That's the sort of thing
a man coming from sea has got to expect. They
would try to charter the ship under the market rate."

In the big, outer room, full of desks, the chief clerk,
a tall, lean, shaved person in immaculate white clothes
and with a shiny, closely-cropped black head on which
silvery gleams came and went, rose from his place
and detained me affably. Anything they could do for
me, they would be most happy. Was I likely to call
again in the afternoon ? What ? Going to a funeral ?
Oh, yes, poor Captain H .

He pulled a long, sympathetic face for a moment,
then, dismissing from this workaday world the baby,
which had got ill in a tempest and had died from too
much calm at sea, he asked me with a dental, shark-
like smile — if sharks had false teeth — whether I had
yet made my little arrangements for the ship's stay
in port.

" Yes, with Jacobus," I answered carelessly. " I
understand he's the brother of Mr. Ernest Jacobus to
whom I have an introduction from my owners."

I was not sorry to let him know I was not altogether
helpless in the hands of his firm. He screwed his
thin lips dubiously.

" Why," I cried, " isn't he the brother? "

" Oh, yes. . . . They haven't spoken to each other
for eighteen years," he added impressively after a

' Indeed! What's the quarrel about? "

"Oh, nothing! Nothing that one would care to
mention," he protested primly. " He's got quite a


large business. The best ship-chandler here, without
a doubt. Business is all very well, but there is such
a thing as personal character, too, isn't there? Good-
morning, Captain."

He went away mincingly to his desk. He amused
me. He resembled an old maid, a commercial old
maid, shocked by some impropriety. Was it a com-
mercial impropriety? Commercial impropriety is a
serious matter, for it aims at one's pocket. Or was
he only a purist in conduct who disapproved of Jacobus
doing his own touting? It was certainly undignified.
I wondered how the merchant brother liked it. But
then different countries, different customs. In a
community so isolated and so exclusively " trading '
social standards have their own scale.


I would have gladly dispensed with the mournful
opportunity of becoming acquainted by sight with all
my fellow-captains at once. However I found my
way to the cemetery. We made a considerable group
of bareheaded men in sombre garments. I noticed
that those of our company most approaching to the
now obsolete sea-dog type were the most moved —
perhaps because they had less " manner " than the
new generation. The old sea-dog, away from his
natural element, was a simple and sentimental animal.
I noticed one — he was facing me across the grave — who
was dropping tears. They trickled down his weather-


beaten face like drops of rain on an old rugged
wall. I learned afterwards that he was looked upon
as the terror of sailors, a hard man; that he had
never had wife or chick of his own, and that, engaged
from his tenderest years in deep-sea voyages, he knew
women and children merely by sight.

Perhaps he was dropping those tears over his
lost opportunities, from sheer envy of paternity and
in strange jealousy of a sorrow which he could never
know. Man, and even the sea-man, is a capricious
animal, the creature and the victim of lost opportunities.
But he made me feel ashamed of my callousness. I
had no tears.

I listened with horribly critical detachment to that
service I had had to read myself, once or twice, over
childlike men who had died at sea. The words of hope
and defiance, the winged words so inspiring in the free
immensity of water and sky, seemed to fall wearily
into the little grave. What was the use of asking
Death where her sting was, before that small, dark
hole in the ground? And then my thoughts escaped
me altogether — away into matters of life — and no
very high matters at that — ships, freights, business.
In the instability of his emotions man resembles
deplorably a monkey. I was disgusted with my
thoughts — and I thought: Shall I be able to get a
charter soon? Time's money. . . . Will that Jacobus
really put good business in my way? ... I must go
and see him in a day or two.

Don't imagine that I pursued these thoughts with
any precision. They pursued me rather: vague,
shadowy, restless, shamefaced. Theirs was a callous,



abominable, almost revolting, pertinacity. And it
was the presence of that pertinacious ship-chandler
which had started them. He stood mournfully
amongst our little band of men from the sea, and I
was angry at his presence, which, suggesting his
brother the merchant, had caused me to become out-
rageous to myself. For indeed I had preserved some
decency of feeling. It was only the mind which

It was over at last. The poor father — a man of
forty with black, bushy side-whiskers and a pathetic
gash on his freshly-shaved chin — thanked us all,
swallowing his tears. But for some reason, either
because I lingered at the gate of the cemetery being
somewhat hazy as to my way back, or because I was
the youngest, or ascribing my moodiness caused by
remorse to some more worthy and appropriate senti-
ment, or simply because I was even more of a stranger
to him than the others — he singled me out. Keeping
at my side, he renewed his thanks, which I listened
to in a gloomy, conscience-stricken silence. Suddenly
he slipped one hand under my arm and waved the
other after a tall, stout figure walking away by itself

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Online LibraryJoseph Conrad'Twixt land and sea : tales → online text (page 1 of 17)