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Joseph Conrad: The Secret Sharer


 On my right hand there were lines of fishing stakes
resembling a mysterious system of half-submerged
bamboo fences, incomprehensible in its division of
the domain of tropical fishes, and crazy of aspect as if
abandoned for ever by some nomad tribe of fishermen
now gone to the other end of the ocean; for there was
no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could
reach. To the left a group of barren islets, suggesting
ruins of stone walls, towers, and blockhouses, had its
foundations set in a blue sea that itself looked solid,
so still and stable did it lie below my feet; even the
track of light from the westering, sun shone smoothly,
without that animated glitter which tells of an imper-
ceptible ripple. And when I turned my head to take
a parting glance at the tug which had just left us
anchored outside the bar, I saw the straight line of the
flat shore joined to the stable sea, edge to edge, with
a perfect and unmarked closeness, in one leveled floor
half brown, half blue under the enormous dome of
the sky. Corresponding in their insignificance to the
islets of the sea, two sma]l clumps of trees, one on
each side of the only fault in the impeccable joint,
marked the mouth of the river Meinam we had just
left on the first preparatory stage of our homeward
journey; and, far back on the inland level, a larger
and loftier mass, the grove surrounding the great
Paknam pagoda, was the only thing on which the eye
could rest from the vain task of exploring the monoto-
nous sweep of the horizon. Here and there gleams as
of a few scattered pieces of silver marked the windings
of the great river; and on the nearest of them, just
within the bar, the tug steaming right into the land be-
came lost to my sight, hull and funnel and masts, as
though the impassive earth had swallowed her up
without an effort, without a tremor. My eye followed
the light cloud of her smoke, now here, now there,
above the plain, according to the devious curves of the
stream, but always fainter and farther away, till I
lost it at last behind the miter-shaped hill of the great
pagodas. And then I was left alone. with my ship,
anchored at the head of the Gulf of Siam.
 She floated at the starting point of a long journey,
very still in an immense stillness, the shadows of her
spars flung far to the eastward by the setting sun. At
that moment I was alone on her decks. There was not
a sound in her -- and around us nothing moved, noth-
ing lived, not a canoe on the water, not a bird in the
air, not a cloud in the sky. In this breathless pause at
the threshold of a long passage we seemed to be
measuring our fitness for a long and arduous enter-
prise, the appointed task of both our existences to be
carried out, far from all human eyes, with only sky
and sea for spectators and for judges.
 There must have been some glare in the air to inter-
fere with one's sight, because it was only just before
the sun left us that my roaming eyes made out beyond
the highest ridges of the principal islet of the group
something which did away with the solemnity of
perfect solitude. The tide of darkness flowed on
swiftly; and with tropical suddenness a swarm of
stars came out above the shadowy earth, while I lin-
gered yet, my hand resting lightly on my ship's rail
as if on the shoulder of a trusted friend. But, with all
that multitude of celestial bodies staring down at one,
the comfort of quiet communion with her was gone
for good. And there were also disturbing sounds by
this time -- voices, footsteps forward; the steward
flitted along the main-deck, a busily ministering spirit;
a hand bell tinkled urgently under the poop
 I found my two officers waiting for me near the
supper table, in the lighted cuddy. We sat down at
once, and as I helped the chief mate, I said:
 "Are you aware that there is a ship anchored inside
the islands? I saw her mastheads above the ridge as
the sun went down."
 He raised sharply his simple face, overcharged by
a terrible growth of whisker, and emitted his usual
ejaculations: "Bless my soul, sir! You don't say so!"
 My second mate was a round-cheeked, silent young
man, grave beyond his years, I thought; but as our
eyes happened to meet I detected a slight quiver on
his lips. I looked down at once. It was not my part to
encourage sneering on board my ship. It must be said,
too, that I knew very little of my officers. In conse-
quence of certain events of no particular significance,
except to myself, I had been appointed to the com-
mand only a fortnight before. Neither did I know
much of the hands forward. All these peoplc had been
together for eighteen months or so, and my position
was that of the only stranger on board. I mention this
because it has some bearing on what is to follow. But
what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship;
and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a
stranger to myself. The youngest man on board (bar-
ring the second mate), and untried as yet by a position
of the fullest responsibility, I was willing to take the
adequacy of the others for granted. They had simply
to be equal to their tasks, but I wondered how far I
should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of
one's own personality every man sets up for himself

 Meantime the chief mate, with an almost visible
effect of collaboration on the part of his round eyes
and frightful whiskers, was trying to evolve a theory
of the anchored ship. His dominant trait was to take
all things into earnest consideration. He was of a
painstaking turn of mind. As he used to say, he "liked
to account to himself" for practically everything that
came in his way, down to a miserable scorpion he had
found in his cabin a week before. The why and the
wherefore of that scorpion -- how it got on board and
came to select his room rather than the pantry (which
was a dark place and more what a scorpion would be
partial to), and how on earth it managed to drown
itself in the inkwell of his writing desk -- had exer-
cised him infinitely. The ship within the islands was
much more easily accounted for; and just as we were
about to rise from table he made his pronouncement.
She was, he doubted not, a ship from home lately
arrived. Probably she drew too much water to cross
the bar except at the top of spring tides. Therefore
she went into that natural harbor to wait for a few
days in preference to remaining in an open roadstead.
 "That's so," confirmed the second mate, suddenly,
in his slightly hoarse voice. "She draws over twenty
feet. She's the Liverpool ship Sephora with a cargo of
coal. Hundred and twentyrthree days from Cardiff."
 We looked at him in surprise.
 "The tugboat skipper told me when he camel on
board for your letters, sir," explained the young man.
"He expects to take her up the river the day after
 After thus overwhelming us with the extent of his
information he slipped out of the cabin. The mate
observed regretfully that he "could not accoun for
that young fellow's whims." What prevented him
telling us all about it at once, he wanted to know.
 I detained him as he was making a move. For the
last two days the crew had had plenty of hard work,
and the night before they had very little sleep. I felt
painfully that I -- a stranger -- was doing something
unusual when I directed him to let all hands turn in
without setting an anchor watch. I proposed to keep
on deck myself till one o'clock or thereabouts. I would
get the second mate to relieve me at that hour.
 "He will turn out the cook and the steward at
four," I concluded, "and then give you a call. Of
course at the slightest sign of any sort of wind we'll
have the hands up and make a start at once."
 He concealed his astonishment. "Very well, sir."
Outside the cuddy he put his head in the second
mate's door to inform him of my unheard-of caprice
to take a five hours' anchor watch on myself. I heard
the other raise his voice incredulously -- "What?~ The
Captain himself?" Then a few more murmurs, a door
closed, then another. A few moments later I went on
 My strangeness, which had made me sleepless, had
prompted that unconventional arrangement, as if I
had expected in those solitary hours of the night to
get on terms with the ship of which I knew nothing,
manned by men of whom I knew very little more.
Fast alongside a wharf, littered like any ship in port
with a tangle of unrelated things, invaded by unre-
lated shore people, I had hardly seen her yet prop-
erly. Now, as she lay deared for sea, the stretch of her
main-deck seemed to me very fine under the stars.
Very fine, very roomy for her size, and very inviting.
I descended the poop and paced the waist, my mind
picturing to myself the coming passage through the
Malay Archipelago, down the Indian Ocean, and up
the Atlantic. All its phases were familiar enough to
me, every characteristic, all the alternatives which
were likely to face me on the high seas everything!
. . . except the novel responsibility of command. But
I took heart from the reasonable thought that the ship
was like other ships, the men like other men, and that
the sea was not likely to keep any special surprises
expressly for my discomfiture.
 Arrived at that comforting condusion, I bethought
myself of a cigar and went below to get it. All was
still down there. Everybody at the after end of the
ship was sleeping profoundly. I came out again on the
quarterdeck, agreeably at ease in my sleeping suit on
that warm breathless night, barefooted, a glowing
cigar in my teeth, and, going forward, I was met by
the profound silence of the fore end of the ship. Only
as I passed the door of the forecastle I heard a deep,
quiet, trustful sigh of some sleeper inside. And sud-
denly I rejoiced in the great security of the sea as
compared with the unrest of the land, in my choice of
that untempted life presenting no disquieting prob-
lems, invested with an elementary moral beauty by
the absolute straightforwardness of its appeal and by
the singleness of its purpose.
 The riding light in the forerigging burned with a
clear, untroubled, as if symbolic, flame, confident and
bright in the mysterious shades of the night. Passing
on my way aft along the other side of the ship, I ob-
served that the rope side ladder, put over, no doubt,
for the master of the tug when he came to fetch away
our letters, had not been hauled in as it should have
been. I became annoyed at this, for exactitude in some
small matters is the very soul of discipline. Then I
reflected that I had myself peremptorily dismissed
my officers from duty, and by my own act had pre-
vented the anchor watch being formally set and things
properly attended to. I asked myself whether it was
wise ever to interfere with the established routine of
duties even from the kindest of motives. My action
might have made me appear eccentric. Goodness only
knew how that absurdly whiskered mate would "ac-
count" for my conduct, and what the whole ship
thought of that informality of their new captain. I
was vexed with myself.
 Not from compunction certainly, but, as it were
mechanically, I proceeded to get the ladder in myself.
Now a side ladder of that sort is a light affair and
comes in easily, yet my vigorous tug, which should
have brought it flying on board, merely recoiled upon
my body in a totaily unexpected jerk. What the devil!
. . . I was so astounded by the immovableness of
that ladder that I remained stockstill, trying to ac-
count for it to myself like that imbecile mate of mine.
In the end, of course, I put my head over the rail.
 The side of the ship made an opaque belt of shadow
on the darkling glassy shimmer of the sea. But I saw
at once something elongated and pale floating very
close to the ladder. Before I could form a guess a faint
flash of phosphorescent light, which seemed to issue
suddenly from the naked body of a man, flickered in
the sleeping water with the elusive, silent play of sum-
mer lightning in a night sky. With a gasp I saw re-
vealed to my stare a pair of feet, the long legs, a broad
livid back immersed right up to the neck in a greenish
cadaverous glow. One hand, awash, clutched the bot-
tom rung of the ladder. He was complete but for the
head. A headless corpse! The cigar dropped out of my
gaping mouth with a tiny plop and a short hiss quite
audible in the absolute stillness of all things under
heaven. At that I suppose he raised up his face, a
dimly pale oval in the shadow of the ship's side. But
even then I could only barely make out down there
the shape of his black-haired head. However, it was
enough for the horrid, frostbound sensation which
had gripped me about the chest to pass off. The mo-
ment of vain exclamations was past, too. I only
climbed on the spare spar and leaned over the rail as
far as I could, to bring my eyes nearer to that mystery
floating alongside.
 As he hung by the ladder, like a resting swimmer,
the sea lightning played about his limbs at every stir;
and he appeared in it ghastly, silvery, fishlike. He
remained as mute as a fish, too. He made no motion
to get out of the water, either. It was inconceivable
that he should not attempt to come on board, and
strangely troubling to suspect that perhaps he did not
want to. And my first words were prompted by just
that troubled incertitude.
 "What's the matter?" I asked in my ordinary tone,
speaking down to the face upturned exactly under
 "Cramp," it answered, no louder. Then slightly
anxious, "I say, no need to call anyone."
 "I was not going to," I said.
 "Are you alone on deck?"
 I had somehow the impression that he was on the
point of letting go the ladder to swim away beyond
my ken -- mysterious as he came. But, for the moment,
this being appearing as if he had risen from the bot-
tom of the sea (it was certainly the nearest land to the
ship) wanted only to know the time. I told him. And
he, down there, tentatively:
 "I suppose your captain's turned in?"
 "I am sure he isn't," I said.
 He seemed to struggle with himself, for I heard
something like the low, bitter murmur of doubt.
"What's the good?" His next words came out with a
hesitating effort.
 "Look here, my man. Could you call him out
 I thought the time had come to declare myself.
 "I am the captain."
 I heard a "By Jove! " whispered at the level of the
water. The phosphorescence flashed in the swirl of the
water all about his limbs, his other hand seized the
 "My name's Leggatt."
 The voice was calm and resolute. A good voice. The
self-possession of that man had somehow induced a
corresponding state in myself. It was very quietly that
I remarked:
 "You must be a good swimmer."
 "Yes. I've been in the water practically since nine
o'clock. The question for me now is whether I am to
let go this ladder and go on swimming till I sink from
exhaustion, or -- to come on board here."
 I felt this was no mere formula of desperate speech;
but a real alternative in the view of a strong soul. I
should have gathered from this that he was young;
indeed, it is only the young who are ever confronted
by such clear issues. But at the time it was pure intui-
tion on my part. A mysterious communication was es-
tablished already between us two -- in the face of that
silent, darkened tropical sea. I was young, too; young
enough to make no comment. The man in the water
began suddenly to climb up the ladder, and I has-
tened away from the rail to fetch some clothes.
 Before entering the cabin I stood still, listening in
the lobby at the foot of the stairs. A faint snore came
through the closed door of the chief mate's room. The
second mate's door was on the hook, but the darkness
in there was absolutely soundless. He, too, was young
and could sleep like a stone. Remained the steward,
but he was not likely to wake up before he was called.
I got a sleeping suit out of my room and, coming back
on deck, saw the naked man from the sea sitting on
the main hatch, glimmering white in the darkness, his
elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. In a
moment he had concealed his damp body in a sleeping
suit of the same gray-stripe pattern as the one I was
wearing and followed me like my double on the poop.
Together we moved right aft, barefooted, silent.
 "What is it?" I asked in a deadened voice, taking
the lighted lamp out of the binnacle, and raising it to
his face.
 "An ugly business."
 He had rather regular features; a good mouth;
light eyes under somewhat heavy, dark eyebrows; a
smooth, square forehead; no growth on his cheeks; a
small, brown mustache, and a well-shaped, round
chin. His expression was concentrated, meditative,
under the inspecting light of the lamp I held up to his
face; such as a man thinking hard in solitude might
wear. My sleeping suit was just right for his size. A
well-knit young fellow of twenty-five at most. He
caught his lower lip with the edge of white, even
 "Yes," I said, replacing the lamp in the binnacle.
The warm, heavy tropical night closed upon his head
 "There's a ship over there," he murmured.
 "Yes, I know. The Sephora. Did you know of us?"
 "Hadn't the slightest idea. I am the mate of
her --" He paused and corrected himself. "I should
say I was."
 "Aha! Something wrong?"
 "Yes. Very wrong indeed. I've killed a man."
 "What do you mean? Just now?"
 "No, on the passage. Weeks ago. Thirty-nine south.
When I say a man --"
 "Fit of temper," I suggested, confidently.
 The shadowy, dark head, like mine, seemed to nod
imperceptibly above the ghostly gray of my sleeping
suit. It was, in the night, as though I had been faced
by my own reflection in the depths of a somber and
immense mirror.
 "A pretty thing to have to own up to for a Conway
boy," murmured my double, distinctly.
 "You're a Conway boy?"
 "I am," he said, as if startled. Then, slowly . . .
"Perhaps you too --"
 It was so; but being a couple of years older I had
left before he joined. After a quick interchange of
dates a silence fell; and I thought suddenly of my
absurd mate with his terrific whiskers and the "Bless
my soul -- you don't say so" type of intellect. My
double gave me an inkling of his thoughts by saying:
"My father's a parson in Norfolk. Do you see me
before a judge and jury on that charge? For myself
I can't see the necessity. There are fellows that an
angel from heaven -- And I am not that. He was
one of those creatures that are just simmering all the
time with a silly sort of wickedness. Miserable devils
that have no business to live at all. He wouldn't do
his duty and wouldn't let anybody else do theirs. But
what's the good of talking! You know well enough
the sort of ill-conditioned snarling cur--"
 He appealed to me as if our experiences had been
as identical as our clothes. And I knew well enough
the pestiferous danger of such a character where there
are no means of legal repression. And I knew well
enough also that my double there was no homicidal
ruffian. I did not think of asking him for details, and
he told me the story roughly in brusque, disconnected
sentences. I needed no more. I saw it all going on as
though I were myself inside that other sleeping suit.
 "It happened while we were setting a reefed fore-
sail, at dusk. Reefed foresail! You understand the
sort of weather. The only sail we had left to keep the
ship running; so you may guess what it had been like
for days. Anxious sort of job, that. He gave me some
of his cursed insolence at the sheet. I tell you I was
overdone with this terrific weather that seemed to
have no end to it. Terrific, I tell you -- and a deep ship.
I believe the fellow himself was half crazed with
funk. It was no time for gentlemanly reproof, so I
turned round and felled him like an ox. He up and
at me. We closed just as an awful sea made for the
ship. All hands saw it coming and took to the rigging,
but I had him by the throat, and went on shaking him
like a rat, the men above us yelling, 'Look out! look

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