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The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions. The Secret-Sharer. AN. EPISODE. F~OM. THE. SEA. BY JOSEPH. CONRAD. OK my right hand there were lines of fishing-stakes resembling a mys-. The Secret Sharer. Joseph Conrad. Written December ; published in Harper's in and collected in 'Twixt Land and Sea, This web edition.
Arrived at that comforting conclusion, I bethought myself of a cigar and went below to get it. He had had terrible weather on the passage out--terrible--terrible--wife aboard, too. I saw the vague figures of the watch grouped in the waist, gazing in awed silence. Evidently he had forgotten he had told me this important fact before. The night, clear and starry, sparkled darkly, and the opaque, lightless patches shifting slowly against the low stars were the drifting islets. The man in the water began suddenly to climb up the ladder, and I hastened away from the rail to fetch some clothes.
You see, he wasn't exactly the sort for the chief mate of a ship like the Sephora. I had no doubt of it in my mind. You understand," he insisted, superfluously, looking hard at me. I smiled urbanely. He seemed at a loss for a while.
That's what I'll have to write to my owners directly I get in. He fairly bawled: But except for the felicitous pretense of deafness I had not tried to pretend anything. I had felt utterly incapable of playing the part of ignorance properly, and therefore was afraid to try. It is also certain that he had brought some ready-made suspicions with him, and that he viewed my politeness as a strange and unnatural phenomenon. And yet how else could I have received him?
Not heartily! That was impossible for psychological reasons, which I need not state here. My only object was to keep off his inquiries. Yes, but surliness might have provoked a point-blank question.
From its novelty to him and from its nature, punctilious courtesy was the manner best calculated to restrain the man. But there was the danger of his breaking through my defense bluntly. I could not, I think, have met him by a direct lie, also for psychological not moral reasons. If he had only known how afraid I was of his putting my feeling of identity with the other to the test! But, strangely enough-- I thought of it only afterwards --I believe that he was not a little disconcerted by the reverse side of that weird situation, by something in me that reminded him of the man he was seeking--suggested a mysterious similitude to the young fellow he had distrusted and disliked from the first.
However that might have been, the silence was not very prolonged. He took another oblique step. Not a bit more. Another pause full of mistrust followed. Necessity, they say, is mother of invention, but fear, too, is not barren of ingenious suggestions. And I was afraid he would ask me point-blank for news of my other self.
Here, for instance," I continued, reaching over the back of my seat negligently and flinging the door open, "is my bathroom. I got up, shut the door of the bathroom, and invited him to have a look round, as if I were very proud of my accommodation. He had to rise and be shown round, but he went through the business without any raptures whatever. He followed me in and gazed around.
My intelligent double had vanished. I played my part. Very comf. But it was not to be. I had been too frightened not to feel vengeful; I felt I had him on the run, and I meant to keep him on the run. My polite insistence must have had something menacing in it, because he gave in suddenly. And I did not let him off a single item; mate's room, pantry, storerooms, the very sail locker which was also under the poop--he had to look into them all.
When at last I showed him out on the quarter-deck he drew a long, spiritless sigh, and mumbled dismally that he must really be going back to his ship now. I desired my mate, who had joined us, to see to the captain's boat.
The man of whiskers gave a blast on the whistle which he used to wear hanging round his neck, and yelled, "Sephora's away!
Four fellows came running out from somewhere forward and went over the side, while my own men, appearing on deck too, lined the rail.
I escorted my visitor to the gangway ceremoniously, and nearly overdid it. He was a tenacious beast. On the very ladder he lingered, and in that unique, guiltily conscientious manner of sticking to the point: I am delighted. He was too shaken generally to insist, but my mate, close witness of that parting, looked mystified and his face took on a thoughtful cast. As I did not want to appear as if I wished to avoid all communication with my officers, he had the opportunity to address me.
His boat's crew told our chaps a very extraordinary story, if what I am told by the steward is true. I suppose you had it from the captain, sir? I had a story from the captain. I don't think it resembles them in the least. But of course I've no acquaintance whatever with American ships, not I so I couldn't go against your knowledge. It's horrible enough for me. But the queerest part is that those fellows seemed to have some idea the man was hidden aboard here.
They had really. Did you ever hear of such a thing? No one of the crew forward could be seen the day was Sunday , and the mate pursued: Our chaps took offense. But they made it up in the end. I suppose he did drown himself.
Don't you, sir? I felt I was producing a bad impression, but with my double down there it was most trying to be on deck.
And it was almost as trying to be below. Altogether a nerve-trying situation. But on the whole I felt less torn in two when I was with him.
There was no one in the whole ship whom I dared take into my confidence. Since the hands had got to know his story, it would have been impossible to pass him off for anyone else, and an accidental discovery was to be dreaded now more than ever. The steward being engaged in laying the table for dinner, we could talk only with our eyes when I first went down. Later in the afternoon we had a cautious try at whispering.
The Sunday quietness of the ship was against us; the stillness of air and water around her was against us; the elements, the men were against us--everything was against us in our secret partnership; time itself--for this could not go on forever. The very trust in Providence was, I suppose, denied to his guilt. Shall I confess that this thought cast me down very much? And as to the chapter of accidents which counts for so much in the book of success, I could only hope that it was closed.
For what favorable accident could be expected? He had. And the proof of it was his earnest whisper, "The man told you he hardly dared to give the order. He was afraid of it being lost in the setting. He may think he did, but he never gave it. He stood there with me on the break of the poop after the main topsail blew away, and whimpered about our last hope--positively whimpered about it and nothing else--and the night coming on!
To hear one's skipper go on like that in such weather was enough to drive any fellow out of his mind. It worked me up into a sort of desperation. I just took it into my own hands and went away from him, boiling, and--But what's the use telling you?
Do you think that if I had not been pretty fierce with them I should have got the men to do anything? Not It! The bo's'n perhaps? It wasn't a heavy sea--it was a sea gone mad! I suppose the end of the world will be something like that; and a man may have the heart to see it coming once and be done with it--but to have to face it day after day--I don't blame anybody. I was precious little better than the rest. Only--I was an officer of that old coal wagon, anyhow--" "I quite understand," I conveyed that sincere assurance into his ear.
He was out of breath with whispering; I could hear him pant slightly. It was all very simple. The same strung-up force which had given twenty-four men a chance, at least, for their lives, had, in a sort of recoil, crushed an unworthy mutinous existence.
But I had no leisure to weigh the merits of the matter--footsteps in the saloon, a heavy knock. Before I left the cabin our eyes met--the eyes of the only two strangers on board. I pointed to the recessed part where the little campstool awaited him and laid my finger on my lips.
He made a gesture--somewhat vague--a little mysterious, accompanied by a faint smile, as if of regret. This is not the place to enlarge upon the sensations of a man who feels for the first time a ship move under his feet to his own independent word. In my case they were not unalloyed. I was not wholly alone with my command; for there was that stranger in my cabin. Or rather, I was not completely and wholly with her. Part of me was absent.
That mental feeling of being in two places at once affected me physically as if the mood of secrecy had penetrated my very soul. Before an hour had elapsed since the ship had begun to move, having occasion to ask the mate he stood by my side to take a compass bearing of the pagoda, I caught myself reaching up to his ear in whispers. I say I caught myself, but enough had escaped to startle the man.
I can't describe it otherwise than by saying that he shied. A grave, preoccupied manner, as though he were in possession of some perplexing intelligence, did not leave him henceforth. A little later I moved away from the rail to look at the compass with such a stealthy gait that the helmsman noticed it--and I could not help noticing the unusual roundness of his eyes. These are trifling instances, though it's to no commander's advantage to be suspected of ludicrous eccentricities.
But I was also more seriously affected. There are to a seaman certain words, gestures, that should in given conditions come as naturally, as instinctively as the winking of a menaced eye. A certain order should spring on to his lips without thinking; a certain sign should get itself made, so to speak, without reflection. But all unconscious alertness had abandoned me.
I had to make an effort of will to recall myself back from the cabin to the conditions of the moment. I felt that I was appearing an irresolute commander to those people who were watching me more or less critically. And, besides, there were the scares. On the second day out, for instance, coming off the deck in the afternoon I had straw slippers on my bare feet I stopped at the open pantry door and spoke to the steward.
He was doing something there with his back to me. At the sound of my voice he nearly jumped out of his skin, as the saying is, and incidentally broke a cup. He was extremely confused. I made sure you were in your cabin. I could have sworn I had heard you moving in there not a moment ago. It's most extraordinary.
I was so identified with my secret double that I did not even mention the fact in those scanty, fearful whispers we exchanged. I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other.
It would have been miraculous if he hadn't at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm--almost invulnerable. On my suggestion he remained almost entirely in the bathroom, which, upon the whole, was the safest place.
There could be really no shadow of an excuse for anyone ever wanting to go in there, once the steward had done with it. It was a very tiny place. Sometimes he reclined on the floor, his legs bent, his head sustained on one elbow.
At others I would find him on the campstool, sitting in his gray sleeping suit and with his cropped dark hair like a patient, unmoved convict.
At night I would smuggle him into my bed place, and we would whisper together, with the regular footfalls of the officer of the watch passing and repassing over our heads. It was an infinitely miserable time. My early-morning coffee he always drank; and it was all I dared do for him in that respect. Every day there was the horrible maneuvering to go through so that my room and then the bathroom should be done in the usual way. I came to hate the sight of the steward, to abhor the voice of that harmless man.
I felt that it was he who would bring on the disaster of discovery. It hung like a sword over our heads. The fourth day out, I think we were then working down the east side of the Gulf of Siam, tack for tack, in light winds and smooth water --the fourth day, I say, of this miserable juggling with the unavoidable, as we sat at our evening meal, that man, whose slightest movement I dreaded, after putting down the dishes ran up on deck busily.
This could not be dangerous. Presently he came down again; and then it appeared that he had remembered a coat of mine which I had thrown over a rail to dry after having been wetted in a shower which had passed over the ship in the afternoon. Sitting stolidly at the head of the table I became terrified at the sight of the garment on his arm. Of course he made for my door. There was no time to lose. My nerves were so shaken that I could not govern my voice and conceal my agitation. This was the sort of thing that made my terrifically whiskered mate tap his forehead with his forefinger.
I had detected him using that gesture while talking on deck with a confidential air to the carpenter. It was too far to hear a word, but I had no doubt that this pantomime could only refer to the strange new captain. It was this maddening course of being shouted at, checked without rhyme or reason, arbitrarily chased out of my cabin, suddenly called into it, sent flying out of his pantry on incomprehensible errands, that accounted for the growing wretchedness of his expression.
Shall I go up again and see, sir? During this interlude my two officers never raised their eyes off their respective plates; but the lip of that confounded cub, the second mate, quivered visibly. I expected the steward to hook my coat on and come out at once. He was very slow about it; but I dominated my nervousness sufficiently not to shout after him. Suddenly I became aware it could be heard plainly enough that the fellow for some reason or other was opening the door of the bathroom.
It was the end. The place was literally not big enough to swing a cat in. My voice died in my throat and I went stony all over.
I expected to hear a yell of surprise and terror, and made a movement, but had not the strength to get on my legs. Everything remained still.
Had my second self taken the poor wretch by the throat? I don't know what I could have done next moment if I had not seen the steward come out of my room, close the door, and then stand quietly by the sideboard. He was gone! My head swam. After a while, when sufficiently recovered to speak in a steady voice, I instructed my mate to put the ship round at eight o'clock himself.
I feel a bit seedy. They both went out, and I stared at the steward clearing the table. There was nothing to be read on that wretched man's face. But why did he avoid my eyes, I asked myself. Then I thought I should like to hear the sound of his voice. Had my double vanished as he had come?
But of his coming there was an explanation, whereas his disappearance would be inexplicable. I went slowly into my dark room, shut the door, lighted the lamp, and for a time dared not turn round.
When at last I did I saw him standing bolt-upright in the narrow recessed part. It would not be true to say I had a shock, but an irresistible doubt of his bodily existence flitted through my mind. Can it be, I asked myself, that he is not visible to other eyes than mine?
It was like being haunted. Motionless, with a grave face, he raised his hands slightly at me in a gesture which meant clearly, "Heavens! I think I had come creeping quietly as near insanity as any man who has not actually gone over the border. That gesture restrained me, so to speak. The mate with the terrific whiskers was now putting the ship on the other tack. In the moment of profound silence which follows upon the hands going to their stations I heard on the poop his raised voice: The sails, in that light breeze, made but a faint fluttering noise.
It ceased. The ship was coming round slowly: I held my breath in the renewed stillness of expectation; one wouldn't have thought that there was a single living soul on her decks. A sudden brisk shout, "Mainsail haul! He did not wait for my question. All the same--" "I never thought of that," I whispered back, even more appalled than before at the closeness of the shave, and marveling at that something unyielding in his character which was carrying him through so finely.
There was no agitation in his whisper. Whoever was being driven distracted, it was not he. He was sane. And the proof of his sanity was continued when he took up the whispering again. But what he was alluding to was his old captain's reluctant admission of the theory of suicide. It would obviously serve his turn--if I had understood at all the view which seemed to govern the unalterable purpose of his action. We are not living in a boy's adventure tale," I protested.
His scornful whispering took me up. There's nothing of a boy's tale in this. But there's nothing else for it.
I want no more. You don't suppose I am afraid of what can be done to me? Prison or gallows or whatever they may please. But you don't see me coming back to explain such things to an old fellow in a wig and twelve respectable tradesmen, do you? That's my affair. What does the Bible say? As I came at night so I shall go.
Not naked like a soul on the Day of Judgment. I shall freeze on to this sleeping suit. The Last Day is not yet--and. Didn't you? I may say truly that I understood--and my hesitation in letting that man swim away from my ship's side had been a mere sham sentiment, a sort of cowardice. It's a great satisfaction to have got somebody to understand.
You seem to have been there on purpose. And as usual he stared through the port. A breath of wind came now and again into our faces. The ship might have been moored in dock, so gently and on an even keel she slipped through the water, that did not murmur even at our passage, shadowy and silent like a phantom sea.
At midnight I went on deck, and to my mate's great surprise put the ship round on the other tack. His terrible whiskers flitted round me in silent criticism. I certainly should not have done it if it had been only a question of getting out of that sleepy gulf as quickly as possible. I believe he told the second mate, who relieved him, that it was a great want of judgment.
The other only yawned. That intolerable cub shuffled about so sleepily and lolled against the rails in such a slack, improper fashion that I came down on him sharply. I am awake. And keep a lookout. If there's any current we'll be closing with some islands before daylight. One the blue background of the high coast they seem to float on silvery patches of calm water, arid and gray, or dark green and rounded like clumps of evergreen bushes, with the larger ones, a mile or two long, showing the outlines of ridges, ribs of gray rock under the dark mantle of matted leafage.
Unknown to trade, to travel, almost to geography, the manner of life they harbor is an unsolved secret. There must be villages--settlements of fishermen at least--on the largest of them, and some communication with the world is probably kept up by native craft.
But all that forenoon, as we headed for them, fanned along by the faintest of breezes, I saw no sign of man or canoe in the field of the telescope I kept on pointing at the scattered group. At noon I have no orders for a change of course, and the mate's whiskers became much concerned and seemed to be offering themselves unduly to my notice. At last I said: Quite in--as far as I can take her.
Do you mean, sir, in the dark amongst the lot of all them islands and reefs and shoals? All that afternoon he wore a dreamy, contemplative appearance which in him was a mark of perplexity. After dinner I went into my stateroom as if I meant to take some rest. There we two bent our dark heads over a half-unrolled chart lying on my bed. I've been looking at it ever since sunrise. It has got two hills and a low point.
It must be inhabited. And on the coast opposite there is what looks like the mouth of a biggish river--with some towns, no doubt, not far up.
It's the best chance for you that I can see. Koh-ring let it be. And it was as if the ship had two captains to plan her course for her. I had been so worried and restless running up and down that I had not had the patience to dress that day. I had remained in my sleeping suit, with straw slippers and a soft floppy hat. The closeness of the heat in the gulf had been most oppressive, and the crew were used to seeing me wandering in that airy attire. I'll edge her in to half a mile, as far as I may be able to judge in the dark--" "Be careful," he murmured, warningly--and I realized suddenly that all my future, the only future for which I was fit, would perhaps go irretrievably to pieces in any mishap to my first command.
I could not stop a moment longer in the room. I motioned him to get out of sight and made my way on the poop. That unplayful cub had the watch. I walked up and down for a while thinking things out, then beckoned him over. He actually had the impudence, or else so forgot himself in his wonder at such an incomprehensible order, as to repeat: What for, sir?
Have them open wide and fastened properly. I know he popped into the mate's cabin to impart the fact to him because the whiskers came on deck, as it were by chance, and stole glances at me from below--for signs of lunacy or drunkenness, I suppose. A little before supper, feeling more restless than ever, I rejoined, for a moment, my second self. And to find him sitting so quietly was surprising, like something against nature, inhuman.
I developed my plan in a hurried whisper. I will presently find means to smuggle you out of here into the sail locker, which communicates with the lobby. But there is an opening, a sort of square for hauling the sails out, which gives straight on the quarter-deck and which is never closed in fine weather, so as to give air to the sails. When the ship's way is deadened in stays and all the hands are aft at the main braces you will have a clear road to slip out and get overboard through the open quarter-deck port.
I've had them both fastened up. Use a rope's end to lower yourself into the water so as to avoid a splash--you know. It could be heard and cause some beastly complication.
I only hope I have understood, too. From first to last"--and for the first time there seemed to be a faltering, something strained in his whisper. He caught hold of my arm, but the ringing of the supper bell made me start.
He didn't though; he only released his grip. After supper I didn't come below again till well past eight o'clock. The faint, steady breeze was loaded with dew; and the wet, darkened sails held all there was of propelling power in it.
The night, clear and starry, sparkled darkly, and the opaque, lightless patches shifting slowly against the low stars were the drifting islets. On the port bow there was a big one more distant and shadowily imposing by the great space of sky it eclipsed. On opening the door I had a back view of my very own self looking at a chart. He had come out of the recess and was standing near the table.
He stepped back and leaned against my bed with a level, quiet glance. I sat on the couch. We had nothing to say to each other. Over our heads the officer of the watch moved here and there. Then I heard him move quickly. I knew what that meant.
He was making for the companion; and presently his voice was outside my door. Land looks rather close. My double moved too. The time had come to exchange our last whispers, for neither of us was ever to hear each other's natural voice. I've got six and I'd give you the lot, only I must keep a little money to buy some fruit and vegetables for the crew from native boats as we go through Sunda Straits.
It was not safe, certainly. But I produced a large old silk handkerchief of mine, and tying the three pieces of gold in a corner, pressed it on him. He was touched, I supposed, because he took it at last and tied it quickly round his waist under the jacket, on his bare skin. Our eyes met; several seconds elapsed, till, our glances still mingled, I extended my hand and turned the lamp out. Then I passed through the cuddy, leaving the door of my room wide open.
Being careful not to wake up the mate, whose room was opposite, I spoke in an undertone. He looked round anxiously. He was by my side in an instant--the double captain slipped past the stairs--through a tiny dark passage.
We were in the sail locker, scrambling on our knees over the sails. A sudden thought struck me. I saw myself wandering barefooted, bareheaded, the sun beating on my dark poll.
I snatched off my floppy hat and tried hurriedly in the dark to ram it on my other self. He dodged and fended off silently. I wonder what he thought had come to me before he understood and suddenly desisted. Our hands met gropingly, lingered united in a steady, motionless clasp for a second.
No word was breathed by either of us when they separated. I was standing quietly by the pantry door when the steward returned. Kettle barely warm.
Shall I light the spirit lamp? It was now a matter of conscience to shave the land as close as possible--for now he must go overboard whenever the ship was put in stays. There could be no going back for him. After a moment I walked over to leeward and my heart flew into my mouth at the nearness of the land on the bow. Under any other circumstances I would not have held on a minute longer. The second mate had followed me anxiously.
I looked on till I felt I could command my voice. I took no notice of him and raised my tone just enough to be heard by the helmsman. The strain of watching the dark loom of the land grow bigger and denser was too much for me. I had shut my eyes--because the ship must go closer. She must!
The stillness was intolerable. Were we standing still? When I opened my eyes the second view started my heart with a thump. The black southern hill of Koh-ring seemed to hang right over the ship like a towering fragment of everlasting night. On that enormous mass of blackness there was not a gleam to be seen, not a sound to be heard. It was gliding irresistibly towards us and yet seemed already within reach of the hand.
I saw the vague figures of the watch grouped in the waist, gazing in awed silence. I ignored it. I had to go on. Don't check her way. That won't do now," I said warningly. Was she close enough? Already she was, I won't say in the shadow of the land, but in the very blackness of it, already swallowed up as it were, gone too close to be recalled, gone from me altogether.
Several voices cried out together: Such a hush had fallen on the ship that she might have been a bark of the dead floating in slowly under the very gate of Erebus. Where are we? He was thunderstruck, and as it were deprived of the moral support of his whiskers. He clapped his hands and absolutely cried out, "Lost! He lowered his tone, but I saw the shadowy gesture of his despair. You have done it, sir. I knew it'd end in something like this. She will never weather, and you are too close now to stay.
She'll drift ashore before she's round. O my God!
Keep good full there! I hadn't let go the mate's arm and went on shaking it. You go forward"--shake--"and stop there"--shake--"and hold your noise"--shake--"and see these head-sheets properly overhauled"--shake, shake--shake.
And all the time I dared not look towards the land lest my heart should fail me. I released my grip at last and he ran forward as if fleeing for dear life. I wondered what my double there in the sail locker thought of this commotion.
He was able to hear everything--and perhaps he was able to understand why, on my conscience, it had to be thus close--no less. My first order "Hard alee! And then I watched the land intently. In that smooth water and light wind it was impossible to feel the ship coming-to. I could not feel her. And my second self was making now ready to ship out and lower himself overboard. Perhaps he was gone already. The great black mass brooding over our very mastheads began to pivot away from the ship's side silently.
And now I forgot the secret stranger ready to depart, and remembered only that I was a total stranger to the ship. I did not know her. Would she do it? How was she to be handled? I swung the mainyard and waited helplessly. She was perhaps stopped, and her very fate hung in the balance, with the black mass of Koh-ring like the gate of the everlasting night towering over her taffrail.
What would she do now? Had she way on her yet? I stepped to the side swiftly, and on the shadowy water I could see nothing except a faint phosphorescent flash revealing the glassy smoothness of the sleeping surface. It was impossible to tell--and I had not learned yet the feel of my ship. Was she moving? What I needed was something easily seen, a piece of paper, which I could throw overboard and watch. I had nothing on me. To run down for it I didn't dare. There was no time. All at once my strained, yearning stare distinguished a white object floating within a yard of the ship's side.
White on the black water. A phosphorescent flash passed under it. What was that thing? I recognized my own floppy hat. It must have fallen off his head. Now I had what I wanted--the saving mark for my eyes. But I hardly thought of my other self, now gone from the ship, to be hidden forever from all friendly faces, to be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, with no brand of the curse on his sane forehead to stay a slaying hand. And I watched the hat--the expression of my sudden pity for his mere flesh.
It had been meant to save his homeless head from the dangers of the sun. And now--behold--it was saving the ship, by serving me for a mark to help out the ignorance of my strangeness. It was drifting forward, warning me just in time that the ship had gathered sternaway. The man's eyes glistened wildly in the binnacle light as he jumped round to the other side and spun round the wheel. I walked to the break of the poop.
On the over-shadowed deck all hands stood by the forebraces waiting for my order. The stars ahead seemed to be gliding from right to left. And all was so still in the world that I heard the quiet remark, "She's round," passed in a tone of intense relief between two seamen. And now the frightful whiskers made themselves heard giving various orders. Already the ship was drawing ahead. And I was alone with her. Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus--yes, I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: Creating the works from public domain print editions means that no one owns a United States copyright in these works, so the Foundation and you!
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