The Secret Sharers: Orson Welles and Joseph Conrad – a fifty year love affair
Heart of Darkness is a story we came to Hollywood to make a movie of---we never did and maybe someday we will---but I think it's particularly well suited to radio. Here it is, one of the best regarded and most typical of the works of Joseph Conrad. The Heart of Darkness could be described as a deliberate masterpiece, or a downright incantation. Almost, we are persuaded, that there is something after all, something essential, waiting for all of us in the dark areas of the world, aboriginally loathsome, immeasurable and certainly nameless...
I think I’m made for Conrad. I think every Conrad story is a movie. There’s never been a Conrad movie, for the simple reason that nobody’s ever done it as written. My (Heart of Darkness) script was terribly loyal to Conrad. I think that the minute anybody does that, they’re going to have a smash on their hands. Any of them; think what Lord Jim could have been, if some attention had been paid to the original book.
Listening to Orson Welles reciting Joseph Conrad's masterful story The Secret Sharer from the audio recording he made for The Orson Welles Library, reminded me of Welles's longtime love of Conrad's work, starting with Heart of Darkness, which formed the basis for his first film project at RKO. Welles also did two different radio productions of the novel, and later wrote scripts from Conrad's novels Lord Jim in 1964 and Victory - An Island Tale, in 1971 (under the title of Surimam).
While none of Welles's screenplays based on Conrad's work were ever produced, it seems more than likely he would have been delighted to make a movie from The Secret Sharer.
In any event, hearing Welles reading the story, it is obvious it would have certainly made a terrific Welles's movie, containing as it does several themes that relate it to Welles's other film work. And strangely enough, the story was made into a picture at (of all studios) RKO, in 1952, starring James Mason as the Captain, and Michael Pate as the first mate of the Sephora. Directed by John Brahm, it features some beautifully atmospheric camera work by Karl Strauss, who was the cinematographer on Welles RKO production of Journey Into Fear. The short 45-minute episode was released under the title Face to Face, along with another short film based on Stephen Crane's The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.
The entire episode can be watched on YouTube HERE.
One of the interesting aspects of the story is how it anticipates Welles's later use of homo-erotic themes in his original scripts, such as The Other Side of the Wind and The Big Brass Ring.
Just glance at these two excerpts from the Conrad story and they seem to fit right into Welles later work, (or for that matter, John Huston's on Reflections in a Golden Eye.):
"I should have gathered ...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 intuition on my part. A mysterious communication was established 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 hastened away from the rail to fetch some clothes.
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.
...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 teeth.
...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."
In the 1952 movie, the possibility of illicit sex between two handsome young naval officers, is effectively neutralized by giving the Captain a wife, who is naturally never even mentioned in Conrad's original story. Presumably, her presence was dictated by the Hays office, and her portrait is placed rather ironically over the young Captain's bed.
Here is the text of the Joseph Conrad story, as abridged and read by Welles for The Orson Welles Library:
THE SECRET SHARER By Joseph Conrad
The tug which had just left us anchored outside the bar, became lost to my sight. I was left alone with my ship, anchored at the head of the Gulf of Siam. There was not a sound in her – and around us nothing moved, nothing lived, not a canoe on the water, not a bird in the air, not a cloud in the sky. It was only just before the sun left us that my roaming eyes made out beyond the highest ridge of the principal islet of the group, something which did away with the solemnity of perfect solitude.
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."
He raised sharply his simple face, "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. It must be said, that I knew very little of my officers. I had been appointed to the command only a fortnight before. These people had been together for eighteen months or so, and my position was that of the only stranger on board.
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.
Meantime the chief mate was trying to evolve a theory of the anchored ship. She was, a ship from home lately arrived. Probably she drew too much water to cross the bar except at the top of spring tides.
"That's so," confirmed the second mate. "She draws over twenty feet. She's the Liverpool ship Sephora with a cargo of coal. Hundred and twenty-three days from Cardiff."
We looked at him in surprise. "The tugboat skipper told me when he came on board for your letters, sir," explained the young man. "He expects to take her up the river the day after tomorrow."
After thus overwhelming us with the extent of his information he slipped out of the cabin.. 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.
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.
I had hardly seen her yet properly. Now, as she lay cleared for sea, the stretch of her main-deck seemed to me very find under the stars. Very fine, very roomy for her size. My mind picturing to myself the coming passage through the Malay Archipelago, down the Indian Ocean, and up the Atlantic. All familiar enough to me, all the alternatives which were likely to face me on the high seas – everything! …except the novel responsibility of command.
Everybody at the after end of the ship was sleeping profoundly. I was agreeably at ease in my sleeping suit on that warm breathless night, barefooted, a glowing cigar in my teeth.
I rejoiced in the sea as compared with the unrest of the land. Passing on my way aft along the other side of the ship, I observed that the rope side ladder, had not been hauled in as it should have been. 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 totally unexpected jerk.
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. A faint flash of phosphorescent light, which seemed to issue suddenly from the naked body of a man. One hand, awash, clutched the bottom 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. At that I suppose he raised up his face. But even then I could only barely make out down there the shape of his black-haired head. I 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 made no motion to get out of the water, either. "What's the matter?" I asked in my ordinary tone, speaking down to the face upturned exactly under mine.
"Cramp," it answered.
"Are you alone on deck?"
"I suppose your captain's turned in?"
"I am sure he isn't," I said. "I am the captain."
"My name's Leggatt."
"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. A mysterious communication was established already between us two – in the face of that silent, darkened tropical sea. The man in the water began suddenly to climb up the ladder, and I hastened away from the rail to fetch some clothes.
Coming back on deck, I 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 as we moved 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. A well-knit young fellow of twenty-five at most. He caught his lower lip with the edge of white, even teeth.
"There's a ship over there," he murmured.
"Yes, I know. The Sephora. 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.
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 – "
I knew well enough 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. "It happened while we were setting a reefed foresail, at dusk. Reefed foresail! You understand the sort of weather, terrific weather that seemed to have no end to it. Terrific, I tell you. The only sail we had left to keep the ship running. He gave me some of his cursed insolence. It was no time for gentlemanly reproof, so I turned round and felled him like an ox. He up and at me and wee 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 then a crash as if the sky had fallen on my head. I was still holding him by the throat still when they picked us up. He was black in the face. And the ship running for her life, touch and go all the time, any minute her last in a sea fit to turn your hair gray. I killed a man. I could act no longer as chief mate of the ship.
All the time he spoke he did not stir a limb. Neither did I stir a limb. We stood less than a foot from each other. It occurred to me that if my own chief mate where to catch sight of us, he would think he was seeing double, or imagine himself come upon a scene of weird witchcraft; or the strange captain having a quiet confabulation by the wheel with his own gray ghost.
"You had better slip down into my stateroom now," I said, moving off stealthily. My double followed my movements; our bare feet made no sound; I let him in, closed the door with care, and, after giving a call to the second mate, returned on deck for my relief.
"Not much sign of any wind yet," I remarked to the second mate when he approached.
"No, sir. Not much," he assented, with just enough deference, no more, and barely suppressing a yawn.
"Well, that's all you have to look out for. You have got your orders."
I went below. It must be explained here that my cabin had the form of the capital letter L, the door being within the angle and opening into the short part of the letter. A couch was to the left, the bed place to the right; my writing desk and the chronometers' table faced the door. But anyone opening it, unless he stepped right inside, had no view of what I call the long (or vertical) part of the letter.
"Well, nobody is likely to come in here,” I said, “without knocking and getting permission."
He nodded. His face was thin and the sunburn faded, as though he had been ill. And no wonder. He had been kept under arrest in his cabin for nearly seven weeks. But there was nothing sickly in his eyes. "But all this doesn't tell me how you came to hang on to our side ladder," I inquired.
"When we sighted Java Head I had had time to think all those matters out several times over. I had six weeks of doing nothing else. I reckoned it would be dark before we closed with the land. So I asked the Skipper to leave my cabin door unlocked at night while the ship was going through Sunda Straits. I wanted nothing more. God only knows why they locked me in every night. You'd have thought they were afraid I'd go about at night strangling people. Am I a murdering brute? Do I look it? You'll say I might have chucked him aside and bolted out, there and then – it was dark already. Well, no. Somebody else might have got killed – for I would not have broken out only to get chucked back. He was afraid of the men, and also of that old second mate of his who had been sailing with him for years – a gray-headed old humbug; and his steward, too, had been with him seventeen years or more – a dogmatic sort of loafer who hated me like poison. The Devil only knows what the skipper wasn't afraid of (all his nerve went to pieces altogether in that hellish spell of bad weather we had) – Anyhow, he wouldn't listen to me. 'This thing must take its course,' he said. was shaking like a leaf. 'So you won't?' 'No!' 'Then I hope you will be able to sleep on that,' I said, and turned my back on him. 'I wonder that you can,' cries he, and locks the door.
Well, I don't know how it was, but tonight that steward, after bringing me my supper, went out to let me eat it, and left the door unlocked. After I had finished I strolled out on the quarter-deck. I don't know that I meant to do anything. A breath of fresh air was all I wanted, I believe. Then a sudden temptation came over me. I kicked off my slippers and was in the water before I had made up my mind fairly. Somebody heard the splash and they raised an awful hullabaloo. 'He's gone! Lower the boats! He's committed suicide! No, he's swimming.' Certainly I was swimming. I landed on the nearest islet before the boat left the ship's side. I heard them pulling about in the dark, hailing, and so on, but after a bit they gave up. Everything quieted down and the anchorage became still as death. I felt certain they would start searching for me at daylight. There was no place to hide and if there had been, what would have been the good? I took off all my clothes, tied them up in a bundle with a stone inside, and dropped them in the deep water on the outer side of that islet. That was suicide enough for me. Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank –- but that's not the same thing. I struck out for another of these little islands, and it was from that one that I first saw your riding light. Something to swim for. – Then, your ladder.
"Why didn't you hail the ship?" I asked, a little louder.
He touched my shoulder lightly. Lazy footsteps came right over our heads and stopped. I closed the porthole quietly, to make sure. A louder word might have been overheard.
"Who's that?" he whispered then.
"My second mate. But I don't know much more of the fellow than you do."
And I told him a little about myself. I had been appointed to take charge while I least expected anything of the sort, not quite a fortnight ago. I didn't know either the ship or the people.
I was almost as much of a stranger on board as himself, I said. And at the moment I felt it most acutely. I felt that it would take very little to make me a suspect person in the eyes of the ship's company. He had turned about meantime; and we, the two strangers in the ship, faced each other in identical attitudes.
"Do you think they will be round here searching for you?" I asked with some incredulity.
"Quite likely," he said, faintly.
"Meantime get into that bed," I whispered. "Want help? There."
He tumbled in, rolled over on his back, and flung one arm across his eyes. And then, with his face nearly hidden, he must have looked exactly as I used to look in that bed. I gazed upon my other self for a while before drawing across carefully the two green serge curtains which ran on a brass rod. I thought for a moment of pinning them together for greater safety, but I sat down on the couch. I was extremely tired, in a peculiarly intimate way, by the strain of stealthiness, and greatly bothered by an exasperating knocking in my head. It was a relief to discover suddenly that it was not in my head at all, but on the outside of the door.
Before I could collect myself the words "Come in" were out of my mouth, and the steward entered with a tray, bringing in my morning coffee. I was so frightened that I shouted, "This way! I am here, steward," as though he had been miles away. He put down the tray on the table next the couch and only then said, very quietly, "I can see you are here, sir." I felt him give me a keen look, but I dared not meet his eyes just then. He must have wondered why I had drawn the curtains of my bed before going to sleep on the couch.
"May I come in to take the empty cup away, sir?"
"Of course!" I turned my back on him while he popped in and out. Then I unhooked and closed the door and even pushed the bolt. This sort of thing could not go on very long. I took a peep at my double. He had not moved. I reached over him and opened the port.
Of course, theoretically, I could do what I liked, with no one to say nay to me within the whole circle of the horizon; but to lock my cabin door and take the key away I did not dare. Directly I put my head out on deck, I saw the officers, the steward talking to them eagerly. He happened to catch sight of me and dived, the second ran down on the main-deck shouting some order or other, and the chief mate came to meet me, touching his cap.
There was a sort of curiosity in his eye that I did not like. I don't know whether the steward had told them that I was "queer" only, or downright drunk, but I know the man meant to have a good look at me. I watched him coming with a smile which, as he got into point-blank range, took effect and froze his very whiskers. I did not give him time to open his lips.
"Square the yards by lifts and braces before the hands go to breakfast."
It was the first particular order I had given on board that ship; At breakfast time, the dual working of my mind distracted me almost to the point of insanity. I was constantly watching myself, my secret self, sleeping in that bed, behind that door which faced me as I sat at the head of the table.
Back in my cabin, I had to shake him for a solid minute.
"All's well so far," I whispered. "Now you must vanish into the bathroom."
He did so, as noiseless as a ghost, and then I rang for the steward, and facing him boldly, directed him to tidy up my stateroom while I was having my bath – "and be quick about it."
I took a bath and did most of my dressing, splashing, and whistling softly for the steward's edification, while the secret sharer of my life stood drawn up bolt upright in that little space. There was nothing else for it. He had to sit still on a small folding stool, half smothered by the heavy coats hanging there. We listened to the steward going into the bathroom out of the saloon, filling the water bottles there, scrubbing the bath, setting things to rights, whisk, bang, clatter – out again into the saloon – turn the key – click. And there we sat; I at my writing desk ready to appear busy with some papers, he behind me out of sight of the door. It would not have been prudent to talk in daytime; and I could not have stood the excitement of that queer sense of whispering to myself. Now and then, glancing over my shoulder, I saw him far back there, sitting rigidly on the low stool, his bare feet close together, his arms folded, his head hanging on his breast – and perfectly still. Anybody would have taken him for me.
A voice outside the door said:
"Beg pardon, sir."
“There's a ship's boat coming our way, sir."
"All right. Get the ladder over."
The skipper of the Sephora was not exactly a showy figure; his shoulders were high, one leg slightly more bandy than the other. He shook hands, looking vaguely around. He mumbled to me as if he were ashamed of what he was saying. By this time we were seated in the cabin and the steward brought in a tray with a bottle and glasses. "Thanks! No." Never took liquor. Would have some water, though. He drank two tumblerfuls. Terrible thirsty work. Ever since daylight had been exploring the islands round his ship.
As he persisted in his mumbling and I wanted my double to hear every word, I hit upon the notion of informing him that I regretted to say I was hard of hearing. So he had to raise his voice to give me his tale. He seemed completely muddled as to its bearings, but still immensely impressed.
"What would you think of such a thing happening on board your own ship? I've had the Sephora for these fifteen years. I am a well-known shipmaster."
Perhaps I should have sympathized with him if I had been able to detach my mental vision from the unsuspected sharer of my cabin. There he was on the other side of the bulkhead, four or five feet from us, no more, as we sat in the saloon. I looked politely at Captain Archbold (if that was his name), but it was the other I saw.
"I suppose I must report a suicide."
"Suicide! That's what I'll have to write to my owners directly I get in."
"Unless you manage to recover him before tomorrow," I assented, dispassionately, "Alive, I mean."
My lack of excitement, of curiosity, of surprise, of any sort of pronounced interest, began to arouse his distrust.
I could not, I think, have met him by a direct lie, also for psychological (not moral) reasons. Another pause full of mistrust followed.
"Nice little saloon, isn't it?" I remarked, as if noticing for the first time the way his eyes roamed from one closed door to the other. "And very well fitted out, too. Here, for instance," I continued, reaching over the back of my seat
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 accomodation.
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 – 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. My double down there in my cabin must have heard, and certainly could not feel more relieved than I.
I escorted my visitor to the gangway ceremoniously, and nearly overdid it. He was a tenacious beast. On the very ladder he lingered.
"I say ... you ... you don't think that – "
I covered his voice loudly:
"Certainly not. ... I am delighted. Good-by."
I had an idea of what he meant to say, and just saved myself by the privilege of defective hearing. But my mate, close witness of that parting, looked mystified and his face took on a thoughtful cast.
"Seems a very nice man. His boat's crew told our chaps a very extraordinary story, if what I am told by the steward is true. A very horrible affair – isn't it, sir?"
"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?"
"Preposterous - isn't it?"
‘I suppose he did drown himself. You have no doubt in the matter, sir?"
I left him suddenly. With my double down there it was most trying to be on deck. And it was almost as trying to be below. 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 elements, the men were against us – everything was against us in our secret partnership; time itself – for this could not go on forever.
"Did you hear everything?" were my first words as soon as we took up our position side by side, leaning over my bed place.
He had. And the proof of it was his earnest whisper, "The man told you he hardly dared to give the order."
I understood the reference to be to that saving foresail.
"Yes. He was afraid of it being lost in the setting."
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! But what's the use telling you? You know!
Footsteps in the saloon, a heavy knock. "There's enough wind to get under way with, sir."
"Turn the hands up," I cried through the door. "I'll be on deck directly."
I was going out to make the acquaintance of my ship.
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. But I was not wholly alone with my command; for there was that stranger in my cabin. 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.
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. At the sound of my voice he nearly jumped out of his skin. He was extremely confused.
"Beg your pardon, sir. I made sure you were in your cabin."
"You see I wasn't."
"No, sir. I could have sworn I had heard you moving in there not a moment ago. It's most extraordinary ...very sorry, sir. "
I suppose the stranger 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 – 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 re-passing over our heads. It was an infinitely miserable time. It was lucky that some tins of fine preserves were stowed in a locker in my stateroom; and so he lived on pate de foie gras, asparagus, cooked oysters, sardines – on all sorts of abominable sham delicacies out of tins. My early-morning coffee he always drank; and it was all I dared do for him in that respect.
The fourth day out, I think (we were then working down the east side of the Gulf of Siam, 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 Stewart, whose slightest movement I dreaded, after putting down the dishes ran up on deck busily. 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. 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.
"Steward," I thundered. "Yes, sir," the pale-faced steward turned resignedly to me.
"Where are you going with that coat?"
"To your room, sir."
"Is there another shower coming?"
"I'm sure I don't know, sir. Shall I go up again and see, sir?"
"No! never mind."
I expected the steward to hook my coat on and come out at once. He was very slow about it; but 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. I expected to hear a yell of surprise and terror, but everything remained still. 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. I leaned back in my chair. My head swam. After a while, when sufficiently recovered to speak, I instructed my mate to put the ship round at eight o'clock himself.
"I won't come on deck," I went on. "I think I'll turn in, and unless the wind shifts I don't want to be disturbed before midnight. I feel a bit seedy."
"You did look middling bad a little while ago,"
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.
"Sir!" Startled as usual.
"Where did you hang up that coat?"
"In the bathroom, sir." The usual anxious tone. "It's not quite dry yet, sir."
Had my double vanished as he had come?
...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. 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! what a narrow escape!" Narrow indeed.
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: "Hard alee!"
The ship was coming round slowly.
We two down in my cabin came together in our usual position by the bed place.
He did not wait for my question. "I heard him fumbling here and just managed to squat myself down in the bath," he whispered to me. "The fellow only opened the door and put his arm in to hang the coat up. 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.
"It would never do for me to come to life again."
It was something that a ghost might have said. 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.
"You must maroon me as soon as ever you can get amongst these islands off the Cambodge shore."
"Maroon you! We are not living in a boy's adventure tale."
"We aren't indeed!: 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 a judge and jury back in England. What can they know whether I am guilty or not. Or of what I am guilty? That's my affair. What does the Bible say? 'Driven off the face of the earth.' Very well, I am off the face of the earth now.
At midnight I went on deck, and to my mate's great surprise put the ship round on the other tack. I believe he told the second mate, who relieved him, that it was a great want of judgment. That intolerable cur only yawned in such a slack, improper fashion that I came down on him sharply.
"Aren't you properly awake yet?"
"Yes, sir! I am awake."
"Well, then, be good enough to hold yourself as if you were. And keep a lookout. If there's any current we'll be closing with some islands before daylight."
The east side of the gulf is fringed with islands, ribs of gray rock, unknown to trade, to travel, almost to geography, the manner of life they harbor is an unsolved secret.
At last I said: "I am going to stand right in. Quite in - as far as I can take her."
"Bless my soul! Do you mean, sir, in the dark amongst the lot of all them islands and reefs and shoals?"
"We're not doing well in the middle of the gulf, I am going to look for the land breezes tonight."
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.
"There," I said. "It's got to be that island, Koh-ring. 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."
"Anything. Koh-ring let it be."
"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 deck.
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 shall stand in as close as I dare and then put her round. I will presently find means to smuggle you out of here into the sail locker; 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. Use a rope's end to lower yourself into the water so as to avoid a splash.
He kept silent for a while, then whispered, "I understand."
"I won't be there to see you go," I began with an effort.
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 time had come to exchange our last whispers, for neither of us was ever to hear each other's natural voice.
"Look here!" I opened a drawer and took out three gold sovereigns. "Take this anyhow. 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."
He shook his head.
"Take it," I urged him, and 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.
"Can you get me a little hot water from the galley?"
"I am afraid, sir, the galley fire's been out for some time now."
"Go and see."
He flew up the stairs.
"Now," I whispered. He was by my side in an instant – 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 for a second, united in a steady, motionless clasp ... No word was breathed by either of us when they separated.
I came out on deck slowly. It was now a matter of conscience to shave the land as close as possible – for now he must go overboard. Must! There could be no going back for him. My heart flew into my mouth at the nearness of the land.
The ship must go closer. She must! The stillness was intolerable. Were we standing still?
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. I saw the vague figures of the watch grouped in the waist, gazing in awed silence.
"Are you going on, sir?" inquired an unsteady voice at my elbow.
I ignored it. I had to go on.
"Keep her full. 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.
"Give the mate a call," I said to the young man who stood at my elbow as still as death. "And turn all hands up."
Several voices cried out together: "We are all on deck, sir."
Then stillness again, with the great shadow gliding closer, towering higher, without a light, without a sound..
"My God! Where are we?"
It was the mate moaning at my elbow.
"Be quiet," I said, sternly.
He lowered his tone, but I saw the shadowy gesture of his despair. "What are we doing here?"
"Looking for the land wind."
He made as if to tear his hair, and addressed me recklessly.
"She will never get out. She'll drift ashore before she's round. O my God!"
I caught his arm as he was raising it to batter his poor devoted head, and shook it violently.
"She's ashore already," he wailed, trying to tear himself away.
"Is she? ... Keep good full there!"
"Good full, sir," cried the helmsman. "Ready about, do you hear?
And all the time I dared not look towards the land lest my heart should fail me.
I wondered what my double there in the sail locker thought of this commotion. He was able to hear everything. My first order "Hard alee!" re-echoed ominously under the towering shadow of Koh-ring as if I had shouted in a mountain gorge.. In that smooth water and light wind it was impossible to feel the ship coming-to. No! I could not feel her. And my second self was making now ready to slip out and lower himself overboard. Perhaps he was gone already...?
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?
Her very fate hung in the balance, with the black mass of Koh-ring like the gate of the everlasting night towering over us. What would she do now? It was impossible to tell. 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.
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. I recognized my own floppy hat. It must have fallen off his head... and he didn't bother. Now I had what I wanted – the saving mark for my eyes. 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... too proud to explain.
I watched the hat. It had been meant to save his homeless head from the dangers of the sun. And now it was saving the ship, by serving me for a mark. It was drifting forward, warning me just in time that the ship had gathered sternway.
"Shift the helm," I said in a low voice to the seaman standing still like a statue.
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.
"Let go and haul."
The foreyards ran round with a great noise, amidst cheery cries. Already the ship was drawing ahead. And I was alone with her. No one in the world should stand now between us, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.
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 – I was just 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: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.