Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 10

‘He locked his fingers together and tore them apart. Nothing could be more true: he had indeed jumped into an everlasting deep hole. He had tumbled from a height he could never scale again. By that time the boat had gone driving forward past the bows. It was too dark just then for them to see each other, and, moreover, they were blinded and half drowned with rain. He told me it was like being swept by a flood through a cavern. They turned their backs to the squall; the skipper, it seems, got an oar over the stern to keep the boat before it, and for two or three minutes the end of the world had come through a deluge in a pitchy blackness. The sea hissed “like twenty thousand kettles.” That’s his simile, not mine. I fancy there was not much wind after the first gust; and he himself had admitted at the inquiry that the sea never got up that night to any extent. He crouched down in the bows and stole a furtive glance back. He saw just one yellow gleam of the mast-head light high up and blurred like a last star ready to dissolve. “It terrified me to see it still there,” he said. That’s what he said. What terrified him was the thought that the drowning was not over yet. No doubt he wanted to be done with that abomination as quickly as possible. Nobody in the boat made a sound. In the dark she seemed to fly, but of course she could not have had much way. Then the shower swept ahead, and the great, distracting, hissing noise followed the rain into distance and died out. There was nothing to be heard then but the slight wash about the boat’s sides. Somebody’s teeth were chattering violently. A hand touched his back. A faint voice said, “You there?” Another cried out shakily, “She’s gone!” and they all stood up together to look astern. They saw no lights. All was black. A thin cold drizzle was driving into their faces. The boat lurched slightly. The teeth chattered faster, stopped, and began again twice before the man could master his shiver sufficiently to say, “Ju-ju-st in ti-ti-me. . . . Brrrr.” He recognised the voice of the chief engineer saying surlily, “I saw her go down. I happened to turn my head.” The wind had dropped almost completely.

‘They watched in the dark with their heads half turned to windward as if expecting to hear cries. At first he was thankful the night had covered up the scene before his eyes, and then to know of it and yet to have seen and heard nothing appeared somehow the culminating point of an awful misfortune. “Strange, isn’t it?” he murmured, interrupting himself in his disjointed narrative.

‘It did not seem so strange to me. He must have had an unconscious conviction that the reality could not be half as bad, not half as anguishing, appalling, and vengeful as the created terror of his imagination. I believe that, in this first moment, his heart was wrung with all the suffering, that his soul knew the accumulated savour of all the fear, all the horror, all the despair of eight hundred human beings pounced upon in the night by a sudden and violent death, else why should he have said, “It seemed to me that I must jump out of that accursed boat and swim back to see — half a mile — more — any distance — to the very spot . . . “? Why this impulse? Do you see the significance? Why back to the very spot? Why not drown alongside — if he meant drowning? Why back to the very spot, to see — as if his imagination had to be soothed by the assurance that all was over before death could bring relief? I defy any one of you to offer another explanation. It was one of those bizarre and exciting glimpses through the fog. It was an extraordinary disclosure. He let it out as the most natural thing one could say. He fought down that impulse and then he became conscious of the silence. He mentioned this to me. A silence of the sea, of the sky, merged into one indefinite immensity still as death around these saved, palpitating lives. “You might have heard a pin drop in the boat,” he said with a queer contraction of his lips, like a man trying to master his sensibilities while relating some extremely moving fact. A silence! God alone, who had willed him as he was, knows what he made of it in his heart. “I didn’t think any spot on earth could be so still,” he said. “You couldn’t distinguish the sea from the sky; there was nothing to see and nothing to hear. Not a glimmer, not a shape, not a sound. You could have believed that every bit of dry land had gone to the bottom; that every man on earth but I and these beggars in the boat had got drowned.” He leaned over the table with his knuckles propped amongst coffee-cups, liqueur-glasses, cigar-ends. “I seemed to believe it. Everything was gone and — all was over . . . ” he fetched a deep sigh . . . “with me.”’

Marlow sat up abruptly and flung away his cheroot with force. It made a darting red trail like a toy rocket fired through the drapery of creepers. Nobody stirred.

‘Hey, what do you think of it?’ he cried with sudden animation. ‘Wasn’t he true to himself, wasn’t he? His saved life was over for want of ground under his feet, for want of sights for his eyes, for want of voices in his ears. Annihilation — hey! And all the time it was only a clouded sky, a sea that did not break, the air that did not stir. Only a night; only a silence.

‘It lasted for a while, and then they were suddenly and unanimously moved to make a noise over their escape. “I knew from the first she would go.” “Not a minute too soon.” “A narrow squeak, b’gosh!” He said nothing, but the breeze that had dropped came back, a gentle draught freshened steadily, and the sea joined its murmuring voice to this talkative reaction succeeding the dumb moments of awe. She was gone! She was gone! Not a doubt of it. Nobody could have helped. They repeated the same words over and over again as though they couldn’t stop themselves. Never doubted she would go. The lights were gone. No mistake. The lights were gone. Couldn’t expect anything else. She had to go. . . . He noticed that they talked as though they had left behind them nothing but an empty ship. They concluded she would not have been long when she once started. It seemed to cause them some sort of satisfaction. They assured each other that she couldn’t have been long about it — “Just shot down like a flat-iron.” The chief engineer declared that the mast-head light at the moment of sinking seemed to drop “like a lighted match you throw down.” At this the second laughed hysterically. “I am g-g-glad, I am gla-a-a-d.” His teeth went on “like an electric rattle,” said Jim, “and all at once he began to cry. He wept and blubbered like a child, catching his breath and sobbing ‘Oh dear! oh dear! oh dear!’ He would be quiet for a while and start suddenly, ‘Oh, my poor arm! oh, my poor a-a-a-arm!’ I felt I could knock him down. Some of them sat in the stern-sheets. I could just make out their shapes. Voices came to me, mumble, mumble, grunt, grunt. All this seemed very hard to bear. I was cold too. And I could do nothing. I thought that if I moved I would have to go over the side and . . . ”

‘His hand groped stealthily, came in contact with a liqueur-glass, and was withdrawn suddenly as if it had touched a red-hot coal. I pushed the bottle slightly. “Won’t you have some more?” I asked. He looked at me angrily. “Don’t you think I can tell you what there is to tell without screwing myself up?” he asked. The squad of globe-trotters had gone to bed. We were alone but for a vague white form erect in the shadow, that, being looked at, cringed forward, hesitated, backed away silently. It was getting late, but I did not hurry my guest.

‘In the midst of his forlorn state he heard his companions begin to abuse some one. “What kept you from jumping, you lunatic?” said a scolding voice. The chief engineer left the stern-sheets, and could be heard clambering forward as if with hostile intentions against “the greatest idiot that ever was.” The skipper shouted with rasping effort offensive epithets from where he sat at the oar. He lifted his head at that uproar, and heard the name “George,” while a hand in the dark struck him on the breast. “What have you got to say for yourself, you fool?” queried somebody, with a sort of virtuous fury. “They were after me,” he said. “They were abusing me — abusing me . . . by the name of George.”

‘He paused to stare, tried to smile, turned his eyes away and went on. “That little second puts his head right under my nose, ‘Why, it’s that blasted mate!’ ‘What!’ howls the skipper from the other end of the boat. ‘No!’ shrieks the chief. And he too stooped to look at my face.”

‘The wind had left the boat suddenly. The rain began to fall again, and the soft, uninterrupted, a little mysterious sound with which the sea receives a shower arose on all sides in the night. “They were too taken aback to say anything more at first,” he narrated steadily, “and what could I have to say to them?” He faltered for a moment, and made an effort to go on. “They called me horrible names.” His voice, sinking to a whisper, now and then would leap up suddenly, hardened by the passion of scorn, as though he had been talking of secret abominations. “Never mind what they called me,” he said grimly. “I could hear hate in their voices. A good thing too. They could not forgive me for being in that boat. They hated it. It made them mad. . . . ” He laughed short. . . . “But it kept me from — Look! I was sitting with my arms crossed, on the gunwale! . . . ” He perched himself smartly on the edge of the table and crossed his arms. . . . “Like this — see? One little tilt backwards and I would have been gone — after the others. One little tilt — the least bit — the least bit.” He frowned, and tapping his forehead with the tip of his middle finger, “It was there all the time,” he said impressively. “All the time — that notion. And the rain — cold, thick, cold as melted snow — colder — on my thin cotton clothes — I’ll never be so cold again in my life, I know. And the sky was black too — all black. Not a star, not a light anywhere. Nothing outside that confounded boat and those two yapping before me like a couple of mean mongrels at a tree’d thief. Yap! yap! ‘What you doing here? You’re a fine sort! Too much of a bloomin’ gentleman to put your hand to it. Come out of your trance, did you? To sneak in? Did you?’ Yap! yap! ‘You ain’t fit to live!’ Yap! yap! Two of them together trying to out-bark each other. The other would bay from the stern through the rain — couldn’t see him — couldn’t make it out — some of his filthy jargon. Yap! yap! Bow-ow-ow-ow-ow! Yap! yap! It was sweet to hear them; it kept me alive, I tell you. It saved my life. At it they went, as if trying to drive me overboard with the noise! . . . ‘I wonder you had pluck enough to jump. You ain’t wanted here. If I had known who it was, I would have tipped you over — you skunk! What have you done with the other? Where did you get the pluck to jump — you coward? What’s to prevent us three from firing you overboard?’ . . . They were out of breath; the shower passed away upon the sea. Then nothing. There was nothing round the boat, not even a sound. Wanted to see me overboard, did they? Upon my soul! I think they would have had their wish if they had only kept quiet. Fire me overboard! Would they? ‘Try,’ I said. ‘I would for twopence.’ ‘Too good for you,’ they screeched together. It was so dark that it was only when one or the other of them moved that I was quite sure of seeing him. By heavens! I only wish they had tried.”

‘I couldn’t help exclaiming, “What an extraordinary affair!”

‘“Not bad — eh?” he said, as if in some sort astounded. “They pretended to think I had done away with that donkey-man for some reason or other. Why should I? And how the devil was I to know? Didn’t I get somehow into that boat? into that boat — I . . . ” The muscles round his lips contracted into an unconscious grimace that tore through the mask of his usual expression — something violent, short-lived and illuminating like a twist of lightning that admits the eye for an instant into the secret convolutions of a cloud. “I did. I was plainly there with them — wasn’t I? Isn’t it awful a man should be driven to do a thing like that — and be responsible? What did I know about their George they were howling after? I remembered I had seen him curled up on the deck. ‘Murdering coward!’ the chief kept on calling me. He didn’t seem able to remember any other two words. I didn’t care, only his noise began to worry me. ‘Shut up,’ I said. At that he collected himself for a confounded screech. ‘You killed him! You killed him!’ ‘No,’ I shouted, ‘but I will kill you directly.’ I jumped up, and he fell backwards over a thwart with an awful loud thump. I don’t know why. Too dark. Tried to step back I suppose. I stood still facing aft, and the wretched little second began to whine, ‘You ain’t going to hit a chap with a broken arm — and you call yourself a gentleman, too.’ I heard a heavy tramp — one — two — and wheezy grunting. The other beast was coming at me, clattering his oar over the stern. I saw him moving, big, big — as you see a man in a mist, in a dream. ‘Come on,’ I cried. I would have tumbled him over like a bale of shakings. He stopped, muttered to himself, and went back. Perhaps he had heard the wind. I didn’t. It was the last heavy gust we had. He went back to his oar. I was sorry. I would have tried to — to.. .”

‘He opened and closed his curved fingers, and his hands had an eager and cruel flutter. “Steady, steady,” I murmured.

‘“Eh? What? I am not excited,” he remonstrated, awfully hurt, and with a convulsive jerk of his elbow knocked over the cognac bottle. I started forward, scraping my chair. He bounced off the table as if a mine had been exploded behind his back, and half turned before he alighted, crouching on his feet to show me a startled pair of eyes and a face white about the nostrils. A look of intense annoyance succeeded. “Awfully sorry. How clumsy of me!” he mumbled, very vexed, while the pungent odour of spilt alcohol enveloped us suddenly with an atmosphere of a low drinking-bout in the cool, pure darkness of the night. The lights had been put out in the dining-hall; our candle glimmered solitary in the long gallery, and the columns had turned black from pediment to capital. On the vivid stars the high corner of the Harbour Office stood out distinct across the Esplanade, as though the sombre pile had glided nearer to see and hear.

‘He assumed an air of indifference.

‘“I dare say I am less calm now than I was then. I was ready for anything. These were trifles. . . . ”

‘“You had a lively time of it in that boat,” I remarked

‘“I was ready,” he repeated. “After the ship’s lights had gone, anything might have happened in that boat — anything in the world — and the world no wiser. I felt this, and I was pleased. It was just dark enough too. We were like men walled up quick in a roomy grave. No concern with anything on earth. Nobody to pass an opinion. Nothing mattered.” For the third time during this conversation he laughed harshly, but there was no one about to suspect him of being only drunk. “No fear, no law, no sounds, no eyes — not even our own, till — till sunrise at least.”

‘I was struck by the suggestive truth of his words. There is something peculiar in a small boat upon the wide sea. Over the lives borne from under the shadow of death there seems to fall the shadow of madness. When your ship fails you, your whole world seems to fail you; the world that made you, restrained you, took care of you. It is as if the souls of men floating on an abyss and in touch with immensity had been set free for any excess of heroism, absurdity, or abomination. Of course, as with belief, thought, love, hate, conviction, or even the visual aspect of material things, there are as many shipwrecks as there are men, and in this one there was something abject which made the isolation more complete — there was a villainy of circumstances that cut these men off more completely from the rest of mankind, whose ideal of conduct had never undergone the trial of a fiendish and appalling joke. They were exasperated with him for being a half-hearted shirker: he focussed on them his hatred of the whole thing; he would have liked to take a signal revenge for the abhorrent opportunity they had put in his way. Trust a boat on the high seas to bring out the Irrational that lurks at the bottom of every thought, sentiment, sensation, emotion. It was part of the burlesque meanness pervading that particular disaster at sea that they did not come to blows. It was all threats, all a terribly effective feint, a sham from beginning to end, planned by the tremendous disdain of the Dark Powers whose real terrors, always on the verge of triumph, are perpetually foiled by the steadfastness of men. I asked, after waiting for a while, ‘Well, what happened?” A futile question. I knew too much already to hope for the grace of a single uplifting touch, for the favour of hinted madness, of shadowed horror. “Nothing,” he said. “I meant business, but they meant noise only. Nothing happened.”

‘And the rising sun found him just as he had jumped up first in the bows of the boat. What a persistence of readiness! He had been holding the tiller in his hand, too, all the night. They had dropped the rudder overboard while attempting to ship it, and I suppose the tiller got kicked forward somehow while they were rushing up and down that boat trying to do all sorts of things at once so as to get clear of the side. It was a long heavy piece of hard wood, and apparently he had been clutching it for six hours or so. If you don’t call that being ready! Can you imagine him, silent and on his feet half the night, his face to the gusts of rain, staring at sombre forms watchful of vague movements, straining his ears to catch rare low murmurs in the stern-sheets! Firmness of courage or effort of fear? What do you think? And the endurance is undeniable too. Six hours more or less on the defensive; six hours of alert immobility while the boat drove slowly or floated arrested, according to the caprice of the wind; while the sea, calmed, slept at last; while the clouds passed above his head; while the sky from an immensity lustreless and black, diminished to a sombre and lustrous vault, scintillated with a greater brilliance, faded to the east, paled at the zenith; while the dark shapes blotting the low stars astern got outlines, relief became shoulders, heads, faces, features, — confronted him with dreary stares, had dishevelled hair, torn clothes, blinked red eyelids at the white dawn. “They looked as though they had been knocking about drunk in gutters for a week,” he described graphically; and then he muttered something about the sunrise being of a kind that foretells a calm day. You know that sailor habit of referring to the weather in every connection. And on my side his few mumbled words were enough to make me see the lower limb of the sun clearing the line of the horizon, the tremble of a vast ripple running over all the visible expanse of the sea, as if the waters had shuddered, giving birth to the globe of light, while the last puff of the breeze would stir the air in a sigh of relief.

‘“They sat in the stern shoulder to shoulder, with the skipper in the middle, like three dirty owls, and stared at me,” I heard him say with an intention of hate that distilled a corrosive virtue into the commonplace words like a drop of powerful poison falling into a glass of water; but my thoughts dwelt upon that sunrise. I could imagine under the pellucid emptiness of the sky these four men imprisoned in the solitude of the sea, the lonely sun, regardless of the speck of life, ascending the clear curve of the heaven as if to gaze ardently from a greater height at his own splendour reflected in the still ocean. “They called out to me from aft,” said Jim, “as though we had been chums together. I heard them. They were begging me to be sensible and drop that ‘blooming piece of wood.’ Why would I carry on so? They hadn’t done me any harm — had they? There had been no harm. . . . No harm!”

‘His face crimsoned as though he could not get rid of the air in his lungs.

‘“No harm!” he burst out. “I leave it to you. You can understand. Can’t you? You see it — don’t you? No harm! Good God! What more could they have done? Oh yes, I know very well — I jumped. Certainly. I jumped! I told you I jumped; but I tell you they were too much for any man. It was their doing as plainly as if they had reached up with a boat-hook and pulled me over. Can’t you see it? You must see it. Come. Speak — straight out.”

His uneasy eyes fastened upon mine, questioned, begged, challenged, entreated. For the life of me I couldn’t help murmuring, “You’ve been tried.” “More than is fair,” he caught up swiftly. “I wasn’t given half a chance — with a gang like that. And now they were friendly — oh, so damnably friendly! Chums, shipmates. All in the same boat. Make the best of it. They hadn’t meant anything. They didn t care a hang for George. George had gone back to his berth for something at the last moment and got caught. The man was a manifest fool. Very sad, of course. . . . Their eyes looked at me; their lips moved; they wagged their heads at the other end of the boat — three of them; they beckoned — to me. Why not? Hadn’t I jumped? I said nothing. There are no words for the sort of things I wanted to say. If I had opened my lips just then I would have simply howled like an animal. I was asking myself when I would wake up. They urged me aloud to come aft and hear quietly what the skipper had to say. We were sure to be picked up before the evening — right in the track of all the Canal traffic; there was smoke to the north-west now.

‘“It gave me an awful shock to see this faint, faint blur, this low trail of brown mist through which you could see the boundary of sea and sky. I called out to them that I could hear very well where I was. The skipper started swearing, as hoarse as a crow. He wasn’t going to talk at the top of his voice for my accommodation. ‘Are you afraid they will hear you on shore?’ I asked. He glared as if he would have liked to claw me to pieces. The chief engineer advised him to humour me. He said I wasn’t right in my head yet. The other rose astern, like a thick pillar of flesh — and talked — talked. . . . ”

‘Jim remained thoughtful. “Well?” I said. “What did I care what story they agreed to make up?” he cried recklessly. “They could tell what they jolly well liked. It was their business. I knew the story. Nothing they could make people believe could alter it for me. I let him talk, argue — talk, argue. He went on and on and on. Suddenly I felt my legs give way under me. I was sick, tired — tired to death. I let fall the tiller, turned my back on them, and sat down on the foremost thwart. I had enough. They called to me to know if I understood — wasn’t it true, every word of it? It was true, by God! after their fashion. I did not turn my head. I heard them palavering together. ‘The silly ass won’t say anything.’ ‘Oh, he understands well enough.’ ‘Let him be; he will be all right.’ ‘What can he do?’ What could I do? Weren’t we all in the same boat? I tried to be deaf. The smoke had disappeared to the northward. It was a dead calm. They had a drink from the water-breaker, and I drank too. Afterwards they made a great business of spreading the boat-sail over the gunwales. Would I keep a look-out? They crept under, out of my sight, thank God! I felt weary, weary, done up, as if I hadn’t had one hour’s sleep since the day I was born. I couldn’t see the water for the glitter of the sunshine. From time to time one of them would creep out, stand up to take a look all round, and get under again. I could hear spells of snoring below the sail. Some of them could sleep. One of them at least. I couldn’t! All was light, light, and the boat seemed to be falling through it. Now and then I would feel quite surprised to find myself sitting on a thwart. . . . ”

‘He began to walk with measured steps to and fro before my chair, one hand in his trousers-pocket, his head bent thoughtfully, and his right arm at long intervals raised for a gesture that seemed to put out of his way an invisible intruder.

‘“I suppose you think I was going mad,” he began in a changed tone. “And well you may, if you remember I had lost my cap. The sun crept all the way from east to west over my bare head, but that day I could not come to any harm, I suppose. The sun could not make me mad. . . . ” His right arm put aside the idea of madness. . . . “Neither could it kill me. . . . ” Again his arm repulsed a shadow. . . . “That rested with me.”

‘“Did it?” I said, inexpressibly amazed at this new turn, and I looked at him with the same sort of feeling I might be fairly conceived to experience had he, after spinning round on his heel, presented an altogether new face.

‘“I didn’t get brain fever, I did not drop dead either,” he went on. “I didn’t bother myself at all about the sun over my head. I was thinking as coolly as any man that ever sat thinking in the shade. That greasy beast of a skipper poked his big cropped head from under the canvas and screwed his fishy eyes up at me. ‘Donnerwetter! you will die,’ he growled, and drew in like a turtle. I had seen him. I had heard him. He didn’t interrupt me. I was thinking just then that I wouldn’t.”

‘He tried to sound my thought with an attentive glance dropped on me in passing. “Do you mean to say you had been deliberating with yourself whether you would die?” I asked in as impenetrable a tone as I could command. He nodded without stopping. “Yes, it had come to that as I sat there alone,” he said. He passed on a few steps to the imaginary end of his beat, and when he flung round to come back both his hands were thrust deep into his pockets. He stopped short in front of my chair and looked down. “Don’t you believe it?” he inquired with tense curiosity. I was moved to make a solemn declaration of my readiness to believe implicitly anything he thought fit to tell me.’

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06