The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter ofthe sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearlycalm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to cometo and wait for the turn of the tide.
The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning ofan interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were weldedtogether without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sailsof the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in redclusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. Ahaze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness.The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemedcondensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest,and the greatest, town on earth.
The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We fouraffectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking toseaward. On the whole river there was nothing that looked half sonautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthinesspersonified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there inthe luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.
Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond ofthe sea. Besides holding our hearts together through long periods ofseparation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other’syarns — and even convictions. The Lawyer — the best of old fellows — had,because of his many years and many virtues, the only cushion on deck,and was lying on the only rug. The Accountant had brought out already abox of dominoes, and was toying architecturally with the bones. Marlowsat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He hadsunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect,and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled anidol. The Director, satisfied the anchor had good hold, made his wayaft and sat down amongst us. We exchanged a few words lazily. Afterwardsthere was silence on board the yacht. For some reason or other we didnot begin that game of dominoes. We felt meditative, and fit for nothingbut placid staring. The day was ending in a serenity of still andexquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without aspeck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on theEssex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the woodedrises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only thegloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more somberevery minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.
And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, andfrom glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat,as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of thatgloom brooding over a crowd of men.
Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity became lessbrilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach restedunruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to therace that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of awaterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth. We looked at thevenerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes anddeparts for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories. Andindeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes,“followed the sea” with reverence and affection, than to evoke thegreat spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidalcurrent runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memoriesof men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battlesof the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation isproud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titledand untitled — the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all theships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, fromthe Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to bevisited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale,to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests — and that neverreturned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed fromDeptford, from Greenwich, from Erith — the adventurers and the settlers;kings’ ships and the ships of men on ‘Change; captains, admirals, thedark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned “generals”of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they allhad gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch,messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from thesacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that riverinto the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seedof commonwealths, the germs of empires.
The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appearalong the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on amud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway — a greatstir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upperreaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously onthe sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark placesof the earth.”
He was the only man of us who still “followed the sea.” The worst thatcould be said of him was that he did not represent his class. He was aseaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seamen lead, if one mayso express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-homeorder, and their home is always with them — the ship; and so is theircountry — the sea. One ship is very much like another, and the sea isalways the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreignshores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past,veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance;for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself,which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny.For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a casual spreeon shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent,and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing. The yarns of seamenhave a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within theshell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensityto spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was notinside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought itout only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of thesemisty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illuminationof moonshine.
His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow.It was accepted in silence. No one took the trouble to grunt even; andpresently he said, very slow —
“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here,nineteen hundred years ago — the other day…. Light came out of thisriver since — you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze ona plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in theflicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! Butdarkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander ofa fine — what d’ye call ’em? — trireme in the Mediterranean, orderedsuddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put incharge of one of these craft the legionaries, — a wonderful lot of handymen they must have been too — used to build, apparently by the hundred,in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here — thevery end of the world, a sea the color of lead, a sky the color ofsmoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina — and going up thisriver with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes,forests, savages, — precious little to eat fit for a civilized man,nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no goingashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like aneedle in a bundle of hay — cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, anddeath, — death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They musthave been dying like flies here. Oh yes — he did it. Did it very well,too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it either, exceptafterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps.They were men enough to face the darkness. And perhaps he was cheeredby keeping his eye on a chance of promotion to the fleet at Ravennaby-and-by, if he had good friends in Rome and survived the awfulclimate. Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga — perhaps toomuch dice, you know — coming out here in the train of some prefect, ortax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp,march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, theutter savagery, had closed round him, — all that mysterious life of thewilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts ofwild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has tolive in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. Andit has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascinationof the abomination — you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longingto escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”
“Mind,” he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of thehand outwards, so that, with his legs folded before him, he had thepose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without alotus-flower — “Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What savesus is efficiency — the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were notmuch account, really. They were no colonists; their administration wasmerely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, andfor that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you haveit, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness ofothers. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was tobe got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a greatscale, and men going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tacklea darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the takingit away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatternoses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it toomuch. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; nota sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in theidea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer asacrifice to. . . .”
He broke off. Flames glided in the river, small green flames, redflames, white flames, pursuing, overtaking, joining, crossing eachother — then separating slowly or hastily. The traffic of the great citywent on in the deepening night upon the sleepless river. We looked on,waiting patiently — there was nothing else to do till the end ofthe flood; but it was only after a long silence, when he said, ina hesitating voice, “I suppose you fellows remember I did once turnfresh-water sailor for a bit,” that we knew we were fated, beforethe ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusiveexperiences.
“I don’t want to bother you much with what happened to me personally,”he began, showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers of taleswho seem so often unaware of what their audience would best like tohear; “yet to understand the effect of it on me you ought to know how Igot out there, what I saw, how I went up that river to the place where Ifirst met the poor chap. It was the farthest point of navigation and theculminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind oflight on everything about me — and into my thoughts. It was somber enoughtoo — and pitiful — not extraordinary in any way — not very clear either.No, not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light.