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I believe he had seen us out of the window coming off to dine in the dinghy of a fourteen-ton yawl belonging to Marlow my host and skipper. We helped the boy we had with us to haul the boat up on the landing-stage before we went up to the riverside inn, where we found our new acquaintance eating his dinner in dignified loneliness at the head of a long table, white and inhospitable like a snow bank.
The red tint of his clear-cut face with trim short black whiskers under a cap of curly iron-grey hair was the only warm spot in the dinginess of that room cooled by the cheerless tablecloth. We knew him already by sight as the owner of a little five-ton cutter, which he sailed alone apparently, a fellow yachtsman in the unpretending band of fanatics who cruise at the mouth of the Thames. But the first time he addressed the waiter sharply as ‘steward’ we knew him at once for a sailor as well as a yachtsman.
Presently he had occasion to reprove that same waiter for the slovenly manner in which the dinner was served. He did it with considerable energy and then turned to us.
“If we at sea,” he declared, “went about our work as people ashore high and low go about theirs we should never make a living. No one would employ us. And moreover no ship navigated and sailed in the happy-go-lucky manner people conduct their business on shore would ever arrive into port.”
Since he had retired from the sea he had been astonished to discover that the educated people were not much better than the others. No one seemed to take any proper pride in his work: from plumbers who were simply thieves to, say, newspaper men (he seemed to think them a specially intellectual class) who never by any chance gave a correct version of the simplest affair. This universal inefficiency of what he called “the shore gang” he ascribed in general to the want of responsibility and to a sense of security.
“They see,” he went on, “that no matter what they do this tight little island won’t turn turtle with them or spring a leak and go to the bottom with their wives and children.”
From this point the conversation took a special turn relating exclusively to sea-life. On that subject he got quickly in touch with Marlow who in his time had followed the sea. They kept up a lively exchange of reminiscences while I listened. They agreed that the happiest time in their lives was as youngsters in good ships, with no care in the world but not to lose a watch below when at sea and not a moment’s time in going ashore after work hours when in harbour. They agreed also as to the proudest moment they had known in that calling which is never embraced on rational and practical grounds, because of the glamour of its romantic associations. It was the moment when they had passed successfully their first examination and left the seamanship Examiner with the little precious slip of blue paper in their hands.
“That day I wouldn’t have called the Queen my cousin,” declared our new acquaintance enthusiastically.
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About the Author
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) grew up amid political unrest in Russian-occupied Poland. After twenty years at sea with the French and British merchant navies, he settled in England in 1894. Over the next three decades he revolutionized the English novel with books such as Typhoon, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and especially Heart of Darkness, his best-known and most influential work.
Date of Birth:December 3, 1857
Date of Death:August 3, 1924
Place of Birth:Berdiczew, Podolia, Russia
Place of Death:Bishopsbourne, Kent, England
Education:Tutored in Switzerland. Self-taught in classical literature. Attended maritime school in Marseilles, France