YOUTH: A Narrative
by Joseph Conrad
edited by Garth
Battista - Breakaway
for the entire text)
THIS could have occurred nowhere but in England,
where men and sea interpenetrate, so to speak -- the sea entering
into the life of most men, and the men knowing something or
everything about the sea, in the way of amusement, of travel,
or of bread-winning. We were sitting round a mahogany table
that reflected the bottle, the claret-glasses, and our faces
as we leaned on our elbows. There was a director of companies,
an accountant, a lawyer, Marlow, and myself. The director had
been a Conway boy, the accountant had served four years at sea,
the lawyer -- a fine crusted Tory, High Churchman, the best
of old fellows, the soul of honor -- had been chief officer
in the P. & O. service in the good old days when mail-boats
were square-rigged at least on two masts, and used to come down
the China Sea before a fair monsoon with stun'-sails set alow
and aloft. We all began life in the merchant service. Between
the five of us there was the strong bond of the sea, and also
the fellowship of the craft, which no amount of enthusiasm for
yachting, cruising, and so on can give, since one is only the
amusement of life and the other is life itself.
Marlow (at least I think that is how he spelt
his name) told the story, or rather the chronicle, of a voyage:
"Yes, I have seen a little of the Eastern
seas; but what I remember best is my first voyage there. You
fellows know there are those voyages that seem ordered for the
illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence.
You fight, work, sweat, nearly kill yourself, sometimes do kill
yourself, trying to accomplish something -- and you can't. Not
from any fault of yours. You simply can do nothing, neither
great nor little -- not a thing in the world -- not even marry
an old maid, or get a wretched 600-ton cargo of coal to its
port of destination.
-----[for brevity's sake, we'll skip the
30-odd pages devoted to the ill-fated cruise of their ship,
the Judea, the spontaneous combustion of its cargo of coal during
their sail to Bangkok, and their preparations to abandon ship.
We pick up with the ship in flames, hundreds of miles from land,
out in the Pacific Ocean:]----
'There will be no boats by-and-by if you fool
about much longer,' I said, indignantly. I walked up to the
skipper and shook him by the shoulder. At last he opened his
eyes, but did not move. 'Time to leave her, sir,' I said, quietly.
"He got up painfully, looked at the flames,
at the sea sparkling round the ship, and black, black as ink
farther away; he looked at the stars shining dim through a thin
veil of smoke in a sky black, black as Erebus.
She burned furiously, mournful
and imposing like a funeral pile kindled in the night, surrounded
by the sea, watched over by the stars.
"'Youngest first,' he said.
"And the ordinary seaman, wiping his mouth
with the back of his hand, got up, clambered over the taffrail,
and vanished. Others followed. One, on the point of going over,
stopped short to drain his bottle, and with a great swing of
his arm flung it at the fire. 'Take this!' he cried.
"The skipper lingered disconsolately, and
we left him to commune alone for awhile with his first command.
Then I went up again and brought him away at last. It was time.
The ironwork on the poop was hot to the touch.
"Then the painter of the long-boat was cut,
and the three boats, tied together, drifted clear of the ship.
It was just sixteen hours after the explosion when we abandoned
her. Mahon had charge of the second boat, and I had the smallest
-- the 14-foot thing. The long-boat would have taken the lot
of us; but the skipper said we must save as much property as
we could -- for the under-writers -- and so I got my first command.
I had two men with me, a bag of biscuits, a few tins of meat,
and a breaker of water. I was ordered to keep close to the long-boat,
that in case of bad weather we might be taken into her.
"And do you know what I thought? I thought
I would part company as soon as I could. I wanted to have my
first command all to myself. I wasn't going to sail in a squadron
if there were a chance for independent cruising. I would make
land by myself. I would beat the other boats. Youth! All youth!
The silly, charming, beautiful youth. "But we did not make
a start at once. We must see the last of the ship. And so the
boats drifted about that night, heaving and setting on the swell.
The men dozed, waked, sighed, groaned. I looked at the burning
"Between the darkness of earth and heaven
she was burning fiercely upon a disc of purple sea shot by the
blood-red play of gleams; upon a disc of water glittering and
sinister. A high, clear flame, an immense and lonely flame,
ascended from the ocean, and from its summit the black smoke
poured continuously at the sky. She burned furiously, mournful
and imposing like a funeral pile kindled in the night, surrounded
by the sea, watched over by the stars. A magnificent death had
come like a grace, like a gift, like a reward to that old ship
at the end of her laborious days. The surrender of her weary
ghost to the keeping of stars and sea was stirring like the
sight of a glorious triumph. The masts fell just before daybreak,
and for a moment there was a burst and turmoil of sparks that
seemed to fill with flying fire the night patient and watchful,
the vast night lying silent upon the sea. At daylight she was
only a charred shell, floating still under a cloud of smoke
and bearing a glowing mass of coal within.
"Then the oars were got out, and the boats
forming in a line moved round her remains as if in procession
-- the long-boat leading. As we pulled across her stern a slim
dart of fire shot out viciously at us, and suddenly she went
down, head first, in a great hiss of steam. The unconsumed stern
was the last to sink; but the paint had gone, had cracked, had
peeled off, and there were no letters, there was no word, no
stubborn device that was like her soul, to flash at the rising
sun her creed and her name.
"We made our way north. A breeze sprang
up, and about noon all the boats came together for the last
time. I had no mast or sail in mine, but I made a mast out of
a spare oar and hoisted a boat-awning for a sail, with a boat-hook
for a yard. She was certainly over-masted, but I had the satisfaction
of knowing that with the wind aft I could beat the other two.
I had to wait for them. Then we all had a look at the captain's
chart, and, after a sociable meal of hard bread and water, got
our last instructions. These were simple: steer north, and keep
together as much as possible. 'Be careful with that jury rig,
Marlow,' said the captain; and Mahon, as I sailed proudly past
his boat, wrinkled his curved nose and hailed, 'You will sail
that ship of yours under water, if you don't look out, young
fellow.' He was a malicious old man -- and may the deep sea
where he sleeps now rock him gently, rock him tenderly to the
end of time!
"Before sunset a thick rain-squall passed
over the two boats, which were far astern, and that was the
last I saw of them for a time. Next day I sat steering my cockle-shell
-- my first command -- with nothing but water and sky around
me. I did sight in the afternoon the upper sails of a ship far
away, but said nothing, and my men did not notice her. You see
I was afraid she might be homeward bound, and I had no mind
to turn back from the portals of the East. I was steering for
Java -- another blessed name -- like Bankok, you know. I steered
....I remember my youth
and the feeling that will never come back any more -- the
feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth,
and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys,
to perils, to love, to vain effort -- to death...
"I need not tell you what it is to be knocking
about in an open boat. I remember nights and days of calm when
we pulled, we pulled, and the boat seemed to stand still, as
if bewitched within the circle of the sea horizon. I remember
the heat, the deluge of rain-squalls that kept us baling for
dear life (but filled our water-cask), and I remember sixteen
hours on end with a mouth dry as a cinder and a steering-oar
over the stern to keep my first command head on to a breaking
sea. I did not know how good a man I was till then. I remember
the drawn faces, the dejected figures of my two men, and I remember
my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more
-- the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea,
the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us
on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort -- to death;
the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the
handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year
grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires -- and expires,
too soon -- before life itself. "And this is how I see
the East. I have seen its secret places and have looked into
its very soul; but now I see it always from a small boat, a
high outline of mountains, blue and afar in the morning; like
faint mist at noon; a jagged wall of purple at sunset. I have
the feel of the oar in my hand, the vision of a scorching blue
sea in my eyes. And I see a bay, a wide bay, smooth as glass
and polished like ice, shimmering in the dark. A red light burns
far off upon the gloom of the land, and the night is soft and
warm. We drag at the oars with aching arms, and suddenly a puff
of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odors
of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night
-- the first sigh of the East on my face. That I can never forget.
It was impalpable and enslaving, like a charm, like a
whispered promise of mysterious delight.
"We had been pulling this finishing spell
for eleven hours. Two pulled, and he whose turn it was to rest
sat at the tiller. We had made out the red light in that bay
and steered for it, guessing it must mark some small coasting
port. We passed two vessels, outlandish and high-sterned, sleeping
at anchor, and, approaching the light, now very dim, ran the
boat's nose against the end of a jutting wharf. We were blind
with fatigue. My men dropped the oars and fell off the thwarts
as if dead. I made fast to a pile. A current rippled softly.
The scented obscurity of the shore was grouped into vast masses,
a density of colossal clumps of vegetation, probably -- mute
and fantastic shapes. And at their foot the semicircle of a
beach gleamed faintly, like an illusion. There was not a light,
not a stir, not a sound. The mysterious East faced me, perfumed
like a flower, silent like death, dark like a grave.
"And I sat weary beyond expression, exulting
like a conqueror, sleepless and entranced as if before a profound,
a fateful enigma. "A splashing of oars, a measured dip
reverberating on the level of water, intensified by the silence
of the shore into loud claps, made me jump up. A boat, a European
boat, was coming in. I invoked the name of the dead; I hailed:
Judea ahoy! A thin shout answered.
"It was the captain. I had beaten the flagship
by three hours, and I was glad to hear the old man's voice,
tremulous and tired. 'Is it you, Marlow?' 'Mind the end of that
jetty, sir,' I cried.
"He approached cautiously, and brought up
with the deep-sea lead-line which we had saved -- for the underwriters.
I eased my painter and fell alongside. He sat, a broken figure
at the stern, wet with dew, his hands clasped in his lap. His
men were asleep already. 'I had a terrible time of it,' he murmured.
'Mahon is behind -- not very far.' We conversed in whispers,
in low whispers, as if afraid to wake up the land. Guns, thunder,
earthquakes would not have awakened the men just then.
---[for brevity's sake again, we'll skip
the part where he rows out to a steamer that has entered the
"I pulled back, made fast again to the jetty,
and then went to sleep at last. I had faced the silence of the
East. I had heard some of its languages. But when I opened my
eyes again the silence was as complete as though it had never
been broken. I was lying in a flood of light, and the sky had
never looked so far, so high, before. I opened my eyes and lay
-- and, tell me, wasn't
that the best time, that time when we were young at sea; young
and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard
knocks -- and sometimes a chance to feel your strength --
"And then I saw the men of the East -- they
were looking at me. The whole length of the jetty was full of
people. I saw brown, bronze, yellow faces, the black eyes, the
glitter, the color of an Eastern crowd. And all these beings
stared without a murmur, without a sigh, without a movement.
They stared down at the boats, at the sleeping men who at night
had come to them from the sea. Nothing moved. The fronds of
palms stood still against the sky. Not a branch stirred along
the shore, and the brown roofs of hidden houses peeped through
the green foliage, through the big leaves that hung shining
and still like leaves forged of heavy metal. This was the East
of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent
and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise.
And these were the men. I sat up suddenly. A wave of movement
passed through the crowd from end to end, passed along the heads,
swayed the bodies, ran along the jetty like a ripple on the
water, like a breath of wind on a field -- and all was still
again. I see it now -- the wide sweep of the bay, the glittering
sands, the wealth of green infinite and varied, the sea blue
like the sea of a dream, the crowd of attentive faces, the blaze
of vivid color -- the water reflecting it all, the curve of
the shore, the jetty, the high-sterned outlandish craft floating
still, and the three boats with tired men from the West sleeping
unconscious of the land and the people and of the violence of
sunshine. They slept thrown across the thwarts, curled on bottom-boards,
in the careless attitudes of death. The head of the old skipper,
leaning back in the stern of the long-boat, had fallen on his
breast, and he looked as though he would never wake. Farther
out old Mahon's face was upturned to the sky, with the long
white beard spread out on his breast, as though he had been
shot where he sat at the tiller; and a man, all in a heap in
the bows of the boat, slept with both arms embracing the stem-head
and with his cheek laid on the gunwale. The East looked at them
without a sound.
"I have known its fascinations since: I
have seen the mysterious shores, the still water, the lands
of brown nations, where a stealthy Nemesis lies in wait, pursues,
overtakes so many of the conquering race, who are proud of their
wisdom, of their knowledge, of their strength. But for me all
the East is contained in that vision of my youth. It is all
in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it. I came upon
it from a tussle with the sea -- and I was young -- and I saw
it looking at me. And this is all that is left of it! Only a
moment; a moment of strength, of romance, of glamour -- of youth!
. . . A flick of sunshine upon a strange shore, the time to
remember, the time for a sigh, and -- good-by! -- Night -- Good-by
. . .!"
"Ah! The good old time -- the good old time.
Youth and the sea. Glamour and the sea! The good, strong sea,
the salt, bitter sea, that could whisper to you and roar at
you and knock your breath out of you."
He drank again.
"By all that's wonderful, it is the sea,
I believe, the sea itself -- or is it youth alone? Who can tell?
But you here -- you all had something out of life: money, love
-- whatever one gets on shore -- and, tell me, wasn't that the
best time, that time when we were young at sea; young and had
nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks --
and sometimes a chance to feel your strength -- that only --
what you all regret?"
And we all nodded at him: the man of finance,
the man of accounts, the man of law, we all nodded at him over
the polished table that like a still sheet of brown water reflected
our faces, lined, wrinkled; our faces marked by toil, by deceptions,
by success, by love; our weary eyes looking still, looking always,
looking anxiously for something out of life, that while it is
expected is already gone -- has passed unseen, in a sigh, in
a flash -- together with the youth, with the strength, with
the romance of illusions.