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About The Book

In a triumphant fusion of fiction and history, award-winning author Lawrence Thornton re-creates a terrible tragedy at sea and takes the reader on an unforgettable voyage through the human heart. Thornton brilliantly reveals how the repercussions of small and large actions can haunt even the deepest of friendships for generations.

Sailors on the Inward Sea recounts the desperate time when the stately British minesweeper Brigadier, blinded by thick fog in the North Sea, crashes into a German submarine in a horrifying accident. When an altercation between the enemies ensues and the Brigadier's prodigy, a talented young ensign, is fatally shot, the captain, Fox-Bourne, orders a retreat, deliberately leaving dozens of German sailors to die in the frigid waters.

Although Captain Fox-Bourne's murderous judgment is called into question in a military court, when he is found innocent, a passionate witness to the incident decides to take matters into his own hands. This witness -- none other than the great novelist Joseph Conrad, a former sailor himself and a guest-observer on the Brigadier -- writes an account of the conflict in order to give the captain a chance to confess, redeem himself, and purge his conscience. But Conrad has other, secret motivations, as his trusted confidant, Captain Jack Malone, knows only too well.

And it is ultimately Malone, our sage but enigmatic narrator, whose journey we follow as he confronts the timeless challenges of being a friend, confidant, lover, sailor, and muse. As he sweeps across the oceans from England to Africa and finally to the sensuous world of Indonesia, Malone seeks to uncover the true boundaries between friendship and betrayal, loyalty and love, legacy and life.

Malone, Conrad, and Thornton form a brilliant trinity of wisdom, imagination, and adventure. Together they carry a torch that threatens to singe, just as it promises to reveal, the path to which the inward sea ultimately leads.


Chapter I: Pent Farm

Dear Ford,

I have imagined your surprise when you received this package and saw the name Jack Malone and my Dutch East Indies return address. Finding the manuscript inside must have made you wonder why you had been sent it, so I want to tell you straightaway that I am not asking you to vet it as you have done for so many writers over the years. It is yours to do with as you wish. I should add that it concerns Conrad -- his life and work -- as I have seen them through the lens of our friendship that lasted more than a quarter of a century and persists in memory to this day. To avoid any confusion at the outset, I think it best for me to begin with a brief explanation of how I came to write these pages and my reason for sending them to you.

Six years ago, in the fall of 1924, I boarded a freighter in London bound for Java. Still grieving for Conrad, who had died only a month earlier, I had become quite aware even then that my only chance to understand what had happened between us would be to put the story down on paper, the whole thing, from beginning to end. If I had had a reasonable grasp of what I wanted to say, the solitude and endless vistas of a long sea voyage would have been an ideal occasion to begin the enterprise, but at that point the story was a great jumble of people and places and objects. As I stood at the aft rail watching the dock recede, the well-wishers who had come to say good-bye growing smaller, the city flattening out, I saw in the spreading V of the freighter's wake shimmering images of Conrad emerging from the fog at Tilbury Dock, a sign over the door of an old bookshop, the tormented eyes of a captain in the Royal Navy, a German U-boat's conning tower decorated with kill signs. By the time I reached Batavia, Indonesia, several weeks later, those and other images, along with their attendant emotions, had overrun my mind, leaving me in a state of exhausted frustration.

Five years were to pass before I finally sat down to see what I could do in the way of memoir writing. After three false starts I was close to giving up. I remember crushing what I thought might well be the last page of my efforts and rolling it across the table, where the bloodless thing disappeared over the edge. And then, half an hour later, you appeared, Ford, descending like a ministering angel from the silky blackness of an Indonesian night to show me the way.

I had abandoned the table in the living room of my bungalow and was standing on the veranda, looking down at the Old Port of Batavia, whose bay was dotted with lanterns hanging from the prows of invisible fishing boats. Farther off lay a net of lights, the sparkling city, lovely and seductive. I was listening to the incessant nightly hum, a medley of human and inhuman sounds, hisses and groans and bangings, cars' motors, the clip-clop of bullocks' hooves, the creaking wheels of old carts, faint voices of people out for a stroll or coming home late from work.

Suddenly, I recalled an afternoon you and I spent with Conrad in Kent at his country house. We three had walked from Pent Farm to Stanford for lunch at his favorite pub, the one with the weathered picnic benches that stood outside on the grass, and afterward returned to the parlor. Nothing earth-shattering, simply a rescued moment that somehow led my thoughts to the opening pages of your Good Soldier, where John Dowell frets over how to tell his story and finally decides to imagine himself talking to a sympathetic soul in a country cottage. I had a vision of him and this nameless chap sitting by a crackling fire -- Dowell, heartbroken and confused, going on about his trials with his poor wife, Florence, quite as a man would to someone who understood the torments of love and sex.

Well, my heart started pounding. In that instant I realized that I, too, needed a confidant, someone interested enough in Conrad to listen to what I had to say. There were plenty of candidates among Conrad's writer friends -- Henry James, H. G. Wells, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling -- but none was as well suited for the job as Ford Madox Ford, his friend and steadfast ally ever since you two had met in 1898. The fact that you had lived at Pent Farm and vacated it just before Conrad moved in made your role as my Muse even more natural. And it was also there at Pent that you and he began your collaboration on Romance, the first of the novels you wrote together. I also knew that you had a hand in revising Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and parts of The Mirror of the Sea -- work that let you understand far better than I what drove the man and what made him the artist we admired.

It was a heady moment, Ford, deeply exciting. To think that you, Conrad, and I could connect again on that inner, familiar landscape. As I gazed out over the bay at the lights of Batavia under the stars wheeling across the heavens, I thought that I might as well appropriate your imaginary cottage, too, and politely usher Dowell and his guest outside so you and I could take over the blazing fire, the pantry stocked with food and drink, the still-warm chairs. But charmed as I was by the idea of speaking to you over the echoes of your own book, I had the good sense to see that doing so in your fictional cottage would be too clever by half. Pent Farm, with its uneven brick floor in the kitchen, the stone fireplace guarded by bird-shaped andirons, the parlor with its comfortable furniture, where the three of us had spent so many pleasant evenings together, should be our place, yours and mine. In that quiet, simple room with a beam across the middle of the low ceiling, the windowsills fretted with the blooms of small roses, we'd sit together for as long as the story lasted.

These pages record what I have imagined telling you in that parlor for the last year and a half. I could not have written one of them without your intervention and guidance, and since I had all but abandoned any hope of being able to set down this memoir, I feel that I should tell you a little about my struggle before launching into the story proper.

As my Muse you played a role remarkably close to the one I fulfilled for Conrad years ago. It seems to me that that similarity binds the three of us together in the realm of a "magic suggestiveness," about which Conrad spoke so movingly in his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, the suggestiveness that frees voices in a country cottage or on the deck of a yawl moored in London, where much of what I will unfold takes place. Though I am telling you this tale, Ford, you are more than a mere listener, more than a friend to me and Conrad. By showing me how to reveal all that happened you have become part of the story, my silent listener and compassionate judge, the very sympathetic soul you invented for your own character.

And so, avanti....

A week after arriving in Batavia in the fall of 1924, I found the bungalow where I have stayed ever since. My pension allows me to live here like a pukka sahib in a section of the city far from the wretched kampongs, where the disenfranchised struggle to put rice on their tables by breaking their backs for the Dutch. Nothing unusual in that, of course, you see it everywhere, the large white colonial hand balled into a fist throwing a dark shadow across the land. But an uneasiness is stirring in the archipelago. One day there will be a revolution, though probably not in my lifetime. Such things are sluggish and demand wild-eyed leaders I have not seen, yet I know that out in the kampongs babies are trying their lungs, wailing precociously not for milk but for freedom. For all the unrest, Java's traditions remain untouched. I delight in all of them, especially the Wayang kulit, the shadow theater performed at night during the season of the dry monsoon when the heat from the Australian Outback blows like a torch across the archipelago. After dinner I go down to the road and hail a betjak, a half-bicycle, half-carriage contraption I sit in beneath a black canvas hood while a man thin as a rail peddles me through town as if I were a viceroy. In a field, sometimes a dusty square, I spend the long hot nights listening to the bells and gongs of the gamelan while beak-nosed puppets move in response to the storyteller's chants.

During the dry season a little more than a year and a half ago, the heat had become unbearable in Batavia and I decided to escape for a few days, taking a bus to Panchuk, a village in the highlands. One rides for an hour with the heat streaming through the open windows and then, within a mile or two, the road rises into foothills and the temperature drops before you reach the lush green tea plantations that range over the slopes and perfume the air for miles around. Higher up in the mountains, palm trees grow side by side with pines, giving Panchuk the look of an imagined place.

It rained the night of my arrival. I was sitting on the balcony, enjoying the downpour while thunder cracked over the mountains, remembering bad weather at sea, when my thoughts drifted to my first meeting with Conrad in Singapore, in 1892. He was in a hospital recovering from a nasty blow to the head administered by a boom that had got loose, a good crack that might have killed him but only gave him terrible headaches and some rather wonderful nightmares. Being there for malaria, I was seeing things myself. I had fallen ill off the China coast while in command of a filthy steamer I had been chained to for nearly a year, continuing to work while the disease dug its hooks into me, feeling weaker and more light-headed by the day. At some point, two deckhands came into my cabin looking like angels of death -- what I construed as wings must have been slickers, a squall having overtaken the ship -- but I recalled nothing between then and when I regained consciousness in that sweltering room filled with beds holding what appeared to be corpses.

My head felt as if it were full of bilgewater as I sat up and noticed a man with an aristocratic air about my age staring at me. It was Conrad and he had been waiting for me to come round, assuming from my pasty skin that I spoke English or French and could rescue him from the incomprehensible languages of the East. He introduced himself as the chief mate of the Highland Forest, a position he would still occupy were it not for the accident during the passage from Amsterdam to Samarang. He was seeing things even then, some quite pleasant, some he wouldn't care to come upon again, things with rather longish tails. A Dutch doctor in Samarang advised him to go into hospital as soon as he reached Singapore and remain absolutely silent for an indefinite period of time. He called the idea preposterous. From his point of view, it was better to let some witch doctor dance about and sprinkle a little goat urine, maybe shake a gourd in front of his nose and utter incantations that would probably sound like hyenas arguing over first rights to the offal of a hapless wildebeest.

His humor did as much to help me recover as the quinine. When we were fit enough to be discharged, we took rooms in a hotel and went out to explore the city, which I knew quite well. Singapore wants to be experienced in small bites, nibbled, not swallowed in chunks like an Englishman's baron of beef. With anyone other than Conrad that would have been my preferred course, but he was tireless, indefatigably curious. We wandered down the esplanade, shadowed by big trees and surrounded by neat green lawns. He was suitably awed by the blazing white cathedral. Up Sultan Gate, off the Beach Road, we inspected the Arab sector, where, amid the mosques, Arab textile traders begged for our business while calligraphers went about their work in the shadows of the palace of the former sultan. I had intentionally taken a route that led us to the waterfront, where it seemed as if the whole populace of the city flowed between piles of goods lying alongside the roads, half-naked men jostling to position their rickshaws, the lower part of their bodies wrapped in sarongs, their heads covered with conical straw hats. And everywhere there were the beautiful women of Singapore -- slim, elegant, seeming to float above the noise and filth of the streets. At the Boat Quay the bustle of the roads gave way to sampans and lighters disgorging cargo, a huge eye glaring from each bow, which the sailors believed beneficial in warning off evil spirits. We walked about until the eyes faded at dusk, when lanterns set up on the boats cast an eerie glow on the spars and masts.

As we were both famished, I offered to stand him dinner at Raffles. We went up to the nearest cross street past the Cricket Club pavilion and were soon tucking into the hotel's fine food, after which we took our drinks out to the Palm Court and decided then and there to stick together for a while. A fortnight later we signed on as chief and second mate aboard the Vidar, a steamer owned by an Arab with the euphonious name of Syed Mohsin Bin Saleh Al Joofree and commanded by an Englishman, Walter Craig. To make the international nature of the compact complete, she sailed under the Dutch flag. We made a three-week voyage from Singapore through the Malay Archipelago, threading through the Carimata Strait to Banjarmassin on the Borneo coast and from thence to Palo Laut for coal, down to Dongala in the Celebes for coffee before finally turning round at Belingan, heavy with rubber, cane, and gutta-percha. My memory of that voyage was intense, filled with images of docks stacked with goods, men sweating under the Asian sun bent double by the weight of sacks or boxes, Conrad wearing a blue head cloth, shirtless, in charge of the loading, the two of us still young enough to work long hours in the heat, determined to satisfy Walter Craig, who depended on us to keep his ship on schedule and make sure we were not cheated by the locals.

We both left the Vidar a few months later for better posts. The next important thing that happened occurred five years later in London, where we saw a good deal of each other, most often on the Nellie, a cruising yawl owned by an old friend of Conrad's named Harrison whose financial talents had led him to the boardroom of a company where he presided as director.

Conrad had met Harrison at the beginning of his writing career and through Conrad I made his acquaintance. At one time Harrison and the other members of our gang -- a lawyer named Barnes and an accountant named Kepler -- had followed the sea, and my position as a captain had a nostalgic appeal that fed their dreams. We may have seemed an odd lot at first glance, but friendships have been forged among people with less in common, the bond of the sea overcoming differences in temperament and outlook. That bond does not exactly constitute a philosophy, Ford, but it is the basis for thoughts with a philosophical turn, a shaper of ideas and attitudes you immediately recognize when a fellow starts talking. Whether we were sailing or in port due to inclement weather, playing dominoes and watching ships coming and going in the estuary, we talked exhaustively -- business, politics, religion along with soul-searching that would have been quite unthinkable in a pub or even in someone's home. There was a whiff of confession in our stories, admissions of things we had thought or done or desired to do, of failures and heartaches usually uttered through a lattice to a man in a collar. We felt free to do so because of an unspoken pact that nothing we said went off the boat.

The five of us took the Nellie out on weekend excursions that lasted as long as a day or as little as an hour. Our talk then was all of ships until we returned to port and slipped into rambling conversations fueled by nostalgia and whisky, conversations that did not last as long as a performance of the shadow puppets in Batavia, but often went on into the small hours of the night. The old gang was an interesting lot, intelligent men who had seen things in life worth sharing and thinking about afterward. The quality of those conversations kept Conrad and me coming back to the Nellie over the years whenever we were in the city at the same time. And in these conversations, too, lies some of the story I want to tell.

After I had returned to my bungalow in Batavia from the mountains of Panchuk, I felt that I was at last onto something, Ford, a way into the layers and years of history between Conrad and me. I sat down and jotted some notes. It seemed that I could begin this story either in Singapore or, marching forward in time, a few years later in London. And then it occurred to me that I might jump ahead many years to the last conversation I had with my old friend Hans Viereck, who knew everything about my relationship with Conrad except the final outcome. I wanted expressly to talk with him about Conrad and his wartime encounter with a British naval officer David Fox-Bourne, captain of HMS Brigadier, a man whose fate echoed eerily with certain events in Lord Jim.

I had gone to visit Viereck in the hope that with the aid of his considerable wisdom he might see Conrad's last days and last acts more clearly than I did and help me understand them. While we sat on his veranda with the distant lights of Denpasar floating in the humid air, I told him everything, going on for what must have been upward of an hour. When I finished, Viereck nodded and stroked his voluminous white beard. From a nearby grove of hardwood trees came the call of nocturnal birds. "I see," he said. "It is your opinion that Conrad's conscience was clear at the end?"


A monkey leapt from a tree onto the railing and sat there while Viereck took a nut from the bowl on the table, which the creature grabbed and cracked with his teeth. In the lamplight, his gums were pink. At that point, a woman materialized out of the gloom, walking silently on bare feet. Viereck rolled up his sleeve. I watched her swab his arm and give him an injection. After withdrawing the needle, she wrapped the syringe in a white cloth and handed him a dish containing some pills. He took them with wine as she was leaving. "You know, Malone," he said, "with something like this a man has no choice. None in the least. He can put it off but time will run out." In thrall to the drugs, he soon drifted into silence. Within minutes the woman returned and helped him into the house.

* * *

I have now given you my beginnings with Conrad and my beginnings with this story, Ford. I'd like to see you after you have read this, after you have had time to reflect and give me your impression of what it adds up to. I doubt you would fancy a voyage to Indonesia, though if you do I promise to show you things worth seeing in Batavia and out in the country. You would enjoy Panchuk. I, on the other hand, would be happy to return for a while to England. We might even take the train down to Kent as we used to do on occasion to see Conrad and persuade whoever now lives at the Pent to let us in for a look around. Who knows? Our voices might even be heard echoing faintly in the parlor.

Since we possess the leasehold on the Pent until the story's told, we might as well make ourselves comfortable in the big fireside chairs with white fleur-de-lis. From where we sit opposite the bow window we can see the oak trees that line the road back to Stanford. I pour a little whisky in our glasses, ask if you remember the heat that gripped London in the summer of 1924.

"Bloody awful," you say.

It was. The sky rusty red at dawn, baking to a yellow haze soon after the sun came up, the motionless thick air that coated your throat and stung your eyes solidifying as the day wore on, hardening like plaster, humidity like the tropics. The only people who did not appear to suffer were members of a religious sect roaming Hyde Park, carrying signs inscribed with verses from the Book of Revelations warning that the Apocalypse was nigh, the lot licking their lips in anticipation of fire and brimstone raining down on the infidels through which they would walk untouched.

I remember the weather so well because I was outside every day. After retiring from the sea earlier that year, I had taken rooms in a Chelsea boardinghouse near the Embankment while I looked for a boat to live on, the feel of the sea beneath my feet a spiritual requirement in the same way that daily chants are for a monk. I have few needs of this kind and will not burden you with them, but living on a boat, however modest, was crucial to my well-being. It still is. I keep a converted junk in a slip at the old port and divide my time between it and the bungalow.

In any case, I was having a devilishly hard time finding a decent vessel. I visited every dock in the city whose name is remotely familiar to you and something was always wrong. Either the price was too high or the feel of the boat was off. The search led me into warrens, backwaters, abandoned channels trapped between old brick buildings where even at noon there were shadows, the water oily and viscous, clotted with debris, the boats advertised as being fresh as the day they were christened frequently half-submerged with such bad rot that their frames showed like bones through gaps in the hulls. It wasn't as though I were looking for the Golden Hind. My needs were modest. The problem was that anything in good condition cost at least four times what I could afford, and so I began inspecting converted barges.

For a man who had spent his life on fairly elegant ships the barges were an affront, like an insult hurled your way by an unkempt stranger on the street. With the heat getting worse, I dragged myself from one to another, working up a good-sized case of resentment, a perfect match for the weather. One afternoon I went to look at a seiner, a dark brown, snub-nosed thing, far from pretty but clean belowdecks, with spacious quarters done up in a light-colored wood and a serviceable galley, the best thing I had seen that I could afford. I told the agent I was interested and set out for the Port Authority to find the owner, one M. Simmons, who worked there as a clerk.

That institution is housed in one of those utilitarian buildings one sees all along the waterfront, its brick facade pierced by small windows that appear like black squares from the street, the cavernous foyer lit by a few dim bulbs in sconces that hardly brighten things, the gloom filled with echoes of footsteps and voices and doors being opened and closed. I had just stepped inside when I saw Harrison, my old friend who owned the Nellie.

He was resplendent in his formal getup, looking as if he had the keys to the exchequer tucked up in his ample waistcoat. As I had been away two years running a merchantman out of Singapore, Harrison and I had a good deal of catching up to do. When in due course he asked why I was at the Port Authority, I sheepishly confessed that I was interested in buying a boat, a barge to be exact.

"What on earth for?"

"To live on."

I made a vague gesture toward the high ceiling and asked if he knew where I might find a chap called Simmons.

"Listen, Malone, why don't you wait a bit...unless you're afraid someone will beat you to it."

He couldn't call the thing "her," it was that low in his esteem. You can imagine how I felt.

I said, "I don't imagine the line will be very long. What's on your mind?"

"The Nellie. I have to let her go. I've known for a few weeks."



He held out his hands and I saw the swollen knuckles. His doctor had been after him to stop sailing, but he had persisted until the exchange of pleasure for pain had become one-sided.

"I'm sorry," I said, shaking my head. "We're getting old."

"We are old. Conrad has gout, keeps him down for days at a time." He regarded me seriously. "Since you're in the market, why not take a look at her? She's in need of some refurbishing. It's important to find the right person for her."

Excited, torn between sympathy for Harrison having to give her up and the sudden hope that I might escape the ugly brown thing that belonged to Simmons, I thought of the Nellie's graceful lines and the way she handled under sail, easy enough for me to manage alone. Then I imagined a long string of zeros stretching her price to a king's ransom.

"I couldn't possibly afford her."

Harrison screwed up his eyes and mentioned a sum far less than I expected. "Or thereabouts," he added.

Anything in the immediate vicinity was still beyond my means, but I couldn't get her out of my head. At the same time, in my mind the seiner took on a startling resemblance to water-logged driftwood.

"All right," I said, "let's have a look."

She was tied up at Tilbury Dock, her faded white hull gleaming, the lines that descended from the crosstrees looking as delicate as a spider's web. There were signs of rust. Near the bow a section of the deck was discolored by rot. But these were minor imperfections. I imagined the pleasure of working on her, the satisfaction, the way she felt moving before the wind, which I had never forgotten. I had a sentimental attachment to every spar and plank. I wanted her. There wasn't anything that would have made me happier.

After inspecting the cabin we came up and Harrison lighted his bulldog, disappearing in a cloud of sweet-smelling tobacco that always perfumed the deck when the five of us were together. The smell brought with it a vision of him and the rest of the gang sitting around a lantern, listening as I went on about my adventures.

He gave me a long, appraising look.

"What do you think?"

"I can't put my hands on that kind of money."

I hated saying so because I assumed it would be the end of the discussion. He squinted at me through the smoke.

"How much can you afford?"

I did a quick calculation. Coming close to what he was asking meant serious debt, more than I could take on. Money had never been very important to me, but it was now. I was embarrassed having to admit that I had amassed so little in my lifetime, ashamed mentioning what I could pay, a ridiculously low sum, humiliatingly low. When I did, Harrison's eyebrows went up. I think he may even have flushed.

"I told you," I said, trying not to sound too despondent, "that's the best I can do."

He pursed his lips, nodded, stuck out his hand.


It took a few moments to understand. Harrison was doing me an enormous favor, changing the conditions of my future when I was at the point of accepting the barge as my home. He was always generous, even in the old days before he could afford it, but this crossed over the line to charity. My pride rose up, a miserable sensation because I knew I was going to lose far more than I'd gain.

"You'd be giving her away for that," I said. "I can't let you."

"Don't be stupid, Malone. You know I never do anything that's not in my best interests. It's true and I make no apologies. The fact is, the money doesn't matter. I don't need it. What I need is the Nellie, but I can't have her. I've been dreading the prospect of selling to a stranger more than I can tell you. I'm serious, Malone. This way she stays in the family."

"Well," I said.

"I want you to have her. You'll be doing me a favor."

Our exchange was more subtle than I have suggested. I have left out the gestures and the expressions, the almost bullying tone of his voice, all of which made it a bit unclear whether or not I was compromising myself, but he had given me a way to hang on to my self-esteem and once I knew that it was all over.

"There's no one I'd rather do a favor for," I said with a grin.

After stopping at my bank, we went to his office, where his clerk drew up the bill of sale. We signed and then the clerk handed it over to me and I held it reverently, our signatures still wet, the Nellie's name as big and bold as a lighthouse. The document had the gravity of a sacred text for me and I must have looked rather foolish staring at it, though Harrison was discreet as always. Once the clerk had put it in a thick envelope, Harrison produced a bottle and we had a drink to celebrate, reminiscing a little about the old days. He said he hoped we might all get together again and I told him we would. We both missed those gatherings, missed the camaraderie, the interesting talk, and looking back on that moment now I seem to remember that my nostalgia and probably Harrison's as well was colored with a desire to defy time and turn back the clock awhile to happier days. We had a drink to that too, and when we touched our glasses we looked into each other's eyes and what I saw in Harrison's he must have seen in mine, an acknowledgment of all the years that had slipped through our hands.

He accompanied me out to the street, where we said good-bye. I watched him go back inside, disappearing like an apparition into that blank-faced building where I had just escaped meeting Simmons, acutely aware of how unpredictable events are, how often what we think will happen turns out to be a surprise for good or ill. For most of my life an unexpected piece of good luck has generally made me suspicious. I am not sure I understand exactly why that is the case; maybe it has to do with seeing too many things go bad for no apparent reason in my own life as well as in others', but as a consequence I usually test my luck, weigh it carefully in my mind. But that day I was in no mood to scrutinize. My luck was as solid as a piece of gold. I walked away from the Port Authority in a kind of ecstasy, oblivious to the heat that only hours earlier had oppressed me, the Nellie floating in my mind's eye like some fine vessel in a dream.

I hailed a cab and returned to the boardinghouse, poking my head into the kitchen to tell the landlord I was leaving before I hurried upstairs and stuffed my belongings in a battered sea chest. It made a terrible racket thudding on the stairs as I dragged it down to the foyer, though to me it sounded like a fanfare. I paid my bill with what must have been a rather foolish grin, and when the landlord asked if I were moving to another boardinghouse I said, no, I was through with boardinghouses, which was not to say that I hadn't thoroughly enjoyed living awhile in his. The fact of the matter was that I had just bought as fine a boat as he had ever seen and was about to move aboard.

At the docks I tipped the cabdriver lavishly after he helped me carry the chest below. It was late afternoon by the time he left, getting on toward six o'clock. On its way down through the haze, the sun brought out a glow in the sickly yellow air that must have been a depressing sight for the citizens of the town, a perfect color for the predictors of the Apocalypse who were very likely still wandering through the park. I felt sorry for the city's good citizens and fanatics alike, sympathizing with everyone who could not see that the sky was really burning like gold leaf, like a dome in St. Petersburg, on fire with color fit for a czar. I believe that I watched it as reverentially as a Druid peering along a sighting-line at Stonehenge until the brightness began to fade.

And then, in the last soft light of dusk, with the estuary turning more deeply violet by the minute, I went aft and put my hands on the Nellie's wheel, repeating over and over, like a child, that she was mine.

I became master of the Nellie on 17 June, 1924, not quite two months before Conrad died. All things considered, he was lucky to have survived so long after that disastrous journey up the Congo in 1890, where a parasite-bearing mosquito descended from the green air somewhere near Matadi and infected his aristocratic blood. Of course, you know as well as I do that he hardly got off scot-free from that quixotic adventure. I have friends who live with the lingering effects of malaria but none who suffers from malarial gout, a filthy disease he fought with a great deal of courage, his other ailments filling in when it was resting. As a consequence, visiting Conrad was always an uncertain business. You never knew whether he would be up to it or, if his physical problems were in remission, if his mercurial mood would let him tolerate company. I remind you of this because I had been eager to see him even before Harrison and I fell to reminiscing about the old days. Coming into possession of the Nellie added a new urgency. The boat had a special meaning to Conrad and me that you don't know about, Ford. I thought that, all things considered, he would be pleased, but I wanted to surprise him and so I wrote, saying only that I was back in London, newly retired. Rather than proposing a meeting time, I asked him to write to me at my post office address and set a date.

I started my restoration project the next day. A number of things needed attention, the bad patch on the deck being particularly offensive since it was in exactly the spot where we used to gather our chairs in a circle and swap yarns. I spent that morning at a lumberyard going through all the teak, sighting down the planks to make sure they had been properly dried and were not warped, finally choosing a dozen. Over the next week I worked until dark ripping out the rotten boards with the help of a man from the lumberyard, who saved me from hurting my back. The rest I did alone. Planing the wood, drilling holes for dowels, laying the planks in was painstaking work that called on all my carpentry skills. As I recall, I had just put on the first coat of sealant when I received a letter from Conrad saying that he and Jessie were coming up to London in a few days to consult with their doctors and would be staying at the Brown Hotel. I rang him as soon as they arrived, using the telephone at a nearby ship chandler's shop. The news about Jessie was alarming. She had gotten increasingly lame and there was some doubt whether the treatments would have a lasting effect. Conrad had his own problems, but for all that he was eager to see me and we agreed to meet the next morning.

"In your rooms?" he said.

"Not exactly. On my boat. I bought the Nellie."

I explained what had happened and he was politely enthusiastic, saying that he was happy for me and Harrison. It would indeed have been terrible if she had fallen into some stranger's hands. His feelings about the Nellie were very complex, the boat having become something of a personal icon to him as a writer. She was also linked to an old anxiety of his that went back a quarter of a century, almost to the beginning of our friendship, regarding a matter concerning the two of us and his character Charlie Marlow. It had never meant much to me, but vexed him deeply, so much so that whenever we saw each other, or spoke on the phone after a long absence, he needed to be reassured that I had kept my mouth shut. He asked again while we were on the phone, not in so many words -- he never did -- falling back on indirection that would have made Henry James proud. I answered in kind, peppering my response with pronouns. "Good, good, good," he said. Then he asked how he could find the Nellie and was clearly pleased when I told him that she was tied up at her old slip. "I'm glad you're back," he said. "There's something I've wanted to talk to you about for a long time." There was a sense of urgency in his voice, but when I inquired what it was he told me it was too complicated to discuss on the phone and rang off.

I returned to the docks and went back to work brushing on a second coat of sealant, remembering how the old gang used to sit there talking their hearts out. When my turn came I would go on and on about my latest voyage, sometimes for hours, without a break except for a drink, while Conrad sat in his steamer chair listening with half-closed eyes, a thoughtful expression on his face as he took in every word. I won't claim that I had a presentiment about his visit the next day, Ford, but I wondered if his story was connected to that time.

In the morning I heated water in the kettle and got some toast and marmalade down my throat along with a cup of Turkish coffee -- the British mania for tea always left me cold, that watery treacle not being my idea of a proper drink. Fortified, I pushed open the cabin door and stepped outside into a heavy fog, which I greeted as a blessing since it kept the heat at bay. In the gloom I heard the voices of men on nearby boats, the creak of spars, the dull slap of anchor chains and then the distant call of a foghorn. I had been at work an hour or so replacing brass fittings when I heard Conrad impatiently call my name from the dock. He couldn't see the Nellie nor could I see him so I shouted. A minute later he emerged, trailing wisps of fog like gauze. He had aged badly. His pointed beard was mostly gray and his eyes, half-obscured beneath the heavy folds of his lids, looked watery though still intense. Despite the obvious wear and tear, he had kept up his appearance as well as his famous accountant in Heart of Darkness. In his well-cut dark suit with waistcoat and matching cap, he could have been a baron on vacation from his estate outside Warsaw, an effect made even more credible by his monocle. He stepped onto the gangway, supporting himself with a silver-handled blackthorn walking stick, looking at me fondly with an expression that was both familiar and a bit strange, a kind of serenity gracing his eyes and manner I had not seen before. When he stepped aboard he held out his hand.

"My dear faller," he said warmly, "I've missed you. Perhaps now that you've retired we can see more of each other."

I said nothing would please me more and then unfolded two steamer chairs, which I placed close to the hallowed spot on the deck. While I described my narrow escape from the barge he leaned back so that his face was bathed in the weak sunlight beginning to color the fog, his arms resting heavily on those of the chair, a perfect picture of a man aged beyond his years. A mild wind blew away the fog between the Nellie and the nearby boats lying at anchor. Farther out the swells caught glints of the sun, the whole reach of the Thames dotted with oblongs of light like a rush of spawning salmon. He wanted to hear about my plans for the Nellie, of which he approved. He even made a few additional suggestions. Though he clearly enjoyed the technical conversation, it did not take me long to realize what was on his mind. The look in his eyes was as good as a signal flag.

"The old thing?" I said.

He nodded.

"You amaze me. I thought you'd have let it go by now."

"You know me better than that, Malone."

"Well," I replied, "I needn't tell you what I think about it."

Ignoring my sarcasm, he went on.

"Marlow and I," he said, "have parted company forever."

When I asked if that was what he was so eager to tell me, he said no, though in the long run the two were related.

"So it's still an issue," I said.

"Because of its nature."

I will explain this business with Marlow in due time, Ford, but as it is secondary to the story he soon began to tell, I think I should go on. It will make more sense that way.

In the past, when our conversation had taken such a depressingly familiar turn, he had invariably drifted into one of those black moods that left him inaccessible, but while all the signs were there that day, he was not giving in to them. To the contrary, I had the impression of a man in repose whose confidence had weathered an unpleasant admission, and was struck again by the serenity I had noticed as he came up the gangway.

He withdrew a pipe and a leather tobacco pouch from his pocket and carefully filled the bowl. Once it was going, he took several deep puffs and watched the smoke drift leeward. By then the fog had dissipated and we could see the smokestacks of large ships, along with the odd mast and sail. Conrad pointed skyward with the stem of his pipe.

"'The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.' Wonderful image. I've always been shamelessly jealous of Stephen Crane."

From far down the estuary came the sound of a foghorn quickly answered by another. Those invisible vessels calling out their warnings reminded me of times when I stood blind on a bridge, attentive to the trumpeting of another ship while staring into the impenetrable fog, on the lookout for the vaguest shape, the slightest hint of darkness that would be the bow of a vessel making toward mine, a perfectly natural memory that I thought no more of until it came back several hours later tinged with the color of Stephen's sun.

Conrad tamped the bowl of his pipe with a silver tool and regarded me soberly over the match flame.

"It's unique, Jack, the red of soldier's blood and the blood of Christ and sacrifice and rage, all that and more. The color stays in your mind like the sun does after you've looked at it, glowing after you've closed your eyes. What's more, he doesn't force it on you, doesn't have to. The red is perfectly natural, the result of smoke in the air, the color of battle."

I said, "I've always wondered if the book would have been better if he had actually been in the war."

"I don't think so," he responded. "His imagination gave him a color that was more true than what he would have seen. This story of mine has color too, a soft yellow that surrounds everything. You know how it is sometimes when you try to remember the beginning of a story. It's hazy like the fog out there. You think it could have been this or that. The roots of this one are very clear, mon vieux, a beautiful view in the Carpathian Mountains." He made a sweeping gesture with his pipe as if he were sketching a mountain valley. "A place of small farms and pastures, absolutely bucolic. I have never seen a place so at one with that word."

Under the dim glow of that red sun Conrad began talking about visiting Poland in 1914, looking so intently over the half-obscured waters of the great river that I thought he might be trying to see the spires and steeples of his homeland. I was immediately caught up and quite forgot about the color of the sun, which, in retrospect I now realize, he had intentionally called to my attention. Not until an hour later did I understand that it was implicated in his story, something I am sure you will pick up on and hold in your mind as you read. Your way with signs has always seemed to set you and Conrad apart from your contemporaries.

But to get on with the story. Conrad said that he had decided on the visit after Pinker, his agent, sold the serial rights of Victory for the hefty sum of a thousand pounds, far more than he had expected. Twenty-one years had gone by since he had seen Poland and he was yearning to make a pilgrimage to the haunts of his early life for himself and also for his son, Borys. It seemed to be a propitious time. Conrad was a successful writer going home to render his account to whoever was still alive and remembered him, present himself to them and to the land for which he harbored an almost mystical attachment. And yet, proud as he was, he felt a certain trepidation. He was not sure what his feelings would be when he opened a door or turned into a familiar street and encountered a stranger who would come into focus with a name as suddenly as a landscape does when one adjusts binoculars. He had the rather odd notion that he might sense his own life going backward at such a moment, repossessed by the past.

When Conrad and his family left Harwich for Hamburg in late July 1914, traveling with old Polish friends, he knew that the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife had been assassinated in Sarajevo a month earlier; that, only days before he sailed, Austria-Hungary had delivered an ultimatum to Serbia. But those events were like distant thunder, he said, unnerving, but not enough to worry about, certainly not enough to force a postponement of the visit. Only full-scale war could do that, and no one was predicting such a dire turn of events.

From Hamburg they traveled by train across Germany. When they reached the border with Poland, Conrad said that he felt as if his spirit was infused with the rolling farmland, a sensation that deepened over the hours, preparing the way for his first glimpse of Cracow, whose spires rose dark against the waning light. Through the window of the cab they took from Central Station he watched the lights of the city coming on, the streetlights running off in the distance, the lights of shops and apartments in the old buildings where he could see people inside, Cracow sparkling like a Christmas tree, a shower of stars, fireworks.

He rose early the next morning and left while Jessie and Borys were still asleep. As he pushed open the intricate metal doors of the Hotel Pod Roza and stepped outside he felt like Rip van Winkle. Nothing had changed. He walked a mile or so and then returned for Borys, taking him to the old Florian Gate, where they sat a while on a bench watching the pigeons in the Great Square, then on to Poselska Street, where he had followed the funeral cortege of his father, Apollo. They went on to St. Mary's Church and down the street, the stained stone buildings impregnated with so many memories that he felt as if he were walking past pictures in a museum dedicated to his family's life. At the university they walked through the great courtyard into the Jagellon Library, where they were met by a man who knew not only Conrad's work but his father's as well. Saying there was something on the second floor that Conrad would find interesting, the librarian guided them up the ornate old staircase and into a small room where he removed from a cabinet a collection of manuscripts and letters written by Apollo. Conrad spent half an hour reading them, translating fiery political writings for Borys -- grandfather, son, and grandson together awhile in that quiet old building, reunited by language and memory.

That day and the next were colored by the powerful experience in the Jagellon Library. Apollo's voice seemed to echo in his head as he herded his family from one site to another. And then, overnight, everything changed. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. A few days later, on August 1, Germany declared war on Russia and sent troops into France.

Over the next few days Cracow became a military depot, its once peaceful streets jammed with lorries and soldiers, the incessant noise drowning out the sound of cathedral bells except very early in the morning and late at night, when they sounded as if they were tolling the loss of a way of life that would come no more. In the Hotel Pod Roza a steady stream of guests descended the stairs to the lobby, which was chest-deep in luggage, the guests waiting in long lines to pay their bills while others stood at the curb outside, frantically hailing cabs. Conrad wanted to return to Britain but Jessie could hardly walk and Borys had caught a cold and was running a temperature. Even if they had been well enough to travel, the long journey across Europe was too hazardous to risk and so, standing at the reception desk in the lobby, surrounded by all that noise and confusion, he placed a call to his aunt who lived in the resort town of Zakopané, a four-hour trip by rail, asking her to take them in until the situation stabilized enough so he could make plans to go home.

When the train pulled away from the platform in Central Station the next morning Conrad told Jessie and Borys that his family had stayed in the country often when he was a child and that everything would be fine. They could relax in the pine-scented air and be treated to wonderful stories his aged aunt was very likely still capable of telling. And while he truly believed they might enjoy themselves, Conrad said that for him the journey to Zakopané was the saddest of his life, every mile reminding him of the pleasure he had taken as a boy, the places he remembered best, a valley with a river, a series of hills sheered off eons ago by a glacier that left a pale palisade, a millhouse on a stream, all mocking him with their old purity as if he were traveling through ghosts. He kept his thoughts to himself, entertaining Jessie and Borys like a tour guide, pointing out the attractions one by one, talking about his feelings toward them when he was a child, relieved when they reached a bend and all those old vistas were left behind.

But his spirits improved when the Villa Konstantynowka came into view an hour later. He had hired a coach at the train station to take them the rest of the way and as they entered the valley he saw the house and felt again the excitement he had experienced as a boy at its wondrous shape. An elaborate mansard roof graced the villa's three stories like a collection of tents you would imagine appropriate to a Mongol lord. It swept upward from the eaves in elegant curves, terminating in a sharp peak of copper shingles that had long ago developed a turquoise patina. On each floor tall windows rounded at the top reflected the trees on the property so that the house appeared to be inhabited by poplars, firs, and pines and also tiny white clouds in patches of mountain blue sky. "I used to sit by the window in the attic," Conrad said, "reading stories of Polish heroes and imagining myself doing battle on horseback with invaders down in the valley, returning triumphant to the safety of the villa, which I, of course, thought of as a castle."

His aunt had been alone since his uncle Charles had died some years back and was delighted with the company, making a fuss over the three of them as if they were all children. The villa seemed like a safe haven, immune from the dangers he had worried over all the way from Cracow. Of course, it was an illusion. The war was expanding alarmingly fast, according to reports on the radio they listened to in the living room filled with dark old furniture. He felt himself slipping into depression fueled by anger over what was happening to Poland and his inability to do anything about it.

For relief, he took long walks soon after he awoke. The exercise was salutary, but what brought him the greatest solace was the familiar view of houses scattered among stands of alders, deep green pastures above the treeline dotted with grazing sheep, a view that swept aside the uncertainty of the present and returned him to the happier days of childhood. The magic of images, he told me, was never more powerful than those seen in the fresh cold air of morning, the equal of Proust's madeleine or Balzac's fermenting apples. The view was a transforming lens, a time machine that revealed a world steeped in tradition, impervious to change, the world children know.

As he was resting on a rock one morning, gazing down into the valley where farmers were working in the fields, a scene that put him in mind of Millet's "Gleaners," ageless people working ageless land, flesh and earth hardly distinguishable one from the other, he saw a line of lorries on the road that ran through the valley, saw them stop, saw soldiers get out and go into the fields and wrest horses from the farmers' plows, tying each animal to a towline and leading them into the next field. It was like watching paralysis set in. The valley had been full of movement, alive. With each theft it was losing its vitality. The abandoned plows leaning forward on their traces looked like the bleached skulls found in deserts. That was how the war started for him, with the pillaging of the sacrosanct fields of his youth, the destruction of memory.

They stayed on in the villa for several days, unsure what to do until a friend of his aunt's with ties to the government called to warn her that British subjects were in danger. At midnight they left in an open carriage with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, driving thirty miles in a snowstorm to a railway station where he was able to buy tickets to Cracow. It took eighteen hours to cover the fifty miles back to the city in the train, which reeked of disinfectants and threatened to roll off the tracks at every turn. Once there, they spent a long time in the station restaurant, waiting for room on a train bound for Vienna, which they reached the next day. Conrad's gout was so bad that he had to stay in bed for five days before they continued on to Genoa and booked passage on a Dutch mail boat that took them to England, where he was forced to stay in bed most of a fortnight. Yet the pain in his leg was less agonizing than what he felt in his heart, for he could not forget the humiliation of being run off in the middle of the night, forced to travel in freezing weather, wondering on the train if soldiers were going to stomp into the car at the next station, demand their papers, throw them into jail.

Returning with his tail between his legs was bad enough, and it was made worse by the son et lumière of patriotic outrage, headlines blaring the latest news, the country poised for invasion. Daily reports of Armageddon across the Channel sent his emotions spinning in half a dozen directions. Against Jessie's protests he volunteered, reasoning that a man with knowledge of the sea could be useful in any number of ways, but he was informed by the services that he was too old. You can imagine how well that sat with him, especially when his friends -- including you -- turned up in uniform to say good-bye. It made no difference that your jackets bulged with ample middle-aged waistlines, or that many of you had no useful military experience; in his eyes you were all resplendent good soldiers off to do your duty until the last parade while the war passed him by like a diabolical cabdriver speeding past a quay. His sense of uselessness came to a head one day in Hyde Park, a bright, sunny day that had put a bit of a spring into his step before he came upon an old man sitting on a bench wearing the uniform of an army pensioner, a relic of the Boer War taking the sun with his eyes closed and no doubt dreaming of past glories. He saw himself reflected in that old chap and it hurt to feel so diminished when he had more adventures to his credit by the time he was twenty-five than most men experience in a lifetime. And then Borys joined the army and that was damned near the coup de grâce.

"I felt that I was sending him off to do my part," Conrad said gloomily. Of course, he was proud of Borys, but with the pride came fear for his son's safety that stayed close to his heart until the war ended. When Borys paid a brief surprise visit home a few days before shipping out to France, Conrad insisted that he spend most of the time upstairs with Jessie. Later, when he came down, Conrad looked at him and said, "Look here, boy, in case you should get yourself knocked on the head out there, I should at least like to know where your remains are disposed of." He then put a piece of paper down on the table and wrote out a code he had invented to confound the army censors that would let Borys indicate in letters he sent home exactly where he was at the front.

He tried to console himself with the thought that he had done everything possible to lend a hand in the war effort. The only discernible effect was that the thorn plunged deeper into his side. He tried throwing himself into his writing. It should have been a propitious time, he said, that period being the first in his career when he did not have to worry about money, a situation he had dreamed of more or less constantly since he had quit the sea. He started The Shadow Line and did a few stories but the work was halting and he took little pleasure in it. It was not because his imagination flagged or that he lacked energy: His mind was overflowing with characters and stories. The problem was that his conscience got in the way. Writing when so many people were being slaughtered, when continental Europe was buried beneath a pall of smoke, seemed indecent. "It was terrible," he said, looking at me gravely, "to feel that way about your craft. I can't remember it now without a shudder." I saw the pain in his eyes as he leaned forward and took his drink from the table between us. He continued after a while, saying that it became very clear that the only subject he could deal with was the war itself but he could not bring himself to invent something for fear of trivializing what was happening in the trenches and on the seas. A tone came into his voice that I could not identify at the time but which I was able to later, at the end of the day, his words coming back to me in all their irony.

And that was when his luck unexpectedly changed. He had been seeing something of Lord Northcliffe socially, and it occurred to him that the old boy might be willing to use his influence to involve him in the war effort. To that end, he wrote a long letter offering his services in whatever capacity might be useful. A few weeks later Northcliffe called, saying that he would like Conrad to visit some naval installations to observe and make recommendations for improvements. Of course, the lord was throwing an old sea dog a soft bone to chew, probably for no other purpose than to silence the supporters Conrad had enlisted to pester him, but the motive made no difference. Conrad had begun to feel more and more like an invalid, snapping at Jessie for nothing, falling into those black depressions. He leapt at the chance.

He was waiting for the inspection tour to begin when an assistant to Northcliffe offered him a chance to make a flight from the Royal Naval air station at Yarmouth. He had never flown and would not have gone out of his way to do so. Airplanes fascinated him from a technical perspective. He admired their sleek design, but entrusting his life to one of those fragile structures of wood and cloth and metal called for a leap of faith greater than he possessed. He went up only because he wanted to avoid being thought a coward. The takeoff was thrilling, the rush of the plane down the runway, the deafening roar of the engines, and then he was looking down at the receding airfield, the tiny shapes of men and planes that brought on a bout of vertigo and with it the purest fear he had experienced in a long time. He thought he might have to keep his eyes closed or fixed on the back of the pilot's head for the duration of the flight, but then he glimpsed the countryside, the distant hills, and was enchanted, filled with a sudden sense of enormous privilege, even of power, the kind of emotion generally reserved for dreams. The sky was new, the land below, the sea in the distance. He felt the depression that had gripped him since returning from Poland peeling off as if it were an old skin; the flight seemed like a preparation, a purifying ritual. When they landed he was ready to engage whatever came his way.

A week later he was invited to Granton Harbour near Edinburgh to spend a day on a vessel assigned to mending torpedo nets, but the weather was terrible, a gale threatened the ship, and there was an hour or so when he doubted that he would see his family again. It was, all in all, an inauspicious beginning of his tour. Though the officers treated him respectfully, he could see in their eyes that they felt put upon having to waste time escorting an ancient mariner with political connections. But what put him off were the ships themselves. The net tender was the only one that put to sea. The rest were tied down like Gulliver by the Lilliputians, ungainly things rocked by the slightest movement, long narrow hotels essentially useless for anything other than providing roofs for their crews. They reminded him of the old soldier in the park, and he felt equally useless as he went about their decks, looking for something to comment on. He began to think that it might be better to accept his age and infirmities and quit his sentimental romanticizing when he received word that he was to go on patrol aboard the minesweeper Brigadier, which was docked at Lowestoft, and that there would be further assignments on such vessels.

Over the next few weeks he put Jessie to no end of trouble, demanding meat at every meal, eggs, milk, second helpings. He took long walks in the morning, which were followed by brisk exercises in the yard, and was more fit than he had been in years the evening he arrived at Lowestoft. An orderly met him at the station and drove him out to the port, showing him to his quarters in a barracks. The room was on the spartan side -- bed, chair, chest of drawers, nothing else -- but to Conrad it was fit for an admiral. The fact of the matter was that he would have been happy sleeping on a bed of nails. On the way in from the station the orderly said that the Brigadier would be patrolling shipping lanes where the Germans were laying mines to block British supply routes. There had been considerable activity during the last fortnight or so and it was well within the realm of possibility that she would have some business with a few of the bloody things. Conrad asked the man what the minesweeper did when she came upon a mine and the young fellow replied, "Well, sir, we cut them loose and blow them to smithereens. Sometimes we're right on top of one before we see it." In the quiet of his room that night, in the general quiet that descends on military posts after the day's work is done, he imagined muffled roars followed by plumes of spray discolored with smoke and bits of steel, a baptism of fire.

He slept better than he had in months, waking early, around six o'clock, excited and eager. As a veteran of the war his zeal may strike you as naive, Ford, even repugnant, but you must remember that he had lived every moment since being run out of Poland in a state of anger and frustration. In any case, when he raised the curtain, fog obscured the port and all but the masts of the ships, the visibility so poor he could only guess at the character of the vessels and nothing of the sea behind the heavy bank. He dressed quickly and went outside, hoping that the Brigadier's captain, David Fox-Bourne, was not so timid that he would be cowed by a little weather. The fog moved on the wind, the billows surging this way and that, tumbling over themselves and flattening out, signs to an old sailor that it was very heavy and unlikely to break up soon. The orderly had given him instructions on how to find the officers' mess. As he went along the path, sailors emerged from the fog walking briskly, the way men do on the way to work, and that cheered him. A bit of fog was not going to deter the Royal Navy.

In the mess he gave his name to the steward, who escorted him to a table reserved for senior men and introduced him as the admiral's guest. He was ready for them to react more or less as their brother officers had done earlier in the tour, and in that he was wrong. Several knew his work and everyone greeted him with the deference due a personage. A few had seen something of the Eastern seas while sailing on merchant vessels, a fact that put him at ease and in a pleasant frame of mind. It felt good to be with his own kind, members of the clan who were sailors first before they were naval officers, sharing beliefs that knew no boundaries of rank or class.

They were reminiscing about Singapore when the city was little more than a pirate's den, exchanging knowing looks, laughing the way older men do at the memory of indiscretions committed in the past, when a young ensign with pink cheeks who was probably about the age they had been in China appeared in the doorway and spoke to the steward, who directed him to their table, where he announced that Captain Fox-Bourne had sent him to escort Mr. Joseph Conrad to the Brigadier. His name was Geoffrey Whelan. He was excessively polite to Conrad on the way down to the dock, calling him "sir" and awkwardly entertaining him with facts about the ships, which at that distance were no more than indistinct presences in the mist. When they were close enough to make out the name of the Brigadier emblazoned in black letters on her bow, Whelan cleared his throat and said, stammering rather badly, his cheeks darkening to a deep crimson, that it was an extraordinary honor to talk to him. He had read all of Conrad's work, every word, and many of his classmates at Cambridge had too. The fact of the matter, said Whelan, was that he had literary ambitions of his own and it would mean the world to him if Conrad would agree to take a look at a few pages. When Conrad suggested that he bring something to his quarters after they had returned to port, Whelan beamed bright as a lighthouse.

Whether out of gratitude or in response to orders, he gave Conrad the grand tour of the minesweeper, keeping up a constant patter as they walked the length of her, explaining that she was classified as a sloop of the Arabis type and lay low in the water due to her exceptional weight of 1,250 tonnes. Whelan then led him down a flight of stairs to the engine room, which was immaculate and gleaming, a far cry from those in most of the ships Conrad had commanded, but equally noisy so that the ensign had to shout to be heard. She was powered by Yarrow boilers feeding two screws through vertical triple expansion engines whose torque he would feel as soon as they were under way. Back on deck Whelan partly removed the canvas shrouds of the two four-inch guns located fore and aft, adding that they had never been fired in battle. Neither the Brigadier nor any of the other Lowestoft sweepers had sighted a German ship, seeing only their filthy handiwork bobbing on the sea. Whelan's pride in the minesweeper suggested that she was his first ship and he was impatient for her to distinguish herself, a feeling Conrad understood, for despite her odd looks, a sort of cross between the old river gunboats deployed on the China Sea and the Roi des Belges, he knew she was lovely to Whelan.

Up on the bridge four officers hovered over a chart. The tallest looked up as they entered, his insignia identifying him as the captain. Fox-Bourne had a shock of blond hair and ruddy cheeks above a jawline beard, a grin at odds with his military bearing. As Whelan was leaving, Conrad reminded him of his promise to bring some pages by his quarters.

"Absolutely, sir. That's not something I'd forget."

"Nice young chap," Conrad said after he was gone.

"He is," Fox-Bourne said affectionately. "He'll go places. Of course, he hasn't been worth a fig since he heard you were coming. Practically bowled him over. I must apologize on that score: I'm afraid I haven't read your work. We may have some luck with the bloody mines, but I should warn you there's a chance the only thing we'll turn up in the nets is an old boot or a grouper. You'll have to excuse me now."

Conrad went out the door to the railed walk that ran the width of the bridge. It was cold and as he turned up the collar of his coat he noticed that Whelan was supervising a gang of sailors casting off the lines. In the time he had been aboard the fog had thickened and while he could see Whelan and the men perfectly well, the dock was little more than a hazy black shape and the buildings beyond them had virtually disappeared. As soon as the last of the thick hawsers was let go he felt a vibration beneath his feet. The pitch of the big engines deepened, and the Brigadier slipped away from the dock, quickly plunging into the fog.

Copyright © 2004 by Lawrence Thornton

About The Author

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Lawrence Thornton's novels include the critically acclaimed Imagining Argentina. The recipient of many prestigious awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award and Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, Thornton lives in Claremont, California.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (September 17, 2013)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439104651

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