Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (1857 – 1924), was born in the Ukraine in a part of the country that used to belong to Poland.
At the time of his birth it was under Russian rule. Joseph eventually became a mariner and settled in Britain, and in 1886 he was granted British nationality. He always considered himself to be a Pole, despite the geographical and political complexity of his birth and upbringing.
It’s really quite remarkable how he managed to become a such an admired and accomplished novelist, especially when you consider his erratic and incomplete education. The Tale is a short story of suspicion, guilt and a conscience that sits on the shoulder and whispers quietly into open ears.
It was a long room. The irresistible tide of the night ran into the most distant part of it, where the whispering of a man’s voice, passionately interrupted and passionately renewed, seemed to plead against the answering murmurs of infinite sadness.
A man and a woman together in the aftermath of their desire. The empty space seems to need to be filled with shallow conversation or superfluous comments.
He stood over her a moment, masculine and mysterious in his immobility, before he sat down on a chair near by. “Tell me something,” she said. “What am I to tell you?” he asked “Why not tell me a tale?”
She asks that he tell her of something before the war, perhaps not even of this world. A time, lace or people not governed by worry or fear of conflict and battle.
“You want a tale of the other, the better world?” he asked, I mean another—some other—world. In the universe—not in heaven.” She was disappointed by the sameness, the comparison to earth.
The man, an officer and a gentleman, thinks for a moment and begins his tale of war at sea. He spoke of the horrors the soldiers would encounter each day. Instead of fields he talked of blood soaked decks and death. The difference between battle on soil and battle on the irrational waves of the sea.
One envies the soldiers at the end of the day, wiping the sweat and blood from their faces, counting the dead fallen to their hands, looking at the devastated fields, the torn earth that seems to suffer and bleed with them. One does, really. The final brutality of it—the taste of primitive passion
Seemingly from nowhere, as is often the case with a sea roke, the deep fog slithered towards them and engulfed the ship
Mist is deceitful, the dead luminosity of the fog is irritating.
The second in command alerts the captain to an object in the water, a wreckage perhaps? They alter the course of the ship, which is the essentially the beginning of the tale.
“The object in itself was more than suspect. But the fact of its being left in evidence roused other suspicions. Was it the result of some deep and devilish purpose?
A submerged vessel of some kind, a secret weapon being used by the enemy to spy? They are so immersed in their discussion that they at first fail to notice a second ship anchored in the cove they themselves had drifted into.
“The ship was stopped, all sounds ceased, and the very fog became motionless, growing denser and as if solid in its amazing dumb immobility. The men at their stations lost sight of each other. Footsteps sounded stealthy; rare voices, impersonal and remote, died out without resonance. A blind white stillness took possession of the world.
How bizarre, as if the world’s end was nye and the only remnants left were the two ships and their crews.
“She had been made out by several pairs of eyes only a couple of minutes before. She was lying at anchor very near the entrance—a mere vague blot on the fog’s brightness.”
The men wondered why the other ship hadn’t made her presence known by ringing her bell. A boarding boat was sent to establish contact. The men on the silent ship spoke of engine trouble and waiting in the cove until the thick fog abated. The officer was convinced there was something not quite right. Were they the enemy? Was the ship helping the enemy in some way? He decided to board the ship and see for himself.
he really expected to find there was the atmosphere, the atmosphere of gratuitous treachery
I don’t know where I am. I really don’t,’ The Northman burst out, with extreme earnestness. ‘Hang it all! I got turned around somehow. The fog has been after me for a week.
All the time the Northman was speaking the commanding officer had been aware of an inward voice, a grave murmur in the depth of his very own self, telling another tale,
I can’t suspect him. Yet why was he lying with steam up in this fog—and then, hearing us come in, why didn’t he give some sign of life? Why? Could it be anything else but a guilty conscience? He could tell by the leads-men that this was a man-of-war.’
He asked the Northman whether he had seen any strange objects floating in the water, which he vehemently denied. All the captain had to go on was this niggling suspicion,
I am going to clear all you fellows off this coast at once. And I will begin with you. You must leave in half an hour.”I will give you your course. Steer south-by-east-half-east for about four miles and then you will be clear to haul to the eastward for your port. Then, shadowy in the fog, she steamed out on the given course.
Nearing the end of his tale the officer changed the narrative and it became clear to his companion that this story was not one of fiction nor of another earth. She realised it was in fact an admission of truth and of guilt.
“Listen,” he said, forcibly. “That course would lead the Northman straight on a deadly ledge of rock. And the commanding officer gave it to him. He steamed out—ran on it—and went down. Thereby proving that the Northman really did not have a clue where he was”
He admitted to steering a ship full of men to their certain deaths, based merely on a wisp of a feeling.
Yes, I gave that course to him. It seemed to me a supreme test. I believe—no, I don’t believe. I don’t know. At the time I was certain. They all went down; and I don’t know whether I have done stern retribution—or murder.
Much like the witch trials one often hears of, the Northman and his crew were damned if they did and really damned if they didn’t. Being lost and thereby not being able to navigate the waters proved the Northman’s story, and yet the officer still believes or justifies that the one wisp of possible guilt is enough to warrant the death of so many men. War being his justification.
Download The Tale, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, The Nigger of the Narcissus, The Duel at Feedbooks or A Study, A Chance, Youth and two other stories, at the Internet Archive. Alternatively you can listen to Almayer’s Folly, Amy Foster, The Mirror of the Sea, An Outcast of the Islands, The Secret Sharer or The Idiots at Librivox.
Read As You Like It, Diary of a Madman, Still Faster than a Speeding Bullet, Lady of Burlesque, The Prince of Paradox, Gold-diggers in need of Sugar Daddies, The Silence, the Solitude and the Shame of Oscar Wilde, Chaney’s Phantom, Sound of Horror or Little Women right here on the blog.