Mr. Conrad’s New Preface by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

Joseph Conrad, so we learn from the March Bookman, has written a preface to a cook book about to be published by Mrs. Conrad.

We like to think about that preface. We wonder if it will be anything like this:

I remember very well the first time I became aware of the deep and consoling significance of food. It was one evening at Marlow’s, we were sitting by the hearth in that small gilded circle of firelight that seems so like the pitiful consciousness of man, temporarily and gallantly relieved against the all-covering darkness. Marlow was in his usual posture, cross-legged on the rug. He was talking…. I couldn’t help wondering whether he ever gets pins and needles in his legs, sitting so long in one position. Very often, you know, what those Eastern visionaries mistake for the authentic visit of Ghautama Buddha is merely pins and needles. However. Humph. Poor Mrs. Marlow (have I mentioned her before?) was sitting somewhere in the rear of the circle. I had a curious but quite distinct impression that she wanted to say something, that she had, as people say, something on her mind. But Marlow has a way of casting pregnancy over even his pauses, so that to speak would seem a quite unpardonable interruption.

“The power of mind over matter,” said Marlow, suddenly, “a very odd speculation. When I was on the Soliloquy, I remember one evening, in the fiery serenity of a Sourabaja sunset, there was an old serang….”

In the ample drawing room, lit only by those flickering gleams of firelight, I seemed to see the others stir faintly–not so much a physical stir as a half-divined spiritual uneasiness. The Director was sitting too close to the glow, for the fire had deepened and intensified as the great logs slowly burned into rosy embers, and I could smell a whiff of scorching trouser legs; but the courageous man dared not move, for fear of breaking the spell. Marlow’s tale was a powerful one: I could hear Mrs. Marlow suspire faintly, ever so faintly–the troubled, small, soft sigh of a brave woman indefinably stricken. The gallantry of women! In a remote part of the house a ship’s clock tingled its quick double strokes…. Eight o’clock, I thought, unconsciously translating nautical horology into the dull measurements of landsmen. None of us moved. The discipline of the sea!

See also  Cherubino, A Psychological Art Fancy by Vernon Lee

Mrs. Marlow was very pale. It began to come over me that there was an alien presence, something spectral and immanent, something empty and yet compelling, in the mysterious shadow and vagueness of the chamber. More than once, as Marlow had coasted us along those shining seascapes of Malaya–we had set sail from Malacca at tea time, and had now got as far as Batu Beru–I had had an uneasy impression that a disturbed white figure had glanced pallidly through the curtains, had made a dim gesture, and had vanished again…. I had tried to concentrate on Marlow’s narrative. The dear fellow looked more like a monkey than ever, squatting there, as he took the Soliloquy across the China Sea and up the coast of Surinam. Surinam must have a very long coast-line, I was thinking. But perhaps it was that typhoon that delayed us…. Really, he ought not to make his descriptions so graphic, for Mrs. Marlow, I feared, was a bad sailor, and she was beginning to look quite ill…. I caught her looking over her shoulder in a frightened shudder, as though seeking the companionway.

It was quite true. By the time we had reached Tonking, I felt sure there was someone else in the room. In my agitation I stole a cautious glance from the taff-rail of my eye and saw a white figure standing hesitantly by the door, in an appalled and embarrassed silence. The Director saw it, too, for he was leaning as far away from the fire as he could without jibing his chair, and through the delicate haze of roasting tweed that surrounded him I could see something wistfully appealing in his glance. The Lawyer, too, had a mysterious shimmer in his loyal eyes, but his old training in the P. and O. service had been too strong for him. He would never speak, I felt sure, while his commanding officer had the floor.

See also  What Animal Controls Your Spirit? by Arthur Brisbane

I began to realize that, in a sense, the responsibility was mine. The life of the sea–a curious contradiction. Trained from boyhood to assume responsibility, but responsibility graded and duly ascending through the ranks of command. Marlow, an old shipmaster, and more than that, our host–a trying problem. If it had not been for the presence of Mrs. Marlow, I could not have dared. But the woman complicates the situation with all sorts of delicate reactions of tact, conduct, and necessity. It is always so. Well. Humph!

But the apparition at the other end of the room was plainly in trouble. A distressing sight, and I divined that the others were relying on me. Mrs. Marlow, poor soul, her face had a piteous and luminous appeal. It was, once more, the old and shocking question of conflicting loyalties. There was nothing else to do. I shoved out one foot, and the stand of fire-irons fell over with an appalling clatter. Marlow broke off–somewhere near Manila, I think it was.

“Charlie, my dear,” said Mrs. Marlow, “Don’t you think we could finish the story after dinner? The roast will be quite spoiled. The maid has been waiting for nearly two hours….”

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *