A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Since being assigned this story in my teens, I’ve read it several more times and it always leaves a feeling of puzzlement. To be honest, I understand it less each time I read it. Conrad is best known for his novel Heart of Darkness , another psychological study of people in a morally murky situation. This is one of his many short stories.
The Secret Sharer is set in the days of sail in the Gulf of Siam. The narrator is the captain of a ship, having taken her over two weeks ago, so both the crew and the ship itself are strangers to him. Late one night, as he is on watch, he finds a man floating at the bottom of the ship’s ladder. When he brings the man, whose name is Leggatt, on board, he learns that Leggatt was chief mate on another ship and killed a man during a gale, in a fit of temper because the man wasn’t working fast enough. After 7 weeks under arrest in his cabin, Leggatt escaped when the door was accidentally left unlocked and he slipped overboard. He got lost in the dark and began swimming towards the lights of the narrator’s ship, though he tried to stay hidden, because he didn’t know what sort of reception he’d get. But the captain is sympathetic, at first struck by the uncanny resemblance Leggatt has to him in looks, they could almost be twins. They also attended the same boarding school, though Leggatt a few years after the captain. All of this convinces the captain to hide him in his cabin. This nerve wracking predicament goes on for a few days until the fugitive decides to swim to one of the islands as the ship passes by at night and thereby escape. Though reluctant, the captain risks the ship as well as his personal and professional reputation to sail as close as possible to land, to allow Leggatt the best chance to reach shore. The story ends with a hat floating in the dark water, the only sign of Leggatt’s journey.
We don’t know if he makes it to shore, since it’s seven miles away, though Leggatt had been a competitive swimmer at school, so he probably made it unless he bumped into a crocodile. Is the island inhabited? If so, does he stay at a village or continue on to somewhere else? Those are the practical questions, there are a still host of emotional ones, about the captain and why he formed such an intense bond with this stranger. Was it merely because they looked alike, did the captain see Leggatt as a fragment of himself, his dark side? Or was it the captain’s isolation that made him respond so? There was no backstory, so we have no idea how the narrator came to this ship or what else went on in his life before, or indeed afterwards. At one point, the narrator wonders if the fugitive is real or imagined, but we are assured he is definitely there, hiding in the cabin, having whispered conversations with the captain. As I said, I keep returning to this story, each time coming away with more questions, the meaning of it continually eluding me. Am I a glutton for punishment, or just appreciative of a masterful story?
Originally published in Harper’s Magazine 1910 44 pp. Available in traditional and ebook formats, including freely online at Project Gutenberg.