Ah, finally a Joseph Conrad story that lives up to the hype. Pure poetry, mostly different from (better than) his other tales in the lack of overwrought dialog, since this tale is told once-removed, a sea yarn spun out over a table in England where four people sit drinking. Marlow is the narrator, relating the story of his first voyage as second mate in a leaky tub that attempts to leave for Bangkok several times but the crew ends up pumping water on the outward voyage and refuses to sail. Word gets around that the boat is unsafe, and they have to get a crew shipped in from Liverpool to man it, even after the ship is completely gutted and fixed up tight.
Gorgeous dreamy words elevate the pumping to a higher plane:
And we pumped. And there was no break in the weather. The sea was white like a sheet of foam, like a caldron of boiling milk; there was not a break in the clouds, no—not the size of a man’s hand—no, not for as much as ten seconds. There was for us no sky, there were for us no stars, no sun, no universe—nothing but angry clouds and an infuriated sea. We pumped watch and watch, for dear life; and it seemed to last for months, for years, for all eternity, as though we had been dead and gone to a hell for sailors. We forgot the day of the week, the name of the month, what year it was, and whether we had ever been ashore… We had forgotten how it felt to be dry.
Eventually, they set off, make it to East Asia, but the coal they are transporting catches fire. They begin dumping water into the hold. “Then we pumped with the feeble head-pump, drew water with buckets, and in this way managed in time to pour lots of Indian Ocean into the main hatch… It was our fate to pump in that ship, to pump out of her, to pump into her; and after keeping water out of her to save ourselves from being drowned, we frantically poured water into her to save ourselves from being burnt.”
The fire is extinguished, everyone takes a breather. Then, coal dust explosion rips the boat apart. They wave down a passing ship, get a tow, but then the boat catches fire so they cut themselves loose, jump in their smaller boats, and watch the ship burn to nothing after salvaging what they could. They row to a harbor, secure passage on an outbound ship.
Marlow brings the tale to a close, having requested them to pass the bottle several times during the story. “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.”