The only bond between these three stories is, so to speak, geographical,
for their scene, be it land, be it sea, is situated in the same region
which may be called the region of the Indian Ocean with its off-shoots
and prolongations north of the equator even as far as the Gulf of Siam.
In point of time they belong to the period immediately after the
publication of that novel with the awkward title "Under Western Eyes"
and, as far as the life of the writer is concerned, their appearance in
a volume marks a definite change in the fortunes of his fiction. For
there is no denying the fact that "Under Western Eyes" found no favour
in the public eye, whereas the novel called "Chance" which followed
"Twixt Land and Sea" was received on its first appearance by many more
readers than any other of my books.
This volume of three tales was also well received, publicly and
privately and from a publisher's point of view. This little success was
a most timely tonic for my enfeebled bodily frame. For this may indeed
be called the book of a man's convalescence, at least as to
three-fourths of it; because the Secret Sharer, the middle story, was
written much earlier than the other two.
For in truth the memories of "Under Western Eyes" are associated with
the memory of a severe illness which seemed to wait like a tiger in the
jungle on the turn of a path to jump on me the moment the last words of
that novel were written. The memory of an illness is very much like the
memory of a nightmare. On emerging from it in a much enfeebled state I
was inspired to direct my tottering steps towards the Indian Ocean, a
complete change of surroundings and atmosphere from the Lake of Geneva,
as nobody would deny. Begun so languidly and with such a fumbling hand
that the first twenty pages or more had to be thrown into the
waste-paper basket, A Smile of Fortune, the most purely Indian Ocean
story of the three, has ended by becoming what the reader will see. I
will only say for myself that ï have been patted on the back for it by
most unexpected people, personally unknown to me, the chief of them of
course being the editor of a popular illustrated magazine who published
it serially in one mighty instalment. Who will dare say after this that
the change of air had not been an immense success?
The origins of the middle story, The Secret Sharer, are quite other. It
was written much earlier and was published first in _Harper's Magazine_,
during the early part, I think, of 1911. Or perhaps the latter part? My
memory on that point is hazy. The basic fact of the tale I had in my
possession for a good many years. It was in truth the common possession
of the whole fleet of merchant ships trading to India, China, and
Australia: a great company the last years of which coincided with my
first years on the wider seas. The fact itself happened on board a very
distinguished member of it, _Cutty Sark_ by name and belonging to Mr.
Willis, a notable ship-owner in his day, one of the kind (they are all
underground now) who used personally to see his ships start on their
voyages to those distant shores where they showed worthily the honoured
house-flag of their owner. I am glad I was not too late to get at
least one glimpse of Mr. Willis on a very wet and gloomy morning
watching from the pier head of the New South Dock one of his clippers
starting on a China voyage--an imposing figure of a man under the
invariable white hat so well known in the Port of London, waiting till
the head of his ship had swung down-stream before giving her a dignified
wave of a big gloved hand. For all I know it may have been the _Cutty
Sark_ herself though certainly not on that fatal voyage. I do not know
the date of the occurrence on which the scheme of The Secret Sharer is
founded; it came to light and even got into newspapers about the middle
eighties, though I had heard of it before, as it were privately, among
the officers of the great wool fleet in which my first years in deep
water were served. It came to light under circumstances dramatic enough,
I think, but which have nothing to do with my story. In the more
specially maritime part of my writings this bit of presentation may take
its place as one of my two Calm-pieces. For, if there is to be any
classification by subjects, I have done two Storm-pieces in "The Nigger
of the _Narcissus_" and in "Typhoon"; and two Calm-pieces: this one and
"The Shadow-Line," a book which belongs to a later period.
Notwithstanding their autobiographical form the above two stories are
not the record of personal experience. Their quality, such as it is,
depends on something larger if less precise: on the character, vision
and sentiment of the first twenty independent years of my life. And the
same may be said of the Freya of the Seven Isles. I was considerably
abused for writing that story on the ground of its cruelty, both in
public prints and private letters. I remember one from a man in America
who was quite furiously angry. He told me with curses and imprecations
that I had no right to write such an abominable thing which, he said,
had gratuitously and intolerably harrowed his feelings. It was a very
interesting letter to read. Impressive too. I carried it for some days
in my pocket. Had I the right? The sincerity of the anger impressed me.
Had I the right? Had I really sinned as he said or was it only that
man's madness? Yet there was a method in his fury.... I composed in my
mind a violent reply, a reply of mild argument, a reply of lofty
detachment; but they never got on paper in the end and I have forgotten
their phrasing. The very letter of the angry man has got lost somehow;
and nothing remains now but the pages of the story which I cannot recall
and would not recall if I could.
But I am glad to think that the two women in this book: Alice, the
sullen, passive victim of her fate, and the actively individual Freya,
so determined to be the mistress of her own destiny, must have evoked
some sympathies because of all my volumes of short stories this was the
one for which there was the greatest immediate demand.
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