Mr. Conrad’s work, I have already suggested, belongs to the literature of confidence. It is the literature of great hearts braving the perils of the darkness. He is imaginatively never so much at home as in the night, but he is aware not only of the night, but of the stars. Like a cheer out of the dark comes that wonderful scene in The Secret Sharer in which, at infinite risk, the ship is sailed in close under the looming land in order that the captain may give the hidden manslayer a chance of escaping unnoticed to the land. This is a story in which the “tonalities of the affair” are much more subtle than in Typhoon. It is a study in eccentric human relations—the relations between the captain and the manslayer who comes naked out of the seas as if from nowhere one tropical night, and is huddled away with his secrets in the captain’s cabin. It is for the most part a comedy of the abnormal—an ironic fable of splendid purposeless fears and risks. Towards the end, however, we lose our concern with nerves and relationships and such things, and our hearts pause as the moment approaches when the captain ventures his ship in order to save the interloper’s life. That is a moment with all romance in it. As the ship swerves round into safety just in the nick of time, we have a story transfigured into the music of the triumphant soul. Mr. Conrad, as we see in Freya of the Seven Isles and elsewhere, is not blind to the commonness of tragic ruin—tragic ruin against which no high-heartedness seems to avail. He is, indeed, inclined rather than otherwise to represent fate as a monstrous spider, unaccountable, often maleficent, hard to run away from. But he loves the fantastic comedy of the high heart which persists in the heroic game against the spider till the bitter end. His Youth is just such a comedy of the peacockry of adventure amid the traps and disasters of fate.
All this being so, it may be thought that I have underestimated the flesh-and-blood qualities in Mr. Conrad’s work. I certainly do not want to give the impression that his men are less than men. They are as manly men as ever breathed. But Mr. Conrad seldom attempts to give us the complete synthesis of a man. He deals rather in aspects of personality. His longer books would hold us better if there were some overmastering characters in them. In reading such a book as Under Western Eyes we feel as though we had here a precious alphabet of analysis, but that it has not been used to spell a magnificent man.