The Captain is nervous about meeting the captain (referred to as the Skipper for ease of reading) of the Sephora who arrives on board looking for Leggatt, his escaped chief mate. The Captain takes his guest to the saloon, which adjoins his stateroom through the bathroom. Because he wants the hidden Leggatt to hear the conversation, the Captain feigns deafness so the Skipper will be forced to speak in a loud voice. The Captain notices right away that the Skipper is not very intelligent despite his thirty-seven years on the sea. The Skipper is perplexed about Leggatt’s disappearance and recalls for the Captain the happenings involving his dead crewman and the terrible weather that night, particularly bothersome, he goes on, because his wife was on board. The Skipper’s account of the killing makes it unclear whether Leggatt was directly involved in the man’s death or whether it was the severe weather that caused him to die. The Captain, remembering Leggatt’s account of the man’s death, suggests that perhaps it was the sea, and not Leggatt, who killed the man, but the Skipper does not like this suggestion and mutters that he will have to report Leggatt’s death as a suicide. Then, in an effort to avoid suspicion, the Captain takes control and insists that the Skipper take a tour of his ship so he can see first hand that there is no sign of Leggatt on board. The Captain begins with his bathroom that leads from the saloon directly into his stateroom, knowing that Leggatt will have heard his announcement about the tour and have hidden. After the tour, just as he is about to leave the ship to return to the Sephora, the Skipper stops and mutters “you don’t suppose,” suggesting that Leggatt could be onboard after all, but the Captain quickly counters him with “certainly not,” before he can even finish the sentence.
Upon his return to his stateroom, the Captain whispers to Leggatt, asking whether he heard his conversation with the Skipper. Leggatt whispers back that he did and assures him that the captain of the Sephora lied when he said he ordered the repair of the foresail after it fell during the storm. Instead, Leggatt says, the captain merely whimpered while Leggatt took it upon himself to order the frightened men to repair the foresail and in so doing crushed a mutiny: “It wasn’t a heavy sea; it was a sea gone mad! I suppose the end of the world will be something like it.” At this point, a knock on the saloon door is heard and a voice announces that the wind is right for the ship to get underway.
On deck, the Captain considers how the intensity of feelings he should experience as his ship moves upon his command for the first time is not as strong as it should be because of the man hidden in his stateroom: “that mental feeling of being in two places at once affected me physically as if the mood of secrecy had penetrated my very soul.”
The Captain becomes worried about his behavior and begins to think that his men will come to suspect Leggatt’s presence on board. He has become so used to whispering to Leggatt that he inadvertently whispers to a crewman. As his tension mounts, he worries that his men will think of him as an “irresolute commander.” One day, he scares the steward when he comes up behind him, and the steward swears that he just heard him moving around in his stateroom. The Captain’s tension grows more and more unbearable as Leggatt hides most of the day in the stateroom bathroom, after the steward is finished cleaning it. At nighttime he shares the Captain’s bed where they can whisper together to the rhythm of the man on watch walking above on deck. He is particularly wary of the steward because he feels that it is he who will discover Leggatt: “I came to hate the sight of the steward; to abhor the voice of that harmless man.” To avoid suspicion, Leggatt can only eat the Captain’s store of canned food and drink the Captain’s morning coffee.
On the fourth day out at sea, the increasingly nervous Captain notices the haggard steward is about to enter his stateroom with the Captain’s wet coat. The Captain feels sure that the steward will discover Leggatt in the bathroom. However, the steward returns as normal and at this point the Captain begins to doubt his own sanity, wondering whether Leggatt is visible to his eyes only: “It was like being haunted.” Leggatt explains, however, that the steward did not see him in the bathroom because he reached in to hang up the coat. He also says, “it would never do for me to come to life again,” which strikes the Captain as a ghostly statement, but Leggatt here explains that his disappearance must continue to appear to be a suicide. With that in mind, he requests that the Captain maroon him among the islands of the Cambodje shore. The Captain is at first aghast but later agrees when Leggatt explains he does not want to be returned to face a jury in England because they have no way of understanding what happened: “that’s my affair.” He then remarks that he is like the biblical Cain. However, unlike Cain, Leggatt feels happy at having the opportunity to share a part of the Captain’s life. The Captain, he says, has completely understood him, adding that they had been able to “say things to each other that were not fit for the world to hear…it’s very wonderful.”
On deck the Captain looks at the various islands that the ship is passing and takes the Chief Mate and the Second Mate to task for not watching the current. By telescope he watches the scattered group of islands, knowing they have to have villages upon them, but he fails to see any sign of life. He tells his officers to continue close to the islands in the hopes of finding a better land breeze so the ship can make better time. They are shocked at his order but obey him.
Later in his cabin, the Captain and Leggatt agree that the island of Koh-ring must be inhabited and decide that it is the best place for Leggatt to land. On the deck, the Captain tells the Second Mate that he wants to bring the ship close-in to land so as to get a better breeze and the Second Officer, knowing how unsafe it would be in the dark amidst the islands and shoals, questions the order to open the quarter-deck ports. The Captain remains fearful that things will go wrong and that his career will be ruined because of a mishap on his first command.
Back at his stateroom, the Captain rejoins his “second self” Leggatt and tells him that he can escape out of the quarter-deck port from the sail locker which is never locked and that he should use a rope to lower himself so as to avoid a noisy splash. Later that night, the Captain gives Leggatt three of his six sovereigns tied up in a silk handkerchief. With nothing more to say to each other—they will never hear each other’s real voices—the men exchange glances and clasp hands. Once more, the Captain returns to the deck after sending the steward on an unnecessary errand, and leaves the door to his stateroom open. On deck he is surprised to see how close the ship is to the ominous black land but knows full well this is necessary to enable Leggatt’s escape. The crew is incredulous and bargain to murmur about the danger as the ship moves closer in to the island of Koh-ring. The Chief Mate is particularly upset and wrongly announces to the terrified crew that the ship has already hit land.
Although he remains doubtful, the Captain puts aside his concern about Leggatt and focuses instead on survival. He cannot see clearly and finds it difficult to differentiate between the black land and the black sea. He is greatly in need of a saving mark, an object of some kind that will enable him to guide the ship. All of a sudden, he sees something white floating on the water and after a moment realizes that the object is the hat he had given to Leggatt. The hat must have fallen off Leggatt’s head. Now it serves as the much needed saving mark the Captain needs to steer the ship by, to avoid being grounded: “now I had what I wanted, the saving mark for my eyes.” All of a sudden, the Captain’s doubts disappear and he feels entirely in control as he issues his commands without hesitation. The crew cheer him as he catches an “evanescent glimpse” of his white hat floating away and thinks of Leggatt swimming toward the island “a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.”
At the opening of Part II, the captain, also called the Skipper, of the Sephora arrives onboard the Captain’s ship to inquire about the missing Leggatt. Leggatt was the chief mate of the Sephora until he killed a man during a horrific storm and was subsequently imprisoned onboard until he could be removed to England to face prosecution.
From the beginning, Conrad contrasts Captain Archbold, “not a showy figure,” with the protagonist and in so doing suggests a possible trajectory for the younger captain’s life. Will the Captain gain in maturity and confidence and make worthwhile decisions, or will he continue to remain unsure and concerned about what his men think of him? Clearly, fear dominates the “unintelligent” Skipper, whose bandy leg suggests that he is crooked. Indeed, according to Leggatt, the Skipper, who has been at sea for thirty-seven years, was only able to “whimper” while the storm raged. In all, the Skipper is afraid that others will think poorly of him, especially his crew and even his steward. There is no doubt that the Skipper fully realizes that he is in debt to Leggatt for saving his ship because it was he who forced the men to repair the storm-damaged foresail. However, he feels that he must imprison Leggatt for murdering the crewman because his old second mate would think poorly of him. He also lies to the Captain to appear superior and cover up his own inadequacies by telling him that during the storm, it was he and not Leggatt who ordered the repair of the Sephora’s foresail. Throughout their interview, the Skipper is unable to meet the Captain’s eyes, which reveals his guilt, and before he leaves he reveals that he never liked Leggatt. In all this, Conrad suggests that if the Captain continues on his same course, second guessing his decisions, worrying about what his men, even his steward, thinks of him, years from now he will indeed be just like the ineffective, terrified Captain Archbold.
However, it is during the interview with the Skipper that the Captain begins to act like a true leader. In telling the Skipper to speak up, the Captain is not only making sure Leggatt can hear the conversation but also evoking the presence of “his double captain” to give him strength. He is in effect giving the Skipper an order. Also, he cleverly outmaneuvers the Skipper by deflecting questions concerning Leggatt: “my only object was to keep off his inquiries,” so he won’t have to lie. Then he audaciously shows the Skipper around the ship and thus puts to rest any suspicions that Leggatt might be on board. And when the Skipper makes one final suggestion that his missing chief mate might be onboard, the Captain sharply cuts him off with a “certainly not.”
Hiding Leggatt takes a physical and mental toll on the Captain: “an accidental discovery was to be dreaded now more than ever.” However, Leggatt, who has far more sea-going experience, continues to teach the Captain who “felt less torn in two when [he] was with him.” In time, the Captain gains in strength and comes to realize that “everything was against us in our secret partnership.” At this point, Leggatt seems more otherworldly, more ghostly (less solid) and the Captain begins to question himself by forming an “irresistible doubt,” and acknowledges that “this could not go on forever.” Simultaneously, Leggatt verbally enhances his own ghostliness: “it would never do for me to come to life again,” and asks the Captain to maroon him on one of the nearby islets. At this point, the Captain has learned that to be an effective leader, he will have to demonstrate Leggatt’s lessons, which are really his own deep-seated qualities, if he is to mature into a dynamic commander who has earned the respect of his crew and not remain self-doubting and fearful like the Skipper of the Sephora.
Like all heroes, this newly emerging hero must be tested. At Koh-ring, the inhabited island where Leggatt and the Captain decide Leggatt should be marooned, the Captain tells the First Mate to move the ship in closer to land. When the fearful First Mate objects loudly the Captain informs him without hesitation that “it’s got to be Koh-ring.” This is not the same ill-prepared, timid Captain that we encountered at the beginning of the story. Earlier he used to torture himself about what the crew thought of him. Now he doesn’t give it a thought but acts with complete assuredness and sharply tells the man he needs to carry out the order because “I tell you to do so.” He has incorporated Leggatt’s leadership traits. In all, the Captain has helped Leggatt by hiding him so he could continue to be free, and Leggatt has enabled the Captain to learn and to grow as a commander. By the time they part, there are no words left to speak and the men “clasp” their arms in departure until Leggatt “released his grip.” In so doing, the Captain lets go of his shadowy self, the second-self he does not need anymore.
At the story’s end, Leggatt has effectively opened the Captain’s eyes to the qualities he thought he lacked at the beginning of his command. Although the Captain is fearful himself of coming in too close to the dark land, at Koh-ring he is completely in command, to the awe of the fearful murmuring crew, as he barks outs his commands: “turn all hands up.” When he sees the hat, the last remnant of Leggatt, which acts as the marking sign he needs to steer the ship away from the island, he realizes that the hat is his own hat. Indeed, by then the Captain remarks: “I hardly thought of my other self.” The ship, and the wildly cheering crew, are finally fully at his command. But, like “the secret sharer” of his cabin and his thoughts, who is nearby swimming free, the Captain is also free, no longer a stranger but yet alone with his ship: “nothing! no one in the world should stand now between us, throwing a shadow on the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman and his first command.”
Secret Sharer: Part 2