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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad-Free Summary
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The captain's plan is simple: bring the ship close to shore (on the rather flimsy excuse that he's searching for "land breezes") so that at an opportune moment Leggatt can slip into the water. The two of them study the Cochin-China (Indochina) coast and decide to aim for the large island of Koh-ring, off Cambodge (Cambodia). The only difficulty lies in getting the men to obey the absurd and even dangerous orders that the plan calls for. But the captain gathers his resolve and, with more self-possession than ever before, plays the role of stern commander to the hilt. When the sneering second mate questions the order to open the quarter-deck ports (the outlets at the end of the quarter-deck giving onto the water), he gets the sharp comeuppance he's been needing. The first mate, too, is puzzled and then alarmed. (As we know, there may be an autobiographical element here.)

Our last views of Leggatt are ambiguous. The captain finds him sitting quietly in his stateroom "like something against nature, inhuman." Does this mean that Leggatt really does represent the darker, criminal side of the captain's nature? It's also uncertain whether Leggatt is being sincere when he (at first) refuses the money the captain presses on him. (His main reason for refusing seems to be that he doesn't have a safe place to put it; when the captain offers a handkerchief to tie it in, he doesn't need much more convincing.)

With another ridiculous order, the captain gets the steward out of the way so that he can sneak Leggatt into the sail locker (where the sails are kept). From here he'll be able to steal across the quarter-deck, out the quarter-deck ports, and into the sea. As an afterthought, the captain gives him his floppy hat to protect him from the sun when he reaches land.

With Leggatt hidden in the sail locker, the next order of business is to approach the island of Koh-ring. The captain sails dangerously close to the shore. Leggatt, we know, is a good swimmer; does the captain need to endanger his ship and his crew to the extent that he does? Is his behavior absurdly dangerous? Or is he using the occasion to assert himself, to show that he's in full control? He demonstrates his nerve, he never lets on that he's frightened, and he certainly manages to scare the daylights out of his crew. The first mate, in particular, goes completely to pieces, much in the manner we heard Captain Archbold had done. The captain has to shake him like a child to make him pull himself together.

The last section of the story is hair-raising to read. In the shadow of Koh-ring, it's as dark as "the very gate of Erebus," the pitch-dark entrance to Hades. Not knowing the ship well, the captain can't tell whether or which way it's moving in the water. He needs a marker, but there's no time to find something he can drop into the water to judge the position of the ship in relation to the surface. A final lucky accident saves him: the hat he had given Leggatt comes floating by; it must have fallen off when Leggatt went in. From its motion he can tell that their rear is moving too much, and just in time he gives the order to change direction. They barely make it, and the men let out a cheer.

The captain created the danger, but he also rescued the ship. On another level, the captain's irresoluteness brought on a situation that was bad for the ship, and his new ability to assert himself remedies the situation. The hat is a visible symbol of the action he's taken, action he needed to take from the very beginning.

Rather than missing his double, the captain is relieved to have him gone. He makes it clear that from here on out his journey will be a smooth one, "the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command." He hardly thought of his double (he tells us explicitly) during the crisis; at last he feels whole, integrated, and capable in himself. He devotes a few moments to thoughts of Leggatt-"a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny." This may strike you as an overly romanticized way to describe a man who, we've just been told, will be "hidden forever from all friendly faces," "a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth." (The man who provided the inspiration for Leggatt was captured and sentenced to seven years.) But the words make a lot more sense if you apply them to the double's double-the captain himself.

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