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The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide. (1.1)
The story begins with an interruption. The Nellie, stranded by a flood, can do nothing but wait for the tide to turn to continue her journey. It is during this delay that Marlow tells his story.
And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, ‘followed the sea’ with reverence and affection, that to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled - the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her rotund flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen's Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests – and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. (1.6)
Marlow’s love for the sea turns his eyes to its past and glorious history. He recounts all the pioneers of the Thames River, all commissioned to exploration by the crown. It is obvious from Marlow’s tone that he reveres these historical figures.
We looked on, waiting patiently – there was nothing else to do till the end of the flood; but it was only after a long silence, when he said, in a hesitating voice, "I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn fresh-water sailor for a bit," that we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow's inconclusive experiences. (1.14)
Marlow’s story is told in a period of delay as the Nellie cannot sail for lack of a sufficient tide. The crew resigns itself to hearing about one of Marlow’s past inscrutable journeys.