‘How is he chained?’
‘With an iron band round his waist fixed to the bench he sits on, and a sort of handcuff on his left wrist chaining him to the oar. He’s on the lower deck where the worst men are sent, and the only light comes from the hatchways and through the oar-holes. Can’t you imagine the sunlight just squeezing through between the handle and the hole and wobbling about as the ship moves?’
This is from The Finest Story in the World, collected in Many Inventions (1893)
The story-teller meets a young bank clerk, Charlie Mears, who longs to be a writer and seeks his advice. Charlie seems a commonplace and not particularly imaginative young man, but – partly written and partly in conversation – he produces strangely powerful accounts of sea voyages in the ancient world, by a Viking adventurer on a voyage to America, and by a Greek galley slave.
He gives vivid details, including fragments of script which turn out to be corrupt Greek. The narrator becomes convinced that – rather than creating these stories – Charlie is remembering past lives, and that it is such recollections that feed the mysterious processes of creative ‘imagination’.