Tuesday, November 6, 2007


An Outcast of the Islands by Joseph Conrad

An Outcast of the Islands
by Joseph Conrad
Pues el delito mayor
Del hombre es haber nacito
"An Outcast of the Islands" is my second novel in the absolute
sense of the word; second in conception, second in execution,
second as it were in its essence. There was no hesitation,
half-formed plan, vague idea, or the vaguest reverie of anything
else between it and "Almayer's Folly." The only doubt I suffered
from, after the publication of "Almayer's Folly," was whether I
should write another line for print. Those days, now grown so
dim, had their poignant moments. Neither in my mind nor in my
heart had I then given up the sea. In truth I was clinging to it
desperately, all the more desperately because, against my will, I
could not help feeling that there was something changed in my
relation to it. "Almayer's Folly," had been finished and done
with. The mood itself was gone. But it had left the memory of
an experience that, both in thought and emotion was unconnected
with the sea, and I suppose that part of my moral being which is
rooted in consistency was badly shaken. I was a victim of
contrary stresses which produced a state of immobility. I gave
myself up to indolence. Since it was impossible for me to face
both ways I had elected to face nothing. The discovery of new
values in life is a very chaotic experience; there is a
tremendous amount of jostling and confusion and a momentary
feeling of darkness. I let my spirit float supine over that
A phrase of Edward Garnett's is, as a matter of fact, responsible
for this book. The first of the friends I made for myself by my
pen it was but natural that he should be the recipient, at that
time, of my confidences. One evening when we had dined together
and he had listened to the account of my perplexities (I fear he
must have been growing a little tired of them) he pointed out
that there was no need to determine my future absolutely. Then
he added: "You have the style, you have the temperament; why not
write another?" I believe that as far as one man may wish to
influence another man's life Edward Garnett had a great desire
that I should go on writing. At that time, and I may say, ever
afterwards, he was always very patient and gentle with me. What
strikes me most however in the phrase quoted above which was
offered to me in a tone of detachment is not its gentleness but
its effective wisdom. Had he said, "Why not go on writing," it
is very probable he would have scared me away from pen and ink
for ever; but there was nothing either to frighten one or arouse
one's antagonism in the mere suggestion to "write another." And
thus a dead point in the revolution of my affairs was insidiously
got over. The word "another" did it. At about eleven o'clock of
a nice London night, Edward and I walked along interminable
streets talking of many things, and I remember that on getting
home I sat down and wrote about half a page of "An Outcast of the
Islands" before I slept. This was committing myself definitely,
I won't say to another life, but to another book. There is
apparently something in my character which will not allow me to
abandon for good any piece of work I have begun. I have laid
aside many beginnings. I have laid them aside with sorrow, with
disgust, with rage, with melancholy and even with self-contempt;
but even at the worst I had an uneasy consciousness that I would
have to go back to them.
"An Outcast of the Islands" belongs to those novels of mine that
were never laid aside; and though it brought me the qualification
of "exotic writer" I don't think the charge was at all justified.
For the life of me I don't see that there is the slightest exotic
spirit in the conception or style of that novel. It is certainly
the most TROPICAL of my eastern tales. The mere scenery got a
great hold on me as I went on, perhaps because (I may just as
well confess that) the story itself was never very near my heart.
It engaged my imagination much more than my affection. As to my
feeling for Willems it was but the regard one cannot help having
for one's own creation. Obviously I could not be indifferent to
a man on whose head I had brought so much evil simply by
imagining him such as he appears in the novel--and that, too, on
a very slight foundation.
The man who suggested Willems to me was not particularly
interesting in himself. My interest was aroused by his dependent
position, his strange, dubious status of a mistrusted, disliked,
worn-out European living on the reluctant toleration of that
Settlement hidden in the heart of the forest-land, up that sombre
stream which our ship was the only white men's ship to visit.
With his hollow, clean-shaved cheeks, a heavy grey moustache and
eyes without any expression whatever, clad always in a spotless
sleeping suit much be-frogged in front, which left his lean neck
wholly uncovered, and with his bare feet in a pair of straw
slippers, he wandered silently amongst the houses in daylight,
almost as dumb as an animal and apparently much more homeless. I
don't know what he did with himself at night. He must have had a
place, a hut, a palm-leaf shed, some sort of hovel where he kept
his razor and his change of sleeping suits. An air of futile
mystery hung over him, something not exactly dark but obviously
ugly. The only definite statement I could extract from anybody
was that it was he who had "brought the Arabs into the river."
That must have happened many years before. But how did he bring
them into the river? He could hardly have done it in his arms
like a lot of kittens. I knew that Almayer founded the
chronology of all his misfortunes on the date of that fateful
advent; and yet the very first time we dined with Almayer there
was Willems sitting at table with us in the manner of the
skeleton at the feast, obviously shunned by everybody, never
addressed by any one, and for all recognition of his existence
getting now and then from Almayer a venomous glance which I
observed with great surprise. In the course of the whole evening
he ventured one single remark which I didn't catch because his
articulation was imperfect, as of a man who had forgotten how to
speak. I was the only person who seemed aware of the sound.
Willems subsided. Presently he retired, pointedly
unnoticed--into the forest maybe? Its immensity was there,
within three hundred yards of the verandah, ready to swallow up
anything. Almayer conversing with my captain did not stop talking
while he glared angrily at the retreating back. Didn't that
fellow bring the Arabs into the river! Nevertheless Willems
turned up next morning on Almayer's verandah. From the bridge of
the steamer I could see plainly these two, breakfasting together,
tete a tete and, I suppose, in dead silence, one with his air of
being no longer interested in this world and the other raising
his eyes now and then with intense dislike.
It was clear that in those days Willems lived on Almayer's
charity. Yet on returning two months later to Sambir I heard
that he had gone on an expedition up the river in charge of a
steam-launch belonging to the Arabs, to make some discovery or
other. On account of the strange reluctance that everyone
manifested to talk about Willems it was impossible for me to get
at the rights of that transaction. Moreover, I was a newcomer,
the youngest of the company, and, I suspect, not judged quite fit
as yet for a full confidence. I was not much concerned about
that exclusion. The faint suggestion of plots and mysteries
pertaining to all matters touching Almayer's affairs amused me
vastly. Almayer was obviously very much affected. I believe he
missed Willems immensely. He wore an air of sinister
preoccupation and talked confidentially with my captain. I could
catch only snatches of mumbled sentences. Then one morning as I
came along the deck to take my place at the breakfast table
Almayer checked himself in his low-toned discourse. My captain's
face was perfectly impenetrable. There was a moment of profound
silence and then as if unable to contain himself Almayer burst
out in a loud vicious tone:
"One thing's certain; if he finds anything worth having up there
they will poison him like a dog."
Disconnected though it was, that phrase, as food for thought, was
distinctly worth hearing. We left the river three days
afterwards and I never returned to Sambir; but whatever happened
to the protagonist of my Willems nobody can deny that I have
recorded for him a less squalid fate.
J. C.
When he stepped off the straight and narrow path of his peculiar
honesty, it was with an inward assertion of unflinching resolve
to fall back again into the monotonous but safe stride of virtue
as soon as his little excursion into the wayside quagmires had
produced the desired effect. It was going to be a short
episode--a sentence in brackets, so to speak--in the flowing tale
of his life: a thing of no moment, to be done unwillingly, yet
neatly, and to be quickly forgotten. He imagined that he could
go on afterwards looking at the sunshine, enjoying the shade,
breathing in the perfume of flowers in the small garden before
his house. He fancied that nothing would be changed, that he
would be able as heretofore to tyrannize good-humouredly over his
half-caste wife, to notice with tender contempt his pale yellow
child, to patronize loftily his dark-skinned brother-in-law, who
loved pink neckties and wore patent-leather boots on his little
feet, and was so humble before the white husband of the lucky
sister. Those were the delights of his life, and he was unable to
conceive that the moral significance of any act of his could
interfere with the very nature of things, could dim the light of
the sun, could destroy the perfume of the flowers, the submission
of his wife, the smile of his child, the awe-struck respect of
Leonard da Souza and of all the Da Souza family. That family's
admiration was the great luxury of his life. It rounded and
completed his existence in a perpetual assurance of
unquestionable superiority. He loved to breathe the coarse
incense they offered before the shrine of the successful white
man; the man that had done them the honour to marry their
daughter, sister, cousin; the rising man sure to climb very high;
the confidential clerk of Hudig & Co. They were a numerous and
an unclean crowd, living in ruined bamboo houses, surrounded by
neglected compounds, on the outskirts of Macassar. He kept them
at arm's length and even further off, perhaps, having no
illusions as to their worth. They were a half-caste, lazy lot,
and he saw them as they were--ragged, lean, unwashed, undersized
men of various ages, shuffling about aimlessly in slippers;
motionless old women who looked like monstrous bags of pink
calico stuffed with shapeless lumps of fat, and deposited askew
upon decaying rattan chairs in shady corners of dusty verandahs;
young women, slim and yellow, big-eyed, long-haired, moving
languidly amongst the dirt and rubbish of their dwellings as if
every step they took was going to be their very last. He heard
their shrill quarrellings, the squalling of their children, the
grunting of their pigs; he smelt the odours of the heaps of
garbage in their courtyards: and he was greatly disgusted. But
he fed and clothed that shabby multitude; those degenerate
descendants of Portuguese conquerors; he was their providence; he
kept them singing his praises in the midst of their laziness, of
their dirt, of their immense and hopeless squalor: and he was
greatly delighted. They wanted much, but he could give them all
they wanted without ruining himself. In exchange he had their
silent fear, their loquacious love, their noisy veneration. It
is a fine thing to be a providence, and to be told so on every
day of one's life. It gives one a feeling of enormously remote
superiority, and Willems revelled in it. He did not analyze the
state of his mind, but probably his greatest delight lay in the
unexpressed but intimate conviction that, should he close his
hand, all those admiring human beings would starve. His
munificence had demoralized them. An easy task. Since he
descended amongst them and married Joanna they had lost the
little aptitude and strength for work they might have had to put
forth under the stress of extreme necessity. They lived now by
the grace of his will. This was power. Willems loved it.
In another, and perhaps a lower plane, his days did not want for
their less complex but more obvious pleasures. He liked the
simple games of skill--billiards; also games not so simple, and
calling for quite another kind of skill--poker. He had been the
aptest pupil of a steady-eyed, sententious American, who had
drifted mysteriously into Macassar from the wastes of the
Pacific, and, after knocking about for a time in the eddies of
town life, had drifted out enigmatically into the sunny solitudes
of the Indian Ocean. The memory of the Californian stranger was
perpetuated in the game of poker--which became popular in the
capital of Celebes from that time--and in a powerful cocktail,
the recipe for which is transmitted--in the Kwang-tung
dialect--from head boy to head boy of the Chinese servants in the
Sunda Hotel even to this day. Willems was a connoisseur in the
drink and an adept at the game. Of those accomplishments he was
moderately proud. Of the confidence reposed in him by Hudig--the
master--he was boastfully and obtrusively proud. This arose from
his great benevolence, and from an exalted sense of his duty to
himself and the world at large. He experienced that irresistible
impulse to impart information which is inseparable from gross
ignorance. There is always some one thing which the ignorant man
knows, and that thing is the only thing worth knowing; it fills
the ignorant man's universe. Willems knew all about himself. On
the day when, with many misgivings, he ran away from a Dutch
East-Indiaman in Samarang roads, he had commenced that study of
himself, of his own ways, of his own abilities, of those
fate-compelling qualities of his which led him toward that
lucrative position which he now filled. Being of a modest and
diffident nature, his successes amazed, almost frightened him,
and ended--as he got over the succeeding shocks of surprise--by
making him ferociously conceited. He believed in his genius and
in his knowledge of the world. Others should know of it also;
for their own good and for his greater glory. All those friendly
men who slapped him on the back and greeted him noisily should
have the benefit of his example. For that he must talk. He
talked to them conscientiously. In the afternoon he expounded his
theory of success over the little tables, dipping now and then
his moustache in the crushed ice of the cocktails; in the evening
he would often hold forth, cue in hand, to a young listener
across the billiard table. The billiard balls stood still as if
listening also, under the vivid brilliance of the shaded oil
lamps hung low over the cloth; while away in the shadows of the
big room the Chinaman marker would lean wearily against the wall,
the blank mask of his face looking pale under the mahogany
marking-board; his eyelids dropped in the drowsy fatigue of late
hours and in the buzzing monotony of the unintelligible stream of
words poured out by the white man. In a sudden pause of the talk
the game would recommence with a sharp click and go on for a time
in the flowing soft whirr and the subdued thuds as the balls
rolled zig-zagging towards the inevitably successful cannon.
Through the big windows and the open doors the salt dampness of
the sea, the vague smell of mould and flowers from the garden of
the hotel drifted in and mingled with the odour of lamp oil,
growing heavier as the night advanced. The players' heads dived
into the light as they bent down for the stroke, springing back
again smartly into the greenish gloom of broad lamp-shades; the
clock ticked methodically; the unmoved Chinaman continuously
repeated the score in a lifeless voice, like a big talking
doll--and Willems would win the game. With a remark that it was
getting late, and that he was a married man, he would say a
patronizing good-night and step out into the long, empty street.
At that hour its white dust was like a dazzling streak of
moonlight where the eye sought repose in the dimmer gleam of rare
oil lamps. Willems walked homewards, following the line of walls
overtopped by the luxuriant vegetation of the front gardens. The
houses right and left were hidden behind the black masses of
flowering shrubs. Willems had the street to himself. He would
walk in the middle, his shadow gliding obsequiously before him.
He looked down on it complacently. The shadow of a successful
man! He would be slightly dizzy with the cocktails and with the
intoxication of his own glory. As he often told people, he came
east fourteen years ago--a cabin boy. A small boy. His shadow
must have been very small at that time; he thought with a smile
that he was not aware then he had anything--even a shadow--which
he dared call his own. And now he was looking at the shadow of
the confidential clerk of Hudig & Co. going home. How glorious!
How good was life for those that were on the winning side! He
had won the game of life; also the game of billiards. He walked
faster, jingling his winnings, and thinking of the white stone
days that had marked the path of his existence. He thought of the
trip to Lombok for ponies--that first important transaction
confided to him by Hudig; then he reviewed the more important
affairs: the quiet deal in opium; the illegal traffic in
gunpowder; the great affair of smuggled firearms, the difficult
business of the Rajah of Goak. He carried that last through by
sheer pluck; he had bearded the savage old ruler in his council
room; he had bribed him with a gilt glass coach, which, rumour
said, was used as a hen-coop now; he had over-persuaded him; he
had bested him in every way. That was the way to get on. He
disapproved of the elementary dishonesty that dips the hand in
the cash-box, but one could evade the laws and push the
principles of trade to their furthest consequences. Some call
that cheating. Those are the fools, the weak, the contemptible.
The wise, the strong, the respected, have no scruples. Where
there are scruples there can be no power. On that text he
preached often to the young men. It was his doctrine, and he,
himself, was a shining example of its truth.
Night after night he went home thus, after a day of toil and
pleasure, drunk with the sound of his own voice celebrating his
own prosperity. On his thirtieth birthday he went home thus. He
had spent in good company a nice, noisy evening, and, as he
walked along the empty street, the feeling of his own greatness
grew upon him, lifted him above the white dust of the road, and
filled him with exultation and regrets. He had not done himself
justice over there in the hotel, he had not talked enough about
himself, he had not impressed his hearers enough. Never mind.
Some other time. Now he would go home and make his wife get up
and listen to him. Why should she not get up?--and mix a
cocktail for him--and listen patiently. Just so. She shall. If
he wanted he could make all the Da Souza family get up. He had
only to say a word and they would all come and sit silently in
their night vestments on the hard, cold ground of his compound
and listen, as long as he wished to go on explaining to them from
the top of the stairs, how great and good he was. They would.
However, his wife would do--for to-night.
His wife! He winced inwardly. A dismal woman with startled eyes
and dolorously drooping mouth, that would listen to him in pained
wonder and mute stillness. She was used to those night-discourses
now. She had rebelled once--at the beginning. Only once. Now,
while he sprawled in the long chair and drank and talked, she
would stand at the further end of the table, her hands resting on
the edge, her frightened eyes watching his lips, without a sound,
without a stir, hardly breathing, till he dismissed her with a
contemptuous: "Go to bed, dummy." She would draw a long breath
then and trail out of the room, relieved but unmoved. Nothing
could startle her, make her scold or make her cry. She did not
complain, she did not rebel. That first difference of theirs was
decisive. Too decisive, thought Willems, discontentedly. It had
frightened the soul out of her body apparently. A dismal woman!
A damn'd business altogether! What the devil did he want to go
and saddle himself. . . . Ah! Well! he wanted a home, and the
match seemed to please Hudig, and Hudig gave him the bungalow,
that flower-bowered house to which he was wending his way in the
cool moonlight. And he had the worship of the Da Souza tribe. A
man of his stamp could carry off anything, do anything, aspire to
anything. In another five years those white people who attended
the Sunday card-parties of the Governor would accept
him--half-caste wife and all! Hooray! He saw his shadow dart
forward and wave a hat, as big as a rum barrel, at the end of an
arm several yards long. . . . Who shouted hooray? . . . He
smiled shamefacedly to himself, and, pushing his hands deep into
his pockets, walked faster with a suddenly grave face.
Behind him--to the left--a cigar end glowed in the gateway of Mr.
Vinck's front yard. Leaning against one of the brick pillars,
Mr. Vinck, the cashier of Hudig & Co., smoked the last cheroot of
the evening. Amongst the shadows of the trimmed bushes Mrs.
Vinck crunched slowly, with measured steps, the gravel of the
circular path before the house.
"There's Willems going home on foot--and drunk I fancy," said Mr.
Vinck over his shoulder. "I saw him jump and wave his hat."
The crunching of the gravel stopped.
"Horrid man," said Mrs. Vinck, calmly. "I have heard he beats
his wife."
"Oh no, my dear, no," muttered absently Mr. Vinck, with a vague
gesture. The aspect of Willems as a wife-beater presented to him
no interest. How women do misjudge! If Willems wanted to
torture his wife he would have recourse to less primitive
methods. Mr. Vinck knew Willems well, and believed him to be
very able, very smart--objectionably so. As he took the last
quick draws at the stump of his cheroot, Mr. Vinck reflected that
the confidence accorded by Hudig to Willems was open, under the
circumstances, to loyal criticism from Hudig's cashier.
"He is becoming dangerous; he knows too much. He will have to be
got rid of," said Mr. Vinck aloud. But Mrs. Vinck had gone in
already, and after shaking his head he threw away his cheroot and
followed her slowly.
Willems walked on homeward weaving the splendid web of his
future. The road to greatness lay plainly before his eyes,
straight and shining, without any obstacle that he could see. He
had stepped off the path of honesty, as he understood it, but he
would soon regain it, never to leave it any more! It was a very
small matter. He would soon put it right again. Meantime his
duty was not to be found out, and he trusted in his skill, in his
luck, in his well-established reputation that would disarm
suspicion if anybody dared to suspect. But nobody would dare!
True, he was conscious of a slight deterioration. He had
appropriated temporarily some of Hudig's money. A deplorable
necessity. But he judged himself with the indulgence that should
be extended to the weaknesses of genius. He would make
reparation and all would be as before; nobody would be the loser
for it, and he would go on unchecked toward the brilliant goal of
his ambition.
Hudig's partner!
Before going up the steps of his house he stood for awhile, his
feet well apart, chin in hand, contemplating mentally Hudig's
future partner. A glorious occupation. He saw him quite safe;
solid as the hills; deep--deep as an abyss; discreet as the
The sea, perhaps because of its saltness, roughens the outside
but keeps sweet the kernel of its servants' soul. The old sea;
the sea of many years ago, whose servants were devoted slaves and
went from youth to age or to a sudden grave without needing to
open the book of life, because they could look at eternity
reflected on the element that gave the life and dealt the death.
Like a beautiful and unscrupulous woman, the sea of the past was
glorious in its smiles, irresistible in its anger, capricious,
enticing, illogical, irresponsible; a thing to love, a thing to
fear. It cast a spell, it gave joy, it lulled gently into
boundless faith; then with quick and causeless anger it killed.
But its cruelty was redeemed by the charm of its inscrutable
mystery, by the immensity of its promise, by the supreme witchery
of its possible favour. Strong men with childlike hearts were
faithful to it, were content to live by its grace--to die by its
will. That was the sea before the time when the French mind set
the Egyptian muscle in motion and produced a dismal but
profitable ditch. Then a great pall of smoke sent out by
countless steam-boats was spread over the restless mirror of the
Infinite. The hand of the engineer tore down the veil of the
terrible beauty in order that greedy and faithless landlubbers
might pocket dividends. The mystery was destroyed. Like all
mysteries, it lived only in the hearts of its worshippers. The
hearts changed; the men changed. The once loving and devoted
servants went out armed with fire and iron, and conquering the
fear of their own hearts became a calculating crowd of cold and
exacting masters. The sea of the past was an incomparably
beautiful mistress, with inscrutable face, with cruel and
promising eyes. The sea of to-day is a used-up drudge, wrinkled
and defaced by the churned-up wakes of brutal propellers, robbed
of the enslaving charm of its vastness, stripped of its beauty,
of its mystery and of its promise.
Tom Lingard was a master, a lover, a servant of the sea. The sea
took him young, fashioned him body and soul; gave him his fierce
aspect, his loud voice, his fearless eyes, his stupidly guileless
heart. Generously it gave him his absurd faith in himself, his
universal love of creation, his wide indulgence, his contemptuous
severity, his straightforward simplicity of motive and honesty of
aim. Having made him what he was, womanlike, the sea served him
humbly and let him bask unharmed in the sunshine of its terribly
uncertain favour. Tom Lingard grew rich on the sea and by the
sea. He loved it with the ardent affection of a lover, he made
light of it with the assurance of perfect mastery, he feared it
with the wise fear of a brave man, and he took liberties with it
as a spoiled child might do with a paternal and good-natured
ogre. He was grateful to it, with the gratitude of an honest
heart. His greatest pride lay in his profound conviction of its
faithfulness--in the deep sense of his unerring knowledge of its
The little brig Flash was the instrument of Lingard's fortune.
They came north together--both young--out of an Australian port,
and after a very few years there was not a white man in the
islands, from Palembang to Ternate, from Ombawa to Palawan, that
did not know Captain Tom and his lucky craft. He was liked for
his reckless generosity, for his unswerving honesty, and at first
was a little feared on account of his violent temper. Very soon,
however, they found him out, and the word went round that Captain
Tom's fury was less dangerous than many a man's smile. He
prospered greatly. After his first--and successful--fight with
the sea robbers, when he rescued, as rumour had it, the yacht of
some big wig from home, somewhere down Carimata way, his great
popularity began. As years went on it grew apace. Always
visiting out-of-the-way places of that part of the world, always
in search of new markets for his cargoes--not so much for profit
as for the pleasure of finding them--he soon became known to the
Malays, and by his successful recklessness in several encounters
with pirates, established the terror of his name. Those white
men with whom he had business, and who naturally were on the
look-out for his weaknesses, could easily see that it was enough
to give him his Malay title to flatter him greatly. So when there
was anything to be gained by it, and sometimes out of pure and
unprofitable good nature, they would drop the ceremonious
"Captain Lingard" and address him half seriously as Rajah
Laut--the King of the Sea.
He carried the name bravely on his broad shoulders. He had
carried it many years already when the boy Willems ran barefooted
on the deck of the ship Kosmopoliet IV. in Samarang roads,
looking with innocent eyes on the strange shore and objurgating
his immediate surroundings with blasphemous lips, while his
childish brain worked upon the heroic idea of running away. From
the poop of the Flash Lingard saw in the early morning the Dutch
ship get lumberingly under weigh, bound for the eastern ports.
Very late in the evening of the same day he stood on the quay of
the landing canal, ready to go on board of his brig. The night
was starry and clear; the little custom-house building was shut
up, and as the gharry that brought him down disappeared up the
long avenue of dusty trees leading to the town, Lingard thought
himself alone on the quay. He roused up his sleeping boat-crew
and stood waiting for them to get ready, when he felt a tug at
his coat and a thin voice said, very distinctly--
"English captain."
Lingard turned round quickly, and what seemed to be a very lean
boy jumped back with commendable activity.
"Who are you? Where do you spring from?" asked Lingard, in
startled surprise.
From a safe distance the boy pointed toward a cargo lighter
moored to the quay.
"Been hiding there, have you?" said Lingard. "Well, what do you
want? Speak out, confound you. You did not come here to scare
me to death, for fun, did you?"
The boy tried to explain in imperfect English, but very soon
Lingard interrupted him.
"I see," he exclaimed, "you ran away from the big ship that
sailed this morning. Well, why don't you go to your countrymen
"Ship gone only a little way--to Sourabaya. Make me go back to
the ship," explained the boy.
"Best thing for you," affirmed Lingard with conviction.
"No," retorted the boy; "me want stop here; not want go home.
Get money here; home no good."
"This beats all my going a-fishing," commented the astonished
Lingard. "It's money you want? Well! well! And you were not
afraid to run away, you bag of bones, you!"
The boy intimated that he was frightened of nothing but of being
sent back to the ship. Lingard looked at him in meditative
"Come closer," he said at last. He took the boy by the chin, and
turning up his face gave him a searching look. "How old are
"There's not much of you for seventeen. Are you hungry?"
"A little."
"Will you come with me, in that brig there?"
The boy moved without a word towards the boat and scrambled into
the bows.
"Knows his place," muttered Lingard to himself as he stepped
heavily into the stern sheets and took up the yoke lines. "Give
way there."
The Malay boat crew lay back together, and the gig sprang away
from the quay heading towards the brig's riding light.
Such was the beginning of Willems' career.
Lingard learned in half an hour all that there was of Willems'
commonplace story. Father outdoor clerk of some ship-broker in
Rotterdam; mother dead. The boy quick in learning, but idle in
school. The straitened circumstances in the house filled with
small brothers and sisters, sufficiently clothed and fed but
otherwise running wild, while the disconsolate widower tramped
about all day in a shabby overcoat and imperfect boots on the
muddy quays, and in the evening piloted wearily the
half-intoxicated foreign skippers amongst the places of cheap
delights, returning home late, sick with too much smoking and
drinking--for company's sake--with these men, who expected such
attentions in the way of business. Then the offer of the
good-natured captain of Kosmopoliet IV., who was pleased to do
something for the patient and obliging fellow; young Willems'
great joy, his still greater disappointment with the sea that
looked so charming from afar, but proved so hard and exacting on
closer acquaintance--and then this running away by a sudden
impulse. The boy was hopelessly at variance with the spirit of
the sea. He had an instinctive contempt for the honest
simplicity of that work which led to nothing he cared for.
Lingard soon found this out. He offered to send him home in an
English ship, but the boy begged hard to be permitted to remain.
He wrote a beautiful hand, became soon perfect in English, was
quick at figures; and Lingard made him useful in that way. As he
grew older his trading instincts developed themselves
astonishingly, and Lingard left him often to trade in one island
or another while he, himself, made an intermediate trip to some
out-of-the-way place. On Willems expressing a wish to that
effect, Lingard let him enter Hudig's service. He felt a little
sore at that abandonment because he had attached himself, in a
way, to his protege. Still he was proud of him, and spoke up for
him loyally. At first it was, "Smart boy that--never make a
seaman though." Then when Willems was helping in the trading he
referred to him as "that clever young fellow." Later when
Willems became the confidential agent of Hudig, employed in many
a delicate affair, the simple-hearted old seaman would point an
admiring finger at his back and whisper to whoever stood near at
the moment, "Long-headed chap that; deuced long-headed chap.
Look at him. Confidential man of old Hudig. I picked him up in
a ditch, you may say, like a starved cat. Skin and bone. 'Pon my
word I did. And now he knows more than I do about island
trading. Fact. I am not joking. More than I do," he would
repeat, seriously, with innocent pride in his honest eyes.
From the safe elevation of his commercial successes Willems
patronized Lingard. He had a liking for his benefactor, not
unmixed with some disdain for the crude directness of the old
fellow's methods of conduct. There were, however, certain sides
of Lingard's character for which Willems felt a qualified
respect. The talkative seaman knew how to be silent on certain
matters that to Willems were very interesting. Besides, Lingard
was rich, and that in itself was enough to compel Willems'
unwilling admiration. In his confidential chats with Hudig,
Willems generally alluded to the benevolent Englishman as the
"lucky old fool" in a very distinct tone of vexation; Hudig would
grunt an unqualified assent, and then the two would look at each
other in a sudden immobility of pupils fixed by a stare of
unexpressed thought.
"You can't find out where he gets all that india-rubber, hey
Willems?" Hudig would ask at last, turning away and bending over
the papers on his desk.
"No, Mr. Hudig. Not yet. But I am trying," was Willems'
invariable reply, delivered with a ring of regretful deprecation.
"Try! Always try! You may try! You think yourself clever
perhaps," rumbled on Hudig, without looking up. "I have been
trading with him twenty--thirty years now. The old fox. And I
have tried. Bah!"
He stretched out a short, podgy leg and contemplated the bare
instep and the grass slipper hanging by the toes. "You can't
make him drunk?" he would add, after a pause of stertorous
"No, Mr. Hudig, I can't really," protested Willems, earnestly.
"Well, don't try. I know him. Don't try," advised the master,
and, bending again over his desk, his staring bloodshot eyes
close to the paper, he would go on tracing laboriously with his
thick fingers the slim unsteady letters of his correspondence,
while Willems waited respectfully for his further good pleasure
before asking, with great deference--
"Any orders, Mr. Hudig?"
"Hm! yes. Go to Bun-Hin yourself and see the dollars of that
payment counted and packed, and have them put on board the
mail-boat for Ternate. She's due here this afternoon."
"Yes, Mr. Hudig."
"And, look here. If the boat is late, leave the case in
Bun-Hin's godown till to-morrow. Seal it up. Eight seals as
usual. Don't take it away till the boat is here."
"No, Mr. Hudig."
"And don't forget about these opium cases. It's for to-night.
Use my own boatmen. Transship them from the Caroline to the Arab
barque," went on the master in his hoarse undertone. "And don't
you come to me with another story of a case dropped overboard
like last time," he added, with sudden ferocity, looking up at
his confidential clerk.
"No, Mr. Hudig. I will take care."
"That's all. Tell that pig as you go out that if he doesn't make
the punkah go a little better I will break every bone in his
body," finished up Hudig, wiping his purple face with a red silk
handkerchief nearly as big as a counterpane.
Noiselessly Willems went out, shutting carefully behind him the
little green door through which he passed to the warehouse.
Hudig, pen in hand, listened to him bullying the punkah boy with
profane violence, born of unbounded zeal for the master's
comfort, before he returned to his writing amid the rustling of
papers fluttering in the wind sent down by the punkah that waved
in wide sweeps above his head.
Willems would nod familiarly to Mr. Vinck, who had his desk close
to the little door of the private office, and march down the
warehouse with an important air. Mr. Vinck--extreme dislike
lurking in every wrinkle of his gentlemanly countenance--would
follow with his eyes the white figure flitting in the gloom
amongst the piles of bales and cases till it passed out through
the big archway into the glare of the street.
The opportunity and the temptation were too much for Willems, and
under the pressure of sudden necessity he abused that trust which
was his pride, the perpetual sign of his cleverness and a load
too heavy for him to carry. A run of bad luck at cards, the
failure of a small speculation undertaken on his own account, an
unexpected demand for money from one or another member of the Da
Souza family--and almost before he was well aware of it he was
off the path of his peculiar honesty. It was such a faint and
ill-defined track that it took him some time to find out how far
he had strayed amongst the brambles of the dangerous wilderness
he had been skirting for so many years, without any other guide
than his own convenience and that doctrine of success which he
had found for himself in the book of life--in those interesting
chapters that the Devil has been permitted to write in it, to
test the sharpness of men's eyesight and the steadfastness of
their hearts. For one short, dark and solitary moment he was
dismayed, but he had that courage that will not scale heights,
yet will wade bravely through the mud--if there be no other road.
He applied himself to the task of restitution, and devoted
himself to the duty of not being found out. On his thirtieth
birthday he had almost accomplished the task--and the duty had
been faithfully and cleverly performed. He saw himself safe.
Again he could look hopefully towards the goal of his legitimate
ambition. Nobody would dare to suspect him, and in a few days
there would be nothing to suspect. He was elated. He did not
know that his prosperity had touched then its high-water mark,
and that the tide was already on the turn.
Two days afterwards he knew. Mr. Vinck, hearing the rattle of
the door-handle, jumped up from his desk--where he had been
tremulously listening to the loud voices in the private
office--and buried his face in the big safe with nervous haste.
For the last time Willems passed through the little green door
leading to Hudig's sanctum, which, during the past half-hour,
might have been taken--from the fiendish noise within--for the
cavern of some wild beast. Willems' troubled eyes took in the
quick impression of men and things as he came out from the place
of his humiliation. He saw the scared expression of the punkah
boy; the Chinamen tellers sitting on their heels with unmovable
faces turned up blankly towards him while their arrested hands
hovered over the little piles of bright guilders ranged on the
floor; Mr. Vinck's shoulder-blades with the fleshy rims of two
red ears above. He saw the long avenue of gin cases stretching
from where he stood to the arched doorway beyond which he would
be able to breathe perhaps. A thin rope's end lay across his
path and he saw it distinctly, yet stumbled heavily over it as if
it had been a bar of iron. Then he found himself in the street
at last, but could not find air enough to fill his lungs. He
walked towards his home, gasping.
As the sound of Hudig's insults that lingered in his ears grew
fainter by the lapse of time, the feeling of shame was replaced
slowly by a passion of anger against himself and still more
against the stupid concourse of circumstances that had driven him
into his idiotic indiscretion. Idiotic indiscretion; that is how
he defined his guilt to himself. Could there be anything worse
from the point of view of his undeniable cleverness? What a
fatal aberration of an acute mind! He did not recognize himself
there. He must have been mad. That's it. A sudden gust of
madness. And now the work of long years was destroyed utterly.
What would become of him?
Before he could answer that question he found himself in the
garden before his house, Hudig's wedding gift. He looked at it
with a vague surprise to find it there. His past was so utterly
gone from him that the dwelling which belonged to it appeared to
him incongruous standing there intact, neat, and cheerful in the
sunshine of the hot afternoon. The house was a pretty little
structure all doors and windows, surrounded on all sides by the
deep verandah supported on slender columns clothed in the green
foliage of creepers, which also fringed the overhanging eaves of
the high-pitched roof. Slowly, Willems mounted the dozen steps
that led to the verandah. He paused at every step. He must tell
his wife. He felt frightened at the prospect, and his alarm
dismayed him. Frightened to face her! Nothing could give him a
better measure of the greatness of the change around him, and in
him. Another man--and another life with the faith in himself
gone. He could not be worth much if he was afraid to face that
He dared not enter the house through the open door of the
dining-room, but stood irresolute by the little work-table where
trailed a white piece of calico, with a needle stuck in it, as if
the work had been left hurriedly. The pink-crested cockatoo
started, on his appearance, into clumsy activity and began to
climb laboriously up and down his perch, calling "Joanna" with
indistinct loudness and a persistent screech that prolonged the
last syllable of the name as if in a peal of insane laughter.
The screen in the doorway moved gently once or twice in the
breeze, and each time Willems started slightly, expecting his
wife, but he never lifted his eyes, although straining his ears
for the sound of her footsteps. Gradually he lost himself in his
thoughts, in the endless speculation as to the manner in which
she would receive his news--and his orders. In this
preoccupationhe almost forgot the fear of her presence. No doubt
she will cry, she will lament, she will be helpless and
frightened and passive as ever. And he would have to drag that
limp weight on and on through the darkness of a spoiled life.
Horrible! Of course he could not abandon her and the child to
certain misery or possible starvation. The wife and the child of
Willems. Willems the successful, the smart; Willems the conf . .
. . Pah! And what was Willems now? Willems the. . . . He
strangled the half-born thought, and cleared his throat to stifle
a groan. Ah! Won't they talk to-night in the billiard-room--his
world, where he had been first--all those men to whom he had been
so superciliously condescending. Won't they talk with surprise,
and affected regret, and grave faces, and wise nods. Some of
them owed him money, but he never pressed anybody. Not he.
Willems, the prince of good fellows, they called him. And now
they will rejoice, no doubt, at his downfall. A crowd of
imbeciles. In his abasement he was yet aware of his superiority
over those fellows, who were merely honest or simply not found
out yet. A crowd of imbeciles! He shook his fist at the evoked
image of his friends, and the startled parrot fluttered its wings
and shrieked in desperate fright.
In a short glance upwards Willems saw his wife come round the
corner of the house. He lowered his eyelids quickly, and waited
silently till she came near and stood on the other side of the
little table. He would not look at her face, but he could see
the red dressing-gown he knew so well. She trailed through life
in that red dressing-gown, with its row of dirty blue bows down
the front, stained, and hooked on awry; a torn flounce at the
bottom following her like a snake as she moved languidly about,
with her hair negligently caught up, and a tangled wisp
straggling untidily down her back. His gaze travelled upwards
from bow to bow, noticing those that hung only by a thread, but
it did not go beyond her chin. He looked at her lean throat, at
the obtrusive collarbone visible in the disarray of the upper
part of her attire. He saw the thin arm and the bony hand
clasping the child she carried, and he felt an immense distaste
for those encumbrances of his life. He waited for her to say
something, but as he felt her eyes rest on him in unbroken
silence he sighed and began to speak.
It was a hard task. He spoke slowly, lingering amongst the
memories of this early life in his reluctance to confess that
this was the end of it and the beginning of a less splendid
existence. In his conviction of having made her happiness in the
full satisfaction of all material wants he never doubted for a
moment that she was ready to keep him company on no matter how
hard and stony a road. He was not elated by this certitude. He
had married her to please Hudig, and the greatness of his
sacrifice ought to have made her happy without any further
exertion on his part. She had years of glory as Willems' wife,
and years of comfort, of loyal care, and of such tenderness as
she deserved. He had guarded her carefully from any bodily hurt;
and of any other suffering he had no conception. The assertion
of his superiority was only another benefit conferred on her.
All this was a matter of course, but he told her all this so as
to bring vividly before her the greatness of her loss. She was
so dull of understanding that she would not grasp it else. And
now it was at an end. They would have to go. Leave this house,
leave this island, go far away where he was unknown. To the
English Strait-Settlements perhaps. He would find an opening
there for his abilities--and juster men to deal with than old
Hudig. He laughed bitterly.
"You have the money I left at home this morning, Joanna?" he
asked. "We will want it all now."
As he spoke those words he thought he was a fine fellow. Nothing
new that. Still, he surpassed there his own expectations. Hang
it all, there are sacred things in life, after all. The marriage
tie was one of them, and he was not the man to break it. The
solidity of his principles caused him great satisfaction, but he
did not care to look at his wife, for all that. He waited for
her to speak. Then he would have to console her; tell her not to
be a crying fool; to get ready to go. Go where? How? When? He
shook his head. They must leave at once; that was the principal
thing. He felt a sudden need to hurry up his departure.
"Well, Joanna," he said, a little impatiently---"don't stand
there in a trance. Do you hear? We must. . . ."
He looked up at his wife, and whatever he was going to add
remained unspoken. She was staring at him with her big, slanting
eyes, that seemed to him twice their natural size. The child,
its dirty little face pressed to its mother's shoulder, was
sleeping peacefully. The deep silence of the house was not
broken, but rather accentuated, by the low mutter of the
cockatoo, now very still on its perch. As Willems was looking at
Joanna her upper lip was drawn up on one side, giving to her
melancholy face a vicious expression altogether new to his
experience. He stepped back in his surprise.
"Oh! You great man!" she said distinctly, but in a voice that
was hardly above a whisper.
Those words, and still more her tone, stunned him as if somebody
had fired a gun close to his ear. He stared back at her
"Oh! you great man!" she repeated slowly, glancing right and left
as if meditating a sudden escape. "And you think that I am going
to starve with you. You are nobody now. You think my mamma and
Leonard would let me go away? And with you! With you," she
repeated scornfully, raising her voice, which woke up the child
and caused it to whimper feebly.
"Joanna!" exclaimed Willems.
"Do not speak to me. I have heard what I have waited for all
these years. You are less than dirt, you that have wiped your
feet on me. I have waited for this. I am not afraid now. I do
not want you; do not come near me. Ah-h!" she screamed shrilly,
as he held out his hand in an entreating gesture--"Ah! Keep off
me! Keep off me! Keep off!"
She backed away, looking at him with eyes both angry and
frightened. Willems stared motionless, in dumb amazement at the
mystery of anger and revolt in the head of his wife. Why? What
had he ever done to her? This was the day of injustice indeed.
First Hudig--and now his wife. He felt a terror at this hate
that had lived stealthily so near him for years. He tried to
speak, but she shrieked again, and it was like a needle through
his heart. Again he raised his hand.
"Help!" called Mrs. Willems, in a piercing voice. "Help!"
"Be quiet! You fool!" shouted Willems, trying to drown the noise
of his wife and child in his own angry accents and rattling
violently the little zinc table in his exasperation.
From under the house, where there were bathrooms and a tool
closet, appeared Leonard, a rusty iron bar in his hand. He
called threateningly from the bottom of the stairs.
"Do not hurt her, Mr. Willems. You are a savage. Not at all
like we, whites."
"You too!" said the bewildered Willems. "I haven't touched her.
Is this a madhouse?" He moved towards the stairs, and Leonard
dropped the bar with a clang and made for the gate of the
compound. Willems turned back to his wife.
"So you expected this," he said. "It is a conspiracy. Who's that
sobbing and groaning in the room? Some more of your precious
family. Hey?"
She was more calm now, and putting hastily the crying child in
the big chair walked towards him with sudden fearlessness.
"My mother," she said, "my mother who came to defend me from
you--man from nowhere; a vagabond!"
"You did not call me a vagabond when you hung round my
neck--before we were married," said Willems, contemptuously.
"You took good care that I should not hang round your neck after
we were," she answered, clenching her hands, and putting her face
close to his. "You boasted while I suffered and said nothing.
What has become of your greatness; of our greatness--you were
always speaking about? Now I am going to live on the charity of
your master. Yes. That is true. He sent Leonard to tell me so.
And you will go and boast somewhere else, and starve. So! Ah!
I can breathe now! This house is mine."
"Enough!" said Willems, slowly, with an arresting gesture.
She leaped back, the fright again in her eyes, snatched up the
child, pressed it to her breast, and, falling into a chair,
drummed insanely with her heels on the resounding floor of the
"I shall go," said Willems, steadily. "I thank you. For the
first time in your life you make me happy. You were a stone
round my neck; you understand. I did not mean to tell you that
as long as you lived, but you made me--now. Before I pass this
gate you shall be gone from my mind. You made it very easy. I
thank you."
He turned and went down the steps without giving her a glance,
while she sat upright and quiet, with wide-open eyes, the child
crying querulously in her arms. At the gate he came suddenly
upon Leonard, who had been dodging about there and failed to get
out of the way in time.
"Do not be brutal, Mr. Willems," said Leonard, hurriedly. "It is
unbecoming between white men with all those natives looking on."
Leonard's legs trembled very much, and his voice wavered between
high and low tones without any attempt at control on his part.
"Restrain your improper violence," he went on mumbling rapidly.
"I am a respectable man of very good family, while you . . . it
is regrettable . . . they all say so . . ."
"What?" thundered Willems. He felt a sudden impulse of mad
anger, and before he knew what had happened he was looking at
Leonard da Souza rolling in the dust at his feet. He stepped
over his prostrate brother-in-law and tore blindly down the
street, everybody making way for the frantic white man.
When he came to himself he was beyond the outskirts of the town,
stumbling on the hard and cracked earth of reaped rice fields.
How did he get there? It was dark. He must get back. As he
walked towards the town slowly, his mind reviewed the events of
the day and he felt a sense of bitter loneliness. His wife had
turned him out of his own house. He had assaulted brutally his
brother-in-law, a member of the Da Souza family--of that band of
his worshippers. He did. Well, no! It was some other man.
Another man was coming back. A man without a past, without a
future, yet full of pain and shame and anger. He stopped and
looked round. A dog or two glided across the empty street and
rushed past him with a frightened snarl. He was now in the midst
of the Malay quarter whose bamboo houses, hidden in the verdure
of their little gardens, were dark and silent. Men, women and
children slept in there. Human beings. Would he ever sleep, and
where? He felt as if he was the outcast of all mankind, and as
he looked hopelessly round, before resuming his weary march, it
seemed to him that the world was bigger, the night more vast and
more black; but he went on doggedly with his head down as if
pushing his way through some thick brambles. Then suddenly he
felt planks under his feet and, looking up, saw the red light at
the end of the jetty. He walked quite to the end and stood
leaning against the post, under the lamp, looking at the
roadstead where two vessels at anchor swayed their slender
rigging amongst the stars. The end of the jetty; and here in one
step more the end of life; the end of everything. Better so.
What else could he do? Nothing ever comes back. He saw it
clearly. The respect and admiration of them all, the old habits
and old affections finished abruptly in the clear perception of
the cause of his disgrace. He saw all this; and for a time he
came out of himself, out of his selfishness--out of the constant
preoccupation of his interests and his desires--out of the temple
of self and the concentration of personal thought.
His thoughts now wandered home. Standing in the tepid stillness
of a starry tropical night he felt the breath of the bitter east
wind, he saw the high and narrow fronts of tall houses under the
gloom of a clouded sky; and on muddy quays he saw the shabby,
high-shouldered figure--the patient, faded face of the weary man
earning bread for the children that waited for him in a dingy
home. It was miserable, miserable. But it would never come
back. What was there in common between those things and Willems
the clever, Willems the successful. He had cut himself adrift
from that home many years ago. Better for him then. Better for
them now. All this was gone, never to come back again; and
suddenly he shivered, seeing himself alone in the presence of
unknown and terrible dangers.
For the first time in his life he felt afraid of the future,
because he had lost his faith, the faith in his own success. And
he had destroyed it foolishly with his own hands!
His meditation which resembled slow drifting into suicide was
interrupted by Lingard, who, with a loud "I've got you at last!"
dropped his hand heavily on Willems' shoulder. This time it was
the old seaman himself going out of his way to pick up the
uninteresting waif--all that there was left of that sudden and
sordid shipwreck. To Willems, the rough, friendly voice was a
quick and fleeting relief followed by a sharper pang of anger and
unavailing regret. That voice carried him back to the beginning
of his promising career, the end of which was very visible now
from the jetty where they both stood. He shook himself free from
the friendly grasp, saying with ready bitterness--
"It's all your fault. Give me a push now, do, and send me over.
I have been standing here waiting for help. You are the man--of
all men. You helped at the beginning; you ought to have a hand
in the end."
"I have better use for you than to throw you to the fishes," said
Lingard, seriously, taking Willems by the arm and forcing him
gently to walk up the jetty. "I have been buzzing over this town
like a bluebottle fly, looking for you high and low. I have
heard a lot. I will tell you what, Willems; you are no saint,
that's a fact. And you have not been over-wise either. I am not
throwing stones," he added, hastily, as Willems made an effort to
get away, "but I am not going to mince matters. Never could!
You keep quiet while I talk. Can't you?"
With a gesture of resignation and a half-stifled groan Willems
submitted to the stronger will, and the two men paced slowly up
and down the resounding planks, while Lingard disclosed to
Willems the exact manner of his undoing. After the first shock
Willems lost the faculty of surprise in the over-powering feeling
of indignation. So it was Vinck and Leonard who had served him
so. They had watched him, tracked his misdeeds, reported them to
Hudig. They had bribed obscure Chinamen, wormed out confidences
from tipsy skippers, got at various boatmen, and had pieced out
in that way the story of his irregularities. The blackness of
this dark intrigue filled him with horror. He could understand
Vinck. There was no love lost between them. But Leonard!
"Why, Captain Lingard," he burst out, "the fellow licked my
"Yes, yes, yes," said Lingard, testily, "we know that, and you
did your best to cram your boot down his throat. No man likes
that, my boy."
"I was always giving money to all that hungry lot," went on
Willems, passionately. "Always my hand in my pocket. They never
had to ask twice."
"Just so. Your generosity frightened them. They asked
themselves where all that came from, and concluded that it was
safer to throw you overboard. After all, Hudig is a much greater
man than you, my friend, and they have a claim on him also."
"What do you mean, Captain Lingard?"
"What do I mean?" repeated Lingard, slowly. "Why, you are not
going to make me believe you did not know your wife was Hudig's
daughter. Come now!"
Willems stopped suddenly and swayed about.
"Ah! I understand," he gasped. "I never heard . . . Lately I
thought there was . . . But no, I never guessed."
"Oh, you simpleton!" said Lingard, pityingly. "'Pon my word," he
muttered to himself, "I don't believe the fellow knew. Well!
well! Steady now. Pull yourself together. What's wrong there.
She is a good wife to you."
"Excellent wife," said Willems, in a dreary voice, looking far
over the black and scintillating water.
"Very well then," went on Lingard, with increasing friendliness.
"Nothing wrong there. But did you really think that Hudig was
marrying you off and giving you a house and I don't know what,
out of love for you?"
"I had served him well," answered Willems. "How well, you know
yourself--through thick and thin. No matter what work and what
risk, I was always there; always ready."
How well he saw the greatness of his work and the immensity of
that injustice which was his reward. She was that man's daughter!
In the light of this disclosure the facts of the last five years
of his life stood clearly revealed in their full meaning. He had
spoken first to Joanna at the gate of their dwelling as he went
to his work in the brilliant flush of the early morning, when
women and flowers are charming even to the dullest eyes. A most
respectable family--two women and a young man--were his next-door
neighbours. Nobody ever came to their little house but the
priest, a native from the Spanish islands, now and then. The
young man Leonard he had met in town, and was flattered by the
little fellow's immense respect for the great Willems. He let
him bring chairs, call the waiters, chalk his cues when playing
billiards, express his admiration in choice words. He even
condescended to listen patiently to Leonard's allusions to "our
beloved father," a man of official position, a government agent
in Koti, where he died of cholera, alas! a victim to duty, like a
good Catholic, and a good man. It sounded very respectable, and
Willems approved of those feeling references. Moreover, he
prided himself upon having no colour-prejudices and no racial
antipathies. He consented to drink curacoa one afternoon on the
verandah of Mrs. da Souza's house. He remembered Joanna that
day, swinging in a hammock. She was untidy even then, he
remembered, and that was the only impression he carried away from
that visit. He had no time for love in those glorious days, no
time even for a passing fancy, but gradually he fell into the
habit of calling almost every day at that little house where he
was greeted by Mrs. da Souza's shrill voice screaming for Joanna
to come and entertain the gentleman from Hudig & Co. And then
the sudden and unexpected visit of the priest. He remembered the
man's flat, yellow face, his thin legs, his propitiatory smile,
his beaming black eyes, his conciliating manner, his veiled hints
which he did not understand at the time. How he wondered what
the man wanted, and how unceremoniously he got rid of him. And
then came vividly into his recollection the morning when he met
again that fellow coming out of Hudig's office, and how he was
amused at the incongruous visit. And that morning with Hudig!
Would he ever forget it? Would he ever forget his surprise as
the master, instead of plunging at once into business, looked at
him thoughtfully before turning, with a furtive smile, to the
papers on the desk? He could hear him now, his nose in the paper
before him, dropping astonishing words in the intervals of wheezy
"Heard said . . . called there often . . . most respectable
ladies . . . knew the father very well . . . estimable . . . best
thing for a young man . . . settle down. . . . Personally, very
glad to hear . . . thing arranged. . . . Suitable recognition of
valuable services. . . . Best thing--best thing to do."
And he believed! What credulity! What an ass! Hudig knew the
father! Rather. And so did everybody else probably; all except
himself. How proud he had been of Hudig's benevolent interest in
his fate! How proud he was when invited by Hudig to stay with
him at his little house in the country--where he could meet men,
men of official position--as a friend. Vinck had been green with
envy. Oh, yes! He had believed in the best thing, and took the
girl like a gift of fortune. How he boasted to Hudig of being
free from prejudices. The old scoundrel must have been laughing
in his sleeve at his fool of a confidential clerk. He took the
girl, guessing nothing. How could he? There had been a father
of some kind to the common knowledge. Men knew him; spoke about
him. A lank man of hopelessly mixed descent, but
otherwise--apparently--unobjectionable. The shady relations came
out afterward, but--with his freedom from prejudices--he did not
mind them, because, with their humble dependence, they completed
his triumphant life. Taken in! taken in! Hudig had found an
easy way to provide for the begging crowd. He had shifted the
burden of his youthful vagaries on to the shoulders of his
confidential clerk; and while he worked for the master, the
master had cheated him; had stolen his very self from him. He
was married. He belonged to that woman, no matter what she might
do! . . . Had sworn . . . for all life! . . . Thrown himself
away. . . . And that man dared this very morning call him a
thief! Damnation!
"Let go, Lingard!" he shouted, trying to get away by a sudden
jerk from the watchful old seaman. "Let me go and kill that . .
"No you don't!" panted Lingard, hanging on manfully. "You want
to kill, do you? You lunatic. Ah!--I've got you now! Be quiet,
I say!"
They struggled violently, Lingard forcing Willems slowly towards
the guard-rail. Under their feet the jetty sounded like a drum
in the quiet night. On the shore end the native caretaker of the
wharf watched the combat, squatting behind the safe shelter of
some big cases. The next day he informed his friends, with calm
satisfaction, that two drunken white men had fought on the jetty.
It had been a great fight. They fought without arms, like wild
beasts, after the manner of white men. No! nobody was killed, or
there would have been trouble and a report to make. How could he
know why they fought? White men have no reason when they are
like that.
Just as Lingard was beginning to fear that he would be unable to
restrain much longer the violence of the younger man, he felt
Willems' muscles relaxing, and took advantage of this opportunity
to pin him, by a last effort, to the rail. They both panted
heavily, speechless, their faces very close.
"All right," muttered Willems at last. "Don't break my back over
this infernal rail. I will be quiet."
"Now you are reasonable," said Lingard, much relieved. "What
made you fly into that passion?" he asked, leading him back to
the end of the jetty, and, still holding him prudently with one
hand, he fumbled with the other for his whistle and blew a shrill
and prolonged blast. Over the smooth water of the roadstead came
in answer a faint cry from one of the ships at anchor.
"My boat will be here directly," said Lingard. "Think of what
you are going to do. I sail to-night."
"What is there for me to do, except one thing?" said Willems,
"Look here," said Lingard; "I picked you up as a boy, and
consider myself responsible for you in a way. You took your life
into your own hands many years ago--but still . . ."
He paused, listening, till he heard the regular grind of the oars
in the rowlocks of the approaching boat then went on again.
"I have made it all right with Hudig. You owe him nothing now.
Go back to your wife. She is a good woman. Go back to her."
"Why, Captain Lingard," exclaimed Willems, "she . . ."
"It was most affecting," went on Lingard, without heeding him.
"I went to your house to look for you and there I saw her
despair. It was heart-breaking. She called for you; she
entreated me to find you. She spoke wildly, poor woman, as if
all this was her fault."
Willems listened amazed. The blind old idiot! How queerly he
misunderstood! But if it was true, if it was even true, the very
idea of seeing her filled his soul with intense loathing. He did
not break his oath, but he would not go back to her. Let hers be
the sin of that separation; of the sacred bond broken. He
revelled in the extreme purity of his heart, and he would not go
back to her. Let her come back to him. He had the comfortable
conviction that he would never see her again, and that through
her own fault only. In this conviction he told himself solemnly
that if she would come to him he would receive her with generous
forgiveness, because such was the praiseworthy solidity of his
principles. But he hesitated whether he would or would not
disclose to Lingard the revolting completeness of his
humiliation. Turned out of his house--and by his wife; that
woman who hardly dared to breathe in his presence, yesterday. He
remained perplexed and silent. No. He lacked the courage to
tell the ignoble story.
As the boat of the brig appeared suddenly on the black water
close to the jetty, Lingard broke the painful silence.
"I always thought," he said, sadly, "I always thought you were
somewhat heartless, Willems, and apt to cast adrift those that
thought most of you. I appeal to what is best in you; do not
abandon that woman."
"I have not abandoned her," answered Willems, quickly, with
conscious truthfulness. "Why should I? As you so justly
observed, she has been a good wife to me. A very good, quiet,
obedient, loving wife, and I love her as much as she loves me.
Every bit. But as to going back now, to that place where I . . .
To walk again amongst those men who yesterday were ready to crawl
before me, and then feel on my back the sting of their pitying or
satisfied smiles--no! I can't. I would rather hide from them at
the bottom of the sea," he went on, with resolute energy. "I
don't think, Captain Lingard," he added, more quietly, "I don't
think that you realize what my position was there."
In a wide sweep of his hand he took in the sleeping shore from
north to south, as if wishing it a proud and threatening
good-bye. For a short moment he forgot his downfall in the
recollection of his brilliant triumphs. Amongst the men of his
class and occupation who slept in those dark houses he had been
indeed the first.
"It is hard," muttered Lingard, pensively. "But whose the fault?
Whose the fault?"
"Captain Lingard!" cried Willems, under the sudden impulse of a
felicitous inspiration, "if you leave me here on this jetty--it's
murder. I shall never return to that place alive, wife or no
wife. You may just as well cut my throat at once."
The old seaman started.
"Don't try to frighten me, Willems," he said, with great
severity, and paused.
Above the accents of Willems' brazen despair he heard, with
considerable uneasiness, the whisper of his own absurd
conscience. He meditated for awhile with an irresolute air.
"I could tell you to go and drown yourself, and be damned to
you," he said, with an unsuccessful assumption of brutality in
his manner, "but I won't. We are responsible for one
another--worse luck. I am almost ashamed of myself, but I can
understand your dirty pride. I can! By . . ."
He broke off with a loud sigh and walked briskly to the steps, at
the bottom of which lay his boat, rising and falling gently on
the slight and invisible swell.
"Below there! Got a lamp in the boat? Well, light it and bring
it up, one of you. Hurry now!"
He tore out a page of his pocketbook, moistened his pencil with
great energy and waited, stamping his feet impatiently.
"I will see this thing through," he muttered to himself. "And I
will have it all square and ship-shape; see if I don't! Are you
going to bring that lamp, you son of a crippled mud-turtle? I am
The gleam of the light on the paper placated his professional
anger, and he wrote rapidly, the final dash of his signature
curling the paper up in a triangular tear.
"Take that to this white Tuan's house. I will send the boat back
for you in half an hour."
The coxswain raised his lamp deliberately to Willem's face.
"This Tuan? Tau! I know."
"Quick then!" said Lingard, taking the lamp from him--and the man
went off at a run.
"Kassi mem! To the lady herself," called Lingard after him.
Then, when the man disappeared, he turned to Willems.
"I have written to your wife," he said. "If you do not return
for good, you do not go back to that house only for another
parting. You must come as you stand. I won't have that poor
woman tormented. I will see to it that you are not separated for
long. Trust me!"
Willems shivered, then smiled in the darkness.
"No fear of that," he muttered, enigmatically. "I trust you
implicitly, Captain Lingard," he added, in a louder tone.
Lingard led the way down the steps, swinging the lamp and
speaking over his shoulder.
"It is the second time, Willems, I take you in hand. Mind it is
the last. The second time; and the only difference between then
and now is that you were bare-footed then and have boots now. In
fourteen years. With all your smartness! A poor result that. A
very poor result."
He stood for awhile on the lowest platform of the steps, the
light of the lamp falling on the upturned face of the stroke oar,
who held the gunwale of the boat close alongside, ready for the
captain to step in.
"You see," he went on, argumentatively, fumbling about the top of
the lamp, "you got yourself so crooked amongst those 'longshore
quill-drivers that you could not run clear in any way. That's
what comes of such talk as yours, and of such a life. A man sees
so much falsehood that he begins to lie to himself. Pah!" he
said, in disgust, "there's only one place for an honest man. The
sea, my boy, the sea! But you never would; didn't think there
was enough money in it; and now--look!"
He blew the light out, and, stepping into the boat, stretched
quickly his hand towards Willems, with friendly care. Willems
sat by him in silence, and the boat shoved off, sweeping in a
wide circle towards the brig.
"Your compassion is all for my wife, Captain Lingard," said
Willems, moodily. "Do you think I am so very happy?"
"No! no!" said Lingard, heartily. "Not a word more shall pass my
lips. I had to speak my mind once, seeing that I knew you from a
child, so to speak. And now I shall forget; but you are young
yet. Life is very long," he went on, with unconscious sadness;
"let this be a lesson to you."
He laid his hand affectionately on Willems' shoulder, and they
both sat silent till the boat came alongside the ship's ladder.
When on board Lingard gave orders to his mate, and leading
Willems on the poop, sat on the breech of one of the brass
six-pounders with which his vessel was armed. The boat went off
again to bring back the messenger. As soon as it was seen
returning dark forms appeared on the brig's spars; then the sails
fell in festoons with a swish of their heavy folds, and hung
motionless under the yards in the dead calm of the clear and dewy
night. From the forward end came the clink of the windlass, and
soon afterwards the hail of the chief mate informing Lingard that
the cable was hove short.
"Hold on everything," hailed back Lingard; "we must wait for the
land-breeze before we let go our hold of the ground."
He approached Willems, who sat on the skylight, his body bent
down, his head low, and his hands hanging listlessly between his
"I am going to take you to Sambir," he said. "You've never heard
of the place, have you? Well, it's up that river of mine about
which people talk so much and know so little. I've found out the
entrance for a ship of Flash's size. It isn't easy. You'll see.
I will show you. You have been at sea long enough to take an
interest. . . . Pity you didn't stick to it. Well, I am going
there. I have my own trading post in the place. Almayer is my
partner. You knew him when he was at Hudig's. Oh, he lives
there as happy as a king. D'ye see, I have them all in my
pocket. The rajah is an old friend of mine. My word is law--and
I am the only trader. No other white man but Almayer had ever
been in that settlement. You will live quietly there till I come
back from my next cruise to the westward. We shall see then what
can be done for you. Never fear. I have no doubt my secret will
be safe with you. Keep mum about my river when you get amongst
the traders again. There's many would give their ears for the
knowledge of it. I'll tell you something: that's where I get all
my guttah and rattans. Simply inexhaustible, my boy."
While Lingard spoke Willems looked up quickly, but soon his head
fell on his breast in the discouraging certitude that the
knowledge he and Hudig had wished for so much had come to him too
late. He sat in a listless attitude.
"You will help Almayer in his trading if you have a heart for
it," continued Lingard, "just to kill time till I come back for
you. Only six weeks or so."
Over their heads the damp sails fluttered noisily in the first
faint puff of the breeze; then, as the airs freshened, the brig
tended to the wind, and the silenced canvas lay quietly aback.
The mate spoke with low distinctness from the shadows of the
"There's the breeze. Which way do you want to cast her, Captain
Lingard's eyes, that had been fixed aloft, glanced down at the
dejected figure of the man sitting on the skylight. He seemed to
hesitate for a minute.
"To the northward, to the northward," he answered, testily, as if
annoyed at his own fleeting thought, "and bear a hand there.
Every puff of wind is worth money in these seas."
He remained motionless, listening to the rattle of blocks and the
creaking of trusses as the head-yards were hauled round. Sail
was made on the ship and the windlass manned again while he stood
still, lost in thought. He only roused himself when a barefooted
seacannie glided past him silently on his way to the wheel.
"Put the helm aport! Hard over!" he said, in his harsh
sea-voice, to the man whose face appeared suddenly out of the
darkness in the circle of light thrown upwards from the binnacle
The anchor was secured, the yards trimmed, and the brig began to
move out of the roadstead. The sea woke up under the push of the
sharp cutwater, and whispered softly to the gliding craft in that
tender and rippling murmur in which it speaks sometimes to those
it nurses and loves. Lingard stood by the taff-rail listening,
with a pleased smile till the Flash began to draw close to the
only other vessel in the anchorage.
"Here, Willems," he said, calling him to his side, "d'ye see that
barque here? That's an Arab vessel. White men have mostly given
up the game, but this fellow drops in my wake often, and lives in
hopes of cutting me out in that settlement. Not while I live, I
trust. You see, Willems, I brought prosperity to that place. I
composed their quarrels, and saw them grow under my eyes.
There's peace and happiness there. I am more master there than
his Dutch Excellency down in Batavia ever will be when some day a
lazy man-of-war blunders at last against the river. I mean to
keep the Arabs out of it, with their lies and their intrigues. I
shall keep the venomous breed out, if it costs me my fortune."
The Flash drew quietly abreast of the barque, and was beginning
to drop it astern when a white figure started up on the poop of
the Arab vessel, and a voice called out--
"Greeting to the Rajah Laut!"
"To you greeting!" answered Lingard, after a moment of hesitating
surprise. Then he turned to Willems with a grim smile. "That's
Abdulla's voice," he said. "Mighty civil all of a sudden, isn't
he? I wonder what it means. Just like his impudence! No
matter! His civility or his impudence are all one to me. I know
that this fellow will be under way and after me like a shot. I
don't care! I have the heels of anything that floats in these
seas," he added, while his proud and loving glance ran over and
rested fondly amongst the brig's lofty and graceful spars.
"It was the writing on his forehead," said Babalatchi, adding a
couple of small sticks to the little fire by which he was
squatting, and without looking at Lakamba who lay down supported
on his elbow on the other side of the embers. "It was written
when he was born that he should end his life in darkness, and now
he is like a man walking in a black night--with his eyes open,
yet seeing not. I knew him well when he had slaves, and many
wives, and much merchandise, and trading praus, and praus for
fighting. Hai--ya! He was a great fighter in the days before the
breath of the Merciful put out the light in his eyes. He was a
pilgrim, and had many virtues: he was brave, his hand was open,
and he was a great robber. For many years he led the men that
drank blood on the sea: first in prayer and first in fight! Have
I not stood behind him when his face was turned to the West?
Have I not watched by his side ships with high masts burning in a
straight flame on the calm water? Have I not followed him on
dark nights amongst sleeping men that woke up only to die? His
sword was swifter than the fire from Heaven, and struck before it
flashed. Hai! Tuan! Those were the days and that was a leader,
and I myself was younger; and in those days there were not so
many fireships with guns that deal fiery death from afar. Over
the hill and over the forest--O! Tuan Lakamba! they dropped
whistling fireballs into the creek where our praus took refuge,
and where they dared not follow men who had arms in their hands."
He shook his head with mournful regret and threw another handful
of fuel on the fire. The burst of clear flame lit up his broad,
dark, and pock-marked face, where the big lips, stained with
betel-juice, looked like a deep and bleeding gash of a fresh
wound. The reflection of the firelight gleamed brightly in his
solitary eye, lending it for a moment a fierce animation that
died out together with the short-lived flame. With quick touches
of his bare hands he raked the embers into a heap, then, wiping
the warm ash on his waistcloth--his only garment--he clasped his
thin legs with his entwined fingers, and rested his chin on his
drawn-up knees. Lakamba stirred slightly without changing his
position or taking his eyes off the glowing coals, on which they
had been fixed in dreamy immobility.
"Yes," went on Babalatchi, in a low monotone, as if pursuing
aloud a train of thought that had its beginning in the silent
contemplation of the unstable nature of earthly greatness--"yes.
He has been rich and strong, and now he lives on alms: old,
feeble, blind, and without companions, but for his daughter. The
Rajah Patalolo gives him rice, and the pale woman--his
daughter--cooks it for him, for he has no slave."
"I saw her from afar," muttered Lakamba, disparagingly. "A
she-dog with white teeth, like a woman of the Orang-Putih."
"Right, right," assented Babalatchi; "but you have not seen her
near. Her mother was a woman from the west; a Baghdadi woman
with veiled face. Now she goes uncovered, like our women do, for
she is poor and he is blind, and nobody ever comes near them
unless to ask for a charm or a blessing and depart quickly for
fear of his anger and of the Rajah's hand. You have not been on
that side of the river?"
"Not for a long time. If I go . . ."
"True! true!" interrupted Babalatchi, soothingly, "but I go often
alone--for your good--and look--and listen. When the time comes;
when we both go together towards the Rajah's campong, it will be
to enter--and to remain."
Lakamba sat up and looked at Babalatchi gloomily.
"This is good talk, once, twice; when it is heard too often it
becomes foolish, like the prattle of children."
"Many, many times have I seen the cloudy sky and have heard the
wind of the rainy seasons," said Babalatchi, impressively.
"And where is your wisdom? It must be with the wind and the
clouds of seasons past, for I do not hear it in your talk."
"Those are the words of the ungrateful!" shouted Babalatchi, with
sudden exasperation. "Verily, our only refuge is with the One,
the Mighty, the Redresser of . . ."
"Peace! Peace!" growled the startled Lakamba. "It is but a
friend's talk."
Babalatchi subsided into his former attitude, muttering to
himself. After awhile he went on again in a louder voice--
"Since the Rajah Laut left another white man here in Sambir, the
daughter of the blind Omar el Badavi has spoken to other ears
than mine."
"Would a white man listen to a beggar's daughter?" said Lakamba,
"Hai! I have seen . . ."
"And what did you see? O one-eyed one!" exclaimed Lakamba,
"I have seen the strange white man walking on the narrow path
before the sun could dry the drops of dew on the bushes, and I
have heard the whisper of his voice when he spoke through the
smoke of the morning fire to that woman with big eyes and a pale
skin. Woman in body, but in heart a man! She knows no fear and
no shame. I have heard her voice too."
He nodded twice at Lakamba sagaciously and gave himself up to
silent musing, his solitary eye fixed immovably upon the straight
wall of forest on the opposite bank. Lakamba lay silent, staring
vacantly. Under them Lingard's own river rippled softly amongst
the piles supporting the bamboo platform of the little
watch-house before which they were lying. Behind the house the
ground rose in a gentle swell of a low hill cleared of the big
timber, but thickly overgrown with the grass and bushes, now
withered and burnt up in the long drought of the dry season.
This old rice clearing, which had been several years lying
fallow, was framed on three sides by the impenetrable and tangled
growth of the untouched forest, and on the fourth came down to
the muddy river bank. There was not a breath of wind on the land
or river, but high above, in the transparent sky, little clouds
rushed past the moon, now appearing in her diffused rays with the
brilliance of silver, now obscuring her face with the blackness
of ebony. Far away, in the middle of the river, a fish would
leap now and then with a short splash, the very loudness of which
measured the profundity of the overpowering silence that
swallowed up the sharp sound suddenly.
Lakamba dozed uneasily off, but the wakeful Babalatchi sat
thinking deeply, sighing from time to time, and slapping himself
over his naked torso incessantly in a vain endeavour to keep off
an occasional and wandering mosquito that, rising as high as the
platform above the swarms of the riverside, would settle with a
ping of triumph on the unexpected victim. The moon, pursuing her
silent and toilsome path, attained her highest elevation, and
chasing the shadow of the roof-eaves from Lakamba's face, seemed
to hang arrested over their heads. Babalatchi revived the fire
and woke up his companion, who sat up yawning and shivering
Babalatchi spoke again in a voice which was like the murmur of a
brook that runs over the stones: low, monotonous, persistent;
irresistible in its power to wear out and to destroy the hardest
obstacles. Lakamba listened, silent but interested. They were
Malay adventurers; ambitious men of that place and time; the
Bohemians of their race. In the early days of the settlement,
before the ruler Patalolo had shaken off his allegiance to the
Sultan of Koti, Lakamba appeared in the river with two small
trading vessels. He was disappointed to find already some
semblance of organization amongst the settlers of various races
who recognized the unobtrusive sway of old Patalolo, and he was
not politic enough to conceal his disappointment. He declared
himself to be a man from the east, from those parts where no
white man ruled, and to be of an oppressed race, but of a
princely family. And truly enough he had all the gifts of an
exiled prince. He was discontented, ungrateful, turbulent; a man
full of envy and ready for intrigue, with brave words and empty
promises for ever on his lips. He was obstinate, but his will
was made up of short impulses that never lasted long enough to
carry him to the goal of his ambition. Received coldly by the
suspicious Patalolo, he persisted--permission or no
permission--in clearing the ground on a good spot some fourteen
miles down the river from Sambir, and built himself a house
there, which he fortified by a high palisade. As he had many
followers and seemed very reckless, the old Rajah did not think
it prudent at the time to interfere with him by force. Once
settled, he began to intrigue. The quarrel of Patalolo with the
Sultan of Koti was of his fomenting, but failed to produce the
result he expected because the Sultan could not back him up
effectively at such a great distance. Disappointed in that
scheme, he promptly organized an outbreak of the Bugis settlers,
and besieged the old Rajah in his stockade with much noisy valour
and a fair chance of success; but Lingard then appeared on the
scene with the armed brig, and the old seaman's hairy forefinger,
shaken menacingly in his face, quelled his martial ardour. No
man cared to encounter the Rajah Laut, and Lakamba, with
momentary resignation, subsided into a half-cultivator,
half-trader, and nursed in his fortified house his wrath and his
ambition, keeping it for use on a more propitious occasion.
Still faithful to his character of a prince-pretender, he would
not recognize the constituted authorities, answering sulkily the
Rajah's messenger, who claimed the tribute for the cultivated
fields, that the Rajah had better come and take it himself. By
Lingard's advice he was left alone, notwithstanding his
rebellious mood; and for many days he lived undisturbed amongst
his wives and retainers, cherishing that persistent and causeless
hope of better times, the possession of which seems to be the
universal privilege of exiled greatness.
But the passing days brought no change. The hope grew faint and
the hot ambition burnt itself out, leaving only a feeble and
expiring spark amongst a heap of dull and tepid ashes of indolent
acquiescence with the decrees of Fate, till Babalatchi fanned it
again into a bright flame. Babalatchi had blundered upon the
river while in search of a safe refuge for his disreputable head.
He was a vagabond of the seas, a true Orang-Laut, living by
rapine and plunder of coasts and ships in his prosperous days;
earning his living by honest and irksome toil when the days of
adversity were upon him. So, although at times leading the Sulu
rovers, he had also served as Serang of country ships, and in
that wise had visited the distant seas, beheld the glories of
Bombay, the might of the Mascati Sultan; had even struggled in a
pious throng for the privilege of touching with his lips the
Sacred Stone of the Holy City. He gathered experience and wisdom
in many lands, and after attaching himself to Omar el Badavi, he
affected great piety (as became a pilgrim), although unable to
read the inspired words of the Prophet. He was brave and
bloodthirsty without any affection, and he hated the white men
who interfered with the manly pursuits of throat-cutting,
kidnapping, slave-dealing, and fire-raising, that were the only
possible occupation for a true man of the sea. He found favour
in the eyes of his chief, the fearless Omar el Badavi, the leader
of Brunei rovers, whom he followed with unquestioning loyalty
through the long years of successful depredation. And when that
long career of murder, robbery and violence received its first
serious check at the hands of white men, he stood faithfully by
his chief, looked steadily at the bursting shells, was undismayed
by the flames of the burning stronghold, by the death of his
companions, by the shrieks of their women, the wailing of their
children; by the sudden ruin and destruction of all that he
deemed indispensable to a happy and glorious existence. The
beaten ground between the houses was slippery with blood, and the
dark mangroves of the muddy creeks were full of sighs of the
dying men who were stricken down before they could see their
enemy. They died helplessly, for into the tangled forest there
was no escape, and their swift praus, in which they had so often
scoured the coast and the seas, now wedged together in the narrow
creek, were burning fiercely. Babalatchi, with the clear
perception of the coming end, devoted all his energies to saving
if it was but only one of them. He succeeded in time. When the
end came in the explosion of the stored powder-barrels, he was
ready to look for his chief. He found him half dead and totally
blinded, with nobody near him but his daughter Aissa:--the sons
had fallen earlier in the day, as became men of their courage.
Helped by the girl with the steadfast heart, Babalatchi carried
Omar on board the light prau and succeeded in escaping, but with
very few companions only. As they hauled their craft into the
network of dark and silent creeks, they could hear the cheering
of the crews of the man-of-war's boats dashing to the attack of
the rover's village. Aissa, sitting on the high after-deck, her
father's blackened and bleeding head in her lap, looked up with
fearless eyes at Babalatchi. "They shall find only smoke, blood
and dead men, and women mad with fear there, but nothing else
living," she said, mournfully. Babalatchi, pressing with his
right hand the deep gash on his shoulder, answered sadly: "They
are very strong. When we fight with them we can only die. Yet,"
he added, menacingly--"some of us still live! Some of us still
For a short time he dreamed of vengeance, but his dream was
dispelled by the cold reception of the Sultan of Sulu, with whom
they sought refuge at first and who gave them only a contemptuous
and grudging hospitality. While Omar, nursed by Aissa, was
recovering from his wounds, Babalatchi attended industriously
before the exalted Presence that had extended to them the hand of
Protection. For all that, when Babalatchi spoke into the
Sultan's ear certain proposals of a great and profitable raid,
that was to sweep the islands from Ternate to Acheen, the Sultan
was very angry. "I know you, you men from the west," he
exclaimed, angrily. "Your words are poison in a Ruler's ears.
Your talk is of fire and murder and booty--but on our heads falls
the vengeance of the blood you drink. Begone!"
There was nothing to be done. Times were changed. So changed
that, when a Spanish frigate appeared before the island and a
demand was sent to the Sultan to deliver Omar and his companions,
Babalatchi was not surprised to hear that they were going to be
made the victims of political expediency. But from that sane
appreciation of danger to tame submission was a very long step.
And then began Omar's second flight. It began arms in hand, for
the little band had to fight in the night on the beach for the
possession of the small canoes in which those that survived got
away at last. The story of that escape lives in the hearts of
brave men even to this day. They talk of Babalatchi and of the
strong woman who carried her blind father through the surf under
the fire of the warship from the north. The companions of that
piratical and son-less Aeneas are dead now, but their ghosts
wander over the waters and the islands at night--after the manner
of ghosts--and haunt the fires by which sit armed men, as is meet
for the spirits of fearless warriors who died in battle. There
they may hear the story of their own deeds, of their own courage,
suffering and death, on the lips of living men. That story is
told in many places. On the cool mats in breezy verandahs of
Rajahs' houses it is alluded to disdainfully by impassive
statesmen, but amongst armed men that throng the courtyards it is
a tale which stills the murmur of voices and the tinkle of
anklets; arrests the passage of the siri-vessel, and fixes the
eyes in absorbed gaze. They talk of the fight, of the fearless
woman, of the wise man; of long suffering on the thirsty sea in
leaky canoes; of those who died. . . . Many died. A few
survived. The chief, the woman, and another one who became
There was no hint of incipient greatness in Babalatchi's
unostentatious arrival in Sambir. He came with Omar and Aissa in
a small prau loaded with green cocoanuts, and claimed the
ownership of both vessel and cargo. How it came to pass that
Babalatchi, fleeing for his life in a small canoe, managed to end
his hazardous journey in a vessel full of a valuable commodity,
is one of those secrets of the sea that baffle the most searching
inquiry. In truth nobody inquired much. There were rumours of a
missing trading prau belonging to Menado, but they were vague and
remained mysterious. Babalatchi told a story which--it must be
said in justice to Patalolo's knowledge of the world--was not
believed. When the Rajah ventured to state his doubts,
Babalatchi asked him in tones of calm remonstrance whether he
could reasonably suppose that two oldish men--who had only one
eye amongst them--and a young woman were likely to gain
possession of anything whatever by violence? Charity was a
virtue recommended by the Prophet. There were charitable people,
and their hand was open to the deserving. Patalolo wagged his
aged head doubtingly, and Babalatchi withdrew with a shocked mien
and put himself forthwith under Lakamba's protection. The two
men who completed the prau's crew followed him into that
magnate's campong. The blind Omar, with Aissa, remained under
the care of the Rajah, and the Rajah confiscated the cargo. The
prau hauled up on the mud-bank, at the junction of the two
branches of the Pantai, rotted in the rain, warped in the sun,
fell to pieces and gradually vanished into the smoke of household
fires of the settlement. Only a forgotten plank and a rib or
two, sticking neglected in the shiny ooze for a long time, served
to remind Babalatchi during many months that he was a stranger in
the land.
Otherwise, he felt perfectly at home in Lakamba's establishment,
where his peculiar position and influence were quickly recognized
and soon submitted to even by the women. He had all a true
vagabond's pliability to circumstances and adaptiveness to
momentary surroundings. In his readiness to learn from
experience that contempt for early principles so necessary to a
true statesman, he equalled the most successful politicians of
any age; and he had enough persuasiveness and firmness of purpose
to acquire a complete mastery over Lakamba's vacillating
mind--where there was nothing stable but an all-pervading
discontent. He kept the discontent alive, he rekindled the
expiring ambition, he moderated the poor exile's not unnatural
impatience to attain a high and lucrative position. He--the man
of violence--deprecated the use of force, for he had a clear
comprehension of the difficult situation. From the same cause,
he--the hater of white men--would to some extent admit the
eventual expediency of Dutch protection. But nothing should be
done in a hurry. Whatever his master Lakamba might think, there
was no use in poisoning old Patalolo, he maintained. It could be
done, of course; but what then? As long as Lingard's influence
was paramount--as long as Almayer, Lingard's representative, was
the only great trader of the settlement, it was not worth
Lakamba's while--even if it had been possible--to grasp the rule
of the young state. Killing Almayer and Lingard was so difficult
and so risky that it might be dismissed as impracticable. What
was wanted was an alliance; somebody to set up against the white
men's influence--and somebody who, while favourable to Lakamba,
would at the same time be a person of a good standing with the
Dutch authorities. A rich and considered trader was wanted.
Such a person once firmly established in Sambir would help them
to oust the old Rajah, to remove him from power or from life if
there was no other way. Then it would be time to apply to the
Orang Blanda for a flag; for a recognition of their meritorious
services; for that protection which would make them safe for
ever! The word of a rich and loyal trader would mean something
with the Ruler down in Batavia. The first thing to do was to
find such an ally and to induce him to settle in Sambir. A white
trader would not do. A white man would not fall in with their
ideas--would not be trustworthy. The man they wanted should be
rich, unscrupulous, have many followers, and be a well-known
personality in the islands. Such a man might be found amongst
the Arab traders. Lingard's jealousy, said Babalatchi, kept all
the traders out of the river. Some were afraid, and some did not
know how to get there; others ignored the very existence of
Sambir; a good many did not think it worth their while to run the
risk of Lingard's enmity for the doubtful advantage of trade with
a comparatively unknown settlement. The great majority were
undesirable or untrustworthy. And Babalatchi mentioned
regretfully the men he had known in his young days: wealthy,
resolute, courageous, reckless, ready for any enterprise! But
why lament the past and speak about the dead? There is one
man--living--great--not far off . . .
Such was Babalatchi's line of policy laid before his ambitious
protector. Lakamba assented, his only objection being that it
was very slow work. In his extreme desire to grasp dollars and
power, the unintellectual exile was ready to throw himself into
the arms of any wandering cut-throat whose help could be secured,
and Babalatchi experienced great difficulty in restraining him
from unconsidered violence. It would not do to let it be seen
that they had any hand in introducing a new element into the
social and political life of Sambir. There was always a
possibility of failure, and in that case Lingard's vengeance
would be swift and certain. No risk should be run. They must
Meantime he pervaded the settlement, squatting in the course of
each day by many household fires, testing the public temper and
public opinion--and always talking about his impending departure.
At night he would often take Lakamba's smallest canoe and depart
silently to pay mysterious visits to his old chief on the other
side of the river. Omar lived in odour of sanctity under the
wing of Patalolo. Between the bamboo fence, enclosing the houses
of the Rajah, and the wild forest, there was a banana plantation,
and on its further edge stood two little houses built on low
piles under a few precious fruit trees that grew on the banks of
a clear brook, which, bubbling up behind the house, ran in its
short and rapid course down to the big river. Along the brook a
narrow path led through the dense second growth of a neglected
clearing to the banana plantation and to the houses in it which
the Rajah had given for residence to Omar. The Rajah was greatly
impressed by Omar's ostentatious piety, by his oracular wisdom,
by his many misfortunes, by the solemn fortitude with which he
bore his affliction. Often the old ruler of Sambir would visit
informally the blind Arab and listen gravely to his talk during
the hot hours of an afternoon. In the night, Babalatchi would
call and interrupt Omar's repose, unrebuked. Aissa, standing
silently at the door of one of the huts, could see the two old
friends as they sat very still by the fire in the middle of the
beaten ground between the two houses, talking in an indistinct
murmur far into the night. She could not hear their words, but
she watched the two formless shadows curiously. Finally
Babalatchi would rise and, taking her father by the wrist, would
lead him back to the house, arrange his mats for him, and go out
quietly. Instead of going away, Babalatchi, unconscious of
Aissa's eyes, often sat again by the fire, in a long and deep
meditation. Aissa looked with respect on that wise and brave
man--she was accustomed to see at her father's side as long as
she could remember--sitting alone and thoughtful in the silent
night by the dying fire, his body motionless and his mind
wandering in the land of memories, or--who knows?--perhaps
groping for a road in the waste spaces of the uncertain future.
Babalatchi noted the arrival of Willems with alarm at this new
accession to the white men's strength. Afterwards he changed his
opinion. He met Willems one night on the path leading to Omar's
house, and noticed later on, with only a moderate surprise, that
the blind Arab did not seem to be aware of the new white man's
visits to the neighbourhood of his dwelling. Once, coming
unexpectedly in the daytime, Babalatchi fancied he could see the
gleam of a white jacket in the bushes on the other side of the
brook. That day he watched Aissa pensively as she moved about
preparing the evening rice; but after awhile he went hurriedly
away before sunset, refusing Omar's hospitable invitation, in the
name of Allah, to share their meal. That same evening he
startled Lakamba by announcing that the time had come at last to
make the first move in their long-deferred game. Lakamba asked
excitedly for explanation. Babalatchi shook his head and pointed
to the flitting shadows of moving women and to the vague forms of
men sitting by the evening fires in the courtyard. Not a word
would he speak here, he declared. But when the whole household
was reposing, Babalatchi and Lakamba passed silent amongst
sleeping groups to the riverside, and, taking a canoe, paddled
off stealthily on their way to the dilapidated guard-hut in the
old rice-clearing. There they were safe from all eyes and ears,
and could account, if need be, for their excursion by the wish to
kill a deer, the spot being well known as the drinking-place of
all kinds of game. In the seclusion of its quiet solitude
Babalatchi explained his plan to the attentive Lakamba. His idea
was to make use of Willems for the destruction of Lingard's
"I know the white men, Tuan," he said, in conclusion. "In many
lands have I seen them; always the slaves of their desires,
always ready to give up their strength and their reason into the
hands of some woman. The fate of the Believers is written by the
hand of the Mighty One, but they who worship many gods are thrown
into the world with smooth foreheads, for any woman's hand to
mark their destruction there. Let one white man destroy another.
The will of the Most High is that they should be fools. They
know how to keep faith with their enemies, but towards each other
they know only deception. Hai! I have seen! I have seen!"
He stretched himself full length before the fire, and closed his
eye in real or simulated sleep. Lakamba, not quite convinced,
sat for a long time with his gaze riveted on the dull embers. As
the night advanced, a slight white mist rose from the river, and
the declining moon, bowed over the tops of the forest, seemed to
seek the repose of the earth, like a wayward and wandering lover
who returns at last to lay his tired and silent head on his
beloved's breast.
"Lend me your gun, Almayer," said Willems, across the table on
which a smoky lamp shone redly above the disorder of a finished
meal. "I have a mind to go and look for a deer when the moon
rises to-night."
Almayer, sitting sidewise to the table, his elbow pushed amongst
the dirty plates, his chin on his breast and his legs stretched
stiffly out, kept his eyes steadily on the toes of his grass
slippers and laughed abruptly.
"You might say yes or no instead of making that unpleasant
noise," remarked Willems, with calm irritation.
"If I believed one word of what you say, I would," answered
Almayer without changing his attitude and speaking slowly, with
pauses, as if dropping his words on the floor. "As it is--what's
the use? You know where the gun is; you may take it or leave it.
Gun. Deer. Bosh! Hunt deer! Pah! It's a . . . gazelle you
after, my honoured guest. You want gold anklets and silk sarongs
for that game--my mighty hunter. And you won't get those for the
asking, I promise you. All day amongst the natives. A fine help
you are to me."
"You shouldn't drink so much, Almayer," said Willems, disguising
his fury under an affected drawl. "You have no head. Never had,
as far as I can remember, in the old days in Macassar. You drink
too much."
"I drink my own," retorted Almayer, lifting his head quickly and
darting an angry glance at Willems.
Those two specimens of the superior race glared at each other
savagely for a minute, then turned away their heads at the same
moment as if by previous arrangement, and both got up. Almayer
kicked off his slippers and scrambled into his hammock, which
hung between two wooden columns of the verandah so as to catch
every rare breeze of the dry season, and Willems, after standing
irresolutely by the table for a short time, walked without a word
down the steps of the house and over the courtyard towards the
little wooden jetty, where several small canoes and a couple of
big white whale-boats were made fast, tugging at their short
painters and bumping together in the swift current of the river.
He jumped into the smallest canoe, balancing himself clumsily,
slipped the rattan painter, and gave an unnecessary and violent
shove, which nearly sent him headlong overboard. By the time he
regained his balance the canoe had drifted some fifty yards down
the river. He knelt in the bottom of his little craft and fought
the current with long sweeps of the paddle. Almayer sat up in
his hammock, grasping his feet and peering over the river with
parted lips till he made out the shadowy form of man and canoe as
they struggled past the jetty again.
"I thought you would go," he shouted. "Won't you take the gun?
Hey?" he yelled, straining his voice. Then he fell back in his
hammock and laughed to himself feebly till he fell asleep. On
the river, Willems, his eyes fixed intently ahead, swept his
paddle right and left, unheeding the words that reached him
It was now three months since Lingard had landed Willems in
Sambir and had departed hurriedly, leaving him in Almayer's care.
The two white men did not get on well together. Almayer,
remembering the time when they both served Hudig, and when the
superior Willems treated him with offensive condescension, felt a
great dislike towards his guest. He was also jealous of
Lingard's favour. Almayer had married a Malay girl whom the old
seaman had adopted in one of his accesses of unreasoning
benevolence, and as the marriage was not a happy one from a
domestic point of view, he looked to Lingard's fortune for
compensation in his matrimonial unhappiness. The appearance of
that man, who seemed to have a claim of some sort upon Lingard,
filled him with considerable uneasiness, the more so because the
old seaman did not choose to acquaint the husband of his adopted
daughter with Willems' history, or to confide to him his
intentions as to that individual's future fate. Suspicious from
the first, Almayer discouraged Willems' attempts to help him in
his trading, and then when Willems drew back, he made, with
characteristic perverseness, a grievance of his unconcern. From
cold civility in their relations, the two men drifted into silent
hostility, then into outspoken enmity, and both wished ardently
for Lingard's return and the end of a situation that grew more
intolerable from day to day. The time dragged slowly. Willems
watched the succeeding sunrises wondering dismally whether before
the evening some change would occur in the deadly dullness of his
life. He missed the commercial activity of that existence which
seemed to him far off, irreparably lost, buried out of sight
under the ruins of his past success--now gone from him beyond the
possibility of redemption. He mooned disconsolately about
Almayer's courtyard, watching from afar, with uninterested eyes,
the up-country canoes discharging guttah or rattans, and loading
rice or European goods on the little wharf of Lingard & Co. Big
as was the extent of ground owned by Almayer, Willems yet felt
that there was not enough room for him inside those neat fences.
The man who, during long years, became accustomed to think of
himself as indispensable to others, felt a bitter and savage rage
at the cruel consciousness of his superfluity, of his
uselessness; at the cold hostility visible in every look of the
only white man in this barbarous corner of the world. He gnashed
his teeth when he thought of the wasted days, of the life thrown
away in the unwilling company of that peevish and suspicious
fool. He heard the reproach of his idleness in the murmurs of
the river, in the unceasing whisper of the great forests. Round
him everything stirred, moved, swept by in a rush; the earth
under his feet and the heavens above his head. The very savages
around him strove, struggled, fought, worked--if only to prolong
a miserable existence; but they lived, they lived! And it was
only himself that seemed to be left outside the scheme of
creation in a hopeless immobility filled with tormenting anger
and with ever-stinging regret.
He took to wandering about the settlement. The afterwards
flourishing Sambir was born in a swamp and passed its youth in
malodorous mud. The houses crowded the bank, and, as if to get
away from the unhealthy shore, stepped boldly into the river,
shooting over it in a close row of bamboo platforms elevated on
high piles, amongst which the current below spoke in a soft and
unceasing plaint of murmuring eddies. There was only one path in
the whole town and it ran at the back of the houses along the
succession of blackened circular patches that marked the place of
the household fires. On the other side the virgin forest
bordered the path, coming close to it, as if to provoke
impudently any passer-by to the solution of the gloomy problem of
its depths. Nobody would accept the deceptive challenge. There
were only a few feeble attempts at a clearing here and there, but
the ground was low and the river, retiring after its yearly
floods, left on each a gradually diminishing mudhole, where the
imported buffaloes of the Bugis settlers wallowed happily during
the heat of the day. When Willems walked on the path, the
indolent men stretched on the shady side of the houses looked at
him with calm curiosity, the women busy round the cooking fires
would send after him wondering and timid glances, while the
children would only look once, and then run away yelling with
fright at the horrible appearance of the man with a red and white
face. These manifestations of childish disgust and fear stung
Willems with a sense of absurd humiliation; he sought in his
walks the comparative solitude of the rudimentary clearings, but
the very buffaloes snorted with alarm at his sight, scrambled
lumberingly out of the cool mud and stared wildly in a compact
herd at him as he tried to slink unperceived along the edge of
the forest. One day, at some unguarded and sudden movement of
his, the whole herd stampeded down the path, scattered the fires,
sent the women flying with shrill cries, and left behind a track
of smashed pots, trampled rice, overturned children, and a crowd
of angry men brandishing sticks in loud-voiced pursuit. The
innocent cause of that disturbance ran shamefacedly the gauntlet
of black looks and unfriendly remarks, and hastily sought refuge
in Almayer's campong. After that he left the settlement alone.
Later, when the enforced confinement grew irksome, Willems took
one of Almayer's many canoes and crossed the main branch of the
Pantai in search of some solitary spot where he could hide his
discouragement and his weariness. He skirted in his little craft
the wall of tangled verdure, keeping in the dead water close to
the bank where the spreading nipa palms nodded their broad leaves
over his head as if in contemptuous pity of the wandering
outcast. Here and there he could see the beginnings of
chopped-out pathways, and, with the fixed idea of getting out of
sight of the busy river, he would land and follow the narrow and
winding path, only to find that it led nowhere, ending abruptly
in the discouragement of thorny thickets. He would go back
slowly, with a bitter sense of unreasonable disappointment and
sadness; oppressed by the hot smell of earth, dampness, and decay
in that forest which seemed to push him mercilessly back into the
glittering sunshine of the river. And he would recommence
paddling with tired arms to seek another opening, to find another
As he paddled up to the point where the Rajah's stockade came
down to the river, the nipas were left behind rattling their
leaves over the brown water, and the big trees would appear on
the bank, tall, strong, indifferent in the immense solidity of
their life, which endures for ages, to that short and fleeting
life in the heart of the man who crept painfully amongst their
shadows in search of a refuge from the unceasing reproach of his
thoughts. Amongst their smooth trunks a clear brook meandered
for a time in twining lacets before it made up its mind to take a
leap into the hurrying river, over the edge of the steep bank.
There was also a pathway there and it seemed frequented. Willems
landed, and following the capricious promise of the track soon
found himself in a comparatively clear space, where the confused
tracery of sunlight fell through the branches and the foliage
overhead, and lay on the stream that shone in an easy curve like
a bright sword-blade dropped amongst the long and feathery grass.
Further on, the path continued, narrowed again in the thick
undergrowth. At the end of the first turning Willems saw a flash
of white and colour, a gleam of gold like a sun-ray lost in
shadow, and a vision of blackness darker than the deepest shade
of the forest. He stopped, surprised, and fancied he had heard
light footsteps--growing lighter--ceasing. He looked around.
The grass on the bank of the stream trembled and a tremulous path
of its shivering, silver-grey tops ran from the water to the
beginning of the thicket. And yet there was not a breath of
wind. Somebody kind passed there. He looked pensive while the
tremor died out in a quick tremble under his eyes; and the grass
stood high, unstirring, with drooping heads in the warm and
motionless air.
He hurried on, driven by a suddenly awakened curiosity, and
entered the narrow way between the bushes. At the next turn of
the path he caught again the glimpse of coloured stuff and of a
woman's black hair before him. He hastened his pace and came in
full view of the object of his pursuit. The woman, who was
carrying two bamboo vessels full of water, heard his footsteps,
stopped, and putting the bamboos down half turned to look back.
Willems also stood still for a minute, then walked steadily on
with a firm tread, while the woman moved aside to let him pass.
He kept his eyes fixed straight before him, yet almost
unconsciously he took in every detail of the tall and graceful
figure. As he approached her the woman tossed her head slightly
back, and with a free gesture of her strong, round arm, caught up
the mass of loose black hair and brought it over her shoulder and
across the lower part of her face. The next moment he was
passing her close, walking rigidly, like a man in a trance. He
heard her rapid breathing and he felt the touch of a look darted
at him from half-open eyes. It touched his brain and his heart
together. It seemed to him to be something loud and stirring
like a shout, silent and penetrating like an inspiration. The
momentum of his motion carried him past her, but an invisible
force made up of surprise and curiosity and desire spun him round
as soon as he had passed.
She had taken up her burden already, with the intention of
pursuing her path. His sudden movement arrested her at the first
step, and again she stood straight, slim, expectant, with a
readiness to dart away suggested in the light immobility of her
pose. High above, the branches of the trees met in a transparent
shimmer of waving green mist, through which the rain of yellow
rays descended upon her head, streamed in glints down her black
tresses, shone with the changing glow of liquid metal on her
face, and lost itself in vanishing sparks in the sombre depths of
her eyes that, wide open now, with enlarged pupils, looked
steadily at the man in her path. And Willems stared at her,
charmed with a charm that carries with it a sense of irreparable
loss, tingling with that feeling which begins like a caress and
ends in a blow, in that sudden hurt of a new emotion making its
way into a human heart, with the brusque stirring of sleeping
sensations awakening suddenly to the rush of new hopes, new
fears, new desires--and to the flight of one's old self.
She moved a step forward and again halted. A breath of wind that
came through the trees, but in Willems' fancy seemed to be driven
by her moving figure, rippled in a hot wave round his body and
scorched his face in a burning touch. He drew it in with a long
breath, the last long breath of a soldier before the rush of
battle, of a lover before he takes in his arms the adored woman;
the breath that gives courage to confront the menace of death or
the storm of passion.
Who was she? Where did she come from? Wonderingly he took his
eyes off her face to look round at the serried trees of the
forest that stood big and still and straight, as if watching him
and her breathlessly. He had been baffled, repelled, almost
frightened by the intensity of that tropical life which wants the
sunshine but works in gloom; which seems to be all grace of
colour and form, all brilliance, all smiles, but is only the
blossoming of the dead; whose mystery holds the promise of joy
and beauty, yet contains nothing but poison and decay. He had
been frightened by the vague perception of danger before, but
now, as he looked at that life again, his eyes seemed able to
pierce the fantastic veil of creepers and leaves, to look past
the solid trunks, to see through the forbidding gloom--and the
mystery was disclosed--enchanting, subduing, beautiful. He
looked at the woman. Through the checkered light between them
she appeared to him with the impalpable distinctness of a dream.
The very spirit of that land of mysterious forests, standing
before him like an apparition behind a transparent veil--a veil
woven of sunbeams and shadows.
She had approached him still nearer. He felt a strange
impatience within him at her advance. Confused thoughts rushed
through his head, disordered, shapeless, stunning. Then he heard
his own voice asking--
"Who are you?"
"I am the daughter of the blind Omar," she answered, in a low but
steady tone. "And you," she went on, a little louder, "you are
the white trader--the great man of this place."
"Yes," said Willems, holding her eyes with his in a sense of
extreme effort, "Yes, I am white." Then he added, feeling as if
he spoke about some other man, "But I am the outcast of my
She listened to him gravely. Through the mesh of scattered hair
her face looked like the face of a golden statue with living
eyes. The heavy eyelids dropped slightly, and from between the
long eyelashes she sent out a sidelong look: hard, keen, and
narrow, like the gleam of sharp steel. Her lips were firm and
composed in a graceful curve, but the distended nostrils, the
upward poise of the half-averted head, gave to her whole person
the expression of a wild and resentful defiance.
A shadow passed over Willems' face. He put his hand over his
lips as if to keep back the words that wanted to come out in a
surge of impulsive necessity, the outcome of dominant thought
that rushes from the heart to the brain and must be spoken in the
face of doubt, of danger, of fear, of destruction itself.
"You are beautiful," he whispered.
She looked at him again with a glance that running in one quick
flash of her eyes over his sunburnt features, his broad
shoulders, his straight, tall, motionless figure, rested at last
on the ground at his feet. Then she smiled. In the sombre
beauty of her face that smile was like the first ray of light on
a stormy daybreak that darts evanescent and pale through the
gloomy clouds: the forerunner of sunrise and of thunder.
There are in our lives short periods which hold no place in
memory but only as the recollection of a feeling. There is no
remembrance of gesture, of action, of any outward manifestation
of life; those are lost in the unearthly brilliance or in the
unearthly gloom of such moments. We are absorbed in the
contemplation of that something, within our bodies, which
rejoices or suffers while the body goes on breathing,
instinctively runs away or, not less instinctively,
fights--perhaps dies. But death in such a moment is the
privilege of the fortunate, it is a high and rare favour, a
supreme grace.
Willems never remembered how and when he parted from Aissa. He
caught himself drinking the muddy water out of the hollow of his
hand, while his canoe was drifting in mid-stream past the last
houses of Sambir. With his returning wits came the fear of
something unknown that had taken possession of his heart, of
something inarticulate and masterful which could not speak and
would be obeyed. His first impulse was that of revolt. He would
never go back there. Never! He looked round slowly at the
brilliance of things in the deadly sunshine and took up his
paddle! How changed everything seemed! The river was broader,
the sky was higher. How fast the canoe flew under the strokes of
his paddle! Since when had he acquired the strength of two men
or more? He looked up and down the reach at the forests of the
bank with a confused notion that with one sweep of his hand he
could tumble all these trees into the stream. His face felt
burning. He drank again, and shuddered with a depraved sense of
pleasure at the after-taste of slime in the water.
It was late when he reached Almayer's house, but he crossed the
dark and uneven courtyard, walking lightly in the radiance of
some light of his own, invisible to other eyes. His host's sulky
greeting jarred him like a sudden fall down a great height. He
took his place at the table opposite Almayer and tried to speak
cheerfully to his gloomy companion, but when the meal was ended
and they sat smoking in silence he felt an abrupt discouragement,
a lassitude in all his limbs, a sense of immense sadness as after
some great and irreparable loss. The darkness of the night
entered his heart, bringing with it doubt and hesitation and dull
anger with himself and all the world. He had an impulse to shout
horrible curses, to quarrel with Almayer, to do something
violent. Quite without any immediate provocation he thought he
would like to assault the wretched, sulky beast. He glanced at
him ferociously from under his eyebrows. The unconscious Almayer
smoked thoughtfully, planning to-morrow's work probably. The
man's composure seemed to Willems an unpardonable insult. Why
didn't that idiot talk to-night when he wanted him to? . . . on
other nights he was ready enough to chatter. And such dull
nonsense too! And Willems, trying hard to repress his own
senseless rage, looked fixedly through the thick tobacco-smoke at
the stained tablecloth.
They retired early, as usual, but in the middle of the night
Willems leaped out of his hammock with a stifled execration and
ran down the steps into the courtyard. The two night watchmen,
who sat by a little fire talking together in a monotonous
undertone, lifted their heads to look wonderingly at the
discomposed features of the white man as he crossed the circle of
light thrown out by their fire. He disappeared in the darkness
and then came back again, passing them close, but with no sign of
consciousness of their presence on his face. Backwards and
forwards he paced, muttering to himself, and the two Malays,
after a short consultation in whispers left the fire quietly, not
thinking it safe to remain in the vicinity of a white man who
behaved in such a strange manner. They retired round the corner
of the godown and watched Willems curiously through the night,
till the short daybreak was followed by the sudden blaze of the
rising sun, and Almayer's establishment woke up to life and work.
As soon as he could get away unnoticed in the bustle of the busy
riverside, Willems crossed the river on his way to the place
where he had met Aissa. He threw himself down in the grass by
the side of the brook and listened for the sound of her
footsteps. The brilliant light of day fell through the irregular
opening in the high branches of the trees and streamed down,
softened, amongst the shadows of big trunks. Here and there a
narrow sunbeam touched the rugged bark of a tree with a golden
splash, sparkled on the leaping water of the brook, or rested on
a leaf that stood out, shimmering and distinct, on the monotonous
background of sombre green tints. The clear gap of blue above
his head was crossed by the quick flight of white rice-birds
whose wings flashed in the sunlight, while through it the heat
poured down from the sky, clung about the steaming earth, rolled
among the trees, and wrapped up Willems in the soft and odorous
folds of air heavy with the faint scent of blossoms and with the
acrid smell of decaying life. And in that atmosphere of Nature's
workshop Willems felt soothed and lulled into forgetfulness of
his past, into indifference as to his future. The recollections
of his triumphs, of his wrongs and of his ambition vanished in
that warmth, which seemed to melt all regrets, all hope, all
anger, all strength out of his heart. And he lay there, dreamily
contented, in the tepid and perfumed shelter, thinking of Aissa's
eyes; recalling the sound of her voice, the quiver of her
lips--her frowns and her smile.
She came, of course. To her he was something new, unknown and
strange. He was bigger, stronger than any man she had seen
before, and altogether different from all those she knew. He was
of the victorious race. With a vivid remembrance of the great
catastrophe of her life he appeared to her with all the
fascination of a great and dangerous thing; of a terror
vanquished, surmounted, made a plaything of. They spoke with
just such a deep voice--those victorious men; they looked with
just such hard blue eyes at their enemies. And she made that
voice speak softly to her, those eyes look tenderly at her face!
He was indeed a man. She could not understand all he told her of
his life, but the fragments she understood she made up for
herself into a story of a man great amongst his own people,
valorous and unfortunate; an undaunted fugitive dreaming of
vengeance against his enemies. He had all the attractiveness of
the vague and the unknown--of the unforeseen and of the sudden;
of a being strong, dangerous, alive, and human, ready to be
She felt that he was ready. She felt it with the unerring
intuition of a primitive woman confronted by a simple impulse.
Day after day, when they met and she stood a little way off,
listening to his words, holding him with her look, the undefined
terror of the new conquest became faint and blurred like the
memory of a dream, and the certitude grew distinct, and
convincing, and visible to the eyes like some material thing in
full sunlight. It was a deep joy, a great pride, a tangible
sweetness that seemed to leave the taste of honey on her lips.
He lay stretched at her feet without moving, for he knew from
experience how a slight movement of his could frighten her away
in those first days of their intercourse. He lay very quiet,
with all the ardour of his desire ringing in his voice and
shining in his eyes, whilst his body was still, like death
itself. And he looked at her, standing above him, her head lost
in the shadow of broad and graceful leaves that touched her
cheek; while the slender spikes of pale green orchids streamed
down from amongst the boughs and mingled with the black hair that
framed her face, as if all those plants claimed her for their
own--the animated and brilliant flower of all that exuberant life
which, born in gloom, struggles for ever towards the sunshine.
Every day she came a little nearer. He watched her slow
progress--the gradual taming of that woman by the words of his
love. It was the monotonous song of praise and desire that,
commencing at creation, wraps up the world like an atmosphere and
shall end only in the end of all things--when there are no lips
to sing and no ears to hear. He told her that she was beautiful
and desirable, and he repeated it again and again; for when he
told her that, he had said all there was within him--he had
expressed his only thought, his only feeling. And he watched the
startled look of wonder and mistrust vanish from her face with
the passing days, her eyes soften, the smile dwell longer and
longer on her lips; a smile as of one charmed by a delightful
dream; with the slight exaltation of intoxicating triumph lurking
in its dawning tenderness.
And while she was near there was nothing in the whole world--for
that idle man--but her look and her smile. Nothing in the past,
nothing in the future; and in the present only the luminous fact
of her existence. But in the sudden darkness of her going he
would be left weak and helpless, as though despoiled violently of
all that was himself. He who had lived all his life with no
preoccupation but that of his own career, contemptuously
indifferent to all feminine influence, full of scorn for men that
would submit to it, if ever so little; he, so strong, so superior
even in his errors, realized at last that his very individuality
was snatched from within himself by the hand of a woman. Where
was the assurance and pride of his cleverness; the belief in
success, the anger of failure, the wish to retrieve his fortune,
the certitude of his ability to accomplish it yet? Gone. All
gone. All that had been a man within him was gone, and there
remained only the trouble of his heart--that heart which had
become a contemptible thing; which could be fluttered by a look
or a smile, tormented by a word, soothed by a promise.
When the longed-for day came at last, when she sank on the grass
by his side and with a quick gesture took his hand in hers, he
sat up suddenly with the movement and look of a man awakened by
the crash of his own falling house. All his blood, all his
sensation, all his life seemed to rush into that hand leaving him
without strength, in a cold shiver, in the sudden clamminess and
collapse as of a deadly gun-shot wound. He flung her hand away
brutally, like something burning, and sat motionless, his head
fallen forward, staring on the ground and catching his breath in
painful gasps. His impulse of fear and apparent horror did not
dismay her in the least. Her face was grave and her eyes looked
seriously at him. Her fingers touched the hair of his temple,
ran in a light caress down his cheek, twisted gently the end of
his long moustache: and while he sat in the tremor of that
contact she ran off with startling fleetness and disappeared in a
peal of clear laughter, in the stir of grass, in the nod of young
twigs growing over the path; leaving behind only a vanishing
trail of motion and sound.
He scrambled to his feet slowly and painfully, like a man with a
burden on his shoulders, and walked towards the riverside. He
hugged to his breast the recollection of his fear and of his
delight, but told himself seriously over and over again that this
must be the end of that adventure. After shoving off his canoe
into the stream he lifted his eyes to the bank and gazed at it
long and steadily, as if taking his last look at a place of
charming memories. He marched up to Almayer's house with the
concentrated expression and the determined step of a man who had
just taken a momentous resolution. His face was set and rigid,
his gestures and movements were guarded and slow. He was keeping
a tight hand on himself. A very tight hand. He had a vivid
illusion--as vivid as reality almost--of being in charge of a
slippery prisoner. He sat opposite Almayer during that
dinner--which was their last meal together--with a perfectly calm
face and within him a growing terror of escape from his own self.
Now and then he would grasp the edge of the table and set his
teeth hard in a sudden wave of acute despair, like one who,
falling down a smooth and rapid declivity that ends in a
precipice, digs his finger nails into the yielding surface and
feels himself slipping helplessly to inevitable destruction.
Then, abruptly, came a relaxation of his muscles, the giving way
of his will. Something seemed to snap in his head, and that
wish, that idea kept back during all those hours, darted into his
brain with the heat and noise of a conflagration. He must see
her! See her at once! Go now! To-night! He had the raging
regret of the lost hour, of every passing moment. There was no
thought of resistance now. Yet with the instinctive fear of the
irrevocable, with the innate falseness of the human heart, he
wanted to keep open the way of retreat. He had never absented
himself during the night. What did Almayer know? What would
Almayer think? Better ask him for the gun. A moonlight night. .
. . Look for deer. . . . A colourable pretext. He would lie to
Almayer. What did it matter! He lied to himself every minute of
his life. And for what? For a woman. And such. . . .
Almayer's answer showed him that deception was useless.
Everything gets to be known, even in this place. Well, he did
not care. Cared for nothing but for the lost seconds. What if
he should suddenly die. Die before he saw her. Before he could .
. .
As, with the sound of Almayer's laughter in his ears, he urged
his canoe in a slanting course across the rapid current, he tried
to tell himself that he could return at any moment. He would
just go and look at the place where they used to meet, at the
tree under which he lay when she took his hand, at the spot where
she sat by his side. Just go there and then return--nothing
more; but when his little skiff touched the bank he leaped out,
forgetting the painter, and the canoe hung for a moment amongst
the bushes and then swung out of sight before he had time to dash
into the water and secure it. He was thunderstruck at first.
he could not go back unless he called up the Rajah's people to
get a boat and rowers--and the way to Patalolo's campong led past
Aissa's house!
He went up the path with the eager eyes and reluctant steps of a
man pursuing a phantom, and when he found himself at a place
where a narrow track branched off to the left towards Omar's
clearing he stood still, with a look of strained attention on his
face as if listening to a far-off voice--the voice of his fate.
It was a sound inarticulate but full of meaning; and following it
there came a rending and tearing within his breast. He twisted
his fingers together, and the joints of his hands and arms
cracked. On his forehead the perspiration stood out in small
pearly drops. He looked round wildly. Above the shapeless
darkness of the forest undergrowth rose the treetops with their
high boughs and leaves standing out black on the pale sky--like
fragments of night floating on moonbeams. Under his feet warm
steam rose from the heated earth. Round him there was a great
He was looking round for help. This silence, this immobility of
his surroundings seemed to him a cold rebuke, a stern refusal, a
cruel unconcern. There was no safety outside of himself--and in
himself there was no refuge; there was only the image of that
woman. He had a sudden moment of lucidity--of that cruel lucidity
that comes once in life to the most benighted. He seemed to see
what went on within him, and was horrified at the strange sight.
He, a white man whose worst fault till then had been a little
want of judgment and too much confidence in the rectitude of his
kind! That woman was a complete savage, and . . . He tried to
tell himself that the thing was of no consequence. It was a vain
effort. The novelty of the sensations he had never experienced
before in the slightest degree, yet had despised on hearsay from
his safe position of a civilized man, destroyed his courage. He
was disappointed with himself. He seemed to be surrendering to a
wild creature the unstained purity of his life, of his race, of
his civilization. He had a notion of being lost amongst
shapeless things that were dangerous and ghastly. He struggled
with the sense of certain defeat--lost his footing--fell back
into the darkness. With a faint cry and an upward throw of his
arms he gave up as a tired swimmer gives up: because the swamped
craft is gone from under his feet; because the night is dark and
the shore is far--because death is better than strife.
The light and heat fell upon the settlement, the clearings, and
the river as if flung down by an angry hand. The land lay
silent, still, and brilliant under the avalanche of burning rays
that had destroyed all sound and all motion, had buried all
shadows, had choked every breath. No living thing dared to
affront the serenity of this cloudless sky, dared to revolt
against the oppression of this glorious and cruel sunshine.
Strength and resolution, body and mind alike were helpless, and
tried to hide before the rush of the fire from heaven. Only the
frail butterflies, the fearless children of the sun, the
capricious tyrants of the flowers, fluttered audaciously in the
open, and their minute shadows hovered in swarms over the
drooping blossoms, ran lightly on the withering grass, or glided
on the dry and cracked earth. No voice was heard in this hot
noontide but the faint murmur of the river that hurried on in
swirls and eddies, its sparkling wavelets chasing each other in
their joyous course to the sheltering depths, to the cool refuge
of the sea.
Almayer had dismissed his workmen for the midday rest, and, his
little daughter on his shoulder, ran quickly across the
courtyard, making for the shade of the verandah of his house. He
laid the sleepy child on the seat of the big rocking-chair, on a
pillow which he took out of his own hammock, and stood for a
while looking down at her with tender and pensive eyes. The
child, tired and hot, moved uneasily, sighed, and looked up at
him with the veiled look of sleepy fatigue. He picked up from
the floor a broken palm-leaf fan, and began fanning gently the
flushed little face. Her eyelids fluttered and Almayer smiled.
A responsive smile brightened for a second her heavy eyes, broke
with a dimple the soft outline of her cheek; then the eyelids
dropped suddenly, she drew a long breath through the parted
lips--and was in a deep sleep before the fleeting smile could
vanish from her face.
Almayer moved lightly off, took one of the wooden armchairs, and
placing it close to the balustrade of the verandah sat down with
a sigh of relief. He spread his elbows on the top rail and
resting his chin on his clasped hands looked absently at the
river, at the dance of sunlight on the flowing water. Gradually
the forest of the further bank became smaller, as if sinking
below the level of the river. The outlines wavered, grew thin,
dissolved in the air. Before his eyes there was now only a space
of undulating blue--one big, empty sky growing dark at times. . .
. Where was the sunshine? . . . He felt soothed and happy, as
if some gentle and invisible hand had removed from his soul the
burden of his body. In another second he seemed to float out
into a cool brightness where there was no such thing as memory or
pain. Delicious. His eyes closed--opened--closed again.
With a sudden jerk of his whole body he sat up, grasping the
front rail with both his hands, and blinked stupidly.
"What? What's that?" he muttered, looking round vaguely.
"Here! Down here, Almayer."
Half rising in his chair, Almayer looked over the rail at the
foot of the verandah, and fell back with a low whistle of
"A ghost, by heavens!" he exclaimed softly to himself.
"Will you listen to me?" went on the husky voice from the
courtyard. "May I come up, Almayer?"
Almayer stood up and leaned over the rail. "Don't you dare," he
said, in a voice subdued but distinct. "Don't you dare! The
child sleeps here. And I don't want to hear you--or speak to you
"You must listen to me! It's something important."
"Not to me, surely."
"Yes! To you. Very important."
"You were always a humbug," said Almayer, after a short silence,
in an indulgent tone. "Always! I remember the old days. Some
fellows used to say there was no one like you for smartness--but
you never took me in. Not quite. I never quite believed in you,
Mr. Willems."
"I admit your superior intelligence," retorted Willems, with
scornful impatience, from below. "Listening to me would be a
further proof of it. You will be sorry if you don't."
"Oh, you funny fellow!" said Almayer, banteringly. "Well, come
up. Don't make a noise, but come up. You'll catch a sunstroke
down there and die on my doorstep perhaps. I don't want any
tragedy here. Come on!"
Before he finished speaking Willems' head appeared above the
level of the floor, then his shoulders rose gradually and he
stood at last before Almayer--a masquerading spectre of the once
so very confidential clerk of the richest merchant in the
islands. His jacket was soiled and torn; below the waist he was
clothed in a worn-out and faded sarong. He flung off his hat,
uncovering his long, tangled hair that stuck in wisps on his
perspiring forehead and straggled over his eyes, which glittered
deep down in the sockets like the last sparks amongst the black
embers of a burnt-out fire. An unclean beard grew out of the
caverns of his sunburnt cheeks. The hand he put out towards
Almayer was very unsteady. The once firm mouth had the tell-tale
droop of mental suffering and physical exhaustion. He was
barefooted. Almayer surveyed him with leisurely composure.
"Well!" he said at last, without taking the extended hand which
dropped slowly along Willems' body.
"I am come," began Willems.
"So I see," interrupted Almayer. "You might have spared me this
treat without making me unhappy. You have been away five weeks,
if I am not mistaken. I got on very well without you--and now you
are here you are not pretty to look at."
"Let me speak, will you!" exclaimed Willems.
"Don't shout like this. Do you think yourself in the forest with
your . . . your friends? This is a civilized man's house. A
white man's. Understand?"
"I am come," began Willems again; "I am come for your good and
"You look as if you had come for a good feed," chimed in the
irrepressible Almayer, while Willems waved his hand in a
discouraged gesture. "Don't they give you enough to eat," went
on Almayer, in a tone of easy banter, "those--what am I to call
them--those new relations of yours? That old blind scoundrel
must be delighted with your company. You know, he was the
greatest thief and murderer of those seas. Say! do you exchange
confidences? Tell me, Willems, did you kill somebody in Macassar
or did you only steal something?"
"It is not true!" exclaimed Willems, hotly. "I only borrowed. .
. . They all lied! I . . ."
"Sh-sh!" hissed Almayer, warningly, with a look at the sleeping
child. "So you did steal," he went on, with repressed
exultation. "I thought there was something of the kind. And
now, here, you steal again."
For the first time Willems raised his eyes to Almayer's face.
"Oh, I don't mean from me. I haven't missed anything," said
Almayer, with mocking haste. "But that girl. Hey! You stole
her. You did not pay the old fellow. She is no good to him now,
is she?"
"Stop that. Almayer!"
Something in Willems' tone caused Almayer to pause. He looked
narrowly at the man before him, and could not help being shocked
at his appearance.
"Almayer," went on Willems, "listen to me. If you are a human
being you will. I suffer horribly--and for your sake."
Almayer lifted his eyebrows. "Indeed! How? But you are
raving," he added, negligently.
"Ah! You don't know," whispered Willems. "She is gone. Gone,"
he repeated, with tears in his voice, "gone two days ago."
"No!" exclaimed the surprised Almayer. "Gone! I haven't heard
that news yet." He burst into a subdued laugh. "How funny! Had
enough of you already? You know it's not flattering for you, my
superior countryman."
Willems--as if not hearing him--leaned against one of the columns
of the roof and looked over the river. "At first," he whispered,
dreamily, "my life was like a vision of heaven--or hell; I didn't
know which. Since she went I know what perdition means; what
darkness is. I know what it is to be torn to pieces alive.
That's how I feel."
"You may come and live with me again," said Almayer, coldly.
"After all, Lingard--whom I call my father and respect as
such--left you under my care. You pleased yourself by going
away. Very good. Now you want to come back. Be it so. I am no
friend of yours. I act for Captain Lingard."
"Come back?" repeated Willems, passionately. "Come back to you
and abandon her? Do you think I am mad? Without her! Man! what
are you made of? To think that she moves, lives, breathes out of
my sight. I am jealous of the wind that fans her, of the air she
breathes, of the earth that receives the caress of her foot, of
the sun that looks at her now while I . . . I haven't seen her
for two days--two days."
The intensity of Willems' feeling moved Almayer somewhat, but he
affected to yawn elaborately
"You do bore me," he muttered. "Why don't you go after her
instead of coming here?"
"Why indeed?"
"Don't you know where she is? She can't be very far. No native
craft has left this river for the last fortnight."
"No! not very far--and I will tell you where she is. She is in
Lakamba's campong." And Willems fixed his eyes steadily on
Almayer's face.
"Phew! Patalolo never sent to let me know. Strange," said
Almayer, thoughtfully. "Are you afraid of that lot?" he added,
after a short pause.
"Then is it the care of your dignity which prevents you from
following her there, my high-minded friend?" asked Almayer, with
mock solicitude. "How noble of you!"
There was a short silence; then Willems said, quietly, "You are a
fool. I should like to kick you."
"No fear," answered Almayer, carelessly; "you are too weak for
that. You look starved."
"I don't think I have eaten anything for the last two days;
perhaps more--I don't remember. It does not matter. I am full
of live embers," said Willems, gloomily. "Look!" and he bared an
arm covered with fresh scars. "I have been biting myself to
forget in that pain the fire that hurts me there!" He struck his
breast violently with his fist, reeled under his own blow, fell
into a chair that stood near and closed his eyes slowly.
"Disgusting exhibition," said Almayer, loftily. "What could
father ever see in you? You are as estimable as a heap of
"You talk like that! You, who sold your soul for a few
guilders," muttered Willems, wearily, without opening his eyes.
"Not so few," said Almayer, with instinctive readiness, and
stopped confused for a moment. He recovered himself quickly,
however, and went on: "But you--you have thrown yours away for
nothing; flung it under the feet of a damned savage woman who has
made you already the thing you are, and will kill you very soon,
one way or another, with her love or with her hate. You spoke
just now about guilders. You meant Lingard's money, I suppose.
Well, whatever I have sold, and for whatever price, I never meant
you--you of all people--to spoil my bargain. I feel pretty safe
though. Even father, even Captain Lingard, would not touch you
now with a pair of tongs; not with a ten-foot pole. . . ."
He spoke excitedly, all in one breath, and, ceasing suddenly,
glared at Willems and breathed hard through his nose in sulky
resentment. Willems looked at him steadily for a moment, then
got up.
"Almayer," he said resolutely, "I want to become a trader in
this place."
Almayer shrugged his shoulders.
"Yes. And you shall set me up. I want a house and trade
goods--perhaps a little money. I ask you for it."
"Anything else you want? Perhaps this coat?" and here Almayer
unbuttoned his jacket--"or my house--or my boots?"
"After all it's natural," went on Willems, without paying any
attention to Almayer--"it's natural that she should expect the
advantages which . . . and then I could shut up that old wretch
and then . . ."
He paused, his face brightened with the soft light of dreamy
enthusiasm, and he turned his eyes upwards. With his gaunt figure
and dilapidated appearance he looked like some ascetic dweller in
a wilderness, finding the reward of a self-denying life in a
vision of dazzling glory. He went on in an impassioned murmur--
"And then I would have her all to myself away from her
people--all to myself--under my own influence--to fashion--to
mould--to adore--to soften--to . . . Oh! Delight! And
then--then go away to some distant place where, far from all she
knew, I would be all the world to her! All the world to her!"
His face changed suddenly. His eyes wandered for awhile and
then became steady all at once.
"I would repay every cent, of course," he said, in a
business-like tone, with something of his old assurance, of his
old belief in himself, in it. "Every cent. I need not interfere
with your business. I shall cut out the small native traders. I
have ideas--but never mind that now. And Captain Lingard would
approve, I feel sure. After all it's a loan, and I shall be at
hand. Safe thing for you."
"Ah! Captain Lingard would approve! He would app . . ."
Almayer choked. The notion of Lingard doing something for
Willems enraged him. His face was purple. He spluttered
insulting words. Willems looked at him coolly.
"I assure you, Almayer," he said, gently, "that I have good
grounds for my demand."
"Your cursed impudence!"
"Believe me, Almayer, your position here is not so safe as you
may think. An unscrupulous rival here would destroy your trade
in a year. It would be ruin. Now Lingard's long absence gives
courage to certain individuals. You know?--I have heard much
lately. They made proposals to me . . . You are very much alone
here. Even Patalolo . . ."
"Damn Patalolo! I am master in this place."
"But, Almayer, don't you see . . ."
"Yes, I see. I see a mysterious ass," interrupted Almayer,
violently. "What is the meaning of your veiled threats? Don't
you think I know something also? They have been intriguing for
years--and nothing has happened. The Arabs have been hanging
about outside this river for years--and I am still the only
trader here; the master here. Do you bring me a declaration of
war? Then it's from yourself only. I know all my other enemies.
I ought to knock you on the head. You are not worth powder and
shot though. You ought to be destroyed with a stick--like a
Almayer's voice woke up the little girl, who sat up on the pillow
with a sharp cry. He rushed over to the chair, caught up the
child in his arms, walked back blindly, stumbled against Willems'
hat which lay on the floor, and kicked it furiously down the
"Clear out of this! Clear out!" he shouted.
Willems made an attempt to speak, but Almayer howled him down.
"Take yourself off! Don't you see you frighten the child--you
scarecrow! No, no! dear," he went on to his little daughter,
soothingly, while Willems walked down the steps slowly. "No.
Don't cry. See! Bad man going away. Look! He is afraid of
your papa. Nasty, bad man. Never come back again. He shall
live in the woods and never come near my little girl. If he
comes papa will kill him--so!" He struck his fist on the rail of
the balustrade to show how he would kill Willems, and, perching
the consoled child on his shoulder held her with one hand, while
he pointed toward the retreating figure of his visitor.
"Look how he runs away, dearest," he said, coaxingly. "Isn't he
funny. Call 'pig' after him, dearest. Call after him."
The seriousness of her face vanished into dimples. Under the long
eyelashes, glistening with recent tears, her big eyes sparkled
and danced with fun. She took firm hold of Almayer's hair with
one hand, while she waved the other joyously and called out with
all her might, in a clear note, soft and distinct like the pipe
of a bird:--
"Pig! Pig! Pig!"
A sigh under the flaming blue, a shiver of the sleeping sea, a
cool breath as if a door had been swung upon the frozen spaces of
the universe, and with a stir of leaves, with the nod of boughs,
with the tremble of slender branches the sea breeze struck the
coast, rushed up the river, swept round the broad reaches, and
travelled on in a soft ripple of darkening water, in the whisper
of branches, in the rustle of leaves of the awakened forests. It
fanned in Lakamba's campong the dull red of expiring embers into
a pale brilliance; and, under its touch, the slender, upright
spirals of smoke that rose from every glowing heap swayed,
wavered, and eddying down filled the twilight of clustered shade
trees with the aromatic scent of the burning wood. The men who
had been dozing in the shade during the hot hours of the
afternoon woke up, and the silence of the big courtyard was
broken by the hesitating murmur of yet sleepy voices, by coughs
and yawns, with now and then a burst of laughter, a loud hail, a
name or a joke sent out in a soft drawl. Small groups squatted
round the little fires, and the monotonous undertone of talk
filled the enclosure; the talk of barbarians, persistent, steady,
repeating itself in the soft syllables, in musical tones of the
never-ending discourses of those men of the forests and the sea,
who can talk most of the day and all the night; who never exhaust
a subject, never seem able to thresh a matter out; to whom that
talk is poetry and painting and music, all art, all history;
their only accomplishment, their only superiority, their only
amusement. The talk of camp fires, which speaks of bravery and
cunning, of strange events and of far countries, of the news of
yesterday and the news of to-morrow. The talk about the dead and
the living--about those who fought and those who loved.
Lakamba came out on the platform before his own house and sat
down--perspiring, half asleep, and sulky--in a wooden armchair
under the shade of the overhanging eaves. Through the darkness
of the doorway he could hear the soft warbling of his womenkind,
busy round the looms where they were weaving the checkered
pattern of his gala sarongs. Right and left of him on the
flexible bamboo floor those of his followers to whom their
distinguished birth, long devotion, or faithful service had given
the privilege of using the chief's house, were sleeping on mats
or just sat up rubbing their eyes: while the more wakeful had
mustered enough energy to draw a chessboard with red clay on a
fine mat and were now meditating silently over their moves.
Above the prostrate forms of the players, who lay face downward
supported on elbow, the soles of their feet waving irresolutely
about, in the absorbed meditation of the game, there towered here
and there the straight figure of an attentive spectator looking
down with dispassionate but profound interest. On the edge of
the platform a row of high-heeled leather sandals stood ranged
carefully in a level line, and against the rough wooden rail
leaned the slender shafts of the spears belonging to these
gentlemen, the broad blades of dulled steel looking very black in
the reddening light of approaching sunset.
A boy of about twelve--the personal attendant of Lakamba--
squatted at his master's feet and held up towards him a silver
siri box. Slowly Lakamba took the box, opened it, and tearing
off a piece of green leaf deposited in it a pinch of lime, a
morsel of gambier, a small bit of areca nut, and wrapped up the
whole with a dexterous twist. He paused, morsel in hand, seemed
to miss something, turned his head from side to side,
slowly, like a man with a stiff neck, and ejaculated in an
ill-humoured bass--
The players glanced up quickly, and looked down again directly.
Those men who were standing stirred uneasily as if prodded by the
sound of the chief's voice. The one nearest to Lakamba repeated
the call, after a while, over the rail into the courtyard. There
was a movement of upturned faces below by the fires, and the cry
trailed over the enclosure in sing-song tones. The thumping of
wooden pestles husking the evening rice stopped for a moment and
Babalatchi's name rang afresh shrilly on women's lips in various
keys. A voice far off shouted something--another, nearer,
repeated it; there was a short hubbub which died out with extreme
suddenness. The first crier turned to Lakamba, saying
"He is with the blind Omar."
Lakamba's lips moved inaudibly. The man who had just spoken was
again deeply absorbed in the game going on at his feet; and the
chief--as if he had forgotten all about it already--sat with a
stolid face amongst his silent followers, leaning back squarely
in his chair, his hands on the arms of his seat, his knees apart,
his big blood-shot eyes blinking solemnly, as if dazzled by the
noble vacuity of his thoughts.
Babalatchi had gone to see old Omar late in the afternoon. The
delicate manipulation of the ancient pirate's susceptibilities,
the skilful management of Aissa's violent impulses engrossed him
to the exclusion of every other business--interfered with his
regular attendance upon his chief and protector--even disturbed
his sleep for the last three nights. That day when he left his
own bamboo hut--which stood amongst others in Lakamba's
campong--his heart was heavy with anxiety and with doubt as to
the success of his intrigue. He walked slowly, with his usual
air of detachment from his surroundings, as if unaware that many
sleepy eyes watched from all parts of the courtyard his progress
towards a small gate at its upper end. That gate gave access to
a separate enclosure in which a rather large house, built of
planks, had been prepared by Lakamba's orders for the reception
of Omar and Aissa. It was a superior kind of habitation which
Lakamba intended for the dwelling of his chief adviser--whose
abilities were worth that honour, he thought. But after the
consultation in the deserted clearing--when Babalatchi had
disclosed his plan--they both had agreed that the new house
should be used at first to shelter Omar and Aissa after they had
been persuaded to leave the Rajah's place, or had been kidnapped
from there--as the case might be. Babalatchi did not mind in the
least the putting off of his own occupation of the house of
honour, because it had many advantages for the quiet working out
of his plans. It had a certain seclusion, having an enclosure of
its own, and that enclosure communicated also with Lakamba's
private courtyard at the back of his residence--a place set apart
for the female household of the chief. The only communication
with the river was through the great front courtyard always full
of armed men and watchful eyes. Behind the whole group of
buildings there stretched the level ground of rice-clearings,
which in their turn were closed in by the wall of untouched
forests with undergrowth so thick and tangled that nothing but a
bullet--and that fired at pretty close range--could penetrate any
distance there.
Babalatchi slipped quietly through the little gate and, closing
it, tied up carefully the rattan fastenings. Before the house
there was a square space of ground, beaten hard into the level
smoothness of asphalte. A big buttressed tree, a giant left
there on purpose during the process of clearing the land, roofed
in the clear space with a high canopy of gnarled boughs and
thick, sombre leaves. To the right--and some small distance away
from the large house--a little hut of reeds, covered with mats,
had been put up for the special convenience of Omar, who, being
blind and infirm, had some difficulty in ascending the steep
plankway that led to the more substantial dwelling, which was
built on low posts and had an uncovered verandah. Close by the
trunk of the tree, and facing the doorway of the hut, the
household fire glowed in a small handful of embers in the midst
of a large circle of white ashes. An old woman--some humble
relation of one of Lakamba's wives, who had been ordered to
attend on Aissa--was squatting over the fire and lifted up her
bleared eyes to gaze at Babalatchi in an uninterested manner, as
he advanced rapidly across the courtyard.
Babalatchi took in the courtyard with a keen glance of his
solitary eye, and without looking down at the old woman muttered
a question. Silently, the woman stretched a tremulous and
emaciated arm towards the hut. Babalatchi made a few steps
towards the doorway, but stopped outside in the sunlight.
"O! Tuan Omar, Omar besar! It is I--Babalatchi!"
Within the hut there was a feeble groan, a fit of coughing and an
indistinct murmur in the broken tones of a vague plaint.
Encouraged evidently by those signs of dismal life within,
Babalatchi entered the hut, and after some time came out leading
with rigid carefulness the blind Omar, who followed with both his
hands on his guide's shoulders. There was a rude seat under the
tree, and there Babalatchi led his old chief, who sat down with a
sigh of relief and leaned wearily against the rugged trunk. The
rays of the setting sun, darting under the spreading branches,
rested on the white-robed figure sitting with head thrown back in
stiff dignity, on the thin hands moving uneasily, and on the
stolid face with its eyelids dropped over the destroyed eyeballs;
a face set into the immobility of a plaster cast yellowed by age.
"Is the sun near its setting?" asked Omar, in a dull voice.
"Very near," answered Babalatchi.
"Where am I? Why have I been taken away from the place which I
knew--where I, blind, could move without fear? It is like black
night to those who see. And the sun is near its setting--and I
have not heard the sound of her footsteps since the morning!
Twice a strange hand has given me my food to-day. Why? Why?
Where is she?"
"She is near," said Babalatchi.
"And he?" went on Omar, with sudden eagerness, and a drop in his
voice. "Where is he? Not here. Not here!" he repeated, turning
his head from side to side as if in deliberate attempt to see.
"No! He is not here now," said Babalatchi, soothingly. Then,
after a pause, he added very low, "But he shall soon return."
"Return! O crafty one! Will he return? I have cursed him three
times," exclaimed Omar, with weak violence.
"He is--no doubt--accursed," assented Babalatchi, in a
conciliating manner--"and yet he will be here before very long--I
"You are crafty and faithless. I have made you great. You were
dirt under my feet--less than dirt," said Omar, with tremulous
"I have fought by your side many times," said Babalatchi, calmly.
"Why did he come?" went on Omar. "Did you send him? Why did he
come to defile the air I breathe--to mock at my fate--to poison
her mind and steal her body? She has grown hard of heart to me.
Hard and merciless and stealthy like rocks that tear a ship's
life out under the smooth sea." He drew a long breath, struggled
with his anger, then broke down suddenly. "I have been hungry,"
he continued, in a whimpering tone--"often I have been very
hungry--and cold--and neglected--and nobody near me. She has
often forgotten me--and my sons are dead, and that man is an
infidel and a dog. Why did he come? Did you show him the way?"
"He found the way himself, O Leader of the brave," said
Babalatchi, sadly. "I only saw a way for their destruction and
our own greatness. And if I saw aright, then you shall never
suffer from hunger any more. There shall be peace for us, and
glory and riches."
"And I shall die to-morrow," murmured Omar, bitterly.
"Who knows? Those things have been written since the beginning
of the world," whispered Babalatchi, thoughtfully.
"Do not let him come back," exclaimed Omar.
"Neither can he escape his fate," went on Babalatchi. "He shall
come back, and the power of men we always hated, you and I, shall
crumble into dust in our hand." Then he added with enthusiasm,
"They shall fight amongst themselves and perish both."
"And you shall see all this, while, I . . ."
"True!" murmured Babalatchi, regretfully. "To you life is
"No! Flame!" exclaimed the old Arab, half rising, then falling
back in his seat. "The flame of that last day! I see it
yet--the last thing I saw! And I hear the noise of the rent
earth--when they all died. And I live to be the plaything of a
crafty one," he added, with inconsequential peevishness.
"You are my master still," said Babalatchi, humbly. "You are very
wise--and in your wisdom you shall speak to Syed Abdulla when he
comes here--you shall speak to him as I advised, I, your servant,
the man who fought at your right hand for many years. I have
heard by a messenger that the Syed Abdulla is coming to-night,
perhaps late; for those things must be done secretly, lest the
white man, the trader up the river, should know of them. But he
will be here. There has been a surat delivered to Lakamba. In
it, Syed Abdulla says he will leave his ship, which is anchored
outside the river, at the hour of noon to-day. He will be here
before daylight if Allah wills."
He spoke with his eye fixed on the ground, and did not become
aware of Aissa's presence till he lifted his head when he ceased
speaking. She had approached so quietly that even Omar did not
hear her footsteps, and she stood now looking at them with
troubled eyes and parted lips, as if she was going to speak; but
at Babalatchi's entreating gesture she remained silent. Omar sat
absorbed in thought.
"Ay wa! Even so!" he said at last, in a weak voice. "I am to
speak your wisdom, O Babalatchi! Tell him to trust the white
man! I do not understand. I am old and blind and weak. I do
not understand. I am very cold," he continued, in a lower tone,
moving his shoulders uneasily. He ceased, then went on rambling
in a faint whisper. "They are the sons of witches, and their
father is Satan the stoned. Sons of witches. Sons of witches."
After a short silence he asked suddenly, in a firmer voice--"How
many white men are there here, O crafty one?"
"There are two here. Two white men to fight one another,"
answered Babalatchi, with alacrity.
"And how many will be left then? How many? Tell me, you who are
"The downfall of an enemy is the consolation of the unfortunate,"
said Babalatchi, sententiously. "They are on every sea; only the
wisdom of the Most High knows their number--but you shall know
that some of them suffer."
"Tell me, Babalatchi, will they die? Will they both die?" asked
Omar, in sudden agitation.
Aissa made a movement. Babalatchi held up a warning hand.
"They shall, surely, die," he said steadily, looking at the girl
with unflinching eye.
"Ay wa! But die soon! So that I can pass my hand over their
faces when Allah has made them stiff."
"If such is their fate and yours," answered Babalatchi, without
hesitation. "God is great!"
A violent fit of coughing doubled Omar up, and he rocked himself
to and fro, wheezing and moaning in turns, while Babalatchi and
the girl looked at him in silence. Then he leaned back against
the tree, exhausted.
"I am alone, I am alone," he wailed feebly, groping vaguely about
with his trembling hands. "Is there anybody near me? Is there
anybody? I am afraid of this strange place."
"I am by your side, O Leader of the brave," said Babalatchi,
touching his shoulder lightly. "Always by your side as in the
days when we both were young: as in the time when we both went
with arms in our hands."
"Has there been such a time, Babalatchi?" said Omar, wildly; "I
have forgotten. And now when I die there will be no man, no
fearless man to speak of his father's bravery. There was a
woman! A woman! And she has forsaken me for an infidel dog.
The hand of the Compassionate is heavy on my head! Oh, my
calamity! Oh, my shame!"
He calmed down after a while, and asked quietly--
"Is the sun set, Babalatchi?"
"It is now as low as the highest tree I can see from here,"
answered Babalatchi.
"It is the time of prayer," said Omar, attempting to get up.
Dutifully Babalatchi helped his old chief to rise, and they
walked slowly towards the hut. Omar waited outside, while
Babalatchi went in and came out directly, dragging after him the
old Arab's praying carpet. Out of a brass vessel he poured the
water of ablution on Omar's outstretched hands, and eased him
carefully down into a kneeling posture, for the venerable robber
was far too infirm to be able to stand. Then as Omar droned out
the first words and made his first bow towards the Holy City,
Babalatchi stepped noiselessly towards Aissa, who did not move
all the time.
Aissa looked steadily at the one-eyed sage, who was approaching
her slowly and with a great show of deference. For a moment they
stood facing each other in silence. Babalatchi appeared
embarrassed. With a sudden and quick gesture she caught hold of
his arm, and with the other hand pointed towards the sinking red
disc that glowed, rayless, through the floating mists of the
"The third sunset! The last! And he is not here," she
whispered; "what have you done, man without faith? What have you
"Indeed I have kept my word," murmured Babalatchi, earnestly.
"This morning Bulangi went with a canoe to look for him. He is a
strange man, but our friend, and shall keep close to him and
watch him without ostentation. And at the third hour of the day
I have sent another canoe with four rowers. Indeed, the man you
long for, O daughter of Omar! may come when he likes."
"But he is not here! I waited for him yesterday. To-day!
To-morrow I shall go."
"Not alive!" muttered Babalatchi to himself. "And do you doubt
your power," he went on in a louder tone--"you that to him are
more beautiful than an houri of the seventh Heaven? He is your
"A slave does run away sometimes," she said, gloomily, "and then
the master must go and seek him out."
"And do you want to live and die a beggar?" asked Babalatchi,
"I care not," she exclaimed, wringing her hands; and the black
pupils of her wide-open eyes darted wildly here and there like
petrels before the storm.
"Sh! Sh!" hissed Babalatchi, with a glance towards Omar. "Do
you think, O girl! that he himself would live like a beggar, even
with you?"
"He is great," she said, ardently. "He despises you all! He
despises you all! He is indeed a man!"
"You know that best," muttered Babalatchi, with a fugitive
smile--"but remember, woman with the strong heart, that to hold
him now you must be to him like the great sea to thirsty men--a
never-ceasing torment, and a madness."
He ceased and they stood in silence, both looking on the ground,
and for a time nothing was heard above the crackling of the fire
but the intoning of Omar glorifying the God--his God, and the
Faith--his faith. Then Babalatchi cocked his head on one side
and appeared to listen intently to the hum of voices in the big
courtyard. The dull noise swelled into distinct shouts, then
into a great tumult of voices, dying away, recommencing, growing
louder, to cease again abruptly; and in those short pauses the
shrill vociferations of women rushed up, as if released, towards
the quiet heaven. Aissa and Babalatchi started, but the latter
gripped in his turn the girl's arm and restrained her with a
strong grasp.
"Wait," he whispered.
The little door in the heavy stockade which separated Lakamba's
private ground from Omar's enclosure swung back quickly, and the
noble exile appeared with disturbed mien and a naked short sword
in his hand. His turban was half unrolled, and the end trailed
on the ground behind him. His jacket was open. He breathed
thickly for a moment before he spoke.
"He came in Bulangi's boat," he said, "and walked quietly till he
was in my presence, when the senseless fury of white men caused
him to rush upon me. I have been in great danger," went on the
ambitious nobleman in an aggrieved tone. "Do you hear that,
Babalatchi? That eater of swine aimed a blow at my face with his
unclean fist. He tried to rush amongst my household. Six men
are holding him now."
A fresh outburst of yells stopped Lakamba's discourse. Angry
voices shouted: "Hold him. Beat him down. Strike at his head."
Then the clamour ceased with sudden completeness, as if strangled
by a mighty hand, and after a second of surprising silence the
voice of Willems was heard alone, howling maledictions in Malay,
in Dutch, and in English.
"Listen," said Lakamba, speaking with unsteady lips, "he
blasphemes his God. His speech is like the raving of a mad dog.
Can we hold him for ever? He must be killed!"
"Fool!" muttered Babalatchi, looking up at Aissa, who stood with
set teeth, with gleaming eyes and distended nostrils, yet
obedient to the touch of his restraining hand. "It is the third
day, and I have kept my promise," he said to her, speaking very
low. "Remember," he added warningly--"like the sea to the
thirsty! And now," he said aloud, releasing her and stepping
back, "go, fearless daughter, go!"
Like an arrow, rapid and silent she flew down the enclosure, and
disappeared through the gate of the courtyard. Lakamba and
Babalatchi looked after her. They heard the renewed tumult, the
girl's clear voice calling out, "Let him go!" Then after a pause
in the din no longer than half the human breath the name of Aissa
rang in a shout loud, discordant, and piercing, which sent
through them an involuntary shudder. Old Omar collapsed on his
carpet and moaned feebly; Lakamba stared with gloomy contempt in
the direction of the inhuman sound; but Babalatchi, forcing a
smile, pushed his distinguished protector through the narrow gate
in the stockade, followed him, and closed it quickly.
The old woman, who had been most of the time kneeling by the
fire, now rose, glanced round fearfully and crouched hiding
behind the tree. The gate of the great courtyard flew open with
a great clatter before a frantic kick, and Willems darted in
carrying Aissa in his arms. He rushed up the enclosure like a
tornado, pressing the girl to his breast, her arms round his
neck, her head hanging back over his arm, her eyes closed and her
long hair nearly touching the ground. They appeared for a second
in the glare of the fire, then, with immense strides, he dashed
up the planks and disappeared with his burden in the doorway of
the big house.
Inside and outside the enclosure there was silence. Omar lay
supporting himself on his elbow, his terrified face with its
closed eyes giving him the appearance of a man tormented by a
"What is it? Help! Help me to rise!" he called out faintly.
The old hag, still crouching in the shadow, stared with bleared
eyes at the doorway of the big house, and took no notice of his
call. He listened for a while, then his arm gave way, and, with
a deep sigh of discouragement, he let himself fall on the carpet.
The boughs of the tree nodded and trembled in the unsteady
currents of the light wind. A leaf fluttered down slowly from
some high branch and rested on the ground, immobile, as if
resting for ever, in the glow of the fire; but soon it stirred,
then soared suddenly, and flew, spinning and turning before the
breath of the perfumed breeze, driven helplessly into the dark
night that had closed over the land.
For upwards of forty years Abdulla had walked in the way of his
Lord. Son of the rich Syed Selim bin Sali, the great Mohammedan
trader of the Straits, he went forth at the age of seventeen on
his first commercial expedition, as his father's representative
on board a pilgrim ship chartered by the wealthy Arab to convey a
crowd of pious Malays to the Holy Shrine. That was in the days
when steam was not in those seas--or, at least, not so much as
now. The voyage was long, and the young man's eyes were opened
to the wonders of many lands. Allah had made it his fate to
become a pilgrim very early in life. This was a great favour of
Heaven, and it could not have been bestowed upon a man who prized
it more, or who made himself more worthy of it by the unswerving
piety of his heart and by the religious solemnity of his
demeanour. Later on it became clear that the book of his destiny
contained the programme of a wandering life. He visited Bombay
and Calcutta, looked in at the Persian Gulf, beheld in due course
the high and barren coasts of the Gulf of Suez, and this was the
limit of his wanderings westward. He was then twenty-seven, and
the writing on his forehead decreed that the time had come for
him to return to the Straits and take from his dying father's
hands the many threads of a business that was spread over all the
Archipelago: from Sumatra to New Guinea, from Batavia to Palawan.
Very soon his ability, his will--strong to obstinacy--his wisdom
beyond his years, caused him to be recognized as the head of a
family whose members and connections were found in every part of
those seas. An uncle here--a brother there; a father-in-law in
Batavia, another in Palembang; husbands of numerous sisters;
cousins innumerable scattered north, south, east, and west--in
every place where there was trade: the great family lay like a
network over the islands. They lent money to princes, influenced
the council-rooms, faced--if need be--with peaceful intrepidity
the white rulers who held the land and the sea under the edge of
sharp swords; and they all paid great deference to Abdulla,
listened to his advice, entered into his plans--because he was
wise, pious, and fortunate.
He bore himself with the humility becoming a Believer, who never
forgets, even for one moment of his waking life, that he is the
servant of the Most High. He was largely charitable because the
charitable man is the friend of Allah, and when he walked out of
his house--built of stone, just outside the town of Penang--on
his way to his godowns in the port, he had often to snatch his
hand away sharply from under the lips of men of his race and
creed; and often he had to murmur deprecating words, or even to
rebuke with severity those who attempted to touch his knees with
their finger-tips in gratitude or supplication. He was very
handsome, and carried his small head high with meek gravity. His
lofty brow, straight nose, narrow, dark face with its chiselled
delicacy of feature, gave him an aristocratic appearance which
proclaimed his pure descent. His beard was trimmed close and to
a rounded point. His large brown eyes looked out steadily with a
sweetness that was belied by the expression of his thin-lipped
mouth. His aspect was serene. He had a belief in his own
prosperity which nothing could shake.
Restless, like all his people, he very seldom dwelt for many days
together in his splendid house in Penang. Owner of ships, he was
often on board one or another of them, traversing in all
directions the field of his operations. In every port he had a
household--his own or that of a relation--to hail his advent with
demonstrative joy. In every port there were rich and influential
men eager to see him, there was business to talk over, there were
important letters to read: an immense correspondence, enclosed
in silk envelopes--a correspondence which had nothing to do with
the infidels of colonial post-offices, but came into his hands by
devious, yet safe, ways. It was left for him by taciturn
nakhodas of native trading craft, or was delivered with profound
salaams by travel-stained and weary men who would withdraw from
his presence calling upon Allah to bless the generous giver of
splendid rewards. And the news was always good, and all his
attempts always succeeded, and in his ears there rang always a
chorus of admiration, of gratitude, of humble entreaties.
A fortunate man. And his felicity was so complete that the good
genii, who ordered the stars at his birth, had not neglected--by
a refinement of benevolence strange in such primitive beings--to
provide him with a desire difficult to attain, and with an enemy
hard to overcome. The envy of Lingard's political and commercial
successes, and the wish to get the best of him in every way,
became Abdulla's mania, the paramount interest of his life, the
salt of his existence.
For the last few months he had been receiving mysterious messages
from Sambir urging him to decisive action. He had found the
river a couple of years ago, and had been anchored more than once
off that estuary where the, till then, rapid Pantai, spreading
slowly over the lowlands, seems to hesitate, before it flows
gently through twenty outlets; over a maze of mudflats, sandbanks
and reefs, into the expectant sea. He had never attempted the
entrance, however, because men of his race, although brave and
adventurous travellers, lack the true seamanlike instincts, and
he was afraid of getting wrecked. He could not bear the idea of
the Rajah Laut being able to boast that Abdulla bin Selim, like
other and lesser men, had also come to grief when trying to wrest
his secret from him. Meantime he returned encouraging answers to
his unknown friends in Sambir, and waited for his opportunity in
the calm certitude of ultimate triumph.
Such was the man whom Lakamba and Babalatchi expected to see for
the first time on the night of Willems' return to Aissa.
Babalatchi, who had been tormented for three days by the fear of
having over-reached himself in his little plot, now, feeling sure
of his white man, felt lighthearted and happy as he superintended
the preparations in the courtyard for Abdulla's reception.
Half-way between Lakamba's house and the river a pile of dry wood
was made ready for the torch that would set fire to it at the
moment of Abdulla's landing. Between this and the house again
there was, ranged in a semicircle, a set of low bamboo frames,
and on those were piled all the carpets and cushions of Lakamba's
household. It had been decided that the reception was to take
place in the open air, and that it should be made impressive by
the great number of Lakamba's retainers, who, clad in clean
white, with their red sarongs gathered round their waists,
chopper at side and lance in hand, were moving about the compound
or, gathering into small knots, discussed eagerly the coming
Two little fires burned brightly on the water's edge on each side
of the landing place. A small heap of damar-gum torches lay by
each, and between them Babalatchi strolled backwards and
forwards, stopping often with his face to the river and his head
on one side, listening to the sounds that came from the darkness
over the water. There was no moon and the night was very clear
overhead, but, after the afternoon breeze had expired in fitful
puffs, the vapours hung thickening over the glancing surface of
the Pantai and clung to the shore, hiding from view the middle of
the stream.
A cry in the mist--then another--and, before Babalatchi could
answer, two little canoes dashed up to the landing-place, and two
of the principal citizens of Sambir, Daoud Sahamin and Hamet
Bahassoen, who had been confidentially invited to meet Abdulla,
landed quickly and after greeting Babalatchi walked up the dark
courtyard towards the house. The little stir caused by their
arrival soon subsided, and another silent hour dragged its slow
length while Babalatchi tramped up and down between the fires,
his face growing more anxious with every passing moment.
At last there was heard a loud hail from down the river. At a
call from Babalatchi men ran down to the riverside and, snatching
the torches, thrust them into the fires, then waved them above
their heads till they burst into a flame. The smoke ascended in
thick, wispy streams, and hung in a ruddy cloud above the glare
that lit up the courtyard and flashed over the water, showing
three long canoes manned by many paddlers lying a little off; the
men in them lifting their paddles on high and dipping them down
together, in an easy stroke that kept the small flotilla
motionless in the strong current, exactly abreast of the landingplace.
A man stood up in the largest craft and called out--
"Syed Abdulla bin Selim is here!"
Babalatchi answered aloud in a formal tone--
"Allah gladdens our hearts! Come to the land!"
Abdulla landed first, steadying himself by the help of
Babalatchi's extended hand. In the short moment of his passing
from the boat to the shore they exchanged sharp glances and a few
rapid words.
"Who are you?"
"Babalatchi. The friend of Omar. The protected of Lakamba."
"You wrote?"
"My words were written, O Giver of alms!"
And then Abdulla walked with composed face between the two lines
of men holding torches, and met Lakamba in front of the big fire
that was crackling itself up into a great blaze. For a moment
they stood with clasped hands invoking peace upon each other's
head, then Lakamba, still holding his honoured guest by the hand,
led him round the fire to the prepared seats. Babalatchi
followed close behind his protector. Abdulla was accompanied by
two Arabs. He, like his companions, was dressed in a white robe
of starched muslin, which fell in stiff folds straight from the
neck. It was buttoned from the throat halfway down with a close
row of very small gold buttons; round the tight sleeves there was
a narrow braid of gold lace. On his shaven head he wore a small
skull-cap of plaited grass. He was shod in patent leather
slippers over his naked feet. A rosary of heavy wooden beads
hung by a round turn from his right wrist. He sat down slowly in
the place of honour, and, dropping his slippers, tucked up his
legs under him decorously.
The improvised divan was arranged in a wide semi-circle, of which
the point most distant from the fire--some ten yards--was also
the nearest to Lakamba's dwelling. As soon as the principal
personages were seated, the verandah of the house was filled
silently by the muffled-up forms of Lakamba's female belongings.
They crowded close to the rail and looked down, whispering
faintly. Below, the formal exchange of compliments went on for
some time between Lakamba and Abdulla, who sat side by side.
Babalatchi squatted humbly at his protector's feet, with nothing
but a thin mat between himself and the hard ground.
Then there was a pause. Abdulla glanced round in an expectant
manner, and after a while Babalatchi, who had been sitting very
still in a pensive attitude, seemed to rouse himself with an
effort, and began to speak in gentle and persuasive tones. He
described in flowing sentences the first beginnings of Sambir,
the dispute of the present ruler, Patalolo, with the Sultan of
Koti, the consequent troubles ending with the rising of Bugis
settlers under the leadership of Lakamba. At different points of
the narrative he would turn for confirmation to Sahamin and
Bahassoen, who sat listening eagerly and assented together with a
"Betul! Betul! Right! Right!" ejaculated in a fervent
Warming up with his subject as the narrative proceeded,
Babalatchi went on to relate the facts connected with Lingard's
action at the critical period of those internal dissensions. He
spoke in a restrained voice still, but with a growing energy of
indignation. What was he, that man of fierce aspect, to keep all
the world away from them? Was he a government? Who made him
ruler? He took possession of Patalolo's mind and made his heart
hard; he put severe words into his mouth and caused his hand to
strike right and left. That unbeliever kept the Faithful panting
under the weight of his senseless oppression. They had to trade
with him--accept such goods as he would give--such credit as he
would accord. And he exacted payment every year . . .
"Very true!" exclaimed Sahamin and Bahassoen together.
Babalatchi glanced at them approvingly and turned to Abdulla.
"Listen to those men, O Protector of the oppressed!" he
exclaimed. "What could we do? A man must trade. There was
nobody else."
Sahamin got up, staff in hand, and spoke to Abdulla with
ponderous courtesy, emphasizing his words by the solemn
flourishes of his right arm.
"It is so. We are weary of paying our debts to that white man
here, who is the son of the Rajah Laut. That white man--may the
grave of his mother be defiled!--is not content to hold us all in
his hand with a cruel grasp. He seeks to cause our very death.
He trades with the Dyaks of the forest, who are no better than
monkeys. He buys from them guttah and rattans--while we starve.
Only two days ago I went to him and said, 'Tuan Almayer'--even
so; we must speak politely to that friend of Satan--'Tuan
Almayer, I have such and such goods to sell. Will you buy?' And
he spoke thus--because those white men have no understanding of
any courtesy--he spoke to me as if I was a slave: 'Daoud, you are
a lucky man'--remark, O First amongst the Believers! that by
those words he could have brought misfortune on my head--'you are
a lucky man to have anything in these hard times. Bring your
goods quickly, and I shall receive them in payment of what you
owe me from last year.' And he laughed, and struck me on the
shoulder with his open hand. May Jehannum be his lot!"
"We will fight him," said young Bahassoen, crisply. "We shall
fight if there is help and a leader. Tuan Abdulla, will you come
among us?"
Abdulla did not answer at once. His lips moved in an inaudible
whisper and the beads passed through his fingers with a dry
click. All waited in respectful silence. "I shall come if my
ship can enter this river," said Abdulla at last, in a solemn
"It can, Tuan," exclaimed Babalatchi. "There is a white man here
who . . ."
"I want to see Omar el Badavi and that white man you wrote
about," interrupted Abdulla.
Babalatchi got on his feet quickly, and there was a general move.
The women on the verandah hurried indoors, and from the crowd
that had kept discreetly in distant parts of the courtyard a
couple of men ran with armfuls of dry fuel, which they cast upon
the fire. One of them, at a sign from Babalatchi, approached
and, after getting his orders, went towards the little gate and
entered Omar's enclosure. While waiting for his return, Lakamba,
Abdulla, and Babalatchi talked together in low tones. Sahamin
sat by himself chewing betel-nut sleepily with a slight and
indolent motion of his heavy jaw. Bahassoen, his hand on the
hilt of his short sword, strutted backwards and forwards in the
full light of the fire, looking very warlike and reckless; the
envy and admiration of Lakamba's retainers, who stood in groups
or flitted about noiselessly in the shadows of the courtyard.
The messenger who had been sent to Omar came back and stood at a
distance, waiting till somebody noticed him. Babalatchi beckoned
him close.
"What are his words?" asked Babalatchi.
"He says that Syed Abdulla is welcome now," answered the man.
Lakamba was speaking low to Abdulla, who listened to him with
deep interest.
". . . We could have eighty men if there was need," he was
saying--"eighty men in fourteen canoes. The only thing we want is
gunpowder . . ."
"Hai! there will be no fighting," broke in Babalatchi. "The fear
of your name will be enough and the terror of your coming."
"There may be powder too," muttered Abdulla with great
nonchalance, "if only the ship enters the river safely."
"If the heart is stout the ship will be safe," said Babalatchi.
"We will go now and see Omar el Badavi and the white man I have
Lakamba's dull eyes became animated suddenly.
"Take care, Tuan Abdulla," he said, "take care. The behaviour of
that unclean white madman is furious in the extreme. He offered
to strike . . ."
"On my head, you are safe, O Giver of alms!" interrupted
Abdulla looked from one to the other, and the faintest flicker of
a passing smile disturbed for a moment his grave composure. He
turned to Babalatchi, and said with decision--
"Let us go."
"This way, O Uplifter of our hearts!" rattled on Babalatchi, with
fussy deference. "Only a very few paces and you shall behold
Omar the brave, and a white man of great strength and cunning.
This way."
He made a sign for Lakamba to remain behind, and with respectful
touches on the elbow steered Abdulla towards the gate at the
upper end of the court-yard. As they walked on slowly, followed
by the two Arabs, he kept on talking in a rapid undertone to the
great man, who never looked at him once, although appearing to
listen with flattering attention. When near the gate Babalatchi
moved forward and stopped, facing Abdulla, with his hand on the
"You shall see them both," he said. "All my words about them are
true. When I saw him enslaved by the one of whom I spoke, I knew
he would be soft in my hand like the mud of the river. At first
he answered my talk with bad words of his own language, after the
manner of white men. Afterwards, when listening to the voice he
loved, he hesitated. He hesitated for many days--too many. I,
knowing him well, made Omar withdraw here with his . . .
household. Then this red-faced man raged for three days like a
black panther that is hungry. And this evening, this very
evening, he came. I have him here. He is in the grasp of one
with a merciless heart. I have him here," ended Babalatchi,
exultingly tapping the upright of the gate with his hand.
"That is good," murmured Abdulla.
"And he shall guide your ship and lead in the fight--if fight
there be," went on Babalatchi. "If there is any killing--let him
be the slayer. You should give him arms--a short gun that fires
many times."
"Yes, by Allah!" assented Abdulla, with slow thoughtfulness.
"And you will have to open your hand, O First amongst the
generous!" continued Babalatchi. "You will have to satisfy the
rapacity of a white man, and also of one who is not a man, and
therefore greedy of ornaments."
"They shall be satisfied," said Abdulla; "but . . ." He
hesitated, looking down on the ground and stroking his beard,
while Babalatchi waited, anxious, with parted lips. After a
short time he spoke again jerkily in an indistinct whisper, so
that Babalatchi had to turn his head to catch the words. "Yes.
But Omar is the son of my father's uncle . . . and all belonging
to him are of the Faith . . . while that man is an unbeliever.
It is most unseemly . . . very unseemly. He cannot live under my
shadow. Not that dog. Penitence! I take refuge with my God,"
he mumbled rapidly. "How can he live under my eyes with that
woman, who is of the Faith? Scandal! O abomination!"
He finished with a rush and drew a long breath, then added
"And when that man has done all we want, what is to be done with
They stood close together, meditative and silent, their eyes
roaming idly over the courtyard. The big bonfire burned
brightly, and a wavering splash of light lay on the dark earth at
their feet, while the lazy smoke wreathed itself slowly in
gleaming coils amongst the black boughs of the trees. They could
see Lakamba, who had returned to his place, sitting hunched up
spiritlessly on the cushions, and Sahamin, who had got on his
feet again and appeared to be talking to him with dignified
animation. Men in twos or threes came out of the shadows into
the light, strolling slowly, and passed again into the shadows,
their faces turned to each other, their arms moving in restrained
gestures. Bahassoen, his head proudly thrown back, his
ornaments, embroideries, and sword-hilt flashing in the light,
circled steadily round the fire like a planet round the sun. A
cool whiff of damp air came from the darkness of the riverside;
it made Abdulla and Babalatchi shiver, and woke them up from
their abstraction.
"Open the gate and go first," said Abdulla; "there is no danger?"
"On my life, no!" answered Babalatchi, lifting the rattan ring.
"He is all peace and content, like a thirsty man who has drunk
water after many days."
He swung the gate wide, made a few paces into the gloom of the
enclosure, and retraced his steps suddenly.
"He may be made useful in many ways," he whispered to Abdulla,
who had stopped short, seeing him come back.
"O Sin! O Temptation!" sighed out Abdulla, faintly. "Our refuge
is with the Most High. Can I feed this infidel for ever and for
ever?" he added, impatiently.
"No," breathed out Babalatchi. "No! Not for ever. Only while
he serves your designs, O Dispenser of Allah's gifts! When the
time comes--and your order . . ."
He sidled close to Abdulla, and brushed with a delicate touch the
hand that hung down listlessly, holding the prayer-beads.
"I am your slave and your offering," he murmured, in a distinct
and polite tone, into Abdulla's ear. "When your wisdom speaks,
there may be found a little poison that will not lie. Who
Babalatchi saw Abdulla pass through the low and narrow entrance
into the darkness of Omar's hut; heard them exchange the usual
greetings and the distinguished visitor's grave voice asking:
"There is no misfortune--please God--but the sight?" and then,
becoming aware of the disapproving looks of the two Arabs who had
accompanied Abdulla, he followed their example and fell back out
of earshot. He did it unwillingly, although he did not ignore
that what was going to happen in there was now absolutely beyond
his control. He roamed irresolutely about for awhile, and at
last wandered with careless steps towards the fire, which had
been moved, from under the tree, close to the hut and a little to
windward of its entrance. He squatted on his heels and began
playing pensively with live embers, as was his habit when
engrossed in thought, withdrawing his hand sharply and shaking it
above his head when he burnt his fingers in a fit of deeper
abstraction. Sitting there he could hear the murmur of the talk
inside the hut, and he could distinguish the voices but not the
words. Abdulla spoke in deep tones, and now and then this
flowing monotone was interrupted by a querulous exclamation, a
weak moan or a plaintive quaver of the old man. Yes. It was
annoying not to be able to make out what they were saying,
thought Babalatchi, as he sat gazing fixedly at the unsteady glow
of the fire. But it will be right. All will be right. Abdulla
inspired him with confidence. He came up fully to his
expectation. From the very first moment when he set his eye on
him he felt sure that this man--whom he had known by reputation
only--was very resolute. Perhaps too resolute. Perhaps he would
want to grasp too much later on. A shadow flitted over
Babalatchi's face. On the eve of the accomplishment of his
desires he felt the bitter taste of that drop of doubt which is
mixed with the sweetness of every success.
When, hearing footsteps on the verandah of the big house, he
lifted his head, the shadow had passed away and on his face there
was an expression of watchful alertness. Willems was coming down
the plankway, into the courtyard. The light within trickled
through the cracks of the badly joined walls of the house, and in
the illuminated doorway appeared the moving form of Aissa. She
also passed into the night outside and disappeared from view.
Babalatchi wondered where she had got to, and for the moment
forgot the approach of Willems. The voice of the white man
speaking roughly above his head made him jump to his feet as if
impelled upwards by a powerful spring.
"Where's Abdulla?"
Babalatchi waved his hand towards the hut and stood listening
intently. The voices within had ceased, then recommenced again.
He shot an oblique glance at Willems, whose indistinct form
towered above the glow of dying embers.
"Make up this fire," said Willems, abruptly. "I want to see your
With obliging alacrity Babalatchi put some dry brushwood on the
coals from a handy pile, keeping all the time a watchful eye on
Willems. When he straightened himself up his hand wandered
almost involuntarily towards his left side to feel the handle of
a kriss amongst the folds of his sarong, but he tried to look
unconcerned under the angry stare.
"You are in good health, please God?" he murmured.
"Yes!" answered Willems, with an unexpected loudness that caused
Babalatchi to start nervously. "Yes! . . . Health! . . . You .
. ."
He made a long stride and dropped both his hands on the Malay's
shoulders. In the powerful grip Babalatchi swayed to and fro
limply, but his face was as peaceful as when he sat--a little
while ago--dreaming by the fire. With a final vicious jerk
Willems let go suddenly, and turning away on his heel stretched
his hands over the fire. Babalatchi stumbled backwards,
recovered himself, and wriggled his shoulders laboriously.
"Tse! Tse! Tse!" he clicked, deprecatingly. After a short
silence he went on with accentuated admiration: "What a man it
is! What a strong man! A man like that"--he concluded, in a
tone of meditative wonder--"a man like that could upset
He gazed hopefully for a while at Willems' broad shoulders, and
continued, addressing the inimical back, in a low and persuasive
"But why be angry with me? With me who think only of your good?
Did I not give her refuge, in my own house? Yes, Tuan! This is
my own house. I will let you have it without any recompense
because she must have a shelter. Therefore you and she shall
live here. Who can know a woman's mind? And such a woman! If
she wanted to go away from that other place, who am I--to say no!
I am Omar's servant. I said: 'Gladden my heart by taking my
house.' Did I say right?"
"I'll tell you something," said Willems, without changing his
position; "if she takes a fancy to go away from this place it is
you who shall suffer. I will wring your neck."
"When the heart is full of love there is no room in it for
justice," recommenced Babalatchi, with unmoved and persistent
softness. "Why slay me? You know, Tuan, what she wants. A
splendid destiny is her desire--as of all women. You have been
wronged and cast out by your people. She knows that. But you
are brave, you are strong--you are a man; and, Tuan--I am older
than you--you are in her hand. Such is the fate of strong men.
And she is of noble birth and cannot live like a slave. You know
her--and you are in her hand. You are like a snared bird,
because of your strength. And--remember I am a man that has seen
much--submit, Tuan! Submit! . . . Or else . . ."
He drawled out the last words in a hesitating manner and broke
off his sentence. Still stretching his hands in turns towards
the blaze and without moving his head, Willems gave a short,
lugubrious laugh, and asked--
"Or else what?"
"She may go away again. Who knows?" finished Babalatchi, in a
gentle and insinuating tone.
This time Willems spun round sharply. Babalatchi stepped back.
"If she does it will be the worse for you," said Willems, in a
menacing voice. "It will be your doing, and I . . ."
Babalatchi spoke, from beyond the circle of light, with calm
"Hai--ya! I have heard before. If she goes--then I die. Good!
Will that bring her back do you think--Tuan? If it is my doing
it shall be well done, O white man! and--who knows--you will have
to live without her."
Willems gasped and started back like a confident wayfarer who,
pursuing a path he thinks safe, should see just in time a
bottomless chasm under his feet. Babalatchi came into the light
and approached Willems sideways, with his head thrown back and a
little on one side so as to bring his only eye to bear full on
the countenance of the tall white man.
"You threaten me," said Willems, indistinctly.
"I, Tuan!" exclaimed Babalatchi, with a slight suspicion of irony
in the affected surprise of his tone. "I, Tuan? Who spoke of
death? Was it I? No! I spoke of life only. Only of life. Of a
long life for a lonely man!"
They stood with the fire between them, both silent, both aware,
each in his own way, of the importance of the passing minutes.
Babalatchi's fatalism gave him only an insignificant relief in
his suspense, because no fatalism can kill the thought of the
future, the desire of success, the pain of waiting for the
disclosure of the immutable decrees of Heaven. Fatalism is born
of the fear of failure, for we all believe that we carry success
in our own hands, and we suspect that our hands are weak.
Babalatchi looked at Willems and congratulated himself upon his
ability to manage that white man. There was a pilot for
Abdulla--a victim to appease Lingard's anger in case of any
mishap. He would take good care to put him forward in
everything. In any case let the white men fight it out amongst
themselves. They were fools. He hated them--the strong
fools--and knew that for his righteous wisdom was reserved the
safe triumph.
Willems measured dismally the depth of his degradation. He--a
white man, the admired of white men, was held by those miserable
savages whose tool he was about to become. He felt for them all
the hate of his race, of his morality, of his intelligence. He
looked upon himself with dismay and pity. She had him. He had
heard of such things. He had heard of women who . . . He would
never believe such stories. . . . Yet they were true. But his
own captivity seemed more complete, terrible, and final--without
the hope of any redemption. He wondered at the wickedness of
Providence that had made him what he was; that, worse still,
permitted such a creature as Almayer to live. He had done his
duty by going to him. Why did he not understand? All men were
fools. He gave him his chance. The fellow did not see it. It
was hard, very hard on himself--Willems. He wanted to take her
from amongst her own people. That's why he had condescended to
go to Almayer. He examined himself. With a sinking heart he
thought that really he could not--somehow--live without her. It
was terrible and sweet. He remembered the first days. Her
appearance, her face, her smile, her eyes, her words. A savage
woman! Yet he perceived that he could think of nothing else but
of the three days of their separation, of the few hours since
their reunion. Very well. If he could not take her away, then
he would go to her. . . . He had, for a moment, a wicked
pleasure in the thought that what he had done could not be
undone. He had given himself up. He felt proud of it. He was
ready to face anything, do anything. He cared for nothing, for
nobody. He thought himself very fearless, but as a matter of
fact he was only drunk; drunk with the poison of passionate
He stretched his hands over the fire, looked round and called
She must have been near, for she appeared at once within the
light of the fire. The upper part of her body was wrapped up in
the thick folds of a head covering which was pulled down over her
brow, and one end of it thrown across from shoulder to shoulder
hid the lower part of her face. Only her eyes were visible--
sombre and gleaming like a starry night.
Willems, looking at this strange, muffled figure, felt
exasperated, amazed and helpless. The ex-confidential clerk of
the rich Hudig would hug to his breast settled conceptions of
respectable conduct. He sought refuge within his ideas of
propriety from the dismal mangroves, from the darkness of the
forests and of the heathen souls of the savages that were his
masters. She looked like an animated package of cheap cotton
goods! It made him furious. She had disguised herself so
because a man of her race was near! He told her not to do it,
and she did not obey. Would his ideas ever change so as to agree
with her own notions of what was becoming, proper and
respectable? He was really afraid they would, in time. It
seemed to him awful. She would never change! This manifestation
of her sense of proprieties was another sign of their hopeless
diversity; something like another step downwards for him. She
was too different from him. He was so civilized! It struck him
suddenly that they had nothing in common--not a thought, not a
feeling; he could not make clear to her the simplest motive of
any act of his . . . and he could not live without her.
The courageous man who stood facing Babalatchi gasped
unexpectedly with a gasp that was half a groan. This little
matter of her veiling herself against his wish acted upon him
like a disclosure of some great disaster. It increased his
contempt for himself as the slave of a passion he had always
derided, as the man unable to assert his will. This will, all
his sensations, his personality--all this seemed to be lost in
the abominable desire, in the priceless promise of that woman.
He was not, of course, able to discern clearly the causes of his
misery; but there are none so ignorant as not to know suffering,
none so simple as not to feel and suffer from the shock of
warring impulses. The ignorant must feel and suffer from their
complexity as well as the wisest; but to them the pain of
struggle and defeat appears strange, mysterious, remediable and
unjust. He stood watching her, watching himself. He tingled
with rage from head to foot, as if he had been struck in the
face. Suddenly he laughed; but his laugh was like a distorted
echo of some insincere mirth very far away.
From the other side of the fire Babalatchi spoke hurriedly--
"Here is Tuan Abdulla."
Directly on stepping outside Omar's hut Abdulla caught sight of
Willems. He expected, of course, to see a white man, but not
that white man, whom he knew so well. Everybody who traded in
the islands, and who had any dealings with Hudig, knew Willems.
For the last two years of his stay in Macassar the confidential
clerk had been managing all the local trade of the house under a
very slight supervision only on the part of the master. So
everybody knew Willems, Abdulla amongst others--but he was
ignorant of Willems' disgrace. As a matter of fact the thing had
been kept very quiet--so quiet that a good many people in
Macassar were expecting Willems' return there, supposing him to
be absent on some confidential mission. Abdulla, in his
surprise, hesitated on the threshold. He had prepared himself to
see some seaman--some old officer of Lingard's; a common man--
perhaps difficult to deal with, but still no match for him.
Instead, he saw himself confronted by an individual whose
reputation for sagacity in business was well known to him. How
did he get here, and why? Abdulla, recovering from his surprise,
advanced in a dignified manner towards the fire, keeping his eyes
fixed steadily on Willems. When within two paces from Willems he
stopped and lifted his right hand in grave salutation. Willems
nodded slightly and spoke after a while.
"We know each other, Tuan Abdulla," he said, with an assumption
of easy indifference.
"We have traded together," answered Abdulla, solemnly, "but it
was far from here."
"And we may trade here also," said Willems.
"The place does not matter. It is the open mind and the true
heart that are required in business."
"Very true. My heart is as open as my mind. I will tell you why
I am here."
"What need is there? In leaving home one learns life. You
travel. Travelling is victory! You shall return with much
"I shall never return," interrupted Willems. "I have done with
my people. I am a man without brothers. Injustice destroys
Abdulla expressed his surprise by elevating his eyebrows. At the
same time he made a vague gesture with his arm that could be
taken as an equivalent of an approving and conciliating "just
Till then the Arab had not taken any notice of Aissa, who stood
by the fire, but now she spoke in the interval of silence
following Willems' declaration. In a voice that was much
deadened by her wrappings she addressed Abdulla in a few words of
greeting, calling him a kinsman. Abdulla glanced at her swiftly
for a second, and then, with perfect good breeding, fixed his
eyes on the ground. She put out towards him her hand, covered
with a corner of her face-veil, and he took it, pressed it twice,
and dropping it turned towards Willems. She looked at the two
men searchingly, then backed away and seemed to melt suddenly
into the night.
"I know what you came for, Tuan Abdulla," said Willems; "I have
been told by that man there." He nodded towards Babalatchi, then
went on slowly, "It will be a difficult thing."
"Allah makes everything easy," interjected Babalatchi, piously,
from a distance.
The two men turned quickly and stood looking at him thoughtfully,
as if in deep consideration of the truth of that proposition.
Under their sustained gaze Babalatchi experienced an unwonted
feeling of shyness, and dared not approach nearer. At last
Willems moved slightly, Abdulla followed readily, and they both
walked down the courtyard, their voices dying away in the
darkness. Soon they were heard returning, and the voices grew
distinct as their forms came out of the gloom. By the fire they
wheeled again, and Babalatchi caught a few words. Willems was
"I have been at sea with him many years when young. I have used
my knowledge to observe the way into the river when coming in,
this time."
Abdulla assented in general terms.
"In the variety of knowledge there is safety," he said; and then
they passed out of earshot.
Babalatchi ran to the tree and took up his position in the solid
blackness under its branches, leaning against the trunk. There
he was about midway between the fire and the other limit of the
two men's walk. They passed him close. Abdulla slim, very
straight, his head high, and his hands hanging before him and
twisting mechanically the string of beads; Willems tall, broad,
looking bigger and stronger in contrast to the slight white
figure by the side of which he strolled carelessly, taking one
step to the other's two; his big arms in constant motion as he
gesticulated vehemently, bending forward to look Abdulla in the
They passed and repassed close to Babalatchi some half a dozen
times, and, whenever they were between him and the fire, he could
see them plain enough. Sometimes they would stop short, Willems
speaking emphatically, Abdulla listening with rigid attention,
then, when the other had ceased, bending his head slightly as if
consenting to some demand, or admitting some statement. Now and
then Babalatchi caught a word here and there, a fragment of a
sentence, a loud exclamation. Impelled by curiosity he crept to
the very edge of the black shadow under the tree. They were
nearing him, and he heard Willems say--
"You will pay that money as soon as I come on board. That I must
He could not catch Abdulla's reply. When they went past again,
Willems was saying--
"My life is in your hand anyway. The boat that brings me on
board your ship shall take the money to Omar. You must have it
ready in a sealed bag."
Again they were out of hearing, but instead of coming back they
stopped by the fire facing each other. Willems moved his arm,
shook his hand on high talking all the time, then brought it down
jerkily--stamped his foot. A short period of immobility ensued.
Babalatchi, gazing intently, saw Abdulla's lips move almost
imperceptibly. Suddenly Willems seized the Arab's passive hand
and shook it. Babalatchi drew the long breath of relieved
suspense. The conference was over. All well, apparently.
He ventured now to approach the two men, who saw him and waited
in silence. Willems had retired within himself already, and wore
a look of grim indifference. Abdulla moved away a step or two.
Babalatchi looked at him inquisitively.
"I go now," said Abdulla, "and shall wait for you outside the
river, Tuan Willems, till the second sunset. You have only one
word, I know."
"Only one word," repeated Willems.
Abdulla and Babalatchi walked together down the enclosure,
leaving the white man alone by the fire. The two Arabs who had
come with Abdulla preceded them and passed at once through the
little gate into the light and the murmur of voices of the
principal courtyard, but Babalatchi and Abdulla stopped on this
side of it. Abdulla said--
"It is well. We have spoken of many things. He consents."
"When?" asked Babalatchi, eagerly.
"On the second day from this. I have promised every thing. I
mean to keep much."
"Your hand is always open, O Most Generous amongst Believers!
You will not forget your servant who called you here. Have I not
spoken the truth? She has made roast meat of his heart."
With a horizontal sweep of his arm Abdulla seemed to push away
that last statement, and said slowly, with much meaning--
"He must be perfectly safe; do you understand? Perfectly safe--as
if he was amongst his own people--till . . ."
"Till when?" whispered Babalatchi.
"Till I speak," said Abdulla. "As to Omar." He hesitated for a
moment, then went on very low: "He is very old."
"Hai-ya! Old and sick," murmured Babalatchi, with sudden
"He wanted me to kill that white man. He begged me to have him
killed at once," said Abdulla, contemptuously, moving again
towards the gate.
"He is impatient, like those who feel death near them," exclaimed
Babalatchi, apologetically.
"Omar shall dwell with me," went on Abdulla, "when . . . But no
matter. Remember! The white man must be safe."
"He lives in your shadow," answered Babalatchi, solemnly. "It is
enough!" He touched his forehead and fell back to let Abdulla go
And now they are back in the courtyard wherefrom, at their
appearance, listlessness vanishes, and all the faces become alert
and interested once more. Lakamba approaches his guest, but
looks at Babalatchi, who reassures him by a confident nod.
Lakamba clumsily attempts a smile, and looking, with natural and
ineradicable sulkiness, from under his eyebrows at the man whom
he wants to honour, asks whether he would condescend to visit the
place of sitting down and take food. Or perhaps he would prefer
to give himself up to repose? The house is his, and what is in
it, and those many men that stand afar watching the interview are
his. Syed Abdulla presses his host's hand to his breast, and
informs him in a confidential murmur that his habits are ascetic
and his temperament inclines to melancholy. No rest; no food; no
use whatever for those many men who are his. Syed Abdulla is
impatient to be gone. Lakamba is sorrowful but polite, in his
hesitating, gloomy way. Tuan Abdulla must have fresh boatmen,
and many, to shorten the dark and fatiguing road. Hai-ya!
There! Boats!
By the riverside indistinct forms leap into a noisy and
disorderly activity. There are cries, orders, banter, abuse.
Torches blaze sending out much more smoke than light, and in
their red glare Babalatchi comes up to say that the boats are
Through that lurid glare Syed Abdulla, in his long white gown,
seems to glide fantastically, like a dignified apparition
attended by two inferior shades, and stands for a moment at the
landing-place to take leave of his host and ally--whom he loves.
Syed Abdulla says so distinctly before embarking, and takes his
seat in the middle of the canoe under a small canopy of blue
calico stretched on four sticks. Before and behind Syed Abdulla,
the men squatting by the gunwales hold high the blades of their
paddles in readiness for a dip, all together. Ready? Not yet.
Hold on all! Syed Abdulla speaks again, while Lakamba and
Babalatchi stand close on the bank to hear his words. His words
are encouraging. Before the sun rises for the second time they
shall meet, and Syed Abdulla's ship shall float on the waters of
this river--at last! Lakamba and Babalatchi have no doubt--if
Allah wills. They are in the hands of the Compassionate. No
doubt. And so is Syed Abdulla, the great trader who does not
know what the word failure means; and so is the white man--the
smartest business man in the islands--who is lying now by Omar's
fire with his head on Aissa's lap, while Syed Abdulla flies down
the muddy river with current and paddles between the sombre walls
of the sleeping forest; on his way to the clear and open sea
where the Lord of the Isles (formerly of Greenock, but condemned,
sold, and registered now as of Penang) waits for its owner, and
swings erratically at anchor in the currents of the capricious
tide, under the crumbling red cliffs of Tanjong Mirrah.
For some time Lakamba, Sahamin, and Bahassoen looked silently
into the humid darkness which had swallowed the big canoe that
carried Abdulla and his unvarying good fortune. Then the two
guests broke into a talk expressive of their joyful
anticipations. The venerable Sahamin, as became his advanced
age, found his delight in speculation as to the activities of a
rather remote future. He would buy praus, he would send
expeditions up the river, he would enlarge his trade, and, backed
by Abdulla's capital, he would grow rich in a very few years.
Very few. Meantime it would be a good thing to interview Almayer
to-morrow and, profiting by the last day of the hated man's
prosperity, obtain some goods from him on credit. Sahamin
thought it could be done by skilful wheedling. After all, that
son of Satan was a fool, and the thing was worth doing, because
the coming revolution would wipe all debts out. Sahamin did not
mind imparting that idea to his companions, with much senile
chuckling, while they strolled together from the riverside
towards the residence. The bull-necked Lakamba, listening with
pouted lips without the sign of a smile, without a gleam in his
dull, bloodshot eyes, shuffled slowly across the courtyard
between his two guests. But suddenly Bahassoen broke in upon the
old man's prattle with the generous enthusiasm of his youth. . .
. Trading was very good. But was the change that would make
them happy effected yet? The white man should be despoiled with
a strong hand! . . . He grew excited, spoke very loud, and his
further discourse, delivered with his hand on the hilt of his
sword, dealt incoherently with the honourable topics of
throat-cutting, fire-raising, and with the far-famed valour of
his ancestors.
Babalatchi remained behind, alone with the greatness of his
conceptions. The sagacious statesman of Sambir sent a scornful
glance after his noble protector and his noble protector's
friends, and then stood meditating about that future which to the
others seemed so assured. Not so to Babalatchi, who paid the
penalty of his wisdom by a vague sense of insecurity that kept
sleep at arm's length from his tired body. When he thought at
last of leaving the waterside, it was only to strike a path for
himself and to creep along the fences, avoiding the middle of the
courtyard where small fires glimmered and winked as though the
sinister darkness there had reflected the stars of the serene
heaven. He slunk past the wicket-gate of Omar's enclosure, and
crept on patiently along the light bamboo palisade till he was
stopped by the angle where it joined the heavy stockade of
Lakamba's private ground. Standing there, he could look over the
fence and see Omar's hut and the fire before its door. He could
also see the shadow of two human beings sitting between him and
the red glow. A man and a woman. The sight seemed to inspire
the careworn sage with a frivolous desire to sing. It could
hardly be called a song; it was more in the nature of a
recitative without any rhythm, delivered rapidly but distinctly
in a croaking and unsteady voice; and if Babalatchi considered it
a song, then it was a song with a purpose and, perhaps for that
reason, artistically defective. It had all the imperfections of
unskilful improvisation and its subject was gruesome. It told a
tale of shipwreck and of thirst, and of one brother killing
another for the sake of a gourd of water. A repulsive story
which might have had a purpose but possessed no moral whatever.
Yet it must have pleased Babalatchi for he repeated it twice, the
second time even in louder tones than at first, causing a
disturbance amongst the white rice-birds and the wild
fruit-pigeons which roosted on the boughs of the big tree growing
in Omar's compound. There was in the thick foliage above the
singer's head a confused beating of wings, sleepy remarks in
bird-language, a sharp stir of leaves. The forms by the fire
moved; the shadow of the woman altered its shape, and
Babalatchi's song was cut short abruptly by a fit of soft and
persistent coughing. He did not try to resume his efforts after
that interruption, but went away stealthily to seek--if not
sleep--then, at least, repose.
As soon as Abdulla and his companions had left the enclosure,
Aissa approached Willems and stood by his side. He took no
notice of her expectant attitude till she touched him gently,
when he turned furiously upon her and, tearing off her face-veil,
trampled upon it as though it had been a mortal enemy. She
looked at him with the faint smile of patient curiosity, with the
puzzled interest of ignorance watching the running of a
complicated piece of machinery. After he had exhausted his rage,
he stood again severe and unbending looking down at the fire, but
the touch of her fingers at the nape of his neck effaced
instantly the hard lines round his mouth; his eyes wavered
uneasily; his lips trembled slightly. Starting with the
unresisting rapidity of a particle of iron--which, quiescent one
moment, leaps in the next to a powerful magnet--he moved forward,
caught her in his arms and pressed her violently to his breast.
He released her as suddenly, and she stumbled a little, stepped
back, breathed quickly through her parted lips, and said in a
tone of pleased reproof--
"O Fool-man! And if you had killed me in your strong arms what
would you have done?"
"You want to live . . . and to run away from me again," he said
gently. "Tell me--do you?"
She moved towards him with very short steps, her head a little on
one side, hands on hips, with a slight balancing of her body: an
approach more tantalizing than an escape. He looked on,
eager--charmed. She spoke jestingly.
"What am I to say to a man who has been away three days from me?
Three!" she repeated, holding up playfully three fingers before
Willems' eyes. He snatched at the hand, but she was on her guard
and whisked it behind her back.
"No!" she said. "I cannot be caught. But I will come. I am
coming myself because I like. Do not move. Do not touch me with
your mighty hands, O child!"
As she spoke she made a step nearer, then another. Willems did
not stir. Pressing against him she stood on tiptoe to look into
his eyes, and her own seemed to grow bigger, glistening and
tender, appealing and promising. With that look she drew the
man's soul away from him through his immobile pupils, and from
Willems' features the spark of reason vanished under her gaze and
was replaced by an appearance of physical well-being, an ecstasy
of the senses which had taken possession of his rigid body; an
ecstasy that drove out regrets, hesitation and doubt, and
proclaimed its terrible work by an appalling aspect of idiotic
beatitude. He never stirred a limb, hardly breathed, but stood
in stiff immobility, absorbing the delight of her close contact
by every pore.
"Closer! Closer!" he murmured.
Slowly she raised her arms, put them over his shoulders, and
clasping her hands at the back of his neck, swung off the full
length of her arms. Her head fell back, the eyelids dropped
slightly, and her thick hair hung straight down: a mass of ebony
touched by the red gleams of the fire. He stood unyielding under
the strain, as solid and motionless as one of the big trees of
the surrounding forests; and his eyes looked at the modelling of
her chin, at the outline of her neck, at the swelling lines of
her bosom, with the famished and concentrated expression of a
starving man looking at food. She drew herself up to him and
rubbed her head against his cheek slowly and gently. He sighed.
She, with her hands still on his shoulders, glanced up at the
placid stars and said--
"The night is half gone. We shall finish it by this fire. By
this fire you shall tell me all: your words and Syed Abdulla's
words; and listening to you I shall forget the three
days--because I am good. Tell me--am I good?"
He said "Yes" dreamily, and she ran off towards the big house.
When she came back, balancing a roll of fine mats on her head, he
had replenished the fire and was ready to help her in arranging a
couch on the side of it nearest to the hut. She sank down with a
quick but gracefully controlled movement, and he threw himself
full length with impatient haste, as if he wished to forestall
somebody. She took his head on her knees, and when he felt her
hands touching his face, her fingers playing with his hair, he
had an expression of being taken possession of; he experienced a
sense of peace, of rest, of happiness, and of soothing delight.
His hands strayed upwards about her neck, and he drew her down so
as to have her face above his. Then he whispered--"I wish I
could die like this--now!" She looked at him with her big sombre
eyes, in which there was no responsive light. His thought was so
remote from her understanding that she let the words pass by
unnoticed, like the breath of the wind, like the flight of a
cloud. Woman though she was, she could not comprehend, in her
simplicity, the tremendous compliment of that speech, that
whisper of deadly happiness, so sincere, so spontaneous, coming
so straight from the heart--like every corruption. It was the
voice of madness, of a delirious peace, of happiness that is
infamous, cowardly, and so exquisite that the debased mind
refuses to contemplate its termination: for to the victims of
such happiness the moment of its ceasing is the beginning afresh
of that torture which is its price.
With her brows slightly knitted in the determined preoccupation
of her own desires, she said--
"Now tell me all. All the words spoken between you and Syed
Tell what? What words? Her voice recalled back the
consciousness that had departed under her touch, and he became
aware of the passing minutes every one of which was like a
reproach; of those minutes that falling, slow, reluctant,
irresistible into the past, marked his footsteps on the way to
perdition. Not that he had any conviction about it, any notion
of the possible ending on that painful road. It was an
indistinct feeling, a threat of suffering like the confused
warning of coming disease, an inarticulate monition of evil made
up of fear and pleasure, of resignation and of revolt. He was
ashamed of his state of mind. After all, what was he afraid of?
Were those scruples? Why that hesitation to think, to speak of
what he intended doing? Scruples were for imbeciles. His clear
duty was to make himself happy. Did he ever take an oath of
fidelity to Lingard? No. Well then--he would not let any
interest of that old fool stand between Willems and Willems'
happiness. Happiness? Was he not, perchance, on a false track?
Happiness meant money. Much money. At least he had always
thought so till he had experienced those new sensations which . .
Aissa's question, repeated impatiently, interrupted his musings,
and looking up at her face shining above him in the dim light of
the fire he stretched his limbs luxuriously and obedient to her
desire, he spoke slowly and hardly above his breath. She, with
her head close to his lips, listened absorbed, interested, in
attentive immobility. The many noises of the great courtyard
were hushed up gradually by the sleep that stilled all voices and
closed all eyes. Then somebody droned out a song with a nasal
drawl at the end of every verse. He stirred. She put her hand
suddenly on his lips and sat upright. There was a feeble
coughing, a rustle of leaves, and then a complete silence took
possession of the land; a silence cold, mournful, profound; more
like death than peace; more hard to bear than the fiercest
tumult. As soon as she removed her hand he hastened to speak, so
insupportable to him was that stillness perfect and absolute in
which his thoughts seemed to ring with the loudness of shouts.
"Who was there making that noise?" he asked.
"I do not know. He is gone now," she answered, hastily. "Tell
me, you will not return to your people; not without me. Not with
me. Do you promise?"
"I have promised already. I have no people of my own. Have I
not told you, that you are everybody to me?"
"Ah, yes," she said, slowly, "but I like to hear you say that
again--every day, and every night, whenever I ask; and never to
be angry because I ask. I am afraid of white women who are
shameless and have fierce eyes." She scanned his features close
for a moment and added:
"Are they very beautiful? They must be."
"I do not know," he whispered, thoughtfully. "And if I ever did
know, looking at you I have forgotten."
"Forgotten! And for three days and two nights you have forgotten
me also! Why? Why were you angry with me when I spoke at first
of Tuan Abdulla, in the days when we lived beside the brook? You
remembered somebody then. Somebody in the land whence you come.
Your tongue is false. You are white indeed, and your heart is
full of deception. I know it. And yet I cannot help believing
you when you talk of your love for me. But I am afraid!"
He felt flattered and annoyed by her vehemence, and said--
"Well, I am with you now. I did come back. And it was you that
went away."
"When you have helped Abdulla against the Rajah Laut, who is the
first of white men, I shall not be afraid any more," she
"You must believe what I say when I tell you that there never was
another woman; that there is nothing for me to regret, and
nothing but my enemies to remember."
"Where do you come from?" she said, impulsive and inconsequent,
in a passionate whisper. "What is that land beyond the great sea
from which you come? A land of lies and of evil from which
nothing but misfortune ever comes to us--who are not white. Did
you not at first ask me to go there with you? That is why I went
"I shall never ask you again."
"And there is no woman waiting for you there?"
"No!" said Willems, firmly.
She bent over him. Her lips hovered above his face and her long
hair brushed his cheeks.
"You taught me the love of your people which is of the Devil,"
she murmured, and bending still lower, she said faintly, "Like
"Yes, like this!" he answered very low, in a voice that trembled
slightly with eagerness; and she pressed suddenly her lips to his
while he closed his eyes in an ecstasy of delight.
There was a long interval of silence. She stroked his head with
gentle touches, and he lay dreamily, perfectly happy but for the
annoyance of an indistinct vision of a well-known figure; a man
going away from him and diminishing in a long perspective of
fantastic trees, whose every leaf was an eye looking after that
man, who walked away growing smaller, but never getting out of
sight for all his steady progress. He felt a desire to see him
vanish, a hurried impatience of his disappearance, and he watched
for it with a careful and irksome effort. There was something
familiar about that figure. Why! Himself! He gave a sudden
start and opened his eyes, quivering with the emotion of that
quick return from so far, of finding himself back by the fire
with the rapidity of a flash of lightning. It had been half a
dream; he had slumbered in her arms for a few seconds. Only the
beginning of a dream--nothing more. But it was some time before
he recovered from the shock of seeing himself go away so
deliberately, so definitely, so unguardedly; and going
away--where? Now, if he had not woke up in time he would never
have come back again from there; from whatever place he was going
to. He felt indignant. It was like an evasion, like a prisoner
breaking his parole--that thing slinking off stealthily while he
slept. He was very indignant, and was also astonished at the
absurdity of his own emotions.
She felt him tremble, and murmuring tender words, pressed his
head to her breast. Again he felt very peaceful with a peace
that was as complete as the silence round them. He muttered--
"You are tired, Aissa."
She answered so low that it was like a sigh shaped into faint
"I shall watch your sleep, O child!"
He lay very quiet, and listened to the beating of her heart.
That sound, light, rapid, persistent, and steady; her very life
beating against his cheek, gave him a clear perception of secure
ownership, strengthened his belief in his possession of that
human being, was like an assurance of the vague felicity of the
future. There were no regrets, no doubts, no hesitation now.
Had there ever been? All that seemed far away, ages ago--as
unreal and pale as the fading memory of some delirium. All the
anguish, suffering, strife of the past days; the humiliation and
anger of his downfall; all that was an infamous nightmare, a
thing born in sleep to be forgotten and leave no trace--and true
life was this: this dreamy immobility with his head against her
heart that beat so steadily.
He was broad awake now, with that tingling wakefulness of the
tired body which succeeds to the few refreshing seconds of
irresistible sleep, and his wide-open eyes looked absently at the
doorway of Omar's hut. The reed walls glistened in the light of
the fire, the smoke of which, thin and blue, drifted slanting in
a succession of rings and spirals across the doorway, whose empty
blackness seemed to him impenetrable and enigmatical like a
curtain hiding vast spaces full of unexpected surprises. This
was only his fancy, but it was absorbing enough to make him
accept the sudden appearance of a head, coming out of the gloom,
as part of his idle fantasy or as the beginning of another short
dream, of another vagary of his overtired brain. A face with
drooping eyelids, old, thin, and yellow, above the scattered
white of a long beard that touched the earth. A head without a
body, only a foot above the ground, turning slightly from side to
side on the edge of the circle of light as if to catch the
radiating heat of the fire on either cheek in succession. He
watched it in passive amazement, growing distinct, as if coming
nearer to him, and the confused outlines of a body crawling on
all fours came out, creeping inch by inch towards the fire, with
a silent and all but imperceptible movement. He was astounded at
the appearance of that blind head dragging that crippled body
behind, without a sound, without a change in the composure of the
sightless face, which was plain one second, blurred the next in
the play of the light that drew it to itself steadily. A mute
face with a kriss between its lips. This was no dream. Omar's
face. But why? What was he after?
He was too indolent in the happy languor of the moment to answer
the question. It darted through his brain and passed out,
leaving him free to listen again to the beating of her heart; to
that precious and delicate sound which filled the quiet immensity
of the night. Glancing upwards he saw the motionless head of the
woman looking down at him in a tender gleam of liquid white
between the long eyelashes, whose shadow rested on the soft curve
of her cheek; and under the caress of that look, the uneasy
wonder and the obscure fear of that apparition, crouching and
creeping in turns towards the fire that was its guide, were
lost--were drowned in the quietude of all his senses, as pain is
drowned in the flood of drowsy serenity that follows upon a dose
of opium.
He altered the position of his head by ever so little, and now
could see easily that apparition which he had seen a minute
before and had nearly forgotten already. It had moved closer,
gliding and noiseless like the shadow of some nightmare, and now
it was there, very near, motionless and still as if listening;
one hand and one knee advanced; the neck stretched out and the
head turned full towards the fire. He could see the emaciated
face, the skin shiny over the prominent bones, the black shadows
of the hollow temples and sunken cheeks, and the two patches of
blackness over the eyes, over those eyes that were dead and could
not see. What was the impulse which drove out this blind cripple
into the night to creep and crawl towards that fire? He looked
at him, fascinated, but the face, with its shifting lights and
shadows, let out nothing, closed and impenetrable like a walled
Omar raised himself to a kneeling posture and sank on his heels,
with his hands hanging down before him. Willems, looking out of
his dreamy numbness, could see plainly the kriss between the thin
lips, a bar across the face; the handle on one side where the
polished wood caught a red gleam from the fire and the thin line
of the blade running to a dull black point on the other. He felt
an inward shock, which left his body passive in Aissa's embrace,
but filled his breast with a tumult of powerless fear; and he
perceived suddenly that it was his own death that was groping
towards him; that it was the hate of himself and the hate of her
love for him which drove this helpless wreck of a once brilliant
and resolute pirate, to attempt a desperate deed that would be
the glorious and supreme consolation of an unhappy old age. And
while he looked, paralyzed with dread, at the father who had
resumed his cautious advance--blind like fate, persistent like
destiny--he listened with greedy eagerness to the heart of the
daughter beating light, rapid, and steady against his head.
He was in the grip of horrible fear; of a fear whose cold hand
robs its victim of all will and of all power; of all wish to
escape, to resist, or to move; which destroys hope and despair
alike, and holds the empty and useless carcass as if in a vise
under the coming stroke. It was not the fear of death--he had
faced danger before--it was not even the fear of that particular
form of death. It was not the fear of the end, for he knew that
the end would not come then. A movement, a leap, a shout would
save him from the feeble hand of the blind old man, from that
hand that even now was, with cautious sweeps along the ground,
feeling for his body in the darkness. It was the unreasoning
fear of this glimpse into the unknown things, into those motives,
impulses, desires he had ignored, but that had lived in the
breasts of despised men, close by his side, and were revealed to
him for a second, to be hidden again behind the black mists of
doubt and deception. It was not death that frightened him: it
was the horror of bewildered life where he could understand
nothing and nobody round him; where he could guide, control,
comprehend nothing and no one--not even himself.
He felt a touch on his side. That contact, lighter than the
caress of a mother's hand on the cheek of a sleeping child, had
for him the force of a crushing blow. Omar had crept close, and
now, kneeling above him, held the kriss in one hand while the
other skimmed over his jacket up towards his breast in gentle
touches; but the blind face, still turned to the heat of the
fire, was set and immovable in its aspect of stony indifference
to things it could not hope to see. With an effort Willems took
his eyes off the deathlike mask and turned them up to Aissa's
head. She sat motionless as if she had been part of the sleeping
earth, then suddenly he saw her big sombre eyes open out wide in
a piercing stare and felt the convulsive pressure of her hands
pinning his arms along his body. A second dragged itself out,
slow and bitter, like a day of mourning; a second full of regret
and grief for that faith in her which took its flight from the
shattered ruins of his trust. She was holding him! She too! He
felt her heart give a great leap, his head slipped down on her
knees, he closed his eyes and there was nothing. Nothing! It
was as if she had died; as though her heart had leaped out into
the night, abandoning him, defenceless and alone, in an empty
His head struck the ground heavily as she flung him aside in her
sudden rush. He lay as if stunned, face up and, daring not move,
did not see the struggle, but heard the piercing shriek of mad
fear, her low angry words; another shriek dying out in a moan.
When he got up at last he looked at Aissa kneeling over her
father, he saw her bent back in the effort of holding him down,
Omar's contorted limbs, a hand thrown up above her head and her
quick movement grasping the wrist. He made an impulsive step
forward, but she turned a wild face to him and called out over
her shoulder--
"Keep back! Do not come near! Do not. . . ."
And he stopped short, his arms hanging lifelessly by his side, as
if those words had changed him into stone. She was afraid of his
possible violence, but in the unsettling of all his convictions
he was struck with the frightful thought that she preferred to
kill her father all by herself; and the last stage of their
struggle, at which he looked as though a red fog had filled his
eyes, loomed up with an unnatural ferocity, with a sinister
meaning; like something monstrous and depraved, forcing its
complicity upon him under the cover of that awful night. He was
horrified and grateful; drawn irresistibly to her--and ready to
run away. He could not move at first--then he did not want to
stir. He wanted to see what would happen. He saw her lift, with
a tremendous effort, the apparently lifeless body into the hut,
and remained standing, after they disappeared, with the vivid
image in his eyes of that head swaying on her shoulder, the lower
jaw hanging down, collapsed, passive, meaningless, like the head
of a corpse.
Then after a while he heard her voice speaking inside, harshly,
with an agitated abruptness of tone; and in answer there were
groans and broken murmurs of exhaustion. She spoke louder. He
heard her saying violently--"No! No! Never!"
And again a plaintive murmur of entreaty as of some one begging
for a supreme favour, with a last breath. Then she said--
"Never! I would sooner strike it into my own heart."
She came out, stood panting for a short moment in the doorway,
and then stepped into the firelight. Behind her, through the
darkness came the sound of words calling the vengeance of heaven
on her head, rising higher, shrill, strained, repeating the curse
over and over again--till the voice cracked in a passionate
shriek that died out into hoarse muttering ending with a deep and
prolonged sigh. She stood facing Willems, one hand behind her
back, the other raised in a gesture compelling attention, and she
listened in that attitude till all was still inside the hut.
Then she made another step forward and her hand dropped slowly.
"Nothing but misfortune," she whispered, absently, to herself.
"Nothing but misfortune to us who are not white." The anger and
excitement died out of her face, and she looked straight at
Willems with an intense and mournful gaze.
He recovered his senses and his power of speech with a sudden
"Aissa," he exclaimed, and the words broke out through his lips
with hurried nervousness. "Aissa! How can I live here? Trust
me. Believe in me. Let us go away from here. Go very far away!
Very far; you and I!"
He did not stop to ask himself whether he could escape, and how,
and where. He was carried away by the flood of hate, disgust,
and contempt of a white man for that blood which is not his
blood, for that race which is not his race; for the brown skins;
for the hearts false like the sea, blacker than night. This
feeling of repulsion overmastered his reason in a clear
conviction of the impossibility for him to live with her people.
He urged her passionately to fly with him because out of all that
abhorred crowd he wanted this one woman, but wanted her away from
them, away from that race of slaves and cut-throats from which
she sprang. He wanted her for himself--far from everybody, in
some safe and dumb solitude. And as he spoke his anger and
contempt rose, his hate became almost fear; and his desire of her
grew immense, burning, illogical and merciless; crying to him
through all his senses; louder than his hate, stronger than his
fear, deeper than his contempt--irresistible and certain like
death itself.
Standing at a little distance, just within the light--but on the
threshold of that darkness from which she had come--she listened,
one hand still behind her back, the other arm stretched out with
the hand half open as if to catch the fleeting words that rang
around her, passionate, menacing, imploring, but all tinged with
the anguish of his suffering, all hurried by the impatience that
gnawed his breast. And while she listened she felt a slowing
down of her heart-beats as the meaning of his appeal grew clearer
before her indignant eyes, as she saw with rage and pain the
edifice of her love, her own work, crumble slowly to pieces,
destroyed by that man's fears, by that man's falseness. Her
memory recalled the days by the brook when she had listened to
other words--to other thoughts--to promises and to pleadings for
other things, which came from that man's lips at the bidding of
her look or her smile, at the nod of her head, at the whisper of
her lips. Was there then in his heart something else than her
image, other desires than the desires of her love, other fears
than the fear of losing her? How could that be? Had she grown
ugly or old in a moment? She was appalled, surprised and angry
with the anger of unexpected humiliation; and her eyes looked
fixedly, sombre and steady, at that man born in the land of
violence and of evil wherefrom nothing but misfortune comes to
those who are not white. Instead of thinking of her caresses,
instead of forgetting all the world in her embrace, he was
thinking yet of his people; of that people that steals every
land, masters every sea, that knows no mercy and no truth--knows
nothing but its own strength. O man of strong arm and of false
heart! Go with him to a far country, be lost in the throng of
cold eyes and false hearts--lose him there! Never! He was
mad--mad with fear; but he should not escape her! She would keep
him here a slave and a master; here where he was alone with her;
where he must live for her--or die. She had a right to his love
which was of her making, to the love that was in him now, while
he spoke those words without sense. She must put between him and
other white men a barrier of hate. He must not only stay, but he
must also keep his promise to Abdulla, the fulfilment of which
would make her safe.
"Aissa, let us go! With you by my side I would attack them with
my naked hands. Or no! Tomorrow we shall be outside, on board
Abdulla's ship. You shall come with me and then I could . . .
If the ship went ashore by some chance, then we could steal a
canoe and escape in the confusion. . . . You are not afraid of
the sea . . . of the sea that would give me freedom . . ."
He was approaching her gradually with extended arms, while he
pleaded ardently in incoherent words that ran over and tripped
each other in the extreme eagerness of his speech. She stepped
back, keeping her distance, her eyes on his face, watching on it
the play of his doubts and of his hopes with a piercing gaze,
that seemed to search out the innermost recesses of his thought;
and it was as if she had drawn slowly the darkness round her,
wrapping herself in its undulating folds that made her indistinct
and vague. He followed her step by step till at last they both
stopped, facing each other under the big tree of the enclosure.
The solitary exile of the forests, great, motionless and solemn
in his abandonment, left alone by the life of ages that had been
pushed away from him by those pigmies that crept at his foot,
towered high and straight above their heads. He seemed to look
on, dispassionate and imposing, in his lonely greatness,
spreading his branches wide in a gesture of lofty protection, as
if to hide them in the sombre shelter of innumerable leaves; as
if moved by the disdainful compassion of the strong, by the
scornful pity of an aged giant, to screen this struggle of two
human hearts from the cold scrutiny of glittering stars.
The last cry of his appeal to her mercy rose loud, vibrated under
the sombre canopy, darted among the boughs startling the white
birds that slept wing to wing--and died without an echo,
strangled in the dense mass of unstirring leaves. He could not
see her face, but he heard her sighs and the distracted murmur of
indistinct words. Then, as he listened holding his breath, she
exclaimed suddenly--
"Have you heard him? He has cursed me because I love you. You
brought me suffering and strife--and his curse. And now you want
to take me far away where I would lose you, lose my life; because
your love is my life now. What else is there? Do not move," she
cried violently, as he stirred a little--"do not speak! Take
this! Sleep in peace!"
He saw a shadowy movement of her arm. Something whizzed past and
struck the ground behind him, close to the fire. Instinctively
he turned round to look at it. A kriss without its sheath lay by
the embers; a sinuous dark object, looking like something that
had been alive and was now crushed, dead and very inoffensive; a
black wavy outline very distinct and still in the dull red glow.
Without thinking he moved to pick it up, stooping with the sad
and humble movement of a beggar gathering the alms flung into the
dust of the roadside. Was this the answer to his pleading, to
the hot and living words that came from his heart? Was this the
answer thrown at him like an insult, that thing made of wood and
iron, insignificant and venomous, fragile and deadly? He held it
by the blade and looked at the handle stupidly for a moment
before he let it fall again at his feet; and when he turned round
he faced only the night:--the night immense, profound and quiet;
a sea of darkness in which she had disappeared without leaving a
He moved forward with uncertain steps, putting out both his hands
before him with the anguish of a man blinded suddenly.
"Aissa!" he cried--"come to me at once."
He peered and listened, but saw nothing, heard nothing. After a
while the solid blackness seemed to wave before his eyes like a
curtain disclosing movements but hiding forms, and he heard light
and hurried footsteps, then the short clatter of the gate leading
to Lakamba's private enclosure. He sprang forward and brought up
against the rough timber in time to hear the words, "Quick!
Quick!" and the sound of the wooden bar dropped on the other
side, securing the gate. With his arms thrown up, the palms
against the paling, he slid down in a heap on the ground.
"Aissa," he said, pleadingly, pressing his lips to a chink
between the stakes. "Aissa, do you hear me? Come back! I will
do what you want, give you all you desire--if I have to set the
whole Sambir on fire and put that fire out with blood. Only come
back. Now! At once! Are you there? Do you hear me? Aissa!"
On the other side there were startled whispers of feminine
voices; a frightened little laugh suddenly interrupted; some
woman's admiring murmur--"This is brave talk!" Then after a
short silence Aissa cried--
"Sleep in peace--for the time of your going is near. Now I am
afraid of you. Afraid of your fear. When you return with Tuan
Abdulla you shall be great. You will find me here. And there
will be nothing but love. Nothing else!--Always!--Till we die!"
He listened to the shuffle of footsteps going away, and staggered
to his feet, mute with the excess of his passionate anger against
that being so savage and so charming; loathing her, himself,
everybody he had ever known; the earth, the sky, the very air he
drew into his oppressed chest; loathing it because it made him
live, loathing her because she made him suffer. But he could not
leave that gate through which she had passed. He wandered a
little way off, then swerved round, came back and fell down again
by the stockade only to rise suddenly in another attempt to break
away from the spell that held him, that brought him back there,
dumb, obedient and furious. And under the immobilized gesture of
lofty protection in the branches outspread wide above his head,
under the high branches where white birds slept wing to wing in
the shelter of countless leaves, he tossed like a grain of dust
in a whirlwind--sinking and rising--round and round--always near
that gate. All through the languid stillness of that night he
fought with the impalpable; he fought with the shadows, with the
darkness, with the silence. He fought without a sound, striking
futile blows, dashing from side to side; obstinate, hopeless, and
always beaten back; like a man bewitched within the invisible
sweep of a magic circle.
"Yes! Cat, dog, anything that can scratch or bite; as long as it
is harmful enough and mangy enough. A sick tiger would make you
happy--of all things. A half-dead tiger that you could weep over
and palm upon some poor devil in your power, to tend and nurse
for you. Never mind the consequences--to the poor devil. Let
him be mangled or eaten up, of course! You haven't any pity to
spare for the victims of your infernal charity. Not you! Your
tender heart bleeds only for what is poisonous and deadly. I
curse the day when you set your benevolent eyes on him. I curse
it . . ."
"Now then! Now then!" growled Lingard in his moustache.
Almayer, who had talked himself up to the choking point, drew a
long breath and went on--
"Yes! It has been always so. Always. As far back as I can
remember. Don't you recollect? What about that half-starved dog
you brought on board in Bankok in your arms. In your arms by . .
. ! It went mad next day and bit the serang. You don't mean to
say you have forgotten? The best serang you ever had! You said
so yourself while you were helping us to lash him down to the
chain-cable, just before he died in his fits. Now, didn't you?
Two wives and ever so many children the man left. That was your
doing. . . . And when you went out of your way and risked your
ship to rescue some Chinamen from a water-logged junk in Formosa
Straits, that was also a clever piece of business. Wasn't it?
Those damned Chinamen rose on you before forty-eight hours. They
were cut-throats, those poor fishermen. You knew they were
cut-throats before you made up your mind to run down on a lee
shore in a gale of wind to save them. A mad trick! If they
hadn't been scoundrels--hopeless scoundrels--you would not have
put your ship in jeopardy for them, I know. You would not have
risked the lives of your crew--that crew you loved so--and your
own life. Wasn't that foolish! And, besides, you were not
honest. Suppose you had been drowned? I would have been in a
pretty mess then, left alone here with that adopted daughter of
yours. Your duty was to myself first. I married that girl
because you promised to make my fortune. You know you did! And
then three months afterwards you go and do that mad trick--for a
lot of Chinamen too. Chinamen! You have no morality. I might
have been ruined for the sake of those murderous scoundrels that,
after all, had to be driven overboard after killing ever so many
of your crew--of your beloved crew! Do you call that honest?"
"Well, well!" muttered Lingard, chewing nervously the stump of
his cheroot that had gone out and looking at Almayer--who stamped
wildly about the verandah--much as a shepherd might look at a pet
sheep in his obedient flock turning unexpectedly upon him in
enraged revolt. He seemed disconcerted, contemptuously angry yet
somewhat amused; and also a little hurt as if at some bitter jest
at his own expense. Almayer stopped suddenly, and crossing his
arms on his breast, bent his body forward and went on speaking.
"I might have been left then in an awkward hole--all on account
of your absurd disregard for your safety--yet I bore no grudge.
I knew your weaknesses. But now--when I think of it! Now we are
ruined. Ruined! Ruined! My poor little Nina. Ruined!"
He slapped his thighs smartly, walked with small steps this way
and that, seized a chair, planted it with a bang before Lingard,
and sat down staring at the old seaman with haggard eyes.
Lingard, returning his stare steadily, dived slowly into various
pockets, fished out at last a box of matches and proceeded to
light his cheroot carefully, rolling it round and round between
his lips, without taking his gaze for a moment off the distressed
Almayer. Then from behind a cloud of tobacco smoke he said
"If you had been in trouble as often as I have, my boy, you
wouldn't carry on so. I have been ruined more than once. Well,
here I am."
"Yes, here you are," interrupted Almayer. "Much good it is to
me. Had you been here a month ago it would have been of some
use. But now! . . You might as well be a thousand miles off."
"You scold like a drunken fish-wife," said Lingard, serenely. He
got up and moved slowly to the front rail of the verandah. The
floor shook and the whole house vibrated under his heavy step.
For a moment he stood with his back to Almayer, looking out on
the river and forest of the east bank, then turned round and
gazed mildly down upon him.
"It's very lonely this morning here. Hey?" he said.
Almayer lifted up his head.
"Ah! you notice it--don't you? I should think it is lonely!
Yes, Captain Lingard, your day is over in Sambir. Only a month
ago this verandah would have been full of people coming to greet
you. Fellows would be coming up those steps grinning and
salaaming--to you and to me. But our day is over. And not by my
fault either. You can't say that. It's all the doing of that
pet rascal of yours. Ah! He is a beauty! You should have seen
him leading that hellish crowd. You would have been proud of
your old favourite."
"Smart fellow that," muttered Lingard, thoughtfully. Almayer
jumped up with a shriek.
"And that's all you have to say! Smart fellow! O Lord!"
"Don't make a show of yourself. Sit down. Let's talk quietly.
I want to know all about it. So he led?"
"He was the soul of the whole thing. He piloted Abdulla's ship
in. He ordered everything and everybody," said Almayer, who sat
down again, with a resigned air.
"When did it happen--exactly?"
"On the sixteenth I heard the first rumours of Abdulla's ship
being in the river; a thing I refused to believe at first. Next
day I could not doubt any more. There was a great council held
openly in Lakamba's place where almost everybody in Sambir
attended. On the eighteenth the Lord of the Isles was anchored
in Sambir reach, abreast of my house. Let's see. Six weeks
to-day, exactly."
"And all that happened like this? All of a sudden. You never
heard anything--no warning. Nothing. Never had an idea that
something was up? Come, Almayer!"
"Heard! Yes, I used to hear something every day. Mostly lies.
Is there anything else in Sambir?"
"You might not have believed them," observed Lingard. "In fact
you ought not to have believed everything that was told to you,
as if you had been a green hand on his first voyage."
Almayer moved in his chair uneasily.
"That scoundrel came here one day," he said. "He had been away
from the house for a couple of months living with that woman. I
only heard about him now and then from Patalolo's people when
they came over. Well one day, about noon, he appeared in this
courtyard, as if he had been jerked up from hell-where he
Lingard took his cheroot out, and, with his mouth full of white
smoke that oozed out through his parted lips, listened,
attentive. After a short pause Almayer went on, looking at the
floor moodily--
"I must say he looked awful. Had a bad bout of the ague
probably. The left shore is very unhealthy. Strange that only
the breadth of the river . . ."
He dropped off into deep thoughtfulness as if he had forgotten
his grievances in a bitter meditation upon the unsanitary
condition of the virgin forests on the left bank. Lingard took
this opportunity to expel the smoke in a mighty expiration and
threw the stump of his cheroot over his shoulder.
"Go on," he said, after a while. "He came to see you . . ."
"But it wasn't unhealthy enough to finish him, worse luck!" went
on Almayer, rousing himself, "and, as I said, he turned up here
with his brazen impudence. He bullied me, he threatened vaguely.
He wanted to scare me, to blackmail me. Me! And, by heaven--he
said you would approve. You! Can you conceive such impudence?
I couldn't exactly make out what he was driving at. Had I known,
I would have approved him. Yes! With a bang on the head. But
how could I guess that he knew enough to pilot a ship through the
entrance you always said was so difficult. And, after all, that
was the only danger. I could deal with anybody here--but when
Abdulla came. . . . That barque of his is armed. He carries
twelve brass six-pounders, and about thirty men. Desperate
beggars. Sumatra men, from Deli and Acheen. Fight all day and
ask for more in the evening. That kind."
"I know, I know," said Lingard, impatiently.
"Of course, then, they were cheeky as much as you please after he
anchored abreast of our jetty. Willems brought her up himself in
the best berth. I could see him from this verandah standing
forward, together with the half-caste master. And that woman was
there too. Close to him. I heard they took her on board off
Lakamba's place. Willems said he would not go higher without
her. Stormed and raged. Frightened them, I believe. Abdulla
had to interfere. She came off alone in a canoe, and no sooner
on deck than she fell at his feet before all hands, embraced his
knees, wept, raved, begged his pardon. Why? I wonder.
Everybody in Sambir is talking of it. They never heard tell or
saw anything like it. I have all this from Ali, who goes about
in the settlement and brings me the news. I had better know what
is going on--hadn't I? From what I can make out, they--he and
that woman--are looked upon as something mysterious--beyond
comprehension. Some think them mad. They live alone with an old
woman in a house outside Lakamba's campong and are greatly
respected--or feared, I should say rather. At least, he is. He
is very violent. She knows nobody, sees nobody, will speak to
nobody but him. Never leaves him for a moment. It's the talk of
the place. There are other rumours. From what I hear I suspect
that Lakamba and Abdulla are tired of him. There's also talk of
him going away in the Lord of the Isles--when she leaves here for
the southward--as a kind of Abdulla's agent. At any rate, he
must take the ship out. The half-caste is not equal to it as
Lingard, who had listened absorbed till then, began now to walk
with measured steps. Almayer ceased talking and followed him
with his eyes as he paced up and down with a quarter-deck swing,
tormenting and twisting his long white beard, his face perplexed
and thoughtful.
"So he came to you first of all, did he?" asked Lingard, without
"Yes. I told you so. He did come. Came to extort money,
goods--I don't know what else. Wanted to set up as a trader--the
swine! I kicked his hat into the courtyard, and he went after
it, and that was the last of him till he showed up with Abdulla.
How could I know that he could do harm in that way? Or in any
way at that! Any local rising I could put down easy with my own
men and with Patalolo's help."
"Oh! yes. Patalolo. No good. Eh? Did you try him at all?"
"Didn't I!" exclaimed Almayer. "I went to see him myself on the
twelfth. That was four days before Abdulla entered the river.
In fact, same day Willems tried to get at me. I did feel a
little uneasy then. Patalolo assured me that there was no
human being that did not love me in Sambir. Looked as wise as an
owl. Told me not to listen to the lies of wicked people from
down the river. He was alluding to that man Bulangi, who lives
up the sea reach, and who had sent me word that a strange ship
was anchored outside--which, of course, I repeated to Patalolo.
He would not believe. Kept on mumbling 'No! No! No!' like an old
parrot, his head all of a tremble, all beslobbered with betel-nut
juice. I thought there was something queer about him. Seemed so
restless, and as if in a hurry to get rid of me. Well. Next day
that one-eyed malefactor who lives with Lakamba--what's his
name--Babalatchi, put in an appearance here! Came about mid-day,
casually like, and stood there on this verandah chatting about
one thing and another. Asking when I expected you, and so on.
Then, incidentally, he mentioned that they--his master and
himself--were very much bothered by a ferocious white man--my
friend--who was hanging about that woman--Omar's daughter. Asked
my advice. Very deferential and proper. I told him the white
man was not my friend, and that they had better kick him out.
Whereupon he went away salaaming, and protesting his friendship
and his master's goodwill. Of course I know now the infernal
nigger came to spy and to talk over some of my men. Anyway,
eight were missing at the evening muster. Then I took alarm.
Did not dare to leave my house unguarded. You know what my wife
is, don't you? And I did not care to take the child with me--it
being late--so I sent a message to Patalolo to say that we ought
to consult; that there were rumours and uneasiness in the
settlement. Do you know what answer I got?"
Lingard stopped short in his walk before Almayer, who went on,
after an impressive pause, with growing animation.
"All brought it: 'The Rajah sends a friend's greeting, and does
not understand the message.' That was all. Not a word more
could Ali get out of him. I could see that Ali was pretty well
scared. He hung about, arranging my hammock--one thing and
another. Then just before going away he mentioned that the
water-gate of the Rajah's place was heavily barred, but that he
could see only very few men about the courtyard. Finally he said,
'There is darkness in our Rajah's house, but no sleep. Only
darkness and fear and the wailing of women.' Cheerful, wasn't
it? It made me feel cold down my back somehow. After Ali
slipped away I stood here--by this table, and listened to the
shouting and drumming in the settlement. Racket enough for
twenty weddings. It was a little past midnight then."
Again Almayer stopped in his narrative with an abrupt shutting of
lips, as if he had said all that there was to tell, and Lingard
stood staring at him, pensive and silent. A big bluebottle fly
flew in recklessly into the cool verandah, and darted with loud
buzzing between the two men. Lingard struck at it with his hat.
The fly swerved, and Almayer dodged his head out of the way.
Then Lingard aimed another ineffectual blow; Almayer jumped up
and waved his arms about. The fly buzzed desperately, and the
vibration of minute wings sounded in the peace of the early
morning like a far-off string orchestra accompanying the hollow,
determined stamping of the two men, who, with heads thrown back
and arms gyrating on high, or again bending low with infuriated
lunges, were intent upon killing the intruder. But suddenly the
buzz died out in a thin thrill away in the open space of the
courtyard, leaving Lingard and Almayer standing face to face in
the fresh silence of the young day, looking very puzzled and
idle, their arms hanging uselessly by their sides--like men
disheartened by some portentous failure.
"Look at that!" muttered Lingard. "Got away after all."
"Nuisance," said Almayer in the same tone. "Riverside is overrun
with them. This house is badly placed . . . mosquitos . . . and
these big flies . . . . last week stung Nina . . . been ill four
days . . . poor child. . . . I wonder what such damned things
are made for!"
After a long silence, during which Almayer had moved towards the
table and sat down, his head between his hands, staring straight
before him, Lingard, who had recommenced walking, cleared his
throat and said--
"What was it you were saying?"
"Ah! Yes! You should have seen this settlement that night. I
don't think anybody went to bed. I walked down to the point, and
could see them. They had a big bonfire in the palm grove, and
the talk went on there till the morning. When I came back here
and sat in the dark verandah in this quiet house I felt so
frightfully lonely that I stole in and took the child out of her
cot and brought her here into my hammock. If it hadn't been for
her I am sure I would have gone mad; I felt so utterly alone and
helpless. Remember, I hadn't heard from you for four months.
Didn't know whether you were alive or dead. Patalolo would have
nothing to do with me. My own men were deserting me like rats do
a sinking hulk. That was a black night for me, Captain Lingard.
A black night as I sat here not knowing what would happen next.
They were so excited and rowdy that I really feared they would
come and burn the house over my head. I went and brought my
revolver. Laid it loaded on the table. There were such awful
yells now and then. Luckily the child slept through it, and
seeing her so pretty and peaceful steadied me somehow. Couldn't
believe there was any violence in this world, looking at her
lying so quiet and so unconscious of what went on. But it was
very hard. Everything was at an end. You must understand that
on that night there was no government in Sambir. Nothing to
restrain those fellows. Patalolo had collapsed. I was abandoned
by my own people, and all that lot could vent their spite on me
if they wanted. They know no gratitude. How many times haven't I
saved this settlement from starvation? Absolute starvation.
Only three months ago I distributed again a lot of rice on
credit. There was nothing to eat in this infernal place. They
came begging on their knees. There isn't a man in Sambir, big or
little, who is not in debt to Lingard & Co. Not one. You ought
to be satisfied. You always said that was the right policy for
us. Well, I carried it out. Ah! Captain Lingard, a policy like
that should be backed by loaded rifles . . ."
"You had them!" exclaimed Lingard in the midst of his promenade,
that went on more rapid as Almayer talked: the headlong tramp of
a man hurrying on to do something violent. The verandah was full
of dust, oppressive and choking, which rose under the old
seaman's feet, and made Almayer cough again and again.
"Yes, I had! Twenty. And not a finger to pull a trigger. It's
easy to talk," he spluttered, his face very red.
Lingard dropped into a chair, and leaned back with one hand
stretched out at length upon the table, the other thrown over the
back of his seat. The dust settled, and the sun surging above
the forest flooded the verandah with a clear light. Almayer got
up and busied himself in lowering the split rattan screens that
hung between the columns of the verandah.
"Phew!" said Lingard, "it will be a hot day. That's right, my
boy. Keep the sun out. We don't want to be roasted alive here."
Almayer came back, sat down, and spoke very calmly--
"In the morning I went across to see Patalolo. I took the child
with me, of course. I found the water-gate barred, and had to
walk round through the bushes. Patalolo received me lying on the
floor, in the dark, all the shutters closed. I could get nothing
out of him but lamentations and groans. He said you must be
dead. That Lakamba was coming now with Abdulla's guns to kill
everybody. Said he did not mind being killed, as he was an old
man, but that the wish of his heart was to make a pilgrimage. He
was tired of men's ingratitude--he had no heirs--he wanted to go
to Mecca and die there. He would ask Abdulla to let him go.
Then he abused Lakamba--between sobs--and you, a little. You
prevented him from asking for a flag that would have been
respected--he was right there--and now when his enemies were
strong he was weak, and you were not there to help him. When I
tried to put some heart into him, telling him he had four big
guns--you know the brass six-pounders you left here last
year--and that I would get powder, and that, perhaps, together we
could make head against Lakamba, he simply howled at me. No
matter which way he turned--he shrieked--the white men would be
the death of him, while he wanted only to be a pilgrim and be at
peace. My belief is," added Almayer, after a short pause, and
fixing a dull stare upon Lingard, "that the old fool saw this
thing coming for a long time, and was not only too frightened to
do anything himself, but actually too scared to let you or me
know of his suspicions. Another of your particular pets! Well!
You have a lucky hand, I must say!"
Lingard struck a sudden blow on the table with his clenched hand.
There was a sharp crack of splitting wood. Almayer started up
violently, then fell back in his chair and looked at the table.
"There!" he said, moodily, "you don't know your own strength.
This table is completely ruined. The only table I had been able
to save from my wife. By and by I will have to eat squatting on
the floor like a native."
Lingard laughed heartily. "Well then, don't nag at me like a
woman at a drunken husband!" He became very serious after
awhile, and added, "If it hadn't been for the loss of the Flash I
would have been here three months ago, and all would have been
well. No use crying over that. Don't you be uneasy, Kaspar. We
will have everything ship-shape here in a very short time."
"What? You don't mean to expel Abdulla out of here by force! I
tell you, you can't."
"Not I!" exclaimed Lingard. "That's all over, I am afraid.
Great pity. They will suffer for it. He will squeeze them.
Great pity. Damn it! I feel so sorry for them if I had the
Flash here I would try force. Eh! Why not? However, the poor
Flash is gone, and there is an end of it. Poor old hooker. Hey,
Almayer? You made a voyage or two with me. Wasn't she a sweet
craft? Could make her do anything but talk. She was better than
a wife to me. Never scolded. Hey? . . . And to think that it
should come to this. That I should leave her poor old bones
sticking on a reef as though I had been a damned fool of a
southern-going man who must have half a mile of water under his
keel to be safe! Well! well! It's only those who do nothing
that make no mistakes, I suppose. But it's hard. Hard."
He nodded sadly, with his eyes on the ground. Almayer looked at
him with growing indignation.
"Upon my word, you are heartless," he burst out; "perfectly
heartless--and selfish. It does not seem to strike you--in all
that--that in losing your ship--by your recklessness, I am
sure--you ruin me--us, and my little Nina. What's going to
become of me and of her? That's what I want to know. You
brought me here, made me your partner, and now, when everything
is gone to the devil--through your fault, mind you--you talk
about your ship . . . ship! You can get another. But here.
This trade. That's gone now, thanks to Willems. . . . Your dear
"Never you mind about Willems. I will look after him," said
Lingard, severely. "And as to the trade . . . I will make your
fortune yet, my boy. Never fear. Have you got any cargo for the
schooner that brought me here?"
"The shed is full of rattans," answered Almayer, "and I have
about eighty tons of guttah in the well. The last lot I ever will
have, no doubt," he added, bitterly.
"So, after all, there was no robbery. You've lost nothing
actually. Well, then, you must . . . Hallo! What's the matter!
. . . Here! . . ."
"Robbery! No!" screamed Almayer, throwing up his hands.
He fell back in the chair and his face became purple. A little
white foam appeared on his lips and trickled down his chin, while
he lay back, showing the whites of his upturned eyes. When he
came to himself he saw Lingard standing over him, with an empty
water-chatty in his hand.
"You had a fit of some kind," said the old seaman with much
concern. "What is it? You did give me a fright. So very
Almayer, his hair all wet and stuck to his head, as if he had
been diving, sat up and gasped.
"Outrage! A fiendish outrage. I . . ."
Lingard put the chatty on the table and looked at him in
attentive silence. Almayer passed his hand over his forehead and
went on in an unsteady tone:
"When I remember that, I lose all control," he said. "I told you
he anchored Abdulla's ship abreast our jetty, but over to the
other shore, near the Rajah's place. The ship was surrounded
with boats. From here it looked as if she had been landed on a
raft. Every dugout in Sambir was there. Through my glass I
could distinguish the faces of people on the poop--Abdulla,
Willems, Lakamba--everybody. That old cringing scoundrel Sahamin
was there. I could see quite plain. There seemed to be much
talk and discussion. Finally I saw a ship's boat lowered. Some
Arab got into her, and the boat went towards Patalolo's
landing-place. It seems they had been refused admittance--so
they say. I think myself that the water-gate was not unbarred
quick enough to please the exalted messenger. At any rate I saw
the boat come back almost directly. I was looking on, rather
interested, when I saw Willems and some more go forward--very
busy about something there. That woman was also amongst them.
Ah, that woman . . ."
Almayer choked, and seemed on the point of having a relapse, but
by a violent effort regained a comparative composure.
"All of a sudden," he continued--"bang! They fired a shot into
Patalolo's gate, and before I had time to catch my breath--I was
startled, you may believe--they sent another and burst the gate
open. Whereupon, I suppose, they thought they had done enough
for a while, and probably felt hungry, for a feast began aft.
Abdulla sat amongst them like an idol, cross-legged, his hands on
his lap. He's too great altogether to eat when others do, but he
presided, you see. Willems kept on dodging about forward, aloof
from the crowd, and looking at my house through the ship's long
glass. I could not resist it. I shook my fist at him."
"Just so," said Lingard, gravely. "That was the thing to do, of
course. If you can't fight a man the best thing is to exasperate
Almayer waved his hand in a superior manner, and continued,
unmoved: "You may say what you like. You can't realize my
feelings. He saw me, and, with his eye still at the small end of
the glass, lifted his arm as if answering a hail. I thought my
turn to be shot at would come next after Patalolo, so I ran up
the Union Jack to the flagstaff in the yard. I had no other
protection. There were only three men besides Ali that stuck to
me--three cripples, for that matter, too sick to get away. I
would have fought singlehanded, I think, I was that angry, but
there was the child. What to do with her? Couldn't send her up
the river with the mother. You know I can't trust my wife. I
decided to keep very quiet, but to let nobody land on our shore.
Private property, that; under a deed from Patalolo. I was within
my right--wasn't I? The morning was very quiet. After they had
a feed on board the barque with Abdulla most of them went home;
only the big people remained. Towards three o'clock Sahamin
crossed alone in a small canoe. I went down on our wharf with my
gun to speak to him, but didn't let him land. The old hypocrite
said Abdulla sent greetings and wished to talk with me on
business; would I come on board? I said no; I would not. Told
him that Abdulla may write and I would answer, but no interview,
neither on board his ship nor on shore. I also said that if
anybody attempted to land within my fences I would shoot--no
matter whom. On that he lifted his hands to heaven, scandalized,
and then paddled away pretty smartly--to report, I suppose. An
hour or so afterwards I saw Willems land a boat party at the
Rajah's. It was very quiet. Not a shot was fired, and there was
hardly any shouting. They tumbled those brass guns you presented
to Patalolo last year down the bank into the river. It's deep
there close to. The channel runs that way, you know. About
five, Willems went back on board, and I saw him join Abdulla by
the wheel aft. He talked a lot, swinging his arms about--seemed
to explain things--pointed at my house, then down the reach.
Finally, just before sunset, they hove upon the cable and dredged
the ship down nearly half a mile to the junction of the two
branches of the river--where she is now, as you might have seen."
Lingard nodded.
"That evening, after dark--I was informed--Abdulla landed for the
first time in Sambir. He was entertained in Sahamin's house. I
sent Ali to the settlement for news. He returned about nine, and
reported that Patalolo was sitting on Abdulla's left hand before
Sahamin's fire. There was a great council. Ali seemed to think
that Patalolo was a prisoner, but he was wrong there. They did
the trick very neatly. Before midnight everything was arranged
as I can make out. Patalolo went back to his demolished
stockade, escorted by a dozen boats with torches. It appears he
begged Abdulla to let him have a passage in the Lord of the Isles
to Penang. From there he would go to Mecca. The firing
business was alluded to as a mistake. No doubt it was in a
sense. Patalolo never meant resisting. So he is going as soon
as the ship is ready for sea. He went on board next day with
three women and half a dozen fellows as old as himself. By
Abdulla's orders he was received with a salute of seven guns, and
he has been living on board ever since--five weeks. I doubt
whether he will leave the river alive. At any rate he won't live
to reach Penang. Lakamba took over all his goods, and gave him a
draft on Abdulla's house payable in Penang. He is bound to die
before he gets there. Don't you see?"
He sat silent for a while in dejected meditation, then went on:
"Of course there were several rows during the night. Various
fellows took the opportunity of the unsettled state of affairs to
pay off old scores and settle old grudges. I passed the night in
that chair there, dozing uneasily. Now and then there would be a
great tumult and yelling which would make me sit up, revolver in
hand. However, nobody was killed. A few broken heads--that's
all. Early in the morning Willems caused them to make a fresh
move which I must say surprised me not a little. As soon as
there was daylight they busied themselves in setting up a
flag-pole on the space at the other end of the settlement, where
Abdulla is having his houses built now. Shortly after sunrise
there was a great gathering at the flag-pole. All went there.
Willems was standing leaning against the mast, one arm over that
woman's shoulders. They had brought an armchair for Patalolo,
and Lakamba stood on the right hand of the old man, who made a
speech. Everybody in Sambir was there: women, slaves,
children--everybody! Then Patalolo spoke. He said that by the
mercy of the Most High he was going on a pilgrimage. The dearest
wish of his heart was to be accomplished. Then, turning to
Lakamba, he begged him to rule justly during his--Patalolo's--
absence. There was a bit of play-acting there. Lakamba said he
was unworthy of the honourable burden, and Patalolo insisted.
Poor old fool! It must have been bitter to him. They made him
actually entreat that scoundrel. Fancy a man compelled to beg of
a robber to despoil him! But the old Rajah was so frightened.
Anyway, he did it, and Lakamba accepted at last. Then Willems
made a speech to the crowd. Said that on his way to the west the
Rajah--he meant Patalolo--would see the Great White Ruler in
Batavia and obtain his protection for Sambir. Meantime, he went
on, I, an Orang Blanda and your friend, hoist the flag under the
shadow of which there is safety. With that he ran up a Dutch
flag to the mast-head. It was made hurriedly, during the night,
of cotton stuffs, and, being heavy, hung down the mast, while the
crowd stared. Ali told me there was a great sigh of surprise,
but not a word was spoken till Lakamba advanced and proclaimed in
a loud voice that during all that day every one passing by the
flagstaff must uncover his head and salaam before the emblem."
"But, hang it all!" exclaimed Lingard--"Abdulla is British!"
"Abdulla wasn't there at all--did not go on shore that day. Yet
Ali, who has his wits about him, noticed that the space where the
crowd stood was under the guns of the Lord of the Isles. They
had put a coir warp ashore, and gave the barque a cant in the
current, so as to bring the broadside to bear on the flagstaff.
Clever! Eh? But nobody dreamt of resistance. When they
recovered from the surprise there was a little quiet jeering; and
Bahassoen abused Lakamba violently till one of Lakamba's men hit
him on the head with a staff. Frightful crack, I am told. Then
they left off jeering. Meantime Patalolo went away, and Lakamba
sat in the chair at the foot of the flagstaff, while the crowd
surged around, as if they could not make up their minds to go.
Suddenly there was a great noise behind Lakamba's chair. It was
that woman, who went for Willems. Ali says she was like a wild
beast, but he twisted her wrist and made her grovel in the dust.
Nobody knows exactly what it was about. Some say it was about
that flag. He carried her off, flung her into a canoe, and went
on board Abdulla's ship. After that Sahamin was the first to
salaam to the flag. Others followed suit. Before noon
everything was quiet in the settlement, and Ali came back and
told me all this."
Almayer drew a long breath. Lingard stretched out his legs.
"Go on!" he said.
Almayer seemed to struggle with himself. At last he spluttered
"The hardest is to tell yet. The most unheard-of thing! An
outrage! A fiendish outrage!"
"Well! Let's know all about it. I can't imagine . . ." began
Lingard, after waiting for some time in silence.
"Can't imagine! I should think you couldn't," interrupted
Almayer. "Why! . . . You just listen. When Ali came back I
felt a little easier in my mind. There was then some semblance
of order in Sambir. I had the Jack up since the morning and
began to feel safer. Some of my men turned up in the afternoon.
I did not ask any questions; set them to work as if nothing had
happened. Towards the evening--it might have been five or
half-past--I was on our jetty with the child when I heard shouts
at the far-off end of the settlement. At first I didn't take
much notice. By and by Ali came to me and says, 'Master, give me
the child, there is much trouble in the settlement.' So I gave
him Nina and went in, took my revolver, and passed through the
house into the back courtyard. As I came down the steps I saw
all the serving girls clear out from the cooking shed, and I
heard a big crowd howling on the other side of the dry ditch
which is the limit of our ground. Could not see them on account
of the fringe of bushes along the ditch, but I knew that crowd
was angry and after somebody. As I stood wondering, that
Jim-Eng--you know the Chinaman who settled here a couple of years
"He was my passenger; I brought him here," exclaimed Lingard. "A
first-class Chinaman that."
"Did you? I had forgotten. Well, that Jim-Eng, he burst through
the bush and fell into my arms, so to speak. He told me,
panting, that they were after him because he wouldn't take off
his hat to the flag. He was not so much scared, but he was very
angry and indignant. Of course he had to run for it; there were
some fifty men after him--Lakamba's friends--but he was full of
fight. Said he was an Englishman, and would not take off his hat
to any flag but English. I tried to soothe him while the crowd
was shouting on the other side of the ditch. I told him he must
take one of my canoes and cross the river. Stop on the other
side for a couple of days. He wouldn't. Not he. He was
English, and he would fight the whole lot. Says he: 'They are
only black fellows. We white men,' meaning me and himself, 'can
fight everybody in Sambir.' He was mad with passion. The crowd
quieted a little, and I thought I could shelter Jim-Eng without
much risk, when all of a sudden I heard Willems' voice. He
shouted to me in English: 'Let four men enter your compound to
get that Chinaman!' I said nothing. Told Jim-Eng to keep quiet
too. Then after a while Willems shouts again: 'Don't resist,
Almayer. I give you good advice. I am keeping this crowd back.
Don't resist them!' That beggar's voice enraged me; I could not
help it. I cried to him: 'You are a liar!' and just then
Jim-Eng, who had flung off his jacket and had tucked up his
trousers ready for a fight; just then that fellow he snatches the
revolver out of my hand and lets fly at them through the bush.
There was a sharp cry--he must have hit somebody--and a great
yell, and before I could wink twice they were over the ditch and
through the bush and on top of us! Simply rolled over us! There
wasn't the slightest chance to resist. I was trampled under
foot, Jim-Eng got a dozen gashes about his body, and we were
carried halfway up the yard in the first rush. My eyes and mouth
were full of dust; I was on my back with three or four fellows
sitting on me. I could hear Jim-Eng trying to shout not very far
from me. Now and then they would throttle him and he would
gurgle. I could hardly breathe myself with two heavy fellows on
my chest. Willems came up running and ordered them to raise me
up, but to keep good hold. They led me into the verandah. I
looked round, but did not see either Ali or the child. Felt
easier. Struggled a little. . . . Oh, my God!"
Almayer's face was distorted with a passing spasm of rage.
Lingard moved in his chair slightly. Almayer went on after a
short pause:
"They held me, shouting threats in my face. Willems took down my
hammock and threw it to them. He pulled out the drawer of this
table, and found there a palm and needle and some sail-twine. We
were making awnings for your brig, as you had asked me last
voyage before you left. He knew, of course, where to look for
what he wanted. By his orders they laid me out on the floor,
wrapped me in my hammock, and he started to stitch me in, as if I
had been a corpse, beginning at the feet. While he worked he
laughed wickedly. I called him all the names I could think of.
He told them to put their dirty paws over my mouth and nose. I
was nearly choked. Whenever I moved they punched me in the ribs.
He went on taking fresh needlefuls as he wanted them, and working
steadily. Sewed me up to my throat. Then he rose, saying, 'That
will do; let go.' That woman had been standing by; they must
have been reconciled. She clapped her hands. I lay on the floor
like a bale of goods while he stared at me, and the woman
shrieked with delight. Like a bale of goods! There was a grin
on every face, and the verandah was full of them. I wished
myself dead--'pon my word, Captain Lingard, I did! I do now
whenever I think of it!"
Lingard's face expressed sympathetic indignation. Almayer
dropped his head upon his arms on the table, and spoke in that
position in an indistinct and muffled voice, without looking up.
"Finally, by his directions, they flung me into the big
rocking-chair. I was sewed in so tight that I was stiff like a
piece of wood. He was giving orders in a very loud voice, and
that man Babalatchi saw that they were executed. They obeyed him
implicitly. Meantime I lay there in the chair like a log, and
that woman capered before me and made faces; snapped her fingers
before my nose. Women are bad!--ain't they? I never saw her
before, as far as I know. Never done anything to her. Yet she
was perfectly fiendish. Can you understand it? Now and then she
would leave me alone to hang round his neck for awhile, and then
she would return before my chair and begin her exercises again.
He looked on, indulgent. The perspiration ran down my face, got
into my eyes--my arms were sewn in. I was blinded half the time;
at times I could see better. She drags him before my chair. 'I
am like white women,' she says, her arms round his neck. You
should have seen the faces of the fellows in the verandah! They
were scandalized and ashamed of themselves to see her behaviour.
Suddenly she asks him, alluding to me: 'When are you going to
kill him?' Imagine how I felt. I must have swooned; I don't
remember exactly. I fancy there was a row; he was angry. When I
got my wits again he was sitting close to me, and she was gone.
I understood he sent her to my wife, who was hiding in the back
room and never came out during this affair. Willems says to
me--I fancy I can hear his voice, hoarse and dull--he says to me:
'Not a hair of your head shall be touched.' I made no sound.
Then he goes on: 'Please remark that the flag you have
hoisted--which, by the by, is not yours--has been respected.
Tell Captain Lingard so when you do see him. But,' he says, 'you
first fired at the crowd.' 'You are a liar, you blackguard!' I
shouted. He winced, I am sure. It hurt him to see I was not
frightened. 'Anyways,' he says, 'a shot had been fired out of
your compound and a man was hit. Still, all your property shall
be respected on account of the Union Jack. Moreover, I have no
quarrel with Captain Lingard, who is the senior partner in this
business. As to you,' he continued, 'you will not forget this
day--not if you live to be a hundred years old--or I don't know
your nature. You will keep the bitter taste of this humiliation
to the last day of your life, and so your kindness to me shall be
repaid. I shall remove all the powder you have. This coast is
under the protection of the Netherlands, and you have no right to
have any powder. There are the Governor's Orders in Council to
that effect, and you know it. Tell me where the key of the small
storehouse is?' I said not a word, and he waited a little, then
rose, saying: 'It's your own fault if there is any damage done.'
He ordered Babalatchi to have the lock of the office-room forced,
and went in--rummaged amongst my drawers--could not find the key.
Then that woman Aissa asked my wife, and she gave them the key.
After awhile they tumbled every barrel into the river.
Eighty-three hundredweight! He superintended himself, and saw
every barrel roll into the water. There were mutterings.
Babalatchi was angry and tried to expostulate, but he gave him a
good shaking. I must say he was perfectly fearless with those
fellows. Then he came back to the verandah, sat down by me
again, and says: 'We found your man Ali with your little daughter
hiding in the bushes up the river. We brought them in. They are
perfectly safe, of course. Let me congratulate you, Almayer,
upon the cleverness of your child. She recognized me at once,
and cried "pig" as naturally as you would yourself.
Circumstances alter feelings. You should have seen how
frightened your man Ali was. Clapped his hands over her mouth.
I think you spoil her, Almayer. But I am not angry. Really, you
look so ridiculous in this chair that I can't feel angry.' I
made a frantic effort to burst out of my hammock to get at that
scoundrel's throat, but I only fell off and upset the chair over
myself. He laughed and said only: 'I leave you half of your
revolver cartridges and take half myself; they will fit mine. We
are both white men, and should back each other up. I may want
them.' I shouted at him from under the chair: 'You are a thief,'
but he never looked, and went away, one hand round that woman's
waist, the other on Babalatchi's shoulder, to whom he was
talking--laying down the law about something or other. In less
than five minutes there was nobody inside our fences. After
awhile Ali came to look for me and cut me free. I haven't seen
Willems since--nor anybody else for that matter. I have been
left alone. I offered sixty dollars to the man who had been
wounded, which were accepted. They released Jim-Eng the next
day, when the flag had been hauled down. He sent six cases of
opium to me for safe keeping but has not left his house. I think
he is safe enough now. Everything is very quiet."
Towards the end of his narrative Almayer lifted his head off the
table, and now sat back in his chair and stared at the bamboo
rafters of the roof above him. Lingard lolled in his seat with
his legs stretched out. In the peaceful gloom of the verandah,
with its lowered screens, they heard faint noises from the world
outside in the blazing sunshine: a hail on the river, the answer
from the shore, the creak of a pulley; sounds short, interrupted,
as if lost suddenly in the brilliance of noonday. Lingard got up
slowly, walked to the front rail, and holding one of the screens
aside, looked out in silence. Over the water and the empty
courtyard came a distinct voice from a small schooner anchored
abreast of the Lingard jetty.
"Serang! Take a pull at the main peak halyards. This gaff is
down on the boom.''
There was a shrill pipe dying in long-drawn cadence, the song of
the men swinging on the rope. The voice said sharply: "That will
do!" Another voice--the serang's probably--shouted: "Ikat!" and
as Lingard dropped the blind and turned away all was silent
again, as if there had been nothing on the other side of the
swaying screen; nothing but the light, brilliant, crude, heavy,
lying on a dead land like a pall of fire. Lingard sat down
again, facing Almayer, his elbow on the table, in a thoughtful
"Nice little schooner," muttered Almayer, wearily. "Did you buy
"No," answered Lingard. "After I lost the Flash we got to
Palembang in our boats. I chartered her there, for six months.
From young Ford, you know. Belongs to him. He wanted a spell
ashore, so I took charge myself. Of course all Ford's people on
board. Strangers to me. I had to go to Singapore about the
insurance; then I went to Macassar, of course. Had long
passages. No wind. It was like a curse on me. I had lots of
trouble with old Hudig. That delayed me much."
"Ah! Hudig! Why with Hudig?" asked Almayer, in a perfunctory
"Oh! about a . . . a woman," mumbled Lingard.
Almayer looked at him with languid surprise. The old seaman had
twisted his white beard into a point, and now was busy giving his
moustaches a fierce curl. His little red eyes--those eyes that
had smarted under the salt sprays of every sea, that had looked
unwinking to windward in the gales of all latitudes--now glared
at Almayer from behind the lowered eyebrows like a pair of
frightened wild beasts crouching in a bush.
"Extraordinary! So like you! What can you have to do with
Hudig's women? The old sinner!" said Almayer, negligently.
"What are you talking about! Wife of a friend of . . . I mean of
a man I know . . ."
"Still, I don't see . . ." interjected Almayer carelessly.
"Of a man you know too. Well. Very well."
"I knew so many men before you made me bury myself in this hole!"
growled Almayer, unamiably. "If she had anything to do with
Hudig--that wife--then she can't be up to much. I would be sorry
for the man," added Almayer, brightening up with the recollection
of the scandalous tittle-tattle of the past, when he was a young
man in the second capital of the Islands--and so well informed,
so well informed. He laughed. Lingard's frown deepened.
"Don't talk foolish! It's Willems' wife."
Almayer grasped the sides of his seat, his eyes and mouth opened
"What? Why!" he exclaimed, bewildered.
"Willems'--wife," repeated Lingard distinctly. "You ain't deaf,
are you? The wife of Willems. Just so. As to why! There was a
promise. And I did not know what had happened here."
"What is it. You've been giving her money, I bet," cried
"Well, no!" said Lingard, deliberately. "Although I suppose I
shall have to . . ."
Almayer groaned.
"The fact is," went on Lingard, speaking slowly and steadily,
"the fact is that I have . . . I have brought her here. Here.
To Sambir."
"In heaven's name! why?" shouted Almayer, jumping up. The chair
tilted and fell slowly over. He raised his clasped hands above
his head and brought them down jerkily, separating his fingers
with an effort, as if tearing them apart. Lingard nodded,
quickly, several times.
"I have. Awkward. Hey?" he said, with a puzzled look upwards.
"Upon my word," said Almayer, tearfully. "I can't understand you
at all. What will you do next! cWillems' wife!"
"Wife and child. Small boy, you know. They are on board the
Almayer looked at Lingard with sudden suspicion, then turning
away busied himself in picking up the chair, sat down in it
turning his back upon the old seaman, and tried to whistle, but
gave it up directly. Lingard went on--
"Fact is, the fellow got into trouble with Hudig. Worked upon my
feelings. I promised to arrange matters. I did. With much
trouble. Hudig was angry with her for wishing to join her
husband. Unprincipled old fellow. You know she is his daughter.
Well, I said I would see her through it all right; help Willems
to a fresh start and so on. I spoke to Craig in Palembang. He
is getting on in years, and wanted a manager or partner. I
promised to guarantee Willems' good behaviour. We settled all
that. Craig is an old crony of mine. Been shipmates in the
forties. He's waiting for him now. A pretty mess! What do you
Almayer shrugged his shoulders.
"That woman broke with Hudig on my assurance that all would be
well," went on Lingard, with growing dismay. "She did. Proper
thing, of course. Wife, husband . . . together . . . as it
should be . . . Smart fellow . . . Impossible scoundrel . . .
Jolly old go! Oh! damn!"
Almayer laughed spitefully.
"How delighted he will be," he said, softly. "You will make two
people happy. Two at least!" He laughed again, while Lingard
looked at his shaking shoulders in consternation.
"I am jammed on a lee shore this time, if ever I was," muttered
"Send her back quick," suggested Almayer, stifling another laugh.
"What are you sniggering at?" growled Lingard, angrily. "I'll
work it out all clear yet. Meantime you must receive her into
this house."
"My house!" cried Almayer, turning round.
"It's mine too--a little isn't it?" said Lingard. "Don't argue,"
he shouted, as Almayer opened his mouth. "Obey orders and hold
your tongue!"
"Oh! If you take it in that tone!" mumbled Almayer, sulkily,
with a gesture of assent.
"You are so aggravating too, my boy," said the old seaman, with
unexpected placidity. "You must give me time to turn round. I
can't keep her on board all the time. I must tell her something.
Say, for instance, that he is gone up the river. Expected back
every day. That's it. D'ye hear? You must put her on that tack
and dodge her along easy, while I take the kinks out of the
situation. By God!" he exclaimed, mournfully, after a short
pause, "life is foul! Foul like a lee forebrace on a dirty
night. And yet. And yet. One must see it clear for running
before going below--for good. Now you attend to what I said," he
added, sharply, "if you don't want to quarrel with me, my boy."
"I don't want to quarrel with you," murmured Almayer with
unwilling deference. "Only I wish I could understand you. I
know you are my best friend, Captain Lingard; only, upon my word,
I can't make you out sometimes! I wish I could . . ."
Lingard burst into a loud laugh which ended shortly in a deep
sigh. He closed his eyes, tilting his head over the back of his
armchair; and on his face, baked by the unclouded suns of many
hard years, there appeared for a moment a weariness and a look of
age which startled Almayer, like an unexpected disclosure of
"I am done up," said Lingard, gently. "Perfectly done up. All
night on deck getting that schooner up the river. Then talking
with you. Seems to me I could go to sleep on a clothes-line. I
should like to eat something though. Just see about that,
Almayer clapped his hands, and receiving no response was going to
call, when in the central passage of the house, behind the red
curtain of the doorway opening upon the verandah, they heard a
child's imperious voice speaking shrilly.
"Take me up at once. I want to be carried into the verandah. I
shall be very angry. Take me up."
A man's voice answered, subdued, in humble remonstrance. The
faces of Almayer and Lingard brightened at once. The old seaman
called out--
"Bring the child. Lekas!"
"You will see how she has grown," exclaimed Almayer, in a
jubilant tone.
Through the curtained doorway Ali appeared with little Nina
Almayer in his arms. The child had one arm round his neck, and
with the other she hugged a ripe pumelo nearly as big as her own
head. Her little pink, sleeveless robe had half slipped off her
shoulders, but the long black hair, that framed her olive face,
in which the big black eyes looked out in childish solemnity,
fell in luxuriant profusion over her shoulders, all round her and
over Ali's arms, like a close-meshed and delicate net of silken
threads. Lingard got up to meet Ali, and as soon as she caught
sight of the old seaman she dropped the fruit and put out both
her hands with a cry of delight. He took her from the Malay, and
she laid hold of his moustaches with an affectionate goodwill
that brought unaccustomed tears into his little red eyes.
"Not so hard, little one, not so hard," he murmured, pressing
with an enormous hand, that covered it entirely, the child's head
to his face.
"Pick up my pumelo, O Rajah of the sea!" she said, speaking in a
high-pitched, clear voice with great volubility. "There, under
the table. I want it quick! Quick! You have been away fighting
with many men. Ali says so. You are a mighty fighter. Ali says
so. On the great sea far away, away, away."
She waved her hand, staring with dreamy vacancy, while Lingard
looked at her, and squatting down groped under the table after
the pumelo.
"Where does she get those notions?" said Lingard, getting up
cautiously, to Almayer, who had been giving orders to Ali.
"She is always with the men. Many a time I've found her with her
fingers in their rice dish, of an evening. She does not care for
her mother though--I am glad to say. How pretty she is--and so
sharp. My very image!"
Lingard had put the child on the table, and both men stood
looking at her with radiant faces.
"A perfect little woman," whispered Lingard. "Yes, my dear boy,
we shall make her somebody. You'll see!"
"Very little chance of that now," remarked Almayer, sadly.
"You do not know!" exclaimed Lingard, taking up the child again,
and beginning to walk up and down the verandah. "I have my
plans. I have--listen."
And he began to explain to the interested Almayer his plans for
the future. He would interview Abdulla and Lakamba. There must
be some understanding with those fellows now they had the upper
hand. Here he interrupted himself to swear freely, while the
child, who had been diligently fumbling about his neck, had found
his whistle and blew a loud blast now and then close to his
ear--which made him wince and laugh as he put her hands down,
scolding her lovingly. Yes--that would be easily settled. He
was a man to be reckoned with yet. Nobody knew that better than
Almayer. Very well. Then he must patiently try and keep some
little trade together. It would be all right. But the great
thing--and here Lingard spoke lower, bringing himself to a sudden
standstill before the entranced Almayer--the great thing would be
the gold hunt up the river. He--Lingard--would devote himself to
it. He had been in the interior before. There were immense
deposits of alluvial gold there. Fabulous. He felt sure. Had
seen places. Dangerous work? Of course! But what a reward! He
would explore--and find. Not a shadow of doubt. Hang the
danger! They would first get as much as they could for
themselves. Keep the thing quiet. Then after a time form a
Company. In Batavia or in England. Yes, in England. Much
better. Splendid! Why, of course. And that baby would be the
richest woman in the world. He--Lingard--would not, perhaps, see
it--although he felt good for many years yet--but Almayer would.
Here was something to live for yet! Hey?
But the richest woman in the world had been for the last five
minutes shouting shrilly--"Rajah Laut! Rajah Laut! Hai! Give
ear!" while the old seaman had been speaking louder,
unconsciously, to make his deep bass heard above the impatient
clamour. He stopped now and said tenderly--
"What is it, little woman?"
"I am not a little woman. I am a white child. Anak Putih. A
white child; and the white men are my brothers. Father says so.
And Ali says so too. Ali knows as much as father. Everything."
Almayer almost danced with paternal delight.
"I taught her. I taught her," he repeated, laughing with tears
in his eyes. "Isn't she sharp?"
"I am the slave of the white child," said Lingard, with playful
solemnity. "What is the order?"
"I want a house," she warbled, with great eagerness. "I want a
house, and another house on the roof, and another on the
roof--high. High! Like the places where they dwell--my
brothers--in the land where the sun sleeps."
"To the westward," explained Almayer, under his breath. "She
remembers everything. She wants you to build a house of cards.
You did, last time you were here."
Lingard sat down with the child on his knees, and Almayer pulled
out violently one drawer after another, looking for the cards, as
if the fate of the world depended upon his haste. He produced a
dirty double pack which was only used during Lingard's visit to
Sambir, when he would sometimes play--of an evening--with
Almayer, a game which he called Chinese bezique. It bored
Almayer, but the old seaman delighted in it, considering it a
remarkable product of Chinese genius--a race for which he had an
unaccountable liking and admiration.
"Now we will get on, my little pearl," he said, putting together
with extreme precaution two cards that looked absurdly flimsy
between his big fingers. Little Nina watched him with intense
seriousness as he went on erecting the ground floor, while he
continued to speak to Almayer with his head over his shoulder so
as not to endanger the structure with his breath.
"I know what I am talking about. . . . Been in California in
forty-nine. . . . Not that I made much . . . then in Victoria in
the early days. . . . I know all about it. Trust me. Moreover
a blind man could . . . Be quiet, little sister, or you will
knock this affair down. . . . My hand pretty steady yet! Hey,
Kaspar? . . . Now, delight of my heart, we shall put a third
house on the top of these two . . . keep very quiet. . . . As I
was saying, you got only to stoop and gather handfuls of gold . .
. dust . . . there. Now here we are. Three houses on top of one
another. Grand!"
He leaned back in his chair, one hand on the child's head, which
he smoothed mechanically, and gesticulated with the other,
speaking to Almayer.
"Once on the spot, there would be only the trouble to pick up the
stuff. Then we shall all go to Europe. The child must be
educated. We shall be rich. Rich is no name for it. Down in
Devonshire where I belong, there was a fellow who built a house
near Teignmouth which had as many windows as a three-decker has
ports. Made all his money somewhere out here in the good old
days. People around said he had been a pirate. We boys--I was a
boy in a Brixham trawler then--certainly believed that. He went
about in a bath-chair in his grounds. Had a glass eye . . ."
"Higher, Higher!" called out Nina, pulling the old seaman's
"You do worry me--don't you?" said Lingard, gently, giving her a
tender kiss. "What? One more house on top of all these? Well!
I will try."
The child watched him breathlessly. When the difficult feat was
accomplished she clapped her hands, looked on steadily, and after
a while gave a great sigh of content.
"Oh! Look out!" shouted Almayer.
The structure collapsed suddenly before the child's light breath.
Lingard looked discomposed for a moment. Almayer laughed, but
the little girl began to cry.
"Take her," said the old seaman, abruptly. Then, after Almayer
went away with the crying child, he remained sitting by the
table, looking gloomily at the heap of cards.
"Damn this Willems," he muttered to himself. "But I will do it
He got up, and with an angry push of his hand swept the cards off
the table. Then he fell back in his chair.
"Tired as a dog," he sighed out, closing his eyes.
Consciously or unconsciously, men are proud of their firmness,
steadfastness of purpose, directness of aim. They go straight
towards their desire, to the accomplishment of virtue--sometimes
of crime--in an uplifting persuasion of their firmness. They
walk the road of life, the road fenced in by their tastes,
prejudices, disdains or enthusiasms, generally honest, invariably
stupid, and are proud of never losing their way. If they do
stop, it is to look for a moment over the hedges that make them
safe, to look at the misty valleys, at the distant peaks, at
cliffs and morasses, at the dark forests and the hazy plains
where other human beings grope their days painfully away,
stumbling over the bones of the wise, over the unburied remains
of their predecessors who died alone, in gloom or in sunshine,
halfway from anywhere. The man of purpose does not understand,
and goes on, full of contempt. He never loses his way. He knows
where he is going and what he wants. Travelling on, he achieves
great length without any breadth, and battered, besmirched, and
weary, he touches the goal at last; he grasps the reward of his
perseverance, of his virtue, of his healthy optimism: an
untruthful tombstone over a dark and soon forgotten grave.
Lingard had never hesitated in his life. Why should he? He had
been a most successful trader, and a man lucky in his fights,
skilful in navigation, undeniably first in seamanship in those
seas. He knew it. Had he not heard the voice of common consent?
The voice of the world that respected him so much; the whole
world to him--for to us the limits of the universe are strictly
defined by those we know. There is nothing for us outside the
babble of praise and blame on familiar lips, and beyond our last
acquaintance there lies only a vast chaos; a chaos of laughter
and tears which concerns us not; laughter and tears unpleasant,
wicked, morbid, contemptible--because heard imperfectly by ears
rebellious to strange sounds. To Lingard--simple himself--all
things were simple. He seldom read. Books were not much in his
way, and he had to work hard navigating, trading, and also, in
obedience to his benevolent instincts, shaping stray lives he
found here and there under his busy hand. He remembered the
Sunday-school teachings of his native village and the discourses
of the black-coated gentleman connected with the Mission to
Fishermen and Seamen, whose yawl-rigged boat darting through
rain-squalls amongst the coasters wind-bound in Falmouth Bay, was
part of those precious pictures of his youthful days that
lingered in his memory. "As clever a sky-pilot as you could wish
to see," he would say with conviction, "and the best man to
handle a boat in any weather I ever did meet!" Such were the
agencies that had roughly shaped his young soul before he went
away to see the world in a southern-going ship--before he went,
ignorant and happy, heavy of hand, pure in heart, profane in
speech, to give himself up to the great sea that took his life
and gave him his fortune. When thinking of his rise in the
world--commander of ships, then shipowner, then a man of much
capital, respected wherever he went, Lingard in a word, the Rajah
Laut--he was amazed and awed by his fate, that seemed to his
ill-informed mind the most wondrous known in the annals of men.
His experience appeared to him immense and conclusive, teaching
him the lesson of the simplicity of life. In life--as in
seamanship--there were only two ways of doing a thing: the right
way and the wrong way. Common sense and experience taught a man
the way that was right. The other was for lubbers and fools, and
led, in seamanship, to loss of spars and sails or shipwreck; in
life, to loss of money and consideration, or to an unlucky knock
on the head. He did not consider it his duty to be angry with
rascals. He was only angry with things he could not understand,
but for the weaknesses of humanity he could find a contemptuous
tolerance. It being manifest that he was wise and
lucky--otherwise how could he have been as successful in life as
he had been?--he had an inclination to set right the lives of
other people, just as he could hardly refrain--in defiance of
nautical etiquette--from interfering with his chief officer when
the crew was sending up a new topmast, or generally when busy
about, what he called, "a heavy job." He was meddlesome with
perfect modesty; if he knew a thing or two there was no merit in
it. "Hard knocks taught me wisdom, my boy," he used to say, "and
you had better take the advice of a man who has been a fool in
his time. Have another." And "my boy" as a rule took the cool
drink, the advice, and the consequent help which Lingard felt
himself bound in honour to give, so as to back up his opinion
like an honest man. Captain Tom went sailing from island to
island, appearing unexpectedly in various localities, beaming,
noisy, anecdotal, commendatory or comminatory, but always
It was only since his return to Sambir that the old seaman had
for the first time known doubt and unhappiness, The loss of the
Flash--planted firmly and for ever on a ledge of rock at the
north end of Gaspar Straits in the uncertain light of a cloudy
morning--shook him considerably; and the amazing news which he
heard on his arrival in Sambir were not made to soothe his
feelings. A good many years ago--prompted by his love of
adventure--he, with infinite trouble, had found out and
surveyed--for his own benefit only--the entrances to that river,
where, he had heard through native report, a new settlement of
Malays was forming. No doubt he thought at the time mostly of
personal gain; but, received with hearty friendliness by
Patalolo, he soon came to like the ruler and the people, offered
his counsel and his help, and--knowing nothing of Arcadia--he
dreamed of Arcadian happiness for that little corner of the world
which he loved to think all his own. His deep-seated and
immovable conviction that only he--he, Lingard--knew what was
good for them was characteristic of him. and, after all, not so
very far wrong. He would make them happy whether or no, he said,
and he meant it. His trade brought prosperity to the young state,
and the fear of his heavy hand secured its internal peace for
many years.
He looked proudly upon his work. With every passing year he
loved more the land, the people, the muddy river that, if he
could help it, would carry no other craft but the Flash on its
unclean and friendly surface. As he slowly warped his vessel
up-stream he would scan with knowing looks the riverside
clearings, and pronounce solemn judgment upon the prospects of
the season's rice-crop. He knew every settler on the banks
between the sea and Sambir; he knew their wives, their children;
he knew every individual of the multi-coloured groups that,
standing on the flimsy platforms of tiny reed dwellings built
over the water, waved their hands and shouted shrilly: "O! Kapal
layer! Hai!" while the Flash swept slowly through the populated
reach, to enter the lonely stretches of sparkling brown water
bordered by the dense and silent forest, whose big trees nodded
their outspread boughs gently in the faint, warm breeze--as if in
sign of tender but melancholy welcome. He loved it all: the
landscape of brown golds and brilliant emeralds under the dome of
hot sapphire; the whispering big trees; the loquacious nipa-palms
that rattled their leaves volubly in the night breeze, as if in
haste to tell him all the secrets of the great forest behind
them. He loved the heavy scents of blossoms and black earth,
that breath of life and of death which lingered over his brig in
the damp air of tepid and peaceful nights. He loved the narrow
and sombre creeks, strangers to sunshine: black, smooth,
tortuous--like byways of despair. He liked even the troops of
sorrowful-faced monkeys that profaned the quiet spots with
capricious gambols and insane gestures of inhuman madness. He
loved everything there, animated or inanimated; the very mud of
the riverside; the very alligators, enormous and stolid, basking
on it with impertinent unconcern. Their size was a source of
pride to him. "Immense fellows! Make two of them Palembang
reptiles! I tell you, old man!" he would shout, poking some
crony of his playfully in the ribs: "I tell you, big as you are,
they could swallow you in one gulp, hat, boots and all!
Magnificent beggars! Wouldn't you like to see them? Wouldn't
you! Ha! ha! ha!" His thunderous laughter filled the verandah,
rolled over the hotel garden, overflowed into the street,
paralyzing for a short moment the noiseless traffic of bare brown
feet; and its loud reverberations would even startle the
landlord's tame bird--a shameless mynah--into a momentary
propriety of behaviour under the nearest chair. In the big
billiard-room perspiring men in thin cotton singlets would stop
the game, listen, cue in hand, for a while through the open
windows, then nod their moist faces at each other sagaciously and
whisper: "The old fellow is talking about his river."
His river! The whispers of curious men, the mystery of the
thing, were to Lingard a source of never-ending delight. The
common talk of ignorance exaggerated the profits of his queer
monopoly, and, although strictly truthful in general, he liked,
on that matter, to mislead speculation still further by boasts
full of cold raillery. His river! By it he was not only
rich--he was interesting. This secret of his which made him
different to the other traders of those seas gave intimate
satisfaction to that desire for singularity which he shared with
the rest of mankind, without being aware of its presence within
his breast. It was the greater part of his happiness, but he
only knew it after its loss, so unforeseen, so sudden and so
After his conversation with Almayer he went on board the
schooner, sent Joanna on shore, and shut himself up in his cabin,
feeling very unwell. He made the most of his indisposition to
Almayer, who came to visit him twice a day. It was an excuse for
doing nothing just yet. He wanted to think. He was very angry.
Angry with himself, with Willems. Angry at what Willems had
done--and also angry at what he had left undone. The scoundrel
was not complete. The conception was perfect, but the execution,
unaccountably, fell short. Why? He ought to have cut Almayer's
throat and burnt the place to ashes--then cleared out. Got out
of his way; of him, Lingard! Yet he didn't. Was it impudence,
contempt--or what? He felt hurt at the implied disrespect of his
power, and the incomplete rascality of the proceeding disturbed
him exceedingly. There was something short, something wanting,
something that would have given him a free hand in the work of
retribution. The obvious, the right thing to do, was to shoot
Willems. Yet how could he? Had the fellow resisted, showed
fight, or ran away; had he shown any consciousness of harm done,
it would have been more possible, more natural. But no! The
fellow actually had sent him a message. Wanted to see him. What
for? The thing could not be explained. An unexampled,
cold-blooded treachery, awful, incomprehensible. Why did he do
it? Why? Why? The old seaman in the stuffy solitude of his
little cabin on board the schooner groaned out many times that
question, striking with an open palm his perplexed forehead.
During his four days of seclusion he had received two messages
from the outer world; from that world of Sambir which had, so
suddenly and so finally, slipped from his grasp. One, a few
words from Willems written on a torn-out page of a small
notebook; the other, a communication from Abdulla caligraphed
carefully on a large sheet of flimsy paper and delivered to him
in a green silk wrapper. The first he could not understand. It
said: "Come and see me. I am not afraid. Are you? W." He
tore it up angrily, but before the small bits of dirty paper had
the time to flutter down and settle on the floor, the anger was
gone and was replaced by a sentiment that induced him to go on
his knees, pick up the fragments of the torn message, piece it
together on the top of his chronometer box, and contemplate it
long and thoughtfully, as if he had hoped to read the answer of
the horrible riddle in the very form of the letters that went to
make up that fresh insult. Abdulla's letter he read carefully
and rammed it into his pocket, also with anger, but with anger
that ended in a half-resigned, half-amused smile. He would never
give in as long as there was a chance. "It's generally the
safest way to stick to the ship as long as she will swim," was
one of his favourite sayings: "The safest and the right way. To
abandon a craft because it leaks is easy--but poor work. Poor
work!" Yet he was intelligent enough to know when he was beaten,
and to accept the situation like a man, without repining. When
Almayer came on board that afternoon he handed him the letter
without comment.
Almayer read it, returned it in silence, and leaning over the
taffrail (the two men were on deck) looked down for some time at
the play of the eddies round the schooner's rudder. At last he
said without looking up--
"That's a decent enough letter. Abdulla gives him up to you. I
told you they were getting sick of him. What are you going to
Lingard cleared his throat, shuffled his feet, opened his mouth
with great determination, but said nothing for a while. At last
he murmured--
"I'll be hanged if I know--just yet."
"I wish you would do something soon . . ."
"What's the hurry?" interrupted Lingard. "He can't get away. As
it stands he is at my mercy, as far as I can see."
"Yes," said Almayer, reflectively--"and very little mercy he
deserves too. Abdulla's meaning--as I can make it out amongst
all those compliments--is: 'Get rid for me of that white man--and
we shall live in peace and share the trade."'
"You believe that?" asked Lingard, contemptuously.
"Not altogether," answered Almayer. "No doubt we will share the
trade for a time--till he can grab the lot. Well, what are you
going to do?"
He looked up as he spoke and was surprised to see Lingard's
discomposed face.
"You ain't well. Pain anywhere?" he asked, with real solicitude.
"I have been queer--you know--these last few days, but no pain."
He struck his broad chest several times, cleared his throat with
a powerful "Hem!" and repeated: "No. No pain. Good for a few
years yet. But I am bothered with all this, I can tell you!"
"You must take care of yourself," said Almayer. Then after a
pause he added: "You will see Abdulla. Won't you?"
"I don't know. Not yet. There's plenty of time," said Lingard,
"I wish you would do something," urged Almayer, moodily. "You
know, that woman is a perfect nuisance to me. She and her brat!
Yelps all day. And the children don't get on together. Yesterday
the little devil wanted to fight with my Nina. Scratched her
face, too. A perfect savage! Like his honourable papa. Yes,
really. She worries about her husband, and whimpers from morning
to night. When she isn't weeping she is furious with me.
Yesterday she tormented me to tell her when he would be back and
cried because he was engaged in such dangerous work. I said
something about it being all right--no necessity to make a fool
of herself, when she turned upon me like a wild cat. Called me a
brute, selfish, heartless; raved about her beloved Peter risking
his life for my benefit, while I did not care. Said I took
advantage of his generous good-nature to get him to do dangerous
work--my work. That he was worth twenty of the likes of me.
That she would tell you--open your eyes as to the kind of man I
was, and so on. That's what I've got to put up with for your
sake. You really might consider me a little. I haven't robbed
anybody," went on Almayer, with an attempt at bitter irony--"or
sold my best friend, but still you ought to have some pity on me.
It's like living in a hot fever. She is out of her wits. You
make my house a refuge for scoundrels and lunatics. It isn't
fair. 'Pon my word it isn't! When she is in her tantrums she is
ridiculously ugly and screeches so--it sets my teeth on edge.
Thank God! my wife got a fit of the sulks and cleared out of the
house. Lives in a riverside hut since that affair--you know.
But this Willems' wife by herself is almost more than I can bear.
And I ask myself why should I? You are exacting and no mistake.
This morning I thought she was going to claw me. Only think!
She wanted to go prancing about the settlement. She might have
heard something there, so I told her she mustn't. It wasn't safe
outside our fences, I said. Thereupon she rushes at me with her
ten nails up to my eyes. 'You miserable man,' she yells, 'even
this place is not safe, and you've sent him up this awful river
where he may lose his head. If he dies before forgiving me,
Heaven will punish you for your crime . . .' My crime! I ask
myself sometimes whether I am dreaming! It will make me ill, all
this. I've lost my appetite already."
He flung his hat on deck and laid hold of his hair despairingly.
Lingard looked at him with concern.
"What did she mean by it?" he muttered, thoughtfully.
"Mean! She is crazy, I tell you--and I will be, very soon, if
this lasts!"
"Just a little patience, Kaspar," pleaded Lingard. "A day or so
Relieved or tired by his violent outburst, Almayer calmed down,
picked up his hat and, leaning against the bulwark, commenced to
fan himself with it.
"Days do pass," he said, resignedly--"but that kind of thing
makes a man old before his time. What is there to think
about?--I can't imagine! Abdulla says plainly that if you
undertake to pilot his ship out and instruct the half-caste, he
will drop Willems like a hot potato and be your friend ever
after. I believe him perfectly, as to Willems. It's so natural.
As to being your friend it's a lie of course, but we need not
bother about that just yet. You just say yes to Abdulla, and
then whatever happens to Willems will be nobody's business."
He interrupted himself and remained silent for a while, glaring
about with set teeth and dilated nostrils.
"You leave it to me. I'll see to it that something happens to
him," he said at last, with calm ferocity. Lingard smiled
"The fellow isn't worth a shot. Not the trouble of it," he
whispered, as if to himself. Almayer fired up suddenly.
"That's what you think," he cried. "You haven't been sewn up in
your hammock to be made a laughing-stock of before a parcel of
savages. Why! I daren't look anybody here in the face while
that scoundrel is alive. I will . . . I will settle him."
"I don't think you will," growled Lingard.
"Do you think I am afraid of him?"
"Bless you! no!" said Lingard with alacrity. "Afraid! Not you.
I know you. I don't doubt your courage. It's your head, my boy,
your head that I . . ."
"That's it," said the aggrieved Almayer. "Go on. Why don't you
call me a fool at once?"
"Because I don't want to," burst out Lingard, with nervous
irritability. "If I wanted to call you a fool, I would do so
without asking your leave." He began to walk athwart the narrow
quarter-deck, kicking ropes' ends out of his way and growling to
himself: "Delicate gentleman . . . what next? . . . I've done
man's work before you could toddle. Understand . . . say what I
"Well! well!" said Almayer, with affected resignation. "There's
no talking to you these last few days." He put on his hat,
strolled to the gangway and stopped, one foot on the little
inside ladder, as if hesitating, came back and planted himself in
Lingard's way, compelling him to stand still and listen.
"Of course you will do what you like. You never take advice--I
know that; but let me tell you that it wouldn't be honest to let
that fellow get away from here. If you do nothing, that
scoundrel will leave in Abdulla's ship for sure. Abdulla will
make use of him to hurt you and others elsewhere. Willems knows
too much about your affairs. He will cause you lots of trouble.
You mark my words. Lots of trouble. To you--and to others
perhaps. Think of that, Captain Lingard. That's all I've got to
say. Now I must go back on shore. There's lots of work. We
will begin loading this schooner to-morrow morning, first thing.
All the bundles are ready. If you should want me for anything,
hoist some kind of flag on the mainmast. At night two shots will
fetch me." Then he added, in a friendly tone, "Won't you come
and dine in the house to-night? It can't be good for you to stew
on board like that, day after day."
Lingard did not answer. The image evoked by Almayer; the picture
of Willems ranging over the islands and disturbing the harmony of
the universe by robbery, treachery, and violence, held him
silent, entranced--painfully spellbound. Almayer, after waiting
for a little while, moved reluctantly towards the gangway,
lingered there, then sighed and got over the side, going down
step by step. His head disappeared slowly below the rail.
Lingard, who had been staring at him absently, started suddenly,
ran to the side, and looking over, called out--
"Hey! Kaspar! Hold on a bit!"
Almayer signed to his boatmen to cease paddling, and turned his
head towards the schooner. The boat drifted back slowly abreast
of Lingard, nearly alongside.
"Look here," said Lingard, looking down--"I want a good canoe
with four men to-day."
"Do you want it now?" asked Almayer.
"No! Catch this rope. Oh, you clumsy devil! . . . No, Kaspar,"
went on Lingard, after the bow-man had got hold of the end of the
brace he had thrown down into the canoe--"No, Kaspar. The sun is
too much for me. And it would be better to keep my affairs
quiet, too. Send the canoe--four good paddlers, mind, and your
canvas chair for me to sit in. Send it about sunset. D'ye
"All right, father," said Almayer, cheerfully--"I will send Ali
for a steersman, and the best men I've got. Anything else?"
"No, my lad. Only don't let them be late."
"I suppose it's no use asking you where you are going," said
Almayer, tentatively. "Because if it is to see Abdulla, I . . ."
"I am not going to see Abdulla. Not to-day. Now be off with
He watched the canoe dart away shorewards, waved his hand in
response to Almayer's nod, and walked to the taffrail smoothing
out Abdulla's letter, which he had pulled out of his pocket. He
read it over carefully, crumpled it up slowly, smiling the while
and closing his fingers firmly over the crackling paper as though
he had hold there of Abdulla's throat. Halfway to his pocket he
changed his mind, and flinging the ball overboard looked at it
thoughtfully as it spun round in the eddies for a moment, before
the current bore it away down-stream, towards the sea.
The night was very dark. For the first time in many months the
East Coast slept unseen by the stars under a veil of motionless
cloud that, driven before the first breath of the rainy monsoon,
had drifted slowly from the eastward all the afternoon; pursuing
the declining sun with its masses of black and grey that seemed
to chase the light with wicked intent, and with an ominous and
gloomy steadiness, as though conscious of the message of violence
and turmoil they carried. At the sun's disappearance below the
western horizon, the immense cloud, in quickened motion, grappled
with the glow of retreating light, and rolling down to the clear
and jagged outline of the distant mountains, hung arrested above
the steaming forests; hanging low, silent and menacing over the
unstirring tree-tops; withholding the blessing of rain, nursing
the wrath of its thunder; undecided--as if brooding over its own
power for good or for evil.
Babalatchi, coming out of the red and smoky light of his little
bamboo house, glanced upwards, drew in a long breath of the warm
and stagnant air, and stood for a moment with his good eye closed
tightly, as if intimidated by the unwonted and deep silence of
Lakamba's courtyard. When he opened his eye he had recovered his
sight so far, that he could distinguish the various degrees of
formless blackness which marked the places of trees, of abandoned
houses, of riverside bushes, on the dark background of the night.
The careworn sage walked cautiously down the deserted courtyard
to the waterside, and stood on the bank listening to the voice of
the invisible river that flowed at his feet; listening to the
soft whispers, to the deep murmurs, to the sudden gurgles and the
short hisses of the swift current racing along the bank through
the hot darkness.
He stood with his face turned to the river, and it seemed to him
that he could breathe easier with the knowledge of the clear vast
space before him; then, after a while he leaned heavily forward
on his staff, his chin fell on his breast, and a deep sigh was
his answer to the selfish discourse of the river that hurried on
unceasing and fast, regardless of joy or sorrow, of suffering and
of strife, of failures and triumphs that lived on its banks. The
brown water was there, ready to carry friends or enemies, to
nurse love or hate on its submissive and heartless bosom, to help
or to hinder, to save life or give death; the great and rapid
river: a deliverance, a prison, a refuge or a grave.
Perchance such thoughts as these caused Babalatchi to send
another mournful sigh into the trailing mists of the unconcerned
Pantai. The barbarous politician had forgotten the recent
success of his plottings in the melancholy contemplation of a
sorrow that made the night blacker, the clammy heat more
oppressive, the still air more heavy, the dumb solitude more
significant of torment than of peace. He had spent the night
before by the side of the dying Omar, and now, after twenty-four
hours, his memory persisted in returning to that low and sombre
reed hut from which the fierce spirit of the incomparably
accomplished pirate took its flight, to learn too late, in a
worse world, the error of its earthly ways. The mind of the
savage statesman, chastened by bereavement, felt for a moment the
weight of his loneliness with keen perception worthy even of a
sensibility exasperated by all the refinements of tender
sentiment that a glorious civilization brings in its train, among
other blessings and virtues, into this excellent world. For the
space of about thirty seconds, a half-naked, betel-chewing
pessimist stood upon the bank of the tropical river, on the edge
of the still and immense forests; a man angry, powerless,
empty-handed, with a cry of bitter discontent ready on his lips;
a cry that, had it come out, would have rung through the virgin
solitudes of the woods, as true, as great, as profound, as any
philosophical shriek that ever came from the depths of an
easy-chair to disturb the impure wilderness of chimneys and
For half a minute and no more did Babalatchi face the gods in the
sublime privilege of his revolt, and then the one-eyed puller of
wires became himself again, full of care and wisdom and
far-reaching plans, and a victim to the tormenting superstitions
of his race. The night, no matter how quiet, is never perfectly
silent to attentive ears, and now Babalatchi fancied he could
detect in it other noises than those caused by the ripples and
eddies of the river. He turned his head sharply to the right and
to the left in succession, and then spun round quickly in a
startled and watchful manner, as if he had expected to see the
blind ghost of his departed leader wandering in the obscurity of
the empty courtyard behind his back. Nothing there. Yet he had
heard a noise; a strange noise! No doubt a ghostly voice of a
complaining and angry spirit. He listened. Not a sound.
Reassured, Babalatchi made a few paces towards his house, when a
very human noise, that of hoarse coughing, reached him from the
river. He stopped, listened attentively, but now without any
sign of emotion, and moving briskly back to the waterside stood
expectant with parted lips, trying to pierce with his eye the
wavering curtain of mist that hung low over the water. He could
see nothing, yet some people in a canoe must have been very near,
for he heard words spoken in an ordinary tone.
"Do you think this is the place, Ali? I can see nothing."
"It must be near here, Tuan," answered another voice. "Shall we
try the bank?"
"No! . . . Let drift a little. If you go poking into the bank
in the dark you might stove the canoe on some log. We must be
careful. . . . Let drift! Let drift! . . . This does seem to be
a clearing of some sort. We may see a light by and by from some
house or other. In Lakamba's campong there are many houses?
"A great number, Tuan . . . I do not see any light."
"Nor I," grumbled the first voice again, this time nearly abreast
of the silent Babalatchi who looked uneasily towards his own
house, the doorway of which glowed with the dim light of a torch
burning within. The house stood end on to the river, and its
doorway faced down-stream, so Babalatchi reasoned rapidly that
the strangers on the river could not see the light from the
position their boat was in at the moment. He could not make up
his mind to call out to them, and while he hesitated he heard the
voices again, but now some way below the landing-place where he
"Nothing. This cannot be it. Let them give way, Ali! Dayong
That order was followed by the splash of paddles, then a sudden
"I see a light. I see it! Now I know where to land, Tuan."
There was more splashing as the canoe was paddled sharply round
and came back up-stream close to the bank.
"Call out," said very near a deep voice, which Babalatchi felt
sure must belong to a white man. "Call out--and somebody may
come with a torch. I can't see anything."
The loud hail that succeeded these words was emitted nearly under
the silent listener's nose. Babalatchi, to preserve appearances,
ran with long but noiseless strides halfway up the courtyard, and
only then shouted in answer and kept on shouting as he walked
slowly back again towards the river bank. He saw there an
indistinct shape of a boat, not quite alongside the
"Who speaks on the river?" asked Babalatchi, throwing a tone of
surprise into his question.
"A white man," answered Lingard from the canoe. "Is there not
one torch in rich Lakamba's campong to light a guest on his
"There are no torches and no men. I am alone here," said
Babalatchi, with some hesitation.
"Alone!" exclaimed Lingard. "Who are you?"
"Only a servant of Lakamba. But land, Tuan Putih, and see my
face. Here is my hand. No! Here! . . . By your mercy. . . .
Ada! . . . Now you are safe."
"And you are alone here?" said Lingard, moving with precaution a
few steps into the courtyard. "How dark it is," he muttered to
himself--"one would think the world had been painted black."
"Yes. Alone. What more did you say, Tuan? I did not understand
your talk."
"It is nothing. I expected to find here . . . But where are they
"What matters where they are?" said Babalatchi, gloomily. "Have
you come to see my people? The last departed on a long
journey--and I am alone. Tomorrow I go too."
"I came to see a white man," said Lingard, walking on slowly.
"He is not gone, is he?"
"No!" answered Babalatchi, at his elbow. "A man with a red skin
and hard eyes," he went on, musingly, "whose hand is strong, and
whose heart is foolish and weak. A white man indeed . . . But
still a man."
They were now at the foot of the short ladder which led to the
split-bamboo platform surrounding Babalatchi's habitation. The
faint light from the doorway fell down upon the two men's faces
as they stood looking at each other curiously.
"Is he there?" asked Lingard, in a low voice, with a wave of his
hand upwards.
Babalatchi, staring hard at his long-expected visitor, did not
answer at once. "No, not there," he said at last, placing his
foot on the lowest rung and looking back. "Not there, Tuan--yet
not very far. Will you sit down in my dwelling? There may be
rice and fish and clear water--not from the river, but from a
spring . . ."
"I am not hungry," interrupted Lingard, curtly, "and I did not
come here to sit in your dwelling. Lead me to the white man who
expects me. I have no time to lose."
"The night is long, Tuan," went on Babalatchi, softly, "and there
are other nights and other days. Long. Very long . . . How much
time it takes for a man to die! O Rajah Laut!"
Lingard started.
"You know me!" he exclaimed.
"Ay--wa! I have seen your face and felt your hand before--many
years ago," said Babalatchi, holding on halfway up the ladder,
and bending down from above to peer into Lingard's upturned face.
"You do not remember--but I have not forgotten. There are many
men like me: there is only one Rajah Laut."
He climbed with sudden agility the last few steps, and stood on
the platform waving his hand invitingly to Lingard, who followed
after a short moment of indecision.
The elastic bamboo floor of the hut bent under the heavy weight
of the old seaman, who, standing within the threshold, tried to
look into the smoky gloom of the low dwelling. Under the torch,
thrust into the cleft of a stick, fastened at a right angle to
the middle stay of the ridge pole, lay a red patch of light,
showing a few shabby mats and a corner of a big wooden chest the
rest of which was lost in shadow. In the obscurity of the more
remote parts of the house a lance-head, a brass tray hung on the
wall, the long barrel of a gun leaning against the chest, caught
the stray rays of the smoky illumination in trembling gleams that
wavered, disappeared, reappeared, went out, came back--as if
engaged in a doubtful struggle with the darkness that, lying in
wait in distant corners, seemed to dart out viciously towards its
feeble enemy. The vast space under the high pitch of the roof
was filled with a thick cloud of smoke, whose under-side--level
like a ceiling--reflected the light of the swaying dull flame,
while at the top it oozed out through the imperfect thatch of
dried palm leaves. An indescribable and complicated smell, made
up of the exhalation of damp earth below, of the taint of dried
fish and of the effluvia of rotting vegetable matter, pervaded
the place and caused Lingard to sniff strongly as he strode over,
sat on the chest, and, leaning his elbows on his knees, took his
head between his hands and stared at the doorway thoughtfully.
Babalatchi moved about in the shadows, whispering to an
indistinct form or two that flitted about at the far end of the
hut. Without stirring Lingard glanced sideways, and caught sight
of muffled-up human shapes that hovered for a moment near the
edge of light and retreated suddenly back into the darkness.
Babalatchi approached, and sat at Lingard's feet on a rolled-up
bundle of mats.
"Will you eat rice and drink sagueir?" he said. "I have waked up
my household."
"My friend," said Lingard, without looking at him, "when I come
to see Lakamba, or any of Lakamba's servants, I am never hungry
and never thirsty. Tau! Savee! Never! Do you think I am devoid
of reason? That there is nothing there?"
He sat up, and, fixing abruptly his eyes on Babalatchi, tapped
his own forehead significantly.
"Tse! Tse! Tse! How can you talk like that, Tuan!" exclaimed
Babalatchi, in a horrified tone.
"I talk as I think. I have lived many years," said Lingard,
stretching his arm negligently to take up the gun, which he began
to examine knowingly, cocking it, and easing down the hammer
several times. "This is good. Mataram make. Old, too," he went
"Hai!" broke in Babalatchi, eagerly. "I got it when I was young.
He was an Aru trader, a man with a big stomach and a loud voice,
and brave--very brave. When we came up with his prau in the grey
morning, he stood aft shouting to his men and fired this gun at
us once. Only once!" . . . He paused, laughed softly, and went
on in a low, dreamy voice. "In the grey morning we came up:
forty silent men in a swift Sulu prau; and when the sun was so
high"--here he held up his hands about three feet apart--"when
the sun was only so high, Tuan, our work was done--and there was
a feast ready for the fishes of the sea."
"Aye! aye!" muttered Lingard, nodding his head slowly. "I see.
You should not let it get rusty like this," he added.
He let the gun fall between his knees, and moving back on his
seat, leaned his head against the wall of the hut, crossing his
arms on his breast.
"A good gun," went on Babalatchi. "Carry far and true. Better
than this--there."
With the tips of his fingers he touched gently the butt of a
revolver peeping out of the right pocket of Lingard's white
"Take your hand off that," said Lingard sharply, but in a
good-humoured tone and without making the slightest movement.
Babalatchi smiled and hitched his seat a little further off.
For some time they sat in silence. Lingard, with his head tilted
back, looked downwards with lowered eyelids at Babalatchi, who
was tracing invisible lines with his finger on the mat between
his feet. Outside, they could hear Ali and the other boatmen
chattering and laughing round the fire they had lighted in the
big and deserted courtyard.
"Well, what about that white man?" said Lingard, quietly.
It seemed as if Babalatchi had not heard the question. He went
on tracing elaborate patterns on the floor for a good while.
Lingard waited motionless. At last the Malay lifted his head.
"Hai! The white man. I know!" he murmured absently. "This
white man or another. . . . Tuan," he said aloud with unexpected
animation, "you are a man of the sea?"
"You know me. Why ask?" said Lingard, in a low tone.
"Yes. A man of the sea--even as we are. A true Orang Laut,"
went on Babalatchi, thoughtfully, "not like the rest of the white
"I am like other whites, and do not wish to speak many words when
the truth is short. I came here to see the white man that helped
Lakamba against Patalolo, who is my friend. Show me where that
white man lives; I want him to hear my talk."
"Talk only? Tuan! Why hurry? The night is long and death is
swift--as you ought to know; you who have dealt it to so many of
my people. Many years ago I have faced you, arms in hand. Do
you not remember? It was in Carimata--far from here."
"I cannot remember every vagabond that came in my way," protested
Lingard, seriously.
"Hai! Hai!" continued Babalatchi, unmoved and dreamy. "Many
years ago. Then all this"--and looking up suddenly at Lingard's
beard, he flourished his fingers below his own beardless
chin--"then all this was like gold in sunlight, now it is like
the foam of an angry sea."
"Maybe, maybe," said Lingard, patiently, paying the involuntary
tribute of a faint sigh to the memories of the past evoked by
Babalatchi's words.
He had been living with Malays so long and so close that the
extreme deliberation and deviousness of their mental proceedings
had ceased to irritate him much. To-night, perhaps, he was less
prone to impatience than ever. He was disposed, if not to listen
to Babalatchi, then to let him talk. It was evident to him that
the man had something to say, and he hoped that from the talk a
ray of light would shoot through the thick blackness of
inexplicable treachery, to show him clearly--if only for a
second--the man upon whom he would have to execute the verdict of
justice. Justice only! Nothing was further from his thoughts
than such an useless thing as revenge. Justice only. It was his
duty that justice should be done--and by his own hand. He did
not like to think how. To him, as to Babalatchi, it seemed that
the night would be long enough for the work he had to do. But he
did not define to himself the nature of the work, and he sat very
still, and willingly dilatory, under the fearsome oppression of
his call. What was the good to think about it? It was
inevitable, and its time was near. Yet he could not command his
memories that came crowding round him in that evil-smelling hut,
while Babalatchi talked on in a flowing monotone, nothing of him
moving but the lips, in the artificially inanimated face.
Lingard, like an anchored ship that had broken her sheer, darted
about here and there on the rapid tide of his recollections. The
subdued sound of soft words rang around him, but his thoughts
were lost, now in the contemplation of the past sweetness and
strife of Carimata days, now in the uneasy wonder at the failure
of his judgment; at the fatal blindness of accident that had
caused him, many years ago, to rescue a half-starved runaway from
a Dutch ship in Samarang roads. How he had liked the man: his
assurance, his push, his desire to get on, his conceited
good-humour and his selfish eloquence. He had liked his very
faults--those faults that had so many, to him, sympathetic sides.
And he had always dealt fairly by him from the very beginning;
and he would deal fairly by him now--to the very end. This last
thought darkened Lingard's features with a responsive and
menacing frown. The doer of justice sat with compressed lips and
a heavy heart, while in the calm darkness outside the silent
world seemed to be waiting breathlessly for that justice he held
in his hand--in his strong hand:--ready to strike--reluctant to move.
Babalatchi ceased speaking. Lingard shifted his feet a little,
uncrossed his arms, and shook his head slowly. The narrative of
the events in Sambir, related from the point of view of the
astute statesman, the sense of which had been caught here and
there by his inattentive ears, had been yet like a thread to
guide him out of the sombre labyrinth of his thoughts; and now he
had come to the end of it, out of the tangled past into the
pressing necessities of the present. With the palms of his hands
on his knees, his elbows squared out, he looked down on
Babalatchi who sat in a stiff attitude, inexpressive and mute as
a talking doll the mechanism of which had at length run down.
"You people did all this," said Lingard at last, "and you will be
sorry for it before the dry wind begins to blow again. Abdulla's
voice will bring the Dutch rule here."
Babalatchi waved his hand towards the dark doorway.
"There are forests there. Lakamba rules the land now. Tell me,
Tuan, do you think the big trees know the name of the ruler? No.
They are born, they grow, they live and they die--yet know not,
feel not. It is their land."
"Even a big tree may be killed by a small axe," said Lingard,
drily. "And, remember, my one-eyed friend, that axes are made by
white hands. You will soon find that out, since you have hoisted
the flag of the Dutch."
"Ay--wa!" said Babalatchi, slowly. "It is written that the earth
belongs to those who have fair skins and hard but foolish hearts.
The farther away is the master, the easier it is for the slave,
Tuan! You were too near. Your voice rang in our ears always.
Now it is not going to be so. The great Rajah in Batavia is
strong, but he may be deceived. He must speak very loud to be
heard here. But if we have need to shout, then he must hear the
many voices that call for protection. He is but a white man."
"If I ever spoke to Patalolo, like an elder brother, it was for
your good--for the good of all," said Lingard with great
"This is a white man's talk," exclaimed Babalatchi, with bitter
exultation. "I know you. That is how you all talk while you
load your guns and sharpen your swords; and when you are ready,
then to those who are weak you say: 'Obey me and be happy, or
die! You are strange, you white men. You think it is only your
wisdom and your virtue and your happiness that are true. You are
stronger than the wild beasts, but not so wise. A black tiger
knows when he is not hungry--you do not. He knows the difference
between himself and those that can speak; you do not understand
the difference between yourselves and us--who are men. You are
wise and great--and you shall always be fools."
He threw up both his hands, stirring the sleeping cloud of smoke
that hung above his head, and brought the open palms on the
flimsy floor on each side of his outstretched legs. The whole
hut shook. Lingard looked at the excited statesman curiously.
"Apa! Apa! What's the matter?" he murmured, soothingly. "Whom
did I kill here? Where are my guns? What have I done? What have
I eaten up?"
Babalatchi calmed down, and spoke with studied courtesy.
"You, Tuan, are of the sea, and more like what we are. Therefore
I speak to you all the words that are in my heart. . . . Only
once has the sea been stronger than the Rajah of the sea."
"You know it; do you?" said Lingard, with pained sharpness.
"Hai! We have heard about your ship--and some rejoiced. Not I.
Amongst the whites, who are devils, you are a man."
"Trima kassi! I give you thanks," said Lingard, gravely.
Babalatchi looked down with a bashful smile, but his face became
saddened directly, and when he spoke again it was in a mournful
"Had you come a day sooner, Tuan, you would have seen an enemy
die. You would have seen him die poor, blind, unhappy--with no
son to dig his grave and speak of his wisdom and courage. Yes;
you would have seen the man that fought you in Carimata many
years ago, die alone--but for one friend. A great sight to you."
"Not to me," answered Lingard. "I did not even remember him till
you spoke his name just now. You do not understand us. We
fight, we vanquish--and we forget."
"True, true," said Babalatchi, with polite irony; "you whites are
so great that you disdain to remember your enemies. No! No!" he
went on, in the same tone, "you have so much mercy for us, that
there is no room for any remembrance. Oh, you are great and
good! But it is in my mind that amongst yourselves you know how
to remember. Is it not so, Tuan?"
Lingard said nothing. His shoulders moved imperceptibly. He
laid his gun across his knees and stared at the flint lock
"Yes," went on Babalatchi, falling again into a mournful mood,
"yes, he died in darkness. I sat by his side and held his hand,
but he could not see the face of him who watched the faint breath
on his lips. She, whom he had cursed because of the white man,
was there too, and wept with covered face. The white man walked
about the courtyard making many noises. Now and then he would
come to the doorway and glare at us who mourned. He stared with
wicked eyes, and then I was glad that he who was dying was blind.
This is true talk. I was glad; for a white man's eyes are not
good to see when the devil that lives within is looking out
through them."
"Devil! Hey?" said Lingard, half aloud to himself, as if struck
with the obviousness of some novel idea. Babalatchi went on:
"At the first hour of the morning he sat up--he so weak--and said
plainly some words that were not meant for human ears. I held
his hand tightly, but it was time for the leader of brave men to
go amongst the Faithful who are happy. They of my household
brought a white sheet, and I began to dig a grave in the hut in
which he died. She mourned aloud. The white man came to the
doorway and shouted. He was angry. Angry with her because she
beat her breast, and tore her hair, and mourned with shrill cries
as a woman should. Do you understand what I say, Tuan? That
white man came inside the hut with great fury, and took her by
the shoulder, and dragged her out. Yes, Tuan. I saw Omar dead,
and I saw her at the feet of that white dog who has deceived me.
I saw his face grey, like the cold mist of the morning; I saw his
pale eyes looking down at Omar's daughter beating her head on the
ground at his feet. At the feet of him who is Abdulla's slave.
Yes, he lives by Abdulla's will. That is why I held my hand
while I saw all this. I held my hand because we are now under
the flag of the Orang Blanda, and Abdulla can speak into the ears
of the great. We must not have any trouble with white men.
Abdulla has spoken--and I must obey."
"That's it, is it?" growled Lingard in his moustache. Then in
Malay, "It seems that you are angry, O Babalatchi!"
"No; I am not angry, Tuan," answered Babalatchi, descending from
the insecure heights of his indignation into the insincere depths
of safe humility. "I am not angry. What am I to be angry? I am
only an Orang Laut, and I have fled before your people many
times. Servant of this one--protected of another; I have given
my counsel here and there for a handful of rice. What am I, to
be angry with a white man? What is anger without the power to
strike? But you whites have taken all: the land, the sea, and the
power to strike! And there is nothing left for us in the islands
but your white men's justice; your great justice that knows not
He got up and stood for a moment in the doorway, sniffing the hot
air of the courtyard, then turned back and leaned against the
stay of the ridge pole, facing Lingard who kept his seat on the
chest. The torch, consumed nearly to the end, burned noisily.
Small explosions took place in the heart of the flame, driving
through its smoky blaze strings of hard, round puffs of white
smoke, no bigger than peas, which rolled out of doors in the
faint draught that came from invisible cracks of the bamboo
walls. The pungent taint of unclean things below and about the
hut grew heavier, weighing down Lingard's resolution and his
thoughts in an irresistible numbness of the brain. He thought
drowsily of himself and of that man who wanted to see him--who
waited to see him. Who waited! Night and day. Waited. . . . A
spiteful but vaporous idea floated through his brain that such
waiting could not be very pleasant to the fellow. Well, let him
wait. He would see him soon enough. And for how long? Five
seconds--five minutes--say nothing--say something. What? No!
Just give him time to take one good look, and then . . .
Suddenly Babalatchi began to speak in a soft voice. Lingard
blinked, cleared his throat--sat up straight.
"You know all now, Tuan. Lakamba dwells in the stockaded house
of Patalolo; Abdulla has begun to build godowns of plank and
stone; and now that Omar is dead, I myself shall depart from this
place and live with Lakamba and speak in his ear. I have served
many. The best of them all sleeps in the ground in a white
sheet, with nothing to mark his grave but the ashes of the hut in
which he died. Yes, Tuan! the white man destroyed it himself.
With a blazing brand in his hand he strode around, shouting to me
to come out--shouting to me, who was throwing earth on the body
of a great leader. Yes; swearing to me by the name of your God
and ours that he would burn me and her in there if we did not
make haste. . . . Hai! The white men are very masterful and
wise. I dragged her out quickly!"
"Oh, damn it!" exclaimed Lingard--then went on in Malay, speaking
earnestly. "Listen. That man is not like other white men. You
know he is not. He is not a man at all. He is . . . I don't
Babalatchi lifted his hand deprecatingly. His eye twinkled, and
his red-stained big lips, parted by an expressionless grin,
uncovered a stumpy row of black teeth filed evenly to the gums.
"Hai! Hai! Not like you. Not like you," he said, increasing
the softness of his tones as he neared the object uppermost in
his mind during that much-desired interview. "Not like you,
Tuan, who are like ourselves, only wiser and stronger. Yet he,
also, is full of great cunning, and speaks of you without any
respect, after the manner of white men when they talk of one
Lingard leaped in his seat as if he had been prodded.
"He speaks! What does he say?" he shouted.
"Nay, Tuan," protested the composed Babalatchi; "what matters his
talk if he is not a man? I am nothing before you--why should I
repeat words of one white man about another? He did boast to
Abdulla of having learned much from your wisdom in years past.
Other words I have forgotten. Indeed, Tuan, I have . . ."
Lingard cut short Babalatchi's protestations by a contemptuous
wave of the hand and reseated himself with dignity.
"I shall go," said Babalatchi, "and the white man will remain
here, alone with the spirit of the dead and with her who has been
the delight of his heart. He, being white, cannot hear the voice
of those that died. . . . Tell me, Tuan," he went on, looking at
Lingard with curiosity--"tell me, Tuan, do you white people ever
hear the voices of the invisible ones?"
"We do not," answered Lingard, "because those that we cannot see
do not speak."
"Never speak! And never complain with sounds that are not
words?" exclaimed Babalatchi, doubtingly. "It may be so--or your
ears are dull. We Malays hear many sounds near the places where
men are buried. To-night I heard . . . Yes, even I have heard.
. . . I do not want to hear any more," he added, nervously.
"Perhaps I was wrong when I . . . There are things I regret.
The trouble was heavy in his heart when he died. Sometimes I
think I was wrong . . . but I do not want to hear the complaint
of invisible lips. Therefore I go, Tuan. Let the unquiet spirit
speak to his enemy the white man who knows not fear, or love, or
mercy--knows nothing but contempt and violence. I have been
wrong! I have! Hai! Hai!"
He stood for awhile with his elbow in the palm of his left hand,
the fingers of the other over his lips as if to stifle the
expression of inconvenient remorse; then, after glancing at the
torch, burnt out nearly to its end, he moved towards the wall by
the chest, fumbled about there and suddenly flung open a large
shutter of attaps woven in a light framework of sticks. Lingard
swung his legs quickly round the corner of his seat.
"Hallo!" he said, surprised.
The cloud of smoke stirred, and a slow wisp curled out through
the new opening. The torch flickered, hissed, and went out, the
glowing end falling on the mat, whence Babalatchi snatched it up
and tossed it outside through the open square. It described a
vanishing curve of red light, and lay below, shining feebly in
the vast darkness. Babalatchi remained with his arm stretched
out into the empty night.
"There," he said, "you can see the white man's courtyard, Tuan,
and his house."
"I can see nothing," answered Lingard, putting his head through
the shutter-hole. "It's too dark."
"Wait, Tuan," urged Babalatchi. "You have been looking long at
the burning torch. You will soon see. Mind the gun, Tuan. It
is loaded."
"There is no flint in it. You could not find a fire-stone for a
hundred miles round this spot," said Lingard, testily. "Foolish
thing to load that gun."
"I have a stone. I had it from a man wise and pious that lives
in Menang Kabau. A very pious man--very good fire. He spoke
words over that stone that make its sparks good. And the gun is
good--carries straight and far. Would carry from here to the
door of the white man's house, I believe, Tuan."
"Tida apa. Never mind your gun," muttered Lingard, peering into
the formless darkness. "Is that the house--that black thing over
there?" he asked.
"Yes," answered Babalatchi; "that is his house. He lives there
by the will of Abdulla, and shall live there till . . . From
where you stand, Tuan, you can look over the fence and across the
courtyard straight at the door--at the door from which he comes
out every morning, looking like a man that had seen Jehannum in
his sleep."
Lingard drew his head in. Babalatchi touched his shoulder with a
groping hand.
"Wait a little, Tuan. Sit still. The morning is not far off
now--a morning without sun after a night without stars. But
there will be light enough to see the man who said not many days
ago that he alone has made you less than a child in Sambir."
He felt a slight tremor under his hand, but took it off directly
and began feeling all over the lid of the chest, behind Lingard's
back, for the gun.
"What are you at?" said Lingard, impatiently. "You do worry about
that rotten gun. You had better get a light."
"A light! I tell you, Tuan, that the light of heaven is very
near," said Babalatchi, who had now obtained possession of the
object of his solicitude, and grasping it strongly by its long
barrel, grounded the stock at his feet.
"Perhaps it is near," said Lingard, leaning both his elbows on
the lower cross-piece of the primitive window and looking out.
"It is very black outside yet," he remarked carelessly.
Babalatchi fidgeted about.
"It is not good for you to sit where you may be seen," he
"Why not?" asked Lingard.
"The white man sleeps, it is true," explained Babalatchi, softly;
"yet he may come out early, and he has arms."
"Ah! he has arms?" said Lingard.
"Yes; a short gun that fires many times--like yours here.
Abdulla had to give it to him."
Lingard heard Babalatchi's words, but made no movement. To the
old adventurer the idea that fire arms could be dangerous in
other hands than his own did not occur readily, and certainly not
in connection with Willems. He was so busy with the thoughts
about what he considered his own sacred duty, that he could not
give any consideration to the probable actions of the man of whom
he thought--as one may think of an executed criminal--with
wondering indignation tempered by scornful pity. While he sat
staring into the darkness, that every minute grew thinner before
his pensive eyes, like a dispersing mist, Willems appeared to him
as a figure belonging already wholly to the past--a figure that
could come in no way into his life again. He had made up his
mind, and the thing was as well as done. In his weary thoughts
he had closed this fatal, inexplicable, and horrible episode in
his life. The worst had happened. The coming days would see the
He had removed an enemy once or twice before, out of his path; he
had paid off some very heavy scores a good many times. Captain
Tom had been a good friend to many: but it was generally
understood, from Honolulu round about to Diego Suarez, that
Captain Tom's enmity was rather more than any man single-handed
could easily manage. He would not, as he said often, hurt a fly
as long as the fly left him alone; yet a man does not live for
years beyond the pale of civilized laws without evolving for
himself some queer notions of justice. Nobody of those he knew
had ever cared to point out to him the errors of his conceptions.
It was not worth anybody's while to run counter to Lingard's
ideas of the fitness of things--that fact was acquired to the
floating wisdom of the South Seas, of the Eastern Archipelago,
and was nowhere better understood than in out-of-the-way nooks of
the world; in those nooks which he filled, unresisted and
masterful, with the echoes of his noisy presence. There is not
much use in arguing with a man who boasts of never having
regretted a single action of his life, whose answer to a mild
criticism is a good-natured shout--"You know nothing about it. I
would do it again. Yes, sir!" His associates and his
acquaintances accepted him, his opinions, his actions like things
preordained and unchangeable; looked upon his many-sided
manifestations with passive wonder not unmixed with that
admiration which is only the rightful due of a successful man.
But nobody had ever seen him in the mood he was in now. Nobody
had seen Lingard doubtful and giving way to doubt, unable to make
up his mind and unwilling to act; Lingard timid and hesitating
one minute, angry yet inactive the next; Lingard puzzled in a
word, because confronted with a situation that discomposed him by
its unprovoked malevolence, by its ghastly injustice, that to his
rough but unsophisticated palate tasted distinctly of sulphurous
fumes from the deepest hell.
The smooth darkness filling the shutter-hole grew paler and
became blotchy with ill-defined shapes, as if a new universe was
being evolved out of sombre chaos. Then outlines came out,
defining forms without any details, indicating here a tree, there
a bush; a black belt of forest far off; the straight lines of a
house, the ridge of a high roof near by. Inside the hut,
Babalatchi, who lately had been only a persuasive voice, became a
human shape leaning its chin imprudently on the muzzle of a gun
and rolling an uneasy eye over the reappearing world. The day
came rapidly, dismal and oppressed by the fog of the river and by
the heavy vapours of the sky--a day without colour and without
sunshine: incomplete, disappointing, and sad.
Babalatchi twitched gently Lingard's sleeve, and when the old
seaman had lifted up his head interrogatively, he stretched out
an arm and a pointing forefinger towards Willems' house, now
plainly visible to the right and beyond the big tree of the
"Look, Tuan!" he said. "He lives there. That is the door--his
door. Through it he will appear soon, with his hair in disorder
and his mouth full of curses. That is so. He is a white man,
and never satisfied. It is in my mind he is angry even in his
sleep. A dangerous man. As Tuan may observe," he went on,
obsequiously, "his door faces this opening, where you condescend
to sit, which is concealed from all eyes. Faces it--straight--and
not far. Observe, Tuan, not at all far."
"Yes, yes; I can see. I shall see him when he wakes."
"No doubt, Tuan. When he wakes. . . . If you remain here he can
not see you. I shall withdraw quickly and prepare my canoe
myself. I am only a poor man, and must go to Sambir to greet
Lakamba when he opens his eyes. I must bow before Abdulla who
has strength--even more strength than you. Now if you remain
here, you shall easily behold the man who boasted to Abdulla that
he had been your friend, even while he prepared to fight those
who called you protector. Yes, he plotted with Abdulla for that
cursed flag. Lakamba was blind then, and I was deceived. But
you, Tuan! Remember, he deceived you more. Of that he boasted
before all men."
He leaned the gun quietly against the wall close to the window,
and said softly: "Shall I go now, Tuan? Be careful of the gun.
I have put the fire-stone in. The fire-stone of the wise man,
which never fails."
Lingard's eyes were fastened on the distant doorway. Across his
line of sight, in the grey emptiness of the courtyard, a big
fruit-pigeon flapped languidly towards the forests with a loud
booming cry, like the note of a deep gong: a brilliant bird
looking in the gloom of threatening day as black as a crow. A
serried flock of white rice birds rose above the trees with a
faint scream, and hovered, swaying in a disordered mass that
suddenly scattered in all directions, as if burst asunder by a
silent explosion. Behind his back Lingard heard a shuffle of
feet--women leaving the hut. In the other courtyard a voice was
heard complaining of cold, and coming very feeble, but
exceedingly distinct, out of the vast silence of the abandoned
houses and clearings. Babalatchi coughed discreetly. From under
the house the thumping of wooden pestles husking the rice started
with unexpected abruptness. The weak but clear voice in the yard
again urged, "Blow up the embers, O brother!" Another voice
answered, drawling in modulated, thin sing-song, "Do it yourself,
O shivering pig!" and the drawl of the last words stopped short,
as if the man had fallen into a deep hole. Babalatchi coughed
again a little impatiently, and said in a confidential tone--
"Do you think it is time for me to go, Tuan? Will you take care
of my gun, Tuan? I am a man that knows how to obey; even obey
Abdulla, who has deceived me. Nevertheless this gun carries far
and true--if you would want to know, Tuan. And I have put in a
double measure of powder, and three slugs. Yes, Tuan.
Now--perhaps--I go."
When Babalatchi commenced speaking, Lingard turned slowly round
and gazed upon him with the dull and unwilling look of a sick man
waking to another day of suffering. As the astute statesman
proceeded, Lingard's eyebrows came close, his eyes became
animated, and a big vein stood out on his forehead, accentuating
a lowering frown. When speaking his last words Babalatchi
faltered, then stopped, confused, before the steady gaze of the
old seaman.
Lingard rose. His face cleared, and he looked down at the
anxious Babalatchi with sudden benevolence.
"So! That's what you were after," he said, laying a heavy hand
on Babalatchi's yielding shoulder. "You thought I came here to
murder him. Hey? Speak! You faithful dog of an Arab trader!"
"And what else, Tuan?" shrieked Babalatchi, exasperated into
sincerity. "What else, Tuan! Remember what he has done; he
poisoned our ears with his talk about you. You are a man. If
you did not come to kill, Tuan, then either I am a fool or . . ."
He paused, struck his naked breast with his open palm, and
finished in a discouraged whisper--"or, Tuan, you are."
Lingard looked down at him with scornful serenity. After his
long and painful gropings amongst the obscure abominations of
Willems' conduct, the logical if tortuous evolutions of
Babalatchi's diplomatic mind were to him welcome as daylight.
There was something at last he could understand--the clear effect
of a simple cause. He felt indulgent towards the disappointed
"So you are angry with your friend, O one-eyed one!" he said
slowly, nodding his fierce countenance close to Babalatchi's
discomfited face. "It seems to me that you must have had much to
do with what happened in Sambir lately. Hey? You son of a burnt
"May I perish under your hand, O Rajah of the sea, if my words
are not true!" said Babalatchi, with reckless excitement. "You
are here in the midst of your enemies. He the greatest. Abdulla
would do nothing without him, and I could do nothing without
Abdulla. Strike me--so that you strike all!"
"Who are you," exclaimed Lingard contemptuously--"who are you to
dare call yourself my enemy! Dirt! Nothing! Go out first," he
went on severely. "Lakas! quick. March out!"
He pushed Babalatchi through the doorway and followed him down
the short ladder into the courtyard. The boatmen squatting over
the fire turned their slow eyes with apparent difficulty towards
the two men; then, unconcerned, huddled close together again,
stretching forlornly their hands over the embers. The women
stopped in their work and with uplifted pestles flashed quick and
curious glances from the gloom under the house.
"Is that the way?" asked Lingard with a nod towards the little
wicket-gate of Willems' enclosure.
"If you seek death, that is surely the way," answered Babalatchi
in a dispassionate voice, as if he had exhausted all the
emotions. "He lives there: he who destroyed your friends; who
hastened Omar's death; who plotted with Abdulla first against
you, then against me. I have been like a child. O shame! . . .
But go, Tuan. Go there."
"I go where I like," said Lingard, emphatically, "and you may go
to the devil; I do not want you any more. The islands of these
seas shall sink before I, Rajah Laut, serve the will of any of
your people. Tau? But I tell you this: I do not care what you
do with him after to-day. And I say that because I am merciful."
"Tida! I do nothing," said Babalatchi, shaking his head with
bitter apathy. "I am in Abdulla's hand and care not, even as you
do. No! no!" he added, turning away, "I have learned much wisdom
this morning. There are no men anywhere. You whites are cruel
to your friends and merciful to your enemies--which is the work
of fools."
He went away towards the riverside, and, without once looking
back, disappeared in the low bank of mist that lay over the water
and the shore. Lingard followed him with his eyes thoughtfully.
After awhile he roused himself and called out to his boatmen--
"Hai--ya there! After you have eaten rice, wait for me with your
paddles in your hands. You hear?"
"Ada, Tuan!" answered Ali through the smoke of the morning fire
that was spreading itself, low and gentle, over the
courtyard--"we hear!"
Lingard opened slowly the little wicket-gate, made a few steps
into the empty enclosure, and stopped. He had felt about his
head the short breath of a puff of wind that passed him, made
every leaf of the big tree shiver--and died out in a hardly
perceptible tremor of branches and twigs. Instinctively he
glanced upwards with a seaman's impulse. Above him, under the
grey motionless waste of a stormy sky, drifted low black vapours,
in stretching bars, in shapeless patches, in sinuous wisps and
tormented spirals. Over the courtyard and the house floated a
round, sombre, and lingering cloud, dragging behind a tail of
tangled and filmy streamers--like the dishevelled hair of a
mourning woman.
The tremulous effort and the broken, inadequate tone of the faint
cry, surprised Lingard more than the unexpected suddenness of the
warning conveyed, he did not know by whom and to whom. Besides
himself there was no one in the courtyard as far as he could see.
The cry was not renewed, and his watchful eyes, scanning warily
the misty solitude of Willems' enclosure, were met everywhere
only by the stolid impassiveness of inanimate things: the big
sombre-looking tree, the shut-up, sightless house, the glistening
bamboo fences, the damp and drooping bushes further off--all
these things, that condemned to look for ever at the
incomprehensible afflictions or joys of mankind, assert in their
aspect of cold unconcern the high dignity of lifeless matter that
surrounds, incurious and unmoved, the restless mysteries of the
ever-changing, of the never-ending life.
Lingard, stepping aside, put the trunk of the tree between
himself and the house, then, moving cautiously round one of the
projecting buttresses, had to tread short in order to avoid
scattering a small heap of black embers upon which he came
unexpectedly on the other side. A thin, wizened, little old
woman, who, standing behind the tree, had been looking at the
house, turned towards him with a start, gazed with faded,
expressionless eyes at the intruder, then made a limping attempt
to get away. She seemed, however, to realize directly the
hopelessness or the difficulty of the undertaking, stopped,
hesitated, tottered back slowly; then, after blinking dully, fell
suddenly on her knees amongst the white ashes, and, bending over
the heap of smouldering coals, distended her sunken cheeks in a
steady effort to blow up the hidden sparks into a useful blaze.
Lingard looked down on her, but she seemed to have made up her
mind that there was not enough life left in her lean body for
anything else than the discharge of the simple domestic duty,
and, apparently, she begrudged him the least moment of attention.
After waiting for awhile, Lingard asked--
"Why did you call, O daughter?"
"I saw you enter," she croaked feebly, still grovelling with her
face near the ashes and without looking up, "and I called--the
cry of warning. It was her order. Her order," she repeated,
with a moaning sigh.
"And did she hear?" pursued Lingard, with gentle composure.
Her projecting shoulder-blades moved uneasily under the thin
stuff of the tight body jacket. She scrambled up with difficulty
to her feet, and hobbled away, muttering peevishly to herself,
towards a pile of dry brushwood heaped up against the fence.
Lingard, looking idly after her, heard the rattle of loose planks
that led from the ground to the door of the house. He moved his
head beyond the shelter of the tree and saw Aissa coming down the
inclined way into the courtyard. After making a few hurried
paces towards the tree, she stopped with one foot advanced in an
appearance of sudden terror, and her eyes glanced wildly right
and left. Her head was uncovered. A blue cloth wrapped her from
her head to foot in close slanting folds, with one end thrown
over her shoulder. A tress of her black hair strayed across her
bosom. Her bare arms pressed down close to her body, with hands
open and outstretched fingers; her slightly elevated shoulders
and the backward inclination of her torso gave her the aspect of
one defiant yet shrinking from a coming blow. She had closed the
door of the house behind her; and as she stood solitary in the
unnatural and threatening twilight of the murky day, with
everything unchanged around her, she appeared to Lingard as if
she had been made there, on the spot, out of the black vapours of
the sky and of the sinister gleams of feeble sunshine that
struggled, through the thickening clouds, into the colourless
desolation of the world.
After a short but attentive glance towards the shut-up house,
Lingard stepped out from behind the tree and advanced slowly
towards her. The sudden fixity of her--till then--restless eyes
and a slight twitch of her hands were the only signs she gave at
first of having seen him. She made a long stride forward, and
putting herself right in his path, stretched her arms across; her
black eyes opened wide, her lips parted as if in an uncertain
attempt to speak--but no sound came out to break the significant
silence of their meeting. Lingard stopped and looked at her with
stern curiosity. After a while he said composedly--
"Let me pass. I came here to talk to a man. Does he hide? Has
he sent you?"
She made a step nearer, her arms fell by her side, then she put
them straight out nearly touching Lingard's breast.
"He knows not fear," she said, speaking low, with a forward throw
of her head, in a voice trembling but distinct. "It is my own
fear that has sent me here. He sleeps."
"He has slept long enough," said Lingard, in measured tones. "I
am come--and now is the time of his waking. Go and tell him
this--or else my own voice will call him up. A voice he knows
He put her hands down firmly and again made as if to pass by her.
"Do not!" she exclaimed, and fell at his feet as if she had been
cut down by a scythe. The unexpected suddenness of her movement
startled Lingard, who stepped back.
"What's this?" he exclaimed in a wondering whisper--then added in
a tone of sharp command: "Stand up!"
She rose at once and stood looking at him, timorous and fearless;
yet with a fire of recklessness burning in her eyes that made
clear her resolve to pursue her purpose even to the death.
Lingard went on in a severe voice--
"Go out of my path. You are Omar's daughter, and you ought to
know that when men meet in daylight women must be silent and
abide their fate."
"Women!" she retorted, with subdued vehemence. "Yes, I am a
woman! Your eyes see that, O Rajah Laut, but can you see my
life? I also have heard--O man of many fights--I also have heard
the voice of fire-arms; I also have felt the rain of young twigs
and of leaves cut up by bullets fall down about my head; I also
know how to look in silence at angry faces and at strong hands
raised high grasping sharp steel. I also saw men fall dead
around me without a cry of fear and of mourning; and I have
watched the sleep of weary fugitives, and looked at night shadows
full of menace and death with eyes that knew nothing but
watchfulness. And," she went on, with a mournful drop in her
voice, "I have faced the heartless sea, held on my lap the heads
of those who died raving from thirst, and from their cold hands
took the paddle and worked so that those with me did not know
that one man more was dead. I did all this. What more have you
done? That was my life. What has been yours?"
The matter and the manner of her speech held Lingard motionless,
attentive and approving against his will. She ceased speaking,
and from her staring black eyes with a narrow border of white
above and below, a double ray of her very soul streamed out in a
fierce desire to light up the most obscure designs of his heart.
After a long silence, which served to emphasize the meaning of
her words, she added in the whisper of bitter regret--
"And I have knelt at your feet! And I am afraid!"
"You," said Lingard deliberately, and returning her look with an
interested gaze, "you are a woman whose heart, I believe, is
great enough to fill a man's breast: but still you are a woman,
and to you, I, Rajah Laut, have nothing to say."
She listened bending her head in a movement of forced attention;
and his voice sounded to her unexpected, far off, with the
distant and unearthly ring of voices that we hear in dreams,
saying faintly things startling, cruel or absurd, to which there
is no possible reply. To her he had nothing to say! She wrung
her hands, glanced over the courtyard with that eager and
distracted look that sees nothing, then looked up at the hopeless
sky of livid grey and drifting black; at the unquiet mourning of
the hot and brilliant heaven that had seen the beginning of her
love, that had heard his entreaties and her answers, that had
seen his desire and her fear; that had seen her joy, her
surrender--and his defeat. Lingard moved a little, and this
slight stir near her precipitated her disordered and shapeless
thoughts into hurried words.
"Wait!" she exclaimed in a stifled voice, and went on
disconnectedly and rapidly--"Stay. I have heard. Men often
spoke by the fires . . . men of my people. And they said of
you--the first on the sea--they said that to men's cries you were
deaf in battle, but after . . . No! even while you fought, your
ears were open to the voice of children and women. They said . .
. that. Now I, a woman, I . . ."
She broke off suddenly and stood before him with dropped eyelids
and parted lips, so still now that she seemed to have been
changed into a breathless, an unhearing, an unseeing figure,
without knowledge of fear or hope, of anger or despair. In the
astounding repose that came on her face, nothing moved but the
delicate nostrils that expanded and collapsed quickly,
flutteringly, in interrupted beats, like the wings of a snared
"I am white," said Lingard, proudly, looking at her with a steady
gaze where simple curiosity was giving way to a pitying
annoyance, "and men you have heard, spoke only what is true over
the evening fires. My ears are open to your prayer. But listen
to me before you speak. For yourself you need not be afraid. You
can come even now with me and you shall find refuge in the
household of Syed Abdulla--who is of your own faith. And this
also you must know: nothing that you may say will change my
purpose towards the man who is sleeping--or hiding--in that
Again she gave him the look that was like a stab, not of anger
but of desire; of the intense, over-powering desire to see in, to
see through, to understand everything: every thought, emotion,
purpose; every impulse, every hesitation inside that man; inside
that white-clad foreign being who looked at her, who spoke to
her, who breathed before her like any other man, but bigger,
red-faced, white-haired and mysterious. It was the future
clothed in flesh; the to-morrow; the day after; all the days, all
the years of her life standing there before her alive and secret,
with all their good or evil shut up within the breast of that
man; of that man who could be persuaded, cajoled, entreated,
perhaps touched, worried; frightened--who knows?--if only first
he could be understood! She had seen a long time ago whither
events were tending. She had noted the contemptuous yet menacing
coldness of Abdulla; she had heard--alarmed yet
unbelieving--Babalatchi's gloomy hints, covert allusions and
veiled suggestions to abandon the useless white man whose fate
would be the price of the peace secured by the wise and good who
had no need of him any more. And he--himself! She clung to him.
There was nobody else. Nothing else. She would try to cling to
him always--all the life! And yet he was far from her. Further
every day. Every day he seemed more distant, and she followed
him patiently, hopefully, blindly, but steadily, through all the
devious wanderings of his mind. She followed as well as she
could. Yet at times--very often lately--she had felt lost like
one strayed in the thickets of tangled undergrowth of a great
forest. To her the ex-clerk of old Hudig appeared as remote, as
brilliant, as terrible, as necessary, as the sun that gives life
to these lands: the sun of unclouded skies that dazzles and
withers; the sun beneficent and wicked--the giver of light,
perfume, and pestilence. She had watched him--watched him close;
fascinated by love, fascinated by danger. He was alone now--but
for her; and she saw--she thought she saw--that he was like a man
afraid of something. Was it possible? He afraid? Of what? Was
it of that old white man who was coming--who had come? Possibly.
She had heard of that man ever since she could remember. The
bravest were afraid of him! And now what was in the mind of this
old, old man who looked so strong? What was he going to do with
the light of her life? Put it out? Take it away? Take it away
for ever!--for ever!--and leave her in darkness:--not in the
stirring, whispering, expectant night in which the hushed world
awaits the return of sunshine; but in the night without end, the
night of the grave, where nothing breathes, nothing moves,
nothing thinks--the last darkness of cold and silence without
hope of another sunrise.
She cried--"Your purpose! You know nothing. I must . . ."
He interrupted--unreasonably excited, as if she had, by her look,
inoculated him with some of her own distress.
"I know enough."
She approached, and stood facing him at arm's length, with both
her hands on his shoulders; and he, surprised by that audacity,
closed and opened his eyes two or three times, aware of some
emotion arising within him, from her words, her tone, her
contact; an emotion unknown, singular, penetrating and sad--at
the close sight of that strange woman, of that being savage and
tender, strong and delicate, fearful and resolute, that had got
entangled so fatally between their two lives--his own and that
other white man's, the abominable scoundrel.
"How can you know?" she went on, in a persuasive tone that seemed
to flow out of her very heart--"how can you know? I live with
him all the days. All the nights. I look at him; I see his
every breath, every glance of his eye, every movement of his
lips. I see nothing else! What else is there? And even I do
not understand. I do not understand him!--Him!--My life! Him
who to me is so great that his presence hides the earth and the
water from my sight!"
Lingard stood straight, with his hands deep in the pockets of his
jacket. His eyes winked quickly, because she spoke very close to
his face. She disturbed him and he had a sense of the efforts he
was making to get hold of her meaning, while all the time he
could not help telling himself that all this was of no use.
She added after a pause--"There has been a time when I could
understand him. When I knew what was in his mind better than he
knew it himself. When I felt him. When I held him. . . . And
now he has escaped."
"Escaped? What? Gone away!" shouted Lingard.
"Escaped from me," she said; "left me alone. Alone. And I am
ever near him. Yet alone."
Her hands slipped slowly off Lingard's shoulders and her arms
fell by her side, listless, discouraged, as if to her--to her,
the savage, violent, and ignorant creature--had been revealed
clearly in that moment the tremendous fact of our isolation, of
the loneliness impenetrable and transparent, elusive and
everlasting; of the indestructible loneliness that surrounds,
envelopes, clothes every human soul from the cradle to the grave,
and, perhaps, beyond.
"Aye! Very well! I understand. His face is turned away from
you," said Lingard. "Now, what do you want?"
"I want . . . I have looked--for help . . . everywhere . . .
against men. . . . All men . . . I do not know. First they
came, the invisible whites, and dealt death from afar . . . then
he came. He came to me who was alone and sad. He came; angry
with his brothers; great amongst his own people; angry with those
I have not seen: with the people where men have no mercy and
women have no shame. He was of them, and great amongst them.
For he was great?"
Lingard shook his head slightly. She frowned at him, and went on
in disordered haste--
"Listen. I saw him. I have lived by the side of brave men . . .
of chiefs. When he came I was the daughter of a beggar--of a
blind man without strength and hope. He spoke to me as if I had
been brighter than the sunshine--more delightful than the cool
water of the brook by which we met--more . . ." Her anxious eyes
saw some shade of expression pass on her listener's face that
made her hold her breath for a second, and then explode into
pained fury so violent that it drove Lingard back a pace, like an
unexpected blast of wind. He lifted both his hands,
incongruously paternal in his venerable aspect, bewildered and
soothing, while she stretched her neck forward and shouted at
"I tell you I was all that to him. I know it! I saw it! . . .
There are times when even you white men speak the truth. I saw
his eyes. I felt his eyes, I tell you! I saw him tremble when I
came near--when I spoke--when I touched him. Look at me! You
have been young. Look at me. Look, Rajah Laut!"
She stared at Lingard with provoking fixity, then, turning her
head quickly, she sent over her shoulder a glance, full of humble
fear, at the house that stood high behind her back--dark, closed,
rickety and silent on its crooked posts.
Lingard's eyes followed her look, and remained gazing expectantly
at the house. After a minute or so he muttered, glancing at her
"If he has not heard your voice now, then he must be far away--or
"He is there," she whispered, a little calmed but still
anxious--"he is there. For three days he waited. Waited for you
night and day. And I waited with him. I waited, watching his
face, his eyes, his lips; listening to his words.--To the words I
could not understand.--To the words he spoke in daylight; to the
words he spoke at night in his short sleep. I listened. He
spoke to himself walking up and down here--by the river; by the
bushes. And I followed. I wanted to know--and I could not! He
was tormented by things that made him speak in the words of his
own people. Speak to himself--not to me. Not to me! What was
he saying? What was he going to do? Was he afraid of you?--Of
death? What was in his heart? . . . Fear? . . . Or anger? . .
. what desire? . . . what sadness? He spoke; spoke; many words.
All the time! And I could not know! I wanted to speak to him.
He was deaf to me. I followed him everywhere, watching for some
word I could understand; but his mind was in the land of his
people--away from me. When I touched him he was angry--so!"
She imitated the movement of some one shaking off roughly an
importunate hand, and looked at Lingard with tearful and unsteady
After a short interval of laboured panting, as if she had been
out of breath with running or fighting, she looked down and went
"Day after day, night after night, I lived watching him--seeing
nothing. And my heart was heavy--heavy with the presence of
death that dwelt amongst us. I could not believe. I thought he
was afraid. Afraid of you! Then I, myself, knew fear. . . .
Tell me, Rajah Laut, do you know the fear without voice--the fear
of silence--the fear that comes when there is no one near--when
there is no battle, no cries, no angry faces or armed hands
anywhere? . . . The fear from which there is no escape!"
She paused, fastened her eyes again on the puzzled Lingard, and
hurried on in a tone of despair--
"And I knew then he would not fight you! Before--many days
ago--I went away twice to make him obey my desire; to make him
strike at his own people so that he could be mine--mine! O
calamity! His hand was false as your white hearts. It struck
forward, pushed by my desire--by his desire of me. . . . It
struck that strong hand, and--O shame!--it killed nobody! Its
fierce and lying blow woke up hate without any fear. Round me
all was lies. His strength was a lie. My own people lied to me
and to him. And to meet you--you, the great!--he had no one but
me? But me with my rage, my pain, my weakness. Only me! And to
me he would not even speak. The fool!"
She came up close to Lingard, with the wild and stealthy aspect
of a lunatic longing to whisper out an insane secret--one of
those misshapen, heart-rending, and ludicrous secrets; one of
those thoughts that, like monsters--cruel, fantastic, and
mournful, wander about terrible and unceasing in the night of
madness. Lingard looked at her, astounded but unflinching. She
spoke in his face, very low.
"He is all! Everything. He is my breath, my light, my heart. .
. . Go away. . . . Forget him. . . . He has no courage and no
wisdom any more . . . and I have lost my power. . . . Go away and
forget. There are other enemies. . . . Leave him to me. He had
been a man once. . . . You are too great. Nobody can withstand
you. . . . I tried. . . . I know now. . . . I cry for mercy.
Leave him to me and go away."
The fragments of her supplicating sentences were as if tossed on
the crest of her sobs. Lingard, outwardly impassive, with his
eyes fixed on the house, experienced that feeling of
condemnation, deep-seated, persuasive, and masterful; that
illogical impulse of disapproval which is half disgust, half
vague fear, and that wakes up in our hearts in the presence of
anything new or unusual, of anything that is not run into the
mould of our own conscience; the accursed feeling made up of
disdain, of anger, and of the sense of superior virtue that
leaves us deaf, blind, contemptuous and stupid before anything
which is not like ourselves.
He answered, not looking at her at first, but speaking towards
the house that fascinated him--
"_I_ go away! He wanted me to come--he himself did! . . . YOU
must go away. You do not know what you are asking for. Listen.
Go to your own people. Leave him. He is . . ."
He paused, looked down at her with his steady eyes; hesitated, as
if seeking an adequate expression; then snapped his fingers, and
She stepped back, her eyes on the ground, and pressed her temples
with both her hands, which she raised to her head in a slow and
ample movement full of unconscious tragedy. The tone of her
words was gentle and vibrating, like a loud meditation. She
"Tell the brook not to run to the river; tell the river not to
run to the sea. Speak loud. Speak angrily. Maybe they will
obey you. But it is in my mind that the brook will not care.
The brook that springs out of the hillside and runs to the great
river. He would not care for your words: he that cares not for
the very mountain that gave him life; he that tears the earth
from which he springs. Tears it, eats it, destroys it--to hurry
faster to the river--to the river in which he is lost for ever. .
. . O Rajah Laut! I do not care."
She drew close again to Lingard, approaching slowly, reluctantly,
as if pushed by an invisible hand, and added in words that seemed
to be torn out of her--
"I cared not for my own father. For him that died. I would have
rather . . . You do not know what I have done . . . I . . ."
"You shall have his life," said Lingard, hastily.
They stood together, crossing their glances; she suddenly
appeased, and Lingard thoughtful and uneasy under a vague sense
of defeat. And yet there was no defeat. He never intended to
kill the fellow--not after the first moment of anger, a long time
ago. The days of bitter wonder had killed anger; had left only a
bitter indignation and a bitter wish for complete justice. He
felt discontented and surprised. Unexpectedly he had come upon a
human being--a woman at that--who had made him disclose his will
before its time. She should have his life. But she must be
told, she must know, that for such men as Willems there was no
favour and no grace.
"Understand," he said slowly, "that I leave him his life not in
mercy but in punishment."
She started, watched every word on his lips, and after he
finished speaking she remained still and mute in astonished
immobility. A single big drop of rain, a drop enormous, pellucid
and heavy--like a super-human tear coming straight and rapid from
above, tearing its way through the sombre sky--struck loudly the
dry ground between them in a starred splash. She wrung her hands
in the bewilderment of the new and incomprehensible fear. The
anguish of her whisper was more piercing than the shrillest cry.
"What punishment! Will you take him away then? Away from me?
Listen to what I have done. . . . It is I who . . ."
"Ah!" exclaimed Lingard, who had been looking at the house.
"Don't you believe her, Captain Lingard," shouted Willems from
the doorway, where he appeared with swollen eyelids and bared
breast. He stood for a while, his hands grasping the lintels on
each side of the door, and writhed about, glaring wildly, as if
he had been crucified there. Then he made a sudden rush head
foremost down the plankway that responded with hollow, short
noises to every footstep.
She heard him. A slight thrill passed on her face and the words
that were on her lips fell back unspoken into her benighted
heart; fell back amongst the mud, the stones--and the flowers,
that are at the bottom of every heart.
When he felt the solid ground of the courtyard under his feet,
Willems pulled himself up in his headlong rush and moved forward
with a moderate gait. He paced stiffly, looking with extreme
exactitude at Lingard's face; looking neither to the right nor to
the left but at the face only, as if there was nothing in the
world but those features familiar and dreaded; that white-haired,
rough and severe head upon which he gazed in a fixed effort of
his eyes, like a man trying to read small print at the full range
of human vision. As soon as Willems' feet had left the planks,
the silence which had been lifted up by the jerky rattle of his
footsteps fell down again upon the courtyard; the silence of the
cloudy sky and of the windless air, the sullen silence of the
earth oppressed by the aspect of coming turmoil, the silence of
the world collecting its faculties to withstand the storm.
Through this silence Willems pushed his way, and stopped about
six feet from Lingard. He stopped simply because he could go no
further. He had started from the door with the reckless purpose
of clapping the old fellow on the shoulder. He had no idea that
the man would turn out to be so tall, so big and so
unapproachable. It seemed to him that he had never, never in his
life, seen Lingard.
He tried to say--
"Do not believe . . ."
A fit of coughing checked his sentence in a faint splutter.
Directly afterwards he swallowed--as it were--a couple of
pebbles, throwing his chin up in the act; and Lingard, who looked
at him narrowly, saw a bone, sharp and triangular like the head
of a snake, dart up and down twice under the skin of his throat.
Then that, too, did not move. Nothing moved.
"Well," said Lingard, and with that word he came unexpectedly to
the end of his speech. His hand in his pocket closed firmly
round the butt of his revolver bulging his jacket on the hip, and
he thought how soon and how quickly he could terminate his
quarrel with that man who had been so anxious to deliver himself
into his hands--and how inadequate would be that ending! He
could not bear the idea of that man escaping from him by going
out of life; escaping from fear, from doubt, from remorse into
the peaceful certitude of death. He held him now. And he was
not going to let him go--to let him disappear for ever in the
faint blue smoke of a pistol shot. His anger grew within him.
He felt a touch as of a burning hand on his heart. Not on the
flesh of his breast, but a touch on his heart itself, on the
palpitating and untiring particle of matter that responds to
every emotion of the soul; that leaps with joy, with terror, or
with anger.
He drew a long breath. He could see before him the bare chest of
the man expanding and collapsing under the wide-open jacket. He
glanced aside, and saw the bosom of the woman near him rise and
fall in quick respirations that moved slightly up and down her
hand, which was pressed to her breast with all the fingers spread
out and a little curved, as if grasping something too big for its
span. And nearly a minute passed. One of those minutes when the
voice is silenced, while the thoughts flutter in the head, like
captive birds inside a cage, in rushes desperate, exhausting and
During that minute of silence Lingard's anger kept rising,
immense and towering, such as a crested wave running over the
troubled shallows of the sands. Its roar filled his cars; a roar
so powerful and distracting that, it seemed to him, his head must
burst directly with the expanding volume of that sound. He
looked at that man. That infamous figure upright on its feet,
still, rigid, with stony eyes, as if its rotten soul had departed
that moment and the carcass hadn't had the time yet to topple
over. For the fraction of a second he had the illusion and the
fear of the scoundrel having died there before the enraged glance
of his eyes. Willems' eyelids fluttered, and the unconscious and
passing tremor in that stiffly erect body exasperated Lingard
like a fresh outrage. The fellow dared to stir! Dared to wink,
to breathe, to exist; here, right before his eyes! His grip on
the revolver relaxed gradually. As the transport of his rage
increased, so also his contempt for the instruments that pierce
or stab, that interpose themselves between the hand and the
object of hate. He wanted another kind of satisfaction. Naked
hands, by heaven! No firearms. Hands that could take him by the
throat, beat down his defence, batter his face into shapeless
flesh; hands that could feel all the desperation of his
resistance and overpower it in the violent delight of a contact
lingering and furious, intimate and brutal.
He let go the revolver altogether, stood hesitating, then
throwing his hands out, strode forward--and everything passed
from his sight. He could not see the man, the woman, the earth,
the sky--saw nothing, as if in that one stride he had left the
visible world behind to step into a black and deserted space. He
heard screams round him in that obscurity, screams like the
melancholy and pitiful cries of sea-birds that dwell on the
lonely reefs of great oceans. Then suddenly a face appeared
within a few inches of his own. His face. He felt something in
his left hand. His throat . . . Ah! the thing like a snake's
head that darts up and down . . . He squeezed hard. He was back
in the world. He could see the quick beating of eyelids over a
pair of eyes that were all whites, the grin of a drawn-up lip, a
row of teeth gleaming through the drooping hair of a moustache .
. . Strong white teeth. Knock them down his lying throat . . .
He drew back his right hand, the fist up to the shoulder,
knuckles out. From under his feet rose the screams of sea-birds.
Thousands of them. Something held his legs . . . What the devil
. . . He delivered his blow straight from the shoulder, felt the
jar right up his arm, and realized suddenly that he was striking
something passive and unresisting. His heart sank within him
with disappointment, with rage, with mortification. He pushed
with his left arm, opening the hand with haste, as if he had just
perceived that he got hold by accident of something repulsive--
and he watched with stupefied eyes Willems tottering backwards in
groping strides, the white sleeve of his jacket across his face.
He watched his distance from that man increase, while he remained
motionless, without being able to account to himself for the fact
that so much empty space had come in between them. It should
have been the other way. They ought to have been very close, and
. . . Ah! He wouldn't fight, he wouldn't resist, he wouldn't
defend himself! A cur! Evidently a cur! . . . He was amazed and
aggrieved--profoundly--bitterly--with the immense and blank
desolation of a small child robbed of a toy. He shouted--
"Will you be a cheat to the end?"
He waited for some answer. He waited anxiously with an
impatience that seemed to lift him off his feet. He waited for
some word, some sign; for some threatening stir. Nothing! Only
two unwinking eyes glittered intently at him above the white
sleeve. He saw the raised arm detach itself from the face and
sink along the body. A white clad arm, with a big stain on the
white sleeve. A red stain. There was a cut on the cheek. It
bled. The nose bled too. The blood ran down, made one moustache
look like a dark rag stuck over the lip, and went on in a wet
streak down the clipped beard on one side of the chin. A drop of
blood hung on the end of some hairs that were glued together; it
hung for a while and took a leap down on the ground. Many more
followed, leaping one after another in close file. One alighted
on the breast and glided down instantly with devious vivacity,
like a small insect running away; it left a narrow dark track on
the white skin. He looked at it, looked at the tiny and active
drops, looked at what he had done, with obscure satisfaction,
with anger, with regret. This wasn't much like an act of
justice. He had a desire to go up nearer to the man, to hear him
speak, to hear him say something atrocious and wicked that would
justify the violence of the blow. He made an attempt to move,
and became aware of a close embrace round both his legs, just
above the ankles. Instinctively, he kicked out with his foot,
broke through the close bond and felt at once the clasp
transferred to his other leg; the clasp warm, desperate and soft,
of human arms. He looked down bewildered. He saw the body of
the woman stretched at length, flattened on the ground like a
dark blue rag. She trailed face downwards, clinging to his leg
with both arms in a tenacious hug. He saw the top of her head,
the long black hair streaming over his foot, all over the beaten
earth, around his boot. He couldn't see his foot for it. He
heard the short and repeated moaning of her breath. He imagined
the invisible face close to his heel. With one kick into that
face he could free himself. He dared not stir, and shouted
"Let go! Let go! Let go!"
The only result of his shouting was a tightening of the pressure
of her arms. With a tremendous effort he tried to bring his
right foot up to his left, and succeeded partly. He heard
distinctly the rub of her body on the ground as he jerked her
along. He tried to disengage himself by drawing up his foot. He
stamped. He heard a voice saying sharply--
"Steady, Captain Lingard, steady!"
His eyes flew back to Willems at the sound of that voice, and, in
the quick awakening of sleeping memories, Lingard stood suddenly
still, appeased by the clear ring of familiar words. Appeased as
in days of old, when they were trading together, when Willems was
his trusted and helpful companion in out-of-the-way and dangerous
places; when that fellow, who could keep his temper so much
better than he could himself, had spared him many a difficulty,
had saved him from many an act of hasty violence by the timely
and good-humoured warning, whispered or shouted, "Steady, Captain
Lingard, steady." A smart fellow. He had brought him up. The
smartest fellow in the islands. If he had only stayed with him,
then all this . . . He called out to Willems--
"Tell her to let me go or . . ."
He heard Willems shouting something, waited for awhile, then
glanced vaguely down and saw the woman still stretched out
perfectly mute and unstirring, with her head at his feet. He
felt a nervous impatience that, somehow, resembled fear.
"Tell her to let go, to go away, Willems, I tell you. I've had
enough of this," he cried.
"All right, Captain Lingard," answered the calm voice of Willems,
"she has let go. Take your foot off her hair; she can't get up."
Lingard leaped aside, clean away, and spun round quickly. He saw
her sit up and cover her face with both hands, then he turned
slowly on his heel and looked at the man. Willems held himself
very straight, but was unsteady on his feet, and moved about
nearly on the same spot, like a tipsy man attempting to preserve
his balance. After gazing at him for a while, Lingard called,
rancorous and irritable--
"What have you got to say for yourself?"
Willems began to walk towards him. He walked slowly, reeling a
little before he took each step, and Lingard saw him put his hand
to his face, then look at it holding it up to his eyes, as if he
had there, concealed in the hollow of the palm, some small object
which he wanted to examine secretly. Suddenly he drew it, with a
brusque movement, down the front of his jacket and left a long
"That's a fine thing to do," said Willems.
He stood in front of Lingard, one of his eyes sunk deep in the
increasing swelling of his cheek, still repeating mechanically
the movement of feeling his damaged face; and every time he did
this he pressed the palm to some clean spot on his jacket,
covering the white cotton with bloody imprints as of some
deformed and monstrous hand. Lingard said nothing, looking on.
At last Willems left off staunching the blood and stood, his arms
hanging by his side, with his face stiff and distorted under the
patches of coagulated blood; and he seemed as though he had been
set up there for a warning: an incomprehensible figure marked all
over with some awful and symbolic signs of deadly import.
Speaking with difficulty, he repeated in a reproachful tone--
"That was a fine thing to do."
"After all," answered Lingard, bitterly, "I had too good an
opinion of you."
"And I of you. Don't you see that I could have had that fool
over there killed and the whole thing burnt to the ground, swept
off the face of the earth. You wouldn't have found as much as a
heap of ashes had I liked. I could have done all that. And I
"You--could--not. You dared not. You scoundrel!" cried Lingard.
"What's the use of calling me names?"
"True," retorted Lingard--"there's no name bad enough for you."
There was a short interval of silence. At the sound of their
rapidly exchanged words, Aissa had got up from the ground where
she had been sitting, in a sorrowful and dejected pose, and
approached the two men. She stood on one side and looked on
eagerly, in a desperate effort of her brain, with the quick and
distracted eyes of a person trying for her life to penetrate the
meaning of sentences uttered in a foreign tongue: the meaning
portentous and fateful that lurks in the sounds of mysterious
words; in the sounds surprising, unknown and strange.
Willems let the last speech of Lingard pass by; seemed by a
slight movement of his hand to help it on its way to join the
other shadows of the past. Then he said--
"You have struck me; you have insulted me . . ."
"Insulted you!" interrupted Lingard, passionately. "Who--what
can insult you . . . you . . ."
He choked, advanced a step.
"Steady! steady!" said Willems calmly. "I tell you I sha'n't
fight. Is it clear enough to you that I sha'n't?
As he spoke, slowly punctuating each word with a slight jerk of
his head, he stared at Lingard, his right eye open and big, the
left small and nearly closed by the swelling of one half of his
face, that appeared all drawn out on one side like faces seen in
a concave glass. And they stood exactly opposite each other: one
tall, slight and disfigured; the other tall, heavy and severe.
Willems went on--
"If I had wanted to hurt you--if I had wanted to destroy you, it
was easy. I stood in the doorway long enough to pull a
trigger--and you know I shoot straight."
"You would have missed," said Lingard, with assurance. "There
is, under heaven, such a thing as justice."
The sound of that word on his own lips made him pause, confused,
like an unexpected and unanswerable rebuke. The anger of his
outraged pride, the anger of his outraged heart, had gone out in
the blow; and there remained nothing but the sense of some
immense infamy--of something vague, disgusting and terrible,
which seemed to surround him on all sides, hover about him with
shadowy and stealthy movements, like a band of assassins in the
darkness of vast and unsafe places. Was there, under heaven,
such a thing as justice? He looked at the man before him with
such an intensity of prolonged glance that he seemed to see right
through him, that at last he saw but a floating and unsteady mist
in human shape. Would it blow away before the first breath of
the breeze and leave nothing behind?
The sound of Willems' voice made him start violently. Willems was
"I have always led a virtuous life; you know I have. You always
praised me for my steadiness; you know you have. You know also I
never stole--if that's what you're thinking of. I borrowed. You
know how much I repaid. It was an error of judgment. But then
consider my position there. I had been a little unlucky in my
private affairs, and had debts. Could I let myself go under
before the eyes of all those men who envied me? But that's all
over. It was an error of judgment. I've paid for it. An error
of judgment."
Lingard, astounded into perfect stillness, looked down. He
looked down at Willems' bare feet. Then, as the other had
paused, he repeated in a blank tone--
"An error of judgment . . ."
"Yes," drawled out Willems, thoughtfully, and went on with
increasing animation: "As I said, I have always led a virtuous
life. More so than Hudig--than you. Yes, than you. I drank a
little, I played cards a little. Who doesn't? But I had
principles from a boy. Yes, principles. Business is business,
and I never was an ass. I never respected fools. They had to
suffer for their folly when they dealt with me. The evil was in
them, not in me. But as to principles, it's another matter. I
kept clear of women. It's forbidden--I had no time--and I
despised them. Now I hate them!"
He put his tongue out a little; a tongue whose pink and moist end
ran here and there, like something independently alive, under his
swollen and blackened lip; he touched with the tips of his
fingers the cut on his cheek, felt all round it with precaution:
and the unharmed side of his face appeared for a moment to be
preoccupied and uneasy about the state of that other side which
was so very sore and stiff.
He recommenced speaking, and his voice vibrated as though with
repressed emotion of some kind.
"You ask my wife, when you see her in Macassar, whether I have no
reason to hate her. She was nobody, and I made her Mrs. Willems.
A half-caste girl! You ask her how she showed her gratitude to
me. You ask . . . Never mind that. Well, you came and dumped
me here like a load of rubbish; dumped me here and left me with
nothing to do--nothing good to remember--and damn little to hope
for. You left me here at the mercy of that fool, Almayer, who
suspected me of something. Of what? Devil only knows. But he
suspected and hated me from the first; I suppose because you
befriended me. Oh! I could read him like a book. He isn't very
deep, your Sambir partner, Captain Lingard, but he knows how to
be disagreeable. Months passed. I thought I would die of sheer
weariness, of my thoughts, of my regrets And then . . ."
He made a quick step nearer to Lingard, and as if moved by the
same thought, by the same instinct, by the impulse of his will,
Aissa also stepped nearer to them. They stood in a close group,
and the two men could feel the calm air between their faces
stirred by the light breath of the anxious woman who enveloped
them both in the uncomprehending, in the despairing and wondering
glances of her wild and mournful eyes.
Willems turned a little from her and spoke lower.
"Look at that," he said, with an almost imperceptible movement of
his head towards the woman to whom he was presenting his
shoulder. "Look at that! Don't believe her! What has she been
saying to you? What? I have been asleep. Had to sleep at last.
I've been waiting for you three days and nights. I had to sleep
some time. Hadn't I? I told her to remain awake and watch for
you, and call me at once. She did watch. You can't believe her.
You can't believe any woman. Who can tell what's inside their
heads? No one. You can know nothing. The only thing you can
know is that it isn't anything like what comes through their
lips. They live by the side of you. They seem to hate you, or
they seem to love you; they caress or torment you; they throw you
over or stick to you closer than your skin for some inscrutable
and awful reason of their own--which you can never know! Look at
her--and look at me. At me!--her infernal work. What has she
been saying?"
His voice had sunk to a whisper. Lingard listened with great
attention, holding his chin in his hand, which grasped a great
handful of his white beard. His elbow was in the palm of his
other hand, and his eyes were still fixed on the ground. He
murmured, without looking up--
"She begged me for your life--if you want to know--as if the
thing were worth giving or taking!"
"And for three days she begged me to take yours," said Willems
quickly. "For three days she wouldn't give me any peace. She
was never still. She planned ambushes. She has been looking for
places all over here where I could hide and drop you with a safe
shot as you walked up. It's true. I give you my word."
"Your word," muttered Lingard, contemptuously.
Willems took no notice.
"Ah! She is a ferocious creature," he went on. "You don't know .
. . I wanted to pass the time--to do something--to have
something to think about--to forget my troubles till you came
back. And . . . look at her . . . she took me as if I did not
belong to myself. She did. I did not know there was something
in me she could get hold of. She, a savage. I, a civilized
European, and clever! She that knew no more than a wild animal!
Well, she found out something in me. She found it out, and I was
lost. I knew it. She tormented me. I was ready to do anything.
I resisted--but I was ready. I knew that too. That frightened
me more than anything; more than my own sufferings; and that was
frightful enough, I assure you."
Lingard listened, fascinated and amazed like a child listening to
a fairy tale, and, when Willems stopped for breath, he shuffled
his feet a little.
"What does he say?" cried out Aissa, suddenly.
The two men looked at her quickly, and then looked at one
Willems began again, speaking hurriedly--
"I tried to do something. Take her away from those people. I
went to Almayer; the biggest blind fool that you ever . . . Then
Abdulla came--and she went away. She took away with her
something of me which I had to get back. I had to do it. As far
as you are concerned, the change here had to happen sooner or
later; you couldn't be master here for ever. It isn't what I
have done that torments me. It is the why. It's the madness
that drove me to it. It's that thing that came over me. That
may come again, some day."
"It will do no harm to anybody then, I promise you," said
Lingard, significantly.
Willems looked at him for a second with a blank stare, then went
"I fought against her. She goaded me to violence and to murder.
Nobody knows why. She pushed me to it persistently, desperately,
all the time. Fortunately Abdulla had sense. I don't know what
I wouldn't have done. She held me then. Held me like a
nightmare that is terrible and sweet. By and by it was another
life. I woke up. I found myself beside an animal as full of
harm as a wild cat. You don't know through what I have passed.
Her father tried to kill me--and she very nearly killed him. I
believe she would have stuck at nothing. I don't know which was
more terrible! She would have stuck at nothing to defend her
own. And when I think that it was me--me--Willems . . . I hate
her. To-morrow she may want my life. How can I know what's in
her? She may want to kill me next!"
He paused in great trepidation, then added in a scared tone--
"I don't want to die here."
"Don't you?" said Lingard, thoughtfully.
Willems turned towards Aissa and pointed at her with a bony
"Look at her! Always there. Always near. Always watching,
watching . . . for something. Look at her eyes. Ain't they big?
Don't they stare? You wouldn't think she can shut them like
human beings do. I don't believe she ever does. I go to sleep,
if I can, under their stare, and when I wake up I see them fixed
on me and moving no more than the eyes of a corpse. While I am
still they are still. By God--she can't move them till I stir,
and then they follow me like a pair of jailers. They watch me;
when I stop they seem to wait patient and glistening till I am
off my guard--for to do something. To do something horrible.
Look at them! You can see nothing in them. They are big,
menacing--and empty. The eyes of a savage; of a damned mongrel,
half-Arab, half-Malay. They hurt me! I am white! I swear to
you I can't stand this! Take me away. I am white! All white!"
He shouted towards the sombre heaven, proclaiming desperately
under the frown of thickening clouds the fact of his pure and
superior descent. He shouted, his head thrown up, his arms
swinging about wildly; lean, ragged, disfigured; a tall madman
making a great disturbance about something invisible; a being
absurd, repulsive, pathetic, and droll. Lingard, who was looking
down as if absorbed in deep thought, gave him a quick glance from
under his eyebrows: Aissa stood with clasped hands. At the other
end of the courtyard the old woman, like a vague and decrepit
apparition, rose noiselessly to look, then sank down again with a
stealthy movement and crouched low over the small glow of the
fire. Willems' voice filled the enclosure, rising louder with
every word, and then, suddenly, at its very loudest, stopped
short--like water stops running from an over-turned vessel. As
soon as it had ceased the thunder seemed to take up the burden in
a low growl coming from the inland hills. The noise approached
in confused mutterings which kept on increasing, swelling into a
roar that came nearer, rushed down the river, passed close in a
tearing crash--and instantly sounded faint, dying away in
monotonous and dull repetitions amongst the endless sinuosities
of the lower reaches. Over the great forests, over all the
innumerable people of unstirring trees--over all that living
people immense, motionless, and mute--the silence, that had
rushed in on the track of the passing tumult, remained suspended
as deep and complete as if it had never been disturbed from the
beginning of remote ages. Then, through it, after a time, came
to Lingard's ears the voice of the running river: a voice low,
discreet, and sad, like the persistent and gentle voices that
speak of the past in the silence of dreams.
He felt a great emptiness in his heart. It seemed to him that
there was within his breast a great space without any light,
where his thoughts wandered forlornly, unable to escape, unable
to rest, unable to die, to vanish--and to relieve him from the
fearful oppression of their existence. Speech, action, anger,
forgiveness, all appeared to him alike useless and vain, appeared
to him unsatisfactory, not worth the effort of hand or brain that
was needed to give them effect. He could not see why he should
not remain standing there, without ever doing anything, to the
end of time. He felt something, something like a heavy chain,
that held him there. This wouldn't do. He backed away a little
from Willems and Aissa, leaving them close together, then stopped
and looked at both. The man and the woman appeared to him much
further than they really were. He had made only about three
steps backward, but he believed for a moment that another step
would take him out of earshot for ever. They appeared to him
slightly under life size, and with a great cleanness of outlines,
like figures carved with great precision of detail and highly
finished by a skilful hand. He pulled himself together. The
strong consciousness of his own personality came back to him. He
had a notion of surveying them from a great and inaccessible
He said slowly: "You have been possessed of a devil."
"Yes," answered Willems gloomily, and looking at Aissa. "Isn't
it pretty?"
"I've heard this kind of talk before," said Lingard, in a
scornful tone; then paused, and went on steadily after a while:
"I regret nothing. I picked you up by the waterside, like a
starving cat--by God. I regret nothing; nothing that I have
done. Abdulla--twenty others--no doubt Hudig himself, were after
me. That's business--for them. But that you should . . . Money
belongs to him who picks it up and is strong enough to keep
it--but this thing was different. It was part of my life. . . .
I am an old fool."
He was. The breath of his words, of the very words he spoke,
fanned the spark of divine folly in his breast, the spark that
made him--the hard-headed, heavy-handed adventurer--stand out
from the crowd, from the sordid, from the joyous, unscrupulous,
and noisy crowd of men that were so much like himself.
Willems said hurriedly: "It wasn't me. The evil was not in me,
Captain Lingard."
"And where else confound you! Where else?" interrupted Lingard,
raising his voice. "Did you ever see me cheat and lie and steal?
Tell me that. Did you? Hey? I wonder where in perdition you
came from when I found you under my feet. . . . No matter. You
will do no more harm."
Willems moved nearer, gazing upon him anxiously. Lingard went on
with distinct deliberation--
"What did you expect when you asked me to see you? What? You
know me. I am Lingard. You lived with me. You've heard men
speak. You knew what you had done. Well! What did you expect?"
"How can I know?" groaned Willems, wringing his hands; "I was
alone in that infernal savage crowd. I was delivered into their
hands. After the thing was done, I felt so lost and weak that I
would have called the devil himself to my aid if it had been any
good--if he hadn't put in all his work already. In the whole
world there was only one man that had ever cared for me. Only
one white man. You! Hate is better than being alone! Death is
better! I expected . . . anything. Something to expect.
Something to take me out of this. Out of her sight!"
He laughed. His laugh seemed to be torn out from him against his
will, seemed to be brought violently on the surface from under
his bitterness, his self-contempt, from under his despairing
wonder at his own nature.
"When I think that when I first knew her it seemed to me that my
whole life wouldn't be enough to . . . And now when I look at
her! She did it all. I must have been mad. I was mad. Every
time I look at her I remember my madness. It frightens me. . . .
And when I think that of all my life, of all my past, of all my
future, of my intelligence, of my work, there is nothing left but
she, the cause of my ruin, and you whom I have mortally offended
. . ."
He hid his face for a moment in his hands, and when he took them
away he had lost the appearance of comparative calm and gave way
to a wild distress.
"Captain Lingard . . . anything . . . a deserted island . . .
anywhere . . . I promise . . ."
"Shut up!" shouted Lingard, roughly.
He became dumb, suddenly, completely.
The wan light of the clouded morning retired slowly from the
courtyard, from the clearings, from the river, as if it had gone
unwillingly to hide in the enigmatical solitudes of the gloomy
and silent forests. The clouds over their heads thickened into a
low vault of uniform blackness. The air was still and
inexpressibly oppressive. Lingard unbuttoned his jacket, flung
it wide open and, inclining his body sideways a little, wiped his
forehead with his hand, which he jerked sharply afterwards. Then
he looked at Willems and said--
"No promise of yours is any good to me. I am going to take your
conduct into my own hands. Pay attention to what I am going to
say. You are my prisoner."
Willems' head moved imperceptibly; then he became rigid and
still. He seemed not to breathe.
"You shall stay here," continued Lingard, with sombre
deliberation. "You are not fit to go amongst people. Who could
suspect, who could guess, who could imagine what's in you? I
couldn't! You are my mistake. I shall hide you here. If I let
you out you would go amongst unsuspecting men, and lie, and
steal, and cheat for a little money or for some woman. I don't
care about shooting you. It would be the safest way though. But
I won't. Do not expect me to forgive you. To forgive one must
have been angry and become contemptuous, and there is nothing in
me now--no anger, no contempt, no disappointment. To me you are
not Willems, the man I befriended and helped through thick and
thin, and thought much of . . . You are not a human being that
may be destroyed or forgiven. You are a bitter thought, a
something without a body and that must be hidden . . . You are
my shame."
He ceased and looked slowly round. How dark it was! It seemed
to him that the light was dying prematurely out of the world and
that the air was already dead.
"Of course," he went on, "I shall see to it that you don't
"You don't mean to say that I must live here, Captain Lingard?"
said Willems, in a kind of mechanical voice without any
"Did you ever hear me say something I did not mean?" asked
Lingard. "You said you didn't want to die here--well, you must
live . . . Unless you change your mind," he added, as if in
involuntary afterthought.
He looked at Willems narrowly, then shook his head.
"You are alone," he went on. "Nothing can help you. Nobody
will. You are neither white nor brown. You have no colour as
you have no heart. Your accomplices have abandoned you to me
because I am still somebody to be reckoned with. You are alone
but for that woman there. You say you did this for her. Well,
you have her."
Willems mumbled something, and then suddenly caught his hair with
both his hands and remained standing so. Aissa, who had been
looking at him, turned to Lingard.
"What did you say, Rajah Laut?" she cried.
There was a slight stir amongst the filmy threads of her
disordered hair, the bushes by the river sides trembled, the big
tree nodded precipitately over them with an abrupt rustle, as if
waking with a start from a troubled sleep--and the breath of hot
breeze passed, light, rapid, and scorching, under the clouds that
whirled round, unbroken but undulating, like a restless phantom
of a sombre sea.
Lingard looked at her pityingly before he said--
"I have told him that he must live here all his life . . . and
with you."
The sun seemed to have gone out at last like a flickering light
away up beyond the clouds, and in the stifling gloom of the
courtyard the three figures stood colourless and shadowy, as if
surrounded by a black and superheated mist. Aissa looked at
Willems, who remained still, as though he had been changed into
stone in the very act of tearing his hair. Then she turned her
head towards Lingard and shouted--
"You lie! You lie! . . . White man. Like you all do. You . .
. whom Abdulla made small. You lie!"
Her words rang out shrill and venomous with her secret scorn,
with her overpowering desire to wound regardless of consequences;
in her woman's reckless desire to cause suffering at any cost, to
cause it by the sound of her own voice--by her own voice, that
would carry the poison of her thought into the hated heart.
Willems let his hands fall, and began to mumble again. Lingard
turned his ear towards him instinctively, caught something that
sounded like "Very well"--then some more mumbling--then a sigh.
"As far as the rest of the world is concerned," said Lingard,
after waiting for awhile in an attentive attitude, "your life is
finished. Nobody will be able to throw any of your villainies in
my teeth; nobody will be able to point at you and say, 'Here goes
a scoundrel of Lingard's up-bringing.' You are buried here."
"And you think that I will stay . . . that I will submit?"
exclaimed Willems, as if he had suddenly recovered the power of
"You needn't stay here--on this spot," said Lingard, drily.
"There are the forests--and here is the river. You may swim.
Fifteen miles up, or forty down. At one end you will meet
Almayer, at the other the sea. Take your choice."
He burst into a short, joyless laugh, then added with severe
"There is also another way."
"If you want to drive my soul into damnation by trying to drive
me to suicide you will not succeed," said Willems in wild
excitement. "I will live. I shall repent. I may escape. . . .
Take that woman away--she is sin."
A hooked dart of fire tore in two the darkness of the distant
horizon and lit up the gloom of the earth with a dazzling and
ghastly flame. Then the thunder was heard far away, like an
incredibly enormous voice muttering menaces.
Lingard said--
"I don't care what happens, but I may tell you that without that
woman your life is not worth much--not twopence. There is a
fellow here who . . . and Abdulla himself wouldn't stand on any
ceremony. Think of that! And then she won't go."
He began, even while he spoke, to walk slowly down towards the
little gate. He didn't look, but he felt as sure that Willems
was following him as if he had been leading him by a string.
Directly he had passed through the wicket-gate into the big
courtyard he heard a voice, behind his back, saying--
"I think she was right. I ought to have shot you. I couldn't
have been worse off."
"Time yet," answered Lingard, without stopping or looking back.
"But, you see, you can't. There is not even that in you."
"Don't provoke me, Captain Lingard," cried Willems.
Lingard turned round sharply. Willems and Aissa stopped.
Another forked flash of lightning split up the clouds overhead,
and threw upon their faces a sudden burst of light--a blaze
violent, sinister and fleeting; and in the same instant they were
deafened by a near, single crash of thunder, which was followed
by a rushing noise, like a frightened sigh of the startled earth.
"Provoke you!" said the old adventurer, as soon as he could make
himself heard. "Provoke you! Hey! What's there in you to
provoke? What do I care?"
"It is easy to speak like that when you know that in the whole
world--in the whole world--I have no friend," said Willems.
"Whose fault?" said Lingard, sharply.
Their voices, after the deep and tremendous noise, sounded to
them very unsatisfactory--thin and frail, like the voices of
pigmies--and they became suddenly silent, as if on that account.
From up the courtyard Lingard's boatmen came down and passed
them, keeping step in a single file, their paddles on shoulder,
and holding their heads straight with their eyes fixed on the
river. Ali, who was walking last, stopped before Lingard, very
stiff and upright. He said--
"That one-eyed Babalatchi is gone, with all his women. He took
everything. All the pots and boxes. Big. Heavy. Three boxes."
He grinned as if the thing had been amusing, then added with an
appearance of anxious concern, "Rain coming."
"We return," said Lingard. "Make ready."
"Aye, aye, sir!" ejaculated Ali with precision, and moved on. He
had been quartermaster with Lingard before making up his mind to
stay in Sambir as Almayer's head man. He strutted towards the
landing-place thinking proudly that he was not like those other
ignorant boatmen, and knew how to answer properly the very
greatest of white captains.
"You have misunderstood me from the first, Captain Lingard," said
"Have I? It's all right, as long as there is no mistake about my
meaning," answered Lingard, strolling slowly to the
landing-place. Willems followed him, and Aissa followed Willems.
Two hands were extended to help Lingard in embarking. He stepped
cautiously and heavily into the long and narrow canoe, and sat in
the canvas folding-chair that had been placed in the middle. He
leaned back and turned his head to the two figures that stood on
the bank a little above him. Aissa's eyes were fastened on his
face in a visible impatience to see him gone. Willems' look went
straight above the canoe, straight at the forest on the other
side of the river.
"All right, Ali," said Lingard, in a low voice.
A slight stir animated the faces, and a faint murmur ran along
the line of paddlers. The foremost man pushed with the point of
his paddle, canted the fore end out of the dead water into the
current; and the canoe fell rapidly off before the rush of brown
water, the stern rubbing gently against the low bank.
"We shall meet again, Captain Lingard!" cried Willems, in an
unsteady voice.
"Never!" said Lingard, turning half round in his chair to look at
Willems. His fierce red eyes glittered remorselessly over the
high back of his seat.
"Must cross the river. Water less quick over there," said Ali.
He pushed in his turn now with all his strength, throwing his
body recklessly right out over the stern. Then he recovered
himself just in time into the squatting attitude of a monkey
perched on a high shelf, and shouted: "Dayong!"
The paddles struck the water together. The canoe darted forward
and went on steadily crossing the river with a sideways motion
made up of its own speed and the downward drift of the current.
Lingard watched the shore astern. The woman shook her hand at
him, and then squatted at the feet of the man who stood
motionless. After a while she got up and stood beside him,
reaching up to his head--and Lingard saw then that she had wetted
some part of her covering and was trying to wash the dried blood
off the man's immovable face, which did not seem to know anything
about it. Lingard turned away and threw himself back in his
chair, stretching his legs out with a sigh of fatigue. His head
fell forward; and under his red face the white beard lay fan-like
on his breast, the ends of fine long hairs all astir in the faint
draught made by the rapid motion of the craft that carried him
away from his prisoner--from the only thing in his life he wished
to hide.
In its course across the river the canoe came into the line of
Willems' sight and his eyes caught the image, followed it eagerly
as it glided, small but distinct, on the dark background of the
forest. He could see plainly the figure of the man sitting in
the middle. All his life he had felt that man behind his back, a
reassuring presence ready with help, with commendation, with
advice; friendly in reproof, enthusiastic in approbation; a man
inspiring confidence by his strength, by his fearlessness, by the
very weakness of his simple heart. And now that man was going
away. He must call him back.
He shouted, and his words, which he wanted to throw across the
river, seemed to fall helplessly at his feet. Aissa put her hand
on his arm in a restraining attempt, but he shook it off. He
wanted to call back his very life that was going away from him.
He shouted again--and this time he did not even hear himself. No
use. He would never return. And he stood in sullen silence
looking at the white figure over there, lying back in the chair
in the middle of the boat; a figure that struck him suddenly as
very terrible, heartless and astonishing, with its unnatural
appearance of running over the water in an attitude of languid
For a time nothing on earth stirred, seemingly, but the canoe,
which glided up-stream with a motion so even and smooth that it
did not convey any sense of movement. Overhead, the massed
clouds appeared solid and steady as if held there in a powerful
grip, but on their uneven surface there was a continuous and
trembling glimmer, a faint reflection of the distant lightning
from the thunderstorm that had broken already on the coast and
was working its way up the river with low and angry growls.
Willems looked on, as motionless as everything round him and
above him. Only his eyes seemed to live, as they followed the
canoe on its course that carried it away from him, steadily,
unhesitatingly, finally, as if it were going, not up the great
river into the momentous excitement of Sambir, but straight into
the past, into the past crowded yet empty, like an old cemetery
full of neglected graves, where lie dead hopes that never return.
From time to time he felt on his face the passing, warm touch of
an immense breath coming from beyond the forest, like the short
panting of an oppressed world. Then the heavy air round him was
pierced by a sharp gust of wind, bringing with it the fresh, damp
feel of the falling rain; and all the innumerable tree-tops of
the forests swayed to the left and sprang back again in a
tumultuous balancing of nodding branches and shuddering leaves.
A light frown ran over the river, the clouds stirred slowly,
changing their aspect but not their place, as if they had turned
ponderously over; and when the sudden movement had died out in a
quickened tremor of the slenderest twigs, there was a short
period of formidable immobility above and below, during which the
voice of the thunder was heard, speaking in a sustained, emphatic
and vibrating roll, with violent louder bursts of crashing sound,
like a wrathful and threatening discourse of an angry god. For a
moment it died out, and then another gust of wind passed, driving
before it a white mist which filled the space with a cloud of
waterdust that hid suddenly from Willems the canoe, the forests,
the river itself; that woke him up from his numbness in a forlorn
shiver, that made him look round despairingly to see nothing but
the whirling drift of rain spray before the freshening breeze,
while through it the heavy big drops fell about him with sonorous
and rapid beats upon the dry earth. He made a few hurried steps
up the courtyard and was arrested by an immense sheet of water
that fell all at once on him, fell sudden and overwhelming from
the clouds, cutting his respiration, streaming over his head,
clinging to him, running down his body, off his arms, off his
legs. He stood gasping while the water beat him in a vertical
downpour, drove on him slanting in squalls, and he felt the drops
striking him from above, from everywhere; drops thick, pressed
and dashing at him as if flung from all sides by a mob of
infuriated hands. From under his feet a great vapour of broken
water floated up, he felt the ground become soft--melt under
him--and saw the water spring out from the dry earth to meet the
water that fell from the sombre heaven. An insane dread took
possession of him, the dread of all that water around him, of the
water that ran down the courtyard towards him, of the water that
pressed him on every side, of the slanting water that drove
across his face in wavering sheets which gleamed pale red with
the flicker of lightning streaming through them, as if fire and
water were falling together, monstrously mixed, upon the stunned
He wanted to run away, but when he moved it was to slide about
painfully and slowly upon that earth which had become mud so
suddenly under his feet. He fought his way up the courtyard like
a man pushing through a crowd, his head down, one shoulder
forward, stopping often, and sometimes carried back a pace or two
in the rush of water which his heart was not stout enough to
face. Aissa followed him step by step, stopping when he stopped,
recoiling with him, moving forward with him in his toilsome way
up the slippery declivity of the courtyard, of that courtyard,
from which everything seemed to have been swept away by the first
rush of the mighty downpour. They could see nothing. The tree,
the bushes, the house, and the fences--all had disappeared in the
thickness of the falling rain. Their hair stuck, streaming, to
their heads; their clothing clung to them, beaten close to their
bodies; water ran off them, off their heads over their shoulders.
They moved, patient, upright, slow and dark, in the gleam clear
or fiery of the falling drops, under the roll of unceasing
thunder, like two wandering ghosts of the drowned that, condemned
to haunt the water for ever, had come up from the river to look
at the world under a deluge.
On the left the tree seemed to step out to meet them, appearing
vaguely, high, motionless and patient; with a rustling plaint of
its innumerable leaves through which every drop of water tore its
separate way with cruel haste. And then, to the right, the house
surged up in the mist, very black, and clamorous with the quick
patter of rain on its high-pitched roof above the steady splash
of the water running off the eaves. Down the plankway leading to
the door flowed a thin and pellucid stream, and when Willems
began his ascent it broke over his foot as if he were going up a
steep ravine in the bed of a rapid and shallow torrent. Behind
his heels two streaming smudges of mud stained for an instant the
purity of the rushing water, and then he splashed his way up with
a spurt and stood on the bamboo platform before the open door
under the shelter of the overhanging eaves--under shelter at
A low moan ending in a broken and plaintive mutter arrested
Willems on the threshold. He peered round in the half-light
under the roof and saw the old woman crouching close to the wall
in a shapeless heap, and while he looked he felt a touch of two
arms on his shoulders. Aissa! He had forgotten her. He turned,
and she clasped him round the neck instantly, pressing close to
him as if afraid of violence or escape. He stiffened himself in
repulsion, in horror, in the mysterious revolt of his heart;
while she clung to him--clung to him as if he were a refuge from
misery, from storm, from weariness, from fear, from despair; and
it was on the part of that being an embrace terrible, enraged and
mournful, in which all her strength went out to make him captive,
to hold him for ever.
He said nothing. He looked into her eyes while he struggled with
her fingers about the nape of his neck, and suddenly he tore her
hands apart, holding her arms up in a strong grip of her wrists,
and bending his swollen face close over hers, he said--
"It is all your doing. You . . ."
She did not understand him--not a word. He spoke in the language
of his people--of his people that know no mercy and no shame.
And he was angry. Alas! he was always angry now, and always
speaking words that she could not understand. She stood in
silence, looking at him through her patient eyes, while he shook
her arms a little and then flung them down.
"Don't follow me!" he shouted. "I want to be alone--I mean to be
left alone!"
He went in, leaving the door open.
She did not move. What need to understand the words when they
are spoken in such a voice? In that voice which did not seem to
be his voice--his voice when he spoke by the brook, when he was
never angry and always smiling! Her eyes were fixed upon the
dark doorway, but her hands strayed mechanically upwards; she
took up all her hair, and, inclining her head slightly over her
shoulder, wrung out the long black tresses, twisting them
persistently, while she stood, sad and absorbed, like one
listening to an inward voice--the voice of bitter, of unavailing
regret. The thunder had ceased, the wind had died out, and the
rain fell perpendicular and steady through a great pale
clearness--the light of remote sun coming victorious from amongst
the dissolving blackness of the clouds. She stood near the
doorway. He was there--alone in the gloom of the dwelling. He
was there. He spoke not. What was in his mind now? What fear?
What desire? Not the desire of her as in the days when he used
to smile . . . How could she know? . . .
A sigh coming from the bottom of her heart, flew out into the
world through her parted lips. A sigh faint, profound, and
broken; a sigh full of pain and fear, like the sigh of those who
are about to face the unknown: to face it in loneliness, in
doubt, and without hope. She let go her hair, that fell
scattered over her shoulders like a funeral veil, and she sank
down suddenly by the door. Her hands clasped her ankles; she
rested her head on her drawn-up knees, and remained still, very
still, under the streaming mourning of her hair. She was
thinking of him; of the days by the brook; she was thinking of
all that had been their love--and she sat in the abandoned
posture of those who sit weeping by the dead, of those who watch
and mourn over a corpse.
Almayer propped, alone on the verandah of his house, with both
his elbows on the table, and holding his head between his hands,
stared before him, away over the stretch of sprouting young grass
in his courtyard, and over the short jetty with its cluster of
small canoes, amongst which his big whale-boat floated high, like
a white mother of all that dark and aquatic brood. He stared on
the river, past the schooner anchored in mid-stream, past the
forests of the left bank; he stared through and past the illusion
of the material world.
The sun was sinking. Under the sky was stretched a network of
white threads, a network fine and close-meshed, where here and
there were caught thicker white vapours of globular shape; and to
the eastward, above the ragged barrier of the forests, surged the
summits of a chain of great clouds, growing bigger slowly, in
imperceptible motion, as if careful not to disturb the glowing
stillness of the earth and of the sky. Abreast of the house the
river was empty but for the motionless schooner. Higher up, a
solitary log came out from the bend above and went on drifting
slowly down the straight reach: a dead and wandering tree going
out to its grave in the sea, between two ranks of trees
motionless and living.
And Almayer sat, his face in his hands, looking on and hating all
this: the muddy river; the faded blue of the sky; the black log
passing by on its first and last voyage; the green sea of
leaves--the sea that glowed shimmered, and stirred above the
uniform and impenetrable gloom of the forests--the joyous sea of
living green powdered with the brilliant dust of oblique sunrays.
He hated all this; he begrudged every day--every minute--of his
life spent amongst all these things; he begrudged it bitterly,
angrily, with enraged and immense regret, like a miser compelled
to give up some of his treasure to a near relation. And yet all
this was very precious to him. It was the present sign of a
splendid future.
He pushed the table away impatiently, got up, made a few steps
aimlessly, then stood by the balustrade and again looked at the
river--at that river which would have been the instrument for the
making of his fortune if . . . if . . .
"What an abominable brute!" he said.
He was alone, but he spoke aloud, as one is apt to do under the
impulse of a strong, of an overmastering thought.
"What a brute!" he muttered again.
The river was dark now, and the schooner lay on it, a black, a
lonely, and a graceful form, with the slender masts darting
upwards from it in two frail and raking lines. The shadows of
the evening crept up the trees, crept up from bough to bough,
till at last the long sunbeams coursing from the western horizon
skimmed lightly over the topmost branches, then flew upwards
amongst the piled-up clouds, giving them a sombre and fiery
aspect in the last flush of light. And suddenly the light
disappeared as if lost in the immensity of the great, blue, and
empty hollow overhead. The sun had set: and the forests became a
straight wall of formless blackness. Above them, on the edge of
lingering clouds, a single star glimmered fitfully, obscured now
and then by the rapid flight of high and invisible vapours.
Almayer fought with the uneasiness within his breast. He heard
Ali, who moved behind him preparing his evening meal, and he
listened with strange attention to the sounds the man made--to
the short, dry bang of the plate put upon the table, to the clink
of glass and the metallic rattle of knife and fork. The man went
away. Now he was coming back. He would speak directly; and
Almayer, notwithstanding the absorbing gravity of his thoughts,
listened for the sound of expected words. He heard them, spoken
in English with painstaking distinctness.
"Ready, sir!"
"All right," said Almayer, curtly. He did not move. He remained
pensive, with his back to the table upon which stood the lighted
lamp brought by Ali. He was thinking: Where was Lingard now?
Halfway down the river probably, in Abdulla's ship. He would be
back in about three days--perhaps less. And then? Then the
schooner would have to be got out of the river, and when that
craft was gone they--he and Lingard--would remain here; alone
with the constant thought of that other man, that other man
living near them! What an extraordinary idea to keep him there
for ever. For ever! What did that mean--for ever? Perhaps a
year, perhaps ten years. Preposterous! Keep him there ten
years--or may be twenty! The fellow was capable of living more
than twenty years. And for all that time he would have to be
watched, fed, looked after. There was nobody but Lingard to have
such notions. Twenty years! Why, no! In less than ten years
their fortune would be made and they would leave this place,
first for Batavia--yes, Batavia--and then for Europe. England,
no doubt. Lingard would want to go to England. And would they
leave that man here? How would that fellow look in ten years?
Very old probably. Well, devil take him. Nina would be fifteen.
She would be rich and very pretty and he himself would not be so
old then. . . ."
Almayer smiled into the night.
. . . Yes, rich! Why! Of course! Captain Lingard was a
resourceful man, and he had plenty of money even now. They were
rich already; but not enough. Decidedly not enough. Money
brings money. That gold business was good. Famous! Captain
Lingard was a remarkable man. He said the gold was there--and it
was there. Lingard knew what he was talking about. But he had
queer ideas. For instance, about Willems. Now what did he want
to keep him alive for? Why?
"That scoundrel," muttered Almayer again.
"Makan Tuan!" ejaculated Ali suddenly, very loud in a pressing
Almayer walked to the table, sat down, and his anxious visage
dropped from above into the light thrown down by the lamp-shade.
He helped himself absently, and began to eat in great mouthfuls.
. . . Undoubtedly, Lingard was the man to stick to! The man
undismayed, masterful and ready. How quickly he had planned a
new future when Willems' treachery destroyed their established
position in Sambir! And the position even now was not so bad.
What an immense prestige that Lingard had with all those
people--Arabs, Malays and all. Ah, it was good to be able to
call a man like that father. Fine! Wonder how much money really
the old fellow had. People talked--they exaggerated surely, but
if he had only half of what they said . . .
He drank, throwing his head up, and fell to again.
. . . Now, if that Willems had known how to play his cards well,
had he stuck to the old fellow he would have been in his
position, he would be now married to Lingard's adopted daughter
with his future assured--splendid . . .
"The beast!" growled Almayer, between two mouthfuls.
Ali stood rigidly straight with an uninterested face, his gaze
lost in the night which pressed round the small circle of light
that shone on the table, on the glass, on the bottle, and on
Almayer's head as he leaned over his plate moving his jaws.
. . . A famous man Lingard--yet you never knew what he would do
next. It was notorious that he had shot a white man once for
less than Willems had done. For less? . . . Why, for nothing,
so to speak! It was not even his own quarrel. It was about some
Malay returning from pilgrimage with wife and children.
Kidnapped, or robbed, or something. A stupid story--an old
story. And now he goes to see that Willems and--nothing. Comes
back talking big about his prisoner; but after all he said very
little. What did that Willems tell him? What passed between
them? The old fellow must have had something in his mind when he
let that scoundrel off. And Joanna! She would get round the old
fellow. Sure. Then he would forgive perhaps. Impossible. But
at any rate he would waste a lot of money on them. The old man
was tenacious in his hates, but also in his affections. He had
known that beast Willems from a boy. They would make it up in a
year or so. Everything is possible: why did he not rush off at
first and kill the brute? That would have been more like
Lingard. . . .
Almayer laid down his spoon suddenly, and pushing his plate away,
threw himself back in the chair.
. . . Unsafe. Decidedly unsafe. He had no mind to share
Lingard's money with anybody. Lingard's money was Nina's money
in a sense. And if Willems managed to become friendly with the
old man it would be dangerous for him--Almayer. Such an
unscrupulous scoundrel! He would oust him from his position. He
would lie and slander. Everything would be lost. Lost. Poor
Nina. What would become of her? Poor child. For her sake he
must remove that Willems. Must. But how? Lingard wanted to be
obeyed. Impossible to kill Willems. Lingard might be angry.
Incredible, but so it was. He might . . .
A wave of heat passed through Almayer's body, flushed his face,
and broke out of him in copious perspiration. He wriggled in his
chair, and pressed his hands together under the table. What an
awful prospect! He fancied he could see Lingard and Willems
reconciled and going away arm-in-arm, leaving him alone in this
God-forsaken hole--in Sambir--in this deadly swamp! And all his
sacrifices, the sacrifice of his independence, of his best years,
his surrender to Lingard's fancies and caprices, would go for
nothing! Horrible! Then he thought of his little daughter--his
daughter!--and the ghastliness of his supposition overpowered
him. He had a deep emotion, a sudden emotion that made him feel
quite faint at the idea of that young life spoiled before it had
fairly begun. His dear child's life! Lying back in his chair he
covered his face with both his hands.
Ali glanced down at him and said, unconcernedly--"Master finish?"
Almayer was lost in the immensity of his commiseration for
himself, for his daughter, who was--perhaps--not going to be the
richest woman in the world--notwithstanding Lingard's promises.
He did not understand the other's question, and muttered through
his fingers in a doleful tone--
"What did you say? What? Finish what?"
"Clear up meza," explained Ali.
"Clear up!" burst out Almayer, with incomprehensible
exasperation. "Devil take you and the table. Stupid!
Chatterer! Chelakka! Get out!"
He leaned forward, glaring at his head man, then sank back in his
seat with his arms hanging straight down on each side of the
chair. And he sat motionless in a meditation so concentrated and
so absorbing, with all his power of thought so deep within
himself, that all expression disappeared from his face in an
aspect of staring vacancy.
Ali was clearing the table. He dropped negligently the tumbler
into the greasy dish, flung there the spoon and fork, then
slipped in the plate with a push amongst the remnants of food.
He took up the dish, tucked up the bottle under his armpit, and
went off.
"My hammock!" shouted Almayer after him.
"Ada! I come soon," answered Ali from the doorway in an offended
tone, looking back over his shoulder. . . . How could he clear
the table and hang the hammock at the same time. Ya-wa! Those
white men were all alike. Wanted everything done at once. Like
children . . .
The indistinct murmur of his criticism went away, faded and died
out together with the soft footfall of his bare feet in the dark
For some time Almayer did not move. His thoughts were busy at
work shaping a momentous resolution, and in the perfect silence
of the house he believed that he could hear the noise of the
operation as if the work had been done with a hammer. He
certainly felt a thumping of strokes, faint, profound, and
startling, somewhere low down in his breast; and he was aware of
a sound of dull knocking, abrupt and rapid, in his ears. Now and
then he held his breath, unconsciously, too long, and had to
relieve himself by a deep expiration that whistled dully through
his pursed lips. The lamp standing on the far side of the table
threw a section of a lighted circle on the floor, where his
out-stretched legs stuck out from under the table with feet rigid
and turned up like the feet of a corpse; and his set face with
fixed eyes would have been also like the face of the dead, but
for its vacant yet conscious aspect; the hard, the stupid, the
stony aspect of one not dead, but only buried under the dust,
ashes, and corruption of personal thoughts, of base fears, of
selfish desires.
"I will do it!"
Not till he heard his own voice did he know that he had spoken.
It startled him. He stood up. The knuckles of his hand,
somewhat behind him, were resting on the edge of the table as he
remained still with one foot advanced, his lips a little open,
and thought: It would not do to fool about with Lingard. But I
must risk it. It's the only way I can see. I must tell her.
She has some little sense. I wish they were a thousand miles off
already. A hundred thousand miles. I do. And if it fails. And
she blabs out then to Lingard? She seemed a fool. No; probably
they will get away. And if they did, would Lingard believe me?
Yes. I never lied to him. He would believe. I don't know . . .
Perhaps he won't. . . . "I must do it. Must!" he argued aloud
to himself.
For a long time he stood still, looking before him with an
intense gaze, a gaze rapt and immobile, that seemed to watch the
minute quivering of a delicate balance, coming to a rest.
To the left of him, in the whitewashed wall of the house that
formed the back of the verandah, there was a closed door. Black
letters were painted on it proclaiming the fact that behind that
door there was the office of Lingard & Co. The interior had been
furnished by Lingard when he had built the house for his adopted
daughter and her husband, and it had been furnished with reckless
prodigality. There was an office desk, a revolving chair,
bookshelves, a safe: all to humour the weakness of Almayer, who
thought all those paraphernalia necessary to successful trading.
Lingard had laughed, but had taken immense trouble to get the
things. It pleased him to make his protege, his adopted
son-in-law, happy. It had been the sensation of Sambir some five
years ago. While the things were being landed, the whole
settlement literally lived on the river bank in front of the
Rajah Laut's house, to look, to wonder, to admire. . . . What a
big meza, with many boxes fitted all over it and under it! What
did the white man do with such a table? And look, look, O
Brothers! There is a green square box, with a gold plate on it,
a box so heavy that those twenty men cannot drag it up the bank.
Let us go, brothers, and help pull at the ropes, and perchance we
may see what's inside. Treasure, no doubt. Gold is heavy and
hard to hold, O Brothers! Let us go and earn a recompense from
the fierce Rajah of the Sea who shouts over there, with a red
face. See! There is a man carrying a pile of books from the
boat! What a number of books. What were they for? . . . And an
old invalided jurumudi, who had travelled over many seas and had
heard holy men speak in far-off countries, explained to a small
knot of unsophisticated citizens of Sambir that those books were
books of magic--of magic that guides the white men's ships over
the seas, that gives them their wicked wisdom and their strength;
of magic that makes them great, powerful, and irresistible while
they live, and--praise be to Allah!--the victims of Satan, the
slaves of Jehannum when they die.
And when he saw the room furnished, Almayer had felt proud. In
his exultation of an empty-headed quill-driver, he thought
himself, by the virtue of that furniture, at the head of a
serious business. He had sold himself to Lingard for these
things--married the Malay girl of his adoption for the reward of
these things and of the great wealth that must necessarily follow
upon conscientious book-keeping. He found out very soon that
trade in Sambir meant something entirely different. He could not
guide Patalolo, control the irrepressible old Sahamin, or
restrain the youthful vagaries of the fierce Bahassoen with pen,
ink, and paper. He found no successful magic in the blank pages
of his ledgers; and gradually he lost his old point of view in
the saner appreciation of his situation. The room known as the
office became neglected then like a temple of an exploded
superstition. At first, when his wife reverted to her original
savagery, Almayer, now and again, had sought refuge from her
there; but after their child began to speak, to know him, he
became braver, for he found courage and consolation in his
unreasoning and fierce affection for his daughter--in the
impenetrable mantle of selfishness he wrapped round both their
lives: round himself, and that young life that was also his.
When Lingard ordered him to receive Joanna into his house, he had
a truckle bed put into the office--the only room he could spare.
The big office desk was pushed on one side, and Joanna came with
her little shabby trunk and with her child and took possession in
her dreamy, slack, half-asleep way; took possession of the dust,
dirt, and squalor, where she appeared naturally at home, where
she dragged a melancholy and dull existence; an existence made up
of sad remorse and frightened hope, amongst the hopeless
disorder--the senseless and vain decay of all these emblems of
civilized commerce. Bits of white stuff; rags yellow, pink,
blue: rags limp, brilliant and soiled, trailed on the floor, lay
on the desk amongst the sombre covers of books soiled, grimy, but
stiff-backed, in virtue, perhaps, of their European origin. The
biggest set of bookshelves was partly hidden by a petticoat, the
waistband of which was caught upon the back of a slender book
pulled a little out of the row so as to make an improvised
clothespeg. The folding canvas bedstead stood nearly in the
middle of the room, stood anyhow, parallel to no wall, as if it
had been, in the process of transportation to some remote place,
dropped casually there by tired bearers. And on the tumbled
blankets that lay in a disordered heap on its edge, Joanna sat
almost all day with her stockingless feet upon one of the bed
pillows that were somehow always kicking about the floor. She
sat there, vaguely tormented at times by the thought of her
absent husband, but most of the time thinking tearfully of
nothing at all, looking with swimming eyes at her little son--at
the big-headed, pasty-faced, and sickly Louis Willems--who rolled
a glass inkstand, solid with dried ink, about the floor, and
tottered after it with the portentous gravity of demeanour and
absolute absorption by the business in hand that characterize the
pursuits of early childhood. Through the half-open shutter a ray
of sunlight, a ray merciless and crude, came into the room, beat
in the early morning upon the safe in the far-off corner, then,
travelling against the sun, cut at midday the big desk in two
with its solid and clean-edged brilliance; with its hot
brilliance in which a swarm of flies hovered in dancing flight
over some dirty plate forgotten there amongst yellow papers for
many a day. And towards the evening the cynical ray seemed to
cling to the ragged petticoat, lingered on it with wicked
enjoyment of that misery it had exposed all day; lingered on the
corner of the dusty bookshelf, in a red glow intense and mocking,
till it was suddenly snatched by the setting sun out of the way
of the coming night. And the night entered the room. The night
abrupt, impenetrable and all-filling with its flood of darkness;
the night cool and merciful; the blind night that saw nothing,
but could hear the fretful whimpering of the child, the creak of
the bedstead, Joanna's deep sighs as she turned over, sleepless,
in the confused conviction of her wickedness, thinking of that
man masterful, fair-headed, and strong--a man hard perhaps, but
her husband; her clever and handsome husband to whom she had
acted so cruelly on the advice of bad people, if her own people;
and of her poor, dear, deceived mother.
To Almayer, Joanna's presence was a constant worry, a worry
unobtrusive yet intolerable; a constant, but mostly mute, warning
of possible danger. In view of the absurd softness of Lingard's
heart, every one in whom Lingard manifested the slightest
interest was to Almayer a natural enemy. He was quite alive to
that feeling, and in the intimacy of the secret intercourse with
his inner self had often congratulated himself upon his own
wide-awake comprehension of his position. In that way, and
impelled by that motive, Almayer had hated many and various
persons at various times. But he never had hated and feared
anybody so much as he did hate and fear Willems. Even after
Willems' treachery, which seemed to remove him beyond the pale of
all human sympathy, Almayer mistrusted the situation and groaned
in spirit every time he caught sight of Joanna.
He saw her very seldom in the daytime. But in the short and
opal-tinted twilights, or in the azure dusk of starry evenings,
he often saw, before he slept, the slender and tall figure
trailing to and fro the ragged tail of its white gown over the
dried mud of the riverside in front of the house. Once or twice
when he sat late on the verandah, with his feet upon the deal
table on a level with the lamp, reading the seven months' old
copy of the North China Herald, brought by Lingard, he heard the
stairs creak, and, looking round the paper, he saw her frail and
meagre form rise step by step and toil across the verandah,
carrying with difficulty the big, fat child, whose head, lying on
the mother's bony shoulder, seemed of the same size as Joanna's
own. Several times she had assailed him with tearful clamour or
mad entreaties: asking about her husband, wanting to know where
he was, when he would be back; and ending every such outburst
with despairing and incoherent self-reproaches that were
absolutely incomprehensible to Almayer. On one or two occasions
she had overwhelmed her host with vituperative abuse, making him
responsible for her husband's absence. Those scenes, begun
without any warning, ended abruptly in a sobbing flight and a
bang of the door; stirred the house with a sudden, a fierce, and
an evanescent disturbance; like those inexplicable whirlwinds
that rise, run, and vanish without apparent cause upon the
sun-scorched dead level of arid and lamentable plains.
But to-night the house was quiet, deadly quiet, while Almayer
stood still, watching that delicate balance where he was weighing
all his chances: Joanna's intelligence, Lingard's credulity,
Willems' reckless audacity, desire to escape, readiness to seize
an unexpected opportunity. He weighed, anxious and attentive,
his fears and his desires against the tremendous risk of a
quarrel with Lingard. . . . Yes. Lingard would be angry.
Lingard might suspect him of some connivance in his prisoner's
escape--but surely he would not quarrel with him--Almayer--about
those people once they were gone--gone to the devil in their own
way. And then he had hold of Lingard through the little girl.
Good. What an annoyance! A prisoner! As if one could keep him
in there. He was bound to get away some time or other. Of
course. A situation like that can't last. vAnybody could see
that. Lingard's eccentricity passed all bounds. You may kill a
man, but you mustn't torture him. It was almost criminal. It
caused worry, trouble, and unpleasantness. . . . Almayer for a
moment felt very angry with Lingard. He made him responsible for
the anguish he suffered from, for the anguish of doubt and fear;
for compelling him--the practical and innocent Almayer--to such
painful efforts of mind in order to find out some issue for
absurd situations created by the unreasonable sentimentality of
Lingard's unpractical impulses.
"Now if the fellow were dead it would be all right," said Almayer
to the verandah.
He stirred a little, and scratching his nose thoughtfully,
revelled in a short flight of fancy, showing him his own image
crouching in a big boat, that floated arrested--say fifty yards
off--abreast of Willems' landing-place. In the bottom of the
boat there was a gun. A loaded gun. One of the boatmen would
shout, and Willems would answer--from the bushes.c The rascal
would be suspicious. Of course. Then the man would wave a piece
of paper urging Willems to come to the landing-place and receive
an important message. "From the Rajah Laut" the man would yell
as the boat edged in-shore, and that would fetch Willems out.
Wouldn't it? Rather! And Almayer saw himself jumping up at the
right moment, taking aim, pulling the trigger--and Willems
tumbling over, his head in the water--the swine!
He seemed to hear the report of the shot. It made him thrill
from head to foot where he stood. . . . How simple! . . .
Unfortunate . . . Lingard . . . He sighed, shook his head.
Pity. Couldn't be done. And couldn't leave him there either!
Suppose the Arabs were to get hold of him again--for instance to
lead an expedition up the river! Goodness only knows what harm
would come of it. . . .
The balance was at rest now and inclining to the side of
immediate action. Almayer walked to the door, walked up very
close to it, knocked loudly, and turned his head away, looking
frightened for a moment at what he had done. After waiting for a
while he put his ear against the panel and listened. Nothing.
He composed his features into an agreeable expression while he
stood listening and thinking to himself: I hear her. Crying.
Eh? I believe she has lost the little wits she had and is crying
night and day since I began to prepare her for the news of her
husband's death--as Lingard told me. I wonder what she thinks.
It's just like father to make me invent all these stories for
nothing at all. Out of kindness. Kindness! Damn! . . . She
isn't deaf, surely.
He knocked again, then said in a friendly tone, grinning
benevolently at the closed door--
"It's me, Mrs. Willems. I want to speak to you. I have . . .
have . . . important news. . . ."
"What is it?"
"News," repeated Almayer, distinctly. "News about your husband.
Your husband! . . . Damn him!" he added, under his breath.
He heard a stumbling rush inside. Things were overturned.
Joanna's agitated voice cried--
"News! What? What? I am coming out."
"No," shouted Almayer. "Put on some clothes, Mrs. Willems, and
let me in. It's . . . very confidential. You have a candle,
haven't you?"
She was knocking herself about blindly amongst the furniture in
that room. The candlestick was upset. Matches were struck
ineffectually. The matchbox fell. He heard her drop on her
knees and grope over the floor while she kept on moaning in
maddened distraction.
"Oh, my God! News! Yes . . . yes. . . . Ah! where . . . where .
. . candle. Oh, my God! . . . I can't find . . . Don't go
away, for the love of Heaven . . ."
"I don't want to go away," said Almayer, impatiently, through the
keyhole; "but look sharp. It's coni . . . it's pressing."
He stamped his foot lightly, waiting with his hand on the
door-handle. He thought anxiously: The woman's a perfect idiot.
Why should I go away? She will be off her head. She will never
catch my meaning. She's too stupid.
She was moving now inside the room hurriedly and in silence. He
waited. There was a moment of perfect stillness in there, and
then she spoke in an exhausted voice, in words that were shaped
out of an expiring sigh--out of a sigh light and profound, like
words breathed out by a woman before going off into a dead
"Come in."
He pushed the door. Ali, coming through the passage with an
armful of pillows and blankets pressed to his breast high up
under his chin, caught sight of his master before the door closed
behind him. He was so astonished that he dropped his bundle and
stood staring at the door for a long time. He heard the voice of
his master talking. Talking to that Sirani woman! Who was she?
He had never thought about that really. He speculated for a
while hazily upon things in general. She was a Sirani woman--and
ugly. He made a disdainful grimace, picked up the bedding, and
went about his work, slinging the hammock between two uprights of
the verandah. . . . Those things did not concern him. She was
ugly, and brought here by the Rajah Laut, and his master spoke to
her in the night. Very well. He, Ali, had his work to do.
Sling the hammock--go round and see that the watchmen were
awake--take a look at the moorings of the boats, at the padlock
of the big storehouse--then go to sleep. To sleep! He shivered
pleasantly. He leaned with both arms over his master's hammock
and fell into a light doze.
A scream, unexpected, piercing--a scream beginning at once in the
highest pitch of a woman's voice and then cut short, so short
that it suggested the swift work of death--caused Ali to jump on
one side away from the hammock, and the silence that succeeded
seemed to him as startling as the awful shriek. He was
thunderstruck with surprise. Almayer came out of the office,
leaving the door ajar, passed close to his servant without taking
any notice, and made straight for the water-chatty hung on a nail
in a draughty place. He took it down and came back, missing the
petrified Ali by an inch. He moved with long strides, yet,
notwithstanding his haste, stopped short before the door, and,
throwing his head back, poured a thin stream of water down his
throat. While he came and went, while he stopped to drink, while
he did all this, there came steadily from the dark room the sound
of feeble and persistent crying, the crying of a sleepy and
frightened child. After he had drunk, Almayer went in, closing
the door carefully.
Ali did not budge. That Sirani woman shrieked! He felt an
immense curiosity very unusual to his stolid disposition. He
could not take his eyes off the door. Was she dead in there?
How interesting and funny! He stood with open mouth till he
heard again the rattle of the door-handle. Master coming out.
He pivoted on his heels with great rapidity and made believe to
be absorbed in the contemplation of the night outside. He heard
Almayer moving about behind his back. Chairs were displaced.
His master sat down.
"Ali," said Almayer.
His face was gloomy and thoughtful. He looked at his head man,
who had approached the table, then he pulled out his watch. It
was going. Whenever Lingard was in Sambir Almayer's watch was
going. He would set it by the cabin clock, telling himself every
time that he must really keep that watch going for the future.
And every time, when Lingard went away, he would let it run down
and would measure his weariness by sunrises and sunsets in an
apathetic indifference to mere hours; to hours only; to hours
that had no importance in Sambir life, in the tired stagnation of
empty days; when nothing mattered to him but the quality of
guttah and the size of rattans; where there were no small hopes
to be watched for; where to him there was nothing interesting,
nothing supportable, nothing desirable to expect; nothing bitter
but the slowness of the passing days; nothing sweet but the hope,
the distant and glorious hope--the hope wearying, aching and
precious, of getting away.
He looked at the watch. Half-past eight. Ali waited stolidly.
"Go to the settlement," said Almayer, "and tell Mahmat Banjer to
come and speak to me to-night."
Ali went off muttering. He did not like his errand. Banjer and
his two brothers were Bajow vagabonds who had appeared lately in
Sambir and had been allowed to take possession of a tumbledown
abandoned hut, on three posts, belonging to Lingard & Co., and
standing just outside their fence. Ali disapproved of the favour
shown to those strangers. Any kind of dwelling was valuable in
Sambir at that time, and if master did not want that old rotten
house he might have given it to him, Ali, who was his servant,
instead of bestowing it upon those bad men. Everybody knew they
were bad. It was well known that they had stolen a boat from
Hinopari, who was very aged and feeble and had no sons; and that
afterwards, by the truculent recklessness of their demeanour,
they had frightened the poor old man into holding his tongue
about it. Yet everybody knew of it. It was one of the tolerated
scandals of Sambir, disapproved and accepted, a manifestation of
that base acquiescence in success, of that inexpressed and
cowardly toleration of strength, that exists, infamous and
irremediable, at the bottom of all hearts, in all societies;
whenever men congregate; in bigger and more virtuous places than
Sambir, and in Sambir also, where, as in other places, one man
could steal a boat with impunity while another would have no
right to look at a paddle.
Almayer, leaning back in his chair, meditated. The more he
thought, the more he felt convinced that Banjer and his brothers
were exactly the men he wanted. Those fellows were sea gipsies,
and could disappear without attracting notice; and if they
returned, nobody--and Lingard least of all--would dream of
seeking information from them. Moreover, they had no personal
interest of any kind in Sambir affairs--had taken no sides--would
know nothing anyway.
He called in a strong voice: "Mrs. Willems!"
She came out quickly, almost startling him, so much did she
appear as though she had surged up through the floor, on the
other side of the table. The lamp was between them, and Almayer
moved it aside, looking up at her from his chair. She was
crying. She was crying gently, silently, in a ceaseless welling
up of tears that did not fall in drops, but seemed to overflow in
a clear sheet from under her eyelids--seemed to flow at once all
over her face, her cheeks, and over her chin that glistened with
moisture in the light. Her breast and her shoulders were shaken
repeatedly by a convulsive and noiseless catching in her breath,
and after every spasmodic sob her sorrowful little head, tied up
in a red kerchief, trembled on her long neck, round which her
bony hand gathered and clasped the disarranged dress.
"Compose yourself, Mrs. Willems," said Almayer.
She emitted an inarticulate sound that seemed to be a faint, a
very far off, a hardly audible cry of mortal distress. Then the
tears went on flowing in profound stillness.
"You must understand that I have told you all this because I am
your friend--real friend," said Almayer, after looking at her for
some time with visible dissatisfaction. "You, his wife, ought to
know the danger he is in. Captain Lingard is a terrible man, you
She blubbered out, sniffing and sobbing together.
"Do you . . . you . . . speak . . . the . . . the truth now?"
"Upon my word of honour. On the head of my child," protested
Almayer. "I had to deceive you till now because of Captain
Lingard. But I couldn't bear it. Think only what a risk I run
in telling you--if ever Lingard was to know! Why should I do it?
Pure friendship. Dear Peter was my colleague in Macassar for
years, you know."
"What shall I do . . . what shall I do!" she exclaimed, faintly,
looking around on every side as if she could not make up her mind
which way to rush off.
"You must help him to clear out, now Lingard is away. He
offended Lingard, and that's no joke. Lingard said he would kill
him. He will do it, too," said Almayer, earnestly.
She wrung her hands. "Oh! the wicked man. The wicked, wicked
man!" she moaned, swaying her body from side to side.
"Yes. Yes! He is terrible," assented Almayer. "You must not
lose any time. I say! Do you understand me, Mrs. Willems?
Think of your husband. Of your poor husband. How happy he will
be. You will bring him his life--actually his life. Think of
She ceased her swaying movement, and now, with her head sunk
between her shoulders, she hugged herself with both her arms; and
she stared at Almayer with wild eyes, while her teeth chattered,
rattling violently and uninterruptedly, with a very loud sound,
in the deep peace of the house.
"Oh! Mother of God!" she wailed. "I am a miserable woman. Will
he forgive me? The poor, innocent man. Will he forgive me? Oh,
Mr. Almayer, he is so severe. Oh! help me. . . . I dare not. .
. . You don't know what I've done to him. . . . I daren't! . . .
I can't! . . . God help me!"
The last words came in a despairing cry. Had she been flayed
alive she could not have sent to heaven a more terrible, a more
heartrending and anguished plaint.
"Sh! Sh!" hissed Almayer, jumping up. "You will wake up
everybody with your shouting."
She kept on sobbing then without any noise, and Almayer stared at
her in boundless astonishment. The idea that, maybe, he had done
wrong by confiding in her, upset him so much that for a moment he
could not find a connected thought in his head.
At last he said: "I swear to you that your husband is in such a
position that he would welcome the devil . . . listen well to me
. . . the devil himself if the devil came to him in a canoe.
Unless I am much mistaken,'' he added, under his breath. Then
again, loudly: "If you have any little difference to make up with
him, I assure you--I swear to you--this is your time!"
The ardently persuasive tone of his words--he thought--would have
carried irresistible conviction to a graven image. He noticed
with satisfaction that Joanna seemed to have got some inkling of
his meaning. He continued, speaking slowly--
"Look here, Mrs. Willems. I can't do anything. Daren't. But I
will tell you what I will do. There will come here in about ten
minutes a Bugis man--you know the language; you are from
Macassar. He has a large canoe; he can take you there. To the
new Rajah's clearing, tell him. They are three brothers, ready
for anything if you pay them . . . you have some money. Haven't
She stood--perhaps listening--but giving no sign of intelligence,
and stared at the floor in sudden immobility, as if the horror of
the situation, the overwhelming sense of her own wickedness and
of her husband's great danger, had stunned her brain, her heart,
her will--had left her no faculty but that of breathing and of
keeping on her feet. Almayer swore to himself with much mental
profanity that he had never seen a more useless, a more stupid
"D'ye hear me?" he said, raising his voice. "Do try to
understand. Have you any money? Money. Dollars. Guilders.
Money! What's the matter with you?"
Without raising her eyes she said, in a voice that sounded weak
and undecided as if she had been making a desperate effort of
"The house has been sold. Mr. Hudig was angry."
Almayer gripped the edge of the table with all his strength. He
resisted manfully an almost uncontrollable impulse to fly at her
and box her ears.
"It was sold for money, I suppose," he said with studied and
incisive calmness. "Have you got it? Who has got it?"
She looked up at him, raising her swollen eyelids with a great
effort, in a sorrowful expression of her drooping mouth, of her
whole besmudged and tear-stained face. She whispered
"Leonard had some. He wanted to get married. And uncle Antonio;
he sat at the door and would not go away. And Aghostina--she is
so poor . . . and so many, many children--little children. And
Luiz the engineer. He never said a word against my husband.
Also our cousin Maria. She came and shouted, and my head was so
bad, and my heart was worse. Then cousin Salvator and old Daniel
da Souza, who . . ."
Almayer had listened to her speechless with rage. He thought: I
must give money now to that idiot. Must! Must get her out of
the way now before Lingard is back. He made two attempts to
speak before he managed to burst out--
"I don't want to know their blasted names! Tell me, did all
those infernal people leave you anything? To you! That's what I
want to know!"
"I have two hundred and fifteen dollars," said Joanna, in a
frightened tone.
Almayer breathed freely. He spoke with great friendliness--
"That will do. It isn't much, but it will do. Now when the man
comes I will be out of the way. You speak to him. Give him some
money; only a little, mind! And promise more. Then when you get
there you will be guided by your husband, of course. And don't
forget to tell him that Captain Lingard is at the mouth of the
river--the northern entrance. You will remember. Won't you?
The northern branch. Lingard is--death."
Joanna shivered. Almayer went on rapidly--
"I would have given you money if you had wanted it. 'Pon my
word! Tell your husband I've sent you to him. And tell him not
to lose any time. And also say to him from me that we shall
meet--some day. That I could not die happy unless I met him once
more. Only once. I love him, you know. I prove it. Tremendous
risk to me--this business is!"
Joanna snatched his hand and before he knew what she would be at,
pressed it to her lips.
"Mrs. Willems! Don't. What are you . . ." cried the abashed
Almayer, tearing his hand away.
"Oh, you are good!" she cried, with sudden exaltation, "You are
noble . . . I shall pray every day . . . to all the saints . . .
I shall . . ."
"Never mind . . . never mind!" stammered out Almayer, confusedly,
without knowing very well what he was saying. "Only look out for
Lingard. . . . I am happy to be able . . . in your sad situation
. . . believe me. . . . "
They stood with the table between them, Joanna looking down, and
her face, in the half-light above the lamp, appeared like a
soiled carving of old ivory--a carving, with accentuated anxious
hollows, of old, very old ivory. Almayer looked at her,
mistrustful, hopeful. He was saying to himself: How frail she
is! I could upset her by blowing at her. She seems to have got
some idea of what must be done, but will she have the strength to
carry it through? I must trust to luck now!
Somewhere far in the back courtyard Ali's voice rang suddenly in
angry remonstrance--
"Why did you shut the gate, O father of all mischief? You a
watchman! You are only a wild man. Did I not tell you I was
coming back? You . . ."
"I am off, Mrs. Willems," exclaimed Almayer. "That man is
here--with my servant. Be calm. Try to . . ."
He heard the footsteps of the two men in the passage, and without
finishing his sentence ran rapidly down the steps towards the
For the next half-hour Almayer, who wanted to give Joanna plenty
of time, stumbled amongst the lumber in distant parts of his
enclosure, sneaked along the fences; or held his breath,
flattened against grass walls behind various outhouses: all this
to escape Ali's inconveniently zealous search for his master. He
heard him talk with the head watchman--sometimes quite close to
him in the darkness--then moving off, coming back, wondering,
and, as the time passed, growing uneasy.
"He did not fall into the river?--say, thou blind watcher!" Ali
was growling in a bullying tone, to the other man. "He told me
to fetch Mahmat, and when I came back swiftly I found him not in
the house. There is that Sirani woman there, so that Mahmat
cannot steal anything, but it is in my mind, the night will be
half gone before I rest."
He shouted--
"Master! O master! O mast . . ."
"What are you making that noise for?" said Almayer, with
severity, stepping out close to them.
The two Malays leaped away from each other in their surprise.
"You may go. I don't want you any more tonight, Ali," went on
Almayer. "Is Mahmat there?"
"Unless the ill-behaved savage got tired of waiting. Those men
know not politeness. They should not be spoken to by white men,"
said Ali, resentfully.
Almayer went towards the house, leaving his servants to wonder
where he had sprung from so unexpectedly. The watchman hinted
obscurely at powers of invisibility possessed by the master, who
often at night . . . Ali interrupted him with great scorn. Not
every white man has the power. Now, the Rajah Laut could make
himself invisible. Also, he could be in two places at once, as
everybody knew; except he--the useless watchman--who knew no more
about white men than a wild pig! Ya-wa!
And Ali strolled towards his hut, yawning loudly.
As Almayer ascended the steps he heard the noise of a door flung
to, and when he entered the verandah he saw only Mahmat there,
close to the doorway of the passage. Mahmat seemed to be caught
in the very act of slinking away, and Almayer noticed that with
satisfaction. Seeing the white man, the Malay gave up his
attempt and leaned against the wall. He was a short, thick,
broad-shouldered man with very dark skin and a wide, stained,
bright-red mouth that uncovered, when he spoke, a close row of
black and glistening teeth. His eyes were big, prominent, dreamy
and restless. He said sulkily, looking all over the place from
under his eyebrows--
"White Tuan, you are great and strong--and I a poor man. Tell me
what is your will, and let me go in the name of God. It is
Almayer examined the man thoughtfully. How could he find out
whether . . . He had it! Lately he had employed that man and
his two brothers as extra boatmen to carry stores, provisions,
and new axes to a camp of rattan cutters some distance up the
river. A three days' expedition. He would test him now in that
way. He said negligently--
"I want you to start at once for the camp, with surat for the
Kavitan. One dollar a day."
The man appeared plunged in dull hesitation, but Almayer, who
knew his Malays, felt pretty sure from his aspect that nothing
would induce the fellow to go. He urged--
"It is important--and if you are swift I shall give two dollars
for the last day."
"No, Tuan. We do not go," said the man, in a hoarse whisper.
"We start on another journey."
"To a place we know of," said Mahmat, a little louder, in a
stubborn manner, and looking at the floor.
Almayer experienced a feeling of immense joy. He said, with
affected annoyance--
"You men live in my house and it is as if it were your own. I
may want my house soon."
Mahmat looked up.
"We are men of the sea and care not for a roof when we have a
canoe that will hold three, and a paddle apiece. The sea is our
house. Peace be with you, Tuan."
He turned and went away rapidly, and Almayer heard him directly
afterwards in the courtyard calling to the watchman to open the
gate. Mahmat passed through the gate in silence, but before the
bar had been put up behind him he had made up his mind that if
the white man ever wanted to eject him from his hut, he would
burn it and also as many of the white man's other buildings as he
could safely get at. And he began to call his brothers before he
was inside the dilapidated dwelling.
"All's well!" muttered Almayer to himself, taking some loose Java
tobacco from a drawer in the table. "Now if anything comes out I
am clear. I asked the man to go up the river. I urged him. He
will say so himself. Good."
He began to charge the china bowl of his pipe, a pipe with a long
cherry stem and a curved mouthpiece, pressing the tobacco down
with his thumb and thinking: No. I sha'n't see her again.
Don't want to. I will give her a good start, then go in
chase--and send an express boat after father. Yes! that's it.
He approached the door of the office and said, holding his pipe
away from his lips--
"Good luck to you, Mrs. Willems. Don't lose any time. You may
get along by the bushes; the fence there is out of repair. Don't
lose time. Don't forget that it is a matter of . . . life and
death. And don't forget that I know nothing. I trust you."
He heard inside a noise as of a chest-lid falling down. She made
a few steps. Then a sigh, profound and long, and some faint
words which he did not catch. He moved away from the door on
tiptoe, kicked off his slippers in a corner of the verandah, then
entered the passage puffing at his pipe; entered cautiously in a
gentle creaking of planks and turned into a curtained entrance to
the left. There was a big room. On the floor a small binnacle
lamp--that had found its way to the house years ago from the
lumber-room of the Flash--did duty for a night-light. It
glimmered very small and dull in the great darkness. Almayer
walked to it, and picking it up revived the flame by pulling the
wick with his fingers, which he shook directly after with a
grimace of pain. Sleeping shapes, covered--head and all--with
white sheets, lay about on the mats on the floor. In the middle
of the room a small cot, under a square white mosquito net,
stood--the only piece of furniture between the four
walls--looking like an altar of transparent marble in a gloomy
temple. A woman, half-lying on the floor with her head dropped
on her arms, which were crossed on the foot of the cot, woke up
as Almayer strode over her outstretched legs. She sat up without
a word, leaning forward, and, clasping her knees, stared down
with sad eyes, full of sleep.
Almayer, the smoky light in one hand, his pipe in the other,
stood before the curtained cot looking at his daughter--at his
little Nina--at that part of himself, at that small and
unconscious particle of humanity that seemed to him to contain
all his soul. And it was as if he had been bathed in a bright
and warm wave of tenderness, in a tenderness greater than the
world, more precious than life; the only thing real, living,
sweet, tangible, beautiful and safe amongst the elusive, the
distorted and menacing shadows of existence. On his face, lit up
indistinctly by the short yellow flame of the lamp, came a look
of rapt attention while he looked into her future. And he could
see things there! Things charming and splendid passing before
him in a magic unrolling of resplendent pictures; pictures of
events brilliant, happy, inexpressibly glorious, that would make
up her life. He would do it! He would do it. He would! He
would--for that child! And as he stood in the still night, lost
in his enchanting and gorgeous dreams, while the ascending, thin
thread of tobacco smoke spread into a faint bluish cloud above
his head, he appeared strangely impressive and ecstatic: like a
devout and mystic worshipper, adoring, transported and mute;
burning incense before a shrine, a diaphanous shrine of a
child-idol with closed eyes; before a pure and vaporous shrine of
a small god--fragile, powerless, unconscious and sleeping.
When Ali, roused by loud and repeated shouting of his name,
stumbled outside the door of his hut, he saw a narrow streak of
trembling gold above the forests and a pale sky with faded stars
overhead: signs of the coming day. His master stood before the
door waving a piece of paper in his hand and shouting
excitedly--"Quick, Ali! Quick!" When he saw his servant he
rushed forward, and pressing the paper on him objurgated him, in
tones which induced Ali to think that something awful had
happened, to hurry up and get the whale-boat ready to go
immediately--at once, at once--after Captain Lingard. Ali
remonstrated, agitated also, having caught the infection of
distracted haste.
"If must go quick, better canoe. Whale-boat no can catch, same
as small canoe."
"No, no! Whale-boat! whale-boat! You dolt! you wretch!" howled
Almayer, with all the appearance of having gone mad. "Call the
men! Get along with it. Fly!"
And Ali rushed about the courtyard kicking the doors of huts open
to put his head in and yell frightfully inside; and as he dashed
from hovel to hovel, men shivering and sleepy were coming out,
looking after him stupidly, while they scratched their ribs with
bewildered apathy. It was hard work to put them in motion. They
wanted time to stretch themselves and to shiver a little. Some
wanted food. One said he was sick. Nobody knew where the rudder
was. Ali darted here and there, ordering, abusing, pushing one,
then another, and stopping in his exertions at times to wring his
hands hastily and groan, because the whale-boat was much slower
than the worst canoe and his master would not listen to his
Almayer saw the boat go off at last, pulled anyhow by men that
were cold, hungry, and sulky; and he remained on the jetty
watching it down the reach. It was broad day then, and the sky
was perfectly cloudless. Almayer went up to the house for a
moment. His household was all astir and wondering at the strange
disappearance of the Sirani woman, who had taken her child and
had left her luggage. Almayer spoke to no one, got his revolver,
and went down to the river again. He jumped into a small canoe
and paddled himself towards the schooner. He worked very
leisurely, but as soon as he was nearly alongside he began to
hail the silent craft with the tone and appearance of a man in a
tremendous hurry.
"Schooner ahoy! schooner ahoy!" he shouted.
A row of blank faces popped up above the bulwark. After a while a
man with a woolly head of hair said--
"The mate! the mate! Call him, steward!" said Almayer,
excitedly, making a frantic grab at a rope thrown down to him by
In less than a minute the mate put his head over. He asked,
"What can I do for you, Mr. Almayer?"
"Let me have the gig at once, Mr. Swan--at once. I ask in
Captain Lingard's name. I must have it. Matter of life and
The mate was impressed by Almayer's agitation
"You shall have it, sir. . . . Man the gig there! Bear a hand,
serang! . . . It's hanging astern, Mr. Almayer," he said,
looking down again. "Get into it, sir. The men are coming down
by the painter."
By the time Almayer had clambered over into the stern sheets,
four calashes were in the boat and the oars were being passed
over the taffrail. The mate was looking on. Suddenly he said--
"Is it dangerous work? Do you want any help? I would come . . ."
"Yes, yes!" cried Almayer. "Come along. Don't lose a moment.
Go and get your revolver. Hurry up! hurry up!"
Yet, notwithstanding his feverish anxiety to be off, he lolled
back very quiet and unconcerned till the mate got in and, passing
over the thwarts, sat down by his side. Then he seemed to wake
up, and called out--
"Let go--let go the painter!"
"Let go the painter--the painter!" yelled the bowman, jerking at
People on board also shouted "Let go!" to one another, till it
occurred at last to somebody to cast off the rope; and the boat
drifted rapidly away from the schooner in the sudden silencing of
all voices.
Almayer steered. The mate sat by his side, pushing the
cartridges into the chambers of his revolver. When the weapon was
loaded he asked--
"What is it? Are you after somebody?"
"Yes," said Almayer, curtly, with his eyes fixed ahead on the
river. "We must catch a dangerous man."
"I like a bit of a chase myself," declared the mate, and then,
discouraged by Almayer's aspect of severe thoughtfulness, said
nothing more.
Nearly an hour passed. The calashes stretched forward head first
and lay back with their faces to the sky, alternately, in a
regular swing that sent the boat flying through the water; and
the two sitters, very upright in the stern sheets, swayed
rhythmically a little at every stroke of the long oars plied
The mate observed: "The tide is with us."
"The current always runs down in this river," said Almayer.
"Yes--I know," retorted the other; "but it runs faster on the
ebb. Look by the land at the way we get over the ground! A
five-knot current here, I should say."
"H'm!" growled Almayer. Then suddenly: "There is a passage
between two islands that will save us four miles. But at low
water the two islands, in the dry season, are like one with only
a mud ditch between them. Still, it's worth trying."
"Ticklish job that, on a falling tide," said the mate, coolly.
"You know best whether there's time to get through."
"I will try," said Almayer, watching the shore intently. "Look
out now!"
He tugged hard at the starboard yoke-line.
"Lay in your oars!" shouted the mate.
The boat swept round and shot through the narrow opening of a
creek that broadened out before the craft had time to lose its
"Out oars! . . . Just room enough," muttered the mate.
It was a sombre creek of black water speckled with the gold of
scattered sunlight falling through the boughs that met overhead
in a soaring, restless arc full of gentle whispers passing,
tremulous, aloft amongst the thick leaves. The creepers climbed
up the trunks of serried trees that leaned over, looking insecure
and undermined by floods which had eaten away the earth from
under their roots. And the pungent, acrid smell of rotting
leaves, of flowers, of blossoms and plants dying in that
poisonous and cruel gloom, where they pined for sunshine in vain,
seemed to lay heavy, to press upon the shiny and stagnant water
in its tortuous windings amongst the everlasting and invincible
Almayer looked anxious. He steered badly. Several times the
blades of the oars got foul of the bushes on one side or the
other, checking the way of the gig. During one of those
occurrences, while they were getting clear, one of the calashes
said something to the others in a rapid whisper. They looked
down at the water. So did the mate.
"Hallo!" he exclaimed. "Eh, Mr. Almayer! Look! The water is
running out. See there! We will be caught."
"Back! back! We must go back!" cried Almayer.
"Perhaps better go on."
"No; back! back!"
He pulled at the steering line, and ran the nose of the boat into
the bank. Time was lost again in getting clear.
"Give way, men! give way!" urged the mate, anxiously.
The men pulled with set lips and dilated nostrils, breathing
"Too late," said the mate, suddenly. "The oars touch the bottom
already. We are done."
The boat stuck. The men laid in the oars, and sat, panting, with
crossed arms.
"Yes, we are caught," said Almayer, composedly. "That is
The water was falling round the boat. The mate watched the
patches of mud coming to the surface. Then in a moment he
laughed, and pointing his finger at the creek--
"Look!" he said; "the blamed river is running away from us.
Here's the last drop of water clearing out round that bend."
Almayer lifted his head. The water was gone, and he looked only
at a curved track of mud--of mud soft and black, hiding fever,
rottenness, and evil under its level and glazed surface.
"We are in for it till the evening," he said, with cheerful
resignation. "I did my best. Couldn't help it."
"We must sleep the day away," said the mate. "There's nothing to
eat," he added, gloomily.
Almayer stretched himself in the stern sheets. The Malays curled
down between thwarts.
"Well, I'm jiggered!" said the mate, starting up after a long
pause. "I was in a devil of a hurry to go and pass the day stuck
in the mud. Here's a holiday for you! Well! well!"
They slept or sat unmoving and patient. As the sun mounted
higher the breeze died out, and perfect stillness reigned in the
empty creek. A troop of long-nosed monkeys appeared, and
crowding on the outer boughs, contemplated the boat and the
motionless men in it with grave and sorrowful intensity,
disturbed now and then by irrational outbreaks of mad
gesticulation. A little bird with sapphire breast balanced a
slender twig across a slanting beam of light, and flashed in it
to and fro like a gem dropped from the sky. His minute round eye
stared at the strange and tranquil creatures in the boat. After
a while he sent out a thin twitter that sounded impertinent and
funny in the solemn silence of the great wilderness; in the great
silence full of struggle and death.
On Lingard's departure solitude and silence closed round Willems;
the cruel solitude of one abandoned by men; the reproachful
silence which surrounds an outcast ejected by his kind, the
silence unbroken by the slightest whisper of hope; an immense and
impenetrable silence that swallows up without echo the murmur of
regret and the cry of revolt. The bitter peace of the abandoned
clearings entered his heart, in which nothing could live now but
the memory and hate of his past. Not remorse. In the breast of
a man possessed by the masterful consciousness of his
individuality with its desires and its rights; by the immovable
conviction of his own importance, of an importance so
indisputable and final that it clothes all his wishes,
endeavours, and mistakes with the dignity of unavoidable fate,
there could be no place for such a feeling as that of remorse.
The days passed. They passed unnoticed, unseen, in the rapid
blaze of glaring sunrises, in the short glow of tender sunsets,
in the crushing oppression of high noons without a cloud. How
many days? Two--three--or more? He did not know. To him, since
Lingard had gone, the time seemed to roll on in profound
darkness. All was night within him. All was gone from his
sight. He walked about blindly in the deserted courtyards,
amongst the empty houses that, perched high on their posts,
looked down inimically on him, a white stranger, a man from other
lands; seemed to look hostile and mute out of all the memories of
native life that lingered between their decaying walls. His
wandering feet stumbled against the blackened brands of extinct
fires, kicking up a light black dust of cold ashes that flew in
drifting clouds and settled to leeward on the fresh grass
sprouting from the hard ground, between the shade trees. He
moved on, and on; ceaseless, unresting, in widening circles, in
zigzagging paths that led to no issue; he struggled on wearily
with a set, distressed face behind which, in his tired brain,
seethed his thoughts: restless, sombre, tangled, chilling,
horrible and venomous, like a nestful of snakes.
From afar, the bleared eyes of the old serving woman, the sombre
gaze of Aissa followed the gaunt and tottering figure in its
unceasing prowl along the fences, between the houses, amongst the
wild luxuriance of riverside thickets. Those three human beings
abandoned by all were like shipwrecked people left on an insecure
and slippery ledge by the retiring tide of an angry
sea--listening to its distant roar, living anguished between the
menace of its return and the hopeless horror of their
solitude--in the midst of a tempest of passion, of regret, of
disgust, of despair. The breath of the storm had cast two of
them there, robbed of everything--even of resignation. The
third, the decrepit witness of their struggle and their torture,
accepted her own dull conception of facts; of strength and youth
gone; of her useless old age; of her last servitude; of being
thrown away by her chief, by her nearest, to use up the last and
worthless remnant of flickering life between those two
incomprehensible and sombre outcasts: a shrivelled, an unmoved, a
passive companion of their disaster.
To the river Willems turned his eyes like a captive that looks
fixedly at the door of his cell. If there was any hope in the
world it would come from the river, by the river. For hours
together he would stand in sunlight while the sea breeze sweeping
over the lonely reach fluttered his ragged garments; the keen
salt breeze that made him shiver now and then under the flood of
intense heat. He looked at the brown and sparkling solitude of
the flowing water, of the water flowing ceaseless and free in a
soft, cool murmur of ripples at his feet. The world seemed to
end there. The forests of the other bank appeared unattainable,
enigmatical, for ever beyond reach like the stars of heaven--and
as indifferent. Above and below, the forests on his side of the
river came down to the water in a serried multitude of tall,
immense trees towering in a great spread of twisted boughs above
the thick undergrowth; great, solid trees, looking sombre,
severe, and malevolently stolid, like a giant crowd of pitiless
enemies pressing round silently to witness his slow agony. He
was alone, small, crushed. He thought of escape--of something to
be done. What? A raft! He imagined himself working at it,
feverishly, desperately; cutting down trees, fastening the logs
together and then drifting down with the current, down to the sea
into the straits. There were ships there--ships, help, white
men. Men like himself. Good men who would rescue him, take him
away, take him far away where there was trade, and houses, and
other men that could understand him exactly, appreciate his
capabilities; where there was proper food, and money; where there
were beds, knives, forks, carriages, brass bands, cool drinks,
churches with well-dressed people praying in them. He would pray
also. The superior land of refined delights where he could sit
on a chair, eat his tiffin off a white tablecloth, nod to
fellows--good fellows; he would be popular; always was--where he
could be virtuous, correct, do business, draw a salary, smoke
cigars, buy things in shops--have boots . . . be happy, free,
become rich. O God! What was wanted? Cut down a few trees.
No! One would do. They used to make canoes by burning out a
tree trunk, he had heard. Yes! One would do. One tree to cut
down . . . He rushed forward, and suddenly stood still as if
rooted in the ground. He had a pocket-knife.
And he would throw himself down on the ground by the riverside.
He was tired, exhausted; as if that raft had been made, the
voyage accomplished, the fortune attained. A glaze came over his
staring eyes, over his eyes that gazed hopelessly at the rising
river where big logs and uprooted trees drifted in the shine of
mid-stream: a long procession of black and ragged specks. He
could swim out and drift away on one of these trees. Anything to
escape! Anything! Any risk! He could fasten himself up between
the dead branches. He was torn by desire, by fear; his heart was
wrung by the faltering of his courage. He turned over, face
downwards, his head on his arms. He had a terrible vision of
shadowless horizons where the blue sky and the blue sea met; or a
circular and blazing emptiness where a dead tree and a dead man
drifted together, endlessly, up and down, upon the brilliant
undulations of the straits. No ships there. Only death. And
the river led to it.
He sat up with a profound groan.
Yes, death. Why should he die? No! Better solitude, better
hopeless waiting, alone. Alone. No! he was not alone, he saw
death looking at him from everywhere; from the bushes, from the
clouds--he heard her speaking to him in the murmur of the river,
filling the space, touching his heart, his brain with a cold
hand. He could see and think of nothing else. He saw it--the
sure death--everywhere. He saw it so close that he was always on
the point of throwing out his arms to keep it off. It poisoned
all he saw, all he did; the miserable food he ate, the muddy
water he drank; it gave a frightful aspect to sunrises and
sunsets, to the brightness of hot noon, to the cooling shadows of
the evenings. He saw the horrible form among the big trees, in
the network of creepers in the fantastic outlines of leaves, of
the great indented leaves that seemed to be so many enormous
hands with big broad palms, with stiff fingers outspread to lay
hold of him; hands gently stirring, or hands arrested in a
frightful immobility, with a stillness attentive and watching for
the opportunity to take him, to enlace him, to strangle him, to
hold him till he died; hands that would hold him dead, that would
never let go, that would cling to his body for ever till it
perished--disappeared in their frantic and tenacious grasp.
And yet the world was full of life. All the things, all the men
he knew, existed, moved, breathed; and he saw them in a long
perspective, far off, diminished, distinct, desirable,
unattainable, precious . . . lost for ever. Round him,
ceaselessly, there went on without a sound the mad turmoil of
tropical life. After he had died all this would remain! He
wanted to clasp, to embrace solid things; he had an immense
craving for sensations; for touching, pressing, seeing, handling,
holding on, to all these things. All this would remain--remain
for years, for ages, for ever. After he had miserably died
there, all this would remain, would live, would exist in joyous
sunlight, would breathe in the coolness of serene nights. What
for, then? He would be dead. He would be stretched upon the
warm moisture of the ground, feeling nothing, seeing nothing,
knowing nothing; he would lie stiff, passive, rotting slowly;
while over him, under him, through him--unopposed, busy,
hurried--the endless and minute throngs of insects, little
shining monsters of repulsive shapes, with horns, with claws,
with pincers, would swarm in streams, in rushes, in eager
struggle for his body; would swarm countless, persistent,
ferocious and greedy--till there would remain nothing but the
white gleam of bleaching bones in the long grass; in the long
grass that would shoot its feathery heads between the bare and
polished ribs. There would be that only left of him; nobody
would miss him; no one would remember him.
Nonsense! It could not be. There were ways out of this.
Somebody would turn up. Some human beings would come. He would
speak, entreat--use force to extort help from them. He felt
strong; he was very strong. He would . . . The discouragement,
the conviction of the futility of his hopes would return in an
acute sensation of pain in his heart. He would begin again his
aimless wanderings. He tramped till he was ready to drop,
without being able to calm by bodily fatigue the trouble of his
soul. There was no rest, no peace within the cleared grounds of
his prison. There was no relief but in the black release of
sleep, of sleep without memory and without dreams; in the sleep
coming brutal and heavy, like the lead that kills. To forget in
annihilating sleep; to tumble headlong, as if stunned, out of
daylight into the night of oblivion, was for him the only, the
rare respite from this existence which he lacked the courage to
endure--or to end.
He lived, he struggled with the inarticulate delirium of his
thoughts under the eyes of the silent Aissa. She shared his
torment in the poignant wonder, in the acute longing, in the
despairing inability to understand the cause of his anger and of
his repulsion; the hate of his looks; the mystery of his silence;
the menace of his rare words--of those words in the speech of
white people that were thrown at her with rage, with contempt,
with the evident desire to hurt her; to hurt her who had given
herself, her life--all she had to give--to that white man; to
hurt her who had wanted to show him the way to true greatness,
who had tried to help him, in her woman's dream of everlasting,
enduring, unchangeable affection. From the short contact with
the whites in the crashing collapse of her old life, there
remained with her the imposing idea of irresistible power and of
ruthless strength. She had found a man of their race--and with
all their qualities. All whites are alike. But this man's heart
was full of anger against his own people, full of anger existing
there by the side of his desire of her. And to her it had been
an intoxication of hope for great things born in the proud and
tender consciousness of her influence. She had heard the passing
whisper of wonder and fear in the presence of his hesitation, of
his resistance, of his compromises; and yet with a woman's belief
in the durable steadfastness of hearts, in the irresistible charm
of her own personality, she had pushed him forward, trusting the
future, blindly, hopefully; sure to attain by his side the ardent
desire of her life, if she could only push him far beyond the
possibility of retreat. She did not know, and could not
conceive, anything of his--so exalted--ideals. She thought the
man a warrior and a chief, ready for battle, violence, and
treachery to his own people--for her. What more natural? Was he
not a great, strong man? Those two, surrounded each by the
impenetrable wall of their aspirations, were hopelessly alone,
out of sight, out of earshot of each other; each the centre of
dissimilar and distant horizons; standing each on a different
earth, under a different sky. She remembered his words, his
eyes, his trembling lips, his outstretched hands; she remembered
the great, the immeasurable sweetness of her surrender, that
beginning of her power which was to last until death. He
remembered the quaysides and the warehouses; the excitement of a
life in a whirl of silver coins; the glorious uncertainty of a
money hunt; his numerous successes, the lost possibilities of
wealth and consequent glory. She, a woman, was the victim of her
heart, of her woman's belief that there is nothing in the world
but love--the everlasting thing. He was the victim of his
strange principles, of his continence, of his blind belief in
himself, of his solemn veneration for the voice of his boundless
In a moment of his idleness, of suspense, of discouragement, she
had come--that creature--and by the touch of her hand had
destroyed his future, his dignity of a clever and civilized man;
had awakened in his breast the infamous thing which had driven
him to what he had done, and to end miserably in the wilderness
and be forgotten, or else remembered with hate or contempt. He
dared not look at her, because now whenever he looked at her his
thought seemed to touch crime, like an outstretched hand. She
could only look at him--and at nothing else. What else was
there? She followed him with a timorous gaze, with a gaze for
ever expecting, patient, and entreating. And in her eyes there
was the wonder and desolation of an animal that knows only
suffering, of the incomplete soul that knows pain but knows not
hope; that can find no refuge from the facts of life in the
illusory conviction of its dignity, of an exalted destiny beyond;
in the heavenly consolation of a belief in the momentous origin
of its hate.
For the first three days after Lingard went away he would not
even speak to her. She preferred his silence to the sound of
hated and incomprehensible words he had been lately addressing to
her with a wild violence of manner, passing at once into complete
apathy. And during these three days he hardly ever left the
river, as if on that muddy bank he had felt himself nearer to his
freedom. He would stay late; he would stay till sunset; he would
look at the glow of gold passing away amongst sombre clouds in a
bright red flush, like a splash of warm blood. It seemed to him
ominous and ghastly with a foreboding of violent death that
beckoned him from everywhere--even from the sky.
One evening he remained by the riverside long after sunset,
regardless of the night mist that had closed round him, had
wrapped him up and clung to him like a wet winding-sheet. A
slight shiver recalled him to his senses, and he walked up the
courtyard towards his house. Aissa rose from before the fire,
that glimmered red through its own smoke, which hung thickening
under the boughs of the big tree. She approached him from the
side as he neared the plankway of the house. He saw her stop to
let him begin his ascent. In the darkness her figure was like
the shadow of a woman with clasped hands put out beseechingly. He
stopped--could not help glancing at her. In all the sombre
gracefulness of the straight figure, her limbs, features--all was
indistinct and vague but the gleam of her eyes in the faint
starlight. He turned his head away and moved on. He could feel
her footsteps behind him on the bending planks, but he walked up
without turning his head. He knew what she wanted. She wanted
to come in there. He shuddered at the thought of what might
happen in the impenetrable darkness of that house if they were to
find themselves alone--even for a moment. He stopped in the
doorway, and heard her say--
"Let me come in. Why this anger? Why this silence? . . . Let
me watch . . by your side. . . . Have I not watched faithfully?
Did harm ever come to you when you closed your eyes while I was
by? . . . I have waited . . . I have waited for your smile, for
your words . . . I can wait no more. . . . Look at me . . .
speak to me. Is there a bad spirit in you? A bad spirit that
has eaten up your courage and your love? Let me touch you.
Forget all . . . All. Forget the wicked hearts, the angry faces
. . . and remember only the day I came to you . . . to you! O my
heart! O my life!"
The pleading sadness of her appeal filled the space with the
tremor of her low tones, that carried tenderness and tears into
the great peace of the sleeping world. All around them the
forests, the clearings, the river, covered by the silent veil of
night, seemed to wake up and listen to her words in attentive
stillness. After the sound of her voice had died out in a
stifled sigh they appeared to listen yet; and nothing stirred
among the shapeless shadows but the innumerable fireflies that
twinkled in changing clusters, in gliding pairs, in wandering and
solitary points--like the glimmering drift of scattered
Willems turned round slowly, reluctantly, as if compelled by main
force. Her face was hidden in her hands, and he looked above her
bent head, into the sombre brilliance of the night. It was one
of those nights that give the impression of extreme vastness,
when the sky seems higher, when the passing puffs of tepid breeze
seem to bring with them faint whispers from beyond the stars.
The air was full of sweet scent, of the scent charming,
penetrating. and violent like the impulse of love. He looked
into that great dark place odorous with the breath of life, with
the mystery of existence, renewed, fecund, indestructible; and he
felt afraid of his solitude, of the solitude of his body, of the
loneliness of his soul in the presence of this unconscious and
ardent struggle, of this lofty indifference, of this merciless
and mysterious purpose, perpetuating strife and death through the
march of ages. For the second time in his life he felt, in a
sudden sense of his significance, the need to send a cry for help
into the wilderness, and for the second time he realized the
hopelessness of its unconcern. He could shout for help on every
side--and nobody would answer. He could stretch out his hands,
he could call for aid, for support, for sympathy, for relief--and
nobody would come. Nobody. There was no one there--but that
His heart was moved, softened with pity at his own abandonment.
His anger against her, against her who was the cause of all his
misfortunes, vanished before his extreme need for some kind of
consolation. Perhaps--if he must resign himself to his fate--she
might help him to forget. To forget! For a moment, in an access
of despair so profound that it seemed like the beginning of
peace, he planned the deliberate descent from his pedestal, the
throwing away of his superiority, of all his hopes, of old
ambitions, of the ungrateful civilization. For a moment,
forgetfulness in her arms seemed possible; and lured by that
possibility the semblance of renewed desire possessed his breast
in a burst of reckless contempt for everything outside
himself--in a savage disdain of Earth and of Heaven. He said to
himself that he would not repent. The punishment for his only
sin was too heavy. There was no mercy under Heaven. He did not
want any. He thought, desperately, that if he could find with
her again the madness of the past, the strange delirium that had
changed him, that had worked his undoing, he would be ready to
pay for it with an eternity of perdition. He was intoxicated by
the subtle perfumes of the night; he was carried away by the
suggestive stir of the warm breeze; he was possessed by the
exaltation of the solitude, of the silence, of his memories, in
the presence of that figure offering herself in a submissive and
patient devotion; coming to him in the name of the past, in the
name of those days when he could see nothing, think of nothing,
desire nothing--but her embrace.
He took her suddenly in his arms, and she clasped her hands round
his neck with a low cry of joy and surprise. He took her in his
arms and waited for the transport, for the madness, for the
sensations remembered and lost; and while she sobbed gently on
his breast he held her and felt cold, sick, tired, exasperated
with his failure--and ended by cursing himself. She clung to him
trembling with the intensity of her happiness and her love. He
heard her whispering--her face hidden on his shoulder--of past
sorrow, of coming joy that would last for ever; of her unshaken
belief in his love. She had always believed. Always! Even
while his face was turned away from her in the dark days while
his mind was wandering in his own land, amongst his own people.
But it would never wander away from her any more, now it had come
back. He would forget the cold faces and the hard hearts of the
cruel people. What was there to remember? Nothing? Was it not
so? . . .
He listened hopelessly to the faint murmur. He stood still and
rigid, pressing her mechanically to his breast while he thought
that there was nothing for him in the world. He was robbed of
everything; robbed of his passion, of his liberty, of
forgetfulness, of consolation. She, wild with delight, whispered
on rapidly, of love, of light, of peace, of long years. . . . He
looked drearily above her head down into the deeper gloom of the
courtyard. And, all at once, it seemed to him that he was
peering into a sombre hollow, into a deep black hole full of
decay and of whitened bones; into an immense and inevitable grave
full of corruption where sooner or later he must, unavoidably,
In the morning he came out early, and stood for a time in the
doorway, listening to the light breathing behind him--in the
house. She slept. He had not closed his eyes through all that
night. He stood swaying--then leaned against the lintel of the
door. He was exhausted, done up; fancied himself hardly alive.
He had a disgusted horror of himself that, as he looked at the
level sea of mist at his feet, faded quickly into dull
indifference. It was like a sudden and final decrepitude of his
senses, of his body, of his thoughts. Standing on the high
platform, he looked over the expanse of low night fog above
which, here and there, stood out the feathery heads of tall
bamboo clumps and the round tops of single trees, resembling
small islets emerging black and solid from a ghostly and
impalpable sea. Upon the faintly luminous background of the
eastern sky, the sombre line of the great forests bounded that
smooth sea of white vapours with an appearance of a fantastic and
unattainable shore.
He looked without seeing anything--thinking of himself. Before
his eyes the light of the rising sun burst above the forest with
the suddenness of an explosion. He saw nothing. Then, after a
time, he murmured with conviction--speaking half aloud to himself
in the shock of the penetrating thought:
"I am a lost man."
He shook his hand above his head in a gesture careless and
tragic, then walked down into the mist that closed above him in
shining undulations under the first breath of the morning breeze.
Willems moved languidly towards the river, then retraced his
steps to the tree and let himself fall on the seat under its
shade. On the other side of the immense trunk he could hear the
old woman moving about, sighing loudly, muttering to herself,
snapping dry sticks, blowing up the fire. After a while a whiff
of smoke drifted round to where he sat. It made him feel hungry,
and that feeling was like a new indignity added to an intolerable
load of humiliations. He felt inclined to cry. He felt very
weak. He held up his arm before his eyes and watched for a
little while the trembling of the lean limb. Skin and bone, by
God! How thin he was! . . . He had suffered from fever a good
deal, and now he thought with tearful dismay that Lingard,
although he had sent him food--and what food, great Lord: a
little rice and dried fish; quite unfit for a white man--had not
sent him any medicine. Did the old savage think that he was like
the wild beasts that are never ill? He wanted quinine.
He leaned the back of his head against the tree and closed his
eyes. He thought feebly that if he could get hold of Lingard he
would like to flay him alive; but it was only a blurred, a short
and a passing thought. His imagination, exhausted by the repeated
delineations of his own fate, had not enough strength left to
grip the idea of revenge. He was not indignant and rebellious.
He was cowed. He was cowed by the immense cataclysm of his
disaster. Like most men, he had carried solemnly within his
breast the whole universe, and the approaching end of all things
in the destruction of his own personality filled him with
paralyzing awe. Everything was toppling over. He blinked his
eyes quickly, and it seemed to him that the very sunshine of the
morning disclosed in its brightness a suggestion of some hidden
and sinister meaning. In his unreasoning fear he tried to hide
within himself. He drew his feet up, his head sank between his
shoulders, his arms hugged his sides. Under the high and
enormous tree soaring superbly out of the mist in a vigorous
spread of lofty boughs, with a restless and eager flutter of its
innumerable leaves in the clear sunshine, he remained motionless,
huddled up on his seat: terrified and still.
Willems' gaze roamed over the ground, and then he watched with
idiotic fixity half a dozen black ants entering courageously a
tuft of long grass which, to them, must have appeared a dark and
a dangerous jungle. Suddenly he thought: There must be something
dead in there. Some dead insect. Death everywhere! He closed
his eyes again in an access of trembling pain. Death
everywhere--wherever one looks. He did not want to see the ants.
He did not want to see anybody or anything. He sat in the
darkness of his own making, reflecting bitterly that there was no
peace for him. He heard voices now. . . . Illusion! Misery!
Torment! Who would come? Who would speak to him? What business
had he to hear voices? . . . yet he heard them faintly, from the
river. Faintly, as if shouted far off over there, came the words
"We come back soon." . . . Delirium and mockery! Who would come
back? Nobody ever comes back! Fever comes back. He had it on
him this morning. That was it. . . . He heard unexpectedly the
old woman muttering something near by. She had come round to his
side of the tree. He opened his eyes and saw her bent back
before him. She stood, with her hand shading her eyes, looking
towards the landing-place. Then she glided away. She had
seen--and now she was going back to her cooking; a woman
incurious; expecting nothing; without fear and without hope.
She had gone back behind the tree, and now Willems could see a
human figure on the path to the landing-place. It appeared to
him to be a woman, in a red gown, holding some heavy bundle in
her arms; it was an apparition unexpected, familiar and odd. He
cursed through his teeth . . . It had wanted only this! See
things like that in broad daylight! He was very bad--very bad. .
. . He was horribly scared at this awful symptom of the
desperate state of his health.
This scare lasted for the space of a flash of lightning, and in
the next moment it was revealed to him that the woman was real;
that she was coming towards him; that she was his wife! He put
his feet down to the ground quickly, but made no other movement.
His eyes opened wide. He was so amazed that for a time he
absolutely forgot his own existence. The only idea in his head
was: Why on earth did she come here?
Joanna was coming up the courtyard with eager, hurried steps.
She carried in her arms the child, wrapped up in one of Almayer's
white blankets that she had snatched off the bed at the last
moment, before leaving the house. She seemed to be dazed by the
sun in her eyes; bewildered by her strange surroundings. She
moved on, looking quickly right and left in impatient expectation
of seeing her husband at any moment. Then, approaching the tree,
she perceived suddenly a kind of a dried-up, yellow corpse,
sitting very stiff on a bench in the shade and looking at her
with big eyes that were alive. That was her husband.
She stopped dead short. They stared at one another in profound
stillness, with astounded eyes, with eyes maddened by the
memories of things far off that seemed lost in the lapse of time.
Their looks crossed, passed each other, and appeared to dart at
them through fantastic distances, to come straight from the
Looking at him steadily she came nearer, and deposited the
blanket with the child in it on the bench. Little Louis, after
howling with terror in the darkness of the river most of the
night, now slept soundly and did not wake. Willems' eyes
followed his wife, his head turning slowly after her. He
accepted her presence there with a tired acquiescence in its
fabulous improbability. Anything might happen. What did she
come for? She was part of the general scheme of his misfortune.
He half expected that she would rush at him, pull his hair, and
scratch his face. Why not? Anything might happen! In an
exaggerated sense of his great bodily weakness he felt somewhat
apprehensive of possible assault. At any rate, she would scream
at him. He knew her of old. She could screech. He had thought
that he was rid of her for ever. She came now probably to see
the end. . . .
Suddenly she turned, and embracing him slid gently to the ground.
This startled him. With her forehead on his knees she sobbed
noiselessly. He looked down dismally at the top of her head.
What was she up to? He had not the strength to move--to get
away. He heard her whispering something, and bent over to
listen. He caught the word "Forgive."
That was what she came for! All that way. Women are queer.
Forgive. Not he! . . . All at once this thought darted through
his brain: How did she come? In a boat. Boat! boat!
He shouted "Boat!" and jumped up, knocking her over. Before she
had time to pick herself up he pounced upon her and was dragging
her up by the shoulders. No sooner had she regained her feet
than she clasped him tightly round the neck, covering his face,
his eyes, his mouth, his nose with desperate kisses. He dodged
his head about, shaking her arms, trying to keep her off, to
speak, to ask her. . . . She came in a boat, boat, boat! . . .
They struggled and swung round, tramping in a semicircle. He
blurted out, "Leave off. Listen," while he tore at her hands.
This meeting of lawful love and sincere joy resembled fight.
Louis Willems slept peacefully under his blanket.
At last Willems managed to free himself, and held her off,
pressing her arms down. He looked at her. He had half a
suspicion that he was dreaming. Her lips trembled; her eyes
wandered unsteadily, always coming back to his face. He saw her
the same as ever, in his presence. She appeared startled,
tremulous, ready to cry. She did not inspire him with
confidence. He shouted--
"How did you come?"
She answered in hurried words, looking at him intently--
"In a big canoe with three men. I know everything. Lingard's
away. I come to save you. I know. . . . Almayer told me."
"Canoe!--Almayer--Lies. Told you--You!" stammered Willems in a
distracted manner. "Why you?--Told what?"
Words failed him. He stared at his wife, thinking with fear that
she--stupid woman--had been made a tool in some plan of treachery
. . . in some deadly plot.
She began to cry--
"Don't look at me like that, Peter. What have I done? I come to
beg--to beg--forgiveness. . . . Save--Lingard--danger."
He trembled with impatience, with hope, with fear. She looked at
him and sobbed out in a fresh outburst of grief--
"Oh! Peter. What's the matter?--Are you ill? . . . Oh! you look
so ill . . ."
He shook her violently into a terrified and wondering silence.
"How dare you!--I am well--perfectly well. . . . Where's that
boat? Will you tell me where that boat is--at last? The boat, I
say . . . You! . . ."
"You hurt me," she moaned.
He let her go, and, mastering her terror, she stood quivering and
looking at him with strange intensity. Then she made a movement
forward, but he lifted his finger, and she restrained herself
with a long sigh. He calmed down suddenly and surveyed her with
cold criticism, with the same appearance as when, in the old
days, he used to find fault with the household expenses. She
found a kind of fearful delight in this abrupt return into the
past, into her old subjection.
He stood outwardly collected now, and listened to her
disconnected story. Her words seemed to fall round him with the
distracting clatter of stunning hail. He caught the meaning here
and there, and straightway would lose himself in a tremendous
effort to shape out some intelligible theory of events. There
was a boat. A boat. A big boat that could take him to sea if
necessary. That much was clear. She brought it. Why did
Almayer lie to her so? Was it a plan to decoy him into some
ambush? Better that than hopeless solitude. She had money. The
men were ready to go anywhere . . . she said.
He interrupted her--
"Where are they now?"
"They are coming directly," she answered, tearfully. "Directly.
There are some fishing stakes near here--they said. They are
coming directly."
Again she was talking and sobbing together. She wanted to be
forgiven. Forgiven? What for? Ah! the scene in Macassar. As
if he had time to think of that! What did he care what she had
done months ago? He seemed to struggle in the toils of
complicated dreams where everything was impossible, yet a matter
of course, where the past took the aspects of the future and the
present lay heavy on his heart--seemed to take him by the throat
like the hand of an enemy. And while she begged, entreated,
kissed his hands, wept on his shoulder, adjured him in the name
of God, to forgive, to forget, to speak the word for which she
longed, to look at his boy, to believe in her sorrow and in her
devotion--his eyes, in the fascinated immobility of shining
pupils, looked far away, far beyond her, beyond the river, beyond
this land, through days, weeks, months; looked into liberty, into
the future, into his triumph . . . into the great possibility of
a startling revenge.
He felt a sudden desire to dance and shout. He shouted--
"After all, we shall meet again, Captain Lingard."
"Oh, no! No!" she cried, joining her hands.
He looked at her with surprise. He had forgotten she was there
till the break of her cry in the monotonous tones of her prayer
recalled him into that courtyard from the glorious turmoil of his
dreams. It was very strange to see her there--near him. He felt
almost affectionate towards her. After all, she came just in
time. Then he thought: That other one. I must get away without
a scene. Who knows; she may be dangerous! . . . And all at once
he felt he hated Aissa with an immense hatred that seemed to
choke him. He said to his wife--
"Wait a moment."
She, obedient, seemed to gulp down some words which wanted to
come out. He muttered: "Stay here," and disappeared round the
The water in the iron pan on the cooking fire boiled furiously,
belching out volumes of white steam that mixed with the thin
black thread of smoke. The old woman appeared to him through
this as if in a fog, squatting on her heels, impassive and weird.
Willems came up near and asked, "Where is she?"
The woman did not even lift her head, but answered at once,
readily, as though she had expected the question for a long time.
"While you were asleep under the tree, before the strange canoe
came, she went out of the house. I saw her look at you and pass
on with a great light in her eyes. A great light. And she went
towards the place where our master Lakamba had his fruit trees.
When we were many here. Many, many. Men with arms by their
side. Many . . . men. And talk . . . and songs . . . "
She went on like that, raving gently to herself for a long time
after Willems had left her.
Willems went back to his wife. He came up close to her and found
he had nothing to say. Now all his faculties were concentrated
upon his wish to avoid Aissa. She might stay all the morning in
that grove. Why did those rascally boatmen go? He had a
physical repugnance to set eyes on her. And somewhere, at the
very bottom of his heart, there was a fear of her. Why? What
could she do? Nothing on earth could stop him now. He felt
strong, reckless, pitiless, and superior to everything. He
wanted to preserve before his wife the lofty purity of his
character. He thought: She does not know. Almayer held his
tongue about Aissa. But if she finds out, I am lost. If it
hadn't been for the boy I would . . . free of both of them. . . .
The idea darted through his head. Not he! Married. . . . Swore
solemnly. No . . . sacred tie. . . . Looking on his wife, he
felt for the first time in his life something approaching
remorse. Remorse, arising from his conception of the awful
nature of an oath before the altar. . . . She mustn't find out.
. . . Oh, for that boat! He must run in and get his revolver.
Couldn't think of trusting himself unarmed with those Bajow
fellows. Get it now while she is away. Oh, for that boat! . . .
He dared not go to the river and hail. He thought: She might
hear me. . . . I'll go and get . . . cartridges . . . then will
be all ready . . . nothing else. No.
And while he stood meditating profoundly before he could make up
his mind to run to the house, Joanna pleaded, holding to his
arm--pleaded despairingly, broken-hearted, hopeless whenever she
glanced up at his face, which to her seemed to wear the aspect of
unforgiving rectitude, of virtuous severity, of merciless
justice. And she pleaded humbly--abashed before him, before the
unmoved appearance of the man she had wronged in defiance of
human and divine laws. He heard not a word of what she said till
she raised her voice in a final appeal--
". . . Don't you see I loved you always? They told me horrible
things about you. . . . My own mother! They told me--you have
been--you have been unfaithful to me, and I . . ."
"It's a damned lie!" shouted Willems, waking up for a moment into
righteous indignation.
"I know! I know--Be generous.--Think of my misery since you went
away--Oh! I could have torn my tongue out. . . . I will never
believe anybody--Look at the boy--Be merciful--I could never rest
till I found you. . . . Say--a word--one word. . ."
"What the devil do you want?" exclaimed Willems, looking towards
the river. "Where's that damned boat? Why did you let them go
away? You stupid!"
"Oh, Peter!--I know that in your heart you have forgiven me--You
are so generous--I want to hear you say so. . . . Tell me--do
"Yes! yes!" said Willems, impatiently. "I forgive you. Don't be
a fool."
"Don't go away. Don't leave me alone here. Where is the danger?
I am so frightened. . . . Are you alone here? Sure? . . . Let
us go away!"
"That's sense," said Willems, still looking anxiously towards the
She sobbed gently, leaning on his arm.
"Let me go," he said.
He had seen above the steep bank the heads of three men glide
along smoothly. Then, where the shore shelved down to the
landing-place, appeared a big canoe which came slowly to land.
"Here they are," he went on, briskly. "I must get my revolver."
He made a few hurried paces towards the house, but seemed to
catch sight of something, turned short round and came back to his
wife. She stared at him, alarmed by the sudden change in his
face. He appeared much discomposed. He stammered a little as he
began to speak.
"Take the child. Walk down to the boat and tell them to drop it
out of sight, quick, behind the bushes. Do you hear? Quick! I
will come to you there directly. Hurry up!"
"Peter! What is it? I won't leave you. There is some danger in
this horrible place."
"Will you do what I tell you?" said Willems, in an irritable
"No! no! no! I won't leave you. I will not lose you again.
Tell me, what is it?"
From beyond the house came a faint voice singing. Willems shook
his wife by the shoulder.
"Do what I tell you! Run at once!"
She gripped his arm and clung to him desperately. He looked up to
heaven as if taking it to witness of that woman's infernal folly.
The song grew louder, then ceased suddenly, and Aissa appeared in
sight, walking slowly, her hands full of flowers.
She had turned the corner of the house, coming out into the full
sunshine, and the light seemed to leap upon her in a stream
brilliant, tender, and caressing, as if attracted by the radiant
happiness of her face. She had dressed herself for a festive
day, for the memorable day of his return to her, of his return to
an affection that would last for ever. The rays of the morning
sun were caught by the oval clasp of the embroidered belt that
held the silk sarong round her waist. The dazzling white stuff
of her body jacket was crossed by a bar of yellow and silver of
her scarf, and in the black hair twisted high on her small head
shone the round balls of gold pins amongst crimson blossoms and
white star-shaped flowers, with which she had crowned herself to
charm his eyes; those eyes that were henceforth to see nothing in
the world but her own resplendent image. And she moved slowly,
bending her face over the mass of pure white champakas and
jasmine pressed to her breast, in a dreamy intoxication of sweet
scents and of sweeter hopes.
She did not seem to see anything, stopped for a moment at the
foot of the plankway leading to the house, then, leaving her
high-heeled wooden sandals there, ascended the planks in a light
run; straight, graceful, flexible, and noiseless, as if she had
soared up to the door on invisible wings. Willems pushed his
wife roughly behind the tree, and made up his mind quickly for a
rush to the house, to grab his revolver and . . . Thoughts,
doubts, expedients seemed to boil in his brain. He had a
flashing vision of delivering a stunning blow, of tying up that
flower bedecked woman in the dark house--a vision of things done
swiftly with enraged haste--to save his prestige, his
superiority--something of immense importance. . . . He had not
made two steps when Joanna bounded after him, caught the back of
his ragged jacket, tore out a big piece, and instantly hooked
herself with both hands to the collar, nearly dragging him down
on his back. Although taken by surprise, he managed to keep his
feet. From behind she panted into his ear--
"That woman! Who's that woman? Ah! that's what those boatmen
were talking about. I heard them . . . heard them . . . heard .
. . in the night. They spoke about some woman. I dared not
understand. I would not ask . . . listen . . . believe! How
could I? Then it's true. No. Say no. . . . Who's that woman?"
He swayed, tugging forward. She jerked at him till the button
gave way, and then he slipped half out of his jacket and, turning
round, remained strangely motionless. His heart seemed to beat
in his throat. He choked--tried to speak--could not find any
words. He thought with fury: I will kill both of them.
For a second nothing moved about the courtyard in the great vivid
clearness of the day. Only down by the landing-place a
waringan-tree, all in a blaze of clustering red berries, seemed
alive with the stir of little birds that filled with the feverish
flutter of their feathers the tangle of overloaded branches.
Suddenly the variegated flock rose spinning in a soft whirr and
dispersed, slashing the sunlit haze with the sharp outlines of
stiffened wings. Mahmat and one of his brothers appeared coming
up from the landing-place, their lances in their hands, to look
for their passengers.
Aissa coming now empty-handed out of the house, caught sight of
the two armed men. In her surprise she emitted a faint cry,
vanished back and in a flash reappeared in the doorway with
Willems' revolver in her hand. To her the presence of any man
there could only have an ominous meaning. There was nothing in
the outer world but enemies. She and the man she loved were
alone, with nothing round them but menacing dangers. She did not
mind that, for if death came, no matter from what hand, they
would die together.
Her resolute eyes took in the courtyard in a circular glance.
She noticed that the two strangers had ceased to advance and now
were standing close together leaning on the polished shafts of
their weapons. The next moment she saw Willems, with his back
towards her, apparently struggling under the tree with some one.
She saw nothing distinctly, and, unhesitating, flew down the
plankway calling out: "I come!"
He heard her cry, and with an unexpected rush drove his wife
backwards to the seat. She fell on it; he jerked himself
altogether out of his jacket, and she covered her face with the
soiled rags. He put his lips close to her, asking--
"For the last time, will you take the child and go?"
She groaned behind the unclean ruins of his upper garment. She
mumbled something. He bent lower to hear. She was saying--
"I won't. Order that woman away. I can't look at her!"
"You fool!"
He seemed to spit the words at her, then, making up his mind,
spun round to face Aissa. She was coming towards them slowly
now, with a look of unbounded amazement on her face. Then she
stopped and stared at him--who stood there, stripped to the
waist, bare-headed and sombre.
Some way off, Mahmat and his brother exchanged rapid words in
calm undertones. . . . This was the strong daughter of the holy
man who had died. The white man is very tall. There would be
three women and the child to take in the boat, besides that white
man who had the money. . . . The brother went away back to the
boat, and Mahmat remained looking on. He stood like a sentinel,
the leaf-shaped blade of his lance glinting above his head.
Willems spoke suddenly.
"Give me this," he said, stretching his hand towards the
Aissa stepped back. Her lips trembled. She said very low:
"Your people?"
He nodded slightly. She shook her head thoughtfully, and a few
delicate petals of the flowers dying in her hair fell like big
drops of crimson and white at her feet.
"Did you know?" she whispered.
"No!" said Willems. "They sent for me."
"Tell them to depart. They are accursed. What is there between
them and you--and you who carry my life in your heart!"
Willems said nothing. He stood before her looking down on the
ground and repeating to himself: I must get that revolver away
from her, at once, at once. I can't think of trusting myself with
those men without firearms. I must have it.
She asked, after gazing in silence at Joanna, who was sobbing
"Who is she?"
"My wife," answered Willems, without looking up. "My wife
according to our white law, which comes from God!"
"Your law! Your God!" murmured Aissa, contemptuously.
"Give me this revolver," said Willems, in a peremptory tone. He
felt an unwillingness to close with her, to get it by force.
She took no notice and went on--
"Your law . . . or your lies? What am I to believe? I came--I
ran to defend you when I saw the strange men. You lied to me
with your lips, with your eyes. You crooked heart! . . . Ah!"
she added, after an abrupt pause. "She is the first! Am I then
to be a slave?"
"You may be what you like," said Willems, brutally. "I am
Her gaze was fastened on the blanket under which she had detected
a slight movement. She made a long stride towards it. Willems
turned half round. His legs seemed to him to be made of lead.
He felt faint and so weak that, for a moment, the fear of dying
there where he stood, before he could escape from sin and
disaster, passed through his mind in a wave of despair.
She lifted up one corner of the blanket, and when she saw the
sleeping child a sudden quick shudder shook her as though she had
seen something inexpressibly horrible. She looked at Louis
Willems with eyes fixed in an unbelieving and terrified stare.
Then her fingers opened slowly, and a shadow seemed to settle on
her face as if something obscure and fatal had come between her
and the sunshine. She stood looking down, absorbed, as though
she had watched at the bottom of a gloomy abyss the mournful
procession of her thoughts.
Willems did not move. All his faculties were concentrated upon
the idea of his release. And it was only then that the assurance
of it came to him with such force that he seemed to hear a loud
voice shouting in the heavens that all was over, that in another
five, ten minutes, he would step into another existence; that all
this, the woman, the madness, the sin, the regrets, all would go,
rush into the past, disappear, become as dust, as smoke, as
drifting clouds--as nothing! Yes! All would vanish in the
unappeasable past which would swallow up all--even the very
memory of his temptation and of his downfall. Nothing mattered.
He cared for nothing. He had forgotten Aissa, his wife, Lingard,
Hudig--everybody, in the rapid vision of his hopeful future.
After a while he heard Aissa saying--
"A child! A child! What have I done to be made to devour this
sorrow and this grief? And while your man-child and the mother
lived you told me there was nothing for you to remember in the
land from which you came! And I thought you could be mine. I
thought that I would . . ."
Her voice ceased in a broken murmur, and with it, in her heart,
seemed to die the greater and most precious hope of her new life.
She had hoped that in the future the frail arms of a child would
bind their two lives together in a bond which nothing on earth
could break, a bond of affection, of gratitude, of tender
respect. She the first--the only one! But in the instant she
saw the son of that other woman she felt herself removed into the
cold, the darkness, the silence of a solitude impenetrable and
immense--very far from him, beyond the possibility of any hope,
into an infinity of wrongs without any redress.
She strode nearer to Joanna. She felt towards that woman anger,
envy, jealousy. Before her she felt humiliated and enraged. She
seized the hanging sleeve of the jacket in which Joanna was
hiding her face and tore it out of her hands, exclaiming loudly--
"Let me see the face of her before whom I am only a servant and a
slave. Ya-wa! I see you!"
Her unexpected shout seemed to fill the sunlit space of cleared
grounds, rise high and run on far into the land over the
unstirring tree-tops of the forests. She stood in sudden
stillness, looking at Joanna with surprised contempt.
"A Sirani woman!" she said, slowly, in a tone of wonder.
Joanna rushed at Willems--clung to him, shrieking: "Defend me,
Peter! Defend me from that woman!"
"Be quiet. There is no danger," muttered Willems, thickly.
Aissa looked at them with scorn. "God is great! I sit in the
dust at your feet," she exclaimed jeeringly, joining her hands
above her head in a gesture of mock humility. "Before you I am
as nothing." She turned to Willems fiercely, opening her arms
wide. "What have you made of me?" she cried, "you lying child of
an accursed mother! What have you made of me? The slave of a
slave. Don't speak! Your words are worse than the poison of
snakes. A Sirani woman. A woman of a people despised by all."
She pointed her finger at Joanna, stepped back, and began to
"Make her stop, Peter!" screamed Joanna. "That heathen woman.
Heathen! Heathen! Beat her, Peter."
Willems caught sight of the revolver which Aissa had laid on the
seat near the child. He spoke in Dutch to his wife, without
moving his head.
"Snatch the boy--and my revolver there. See. Run to the boat.
I will keep her back. Now's the time."
Aissa came nearer. She stared at Joanna, while between the short
gusts of broken laughter she raved, fumbling distractedly at the
buckle of her belt.
"To her! To her--the mother of him who will speak of your
wisdom, of your courage. All to her. I have nothing. Nothing.
Take, take."
She tore the belt off and threw it at Joanna's feet. She flung
down with haste the armlets, the gold pins, the flowers; and the
long hair, released, fell scattered over her shoulders, framing
in its blackness the wild exaltation of her face.
"Drive her off, Peter. Drive off the heathen savage," persisted
Joanna. She seemed to have lost her head altogether. She
stamped, clinging to Willems' arm with both her hands.
"Look," cried Aissa. "Look at the mother of your son! She is
afraid. Why does she not go from before my face? Look at her.
She is ugly."
Joanna seemed to understand the scornful tone of the words. As
Aissa stepped back again nearer to the tree she let go her
husband's arm, rushed at her madly, slapped her face, then,
swerving round, darted at the child who, unnoticed, had been
wailing for some time, and, snatching him up, flew down to the
waterside, sending shriek after shriek in an access of insane
Willems made for the revolver. Aissa passed swiftly, giving him
an unexpected push that sent him staggering away from the tree.
She caught up the weapon, put it behind her back, and cried--
"You shall not have it. Go after her. Go to meet danger. . . .
Go to meet death. . . . Go unarmed. . . . Go with empty hands
and sweet words . . . as you came to me. . . . Go helpless and
lie to the forests, to the sea . . . to the death that waits for
you. . . ."
She ceased as if strangled. She saw in the horror of the passing
seconds the half-naked, wild-looking man before her; she heard
the faint shrillness of Joanna's insane shrieks for help
somewhere down by the riverside. The sunlight streamed on her,
on him, on the mute land, on the murmuring river--the gentle
brilliance of a serene morning that, to her, seemed traversed by
ghastly flashes of uncertain darkness. Hate filled the world,
filled the space between them--the hate of race, the hate of
hopeless diversity, the hate of blood; the hate against the man
born in the land of lies and of evil from which nothing but
misfortune comes to those who are not white. And as she stood,
maddened, she heard a whisper near her, the whisper of the dead
Omar's voice saying in her ear: "Kill! Kill!"
She cried, seeing him move--
"Do not come near me . . . or you die now! Go while I remember
yet . . . remember. . . ."
Willems pulled himself together for a struggle. He dared not go
unarmed. He made a long stride, and saw her raise the revolver.
He noticed that she had not cocked it, and said to himself that,
even if she did fire, she would surely miss. Go too high; it was
a stiff trigger. He made a step nearer--saw the long barrel
moving unsteadily at the end of her extended arm. He thought:
This is my time . . . He bent his knees slightly, throwing his
body forward, and took off with a long bound for a tearing rush.
He saw a burst of red flame before his eyes, and was deafened by
a report that seemed to him louder than a clap of thunder.
Something stopped him short, and he stood aspiring in his
nostrils the acrid smell of the blue smoke that drifted from
before his eyes like an immense cloud. . . . Missed, by Heaven!
. . . Thought so! . . . And he saw her very far off, throwing
her arms up, while the revolver, very small, lay on the ground
between them. . . . Missed! . . . He would go and pick it up
now. Never before did he understand, as in that second, the joy,
the triumphant delight of sunshine and of life. His mouth was
full of something salt and warm. He tried to cough; spat out. . .
. Who shrieks: In the name of God, he dies!--he dies!--Who
dies?--Must pick up--Night!--What? . . . Night already. . . .
* * * * * *
Many years afterwards Almayer was telling the story of the great
revolution in Sambir to a chance visitor from Europe. He was a
Roumanian, half naturalist, half orchid-hunter for commercial
purposes, who used to declare to everybody, in the first five
minutes of acquaintance, his intention of writing a scientific
book about tropical countries. On his way to the interior he had
quartered himself upon Almayer. He was a man of some education,
but he drank his gin neat, or only, at most, would squeeze the
juice of half a small lime into the raw spirit. He said it was
good for his health, and, with that medicine before him, he would
describe to the surprised Almayer the wonders of European
capitals; while Almayer, in exchange, bored him by expounding,
with gusto, his unfavourable opinions of Sambir's social and
political life. They talked far into the night, across the deal
table on the verandah, while, between them, clear-winged, small,
and flabby insects, dissatisfied with moonlight, streamed in and
perished in thousands round the smoky light of the evil-smelling
Almayer, his face flushed, was saying--
"Of course, I did not see that. I told you I was stuck in the
creek on account of father's--Captain Lingard's--susceptible
temper. I am sure I did it all for the best in trying to
facilitate the fellow's escape; but Captain Lingard was that kind
of man--you know--one couldn't argue with. Just before sunset
the water was high enough, and we got out of the creek. We got
to Lakamba's clearing about dark. All very quiet; I thought they
were gone, of course, and felt very glad. We walked up the
courtyard--saw a big heap of something lying in the middle. Out
of that she rose and rushed at us. By God. . . . You know those
stories of faithful dogs watching their masters' corpses . . .
don't let anybody approach . . . got to beat them off--and all
that. . . . Well, 'pon my word we had to beat her off. Had to!
She was like a fury. Wouldn't let us touch him. Dead--of
course. Should think so. Shot through the lung, on the left
side, rather high up, and at pretty close quarters too, for the
two holes were small. Bullet came out through the
shoulder-blade. After we had overpowered her--you can't imagine
how strong that woman was; it took three of us--we got the body
into the boat and shoved off. We thought she had fainted then,
but she got up and rushed into the water after us. Well, I let
her clamber in. What could I do? The river's full of
alligators. I will never forget that pull up-stream in the night
as long as I live. She sat in the bottom of the boat, holding
his head in her lap, and now and again wiping his face with her
hair. There was a lot of blood dried about his mouth and chin.
And for all the six hours of that journey she kept on whispering
tenderly to that corpse! . . . I had the mate of the schooner
with me. The man said afterwards that he wouldn't go through it
again--not for a handful of diamonds. And I believed him--I did.
It makes me shiver. Do you think he heard? No! I mean
somebody--something--heard? . . ."
"I am a materialist," declared the man of science, tilting the
bottle shakily over the emptied glass.
Almayer shook his head and went on--
"Nobody saw how it really happened but that man Mahmat. He
always said that he was no further off from them than two lengths
of his lance. It appears the two women rowed each other while
that Willems stood between them. Then Mahmat says that when
Joanna struck her and ran off, the other two seemed to become
suddenly mad together. They rushed here and there. Mahmat
says--those were his very words: 'I saw her standing holding the
pistol that fires many times and pointing it all over the
campong. I was afraid--lest she might shoot me, and jumped on
one side. Then I saw the white man coming at her swiftly. He
came like our master the tiger when he rushes out of the jungle
at the spears held by men. She did not take aim. The barrel of
her weapon went like this--from side to side, but in her eyes I
could see suddenly a great fear. There was only one shot. She
shrieked while the white man stood blinking his eyes and very
straight, till you could count slowly one, two, three; then he
coughed and fell on his face. The daughter of Omar shrieked
without drawing breath, till he fell. I went away then and left
silence behind me. These things did not concern me, and in my
boat there was that other woman who had promised me money. We
left directly, paying no attention to her cries. We are only
poor men--and had but a small reward for our trouble!' That's
what Mahmat said. Never varied. You ask him yourself. He's the
man you hired the boats from, for your journey up the river."
"The most rapacious thief I ever met!" exclaimed the traveller,
"Ah! He is a respectable man. His two brothers got themselves
speared--served them right. They went in for robbing Dyak
graves. Gold ornaments in them you know. Serve them right. But
he kept respectable and got on. Aye! Everybody got on--but I.
And all through that scoundrel who brought the Arabs here."
"De mortuis nil ni . . . num," muttered Almayer's guest.
"I wish you would speak English instead of jabbering in your own
language, which no one can understand," said Almayer, sulkily.
"Don't be angry," hiccoughed the other. "It's Latin, and it's
wisdom. It means: Don't waste your breath in abusing shadows.
No offence there. I like you. You have a quarrel with
Providence--so have I. I was meant to be a professor,
His head nodded. He sat grasping the glass. Almayer walked up
and down, then stopped suddenly.
"Yes, they all got on but I. Why? I am better than any of them.
Lakamba calls himself a Sultan, and when I go to see him on
business sends that one-eyed fiend of his--Babalatchi--to tell me
that the ruler is asleep; and shall sleep for a long time. And
that Babalatchi! He is the Shahbandar of the State--if you
please. Oh Lord! Shahbandar! The pig! A vagabond I wouldn't
let come up these steps when he first came here. . . . Look at
Abdulla now. He lives here because--he says--here he is away
from white men. But he has hundreds of thousands. Has a house
in Penang. Ships. What did he not have when he stole my trade
from me! He knocked everything here into a cocked hat, drove
father to gold-hunting--then to Europe, where he disappeared.
Fancy a man like Captain Lingard disappearing as though he had
been a common coolie. Friends of mine wrote to London asking
about him. Nobody ever heard of him there! Fancy! Never heard
of Captain Lingard!"
The learned gatherer of orchids lifted his head.
"He was a sen--sentimen--tal old buc--buccaneer," he stammered
out, "I like him. I'm sent--tal myself."
He winked slowly at Almayer, who laughed.
"Yes! I told you about that gravestone. Yes! Another hundred
and twenty dollars thrown away. Wish I had them now. He would
do it. And the inscription. Ha! ha! ha! 'Peter Willems,
Delivered by the Mercy of God from his Enemy.' What
enemy--unless Captain Lingard himself? And then it has no sense.
He was a great man--father was--but strange in many ways. . . .
You haven't seen the grave? On the top of that hill, there, on
the other side of the river. I must show you. We will go
"Not I!" said the other. "No interest--in the sun--too tiring. .
. . Unless you carry me there."
As a matter of fact he was carried there a few months afterwards,
and his was the second white man's grave in Sambir; but at
present he was alive if rather drunk. He asked abruptly--
"And the woman?"
"Oh! Lingard, of course, kept her and her ugly brat in Macassar.
Sinful waste of money--that! Devil only knows what became of them
since father went home. I had my daughter to look after. I
shall give you a word to Mrs. Vinck in Singapore when you go
back. You shall see my Nina there. Lucky man. She is beautiful,
and I hear so accomplished, so . . ."
"I have heard already twenty . . . a hundred times about your
daughter. What ab--about--that--that other one, Ai--ssa?"
"She! Oh! we kept her here. She was mad for a long time in a
quiet sort of way. Father thought a lot of her. He gave her a
house to live in, in my campong. She wandered about, speaking to
nobody unless she caught sight of Abdulla, when she would have a
fit of fury, and shriek and curse like anything. Very often she
would disappear--and then we all had to turn out and hunt for
her, because father would worry till she was brought back. Found
her in all kinds of places. Once in the abandoned campong of
Lakamba. Sometimes simply wandering in the bush. She had one
favourite spot we always made for at first. It was ten to one on
finding her there--a kind of a grassy glade on the banks of a
small brook. Why she preferred that place, I can't imagine! And
such a job to get her away from there. Had to drag her away by
main force. Then, as the time passed, she became quieter and
more settled, like. Still, all my people feared her greatly. It
was my Nina that tamed her. You see the child was naturally
fearless and used to have her own way, so she would go to her and
pull at her sarong, and order her about, as she did everybody.
Finally she, I verily believe, came to love the child. Nothing
could resist that little one--you know. She made a capital
nurse. Once when the little devil ran away from me and fell into
the river off the end of the jetty, she jumped in and pulled her
out in no time. I very nearly died of fright. Now of course she
lives with my serving girls, but does what she likes. As long as
I have a handful of rice or a piece of cotton in the store she
sha'n't want for anything. You have seen her. She brought in
the dinner with Ali."
"What! That doubled-up crone?"
"Ah!" said Almayer. "They age quickly here. And long foggy
nights spent in the bush will soon break the strongest backs--as
you will find out yourself soon."
"Dis . . . disgusting," growled the traveller.
He dozed off. Almayer stood by the balustrade looking out at the
bluish sheen of the moonlit night. The forests, unchanged and
sombre, seemed to hang over the water, listening to the unceasing
whisper of the great river; and above their dark wall the hill on
which Lingard had buried the body of his late prisoner rose in a
black, rounded mass, upon the silver paleness of the sky.
Almayer looked for a long time at the clean-cut outline of the
summit, as if trying to make out through darkness and distance
the shape of that expensive tombstone. When he turned round at
last he saw his guest sleeping, his arms on the table, his head
on his arms.
"Now, look here!" he shouted, slapping the table with the palm of
his hand.
The naturalist woke up, and sat all in a heap, staring owlishly.
"Here!" went on Almayer, speaking very loud and thumping the
table, "I want to know. You, who say you have read all the
books, just tell me . . . why such infernal things are ever
allowed. Here I am! Done harm to nobody, lived an honest life .
. . and a scoundrel like that is born in Rotterdam or some such
place at the other end of the world somewhere, travels out here,
robs his employer, runs away from his wife, and ruins me and my
Nina--he ruined me, I tell you--and gets himself shot at last by
a poor miserable savage, that knows nothing at all about him
really. Where's the sense of all this? Where's your Providence?
Where's the good for anybody in all this? The world's a swindle!
A swindle! Why should I suffer? What have I done to be treated
He howled out his string of questions, and suddenly became
silent. The man who ought to have been a professor made a
tremendous effort to articulate distinctly--
"My dear fellow, don't--don't you see that the ba-bare fac--the
fact of your existence is off--offensive. . . . I--I like
you--like . . ."
He fell forward on the table, and ended his remarks by an
unexpected and prolonged snore.
Almayer shrugged his shoulders and walked back to the balustrade.
He drank his own trade gin very seldom, but when he did, a
ridiculously small quantity of the stuff could induce him to
assume a rebellious attitude towards the scheme of the universe.
And now, throwing his body over the rail, he shouted impudently
into the night, turning his face towards that far-off and
invisible slab of imported granite upon which Lingard had thought
fit to record God's mercy and Willems' escape.
"Father was wrong--wrong!" he yelled. "I want you to smart for
it. You must smart for it! Where are you, Willems? Hey? . . .
Hey? . . . Where there is no mercy for you--I hope!"
"Hope," repeated in a whispering echo the startled forests, the
river and the hills; and Almayer, who stood waiting, with a smile
of tipsy attention on his lips, heard no other answer.

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