Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 23

‘He did not return till next morning. He had been kept to dinner and for the night. There never had been such a wonderful man as Mr. Stein. He had in his pocket a letter for Cornelius (“the Johnnie who’s going to get the sack,” he explained, with a momentary drop in his elation), and he exhibited with glee a silver ring, such as natives use, worn down very thin and showing faint traces of chasing.

‘This was his introduction to an old chap called Doramin — one of the principal men out there — a big pot — who had been Mr. Stein’s friend in that country where he had all these adventures. Mr. Stein called him “war-comrade.” War-comrade was good. Wasn’t it? And didn’t Mr. Stein speak English wonderfully well? Said he had learned it in Celebes — of all places! That was awfully funny. Was it not? He did speak with an accent — a twang — did I notice? That chap Doramin had given him the ring. They had exchanged presents when they parted for the last time. Sort of promising eternal friendship. He called it fine — did I not? They had to make a dash for dear life out of the country when that Mohammed — Mohammed — What’s-his-name had been killed. I knew the story, of course. Seemed a beastly shame, didn’t it? . . .

‘He ran on like this, forgetting his plate, with a knife and fork in hand (he had found me at tiffin), slightly flushed, and with his eyes darkened many shades, which was with him a sign of excitement. The ring was a sort of credential — (“It’s like something you read of in books,” he threw in appreciatively) — and Doramin would do his best for him. Mr. Stein had been the means of saving that chap’s life on some occasion; purely by accident, Mr. Stein had said, but he — Jim — had his own opinion about that. Mr. Stein was just the man to look out for such accidents. No matter. Accident or purpose, this would serve his turn immensely. Hoped to goodness the jolly old beggar had not gone off the hooks meantime. Mr. Stein could not tell. There had been no news for more than a year; they were kicking up no end of an all-fired row amongst themselves, and the river was closed. Jolly awkward, this; but, no fear; he would manage to find a crack to get in.

‘He impressed, almost frightened me with his elated rattle. He was voluble like a youngster on the eve of a long holiday with a prospect of delightful scrapes, and such an attitude of mind in a grown man and in this connection had in it something phenomenal, a little mad, dangerous, unsafe. I was on the point of entreating him to take things seriously when he dropped his knife and fork (he had begun eating, or rather swallowing food, as it were, unconsciously), and began a search all round his plate. The ring! The ring! Where the devil . . . Ah! Here it was . . . He closed his big hand on it, and tried all his pockets one after another. Jove! wouldn’t do to lose the thing. He meditated gravely over his fist. Had it? Would hang the bally affair round his neck! And he proceeded to do this immediately, producing a string (which looked like a bit of a cotton shoe-lace) for the purpose. There! That would do the trick! It would be the deuce if . . . He seemed to catch sight of my face for the first time, and it steadied him a little. I probably didn’t realise, he said with a naive gravity, how much importance he attached to that token. It meant a friend; and it is a good thing to have a friend. He knew something about that. He nodded at me expressively, but before my disclaiming gesture he leaned his head on his hand and for a while sat silent, playing thoughtfully with the bread-crumbs on the cloth . . . “Slam the door — that was jolly well put,” he cried, and jumping up, began to pace the room, reminding me by the set of the shoulders, the turn of his head, the headlong and uneven stride, of that night when he had paced thus, confessing, explaining — what you will — but, in the last instance, living — living before me, under his own little cloud, with all his unconscious subtlety which could draw consolation from the very source of sorrow. It was the same mood, the same and different, like a fickle companion that to-day guiding you on the true path, with the same eyes, the same step, the same impulse, to-morrow will lead you hopelessly astray. His tread was assured, his straying, darkened eyes seemed to search the room for something. One of his footfalls somehow sounded louder than the other — the fault of his boots probably — and gave a curious impression of an invisible halt in his gait. One of his hands was rammed deep into his trousers’ pocket, the other waved suddenly above his head. “Slam the door!” he shouted. “I’ve been waiting for that. I’ll show yet . . . I’ll . . . I’m ready for any confounded thing . . . I’ve been dreaming of it . . . Jove! Get out of this. Jove! This is luck at last . . . You wait. I’ll . . . ”

‘He tossed his head fearlessly, and I confess that for the first and last time in our acquaintance I perceived myself unexpectedly to be thoroughly sick of him. Why these vapourings? He was stumping about the room flourishing his arm absurdly, and now and then feeling on his breast for the ring under his clothes. Where was the sense of such exaltation in a man appointed to be a trading-clerk, and in a place where there was no trade — at that? Why hurl defiance at the universe? This was not a proper frame of mind to approach any undertaking; an improper frame of mind not only for him, I said, but for any man. He stood still over me. Did I think so? he asked, by no means subdued, and with a smile in which I seemed to detect suddenly something insolent. But then I am twenty years his senior. Youth is insolent; it is its right — its necessity; it has got to assert itself, and all assertion in this world of doubts is a defiance, is an insolence. He went off into a far corner, and coming back, he, figuratively speaking, turned to rend me. I spoke like that because I— even I, who had been no end kind to him — even I remembered — remembered — against him — what — what had happened. And what about others — the — the — world? Where’s the wonder he wanted to get out, meant to get out, meant to stay out — by heavens! And I talked about proper frames of mind!

‘“It is not I or the world who remember,” I shouted. “It is you — you, who remember.”

‘He did not flinch, and went on with heat, “Forget everything, everybody, everybody.” . . . His voice fell . . . “But you,” he added.

‘“Yes — me too — if it would help,” I said, also in a low tone. After this we remained silent and languid for a time as if exhausted. Then he began again, composedly, and told me that Mr. Stein had instructed him to wait for a month or so, to see whether it was possible for him to remain, before he began building a new house for himself, so as to avoid “vain expense.” He did make use of funny expressions — Stein did. “Vain expense” was good. . . . Remain? Why! of course. He would hang on. Let him only get in — that’s all; he would answer for it he would remain. Never get out. It was easy enough to remain.

‘“Don’t be foolhardy,” I said, rendered uneasy by his threatening tone. “If you only live long enough you will want to come back.”

‘“Come back to what?” he asked absently, with his eyes fixed upon the face of a clock on the wall.

‘I was silent for a while. “Is it to be never, then?” I said. “Never,” he repeated dreamily without looking at me, and then flew into sudden activity. “Jove! Two o’clock, and I sail at four!”

‘It was true. A brigantine of Stein’s was leaving for the westward that afternoon, and he had been instructed to take his passage in her, only no orders to delay the sailing had been given. I suppose Stein forgot. He made a rush to get his things while I went aboard my ship, where he promised to call on his way to the outer roadstead. He turned up accordingly in a great hurry and with a small leather valise in his hand. This wouldn’t do, and I offered him an old tin trunk of mine supposed to be water-tight, or at least damp-tight. He effected the transfer by the simple process of shooting out the contents of his valise as you would empty a sack of wheat. I saw three books in the tumble; two small, in dark covers, and a thick green-and-gold volume — a half-crown complete Shakespeare. “You read this?” I asked. “Yes. Best thing to cheer up a fellow,” he said hastily. I was struck by this appreciation, but there was no time for Shakespearian talk. A heavy revolver and two small boxes of cartridges were lying on the cuddy-table. “Pray take this,” I said. “It may help you to remain.” No sooner were these words out of my mouth than I perceived what grim meaning they could bear. “May help you to get in,” I corrected myself remorsefully. He however was not troubled by obscure meanings; he thanked me effusively and bolted out, calling Good-bye over his shoulder. I heard his voice through the ship’s side urging his boatmen to give way, and looking out of the stern-port I saw the boat rounding under the counter. He sat in her leaning forward, exciting his men with voice and gestures; and as he had kept the revolver in his hand and seemed to be presenting it at their heads, I shall never forget the scared faces of the four Javanese, and the frantic swing of their stroke which snatched that vision from under my eyes. Then turning away, the first thing I saw were the two boxes of cartridges on the cuddy-table. He had forgotten to take them.

‘I ordered my gig manned at once; but Jim’s rowers, under the impression that their lives hung on a thread while they had that madman in the boat, made such excellent time that before I had traversed half the distance between the two vessels I caught sight of him clambering over the rail, and of his box being passed up. All the brigantine’s canvas was loose, her mainsail was set, and the windlass was just beginning to clink as I stepped upon her deck: her master, a dapper little half-caste of forty or so, in a blue flannel suit, with lively eyes, his round face the colour of lemon-peel, and with a thin little black moustache drooping on each side of his thick, dark lips, came forward smirking. He turned out, notwithstanding his self-satisfied and cheery exterior, to be of a careworn temperament. In answer to a remark of mine (while Jim had gone below for a moment) he said, “Oh yes. Patusan.” He was going to carry the gentleman to the mouth of the river, but would “never ascend.” His flowing English seemed to be derived from a dictionary compiled by a lunatic. Had Mr. Stein desired him to “ascend,” he would have “reverentially” — (I think he wanted to say respectfully — but devil only knows) — “reverentially made objects for the safety of properties.” If disregarded, he would have presented “resignation to quit.” Twelve months ago he had made his last voyage there, and though Mr. Cornelius “propitiated many offertories” to Mr. Rajah Allang and the “principal populations,” on conditions which made the trade “a snare and ashes in the mouth,” yet his ship had been fired upon from the woods by “irresponsive parties” all the way down the river; which causing his crew “from exposure to limb to remain silent in hidings,” the brigantine was nearly stranded on a sandbank at the bar, where she “would have been perishable beyond the act of man.” The angry disgust at the recollection, the pride of his fluency, to which he turned an attentive ear, struggled for the possession of his broad simple face. He scowled and beamed at me, and watched with satisfaction the undeniable effect of his phraseology. Dark frowns ran swiftly over the placid sea, and the brigantine, with her fore-topsail to the mast and her main-boom amidships, seemed bewildered amongst the cat’s-paws. He told me further, gnashing his teeth, that the Rajah was a “laughable hyaena” (can’t imagine how he got hold of hyaenas); while somebody else was many times falser than the “weapons of a crocodile.” Keeping one eye on the movements of his crew forward, he let loose his volubility — comparing the place to a “cage of beasts made ravenous by long impenitence.” I fancy he meant impunity. He had no intention, he cried, to “exhibit himself to be made attached purposefully to robbery.” The long-drawn wails, giving the time for the pull of the men catting the anchor, came to an end, and he lowered his voice. “Plenty too much enough of Patusan,” he concluded, with energy.

‘I heard afterwards he had been so indiscreet as to get himself tied up by the neck with a rattan halter to a post planted in the middle of a mud-hole before the Rajah’s house. He spent the best part of a day and a whole night in that unwholesome situation, but there is every reason to believe the thing had been meant as a sort of joke. He brooded for a while over that horrid memory, I suppose, and then addressed in a quarrelsome tone the man coming aft to the helm. When he turned to me again it was to speak judicially, without passion. He would take the gentleman to the mouth of the river at Batu Kring (Patusan town “being situated internally,” he remarked, “thirty miles”). But in his eyes, he continued — a tone of bored, weary conviction replacing his previous voluble delivery — the gentleman was already “in the similitude of a corpse.” “What? What do you say?” I asked. He assumed a startlingly ferocious demeanour, and imitated to perfection the act of stabbing from behind. “Already like the body of one deported,” he explained, with the insufferably conceited air of his kind after what they imagine a display of cleverness. Behind him I perceived Jim smiling silently at me, and with a raised hand checking the exclamation on my lips.

‘Then, while the half-caste, bursting with importance, shouted his orders, while the yards swung creaking and the heavy boom came surging over, Jim and I, alone as it were, to leeward of the mainsail, clasped each other’s hands and exchanged the last hurried words. My heart was freed from that dull resentment which had existed side by side with interest in his fate. The absurd chatter of the half-caste had given more reality to the miserable dangers of his path than Stein’s careful statements. On that occasion the sort of formality that had been always present in our intercourse vanished from our speech; I believe I called him “dear boy,” and he tacked on the words “old man” to some half-uttered expression of gratitude, as though his risk set off against my years had made us more equal in age and in feeling. There was a moment of real and profound intimacy, unexpected and short-lived like a glimpse of some everlasting, of some saving truth. He exerted himself to soothe me as though he had been the more mature of the two. “All right, all right,” he said rapidly and with feeling. “I promise to take care of myself. Yes; I won’t take any risks. Not a single blessed risk. Of course not. I mean to hang out. Don’t you worry. Jove! I feel as if nothing could touch me. Why! this is luck from the word Go. I wouldn’t spoil such a magnificent chance!” . . . A magnificent chance! Well, it was magnificent, but chances are what men make them, and how was I to know? As he had said, even I— even I remembered — his — his misfortune against him. It was true. And the best thing for him was to go.

‘My gig had dropped in the wake of the brigantine, and I saw him aft detached upon the light of the westering sun, raising his cap high above his head. I heard an indistinct shout, “You — shall — hear — of — me.” Of me, or from me, I don’t know which. I think it must have been of me. My eyes were too dazzled by the glitter of the sea below his feet to see him clearly; I am fated never to see him clearly; but I can assure you no man could have appeared less “in the similitude of a corpse,” as that half-caste croaker had put it. I could see the little wretch’s face, the shape and colour of a ripe pumpkin, poked out somewhere under Jim’s elbow. He too raised his arm as if for a downward thrust. Absit omen!’

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06