Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 32

‘Jim took up an advantageous position and shepherded them out in a bunch through the doorway: all that time the torch had remained vertical in the grip of a little hand, without so much as a tremble. The three men obeyed him, perfectly mute, moving automatically. He ranged them in a row. “Link arms!” he ordered. They did so. “The first who withdraws his arm or turns his head is a dead man,” he said. “March!” They stepped out together, rigidly; he followed, and at the side the girl, in a trailing white gown, her black hair falling as low as her waist, bore the light. Erect and swaying, she seemed to glide without touching the earth; the only sound was the silky swish and rustle of the long grass. “Stop!” cried Jim.

‘The river-bank was steep; a great freshness ascended, the light fell on the edge of smooth dark water frothing without a ripple; right and left the shapes of the houses ran together below the sharp outlines of the roofs. “Take my greetings to Sherif Ali — till I come myself,” said Jim. Not one head of the three budged. “Jump!” he thundered. The three splashes made one splash, a shower flew up, black heads bobbed convulsively, and disappeared; but a great blowing and spluttering went on, growing faint, for they were diving industriously, in great fear of a parting shot. Jim turned to the girl, who had been a silent and attentive observer. His heart seemed suddenly to grow too big for his breast and choke him in the hollow of his throat. This probably made him speechless for so long, and after returning his gaze she flung the burning torch with a wide sweep of the arm into the river. The ruddy fiery glare, taking a long flight through the night, sank with a vicious hiss, and the calm soft starlight descended upon them, unchecked.

‘He did not tell me what it was he said when at last he recovered his voice. I don’t suppose he could be very eloquent. The world was still, the night breathed on them, one of those nights that seem created for the sheltering of tenderness, and there are moments when our souls, as if freed from their dark envelope, glow with an exquisite sensibility that makes certain silences more lucid than speeches. As to the girl, he told me, “She broke down a bit. Excitement — don’t you know. Reaction. Deucedly tired she must have been — and all that kind of thing. And — and — hang it all — she was fond of me, don’t you see. . . . I too . . . didn’t know, of course . . . never entered my head . . . ”

‘Then he got up and began to walk about in some agitation. “I— I love her dearly. More than I can tell. Of course one cannot tell. You take a different view of your actions when you come to understand, when you are made to understand every day that your existence is necessary — you see, absolutely necessary — to another person. I am made to feel that. Wonderful! But only try to think what her life has been. It is too extravagantly awful! Isn’t it? And me finding her here like this — as you may go out for a stroll and come suddenly upon somebody drowning in a lonely dark place. Jove! No time to lose. Well, it is a trust too . . . I believe I am equal to it . . . ”

‘I must tell you the girl had left us to ourselves some time before. He slapped his chest. “Yes! I feel that, but I believe I am equal to all my luck!” He had the gift of finding a special meaning in everything that happened to him. This was the view he took of his love affair; it was idyllic, a little solemn, and also true, since his belief had all the unshakable seriousness of youth. Some time after, on another occasion, he said to me, “I’ve been only two years here, and now, upon my word, I can’t conceive being able to live anywhere else. The very thought of the world outside is enough to give me a fright; because, don’t you see,” he continued, with downcast eyes watching the action of his boot busied in squashing thoroughly a tiny bit of dried mud (we were strolling on the river-bank) — “because I have not forgotten why I came here. Not yet!”

‘I refrained from looking at him, but I think I heard a short sigh; we took a turn or two in silence. “Upon my soul and conscience,” he began again, “if such a thing can be forgotten, then I think I have a right to dismiss it from my mind. Ask any man here” . . . his voice changed. “Is it not strange,” he went on in a gentle, almost yearning tone, “that all these people, all these people who would do anything for me, can never be made to understand? Never! If you disbelieved me I could not call them up. It seems hard, somehow. I am stupid, am I not? What more can I want? If you ask them who is brave — who is true — who is just — who is it they would trust with their lives? — they would say, Tuan Jim. And yet they can never know the real, real truth . . . ”

‘That’s what he said to me on my last day with him. I did not let a murmur escape me: I felt he was going to say more, and come no nearer to the root of the matter. The sun, whose concentrated glare dwarfs the earth into a restless mote of dust, had sunk behind the forest, and the diffused light from an opal sky seemed to cast upon a world without shadows and without brilliance the illusion of a calm and pensive greatness. I don’t know why, listening to him, I should have noted so distinctly the gradual darkening of the river, of the air; the irresistible slow work of the night settling silently on all the visible forms, effacing the outlines, burying the shapes deeper and deeper, like a steady fall of impalpable black dust.

‘“Jove!” he began abruptly, “there are days when a fellow is too absurd for anything; only I know I can tell you what I like. I talk about being done with it — with the bally thing at the back of my head . . . Forgetting . . . Hang me if I know! I can think of it quietly. After all, what has it proved? Nothing. I suppose you don’t think so . . . ”

‘I made a protesting murmur.

‘“No matter,” he said. “I am satisfied . . . nearly. I’ve got to look only at the face of the first man that comes along, to regain my confidence. They can’t be made to understand what is going on in me. What of that? Come! I haven’t done so badly.”

‘“Not so badly,” I said.

‘“But all the same, you wouldn’t like to have me aboard your own ship hey?”

‘“Confound you!” I cried. “Stop this.”

‘“Aha! You see,” he said, crowing, as it were, over me placidly. “Only,” he went on, “you just try to tell this to any of them here. They would think you a fool, a liar, or worse. And so I can stand it. I’ve done a thing or two for them, but this is what they have done for me.”

‘“My dear chap,” I cried, “you shall always remain for them an insoluble mystery.” Thereupon we were silent.

‘“Mystery,” he repeated, before looking up. “Well, then let me always remain here.”

‘After the sun had set, the darkness seemed to drive upon us, borne in every faint puff of the breeze. In the middle of a hedged path I saw the arrested, gaunt, watchful, and apparently one-legged silhouette of Tamb’ Itam; and across the dusky space my eye detected something white moving to and fro behind the supports of the roof. As soon as Jim, with Tamb’ Itam at his heels, had started upon his evening rounds, I went up to the house alone, and, unexpectedly, found myself waylaid by the girl, who had been clearly waiting for this opportunity.

‘It is hard to tell you what it was precisely she wanted to wrest from me. Obviously it would be something very simple — the simplest impossibility in the world; as, for instance, the exact description of the form of a cloud. She wanted an assurance, a statement, a promise, an explanation — I don’t know how to call it: the thing has no name. It was dark under the projecting roof, and all I could see were the flowing lines of her gown, the pale small oval of her face, with the white flash of her teeth, and, turned towards me, the big sombre orbits of her eyes, where there seemed to be a faint stir, such as you may fancy you can detect when you plunge your gaze to the bottom of an immensely deep well. What is it that moves there? you ask yourself. Is it a blind monster or only a lost gleam from the universe? It occurred to me — don’t laugh — that all things being dissimilar, she was more inscrutable in her childish ignorance than the Sphinx propounding childish riddles to wayfarers. She had been carried off to Patusan before her eyes were open. She had grown up there; she had seen nothing, she had known nothing, she had no conception of anything. I ask myself whether she were sure that anything else existed. What notions she may have formed of the outside world is to me inconceivable: all that she knew of its inhabitants were a betrayed woman and a sinister pantaloon. Her lover also came to her from there, gifted with irresistible seductions; but what would become of her if he should return to these inconceivable regions that seemed always to claim back their own? Her mother had warned her of this with tears, before she died . . .

‘She had caught hold of my arm firmly, and as soon as I had stopped she had withdrawn her hand in haste. She was audacious and shrinking. She feared nothing, but she was checked by the profound incertitude and the extreme strangeness — a brave person groping in the dark. I belonged to this Unknown that might claim Jim for its own at any moment. I was, as it were, in the secret of its nature and of its intentions — the confidant of a threatening mystery — armed with its power, perhaps! I believe she supposed I could with a word whisk Jim away out of her very arms; it is my sober conviction she went through agonies of apprehension during my long talks with Jim; through a real and intolerable anguish that might have conceivably driven her into plotting my murder, had the fierceness of her soul been equal to the tremendous situation it had created. This is my impression, and it is all I can give you: the whole thing dawned gradually upon me, and as it got clearer and clearer I was overwhelmed by a slow incredulous amazement. She made me believe her, but there is no word that on my lips could render the effect of the headlong and vehement whisper, of the soft, passionate tones, of the sudden breathless pause and the appealing movement of the white arms extended swiftly. They fell; the ghostly figure swayed like a slender tree in the wind, the pale oval of the face drooped; it was impossible to distinguish her features, the darkness of the eyes was unfathomable; two wide sleeves uprose in the dark like unfolding wings, and she stood silent, holding her head in her hands.’

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