Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 33

‘I was immensely touched: her youth, her ignorance, her pretty beauty, which had the simple charm and the delicate vigour of a wild flower, her pathetic pleading, her helplessness, appealed to me with almost the strength of her own unreasonable and natural fear. She feared the unknown as we all do, and her ignorance made the unknown infinitely vast. I stood for it, for myself, for you fellows, for all the world that neither cared for Jim nor needed him in the least. I would have been ready enough to answer for the indifference of the teeming earth but for the reflection that he too belonged to this mysterious unknown of her fears, and that, however much I stood for, I did not stand for him. This made me hesitate. A murmur of hopeless pain unsealed my lips. I began by protesting that I at least had come with no intention to take Jim away.

‘Why did I come, then? After a slight movement she was as still as a marble statue in the night. I tried to explain briefly: friendship, business; if I had any wish in the matter it was rather to see him stay. . . . “They always leave us,” she murmured. The breath of sad wisdom from the grave which her piety wreathed with flowers seemed to pass in a faint sigh. . . . Nothing, I said, could separate Jim from her.

‘It is my firm conviction now; it was my conviction at the time; it was the only possible conclusion from the facts of the case. It was not made more certain by her whispering in a tone in which one speaks to oneself, “He swore this to me.” “Did you ask him?” I said.

‘She made a step nearer. “No. Never!” She had asked him only to go away. It was that night on the river-bank, after he had killed the man — after she had flung the torch in the water because he was looking at her so. There was too much light, and the danger was over then — for a little time — for a little time. He said then he would not abandon her to Cornelius. She had insisted. She wanted him to leave her. He said that he could not — that it was impossible. He trembled while he said this. She had felt him tremble. . . . One does not require much imagination to see the scene, almost to hear their whispers. She was afraid for him too. I believe that then she saw in him only a predestined victim of dangers which she understood better than himself. Though by nothing but his mere presence he had mastered her heart, had filled all her thoughts, and had possessed himself of all her affections, she underestimated his chances of success. It is obvious that at about that time everybody was inclined to underestimate his chances. Strictly speaking he didn’t seem to have any. I know this was Cornelius’s view. He confessed that much to me in extenuation of the shady part he had played in Sherif Ali’s plot to do away with the infidel. Even Sherif Ali himself, as it seems certain now, had nothing but contempt for the white man. Jim was to be murdered mainly on religious grounds, I believe. A simple act of piety (and so far infinitely meritorious), but otherwise without much importance. In the last part of this opinion Cornelius concurred. “Honourable sir,” he argued abjectly on the only occasion he managed to have me to himself — “honourable sir, how was I to know? Who was he? What could he do to make people believe him? What did Mr. Stein mean sending a boy like that to talk big to an old servant? I was ready to save him for eighty dollars. Only eighty dollars. Why didn’t the fool go? Was I to get stabbed myself for the sake of a stranger?” He grovelled in spirit before me, with his body doubled up insinuatingly and his hands hovering about my knees, as though he were ready to embrace my legs. “What’s eighty dollars? An insignificant sum to give to a defenceless old man ruined for life by a deceased she-devil.” Here he wept. But I anticipate. I didn’t that night chance upon Cornelius till I had had it out with the girl.

‘She was unselfish when she urged Jim to leave her, and even to leave the country. It was his danger that was foremost in her thoughts — even if she wanted to save herself too — perhaps unconsciously: but then look at the warning she had, look at the lesson that could be drawn from every moment of the recently ended life in which all her memories were centred. She fell at his feet — she told me so — there by the river, in the discreet light of stars which showed nothing except great masses of silent shadows, indefinite open spaces, and trembling faintly upon the broad stream made it appear as wide as the sea. He had lifted her up. He lifted her up, and then she would struggle no more. Of course not. Strong arms, a tender voice, a stalwart shoulder to rest her poor lonely little head upon. The need — the infinite need — of all this for the aching heart, for the bewildered mind; — the promptings of youth — the necessity of the moment. What would you have? One understands — unless one is incapable of understanding anything under the sun. And so she was content to be lifted up — and held. “You know — Jove! this is serious — no nonsense in it!” as Jim had whispered hurriedly with a troubled concerned face on the threshold of his house. I don’t know so much about nonsense, but there was nothing light-hearted in their romance: they came together under the shadow of a life’s disaster, like knight and maiden meeting to exchange vows amongst haunted ruins. The starlight was good enough for that story, a light so faint and remote that it cannot resolve shadows into shapes, and show the other shore of a stream. I did look upon the stream that night and from the very place; it rolled silent and as black as Styx: the next day I went away, but I am not likely to forget what it was she wanted to be saved from when she entreated him to leave her while there was time. She told me what it was, calmed — she was now too passionately interested for mere excitement — in a voice as quiet in the obscurity as her white half-lost figure. She told me, “I didn’t want to die weeping.” I thought I had not heard aright.

‘“You did not want to die weeping?” I repeated after her. “Like my mother,” she added readily. The outlines of her white shape did not stir in the least. “My mother had wept bitterly before she died,” she explained. An inconceivable calmness seemed to have risen from the ground around us, imperceptibly, like the still rise of a flood in the night, obliterating the familiar landmarks of emotions. There came upon me, as though I had felt myself losing my footing in the midst of waters, a sudden dread, the dread of the unknown depths. She went on explaining that, during the last moments, being alone with her mother, she had to leave the side of the couch to go and set her back against the door, in order to keep Cornelius out. He desired to get in, and kept on drumming with both fists, only desisting now and again to shout huskily, “Let me in! Let me in! Let me in!” In a far corner upon a few mats the moribund woman, already speechless and unable to lift her arm, rolled her head over, and with a feeble movement of her hand seemed to command — “No! No!” and the obedient daughter, setting her shoulders with all her strength against the door, was looking on. “The tears fell from her eyes — and then she died,” concluded the girl in an imperturbable monotone, which more than anything else, more than the white statuesque immobility of her person, more than mere words could do, troubled my mind profoundly with the passive, irremediable horror of the scene. It had the power to drive me out of my conception of existence, out of that shelter each of us makes for himself to creep under in moments of danger, as a tortoise withdraws within its shell. For a moment I had a view of a world that seemed to wear a vast and dismal aspect of disorder, while, in truth, thanks to our unwearied efforts, it is as sunny as arrangement of small conveniences as the mind of man can conceive. But still — it was only a moment: I went back into my shell directly. One must — don’t you know? — though I seemed to have lost all my words in the chaos of dark thoughts I had contemplated for a second or two beyond the pale. These came back, too, very soon, for words also belong to the sheltering conception of light and order which is our refuge. I had them ready at my disposal before she whispered softly, “He swore he would never leave me, when we stood there alone! He swore to me!” . . . “And it is possible that you — you! do not believe him?” I asked, sincerely reproachful, genuinely shocked. Why couldn’t she believe? Wherefore this craving for incertitude, this clinging to fear, as if incertitude and fear had been the safeguards of her love. It was monstrous. She should have made for herself a shelter of inexpugnable peace out of that honest affection. She had not the knowledge — not the skill perhaps. The night had come on apace; it had grown pitch-dark where we were, so that without stirring she had faded like the intangible form of a wistful and perverse spirit. And suddenly I heard her quiet whisper again, “Other men had sworn the same thing.” It was like a meditative comment on some thoughts full of sadness, of awe. And she added, still lower if possible, “My father did.” She paused the time to draw an inaudible breath. “Her father too.” . . . These were the things she knew! At once I said, “Ah! but he is not like that.” This, it seemed, she did not intend to dispute; but after a time the strange still whisper wandering dreamily in the air stole into my ears. “Why is he different? Is he better? Is he . . . ” “Upon my word of honour,” I broke in, “I believe he is.” We subdued our tones to a mysterious pitch. Amongst the huts of Jim’s workmen (they were mostly liberated slaves from the Sherif’s stockade) somebody started a shrill, drawling song. Across the river a big fire (at Doramin’s, I think) made a glowing ball, completely isolated in the night. “Is he more true?” she murmured. “Yes,” I said. “More true than any other man,” she repeated in lingering accents. “Nobody here,” I said, “would dream of doubting his word — nobody would dare — except you.”

‘I think she made a movement at this. “More brave,” she went on in a changed tone. “Fear will never drive him away from you,” I said a little nervously. The song stopped short on a shrill note, and was succeeded by several voices talking in the distance. Jim’s voice too. I was struck by her silence. “What has he been telling you? He has been telling you something?” I asked. There was no answer. “What is it he told you?” I insisted.

‘“Do you think I can tell you? How am I to know? How am I to understand?” she cried at last. There was a stir. I believe she was wringing her hands. “There is something he can never forget.”

‘“So much the better for you,” I said gloomily.

‘“What is it? What is it?” She put an extraordinary force of appeal into her supplicating tone. “He says he had been afraid. How can I believe this? Am I a mad woman to believe this? You all remember something! You all go back to it. What is it? You tell me! What is this thing? Is it alive? — is it dead? I hate it. It is cruel. Has it got a face and a voice — this calamity? Will he see it — will he hear it? In his sleep perhaps when he cannot see me — and then arise and go. Ah! I shall never forgive him. My mother had forgiven — but I, never! Will it be a sign — a call?”

‘It was a wonderful experience. She mistrusted his very slumbers — and she seemed to think I could tell her why! Thus a poor mortal seduced by the charm of an apparition might have tried to wring from another ghost the tremendous secret of the claim the other world holds over a disembodied soul astray amongst the passions of this earth. The very ground on which I stood seemed to melt under my feet. And it was so simple too; but if the spirits evoked by our fears and our unrest have ever to vouch for each other’s constancy before the forlorn magicians that we are, then I— I alone of us dwellers in the flesh — have shuddered in the hopeless chill of such a task. A sign, a call! How telling in its expression was her ignorance. A few words! How she came to know them, how she came to pronounce them, I can’t imagine. Women find their inspiration in the stress of moments that for us are merely awful, absurd, or futile. To discover that she had a voice at all was enough to strike awe into the heart. Had a spurned stone cried out in pain it could not have appeared a greater and more pitiful miracle. These few sounds wandering in the dark had made their two benighted lives tragic to my mind. It was impossible to make her understand. I chafed silently at my impotence. And Jim, too — poor devil! Who would need him? Who would remember him? He had what he wanted. His very existence probably had been forgotten by this time. They had mastered their fates. They were tragic.

‘Her immobility before me was clearly expectant, and my part was to speak for my brother from the realm of forgetful shade. I was deeply moved at my responsibility and at her distress. I would have given anything for the power to soothe her frail soul, tormenting itself in its invincible ignorance like a small bird beating about the cruel wires of a cage. Nothing easier than to say, Have no fear! Nothing more difficult. How does one kill fear, I wonder? How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat? It is an enterprise you rush into while you dream, and are glad to make your escape with wet hair and every limb shaking. The bullet is not run, the blade not forged, the man not born; even the winged words of truth drop at your feet like lumps of lead. You require for such a desperate encounter an enchanted and poisoned shaft dipped in a lie too subtle to be found on earth. An enterprise for a dream, my masters!

‘I began my exorcism with a heavy heart, with a sort of sullen anger in it too. Jim’s voice, suddenly raised with a stern intonation, carried across the courtyard, reproving the carelessness of some dumb sinner by the river-side. Nothing — I said, speaking in a distinct murmur — there could be nothing, in that unknown world she fancied so eager to rob her of her happiness, there was nothing, neither living nor dead, there was no face, no voice, no power, that could tear Jim from her side. I drew breath and she whispered softly, “He told me so.” “He told you the truth,” I said. “Nothing,” she sighed out, and abruptly turned upon me with a barely audible intensity of tone: “Why did you come to us from out there? He speaks of you too often. You make me afraid. Do you — do you want him?” A sort of stealthy fierceness had crept into our hurried mutters. “I shall never come again,” I said bitterly. “And I don’t want him. No one wants him.” “No one,” she repeated in a tone of doubt. “No one,” I affirmed, feeling myself swayed by some strange excitement. “You think him strong, wise, courageous, great — why not believe him to be true too? I shall go to-morrow — and that is the end. You shall never be troubled by a voice from there again. This world you don’t know is too big to miss him. You understand? Too big. You’ve got his heart in your hand. You must feel that. You must know that.” “Yes, I know that,” she breathed out, hard and still, as a statue might whisper.

‘I felt I had done nothing. And what is it that I had wished to do? I am not sure now. At the time I was animated by an inexplicable ardour, as if before some great and necessary task — the influence of the moment upon my mental and emotional state. There are in all our lives such moments, such influences, coming from the outside, as it were, irresistible, incomprehensible — as if brought about by the mysterious conjunctions of the planets. She owned, as I had put it to her, his heart. She had that and everything else — if she could only believe it. What I had to tell her was that in the whole world there was no one who ever would need his heart, his mind, his hand. It was a common fate, and yet it seemed an awful thing to say of any man. She listened without a word, and her stillness now was like the protest of an invincible unbelief. What need she care for the world beyond the forests? I asked. From all the multitudes that peopled the vastness of that unknown there would come, I assured her, as long as he lived, neither a call nor a sign for him. Never. I was carried away. Never! Never! I remember with wonder the sort of dogged fierceness I displayed. I had the illusion of having got the spectre by the throat at last. Indeed the whole real thing has left behind the detailed and amazing impression of a dream. Why should she fear? She knew him to be strong, true, wise, brave. He was all that. Certainly. He was more. He was great — invincible — and the world did not want him, it had forgotten him, it would not even know him.

‘I stopped; the silence over Patusan was profound, and the feeble dry sound of a paddle striking the side of a canoe somewhere in the middle of the river seemed to make it infinite. “Why?” she murmured. I felt that sort of rage one feels during a hard tussle. The spectre vas trying to slip out of my grasp. “Why?” she repeated louder; “tell me!” And as I remained confounded, she stamped with her foot like a spoilt child. “Why? Speak.” “You want to know?” I asked in a fury. “Yes!” she cried. “Because he is not good enough,” I said brutally. During the moment’s pause I noticed the fire on the other shore blaze up, dilating the circle of its glow like an amazed stare, and contract suddenly to a red pin-point. I only knew how close to me she had been when I felt the clutch of her fingers on my forearm. Without raising her voice, she threw into it an infinity of scathing contempt, bitterness, and despair.

‘“This is the very thing he said. . . . You lie!”

‘The last two words she cried at me in the native dialect. “Hear me out!” I entreated. She caught her breath tremulously, flung my arm away. “Nobody, nobody is good enough,” I began with the greatest earnestness. I could hear the sobbing labour of her breath frightfully quickened. I hung my head. What was the use? Footsteps were approaching; I slipped away without another word. . . . ’

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