Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 34

Marlow swung his legs out, got up quickly, and staggered a little, as though he had been set down after a rush through space. He leaned his back against the balustrade and faced a disordered array of long cane chairs. The bodies prone in them seemed startled out of their torpor by his movement. One or two sat up as if alarmed; here and there a cigar glowed yet; Marlow looked at them all with the eyes of a man returning from the excessive remoteness of a dream. A throat was cleared; a calm voice encouraged negligently, ‘Well.’

‘Nothing,’ said Marlow with a slight start. ‘He had told her — that’s all. She did not believe him — nothing more. As to myself, I do not know whether it be just, proper, decent for me to rejoice or to be sorry. For my part, I cannot say what I believed — indeed I don’t know to this day, and never shall probably. But what did the poor devil believe himself? Truth shall prevail — don’t you know. Magna est veritas et . . . Yes, when it gets a chance. There is a law, no doubt — and likewise a law regulates your luck in the throwing of dice. It is not Justice the servant of men, but accident, hazard, Fortune — the ally of patient Time — that holds an even and scrupulous balance. Both of us had said the very same thing. Did we both speak the truth — or one of us did — or neither? . . . ’

Marlow paused, crossed his arms on his breast, and in a changed tone —

‘She said we lied. Poor soul! Well — let’s leave it to Chance, whose ally is Time, that cannot be hurried, and whose enemy is Death, that will not wait. I had retreated — a little cowed, I must own. I had tried a fall with fear itself and got thrown — of course. I had only succeeded in adding to her anguish the hint of some mysterious collusion, of an inexplicable and incomprehensible conspiracy to keep her for ever in the dark. And it had come easily, naturally, unavoidably, by his act, by her own act! It was as though I had been shown the working of the implacable destiny of which we are the victims — and the tools. It was appalling to think of the girl whom I had left standing there motionless; Jim’s footsteps had a fateful sound as he tramped by, without seeing me, in his heavy laced boots. “What? No lights!” he said in a loud, surprised voice. “What are you doing in the dark — you two?” Next moment he caught sight of her, I suppose. “Hallo, girl!” he cried cheerily. “Hallo, boy!” she answered at once, with amazing pluck.

‘This was their usual greeting to each other, and the bit of swagger she would put into her rather high but sweet voice was very droll, pretty, and childlike. It delighted Jim greatly. This was the last occasion on which I heard them exchange this familiar hail, and it struck a chill into my heart. There was the high sweet voice, the pretty effort, the swagger; but it all seemed to die out prematurely, and the playful call sounded like a moan. It was too confoundedly awful. “What have you done with Marlow?” Jim was asking; and then, “Gone down — has he? Funny I didn’t meet him. . . . You there, Marlow?”

‘I didn’t answer. I wasn’t going in — not yet at any rate. I really couldn’t. While he was calling me I was engaged in making my escape through a little gate leading out upon a stretch of newly cleared ground. No; I couldn’t face them yet. I walked hastily with lowered head along a trodden path. The ground rose gently, the few big trees had been felled, the undergrowth had been cut down and the grass fired. He had a mind to try a coffee-plantation there. The big hill, rearing its double summit coal-black in the clear yellow glow of the rising moon, seemed to cast its shadow upon the ground prepared for that experiment. He was going to try ever so many experiments; I had admired his energy, his enterprise, and his shrewdness. Nothing on earth seemed less real now than his plans, his energy, and his enthusiasm; and raising my eyes, I saw part of the moon glittering through the bushes at the bottom of the chasm. For a moment it looked as though the smooth disc, falling from its place in the sky upon the earth, had rolled to the bottom of that precipice: its ascending movement was like a leisurely rebound; it disengaged itself from the tangle of twigs; the bare contorted limb of some tree, growing on the slope, made a black crack right across its face. It threw its level rays afar as if from a cavern, and in this mournful eclipse-like light the stumps of felled trees uprose very dark, the heavy shadows fell at my feet on all sides, my own moving shadow, and across my path the shadow of the solitary grave perpetually garlanded with flowers. In the darkened moonlight the interlaced blossoms took on shapes foreign to one’s memory and colours indefinable to the eye, as though they had been special flowers gathered by no man, grown not in this world, and destined for the use of the dead alone. Their powerful scent hung in the warm air, making it thick and heavy like the fumes of incense. The lumps of white coral shone round the dark mound like a chaplet of bleached skulls, and everything around was so quiet that when I stood still all sound and all movement in the world seemed to come to an end.

‘It was a great peace, as if the earth had been one grave, and for a time I stood there thinking mostly of the living who, buried in remote places out of the knowledge of mankind, still are fated to share in its tragic or grotesque miseries. In its noble struggles too — who knows? The human heart is vast enough to contain all the world. It is valiant enough to bear the burden, but where is the courage that would cast it off?

‘I suppose I must have fallen into a sentimental mood; I only know that I stood there long enough for the sense of utter solitude to get hold of me so completely that all I had lately seen, all I had heard, and the very human speech itself, seemed to have passed away out of existence, living only for a while longer in my memory, as though I had been the last of mankind. It was a strange and melancholy illusion, evolved half-consciously like all our illusions, which I suspect only to be visions of remote unattainable truth, seen dimly. This was, indeed, one of the lost, forgotten, unknown places of the earth; I had looked under its obscure surface; and I felt that when to-morrow I had left it for ever, it would slip out of existence, to live only in my memory till I myself passed into oblivion. I have that feeling about me now; perhaps it is that feeling which has incited me to tell you the story, to try to hand over to you, as it were, its very existence, its reality — the truth disclosed in a moment of illusion.

‘Cornelius broke upon it. He bolted out, vermin-like, from the long grass growing in a depression of the ground. I believe his house was rotting somewhere near by, though I’ve never seen it, not having been far enough in that direction. He ran towards me upon the path; his feet, shod in dirty white shoes, twinkled on the dark earth; he pulled himself up, and began to whine and cringe under a tall stove-pipe hat. His dried-up little carcass was swallowed up, totally lost, in a suit of black broadcloth. That was his costume for holidays and ceremonies, and it reminded me that this was the fourth Sunday I had spent in Patusan. All the time of my stay I had been vaguely aware of his desire to confide in me, if he only could get me all to himself. He hung about with an eager craving look on his sour yellow little face; but his timidity had kept him back as much as my natural reluctance to have anything to do with such an unsavoury creature. He would have succeeded, nevertheless, had he not been so ready to slink off as soon as you looked at him. He would slink off before Jim’s severe gaze, before my own, which I tried to make indifferent, even before Tamb’ Itam’s surly, superior glance. He was perpetually slinking away; whenever seen he was seen moving off deviously, his face over his shoulder, with either a mistrustful snarl or a woe-begone, piteous, mute aspect; but no assumed expression could conceal this innate irremediable abjectness of his nature, any more than an arrangement of clothing can conceal some monstrous deformity of the body.

‘I don’t know whether it was the demoralisation of my utter defeat in my encounter with a spectre of fear less than an hour ago, but I let him capture me without even a show of resistance. I was doomed to be the recipient of confidences, and to be confronted with unanswerable questions. It was trying; but the contempt, the unreasoned contempt, the man’s appearance provoked, made it easier to bear. He couldn’t possibly matter. Nothing mattered, since I had made up my mind that Jim, for whom alone I cared, had at last mastered his fate. He had told me he was satisfied . . . nearly. This is going further than most of us dare. I— who have the right to think myself good enough — dare not. Neither does any of you here, I suppose?.. .’

Marlow paused, as if expecting an answer. Nobody spoke.

‘Quite right,’ he began again. ‘Let no soul know, since the truth can be wrung out of us only by some cruel, little, awful catastrophe. But he is one of us, and he could say he was satisfied . . . nearly. Just fancy this! Nearly satisfied. One could almost envy him his catastrophe. Nearly satisfied. After this nothing could matter. It did not matter who suspected him, who trusted him, who loved him, who hated him — especially as it was Cornelius who hated him.

‘Yet after all this was a kind of recognition. You shall judge of a man by his foes as well as by his friends, and this enemy of Jim was such as no decent man would be ashamed to own, without, however, making too much of him. This was the view Jim took, and in which I shared; but Jim disregarded him on general grounds. “My dear Marlow,” he said, “I feel that if I go straight nothing can touch me. Indeed I do. Now you have been long enough here to have a good look round — and, frankly, don’t you think I am pretty safe? It all depends upon me, and, by Jove! I have lots of confidence in myself. The worst thing he could do would be to kill me, I suppose. I don’t think for a moment he would. He couldn’t, you know — not if I were myself to hand him a loaded rifle for the purpose, and then turn my back on him. That’s the sort of thing he is. And suppose he would — suppose he could? Well — what of that? I didn’t come here flying for my life — did I? I came here to set my back against the wall, and I am going to stay here . . . ”

‘“Till you are quite satisfied,” I struck in.

‘We were sitting at the time under the roof in the stern of his boat; twenty paddles flashed like one, ten on a side, striking the water with a single splash, while behind our backs Tamb’ Itam dipped silently right and left, and stared right down the river, attentive to keep the long canoe in the greatest strength of the current. Jim bowed his head, and our last talk seemed to flicker out for good. He was seeing me off as far as the mouth of the river. The schooner had left the day before, working down and drifting on the ebb, while I had prolonged my stay overnight. And now he was seeing me off.

‘Jim had been a little angry with me for mentioning Cornelius at all. I had not, in truth, said much. The man was too insignificant to be dangerous, though he was as full of hate as he could hold. He had called me “honourable sir” at every second sentence, and had whined at my elbow as he followed me from the grave of his “late wife” to the gate of Jim’s compound. He declared himself the most unhappy of men, a victim, crushed like a worm; he entreated me to look at him. I wouldn’t turn my head to do so; but I could see out of the corner of my eye his obsequious shadow gliding after mine, while the moon, suspended on our right hand, seemed to gloat serenely upon the spectacle. He tried to explain — as I’ve told you — his share in the events of the memorable night. It was a matter of expediency. How could he know who was going to get the upper hand? “I would have saved him, honourable sir! I would have saved him for eighty dollars,” he protested in dulcet tones, keeping a pace behind me. “He has saved himself,” I said, “and he has forgiven you.” I heard a sort of tittering, and turned upon him; at once he appeared ready to take to his heels. “What are you laughing at?” I asked, standing still. “Don’t be deceived, honourable sir!” he shrieked, seemingly losing all control over his feelings. “He save himself! He knows nothing, honourable sir — nothing whatever. Who is he? What does he want here — the big thief? What does he want here? He throws dust into everybody’s eyes; he throws dust into your eyes, honourable sir; but he can’t throw dust into my eyes. He is a big fool, honourable sir.” I laughed contemptuously, and, turning on my heel, began to walk on again. He ran up to my elbow and whispered forcibly, “He’s no more than a little child here — like a little child — a little child.” Of course I didn’t take the slightest notice, and seeing the time pressed, because we were approaching the bamboo fence that glittered over the blackened ground of the clearing, he came to the point. He commenced by being abjectly lachrymose. His great misfortunes had affected his head. He hoped I would kindly forget what nothing but his troubles made him say. He didn’t mean anything by it; only the honourable sir did not know what it was to be ruined, broken down, trampled upon. After this introduction he approached the matter near his heart, but in such a rambling, ejaculatory, craven fashion, that for a long time I couldn’t make out what he was driving at. He wanted me to intercede with Jim in his favour. It seemed, too, to be some sort of money affair. I heard time and again the words, “Moderate provision — suitable present.” He seemed to be claiming value for something, and he even went the length of saying with some warmth that life was not worth having if a man were to be robbed of everything. I did not breathe a word, of course, but neither did I stop my ears. The gist of the affair, which became clear to me gradually, was in this, that he regarded himself as entitled to some money in exchange for the girl. He had brought her up. Somebody else’s child. Great trouble and pains — old man now — suitable present. If the honourable sir would say a word. . . . I stood still to look at him with curiosity, and fearful lest I should think him extortionate, I suppose, he hastily brought himself to make a concession. In consideration of a “suitable present” given at once, he would, he declared, be willing to undertake the charge of the girl, “without any other provision — when the time came for the gentleman to go home.” His little yellow face, all crumpled as though it had been squeezed together, expressed the most anxious, eager avarice. His voice whined coaxingly, “No more trouble — natural guardian — a sum of money . . . ”

‘I stood there and marvelled. That kind of thing, with him, was evidently a vocation. I discovered suddenly in his cringing attitude a sort of assurance, as though he had been all his life dealing in certitudes. He must have thought I was dispassionately considering his proposal, because he became as sweet as honey. “Every gentleman made a provision when the time came to go home,” he began insinuatingly. I slammed the little gate. “In this case, Mr. Cornelius,” I said, “the time will never come.” He took a few seconds to gather this in. “What!” he fairly squealed. “Why,” I continued from my side of the gate, “haven’t you heard him say so himself? He will never go home.” “Oh! this is too much,” he shouted. He would not address me as “honoured sir” any more. He was very still for a time, and then without a trace of humility began very low: “Never go — ah! He — he — he comes here devil knows from where — comes here — devil knows why — to trample on me till I die — ah — trample” (he stamped softly with both feet), “trample like this — nobody knows why — till I die. . . . ” His voice became quite extinct; he was bothered by a little cough; he came up close to the fence and told me, dropping into a confidential and piteous tone, that he would not be trampled upon. “Patience — patience,” he muttered, striking his breast. I had done laughing at him, but unexpectedly he treated me to a wild cracked burst of it. “Ha! ha! ha! We shall see! We shall see! What! Steal from me! Steal from me everything! Everything! Everything!” His head drooped on one shoulder, his hands were hanging before him lightly clasped. One would have thought he had cherished the girl with surpassing love, that his spirit had been crushed and his heart broken by the most cruel of spoliations. Suddenly he lifted his head and shot out an infamous word. “Like her mother — she is like her deceitful mother. Exactly. In her face too. In her face. The devil!” He leaned his forehead against the fence, and in that position uttered threats and horrible blasphemies in Portuguese in very weak ejaculations, mingled with miserable plaints and groans, coming out with a heave of the shoulders as though he had been overtaken by a deadly fit of sickness. It was an inexpressibly grotesque and vile performance, and I hastened away. He tried to shout something after me. Some disparagement of Jim, I believe — not too loud though, we were too near the house. All I heard distinctly was, “No more than a little child — a little child.”’

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