Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 35

‘But next morning, at the first bend of the river shutting off the houses of Patusan, all this dropped out of my sight bodily, with its colour, its design, and its meaning, like a picture created by fancy on a canvas, upon which, after long contemplation, you turn your back for the last time. It remains in the memory motionless, unfaded, with its life arrested, in an unchanging light. There are the ambitions, the fears, the hate, the hopes, and they remain in my mind just as I had seen them — intense and as if for ever suspended in their expression. I had turned away from the picture and was going back to the world where events move, men change, light flickers, life flows in a clear stream, no matter whether over mud or over stones. I wasn’t going to dive into it; I would have enough to do to keep my head above the surface. But as to what I was leaving behind, I cannot imagine any alteration. The immense and magnanimous Doramin and his little motherly witch of a wife, gazing together upon the land and nursing secretly their dreams of parental ambition; Tunku Allang, wizened and greatly perplexed; Dain Waris, intelligent and brave, with his faith in Jim, with his firm glance and his ironic friendliness; the girl, absorbed in her frightened, suspicious adoration; Tumb’ Itam, surly and faithful; Cornelius, leaning his forehead against the fence under the moonlight — I am certain of them. They exist as if under un enchanter’s wand. But the figure round which all these are grouped — that one lives, and I am not certain of him. No magician’s wand can immobilise him under my eyes. He is one of us.

‘Jim, as I’ve told you, accompanied me on the first stage of my journey back to the world he had renounced, and the way at times seemed to lead through the very heart of untouched wilderness. The empty reaches sparkled under the high sun; between the high walls of vegetation the heat drowsed upon the water, and the boat, impelled vigorously, cut her way through the air that seemed to have settled dense and warm under the shelter of lofty trees.

‘The shadow of the impending separation had already put an immense space between us, and when we spoke it was with an effort, as if to force our low voices across a vast and increasing distance. The boat fairly flew; we sweltered side by side in the stagnant superheated air; the smell of mud, of mush, the primeval smell of fecund earth, seemed to sting our faces; till suddenly at a bend it was as if a great hand far away had lifted a heavy curtain, had flung open un immense portal. The light itself seemed to stir, the sky above our heads widened, a far-off murmur reached our ears, a freshness enveloped us, filled our lungs, quickened our thoughts, our blood, our regrets — and, straight ahead, the forests sank down against the dark-blue ridge of the sea.

‘I breathed deeply, I revelled in the vastness of the opened horizon, in the different atmosphere that seemed to vibrate with the toil of life, with the energy of an impeccable world. This sky and this sea were open to me. The girl was right — there was a sign, a call in them — something to which I responded with every fibre of my being. I let my eyes roam through space, like a man released from bonds who stretches his cramped limbs, runs, leaps, responds to the inspiring elation of freedom. “This is glorious!” I cried, and then I looked at the sinner by my side. He sat with his head sunk on his breast and said “Yes,” without raising his eyes, as if afraid to see writ large on the clear sky of the offing the reproach of his romantic conscience.

‘I remember the smallest details of that afternoon. We landed on a bit of white beach. It was backed by a low cliff wooded on the brow, draped in creepers to the very foot. Below us the plain of the sea, of a serene and intense blue, stretched with a slight upward tilt to the thread-like horizon drawn at the height of our eyes. Great waves of glitter blew lightly along the pitted dark surface, as swift as feathers chased by the breeze. A chain of islands sat broken and massive facing the wide estuary, displayed in a sheet of pale glassy water reflecting faithfully the contour of the shore. High in the colourless sunshine a solitary bird, all black, hovered, dropping and soaring above the same spot with a slight rocking motion of the wings. A ragged, sooty bunch of flimsy mat hovels was perched over its own inverted image upon a crooked multitude of high piles the colour of ebony. A tiny black canoe put off from amongst them with two tiny men, all black, who toiled exceedingly, striking down at the pale water: and the canoe seemed to slide painfully on a mirror. This bunch of miserable hovels was the fishing village that boasted of the white lord’s especial protection, and the two men crossing over were the old headman and his son-in-law. They landed and walked up to us on the white sand, lean, dark-brown as if dried in smoke, with ashy patches on the skin of their naked shoulders and breasts. Their heads were bound in dirty but carefully folded headkerchiefs, and the old man began at once to state a complaint, voluble, stretching a lank arm, screwing up at Jim his old bleared eyes confidently. The Rajah’s people would not leave them alone; there had been some trouble about a lot of turtles’ eggs his people had collected on the islets there — and leaning at arm’s-length upon his paddle, he pointed with a brown skinny hand over the sea. Jim listened for a time without looking up, and at last told him gently to wait. He would hear him by-and-by. They withdrew obediently to some little distance, and sat on their heels, with their paddles lying before them on the sand; the silvery gleams in their eyes followed our movements patiently; and the immensity of the outspread sea, the stillness of the coast, passing north and south beyond the limits of my vision, made up one colossal Presence watching us four dwarfs isolated on a strip of glistening sand.

‘“The trouble is,” remarked Jim moodily, “that for generations these beggars of fishermen in that village there had been considered as the Rajah’s personal slaves — and the old rip can’t get it into his head that . . . ”

‘He paused. “That you have changed all that,” I said.

‘“Yes I’ve changed all that,” he muttered in a gloomy voice.

‘“You have had your opportunity,” I pursued.

‘“Have I?” he said. “Well, yes. I suppose so. Yes. I have got back my confidence in myself — a good name — yet sometimes I wish . . . No! I shall hold what I’ve got. Can’t expect anything more.” He flung his arm out towards the sea. “Not out there anyhow.” He stamped his foot upon the sand. “This is my limit, because nothing less will do.”

‘We continued pacing the beach. “Yes, I’ve changed all that,” he went on, with a sidelong glance at the two patient squatting fishermen; “but only try to think what it would be if I went away. Jove! can’t you see it? Hell loose. No! To-morrow I shall go and take my chance of drinking that silly old Tunku Allung’s coffee, and I shall make no end of fuss over these rotten turtles’ eggs. No. I can’t say — enough. Never. I must go on, go on for ever holding up my end, to feel sure that nothing can touch me. I must stick to their belief in me to feel safe and to — to” . . . He cast about for a word, seemed to look for it on the sea . . . “to keep in touch with” . . . His voice sank suddenly to a murmur . . . “with those whom, perhaps, I shall never see any more. “With — with — you, for instance.”

‘I was profoundly humbled by his words. “For God’s sake,” I said, “don’t set me up, my dear fellow; just look to yourself.” I felt a gratitude, an affection, for that straggler whose eyes had singled me out, keeping my place in the ranks of an insignificant multitude. How little that was to boast of, after all! I turned my burning face away; under the low sun, glowing, darkened and crimson, like un ember snatched from the fire, the sea lay outspread, offering all its immense stillness to the approach of the fiery orb. Twice he was going to speak, but checked himself; at last, as if he had found a formula —

‘“I shall be faithful,” he said quietly. “I shall be faithful,” he repeated, without looking at me, but for the first time letting his eyes wander upon the waters, whose blueness had changed to a gloomy purple under the fires of sunset. Ah! he was romantic, romantic. I recalled some words of Stein’s. . . . “In the destructive element immerse! . . . To follow the dream, and again to follow the dream — and so — always — usque ad finem . . . ” He was romantic, but none the less true. Who could tell what forms, what visions, what faces, what forgiveness he could see in the glow of the west! . . . A small boat, leaving the schooner, moved slowly, with a regular beat of two oars, towards the sandbank to take me off. “And then there’s Jewel,” he said, out of the great silence of earth, sky, and sea, which had mastered my very thoughts so that his voice made me start. “There’s Jewel.” “Yes,” I murmured. “I need not tell you what she is to me,” he pursued. “You’ve seen. In time she will come to understand . . . ” “I hope so,” I interrupted. “She trusts me, too,” he mused, and then changed his tone. “When shall we meet next, I wonder?” he said.

‘“Never — unless you come out,” I answered, avoiding his glance. He didn’t seem to be surprised; he kept very quiet for a while.

‘“Good-bye, then,” he said, after a pause. “Perhaps it’s just as well.”

‘We shook hands, and I walked to the boat, which waited with her nose on the beach. The schooner, her mainsail set and jib-sheet to windward, curveted on the purple sea; there was a rosy tinge on her sails. “Will you be going home again soon?” asked Jim, just as I swung my leg over the gunwale. “In a year or so if I live,” I said. The forefoot grated on the sand, the boat floated, the wet oars flashed and dipped once, twice. Jim, at the water’s edge, raised his voice. “Tell them . . . ” he began. I signed to the men to cease rowing, and waited in wonder. Tell who? The half-submerged sun faced him; I could see its red gleam in his eyes that looked dumbly at me. . . . “No — nothing,” he said, and with a slight wave of his hand motioned the boat away. I did not look again at the shore till I had clambered on board the schooner.

‘By that time the sun had set. The twilight lay over the east, and the coast, turned black, extended infinitely its sombre wall that seemed the very stronghold of the night; the western horizon was one great blaze of gold and crimson in which a big detached cloud floated dark and still, casting a slaty shadow on the water beneath, and I saw Jim on the beach watching the schooner fall off and gather headway.

‘The two half-naked fishermen had arisen as soon as I had gone; they were no doubt pouring the plaint of their trifling, miserable, oppressed lives into the ears of the white lord, a no doubt he was listening to it, making it his own, for was it not a part of his luck — the luck “from the word Go” — the luck to which he had assured me he was so completely equal? They too, I should think, were in luck, and I was sure their pertinacity would be equal to it. Their dark-skinned bodies vanished on the dark background long before I had lost sight of their protector. He was white from head to foot, and remained persistently visible with the stronghold of the night at his back, the sea at his feet, the opportunity by his side — still veiled. What do you say? Was it still veiled? I don’t know. For me that white figure in the stillness of coast and sea seemed to stand at the heart of a vast enigma. The twilight was ebbing fast from the sky above his head, the strip of sand had sunk already under his feet, he himself appeared no bigger than a child — then only a speck, a tiny white speck, that seemed to catch all the light left in a darkened world. . . . And, suddenly, I lost him. . . .

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/conrad/joseph/c75l/chapter35.html

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