Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 6

‘The authorities were evidently of the same opinion. The inquiry was not adjourned. It was held on the appointed day to satisfy the law, and it was well attended because of its human interest, no doubt. There was no incertitude as to facts — as to the one material fact, I mean. How the Patna came by her hurt it was impossible to find out; the court did not expect to find out; and in the whole audience there was not a man who cared. Yet, as I’ve told you, all the sailors in the port attended, and the waterside business was fully represented. Whether they knew it or not, the interest that drew them there was purely psychological — the expectation of some essential disclosure as to the strength, the power, the horror, of human emotions. Naturally nothing of the kind could be disclosed. The examination of the only man able and willing to face it was beating futilely round the well-known fact, and the play of questions upon it was as instructive as the tapping with a hammer on an iron box, were the object to find out what’s inside. However, an official inquiry could not be any other thing. Its object was not the fundamental why, but the superficial how, of this affair.

‘The young chap could have told them, and, though that very thing was the thing that interested the audience, the questions put to him necessarily led him away from what to me, for instance, would have been the only truth worth knowing. You can’t expect the constituted authorities to inquire into the state of a man’s soul — or is it only of his liver? Their business was to come down upon the consequences, and frankly, a casual police magistrate and two nautical assessors are not much good for anything else. I don’t mean to imply these fellows were stupid. The magistrate was very patient. One of the assessors was a sailing-ship skipper with a reddish beard, and of a pious disposition. Brierly was the other. Big Brierly. Some of you must have heard of Big Brierly — the captain of the crack ship of the Blue Star line. That’s the man.

‘He seemed consumedly bored by the honour thrust upon him. He had never in his life made a mistake, never had an accident, never a mishap, never a check in his steady rise, and he seemed to be one of those lucky fellows who know nothing of indecision, much less of self-mistrust. At thirty-two he had one of the best commands going in the Eastern trade — and, what’s more, he thought a lot of what he had. There was nothing like it in the world, and I suppose if you had asked him point-blank he would have confessed that in his opinion there was not such another commander. The choice had fallen upon the right man. The rest of mankind that did not command the sixteen-knot steel steamer Ossa were rather poor creatures. He had saved lives at sea, had rescued ships in distress, had a gold chronometer presented to him by the underwriters, and a pair of binoculars with a suitable inscription from some foreign Government, in commemoration of these services. He was acutely aware of his merits and of his rewards. I liked him well enough, though some I know — meek, friendly men at that — couldn’t stand him at any price. I haven’t the slightest doubt he considered himself vastly my superior — indeed, had you been Emperor of East and West, you could not have ignored your inferiority in his presence — but I couldn’t get up any real sentiment of offence. He did not despise me for anything I could help, for anything I was — don’t you know? I was a negligible quantity simply because I was not the fortunate man of the earth, not Montague Brierly in command of the Ossa, not the owner of an inscribed gold chronometer and of silver-mounted binoculars testifying to the excellence of my seamanship and to my indomitable pluck; not possessed of an acute sense of my merits and of my rewards, besides the love and worship of a black retriever, the most wonderful of its kind — for never was such a man loved thus by such a dog. No doubt, to have all this forced upon you was exasperating enough; but when I reflected that I was associated in these fatal disadvantages with twelve hundred millions of other more or less human beings, I found I could bear my share of his good-natured and contemptuous pity for the sake of something indefinite and attractive in the man. I have never defined to myself this attraction, but there were moments when I envied him. The sting of life could do no more to his complacent soul than the scratch of a pin to the smooth face of a rock. This was enviable. As I looked at him, flanking on one side the unassuming pale-faced magistrate who presided at the inquiry, his self-satisfaction presented to me and to the world a surface as hard as granite. He committed suicide very soon after.

‘No wonder Jim’s case bored him, and while I thought with something akin to fear of the immensity of his contempt for the young man under examination, he was probably holding silent inquiry into his own case. The verdict must have been of unmitigated guilt, and he took the secret of the evidence with him in that leap into the sea. If I understand anything of men, the matter was no doubt of the gravest import, one of those trifles that awaken ideas — start into life some thought with which a man unused to such a companionship finds it impossible to live. I am in a position to know that it wasn’t money, and it wasn’t drink, and it wasn’t woman. He jumped overboard at sea barely a week after the end of the inquiry, and less than three days after leaving port on his outward passage; as though on that exact spot in the midst of waters he had suddenly perceived the gates of the other world flung open wide for his reception.

‘Yet it was not a sudden impulse. His grey-headed mate, a first-rate sailor and a nice old chap with strangers, but in his relations with his commander the surliest chief officer I’ve ever seen, would tell the story with tears in his eyes. It appears that when he came on deck in the morning Brierly had been writing in the chart-room. “It was ten minutes to four,” he said, “and the middle watch was not relieved yet of course. He heard my voice on the bridge speaking to the second mate, and called me in. I was loth to go, and that’s the truth, Captain Marlow — I couldn’t stand poor Captain Brierly, I tell you with shame; we never know what a man is made of. He had been promoted over too many heads, not counting my own, and he had a damnable trick of making you feel small, nothing but by the way he said ‘Good morning.’ I never addressed him, sir, but on matters of duty, and then it was as much as I could do to keep a civil tongue in my head.” (He flattered himself there. I often wondered how Brierly could put up with his manners for more than half a voyage.) “I’ve a wife and children,” he went on, “and I had been ten years in the Company, always expecting the next command — more fool I. Says he, just like this: ‘Come in here, Mr. Jones,’ in that swagger voice of his — ‘Come in here, Mr. Jones.’ In I went. ‘We’ll lay down her position,’ says he, stooping over the chart, a pair of dividers in hand. By the standing orders, the officer going off duty would have done that at the end of his watch. However, I said nothing, and looked on while he marked off the ship’s position with a tiny cross and wrote the date and the time. I can see him this moment writing his neat figures: seventeen, eight, four A. M. The year would be written in red ink at the top of the chart. He never used his charts more than a year, Captain Brierly didn’t. I’ve the chart now. When he had done he stands looking down at the mark he had made and smiling to himself, then looks up at me. ‘Thirty-two miles more as she goes,’ says he, ‘and then we shall be clear, and you may alter the course twenty degrees to the southward.’

‘“We were passing to the north of the Hector Bank that voyage. I said, ‘All right, sir,’ wondering what he was fussing about, since I had to call him before altering the course anyhow. lust then eight bells were struck: we came out on the bridge, and the second mate before going off mentions in the usual way — ‘Seventy-one on the log.’ Captain Brierly looks at the compass and then all round. It was dark and clear, and all the stars were out as plain as on a frosty night in high latitudes. Suddenly he says with a sort of a little sigh: ‘I am going aft, and shall set the log at zero for you myself, so that there can be no mistake. Thirty-two miles more on this course and then you are safe. Let’s see — the correction on the log is six per cent. additive; say, then, thirty by the dial to run, and you may come twenty degrees to starboard at once. No use losing any distance — is there?’ I had never heard him talk so much at a stretch, and to no purpose as it seemed to me. I said nothing. He went down the ladder, and the dog, that was always at his heels whenever he moved, night or day, followed, sliding nose first, after him. I heard his boot-heels tap, tap on the after-deck, then he stopped and spoke to the dog — ‘Go back, Rover. On the bridge, boy! Go on — get.’ Then he calls out to me from the dark, ‘Shut that dog up in the chart-room, Mr. Jones — will you?’

‘“This was the last time I heard his voice, Captain Marlow. These are the last words he spoke in the hearing of any living human being, sir.” At this point the old chap’s voice got quite unsteady. “He was afraid the poor brute would jump after him, don’t you see?” he pursued with a quaver. “Yes, Captain Marlow. He set the log for me; he — would you believe it? — he put a drop of oil in it too. There was the oil-feeder where he left it near by. The boat — swain’s mate got the hose along aft to wash down at half-past five; by-and-by he knocks off and runs up on the bridge — ‘Will you please come aft, Mr. Jones,’ he says. ‘There’s a funny thing. I don’t like to touch it.’ It was Captain Brierly’s gold chronometer watch carefully hung under the rail by its chain.

‘“As soon as my eyes fell on it something struck me, and I knew, sir. My legs got soft under me. It was as if I had seen him go over; and I could tell how far behind he was left too. The taffrail-log marked eighteen miles and three-quarters, and four iron belaying-pins were missing round the mainmast. Put them in his pockets to help him down, I suppose; but, Lord! what’s four iron pins to a powerful man like Captain Brierly. Maybe his confidence in himself was just shook a bit at the last. That’s the only sign of fluster he gave in his whole life, I should think; but I am ready to answer for him, that once over he did not try to swim a stroke, the same as he would have had pluck enough to keep up all day long on the bare chance had he fallen overboard accidentally. Yes, sir. He was second to none — if he said so himself, as I heard him once. He had written two letters in the middle watch, one to the Company and the other to me. He gave me a lot of instructions as to the passage — I had been in the trade before he was out of his time — and no end of hints as to my conduct with our people in Shanghai, so that I should keep the command of the Ossa. He wrote like a father would to a favourite son, Captain Marlow, and I was five-and-twenty years his senior and had tasted salt water before he was fairly breeched. In his letter to the owners — it was left open for me to see — he said that he had always done his duty by them — up to that moment — and even now he was not betraying their confidence, since he was leaving the ship to as competent a seaman as could be found — meaning me, sir, meaning me! He told them that if the last act of his life didn’t take away all his credit with them, they would give weight to my faithful service and to his warm recommendation, when about to fill the vacancy made by his death. And much more like this, sir. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It made me feel queer all over,” went on the old chap, in great perturbation, and squashing something in the corner of his eye with the end of a thumb as broad as a spatula. “You would think, sir, he had jumped overboard only to give an unlucky man a last show to get on. What with the shock of him going in this awful rash way, and thinking myself a made man by that chance, I was nearly off my chump for a week. But no fear. The captain of the Pelion was shifted into the Ossa — came aboard in Shanghai — a little popinjay, sir, in a grey check suit, with his hair parted in the middle. ‘Aw — I am — aw — your new captain, Mister — Mister — aw — Jones.’ He was drowned in scent — fairly stunk with it, Captain Marlow. I dare say it was the look I gave him that made him stammer. He mumbled something about my natural disappointment — I had better know at once that his chief officer got the promotion to the Pelion — he had nothing to do with it, of course — supposed the office knew best — sorry. . . . Says I, ‘Don’t you mind old Jones, sir; dam’ his soul, he’s used to it.’ I could see directly I had shocked his delicate ear, and while we sat at our first tiffin together he began to find fault in a nasty manner with this and that in the ship. I never heard such a voice out of a Punch and Judy show. I set my teeth hard, and glued my eyes to my plate, and held my peace as long as I could; but at last I had to say something. Up he jumps tiptoeing, ruffling all his pretty plumes, like a little fighting-cock. ‘You’ll find you have a different person to deal with than the late Captain Brierly.’ ‘I’ve found it,’ says I, very glum, but pretending to be mighty busy with my steak. ‘You are an old ruffian, Mister — aw — Jones; and what’s more, you are known for an old ruffian in the employ,’ he squeaks at me. The damned bottle-washers stood about listening with their mouths stretched from ear to ear. ‘I may be a hard case,’ answers I, ‘but I ain’t so far gone as to put up with the sight of you sitting in Captain Brierly’s chair.’ With that I lay down my knife and fork. ‘You would like to sit in it yourself — that’s where the shoe pinches,’ he sneers. I left the saloon, got my rags together, and was on the quay with all my dunnage about my feet before the stevedores had turned to again. Yes. Adrift — on shore — after ten years’ service — and with a poor woman and four children six thousand miles off depending on my half-pay for every mouthful they ate. Yes, sir! I chucked it rather than hear Captain Brierly abused. He left me his night-glasses — here they are; and he wished me to take care of the dog — here he is. Hallo, Rover, poor boy. Where’s the captain, Rover?” The dog looked up at us with mournful yellow eyes, gave one desolate bark, and crept under the table.

‘All this was taking place, more than two years afterwards, on board that nautical ruin the Fire-Queen this Jones had got charge of — quite by a funny accident, too — from Matherson — mad Matherson they generally called him — the same who used to hang out in Hai-phong, you know, before the occupation days. The old chap snuffled on —

‘“Ay, sir, Captain Brierly will be remembered here, if there’s no other place on earth. I wrote fully to his father and did not get a word in reply — neither Thank you, nor Go to the devil! — nothing! Perhaps they did not want to know.”

‘The sight of that watery-eyed old Jones mopping his bald head with a red cotton handkerchief, the sorrowing yelp of the dog, the squalor of that fly-blown cuddy which was the only shrine of his memory, threw a veil of inexpressibly mean pathos over Brierly’s remembered figure, the posthumous revenge of fate for that belief in his own splendour which had almost cheated his life of its legitimate terrors. Almost! Perhaps wholly. Who can tell what flattering view he had induced himself to take of his own suicide?

‘“Why did he commit the rash act, Captain Marlow — can you think?” asked Jones, pressing his palms together. “Why? It beats me! Why?” He slapped his low and wrinkled forehead. “If he had been poor and old and in debt — and never a show — or else mad. But he wasn’t of the kind that goes mad, not he. You trust me. What a mate don’t know about his skipper isn’t worth knowing. Young, healthy, well off, no cares. . . . I sit here sometimes thinking, thinking, till my head fairly begins to buzz. There was some reason.”

‘“You may depend on it, Captain Jones,” said I, “it wasn’t anything that would have disturbed much either of us two,” I said; and then, as if a light had been flashed into the muddle of his brain, poor old Jones found a last word of amazing profundity. He blew his nose, nodding at me dolefully: “Ay, ay! neither you nor I, sir, had ever thought so much of ourselves.”

‘Of course the recollection of my last conversation with Brierly is tinged with the knowledge of his end that followed so close upon it. I spoke with him for the last time during the progress of the inquiry. It was after the first adjournment, and he came up with me in the street. He was in a state of irritation, which I noticed with surprise, his usual behaviour when he condescended to converse being perfectly cool, with a trace of amused tolerance, as if the existence of his interlocutor had been a rather good joke. “They caught me for that inquiry, you see,” he began, and for a while enlarged complainingly upon the inconveniences of daily attendance in court. “And goodness knows how long it will last. Three days, I suppose.” I heard him out in silence; in my then opinion it was a way as good as another of putting on side. “What’s the use of it? It is the stupidest set-out you can imagine,” he pursued hotly. I remarked that there was no option. He interrupted me with a sort of pent-up violence. “I feel like a fool all the time.” I looked up at him. This was going very far — for Brierly — when talking of Brierly. He stopped short, and seizing the lapel of my coat, gave it a slight tug. “Why are we tormenting that young chap?” he asked. This question chimed in so well to the tolling of a certain thought of mine that, with the image of the absconding renegade in my eye, I answered at once, “Hanged if I know, unless it be that he lets you.” I was astonished to see him fall into line, so to speak, with that utterance, which ought to have been tolerably cryptic. He said angrily, “Why, yes. Can’t he see that wretched skipper of his has cleared out? What does he expect to happen? Nothing can save him. He’s done for.” We walked on in silence a few steps. “Why eat all that dirt?” he exclaimed, with an oriental energy of expression — about the only sort of energy you can find a trace of east of the fiftieth meridian. I wondered greatly at the direction of his thoughts, but now I strongly suspect it was strictly in character: at bottom poor Brierly must have been thinking of himself. I pointed out to him that the skipper of the Patna was known to have feathered his nest pretty well, and could procure almost anywhere the means of getting away. With Jim it was otherwise: the Government was keeping him in the Sailors’ Home for the time being, and probably he hadn’t a penny in his pocket to bless himself with. It costs some money to run away. “Does it? Not always,” he said, with a bitter laugh, and to some further remark of mine — “Well, then, let him creep twenty feet underground and stay there! By heavens! I would.” I don’t know why his tone provoked me, and I said, “There is a kind of courage in facing it out as he does, knowing very well that if he went away nobody would trouble to run after hmm.” “Courage be hanged!” growled Brierly. “That sort of courage is of no use to keep a man straight, and I don’t care a snap for such courage. If you were to say it was a kind of cowardice now — of softness. I tell you what, I will put up two hundred rupees if you put up another hundred and undertake to make the beggar clear out early to-morrow morning. The fellow’s a gentleman if he ain’t fit to be touched — he will understand. He must! This infernal publicity is too shocking: there he sits while all these confounded natives, serangs, lascars, quartermasters, are giving evidence that’s enough to burn a man to ashes with shame. This is abominable. Why, Marlow, don’t you think, don’t you feel, that this is abominable; don’t you now — come — as a seaman? If he went away all this would stop at once.” Brierly said these words with a most unusual animation, and made as if to reach after his pocket-book. I restrained him, and declared coldly that the cowardice of these four men did not seem to me a matter of such great importance. “And you call yourself a seaman, I suppose,” he pronounced angrily. I said that’s what I called myself, and I hoped I was too. He heard me out, and made a gesture with his big arm that seemed to deprive me of my individuality, to push me away into the crowd. “The worst of it,” he said, “is that all you fellows have no sense of dignity; you don’t think enough of what you are supposed to be.”

‘We had been walking slowly meantime, and now stopped opposite the harbour office, in sight of the very spot from which the immense captain of the Patna had vanished as utterly as a tiny feather blown away in a hurricane. I smiled. Brierly went on: “This is a disgrace. We’ve got all kinds amongst us — some anointed scoundrels in the lot; but, hang it, we must preserve professional decency or we become no better than so many tinkers going about loose. We are trusted. Do you understand? — trusted! Frankly, I don’t care a snap for all the pilgrims that ever came out of Asia, but a decent man would not have behaved like this to a full cargo of old rags in bales. We aren’t an organised body of men, and the only thing that holds us together is just the name for that kind of decency. Such an affair destroys one’s confidence. A man may go pretty near through his whole sea-life without any call to show a stiff upper lip. But when the call comes . . . Aha! . . . If I. ..”

‘He broke off, and in a changed tone, “I’ll give you two hundred rupees now, Marlow, and you just talk to that chap. Confound him! I wish he had never come out here. Fact is, I rather think some of my people know his. The old man’s a parson, and I remember now I met him once when staying with my cousin in Essex last year. If I am not mistaken, the old chap seemed rather to fancy his sailor son. Horrible. I can’t do it myself — but you . . . ”

‘Thus, apropos of Jim, I had a glimpse of the real Brierly a few days before he committed his reality and his sham together to the keeping of the sea. Of course I declined to meddle. The tone of this last “but you” (poor Brierly couldn’t help it), that seemed to imply I was no more noticeable than an insect, caused me to look at the proposal with indignation, and on account of that provocation, or for some other reason, I became positive in my mind that the inquiry was a severe punishment to that Jim, and that his facing it — practically of his own free will — was a redeeming feature in his abominable case. I hadn’t been so sure of it before. Brierly went off in a huff. At the time his state of mind was more of a mystery to me than it is now.

‘Next day, coming into court late, I sat by myself. Of course I could not forget the conversation I had with Brierly, and now I had them both under my eyes. The demeanour of one suggested gloomy impudence and of the other a contemptuous boredom; yet one attitude might not have been truer than the other, and I was aware that one was not true. Brierly was not bored — he was exasperated; and if so, then Jim might not have been impudent. According to my theory he was not. I imagined he was hopeless. Then it was that our glances met. They met, and the look he gave me was discouraging of any intention I might have had to speak to him. Upon either hypothesis — insolence or despair — I felt I could be of no use to him. This was the second day of the proceedings. Very soon after that exchange of glances the inquiry was adjourned again to the next day. The white men began to troop out at once. Jim had been told to stand down some time before, and was able to leave amongst the first. I saw his broad shoulders and his head outlined in the light of the door, and while I made my way slowly out talking with some one — some stranger who had addressed me casually — I could see him from within the court-room resting both elbows on the balustrade of the verandah and turning his back on the small stream of people trickling down the few steps. There was a murmur of voices and a shuffle of boots.

‘The next case was that of assault and battery committed upon a money-lender, I believe; and the defendant — a venerable villager with a straight white beard — sat on a mat just outside the door with his sons, daughters, sons-in-law, their wives, and, I should think, half the population of his village besides, squatting or standing around him. A slim dark woman, with part of her back and one black shoulder bared, and with a thin gold ring in her nose, suddenly began to talk in a high-pitched, shrewish tone. The man with me instinctively looked up at her. We were then just through the door, passing behind Jim’s burly back.

‘Whether those villagers had brought the yellow dog with them, I don’t know. Anyhow, a dog was there, weaving himself in and out amongst people’s legs in that mute stealthy way native dogs have, and my companion stumbled over him. The dog leaped away without a sound; the man, raising his voice a little, said with a slow laugh, “Look at that wretched cur,” and directly afterwards we became separated by a lot of people pushing in. I stood back for a moment against the wall while the stranger managed to get down the steps and disappeared. I saw Jim spin round. He made a step forward and barred my way. We were alone; he glared at me with an air of stubborn resolution. I became aware I was being held up, so to speak, as if in a wood. The verandah was empty by then, the noise and movement in court had ceased: a great silence fell upon the building, in which, somewhere far within, an oriental voice began to whine abjectly. The dog, in the very act of trying to sneak in at the door, sat down hurriedly to hunt for fleas.

‘“Did you speak to me?” asked Jim very low, and bending forward, not so much towards me but at me, if you know what I mean. I said “No” at once. Something in the sound of that quiet tone of his warned me to be on my defence. I watched him. It was very much like a meeting in a wood, only more uncertain in its issue, since he could possibly want neither my money nor my life — nothing that I could simply give up or defend with a clear conscience. “You say you didn’t,” he said, very sombre. “But I heard.” “Some mistake,” I protested, utterly at a loss, and never taking my eyes off him. To watch his face was like watching a darkening sky before a clap of thunder, shade upon shade imperceptibly coming on, the doom growing mysteriously intense in the calm of maturing violence.

‘“As far as I know, I haven’t opened my lips in your hearing,” I affirmed with perfect truth. I was getting a little angry, too, at the absurdity of this encounter. It strikes me now I have never in my life been so near a beating — I mean it literally; a beating with fists. I suppose I had some hazy prescience of that eventuality being in the air. Not that he was actively threatening me. On the contrary, he was strangely passive — don’t you know? but he was lowering, and, though not exceptionally big, he looked generally fit to demolish a wall. The most reassuring symptom I noticed was a kind of slow and ponderous hesitation, which I took as a tribute to the evident sincerity of my manner and of my tone. We faced each other. In the court the assault case was proceeding. I caught the words: “Well — buffalo — stick — in the greatness of my fear. . . . ”

‘“What did you mean by staring at me all the morning?” said Jim at last. He looked up and looked down again. “Did you expect us all to sit with downcast eyes out of regard for your susceptibilities?” I retorted sharply. I was not going to submit meekly to any of his nonsense. He raised his eyes again, and this time continued to look me straight in the face. “No. That’s all right,” he pronounced with an air of deliberating with himself upon the truth of this statement — “that’s all right. I am going through with that. Only” — and there he spoke a little faster — “I won’t let any man call me names outside this court. There was a fellow with you. You spoke to him — oh yes — I know; ‘tis all very fine. You spoke to him, but you meant me to hear. . . . ”

‘I assured him he was under some extraordinary delusion. I had no conception how it came about. “You thought I would be afraid to resent this,” he said, with just a faint tinge of bitterness. I was interested enough to discern the slightest shades of expression, but I was not in the least enlightened; yet I don’t know what in these words, or perhaps just the intonation of that phrase, induced me suddenly to make all possible allowances for him. I ceased to be annoyed at my unexpected predicament. It was some mistake on his part; he was blundering, and I had an intuition that the blunder was of an odious, of an unfortunate nature. I was anxious to end this scene on grounds of decency, just as one is anxious to cut short some unprovoked and abominable confidence. The funniest part was, that in the midst of all these considerations of the higher order I was conscious of a certain trepidation as to the possibility — nay, likelihood — of this encounter ending in some disreputable brawl which could not possibly be explained, and would make me ridiculous. I did not hanker after a three days’ celebrity as the man who got a black eye or something of the sort from the mate of the Patna. He, in all probability, did not care what he did, or at any rate would be fully justified in his own eyes. It took no magician to see he was amazingly angry about something, for all his quiet and even torpid demeanour. I don’t deny I was extremely desirous to pacify him at all costs, had I only known what to do. But I didn’t know, as you may well imagine. It was a blackness without a single gleam. We confronted each other in silence. He hung fire for about fifteen seconds, then made a step nearer, and I made ready to ward off a blow, though I don’t think I moved a muscle. “If you were as big as two men and as strong as six,” he said very softly, “I would tell you what I think of you. You . . . ” “Stop!” I exclaimed. This checked him for a second. “Before you tell me what you think of me,” I went on quickly, “will you kindly tell me what it is I’ve said or done?” During the pause that ensued he surveyed me with indignation, while I made supernatural efforts of memory, in which I was hindered by the oriental voice within the court-room expostulating with impassioned volubility against a charge of falsehood. Then we spoke almost together. “I will soon show you I am not,” he said, in a tone suggestive of a crisis. “I declare I don’t know,” I protested earnestly at the same time. He tried to crush me by the scorn of his glance. “Now that you see I am not afraid you try to crawl out of it,” he said. “Who’s a cur now — hey?” Then, at last, I understood.

‘He had been scanning my features as though looking for a place where he would plant his fist. “I will allow no man,”.. . he mumbled threateningly. It was, indeed, a hideous mistake; he had given himself away utterly. I can’t give you an idea how shocked I was. I suppose he saw some reflection of my feelings in my face, because his expression changed just a little. “Good God!” I stammered, “you don’t think I . . . ” “But I am sure I’ve heard,” he persisted, raising his voice for the first time since the beginning of this deplorable scene. Then with a shade of disdain he added, “It wasn’t you, then? Very well; I’ll find the other.” “Don’t be a fool,” I cried in exasperation; “it wasn’t that at all.” “I’ve heard,” he said again with an unshaken and sombre perseverance.

‘There may be those who could have laughed at his pertinacity; I didn’t. Oh, I didn’t! There had never been a man so mercilessly shown up by his own natural impulse. A single word had stripped him of his discretion — of that discretion which is more necessary to the decencies of our inner being than clothing is to the decorum of our body. “Don’t be a fool,” I repeated. “But the other man said it, you don’t deny that?” he pronounced distinctly, and looking in my face without flinching. “No, I don’t deny,” said I, returning his gaze. At last his eyes followed downwards the direction of my pointing finger. He appeared at first uncomprehending, then confounded, and at last amazed and scared as though a dog had been a monster and he had never seen a dog before. “Nobody dreamt of insulting you,” I said.

‘He contemplated the wretched animal, that moved no more than an effigy: it sat with ears pricked and its sharp muzzle pointed into the doorway, and suddenly snapped at a fly like a piece of mechanism.

‘I looked at him. The red of his fair sunburnt complexion deepened suddenly under the down of his cheeks, invaded his forehead, spread to the roots of his curly hair. His ears became intensely crimson, and even the clear blue of his eyes was darkened many shades by the rush of blood to his head. His lips pouted a little, trembling as though he had been on the point of bursting into tears. I perceived he was incapable of pronouncing a word from the excess of his humiliation. From disappointment too — who knows? Perhaps he looked forward to that hammering he was going to give me for rehabilitation, for appeasement? Who can tell what relief he expected from this chance of a row? He was naive enough to expect anything; but he had given himself away for nothing in this case. He had been frank with himself — let alone with me — in the wild hope of arriving in that way at some effective refutation, and the stars had been ironically unpropitious. He made an inarticulate noise in his throat like a man imperfectly stunned by a blow on the head. It was pitiful.

‘I didn’t catch up again with him till well outside the gate. I had even to trot a bit at the last, but when, out of breath at his elbow, I taxed him with running away, he said, “Never!” and at once turned at bay. I explained I never meant to say he was running away from me. “From no man — from not a single man on earth,” he affirmed with a stubborn mien. I forbore to point out the one obvious exception which would hold good for the bravest of us; I thought he would find out by himself very soon. He looked at me patiently while I was thinking of something to say, but I could find nothing on the spur of the moment, and he began to walk on. I kept up, and, anxious not to lose him, I said hurriedly that I couldn’t think of leaving him under a false impression of my — of my — I stammered. The stupidity of the phrase appalled me while I was trying to finish it, but the power of sentences has nothing to do with their sense or the logic of their construction. My idiotic mumble seemed to please him. He cut it short by saying, with courteous placidity that argued an immense power of self-control or else a wonderful elasticity of spirits — “Altogether my mistake.” I marvelled greatly at this expression: he might have been alluding to some trifling occurrence. Hadn’t he understood its deplorable meaning? “You may well forgive me,” he continued, and went on a little moodily, “All these staring people in court seemed such fools that — that it might have been as I supposed.”

‘This opened suddenly a new view of him to my wonder. I looked at him curiously and met his unabashed and impenetrable eyes. “I can’t put up with this kind of thing,” he said, very simply, “and I don’t mean to. In court it’s different; I’ve got to stand that — and I can do it too.”

‘I don’t pretend I understood him. The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog — bits of vivid and vanishing detail, giving no connected idea of the general aspect of a country. They fed one’s curiosity without satisfying it; they were no good for purposes of orientation. Upon the whole he was misleading. That’s how I summed him up to myself after he left me late in the evening. I had been staying at the Malabar House for a few days, and on my pressing invitation he dined with me there.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/conrad/joseph/c75l/chapter6.html

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