Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 9

‘“I was saying to myself, ‘Sink — curse you! Sink!’” These were the words with which he began again. He wanted it over. He was severely left aione, and he formulated in his head this address to the ship in a tone of imprecation, while at the same time he enjoyed the privilege of witnessing scenes — as far as I can judge — of low comedy. They were still at that bolt. The skipper was ordering, “Get under and try to lift”; and the others naturally shirked. You understand that to be squeezed flat under the keel of a boat wasn’t a desirable position to be caught in if the ship went down suddenly. “Why don’t you — you the strongest?” whined the little engineer. “Gott-for-dam! I am too thick,” spluttered the skipper in despair. It was funny enough to make angels weep. They stood idle for a moment, and suddenly the chief engineer rushed again at Jim.

‘“Come and help, man! Are you mad to throw your only chance away? Come and help, man! Man! Look there — look!”

‘And at last Jim looked astern where the other pointed with maniacal insistence. He saw a silent black squall which had eaten up already one-third of the sky. You know how these squalls come up there about that time of the year. First you see a darkening of the horizon — no more; then a cloud rises opaque like a wall. A straight edge of vapour lined with sickly whitish gleams flies up from the south-west, swallowing the stars in whole constellations; its shadow flies over the waters, and confounds sea and sky into one abyss of obscurity. And all is still. No thunder, no wind, no sound; not a flicker of lightning. Then in the tenebrous immensity a livid arch appears; a swell or two like undulations of the very darkness run past, and, suddenly, wind and rain strike together with a peculiar impetuosity as if they had burst through something solid. Such a cloud had come up while they weren’t looking. They had just noticed it, and were perfectly justified in surmising that if in absolute stillness there was some chance for the ship to keep afloat a few minutes longer, the least disturbance of the sea would make an end of her instantly. Her first nod to the swell that precedes the burst of such a squall would be also her last, would become a plunge, would, so to speak, be prolonged into a long dive, down, down to the bottom. Hence these new capers of their fright, these new antics in which they displayed their extreme aversion to die.

‘“It was black, black,” pursued Jim with moody steadiness. “It had sneaked upon us from behind. The infernal thing! I suppose there had been at the back of my head some hope yet. I don’t know. But that was all over anyhow. It maddened me to see myself caught like this. I was angry, as though I had been trapped. I was trapped! The night was hot, too, I remember. Not a breath of air.”

‘He remembered so well that, gasping in the chair, he seemed to sweat and choke before my eyes. No doubt it maddened him; it knocked him over afresh — in a manner of speaking — but it made him also remember that important purpose which had sent him rushing on that bridge only to slip clean out of his mind. He had intended to cut the lifeboats clear of the ship. He whipped out his knife and went to work slashing as though he had seen nothing, had heard nothing, had known of no one on board. They thought him hopelessly wrong-headed and crazy, but dared not protest noisily against this useless loss of time. When he had done he returned to the very same spot from which he had started. The chief was there, ready with a clutch at him to whisper close to his head, scathingly, as though he wanted to bite his ear —

‘“You silly fool! do you think you’ll get the ghost of a show when all that lot of brutes is in the water? Why, they will batter your head for you from these boats.”

‘He wrung his hands, ignored, at Jim’s elbow. The skipper kept up a nervous shuffle in one place and mumbled, “Hammer! hammer! Mein Gott! Get a hammer.”

‘The little engineer whimpered like a child, but, broken arm and all, he turned out the least craven of the lot as it seems, and, actually, mustered enough pluck to run an errand to the engine-room. No trifle, it must be owned in fairness to him. Jim told me he darted desperate looks like a cornered man, gave one low wail, and dashed off. He was back instantly clambering, hammer in hand, and without a pause flung himself at the bolt. The others gave up Jim at once and ran off to assist. He heard the tap, tap of the hammer, the sound of the released chock falling over. The boat was clear. Only then he turned to look — only then. But he kept his distance — he kept his distance. He wanted me to know he had kept his distance; that there was nothing in common between him and these men — who had the hammer. Nothing whatever. It is more than probable he thought himself cut off from them by a space that could not be traversed, by an obstacle that could not be overcome, by a chasm without bottom. He was as far as he could get from them — the whole breadth of the ship.

‘His feet were glued to that remote spot and his eyes to their indistinct group bowed together and swaying strangely in the common torment of fear. A hand-lamp lashed to a stanchion above a little table rigged up on the bridge — the Patna had no chart-room amidships — threw a light on their labouring shoulders, on their arched and bobbing backs. They pushed at the bow of the boat; they pushed out into the night; they pushed, and would no more look back at him. They had given him up as if indeed he had been too far, too hopelessly separated from themselves, to be worth an appealing word, a glance, or a sign. They had no leisure to look back upon his passive heroism, to feel the sting of his abstention. The boat was heavy; they pushed at the bow with no breath to spare for an encouraging word: but the turmoil of terror that had scattered their self-command like chaff before the wind, converted their desperate exertions into a bit of fooling, upon my word, fit for knockabout clowns in a farce. They pushed with their hands, with their heads, they pushed for dear life with all the weight of their bodies, they pushed with all the might of their souls — only no sooner had they succeeded in canting the stem clear of the davit than they would leave off like one man and start a wild scramble into her. As a natural consequence the boat would swing in abruptly, driving them back, helpless and jostling against each other. They would stand nonplussed for a while, exchanging in fierce whispers all the infamous names they could call to mind, and go at it again. Three times this occurred. He described it to me with morose thoughtfulness. He hadn’t lost a single movement of that comic business. “I loathed them. I hated them. I had to look at all that,” he said without emphasis, turning upon me a sombrely watchful glance. “Was ever there any one so shamefully tried?”

‘He took his head in his hands for a moment, like a man driven to distraction by some unspeakable outrage. These were things he could not explain to the court — and not even to me; but I would have been little fitted for the reception of his confidences had I not been able at times to understand the pauses between the words. In this assault upon his fortitude there was the jeering intention of a spiteful and vile vengeance; there was an element of burlesque in his ordeal — a degradation of funny grimaces in the approach of death or dishonour.

‘He related facts which I have not forgotten, but at this distance of time I couldn’t recall his very words: I only remember that he managed wonderfully to convey the brooding rancour of his mind into the bare recital of events. Twice, he told me, he shut his eyes in the certitude that the end was upon him already, and twice he had to open them again. Each time he noted the darkening of the great stillness. The shadow of the silent cloud had fallen upon the ship from the zenith, and seemed to have extinguished every sound of her teeming life. He could no longer hear the voices under the awnings. He told me that each time he closed his eyes a flash of thought showed him that crowd of bodies, laid out for death, as plain as daylight. When he opened them, it was to see the dim struggle of four men fighting like mad with a stubborn boat. “They would fall back before it time after time, stand swearing at each other, and suddenly make another rush in a bunch. . . . Enough to make you die laughing,” he commented with downcast eyes; then raising them for a moment to my face with a dismal smile, “I ought to have a merry life of it, by God! for I shall see that funny sight a good many times yet before I die.” His eyes fell again. “See and hear. . . . See and hear,” he repeated twice, at long intervals, filled by vacant staring.

‘He roused himself.

‘“I made up my mind to keep my eyes shut,” he said, “and I couldn’t. I couldn’t, and I don’t care who knows it. Let them go through that kind of thing before they talk. Just let them — and do better — that’s all. The second time my eyelids flew open and my mouth too. I had felt the ship move. She just dipped her bows — and lifted them gently — and slow! everlastingly slow; and ever so little. She hadn’t done that much for days. The cloud had raced ahead, and this first swell seemed to travel upon a sea of lead. There was no life in that stir. It managed, though, to knock over something in my head. What would you have done? You are sure of yourself — aren’t you? What would you do if you felt now — this minute — the house here move, just move a little under your chair. Leap! By heavens! you would take one spring from where you sit and land in that clump of bushes yonder.”

‘He flung his arm out at the night beyond the stone balustrade. I held my peace. He looked at me very steadily, very severe. There could be no mistake: I was being bullied now, and it behoved me to make no sign lest by a gesture or a word I should be drawn into a fatal admission about myself which would have had some bearing on the case. I was not disposed to take any risk of that sort. Don’t forget I had him before me, and really he was too much like one of us not to be dangerous. But if you want to know I don’t mind telling you that I did, with a rapid glance, estimate the distance to the mass of denser blackness in the middle of the grass-plot before the verandah. He exaggerated. I would have landed short by several feet — and that’s the only thing of which I am fairly certain.

‘The last moment had come, as he thought, and he did not move. His feet remained glued to the planks if his thoughts were knocking about loose in his head. It was at this moment too that he saw one of the men around the boat step backwards suddenly, clutch at the air with raised arms, totter and collapse. He didn’t exactly fall, he only slid gently into a sitting posture, all hunched up, and with his shoulders propped against the side of the engine-room skylight. “That was the donkey-man. A haggard, white-faced chap with a ragged moustache. Acted third engineer,” he explained.

‘“Dead,” I said. We had heard something of that in court.

‘“So they say,” he pronounced with sombre indifference. “Of course I never knew. Weak heart. The man had been complaining of being out of sorts for some time before. Excitement. Over-exertion. Devil only knows. Ha! ha! ha! It was easy to see he did not want to die either. Droll, isn’t it? May I be shot if he hadn’t been fooled into killing himself! Fooled — neither more nor less. Fooled into it, by heavens! just as I . . . Ah! If he had only kept still; if he had only told them to go to the devil when they came to rush him out of his bunk because the ship was sinking! If he had only stood by with his hands in his pockets and called them names!”

‘He got up, shook his fist, glared at me, and sat down.

‘“A chance missed, eh?” I murmured.

‘“Why don’t you laugh?” he said. “A joke hatched in hell. Weak heart! . . . I wish sometimes mine had been.”

‘This irritated me. “Do you?” I exclaimed with deep-rooted irony. “Yes! Can’t you understand?” he cried. “I don’t know what more you could wish for,” I said angrily. He gave me an utterly uncomprehending glance. This shaft had also gone wide of the mark, and he was not the man to bother about stray arrows. Upon my word, he was too unsuspecting; he was not fair game. I was glad that my missile had been thrown away, — that he had not even heard the twang of the bow.

‘Of course he could not know at the time the man was dead. The next minute — his last on board — was crowded with a tumult of events and sensations which beat about him like the sea upon a rock. I use the simile advisedly, because from his relation I am forced to believe he had preserved through it all a strange illusion of passiveness, as though he had not acted but had suffered himself to be handled by the infernal powers who had selected him for the victim of their practical joke. The first thing that came to him was the grinding surge of the heavy davits swinging out at last — a jar which seemed to enter his body from the deck through the soles of his feet, and travel up his spine to the crown of his head. Then, the squall being very near now, another and a heavier swell lifted the passive hull in a threatening heave that checked his breath, while his brain and his heart together were pierced as with daggers by panic-stricken screams. “Let go! For God’s sake, let go! Let go! She’s going.” Following upon that the boat-falls ripped through the blocks, and a lot of men began to talk in startled tones under the awnings. “When these beggars did break out, their yelps were enough to wake the dead,” he said. Next, after the splashing shock of the boat literally dropped in the water, came the hollow noises of stamping and tumbling in her, mingled with confused shouts: “Unhook! Unhook! Shove! Unhook! Shove for your life! Here’s the squall down on us. . . . ” He heard, high above his head, the faint muttering of the wind; he heard below his feet a cry of pain. A lost voice alongside started cursing a swivel hook. The ship began to buzz fore and aft like a disturbed hive, and, as quietly as he was telling me of all this — because just then he was very quiet in attitude, in face, in voice — he went on to say without the slightest warning as it were, “I stumbled over his legs.”

‘This was the first I heard of his having moved at all. I could not restrain a grunt of surprise. Something had started him off at last, but of the exact moment, of the cause that tore him out of his immobility, he knew no more than the uprooted tree knows of the wind that laid it low. All this had come to him: the sounds, the sights, the legs of the dead man — by Jove! The infernal joke was being crammed devilishly down his throat, but — look you — he was not going to admit of any sort of swallowing motion in his gullet. It’s extraordinary how he could cast upon you the spirit of his illusion. I listened as if to a tale of black magic at work upon a corpse.

‘“He went over sideways, very gently, and this is the last thing I remember seeing on board,” he continued. “I did not care what he did. It looked as though he were picking himself up: I thought he was picking himself up, of course: I expected him to bolt past me over the rail and drop into the boat after the others. I could hear them knocking about down there, and a voice as if crying up a shaft called out ‘George!’ Then three voices together raised a yell. They came to me separately: one bleated, another screamed, one howled. Ough!”

‘He shivered a little, and I beheld him rise slowly as if a steady hand from above had been pulling him out of the chair by his hair. Up, slowly — to his full height, and when his knees had locked stiff the hand let him go, and he swayed a little on his feet. There was a suggestion of awful stillness in his face, in his movements, in his very voice when he said “They shouted” — and involuntarily I pricked up my ears for the ghost of that shout that would be heard directly through the false effect of silence. “There were eight hundred people in that ship,” he said, impaling me to the back of my seat with an awful blank stare. “Eight hundred living people, and they were yelling after the one dead man to come down and be saved. ‘Jump, George! Jump! Oh, jump!’ I stood by with my hand on the davit. I was very quiet. It had come over pitch dark. You could see neither sky nor sea. I heard the boat alongside go bump, bump, and not another sound down there for a while, but the ship under me was full of talking noises. Suddenly the skipper howled ‘Mein Gott! The squall! The squall! Shove off!’ With the first hiss of rain, and the first gust of wind, they screamed, ‘Jump, George! We’ll catch you! Jump!’ The ship began a slow plunge; the rain swept over her like a broken sea; my cap flew off my head; my breath was driven back into my throat. I heard as if I had been on the top of a tower another wild screech, ‘Geo-o-o-orge! Oh, jump!’ She was going down, down, head first under me. . . . ”

‘He raised his hand deliberately to his face, and made picking motions with his fingers as though he had been bothered with cob-webs, and afterwards he looked into the open palm for quite half a second before he blurted out —

‘“I had jumped . . . ” He checked himself, averted his gaze. . . . “It seems,” he added.

‘His clear blue eyes turned to me with a piteous stare, and looking at him standing before me, dumfounded and hurt, I was oppressed by a sad sense of resigned wisdom, mingled with the amused and profound pity of an old man helpless before a childish disaster.

‘“Looks like it,” I muttered.

‘“I knew nothing about it till I looked up,” he explained hastily. And that’s possible too. You had to listen to him as you would to a small boy in trouble. He didn’t know. It had happened somehow. It would never happen again. He had landed partly on somebody and fallen across a thwart. He felt as though all his ribs on his left side must be broken; then he rolled over, and saw vaguely the ship he had deserted uprising above him, with the red side-light glowing large in the rain like a fire on the brow of a hill seen through a mist. “She seemed higher than a wall; she loomed like a cliff over the boat . . . I wished I could die,” he cried. “There was no going back. It was as if I had jumped into a well — into an everlasting deep hole. . . . “’

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