An Outcast of the Islands, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter Three

For upwards of forty years Abdulla had walked in the way of his Lord. Son of the rich Syed Selim bin Sali, the great Mohammedan trader of the Straits, he went forth at the age of seventeen on his first commercial expedition, as his father’s representative on board a pilgrim ship chartered by the wealthy Arab to convey a crowd of pious Malays to the Holy Shrine. That was in the days when steam was not in those seas — or, at least, not so much as now. The voyage was long, and the young man’s eyes were opened to the wonders of many lands. Allah had made it his fate to become a pilgrim very early in life. This was a great favour of Heaven, and it could not have been bestowed upon a man who prized it more, or who made himself more worthy of it by the unswerving piety of his heart and by the religious solemnity of his demeanour. Later on it became clear that the book of his destiny contained the programme of a wandering life. He visited Bombay and Calcutta, looked in at the Persian Gulf, beheld in due course the high and barren coasts of the Gulf of Suez, and this was the limit of his wanderings westward. He was then twenty-seven, and the writing on his forehead decreed that the time had come for him to return to the Straits and take from his dying father’s hands the many threads of a business that was spread over all the Archipelago: from Sumatra to New Guinea, from Batavia to Palawan.

Very soon his ability, his will — strong to obstinacy — his wisdom beyond his years, caused him to be recognized as the head of a family whose members and connections were found in every part of those seas. An uncle here — a brother there; a father-in-law in Batavia, another in Palembang; husbands of numerous sisters; cousins innumerable scattered north, south, east, and west — in every place where there was trade: the great family lay like a network over the islands. They lent money to princes, influenced the council-rooms, faced — if need be — with peaceful intrepidity the white rulers who held the land and the sea under the edge of sharp swords; and they all paid great deference to Abdulla, listened to his advice, entered into his plans — because he was wise, pious, and fortunate.

He bore himself with the humility becoming a Believer, who never forgets, even for one moment of his waking life, that he is the servant of the Most High. He was largely charitable because the charitable man is the friend of Allah, and when he walked out of his house — built of stone, just outside the town of Penang — on his way to his godowns in the port, he had often to snatch his hand away sharply from under the lips of men of his race and creed; and often he had to murmur deprecating words, or even to rebuke with severity those who attempted to touch his knees with their finger-tips in gratitude or supplication. He was very handsome, and carried his small head high with meek gravity. His lofty brow, straight nose, narrow, dark face with its chiselled delicacy of feature, gave him an aristocratic appearance which proclaimed his pure descent. His beard was trimmed close and to a rounded point. His large brown eyes looked out steadily with a sweetness that was belied by the expression of his thin-lipped mouth. His aspect was serene. He had a belief in his own prosperity which nothing could shake.

Restless, like all his people, he very seldom dwelt for many days together in his splendid house in Penang. Owner of ships, he was often on board one or another of them, traversing in all directions the field of his operations. In every port he had a household — his own or that of a relation — to hail his advent with demonstrative joy. In every port there were rich and influential men eager to see him, there was business to talk over, there were important letters to read: an immense correspondence, enclosed in silk envelopes — a correspondence which had nothing to do with the infidels of colonial post-offices, but came into his hands by devious, yet safe, ways. It was left for him by taciturn nakhodas of native trading craft, or was delivered with profound salaams by travel-stained and weary men who would withdraw from his presence calling upon Allah to bless the generous giver of splendid rewards. And the news was always good, and all his attempts always succeeded, and in his ears there rang always a chorus of admiration, of gratitude, of humble entreaties.

A fortunate man. And his felicity was so complete that the good genii, who ordered the stars at his birth, had not neglected — by a refinement of benevolence strange in such primitive beings — to provide him with a desire difficult to attain, and with an enemy hard to overcome. The envy of Lingard’s political and commercial successes, and the wish to get the best of him in every way, became Abdulla’s mania, the paramount interest of his life, the salt of his existence.

For the last few months he had been receiving mysterious messages from Sambir urging him to decisive action. He had found the river a couple of years ago, and had been anchored more than once off that estuary where the, till then, rapid Pantai, spreading slowly over the lowlands, seems to hesitate, before it flows gently through twenty outlets; over a maze of mudflats, sandbanks and reefs, into the expectant sea. He had never attempted the entrance, however, because men of his race, although brave and adventurous travellers, lack the true seamanlike instincts, and he was afraid of getting wrecked. He could not bear the idea of the Rajah Laut being able to boast that Abdulla bin Selim, like other and lesser men, had also come to grief when trying to wrest his secret from him. Meantime he returned encouraging answers to his unknown friends in Sambir, and waited for his opportunity in the calm certitude of ultimate triumph.

Such was the man whom Lakamba and Babalatchi expected to see for the first time on the night of Willems’ return to Aissa. Babalatchi, who had been tormented for three days by the fear of having over-reached himself in his little plot, now, feeling sure of his white man, felt lighthearted and happy as he superintended the preparations in the courtyard for Abdulla’s reception. Half-way between Lakamba’s house and the river a pile of dry wood was made ready for the torch that would set fire to it at the moment of Abdulla’s landing. Between this and the house again there was, ranged in a semicircle, a set of low bamboo frames, and on those were piled all the carpets and cushions of Lakamba’s household. It had been decided that the reception was to take place in the open air, and that it should be made impressive by the great number of Lakamba’s retainers, who, clad in clean white, with their red sarongs gathered round their waists, chopper at side and lance in hand, were moving about the compound or, gathering into small knots, discussed eagerly the coming ceremony.

Two little fires burned brightly on the water’s edge on each side of the landing place. A small heap of damar-gum torches lay by each, and between them Babalatchi strolled backwards and forwards, stopping often with his face to the river and his head on one side, listening to the sounds that came from the darkness over the water. There was no moon and the night was very clear overhead, but, after the afternoon breeze had expired in fitful puffs, the vapours hung thickening over the glancing surface of the Pantai and clung to the shore, hiding from view the middle of the stream.

A cry in the mist — then another — and, before Babalatchi could answer, two little canoes dashed up to the landing-place, and two of the principal citizens of Sambir, Daoud Sahamin and Hamet Bahassoen, who had been confidentially invited to meet Abdulla, landed quickly and after greeting Babalatchi walked up the dark courtyard towards the house. The little stir caused by their arrival soon subsided, and another silent hour dragged its slow length while Babalatchi tramped up and down between the fires, his face growing more anxious with every passing moment.

At last there was heard a loud hail from down the river. At a call from Babalatchi men ran down to the riverside and, snatching the torches, thrust them into the fires, then waved them above their heads till they burst into a flame. The smoke ascended in thick, wispy streams, and hung in a ruddy cloud above the glare that lit up the courtyard and flashed over the water, showing three long canoes manned by many paddlers lying a little off; the men in them lifting their paddles on high and dipping them down together, in an easy stroke that kept the small flotilla motionless in the strong current, exactly abreast of the landing-place. A man stood up in the largest craft and called out —

“Syed Abdulla bin Selim is here!”

Babalatchi answered aloud in a formal tone —

“Allah gladdens our hearts! Come to the land!”

Abdulla landed first, steadying himself by the help of Babalatchi’s extended hand. In the short moment of his passing from the boat to the shore they exchanged sharp glances and a few rapid words.

“Who are you?”

“Babalatchi. The friend of Omar. The protected of Lakamba.”

“You wrote?”

“My words were written, O Giver of alms!”

And then Abdulla walked with composed face between the two lines of men holding torches, and met Lakamba in front of the big fire that was crackling itself up into a great blaze. For a moment they stood with clasped hands invoking peace upon each other’s head, then Lakamba, still holding his honoured guest by the hand, led him round the fire to the prepared seats. Babalatchi followed close behind his protector. Abdulla was accompanied by two Arabs. He, like his companions, was dressed in a white robe of starched muslin, which fell in stiff folds straight from the neck. It was buttoned from the throat halfway down with a close row of very small gold buttons; round the tight sleeves there was a narrow braid of gold lace. On his shaven head he wore a small skull-cap of plaited grass. He was shod in patent leather slippers over his naked feet. A rosary of heavy wooden beads hung by a round turn from his right wrist. He sat down slowly in the place of honour, and, dropping his slippers, tucked up his legs under him decorously.

The improvised divan was arranged in a wide semi-circle, of which the point most distant from the fire — some ten yards — was also the nearest to Lakamba’s dwelling. As soon as the principal personages were seated, the verandah of the house was filled silently by the muffled-up forms of Lakamba’s female belongings. They crowded close to the rail and looked down, whispering faintly. Below, the formal exchange of compliments went on for some time between Lakamba and Abdulla, who sat side by side. Babalatchi squatted humbly at his protector’s feet, with nothing but a thin mat between himself and the hard ground.

Then there was a pause. Abdulla glanced round in an expectant manner, and after a while Babalatchi, who had been sitting very still in a pensive attitude, seemed to rouse himself with an effort, and began to speak in gentle and persuasive tones. He described in flowing sentences the first beginnings of Sambir, the dispute of the present ruler, Patalolo, with the Sultan of Koti, the consequent troubles ending with the rising of Bugis settlers under the leadership of Lakamba. At different points of the narrative he would turn for confirmation to Sahamin and Bahassoen, who sat listening eagerly and assented together with a “Betul! Betul! Right! Right!” ejaculated in a fervent undertone.

Warming up with his subject as the narrative proceeded, Babalatchi went on to relate the facts connected with Lingard’s action at the critical period of those internal dissensions. He spoke in a restrained voice still, but with a growing energy of indignation. What was he, that man of fierce aspect, to keep all the world away from them? Was he a government? Who made him ruler? He took possession of Patalolo’s mind and made his heart hard; he put severe words into his mouth and caused his hand to strike right and left. That unbeliever kept the Faithful panting under the weight of his senseless oppression. They had to trade with him — accept such goods as he would give — such credit as he would accord. And he exacted payment every year . . .

“Very true!” exclaimed Sahamin and Bahassoen together.

Babalatchi glanced at them approvingly and turned to Abdulla.

“Listen to those men, O Protector of the oppressed!” he exclaimed. “What could we do? A man must trade. There was nobody else.”

Sahamin got up, staff in hand, and spoke to Abdulla with ponderous courtesy, emphasizing his words by the solemn flourishes of his right arm.

“It is so. We are weary of paying our debts to that white man here, who is the son of the Rajah Laut. That white man — may the grave of his mother be defiled! — is not content to hold us all in his hand with a cruel grasp. He seeks to cause our very death. He trades with the Dyaks of the forest, who are no better than monkeys. He buys from them guttah and rattans — while we starve. Only two days ago I went to him and said, ‘Tuan Almayer’— even so; we must speak politely to that friend of Satan —‘Tuan Almayer, I have such and such goods to sell. Will you buy?’ And he spoke thus — because those white men have no understanding of any courtesy — he spoke to me as if I was a slave: ‘Daoud, you are a lucky man’— remark, O First amongst the Believers! that by those words he could have brought misfortune on my head —‘you are a lucky man to have anything in these hard times. Bring your goods quickly, and I shall receive them in payment of what you owe me from last year.’ And he laughed, and struck me on the shoulder with his open hand. May Jehannum be his lot!”

“We will fight him,” said young Bahassoen, crisply. “We shall fight if there is help and a leader. Tuan Abdulla, will you come among us?”

Abdulla did not answer at once. His lips moved in an inaudible whisper and the beads passed through his fingers with a dry click. All waited in respectful silence. “I shall come if my ship can enter this river,” said Abdulla at last, in a solemn tone.

“It can, Tuan,” exclaimed Babalatchi. “There is a white man here who . . . ”

“I want to see Omar el Badavi and that white man you wrote about,” interrupted Abdulla.

Babalatchi got on his feet quickly, and there was a general move.

The women on the verandah hurried indoors, and from the crowd that had kept discreetly in distant parts of the courtyard a couple of men ran with armfuls of dry fuel, which they cast upon the fire. One of them, at a sign from Babalatchi, approached and, after getting his orders, went towards the little gate and entered Omar’s enclosure. While waiting for his return, Lakamba, Abdulla, and Babalatchi talked together in low tones. Sahamin sat by himself chewing betel-nut sleepily with a slight and indolent motion of his heavy jaw. Bahassoen, his hand on the hilt of his short sword, strutted backwards and forwards in the full light of the fire, looking very warlike and reckless; the envy and admiration of Lakamba’s retainers, who stood in groups or flitted about noiselessly in the shadows of the courtyard.

The messenger who had been sent to Omar came back and stood at a distance, waiting till somebody noticed him. Babalatchi beckoned him close.

“What are his words?” asked Babalatchi.

“He says that Syed Abdulla is welcome now,” answered the man.

Lakamba was speaking low to Abdulla, who listened to him with deep interest.

“ . . . We could have eighty men if there was need,” he was saying —“eighty men in fourteen canoes. The only thing we want is gunpowder . . . ”

“Hai! there will be no fighting,” broke in Babalatchi. “The fear of your name will be enough and the terror of your coming.”

“There may be powder too,” muttered Abdulla with great nonchalance, “if only the ship enters the river safely.”

“If the heart is stout the ship will be safe,” said Babalatchi. “We will go now and see Omar el Badavi and the white man I have here.”

Lakamba’s dull eyes became animated suddenly.

“Take care, Tuan Abdulla,” he said, “take care. The behaviour of that unclean white madman is furious in the extreme. He offered to strike . . . ”

“On my head, you are safe, O Giver of alms!” interrupted Babalatchi.

Abdulla looked from one to the other, and the faintest flicker of a passing smile disturbed for a moment his grave composure. He turned to Babalatchi, and said with decision —

“Let us go.”

“This way, O Uplifter of our hearts!” rattled on Babalatchi, with fussy deference. “Only a very few paces and you shall behold Omar the brave, and a white man of great strength and cunning. This way.”

He made a sign for Lakamba to remain behind, and with respectful touches on the elbow steered Abdulla towards the gate at the upper end of the court-yard. As they walked on slowly, followed by the two Arabs, he kept on talking in a rapid undertone to the great man, who never looked at him once, although appearing to listen with flattering attention. When near the gate Babalatchi moved forward and stopped, facing Abdulla, with his hand on the fastenings.

“You shall see them both,” he said. “All my words about them are true. When I saw him enslaved by the one of whom I spoke, I knew he would be soft in my hand like the mud of the river. At first he answered my talk with bad words of his own language, after the manner of white men. Afterwards, when listening to the voice he loved, he hesitated. He hesitated for many days — too many. I, knowing him well, made Omar withdraw here with his . . . household. Then this red-faced man raged for three days like a black panther that is hungry. And this evening, this very evening, he came. I have him here. He is in the grasp of one with a merciless heart. I have him here,” ended Babalatchi, exultingly tapping the upright of the gate with his hand.

“That is good,” murmured Abdulla.

“And he shall guide your ship and lead in the fight — if fight there be,” went on Babalatchi. “If there is any killing — let him be the slayer. You should give him arms — a short gun that fires many times.”

“Yes, by Allah!” assented Abdulla, with slow thoughtfulness.

“And you will have to open your hand, O First amongst the generous!” continued Babalatchi. “You will have to satisfy the rapacity of a white man, and also of one who is not a man, and therefore greedy of ornaments.”

“They shall be satisfied,” said Abdulla; “but . . . ” He hesitated, looking down on the ground and stroking his beard, while Babalatchi waited, anxious, with parted lips. After a short time he spoke again jerkily in an indistinct whisper, so that Babalatchi had to turn his head to catch the words. “Yes. But Omar is the son of my father’s uncle . . . and all belonging to him are of the Faith . . . while that man is an unbeliever. It is most unseemly . . . very unseemly. He cannot live under my shadow. Not that dog. Penitence! I take refuge with my God,” he mumbled rapidly. “How can he live under my eyes with that woman, who is of the Faith? Scandal! O abomination!”

He finished with a rush and drew a long breath, then added dubiously —

“And when that man has done all we want, what is to be done with him?”

They stood close together, meditative and silent, their eyes roaming idly over the courtyard. The big bonfire burned brightly, and a wavering splash of light lay on the dark earth at their feet, while the lazy smoke wreathed itself slowly in gleaming coils amongst the black boughs of the trees. They could see Lakamba, who had returned to his place, sitting hunched up spiritlessly on the cushions, and Sahamin, who had got on his feet again and appeared to be talking to him with dignified animation. Men in twos or threes came out of the shadows into the light, strolling slowly, and passed again into the shadows, their faces turned to each other, their arms moving in restrained gestures. Bahassoen, his head proudly thrown back, his ornaments, embroideries, and sword-hilt flashing in the light, circled steadily round the fire like a planet round the sun. A cool whiff of damp air came from the darkness of the riverside; it made Abdulla and Babalatchi shiver, and woke them up from their abstraction.

“Open the gate and go first,” said Abdulla; “there is no danger?”

“On my life, no!” answered Babalatchi, lifting the rattan ring. “He is all peace and content, like a thirsty man who has drunk water after many days.”

He swung the gate wide, made a few paces into the gloom of the enclosure, and retraced his steps suddenly.

“He may be made useful in many ways,” he whispered to Abdulla, who had stopped short, seeing him come back.

“O Sin! O Temptation!” sighed out Abdulla, faintly. “Our refuge is with the Most High. Can I feed this infidel for ever and for ever?” he added, impatiently.

“No,” breathed out Babalatchi. “No! Not for ever. Only while he serves your designs, O Dispenser of Allah’s gifts! When the time comes — and your order . . . ”

He sidled close to Abdulla, and brushed with a delicate touch the hand that hung down listlessly, holding the prayer-beads.

“I am your slave and your offering,” he murmured, in a distinct and polite tone, into Abdulla’s ear. “When your wisdom speaks, there may be found a little poison that will not lie. Who knows?”

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