An Outcast of the Islands, by Joseph Conrad

Part III

Chapter One

“Yes! Cat, dog, anything that can scratch or bite; as long as it is harmful enough and mangy enough. A sick tiger would make you happy — of all things. A half-dead tiger that you could weep over and palm upon some poor devil in your power, to tend and nurse for you. Never mind the consequences — to the poor devil. Let him be mangled or eaten up, of course! You haven’t any pity to spare for the victims of your infernal charity. Not you! Your tender heart bleeds only for what is poisonous and deadly. I curse the day when you set your benevolent eyes on him. I curse it . . . ”

“Now then! Now then!” growled Lingard in his moustache. Almayer, who had talked himself up to the choking point, drew a long breath and went on —

“Yes! It has been always so. Always. As far back as I can remember. Don’t you recollect? What about that half-starved dog you brought on board in Bankok in your arms. In your arms by . . .! It went mad next day and bit the serang. You don’t mean to say you have forgotten? The best serang you ever had! You said so yourself while you were helping us to lash him down to the chain-cable, just before he died in his fits. Now, didn’t you? Two wives and ever so many children the man left. That was your doing. . . . And when you went out of your way and risked your ship to rescue some Chinamen from a water-logged junk in Formosa Straits, that was also a clever piece of business. Wasn’t it? Those damned Chinamen rose on you before forty-eight hours. They were cut-throats, those poor fishermen. You knew they were cut-throats before you made up your mind to run down on a lee shore in a gale of wind to save them. A mad trick! If they hadn’t been scoundrels — hopeless scoundrels — you would not have put your ship in jeopardy for them, I know. You would not have risked the lives of your crew — that crew you loved so — and your own life. Wasn’t that foolish! And, besides, you were not honest. Suppose you had been drowned? I would have been in a pretty mess then, left alone here with that adopted daughter of yours. Your duty was to myself first. I married that girl because you promised to make my fortune. You know you did! And then three months afterwards you go and do that mad trick — for a lot of Chinamen too. Chinamen! You have no morality. I might have been ruined for the sake of those murderous scoundrels that, after all, had to be driven overboard after killing ever so many of your crew — of your beloved crew! Do you call that honest?”

“Well, well!” muttered Lingard, chewing nervously the stump of his cheroot that had gone out and looking at Almayer — who stamped wildly about the verandah — much as a shepherd might look at a pet sheep in his obedient flock turning unexpectedly upon him in enraged revolt. He seemed disconcerted, contemptuously angry yet somewhat amused; and also a little hurt as if at some bitter jest at his own expense. Almayer stopped suddenly, and crossing his arms on his breast, bent his body forward and went on speaking.

“I might have been left then in an awkward hole — all on account of your absurd disregard for your safety — yet I bore no grudge. I knew your weaknesses. But now — when I think of it! Now we are ruined. Ruined! Ruined! My poor little Nina. Ruined!”

He slapped his thighs smartly, walked with small steps this way and that, seized a chair, planted it with a bang before Lingard, and sat down staring at the old seaman with haggard eyes. Lingard, returning his stare steadily, dived slowly into various pockets, fished out at last a box of matches and proceeded to light his cheroot carefully, rolling it round and round between his lips, without taking his gaze for a moment off the distressed Almayer. Then from behind a cloud of tobacco smoke he said calmly —

“If you had been in trouble as often as I have, my boy, you wouldn’t carry on so. I have been ruined more than once. Well, here I am.”

“Yes, here you are,” interrupted Almayer. “Much good it is to me. Had you been here a month ago it would have been of some use. But now! . . You might as well be a thousand miles off.”

“You scold like a drunken fish-wife,” said Lingard, serenely. He got up and moved slowly to the front rail of the verandah. The floor shook and the whole house vibrated under his heavy step. For a moment he stood with his back to Almayer, looking out on the river and forest of the east bank, then turned round and gazed mildly down upon him.

“It’s very lonely this morning here. Hey?” he said.

Almayer lifted up his head.

“Ah! you notice it — don’t you? I should think it is lonely! Yes, Captain Lingard, your day is over in Sambir. Only a month ago this verandah would have been full of people coming to greet you. Fellows would be coming up those steps grinning and salaaming — to you and to me. But our day is over. And not by my fault either. You can’t say that. It’s all the doing of that pet rascal of yours. Ah! He is a beauty! You should have seen him leading that hellish crowd. You would have been proud of your old favourite.”

“Smart fellow that,” muttered Lingard, thoughtfully. Almayer jumped up with a shriek.

“And that’s all you have to say! Smart fellow! O Lord!”

“Don’t make a show of yourself. Sit down. Let’s talk quietly. I want to know all about it. So he led?”

“He was the soul of the whole thing. He piloted Abdulla’s ship in. He ordered everything and everybody,” said Almayer, who sat down again, with a resigned air. “When did it happen — exactly?”

“On the sixteenth I heard the first rumours of Abdulla’s ship being in the river; a thing I refused to believe at first. Next day I could not doubt any more. There was a great council held openly in Lakamba’s place where almost everybody in Sambir attended. On the eighteenth the Lord of the Isles was anchored in Sambir reach, abreast of my house. Let’s see. Six weeks to-day, exactly.”

“And all that happened like this? All of a sudden. You never heard anything — no warning. Nothing. Never had an idea that something was up? Come, Almayer!”

“Heard! Yes, I used to hear something every day. Mostly lies. Is there anything else in Sambir?”

“You might not have believed them,” observed Lingard. “In fact you ought not to have believed everything that was told to you, as if you had been a green hand on his first voyage.”

Almayer moved in his chair uneasily.

“That scoundrel came here one day,” he said. “He had been away from the house for a couple of months living with that woman. I only heard about him now and then from Patalolo’s people when they came over. Well one day, about noon, he appeared in this courtyard, as if he had been jerked up from hell-where he belongs.”

Lingard took his cheroot out, and, with his mouth full of white smoke that oozed out through his parted lips, listened, attentive. After a short pause Almayer went on, looking at the floor moodily —

“I must say he looked awful. Had a bad bout of the ague probably. The left shore is very unhealthy. Strange that only the breadth of the river . . . ”

He dropped off into deep thoughtfulness as if he had forgotten his grievances in a bitter meditation upon the unsanitary condition of the virgin forests on the left bank. Lingard took this opportunity to expel the smoke in a mighty expiration and threw the stump of his cheroot over his shoulder.

“Go on,” he said, after a while. “He came to see you . . . ”

“But it wasn’t unhealthy enough to finish him, worse luck!” went on Almayer, rousing himself, “and, as I said, he turned up here with his brazen impudence. He bullied me, he threatened vaguely. He wanted to scare me, to blackmail me. Me! And, by heaven — he said you would approve. You! Can you conceive such impudence? I couldn’t exactly make out what he was driving at. Had I known, I would have approved him. Yes! With a bang on the head. But how could I guess that he knew enough to pilot a ship through the entrance you always said was so difficult. And, after all, that was the only danger. I could deal with anybody here — but when Abdulla came. . . . That barque of his is armed. He carries twelve brass six-pounders, and about thirty men. Desperate beggars. Sumatra men, from Deli and Acheen. Fight all day and ask for more in the evening. That kind.”

“I know, I know,” said Lingard, impatiently.

“Of course, then, they were cheeky as much as you please after he anchored abreast of our jetty. Willems brought her up himself in the best berth. I could see him from this verandah standing forward, together with the half-caste master. And that woman was there too. Close to him. I heard they took her on board off Lakamba’s place. Willems said he would not go higher without her. Stormed and raged. Frightened them, I believe. Abdulla had to interfere. She came off alone in a canoe, and no sooner on deck than she fell at his feet before all hands, embraced his knees, wept, raved, begged his pardon. Why? I wonder. Everybody in Sambir is talking of it. They never heard tell or saw anything like it. I have all this from Ali, who goes about in the settlement and brings me the news. I had better know what is going on — hadn’t I? From what I can make out, they — he and that woman — are looked upon as something mysterious — beyond comprehension. Some think them mad. They live alone with an old woman in a house outside Lakamba’s campong and are greatly respected — or feared, I should say rather. At least, he is. He is very violent. She knows nobody, sees nobody, will speak to nobody but him. Never leaves him for a moment. It’s the talk of the place. There are other rumours. From what I hear I suspect that Lakamba and Abdulla are tired of him. There’s also talk of him going away in the Lord of the Isles — when she leaves here for the southward — as a kind of Abdulla’s agent. At any rate, he must take the ship out. The half-caste is not equal to it as yet.”

Lingard, who had listened absorbed till then, began now to walk with measured steps. Almayer ceased talking and followed him with his eyes as he paced up and down with a quarter-deck swing, tormenting and twisting his long white beard, his face perplexed and thoughtful.

“So he came to you first of all, did he?” asked Lingard, without stopping.

“Yes. I told you so. He did come. Came to extort money, goods — I don’t know what else. Wanted to set up as a trader — the swine! I kicked his hat into the courtyard, and he went after it, and that was the last of him till he showed up with Abdulla. How could I know that he could do harm in that way? Or in any way at that! Any local rising I could put down easy with my own men and with Patalolo’s help.”

“Oh! yes. Patalolo. No good. Eh? Did you try him at all?”

“Didn’t I!” exclaimed Almayer. “I went to see him myself on the twelfth. That was four days before Abdulla entered the river. In fact, same day Willems tried to get at me. I did feel a little uneasy then. Patalolo assured me that there was no human being that did not love me in Sambir. Looked as wise as an owl. Told me not to listen to the lies of wicked people from down the river. He was alluding to that man Bulangi, who lives up the sea reach, and who had sent me word that a strange ship was anchored outside — which, of course, I repeated to Patalolo. He would not believe. Kept on mumbling ‘No! No! No!’ like an old parrot, his head all of a tremble, all beslobbered with betel-nut juice. I thought there was something queer about him. Seemed so restless, and as if in a hurry to get rid of me. Well. Next day that one-eyed malefactor who lives with Lakamba — what’s his name — Babalatchi, put in an appearance here! Came about mid-day, casually like, and stood there on this verandah chatting about one thing and another. Asking when I expected you, and so on. Then, incidentally, he mentioned that they — his master and himself — were very much bothered by a ferocious white man — my friend — who was hanging about that woman — Omar’s daughter. Asked my advice. Very deferential and proper. I told him the white man was not my friend, and that they had better kick him out. Whereupon he went away salaaming, and protesting his friendship and his master’s goodwill. Of course I know now the infernal nigger came to spy and to talk over some of my men. Anyway, eight were missing at the evening muster. Then I took alarm. Did not dare to leave my house unguarded. You know what my wife is, don’t you? And I did not care to take the child with me — it being late — so I sent a message to Patalolo to say that we ought to consult; that there were rumours and uneasiness in the settlement. Do you know what answer I got?”

Lingard stopped short in his walk before Almayer, who went on, after an impressive pause, with growing animation.

“All brought it: ‘The Rajah sends a friend’s greeting, and does not understand the message.’ That was all. Not a word more could Ali get out of him. I could see that Ali was pretty well scared. He hung about, arranging my hammock — one thing and another. Then just before going away he mentioned that the water-gate of the Rajah’s place was heavily barred, but that he could see only very few men about the courtyard. Finally he said, ‘There is darkness in our Rajah’s house, but no sleep. Only darkness and fear and the wailing of women.’ Cheerful, wasn’t it? It made me feel cold down my back somehow. After Ali slipped away I stood here — by this table, and listened to the shouting and drumming in the settlement. Racket enough for twenty weddings. It was a little past midnight then.”

Again Almayer stopped in his narrative with an abrupt shutting of lips, as if he had said all that there was to tell, and Lingard stood staring at him, pensive and silent. A big bluebottle fly flew in recklessly into the cool verandah, and darted with loud buzzing between the two men. Lingard struck at it with his hat. The fly swerved, and Almayer dodged his head out of the way. Then Lingard aimed another ineffectual blow; Almayer jumped up and waved his arms about. The fly buzzed desperately, and the vibration of minute wings sounded in the peace of the early morning like a far-off string orchestra accompanying the hollow, determined stamping of the two men, who, with heads thrown back and arms gyrating on high, or again bending low with infuriated lunges, were intent upon killing the intruder. But suddenly the buzz died out in a thin thrill away in the open space of the courtyard, leaving Lingard and Almayer standing face to face in the fresh silence of the young day, looking very puzzled and idle, their arms hanging uselessly by their sides — like men disheartened by some portentous failure.

“Look at that!” muttered Lingard. “Got away after all.”

“Nuisance,” said Almayer in the same tone. “Riverside is overrun with them. This house is badly placed . . . mosquitos . . . and these big flies. . . . last week stung Nina . . . been ill four days . . . poor child. . . . I wonder what such damned things are made for!”

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