An Outcast of the Islands, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter Three

“Well! Let’s know all about it. I can’t imagine . . . ” began Lingard, after waiting for some time in silence.

“Can’t imagine! I should think you couldn’t,” interrupted Almayer. “Why! . . . You just listen. When Ali came back I felt a little easier in my mind. There was then some semblance of order in Sambir. I had the Jack up since the morning and began to feel safer. Some of my men turned up in the afternoon. I did not ask any questions; set them to work as if nothing had happened. Towards the evening — it might have been five or half-past — I was on our jetty with the child when I heard shouts at the far-off end of the settlement. At first I didn’t take much notice. By and by Ali came to me and says, ‘Master, give me the child, there is much trouble in the settlement.’ So I gave him Nina and went in, took my revolver, and passed through the house into the back courtyard. As I came down the steps I saw all the serving girls clear out from the cooking shed, and I heard a big crowd howling on the other side of the dry ditch which is the limit of our ground. Could not see them on account of the fringe of bushes along the ditch, but I knew that crowd was angry and after somebody. As I stood wondering, that Jim-Eng — you know the Chinaman who settled here a couple of years ago?”

“He was my passenger; I brought him here,” exclaimed Lingard. “A first-class Chinaman that.”

“Did you? I had forgotten. Well, that Jim-Eng, he burst through the bush and fell into my arms, so to speak. He told me, panting, that they were after him because he wouldn’t take off his hat to the flag. He was not so much scared, but he was very angry and indignant. Of course he had to run for it; there were some fifty men after him — Lakamba’s friends — but he was full of fight. Said he was an Englishman, and would not take off his hat to any flag but English. I tried to soothe him while the crowd was shouting on the other side of the ditch. I told him he must take one of my canoes and cross the river. Stop on the other side for a couple of days. He wouldn’t. Not he. He was English, and he would fight the whole lot. Says he: ‘They are only black fellows. We white men,’ meaning me and himself, ‘can fight everybody in Sambir.’ He was mad with passion. The crowd quieted a little, and I thought I could shelter Jim-Eng without much risk, when all of a sudden I heard Willems’ voice. He shouted to me in English: ‘Let four men enter your compound to get that Chinaman!’ I said nothing. Told Jim-Eng to keep quiet too. Then after a while Willems shouts again: ‘Don’t resist, Almayer. I give you good advice. I am keeping this crowd back. Don’t resist them!’ That beggar’s voice enraged me; I could not help it. I cried to him: ‘You are a liar!’ and just then Jim-Eng, who had flung off his jacket and had tucked up his trousers ready for a fight; just then that fellow he snatches the revolver out of my hand and lets fly at them through the bush. There was a sharp cry — he must have hit somebody — and a great yell, and before I could wink twice they were over the ditch and through the bush and on top of us! Simply rolled over us! There wasn’t the slightest chance to resist. I was trampled under foot, Jim-Eng got a dozen gashes about his body, and we were carried halfway up the yard in the first rush. My eyes and mouth were full of dust; I was on my back with three or four fellows sitting on me. I could hear Jim-Eng trying to shout not very far from me. Now and then they would throttle him and he would gurgle. I could hardly breathe myself with two heavy fellows on my chest. Willems came up running and ordered them to raise me up, but to keep good hold. They led me into the verandah. I looked round, but did not see either Ali or the child. Felt easier. Struggled a little. . . . Oh, my God!”

Almayer’s face was distorted with a passing spasm of rage. Lingard moved in his chair slightly. Almayer went on after a short pause:

“They held me, shouting threats in my face. Willems took down my hammock and threw it to them. He pulled out the drawer of this table, and found there a palm and needle and some sail-twine. We were making awnings for your brig, as you had asked me last voyage before you left. He knew, of course, where to look for what he wanted. By his orders they laid me out on the floor, wrapped me in my hammock, and he started to stitch me in, as if I had been a corpse, beginning at the feet. While he worked he laughed wickedly. I called him all the names I could think of. He told them to put their dirty paws over my mouth and nose. I was nearly choked. Whenever I moved they punched me in the ribs.

He went on taking fresh needlefuls as he wanted them, and working steadily. Sewed me up to my throat. Then he rose, saying, ‘That will do; let go.’ That woman had been standing by; they must have been reconciled. She clapped her hands. I lay on the floor like a bale of goods while he stared at me, and the woman shrieked with delight. Like a bale of goods! There was a grin on every face, and the verandah was full of them. I wished myself dead —‘pon my word, Captain Lingard, I did! I do now whenever I think of it!”

Lingard’s face expressed sympathetic indignation. Almayer dropped his head upon his arms on the table, and spoke in that position in an indistinct and muffled voice, without looking up.

“Finally, by his directions, they flung me into the big rocking-chair. I was sewed in so tight that I was stiff like a piece of wood. He was giving orders in a very loud voice, and that man Babalatchi saw that they were executed. They obeyed him implicitly. Meantime I lay there in the chair like a log, and that woman capered before me and made faces; snapped her fingers before my nose. Women are bad! — ain’t they? I never saw her before, as far as I know. Never done anything to her. Yet she was perfectly fiendish. Can you understand it? Now and then she would leave me alone to hang round his neck for awhile, and then she would return before my chair and begin her exercises again. He looked on, indulgent. The perspiration ran down my face, got into my eyes — my arms were sewn in. I was blinded half the time; at times I could see better. She drags him before my chair. ‘I am like white women,’ she says, her arms round his neck. You should have seen the faces of the fellows in the verandah! They were scandalized and ashamed of themselves to see her behaviour. Suddenly she asks him, alluding to me: ‘When are you going to kill him?’ Imagine how I felt. I must have swooned; I don’t remember exactly. I fancy there was a row; he was angry. When I got my wits again he was sitting close to me, and she was gone. I understood he sent her to my wife, who was hiding in the back room and never came out during this affair. Willems says to me — I fancy I can hear his voice, hoarse and dull — he says to me: ‘Not a hair of your head shall be touched.’ I made no sound. Then he goes on: ‘Please remark that the flag you have hoisted — which, by the by, is not yours — has been respected. Tell Captain Lingard so when you do see him. But,’ he says, ‘you first fired at the crowd.’ ‘You are a liar, you blackguard!’ I shouted. He winced, I am sure. It hurt him to see I was not frightened. ‘Anyways,’ he says, ‘a shot had been fired out of your compound and a man was hit. Still, all your property shall be respected on account of the Union Jack. Moreover, I have no quarrel with Captain Lingard, who is the senior partner in this business. As to you,’ he continued, ‘you will not forget this day — not if you live to be a hundred years old — or I don’t know your nature. You will keep the bitter taste of this humiliation to the last day of your life, and so your kindness to me shall be repaid. I shall remove all the powder you have. This coast is under the protection of the Netherlands, and you have no right to have any powder. There are the Governor’s Orders in Council to that effect, and you know it. Tell me where the key of the small storehouse is?’ I said not a word, and he waited a little, then rose, saying: ‘It’s your own fault if there is any damage done.’ He ordered Babalatchi to have the lock of the office-room forced, and went in — rummaged amongst my drawers — could not find the key. Then that woman Aissa asked my wife, and she gave them the key. After awhile they tumbled every barrel into the river. Eighty-three hundredweight! He superintended himself, and saw every barrel roll into the water. There were mutterings. Babalatchi was angry and tried to expostulate, but he gave him a good shaking. I must say he was perfectly fearless with those fellows. Then he came back to the verandah, sat down by me again, and says: ‘We found your man Ali with your little daughter hiding in the bushes up the river. We brought them in. They are perfectly safe, of course. Let me congratulate you, Almayer, upon the cleverness of your child. She recognized me at once, and cried “pig” as naturally as you would yourself. Circumstances alter feelings. You should have seen how frightened your man Ali was. Clapped his hands over her mouth. I think you spoil her, Almayer. But I am not angry. Really, you look so ridiculous in this chair that I can’t feel angry.’ I made a frantic effort to burst out of my hammock to get at that scoundrel’s throat, but I only fell off and upset the chair over myself. He laughed and said only: ‘I leave you half of your revolver cartridges and take half myself; they will fit mine. We are both white men, and should back each other up. I may want them.’ I shouted at him from under the chair: ‘You are a thief,’ but he never looked, and went away, one hand round that woman’s waist, the other on Babalatchi’s shoulder, to whom he was talking — laying down the law about something or other. In less than five minutes there was nobody inside our fences. After awhile Ali came to look for me and cut me free. I haven’t seen Willems since — nor anybody else for that matter. I have been left alone. I offered sixty dollars to the man who had been wounded, which were accepted. They released Jim-Eng the next day, when the flag had been hauled down. He sent six cases of opium to me for safe keeping but has not left his house. I think he is safe enough now. Everything is very quiet.”

Towards the end of his narrative Almayer lifted his head off the table, and now sat back in his chair and stared at the bamboo rafters of the roof above him. Lingard lolled in his seat with his legs stretched out. In the peaceful gloom of the verandah, with its lowered screens, they heard faint noises from the world outside in the blazing sunshine: a hail on the river, the answer from the shore, the creak of a pulley; sounds short, interrupted, as if lost suddenly in the brilliance of noonday. Lingard got up slowly, walked to the front rail, and holding one of the screens aside, looked out in silence. Over the water and the empty courtyard came a distinct voice from a small schooner anchored abreast of the Lingard jetty.

“Serang! Take a pull at the main peak halyards. This gaff is down on the boom.’’

There was a shrill pipe dying in long-drawn cadence, the song of the men swinging on the rope. The voice said sharply: “That will do!” Another voice — the serang’s probably — shouted: “Ikat!” and as Lingard dropped the blind and turned away all was silent again, as if there had been nothing on the other side of the swaying screen; nothing but the light, brilliant, crude, heavy, lying on a dead land like a pall of fire. Lingard sat down again, facing Almayer, his elbow on the table, in a thoughtful attitude.

“Nice little schooner,” muttered Almayer, wearily. “Did you buy her?”

“No,” answered Lingard. “After I lost the Flash we got to Palembang in our boats. I chartered her there, for six months. From young Ford, you know. Belongs to him. He wanted a spell ashore, so I took charge myself. Of course all Ford’s people on board. Strangers to me. I had to go to Singapore about the insurance; then I went to Macassar, of course. Had long passages. No wind. It was like a curse on me. I had lots of trouble with old Hudig. That delayed me much.”

“Ah! Hudig! Why with Hudig?” asked Almayer, in a perfunctory manner.

“Oh! about a . . . a woman,” mumbled Lingard.

Almayer looked at him with languid surprise. The old seaman had twisted his white beard into a point, and now was busy giving his moustaches a fierce curl. His little red eyes — those eyes that had smarted under the salt sprays of every sea, that had looked unwinking to windward in the gales of all latitudes — now glared at Almayer from behind the lowered eyebrows like a pair of frightened wild beasts crouching in a bush.

“Extraordinary! So like you! What can you have to do with Hudig’s women? The old sinner!” said Almayer, negligently.

“What are you talking about! Wife of a friend of . . . I mean of a man I know . . . ”

“Still, I don’t see . . . ” interjected Almayer carelessly.

“Of a man you know too. Well. Very well.”

“I knew so many men before you made me bury myself in this hole!” growled Almayer, unamiably. “If she had anything to do with Hudig — that wife — then she can’t be up to much. I would be sorry for the man,” added Almayer, brightening up with the recollection of the scandalous tittle-tattle of the past, when he was a young man in the second capital of the Islands — and so well informed, so well informed. He laughed. Lingard’s frown deepened.

“Don’t talk foolish! It’s Willems’ wife.”

Almayer grasped the sides of his seat, his eyes and mouth opened wide.

“What? Why!” he exclaimed, bewildered.

“Willems’— wife,” repeated Lingard distinctly. “You ain’t deaf, are you? The wife of Willems. Just so. As to why! There was a promise. And I did not know what had happened here.”

“What is it. You’ve been giving her money, I bet,” cried Almayer.

“Well, no!” said Lingard, deliberately. “Although I suppose I shall have to . . . ”

Almayer groaned.

“The fact is,” went on Lingard, speaking slowly and steadily, “the fact is that I have . . . I have brought her here. Here. To Sambir.”

“In heaven’s name! why?” shouted Almayer, jumping up. The chair tilted and fell slowly over. He raised his clasped hands above his head and brought them down jerkily, separating his fingers with an effort, as if tearing them apart. Lingard nodded, quickly, several times.

“I have. Awkward. Hey?” he said, with a puzzled look upwards.

“Upon my word,” said Almayer, tearfully. “I can’t understand you at all. What will you do next! cWillems’ wife!”

“Wife and child. Small boy, you know. They are on board the schooner.”

Almayer looked at Lingard with sudden suspicion, then turning away busied himself in picking up the chair, sat down in it turning his back upon the old seaman, and tried to whistle, but gave it up directly. Lingard went on —

“Fact is, the fellow got into trouble with Hudig. Worked upon my feelings. I promised to arrange matters. I did. With much trouble. Hudig was angry with her for wishing to join her husband. Unprincipled old fellow. You know she is his daughter. Well, I said I would see her through it all right; help Willems to a fresh start and so on. I spoke to Craig in Palembang. He is getting on in years, and wanted a manager or partner. I promised to guarantee Willems’ good behaviour. We settled all that. Craig is an old crony of mine. Been shipmates in the forties. He’s waiting for him now. A pretty mess! What do you think?”

Almayer shrugged his shoulders.

“That woman broke with Hudig on my assurance that all would be well,” went on Lingard, with growing dismay. “She did. Proper thing, of course. Wife, husband . . . together . . . as it should be . . . Smart fellow . . . Impossible scoundrel . . . Jolly old go! Oh! damn!”

Almayer laughed spitefully.

“How delighted he will be,” he said, softly. “You will make two people happy. Two at least!” He laughed again, while Lingard looked at his shaking shoulders in consternation.

“I am jammed on a lee shore this time, if ever I was,” muttered Lingard.

“Send her back quick,” suggested Almayer, stifling another laugh.

“What are you sniggering at?” growled Lingard, angrily. “I’ll work it out all clear yet. Meantime you must receive her into this house.”

“My house!” cried Almayer, turning round.

“It’s mine too — a little isn’t it?” said Lingard. “Don’t argue,” he shouted, as Almayer opened his mouth. “Obey orders and hold your tongue!”

“Oh! If you take it in that tone!” mumbled Almayer, sulkily, with a gesture of assent.

“You are so aggravating too, my boy,” said the old seaman, with unexpected placidity. “You must give me time to turn round. I can’t keep her on board all the time. I must tell her something. Say, for instance, that he is gone up the river. Expected back every day. That’s it. D’ye hear? You must put her on that tack and dodge her along easy, while I take the kinks out of the situation. By God!” he exclaimed, mournfully, after a short pause, “life is foul! Foul like a lee forebrace on a dirty night. And yet. And yet. One must see it clear for running before going below — for good. Now you attend to what I said,” he added, sharply, “if you don’t want to quarrel with me, my boy.”

“I don’t want to quarrel with you,” murmured Almayer with unwilling deference. “Only I wish I could understand you. I know you are my best friend, Captain Lingard; only, upon my word, I can’t make you out sometimes! I wish I could. . .”

Lingard burst into a loud laugh which ended shortly in a deep sigh. He closed his eyes, tilting his head over the back of his armchair; and on his face, baked by the unclouded suns of many hard years, there appeared for a moment a weariness and a look of age which startled Almayer, like an unexpected disclosure of evil.

“I am done up,” said Lingard, gently. “Perfectly done up. All night on deck getting that schooner up the river. Then talking with you. Seems to me I could go to sleep on a clothes-line. I should like to eat something though. Just see about that, Kaspar.”

Almayer clapped his hands, and receiving no response was going to call, when in the central passage of the house, behind the red curtain of the doorway opening upon the verandah, they heard a child’s imperious voice speaking shrilly.

“Take me up at once. I want to be carried into the verandah. I shall be very angry. Take me up.”

A man’s voice answered, subdued, in humble remonstrance. The faces of Almayer and Lingard brightened at once. The old seaman called out —

“Bring the child. Lekas!”

“You will see how she has grown,” exclaimed Almayer, in a jubilant tone.

Through the curtained doorway Ali appeared with little Nina Almayer in his arms. The child had one arm round his neck, and with the other she hugged a ripe pumelo nearly as big as her own head. Her little pink, sleeveless robe had half slipped off her shoulders, but the long black hair, that framed her olive face, in which the big black eyes looked out in childish solemnity, fell in luxuriant profusion over her shoulders, all round her and over Ali’s arms, like a close-meshed and delicate net of silken threads. Lingard got up to meet Ali, and as soon as she caught sight of the old seaman she dropped the fruit and put out both her hands with a cry of delight. He took her from the Malay, and she laid hold of his moustaches with an affectionate goodwill that brought unaccustomed tears into his little red eyes.

“Not so hard, little one, not so hard,” he murmured, pressing with an enormous hand, that covered it entirely, the child’s head to his face.

“Pick up my pumelo, O Rajah of the sea!” she said, speaking in a high-pitched, clear voice with great volubility. “There, under the table. I want it quick! Quick! You have been away fighting with many men. Ali says so. You are a mighty fighter. Ali says so. On the great sea far away, away, away.”

She waved her hand, staring with dreamy vacancy, while Lingard looked at her, and squatting down groped under the table after the pumelo.

“Where does she get those notions?” said Lingard, getting up cautiously, to Almayer, who had been giving orders to Ali.

“She is always with the men. Many a time I’ve found her with her fingers in their rice dish, of an evening. She does not care for her mother though — I am glad to say. How pretty she is — and so sharp. My very image!”

Lingard had put the child on the table, and both men stood looking at her with radiant faces.

“A perfect little woman,” whispered Lingard. “Yes, my dear boy, we shall make her somebody. You’ll see!”

“Very little chance of that now,” remarked Almayer, sadly.

“You do not know!” exclaimed Lingard, taking up the child again, and beginning to walk up and down the verandah. “I have my plans. I have — listen.”

And he began to explain to the interested Almayer his plans for the future. He would interview Abdulla and Lakamba. There must be some understanding with those fellows now they had the upper hand. Here he interrupted himself to swear freely, while the child, who had been diligently fumbling about his neck, had found his whistle and blew a loud blast now and then close to his ear — which made him wince and laugh as he put her hands down, scolding her lovingly. Yes — that would be easily settled. He was a man to be reckoned with yet. Nobody knew that better than Almayer. Very well. Then he must patiently try and keep some little trade together. It would be all right. But the great thing — and here Lingard spoke lower, bringing himself to a sudden standstill before the entranced Almayer — the great thing would be the gold hunt up the river. He — Lingard — would devote himself to it. He had been in the interior before. There were immense deposits of alluvial gold there. Fabulous. He felt sure. Had seen places. Dangerous work? Of course! But what a reward! He would explore — and find. Not a shadow of doubt. Hang the danger! They would first get as much as they could for themselves. Keep the thing quiet. Then after a time form a Company. In Batavia or in England. Yes, in England. Much better. Splendid! Why, of course. And that baby would be the richest woman in the world. He — Lingard — would not, perhaps, see it — although he felt good for many years yet — but Almayer would. Here was something to live for yet! Hey?

But the richest woman in the world had been for the last five minutes shouting shrilly —“Rajah Laut! Rajah Laut! Hai! Give ear!” while the old seaman had been speaking louder, unconsciously, to make his deep bass heard above the impatient clamour. He stopped now and said tenderly —

“What is it, little woman?”

“I am not a little woman. I am a white child. Anak Putih. A white child; and the white men are my brothers. Father says so. And Ali says so too. Ali knows as much as father. Everything.”

Almayer almost danced with paternal delight.

“I taught her. I taught her,” he repeated, laughing with tears in his eyes. “Isn’t she sharp?”

“I am the slave of the white child,” said Lingard, with playful solemnity. “What is the order?”

“I want a house,” she warbled, with great eagerness. “I want a house, and another house on the roof, and another on the roof — high. High! Like the places where they dwell — my brothers — in the land where the sun sleeps.”

“To the westward,” explained Almayer, under his breath. “She remembers everything. She wants you to build a house of cards. You did, last time you were here.”

Lingard sat down with the child on his knees, and Almayer pulled out violently one drawer after another, looking for the cards, as if the fate of the world depended upon his haste. He produced a dirty double pack which was only used during Lingard’s visit to Sambir, when he would sometimes play — of an evening — with Almayer, a game which he called Chinese bezique. It bored Almayer, but the old seaman delighted in it, considering it a remarkable product of Chinese genius — a race for which he had an unaccountable liking and admiration.

“Now we will get on, my little pearl,” he said, putting together with extreme precaution two cards that looked absurdly flimsy between his big fingers. Little Nina watched him with intense seriousness as he went on erecting the ground floor, while he continued to speak to Almayer with his head over his shoulder so as not to endanger the structure with his breath.

“I know what I am talking about. . . . Been in California in forty-nine. . . . Not that I made much . . . then in Victoria in the early days. . . . I know all about it. Trust me. Moreover a blind man could . . . Be quiet, little sister, or you will knock this affair down. . . . My hand pretty steady yet! Hey, Kaspar? . . . Now, delight of my heart, we shall put a third house on the top of these two . . . keep very quiet. . . . As I was saying, you got only to stoop and gather handfuls of gold . . . dust . . . there. Now here we are. Three houses on top of one another. Grand!”

He leaned back in his chair, one hand on the child’s head, which he smoothed mechanically, and gesticulated with the other, speaking to Almayer.

“Once on the spot, there would be only the trouble to pick up the stuff. Then we shall all go to Europe. The child must be educated. We shall be rich. Rich is no name for it. Down in Devonshire where I belong, there was a fellow who built a house near Teignmouth which had as many windows as a three-decker has ports. Made all his money somewhere out here in the good old days. People around said he had been a pirate. We boys — I was a boy in a Brixham trawler then — certainly believed that. He went about in a bath-chair in his grounds. Had a glass eye . . . ”

“Higher, Higher!” called out Nina, pulling the old seaman’s beard.

“You do worry me — don’t you?” said Lingard, gently, giving her a tender kiss. “What? One more house on top of all these? Well! I will try.”

The child watched him breathlessly. When the difficult feat was accomplished she clapped her hands, looked on steadily, and after a while gave a great sigh of content.

“Oh! Look out!” shouted Almayer.

The structure collapsed suddenly before the child’s light breath. Lingard looked discomposed for a moment. Almayer laughed, but the little girl began to cry.

“Take her,” said the old seaman, abruptly. Then, after Almayer went away with the crying child, he remained sitting by the table, looking gloomily at the heap of cards.

“Damn this Willems,” he muttered to himself. “But I will do it yet!”

He got up, and with an angry push of his hand swept the cards off the table. Then he fell back in his chair.

“Tired as a dog,” he sighed out, closing his eyes.

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