An Outcast of the Islands, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter Four

Consciously or unconsciously, men are proud of their firmness, steadfastness of purpose, directness of aim. They go straight towards their desire, to the accomplishment of virtue — sometimes of crime — in an uplifting persuasion of their firmness. They walk the road of life, the road fenced in by their tastes, prejudices, disdains or enthusiasms, generally honest, invariably stupid, and are proud of never losing their way. If they do stop, it is to look for a moment over the hedges that make them safe, to look at the misty valleys, at the distant peaks, at cliffs and morasses, at the dark forests and the hazy plains where other human beings grope their days painfully away, stumbling over the bones of the wise, over the unburied remains of their predecessors who died alone, in gloom or in sunshine, halfway from anywhere. The man of purpose does not understand, and goes on, full of contempt. He never loses his way. He knows where he is going and what he wants. Travelling on, he achieves great length without any breadth, and battered, besmirched, and weary, he touches the goal at last; he grasps the reward of his perseverance, of his virtue, of his healthy optimism: an untruthful tombstone over a dark and soon forgotten grave.

Lingard had never hesitated in his life. Why should he? He had been a most successful trader, and a man lucky in his fights, skilful in navigation, undeniably first in seamanship in those seas. He knew it. Had he not heard the voice of common consent?

The voice of the world that respected him so much; the whole world to him — for to us the limits of the universe are strictly defined by those we know. There is nothing for us outside the babble of praise and blame on familiar lips, and beyond our last acquaintance there lies only a vast chaos; a chaos of laughter and tears which concerns us not; laughter and tears unpleasant, wicked, morbid, contemptible — because heard imperfectly by ears rebellious to strange sounds. To Lingard — simple himself — all things were simple. He seldom read. Books were not much in his way, and he had to work hard navigating, trading, and also, in obedience to his benevolent instincts, shaping stray lives he found here and there under his busy hand. He remembered the Sunday-school teachings of his native village and the discourses of the black-coated gentleman connected with the Mission to Fishermen and Seamen, whose yawl-rigged boat darting through rain-squalls amongst the coasters wind-bound in Falmouth Bay, was part of those precious pictures of his youthful days that lingered in his memory. “As clever a sky-pilot as you could wish to see,” he would say with conviction, “and the best man to handle a boat in any weather I ever did meet!” Such were the agencies that had roughly shaped his young soul before he went away to see the world in a southern-going ship — before he went, ignorant and happy, heavy of hand, pure in heart, profane in speech, to give himself up to the great sea that took his life and gave him his fortune. When thinking of his rise in the world — commander of ships, then shipowner, then a man of much capital, respected wherever he went, Lingard in a word, the Rajah Laut — he was amazed and awed by his fate, that seemed to his ill-informed mind the most wondrous known in the annals of men. His experience appeared to him immense and conclusive, teaching him the lesson of the simplicity of life. In life — as in seamanship — there were only two ways of doing a thing: the right way and the wrong way. Common sense and experience taught a man the way that was right. The other was for lubbers and fools, and led, in seamanship, to loss of spars and sails or shipwreck; in life, to loss of money and consideration, or to an unlucky knock on the head. He did not consider it his duty to be angry with rascals. He was only angry with things he could not understand, but for the weaknesses of humanity he could find a contemptuous tolerance. It being manifest that he was wise and lucky — otherwise how could he have been as successful in life as he had been? — he had an inclination to set right the lives of other people, just as he could hardly refrain — in defiance of nautical etiquette — from interfering with his chief officer when the crew was sending up a new topmast, or generally when busy about, what he called, “a heavy job.” He was meddlesome with perfect modesty; if he knew a thing or two there was no merit in it. “Hard knocks taught me wisdom, my boy,” he used to say, “and you had better take the advice of a man who has been a fool in his time. Have another.” And “my boy” as a rule took the cool drink, the advice, and the consequent help which Lingard felt himself bound in honour to give, so as to back up his opinion like an honest man. Captain Tom went sailing from island to island, appearing unexpectedly in various localities, beaming, noisy, anecdotal, commendatory or comminatory, but always welcome.

It was only since his return to Sambir that the old seaman had for the first time known doubt and unhappiness, The loss of the Flash — planted firmly and for ever on a ledge of rock at the north end of Gaspar Straits in the uncertain light of a cloudy morning — shook him considerably; and the amazing news which he heard on his arrival in Sambir were not made to soothe his feelings. A good many years ago — prompted by his love of adventure — he, with infinite trouble, had found out and surveyed — for his own benefit only — the entrances to that river, where, he had heard through native report, a new settlement of Malays was forming. No doubt he thought at the time mostly of personal gain; but, received with hearty friendliness by Patalolo, he soon came to like the ruler and the people, offered his counsel and his help, and — knowing nothing of Arcadia — he dreamed of Arcadian happiness for that little corner of the world which he loved to think all his own. His deep-seated and immovable conviction that only he — he, Lingard — knew what was good for them was characteristic of him. and, after all, not so very far wrong. He would make them happy whether or no, he said, and he meant it. His trade brought prosperity to the young state, and the fear of his heavy hand secured its internal peace for many years.

He looked proudly upon his work. With every passing year he loved more the land, the people, the muddy river that, if he could help it, would carry no other craft but the Flash on its unclean and friendly surface. As he slowly warped his vessel up-stream he would scan with knowing looks the riverside clearings, and pronounce solemn judgment upon the prospects of the season’s rice-crop. He knew every settler on the banks between the sea and Sambir; he knew their wives, their children; he knew every individual of the multi-coloured groups that, standing on the flimsy platforms of tiny reed dwellings built over the water, waved their hands and shouted shrilly: “O! Kapal layer! Hai!” while the Flash swept slowly through the populated reach, to enter the lonely stretches of sparkling brown water bordered by the dense and silent forest, whose big trees nodded their outspread boughs gently in the faint, warm breeze — as if in sign of tender but melancholy welcome. He loved it all: the landscape of brown golds and brilliant emeralds under the dome of hot sapphire; the whispering big trees; the loquacious nipa-palms that rattled their leaves volubly in the night breeze, as if in haste to tell him all the secrets of the great forest behind them. He loved the heavy scents of blossoms and black earth, that breath of life and of death which lingered over his brig in the damp air of tepid and peaceful nights. He loved the narrow and sombre creeks, strangers to sunshine: black, smooth, tortuous — like byways of despair. He liked even the troops of sorrowful-faced monkeys that profaned the quiet spots with capricious gambols and insane gestures of inhuman madness. He loved everything there, animated or inanimated; the very mud of the riverside; the very alligators, enormous and stolid, basking on it with impertinent unconcern. Their size was a source of pride to him. “Immense fellows! Make two of them Palembang reptiles! I tell you, old man!” he would shout, poking some crony of his playfully in the ribs: “I tell you, big as you are, they could swallow you in one gulp, hat, boots and all! Magnificent beggars! Wouldn’t you like to see them? Wouldn’t you! Ha! ha! ha!” His thunderous laughter filled the verandah, rolled over the hotel garden, overflowed into the street, paralyzing for a short moment the noiseless traffic of bare brown feet; and its loud reverberations would even startle the landlord’s tame bird — a shameless mynah — into a momentary propriety of behaviour under the nearest chair. In the big billiard-room perspiring men in thin cotton singlets would stop the game, listen, cue in hand, for a while through the open windows, then nod their moist faces at each other sagaciously and whisper: “The old fellow is talking about his river.”

His river! The whispers of curious men, the mystery of the thing, were to Lingard a source of never-ending delight. The common talk of ignorance exaggerated the profits of his queer monopoly, and, although strictly truthful in general, he liked, on that matter, to mislead speculation still further by boasts full of cold raillery. His river! By it he was not only rich — he was interesting. This secret of his which made him different to the other traders of those seas gave intimate satisfaction to that desire for singularity which he shared with the rest of mankind, without being aware of its presence within his breast. It was the greater part of his happiness, but he only knew it after its loss, so unforeseen, so sudden and so cruel.

After his conversation with Almayer he went on board the schooner, sent Joanna on shore, and shut himself up in his cabin, feeling very unwell. He made the most of his indisposition to Almayer, who came to visit him twice a day. It was an excuse for doing nothing just yet. He wanted to think. He was very angry. Angry with himself, with Willems. Angry at what Willems had done — and also angry at what he had left undone. The scoundrel was not complete. The conception was perfect, but the execution, unaccountably, fell short. Why? He ought to have cut Almayer’s throat and burnt the place to ashes — then cleared out. Got out of his way; of him, Lingard! Yet he didn’t. Was it impudence, contempt — or what? He felt hurt at the implied disrespect of his power, and the incomplete rascality of the proceeding disturbed him exceedingly. There was something short, something wanting, something that would have given him a free hand in the work of retribution. The obvious, the right thing to do, was to shoot Willems. Yet how could he? Had the fellow resisted, showed fight, or ran away; had he shown any consciousness of harm done, it would have been more possible, more natural. But no! The fellow actually had sent him a message. Wanted to see him. What for? The thing could not be explained. An unexampled, cold-blooded treachery, awful, incomprehensible. Why did he do it? Why? Why? The old seaman in the stuffy solitude of his little cabin on board the schooner groaned out many times that question, striking with an open palm his perplexed forehead.

During his four days of seclusion he had received two messages from the outer world; from that world of Sambir which had, so suddenly and so finally, slipped from his grasp. One, a few words from Willems written on a torn-out page of a small notebook; the other, a communication from Abdulla caligraphed carefully on a large sheet of flimsy paper and delivered to him in a green silk wrapper. The first he could not understand. It said: “Come and see me. I am not afraid. Are you? W.” He tore it up angrily, but before the small bits of dirty paper had the time to flutter down and settle on the floor, the anger was gone and was replaced by a sentiment that induced him to go on his knees, pick up the fragments of the torn message, piece it together on the top of his chronometer box, and contemplate it long and thoughtfully, as if he had hoped to read the answer of the horrible riddle in the very form of the letters that went to make up that fresh insult. Abdulla’s letter he read carefully and rammed it into his pocket, also with anger, but with anger that ended in a half-resigned, half-amused smile. He would never give in as long as there was a chance. “It’s generally the safest way to stick to the ship as long as she will swim,” was one of his favourite sayings: “The safest and the right way. To abandon a craft because it leaks is easy — but poor work. Poor work!” Yet he was intelligent enough to know when he was beaten, and to accept the situation like a man, without repining. When Almayer came on board that afternoon he handed him the letter without comment.

Almayer read it, returned it in silence, and leaning over the taffrail (the two men were on deck) looked down for some time at the play of the eddies round the schooner’s rudder. At last he said without looking up —

“That’s a decent enough letter. Abdulla gives him up to you. I told you they were getting sick of him. What are you going to do?”

Lingard cleared his throat, shuffled his feet, opened his mouth with great determination, but said nothing for a while. At last he murmured —

“I’ll be hanged if I know — just yet.”

“I wish you would do something soon . . . ”

“What’s the hurry?” interrupted Lingard. “He can’t get away. As it stands he is at my mercy, as far as I can see.”

“Yes,” said Almayer, reflectively —“and very little mercy he deserves too. Abdulla’s meaning — as I can make it out amongst all those compliments — is: ‘Get rid for me of that white man — and we shall live in peace and share the trade.”’

“You believe that?” asked Lingard, contemptuously.

“Not altogether,” answered Almayer. “No doubt we will share the trade for a time — till he can grab the lot. Well, what are you going to do?”

He looked up as he spoke and was surprised to see Lingard’s discomposed face.

“You ain’t well. Pain anywhere?” he asked, with real solicitude.

“I have been queer — you know — these last few days, but no pain.” He struck his broad chest several times, cleared his throat with a powerful “Hem!” and repeated: “No. No pain. Good for a few years yet. But I am bothered with all this, I can tell you!”

“You must take care of yourself,” said Almayer. Then after a pause he added: “You will see Abdulla. Won’t you?”

“I don’t know. Not yet. There’s plenty of time,” said Lingard, impatiently.

“I wish you would do something,” urged Almayer, moodily. “You know, that woman is a perfect nuisance to me. She and her brat! Yelps all day. And the children don’t get on together. Yesterday the little devil wanted to fight with my Nina. Scratched her face, too. A perfect savage! Like his honourable papa. Yes, really. She worries about her husband, and whimpers from morning to night. When she isn’t weeping she is furious with me. Yesterday she tormented me to tell her when he would be back and cried because he was engaged in such dangerous work. I said something about it being all right — no necessity to make a fool of herself, when she turned upon me like a wild cat. Called me a brute, selfish, heartless; raved about her beloved Peter risking his life for my benefit, while I did not care. Said I took advantage of his generous good-nature to get him to do dangerous work — my work. That he was worth twenty of the likes of me. That she would tell you — open your eyes as to the kind of man I was, and so on. That’s what I’ve got to put up with for your sake. You really might consider me a little. I haven’t robbed anybody,” went on Almayer, with an attempt at bitter irony —“or sold my best friend, but still you ought to have some pity on me. It’s like living in a hot fever. She is out of her wits. You make my house a refuge for scoundrels and lunatics. It isn’t fair. ‘Pon my word it isn’t! When she is in her tantrums she is ridiculously ugly and screeches so — it sets my teeth on edge. Thank God! my wife got a fit of the sulks and cleared out of the house. Lives in a riverside hut since that affair — you know. But this Willems’ wife by herself is almost more than I can bear. And I ask myself why should I? You are exacting and no mistake. This morning I thought she was going to claw me. Only think! She wanted to go prancing about the settlement. She might have heard something there, so I told her she mustn’t. It wasn’t safe outside our fences, I said. Thereupon she rushes at me with her ten nails up to my eyes. ‘You miserable man,’ she yells, ‘even this place is not safe, and you’ve sent him up this awful river where he may lose his head. If he dies before forgiving me, Heaven will punish you for your crime . . . ’ My crime! I ask myself sometimes whether I am dreaming! It will make me ill, all this. I’ve lost my appetite already.”

He flung his hat on deck and laid hold of his hair despairingly. Lingard looked at him with concern.

“What did she mean by it?” he muttered, thoughtfully.

“Mean! She is crazy, I tell you — and I will be, very soon, if this lasts!”

“Just a little patience, Kaspar,” pleaded Lingard. “A day or so more.”

Relieved or tired by his violent outburst, Almayer calmed down, picked up his hat and, leaning against the bulwark, commenced to fan himself with it.

“Days do pass,” he said, resignedly —“but that kind of thing makes a man old before his time. What is there to think about? — I can’t imagine! Abdulla says plainly that if you undertake to pilot his ship out and instruct the half-caste, he will drop Willems like a hot potato and be your friend ever after. I believe him perfectly, as to Willems. It’s so natural. As to being your friend it’s a lie of course, but we need not bother about that just yet. You just say yes to Abdulla, and then whatever happens to Willems will be nobody’s business.”

He interrupted himself and remained silent for a while, glaring about with set teeth and dilated nostrils.

“You leave it to me. I’ll see to it that something happens to him,” he said at last, with calm ferocity. Lingard smiled faintly.

“The fellow isn’t worth a shot. Not the trouble of it,” he whispered, as if to himself. Almayer fired up suddenly.

“That’s what you think,” he cried. “You haven’t been sewn up in your hammock to be made a laughing-stock of before a parcel of savages. Why! I daren’t look anybody here in the face while that scoundrel is alive. I will . . . I will settle him.”

“I don’t think you will,” growled Lingard.

“Do you think I am afraid of him?”

“Bless you! no!” said Lingard with alacrity. “Afraid! Not you. I know you. I don’t doubt your courage. It’s your head, my boy, your head that I . . . ”

“That’s it,” said the aggrieved Almayer. “Go on. Why don’t you call me a fool at once?”

“Because I don’t want to,” burst out Lingard, with nervous irritability. “If I wanted to call you a fool, I would do so without asking your leave.” He began to walk athwart the narrow quarter-deck, kicking ropes’ ends out of his way and growling to himself: “Delicate gentleman . . . what next? . . . I’ve done man’s work before you could toddle. Understand . . . say what I like.”

“Well! well!” said Almayer, with affected resignation. “There’s no talking to you these last few days.” He put on his hat, strolled to the gangway and stopped, one foot on the little inside ladder, as if hesitating, came back and planted himself in Lingard’s way, compelling him to stand still and listen.

“Of course you will do what you like. You never take advice — I know that; but let me tell you that it wouldn’t be honest to let that fellow get away from here. If you do nothing, that scoundrel will leave in Abdulla’s ship for sure. Abdulla will make use of him to hurt you and others elsewhere. Willems knows too much about your affairs. He will cause you lots of trouble. You mark my words. Lots of trouble. To you — and to others perhaps. Think of that, Captain Lingard. That’s all I’ve got to say. Now I must go back on shore. There’s lots of work. We will begin loading this schooner to-morrow morning, first thing. All the bundles are ready. If you should want me for anything, hoist some kind of flag on the mainmast. At night two shots will fetch me.” Then he added, in a friendly tone, “Won’t you come and dine in the house to-night? It can’t be good for you to stew on board like that, day after day.”

Lingard did not answer. The image evoked by Almayer; the picture of Willems ranging over the islands and disturbing the harmony of the universe by robbery, treachery, and violence, held him silent, entranced — painfully spellbound. Almayer, after waiting for a little while, moved reluctantly towards the gangway, lingered there, then sighed and got over the side, going down step by step. His head disappeared slowly below the rail. Lingard, who had been staring at him absently, started suddenly, ran to the side, and looking over, called out —

“Hey! Kaspar! Hold on a bit!”

Almayer signed to his boatmen to cease paddling, and turned his head towards the schooner. The boat drifted back slowly abreast of Lingard, nearly alongside.

“Look here,” said Lingard, looking down —“I want a good canoe with four men to-day.”

“Do you want it now?” asked Almayer.

“No! Catch this rope. Oh, you clumsy devil! . . . No, Kaspar,” went on Lingard, after the bow-man had got hold of the end of the brace he had thrown down into the canoe —“No, Kaspar. The sun is too much for me. And it would be better to keep my affairs quiet, too. Send the canoe — four good paddlers, mind, and your canvas chair for me to sit in. Send it about sunset. D’ye hear?”

“All right, father,” said Almayer, cheerfully —“I will send Ali for a steersman, and the best men I’ve got. Anything else?”

“No, my lad. Only don’t let them be late.”

“I suppose it’s no use asking you where you are going,” said Almayer, tentatively. “Because if it is to see Abdulla, I . . . ”

“I am not going to see Abdulla. Not to-day. Now be off with you.”

He watched the canoe dart away shorewards, waved his hand in response to Almayer’s nod, and walked to the taffrail smoothing out Abdulla’s letter, which he had pulled out of his pocket. He read it over carefully, crumpled it up slowly, smiling the while and closing his fingers firmly over the crackling paper as though he had hold there of Abdulla’s throat. Halfway to his pocket he changed his mind, and flinging the ball overboard looked at it thoughtfully as it spun round in the eddies for a moment, before the current bore it away down-stream, towards the sea.

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