An Outcast of the Islands, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter Two

Babalatchi ceased speaking. Lingard shifted his feet a little, uncrossed his arms, and shook his head slowly. The narrative of the events in Sambir, related from the point of view of the astute statesman, the sense of which had been caught here and there by his inattentive ears, had been yet like a thread to guide him out of the sombre labyrinth of his thoughts; and now he had come to the end of it, out of the tangled past into the pressing necessities of the present. With the palms of his hands on his knees, his elbows squared out, he looked down on Babalatchi who sat in a stiff attitude, inexpressive and mute as a talking doll the mechanism of which had at length run down.

“You people did all this,” said Lingard at last, “and you will be sorry for it before the dry wind begins to blow again. Abdulla’s voice will bring the Dutch rule here.”

Babalatchi waved his hand towards the dark doorway.

“There are forests there. Lakamba rules the land now. Tell me, Tuan, do you think the big trees know the name of the ruler? No. They are born, they grow, they live and they die — yet know not, feel not. It is their land.”

“Even a big tree may be killed by a small axe,” said Lingard, drily. “And, remember, my one-eyed friend, that axes are made by white hands. You will soon find that out, since you have hoisted the flag of the Dutch.”

“Ay — wa!” said Babalatchi, slowly. “It is written that the earth belongs to those who have fair skins and hard but foolish hearts. The farther away is the master, the easier it is for the slave, Tuan! You were too near. Your voice rang in our ears always. Now it is not going to be so. The great Rajah in Batavia is strong, but he may be deceived. He must speak very loud to be heard here. But if we have need to shout, then he must hear the many voices that call for protection. He is but a white man.”

“If I ever spoke to Patalolo, like an elder brother, it was for your good — for the good of all,” said Lingard with great earnestness.

“This is a white man’s talk,” exclaimed Babalatchi, with bitter exultation. “I know you. That is how you all talk while you load your guns and sharpen your swords; and when you are ready, then to those who are weak you say: ‘Obey me and be happy, or die! You are strange, you white men. You think it is only your wisdom and your virtue and your happiness that are true. You are stronger than the wild beasts, but not so wise. A black tiger knows when he is not hungry — you do not. He knows the difference between himself and those that can speak; you do not understand the difference between yourselves and us — who are men. You are wise and great — and you shall always be fools.”

He threw up both his hands, stirring the sleeping cloud of smoke that hung above his head, and brought the open palms on the flimsy floor on each side of his outstretched legs. The whole hut shook. Lingard looked at the excited statesman curiously.

“Apa! Apa! What’s the matter?” he murmured, soothingly. “Whom did I kill here? Where are my guns? What have I done? What have I eaten up?”

Babalatchi calmed down, and spoke with studied courtesy.

“You, Tuan, are of the sea, and more like what we are. Therefore I speak to you all the words that are in my heart . . . . Only once has the sea been stronger than the Rajah of the sea.”

“You know it; do you?” said Lingard, with pained sharpness.

“Hai! We have heard about your ship — and some rejoiced. Not I. Amongst the whites, who are devils, you are a man.”

“Trima kassi! I give you thanks,” said Lingard, gravely.

Babalatchi looked down with a bashful smile, but his face became saddened directly, and when he spoke again it was in a mournful tone.

“Had you come a day sooner, Tuan, you would have seen an enemy die. You would have seen him die poor, blind, unhappy — with no son to dig his grave and speak of his wisdom and courage. Yes; you would have seen the man that fought you in Carimata many years ago, die alone — but for one friend. A great sight to you.”

“Not to me,” answered Lingard. “I did not even remember him till you spoke his name just now. You do not understand us. We fight, we vanquish — and we forget.”

“True, true,” said Babalatchi, with polite irony; “you whites are so great that you disdain to remember your enemies. No! No!” he went on, in the same tone, “you have so much mercy for us, that there is no room for any remembrance. Oh, you are great and good! But it is in my mind that amongst yourselves you know how to remember. Is it not so, Tuan?”

Lingard said nothing. His shoulders moved imperceptibly. He laid his gun across his knees and stared at the flint lock absently.

“Yes,” went on Babalatchi, falling again into a mournful mood, “yes, he died in darkness. I sat by his side and held his hand, but he could not see the face of him who watched the faint breath on his lips. She, whom he had cursed because of the white man, was there too, and wept with covered face. The white man walked about the courtyard making many noises. Now and then he would come to the doorway and glare at us who mourned. He stared with wicked eyes, and then I was glad that he who was dying was blind. This is true talk. I was glad; for a white man’s eyes are not good to see when the devil that lives within is looking out through them.”

“Devil! Hey?” said Lingard, half aloud to himself, as if struck with the obviousness of some novel idea. Babalatchi went on:

“At the first hour of the morning he sat up — he so weak — and said plainly some words that were not meant for human ears. I held his hand tightly, but it was time for the leader of brave men to go amongst the Faithful who are happy. They of my household brought a white sheet, and I began to dig a grave in the hut in which he died. She mourned aloud. The white man came to the doorway and shouted. He was angry. Angry with her because she beat her breast, and tore her hair, and mourned with shrill cries as a woman should. Do you understand what I say, Tuan? That white man came inside the hut with great fury, and took her by the shoulder, and dragged her out. Yes, Tuan. I saw Omar dead, and I saw her at the feet of that white dog who has deceived me. I saw his face grey, like the cold mist of the morning; I saw his pale eyes looking down at Omar’s daughter beating her head on the ground at his feet. At the feet of him who is Abdulla’s slave. Yes, he lives by Abdulla’s will. That is why I held my hand while I saw all this. I held my hand because we are now under the flag of the Orang Blanda, and Abdulla can speak into the ears of the great. We must not have any trouble with white men. Abdulla has spoken — and I must obey.”

“That’s it, is it?” growled Lingard in his moustache. Then in Malay, “It seems that you are angry, O Babalatchi!”

“No; I am not angry, Tuan,” answered Babalatchi, descending from the insecure heights of his indignation into the insincere depths of safe humility. “I am not angry. What am I to be angry? I am only an Orang Laut, and I have fled before your people many times. Servant of this one — protected of another; I have given my counsel here and there for a handful of rice. What am I, to be angry with a white man? What is anger without the power to strike? But you whites have taken all: the land, the sea, and the power to strike! And there is nothing left for us in the islands but your white men’s justice; your great justice that knows not anger.”

He got up and stood for a moment in the doorway, sniffing the hot air of the courtyard, then turned back and leaned against the stay of the ridge pole, facing Lingard who kept his seat on the chest. The torch, consumed nearly to the end, burned noisily. Small explosions took place in the heart of the flame, driving through its smoky blaze strings of hard, round puffs of white smoke, no bigger than peas, which rolled out of doors in the faint draught that came from invisible cracks of the bamboo walls. The pungent taint of unclean things below and about the hut grew heavier, weighing down Lingard’s resolution and his thoughts in an irresistible numbness of the brain. He thought drowsily of himself and of that man who wanted to see him — who waited to see him. Who waited! Night and day. Waited. . . . A spiteful but vaporous idea floated through his brain that such waiting could not be very pleasant to the fellow. Well, let him wait. He would see him soon enough. And for how long? Five seconds — five minutes — say nothing — say something. What? No! Just give him time to take one good look, and then . . .

Suddenly Babalatchi began to speak in a soft voice. Lingard blinked, cleared his throat — sat up straight.

“You know all now, Tuan. Lakamba dwells in the stockaded house of Patalolo; Abdulla has begun to build godowns of plank and stone; and now that Omar is dead, I myself shall depart from this place and live with Lakamba and speak in his ear. I have served many. The best of them all sleeps in the ground in a white sheet, with nothing to mark his grave but the ashes of the hut in which he died. Yes, Tuan! the white man destroyed it himself. With a blazing brand in his hand he strode around, shouting to me to come out — shouting to me, who was throwing earth on the body of a great leader. Yes; swearing to me by the name of your God and ours that he would burn me and her in there if we did not make haste. . . . Hai! The white men are very masterful and wise. I dragged her out quickly!”

“Oh, damn it!” exclaimed Lingard — then went on in Malay, speaking earnestly. “Listen. That man is not like other white men. You know he is not. He is not a man at all. He is . . . I don’t know.”

Babalatchi lifted his hand deprecatingly. His eye twinkled, and his red-stained big lips, parted by an expressionless grin, uncovered a stumpy row of black teeth filed evenly to the gums.

“Hai! Hai! Not like you. Not like you,” he said, increasing the softness of his tones as he neared the object uppermost in his mind during that much-desired interview. “Not like you, Tuan, who are like ourselves, only wiser and stronger. Yet he, also, is full of great cunning, and speaks of you without any respect, after the manner of white men when they talk of one another.”

Lingard leaped in his seat as if he had been prodded.

“He speaks! What does he say?” he shouted.

“Nay, Tuan,” protested the composed Babalatchi; “what matters his talk if he is not a man? I am nothing before you — why should I repeat words of one white man about another? He did boast to Abdulla of having learned much from your wisdom in years past. Other words I have forgotten. Indeed, Tuan, I have . . . ”

Lingard cut short Babalatchi’s protestations by a contemptuous wave of the hand and reseated himself with dignity.

“I shall go,” said Babalatchi, “and the white man will remain here, alone with the spirit of the dead and with her who has been the delight of his heart. He, being white, cannot hear the voice of those that died. . . . Tell me, Tuan,” he went on, looking at Lingard with curiosity —“tell me, Tuan, do you white people ever hear the voices of the invisible ones?”

“We do not,” answered Lingard, “because those that we cannot see do not speak.”

“Never speak! And never complain with sounds that are not words?” exclaimed Babalatchi, doubtingly. “It may be so — or your ears are dull. We Malays hear many sounds near the places where men are buried. To-night I heard . . . Yes, even I have heard. . . . I do not want to hear any more,” he added, nervously. “Perhaps I was wrong when I . . . There are things I regret. The trouble was heavy in his heart when he died. Sometimes I think I was wrong . . . but I do not want to hear the complaint of invisible lips. Therefore I go, Tuan. Let the unquiet spirit speak to his enemy the white man who knows not fear, or love, or mercy — knows nothing but contempt and violence. I have been wrong! I have! Hai! Hai!”

He stood for awhile with his elbow in the palm of his left hand, the fingers of the other over his lips as if to stifle the expression of inconvenient remorse; then, after glancing at the torch, burnt out nearly to its end, he moved towards the wall by the chest, fumbled about there and suddenly flung open a large shutter of attaps woven in a light framework of sticks. Lingard swung his legs quickly round the corner of his seat.

“Hallo!” he said, surprised.

The cloud of smoke stirred, and a slow wisp curled out through the new opening. The torch flickered, hissed, and went out, the glowing end falling on the mat, whence Babalatchi snatched it up and tossed it outside through the open square. It described a vanishing curve of red light, and lay below, shining feebly in the vast darkness. Babalatchi remained with his arm stretched out into the empty night.

“There,” he said, “you can see the white man’s courtyard, Tuan, and his house.”

“I can see nothing,” answered Lingard, putting his head through the shutter-hole. “It’s too dark.”

“Wait, Tuan,” urged Babalatchi. “You have been looking long at the burning torch. You will soon see. Mind the gun, Tuan. It is loaded.”

“There is no flint in it. You could not find a fire-stone for a hundred miles round this spot,” said Lingard, testily. “Foolish thing to load that gun.”

“I have a stone. I had it from a man wise and pious that lives in Menang Kabau. A very pious man — very good fire. He spoke words over that stone that make its sparks good. And the gun is good — carries straight and far. Would carry from here to the door of the white man’s house, I believe, Tuan.”

“Tida apa. Never mind your gun,” muttered Lingard, peering into the formless darkness. “Is that the house — that black thing over there?” he asked.

“Yes,” answered Babalatchi; “that is his house. He lives there by the will of Abdulla, and shall live there till . . . From where you stand, Tuan, you can look over the fence and across the courtyard straight at the door — at the door from which he comes out every morning, looking like a man that had seen Jehannum in his sleep.”

Lingard drew his head in. Babalatchi touched his shoulder with a groping hand.

“Wait a little, Tuan. Sit still. The morning is not far off now — a morning without sun after a night without stars. But there will be light enough to see the man who said not many days ago that he alone has made you less than a child in Sambir.”

He felt a slight tremor under his hand, but took it off directly and began feeling all over the lid of the chest, behind Lingard’s back, for the gun.

“What are you at?” said Lingard, impatiently. “You do worry about that rotten gun. You had better get a light.”

“A light! I tell you, Tuan, that the light of heaven is very near,” said Babalatchi, who had now obtained possession of the object of his solicitude, and grasping it strongly by its long barrel, grounded the stock at his feet.

“Perhaps it is near,” said Lingard, leaning both his elbows on the lower cross-piece of the primitive window and looking out. “It is very black outside yet,” he remarked carelessly.

Babalatchi fidgeted about.

“It is not good for you to sit where you may be seen,” he muttered.

“Why not?” asked Lingard.

“The white man sleeps, it is true,” explained Babalatchi, softly; “yet he may come out early, and he has arms.”

“Ah! he has arms?” said Lingard.

“Yes; a short gun that fires many times — like yours here. Abdulla had to give it to him.”

Lingard heard Babalatchi’s words, but made no movement. To the old adventurer the idea that fire arms could be dangerous in other hands than his own did not occur readily, and certainly not in connection with Willems. He was so busy with the thoughts about what he considered his own sacred duty, that he could not give any consideration to the probable actions of the man of whom he thought — as one may think of an executed criminal — with wondering indignation tempered by scornful pity. While he sat staring into the darkness, that every minute grew thinner before his pensive eyes, like a dispersing mist, Willems appeared to him as a figure belonging already wholly to the past — a figure that could come in no way into his life again. He had made up his mind, and the thing was as well as done. In his weary thoughts he had closed this fatal, inexplicable, and horrible episode in his life. The worst had happened. The coming days would see the retribution.

He had removed an enemy once or twice before, out of his path; he had paid off some very heavy scores a good many times. Captain Tom had been a good friend to many: but it was generally understood, from Honolulu round about to Diego Suarez, that Captain Tom’s enmity was rather more than any man single-handed could easily manage. He would not, as he said often, hurt a fly as long as the fly left him alone; yet a man does not live for years beyond the pale of civilized laws without evolving for himself some queer notions of justice. Nobody of those he knew had ever cared to point out to him the errors of his conceptions.

It was not worth anybody’s while to run counter to Lingard’s ideas of the fitness of things — that fact was acquired to the floating wisdom of the South Seas, of the Eastern Archipelago, and was nowhere better understood than in out-of-the-way nooks of the world; in those nooks which he filled, unresisted and masterful, with the echoes of his noisy presence. There is not much use in arguing with a man who boasts of never having regretted a single action of his life, whose answer to a mild criticism is a good-natured shout —“You know nothing about it. I would do it again. Yes, sir!” His associates and his acquaintances accepted him, his opinions, his actions like things preordained and unchangeable; looked upon his many-sided manifestations with passive wonder not unmixed with that admiration which is only the rightful due of a successful man. But nobody had ever seen him in the mood he was in now. Nobody had seen Lingard doubtful and giving way to doubt, unable to make up his mind and unwilling to act; Lingard timid and hesitating one minute, angry yet inactive the next; Lingard puzzled in a word, because confronted with a situation that discomposed him by its unprovoked malevolence, by its ghastly injustice, that to his rough but unsophisticated palate tasted distinctly of sulphurous fumes from the deepest hell.

The smooth darkness filling the shutter-hole grew paler and became blotchy with ill-defined shapes, as if a new universe was being evolved out of sombre chaos. Then outlines came out, defining forms without any details, indicating here a tree, there a bush; a black belt of forest far off; the straight lines of a house, the ridge of a high roof near by. Inside the hut, Babalatchi, who lately had been only a persuasive voice, became a human shape leaning its chin imprudently on the muzzle of a gun and rolling an uneasy eye over the reappearing world. The day came rapidly, dismal and oppressed by the fog of the river and by the heavy vapours of the sky — a day without colour and without sunshine: incomplete, disappointing, and sad.

Babalatchi twitched gently Lingard’s sleeve, and when the old seaman had lifted up his head interrogatively, he stretched out an arm and a pointing forefinger towards Willems’ house, now plainly visible to the right and beyond the big tree of the courtyard.

“Look, Tuan!” he said. “He lives there. That is the door — his door. Through it he will appear soon, with his hair in disorder and his mouth full of curses. That is so. He is a white man, and never satisfied. It is in my mind he is angry even in his sleep. A dangerous man. As Tuan may observe,” he went on, obsequiously, “his door faces this opening, where you condescend to sit, which is concealed from all eyes. Faces it — straight — and not far. Observe, Tuan, not at all far.”

“Yes, yes; I can see. I shall see him when he wakes.”

“No doubt, Tuan. When he wakes. . . . If you remain here he can not see you. I shall withdraw quickly and prepare my canoe myself. I am only a poor man, and must go to Sambir to greet Lakamba when he opens his eyes. I must bow before Abdulla who has strength — even more strength than you. Now if you remain here, you shall easily behold the man who boasted to Abdulla that he had been your friend, even while he prepared to fight those who called you protector. Yes, he plotted with Abdulla for that cursed flag. Lakamba was blind then, and I was deceived. But you, Tuan! Remember, he deceived you more. Of that he boasted before all men.”

He leaned the gun quietly against the wall close to the window, and said softly: “Shall I go now, Tuan? Be careful of the gun. I have put the fire-stone in. The fire-stone of the wise man, which never fails.”

Lingard’s eyes were fastened on the distant doorway. Across his line of sight, in the grey emptiness of the courtyard, a big fruit-pigeon flapped languidly towards the forests with a loud booming cry, like the note of a deep gong: a brilliant bird looking in the gloom of threatening day as black as a crow. A serried flock of white rice birds rose above the trees with a faint scream, and hovered, swaying in a disordered mass that suddenly scattered in all directions, as if burst asunder by a silent explosion. Behind his back Lingard heard a shuffle of feet — women leaving the hut. In the other courtyard a voice was heard complaining of cold, and coming very feeble, but exceedingly distinct, out of the vast silence of the abandoned houses and clearings. Babalatchi coughed discreetly. From under the house the thumping of wooden pestles husking the rice started with unexpected abruptness. The weak but clear voice in the yard again urged, “Blow up the embers, O brother!” Another voice answered, drawling in modulated, thin sing-song, “Do it yourself, O shivering pig!” and the drawl of the last words stopped short, as if the man had fallen into a deep hole. Babalatchi coughed again a little impatiently, and said in a confidential tone —

“Do you think it is time for me to go, Tuan? Will you take care of my gun, Tuan? I am a man that knows how to obey; even obey Abdulla, who has deceived me. Nevertheless this gun carries far and true — if you would want to know, Tuan. And I have put in a double measure of powder, and three slugs. Yes, Tuan. Now — perhaps — I go.”

When Babalatchi commenced speaking, Lingard turned slowly round and gazed upon him with the dull and unwilling look of a sick man waking to another day of suffering. As the astute statesman proceeded, Lingard’s eyebrows came close, his eyes became animated, and a big vein stood out on his forehead, accentuating a lowering frown. When speaking his last words Babalatchi faltered, then stopped, confused, before the steady gaze of the old seaman.

Lingard rose. His face cleared, and he looked down at the anxious Babalatchi with sudden benevolence.

“So! That’s what you were after,” he said, laying a heavy hand on Babalatchi’s yielding shoulder. “You thought I came here to murder him. Hey? Speak! You faithful dog of an Arab trader!”

“And what else, Tuan?” shrieked Babalatchi, exasperated into sincerity. “What else, Tuan! Remember what he has done; he poisoned our ears with his talk about you. You are a man. If you did not come to kill, Tuan, then either I am a fool or . . . ”

He paused, struck his naked breast with his open palm, and finished in a discouraged whisper —“or, Tuan, you are.”

Lingard looked down at him with scornful serenity. After his long and painful gropings amongst the obscure abominations of Willems’ conduct, the logical if tortuous evolutions of Babalatchi’s diplomatic mind were to him welcome as daylight. There was something at last he could understand — the clear effect of a simple cause. He felt indulgent towards the disappointed sage.

“So you are angry with your friend, O one-eyed one!” he said slowly, nodding his fierce countenance close to Babalatchi’s discomfited face. “It seems to me that you must have had much to do with what happened in Sambir lately. Hey? You son of a burnt father.”

“May I perish under your hand, O Rajah of the sea, if my words are not true!” said Babalatchi, with reckless excitement. “You are here in the midst of your enemies. He the greatest. Abdulla would do nothing without him, and I could do nothing without Abdulla. Strike me — so that you strike all!”

“Who are you,” exclaimed Lingard contemptuously —“who are you to dare call yourself my enemy! Dirt! Nothing! Go out first,” he went on severely. “Lakas! quick. March out!”

He pushed Babalatchi through the doorway and followed him down the short ladder into the courtyard. The boatmen squatting over the fire turned their slow eyes with apparent difficulty towards the two men; then, unconcerned, huddled close together again, stretching forlornly their hands over the embers. The women stopped in their work and with uplifted pestles flashed quick and curious glances from the gloom under the house.

“Is that the way?” asked Lingard with a nod towards the little wicket-gate of Willems’ enclosure.

“If you seek death, that is surely the way,” answered Babalatchi in a dispassionate voice, as if he had exhausted all the emotions. “He lives there: he who destroyed your friends; who hastened Omar’s death; who plotted with Abdulla first against you, then against me. I have been like a child. O shame! . . . But go, Tuan. Go there.”

“I go where I like,” said Lingard, emphatically, “and you may go to the devil; I do not want you any more. The islands of these seas shall sink before I, Rajah Laut, serve the will of any of your people. Tau? But I tell you this: I do not care what you do with him after to-day. And I say that because I am merciful.”

“Tida! I do nothing,” said Babalatchi, shaking his head with bitter apathy. “I am in Abdulla’s hand and care not, even as you do. No! no!” he added, turning away, “I have learned much wisdom this morning. There are no men anywhere. You whites are cruel to your friends and merciful to your enemies — which is the work of fools.”

He went away towards the riverside, and, without once looking back, disappeared in the low bank of mist that lay over the water and the shore. Lingard followed him with his eyes thoughtfully. After awhile he roused himself and called out to his boatmen —

“Hai — ya there! After you have eaten rice, wait for me with your paddles in your hands. You hear?”

“Ada, Tuan!” answered Ali through the smoke of the morning fire that was spreading itself, low and gentle, over the courtyard —“we hear!”

Lingard opened slowly the little wicket-gate, made a few steps into the empty enclosure, and stopped. He had felt about his head the short breath of a puff of wind that passed him, made every leaf of the big tree shiver — and died out in a hardly perceptible tremor of branches and twigs. Instinctively he glanced upwards with a seaman’s impulse. Above him, under the grey motionless waste of a stormy sky, drifted low black vapours, in stretching bars, in shapeless patches, in sinuous wisps and tormented spirals. Over the courtyard and the house floated a round, sombre, and lingering cloud, dragging behind a tail of tangled and filmy streamers — like the dishevelled hair of a mourning woman.

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