An Outcast of the Islands, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter Two

The sea, perhaps because of its saltness, roughens the outside but keeps sweet the kernel of its servants’ soul. The old sea; the sea of many years ago, whose servants were devoted slaves and went from youth to age or to a sudden grave without needing to open the book of life, because they could look at eternity reflected on the element that gave the life and dealt the death. Like a beautiful and unscrupulous woman, the sea of the past was glorious in its smiles, irresistible in its anger, capricious, enticing, illogical, irresponsible; a thing to love, a thing to fear. It cast a spell, it gave joy, it lulled gently into boundless faith; then with quick and causeless anger it killed. But its cruelty was redeemed by the charm of its inscrutable mystery, by the immensity of its promise, by the supreme witchery of its possible favour. Strong men with childlike hearts were faithful to it, were content to live by its grace — to die by its will. That was the sea before the time when the French mind set the Egyptian muscle in motion and produced a dismal but profitable ditch. Then a great pall of smoke sent out by countless steam-boats was spread over the restless mirror of the Infinite. The hand of the engineer tore down the veil of the terrible beauty in order that greedy and faithless landlubbers might pocket dividends. The mystery was destroyed. Like all mysteries, it lived only in the hearts of its worshippers. The hearts changed; the men changed. The once loving and devoted servants went out armed with fire and iron, and conquering the fear of their own hearts became a calculating crowd of cold and exacting masters. The sea of the past was an incomparably beautiful mistress, with inscrutable face, with cruel and promising eyes. The sea of to-day is a used-up drudge, wrinkled and defaced by the churned-up wakes of brutal propellers, robbed of the enslaving charm of its vastness, stripped of its beauty, of its mystery and of its promise.

Tom Lingard was a master, a lover, a servant of the sea. The sea took him young, fashioned him body and soul; gave him his fierce aspect, his loud voice, his fearless eyes, his stupidly guileless heart. Generously it gave him his absurd faith in himself, his universal love of creation, his wide indulgence, his contemptuous severity, his straightforward simplicity of motive and honesty of aim. Having made him what he was, womanlike, the sea served him humbly and let him bask unharmed in the sunshine of its terribly uncertain favour. Tom Lingard grew rich on the sea and by the sea. He loved it with the ardent affection of a lover, he made light of it with the assurance of perfect mastery, he feared it with the wise fear of a brave man, and he took liberties with it as a spoiled child might do with a paternal and good-natured ogre. He was grateful to it, with the gratitude of an honest heart. His greatest pride lay in his profound conviction of its faithfulness — in the deep sense of his unerring knowledge of its treachery.

The little brig Flash was the instrument of Lingard’s fortune. They came north together — both young — out of an Australian port, and after a very few years there was not a white man in the islands, from Palembang to Ternate, from Ombawa to Palawan, that did not know Captain Tom and his lucky craft. He was liked for his reckless generosity, for his unswerving honesty, and at first was a little feared on account of his violent temper. Very soon, however, they found him out, and the word went round that Captain Tom’s fury was less dangerous than many a man’s smile. He prospered greatly. After his first — and successful — fight with the sea robbers, when he rescued, as rumour had it, the yacht of some big wig from home, somewhere down Carimata way, his great popularity began. As years went on it grew apace. Always visiting out-of-the-way places of that part of the world, always in search of new markets for his cargoes — not so much for profit as for the pleasure of finding them — he soon became known to the Malays, and by his successful recklessness in several encounters with pirates, established the terror of his name. Those white men with whom he had business, and who naturally were on the look-out for his weaknesses, could easily see that it was enough to give him his Malay title to flatter him greatly. So when there was anything to be gained by it, and sometimes out of pure and unprofitable good nature, they would drop the ceremonious “Captain Lingard” and address him half seriously as Rajah Laut — the King of the Sea.

He carried the name bravely on his broad shoulders. He had carried it many years already when the boy Willems ran barefooted on the deck of the ship Kosmopoliet IV. in Samarang roads, looking with innocent eyes on the strange shore and objurgating his immediate surroundings with blasphemous lips, while his childish brain worked upon the heroic idea of running away. From the poop of the Flash Lingard saw in the early morning the Dutch ship get lumberingly under weigh, bound for the eastern ports. Very late in the evening of the same day he stood on the quay of the landing canal, ready to go on board of his brig. The night was starry and clear; the little custom-house building was shut up, and as the gharry that brought him down disappeared up the long avenue of dusty trees leading to the town, Lingard thought himself alone on the quay. He roused up his sleeping boat-crew and stood waiting for them to get ready, when he felt a tug at his coat and a thin voice said, very distinctly —

“English captain.”

Lingard turned round quickly, and what seemed to be a very lean boy jumped back with commendable activity.

“Who are you? Where do you spring from?” asked Lingard, in startled surprise.

From a safe distance the boy pointed toward a cargo lighter moored to the quay.

“Been hiding there, have you?” said Lingard. “Well, what do you want? Speak out, confound you. You did not come here to scare me to death, for fun, did you?”

The boy tried to explain in imperfect English, but very soon Lingard interrupted him.

“I see,” he exclaimed, “you ran away from the big ship that sailed this morning. Well, why don’t you go to your countrymen here?”

“Ship gone only a little way — to Sourabaya. Make me go back to the ship,” explained the boy.

“Best thing for you,” affirmed Lingard with conviction.

“No,” retorted the boy; “me want stop here; not want go home. Get money here; home no good.”

“This beats all my going a-fishing,” commented the astonished Lingard. “It’s money you want? Well! well! And you were not afraid to run away, you bag of bones, you!”

The boy intimated that he was frightened of nothing but of being sent back to the ship. Lingard looked at him in meditative silence.

“Come closer,” he said at last. He took the boy by the chin, and turning up his face gave him a searching look. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“There’s not much of you for seventeen. Are you hungry?”

“A little.”

“Will you come with me, in that brig there?”

The boy moved without a word towards the boat and scrambled into the bows.

“Knows his place,” muttered Lingard to himself as he stepped heavily into the stern sheets and took up the yoke lines. “Give way there.”

The Malay boat crew lay back together, and the gig sprang away from the quay heading towards the brig’s riding light.

Such was the beginning of Willems’ career.

Lingard learned in half an hour all that there was of Willems’ commonplace story. Father outdoor clerk of some ship-broker in Rotterdam; mother dead. The boy quick in learning, but idle in school. The straitened circumstances in the house filled with small brothers and sisters, sufficiently clothed and fed but otherwise running wild, while the disconsolate widower tramped about all day in a shabby overcoat and imperfect boots on the muddy quays, and in the evening piloted wearily the half-intoxicated foreign skippers amongst the places of cheap delights, returning home late, sick with too much smoking and drinking — for company’s sake — with these men, who expected such attentions in the way of business. Then the offer of the good-natured captain of Kosmopoliet IV., who was pleased to do something for the patient and obliging fellow; young Willems’ great joy, his still greater disappointment with the sea that looked so charming from afar, but proved so hard and exacting on closer acquaintance — and then this running away by a sudden impulse. The boy was hopelessly at variance with the spirit of the sea. He had an instinctive contempt for the honest simplicity of that work which led to nothing he cared for. Lingard soon found this out. He offered to send him home in an English ship, but the boy begged hard to be permitted to remain. He wrote a beautiful hand, became soon perfect in English, was quick at figures; and Lingard made him useful in that way. As he grew older his trading instincts developed themselves astonishingly, and Lingard left him often to trade in one island or another while he, himself, made an intermediate trip to some out-of-the-way place. On Willems expressing a wish to that effect, Lingard let him enter Hudig’s service. He felt a little sore at that abandonment because he had attached himself, in a way, to his protege. Still he was proud of him, and spoke up for him loyally. At first it was, “Smart boy that — never make a seaman though.” Then when Willems was helping in the trading he referred to him as “that clever young fellow.” Later when Willems became the confidential agent of Hudig, employed in many a delicate affair, the simple-hearted old seaman would point an admiring finger at his back and whisper to whoever stood near at the moment, “Long-headed chap that; deuced long-headed chap. Look at him. Confidential man of old Hudig. I picked him up in a ditch, you may say, like a starved cat. Skin and bone. ‘Pon my word I did. And now he knows more than I do about island trading. Fact. I am not joking. More than I do,” he would repeat, seriously, with innocent pride in his honest eyes.

From the safe elevation of his commercial successes Willems patronized Lingard. He had a liking for his benefactor, not unmixed with some disdain for the crude directness of the old fellow’s methods of conduct. There were, however, certain sides of Lingard’s character for which Willems felt a qualified respect. The talkative seaman knew how to be silent on certain matters that to Willems were very interesting. Besides, Lingard was rich, and that in itself was enough to compel Willems’ unwilling admiration. In his confidential chats with Hudig, Willems generally alluded to the benevolent Englishman as the “lucky old fool” in a very distinct tone of vexation; Hudig would grunt an unqualified assent, and then the two would look at each other in a sudden immobility of pupils fixed by a stare of unexpressed thought.

“You can’t find out where he gets all that india-rubber, hey Willems?” Hudig would ask at last, turning away and bending over the papers on his desk.

“No, Mr. Hudig. Not yet. But I am trying,” was Willems’ invariable reply, delivered with a ring of regretful deprecation.

“Try! Always try! You may try! You think yourself clever perhaps,” rumbled on Hudig, without looking up. “I have been trading with him twenty — thirty years now. The old fox. And I have tried. Bah!”

He stretched out a short, podgy leg and contemplated the bare instep and the grass slipper hanging by the toes. “You can’t make him drunk?” he would add, after a pause of stertorous breathing.

“No, Mr. Hudig, I can’t really,” protested Willems, earnestly.

“Well, don’t try. I know him. Don’t try,” advised the master, and, bending again over his desk, his staring bloodshot eyes close to the paper, he would go on tracing laboriously with his thick fingers the slim unsteady letters of his correspondence, while Willems waited respectfully for his further good pleasure before asking, with great deference —

“Any orders, Mr. Hudig?”

“Hm! yes. Go to Bun-Hin yourself and see the dollars of that payment counted and packed, and have them put on board the mail-boat for Ternate. She’s due here this afternoon.”

“Yes, Mr. Hudig.”

“And, look here. If the boat is late, leave the case in Bun-Hin’s godown till to-morrow. Seal it up. Eight seals as usual. Don’t take it away till the boat is here.”

“No, Mr. Hudig.”

“And don’t forget about these opium cases. It’s for to-night. Use my own boatmen. Transship them from the Caroline to the Arab barque,” went on the master in his hoarse undertone. “And don’t you come to me with another story of a case dropped overboard like last time,” he added, with sudden ferocity, looking up at his confidential clerk.

“No, Mr. Hudig. I will take care.”

“That’s all. Tell that pig as you go out that if he doesn’t make the punkah go a little better I will break every bone in his body,” finished up Hudig, wiping his purple face with a red silk handkerchief nearly as big as a counterpane.

Noiselessly Willems went out, shutting carefully behind him the little green door through which he passed to the warehouse. Hudig, pen in hand, listened to him bullying the punkah boy with profane violence, born of unbounded zeal for the master’s comfort, before he returned to his writing amid the rustling of papers fluttering in the wind sent down by the punkah that waved in wide sweeps above his head.

Willems would nod familiarly to Mr. Vinck, who had his desk close to the little door of the private office, and march down the warehouse with an important air. Mr. Vinck — extreme dislike lurking in every wrinkle of his gentlemanly countenance — would follow with his eyes the white figure flitting in the gloom amongst the piles of bales and cases till it passed out through the big archway into the glare of the street.

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