An Outcast of the Islands, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter Three

“Beware!”

The tremulous effort and the broken, inadequate tone of the faint cry, surprised Lingard more than the unexpected suddenness of the warning conveyed, he did not know by whom and to whom. Besides himself there was no one in the courtyard as far as he could see.

The cry was not renewed, and his watchful eyes, scanning warily the misty solitude of Willems’ enclosure, were met everywhere only by the stolid impassiveness of inanimate things: the big sombre-looking tree, the shut-up, sightless house, the glistening bamboo fences, the damp and drooping bushes further off — all these things, that condemned to look for ever at the incomprehensible afflictions or joys of mankind, assert in their aspect of cold unconcern the high dignity of lifeless matter that surrounds, incurious and unmoved, the restless mysteries of the ever-changing, of the never-ending life.

Lingard, stepping aside, put the trunk of the tree between himself and the house, then, moving cautiously round one of the projecting buttresses, had to tread short in order to avoid scattering a small heap of black embers upon which he came unexpectedly on the other side. A thin, wizened, little old woman, who, standing behind the tree, had been looking at the house, turned towards him with a start, gazed with faded, expressionless eyes at the intruder, then made a limping attempt to get away. She seemed, however, to realize directly the hopelessness or the difficulty of the undertaking, stopped, hesitated, tottered back slowly; then, after blinking dully, fell suddenly on her knees amongst the white ashes, and, bending over the heap of smouldering coals, distended her sunken cheeks in a steady effort to blow up the hidden sparks into a useful blaze. Lingard looked down on her, but she seemed to have made up her mind that there was not enough life left in her lean body for anything else than the discharge of the simple domestic duty, and, apparently, she begrudged him the least moment of attention.

After waiting for awhile, Lingard asked —

“Why did you call, O daughter?”

“I saw you enter,” she croaked feebly, still grovelling with her face near the ashes and without looking up, “and I called — the cry of warning. It was her order. Her order,” she repeated, with a moaning sigh.

“And did she hear?” pursued Lingard, with gentle composure.

Her projecting shoulder-blades moved uneasily under the thin stuff of the tight body jacket. She scrambled up with difficulty to her feet, and hobbled away, muttering peevishly to herself, towards a pile of dry brushwood heaped up against the fence.

Lingard, looking idly after her, heard the rattle of loose planks that led from the ground to the door of the house. He moved his head beyond the shelter of the tree and saw Aissa coming down the inclined way into the courtyard. After making a few hurried paces towards the tree, she stopped with one foot advanced in an appearance of sudden terror, and her eyes glanced wildly right and left. Her head was uncovered. A blue cloth wrapped her from her head to foot in close slanting folds, with one end thrown over her shoulder. A tress of her black hair strayed across her bosom. Her bare arms pressed down close to her body, with hands open and outstretched fingers; her slightly elevated shoulders and the backward inclination of her torso gave her the aspect of one defiant yet shrinking from a coming blow. She had closed the door of the house behind her; and as she stood solitary in the unnatural and threatening twilight of the murky day, with everything unchanged around her, she appeared to Lingard as if she had been made there, on the spot, out of the black vapours of the sky and of the sinister gleams of feeble sunshine that struggled, through the thickening clouds, into the colourless desolation of the world.

After a short but attentive glance towards the shut-up house, Lingard stepped out from behind the tree and advanced slowly towards her. The sudden fixity of her — till then — restless eyes and a slight twitch of her hands were the only signs she gave at first of having seen him. She made a long stride forward, and putting herself right in his path, stretched her arms across; her black eyes opened wide, her lips parted as if in an uncertain attempt to speak — but no sound came out to break the significant silence of their meeting. Lingard stopped and looked at her with stern curiosity. After a while he said composedly —

“Let me pass. I came here to talk to a man. Does he hide? Has he sent you?”

She made a step nearer, her arms fell by her side, then she put them straight out nearly touching Lingard’s breast.

“He knows not fear,” she said, speaking low, with a forward throw of her head, in a voice trembling but distinct. “It is my own fear that has sent me here. He sleeps.”

“He has slept long enough,” said Lingard, in measured tones. “I am come — and now is the time of his waking. Go and tell him this — or else my own voice will call him up. A voice he knows well.”

He put her hands down firmly and again made as if to pass by her.

“Do not!” she exclaimed, and fell at his feet as if she had been cut down by a scythe. The unexpected suddenness of her movement startled Lingard, who stepped back.

“What’s this?” he exclaimed in a wondering whisper — then added in a tone of sharp command: “Stand up!”

She rose at once and stood looking at him, timorous and fearless; yet with a fire of recklessness burning in her eyes that made clear her resolve to pursue her purpose even to the death. Lingard went on in a severe voice —

“Go out of my path. You are Omar’s daughter, and you ought to know that when men meet in daylight women must be silent and abide their fate.”

“Women!” she retorted, with subdued vehemence. “Yes, I am a woman! Your eyes see that, O Rajah Laut, but can you see my life? I also have heard — O man of many fights — I also have heard the voice of fire-arms; I also have felt the rain of young twigs and of leaves cut up by bullets fall down about my head; I also know how to look in silence at angry faces and at strong hands raised high grasping sharp steel. I also saw men fall dead around me without a cry of fear and of mourning; and I have watched the sleep of weary fugitives, and looked at night shadows full of menace and death with eyes that knew nothing but watchfulness. And,” she went on, with a mournful drop in her voice, “I have faced the heartless sea, held on my lap the heads of those who died raving from thirst, and from their cold hands took the paddle and worked so that those with me did not know that one man more was dead. I did all this. What more have you done? That was my life. What has been yours?”

The matter and the manner of her speech held Lingard motionless, attentive and approving against his will. She ceased speaking, and from her staring black eyes with a narrow border of white above and below, a double ray of her very soul streamed out in a fierce desire to light up the most obscure designs of his heart. After a long silence, which served to emphasize the meaning of her words, she added in the whisper of bitter regret —

“And I have knelt at your feet! And I am afraid!”

“You,” said Lingard deliberately, and returning her look with an interested gaze, “you are a woman whose heart, I believe, is great enough to fill a man’s breast: but still you are a woman, and to you, I, Rajah Laut, have nothing to say.”

She listened bending her head in a movement of forced attention; and his voice sounded to her unexpected, far off, with the distant and unearthly ring of voices that we hear in dreams, saying faintly things startling, cruel or absurd, to which there is no possible reply. To her he had nothing to say! She wrung her hands, glanced over the courtyard with that eager and distracted look that sees nothing, then looked up at the hopeless sky of livid grey and drifting black; at the unquiet mourning of the hot and brilliant heaven that had seen the beginning of her love, that had heard his entreaties and her answers, that had seen his desire and her fear; that had seen her joy, her surrender — and his defeat. Lingard moved a little, and this slight stir near her precipitated her disordered and shapeless thoughts into hurried words.

“Wait!” she exclaimed in a stifled voice, and went on disconnectedly and rapidly —“Stay. I have heard. Men often spoke by the fires . . . men of my people. And they said of you — the first on the sea — they said that to men’s cries you were deaf in battle, but after . . . No! even while you fought, your ears were open to the voice of children and women. They said . . . that. Now I, a woman, I . . . ”

She broke off suddenly and stood before him with dropped eyelids and parted lips, so still now that she seemed to have been changed into a breathless, an unhearing, an unseeing figure, without knowledge of fear or hope, of anger or despair. In the astounding repose that came on her face, nothing moved but the delicate nostrils that expanded and collapsed quickly, flutteringly, in interrupted beats, like the wings of a snared bird.

“I am white,” said Lingard, proudly, looking at her with a steady gaze where simple curiosity was giving way to a pitying annoyance, “and men you have heard, spoke only what is true over the evening fires. My ears are open to your prayer. But listen to me before you speak. For yourself you need not be afraid. You can come even now with me and you shall find refuge in the household of Syed Abdulla — who is of your own faith. And this also you must know: nothing that you may say will change my purpose towards the man who is sleeping — or hiding — in that house.”

Again she gave him the look that was like a stab, not of anger but of desire; of the intense, over-powering desire to see in, to see through, to understand everything: every thought, emotion, purpose; every impulse, every hesitation inside that man; inside that white-clad foreign being who looked at her, who spoke to her, who breathed before her like any other man, but bigger, red-faced, white-haired and mysterious. It was the future clothed in flesh; the to-morrow; the day after; all the days, all the years of her life standing there before her alive and secret, with all their good or evil shut up within the breast of that man; of that man who could be persuaded, cajoled, entreated, perhaps touched, worried; frightened — who knows? — if only first he could be understood! She had seen a long time ago whither events were tending. She had noted the contemptuous yet menacing coldness of Abdulla; she had heard — alarmed yet unbelieving — Babalatchi’s gloomy hints, covert allusions and veiled suggestions to abandon the useless white man whose fate would be the price of the peace secured by the wise and good who had no need of him any more. And he — himself! She clung to him. There was nobody else. Nothing else. She would try to cling to him always — all the life! And yet he was far from her. Further every day. Every day he seemed more distant, and she followed him patiently, hopefully, blindly, but steadily, through all the devious wanderings of his mind. She followed as well as she could. Yet at times — very often lately — she had felt lost like one strayed in the thickets of tangled undergrowth of a great forest. To her the ex-clerk of old Hudig appeared as remote, as brilliant, as terrible, as necessary, as the sun that gives life to these lands: the sun of unclouded skies that dazzles and withers; the sun beneficent and wicked — the giver of light, perfume, and pestilence. She had watched him — watched him close; fascinated by love, fascinated by danger. He was alone now — but for her; and she saw — she thought she saw — that he was like a man afraid of something. Was it possible? He afraid? Of what? Was it of that old white man who was coming — who had come? Possibly. She had heard of that man ever since she could remember. The bravest were afraid of him! And now what was in the mind of this old, old man who looked so strong? What was he going to do with the light of her life? Put it out? Take it away? Take it away for ever! — for ever! — and leave her in darkness:— not in the stirring, whispering, expectant night in which the hushed world awaits the return of sunshine; but in the night without end, the night of the grave, where nothing breathes, nothing moves, nothing thinks — the last darkness of cold and silence without hope of another sunrise.

She cried —“Your purpose! You know nothing. I must . . . ”

He interrupted — unreasonably excited, as if she had, by her look, inoculated him with some of her own distress.

“I know enough.”

She approached, and stood facing him at arm’s length, with both her hands on his shoulders; and he, surprised by that audacity, closed and opened his eyes two or three times, aware of some emotion arising within him, from her words, her tone, her contact; an emotion unknown, singular, penetrating and sad — at the close sight of that strange woman, of that being savage and tender, strong and delicate, fearful and resolute, that had got entangled so fatally between their two lives — his own and that other white man’s, the abominable scoundrel.

“How can you know?” she went on, in a persuasive tone that seemed to flow out of her very heart —“how can you know? I live with him all the days. All the nights. I look at him; I see his every breath, every glance of his eye, every movement of his lips. I see nothing else! What else is there? And even I do not understand. I do not understand him! — Him! — My life! Him who to me is so great that his presence hides the earth and the water from my sight!”

Lingard stood straight, with his hands deep in the pockets of his jacket. His eyes winked quickly, because she spoke very close to his face. She disturbed him and he had a sense of the efforts he was making to get hold of her meaning, while all the time he could not help telling himself that all this was of no use.

She added after a pause —“There has been a time when I could understand him. When I knew what was in his mind better than he knew it himself. When I felt him. When I held him. . . . And now he has escaped.”

“Escaped? What? Gone away!” shouted Lingard.

“Escaped from me,” she said; “left me alone. Alone. And I am ever near him. Yet alone.”

Her hands slipped slowly off Lingard’s shoulders and her arms fell by her side, listless, discouraged, as if to her — to her, the savage, violent, and ignorant creature — had been revealed clearly in that moment the tremendous fact of our isolation, of the loneliness impenetrable and transparent, elusive and everlasting; of the indestructible loneliness that surrounds, envelopes, clothes every human soul from the cradle to the grave, and, perhaps, beyond.

“Aye! Very well! I understand. His face is turned away from you,” said Lingard. “Now, what do you want?”

“I want . . . I have looked — for help . . . everywhere . . . against men. . . . All men . . . I do not know. First they came, the invisible whites, and dealt death from afar . . . then he came. He came to me who was alone and sad. He came; angry with his brothers; great amongst his own people; angry with those I have not seen: with the people where men have no mercy and women have no shame. He was of them, and great amongst them. For he was great?”

Lingard shook his head slightly. She frowned at him, and went on in disordered haste —

“Listen. I saw him. I have lived by the side of brave men . . . of chiefs. When he came I was the daughter of a beggar — of a blind man without strength and hope. He spoke to me as if I had been brighter than the sunshine — more delightful than the cool water of the brook by which we met — more . . . ” Her anxious eyes saw some shade of expression pass on her listener’s face that made her hold her breath for a second, and then explode into pained fury so violent that it drove Lingard back a pace, like an unexpected blast of wind. He lifted both his hands, incongruously paternal in his venerable aspect, bewildered and soothing, while she stretched her neck forward and shouted at him.

“I tell you I was all that to him. I know it! I saw it! . . . There are times when even you white men speak the truth. I saw his eyes. I felt his eyes, I tell you! I saw him tremble when I came near — when I spoke — when I touched him. Look at me! You have been young. Look at me. Look, Rajah Laut!”

She stared at Lingard with provoking fixity, then, turning her head quickly, she sent over her shoulder a glance, full of humble fear, at the house that stood high behind her back — dark, closed, rickety and silent on its crooked posts.

Lingard’s eyes followed her look, and remained gazing expectantly at the house. After a minute or so he muttered, glancing at her suspiciously —

“If he has not heard your voice now, then he must be far away — or dead.”

“He is there,” she whispered, a little calmed but still anxious —“he is there. For three days he waited. Waited for you night and day. And I waited with him. I waited, watching his face, his eyes, his lips; listening to his words. — To the words I could not understand. — To the words he spoke in daylight; to the words he spoke at night in his short sleep. I listened. He spoke to himself walking up and down here — by the river; by the bushes. And I followed. I wanted to know — and I could not! He was tormented by things that made him speak in the words of his own people. Speak to himself — not to me. Not to me! What was he saying? What was he going to do? Was he afraid of you? — Of death? What was in his heart? . . . Fear? . . . Or anger? . . . what desire? . . . what sadness? He spoke; spoke; many words. All the time! And I could not know! I wanted to speak to him. He was deaf to me. I followed him everywhere, watching for some word I could understand; but his mind was in the land of his people — away from me. When I touched him he was angry — so!”

She imitated the movement of some one shaking off roughly an importunate hand, and looked at Lingard with tearful and unsteady eyes.

After a short interval of laboured panting, as if she had been out of breath with running or fighting, she looked down and went on —

“Day after day, night after night, I lived watching him — seeing nothing. And my heart was heavy — heavy with the presence of death that dwelt amongst us. I could not believe. I thought he was afraid. Afraid of you! Then I, myself, knew fear. . . . Tell me, Rajah Laut, do you know the fear without voice — the fear of silence — the fear that comes when there is no one near — when there is no battle, no cries, no angry faces or armed hands anywhere? . . . The fear from which there is no escape!”

She paused, fastened her eyes again on the puzzled Lingard, and hurried on in a tone of despair —

“And I knew then he would not fight you! Before — many days ago — I went away twice to make him obey my desire; to make him strike at his own people so that he could be mine — mine! O calamity! His hand was false as your white hearts. It struck forward, pushed by my desire — by his desire of me. . . . It struck that strong hand, and — O shame! — it killed nobody! Its fierce and lying blow woke up hate without any fear. Round me all was lies. His strength was a lie. My own people lied to me and to him. And to meet you — you, the great! — he had no one but me? But me with my rage, my pain, my weakness. Only me! And to me he would not even speak. The fool!”

She came up close to Lingard, with the wild and stealthy aspect of a lunatic longing to whisper out an insane secret — one of those misshapen, heart-rending, and ludicrous secrets; one of those thoughts that, like monsters — cruel, fantastic, and mournful, wander about terrible and unceasing in the night of madness. Lingard looked at her, astounded but unflinching. She spoke in his face, very low.

“He is all! Everything. He is my breath, my light, my heart. . . . Go away. . . . Forget him. . . . He has no courage and no wisdom any more . . . and I have lost my power. . . . Go away and forget. There are other enemies. . . . Leave him to me. He had been a man once. . . . You are too great. Nobody can withstand you. . . . I tried. . . . I know now. . . . I cry for mercy. Leave him to me and go away.”

The fragments of her supplicating sentences were as if tossed on the crest of her sobs. Lingard, outwardly impassive, with his eyes fixed on the house, experienced that feeling of condemnation, deep-seated, persuasive, and masterful; that illogical impulse of disapproval which is half disgust, half vague fear, and that wakes up in our hearts in the presence of anything new or unusual, of anything that is not run into the mould of our own conscience; the accursed feeling made up of disdain, of anger, and of the sense of superior virtue that leaves us deaf, blind, contemptuous and stupid before anything which is not like ourselves.

He answered, not looking at her at first, but speaking towards the house that fascinated him — “I go away! He wanted me to come — he himself did! . . . YOU must go away. You do not know what you are asking for. Listen. Go to your own people. Leave him. He is . . . ”

He paused, looked down at her with his steady eyes; hesitated, as if seeking an adequate expression; then snapped his fingers, and said —

“Finish.”

She stepped back, her eyes on the ground, and pressed her temples with both her hands, which she raised to her head in a slow and ample movement full of unconscious tragedy. The tone of her words was gentle and vibrating, like a loud meditation. She said —

“Tell the brook not to run to the river; tell the river not to run to the sea. Speak loud. Speak angrily. Maybe they will obey you. But it is in my mind that the brook will not care. The brook that springs out of the hillside and runs to the great river. He would not care for your words: he that cares not for the very mountain that gave him life; he that tears the earth from which he springs. Tears it, eats it, destroys it — to hurry faster to the river — to the river in which he is lost for ever. . . . O Rajah Laut! I do not care.”

She drew close again to Lingard, approaching slowly, reluctantly, as if pushed by an invisible hand, and added in words that seemed to be torn out of her —

“I cared not for my own father. For him that died. I would have rather . . . You do not know what I have done . . . I . . . ”

“You shall have his life,” said Lingard, hastily.

They stood together, crossing their glances; she suddenly appeased, and Lingard thoughtful and uneasy under a vague sense of defeat. And yet there was no defeat. He never intended to kill the fellow — not after the first moment of anger, a long time ago. The days of bitter wonder had killed anger; had left only a bitter indignation and a bitter wish for complete justice. He felt discontented and surprised. Unexpectedly he had come upon a human being — a woman at that — who had made him disclose his will before its time. She should have his life. But she must be told, she must know, that for such men as Willems there was no favour and no grace.

“Understand,” he said slowly, “that I leave him his life not in mercy but in punishment.”

She started, watched every word on his lips, and after he finished speaking she remained still and mute in astonished immobility. A single big drop of rain, a drop enormous, pellucid and heavy — like a super-human tear coming straight and rapid from above, tearing its way through the sombre sky — struck loudly the dry ground between them in a starred splash. She wrung her hands in the bewilderment of the new and incomprehensible fear. The anguish of her whisper was more piercing than the shrillest cry.

“What punishment! Will you take him away then? Away from me? Listen to what I have done. . . . It is I who . . . ”

“Ah!” exclaimed Lingard, who had been looking at the house.

“Don’t you believe her, Captain Lingard,” shouted Willems from the doorway, where he appeared with swollen eyelids and bared breast. He stood for a while, his hands grasping the lintels on each side of the door, and writhed about, glaring wildly, as if he had been crucified there. Then he made a sudden rush head foremost down the plankway that responded with hollow, short noises to every footstep.

She heard him. A slight thrill passed on her face and the words that were on her lips fell back unspoken into her benighted heart; fell back amongst the mud, the stones — and the flowers, that are at the bottom of every heart.

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