An Outcast of the Islands, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter Two

For the next half-hour Almayer, who wanted to give Joanna plenty of time, stumbled amongst the lumber in distant parts of his enclosure, sneaked along the fences; or held his breath, flattened against grass walls behind various outhouses: all this to escape Ali’s inconveniently zealous search for his master. He heard him talk with the head watchman — sometimes quite close to him in the darkness — then moving off, coming back, wondering, and, as the time passed, growing uneasy.

“He did not fall into the river? — say, thou blind watcher!” Ali was growling in a bullying tone, to the other man. “He told me to fetch Mahmat, and when I came back swiftly I found him not in the house. There is that Sirani woman there, so that Mahmat cannot steal anything, but it is in my mind, the night will be half gone before I rest.”

He shouted —

“Master! O master! O mast . . . ”

“What are you making that noise for?” said Almayer, with severity, stepping out close to them.

The two Malays leaped away from each other in their surprise.

“You may go. I don’t want you any more tonight, Ali,” went on Almayer. “Is Mahmat there?”

“Unless the ill-behaved savage got tired of waiting. Those men know not politeness. They should not be spoken to by white men,” said Ali, resentfully.

Almayer went towards the house, leaving his servants to wonder where he had sprung from so unexpectedly. The watchman hinted obscurely at powers of invisibility possessed by the master, who often at night . . . Ali interrupted him with great scorn. Not every white man has the power. Now, the Rajah Laut could make himself invisible. Also, he could be in two places at once, as everybody knew; except he — the useless watchman — who knew no more about white men than a wild pig! Ya-wa!

And Ali strolled towards his hut, yawning loudly.

As Almayer ascended the steps he heard the noise of a door flung to, and when he entered the verandah he saw only Mahmat there, close to the doorway of the passage. Mahmat seemed to be caught in the very act of slinking away, and Almayer noticed that with satisfaction. Seeing the white man, the Malay gave up his attempt and leaned against the wall. He was a short, thick, broad-shouldered man with very dark skin and a wide, stained, bright-red mouth that uncovered, when he spoke, a close row of black and glistening teeth. His eyes were big, prominent, dreamy and restless. He said sulkily, looking all over the place from under his eyebrows —

“White Tuan, you are great and strong — and I a poor man. Tell me what is your will, and let me go in the name of God. It is late.”

Almayer examined the man thoughtfully. How could he find out whether . . . He had it! Lately he had employed that man and his two brothers as extra boatmen to carry stores, provisions, and new axes to a camp of rattan cutters some distance up the river. A three days’ expedition. He would test him now in that way. He said negligently —

“I want you to start at once for the camp, with surat for the Kavitan. One dollar a day.”

The man appeared plunged in dull hesitation, but Almayer, who knew his Malays, felt pretty sure from his aspect that nothing would induce the fellow to go. He urged —

“It is important — and if you are swift I shall give two dollars for the last day.”

“No, Tuan. We do not go,” said the man, in a hoarse whisper.

“Why?”

“We start on another journey.”

“Where?”

“To a place we know of,” said Mahmat, a little louder, in a stubborn manner, and looking at the floor.

Almayer experienced a feeling of immense joy. He said, with affected annoyance —

“You men live in my house and it is as if it were your own. I may want my house soon.”

Mahmat looked up.

“We are men of the sea and care not for a roof when we have a canoe that will hold three, and a paddle apiece. The sea is our house. Peace be with you, Tuan.”

He turned and went away rapidly, and Almayer heard him directly afterwards in the courtyard calling to the watchman to open the gate. Mahmat passed through the gate in silence, but before the bar had been put up behind him he had made up his mind that if the white man ever wanted to eject him from his hut, he would burn it and also as many of the white man’s other buildings as he could safely get at. And he began to call his brothers before he was inside the dilapidated dwelling.

“All’s well!” muttered Almayer to himself, taking some loose Java tobacco from a drawer in the table. “Now if anything comes out I am clear. I asked the man to go up the river. I urged him. He will say so himself. Good.”

He began to charge the china bowl of his pipe, a pipe with a long cherry stem and a curved mouthpiece, pressing the tobacco down with his thumb and thinking: No. I sha’n’t see her again. Don’t want to. I will give her a good start, then go in chase — and send an express boat after father. Yes! that’s it.

He approached the door of the office and said, holding his pipe away from his lips —

“Good luck to you, Mrs. Willems. Don’t lose any time. You may get along by the bushes; the fence there is out of repair. Don’t lose time. Don’t forget that it is a matter of . . . life and death. And don’t forget that I know nothing. I trust you.”

He heard inside a noise as of a chest-lid falling down. She made a few steps. Then a sigh, profound and long, and some faint words which he did not catch. He moved away from the door on tiptoe, kicked off his slippers in a corner of the verandah, then entered the passage puffing at his pipe; entered cautiously in a gentle creaking of planks and turned into a curtained entrance to the left. There was a big room. On the floor a small binnacle lamp — that had found its way to the house years ago from the lumber-room of the Flash — did duty for a night-light. It glimmered very small and dull in the great darkness. Almayer walked to it, and picking it up revived the flame by pulling the wick with his fingers, which he shook directly after with a grimace of pain. Sleeping shapes, covered — head and all — with white sheets, lay about on the mats on the floor. In the middle of the room a small cot, under a square white mosquito net, stood — the only piece of furniture between the four walls — looking like an altar of transparent marble in a gloomy temple. A woman, half-lying on the floor with her head dropped on her arms, which were crossed on the foot of the cot, woke up as Almayer strode over her outstretched legs. She sat up without a word, leaning forward, and, clasping her knees, stared down with sad eyes, full of sleep.

Almayer, the smoky light in one hand, his pipe in the other, stood before the curtained cot looking at his daughter — at his little Nina — at that part of himself, at that small and unconscious particle of humanity that seemed to him to contain all his soul. And it was as if he had been bathed in a bright and warm wave of tenderness, in a tenderness greater than the world, more precious than life; the only thing real, living, sweet, tangible, beautiful and safe amongst the elusive, the distorted and menacing shadows of existence. On his face, lit up indistinctly by the short yellow flame of the lamp, came a look of rapt attention while he looked into her future. And he could see things there! Things charming and splendid passing before him in a magic unrolling of resplendent pictures; pictures of events brilliant, happy, inexpressibly glorious, that would make up her life. He would do it! He would do it. He would! He would — for that child! And as he stood in the still night, lost in his enchanting and gorgeous dreams, while the ascending, thin thread of tobacco smoke spread into a faint bluish cloud above his head, he appeared strangely impressive and ecstatic: like a devout and mystic worshipper, adoring, transported and mute; burning incense before a shrine, a diaphanous shrine of a child-idol with closed eyes; before a pure and vaporous shrine of a small god — fragile, powerless, unconscious and sleeping.

When Ali, roused by loud and repeated shouting of his name, stumbled outside the door of his hut, he saw a narrow streak of trembling gold above the forests and a pale sky with faded stars overhead: signs of the coming day. His master stood before the door waving a piece of paper in his hand and shouting excitedly —“Quick, Ali! Quick!” When he saw his servant he rushed forward, and pressing the paper on him objurgated him, in tones which induced Ali to think that something awful had happened, to hurry up and get the whale-boat ready to go immediately — at once, at once — after Captain Lingard. Ali remonstrated, agitated also, having caught the infection of distracted haste.

“If must go quick, better canoe. Whale-boat no can catch, same as small canoe.”

“No, no! Whale-boat! whale-boat! You dolt! you wretch!” howled Almayer, with all the appearance of having gone mad. “Call the men! Get along with it. Fly!”

And Ali rushed about the courtyard kicking the doors of huts open to put his head in and yell frightfully inside; and as he dashed from hovel to hovel, men shivering and sleepy were coming out, looking after him stupidly, while they scratched their ribs with bewildered apathy. It was hard work to put them in motion. They wanted time to stretch themselves and to shiver a little. Some wanted food. One said he was sick. Nobody knew where the rudder was. Ali darted here and there, ordering, abusing, pushing one, then another, and stopping in his exertions at times to wring his hands hastily and groan, because the whale-boat was much slower than the worst canoe and his master would not listen to his protestations.

Almayer saw the boat go off at last, pulled anyhow by men that were cold, hungry, and sulky; and he remained on the jetty watching it down the reach. It was broad day then, and the sky was perfectly cloudless. Almayer went up to the house for a moment. His household was all astir and wondering at the strange disappearance of the Sirani woman, who had taken her child and had left her luggage. Almayer spoke to no one, got his revolver, and went down to the river again. He jumped into a small canoe and paddled himself towards the schooner. He worked very leisurely, but as soon as he was nearly alongside he began to hail the silent craft with the tone and appearance of a man in a tremendous hurry.

“Schooner ahoy! schooner ahoy!” he shouted.

A row of blank faces popped up above the bulwark. After a while a man with a woolly head of hair said —

“Sir!”

“The mate! the mate! Call him, steward!” said Almayer, excitedly, making a frantic grab at a rope thrown down to him by somebody.

In less than a minute the mate put his head over. He asked, surprised —

“What can I do for you, Mr. Almayer?”

“Let me have the gig at once, Mr. Swan — at once. I ask in Captain Lingard’s name. I must have it. Matter of life and death.”

The mate was impressed by Almayer’s agitation

“You shall have it, sir. . . . Man the gig there! Bear a hand, serang! . . . It’s hanging astern, Mr. Almayer,” he said, looking down again. “Get into it, sir. The men are coming down by the painter.”

By the time Almayer had clambered over into the stern sheets, four calashes were in the boat and the oars were being passed over the taffrail. The mate was looking on. Suddenly he said —

“Is it dangerous work? Do you want any help? I would come . . . ”

“Yes, yes!” cried Almayer. “Come along. Don’t lose a moment. Go and get your revolver. Hurry up! hurry up!”

Yet, notwithstanding his feverish anxiety to be off, he lolled back very quiet and unconcerned till the mate got in and, passing over the thwarts, sat down by his side. Then he seemed to wake up, and called out —

“Let go — let go the painter!”

“Let go the painter — the painter!” yelled the bowman, jerking at it.

People on board also shouted “Let go!” to one another, till it occurred at last to somebody to cast off the rope; and the boat drifted rapidly away from the schooner in the sudden silencing of all voices.

Almayer steered. The mate sat by his side, pushing the cartridges into the chambers of his revolver. When the weapon was loaded he asked —

“What is it? Are you after somebody?”

“Yes,” said Almayer, curtly, with his eyes fixed ahead on the river. “We must catch a dangerous man.”

“I like a bit of a chase myself,” declared the mate, and then, discouraged by Almayer’s aspect of severe thoughtfulness, said nothing more.

Nearly an hour passed. The calashes stretched forward head first and lay back with their faces to the sky, alternately, in a regular swing that sent the boat flying through the water; and the two sitters, very upright in the stern sheets, swayed rhythmically a little at every stroke of the long oars plied vigorously.

The mate observed: “The tide is with us.”

“The current always runs down in this river,” said Almayer.

“Yes — I know,” retorted the other; “but it runs faster on the ebb. Look by the land at the way we get over the ground! A five-knot current here, I should say.”

“H’m!” growled Almayer. Then suddenly: “There is a passage between two islands that will save us four miles. But at low water the two islands, in the dry season, are like one with only a mud ditch between them. Still, it’s worth trying.”

“Ticklish job that, on a falling tide,” said the mate, coolly. “You know best whether there’s time to get through.”

“I will try,” said Almayer, watching the shore intently. “Look out now!”

He tugged hard at the starboard yoke-line.

“Lay in your oars!” shouted the mate.

The boat swept round and shot through the narrow opening of a creek that broadened out before the craft had time to lose its way.

“Out oars! . . . Just room enough,” muttered the mate.

It was a sombre creek of black water speckled with the gold of scattered sunlight falling through the boughs that met overhead in a soaring, restless arc full of gentle whispers passing, tremulous, aloft amongst the thick leaves. The creepers climbed up the trunks of serried trees that leaned over, looking insecure and undermined by floods which had eaten away the earth from under their roots. And the pungent, acrid smell of rotting leaves, of flowers, of blossoms and plants dying in that poisonous and cruel gloom, where they pined for sunshine in vain, seemed to lay heavy, to press upon the shiny and stagnant water in its tortuous windings amongst the everlasting and invincible shadows.

Almayer looked anxious. He steered badly. Several times the blades of the oars got foul of the bushes on one side or the other, checking the way of the gig. During one of those occurrences, while they were getting clear, one of the calashes said something to the others in a rapid whisper. They looked down at the water. So did the mate.

“Hallo!” he exclaimed. “Eh, Mr. Almayer! Look! The water is running out. See there! We will be caught.”

“Back! back! We must go back!” cried Almayer.

“Perhaps better go on.”

“No; back! back!”

He pulled at the steering line, and ran the nose of the boat into the bank. Time was lost again in getting clear.

“Give way, men! give way!” urged the mate, anxiously.

The men pulled with set lips and dilated nostrils, breathing hard.

“Too late,” said the mate, suddenly. “The oars touch the bottom already. We are done.”

The boat stuck. The men laid in the oars, and sat, panting, with crossed arms.

“Yes, we are caught,” said Almayer, composedly. “That is unlucky!”

The water was falling round the boat. The mate watched the patches of mud coming to the surface. Then in a moment he laughed, and pointing his finger at the creek —

“Look!” he said; “the blamed river is running away from us. Here’s the last drop of water clearing out round that bend.”

Almayer lifted his head. The water was gone, and he looked only at a curved track of mud — of mud soft and black, hiding fever, rottenness, and evil under its level and glazed surface.

“We are in for it till the evening,” he said, with cheerful resignation. “I did my best. Couldn’t help it.”

“We must sleep the day away,” said the mate. “There’s nothing to eat,” he added, gloomily.

Almayer stretched himself in the stern sheets. The Malays curled down between thwarts.

“Well, I’m jiggered!” said the mate, starting up after a long pause. “I was in a devil of a hurry to go and pass the day stuck in the mud. Here’s a holiday for you! Well! well!”

They slept or sat unmoving and patient. As the sun mounted higher the breeze died out, and perfect stillness reigned in the empty creek. A troop of long-nosed monkeys appeared, and crowding on the outer boughs, contemplated the boat and the motionless men in it with grave and sorrowful intensity, disturbed now and then by irrational outbreaks of mad gesticulation. A little bird with sapphire breast balanced a slender twig across a slanting beam of light, and flashed in it to and fro like a gem dropped from the sky. His minute round eye stared at the strange and tranquil creatures in the boat. After a while he sent out a thin twitter that sounded impertinent and funny in the solemn silence of the great wilderness; in the great silence full of struggle and death.

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