An Outcast of the Islands, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter Four

Willems moved languidly towards the river, then retraced his steps to the tree and let himself fall on the seat under its shade. On the other side of the immense trunk he could hear the old woman moving about, sighing loudly, muttering to herself, snapping dry sticks, blowing up the fire. After a while a whiff of smoke drifted round to where he sat. It made him feel hungry, and that feeling was like a new indignity added to an intolerable load of humiliations. He felt inclined to cry. He felt very weak. He held up his arm before his eyes and watched for a little while the trembling of the lean limb. Skin and bone, by God! How thin he was! . . . He had suffered from fever a good deal, and now he thought with tearful dismay that Lingard, although he had sent him food — and what food, great Lord: a little rice and dried fish; quite unfit for a white man — had not sent him any medicine. Did the old savage think that he was like the wild beasts that are never ill? He wanted quinine.

He leaned the back of his head against the tree and closed his eyes. He thought feebly that if he could get hold of Lingard he would like to flay him alive; but it was only a blurred, a short and a passing thought. His imagination, exhausted by the repeated delineations of his own fate, had not enough strength left to grip the idea of revenge. He was not indignant and rebellious. He was cowed. He was cowed by the immense cataclysm of his disaster. Like most men, he had carried solemnly within his breast the whole universe, and the approaching end of all things in the destruction of his own personality filled him with paralyzing awe. Everything was toppling over. He blinked his eyes quickly, and it seemed to him that the very sunshine of the morning disclosed in its brightness a suggestion of some hidden and sinister meaning. In his unreasoning fear he tried to hide within himself. He drew his feet up, his head sank between his shoulders, his arms hugged his sides. Under the high and enormous tree soaring superbly out of the mist in a vigorous spread of lofty boughs, with a restless and eager flutter of its innumerable leaves in the clear sunshine, he remained motionless, huddled up on his seat: terrified and still.

Willems’ gaze roamed over the ground, and then he watched with idiotic fixity half a dozen black ants entering courageously a tuft of long grass which, to them, must have appeared a dark and a dangerous jungle. Suddenly he thought: There must be something dead in there. Some dead insect. Death everywhere! He closed his eyes again in an access of trembling pain. Death everywhere — wherever one looks. He did not want to see the ants. He did not want to see anybody or anything. He sat in the darkness of his own making, reflecting bitterly that there was no peace for him. He heard voices now. . . . Illusion! Misery! Torment! Who would come? Who would speak to him? What business had he to hear voices? . . . yet he heard them faintly, from the river. Faintly, as if shouted far off over there, came the words “We come back soon.” . . . Delirium and mockery! Who would come back? Nobody ever comes back! Fever comes back. He had it on him this morning. That was it. . . . He heard unexpectedly the old woman muttering something near by. She had come round to his side of the tree. He opened his eyes and saw her bent back before him. She stood, with her hand shading her eyes, looking towards the landing-place. Then she glided away. She had seen — and now she was going back to her cooking; a woman incurious; expecting nothing; without fear and without hope.

She had gone back behind the tree, and now Willems could see a human figure on the path to the landing-place. It appeared to him to be a woman, in a red gown, holding some heavy bundle in her arms; it was an apparition unexpected, familiar and odd. He cursed through his teeth . . . It had wanted only this! See things like that in broad daylight! He was very bad — very bad. . . . He was horribly scared at this awful symptom of the desperate state of his health.

This scare lasted for the space of a flash of lightning, and in the next moment it was revealed to him that the woman was real; that she was coming towards him; that she was his wife! He put his feet down to the ground quickly, but made no other movement. His eyes opened wide. He was so amazed that for a time he absolutely forgot his own existence. The only idea in his head was: Why on earth did she come here?

Joanna was coming up the courtyard with eager, hurried steps. She carried in her arms the child, wrapped up in one of Almayer’s white blankets that she had snatched off the bed at the last moment, before leaving the house. She seemed to be dazed by the sun in her eyes; bewildered by her strange surroundings. She moved on, looking quickly right and left in impatient expectation of seeing her husband at any moment. Then, approaching the tree, she perceived suddenly a kind of a dried-up, yellow corpse, sitting very stiff on a bench in the shade and looking at her with big eyes that were alive. That was her husband.

She stopped dead short. They stared at one another in profound stillness, with astounded eyes, with eyes maddened by the memories of things far off that seemed lost in the lapse of time. Their looks crossed, passed each other, and appeared to dart at them through fantastic distances, to come straight from the incredible.

Looking at him steadily she came nearer, and deposited the blanket with the child in it on the bench. Little Louis, after howling with terror in the darkness of the river most of the night, now slept soundly and did not wake. Willems’ eyes followed his wife, his head turning slowly after her. He accepted her presence there with a tired acquiescence in its fabulous improbability. Anything might happen. What did she come for? She was part of the general scheme of his misfortune. He half expected that she would rush at him, pull his hair, and scratch his face. Why not? Anything might happen! In an exaggerated sense of his great bodily weakness he felt somewhat apprehensive of possible assault. At any rate, she would scream at him. He knew her of old. She could screech. He had thought that he was rid of her for ever. She came now probably to see the end . . . .

Suddenly she turned, and embracing him slid gently to the ground.

This startled him. With her forehead on his knees she sobbed noiselessly. He looked down dismally at the top of her head. What was she up to? He had not the strength to move — to get away. He heard her whispering something, and bent over to listen. He caught the word “Forgive.”

That was what she came for! All that way. Women are queer. Forgive. Not he! . . . All at once this thought darted through his brain: How did she come? In a boat. Boat! boat!

He shouted “Boat!” and jumped up, knocking her over. Before she had time to pick herself up he pounced upon her and was dragging her up by the shoulders. No sooner had she regained her feet than she clasped him tightly round the neck, covering his face, his eyes, his mouth, his nose with desperate kisses. He dodged his head about, shaking her arms, trying to keep her off, to speak, to ask her. . . . She came in a boat, boat, boat! . . . They struggled and swung round, tramping in a semicircle. He blurted out, “Leave off. Listen,” while he tore at her hands. This meeting of lawful love and sincere joy resembled fight. Louis Willems slept peacefully under his blanket.

At last Willems managed to free himself, and held her off, pressing her arms down. He looked at her. He had half a suspicion that he was dreaming. Her lips trembled; her eyes wandered unsteadily, always coming back to his face. He saw her the same as ever, in his presence. She appeared startled, tremulous, ready to cry. She did not inspire him with confidence. He shouted —

“How did you come?”

She answered in hurried words, looking at him intently —

“In a big canoe with three men. I know everything. Lingard’s away. I come to save you. I know. . . . Almayer told me.”

“Canoe! — Almayer — Lies. Told you — You!” stammered Willems in a distracted manner. “Why you? — Told what?”

Words failed him. He stared at his wife, thinking with fear that she — stupid woman — had been made a tool in some plan of treachery . . . in some deadly plot.

She began to cry —

“Don’t look at me like that, Peter. What have I done? I come to beg — to beg — forgiveness. . . . Save — Lingard — danger.”

He trembled with impatience, with hope, with fear. She looked at him and sobbed out in a fresh outburst of grief —

“Oh! Peter. What’s the matter? — Are you ill? . . . Oh! you look so ill . . . ”

He shook her violently into a terrified and wondering silence.

“How dare you! — I am well — perfectly well. . . . Where’s that boat? Will you tell me where that boat is — at last? The boat, I say . . . You! . . . ”

“You hurt me,” she moaned.

He let her go, and, mastering her terror, she stood quivering and looking at him with strange intensity. Then she made a movement forward, but he lifted his finger, and she restrained herself with a long sigh. He calmed down suddenly and surveyed her with cold criticism, with the same appearance as when, in the old days, he used to find fault with the household expenses. She found a kind of fearful delight in this abrupt return into the past, into her old subjection.

He stood outwardly collected now, and listened to her disconnected story. Her words seemed to fall round him with the distracting clatter of stunning hail. He caught the meaning here and there, and straightway would lose himself in a tremendous effort to shape out some intelligible theory of events. There was a boat. A boat. A big boat that could take him to sea if necessary. That much was clear. She brought it. Why did Almayer lie to her so? Was it a plan to decoy him into some ambush? Better that than hopeless solitude. She had money. The men were ready to go anywhere . . . she said.

He interrupted her —

“Where are they now?”

“They are coming directly,” she answered, tearfully. “Directly. There are some fishing stakes near here — they said. They are coming directly.”

Again she was talking and sobbing together. She wanted to be forgiven. Forgiven? What for? Ah! the scene in Macassar. As if he had time to think of that! What did he care what she had done months ago? He seemed to struggle in the toils of complicated dreams where everything was impossible, yet a matter of course, where the past took the aspects of the future and the present lay heavy on his heart — seemed to take him by the throat like the hand of an enemy. And while she begged, entreated, kissed his hands, wept on his shoulder, adjured him in the name of God, to forgive, to forget, to speak the word for which she longed, to look at his boy, to believe in her sorrow and in her devotion — his eyes, in the fascinated immobility of shining pupils, looked far away, far beyond her, beyond the river, beyond this land, through days, weeks, months; looked into liberty, into the future, into his triumph . . . into the great possibility of a startling revenge.

He felt a sudden desire to dance and shout. He shouted —

“After all, we shall meet again, Captain Lingard.”

“Oh, no! No!” she cried, joining her hands.

He looked at her with surprise. He had forgotten she was there till the break of her cry in the monotonous tones of her prayer recalled him into that courtyard from the glorious turmoil of his dreams. It was very strange to see her there — near him. He felt almost affectionate towards her. After all, she came just in time. Then he thought: That other one. I must get away without a scene. Who knows; she may be dangerous! . . . And all at once he felt he hated Aissa with an immense hatred that seemed to choke him. He said to his wife —

“Wait a moment.”

She, obedient, seemed to gulp down some words which wanted to come out. He muttered: “Stay here,” and disappeared round the tree.

The water in the iron pan on the cooking fire boiled furiously, belching out volumes of white steam that mixed with the thin black thread of smoke. The old woman appeared to him through this as if in a fog, squatting on her heels, impassive and weird.

Willems came up near and asked, “Where is she?”

The woman did not even lift her head, but answered at once, readily, as though she had expected the question for a long time.

“While you were asleep under the tree, before the strange canoe came, she went out of the house. I saw her look at you and pass on with a great light in her eyes. A great light. And she went towards the place where our master Lakamba had his fruit trees. When we were many here. Many, many. Men with arms by their side. Many . . . men. And talk . . . and songs . . . ”

She went on like that, raving gently to herself for a long time after Willems had left her.

Willems went back to his wife. He came up close to her and found he had nothing to say. Now all his faculties were concentrated upon his wish to avoid Aissa. She might stay all the morning in that grove. Why did those rascally boatmen go? He had a physical repugnance to set eyes on her. And somewhere, at the very bottom of his heart, there was a fear of her. Why? What could she do? Nothing on earth could stop him now. He felt strong, reckless, pitiless, and superior to everything. He wanted to preserve before his wife the lofty purity of his character. He thought: She does not know. Almayer held his tongue about Aissa. But if she finds out, I am lost. If it hadn’t been for the boy I would . . . free of both of them . . . . The idea darted through his head. Not he! Married. . . . Swore solemnly. No . . . sacred tie. . . . Looking on his wife, he felt for the first time in his life something approaching remorse. Remorse, arising from his conception of the awful nature of an oath before the altar. . . . She mustn’t find out. . . . Oh, for that boat! He must run in and get his revolver. Couldn’t think of trusting himself unarmed with those Bajow fellows. Get it now while she is away. Oh, for that boat! . . . He dared not go to the river and hail. He thought: She might hear me. . . . I’ll go and get . . . cartridges . . . then will be all ready . . . nothing else. No.

And while he stood meditating profoundly before he could make up his mind to run to the house, Joanna pleaded, holding to his arm — pleaded despairingly, broken-hearted, hopeless whenever she glanced up at his face, which to her seemed to wear the aspect of unforgiving rectitude, of virtuous severity, of merciless justice. And she pleaded humbly — abashed before him, before the unmoved appearance of the man she had wronged in defiance of human and divine laws. He heard not a word of what she said till she raised her voice in a final appeal —

“ . . . Don’t you see I loved you always? They told me horrible things about you. . . . My own mother! They told me — you have been — you have been unfaithful to me, and I . . . ”

“It’s a damned lie!” shouted Willems, waking up for a moment into righteous indignation.

“I know! I know — Be generous. — Think of my misery since you went away — Oh! I could have torn my tongue out. . . . I will never believe anybody — Look at the boy — Be merciful — I could never rest till I found you. . . . Say — a word — one word . . . ”

“What the devil do you want?” exclaimed Willems, looking towards the river. “Where’s that damned boat? Why did you let them go away? You stupid!”

“Oh, Peter! — I know that in your heart you have forgiven me — You are so generous — I want to hear you say so. . . . Tell me — do you?”

“Yes! yes!” said Willems, impatiently. “I forgive you. Don’t be a fool.”

“Don’t go away. Don’t leave me alone here. Where is the danger? I am so frightened. . . . Are you alone here? Sure? . . . Let us go away!”

“That’s sense,” said Willems, still looking anxiously towards the river.

She sobbed gently, leaning on his arm.

“Let me go,” he said.

He had seen above the steep bank the heads of three men glide along smoothly. Then, where the shore shelved down to the landing-place, appeared a big canoe which came slowly to land.

“Here they are,” he went on, briskly. “I must get my revolver.”

He made a few hurried paces towards the house, but seemed to catch sight of something, turned short round and came back to his wife. She stared at him, alarmed by the sudden change in his face. He appeared much discomposed. He stammered a little as he began to speak.

“Take the child. Walk down to the boat and tell them to drop it out of sight, quick, behind the bushes. Do you hear? Quick! I will come to you there directly. Hurry up!”

“Peter! What is it? I won’t leave you. There is some danger in this horrible place.”

“Will you do what I tell you?” said Willems, in an irritable whisper.

“No! no! no! I won’t leave you. I will not lose you again. Tell me, what is it?”

From beyond the house came a faint voice singing. Willems shook his wife by the shoulder.

“Do what I tell you! Run at once!”

She gripped his arm and clung to him desperately. He looked up to heaven as if taking it to witness of that woman’s infernal folly.

The song grew louder, then ceased suddenly, and Aissa appeared in sight, walking slowly, her hands full of flowers.

She had turned the corner of the house, coming out into the full sunshine, and the light seemed to leap upon her in a stream brilliant, tender, and caressing, as if attracted by the radiant happiness of her face. She had dressed herself for a festive day, for the memorable day of his return to her, of his return to an affection that would last for ever. The rays of the morning sun were caught by the oval clasp of the embroidered belt that held the silk sarong round her waist. The dazzling white stuff of her body jacket was crossed by a bar of yellow and silver of her scarf, and in the black hair twisted high on her small head shone the round balls of gold pins amongst crimson blossoms and white star-shaped flowers, with which she had crowned herself to charm his eyes; those eyes that were henceforth to see nothing in the world but her own resplendent image. And she moved slowly, bending her face over the mass of pure white champakas and jasmine pressed to her breast, in a dreamy intoxication of sweet scents and of sweeter hopes.

She did not seem to see anything, stopped for a moment at the foot of the plankway leading to the house, then, leaving her high-heeled wooden sandals there, ascended the planks in a light run; straight, graceful, flexible, and noiseless, as if she had soared up to the door on invisible wings. Willems pushed his wife roughly behind the tree, and made up his mind quickly for a rush to the house, to grab his revolver and . . . Thoughts, doubts, expedients seemed to boil in his brain. He had a flashing vision of delivering a stunning blow, of tying up that flower bedecked woman in the dark house — a vision of things done swiftly with enraged haste — to save his prestige, his superiority — something of immense importance. . . . He had not made two steps when Joanna bounded after him, caught the back of his ragged jacket, tore out a big piece, and instantly hooked herself with both hands to the collar, nearly dragging him down on his back. Although taken by surprise, he managed to keep his feet. From behind she panted into his ear —

“That woman! Who’s that woman? Ah! that’s what those boatmen were talking about. I heard them . . . heard them . . . heard . . . in the night. They spoke about some woman. I dared not understand. I would not ask . . . listen . . . believe! How could I? Then it’s true. No. Say no. . . . Who’s that woman?”

He swayed, tugging forward. She jerked at him till the button gave way, and then he slipped half out of his jacket and, turning round, remained strangely motionless. His heart seemed to beat in his throat. He choked — tried to speak — could not find any words. He thought with fury: I will kill both of them.

For a second nothing moved about the courtyard in the great vivid clearness of the day. Only down by the landing-place a waringan-tree, all in a blaze of clustering red berries, seemed alive with the stir of little birds that filled with the feverish flutter of their feathers the tangle of overloaded branches. Suddenly the variegated flock rose spinning in a soft whirr and dispersed, slashing the sunlit haze with the sharp outlines of stiffened wings. Mahmat and one of his brothers appeared coming up from the landing-place, their lances in their hands, to look for their passengers.

Aissa coming now empty-handed out of the house, caught sight of the two armed men. In her surprise she emitted a faint cry, vanished back and in a flash reappeared in the doorway with Willems’ revolver in her hand. To her the presence of any man there could only have an ominous meaning. There was nothing in the outer world but enemies. She and the man she loved were alone, with nothing round them but menacing dangers. She did not mind that, for if death came, no matter from what hand, they would die together.

Her resolute eyes took in the courtyard in a circular glance. She noticed that the two strangers had ceased to advance and now were standing close together leaning on the polished shafts of their weapons. The next moment she saw Willems, with his back towards her, apparently struggling under the tree with some one. She saw nothing distinctly, and, unhesitating, flew down the plankway calling out: “I come!”

He heard her cry, and with an unexpected rush drove his wife backwards to the seat. She fell on it; he jerked himself altogether out of his jacket, and she covered her face with the soiled rags. He put his lips close to her, asking —

“For the last time, will you take the child and go?”

She groaned behind the unclean ruins of his upper garment. She mumbled something. He bent lower to hear. She was saying —

“I won’t. Order that woman away. I can’t look at her!”

“You fool!”

He seemed to spit the words at her, then, making up his mind, spun round to face Aissa. She was coming towards them slowly now, with a look of unbounded amazement on her face. Then she stopped and stared at him — who stood there, stripped to the waist, bare-headed and sombre.

Some way off, Mahmat and his brother exchanged rapid words in calm undertones. . . . This was the strong daughter of the holy man who had died. The white man is very tall. There would be three women and the child to take in the boat, besides that white man who had the money. . . . The brother went away back to the boat, and Mahmat remained looking on. He stood like a sentinel, the leaf-shaped blade of his lance glinting above his head.

Willems spoke suddenly.

“Give me this,” he said, stretching his hand towards the revolver.

Aissa stepped back. Her lips trembled. She said very low: “Your people?”

He nodded slightly. She shook her head thoughtfully, and a few delicate petals of the flowers dying in her hair fell like big drops of crimson and white at her feet.

“Did you know?” she whispered.

“No!” said Willems. “They sent for me.”

“Tell them to depart. They are accursed. What is there between them and you — and you who carry my life in your heart!”

Willems said nothing. He stood before her looking down on the ground and repeating to himself: I must get that revolver away from her, at once, at once. I can’t think of trusting myself with those men without firearms. I must have it.

She asked, after gazing in silence at Joanna, who was sobbing gently —

“Who is she?”

“My wife,” answered Willems, without looking up. “My wife according to our white law, which comes from God!”

“Your law! Your God!” murmured Aissa, contemptuously.

“Give me this revolver,” said Willems, in a peremptory tone. He felt an unwillingness to close with her, to get it by force.

She took no notice and went on —

“Your law . . . or your lies? What am I to believe? I came — I ran to defend you when I saw the strange men. You lied to me with your lips, with your eyes. You crooked heart! . . . Ah!” she added, after an abrupt pause. “She is the first! Am I then to be a slave?”

“You may be what you like,” said Willems, brutally. “I am going.”

Her gaze was fastened on the blanket under which she had detected a slight movement. She made a long stride towards it. Willems turned half round. His legs seemed to him to be made of lead. He felt faint and so weak that, for a moment, the fear of dying there where he stood, before he could escape from sin and disaster, passed through his mind in a wave of despair.

She lifted up one corner of the blanket, and when she saw the sleeping child a sudden quick shudder shook her as though she had seen something inexpressibly horrible. She looked at Louis Willems with eyes fixed in an unbelieving and terrified stare. Then her fingers opened slowly, and a shadow seemed to settle on her face as if something obscure and fatal had come between her and the sunshine. She stood looking down, absorbed, as though she had watched at the bottom of a gloomy abyss the mournful procession of her thoughts.

Willems did not move. All his faculties were concentrated upon the idea of his release. And it was only then that the assurance of it came to him with such force that he seemed to hear a loud voice shouting in the heavens that all was over, that in another five, ten minutes, he would step into another existence; that all this, the woman, the madness, the sin, the regrets, all would go, rush into the past, disappear, become as dust, as smoke, as drifting clouds — as nothing! Yes! All would vanish in the unappeasable past which would swallow up all — even the very memory of his temptation and of his downfall. Nothing mattered. He cared for nothing. He had forgotten Aissa, his wife, Lingard, Hudig — everybody, in the rapid vision of his hopeful future.

After a while he heard Aissa saying —

“A child! A child! What have I done to be made to devour this sorrow and this grief? And while your man-child and the mother lived you told me there was nothing for you to remember in the land from which you came! And I thought you could be mine. I thought that I would . . . ”

Her voice ceased in a broken murmur, and with it, in her heart, seemed to die the greater and most precious hope of her new life.

She had hoped that in the future the frail arms of a child would bind their two lives together in a bond which nothing on earth could break, a bond of affection, of gratitude, of tender respect. She the first — the only one! But in the instant she saw the son of that other woman she felt herself removed into the cold, the darkness, the silence of a solitude impenetrable and immense — very far from him, beyond the possibility of any hope, into an infinity of wrongs without any redress.

She strode nearer to Joanna. She felt towards that woman anger, envy, jealousy. Before her she felt humiliated and enraged. She seized the hanging sleeve of the jacket in which Joanna was hiding her face and tore it out of her hands, exclaiming loudly —

“Let me see the face of her before whom I am only a servant and a slave. Ya-wa! I see you!”

Her unexpected shout seemed to fill the sunlit space of cleared grounds, rise high and run on far into the land over the unstirring tree-tops of the forests. She stood in sudden stillness, looking at Joanna with surprised contempt.

“A Sirani woman!” she said, slowly, in a tone of wonder.

Joanna rushed at Willems — clung to him, shrieking: “Defend me, Peter! Defend me from that woman!”

“Be quiet. There is no danger,” muttered Willems, thickly.

Aissa looked at them with scorn. “God is great! I sit in the dust at your feet,” she exclaimed jeeringly, joining her hands above her head in a gesture of mock humility. “Before you I am as nothing.” She turned to Willems fiercely, opening her arms wide. “What have you made of me?” she cried, “you lying child of an accursed mother! What have you made of me? The slave of a slave. Don’t speak! Your words are worse than the poison of snakes. A Sirani woman. A woman of a people despised by all.”

She pointed her finger at Joanna, stepped back, and began to laugh.

“Make her stop, Peter!” screamed Joanna. “That heathen woman. Heathen! Heathen! Beat her, Peter.”

Willems caught sight of the revolver which Aissa had laid on the seat near the child. He spoke in Dutch to his wife, without moving his head.

“Snatch the boy — and my revolver there. See. Run to the boat. I will keep her back. Now’s the time.”

Aissa came nearer. She stared at Joanna, while between the short gusts of broken laughter she raved, fumbling distractedly at the buckle of her belt.

“To her! To her — the mother of him who will speak of your wisdom, of your courage. All to her. I have nothing. Nothing. Take, take.”

She tore the belt off and threw it at Joanna’s feet. She flung down with haste the armlets, the gold pins, the flowers; and the long hair, released, fell scattered over her shoulders, framing in its blackness the wild exaltation of her face.

“Drive her off, Peter. Drive off the heathen savage,” persisted Joanna. She seemed to have lost her head altogether. She stamped, clinging to Willems’ arm with both her hands.

“Look,” cried Aissa. “Look at the mother of your son! She is afraid. Why does she not go from before my face? Look at her. She is ugly.”

Joanna seemed to understand the scornful tone of the words. As Aissa stepped back again nearer to the tree she let go her husband’s arm, rushed at her madly, slapped her face, then, swerving round, darted at the child who, unnoticed, had been wailing for some time, and, snatching him up, flew down to the waterside, sending shriek after shriek in an access of insane terror.

Willems made for the revolver. Aissa passed swiftly, giving him an unexpected push that sent him staggering away from the tree. She caught up the weapon, put it behind her back, and cried —

“You shall not have it. Go after her. Go to meet danger. . . . Go to meet death. . . . Go unarmed. . . . Go with empty hands and sweet words . . . as you came to me. . . . Go helpless and lie to the forests, to the sea . . . to the death that waits for you . . . .”

She ceased as if strangled. She saw in the horror of the passing seconds the half-naked, wild-looking man before her; she heard the faint shrillness of Joanna’s insane shrieks for help somewhere down by the riverside. The sunlight streamed on her, on him, on the mute land, on the murmuring river — the gentle brilliance of a serene morning that, to her, seemed traversed by ghastly flashes of uncertain darkness. Hate filled the world, filled the space between them — the hate of race, the hate of hopeless diversity, the hate of blood; the hate against the man born in the land of lies and of evil from which nothing but misfortune comes to those who are not white. And as she stood, maddened, she heard a whisper near her, the whisper of the dead Omar’s voice saying in her ear: “Kill! Kill!”

She cried, seeing him move —

“Do not come near me . . . or you die now! Go while I remember yet . . . remember . . . .”

Willems pulled himself together for a struggle. He dared not go unarmed. He made a long stride, and saw her raise the revolver. He noticed that she had not cocked it, and said to himself that, even if she did fire, she would surely miss. Go too high; it was a stiff trigger. He made a step nearer — saw the long barrel moving unsteadily at the end of her extended arm. He thought: This is my time . . . He bent his knees slightly, throwing his body forward, and took off with a long bound for a tearing rush.

He saw a burst of red flame before his eyes, and was deafened by a report that seemed to him louder than a clap of thunder. Something stopped him short, and he stood aspiring in his nostrils the acrid smell of the blue smoke that drifted from before his eyes like an immense cloud. . . . Missed, by Heaven! . . . Thought so! . . . And he saw her very far off, throwing her arms up, while the revolver, very small, lay on the ground between them. . . . Missed! . . . He would go and pick it up now. Never before did he understand, as in that second, the joy, the triumphant delight of sunshine and of life. His mouth was full of something salt and warm. He tried to cough; spat out. . . . Who shrieks: In the name of God, he dies! — he dies! — Who dies? — Must pick up — Night! — What? . . . Night already . . . .

* * * * * *

Many years afterwards Almayer was telling the story of the great revolution in Sambir to a chance visitor from Europe. He was a Roumanian, half naturalist, half orchid-hunter for commercial purposes, who used to declare to everybody, in the first five minutes of acquaintance, his intention of writing a scientific book about tropical countries. On his way to the interior he had quartered himself upon Almayer. He was a man of some education, but he drank his gin neat, or only, at most, would squeeze the juice of half a small lime into the raw spirit. He said it was good for his health, and, with that medicine before him, he would describe to the surprised Almayer the wonders of European capitals; while Almayer, in exchange, bored him by expounding, with gusto, his unfavourable opinions of Sambir’s social and political life. They talked far into the night, across the deal table on the verandah, while, between them, clear-winged, small, and flabby insects, dissatisfied with moonlight, streamed in and perished in thousands round the smoky light of the evil-smelling lamp.

Almayer, his face flushed, was saying —

“Of course, I did not see that. I told you I was stuck in the creek on account of father’s — Captain Lingard’s — susceptible temper. I am sure I did it all for the best in trying to facilitate the fellow’s escape; but Captain Lingard was that kind of man — you know — one couldn’t argue with. Just before sunset the water was high enough, and we got out of the creek. We got to Lakamba’s clearing about dark. All very quiet; I thought they were gone, of course, and felt very glad. We walked up the courtyard — saw a big heap of something lying in the middle. Out of that she rose and rushed at us. By God . . . . You know those stories of faithful dogs watching their masters’ corpses . . . don’t let anybody approach . . . got to beat them off — and all that. . . . Well, ‘pon my word we had to beat her off. Had to! She was like a fury. Wouldn’t let us touch him. Dead — of course. Should think so. Shot through the lung, on the left side, rather high up, and at pretty close quarters too, for the two holes were small. Bullet came out through the shoulder-blade. After we had overpowered her — you can’t imagine how strong that woman was; it took three of us — we got the body into the boat and shoved off. We thought she had fainted then, but she got up and rushed into the water after us. Well, I let her clamber in. What could I do? The river’s full of alligators. I will never forget that pull up-stream in the night as long as I live. She sat in the bottom of the boat, holding his head in her lap, and now and again wiping his face with her hair. There was a lot of blood dried about his mouth and chin. And for all the six hours of that journey she kept on whispering tenderly to that corpse! . . . I had the mate of the schooner with me. The man said afterwards that he wouldn’t go through it again — not for a handful of diamonds. And I believed him — I did. It makes me shiver. Do you think he heard? No! I mean somebody — something — heard? . . . ”

“I am a materialist,” declared the man of science, tilting the bottle shakily over the emptied glass.

Almayer shook his head and went on —

“Nobody saw how it really happened but that man Mahmat. He always said that he was no further off from them than two lengths of his lance. It appears the two women rowed each other while that Willems stood between them. Then Mahmat says that when Joanna struck her and ran off, the other two seemed to become suddenly mad together. They rushed here and there. Mahmat says — those were his very words: ‘I saw her standing holding the pistol that fires many times and pointing it all over the campong. I was afraid — lest she might shoot me, and jumped on one side. Then I saw the white man coming at her swiftly. He came like our master the tiger when he rushes out of the jungle at the spears held by men. She did not take aim. The barrel of her weapon went like this — from side to side, but in her eyes I could see suddenly a great fear. There was only one shot. She shrieked while the white man stood blinking his eyes and very straight, till you could count slowly one, two, three; then he coughed and fell on his face. The daughter of Omar shrieked without drawing breath, till he fell. I went away then and left silence behind me. These things did not concern me, and in my boat there was that other woman who had promised me money. We left directly, paying no attention to her cries. We are only poor men — and had but a small reward for our trouble!’ That’s what Mahmat said. Never varied. You ask him yourself. He’s the man you hired the boats from, for your journey up the river.”

“The most rapacious thief I ever met!” exclaimed the traveller, thickly.

“Ah! He is a respectable man. His two brothers got themselves speared — served them right. They went in for robbing Dyak graves. Gold ornaments in them you know. Serve them right. But he kept respectable and got on. Aye! Everybody got on — but I. And all through that scoundrel who brought the Arabs here.”

“De mortuis nil ni . . . num,” muttered Almayer’s guest.

“I wish you would speak English instead of jabbering in your own language, which no one can understand,” said Almayer, sulkily.

“Don’t be angry,” hiccoughed the other. “It’s Latin, and it’s wisdom. It means: Don’t waste your breath in abusing shadows. No offence there. I like you. You have a quarrel with Providence — so have I. I was meant to be a professor, while — look.”

His head nodded. He sat grasping the glass. Almayer walked up and down, then stopped suddenly.

“Yes, they all got on but I. Why? I am better than any of them. Lakamba calls himself a Sultan, and when I go to see him on business sends that one-eyed fiend of his — Babalatchi — to tell me that the ruler is asleep; and shall sleep for a long time. And that Babalatchi! He is the Shahbandar of the State — if you please. Oh Lord! Shahbandar! The pig! A vagabond I wouldn’t let come up these steps when he first came here. . . . Look at Abdulla now. He lives here because — he says — here he is away from white men. But he has hundreds of thousands. Has a house in Penang. Ships. What did he not have when he stole my trade from me! He knocked everything here into a cocked hat, drove father to gold-hunting — then to Europe, where he disappeared. Fancy a man like Captain Lingard disappearing as though he had been a common coolie. Friends of mine wrote to London asking about him. Nobody ever heard of him there! Fancy! Never heard of Captain Lingard!”

The learned gatherer of orchids lifted his head.

“He was a sen — sentimen — tal old buc — buccaneer,” he stammered out, “I like him. I’m sent — tal myself.”

He winked slowly at Almayer, who laughed.

“Yes! I told you about that gravestone. Yes! Another hundred and twenty dollars thrown away. Wish I had them now. He would do it. And the inscription. Ha! ha! ha! ‘Peter Willems, Delivered by the Mercy of God from his Enemy.’ What enemy — unless Captain Lingard himself? And then it has no sense. He was a great man — father was — but strange in many ways . . . . You haven’t seen the grave? On the top of that hill, there, on the other side of the river. I must show you. We will go there.”

“Not I!” said the other. “No interest — in the sun — too tiring. . . . Unless you carry me there.”

As a matter of fact he was carried there a few months afterwards, and his was the second white man’s grave in Sambir; but at present he was alive if rather drunk. He asked abruptly —

“And the woman?”

“Oh! Lingard, of course, kept her and her ugly brat in Macassar. Sinful waste of money — that! Devil only knows what became of them since father went home. I had my daughter to look after. I shall give you a word to Mrs. Vinck in Singapore when you go back. You shall see my Nina there. Lucky man. She is beautiful, and I hear so accomplished, so. . .”

“I have heard already twenty . . . a hundred times about your daughter. What ab — about — that — that other one, Ai — ssa?”

“She! Oh! we kept her here. She was mad for a long time in a quiet sort of way. Father thought a lot of her. He gave her a house to live in, in my campong. She wandered about, speaking to nobody unless she caught sight of Abdulla, when she would have a fit of fury, and shriek and curse like anything. Very often she would disappear — and then we all had to turn out and hunt for her, because father would worry till she was brought back. Found her in all kinds of places. Once in the abandoned campong of Lakamba. Sometimes simply wandering in the bush. She had one favourite spot we always made for at first. It was ten to one on finding her there — a kind of a grassy glade on the banks of a small brook. Why she preferred that place, I can’t imagine! And such a job to get her away from there. Had to drag her away by main force. Then, as the time passed, she became quieter and more settled, like. Still, all my people feared her greatly. It was my Nina that tamed her. You see the child was naturally fearless and used to have her own way, so she would go to her and pull at her sarong, and order her about, as she did everybody. Finally she, I verily believe, came to love the child. Nothing could resist that little one — you know. She made a capital nurse. Once when the little devil ran away from me and fell into the river off the end of the jetty, she jumped in and pulled her out in no time. I very nearly died of fright. Now of course she lives with my serving girls, but does what she likes. As long as I have a handful of rice or a piece of cotton in the store she sha’n’t want for anything. You have seen her. She brought in the dinner with Ali.”

“What! That doubled-up crone?”

“Ah!” said Almayer. “They age quickly here. And long foggy nights spent in the bush will soon break the strongest backs — as you will find out yourself soon.”

“Dis . . . disgusting,” growled the traveller.

He dozed off. Almayer stood by the balustrade looking out at the bluish sheen of the moonlit night. The forests, unchanged and sombre, seemed to hang over the water, listening to the unceasing whisper of the great river; and above their dark wall the hill on which Lingard had buried the body of his late prisoner rose in a black, rounded mass, upon the silver paleness of the sky. Almayer looked for a long time at the clean-cut outline of the summit, as if trying to make out through darkness and distance the shape of that expensive tombstone. When he turned round at last he saw his guest sleeping, his arms on the table, his head on his arms.

“Now, look here!” he shouted, slapping the table with the palm of his hand.

The naturalist woke up, and sat all in a heap, staring owlishly.

“Here!” went on Almayer, speaking very loud and thumping the table, “I want to know. You, who say you have read all the books, just tell me . . . why such infernal things are ever allowed. Here I am! Done harm to nobody, lived an honest life . . . and a scoundrel like that is born in Rotterdam or some such place at the other end of the world somewhere, travels out here, robs his employer, runs away from his wife, and ruins me and my Nina — he ruined me, I tell you — and gets himself shot at last by a poor miserable savage, that knows nothing at all about him really. Where’s the sense of all this? Where’s your Providence? Where’s the good for anybody in all this? The world’s a swindle! A swindle! Why should I suffer? What have I done to be treated so?”

He howled out his string of questions, and suddenly became silent. The man who ought to have been a professor made a tremendous effort to articulate distinctly —

“My dear fellow, don’t — don’t you see that the ba-bare fac — the fact of your existence is off — offensive. . . . I— I like you — like . . . ”

He fell forward on the table, and ended his remarks by an unexpected and prolonged snore.

Almayer shrugged his shoulders and walked back to the balustrade.

He drank his own trade gin very seldom, but when he did, a ridiculously small quantity of the stuff could induce him to assume a rebellious attitude towards the scheme of the universe. And now, throwing his body over the rail, he shouted impudently into the night, turning his face towards that far-off and invisible slab of imported granite upon which Lingard had thought fit to record God’s mercy and Willems’ escape.

“Father was wrong — wrong!” he yelled. “I want you to smart for it. You must smart for it! Where are you, Willems? Hey? . . . Hey? . . . Where there is no mercy for you — I hope!”

“Hope,” repeated in a whispering echo the startled forests, the river and the hills; and Almayer, who stood waiting, with a smile of tipsy attention on his lips, heard no other answer.

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http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/conrad/joseph/c75ou/chapter26.html

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