“Can I believe what you tell me? It is like a tale for men that listen only half awake by the camp fire, and it seems to have run off a woman’s tongue.”
“Who is there here for me to deceive, O Rajah?” answered Babalatchi. “Without you I am nothing. All I have told you I believe to be true. I have been safe for many years in the hollow of your hand. This is no time to harbour suspicions. The danger is very great. We should advise and act at once, before the sun sets.”
“Right. Right,” muttered Lakamba, pensively.
They had been sitting for the last hour together in the audience chamber of the Rajah’s house, for Babalatchi, as soon as he had witnessed the landing of the Dutch officers, had crossed the river to report to his master the events of the morning, and to confer with him upon the line of conduct to pursue in the face of altered circumstances. They were both puzzled and frightened by the unexpected turn the events had taken. The Rajah, sitting crosslegged on his chair, looked fixedly at the floor; Babalatchi was squatting close by in an attitude of deep dejection.
“And where did you say he is hiding now?” asked Lakamba, breaking at last the silence full of gloomy forebodings in which they both had been lost for a long while.
“In Bulangi’s clearing — the furthest one, away from the house. They went there that very night. The white man’s daughter took him there. She told me so herself, speaking to me openly, for she is half white and has no decency. She said she was waiting for him while he was here; then, after a long time, he came out of the darkness and fell at her feet exhausted. He lay like one dead, but she brought him back to life in her arms, and made him breathe again with her own breath. That is what she said, speaking to my face, as I am speaking now to you, Rajah. She is like a white woman and knows no shame.”
He paused, deeply shocked. Lakamba nodded his head. “Well, and then?” he asked.
“They called the old woman,” went on Babalatchi, “and he told them all — about the brig, and how he tried to kill many men. He knew the Orang Blanda were very near, although he had said nothing to us about that; he knew his great danger. He thought he had killed many, but there were only two dead, as I have heard from the men of the sea that came in the warship’s boats.”
“And the other man, he that was found in the river?” interrupted Lakamba.
“That was one of his boatmen. When his canoe was overturned by the logs those two swam together, but the other man must have been hurt. Dain swam, holding him up. He left him in the bushes when he went up to the house. When they all came down his heart had ceased to beat; then the old woman spoke; Dain thought it was good. He took off his anklet and broke it, twisting it round the man’s foot. His ring he put on that slave’s hand. He took off his sarong and clothed that thing that wanted no clothes, the two women holding it up meanwhile, their intent being to deceive all eyes and to mislead the minds in the settlement, so that they could swear to the thing that was not, and that there could be no treachery when the white-men came. Then Dain and the white woman departed to call up Bulangi and find a hiding-place. The old woman remained by the body.”
“Hai!” exclaimed Lakamba. “She has wisdom.”
“Yes, she has a Devil of her own to whisper counsel in her ear,” assented Babalatchi. “She dragged the body with great toil to the point where many logs were stranded. All these things were done in the darkness after the storm had passed away. Then she waited. At the first sign of daylight she battered the face of the dead with a heavy stone, and she pushed him amongst the logs. She remained near, watching. At sunrise Mahmat Banjer came and found him. They all believed; I myself was deceived, but not for long. The white man believed, and, grieving, fled to his house. When we were alone I, having doubts, spoke to the woman, and she, fearing my anger and your might, told me all, asking for help in saving Dain.”
“He must not fall into the hands of the Orang Blanda,” said Lakamba; “but let him die, if the thing can be done quietly.”
“It cannot, Tuan! Remember there is that woman who, being half white, is ungovernable, and would raise a great outcry. Also the officers are here. They are angry enough already. Dain must escape; he must go. We must help him now for our own safety.”
“Are the officers very angry?” inquired Lakamba, with interest.
“They are. The principal chief used strong words when speaking to me — to me when I salaamed in your name. I do not think,” added Babalatchi, after a short pause and looking very worried —“I do not think I saw a white chief so angry before. He said we were careless or even worse. He told me he would speak to the Rajah, and that I was of no account.”
“Speak to the Rajah!” repeated Lakamba, thoughtfully. “Listen, Babalatchi: I am sick, and shall withdraw; you cross over and tell the white men.”
“Yes,” said Babalatchi, “I am going over at once; and as to Dain?”
“You get him away as you can best. This is a great trouble in my heart,” sighed Lakamba.
Babalatchi got up, and, going close to his master, spoke earnestly.
“There is one of our praus at the southern mouth of the river. The Dutch warship is to the northward watching the main entrance. I shall send Dain off to-night in a canoe, by the hidden channels, on board the prau. His father is a great prince, and shall hear of our generosity. Let the prau take him to Ampanam. Your glory shall be great, and your reward in powerful friendship. Almayer will no doubt deliver the dead body as Dain’s to the officers, and the foolish white men shall say, ‘This is very good; let there be peace.’ And the trouble shall be removed from your heart, Rajah.”
“True! true!” said Lakamba.
“And, this being accomplished by me who am your slave, you shall reward with a generous hand. That I know! The white man is grieving for the lost treasure, in the manner of white men who thirst after dollars. Now, when all other things are in order, we shall perhaps obtain the treasure from the white man. Dain must escape, and Almayer must live.”
“Now go, Babalatchi, go!” said Lakamba, getting off his chair. “I am very sick, and want medicine. Tell the white chief so.”
But Babalatchi was not to be got rid of in this summary manner. He knew that his master, after the manner of the great, liked to shift the burden of toil and danger on to his servants’ shoulders, but in the difficult straits in which they were now the Rajah must play his part. He may be very sick for the white men, for all the world if he liked, as long as he would take upon himself the execution of part at least of Babalatchi’s carefully thought-of plan. Babalatchi wanted a big canoe manned by twelve men to be sent out after dark towards Bulangi’s clearing. Dain may have to be overpowered. A man in love cannot be expected to see clearly the path of safety if it leads him away from the object of his affections, argued Babalatchi, and in that case they would have to use force in order to make him go. Would the Rajah see that trusty men manned the canoe? The thing must be done secretly. Perhaps the Rajah would come himself, so as to bring all the weight of his authority to bear upon Dain if he should prove obstinate and refuse to leave his hiding-place. The Rajah would not commit himself to a definite promise, and anxiously pressed Babalatchi to go, being afraid of the white men paying him an unexpected visit. The aged statesman reluctantly took his leave and went into the courtyard.
Before going down to his boat Babalatchi stopped for a while in the big open space where the thick-leaved trees put black patches of shadow which seemed to float on a flood of smooth, intense light that rolled up to the houses and down to the stockade and over the river, where it broke and sparkled in thousands of glittering wavelets, like a band woven of azure and gold edged with the brilliant green of the forests guarding both banks of the Pantai. In the perfect calm before the coming of the afternoon breeze the irregularly jagged line of tree-tops stood unchanging, as if traced by an unsteady hand on the clear blue of the hot sky. In the space sheltered by the high palisades there lingered the smell of decaying blossoms from the surrounding forest, a taint of drying fish; with now and then a whiff of acrid smoke from the cooking fires when it eddied down from under the leafy boughs and clung lazily about the burnt-up grass.
As Babalatchi looked up at the flagstaff over-topping a group of low trees in the middle of the courtyard, the tricolour flag of the Netherlands stirred slightly for the first time since it had been hoisted that morning on the arrival of the man-of-war boats. With a faint rustle of trees the breeze came down in light puffs, playing capriciously for a time with this emblem of Lakamba’s power, that was also the mark of his servitude; then the breeze freshened in a sharp gust of wind, and the flag flew out straight and steady above the trees. A dark shadow ran along the river, rolling over and covering up the sparkle of declining sunlight. A big white cloud sailed slowly across the darkening sky, and hung to the westward as if waiting for the sun to join it there. Men and things shook off the torpor of the hot afternoon and stirred into life under the first breath of the sea breeze.
Babalatchi hurried down to the water-gate; yet before he passed through it he paused to look round the courtyard, with its light and shade, with its cheery fires, with the groups of Lakamba’s soldiers and retainers scattered about. His own house stood amongst the other buildings in that enclosure, and the statesman of Sambir asked himself with a sinking heart when and how would it be given him to return to that house. He had to deal with a man more dangerous than any wild beast of his experience: a proud man, a man wilful after the manner of princes, a man in love. And he was going forth to speak to that man words of cold and worldly wisdom. Could anything be more appalling? What if that man should take umbrage at some fancied slight to his honour or disregard of his affections and suddenly “amok”? The wise adviser would be the first victim, no doubt, and death would be his reward. And underlying the horror of this situation there was the danger of those meddlesome fools, the white men. A vision of comfortless exile in far-off Madura rose up before Babalatchi. Wouldn’t that be worse than death itself? And there was that half-white woman with threatening eyes. How could he tell what an incomprehensible creature of that sort would or would not do? She knew so much that she made the killing of Dain an impossibility. That much was certain. And yet the sharp, rough-edged kriss is a good and discreet friend, thought Babalatchi, as he examined his own lovingly, and put it back in the sheath, with a sigh of regret, before unfastening his canoe. As he cast off the painter, pushed out into the stream, and took up his paddle, he realised vividly how unsatisfactory it was to have women mixed up in state affairs. Young women, of course. For Mrs. Almayer’s mature wisdom, and for the easy aptitude in intrigue that comes with years to the feminine mind, he felt the most sincere respect.
He paddled leisurely, letting the canoe drift down as he crossed towards the point. The sun was high yet, and nothing pressed. His work would commence only with the coming of darkness. Avoiding the Lingard jetty, he rounded the point, and paddled up the creek at the back of Almayer’s house. There were many canoes lying there, their noses all drawn together, fastened all to the same stake. Babalatchi pushed his little craft in amongst them and stepped on shore. On the other side of the ditch something moved in the grass.
“Who’s that hiding?” hailed Babalatchi. “Come out and speak to me.”
Nobody answered. Babalatchi crossed over, passing from boat to boat, and poked his staff viciously in the suspicious place. Taminah jumped up with a cry.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, surprised. “I have nearly stepped on your tray. Am I a Dyak that you should hide at my sight?”
“I was weary, and — I slept,” whispered Taminah, confusedly.
“You slept! You have not sold anything to-day, and you will be beaten when you return home,” said Babalatchi.
Taminah stood before him abashed and silent. Babalatchi looked her over carefully with great satisfaction. Decidedly he would offer fifty dollars more to that thief Bulangi. The girl pleased him.
“Now you go home. It is late,” he said sharply. “Tell Bulangi that I shall be near his house before the night is half over, and that I want him to make all things ready for a long journey. You understand? A long journey to the southward. Tell him that before sunset, and do not forget my words.”
Taminah made a gesture of assent, and watched Babalatchi recross the ditch and disappear through the bushes bordering Almayer’s compound. She moved a little further off the creek and sank in the grass again, lying down on her face, shivering in dry-eyed misery.
Babalatchi walked straight towards the cooking-shed looking for Mrs. Almayer. The courtyard was in a great uproar. A strange Chinaman had possession of the kitchen fire and was noisily demanding another saucepan. He hurled objurgations, in the Canton dialect and bad Malay, against the group of slave-girls standing a little way off, half frightened, half amused, at his violence. From the camping fires round which the seamen of the frigate were sitting came words of encouragement, mingled with laughter and jeering. In the midst of this noise and confusion Babalatchi met Ali, an empty dish in his hand.
“Where are the white men?” asked Babalatchi.
“They are eating in the front verandah,” answered Ali. “Do not stop me, Tuan. I am giving the white men their food and am busy.”
“Where’s Mem Almayer?”
“Inside in the passage. She is listening to the talk.”
Ali grinned and passed on; Babalatchi ascended the plankway to the rear verandah, and beckoning out Mrs. Almayer, engaged her in earnest conversation. Through the long passage, closed at the further end by the red curtain, they could hear from time to time Almayer’s voice mingling in conversation with an abrupt loudness that made Mrs. Almayer look significantly at Babalatchi.
“Listen,” she said. “He has drunk much.”
“He has,” whispered Babalatchi. “He will sleep heavily to-night.”
Mrs. Almayer looked doubtful.
“Sometimes the devil of strong gin makes him keep awake, and he walks up and down the verandah all night, cursing; then we stand afar off,” explained Mrs. Almayer, with the fuller knowledge born of twenty odd years of married life.
“But then he does not hear, nor understand, and his hand, of course, has no strength. We do not want him to hear to-night.”
“No,” assented Mrs. Almayer, energetically, but in a cautiously subdued voice. “If he hears he will kill.”
Babalatchi looked incredulous.
“Hai Tuan, you may believe me. Have I not lived many years with that man? Have I not seen death in that man’s eyes more than once when I was younger and he guessed at many things. Had he been a man of my own people I would not have seen such a look twice; but he —”
With a contemptuous gesture she seemed to fling unutterable scorn on Almayer’s weak-minded aversion to sudden bloodshed.
“If he has the wish but not the strength, then what do we fear?” asked Babalatchi, after a short silence during which they both listened to Almayer’s loud talk till it subsided into the murmur of general conversation. “What do we fear?” repeated Babalatchi again.
“To keep the daughter whom he loves he would strike into your heart and mine without hesitation,” said Mrs. Almayer. “When the girl is gone he will be like the devil unchained. Then you and I had better beware.”
“I am an old man and fear not death,” answered Babalatchi, with a mendacious assumption of indifference. “But what will you do?”
“I am an old woman, and wish to live,” retorted Mrs. Almayer. “She is my daughter also. I shall seek safety at the feet of our Rajah, speaking in the name of the past when we both were young, and he —”
Babalatchi raised his hand.
“Enough. You shall be protected,” he said soothingly.
Again the sound of Almayer’s voice was heard, and again interrupting their talk, they listened to the confused but loud utterance coming in bursts of unequal strength, with unexpected pauses and noisy repetitions that made some words and sentences fall clear and distinct on their ears out of the meaningless jumble of excited shoutings emphasised by the thumping of Almayer’s fist upon the table. On the short intervals of silence, the high complaining note of tumblers, standing close together and vibrating to the shock, lingered, growing fainter, till it leapt up again into tumultuous ringing, when a new idea started a new rush of words and brought down the heavy hand again. At last the quarrelsome shouting ceased, and the thin plaint of disturbed glass died away into reluctant quietude.
Babalatchi and Mrs. Almayer had listened curiously, their bodies bent and their ears turned towards the passage. At every louder shout they nodded at each other with a ridiculous affectation of scandalised propriety, and they remained in the same attitude for some time after the noise had ceased.
“This is the devil of gin,” whispered Mrs. Almayer. “Yes; he talks like that sometimes when there is nobody to hear him.”
“What does he say?” inquired Babalatchi, eagerly. “You ought to understand.”
“I have forgotten their talk. A little I understood. He spoke without any respect of the white ruler in Batavia, and of protection, and said he had been wronged; he said that several times. More I did not understand. Listen! Again he speaks!”
“Tse! tse! tse!” clicked Babalatchi, trying to appear shocked, but with a joyous twinkle of his solitary eye. “There will be great trouble between those white men. I will go round now and see. You tell your daughter that there is a sudden and a long journey before her, with much glory and splendour at the end. And tell her that Dain must go, or he must die, and that he will not go alone.”
“No, he will not go alone,” slowly repeated Mrs. Almayer, with a thoughtful air, as she crept into the passage after seeing Babalatchi disappear round the corner of the house.
The statesman of Sambir, under the impulse of vivid curiosity, made his way quickly to the front of the house, but once there he moved slowly and cautiously as he crept step by step up the stairs of the verandah. On the highest step he sat down quietly, his feet on the steps below, ready for flight should his presence prove unwelcome. He felt pretty safe so. The table stood nearly endways to him, and he saw Almayer’s back; at Nina he looked full face, and had a side view of both officers; but of the four persons sitting at the table only Nina and the younger officer noticed his noiseless arrival. The momentary dropping of Nina’s eyelids acknowledged Babalatchi’s presence; she then spoke at once to the young sub, who turned towards her with attentive alacrity, but her gaze was fastened steadily on her father’s face while Almayer was speaking uproariously.
“ . . . disloyalty and unscrupulousness! What have you ever done to make me loyal? You have no grip on this country. I had to take care of myself, and when I asked for protection I was met with threats and contempt, and had Arab slander thrown in my face. I! a white man!”
“Don’t be violent, Almayer,” remonstrated the lieutenant; “I have heard all this already.”
“Then why do you talk to me about scruples? I wanted money, and I gave powder in exchange. How could I know that some of your wretched men were going to be blown up? Scruples! Pah!”
He groped unsteadily amongst the bottles, trying one after another, grumbling to himself the while.
“No more wine,” he muttered discontentedly.
“You have had enough, Almayer,” said the lieutenant, as he lighted a cigar. “Is it not time to deliver to us your prisoner? I take it you have that Dain Maroola stowed away safely somewhere. Still we had better get that business over, and then we shall have more drink. Come! don’t look at me like this.”
Almayer was staring with stony eyes, his trembling fingers fumbling about his throat.
“Gold,” he said with difficulty. “Hem! A hand on the windpipe, you know. Sure you will excuse. I wanted to say — a little gold for a little powder. What’s that?”
“I know, I know,” said the lieutenant soothingly.
“No! You don’t know. Not one of you knows!” shouted Almayer. “The government is a fool, I tell you. Heaps of gold. I am the man that knows; I and another one. But he won’t speak. He is —”
He checked himself with a feeble smile, and, making an unsuccessful attempt to pat the officer on the shoulder, knocked over a couple of empty bottles.
“Personally you are a fine fellow,” he said very distinctly, in a patronising manner. His head nodded drowsily as he sat muttering to himself.
The two officers looked at each other helplessly.
“This won’t do,” said the lieutenant, addressing his junior. “Have the men mustered in the compound here. I must get some sense out of him. Hi! Almayer! Wake up, man. Redeem your word. You gave your word. You gave your word of honour, you know.”
Almayer shook off the officer’s hand with impatience, but his ill-humour vanished at once, and he looked up, putting his forefinger to the side of his nose.
“You are very young; there is time for all things,” he said, with an air of great sagacity.
The lieutenant turned towards Nina, who, leaning back in her chair, watched her father steadily.
“Really I am very much distressed by all this for your sake,” he exclaimed. “I do not know;” he went on, speaking with some embarrassment, “whether I have any right to ask you anything, unless, perhaps, to withdraw from this painful scene, but I feel that I must — for your father’s good — suggest that you should — I mean if you have any influence over him you ought to exert it now to make him keep the promise he gave me before he — before he got into this state.”
He observed with discouragement that she seemed not to take any notice of what he said sitting still with half-closed eyes.
“I trust —” he began again.
“What is the promise you speak of?” abruptly asked Nina, leaving her seat and moving towards her father.
“Nothing that is not just and proper. He promised to deliver to us a man who in time of profound peace took the lives of innocent men to escape the punishment he deserved for breaking the law. He planned his mischief on a large scale. It is not his fault if it failed, partially. Of course you have heard of Dain Maroola. Your father secured him, I understand. We know he escaped up this river. Perhaps you —”
“And he killed white men!” interrupted Nina.
“I regret to say they were white. Yes, two white men lost their lives through that scoundrel’s freak.”
“Two only!” exclaimed Nina.
The officer looked at her in amazement.
“Why! why! You — “ he stammered, confused.
“There might have been more,” interrupted Nina. “And when you get this — this scoundrel will you go?”
The lieutenant, still speechless, bowed his assent.
“Then I would get him for you if I had to seek him in a burning fire,” she burst out with intense energy. “I hate the sight of your white faces. I hate the sound of your gentle voices. That is the way you speak to women, dropping sweet words before any pretty face. I have heard your voices before. I hoped to live here without seeing any other white face but this,” she added in a gentler tone, touching lightly her father’s cheek.
Almayer ceased his mumbling and opened his eyes. He caught hold of his daughter’s hand and pressed it to his face, while Nina with the other hand smoothed his rumpled grey hair, looking defiantly over her father’s head at the officer, who had now regained his composure and returned her look with a cool, steady stare. Below, in front of the verandah, they could hear the tramp of seamen mustering there according to orders. The sub-lieutenant came up the steps, while Babalatchi stood up uneasily and, with finger on lip, tried to catch Nina’s eye.
“You are a good girl,” whispered Almayer, absently, dropping his daughter’s hand.
“Father! father!” she cried, bending over him with passionate entreaty. “See those two men looking at us. Send them away. I cannot bear it any more. Send them away. Do what they want and let them go.”
She caught sight of Babalatchi and ceased speaking suddenly, but her foot tapped the floor with rapid beats in a paroxysm of nervous restlessness. The two officers stood close together looking on curiously.
“What has happened? What is the matter?” whispered the younger man.
“Don’t know,” answered the other, under his breath. “One is furious, and the other is drunk. Not so drunk, either. Queer, this. Look!”
Almayer had risen, holding on to his daughter’s arm. He hesitated a moment, then he let go his hold and lurched half-way across the verandah. There he pulled himself together, and stood very straight, breathing hard and glaring round angrily.
“Are the men ready?” asked the lieutenant.
“All ready, sir.”
“Now, Mr. Almayer, lead the way,” said the lieutenant
Almayer rested his eyes on him as if he saw him for the first time.
“Two men,” he said thickly. The effort of speaking seemed to interfere with his equilibrium. He took a quick step to save himself from a fall, and remained swaying backwards and forwards. “Two men,” he began again, speaking with difficulty. “Two white men — men in uniform — honourable men. I want to say — men of honour. Are you?”
“Come! None of that,” said the officer impatiently. “Let us have that friend of yours.”
“What do you think I am?” asked Almayer, fiercely.
“You are drunk, but not so drunk as not to know what you are doing. Enough of this tomfoolery,” said the officer sternly, “or I will have you put under arrest in your own house.”
“Arrest!” laughed Almayer, discordantly. “Ha! ha! ha! Arrest! Why, I have been trying to get out of this infernal place for twenty years, and I can’t. You hear, man! I can’t, and never shall! Never!”
He ended his words with a sob, and walked unsteadily down the stairs. When in the courtyard the lieutenant approached him, and took him by the arm. The sub-lieutenant and Babalatchi followed close.
“That’s better, Almayer,” said the officer encouragingly. “Where are you going to? There are only planks there. Here,” he went on, shaking him slightly, “do we want the boats?”
“No,” answered Almayer, viciously. “You want a grave.”
“What? Wild again! Try to talk sense.”
“Grave!” roared Almayer, struggling to get himself free. “A hole in the ground. Don’t you understand? You must be drunk. Let me go! Let go, I tell you!”
He tore away from the officer’s grasp, and reeled towards the planks where the body lay under its white cover; then he turned round quickly, and faced the semicircle of interested faces. The sun was sinking rapidly, throwing long shadows of house and trees over the courtyard, but the light lingered yet on the river, where the logs went drifting past in midstream, looking very distinct and black in the pale red glow. The trunks of the trees in the forest on the east bank were lost in gloom while their highest branches swayed gently in the departing sunlight. The air felt heavy and cold in the breeze, expiring in slight puffs that came over the water.
Almayer shivered as he made an effort to speak, and again with an uncertain gesture he seemed to free his throat from the grip of an invisible hand. His bloodshot eyes wandered aimlessly from face to face.
“There!” he said at last. “Are you all there? He is a dangerous man.”
He dragged at the cover with hasty violence, and the body rolled stiffly off the planks and fell at his feet in rigid helplessness.
“Cold, perfectly cold,” said Almayer, looking round with a mirthless smile. “Sorry can do no better. And you can’t hang him, either. As you observe, gentlemen,” he added gravely, “there is no head, and hardly any neck.”
The last ray of light was snatched away from the tree-tops, the river grew suddenly dark, and in the great stillness the murmur of the flowing water seemed to fill the vast expanse of grey shadow that descended upon the land.
“This is Dain,” went on Almayer to the silent group that surrounded him. “And I have kept my word. First one hope, then another, and this is my last. Nothing is left now. You think there is one dead man here? Mistake, I ’sure you. I am much more dead. Why don’t you hang me?” he suggested suddenly, in a friendly tone, addressing the lieutenant. “I assure, assure you it would be a mat — matter of form altog — altogether.”
These last words he muttered to himself, and walked zigzaging towards his house. “Get out!” he thundered at Ali, who was approaching timidly with offers of assistance. From afar, scared groups of men and women watched his devious progress. He dragged himself up the stairs by the banister, and managed to reach a chair into which he fell heavily. He sat for awhile panting with exertion and anger, and looking round vaguely for Nina; then making a threatening gesture towards the compound, where he had heard Babalatchi’s voice, he overturned the table with his foot in a great crash of smashed crockery. He muttered yet menacingly to himself, then his head fell on his breast, his eyes closed, and with a deep sigh he fell asleep.
That night — for the first time in its history — the peaceful and flourishing settlement of Sambir saw the lights shining about “Almayer’s Folly.” These were the lanterns of the boats hung up by the seamen under the verandah where the two officers were holding a court of inquiry into the truth of the story related to them by Babalatchi. Babalatchi had regained all his importance. He was eloquent and persuasive, calling Heaven and Earth to witness the truth of his statements. There were also other witnesses. Mahmat Banjer and a good many others underwent a close examination that dragged its weary length far into the evening. A messenger was sent for Abdulla, who excused himself from coming on the score of his venerable age, but sent Reshid. Mahmat had to produce the bangle, and saw with rage and mortification the lieutenant put it in his pocket, as one of the proofs of Dain’s death, to be sent in with the official report of the mission. Babalatchi’s ring was also impounded for the same purpose, but the experienced statesman was resigned to that loss from the very beginning. He did not mind as long as he was sure, that the white men believed. He put that question to himself earnestly as he left, one of the last, when the proceedings came to a close. He was not certain. Still, if they believed only for a night, he would put Dain beyond their reach and feel safe himself. He walked away fast, looking from time to time over his shoulder in the fear of being followed, but he saw and heard nothing.
“Ten o’clock,” said the lieutenant, looking at his watch and yawning. “I shall hear some of the captain’s complimentary remarks when we get back. Miserable business, this.”
“Do you think all this is true?” asked the younger man.
“True! It is just possible. But if it isn’t true what can we do? If we had a dozen boats we could patrol the creeks; and that wouldn’t be much good. That drunken madman was right; we haven’t enough hold on this coast. They do what they like. Are our hammocks slung?”
“Yes, I told the coxswain. Strange couple over there,” said the sub, with a wave of his hand towards Almayer’s house.
“Hem! Queer, certainly. What have you been telling her? I was attending to the father most of the time.”
“I assure you I have been perfectly civil,” protested the other warmly.
“All right. Don’t get excited. She objects to civility, then, from what I understand. I thought you might have been tender. You know we are on service.”
“Well, of course. Never forget that. Coldly civil. That’s all.”
They both laughed a little, and not feeling sleepy began to pace the verandah side by side. The moon rose stealthily above the trees, and suddenly changed the river into a stream of scintillating silver. The forest came out of the black void and stood sombre and pensive over the sparkling water. The breeze died away into a breathless calm.
Seamanlike, the two officers tramped measuredly up and down without exchanging a word. The loose planks rattled rhythmically under their steps with obstrusive dry sound in the perfect silence of the night. As they were wheeling round again the younger man stood attentive.
“Did you hear that?” he asked.
“No!” said the other. “Hear what?”
“I thought I heard a cry. Ever so faint. Seemed a woman’s voice. In that other house. Ah! Again! Hear it?”
“No,” said the lieutenant, after listening awhile. “You young fellows always hear women’s voices. If you are going to dream you had better get into your hammock. Good-night.”
The moon mounted higher, and the warm shadows grew smaller and crept away as if hiding before the cold and cruel light.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52