The night was very dark. For the first time in many months the East Coast slept unseen by the stars under a veil of motionless cloud that, driven before the first breath of the rainy monsoon, had drifted slowly from the eastward all the afternoon; pursuing the declining sun with its masses of black and grey that seemed to chase the light with wicked intent, and with an ominous and gloomy steadiness, as though conscious of the message of violence and turmoil they carried. At the sun’s disappearance below the western horizon, the immense cloud, in quickened motion, grappled with the glow of retreating light, and rolling down to the clear and jagged outline of the distant mountains, hung arrested above the steaming forests; hanging low, silent and menacing over the unstirring tree-tops; withholding the blessing of rain, nursing the wrath of its thunder; undecided — as if brooding over its own power for good or for evil.
Babalatchi, coming out of the red and smoky light of his little bamboo house, glanced upwards, drew in a long breath of the warm and stagnant air, and stood for a moment with his good eye closed tightly, as if intimidated by the unwonted and deep silence of Lakamba’s courtyard. When he opened his eye he had recovered his sight so far, that he could distinguish the various degrees of formless blackness which marked the places of trees, of abandoned houses, of riverside bushes, on the dark background of the night.
The careworn sage walked cautiously down the deserted courtyard to the waterside, and stood on the bank listening to the voice of the invisible river that flowed at his feet; listening to the soft whispers, to the deep murmurs, to the sudden gurgles and the short hisses of the swift current racing along the bank through the hot darkness.
He stood with his face turned to the river, and it seemed to him that he could breathe easier with the knowledge of the clear vast space before him; then, after a while he leaned heavily forward on his staff, his chin fell on his breast, and a deep sigh was his answer to the selfish discourse of the river that hurried on unceasing and fast, regardless of joy or sorrow, of suffering and of strife, of failures and triumphs that lived on its banks. The brown water was there, ready to carry friends or enemies, to nurse love or hate on its submissive and heartless bosom, to help or to hinder, to save life or give death; the great and rapid river: a deliverance, a prison, a refuge or a grave.
Perchance such thoughts as these caused Babalatchi to send another mournful sigh into the trailing mists of the unconcerned Pantai. The barbarous politician had forgotten the recent success of his plottings in the melancholy contemplation of a sorrow that made the night blacker, the clammy heat more oppressive, the still air more heavy, the dumb solitude more significant of torment than of peace. He had spent the night before by the side of the dying Omar, and now, after twenty-four hours, his memory persisted in returning to that low and sombre reed hut from which the fierce spirit of the incomparably accomplished pirate took its flight, to learn too late, in a worse world, the error of its earthly ways. The mind of the savage statesman, chastened by bereavement, felt for a moment the weight of his loneliness with keen perception worthy even of a sensibility exasperated by all the refinements of tender sentiment that a glorious civilization brings in its train, among other blessings and virtues, into this excellent world. For the space of about thirty seconds, a half-naked, betel-chewing pessimist stood upon the bank of the tropical river, on the edge of the still and immense forests; a man angry, powerless, empty-handed, with a cry of bitter discontent ready on his lips; a cry that, had it come out, would have rung through the virgin solitudes of the woods, as true, as great, as profound, as any philosophical shriek that ever came from the depths of an easy-chair to disturb the impure wilderness of chimneys and roofs.
For half a minute and no more did Babalatchi face the gods in the sublime privilege of his revolt, and then the one-eyed puller of wires became himself again, full of care and wisdom and far-reaching plans, and a victim to the tormenting superstitions of his race. The night, no matter how quiet, is never perfectly silent to attentive ears, and now Babalatchi fancied he could detect in it other noises than those caused by the ripples and eddies of the river. He turned his head sharply to the right and to the left in succession, and then spun round quickly in a startled and watchful manner, as if he had expected to see the blind ghost of his departed leader wandering in the obscurity of the empty courtyard behind his back. Nothing there. Yet he had heard a noise; a strange noise! No doubt a ghostly voice of a complaining and angry spirit. He listened. Not a sound. Reassured, Babalatchi made a few paces towards his house, when a very human noise, that of hoarse coughing, reached him from the river. He stopped, listened attentively, but now without any sign of emotion, and moving briskly back to the waterside stood expectant with parted lips, trying to pierce with his eye the wavering curtain of mist that hung low over the water. He could see nothing, yet some people in a canoe must have been very near, for he heard words spoken in an ordinary tone.
“Do you think this is the place, Ali? I can see nothing.”
“It must be near here, Tuan,” answered another voice. “Shall we try the bank?”
“No! . . . Let drift a little. If you go poking into the bank in the dark you might stove the canoe on some log. We must be careful. . . . Let drift! Let drift! . . . This does seem to be a clearing of some sort. We may see a light by and by from some house or other. In Lakamba’s campong there are many houses? Hey?”
“A great number, Tuan . . . I do not see any light.”
“Nor I,” grumbled the first voice again, this time nearly abreast of the silent Babalatchi who looked uneasily towards his own house, the doorway of which glowed with the dim light of a torch burning within. The house stood end on to the river, and its doorway faced down-stream, so Babalatchi reasoned rapidly that the strangers on the river could not see the light from the position their boat was in at the moment. He could not make up his mind to call out to them, and while he hesitated he heard the voices again, but now some way below the landing-place where he stood.
“Nothing. This cannot be it. Let them give way, Ali! Dayong there!”
That order was followed by the splash of paddles, then a sudden cry —
“I see a light. I see it! Now I know where to land, Tuan.”
There was more splashing as the canoe was paddled sharply round and came back up-stream close to the bank.
“Call out,” said very near a deep voice, which Babalatchi felt sure must belong to a white man. “Call out — and somebody may come with a torch. I can’t see anything.”
The loud hail that succeeded these words was emitted nearly under the silent listener’s nose. Babalatchi, to preserve appearances, ran with long but noiseless strides halfway up the courtyard, and only then shouted in answer and kept on shouting as he walked slowly back again towards the river bank. He saw there an indistinct shape of a boat, not quite alongside the landing-place.
“Who speaks on the river?” asked Babalatchi, throwing a tone of surprise into his question.
“A white man,” answered Lingard from the canoe. “Is there not one torch in rich Lakamba’s campong to light a guest on his landing?”
“There are no torches and no men. I am alone here,” said Babalatchi, with some hesitation.
“Alone!” exclaimed Lingard. “Who are you?”
“Only a servant of Lakamba. But land, Tuan Putih, and see my face. Here is my hand. No! Here! . . . By your mercy . . . . Ada! . . . Now you are safe.”
“And you are alone here?” said Lingard, moving with precaution a few steps into the courtyard. “How dark it is,” he muttered to himself —“one would think the world had been painted black.”
“Yes. Alone. What more did you say, Tuan? I did not understand your talk.”
“It is nothing. I expected to find here . . . But where are they all?”
“What matters where they are?” said Babalatchi, gloomily. “Have you come to see my people? The last departed on a long journey — and I am alone. Tomorrow I go too.”
“I came to see a white man,” said Lingard, walking on slowly. “He is not gone, is he?”
“No!” answered Babalatchi, at his elbow. “A man with a red skin and hard eyes,” he went on, musingly, “whose hand is strong, and whose heart is foolish and weak. A white man indeed . . . But still a man.”
They were now at the foot of the short ladder which led to the split-bamboo platform surrounding Babalatchi’s habitation. The faint light from the doorway fell down upon the two men’s faces as they stood looking at each other curiously.
“Is he there?” asked Lingard, in a low voice, with a wave of his hand upwards.
Babalatchi, staring hard at his long-expected visitor, did not answer at once. “No, not there,” he said at last, placing his foot on the lowest rung and looking back. “Not there, Tuan — yet not very far. Will you sit down in my dwelling? There may be rice and fish and clear water — not from the river, but from a spring . . . ”
“I am not hungry,” interrupted Lingard, curtly, “and I did not come here to sit in your dwelling. Lead me to the white man who expects me. I have no time to lose.”
“The night is long, Tuan,” went on Babalatchi, softly, “and there are other nights and other days. Long. Very long . . . How much time it takes for a man to die! O Rajah Laut!”
“You know me!” he exclaimed.
“Ay — wa! I have seen your face and felt your hand before — many years ago,” said Babalatchi, holding on halfway up the ladder, and bending down from above to peer into Lingard’s upturned face. “You do not remember — but I have not forgotten. There are many men like me: there is only one Rajah Laut.”
He climbed with sudden agility the last few steps, and stood on the platform waving his hand invitingly to Lingard, who followed after a short moment of indecision.
The elastic bamboo floor of the hut bent under the heavy weight of the old seaman, who, standing within the threshold, tried to look into the smoky gloom of the low dwelling. Under the torch, thrust into the cleft of a stick, fastened at a right angle to the middle stay of the ridge pole, lay a red patch of light, showing a few shabby mats and a corner of a big wooden chest the rest of which was lost in shadow. In the obscurity of the more remote parts of the house a lance-head, a brass tray hung on the wall, the long barrel of a gun leaning against the chest, caught the stray rays of the smoky illumination in trembling gleams that wavered, disappeared, reappeared, went out, came back — as if engaged in a doubtful struggle with the darkness that, lying in wait in distant corners, seemed to dart out viciously towards its feeble enemy. The vast space under the high pitch of the roof was filled with a thick cloud of smoke, whose under-side — level like a ceiling — reflected the light of the swaying dull flame, while at the top it oozed out through the imperfect thatch of dried palm leaves. An indescribable and complicated smell, made up of the exhalation of damp earth below, of the taint of dried fish and of the effluvia of rotting vegetable matter, pervaded the place and caused Lingard to sniff strongly as he strode over, sat on the chest, and, leaning his elbows on his knees, took his head between his hands and stared at the doorway thoughtfully.
Babalatchi moved about in the shadows, whispering to an indistinct form or two that flitted about at the far end of the hut. Without stirring Lingard glanced sideways, and caught sight of muffled-up human shapes that hovered for a moment near the edge of light and retreated suddenly back into the darkness. Babalatchi approached, and sat at Lingard’s feet on a rolled-up bundle of mats.
“Will you eat rice and drink sagueir?” he said. “I have waked up my household.”
“My friend,” said Lingard, without looking at him, “when I come to see Lakamba, or any of Lakamba’s servants, I am never hungry and never thirsty. Tau! Savee! Never! Do you think I am devoid of reason? That there is nothing there?”
He sat up, and, fixing abruptly his eyes on Babalatchi, tapped his own forehead significantly.
“Tse! Tse! Tse! How can you talk like that, Tuan!” exclaimed Babalatchi, in a horrified tone.
“I talk as I think. I have lived many years,” said Lingard, stretching his arm negligently to take up the gun, which he began to examine knowingly, cocking it, and easing down the hammer several times. “This is good. Mataram make. Old, too,” he went on. “Hai!” broke in Babalatchi, eagerly. “I got it when I was young. He was an Aru trader, a man with a big stomach and a loud voice, and brave — very brave. When we came up with his prau in the grey morning, he stood aft shouting to his men and fired this gun at us once. Only once!” . . . He paused, laughed softly, and went on in a low, dreamy voice. “In the grey morning we came up: forty silent men in a swift Sulu prau; and when the sun was so high”— here he held up his hands about three feet apart —“when the sun was only so high, Tuan, our work was done — and there was a feast ready for the fishes of the sea.”
“Aye! aye!” muttered Lingard, nodding his head slowly. “I see. You should not let it get rusty like this,” he added.
He let the gun fall between his knees, and moving back on his seat, leaned his head against the wall of the hut, crossing his arms on his breast.
“A good gun,” went on Babalatchi. “Carry far and true. Better than this — there.”
With the tips of his fingers he touched gently the butt of a revolver peeping out of the right pocket of Lingard’s white jacket.
“Take your hand off that,” said Lingard sharply, but in a good-humoured tone and without making the slightest movement.
Babalatchi smiled and hitched his seat a little further off.
For some time they sat in silence. Lingard, with his head tilted back, looked downwards with lowered eyelids at Babalatchi, who was tracing invisible lines with his finger on the mat between his feet. Outside, they could hear Ali and the other boatmen chattering and laughing round the fire they had lighted in the big and deserted courtyard.
“Well, what about that white man?” said Lingard, quietly.
It seemed as if Babalatchi had not heard the question. He went on tracing elaborate patterns on the floor for a good while. Lingard waited motionless. At last the Malay lifted his head.
“Hai! The white man. I know!” he murmured absently. “This white man or another. . . . Tuan,” he said aloud with unexpected animation, “you are a man of the sea?”
“You know me. Why ask?” said Lingard, in a low tone.
“Yes. A man of the sea — even as we are. A true Orang Laut,” went on Babalatchi, thoughtfully, “not like the rest of the white men.”
“I am like other whites, and do not wish to speak many words when the truth is short. I came here to see the white man that helped Lakamba against Patalolo, who is my friend. Show me where that white man lives; I want him to hear my talk.”
“Talk only? Tuan! Why hurry? The night is long and death is swift — as you ought to know; you who have dealt it to so many of my people. Many years ago I have faced you, arms in hand. Do you not remember? It was in Carimata — far from here.”
“I cannot remember every vagabond that came in my way,” protested Lingard, seriously.
“Hai! Hai!” continued Babalatchi, unmoved and dreamy. “Many years ago. Then all this”— and looking up suddenly at Lingard’s beard, he flourished his fingers below his own beardless chin —“then all this was like gold in sunlight, now it is like the foam of an angry sea.”
“Maybe, maybe,” said Lingard, patiently, paying the involuntary tribute of a faint sigh to the memories of the past evoked by Babalatchi’s words.
He had been living with Malays so long and so close that the extreme deliberation and deviousness of their mental proceedings had ceased to irritate him much. To-night, perhaps, he was less prone to impatience than ever. He was disposed, if not to listen to Babalatchi, then to let him talk. It was evident to him that the man had something to say, and he hoped that from the talk a ray of light would shoot through the thick blackness of inexplicable treachery, to show him clearly — if only for a second — the man upon whom he would have to execute the verdict of justice. Justice only! Nothing was further from his thoughts than such an useless thing as revenge. Justice only. It was his duty that justice should be done — and by his own hand. He did not like to think how. To him, as to Babalatchi, it seemed that the night would be long enough for the work he had to do. But he did not define to himself the nature of the work, and he sat very still, and willingly dilatory, under the fearsome oppression of his call. What was the good to think about it? It was inevitable, and its time was near. Yet he could not command his memories that came crowding round him in that evil-smelling hut, while Babalatchi talked on in a flowing monotone, nothing of him moving but the lips, in the artificially inanimated face. Lingard, like an anchored ship that had broken her sheer, darted about here and there on the rapid tide of his recollections. The subdued sound of soft words rang around him, but his thoughts were lost, now in the contemplation of the past sweetness and strife of Carimata days, now in the uneasy wonder at the failure of his judgment; at the fatal blindness of accident that had caused him, many years ago, to rescue a half-starved runaway from a Dutch ship in Samarang roads. How he had liked the man: his assurance, his push, his desire to get on, his conceited good-humour and his selfish eloquence. He had liked his very faults — those faults that had so many, to him, sympathetic sides.
And he had always dealt fairly by him from the very beginning; and he would deal fairly by him now — to the very end. This last thought darkened Lingard’s features with a responsive and menacing frown. The doer of justice sat with compressed lips and a heavy heart, while in the calm darkness outside the silent world seemed to be waiting breathlessly for that justice he held in his hand — in his strong hand:— ready to strike — reluctant to move.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06