A sigh under the flaming blue, a shiver of the sleeping sea, a cool breath as if a door had been swung upon the frozen spaces of the universe, and with a stir of leaves, with the nod of boughs, with the tremble of slender branches the sea breeze struck the coast, rushed up the river, swept round the broad reaches, and travelled on in a soft ripple of darkening water, in the whisper of branches, in the rustle of leaves of the awakened forests. It fanned in Lakamba’s campong the dull red of expiring embers into a pale brilliance; and, under its touch, the slender, upright spirals of smoke that rose from every glowing heap swayed, wavered, and eddying down filled the twilight of clustered shade trees with the aromatic scent of the burning wood. The men who had been dozing in the shade during the hot hours of the afternoon woke up, and the silence of the big courtyard was broken by the hesitating murmur of yet sleepy voices, by coughs and yawns, with now and then a burst of laughter, a loud hail, a name or a joke sent out in a soft drawl. Small groups squatted round the little fires, and the monotonous undertone of talk filled the enclosure; the talk of barbarians, persistent, steady, repeating itself in the soft syllables, in musical tones of the never-ending discourses of those men of the forests and the sea, who can talk most of the day and all the night; who never exhaust a subject, never seem able to thresh a matter out; to whom that talk is poetry and painting and music, all art, all history; their only accomplishment, their only superiority, their only amusement. The talk of camp fires, which speaks of bravery and cunning, of strange events and of far countries, of the news of yesterday and the news of to-morrow. The talk about the dead and the living — about those who fought and those who loved.
Lakamba came out on the platform before his own house and sat down — perspiring, half asleep, and sulky — in a wooden armchair under the shade of the overhanging eaves. Through the darkness of the doorway he could hear the soft warbling of his womenkind, busy round the looms where they were weaving the checkered pattern of his gala sarongs. Right and left of him on the flexible bamboo floor those of his followers to whom their distinguished birth, long devotion, or faithful service had given the privilege of using the chief’s house, were sleeping on mats or just sat up rubbing their eyes: while the more wakeful had mustered enough energy to draw a chessboard with red clay on a fine mat and were now meditating silently over their moves. Above the prostrate forms of the players, who lay face downward supported on elbow, the soles of their feet waving irresolutely about, in the absorbed meditation of the game, there towered here and there the straight figure of an attentive spectator looking down with dispassionate but profound interest. On the edge of the platform a row of high-heeled leather sandals stood ranged carefully in a level line, and against the rough wooden rail leaned the slender shafts of the spears belonging to these gentlemen, the broad blades of dulled steel looking very black in the reddening light of approaching sunset.
A boy of about twelve — the personal attendant of Lakamba — squatted at his master’s feet and held up towards him a silver siri box. Slowly Lakamba took the box, opened it, and tearing off a piece of green leaf deposited in it a pinch of lime, a morsel of gambier, a small bit of areca nut, and wrapped up the whole with a dexterous twist. He paused, morsel in hand, seemed to miss something, turned his head from side to side, slowly, like a man with a stiff neck, and ejaculated in an ill-humoured bass —
The players glanced up quickly, and looked down again directly. Those men who were standing stirred uneasily as if prodded by the sound of the chief’s voice. The one nearest to Lakamba repeated the call, after a while, over the rail into the courtyard. There was a movement of upturned faces below by the fires, and the cry trailed over the enclosure in sing-song tones. The thumping of wooden pestles husking the evening rice stopped for a moment and Babalatchi’s name rang afresh shrilly on women’s lips in various keys. A voice far off shouted something — another, nearer, repeated it; there was a short hubbub which died out with extreme suddenness. The first crier turned to Lakamba, saying indolently —
“He is with the blind Omar.”
Lakamba’s lips moved inaudibly. The man who had just spoken was again deeply absorbed in the game going on at his feet; and the chief — as if he had forgotten all about it already — sat with a stolid face amongst his silent followers, leaning back squarely in his chair, his hands on the arms of his seat, his knees apart, his big blood-shot eyes blinking solemnly, as if dazzled by the noble vacuity of his thoughts.
Babalatchi had gone to see old Omar late in the afternoon. The delicate manipulation of the ancient pirate’s susceptibilities, the skilful management of Aissa’s violent impulses engrossed him to the exclusion of every other business — interfered with his regular attendance upon his chief and protector — even disturbed his sleep for the last three nights. That day when he left his own bamboo hut — which stood amongst others in Lakamba’s campong — his heart was heavy with anxiety and with doubt as to the success of his intrigue. He walked slowly, with his usual air of detachment from his surroundings, as if unaware that many sleepy eyes watched from all parts of the courtyard his progress towards a small gate at its upper end. That gate gave access to a separate enclosure in which a rather large house, built of planks, had been prepared by Lakamba’s orders for the reception of Omar and Aissa. It was a superior kind of habitation which Lakamba intended for the dwelling of his chief adviser — whose abilities were worth that honour, he thought. But after the consultation in the deserted clearing — when Babalatchi had disclosed his plan — they both had agreed that the new house should be used at first to shelter Omar and Aissa after they had been persuaded to leave the Rajah’s place, or had been kidnapped from there — as the case might be. Babalatchi did not mind in the least the putting off of his own occupation of the house of honour, because it had many advantages for the quiet working out of his plans. It had a certain seclusion, having an enclosure of its own, and that enclosure communicated also with Lakamba’s private courtyard at the back of his residence — a place set apart for the female household of the chief. The only communication with the river was through the great front courtyard always full of armed men and watchful eyes. Behind the whole group of buildings there stretched the level ground of rice-clearings, which in their turn were closed in by the wall of untouched forests with undergrowth so thick and tangled that nothing but a bullet — and that fired at pretty close range — could penetrate any distance there.
Babalatchi slipped quietly through the little gate and, closing it, tied up carefully the rattan fastenings. Before the house there was a square space of ground, beaten hard into the level smoothness of asphalte. A big buttressed tree, a giant left there on purpose during the process of clearing the land, roofed in the clear space with a high canopy of gnarled boughs and thick, sombre leaves. To the right — and some small distance away from the large house — a little hut of reeds, covered with mats, had been put up for the special convenience of Omar, who, being blind and infirm, had some difficulty in ascending the steep plankway that led to the more substantial dwelling, which was built on low posts and had an uncovered verandah. Close by the trunk of the tree, and facing the doorway of the hut, the household fire glowed in a small handful of embers in the midst of a large circle of white ashes. An old woman — some humble relation of one of Lakamba’s wives, who had been ordered to attend on Aissa — was squatting over the fire and lifted up her bleared eyes to gaze at Babalatchi in an uninterested manner, as he advanced rapidly across the courtyard.
Babalatchi took in the courtyard with a keen glance of his solitary eye, and without looking down at the old woman muttered a question. Silently, the woman stretched a tremulous and emaciated arm towards the hut. Babalatchi made a few steps towards the doorway, but stopped outside in the sunlight.
“O! Tuan Omar, Omar besar! It is I— Babalatchi!”
Within the hut there was a feeble groan, a fit of coughing and an indistinct murmur in the broken tones of a vague plaint. Encouraged evidently by those signs of dismal life within, Babalatchi entered the hut, and after some time came out leading with rigid carefulness the blind Omar, who followed with both his hands on his guide’s shoulders. There was a rude seat under the tree, and there Babalatchi led his old chief, who sat down with a sigh of relief and leaned wearily against the rugged trunk. The rays of the setting sun, darting under the spreading branches, rested on the white-robed figure sitting with head thrown back in stiff dignity, on the thin hands moving uneasily, and on the stolid face with its eyelids dropped over the destroyed eyeballs; a face set into the immobility of a plaster cast yellowed by age.
“Is the sun near its setting?” asked Omar, in a dull voice.
“Very near,” answered Babalatchi.
“Where am I? Why have I been taken away from the place which I knew — where I, blind, could move without fear? It is like black night to those who see. And the sun is near its setting — and I have not heard the sound of her footsteps since the morning! Twice a strange hand has given me my food to-day. Why? Why? Where is she?”
“She is near,” said Babalatchi.
“And he?” went on Omar, with sudden eagerness, and a drop in his voice. “Where is he? Not here. Not here!” he repeated, turning his head from side to side as if in deliberate attempt to see.
“No! He is not here now,” said Babalatchi, soothingly. Then, after a pause, he added very low, “But he shall soon return.”
“Return! O crafty one! Will he return? I have cursed him three times,” exclaimed Omar, with weak violence.
“He is — no doubt — accursed,” assented Babalatchi, in a conciliating manner —“and yet he will be here before very long — I know!”
“You are crafty and faithless. I have made you great. You were dirt under my feet — less than dirt,” said Omar, with tremulous energy.
“I have fought by your side many times,” said Babalatchi, calmly.
“Why did he come?” went on Omar. “Did you send him? Why did he come to defile the air I breathe — to mock at my fate — to poison her mind and steal her body? She has grown hard of heart to me. Hard and merciless and stealthy like rocks that tear a ship’s life out under the smooth sea.” He drew a long breath, struggled with his anger, then broke down suddenly. “I have been hungry,” he continued, in a whimpering tone —“often I have been very hungry — and cold — and neglected — and nobody near me. She has often forgotten me — and my sons are dead, and that man is an infidel and a dog. Why did he come? Did you show him the way?”
“He found the way himself, O Leader of the brave,” said Babalatchi, sadly. “I only saw a way for their destruction and our own greatness. And if I saw aright, then you shall never suffer from hunger any more. There shall be peace for us, and glory and riches.”
“And I shall die to-morrow,” murmured Omar, bitterly.
“Who knows? Those things have been written since the beginning of the world,” whispered Babalatchi, thoughtfully.
“Do not let him come back,” exclaimed Omar.
“Neither can he escape his fate,” went on Babalatchi. “He shall come back, and the power of men we always hated, you and I, shall crumble into dust in our hand.” Then he added with enthusiasm, “They shall fight amongst themselves and perish both.”
“And you shall see all this, while, I . . . ”
“True!” murmured Babalatchi, regretfully. “To you life is darkness.”
“No! Flame!” exclaimed the old Arab, half rising, then falling back in his seat. “The flame of that last day! I see it yet — the last thing I saw! And I hear the noise of the rent earth — when they all died. And I live to be the plaything of a crafty one,” he added, with inconsequential peevishness.
“You are my master still,” said Babalatchi, humbly. “You are very wise — and in your wisdom you shall speak to Syed Abdulla when he comes here — you shall speak to him as I advised, I, your servant, the man who fought at your right hand for many years. I have heard by a messenger that the Syed Abdulla is coming to-night, perhaps late; for those things must be done secretly, lest the white man, the trader up the river, should know of them. But he will be here. There has been a surat delivered to Lakamba. In it, Syed Abdulla says he will leave his ship, which is anchored outside the river, at the hour of noon to-day. He will be here before daylight if Allah wills.”
He spoke with his eye fixed on the ground, and did not become aware of Aissa’s presence till he lifted his head when he ceased speaking. She had approached so quietly that even Omar did not hear her footsteps, and she stood now looking at them with troubled eyes and parted lips, as if she was going to speak; but at Babalatchi’s entreating gesture she remained silent. Omar sat absorbed in thought.
“Ay wa! Even so!” he said at last, in a weak voice. “I am to speak your wisdom, O Babalatchi! Tell him to trust the white man! I do not understand. I am old and blind and weak. I do not understand. I am very cold,” he continued, in a lower tone, moving his shoulders uneasily. He ceased, then went on rambling in a faint whisper. “They are the sons of witches, and their father is Satan the stoned. Sons of witches. Sons of witches.” After a short silence he asked suddenly, in a firmer voice —“How many white men are there here, O crafty one?”
“There are two here. Two white men to fight one another,” answered Babalatchi, with alacrity.
“And how many will be left then? How many? Tell me, you who are wise.”
“The downfall of an enemy is the consolation of the unfortunate,” said Babalatchi, sententiously. “They are on every sea; only the wisdom of the Most High knows their number — but you shall know that some of them suffer.”
“Tell me, Babalatchi, will they die? Will they both die?” asked Omar, in sudden agitation.
Aissa made a movement. Babalatchi held up a warning hand.
“They shall, surely, die,” he said steadily, looking at the girl with unflinching eye.
“Ay wa! But die soon! So that I can pass my hand over their faces when Allah has made them stiff.”
“If such is their fate and yours,” answered Babalatchi, without hesitation. “God is great!”
A violent fit of coughing doubled Omar up, and he rocked himself to and fro, wheezing and moaning in turns, while Babalatchi and the girl looked at him in silence. Then he leaned back against the tree, exhausted.
“I am alone, I am alone,” he wailed feebly, groping vaguely about with his trembling hands. “Is there anybody near me? Is there anybody? I am afraid of this strange place.”
“I am by your side, O Leader of the brave,” said Babalatchi, touching his shoulder lightly. “Always by your side as in the days when we both were young: as in the time when we both went with arms in our hands.”
“Has there been such a time, Babalatchi?” said Omar, wildly; “I have forgotten. And now when I die there will be no man, no fearless man to speak of his father’s bravery. There was a woman! A woman! And she has forsaken me for an infidel dog. The hand of the Compassionate is heavy on my head! Oh, my calamity! Oh, my shame!”
He calmed down after a while, and asked quietly — “Is the sun set, Babalatchi?”
“It is now as low as the highest tree I can see from here,” answered Babalatchi.
“It is the time of prayer,” said Omar, attempting to get up.
Dutifully Babalatchi helped his old chief to rise, and they walked slowly towards the hut. Omar waited outside, while Babalatchi went in and came out directly, dragging after him the old Arab’s praying carpet. Out of a brass vessel he poured the water of ablution on Omar’s outstretched hands, and eased him carefully down into a kneeling posture, for the venerable robber was far too infirm to be able to stand. Then as Omar droned out the first words and made his first bow towards the Holy City, Babalatchi stepped noiselessly towards Aissa, who did not move all the time.
Aissa looked steadily at the one-eyed sage, who was approaching her slowly and with a great show of deference. For a moment they stood facing each other in silence. Babalatchi appeared embarrassed. With a sudden and quick gesture she caught hold of his arm, and with the other hand pointed towards the sinking red disc that glowed, rayless, through the floating mists of the evening.
“The third sunset! The last! And he is not here,” she whispered; “what have you done, man without faith? What have you done?”
“Indeed I have kept my word,” murmured Babalatchi, earnestly. “This morning Bulangi went with a canoe to look for him. He is a strange man, but our friend, and shall keep close to him and watch him without ostentation. And at the third hour of the day I have sent another canoe with four rowers. Indeed, the man you long for, O daughter of Omar! may come when he likes.”
“But he is not here! I waited for him yesterday. To-day! To-morrow I shall go.”
“Not alive!” muttered Babalatchi to himself. “And do you doubt your power,” he went on in a louder tone —“you that to him are more beautiful than an houri of the seventh Heaven? He is your slave.”
“A slave does run away sometimes,” she said, gloomily, “and then the master must go and seek him out.”
“And do you want to live and die a beggar?” asked Babalatchi, impatiently.
“I care not,” she exclaimed, wringing her hands; and the black pupils of her wide-open eyes darted wildly here and there like petrels before the storm.
“Sh! Sh!” hissed Babalatchi, with a glance towards Omar. “Do you think, O girl! that he himself would live like a beggar, even with you?”
“He is great,” she said, ardently. “He despises you all! He despises you all! He is indeed a man!”
“You know that best,” muttered Babalatchi, with a fugitive smile —“but remember, woman with the strong heart, that to hold him now you must be to him like the great sea to thirsty men — a never-ceasing torment, and a madness.”
He ceased and they stood in silence, both looking on the ground, and for a time nothing was heard above the crackling of the fire but the intoning of Omar glorifying the God — his God, and the Faith — his faith. Then Babalatchi cocked his head on one side and appeared to listen intently to the hum of voices in the big courtyard. The dull noise swelled into distinct shouts, then into a great tumult of voices, dying away, recommencing, growing louder, to cease again abruptly; and in those short pauses the shrill vociferations of women rushed up, as if released, towards the quiet heaven. Aissa and Babalatchi started, but the latter gripped in his turn the girl’s arm and restrained her with a strong grasp.
“Wait,” he whispered.
The little door in the heavy stockade which separated Lakamba’s private ground from Omar’s enclosure swung back quickly, and the noble exile appeared with disturbed mien and a naked short sword in his hand. His turban was half unrolled, and the end trailed on the ground behind him. His jacket was open. He breathed thickly for a moment before he spoke.
“He came in Bulangi’s boat,” he said, “and walked quietly till he was in my presence, when the senseless fury of white men caused him to rush upon me. I have been in great danger,” went on the ambitious nobleman in an aggrieved tone. “Do you hear that, Babalatchi? That eater of swine aimed a blow at my face with his unclean fist. He tried to rush amongst my household. Six men are holding him now.”
A fresh outburst of yells stopped Lakamba’s discourse. Angry voices shouted: “Hold him. Beat him down. Strike at his head.”
Then the clamour ceased with sudden completeness, as if strangled by a mighty hand, and after a second of surprising silence the voice of Willems was heard alone, howling maledictions in Malay, in Dutch, and in English.
“Listen,” said Lakamba, speaking with unsteady lips, “he blasphemes his God. His speech is like the raving of a mad dog. Can we hold him for ever? He must be killed!”
“Fool!” muttered Babalatchi, looking up at Aissa, who stood with set teeth, with gleaming eyes and distended nostrils, yet obedient to the touch of his restraining hand. “It is the third day, and I have kept my promise,” he said to her, speaking very low. “Remember,” he added warningly —“like the sea to the thirsty! And now,” he said aloud, releasing her and stepping back, “go, fearless daughter, go!”
Like an arrow, rapid and silent she flew down the enclosure, and disappeared through the gate of the courtyard. Lakamba and Babalatchi looked after her. They heard the renewed tumult, the girl’s clear voice calling out, “Let him go!” Then after a pause in the din no longer than half the human breath the name of Aissa rang in a shout loud, discordant, and piercing, which sent through them an involuntary shudder. Old Omar collapsed on his carpet and moaned feebly; Lakamba stared with gloomy contempt in the direction of the inhuman sound; but Babalatchi, forcing a smile, pushed his distinguished protector through the narrow gate in the stockade, followed him, and closed it quickly.
The old woman, who had been most of the time kneeling by the fire, now rose, glanced round fearfully and crouched hiding behind the tree. The gate of the great courtyard flew open with a great clatter before a frantic kick, and Willems darted in carrying Aissa in his arms. He rushed up the enclosure like a tornado, pressing the girl to his breast, her arms round his neck, her head hanging back over his arm, her eyes closed and her long hair nearly touching the ground. They appeared for a second in the glare of the fire, then, with immense strides, he dashed up the planks and disappeared with his burden in the doorway of the big house.
Inside and outside the enclosure there was silence. Omar lay supporting himself on his elbow, his terrified face with its closed eyes giving him the appearance of a man tormented by a nightmare.
“What is it? Help! Help me to rise!” he called out faintly.
The old hag, still crouching in the shadow, stared with bleared eyes at the doorway of the big house, and took no notice of his call. He listened for a while, then his arm gave way, and, with a deep sigh of discouragement, he let himself fall on the carpet.
The boughs of the tree nodded and trembled in the unsteady currents of the light wind. A leaf fluttered down slowly from some high branch and rested on the ground, immobile, as if resting for ever, in the glow of the fire; but soon it stirred, then soared suddenly, and flew, spinning and turning before the breath of the perfumed breeze, driven helplessly into the dark night that had closed over the land.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06