Part 2 out of 6
quietly. Instead of going away, Babalatchi, unconscious of
Aissa's eyes, often sat again by the fire, in a long and deep
meditation. Aissa looked with respect on that wise and brave
man--she was accustomed to see at her father's side as long as
she could remember--sitting alone and thoughtful in the silent
night by the dying fire, his body motionless and his mind
wandering in the land of memories, or--who knows?--perhaps
groping for a road in the waste spaces of the uncertain future.
Babalatchi noted the arrival of Willems with alarm at this new
accession to the white men's strength. Afterwards he changed his
opinion. He met Willems one night on the path leading to Omar's
house, and noticed later on, with only a moderate surprise, that
the blind Arab did not seem to be aware of the new white man's
visits to the neighbourhood of his dwelling. Once, coming
unexpectedly in the daytime, Babalatchi fancied he could see the
gleam of a white jacket in the bushes on the other side of the
brook. That day he watched Aissa pensively as she moved about
preparing the evening rice; but after awhile he went hurriedly
away before sunset, refusing Omar's hospitable invitation, in the
name of Allah, to share their meal. That same evening he
startled Lakamba by announcing that the time had come at last to
make the first move in their long-deferred game. Lakamba asked
excitedly for explanation. Babalatchi shook his head and pointed
to the flitting shadows of moving women and to the vague forms of
men sitting by the evening fires in the courtyard. Not a word
would he speak here, he declared. But when the whole household
was reposing, Babalatchi and Lakamba passed silent amongst
sleeping groups to the riverside, and, taking a canoe, paddled
off stealthily on their way to the dilapidated guard-hut in the
old rice-clearing. There they were safe from all eyes and ears,
and could account, if need be, for their excursion by the wish to
kill a deer, the spot being well known as the drinking-place of
all kinds of game. In the seclusion of its quiet solitude
Babalatchi explained his plan to the attentive Lakamba. His idea
was to make use of Willems for the destruction of Lingard's
"I know the white men, Tuan," he said, in conclusion. "In many
lands have I seen them; always the slaves of their desires,
always ready to give up their strength and their reason into the
hands of some woman. The fate of the Believers is written by the
hand of the Mighty One, but they who worship many gods are thrown
into the world with smooth foreheads, for any woman's hand to
mark their destruction there. Let one white man destroy another.
The will of the Most High is that they should be fools. They
know how to keep faith with their enemies, but towards each other
they know only deception. Hai! I have seen! I have seen!"
He stretched himself full length before the fire, and closed his
eye in real or simulated sleep. Lakamba, not quite convinced,
sat for a long time with his gaze riveted on the dull embers. As
the night advanced, a slight white mist rose from the river, and
the declining moon, bowed over the tops of the forest, seemed to
seek the repose of the earth, like a wayward and wandering lover
who returns at last to lay his tired and silent head on his
"Lend me your gun, Almayer," said Willems, across the table on
which a smoky lamp shone redly above the disorder of a finished
meal. "I have a mind to go and look for a deer when the moon
Almayer, sitting sidewise to the table, his elbow pushed amongst
the dirty plates, his chin on his breast and his legs stretched
stiffly out, kept his eyes steadily on the toes of his grass
slippers and laughed abruptly.
"You might say yes or no instead of making that unpleasant
noise," remarked Willems, with calm irritation.
"If I believed one word of what you say, I would," answered
Almayer without changing his attitude and speaking slowly, with
pauses, as if dropping his words on the floor. "As it is--what's
the use? You know where the gun is; you may take it or leave it.
Gun. Deer. Bosh! Hunt deer! Pah! It's a . . . gazelle you
after, my honoured guest. You want gold anklets and silk sarongs
for that game--my mighty hunter. And you won't get those for the
asking, I promise you. All day amongst the natives. A fine help
you are to me."
"You shouldn't drink so much, Almayer," said Willems, disguising
his fury under an affected drawl. "You have no head. Never had,
as far as I can remember, in the old days in Macassar. You drink
"I drink my own," retorted Almayer, lifting his head quickly and
darting an angry glance at Willems.
Those two specimens of the superior race glared at each other
savagely for a minute, then turned away their heads at the same
moment as if by previous arrangement, and both got up. Almayer
kicked off his slippers and scrambled into his hammock, which
hung between two wooden columns of the verandah so as to catch
every rare breeze of the dry season, and Willems, after standing
irresolutely by the table for a short time, walked without a word
down the steps of the house and over the courtyard towards the
little wooden jetty, where several small canoes and a couple of
big white whale-boats were made fast, tugging at their short
painters and bumping together in the swift current of the river.
He jumped into the smallest canoe, balancing himself clumsily,
slipped the rattan painter, and gave an unnecessary and violent
shove, which nearly sent him headlong overboard. By the time he
regained his balance the canoe had drifted some fifty yards down
the river. He knelt in the bottom of his little craft and fought
the current with long sweeps of the paddle. Almayer sat up in
his hammock, grasping his feet and peering over the river with
parted lips till he made out the shadowy form of man and canoe as
they struggled past the jetty again.
"I thought you would go," he shouted. "Won't you take the gun?
Hey?" he yelled, straining his voice. Then he fell back in his
hammock and laughed to himself feebly till he fell asleep. On
the river, Willems, his eyes fixed intently ahead, swept his
paddle right and left, unheeding the words that reached him
It was now three months since Lingard had landed Willems in
Sambir and had departed hurriedly, leaving him in Almayer's care.
The two white men did not get on well together. Almayer,
remembering the time when they both served Hudig, and when the
superior Willems treated him with offensive condescension, felt a
great dislike towards his guest. He was also jealous of
Lingard's favour. Almayer had married a Malay girl whom the old
seaman had adopted in one of his accesses of unreasoning
benevolence, and as the marriage was not a happy one from a
domestic point of view, he looked to Lingard's fortune for
compensation in his matrimonial unhappiness. The appearance of
that man, who seemed to have a claim of some sort upon Lingard,
filled him with considerable uneasiness, the more so because the
old seaman did not choose to acquaint the husband of his adopted
daughter with Willems' history, or to confide to him his
intentions as to that individual's future fate. Suspicious from
the first, Almayer discouraged Willems' attempts to help him in
his trading, and then when Willems drew back, he made, with
characteristic perverseness, a grievance of his unconcern. From
cold civility in their relations, the two men drifted into silent
hostility, then into outspoken enmity, and both wished ardently
for Lingard's return and the end of a situation that grew more
intolerable from day to day. The time dragged slowly. Willems
watched the succeeding sunrises wondering dismally whether before
the evening some change would occur in the deadly dullness of his
life. He missed the commercial activity of that existence which
seemed to him far off, irreparably lost, buried out of sight
under the ruins of his past success--now gone from him beyond the
possibility of redemption. He mooned disconsolately about
Almayer's courtyard, watching from afar, with uninterested eyes,
the up-country canoes discharging guttah or rattans, and loading
rice or European goods on the little wharf of Lingard & Co. Big
as was the extent of ground owned by Almayer, Willems yet felt
that there was not enough room for him inside those neat fences.
The man who, during long years, became accustomed to think of
himself as indispensable to others, felt a bitter and savage rage
at the cruel consciousness of his superfluity, of his
uselessness; at the cold hostility visible in every look of the
only white man in this barbarous corner of the world. He gnashed
his teeth when he thought of the wasted days, of the life thrown
away in the unwilling company of that peevish and suspicious
fool. He heard the reproach of his idleness in the murmurs of
the river, in the unceasing whisper of the great forests. Round
him everything stirred, moved, swept by in a rush; the earth
under his feet and the heavens above his head. The very savages
around him strove, struggled, fought, worked--if only to prolong
a miserable existence; but they lived, they lived! And it was
only himself that seemed to be left outside the scheme of
creation in a hopeless immobility filled with tormenting anger
and with ever-stinging regret.
He took to wandering about the settlement. The afterwards
flourishing Sambir was born in a swamp and passed its youth in
malodorous mud. The houses crowded the bank, and, as if to get
away from the unhealthy shore, stepped boldly into the river,
shooting over it in a close row of bamboo platforms elevated on
high piles, amongst which the current below spoke in a soft and
unceasing plaint of murmuring eddies. There was only one path in
the whole town and it ran at the back of the houses along the
succession of blackened circular patches that marked the place of
the household fires. On the other side the virgin forest
bordered the path, coming close to it, as if to provoke
impudently any passer-by to the solution of the gloomy problem of
its depths. Nobody would accept the deceptive challenge. There
were only a few feeble attempts at a clearing here and there, but
the ground was low and the river, retiring after its yearly
floods, left on each a gradually diminishing mudhole, where the
imported buffaloes of the Bugis settlers wallowed happily during
the heat of the day. When Willems walked on the path, the
indolent men stretched on the shady side of the houses looked at
him with calm curiosity, the women busy round the cooking fires
would send after him wondering and timid glances, while the
children would only look once, and then run away yelling with
fright at the horrible appearance of the man with a red and white
face. These manifestations of childish disgust and fear stung
Willems with a sense of absurd humiliation; he sought in his
walks the comparative solitude of the rudimentary clearings, but
the very buffaloes snorted with alarm at his sight, scrambled
lumberingly out of the cool mud and stared wildly in a compact
herd at him as he tried to slink unperceived along the edge of
the forest. One day, at some unguarded and sudden movement of
his, the whole herd stampeded down the path, scattered the fires,
sent the women flying with shrill cries, and left behind a track
of smashed pots, trampled rice, overturned children, and a crowd
of angry men brandishing sticks in loud-voiced pursuit. The
innocent cause of that disturbance ran shamefacedly the gauntlet
of black looks and unfriendly remarks, and hastily sought refuge
in Almayer's campong. After that he left the settlement alone.
Later, when the enforced confinement grew irksome, Willems took
one of Almayer's many canoes and crossed the main branch of the
Pantai in search of some solitary spot where he could hide his
discouragement and his weariness. He skirted in his little craft
the wall of tangled verdure, keeping in the dead water close to
the bank where the spreading nipa palms nodded their broad leaves
over his head as if in contemptuous pity of the wandering
outcast. Here and there he could see the beginnings of
chopped-out pathways, and, with the fixed idea of getting out of
sight of the busy river, he would land and follow the narrow and
winding path, only to find that it led nowhere, ending abruptly
in the discouragement of thorny thickets. He would go back
slowly, with a bitter sense of unreasonable disappointment and
sadness; oppressed by the hot smell of earth, dampness, and decay
in that forest which seemed to push him mercilessly back into the
glittering sunshine of the river. And he would recommence
paddling with tired arms to seek another opening, to find another
As he paddled up to the point where the Rajah's stockade came
down to the river, the nipas were left behind rattling their
leaves over the brown water, and the big trees would appear on
the bank, tall, strong, indifferent in the immense solidity of
their life, which endures for ages, to that short and fleeting
life in the heart of the man who crept painfully amongst their
shadows in search of a refuge from the unceasing reproach of his
thoughts. Amongst their smooth trunks a clear brook meandered
for a time in twining lacets before it made up its mind to take a
leap into the hurrying river, over the edge of the steep bank.
There was also a pathway there and it seemed frequented. Willems
landed, and following the capricious promise of the track soon
found himself in a comparatively clear space, where the confused
tracery of sunlight fell through the branches and the foliage
overhead, and lay on the stream that shone in an easy curve like
a bright sword-blade dropped amongst the long and feathery grass.
Further on, the path continued, narrowed again in the thick
undergrowth. At the end of the first turning Willems saw a flash
of white and colour, a gleam of gold like a sun-ray lost in
shadow, and a vision of blackness darker than the deepest shade
of the forest. He stopped, surprised, and fancied he had heard
light footsteps--growing lighter--ceasing. He looked around.
The grass on the bank of the stream trembled and a tremulous path
of its shivering, silver-grey tops ran from the water to the
beginning of the thicket. And yet there was not a breath of
wind. Somebody kind passed there. He looked pensive while the
tremor died out in a quick tremble under his eyes; and the grass
stood high, unstirring, with drooping heads in the warm and
He hurried on, driven by a suddenly awakened curiosity, and
entered the narrow way between the bushes. At the next turn of
the path he caught again the glimpse of coloured stuff and of a
woman's black hair before him. He hastened his pace and came in
full view of the object of his pursuit. The woman, who was
carrying two bamboo vessels full of water, heard his footsteps,
stopped, and putting the bamboos down half turned to look back.
Willems also stood still for a minute, then walked steadily on
with a firm tread, while the woman moved aside to let him pass.
He kept his eyes fixed straight before him, yet almost
unconsciously he took in every detail of the tall and graceful
figure. As he approached her the woman tossed her head slightly
back, and with a free gesture of her strong, round arm, caught up
the mass of loose black hair and brought it over her shoulder and
across the lower part of her face. The next moment he was
passing her close, walking rigidly, like a man in a trance. He
heard her rapid breathing and he felt the touch of a look darted
at him from half-open eyes. It touched his brain and his heart
together. It seemed to him to be something loud and stirring
like a shout, silent and penetrating like an inspiration. The
momentum of his motion carried him past her, but an invisible
force made up of surprise and curiosity and desire spun him round
as soon as he had passed.
She had taken up her burden already, with the intention of
pursuing her path. His sudden movement arrested her at the first
step, and again she stood straight, slim, expectant, with a
readiness to dart away suggested in the light immobility of her
pose. High above, the branches of the trees met in a transparent
shimmer of waving green mist, through which the rain of yellow
rays descended upon her head, streamed in glints down her black
tresses, shone with the changing glow of liquid metal on her
face, and lost itself in vanishing sparks in the sombre depths of
her eyes that, wide open now, with enlarged pupils, looked
steadily at the man in her path. And Willems stared at her,
charmed with a charm that carries with it a sense of irreparable
loss, tingling with that feeling which begins like a caress and
ends in a blow, in that sudden hurt of a new emotion making its
way into a human heart, with the brusque stirring of sleeping
sensations awakening suddenly to the rush of new hopes, new
fears, new desires--and to the flight of one's old self.
She moved a step forward and again halted. A breath of wind that
came through the trees, but in Willems' fancy seemed to be driven
by her moving figure, rippled in a hot wave round his body and
scorched his face in a burning touch. He drew it in with a long
breath, the last long breath of a soldier before the rush of
battle, of a lover before he takes in his arms the adored woman;
the breath that gives courage to confront the menace of death or
the storm of passion.
Who was she? Where did she come from? Wonderingly he took his
eyes off her face to look round at the serried trees of the
forest that stood big and still and straight, as if watching him
and her breathlessly. He had been baffled, repelled, almost
frightened by the intensity of that tropical life which wants the
sunshine but works in gloom; which seems to be all grace of
colour and form, all brilliance, all smiles, but is only the
blossoming of the dead; whose mystery holds the promise of joy
and beauty, yet contains nothing but poison and decay. He had
been frightened by the vague perception of danger before, but
now, as he looked at that life again, his eyes seemed able to
pierce the fantastic veil of creepers and leaves, to look past
the solid trunks, to see through the forbidding gloom--and the
mystery was disclosed--enchanting, subduing, beautiful. He
looked at the woman. Through the checkered light between them
she appeared to him with the impalpable distinctness of a dream.
The very spirit of that land of mysterious forests, standing
before him like an apparition behind a transparent veil--a veil
woven of sunbeams and shadows.
She had approached him still nearer. He felt a strange
impatience within him at her advance. Confused thoughts rushed
through his head, disordered, shapeless, stunning. Then he heard
his own voice asking--
"Who are you?"
"I am the daughter of the blind Omar," she answered, in a low but
steady tone. "And you," she went on, a little louder, "you are
the white trader--the great man of this place."
"Yes," said Willems, holding her eyes with his in a sense of
extreme effort, "Yes, I am white." Then he added, feeling as if
he spoke about some other man, "But I am the outcast of my
She listened to him gravely. Through the mesh of scattered hair
her face looked like the face of a golden statue with living
eyes. The heavy eyelids dropped slightly, and from between the
long eyelashes she sent out a sidelong look: hard, keen, and
narrow, like the gleam of sharp steel. Her lips were firm and
composed in a graceful curve, but the distended nostrils, the
upward poise of the half-averted head, gave to her whole person
the expression of a wild and resentful defiance.
A shadow passed over Willems' face. He put his hand over his
lips as if to keep back the words that wanted to come out in a
surge of impulsive necessity, the outcome of dominant thought
that rushes from the heart to the brain and must be spoken in the
face of doubt, of danger, of fear, of destruction itself.
"You are beautiful," he whispered.
She looked at him again with a glance that running in one quick
flash of her eyes over his sunburnt features, his broad
shoulders, his straight, tall, motionless figure, rested at last
on the ground at his feet. Then she smiled. In the sombre
beauty of her face that smile was like the first ray of light on
a stormy daybreak that darts evanescent and pale through the
gloomy clouds: the forerunner of sunrise and of thunder.
There are in our lives short periods which hold no place in
memory but only as the recollection of a feeling. There is no
remembrance of gesture, of action, of any outward manifestation
of life; those are lost in the unearthly brilliance or in the
unearthly gloom of such moments. We are absorbed in the
contemplation of that something, within our bodies, which
rejoices or suffers while the body goes on breathing,
instinctively runs away or, not less instinctively,
fights--perhaps dies. But death in such a moment is the
privilege of the fortunate, it is a high and rare favour, a
Willems never remembered how and when he parted from Aissa. He
caught himself drinking the muddy water out of the hollow of his
hand, while his canoe was drifting in mid-stream past the last
houses of Sambir. With his returning wits came the fear of
something unknown that had taken possession of his heart, of
something inarticulate and masterful which could not speak and
would be obeyed. His first impulse was that of revolt. He would
never go back there. Never! He looked round slowly at the
brilliance of things in the deadly sunshine and took up his
paddle! How changed everything seemed! The river was broader,
the sky was higher. How fast the canoe flew under the strokes of
his paddle! Since when had he acquired the strength of two men
or more? He looked up and down the reach at the forests of the
bank with a confused notion that with one sweep of his hand he
could tumble all these trees into the stream. His face felt
burning. He drank again, and shuddered with a depraved sense of
pleasure at the after-taste of slime in the water.
It was late when he reached Almayer's house, but he crossed the
dark and uneven courtyard, walking lightly in the radiance of
some light of his own, invisible to other eyes. His host's sulky
greeting jarred him like a sudden fall down a great height. He
took his place at the table opposite Almayer and tried to speak
cheerfully to his gloomy companion, but when the meal was ended
and they sat smoking in silence he felt an abrupt discouragement,
a lassitude in all his limbs, a sense of immense sadness as after
some great and irreparable loss. The darkness of the night
entered his heart, bringing with it doubt and hesitation and dull
anger with himself and all the world. He had an impulse to shout
horrible curses, to quarrel with Almayer, to do something
violent. Quite without any immediate provocation he thought he
would like to assault the wretched, sulky beast. He glanced at
him ferociously from under his eyebrows. The unconscious Almayer
smoked thoughtfully, planning to-morrow's work probably. The
man's composure seemed to Willems an unpardonable insult. Why
didn't that idiot talk to-night when he wanted him to? . . . on
other nights he was ready enough to chatter. And such dull
nonsense too! And Willems, trying hard to repress his own
senseless rage, looked fixedly through the thick tobacco-smoke at
the stained tablecloth.
They retired early, as usual, but in the middle of the night
Willems leaped out of his hammock with a stifled execration and
ran down the steps into the courtyard. The two night watchmen,
who sat by a little fire talking together in a monotonous
undertone, lifted their heads to look wonderingly at the
discomposed features of the white man as he crossed the circle of
light thrown out by their fire. He disappeared in the darkness
and then came back again, passing them close, but with no sign of
consciousness of their presence on his face. Backwards and
forwards he paced, muttering to himself, and the two Malays,
after a short consultation in whispers left the fire quietly, not
thinking it safe to remain in the vicinity of a white man who
behaved in such a strange manner. They retired round the corner
of the godown and watched Willems curiously through the night,
till the short daybreak was followed by the sudden blaze of the
rising sun, and Almayer's establishment woke up to life and work.
As soon as he could get away unnoticed in the bustle of the busy
riverside, Willems crossed the river on his way to the place
where he had met Aissa. He threw himself down in the grass by
the side of the brook and listened for the sound of her
footsteps. The brilliant light of day fell through the irregular
opening in the high branches of the trees and streamed down,
softened, amongst the shadows of big trunks. Here and there a
narrow sunbeam touched the rugged bark of a tree with a golden
splash, sparkled on the leaping water of the brook, or rested on
a leaf that stood out, shimmering and distinct, on the monotonous
background of sombre green tints. The clear gap of blue above
his head was crossed by the quick flight of white rice-birds
whose wings flashed in the sunlight, while through it the heat
poured down from the sky, clung about the steaming earth, rolled
among the trees, and wrapped up Willems in the soft and odorous
folds of air heavy with the faint scent of blossoms and with the
acrid smell of decaying life. And in that atmosphere of Nature's
workshop Willems felt soothed and lulled into forgetfulness of
his past, into indifference as to his future. The recollections
of his triumphs, of his wrongs and of his ambition vanished in
that warmth, which seemed to melt all regrets, all hope, all
anger, all strength out of his heart. And he lay there, dreamily
contented, in the tepid and perfumed shelter, thinking of Aissa's
eyes; recalling the sound of her voice, the quiver of her
lips--her frowns and her smile.
She came, of course. To her he was something new, unknown and
strange. He was bigger, stronger than any man she had seen
before, and altogether different from all those she knew. He was
of the victorious race. With a vivid remembrance of the great
catastrophe of her life he appeared to her with all the
fascination of a great and dangerous thing; of a terror
vanquished, surmounted, made a plaything of. They spoke with
just such a deep voice--those victorious men; they looked with
just such hard blue eyes at their enemies. And she made that
voice speak softly to her, those eyes look tenderly at her face!
He was indeed a man. She could not understand all he told her of
his life, but the fragments she understood she made up for
herself into a story of a man great amongst his own people,
valorous and unfortunate; an undaunted fugitive dreaming of
vengeance against his enemies. He had all the attractiveness of
the vague and the unknown--of the unforeseen and of the sudden;
of a being strong, dangerous, alive, and human, ready to be
She felt that he was ready. She felt it with the unerring
intuition of a primitive woman confronted by a simple impulse.
Day after day, when they met and she stood a little way off,
listening to his words, holding him with her look, the undefined
terror of the new conquest became faint and blurred like the
memory of a dream, and the certitude grew distinct, and
convincing, and visible to the eyes like some material thing in
full sunlight. It was a deep joy, a great pride, a tangible
sweetness that seemed to leave the taste of honey on her lips.
He lay stretched at her feet without moving, for he knew from
experience how a slight movement of his could frighten her away
in those first days of their intercourse. He lay very quiet,
with all the ardour of his desire ringing in his voice and
shining in his eyes, whilst his body was still, like death
itself. And he looked at her, standing above him, her head lost
in the shadow of broad and graceful leaves that touched her
cheek; while the slender spikes of pale green orchids streamed
down from amongst the boughs and mingled with the black hair that
framed her face, as if all those plants claimed her for their
own--the animated and brilliant flower of all that exuberant life
which, born in gloom, struggles for ever towards the sunshine.
Every day she came a little nearer. He watched her slow
progress--the gradual taming of that woman by the words of his
love. It was the monotonous song of praise and desire that,
commencing at creation, wraps up the world like an atmosphere and
shall end only in the end of all things--when there are no lips
to sing and no ears to hear. He told her that she was beautiful
and desirable, and he repeated it again and again; for when he
told her that, he had said all there was within him--he had
expressed his only thought, his only feeling. And he watched the
startled look of wonder and mistrust vanish from her face with
the passing days, her eyes soften, the smile dwell longer and
longer on her lips; a smile as of one charmed by a delightful
dream; with the slight exaltation of intoxicating triumph lurking
in its dawning tenderness.
And while she was near there was nothing in the whole world--for
that idle man--but her look and her smile. Nothing in the past,
nothing in the future; and in the present only the luminous fact
of her existence. But in the sudden darkness of her going he
would be left weak and helpless, as though despoiled violently of
all that was himself. He who had lived all his life with no
preoccupation but that of his own career, contemptuously
indifferent to all feminine influence, full of scorn for men that
would submit to it, if ever so little; he, so strong, so superior
even in his errors, realized at last that his very individuality
was snatched from within himself by the hand of a woman. Where
was the assurance and pride of his cleverness; the belief in
success, the anger of failure, the wish to retrieve his fortune,
the certitude of his ability to accomplish it yet? Gone. All
gone. All that had been a man within him was gone, and there
remained only the trouble of his heart--that heart which had
become a contemptible thing; which could be fluttered by a look
or a smile, tormented by a word, soothed by a promise.
When the longed-for day came at last, when she sank on the grass
by his side and with a quick gesture took his hand in hers, he
sat up suddenly with the movement and look of a man awakened by
the crash of his own falling house. All his blood, all his
sensation, all his life seemed to rush into that hand leaving him
without strength, in a cold shiver, in the sudden clamminess and
collapse as of a deadly gun-shot wound. He flung her hand away
brutally, like something burning, and sat motionless, his head
fallen forward, staring on the ground and catching his breath in
painful gasps. His impulse of fear and apparent horror did not
dismay her in the least. Her face was grave and her eyes looked
seriously at him. Her fingers touched the hair of his temple,
ran in a light caress down his cheek, twisted gently the end of
his long moustache: and while he sat in the tremor of that
contact she ran off with startling fleetness and disappeared in a
peal of clear laughter, in the stir of grass, in the nod of young
twigs growing over the path; leaving behind only a vanishing
trail of motion and sound.
He scrambled to his feet slowly and painfully, like a man with a
burden on his shoulders, and walked towards the riverside. He
hugged to his breast the recollection of his fear and of his
delight, but told himself seriously over and over again that this
must be the end of that adventure. After shoving off his canoe
into the stream he lifted his eyes to the bank and gazed at it
long and steadily, as if taking his last look at a place of
charming memories. He marched up to Almayer's house with the
concentrated expression and the determined step of a man who had
just taken a momentous resolution. His face was set and rigid,
his gestures and movements were guarded and slow. He was keeping
a tight hand on himself. A very tight hand. He had a vivid
illusion--as vivid as reality almost--of being in charge of a
slippery prisoner. He sat opposite Almayer during that
dinner--which was their last meal together--with a perfectly calm
face and within him a growing terror of escape from his own self.
Now and then he would grasp the edge of the table and set his
teeth hard in a sudden wave of acute despair, like one who,
falling down a smooth and rapid declivity that ends in a
precipice, digs his finger nails into the yielding surface and
feels himself slipping helplessly to inevitable destruction.
Then, abruptly, came a relaxation of his muscles, the giving way
of his will. Something seemed to snap in his head, and that
wish, that idea kept back during all those hours, darted into his
brain with the heat and noise of a conflagration. He must see
her! See her at once! Go now! To-night! He had the raging
regret of the lost hour, of every passing moment. There was no
thought of resistance now. Yet with the instinctive fear of the
irrevocable, with the innate falseness of the human heart, he
wanted to keep open the way of retreat. He had never absented
himself during the night. What did Almayer know? What would
Almayer think? Better ask him for the gun. A moonlight night. .
. . Look for deer. . . . A colourable pretext. He would lie to
Almayer. What did it matter! He lied to himself every minute of
his life. And for what? For a woman. And such. . . .
Almayer's answer showed him that deception was useless.
Everything gets to be known, even in this place. Well, he did
not care. Cared for nothing but for the lost seconds. What if
he should suddenly die. Die before he saw her. Before he could .
As, with the sound of Almayer's laughter in his ears, he urged
his canoe in a slanting course across the rapid current, he tried
to tell himself that he could return at any moment. He would
just go and look at the place where they used to meet, at the
tree under which he lay when she took his hand, at the spot where
she sat by his side. Just go there and then return--nothing
more; but when his little skiff touched the bank he leaped out,
forgetting the painter, and the canoe hung for a moment amongst
the bushes and then swung out of sight before he had time to dash
into the water and secure it. He was thunderstruck at first.
he could not go back unless he called up the Rajah's people to
get a boat and rowers--and the way to Patalolo's campong led past
He went up the path with the eager eyes and reluctant steps of a
man pursuing a phantom, and when he found himself at a place
where a narrow track branched off to the left towards Omar's
clearing he stood still, with a look of strained attention on his
face as if listening to a far-off voice--the voice of his fate.
It was a sound inarticulate but full of meaning; and following it
there came a rending and tearing within his breast. He twisted
his fingers together, and the joints of his hands and arms
cracked. On his forehead the perspiration stood out in small
pearly drops. He looked round wildly. Above the shapeless
darkness of the forest undergrowth rose the treetops with their
high boughs and leaves standing out black on the pale sky--like
fragments of night floating on moonbeams. Under his feet warm
steam rose from the heated earth. Round him there was a great
He was looking round for help. This silence, this immobility of
his surroundings seemed to him a cold rebuke, a stern refusal, a
cruel unconcern. There was no safety outside of himself--and in
himself there was no refuge; there was only the image of that
woman. He had a sudden moment of lucidity--of that cruel lucidity
that comes once in life to the most benighted. He seemed to see
what went on within him, and was horrified at the strange sight.
He, a white man whose worst fault till then had been a little
want of judgment and too much confidence in the rectitude of his
kind! That woman was a complete savage, and . . . He tried to
tell himself that the thing was of no consequence. It was a vain
effort. The novelty of the sensations he had never experienced
before in the slightest degree, yet had despised on hearsay from
his safe position of a civilized man, destroyed his courage. He
was disappointed with himself. He seemed to be surrendering to a
wild creature the unstained purity of his life, of his race, of
his civilization. He had a notion of being lost amongst
shapeless things that were dangerous and ghastly. He struggled
with the sense of certain defeat--lost his footing--fell back
into the darkness. With a faint cry and an upward throw of his
arms he gave up as a tired swimmer gives up: because the swamped
craft is gone from under his feet; because the night is dark and
the shore is far--because death is better than strife.
The light and heat fell upon the settlement, the clearings, and
the river as if flung down by an angry hand. The land lay
silent, still, and brilliant under the avalanche of burning rays
that had destroyed all sound and all motion, had buried all
shadows, had choked every breath. No living thing dared to
affront the serenity of this cloudless sky, dared to revolt
against the oppression of this glorious and cruel sunshine.
Strength and resolution, body and mind alike were helpless, and
tried to hide before the rush of the fire from heaven. Only the
frail butterflies, the fearless children of the sun, the
capricious tyrants of the flowers, fluttered audaciously in the
open, and their minute shadows hovered in swarms over the
drooping blossoms, ran lightly on the withering grass, or glided
on the dry and cracked earth. No voice was heard in this hot
noontide but the faint murmur of the river that hurried on in
swirls and eddies, its sparkling wavelets chasing each other in
their joyous course to the sheltering depths, to the cool refuge
of the sea.
Almayer had dismissed his workmen for the midday rest, and, his
little daughter on his shoulder, ran quickly across the
courtyard, making for the shade of the verandah of his house. He
laid the sleepy child on the seat of the big rocking-chair, on a
pillow which he took out of his own hammock, and stood for a
while looking down at her with tender and pensive eyes. The
child, tired and hot, moved uneasily, sighed, and looked up at
him with the veiled look of sleepy fatigue. He picked up from
the floor a broken palm-leaf fan, and began fanning gently the
flushed little face. Her eyelids fluttered and Almayer smiled.
A responsive smile brightened for a second her heavy eyes, broke
with a dimple the soft outline of her cheek; then the eyelids
dropped suddenly, she drew a long breath through the parted
lips--and was in a deep sleep before the fleeting smile could
vanish from her face.
Almayer moved lightly off, took one of the wooden armchairs, and
placing it close to the balustrade of the verandah sat down with
a sigh of relief. He spread his elbows on the top rail and
resting his chin on his clasped hands looked absently at the
river, at the dance of sunlight on the flowing water. Gradually
the forest of the further bank became smaller, as if sinking
below the level of the river. The outlines wavered, grew thin,
dissolved in the air. Before his eyes there was now only a space
of undulating blue--one big, empty sky growing dark at times. . .
. Where was the sunshine? . . . He felt soothed and happy, as
if some gentle and invisible hand had removed from his soul the
burden of his body. In another second he seemed to float out
into a cool brightness where there was no such thing as memory or
pain. Delicious. His eyes closed--opened--closed again.
With a sudden jerk of his whole body he sat up, grasping the
front rail with both his hands, and blinked stupidly.
"What? What's that?" he muttered, looking round vaguely.
"Here! Down here, Almayer."
Half rising in his chair, Almayer looked over the rail at the
foot of the verandah, and fell back with a low whistle of
"A ghost, by heavens!" he exclaimed softly to himself.
"Will you listen to me?" went on the husky voice from the
courtyard. "May I come up, Almayer?"
Almayer stood up and leaned over the rail. "Don't you dare," he
said, in a voice subdued but distinct. "Don't you dare! The
child sleeps here. And I don't want to hear you--or speak to you
"You must listen to me! It's something important."
"Not to me, surely."
"Yes! To you. Very important."
"You were always a humbug," said Almayer, after a short silence,
in an indulgent tone. "Always! I remember the old days. Some
fellows used to say there was no one like you for smartness--but
you never took me in. Not quite. I never quite believed in you,
"I admit your superior intelligence," retorted Willems, with
scornful impatience, from below. "Listening to me would be a
further proof of it. You will be sorry if you don't."
"Oh, you funny fellow!" said Almayer, banteringly. "Well, come
up. Don't make a noise, but come up. You'll catch a sunstroke
down there and die on my doorstep perhaps. I don't want any
tragedy here. Come on!"
Before he finished speaking Willems' head appeared above the
level of the floor, then his shoulders rose gradually and he
stood at last before Almayer--a masquerading spectre of the once
so very confidential clerk of the richest merchant in the
islands. His jacket was soiled and torn; below the waist he was
clothed in a worn-out and faded sarong. He flung off his hat,
uncovering his long, tangled hair that stuck in wisps on his
perspiring forehead and straggled over his eyes, which glittered
deep down in the sockets like the last sparks amongst the black
embers of a burnt-out fire. An unclean beard grew out of the
caverns of his sunburnt cheeks. The hand he put out towards
Almayer was very unsteady. The once firm mouth had the tell-tale
droop of mental suffering and physical exhaustion. He was
barefooted. Almayer surveyed him with leisurely composure.
"Well!" he said at last, without taking the extended hand which
dropped slowly along Willems' body.
"I am come," began Willems.
"So I see," interrupted Almayer. "You might have spared me this
treat without making me unhappy. You have been away five weeks,
if I am not mistaken. I got on very well without you--and now you
are here you are not pretty to look at."
"Let me speak, will you!" exclaimed Willems.
"Don't shout like this. Do you think yourself in the forest with
your . . . your friends? This is a civilized man's house. A
white man's. Understand?"
"I am come," began Willems again; "I am come for your good and
"You look as if you had come for a good feed," chimed in the
irrepressible Almayer, while Willems waved his hand in a
discouraged gesture. "Don't they give you enough to eat," went
on Almayer, in a tone of easy banter, "those--what am I to call
them--those new relations of yours? That old blind scoundrel
must be delighted with your company. You know, he was the
greatest thief and murderer of those seas. Say! do you exchange
confidences? Tell me, Willems, did you kill somebody in Macassar
or did you only steal something?"
"It is not true!" exclaimed Willems, hotly. "I only borrowed. .
. . They all lied! I . . ."
"Sh-sh!" hissed Almayer, warningly, with a look at the sleeping
child. "So you did steal," he went on, with repressed
exultation. "I thought there was something of the kind. And
now, here, you steal again."
For the first time Willems raised his eyes to Almayer's face.
"Oh, I don't mean from me. I haven't missed anything," said
Almayer, with mocking haste. "But that girl. Hey! You stole
her. You did not pay the old fellow. She is no good to him now,
"Stop that. Almayer!"
Something in Willems' tone caused Almayer to pause. He looked
narrowly at the man before him, and could not help being shocked
at his appearance.
"Almayer," went on Willems, "listen to me. If you are a human
being you will. I suffer horribly--and for your sake."
Almayer lifted his eyebrows. "Indeed! How? But you are
raving," he added, negligently.
"Ah! You don't know," whispered Willems. "She is gone. Gone,"
he repeated, with tears in his voice, "gone two days ago."
"No!" exclaimed the surprised Almayer. "Gone! I haven't heard
that news yet." He burst into a subdued laugh. "How funny! Had
enough of you already? You know it's not flattering for you, my
Willems--as if not hearing him--leaned against one of the columns
of the roof and looked over the river. "At first," he whispered,
dreamily, "my life was like a vision of heaven--or hell; I didn't
know which. Since she went I know what perdition means; what
darkness is. I know what it is to be torn to pieces alive.
That's how I feel."
"You may come and live with me again," said Almayer, coldly.
"After all, Lingard--whom I call my father and respect as
such--left you under my care. You pleased yourself by going
away. Very good. Now you want to come back. Be it so. I am no
friend of yours. I act for Captain Lingard."
"Come back?" repeated Willems, passionately. "Come back to you
and abandon her? Do you think I am mad? Without her! Man! what
are you made of? To think that she moves, lives, breathes out of
my sight. I am jealous of the wind that fans her, of the air she
breathes, of the earth that receives the caress of her foot, of
the sun that looks at her now while I . . . I haven't seen her
for two days--two days."
The intensity of Willems' feeling moved Almayer somewhat, but he
affected to yawn elaborately
"You do bore me," he muttered. "Why don't you go after her
instead of coming here?"
"Don't you know where she is? She can't be very far. No native
craft has left this river for the last fortnight."
"No! not very far--and I will tell you where she is. She is in
Lakamba's campong." And Willems fixed his eyes steadily on
"Phew! Patalolo never sent to let me know. Strange," said
Almayer, thoughtfully. "Are you afraid of that lot?" he added,
after a short pause.
"Then is it the care of your dignity which prevents you from
following her there, my high-minded friend?" asked Almayer, with
mock solicitude. "How noble of you!"
There was a short silence; then Willems said, quietly, "You are a
fool. I should like to kick you."
"No fear," answered Almayer, carelessly; "you are too weak for
that. You look starved."
"I don't think I have eaten anything for the last two days;
perhaps more--I don't remember. It does not matter. I am full
of live embers," said Willems, gloomily. "Look!" and he bared an
arm covered with fresh scars. "I have been biting myself to
forget in that pain the fire that hurts me there!" He struck his
breast violently with his fist, reeled under his own blow, fell
into a chair that stood near and closed his eyes slowly.
"Disgusting exhibition," said Almayer, loftily. "What could
father ever see in you? You are as estimable as a heap of
"You talk like that! You, who sold your soul for a few
guilders," muttered Willems, wearily, without opening his eyes.
"Not so few," said Almayer, with instinctive readiness, and
stopped confused for a moment. He recovered himself quickly,
however, and went on: "But you--you have thrown yours away for
nothing; flung it under the feet of a damned savage woman who has
made you already the thing you are, and will kill you very soon,
one way or another, with her love or with her hate. You spoke
just now about guilders. You meant Lingard's money, I suppose.
Well, whatever I have sold, and for whatever price, I never meant
you--you of all people--to spoil my bargain. I feel pretty safe
though. Even father, even Captain Lingard, would not touch you
now with a pair of tongs; not with a ten-foot pole. . . ."
He spoke excitedly, all in one breath, and, ceasing suddenly,
glared at Willems and breathed hard through his nose in sulky
resentment. Willems looked at him steadily for a moment, then
"Almayer," he said resolutely, "I want to become a trader in
Almayer shrugged his shoulders.
"Yes. And you shall set me up. I want a house and trade
goods--perhaps a little money. I ask you for it."
"Anything else you want? Perhaps this coat?" and here Almayer
unbuttoned his jacket--"or my house--or my boots?"
"After all it's natural," went on Willems, without paying any
attention to Almayer--"it's natural that she should expect the
advantages which . . . and then I could shut up that old wretch
and then . . ."
He paused, his face brightened with the soft light of dreamy
enthusiasm, and he turned his eyes upwards. With his gaunt figure
and dilapidated appearance he looked like some ascetic dweller in
a wilderness, finding the reward of a self-denying life in a
vision of dazzling glory. He went on in an impassioned murmur--
"And then I would have her all to myself away from her
people--all to myself--under my own influence--to fashion--to
mould--to adore--to soften--to . . . Oh! Delight! And
then--then go away to some distant place where, far from all she
knew, I would be all the world to her! All the world to her!"
His face changed suddenly. His eyes wandered for awhile and
then became steady all at once.
"I would repay every cent, of course," he said, in a
business-like tone, with something of his old assurance, of his
old belief in himself, in it. "Every cent. I need not interfere
with your business. I shall cut out the small native traders. I
have ideas--but never mind that now. And Captain Lingard would
approve, I feel sure. After all it's a loan, and I shall be at
hand. Safe thing for you."
"Ah! Captain Lingard would approve! He would app . . ."
Almayer choked. The notion of Lingard doing something for
Willems enraged him. His face was purple. He spluttered
insulting words. Willems looked at him coolly.
"I assure you, Almayer," he said, gently, "that I have good
grounds for my demand."
"Your cursed impudence!"
"Believe me, Almayer, your position here is not so safe as you
may think. An unscrupulous rival here would destroy your trade
in a year. It would be ruin. Now Lingard's long absence gives
courage to certain individuals. You know?--I have heard much
lately. They made proposals to me . . . You are very much alone
here. Even Patalolo . . ."
"Damn Patalolo! I am master in this place."
"But, Almayer, don't you see . . ."
"Yes, I see. I see a mysterious ass," interrupted Almayer,
violently. "What is the meaning of your veiled threats? Don't
you think I know something also? They have been intriguing for
years--and nothing has happened. The Arabs have been hanging
about outside this river for years--and I am still the only
trader here; the master here. Do you bring me a declaration of
war? Then it's from yourself only. I know all my other enemies.
I ought to knock you on the head. You are not worth powder and
shot though. You ought to be destroyed with a stick--like a
Almayer's voice woke up the little girl, who sat up on the pillow
with a sharp cry. He rushed over to the chair, caught up the
child in his arms, walked back blindly, stumbled against Willems'
hat which lay on the floor, and kicked it furiously down the
"Clear out of this! Clear out!" he shouted.
Willems made an attempt to speak, but Almayer howled him down.
"Take yourself off! Don't you see you frighten the child--you
scarecrow! No, no! dear," he went on to his little daughter,
soothingly, while Willems walked down the steps slowly. "No.
Don't cry. See! Bad man going away. Look! He is afraid of
your papa. Nasty, bad man. Never come back again. He shall
live in the woods and never come near my little girl. If he
comes papa will kill him--so!" He struck his fist on the rail of
the balustrade to show how he would kill Willems, and, perching
the consoled child on his shoulder held her with one hand, while
he pointed toward the retreating figure of his visitor.
"Look how he runs away, dearest," he said, coaxingly. "Isn't he
funny. Call 'pig' after him, dearest. Call after him."
The seriousness of her face vanished into dimples. Under the long
eyelashes, glistening with recent tears, her big eyes sparkled
and danced with fun. She took firm hold of Almayer's hair with
one hand, while she waved the other joyously and called out with
all her might, in a clear note, soft and distinct like the pipe
of a bird:--
"Pig! Pig! Pig!"
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
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
"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
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
"You are crafty and faithless. I have made you great. You were
dirt under my feet--less than dirt," said Omar, with tremulous
"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
"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
"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,"
"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
"The third sunset! The last! And he is not here," she
whispered; "what have you done, man without faith? What have you
"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
"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,
"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
"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
"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
"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.
For upwards of forty years Abdulla had walked in the way of his
Lord. Son of the rich Syed Selim bin Sali, the great Mohammedan
trader of the Straits, he went forth at the age of seventeen on
his first commercial expedition, as his father's representative
on board a pilgrim ship chartered by the wealthy Arab to convey a
crowd of pious Malays to the Holy Shrine. That was in the days
when steam was not in those seas--or, at least, not so much as
now. The voyage was long, and the young man's eyes were opened
to the wonders of many lands. Allah had made it his fate to
become a pilgrim very early in life. This was a great favour of
Heaven, and it could not have been bestowed upon a man who prized
it more, or who made himself more worthy of it by the unswerving
piety of his heart and by the religious solemnity of his
demeanour. Later on it became clear that the book of his destiny
contained the programme of a wandering life. He visited Bombay
and Calcutta, looked in at the Persian Gulf, beheld in due course
the high and barren coasts of the Gulf of Suez, and this was the
limit of his wanderings westward. He was then twenty-seven, and
the writing on his forehead decreed that the time had come for
him to return to the Straits and take from his dying father's
hands the many threads of a business that was spread over all the
Archipelago: from Sumatra to New Guinea, from Batavia to Palawan.
Very soon his ability, his will--strong to obstinacy--his wisdom
beyond his years, caused him to be recognized as the head of a
family whose members and connections were found in every part of
those seas. An uncle here--a brother there; a father-in-law in
Batavia, another in Palembang; husbands of numerous sisters;
cousins innumerable scattered north, south, east, and west--in
every place where there was trade: the great family lay like a
network over the islands. They lent money to princes, influenced
the council-rooms, faced--if need be--with peaceful intrepidity
the white rulers who held the land and the sea under the edge of
sharp swords; and they all paid great deference to Abdulla,
listened to his advice, entered into his plans--because he was
wise, pious, and fortunate.
He bore himself with the humility becoming a Believer, who never
forgets, even for one moment of his waking life, that he is the
servant of the Most High. He was largely charitable because the
charitable man is the friend of Allah, and when he walked out of
his house--built of stone, just outside the town of Penang--on
his way to his godowns in the port, he had often to snatch his
hand away sharply from under the lips of men of his race and
creed; and often he had to murmur deprecating words, or even to
rebuke with severity those who attempted to touch his knees with
their finger-tips in gratitude or supplication. He was very
handsome, and carried his small head high with meek gravity. His
lofty brow, straight nose, narrow, dark face with its chiselled
delicacy of feature, gave him an aristocratic appearance which
proclaimed his pure descent. His beard was trimmed close and to
a rounded point. His large brown eyes looked out steadily with a
sweetness that was belied by the expression of his thin-lipped
mouth. His aspect was serene. He had a belief in his own
prosperity which nothing could shake.
Restless, like all his people, he very seldom dwelt for many days
together in his splendid house in Penang. Owner of ships, he was
often on board one or another of them, traversing in all
directions the field of his operations. In every port he had a
household--his own or that of a relation--to hail his advent with
demonstrative joy. In every port there were rich and influential
men eager to see him, there was business to talk over, there were
important letters to read: an immense correspondence, enclosed
in silk envelopes--a correspondence which had nothing to do with
the infidels of colonial post-offices, but came into his hands by
devious, yet safe, ways. It was left for him by taciturn
nakhodas of native trading craft, or was delivered with profound
salaams by travel-stained and weary men who would withdraw from
his presence calling upon Allah to bless the generous giver of
splendid rewards. And the news was always good, and all his
attempts always succeeded, and in his ears there rang always a
chorus of admiration, of gratitude, of humble entreaties.
A fortunate man. And his felicity was so complete that the good
genii, who ordered the stars at his birth, had not neglected--by
a refinement of benevolence strange in such primitive beings--to
provide him with a desire difficult to attain, and with an enemy
hard to overcome. The envy of Lingard's political and commercial
successes, and the wish to get the best of him in every way,
became Abdulla's mania, the paramount interest of his life, the
salt of his existence.
For the last few months he had been receiving mysterious messages
from Sambir urging him to decisive action. He had found the
river a couple of years ago, and had been anchored more than once
off that estuary where the, till then, rapid Pantai, spreading
slowly over the lowlands, seems to hesitate, before it flows
gently through twenty outlets; over a maze of mudflats, sandbanks
and reefs, into the expectant sea. He had never attempted the
entrance, however, because men of his race, although brave and
adventurous travellers, lack the true seamanlike instincts, and
he was afraid of getting wrecked. He could not bear the idea of
the Rajah Laut being able to boast that Abdulla bin Selim, like
other and lesser men, had also come to grief when trying to wrest
his secret from him. Meantime he returned encouraging answers to
his unknown friends in Sambir, and waited for his opportunity in
the calm certitude of ultimate triumph.
Such was the man whom Lakamba and Babalatchi expected to see for
the first time on the night of Willems' return to Aissa.
Babalatchi, who had been tormented for three days by the fear of
having over-reached himself in his little plot, now, feeling sure
of his white man, felt lighthearted and happy as he superintended
the preparations in the courtyard for Abdulla's reception.
Half-way between Lakamba's house and the river a pile of dry wood
was made ready for the torch that would set fire to it at the
moment of Abdulla's landing. Between this and the house again
there was, ranged in a semicircle, a set of low bamboo frames,
and on those were piled all the carpets and cushions of Lakamba's
household. It had been decided that the reception was to take
place in the open air, and that it should be made impressive by
the great number of Lakamba's retainers, who, clad in clean
white, with their red sarongs gathered round their waists,
chopper at side and lance in hand, were moving about the compound
or, gathering into small knots, discussed eagerly the coming
Two little fires burned brightly on the water's edge on each side
of the landing place. A small heap of damar-gum torches lay by
each, and between them Babalatchi strolled backwards and
forwards, stopping often with his face to the river and his head
on one side, listening to the sounds that came from the darkness
over the water. There was no moon and the night was very clear
overhead, but, after the afternoon breeze had expired in fitful
puffs, the vapours hung thickening over the glancing surface of
the Pantai and clung to the shore, hiding from view the middle of
A cry in the mist--then another--and, before Babalatchi could
answer, two little canoes dashed up to the landing-place, and two
of the principal citizens of Sambir, Daoud Sahamin and Hamet
Bahassoen, who had been confidentially invited to meet Abdulla,
landed quickly and after greeting Babalatchi walked up the dark
courtyard towards the house. The little stir caused by their
arrival soon subsided, and another silent hour dragged its slow
length while Babalatchi tramped up and down between the fires,
his face growing more anxious with every passing moment.
At last there was heard a loud hail from down the river. At a
call from Babalatchi men ran down to the riverside and, snatching
the torches, thrust them into the fires, then waved them above
their heads till they burst into a flame. The smoke ascended in
thick, wispy streams, and hung in a ruddy cloud above the glare
that lit up the courtyard and flashed over the water, showing
three long canoes manned by many paddlers lying a little off; the
men in them lifting their paddles on high and dipping them down
together, in an easy stroke that kept the small flotilla
motionless in the strong current, exactly abreast of the landing-
place. A man stood up in the largest craft and called out--
"Syed Abdulla bin Selim is here!"
Babalatchi answered aloud in a formal tone--
"Allah gladdens our hearts! Come to the land!"
Abdulla landed first, steadying himself by the help of
Babalatchi's extended hand. In the short moment of his passing
from the boat to the shore they exchanged sharp glances and a few
"Who are you?"
"Babalatchi. The friend of Omar. The protected of Lakamba."
"My words were written, O Giver of alms!"
And then Abdulla walked with composed face between the two lines
of men holding torches, and met Lakamba in front of the big fire
that was crackling itself up into a great blaze. For a moment
they stood with clasped hands invoking peace upon each other's
head, then Lakamba, still holding his honoured guest by the hand,
led him round the fire to the prepared seats. Babalatchi
followed close behind his protector. Abdulla was accompanied by
two Arabs. He, like his companions, was dressed in a white robe
of starched muslin, which fell in stiff folds straight from the
neck. It was buttoned from the throat halfway down with a close
row of very small gold buttons; round the tight sleeves there was
a narrow braid of gold lace. On his shaven head he wore a small
skull-cap of plaited grass. He was shod in patent leather
slippers over his naked feet. A rosary of heavy wooden beads
hung by a round turn from his right wrist. He sat down slowly in
the place of honour, and, dropping his slippers, tucked up his
legs under him decorously.
The improvised divan was arranged in a wide semi-circle, of which
the point most distant from the fire--some ten yards--was also
the nearest to Lakamba's dwelling. As soon as the principal
personages were seated, the verandah of the house was filled
silently by the muffled-up forms of Lakamba's female belongings.
They crowded close to the rail and looked down, whispering
faintly. Below, the formal exchange of compliments went on for
some time between Lakamba and Abdulla, who sat side by side.
Babalatchi squatted humbly at his protector's feet, with nothing
but a thin mat between himself and the hard ground.
Then there was a pause. Abdulla glanced round in an expectant
manner, and after a while Babalatchi, who had been sitting very
still in a pensive attitude, seemed to rouse himself with an
effort, and began to speak in gentle and persuasive tones. He
described in flowing sentences the first beginnings of Sambir,
the dispute of the present ruler, Patalolo, with the Sultan of
Koti, the consequent troubles ending with the rising of Bugis
settlers under the leadership of Lakamba. At different points of
the narrative he would turn for confirmation to Sahamin and
Bahassoen, who sat listening eagerly and assented together with a
"Betul! Betul! Right! Right!" ejaculated in a fervent
Warming up with his subject as the narrative proceeded,
Babalatchi went on to relate the facts connected with Lingard's
action at the critical period of those internal dissensions. He
spoke in a restrained voice still, but with a growing energy of
indignation. What was he, that man of fierce aspect, to keep all
the world away from them? Was he a government? Who made him
ruler? He took possession of Patalolo's mind and made his heart
hard; he put severe words into his mouth and caused his hand to
strike right and left. That unbeliever kept the Faithful panting
under the weight of his senseless oppression. They had to trade
with him--accept such goods as he would give--such credit as he
would accord. And he exacted payment every year . . .
"Very true!" exclaimed Sahamin and Bahassoen together.
Babalatchi glanced at them approvingly and turned to Abdulla.
"Listen to those men, O Protector of the oppressed!" he
exclaimed. "What could we do? A man must trade. There was
Sahamin got up, staff in hand, and spoke to Abdulla with
ponderous courtesy, emphasizing his words by the solemn
flourishes of his right arm.
"It is so. We are weary of paying our debts to that white man
here, who is the son of the Rajah Laut. That white man--may the
grave of his mother be defiled!--is not content to hold us all in
his hand with a cruel grasp. He seeks to cause our very death.
He trades with the Dyaks of the forest, who are no better than
monkeys. He buys from them guttah and rattans--while we starve.
Only two days ago I went to him and said, 'Tuan Almayer'--even
so; we must speak politely to that friend of Satan--'Tuan
Almayer, I have such and such goods to sell. Will you buy?' And
he spoke thus--because those white men have no understanding of
any courtesy--he spoke to me as if I was a slave: 'Daoud, you are
a lucky man'--remark, O First amongst the Believers! that by
those words he could have brought misfortune on my head--'you are
a lucky man to have anything in these hard times. Bring your
goods quickly, and I shall receive them in payment of what you
owe me from last year.' And he laughed, and struck me on the
shoulder with his open hand. May Jehannum be his lot!"
"We will fight him," said young Bahassoen, crisply. "We shall
fight if there is help and a leader. Tuan Abdulla, will you come
Abdulla did not answer at once. His lips moved in an inaudible
whisper and the beads passed through his fingers with a dry
click. All waited in respectful silence. "I shall come if my
ship can enter this river," said Abdulla at last, in a solemn
"It can, Tuan," exclaimed Babalatchi. "There is a white man here
who . . ."
"I want to see Omar el Badavi and that white man you wrote
about," interrupted Abdulla.
Babalatchi got on his feet quickly, and there was a general move.
The women on the verandah hurried indoors, and from the crowd
that had kept discreetly in distant parts of the courtyard a
couple of men ran with armfuls of dry fuel, which they cast upon
the fire. One of them, at a sign from Babalatchi, approached
and, after getting his orders, went towards the little gate and
entered Omar's enclosure. While waiting for his return, Lakamba,
Abdulla, and Babalatchi talked together in low tones. Sahamin
sat by himself chewing betel-nut sleepily with a slight and
indolent motion of his heavy jaw. Bahassoen, his hand on the
hilt of his short sword, strutted backwards and forwards in the
full light of the fire, looking very warlike and reckless; the
envy and admiration of Lakamba's retainers, who stood in groups
or flitted about noiselessly in the shadows of the courtyard.
The messenger who had been sent to Omar came back and stood at a
distance, waiting till somebody noticed him. Babalatchi beckoned
"What are his words?" asked Babalatchi.
"He says that Syed Abdulla is welcome now," answered the man.
Lakamba was speaking low to Abdulla, who listened to him with
". . . We could have eighty men if there was need," he was
saying--"eighty men in fourteen canoes. The only thing we want is
gunpowder . . ."
"Hai! there will be no fighting," broke in Babalatchi. "The fear
of your name will be enough and the terror of your coming."
"There may be powder too," muttered Abdulla with great
nonchalance, "if only the ship enters the river safely."
"If the heart is stout the ship will be safe," said Babalatchi.
"We will go now and see Omar el Badavi and the white man I have
Lakamba's dull eyes became animated suddenly.
"Take care, Tuan Abdulla," he said, "take care. The behaviour of
that unclean white madman is furious in the extreme. He offered
to strike . . ."
"On my head, you are safe, O Giver of alms!" interrupted
Abdulla looked from one to the other, and the faintest flicker of
a passing smile disturbed for a moment his grave composure. He
turned to Babalatchi, and said with decision--
"Let us go."
"This way, O Uplifter of our hearts!" rattled on Babalatchi, with
fussy deference. "Only a very few paces and you shall behold
Omar the brave, and a white man of great strength and cunning.
He made a sign for Lakamba to remain behind, and with respectful
touches on the elbow steered Abdulla towards the gate at the
upper end of the court-yard. As they walked on slowly, followed
by the two Arabs, he kept on talking in a rapid undertone to the
great man, who never looked at him once, although appearing to
listen with flattering attention. When near the gate Babalatchi
moved forward and stopped, facing Abdulla, with his hand on the
"You shall see them both," he said. "All my words about them are
true. When I saw him enslaved by the one of whom I spoke, I knew
he would be soft in my hand like the mud of the river. At first
he answered my talk with bad words of his own language, after the
manner of white men. Afterwards, when listening to the voice he
loved, he hesitated. He hesitated for many days--too many. I,
knowing him well, made Omar withdraw here with his . . .
household. Then this red-faced man raged for three days like a
black panther that is hungry. And this evening, this very
evening, he came. I have him here. He is in the grasp of one
with a merciless heart. I have him here," ended Babalatchi,
exultingly tapping the upright of the gate with his hand.
"That is good," murmured Abdulla.
"And he shall guide your ship and lead in the fight--if fight
there be," went on Babalatchi. "If there is any killing--let him
be the slayer. You should give him arms--a short gun that fires
"Yes, by Allah!" assented Abdulla, with slow thoughtfulness.
"And you will have to open your hand, O First amongst the
generous!" continued Babalatchi. "You will have to satisfy the
rapacity of a white man, and also of one who is not a man, and
therefore greedy of ornaments."
"They shall be satisfied," said Abdulla; "but . . ." He
hesitated, looking down on the ground and stroking his beard,
while Babalatchi waited, anxious, with parted lips. After a
short time he spoke again jerkily in an indistinct whisper, so
that Babalatchi had to turn his head to catch the words. "Yes.
But Omar is the son of my father's uncle . . . and all belonging
to him are of the Faith . . . while that man is an unbeliever.
It is most unseemly . . . very unseemly. He cannot live under my
shadow. Not that dog. Penitence! I take refuge with my God,"
he mumbled rapidly. "How can he live under my eyes with that
woman, who is of the Faith? Scandal! O abomination!"
He finished with a rush and drew a long breath, then added
"And when that man has done all we want, what is to be done with
They stood close together, meditative and silent, their eyes
roaming idly over the courtyard. The big bonfire burned
brightly, and a wavering splash of light lay on the dark earth at
their feet, while the lazy smoke wreathed itself slowly in
gleaming coils amongst the black boughs of the trees. They could
see Lakamba, who had returned to his place, sitting hunched up
spiritlessly on the cushions, and Sahamin, who had got on his
feet again and appeared to be talking to him with dignified
animation. Men in twos or threes came out of the shadows into
the light, strolling slowly, and passed again into the shadows,
their faces turned to each other, their arms moving in restrained
gestures. Bahassoen, his head proudly thrown back, his
ornaments, embroideries, and sword-hilt flashing in the light,
circled steadily round the fire like a planet round the sun. A
cool whiff of damp air came from the darkness of the riverside;
it made Abdulla and Babalatchi shiver, and woke them up from
"Open the gate and go first," said Abdulla; "there is no danger?"
"On my life, no!" answered Babalatchi, lifting the rattan ring.
"He is all peace and content, like a thirsty man who has drunk
water after many days."
He swung the gate wide, made a few paces into the gloom of the
enclosure, and retraced his steps suddenly.
"He may be made useful in many ways," he whispered to Abdulla,
who had stopped short, seeing him come back.
"O Sin! O Temptation!" sighed out Abdulla, faintly. "Our refuge
is with the Most High. Can I feed this infidel for ever and for
ever?" he added, impatiently.
"No," breathed out Babalatchi. "No! Not for ever. Only while
he serves your designs, O Dispenser of Allah's gifts! When the
time comes--and your order . . ."
He sidled close to Abdulla, and brushed with a delicate touch the
hand that hung down listlessly, holding the prayer-beads.
"I am your slave and your offering," he murmured, in a distinct
and polite tone, into Abdulla's ear. "When your wisdom speaks,
there may be found a little poison that will not lie. Who
Babalatchi saw Abdulla pass through the low and narrow entrance
into the darkness of Omar's hut; heard them exchange the usual
greetings and the distinguished visitor's grave voice asking:
"There is no misfortune--please God--but the sight?" and then,
becoming aware of the disapproving looks of the two Arabs who had
accompanied Abdulla, he followed their example and fell back out
of earshot. He did it unwillingly, although he did not ignore
that what was going to happen in there was now absolutely beyond
his control. He roamed irresolutely about for awhile, and at
last wandered with careless steps towards the fire, which had
been moved, from under the tree, close to the hut and a little to
windward of its entrance. He squatted on his heels and began
playing pensively with live embers, as was his habit when
engrossed in thought, withdrawing his hand sharply and shaking it
above his head when he burnt his fingers in a fit of deeper
abstraction. Sitting there he could hear the murmur of the talk
inside the hut, and he could distinguish the voices but not the
words. Abdulla spoke in deep tones, and now and then this
flowing monotone was interrupted by a querulous exclamation, a
weak moan or a plaintive quaver of the old man. Yes. It was
annoying not to be able to make out what they were saying,
thought Babalatchi, as he sat gazing fixedly at the unsteady glow
of the fire. But it will be right. All will be right. Abdulla
inspired him with confidence. He came up fully to his
expectation. From the very first moment when he set his eye on
him he felt sure that this man--whom he had known by reputation
only--was very resolute. Perhaps too resolute. Perhaps he would
want to grasp too much later on. A shadow flitted over
Babalatchi's face. On the eve of the accomplishment of his
desires he felt the bitter taste of that drop of doubt which is
mixed with the sweetness of every success.
When, hearing footsteps on the verandah of the big house, he
lifted his head, the shadow had passed away and on his face there
was an expression of watchful alertness. Willems was coming down