Part 5 out of 6
"I know enough."
She approached, and stood facing him at arm's length, with both
her hands on his shoulders; and he, surprised by that audacity,
closed and opened his eyes two or three times, aware of some
emotion arising within him, from her words, her tone, her
contact; an emotion unknown, singular, penetrating and sad--at
the close sight of that strange woman, of that being savage and
tender, strong and delicate, fearful and resolute, that had got
entangled so fatally between their two lives--his own and that
other white man's, the abominable scoundrel.
"How can you know?" she went on, in a persuasive tone that seemed
to flow out of her very heart--"how can you know? I live with
him all the days. All the nights. I look at him; I see his
every breath, every glance of his eye, every movement of his
lips. I see nothing else! What else is there? And even I do
not understand. I do not understand him!--Him!--My life! Him
who to me is so great that his presence hides the earth and the
water from my sight!"
Lingard stood straight, with his hands deep in the pockets of his
jacket. His eyes winked quickly, because she spoke very close to
his face. She disturbed him and he had a sense of the efforts he
was making to get hold of her meaning, while all the time he
could not help telling himself that all this was of no use.
She added after a pause--"There has been a time when I could
understand him. When I knew what was in his mind better than he
knew it himself. When I felt him. When I held him. . . . And
now he has escaped."
"Escaped? What? Gone away!" shouted Lingard.
"Escaped from me," she said; "left me alone. Alone. And I am
ever near him. Yet alone."
Her hands slipped slowly off Lingard's shoulders and her arms
fell by her side, listless, discouraged, as if to her--to her,
the savage, violent, and ignorant creature--had been revealed
clearly in that moment the tremendous fact of our isolation, of
the loneliness impenetrable and transparent, elusive and
everlasting; of the indestructible loneliness that surrounds,
envelopes, clothes every human soul from the cradle to the grave,
and, perhaps, beyond.
"Aye! Very well! I understand. His face is turned away from
you," said Lingard. "Now, what do you want?"
"I want . . . I have looked--for help . . . everywhere . . .
against men. . . . All men . . . I do not know. First they
came, the invisible whites, and dealt death from afar . . . then
he came. He came to me who was alone and sad. He came; angry
with his brothers; great amongst his own people; angry with those
I have not seen: with the people where men have no mercy and
women have no shame. He was of them, and great amongst them.
For he was great?"
Lingard shook his head slightly. She frowned at him, and went on
in disordered haste--
"Listen. I saw him. I have lived by the side of brave men . . .
of chiefs. When he came I was the daughter of a beggar--of a
blind man without strength and hope. He spoke to me as if I had
been brighter than the sunshine--more delightful than the cool
water of the brook by which we met--more . . ." Her anxious eyes
saw some shade of expression pass on her listener's face that
made her hold her breath for a second, and then explode into
pained fury so violent that it drove Lingard back a pace, like an
unexpected blast of wind. He lifted both his hands,
incongruously paternal in his venerable aspect, bewildered and
soothing, while she stretched her neck forward and shouted at
"I tell you I was all that to him. I know it! I saw it! . . .
There are times when even you white men speak the truth. I saw
his eyes. I felt his eyes, I tell you! I saw him tremble when I
came near--when I spoke--when I touched him. Look at me! You
have been young. Look at me. Look, Rajah Laut!"
She stared at Lingard with provoking fixity, then, turning her
head quickly, she sent over her shoulder a glance, full of humble
fear, at the house that stood high behind her back--dark, closed,
rickety and silent on its crooked posts.
Lingard's eyes followed her look, and remained gazing expectantly
at the house. After a minute or so he muttered, glancing at her
"If he has not heard your voice now, then he must be far away--or
"He is there," she whispered, a little calmed but still
anxious--"he is there. For three days he waited. Waited for you
night and day. And I waited with him. I waited, watching his
face, his eyes, his lips; listening to his words.--To the words I
could not understand.--To the words he spoke in daylight; to the
words he spoke at night in his short sleep. I listened. He
spoke to himself walking up and down here--by the river; by the
bushes. And I followed. I wanted to know--and I could not! He
was tormented by things that made him speak in the words of his
own people. Speak to himself--not to me. Not to me! What was
he saying? What was he going to do? Was he afraid of you?--Of
death? What was in his heart? . . . Fear? . . . Or anger? . .
. what desire? . . . what sadness? He spoke; spoke; many words.
All the time! And I could not know! I wanted to speak to him.
He was deaf to me. I followed him everywhere, watching for some
word I could understand; but his mind was in the land of his
people--away from me. When I touched him he was angry--so!"
She imitated the movement of some one shaking off roughly an
importunate hand, and looked at Lingard with tearful and unsteady
After a short interval of laboured panting, as if she had been
out of breath with running or fighting, she looked down and went
"Day after day, night after night, I lived watching him--seeing
nothing. And my heart was heavy--heavy with the presence of
death that dwelt amongst us. I could not believe. I thought he
was afraid. Afraid of you! Then I, myself, knew fear. . . .
Tell me, Rajah Laut, do you know the fear without voice--the fear
of silence--the fear that comes when there is no one near--when
there is no battle, no cries, no angry faces or armed hands
anywhere? . . . The fear from which there is no escape!"
She paused, fastened her eyes again on the puzzled Lingard, and
hurried on in a tone of despair--
"And I knew then he would not fight you! Before--many days
ago--I went away twice to make him obey my desire; to make him
strike at his own people so that he could be mine--mine! O
calamity! His hand was false as your white hearts. It struck
forward, pushed by my desire--by his desire of me. . . . It
struck that strong hand, and--O shame!--it killed nobody! Its
fierce and lying blow woke up hate without any fear. Round me
all was lies. His strength was a lie. My own people lied to me
and to him. And to meet you--you, the great!--he had no one but
me? But me with my rage, my pain, my weakness. Only me! And to
me he would not even speak. The fool!"
She came up close to Lingard, with the wild and stealthy aspect
of a lunatic longing to whisper out an insane secret--one of
those misshapen, heart-rending, and ludicrous secrets; one of
those thoughts that, like monsters--cruel, fantastic, and
mournful, wander about terrible and unceasing in the night of
madness. Lingard looked at her, astounded but unflinching. She
spoke in his face, very low.
"He is all! Everything. He is my breath, my light, my heart. .
. . Go away. . . . Forget him. . . . He has no courage and no
wisdom any more . . . and I have lost my power. . . . Go away and
forget. There are other enemies. . . . Leave him to me. He had
been a man once. . . . You are too great. Nobody can withstand
you. . . . I tried. . . . I know now. . . . I cry for mercy.
Leave him to me and go away."
The fragments of her supplicating sentences were as if tossed on
the crest of her sobs. Lingard, outwardly impassive, with his
eyes fixed on the house, experienced that feeling of
condemnation, deep-seated, persuasive, and masterful; that
illogical impulse of disapproval which is half disgust, half
vague fear, and that wakes up in our hearts in the presence of
anything new or unusual, of anything that is not run into the
mould of our own conscience; the accursed feeling made up of
disdain, of anger, and of the sense of superior virtue that
leaves us deaf, blind, contemptuous and stupid before anything
which is not like ourselves.
He answered, not looking at her at first, but speaking towards
the house that fascinated him--
"_I_ go away! He wanted me to come--he himself did! . . . YOU
must go away. You do not know what you are asking for. Listen.
Go to your own people. Leave him. He is . . ."
He paused, looked down at her with his steady eyes; hesitated, as
if seeking an adequate expression; then snapped his fingers, and
She stepped back, her eyes on the ground, and pressed her temples
with both her hands, which she raised to her head in a slow and
ample movement full of unconscious tragedy. The tone of her
words was gentle and vibrating, like a loud meditation. She
"Tell the brook not to run to the river; tell the river not to
run to the sea. Speak loud. Speak angrily. Maybe they will
obey you. But it is in my mind that the brook will not care.
The brook that springs out of the hillside and runs to the great
river. He would not care for your words: he that cares not for
the very mountain that gave him life; he that tears the earth
from which he springs. Tears it, eats it, destroys it--to hurry
faster to the river--to the river in which he is lost for ever. .
. . O Rajah Laut! I do not care."
She drew close again to Lingard, approaching slowly, reluctantly,
as if pushed by an invisible hand, and added in words that seemed
to be torn out of her--
"I cared not for my own father. For him that died. I would have
rather . . . You do not know what I have done . . . I . . ."
"You shall have his life," said Lingard, hastily.
They stood together, crossing their glances; she suddenly
appeased, and Lingard thoughtful and uneasy under a vague sense
of defeat. And yet there was no defeat. He never intended to
kill the fellow--not after the first moment of anger, a long time
ago. The days of bitter wonder had killed anger; had left only a
bitter indignation and a bitter wish for complete justice. He
felt discontented and surprised. Unexpectedly he had come upon a
human being--a woman at that--who had made him disclose his will
before its time. She should have his life. But she must be
told, she must know, that for such men as Willems there was no
favour and no grace.
"Understand," he said slowly, "that I leave him his life not in
mercy but in punishment."
She started, watched every word on his lips, and after he
finished speaking she remained still and mute in astonished
immobility. A single big drop of rain, a drop enormous, pellucid
and heavy--like a super-human tear coming straight and rapid from
above, tearing its way through the sombre sky--struck loudly the
dry ground between them in a starred splash. She wrung her hands
in the bewilderment of the new and incomprehensible fear. The
anguish of her whisper was more piercing than the shrillest cry.
"What punishment! Will you take him away then? Away from me?
Listen to what I have done. . . . It is I who . . ."
"Ah!" exclaimed Lingard, who had been looking at the house.
"Don't you believe her, Captain Lingard," shouted Willems from
the doorway, where he appeared with swollen eyelids and bared
breast. He stood for a while, his hands grasping the lintels on
each side of the door, and writhed about, glaring wildly, as if
he had been crucified there. Then he made a sudden rush head
foremost down the plankway that responded with hollow, short
noises to every footstep.
She heard him. A slight thrill passed on her face and the words
that were on her lips fell back unspoken into her benighted
heart; fell back amongst the mud, the stones--and the flowers,
that are at the bottom of every heart.
When he felt the solid ground of the courtyard under his feet,
Willems pulled himself up in his headlong rush and moved forward
with a moderate gait. He paced stiffly, looking with extreme
exactitude at Lingard's face; looking neither to the right nor to
the left but at the face only, as if there was nothing in the
world but those features familiar and dreaded; that white-haired,
rough and severe head upon which he gazed in a fixed effort of
his eyes, like a man trying to read small print at the full range
of human vision. As soon as Willems' feet had left the planks,
the silence which had been lifted up by the jerky rattle of his
footsteps fell down again upon the courtyard; the silence of the
cloudy sky and of the windless air, the sullen silence of the
earth oppressed by the aspect of coming turmoil, the silence of
the world collecting its faculties to withstand the storm.
Through this silence Willems pushed his way, and stopped about
six feet from Lingard. He stopped simply because he could go no
further. He had started from the door with the reckless purpose
of clapping the old fellow on the shoulder. He had no idea that
the man would turn out to be so tall, so big and so
unapproachable. It seemed to him that he had never, never in his
life, seen Lingard.
He tried to say--
"Do not believe . . ."
A fit of coughing checked his sentence in a faint splutter.
Directly afterwards he swallowed--as it were--a couple of
pebbles, throwing his chin up in the act; and Lingard, who looked
at him narrowly, saw a bone, sharp and triangular like the head
of a snake, dart up and down twice under the skin of his throat.
Then that, too, did not move. Nothing moved.
"Well," said Lingard, and with that word he came unexpectedly to
the end of his speech. His hand in his pocket closed firmly
round the butt of his revolver bulging his jacket on the hip, and
he thought how soon and how quickly he could terminate his
quarrel with that man who had been so anxious to deliver himself
into his hands--and how inadequate would be that ending! He
could not bear the idea of that man escaping from him by going
out of life; escaping from fear, from doubt, from remorse into
the peaceful certitude of death. He held him now. And he was
not going to let him go--to let him disappear for ever in the
faint blue smoke of a pistol shot. His anger grew within him.
He felt a touch as of a burning hand on his heart. Not on the
flesh of his breast, but a touch on his heart itself, on the
palpitating and untiring particle of matter that responds to
every emotion of the soul; that leaps with joy, with terror, or
He drew a long breath. He could see before him the bare chest of
the man expanding and collapsing under the wide-open jacket. He
glanced aside, and saw the bosom of the woman near him rise and
fall in quick respirations that moved slightly up and down her
hand, which was pressed to her breast with all the fingers spread
out and a little curved, as if grasping something too big for its
span. And nearly a minute passed. One of those minutes when the
voice is silenced, while the thoughts flutter in the head, like
captive birds inside a cage, in rushes desperate, exhausting and
During that minute of silence Lingard's anger kept rising,
immense and towering, such as a crested wave running over the
troubled shallows of the sands. Its roar filled his cars; a roar
so powerful and distracting that, it seemed to him, his head must
burst directly with the expanding volume of that sound. He
looked at that man. That infamous figure upright on its feet,
still, rigid, with stony eyes, as if its rotten soul had departed
that moment and the carcass hadn't had the time yet to topple
over. For the fraction of a second he had the illusion and the
fear of the scoundrel having died there before the enraged glance
of his eyes. Willems' eyelids fluttered, and the unconscious and
passing tremor in that stiffly erect body exasperated Lingard
like a fresh outrage. The fellow dared to stir! Dared to wink,
to breathe, to exist; here, right before his eyes! His grip on
the revolver relaxed gradually. As the transport of his rage
increased, so also his contempt for the instruments that pierce
or stab, that interpose themselves between the hand and the
object of hate. He wanted another kind of satisfaction. Naked
hands, by heaven! No firearms. Hands that could take him by the
throat, beat down his defence, batter his face into shapeless
flesh; hands that could feel all the desperation of his
resistance and overpower it in the violent delight of a contact
lingering and furious, intimate and brutal.
He let go the revolver altogether, stood hesitating, then
throwing his hands out, strode forward--and everything passed
from his sight. He could not see the man, the woman, the earth,
the sky--saw nothing, as if in that one stride he had left the
visible world behind to step into a black and deserted space. He
heard screams round him in that obscurity, screams like the
melancholy and pitiful cries of sea-birds that dwell on the
lonely reefs of great oceans. Then suddenly a face appeared
within a few inches of his own. His face. He felt something in
his left hand. His throat . . . Ah! the thing like a snake's
head that darts up and down . . . He squeezed hard. He was back
in the world. He could see the quick beating of eyelids over a
pair of eyes that were all whites, the grin of a drawn-up lip, a
row of teeth gleaming through the drooping hair of a moustache .
. . Strong white teeth. Knock them down his lying throat . . .
He drew back his right hand, the fist up to the shoulder,
knuckles out. From under his feet rose the screams of sea-birds.
Thousands of them. Something held his legs . . . What the devil
. . . He delivered his blow straight from the shoulder, felt the
jar right up his arm, and realized suddenly that he was striking
something passive and unresisting. His heart sank within him
with disappointment, with rage, with mortification. He pushed
with his left arm, opening the hand with haste, as if he had just
perceived that he got hold by accident of something repulsive--
and he watched with stupefied eyes Willems tottering backwards in
groping strides, the white sleeve of his jacket across his face.
He watched his distance from that man increase, while he remained
motionless, without being able to account to himself for the fact
that so much empty space had come in between them. It should
have been the other way. They ought to have been very close, and
. . . Ah! He wouldn't fight, he wouldn't resist, he wouldn't
defend himself! A cur! Evidently a cur! . . . He was amazed and
aggrieved--profoundly--bitterly--with the immense and blank
desolation of a small child robbed of a toy. He shouted--
"Will you be a cheat to the end?"
He waited for some answer. He waited anxiously with an
impatience that seemed to lift him off his feet. He waited for
some word, some sign; for some threatening stir. Nothing! Only
two unwinking eyes glittered intently at him above the white
sleeve. He saw the raised arm detach itself from the face and
sink along the body. A white clad arm, with a big stain on the
white sleeve. A red stain. There was a cut on the cheek. It
bled. The nose bled too. The blood ran down, made one moustache
look like a dark rag stuck over the lip, and went on in a wet
streak down the clipped beard on one side of the chin. A drop of
blood hung on the end of some hairs that were glued together; it
hung for a while and took a leap down on the ground. Many more
followed, leaping one after another in close file. One alighted
on the breast and glided down instantly with devious vivacity,
like a small insect running away; it left a narrow dark track on
the white skin. He looked at it, looked at the tiny and active
drops, looked at what he had done, with obscure satisfaction,
with anger, with regret. This wasn't much like an act of
justice. He had a desire to go up nearer to the man, to hear him
speak, to hear him say something atrocious and wicked that would
justify the violence of the blow. He made an attempt to move,
and became aware of a close embrace round both his legs, just
above the ankles. Instinctively, he kicked out with his foot,
broke through the close bond and felt at once the clasp
transferred to his other leg; the clasp warm, desperate and soft,
of human arms. He looked down bewildered. He saw the body of
the woman stretched at length, flattened on the ground like a
dark blue rag. She trailed face downwards, clinging to his leg
with both arms in a tenacious hug. He saw the top of her head,
the long black hair streaming over his foot, all over the beaten
earth, around his boot. He couldn't see his foot for it. He
heard the short and repeated moaning of her breath. He imagined
the invisible face close to his heel. With one kick into that
face he could free himself. He dared not stir, and shouted
"Let go! Let go! Let go!"
The only result of his shouting was a tightening of the pressure
of her arms. With a tremendous effort he tried to bring his
right foot up to his left, and succeeded partly. He heard
distinctly the rub of her body on the ground as he jerked her
along. He tried to disengage himself by drawing up his foot. He
stamped. He heard a voice saying sharply--
"Steady, Captain Lingard, steady!"
His eyes flew back to Willems at the sound of that voice, and, in
the quick awakening of sleeping memories, Lingard stood suddenly
still, appeased by the clear ring of familiar words. Appeased as
in days of old, when they were trading together, when Willems was
his trusted and helpful companion in out-of-the-way and dangerous
places; when that fellow, who could keep his temper so much
better than he could himself, had spared him many a difficulty,
had saved him from many an act of hasty violence by the timely
and good-humoured warning, whispered or shouted, "Steady, Captain
Lingard, steady." A smart fellow. He had brought him up. The
smartest fellow in the islands. If he had only stayed with him,
then all this . . . He called out to Willems--
"Tell her to let me go or . . ."
He heard Willems shouting something, waited for awhile, then
glanced vaguely down and saw the woman still stretched out
perfectly mute and unstirring, with her head at his feet. He
felt a nervous impatience that, somehow, resembled fear.
"Tell her to let go, to go away, Willems, I tell you. I've had
enough of this," he cried.
"All right, Captain Lingard," answered the calm voice of Willems,
"she has let go. Take your foot off her hair; she can't get up."
Lingard leaped aside, clean away, and spun round quickly. He saw
her sit up and cover her face with both hands, then he turned
slowly on his heel and looked at the man. Willems held himself
very straight, but was unsteady on his feet, and moved about
nearly on the same spot, like a tipsy man attempting to preserve
his balance. After gazing at him for a while, Lingard called,
rancorous and irritable--
"What have you got to say for yourself?"
Willems began to walk towards him. He walked slowly, reeling a
little before he took each step, and Lingard saw him put his hand
to his face, then look at it holding it up to his eyes, as if he
had there, concealed in the hollow of the palm, some small object
which he wanted to examine secretly. Suddenly he drew it, with a
brusque movement, down the front of his jacket and left a long
"That's a fine thing to do," said Willems.
He stood in front of Lingard, one of his eyes sunk deep in the
increasing swelling of his cheek, still repeating mechanically
the movement of feeling his damaged face; and every time he did
this he pressed the palm to some clean spot on his jacket,
covering the white cotton with bloody imprints as of some
deformed and monstrous hand. Lingard said nothing, looking on.
At last Willems left off staunching the blood and stood, his arms
hanging by his side, with his face stiff and distorted under the
patches of coagulated blood; and he seemed as though he had been
set up there for a warning: an incomprehensible figure marked all
over with some awful and symbolic signs of deadly import.
Speaking with difficulty, he repeated in a reproachful tone--
"That was a fine thing to do."
"After all," answered Lingard, bitterly, "I had too good an
opinion of you."
"And I of you. Don't you see that I could have had that fool
over there killed and the whole thing burnt to the ground, swept
off the face of the earth. You wouldn't have found as much as a
heap of ashes had I liked. I could have done all that. And I
"You--could--not. You dared not. You scoundrel!" cried Lingard.
"What's the use of calling me names?"
"True," retorted Lingard--"there's no name bad enough for you."
There was a short interval of silence. At the sound of their
rapidly exchanged words, Aissa had got up from the ground where
she had been sitting, in a sorrowful and dejected pose, and
approached the two men. She stood on one side and looked on
eagerly, in a desperate effort of her brain, with the quick and
distracted eyes of a person trying for her life to penetrate the
meaning of sentences uttered in a foreign tongue: the meaning
portentous and fateful that lurks in the sounds of mysterious
words; in the sounds surprising, unknown and strange.
Willems let the last speech of Lingard pass by; seemed by a
slight movement of his hand to help it on its way to join the
other shadows of the past. Then he said--
"You have struck me; you have insulted me . . ."
"Insulted you!" interrupted Lingard, passionately. "Who--what
can insult you . . . you . . ."
He choked, advanced a step.
"Steady! steady!" said Willems calmly. "I tell you I sha'n't
fight. Is it clear enough to you that I sha'n't?
As he spoke, slowly punctuating each word with a slight jerk of
his head, he stared at Lingard, his right eye open and big, the
left small and nearly closed by the swelling of one half of his
face, that appeared all drawn out on one side like faces seen in
a concave glass. And they stood exactly opposite each other: one
tall, slight and disfigured; the other tall, heavy and severe.
Willems went on--
"If I had wanted to hurt you--if I had wanted to destroy you, it
was easy. I stood in the doorway long enough to pull a
trigger--and you know I shoot straight."
"You would have missed," said Lingard, with assurance. "There
is, under heaven, such a thing as justice."
The sound of that word on his own lips made him pause, confused,
like an unexpected and unanswerable rebuke. The anger of his
outraged pride, the anger of his outraged heart, had gone out in
the blow; and there remained nothing but the sense of some
immense infamy--of something vague, disgusting and terrible,
which seemed to surround him on all sides, hover about him with
shadowy and stealthy movements, like a band of assassins in the
darkness of vast and unsafe places. Was there, under heaven,
such a thing as justice? He looked at the man before him with
such an intensity of prolonged glance that he seemed to see right
through him, that at last he saw but a floating and unsteady mist
in human shape. Would it blow away before the first breath of
the breeze and leave nothing behind?
The sound of Willems' voice made him start violently. Willems was
"I have always led a virtuous life; you know I have. You always
praised me for my steadiness; you know you have. You know also I
never stole--if that's what you're thinking of. I borrowed. You
know how much I repaid. It was an error of judgment. But then
consider my position there. I had been a little unlucky in my
private affairs, and had debts. Could I let myself go under
before the eyes of all those men who envied me? But that's all
over. It was an error of judgment. I've paid for it. An error
Lingard, astounded into perfect stillness, looked down. He
looked down at Willems' bare feet. Then, as the other had
paused, he repeated in a blank tone--
"An error of judgment . . ."
"Yes," drawled out Willems, thoughtfully, and went on with
increasing animation: "As I said, I have always led a virtuous
life. More so than Hudig--than you. Yes, than you. I drank a
little, I played cards a little. Who doesn't? But I had
principles from a boy. Yes, principles. Business is business,
and I never was an ass. I never respected fools. They had to
suffer for their folly when they dealt with me. The evil was in
them, not in me. But as to principles, it's another matter. I
kept clear of women. It's forbidden--I had no time--and I
despised them. Now I hate them!"
He put his tongue out a little; a tongue whose pink and moist end
ran here and there, like something independently alive, under his
swollen and blackened lip; he touched with the tips of his
fingers the cut on his cheek, felt all round it with precaution:
and the unharmed side of his face appeared for a moment to be
preoccupied and uneasy about the state of that other side which
was so very sore and stiff.
He recommenced speaking, and his voice vibrated as though with
repressed emotion of some kind.
"You ask my wife, when you see her in Macassar, whether I have no
reason to hate her. She was nobody, and I made her Mrs. Willems.
A half-caste girl! You ask her how she showed her gratitude to
me. You ask . . . Never mind that. Well, you came and dumped
me here like a load of rubbish; dumped me here and left me with
nothing to do--nothing good to remember--and damn little to hope
for. You left me here at the mercy of that fool, Almayer, who
suspected me of something. Of what? Devil only knows. But he
suspected and hated me from the first; I suppose because you
befriended me. Oh! I could read him like a book. He isn't very
deep, your Sambir partner, Captain Lingard, but he knows how to
be disagreeable. Months passed. I thought I would die of sheer
weariness, of my thoughts, of my regrets And then . . ."
He made a quick step nearer to Lingard, and as if moved by the
same thought, by the same instinct, by the impulse of his will,
Aissa also stepped nearer to them. They stood in a close group,
and the two men could feel the calm air between their faces
stirred by the light breath of the anxious woman who enveloped
them both in the uncomprehending, in the despairing and wondering
glances of her wild and mournful eyes.
Willems turned a little from her and spoke lower.
"Look at that," he said, with an almost imperceptible movement of
his head towards the woman to whom he was presenting his
shoulder. "Look at that! Don't believe her! What has she been
saying to you? What? I have been asleep. Had to sleep at last.
I've been waiting for you three days and nights. I had to sleep
some time. Hadn't I? I told her to remain awake and watch for
you, and call me at once. She did watch. You can't believe her.
You can't believe any woman. Who can tell what's inside their
heads? No one. You can know nothing. The only thing you can
know is that it isn't anything like what comes through their
lips. They live by the side of you. They seem to hate you, or
they seem to love you; they caress or torment you; they throw you
over or stick to you closer than your skin for some inscrutable
and awful reason of their own--which you can never know! Look at
her--and look at me. At me!--her infernal work. What has she
His voice had sunk to a whisper. Lingard listened with great
attention, holding his chin in his hand, which grasped a great
handful of his white beard. His elbow was in the palm of his
other hand, and his eyes were still fixed on the ground. He
murmured, without looking up--
"She begged me for your life--if you want to know--as if the
thing were worth giving or taking!"
"And for three days she begged me to take yours," said Willems
quickly. "For three days she wouldn't give me any peace. She
was never still. She planned ambushes. She has been looking for
places all over here where I could hide and drop you with a safe
shot as you walked up. It's true. I give you my word."
"Your word," muttered Lingard, contemptuously.
Willems took no notice.
"Ah! She is a ferocious creature," he went on. "You don't know .
. . I wanted to pass the time--to do something--to have
something to think about--to forget my troubles till you came
back. And . . . look at her . . . she took me as if I did not
belong to myself. She did. I did not know there was something
in me she could get hold of. She, a savage. I, a civilized
European, and clever! She that knew no more than a wild animal!
Well, she found out something in me. She found it out, and I was
lost. I knew it. She tormented me. I was ready to do anything.
I resisted--but I was ready. I knew that too. That frightened
me more than anything; more than my own sufferings; and that was
frightful enough, I assure you."
Lingard listened, fascinated and amazed like a child listening to
a fairy tale, and, when Willems stopped for breath, he shuffled
his feet a little.
"What does he say?" cried out Aissa, suddenly.
The two men looked at her quickly, and then looked at one
Willems began again, speaking hurriedly--
"I tried to do something. Take her away from those people. I
went to Almayer; the biggest blind fool that you ever . . . Then
Abdulla came--and she went away. She took away with her
something of me which I had to get back. I had to do it. As far
as you are concerned, the change here had to happen sooner or
later; you couldn't be master here for ever. It isn't what I
have done that torments me. It is the why. It's the madness
that drove me to it. It's that thing that came over me. That
may come again, some day."
"It will do no harm to anybody then, I promise you," said
Willems looked at him for a second with a blank stare, then went
"I fought against her. She goaded me to violence and to murder.
Nobody knows why. She pushed me to it persistently, desperately,
all the time. Fortunately Abdulla had sense. I don't know what
I wouldn't have done. She held me then. Held me like a
nightmare that is terrible and sweet. By and by it was another
life. I woke up. I found myself beside an animal as full of
harm as a wild cat. You don't know through what I have passed.
Her father tried to kill me--and she very nearly killed him. I
believe she would have stuck at nothing. I don't know which was
more terrible! She would have stuck at nothing to defend her
own. And when I think that it was me--me--Willems . . . I hate
her. To-morrow she may want my life. How can I know what's in
her? She may want to kill me next!"
He paused in great trepidation, then added in a scared tone--
"I don't want to die here."
"Don't you?" said Lingard, thoughtfully.
Willems turned towards Aissa and pointed at her with a bony
"Look at her! Always there. Always near. Always watching,
watching . . . for something. Look at her eyes. Ain't they big?
Don't they stare? You wouldn't think she can shut them like
human beings do. I don't believe she ever does. I go to sleep,
if I can, under their stare, and when I wake up I see them fixed
on me and moving no more than the eyes of a corpse. While I am
still they are still. By God--she can't move them till I stir,
and then they follow me like a pair of jailers. They watch me;
when I stop they seem to wait patient and glistening till I am
off my guard--for to do something. To do something horrible.
Look at them! You can see nothing in them. They are big,
menacing--and empty. The eyes of a savage; of a damned mongrel,
half-Arab, half-Malay. They hurt me! I am white! I swear to
you I can't stand this! Take me away. I am white! All white!"
He shouted towards the sombre heaven, proclaiming desperately
under the frown of thickening clouds the fact of his pure and
superior descent. He shouted, his head thrown up, his arms
swinging about wildly; lean, ragged, disfigured; a tall madman
making a great disturbance about something invisible; a being
absurd, repulsive, pathetic, and droll. Lingard, who was looking
down as if absorbed in deep thought, gave him a quick glance from
under his eyebrows: Aissa stood with clasped hands. At the other
end of the courtyard the old woman, like a vague and decrepit
apparition, rose noiselessly to look, then sank down again with a
stealthy movement and crouched low over the small glow of the
fire. Willems' voice filled the enclosure, rising louder with
every word, and then, suddenly, at its very loudest, stopped
short--like water stops running from an over-turned vessel. As
soon as it had ceased the thunder seemed to take up the burden in
a low growl coming from the inland hills. The noise approached
in confused mutterings which kept on increasing, swelling into a
roar that came nearer, rushed down the river, passed close in a
tearing crash--and instantly sounded faint, dying away in
monotonous and dull repetitions amongst the endless sinuosities
of the lower reaches. Over the great forests, over all the
innumerable people of unstirring trees--over all that living
people immense, motionless, and mute--the silence, that had
rushed in on the track of the passing tumult, remained suspended
as deep and complete as if it had never been disturbed from the
beginning of remote ages. Then, through it, after a time, came
to Lingard's ears the voice of the running river: a voice low,
discreet, and sad, like the persistent and gentle voices that
speak of the past in the silence of dreams.
He felt a great emptiness in his heart. It seemed to him that
there was within his breast a great space without any light,
where his thoughts wandered forlornly, unable to escape, unable
to rest, unable to die, to vanish--and to relieve him from the
fearful oppression of their existence. Speech, action, anger,
forgiveness, all appeared to him alike useless and vain, appeared
to him unsatisfactory, not worth the effort of hand or brain that
was needed to give them effect. He could not see why he should
not remain standing there, without ever doing anything, to the
end of time. He felt something, something like a heavy chain,
that held him there. This wouldn't do. He backed away a little
from Willems and Aissa, leaving them close together, then stopped
and looked at both. The man and the woman appeared to him much
further than they really were. He had made only about three
steps backward, but he believed for a moment that another step
would take him out of earshot for ever. They appeared to him
slightly under life size, and with a great cleanness of outlines,
like figures carved with great precision of detail and highly
finished by a skilful hand. He pulled himself together. The
strong consciousness of his own personality came back to him. He
had a notion of surveying them from a great and inaccessible
He said slowly: "You have been possessed of a devil."
"Yes," answered Willems gloomily, and looking at Aissa. "Isn't
"I've heard this kind of talk before," said Lingard, in a
scornful tone; then paused, and went on steadily after a while:
"I regret nothing. I picked you up by the waterside, like a
starving cat--by God. I regret nothing; nothing that I have
done. Abdulla--twenty others--no doubt Hudig himself, were after
me. That's business--for them. But that you should . . . Money
belongs to him who picks it up and is strong enough to keep
it--but this thing was different. It was part of my life. . . .
I am an old fool."
He was. The breath of his words, of the very words he spoke,
fanned the spark of divine folly in his breast, the spark that
made him--the hard-headed, heavy-handed adventurer--stand out
from the crowd, from the sordid, from the joyous, unscrupulous,
and noisy crowd of men that were so much like himself.
Willems said hurriedly: "It wasn't me. The evil was not in me,
"And where else confound you! Where else?" interrupted Lingard,
raising his voice. "Did you ever see me cheat and lie and steal?
Tell me that. Did you? Hey? I wonder where in perdition you
came from when I found you under my feet. . . . No matter. You
will do no more harm."
Willems moved nearer, gazing upon him anxiously. Lingard went on
with distinct deliberation--
"What did you expect when you asked me to see you? What? You
know me. I am Lingard. You lived with me. You've heard men
speak. You knew what you had done. Well! What did you expect?"
"How can I know?" groaned Willems, wringing his hands; "I was
alone in that infernal savage crowd. I was delivered into their
hands. After the thing was done, I felt so lost and weak that I
would have called the devil himself to my aid if it had been any
good--if he hadn't put in all his work already. In the whole
world there was only one man that had ever cared for me. Only
one white man. You! Hate is better than being alone! Death is
better! I expected . . . anything. Something to expect.
Something to take me out of this. Out of her sight!"
He laughed. His laugh seemed to be torn out from him against his
will, seemed to be brought violently on the surface from under
his bitterness, his self-contempt, from under his despairing
wonder at his own nature.
"When I think that when I first knew her it seemed to me that my
whole life wouldn't be enough to . . . And now when I look at
her! She did it all. I must have been mad. I was mad. Every
time I look at her I remember my madness. It frightens me. . . .
And when I think that of all my life, of all my past, of all my
future, of my intelligence, of my work, there is nothing left but
she, the cause of my ruin, and you whom I have mortally offended
. . ."
He hid his face for a moment in his hands, and when he took them
away he had lost the appearance of comparative calm and gave way
to a wild distress.
"Captain Lingard . . . anything . . . a deserted island . . .
anywhere . . . I promise . . ."
"Shut up!" shouted Lingard, roughly.
He became dumb, suddenly, completely.
The wan light of the clouded morning retired slowly from the
courtyard, from the clearings, from the river, as if it had gone
unwillingly to hide in the enigmatical solitudes of the gloomy
and silent forests. The clouds over their heads thickened into a
low vault of uniform blackness. The air was still and
inexpressibly oppressive. Lingard unbuttoned his jacket, flung
it wide open and, inclining his body sideways a little, wiped his
forehead with his hand, which he jerked sharply afterwards. Then
he looked at Willems and said--
"No promise of yours is any good to me. I am going to take your
conduct into my own hands. Pay attention to what I am going to
say. You are my prisoner."
Willems' head moved imperceptibly; then he became rigid and
still. He seemed not to breathe.
"You shall stay here," continued Lingard, with sombre
deliberation. "You are not fit to go amongst people. Who could
suspect, who could guess, who could imagine what's in you? I
couldn't! You are my mistake. I shall hide you here. If I let
you out you would go amongst unsuspecting men, and lie, and
steal, and cheat for a little money or for some woman. I don't
care about shooting you. It would be the safest way though. But
I won't. Do not expect me to forgive you. To forgive one must
have been angry and become contemptuous, and there is nothing in
me now--no anger, no contempt, no disappointment. To me you are
not Willems, the man I befriended and helped through thick and
thin, and thought much of . . . You are not a human being that
may be destroyed or forgiven. You are a bitter thought, a
something without a body and that must be hidden . . . You are
He ceased and looked slowly round. How dark it was! It seemed
to him that the light was dying prematurely out of the world and
that the air was already dead.
"Of course," he went on, "I shall see to it that you don't
"You don't mean to say that I must live here, Captain Lingard?"
said Willems, in a kind of mechanical voice without any
"Did you ever hear me say something I did not mean?" asked
Lingard. "You said you didn't want to die here--well, you must
live . . . Unless you change your mind," he added, as if in
He looked at Willems narrowly, then shook his head.
"You are alone," he went on. "Nothing can help you. Nobody
will. You are neither white nor brown. You have no colour as
you have no heart. Your accomplices have abandoned you to me
because I am still somebody to be reckoned with. You are alone
but for that woman there. You say you did this for her. Well,
you have her."
Willems mumbled something, and then suddenly caught his hair with
both his hands and remained standing so. Aissa, who had been
looking at him, turned to Lingard.
"What did you say, Rajah Laut?" she cried.
There was a slight stir amongst the filmy threads of her
disordered hair, the bushes by the river sides trembled, the big
tree nodded precipitately over them with an abrupt rustle, as if
waking with a start from a troubled sleep--and the breath of hot
breeze passed, light, rapid, and scorching, under the clouds that
whirled round, unbroken but undulating, like a restless phantom
of a sombre sea.
Lingard looked at her pityingly before he said--
"I have told him that he must live here all his life . . . and
The sun seemed to have gone out at last like a flickering light
away up beyond the clouds, and in the stifling gloom of the
courtyard the three figures stood colourless and shadowy, as if
surrounded by a black and superheated mist. Aissa looked at
Willems, who remained still, as though he had been changed into
stone in the very act of tearing his hair. Then she turned her
head towards Lingard and shouted--
"You lie! You lie! . . . White man. Like you all do. You . .
. whom Abdulla made small. You lie!"
Her words rang out shrill and venomous with her secret scorn,
with her overpowering desire to wound regardless of consequences;
in her woman's reckless desire to cause suffering at any cost, to
cause it by the sound of her own voice--by her own voice, that
would carry the poison of her thought into the hated heart.
Willems let his hands fall, and began to mumble again. Lingard
turned his ear towards him instinctively, caught something that
sounded like "Very well"--then some more mumbling--then a sigh.
"As far as the rest of the world is concerned," said Lingard,
after waiting for awhile in an attentive attitude, "your life is
finished. Nobody will be able to throw any of your villainies in
my teeth; nobody will be able to point at you and say, 'Here goes
a scoundrel of Lingard's up-bringing.' You are buried here."
"And you think that I will stay . . . that I will submit?"
exclaimed Willems, as if he had suddenly recovered the power of
"You needn't stay here--on this spot," said Lingard, drily.
"There are the forests--and here is the river. You may swim.
Fifteen miles up, or forty down. At one end you will meet
Almayer, at the other the sea. Take your choice."
He burst into a short, joyless laugh, then added with severe
"There is also another way."
"If you want to drive my soul into damnation by trying to drive
me to suicide you will not succeed," said Willems in wild
excitement. "I will live. I shall repent. I may escape. . . .
Take that woman away--she is sin."
A hooked dart of fire tore in two the darkness of the distant
horizon and lit up the gloom of the earth with a dazzling and
ghastly flame. Then the thunder was heard far away, like an
incredibly enormous voice muttering menaces.
"I don't care what happens, but I may tell you that without that
woman your life is not worth much--not twopence. There is a
fellow here who . . . and Abdulla himself wouldn't stand on any
ceremony. Think of that! And then she won't go."
He began, even while he spoke, to walk slowly down towards the
little gate. He didn't look, but he felt as sure that Willems
was following him as if he had been leading him by a string.
Directly he had passed through the wicket-gate into the big
courtyard he heard a voice, behind his back, saying--
"I think she was right. I ought to have shot you. I couldn't
have been worse off."
"Time yet," answered Lingard, without stopping or looking back.
"But, you see, you can't. There is not even that in you."
"Don't provoke me, Captain Lingard," cried Willems.
Lingard turned round sharply. Willems and Aissa stopped.
Another forked flash of lightning split up the clouds overhead,
and threw upon their faces a sudden burst of light--a blaze
violent, sinister and fleeting; and in the same instant they were
deafened by a near, single crash of thunder, which was followed
by a rushing noise, like a frightened sigh of the startled earth.
"Provoke you!" said the old adventurer, as soon as he could make
himself heard. "Provoke you! Hey! What's there in you to
provoke? What do I care?"
"It is easy to speak like that when you know that in the whole
world--in the whole world--I have no friend," said Willems.
"Whose fault?" said Lingard, sharply.
Their voices, after the deep and tremendous noise, sounded to
them very unsatisfactory--thin and frail, like the voices of
pigmies--and they became suddenly silent, as if on that account.
From up the courtyard Lingard's boatmen came down and passed
them, keeping step in a single file, their paddles on shoulder,
and holding their heads straight with their eyes fixed on the
river. Ali, who was walking last, stopped before Lingard, very
stiff and upright. He said--
"That one-eyed Babalatchi is gone, with all his women. He took
everything. All the pots and boxes. Big. Heavy. Three boxes."
He grinned as if the thing had been amusing, then added with an
appearance of anxious concern, "Rain coming."
"We return," said Lingard. "Make ready."
"Aye, aye, sir!" ejaculated Ali with precision, and moved on. He
had been quartermaster with Lingard before making up his mind to
stay in Sambir as Almayer's head man. He strutted towards the
landing-place thinking proudly that he was not like those other
ignorant boatmen, and knew how to answer properly the very
greatest of white captains.
"You have misunderstood me from the first, Captain Lingard," said
"Have I? It's all right, as long as there is no mistake about my
meaning," answered Lingard, strolling slowly to the
landing-place. Willems followed him, and Aissa followed Willems.
Two hands were extended to help Lingard in embarking. He stepped
cautiously and heavily into the long and narrow canoe, and sat in
the canvas folding-chair that had been placed in the middle. He
leaned back and turned his head to the two figures that stood on
the bank a little above him. Aissa's eyes were fastened on his
face in a visible impatience to see him gone. Willems' look went
straight above the canoe, straight at the forest on the other
side of the river.
"All right, Ali," said Lingard, in a low voice.
A slight stir animated the faces, and a faint murmur ran along
the line of paddlers. The foremost man pushed with the point of
his paddle, canted the fore end out of the dead water into the
current; and the canoe fell rapidly off before the rush of brown
water, the stern rubbing gently against the low bank.
"We shall meet again, Captain Lingard!" cried Willems, in an
"Never!" said Lingard, turning half round in his chair to look at
Willems. His fierce red eyes glittered remorselessly over the
high back of his seat.
"Must cross the river. Water less quick over there," said Ali.
He pushed in his turn now with all his strength, throwing his
body recklessly right out over the stern. Then he recovered
himself just in time into the squatting attitude of a monkey
perched on a high shelf, and shouted: "Dayong!"
The paddles struck the water together. The canoe darted forward
and went on steadily crossing the river with a sideways motion
made up of its own speed and the downward drift of the current.
Lingard watched the shore astern. The woman shook her hand at
him, and then squatted at the feet of the man who stood
motionless. After a while she got up and stood beside him,
reaching up to his head--and Lingard saw then that she had wetted
some part of her covering and was trying to wash the dried blood
off the man's immovable face, which did not seem to know anything
about it. Lingard turned away and threw himself back in his
chair, stretching his legs out with a sigh of fatigue. His head
fell forward; and under his red face the white beard lay fan-like
on his breast, the ends of fine long hairs all astir in the faint
draught made by the rapid motion of the craft that carried him
away from his prisoner--from the only thing in his life he wished
In its course across the river the canoe came into the line of
Willems' sight and his eyes caught the image, followed it eagerly
as it glided, small but distinct, on the dark background of the
forest. He could see plainly the figure of the man sitting in
the middle. All his life he had felt that man behind his back, a
reassuring presence ready with help, with commendation, with
advice; friendly in reproof, enthusiastic in approbation; a man
inspiring confidence by his strength, by his fearlessness, by the
very weakness of his simple heart. And now that man was going
away. He must call him back.
He shouted, and his words, which he wanted to throw across the
river, seemed to fall helplessly at his feet. Aissa put her hand
on his arm in a restraining attempt, but he shook it off. He
wanted to call back his very life that was going away from him.
He shouted again--and this time he did not even hear himself. No
use. He would never return. And he stood in sullen silence
looking at the white figure over there, lying back in the chair
in the middle of the boat; a figure that struck him suddenly as
very terrible, heartless and astonishing, with its unnatural
appearance of running over the water in an attitude of languid
For a time nothing on earth stirred, seemingly, but the canoe,
which glided up-stream with a motion so even and smooth that it
did not convey any sense of movement. Overhead, the massed
clouds appeared solid and steady as if held there in a powerful
grip, but on their uneven surface there was a continuous and
trembling glimmer, a faint reflection of the distant lightning
from the thunderstorm that had broken already on the coast and
was working its way up the river with low and angry growls.
Willems looked on, as motionless as everything round him and
above him. Only his eyes seemed to live, as they followed the
canoe on its course that carried it away from him, steadily,
unhesitatingly, finally, as if it were going, not up the great
river into the momentous excitement of Sambir, but straight into
the past, into the past crowded yet empty, like an old cemetery
full of neglected graves, where lie dead hopes that never return.
From time to time he felt on his face the passing, warm touch of
an immense breath coming from beyond the forest, like the short
panting of an oppressed world. Then the heavy air round him was
pierced by a sharp gust of wind, bringing with it the fresh, damp
feel of the falling rain; and all the innumerable tree-tops of
the forests swayed to the left and sprang back again in a
tumultuous balancing of nodding branches and shuddering leaves.
A light frown ran over the river, the clouds stirred slowly,
changing their aspect but not their place, as if they had turned
ponderously over; and when the sudden movement had died out in a
quickened tremor of the slenderest twigs, there was a short
period of formidable immobility above and below, during which the
voice of the thunder was heard, speaking in a sustained, emphatic
and vibrating roll, with violent louder bursts of crashing sound,
like a wrathful and threatening discourse of an angry god. For a
moment it died out, and then another gust of wind passed, driving
before it a white mist which filled the space with a cloud of
waterdust that hid suddenly from Willems the canoe, the forests,
the river itself; that woke him up from his numbness in a forlorn
shiver, that made him look round despairingly to see nothing but
the whirling drift of rain spray before the freshening breeze,
while through it the heavy big drops fell about him with sonorous
and rapid beats upon the dry earth. He made a few hurried steps
up the courtyard and was arrested by an immense sheet of water
that fell all at once on him, fell sudden and overwhelming from
the clouds, cutting his respiration, streaming over his head,
clinging to him, running down his body, off his arms, off his
legs. He stood gasping while the water beat him in a vertical
downpour, drove on him slanting in squalls, and he felt the drops
striking him from above, from everywhere; drops thick, pressed
and dashing at him as if flung from all sides by a mob of
infuriated hands. From under his feet a great vapour of broken
water floated up, he felt the ground become soft--melt under
him--and saw the water spring out from the dry earth to meet the
water that fell from the sombre heaven. An insane dread took
possession of him, the dread of all that water around him, of the
water that ran down the courtyard towards him, of the water that
pressed him on every side, of the slanting water that drove
across his face in wavering sheets which gleamed pale red with
the flicker of lightning streaming through them, as if fire and
water were falling together, monstrously mixed, upon the stunned
He wanted to run away, but when he moved it was to slide about
painfully and slowly upon that earth which had become mud so
suddenly under his feet. He fought his way up the courtyard like
a man pushing through a crowd, his head down, one shoulder
forward, stopping often, and sometimes carried back a pace or two
in the rush of water which his heart was not stout enough to
face. Aissa followed him step by step, stopping when he stopped,
recoiling with him, moving forward with him in his toilsome way
up the slippery declivity of the courtyard, of that courtyard,
from which everything seemed to have been swept away by the first
rush of the mighty downpour. They could see nothing. The tree,
the bushes, the house, and the fences--all had disappeared in the
thickness of the falling rain. Their hair stuck, streaming, to
their heads; their clothing clung to them, beaten close to their
bodies; water ran off them, off their heads over their shoulders.
They moved, patient, upright, slow and dark, in the gleam clear
or fiery of the falling drops, under the roll of unceasing
thunder, like two wandering ghosts of the drowned that, condemned
to haunt the water for ever, had come up from the river to look
at the world under a deluge.
On the left the tree seemed to step out to meet them, appearing
vaguely, high, motionless and patient; with a rustling plaint of
its innumerable leaves through which every drop of water tore its
separate way with cruel haste. And then, to the right, the house
surged up in the mist, very black, and clamorous with the quick
patter of rain on its high-pitched roof above the steady splash
of the water running off the eaves. Down the plankway leading to
the door flowed a thin and pellucid stream, and when Willems
began his ascent it broke over his foot as if he were going up a
steep ravine in the bed of a rapid and shallow torrent. Behind
his heels two streaming smudges of mud stained for an instant the
purity of the rushing water, and then he splashed his way up with
a spurt and stood on the bamboo platform before the open door
under the shelter of the overhanging eaves--under shelter at
A low moan ending in a broken and plaintive mutter arrested
Willems on the threshold. He peered round in the half-light
under the roof and saw the old woman crouching close to the wall
in a shapeless heap, and while he looked he felt a touch of two
arms on his shoulders. Aissa! He had forgotten her. He turned,
and she clasped him round the neck instantly, pressing close to
him as if afraid of violence or escape. He stiffened himself in
repulsion, in horror, in the mysterious revolt of his heart;
while she clung to him--clung to him as if he were a refuge from
misery, from storm, from weariness, from fear, from despair; and
it was on the part of that being an embrace terrible, enraged and
mournful, in which all her strength went out to make him captive,
to hold him for ever.
He said nothing. He looked into her eyes while he struggled with
her fingers about the nape of his neck, and suddenly he tore her
hands apart, holding her arms up in a strong grip of her wrists,
and bending his swollen face close over hers, he said--
"It is all your doing. You . . ."
She did not understand him--not a word. He spoke in the language
of his people--of his people that know no mercy and no shame.
And he was angry. Alas! he was always angry now, and always
speaking words that she could not understand. She stood in
silence, looking at him through her patient eyes, while he shook
her arms a little and then flung them down.
"Don't follow me!" he shouted. "I want to be alone--I mean to be
He went in, leaving the door open.
She did not move. What need to understand the words when they
are spoken in such a voice? In that voice which did not seem to
be his voice--his voice when he spoke by the brook, when he was
never angry and always smiling! Her eyes were fixed upon the
dark doorway, but her hands strayed mechanically upwards; she
took up all her hair, and, inclining her head slightly over her
shoulder, wrung out the long black tresses, twisting them
persistently, while she stood, sad and absorbed, like one
listening to an inward voice--the voice of bitter, of unavailing
regret. The thunder had ceased, the wind had died out, and the
rain fell perpendicular and steady through a great pale
clearness--the light of remote sun coming victorious from amongst
the dissolving blackness of the clouds. She stood near the
doorway. He was there--alone in the gloom of the dwelling. He
was there. He spoke not. What was in his mind now? What fear?
What desire? Not the desire of her as in the days when he used
to smile . . . How could she know? . . .
A sigh coming from the bottom of her heart, flew out into the
world through her parted lips. A sigh faint, profound, and
broken; a sigh full of pain and fear, like the sigh of those who
are about to face the unknown: to face it in loneliness, in
doubt, and without hope. She let go her hair, that fell
scattered over her shoulders like a funeral veil, and she sank
down suddenly by the door. Her hands clasped her ankles; she
rested her head on her drawn-up knees, and remained still, very
still, under the streaming mourning of her hair. She was
thinking of him; of the days by the brook; she was thinking of
all that had been their love--and she sat in the abandoned
posture of those who sit weeping by the dead, of those who watch
and mourn over a corpse.
Almayer propped, alone on the verandah of his house, with both
his elbows on the table, and holding his head between his hands,
stared before him, away over the stretch of sprouting young grass
in his courtyard, and over the short jetty with its cluster of
small canoes, amongst which his big whale-boat floated high, like
a white mother of all that dark and aquatic brood. He stared on
the river, past the schooner anchored in mid-stream, past the
forests of the left bank; he stared through and past the illusion
of the material world.
The sun was sinking. Under the sky was stretched a network of
white threads, a network fine and close-meshed, where here and
there were caught thicker white vapours of globular shape; and to
the eastward, above the ragged barrier of the forests, surged the
summits of a chain of great clouds, growing bigger slowly, in
imperceptible motion, as if careful not to disturb the glowing
stillness of the earth and of the sky. Abreast of the house the
river was empty but for the motionless schooner. Higher up, a
solitary log came out from the bend above and went on drifting
slowly down the straight reach: a dead and wandering tree going
out to its grave in the sea, between two ranks of trees
motionless and living.
And Almayer sat, his face in his hands, looking on and hating all
this: the muddy river; the faded blue of the sky; the black log
passing by on its first and last voyage; the green sea of
leaves--the sea that glowed shimmered, and stirred above the
uniform and impenetrable gloom of the forests--the joyous sea of
living green powdered with the brilliant dust of oblique sunrays.
He hated all this; he begrudged every day--every minute--of his
life spent amongst all these things; he begrudged it bitterly,
angrily, with enraged and immense regret, like a miser compelled
to give up some of his treasure to a near relation. And yet all
this was very precious to him. It was the present sign of a
He pushed the table away impatiently, got up, made a few steps
aimlessly, then stood by the balustrade and again looked at the
river--at that river which would have been the instrument for the
making of his fortune if . . . if . . .
"What an abominable brute!" he said.
He was alone, but he spoke aloud, as one is apt to do under the
impulse of a strong, of an overmastering thought.
"What a brute!" he muttered again.
The river was dark now, and the schooner lay on it, a black, a
lonely, and a graceful form, with the slender masts darting
upwards from it in two frail and raking lines. The shadows of
the evening crept up the trees, crept up from bough to bough,
till at last the long sunbeams coursing from the western horizon
skimmed lightly over the topmost branches, then flew upwards
amongst the piled-up clouds, giving them a sombre and fiery
aspect in the last flush of light. And suddenly the light
disappeared as if lost in the immensity of the great, blue, and
empty hollow overhead. The sun had set: and the forests became a
straight wall of formless blackness. Above them, on the edge of
lingering clouds, a single star glimmered fitfully, obscured now
and then by the rapid flight of high and invisible vapours.
Almayer fought with the uneasiness within his breast. He heard
Ali, who moved behind him preparing his evening meal, and he
listened with strange attention to the sounds the man made--to
the short, dry bang of the plate put upon the table, to the clink
of glass and the metallic rattle of knife and fork. The man went
away. Now he was coming back. He would speak directly; and
Almayer, notwithstanding the absorbing gravity of his thoughts,
listened for the sound of expected words. He heard them, spoken
in English with painstaking distinctness.
"All right," said Almayer, curtly. He did not move. He remained
pensive, with his back to the table upon which stood the lighted
lamp brought by Ali. He was thinking: Where was Lingard now?
Halfway down the river probably, in Abdulla's ship. He would be
back in about three days--perhaps less. And then? Then the
schooner would have to be got out of the river, and when that
craft was gone they--he and Lingard--would remain here; alone
with the constant thought of that other man, that other man
living near them! What an extraordinary idea to keep him there
for ever. For ever! What did that mean--for ever? Perhaps a
year, perhaps ten years. Preposterous! Keep him there ten
years--or may be twenty! The fellow was capable of living more
than twenty years. And for all that time he would have to be
watched, fed, looked after. There was nobody but Lingard to have
such notions. Twenty years! Why, no! In less than ten years
their fortune would be made and they would leave this place,
first for Batavia--yes, Batavia--and then for Europe. England,
no doubt. Lingard would want to go to England. And would they
leave that man here? How would that fellow look in ten years?
Very old probably. Well, devil take him. Nina would be fifteen.
She would be rich and very pretty and he himself would not be so
old then. . . ."
Almayer smiled into the night.
. . . Yes, rich! Why! Of course! Captain Lingard was a
resourceful man, and he had plenty of money even now. They were
rich already; but not enough. Decidedly not enough. Money
brings money. That gold business was good. Famous! Captain
Lingard was a remarkable man. He said the gold was there--and it
was there. Lingard knew what he was talking about. But he had
queer ideas. For instance, about Willems. Now what did he want
to keep him alive for? Why?
"That scoundrel," muttered Almayer again.
"Makan Tuan!" ejaculated Ali suddenly, very loud in a pressing
Almayer walked to the table, sat down, and his anxious visage
dropped from above into the light thrown down by the lamp-shade.
He helped himself absently, and began to eat in great mouthfuls.
. . . Undoubtedly, Lingard was the man to stick to! The man
undismayed, masterful and ready. How quickly he had planned a
new future when Willems' treachery destroyed their established
position in Sambir! And the position even now was not so bad.
What an immense prestige that Lingard had with all those
people--Arabs, Malays and all. Ah, it was good to be able to
call a man like that father. Fine! Wonder how much money really
the old fellow had. People talked--they exaggerated surely, but
if he had only half of what they said . . .
He drank, throwing his head up, and fell to again.
. . . Now, if that Willems had known how to play his cards well,
had he stuck to the old fellow he would have been in his
position, he would be now married to Lingard's adopted daughter
with his future assured--splendid . . .
"The beast!" growled Almayer, between two mouthfuls.
Ali stood rigidly straight with an uninterested face, his gaze
lost in the night which pressed round the small circle of light
that shone on the table, on the glass, on the bottle, and on
Almayer's head as he leaned over his plate moving his jaws.
. . . A famous man Lingard--yet you never knew what he would do
next. It was notorious that he had shot a white man once for
less than Willems had done. For less? . . . Why, for nothing,
so to speak! It was not even his own quarrel. It was about some
Malay returning from pilgrimage with wife and children.
Kidnapped, or robbed, or something. A stupid story--an old
story. And now he goes to see that Willems and--nothing. Comes
back talking big about his prisoner; but after all he said very
little. What did that Willems tell him? What passed between
them? The old fellow must have had something in his mind when he
let that scoundrel off. And Joanna! She would get round the old
fellow. Sure. Then he would forgive perhaps. Impossible. But
at any rate he would waste a lot of money on them. The old man
was tenacious in his hates, but also in his affections. He had
known that beast Willems from a boy. They would make it up in a
year or so. Everything is possible: why did he not rush off at
first and kill the brute? That would have been more like
Lingard. . . .
Almayer laid down his spoon suddenly, and pushing his plate away,
threw himself back in the chair.
. . . Unsafe. Decidedly unsafe. He had no mind to share
Lingard's money with anybody. Lingard's money was Nina's money
in a sense. And if Willems managed to become friendly with the
old man it would be dangerous for him--Almayer. Such an
unscrupulous scoundrel! He would oust him from his position. He
would lie and slander. Everything would be lost. Lost. Poor
Nina. What would become of her? Poor child. For her sake he
must remove that Willems. Must. But how? Lingard wanted to be
obeyed. Impossible to kill Willems. Lingard might be angry.
Incredible, but so it was. He might . . .
A wave of heat passed through Almayer's body, flushed his face,
and broke out of him in copious perspiration. He wriggled in his
chair, and pressed his hands together under the table. What an
awful prospect! He fancied he could see Lingard and Willems
reconciled and going away arm-in-arm, leaving him alone in this
God-forsaken hole--in Sambir--in this deadly swamp! And all his
sacrifices, the sacrifice of his independence, of his best years,
his surrender to Lingard's fancies and caprices, would go for
nothing! Horrible! Then he thought of his little daughter--his
daughter!--and the ghastliness of his supposition overpowered
him. He had a deep emotion, a sudden emotion that made him feel
quite faint at the idea of that young life spoiled before it had
fairly begun. His dear child's life! Lying back in his chair he
covered his face with both his hands.
Ali glanced down at him and said, unconcernedly--"Master finish?"
Almayer was lost in the immensity of his commiseration for
himself, for his daughter, who was--perhaps--not going to be the
richest woman in the world--notwithstanding Lingard's promises.
He did not understand the other's question, and muttered through
his fingers in a doleful tone--
"What did you say? What? Finish what?"
"Clear up meza," explained Ali.
"Clear up!" burst out Almayer, with incomprehensible
exasperation. "Devil take you and the table. Stupid!
Chatterer! Chelakka! Get out!"
He leaned forward, glaring at his head man, then sank back in his
seat with his arms hanging straight down on each side of the
chair. And he sat motionless in a meditation so concentrated and
so absorbing, with all his power of thought so deep within
himself, that all expression disappeared from his face in an
aspect of staring vacancy.
Ali was clearing the table. He dropped negligently the tumbler
into the greasy dish, flung there the spoon and fork, then
slipped in the plate with a push amongst the remnants of food.
He took up the dish, tucked up the bottle under his armpit, and
"My hammock!" shouted Almayer after him.
"Ada! I come soon," answered Ali from the doorway in an offended
tone, looking back over his shoulder. . . . How could he clear
the table and hang the hammock at the same time. Ya-wa! Those
white men were all alike. Wanted everything done at once. Like
children . . .
The indistinct murmur of his criticism went away, faded and died
out together with the soft footfall of his bare feet in the dark
For some time Almayer did not move. His thoughts were busy at
work shaping a momentous resolution, and in the perfect silence
of the house he believed that he could hear the noise of the
operation as if the work had been done with a hammer. He
certainly felt a thumping of strokes, faint, profound, and
startling, somewhere low down in his breast; and he was aware of
a sound of dull knocking, abrupt and rapid, in his ears. Now and
then he held his breath, unconsciously, too long, and had to
relieve himself by a deep expiration that whistled dully through
his pursed lips. The lamp standing on the far side of the table
threw a section of a lighted circle on the floor, where his
out-stretched legs stuck out from under the table with feet rigid
and turned up like the feet of a corpse; and his set face with
fixed eyes would have been also like the face of the dead, but
for its vacant yet conscious aspect; the hard, the stupid, the
stony aspect of one not dead, but only buried under the dust,
ashes, and corruption of personal thoughts, of base fears, of
"I will do it!"
Not till he heard his own voice did he know that he had spoken.
It startled him. He stood up. The knuckles of his hand,
somewhat behind him, were resting on the edge of the table as he
remained still with one foot advanced, his lips a little open,
and thought: It would not do to fool about with Lingard. But I
must risk it. It's the only way I can see. I must tell her.
She has some little sense. I wish they were a thousand miles off
already. A hundred thousand miles. I do. And if it fails. And
she blabs out then to Lingard? She seemed a fool. No; probably
they will get away. And if they did, would Lingard believe me?
Yes. I never lied to him. He would believe. I don't know . . .
Perhaps he won't. . . . "I must do it. Must!" he argued aloud
For a long time he stood still, looking before him with an
intense gaze, a gaze rapt and immobile, that seemed to watch the
minute quivering of a delicate balance, coming to a rest.
To the left of him, in the whitewashed wall of the house that
formed the back of the verandah, there was a closed door. Black
letters were painted on it proclaiming the fact that behind that
door there was the office of Lingard & Co. The interior had been
furnished by Lingard when he had built the house for his adopted
daughter and her husband, and it had been furnished with reckless
prodigality. There was an office desk, a revolving chair,
bookshelves, a safe: all to humour the weakness of Almayer, who
thought all those paraphernalia necessary to successful trading.
Lingard had laughed, but had taken immense trouble to get the
things. It pleased him to make his protege, his adopted
son-in-law, happy. It had been the sensation of Sambir some five
years ago. While the things were being landed, the whole
settlement literally lived on the river bank in front of the
Rajah Laut's house, to look, to wonder, to admire. . . . What a
big meza, with many boxes fitted all over it and under it! What
did the white man do with such a table? And look, look, O
Brothers! There is a green square box, with a gold plate on it,
a box so heavy that those twenty men cannot drag it up the bank.
Let us go, brothers, and help pull at the ropes, and perchance we
may see what's inside. Treasure, no doubt. Gold is heavy and
hard to hold, O Brothers! Let us go and earn a recompense from
the fierce Rajah of the Sea who shouts over there, with a red
face. See! There is a man carrying a pile of books from the
boat! What a number of books. What were they for? . . . And an
old invalided jurumudi, who had travelled over many seas and had
heard holy men speak in far-off countries, explained to a small
knot of unsophisticated citizens of Sambir that those books were
books of magic--of magic that guides the white men's ships over
the seas, that gives them their wicked wisdom and their strength;
of magic that makes them great, powerful, and irresistible while
they live, and--praise be to Allah!--the victims of Satan, the
slaves of Jehannum when they die.
And when he saw the room furnished, Almayer had felt proud. In
his exultation of an empty-headed quill-driver, he thought
himself, by the virtue of that furniture, at the head of a
serious business. He had sold himself to Lingard for these
things--married the Malay girl of his adoption for the reward of
these things and of the great wealth that must necessarily follow
upon conscientious book-keeping. He found out very soon that
trade in Sambir meant something entirely different. He could not
guide Patalolo, control the irrepressible old Sahamin, or
restrain the youthful vagaries of the fierce Bahassoen with pen,
ink, and paper. He found no successful magic in the blank pages
of his ledgers; and gradually he lost his old point of view in
the saner appreciation of his situation. The room known as the
office became neglected then like a temple of an exploded
superstition. At first, when his wife reverted to her original
savagery, Almayer, now and again, had sought refuge from her
there; but after their child began to speak, to know him, he
became braver, for he found courage and consolation in his
unreasoning and fierce affection for his daughter--in the
impenetrable mantle of selfishness he wrapped round both their
lives: round himself, and that young life that was also his.
When Lingard ordered him to receive Joanna into his house, he had
a truckle bed put into the office--the only room he could spare.
The big office desk was pushed on one side, and Joanna came with
her little shabby trunk and with her child and took possession in
her dreamy, slack, half-asleep way; took possession of the dust,
dirt, and squalor, where she appeared naturally at home, where
she dragged a melancholy and dull existence; an existence made up
of sad remorse and frightened hope, amongst the hopeless
disorder--the senseless and vain decay of all these emblems of
civilized commerce. Bits of white stuff; rags yellow, pink,
blue: rags limp, brilliant and soiled, trailed on the floor, lay
on the desk amongst the sombre covers of books soiled, grimy, but
stiff-backed, in virtue, perhaps, of their European origin. The
biggest set of bookshelves was partly hidden by a petticoat, the
waistband of which was caught upon the back of a slender book
pulled a little out of the row so as to make an improvised
clothespeg. The folding canvas bedstead stood nearly in the
middle of the room, stood anyhow, parallel to no wall, as if it
had been, in the process of transportation to some remote place,
dropped casually there by tired bearers. And on the tumbled
blankets that lay in a disordered heap on its edge, Joanna sat
almost all day with her stockingless feet upon one of the bed
pillows that were somehow always kicking about the floor. She
sat there, vaguely tormented at times by the thought of her
absent husband, but most of the time thinking tearfully of
nothing at all, looking with swimming eyes at her little son--at
the big-headed, pasty-faced, and sickly Louis Willems--who rolled
a glass inkstand, solid with dried ink, about the floor, and
tottered after it with the portentous gravity of demeanour and
absolute absorption by the business in hand that characterize the
pursuits of early childhood. Through the half-open shutter a ray
of sunlight, a ray merciless and crude, came into the room, beat
in the early morning upon the safe in the far-off corner, then,
travelling against the sun, cut at midday the big desk in two
with its solid and clean-edged brilliance; with its hot
brilliance in which a swarm of flies hovered in dancing flight
over some dirty plate forgotten there amongst yellow papers for
many a day. And towards the evening the cynical ray seemed to
cling to the ragged petticoat, lingered on it with wicked
enjoyment of that misery it had exposed all day; lingered on the
corner of the dusty bookshelf, in a red glow intense and mocking,
till it was suddenly snatched by the setting sun out of the way
of the coming night. And the night entered the room. The night
abrupt, impenetrable and all-filling with its flood of darkness;
the night cool and merciful; the blind night that saw nothing,
but could hear the fretful whimpering of the child, the creak of
the bedstead, Joanna's deep sighs as she turned over, sleepless,
in the confused conviction of her wickedness, thinking of that
man masterful, fair-headed, and strong--a man hard perhaps, but
her husband; her clever and handsome husband to whom she had
acted so cruelly on the advice of bad people, if her own people;
and of her poor, dear, deceived mother.
To Almayer, Joanna's presence was a constant worry, a worry
unobtrusive yet intolerable; a constant, but mostly mute, warning
of possible danger. In view of the absurd softness of Lingard's
heart, every one in whom Lingard manifested the slightest
interest was to Almayer a natural enemy. He was quite alive to
that feeling, and in the intimacy of the secret intercourse with
his inner self had often congratulated himself upon his own
wide-awake comprehension of his position. In that way, and
impelled by that motive, Almayer had hated many and various
persons at various times. But he never had hated and feared
anybody so much as he did hate and fear Willems. Even after
Willems' treachery, which seemed to remove him beyond the pale of
all human sympathy, Almayer mistrusted the situation and groaned
in spirit every time he caught sight of Joanna.
He saw her very seldom in the daytime. But in the short and
opal-tinted twilights, or in the azure dusk of starry evenings,
he often saw, before he slept, the slender and tall figure
trailing to and fro the ragged tail of its white gown over the
dried mud of the riverside in front of the house. Once or twice
when he sat late on the verandah, with his feet upon the deal
table on a level with the lamp, reading the seven months' old
copy of the North China Herald, brought by Lingard, he heard the
stairs creak, and, looking round the paper, he saw her frail and
meagre form rise step by step and toil across the verandah,
carrying with difficulty the big, fat child, whose head, lying on
the mother's bony shoulder, seemed of the same size as Joanna's
own. Several times she had assailed him with tearful clamour or
mad entreaties: asking about her husband, wanting to know where
he was, when he would be back; and ending every such outburst
with despairing and incoherent self-reproaches that were
absolutely incomprehensible to Almayer. On one or two occasions
she had overwhelmed her host with vituperative abuse, making him
responsible for her husband's absence. Those scenes, begun
without any warning, ended abruptly in a sobbing flight and a
bang of the door; stirred the house with a sudden, a fierce, and
an evanescent disturbance; like those inexplicable whirlwinds
that rise, run, and vanish without apparent cause upon the
sun-scorched dead level of arid and lamentable plains.
But to-night the house was quiet, deadly quiet, while Almayer
stood still, watching that delicate balance where he was weighing
all his chances: Joanna's intelligence, Lingard's credulity,
Willems' reckless audacity, desire to escape, readiness to seize
an unexpected opportunity. He weighed, anxious and attentive,
his fears and his desires against the tremendous risk of a
quarrel with Lingard. . . . Yes. Lingard would be angry.
Lingard might suspect him of some connivance in his prisoner's
escape--but surely he would not quarrel with him--Almayer--about
those people once they were gone--gone to the devil in their own
way. And then he had hold of Lingard through the little girl.
Good. What an annoyance! A prisoner! As if one could keep him
in there. He was bound to get away some time or other. Of
course. A situation like that can't last. vAnybody could see
that. Lingard's eccentricity passed all bounds. You may kill a
man, but you mustn't torture him. It was almost criminal. It
caused worry, trouble, and unpleasantness. . . . Almayer for a
moment felt very angry with Lingard. He made him responsible for
the anguish he suffered from, for the anguish of doubt and fear;
for compelling him--the practical and innocent Almayer--to such
painful efforts of mind in order to find out some issue for
absurd situations created by the unreasonable sentimentality of
Lingard's unpractical impulses.
"Now if the fellow were dead it would be all right," said Almayer
to the verandah.
He stirred a little, and scratching his nose thoughtfully,
revelled in a short flight of fancy, showing him his own image
crouching in a big boat, that floated arrested--say fifty yards
off--abreast of Willems' landing-place. In the bottom of the
boat there was a gun. A loaded gun. One of the boatmen would
shout, and Willems would answer--from the bushes.c The rascal
would be suspicious. Of course. Then the man would wave a piece
of paper urging Willems to come to the landing-place and receive
an important message. "From the Rajah Laut" the man would yell
as the boat edged in-shore, and that would fetch Willems out.
Wouldn't it? Rather! And Almayer saw himself jumping up at the
right moment, taking aim, pulling the trigger--and Willems
tumbling over, his head in the water--the swine!
He seemed to hear the report of the shot. It made him thrill
from head to foot where he stood. . . . How simple! . . .
Unfortunate . . . Lingard . . . He sighed, shook his head.
Pity. Couldn't be done. And couldn't leave him there either!
Suppose the Arabs were to get hold of him again--for instance to
lead an expedition up the river! Goodness only knows what harm
would come of it. . . .
The balance was at rest now and inclining to the side of
immediate action. Almayer walked to the door, walked up very
close to it, knocked loudly, and turned his head away, looking
frightened for a moment at what he had done. After waiting for a
while he put his ear against the panel and listened. Nothing.
He composed his features into an agreeable expression while he
stood listening and thinking to himself: I hear her. Crying.
Eh? I believe she has lost the little wits she had and is crying
night and day since I began to prepare her for the news of her
husband's death--as Lingard told me. I wonder what she thinks.
It's just like father to make me invent all these stories for
nothing at all. Out of kindness. Kindness! Damn! . . . She
isn't deaf, surely.
He knocked again, then said in a friendly tone, grinning
benevolently at the closed door--
"It's me, Mrs. Willems. I want to speak to you. I have . . .
have . . . important news. . . ."
"What is it?"
"News," repeated Almayer, distinctly. "News about your husband.
Your husband! . . . Damn him!" he added, under his breath.
He heard a stumbling rush inside. Things were overturned.
Joanna's agitated voice cried--
"News! What? What? I am coming out."
"No," shouted Almayer. "Put on some clothes, Mrs. Willems, and
let me in. It's . . . very confidential. You have a candle,
She was knocking herself about blindly amongst the furniture in
that room. The candlestick was upset. Matches were struck
ineffectually. The matchbox fell. He heard her drop on her
knees and grope over the floor while she kept on moaning in
"Oh, my God! News! Yes . . . yes. . . . Ah! where . . . where .
. . candle. Oh, my God! . . . I can't find . . . Don't go
away, for the love of Heaven . . ."
"I don't want to go away," said Almayer, impatiently, through the
keyhole; "but look sharp. It's coni . . . it's pressing."
He stamped his foot lightly, waiting with his hand on the
door-handle. He thought anxiously: The woman's a perfect idiot.
Why should I go away? She will be off her head. She will never
catch my meaning. She's too stupid.
She was moving now inside the room hurriedly and in silence. He
waited. There was a moment of perfect stillness in there, and
then she spoke in an exhausted voice, in words that were shaped
out of an expiring sigh--out of a sigh light and profound, like
words breathed out by a woman before going off into a dead
He pushed the door. Ali, coming through the passage with an
armful of pillows and blankets pressed to his breast high up
under his chin, caught sight of his master before the door closed
behind him. He was so astonished that he dropped his bundle and
stood staring at the door for a long time. He heard the voice of
his master talking. Talking to that Sirani woman! Who was she?
He had never thought about that really. He speculated for a
while hazily upon things in general. She was a Sirani woman--and
ugly. He made a disdainful grimace, picked up the bedding, and
went about his work, slinging the hammock between two uprights of
the verandah. . . . Those things did not concern him. She was
ugly, and brought here by the Rajah Laut, and his master spoke to
her in the night. Very well. He, Ali, had his work to do.
Sling the hammock--go round and see that the watchmen were
awake--take a look at the moorings of the boats, at the padlock
of the big storehouse--then go to sleep. To sleep! He shivered
pleasantly. He leaned with both arms over his master's hammock
and fell into a light doze.
A scream, unexpected, piercing--a scream beginning at once in the
highest pitch of a woman's voice and then cut short, so short
that it suggested the swift work of death--caused Ali to jump on
one side away from the hammock, and the silence that succeeded
seemed to him as startling as the awful shriek. He was
thunderstruck with surprise. Almayer came out of the office,
leaving the door ajar, passed close to his servant without taking
any notice, and made straight for the water-chatty hung on a nail
in a draughty place. He took it down and came back, missing the
petrified Ali by an inch. He moved with long strides, yet,
notwithstanding his haste, stopped short before the door, and,
throwing his head back, poured a thin stream of water down his
throat. While he came and went, while he stopped to drink, while
he did all this, there came steadily from the dark room the sound
of feeble and persistent crying, the crying of a sleepy and
frightened child. After he had drunk, Almayer went in, closing
the door carefully.
Ali did not budge. That Sirani woman shrieked! He felt an
immense curiosity very unusual to his stolid disposition. He
could not take his eyes off the door. Was she dead in there?
How interesting and funny! He stood with open mouth till he
heard again the rattle of the door-handle. Master coming out.
He pivoted on his heels with great rapidity and made believe to
be absorbed in the contemplation of the night outside. He heard
Almayer moving about behind his back. Chairs were displaced.
His master sat down.
"Ali," said Almayer.
His face was gloomy and thoughtful. He looked at his head man,
who had approached the table, then he pulled out his watch. It
was going. Whenever Lingard was in Sambir Almayer's watch was
going. He would set it by the cabin clock, telling himself every
time that he must really keep that watch going for the future.
And every time, when Lingard went away, he would let it run down
and would measure his weariness by sunrises and sunsets in an
apathetic indifference to mere hours; to hours only; to hours
that had no importance in Sambir life, in the tired stagnation of
empty days; when nothing mattered to him but the quality of
guttah and the size of rattans; where there were no small hopes
to be watched for; where to him there was nothing interesting,
nothing supportable, nothing desirable to expect; nothing bitter
but the slowness of the passing days; nothing sweet but the hope,
the distant and glorious hope--the hope wearying, aching and
precious, of getting away.
He looked at the watch. Half-past eight. Ali waited stolidly.
"Go to the settlement," said Almayer, "and tell Mahmat Banjer to
come and speak to me to-night."
Ali went off muttering. He did not like his errand. Banjer and
his two brothers were Bajow vagabonds who had appeared lately in
Sambir and had been allowed to take possession of a tumbledown
abandoned hut, on three posts, belonging to Lingard & Co., and
standing just outside their fence. Ali disapproved of the favour
shown to those strangers. Any kind of dwelling was valuable in
Sambir at that time, and if master did not want that old rotten
house he might have given it to him, Ali, who was his servant,
instead of bestowing it upon those bad men. Everybody knew they
were bad. It was well known that they had stolen a boat from
Hinopari, who was very aged and feeble and had no sons; and that
afterwards, by the truculent recklessness of their demeanour,
they had frightened the poor old man into holding his tongue
about it. Yet everybody knew of it. It was one of the tolerated
scandals of Sambir, disapproved and accepted, a manifestation of
that base acquiescence in success, of that inexpressed and
cowardly toleration of strength, that exists, infamous and
irremediable, at the bottom of all hearts, in all societies;
whenever men congregate; in bigger and more virtuous places than
Sambir, and in Sambir also, where, as in other places, one man
could steal a boat with impunity while another would have no
right to look at a paddle.
Almayer, leaning back in his chair, meditated. The more he
thought, the more he felt convinced that Banjer and his brothers
were exactly the men he wanted. Those fellows were sea gipsies,
and could disappear without attracting notice; and if they
returned, nobody--and Lingard least of all--would dream of
seeking information from them. Moreover, they had no personal
interest of any kind in Sambir affairs--had taken no sides--would
know nothing anyway.
He called in a strong voice: "Mrs. Willems!"
She came out quickly, almost startling him, so much did she
appear as though she had surged up through the floor, on the
other side of the table. The lamp was between them, and Almayer
moved it aside, looking up at her from his chair. She was
crying. She was crying gently, silently, in a ceaseless welling
up of tears that did not fall in drops, but seemed to overflow in
a clear sheet from under her eyelids--seemed to flow at once all
over her face, her cheeks, and over her chin that glistened with
moisture in the light. Her breast and her shoulders were shaken
repeatedly by a convulsive and noiseless catching in her breath,
and after every spasmodic sob her sorrowful little head, tied up
in a red kerchief, trembled on her long neck, round which her
bony hand gathered and clasped the disarranged dress.
"Compose yourself, Mrs. Willems," said Almayer.
She emitted an inarticulate sound that seemed to be a faint, a
very far off, a hardly audible cry of mortal distress. Then the
tears went on flowing in profound stillness.
"You must understand that I have told you all this because I am
your friend--real friend," said Almayer, after looking at her for
some time with visible dissatisfaction. "You, his wife, ought to
know the danger he is in. Captain Lingard is a terrible man, you
She blubbered out, sniffing and sobbing together.
"Do you . . . you . . . speak . . . the . . . the truth now?"
"Upon my word of honour. On the head of my child," protested
Almayer. "I had to deceive you till now because of Captain
Lingard. But I couldn't bear it. Think only what a risk I run
in telling you--if ever Lingard was to know! Why should I do it?
Pure friendship. Dear Peter was my colleague in Macassar for
years, you know."
"What shall I do . . . what shall I do!" she exclaimed, faintly,
looking around on every side as if she could not make up her mind
which way to rush off.
"You must help him to clear out, now Lingard is away. He
offended Lingard, and that's no joke. Lingard said he would kill
him. He will do it, too," said Almayer, earnestly.
She wrung her hands. "Oh! the wicked man. The wicked, wicked
man!" she moaned, swaying her body from side to side.
"Yes. Yes! He is terrible," assented Almayer. "You must not
lose any time. I say! Do you understand me, Mrs. Willems?
Think of your husband. Of your poor husband. How happy he will
be. You will bring him his life--actually his life. Think of
She ceased her swaying movement, and now, with her head sunk
between her shoulders, she hugged herself with both her arms; and
she stared at Almayer with wild eyes, while her teeth chattered,
rattling violently and uninterruptedly, with a very loud sound,
in the deep peace of the house.
"Oh! Mother of God!" she wailed. "I am a miserable woman. Will
he forgive me? The poor, innocent man. Will he forgive me? Oh,
Mr. Almayer, he is so severe. Oh! help me. . . . I dare not. .
. . You don't know what I've done to him. . . . I daren't! . . .
I can't! . . . God help me!"