Complete Works of Joseph Conrad (Illustrated) (10 page)

BOOK: Complete Works of Joseph Conrad (Illustrated)
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Now he wanted but immortality, he thought, to be the equal of gods, and the creature that could open so the gates of paradise must be his — soon would be his for ever!

He opened his eyes in time to see through the archway of creepers the bows of his brig come slowly into view, as the vessel drifted past on its way down the river.  He must go on board now, he thought; yet he was loth to leave the place where he had learned to know what happiness meant.  “Time yet.  Let them go,” he muttered to himself; and he closed his eyes again under the red shower of scented petals, trying to recall the scene with all its delight and all its fear.

He must have been able to join his brig in time, after all, and found much occupation outside, for it was in vain that Almayer looked for his friend’s speedy return.  The lower reach of the river where he so often and so impatiently directed his eyes remained deserted, save for the rapid flitting of some fishing canoe; but down the upper reaches came black clouds and heavy showers heralding the final setting in of the rainy season with its thunderstorms and great floods making the river almost impossible of ascent for native canoes.

Almayer, strolling along the muddy beach between his houses, watched uneasily the river rising inch by inch, creeping slowly nearer to the boats, now ready and hauled up in a row under the cover of dripping Kajang-mats.  Fortune seemed to elude his grasp, and in his weary tramp backwards and forwards under the steady rain falling from the lowering sky, a sort of despairing indifference took possession of him.  What did it matter?  It was just his luck!  Those two infernal savages, Lakamba and Dain, induced him, with their promises of help, to spend his last dollar in the fitting out of boats, and now one of them was gone somewhere, and the other shut up in his stockade would give no sign of life.  No, not even the scoundrelly Babalatchi, thought Almayer, would show his face near him, now they had sold him all the rice, brass gongs, and cloth necessary for his expedition.  They had his very last coin, and did not care whether he went or stayed.  And with a gesture of abandoned discouragement Almayer would climb up slowly to the verandah of his new house to get out of the rain, and leaning on the front rail with his head sunk between his shoulders he would abandon himself to the current of bitter thoughts, oblivious of the flight of time and the pangs of hunger, deaf to the shrill cries of his wife calling him to the evening meal.  When, roused from his sad meditations by the first roll of the evening thunderstorm, he stumbled slowly towards the glimmering light of his old house, his half-dead hope made his ears preternaturally acute to any sound on the river.  Several nights in succession he had heard the splash of paddles and had seen the indistinct form of a boat, but when hailing the shadowy apparition, his heart bounding with sudden hope of hearing Dain’s voice, he was disappointed each time by the sulky answer conveying to him the intelligence that the Arabs were on the river, bound on a visit to the home-staying Lakamba.  This caused him many sleepless nights, spent in speculating upon the kind of villainy those estimable personages were hatching now.  At last, when all hope seemed dead, he was overjoyed on hearing Dain’s voice; but Dain also appeared very anxious to see Lakamba, and Almayer felt uneasy owing to a deep and ineradicable distrust as to that ruler’s disposition towards himself.  Still, Dain had returned at last.  Evidently he meant to keep to his bargain.  Hope revived, and that night Almayer slept soundly, while Nina watched the angry river under the lash of the thunderstorm sweeping onward towards the sea.

 

CHAPTER VI.

 

Dain was not long in crossing the river after leaving Almayer.  He landed at the water-gate of the stockade enclosing the group of houses which composed the residence of the Rajah of Sambir.  Evidently somebody was expected there, for the gate was open, and men with torches were ready to precede the visitor up the inclined plane of planks leading to the largest house where Lakamba actually resided, and where all the business of state was invariably transacted.  The other buildings within the enclosure served only to accommodate the numerous household and the wives of the ruler.

Lakamba’s own house was a strong structure of solid planks, raised on high piles, with a verandah of split bamboos surrounding it on all sides; the whole was covered in by an immensely high-pitched roof of palm-leaves, resting on beams blackened by the smoke of many torches.

The building stood parallel to the river, one of its long sides facing the water-gate of the stockade.  There was a door in the short side looking up the river, and the inclined plank-way led straight from the gate to that door.  By the uncertain light of smoky torches, Dain noticed the vague outlines of a group of armed men in the dark shadows to his right.  From that group Babalatchi stepped forward to open the door, and Dain entered the audience chamber of the Rajah’s residence.  About one-third of the house was curtained off, by heavy stuff of European manufacture, for that purpose; close to the curtain there was a big arm-chair of some black wood, much carved, and before it a rough deal table.  Otherwise the room was only furnished with mats in great profusion.  To the left of the entrance stood a rude arm-rack, with three rifles with fixed bayonets in it.  By the wall, in the shadow, the body-guard of Lakamba — all friends or relations — slept in a confused heap of brown arms, legs, and multi-coloured garments, from whence issued an occasional snore or a subdued groan of some uneasy sleeper.  An European lamp with a green shade standing on the table made all this indistinctly visible to Dain.

“You are welcome to your rest here,” said Babalatchi, looking at Dain interrogatively.

“I must speak to the Rajah at once,” answered Dain.

Babalatchi made a gesture of assent, and, turning to the brass gong suspended under the arm-rack, struck two sharp blows.

The ear-splitting din woke up the guard.  The snores ceased; outstretched legs were drawn in; the whole heap moved, and slowly resolved itself into individual forms, with much yawning and rubbing of sleepy eyes; behind the curtains there was a burst of feminine chatter; then the bass voice of Lakamba was heard.

“Is that the Arab trader?”

“No, Tuan,” answered Babalatchi; “Dain has returned at last.  He is here for an important talk, bitcharra — if you mercifully consent.”

Evidently Lakamba’s mercy went so far — for in a short while he came out from behind the curtain — but it did not go to the length of inducing him to make an extensive toilet.  A short red sarong tightened hastily round his hips was his only garment.  The merciful ruler of Sambir looked sleepy and rather sulky.  He sat in the arm-chair, his knees well apart, his elbows on the arm-rests, his chin on his breast, breathing heavily and waiting malevolently for Dain to open the important talk.

But Dain did not seem anxious to begin.  He directed his gaze towards Babalatchi, squatting comfortably at the feet of his master, and remained silent with a slightly bent head as if in attentive expectation of coming words of wisdom.

Babalatchi coughed discreetly, and, leaning forward, pushed over a few mats for Dain to sit upon, then lifting up his squeaky voice he assured him with eager volubility of everybody’s delight at this long-looked-for return.  His heart had hungered for the sight of Dain’s face, and his ears were withering for the want of the refreshing sound of his voice.  Everybody’s hearts and ears were in the same sad predicament, according to Babalatchi, as he indicated with a sweeping gesture the other bank of the river where the settlement slumbered peacefully, unconscious of the great joy awaiting it on the morrow when Dain’s presence amongst them would be disclosed.  “For” — went on Babalatchi — ”what is the joy of a poor man if not the open hand of a generous trader or of a great — ”

Here he checked himself abruptly with a calculated embarrassment of manner, and his roving eye sought the floor, while an apologetic smile dwelt for a moment on his misshapen lips.  Once or twice during this opening speech an amused expression flitted across Dain’s face, soon to give way, however, to an appearance of grave concern.  On Lakamba’s brow a heavy frown had settled, and his lips moved angrily as he listened to his Prime Minister’s oratory.  In the silence that fell upon the room when Babalatchi ceased speaking arose a chorus of varied snores from the corner where the body-guard had resumed their interrupted slumbers, but the distant rumble of thunder filling then Nina’s heart with apprehension for the safety of her lover passed unheeded by those three men intent each on their own purposes, for life or death.

After a short silence, Babalatchi, discarding now the flowers of polite eloquence, spoke again, but in short and hurried sentences and in a low voice.  They had been very uneasy.  Why did Dain remain so long absent?  The men dwelling on the lower reaches of the river heard the reports of big guns and saw a fire-ship of the Dutch amongst the islands of the estuary.  So they were anxious.  Rumours of a disaster had reached Abdulla a few days ago, and since then they had been waiting for Dain’s return under the apprehension of some misfortune.  For days they had closed their eyes in fear, and woke up alarmed, and walked abroad trembling, like men before an enemy.  And all on account of Dain.  Would he not allay their fears for his safety, not for themselves?  They were quiet and faithful, and devoted to the great Rajah in Batavia — may his fate lead him ever to victory for the joy and profit of his servants!  “And here,” went on Babalatchi, “Lakamba my master was getting thin in his anxiety for the trader he had taken under his protection; and so was Abdulla, for what would wicked men not say if perchance — ”

“Be silent, fool!” growled Lakamba, angrily.

Babalatchi subsided into silence with a satisfied smile, while Dain, who had been watching him as if fascinated, turned with a sigh of relief towards the ruler of Sambir.  Lakamba did not move, and, without raising his head, looked at Dain from under his eyebrows, breathing audibly, with pouted lips, in an air of general discontent.

“Speak!  O Dain!” he said at last.  “We have heard many rumours.  Many nights in succession has my friend Reshid come here with bad tidings.  News travels fast along the coast.  But they may be untrue; there are more lies in men’s mouths in these days than when I was young, but I am not easier to deceive now.”

“All my words are true,” said Dain, carelessly.  “If you want to know what befell my brig, then learn that it is in the hands of the Dutch.  Believe me, Rajah,” he went on, with sudden energy, “the Orang Blanda have good friends in Sambir, or else how did they know I was coming thence?”

Lakamba gave Dain a short and hostile glance.  Babalatchi rose quietly, and, going to the arm-rack, struck the gong violently.

Outside the door there was a shuffle of bare feet; inside, the guard woke up and sat staring in sleepy surprise.

“Yes, you faithful friend of the white Rajah,” went on Dain, scornfully, turning to Babalatchi, who had returned to his place, “I have escaped, and I am here to gladden your heart.  When I saw the Dutch ship I ran the brig inside the reefs and put her ashore.  They did not dare to follow with the ship, so they sent the boats.  We took to ours and tried to get away, but the ship dropped fireballs at us, and killed many of my men.  But I am left, O Babalatchi!  The Dutch are coming here.  They are seeking for me.  They are coming to ask their faithful friend Lakamba and his slave Babalatchi.  Rejoice!”

But neither of his hearers appeared to be in a joyful mood.  Lakamba had put one leg over his knee, and went on gently scratching it with a meditative air, while Babalatchi, sitting cross-legged, seemed suddenly to become smaller and very limp, staring straight before him vacantly.  The guard evinced some interest in the proceedings, stretching themselves full length on the mats to be nearer the speaker.  One of them got up and now stood leaning against the arm-rack, playing absently with the fringes of his sword-hilt.

Dain waited till the crash of thunder had died away in distant mutterings before he spoke again.

“Are you dumb, O ruler of Sambir, or is the son of a great Rajah unworthy of your notice?  I am come here to seek refuge and to warn you, and want to know what you intend doing.”

“You came here because of the white man’s daughter,” retorted Lakamba, quickly.  “Your refuge was with your father, the Rajah of Bali, the Son of Heaven, the ‘Anak Agong’ himself.  What am I to protect great princes?  Only yesterday I planted rice in a burnt clearing; to-day you say I hold your life in my hand.”

Babalatchi glanced at his master.  “No man can escape his fate,” he murmured piously.  “When love enters a man’s heart he is like a child — without any understanding.  Be merciful, Lakamba,” he added, twitching the corner of the Rajah’s sarong warningly.

Lakamba snatched away the skirt of the sarong angrily.  Under the dawning comprehension of intolerable embarrassments caused by Dain’s return to Sambir he began to lose such composure as he had been, till then, able to maintain; and now he raised his voice loudly above the whistling of the wind and the patter of rain on the roof in the hard squall passing over the house.

“You came here first as a trader with sweet words and great promises, asking me to look the other way while you worked your will on the white man there.  And I did.  What do you want now?  When I was young I fought.  Now I am old, and want peace.  It is easier for me to have you killed than to fight the Dutch.  It is better for me.”

The squall had now passed, and, in the short stillness of the lull in the storm, Lakamba repeated softly, as if to himself, “Much easier.  Much better.”

Dain did not seem greatly discomposed by the Rajah’s threatening words.  While Lakamba was speaking he had glanced once rapidly over his shoulder, just to make sure that there was nobody behind him, and, tranquillised in that respect, he had extracted a siri-box out of the folds of his waist-cloth, and was wrapping carefully the little bit of betel-nut and a small pinch of lime in the green leaf tendered him politely by the watchful Babalatchi.  He accepted this as a peace-offering from the silent statesman — a kind of mute protest against his master’s undiplomatic violence, and as an omen of a possible understanding to be arrived at yet.  Otherwise Dain was not uneasy.  Although recognising the justice of Lakamba’s surmise that he had come back to Sambir only for the sake of the white man’s daughter, yet he was not conscious of any childish lack of understanding, as suggested by Babalatchi.  In fact, Dain knew very well that Lakamba was too deeply implicated in the gunpowder smuggling to care for an investigation the Dutch authorities into that matter.  When sent off by his father, the independent Rajah of Bali, at the time when the hostilities between Dutch and Malays threatened to spread from Sumatra over the whole archipelago, Dain had found all the big traders deaf to his guarded proposals, and above the temptation of the great prices he was ready to give for gunpowder.  He went to Sambir as a last and almost hopeless resort, having heard in Macassar of the white man there, and of the regular steamer trading from Singapore — allured also by the fact that there was no Dutch resident on the river, which would make things easier, no doubt.  His hopes got nearly wrecked against the stubborn loyalty of Lakamba arising from well-understood self-interest; but at last the young man’s generosity, his persuasive enthusiasm, the prestige of his father’s great name, overpowered the prudent hesitation of the ruler of Sambir.  Lakamba would have nothing to do himself with any illegal traffic.  He also objected to the Arabs being made use of in that matter; but he suggested Almayer, saying that he was a weak man easily persuaded, and that his friend, the English captain of the steamer, could be made very useful — very likely even would join in the business, smuggling the powder in the steamer without Abdulla’s knowledge.  There again Dain met in Almayer with unexpected resistance; Lakamba had to send Babalatchi over with the solemn promise that his eyes would be shut in friendship for the white man, Dain paying for the promise and the friendship in good silver guilders of the hated Orang Blanda.  Almayer, at last consenting, said the powder would be obtained, but Dain must trust him with dollars to send to Singapore in payment for it.  He would induce Ford to buy and smuggle it in the steamer on board the brig.  He did not want any money for himself out of the transaction, but Dain must help him in his great enterprise after sending off the brig.  Almayer had explained to Dain that he could not trust Lakamba alone in that matter; he would be afraid of losing his treasure and his life through the cupidity of the Rajah; yet the Rajah had to be told, and insisted on taking a share in that operation, or else his eyes would remain shut no longer.  To this Almayer had to submit.  Had Dain not seen Nina he would have probably refused to engage himself and his men in the projected expedition to Gunong Mas — the mountain of gold.  As it was he intended to return with half of his men as soon as the brig was clear of the reefs, but the persistent chase given him by the Dutch frigate had forced him to run south and ultimately to wreck and destroy his vessel in order to preserve his liberty or perhaps even his life.  Yes, he had come back to Sambir for Nina, although aware that the Dutch would look for him there, but he had also calculated his chances of safety in Lakamba’s hands.  For all his ferocious talk, the merciful ruler would not kill him, for he had long ago been impressed with the notion that Dain possessed the secret of the white man’s treasure; neither would he give him up to the Dutch, for fear of some fatal disclosure of complicity in the treasonable trade.  So Dain felt tolerably secure as he sat meditating quietly his answer to the Rajah’s bloodthirsty speech.  Yes, he would point out to him the aspect of his position should he — Dain — fall into the hands of the Dutch and should he speak the truth.  He would have nothing more to lose then, and he would speak the truth.  And if he did return to Sambir, disturbing thereby Lakamba’s peace of mind, what then?  He came to look after his property.  Did he not pour a stream of silver into Mrs. Almayer’s greedy lap?  He had paid, for the girl, a price worthy of a great prince, although unworthy of that delightfully maddening creature for whom his untamed soul longed in an intensity of desire far more tormenting than the sharpest pain.  He wanted his happiness.  He had the right to be in Sambir.

BOOK: Complete Works of Joseph Conrad (Illustrated)
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