Complete Works of Joseph Conrad (Illustrated) (4 page)

BOOK: Complete Works of Joseph Conrad (Illustrated)
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He looked up the river and remarked calmly:

“Another thunderstorm.  Well!  No thunder will keep me awake to-night, I know!  Good-night, little girl,” he whispered, tenderly kissing her cheek.  “You do not seem to be very happy to-night, but to-morrow you will show a brighter face.  Eh?”

Nina had listened to her father with her face unmoved, with her half-closed eyes still gazing into the night now made more intense by a heavy thunder-cloud that had crept down from the hills blotting out the stars, merging sky, forest, and river into one mass of almost palpable blackness.  The faint breeze had died out, but the distant rumble of thunder and pale flashes of lightning gave warning of the approaching storm.  With a sigh the girl turned towards the table.

Almayer was in his hammock now, already half asleep.

“Take the lamp, Nina,” he muttered, drowsily.  “This place is full of mosquitoes.  Go to sleep, daughter.”

But Nina put the lamp out and turned back again towards the balustrade of the verandah, standing with her arm round the wooden support and looking eagerly towards the Pantai reach.  And motionless there in the oppressive calm of the tropical night she could see at each flash of lightning the forest lining both banks up the river, bending before the furious blast of the coming tempest, the upper reach of the river whipped into white foam by the wind, and the black clouds torn into fantastic shapes trailing low over the swaying trees.  Round her all was as yet stillness and peace, but she could hear afar off the roar of the wind, the hiss of heavy rain, the wash of the waves on the tormented river.  It came nearer and nearer, with loud thunder-claps and long flashes of vivid lightning, followed by short periods of appalling blackness.  When the storm reached the low point dividing the river, the house shook in the wind, and the rain pattered loudly on the palm-leaf roof, the thunder spoke in one prolonged roll, and the incessant lightning disclosed a turmoil of leaping waters, driving logs, and the big trees bending before a brutal and merciless force.

Undisturbed by the nightly event of the rainy monsoon, the father slept quietly, oblivious alike of his hopes, his misfortunes, his friends, and his enemies; and the daughter stood motionless, at each flash of lightning eagerly scanning the broad river with a steady and anxious gaze.

 

CHAPTER II.

 

When, in compliance with Lingard’s abrupt demand, Almayer consented to wed the Malay girl, no one knew that on the day when the interesting young convert had lost all her natural relations and found a white father, she had been fighting desperately like the rest of them on board the prau, and was only prevented from leaping overboard, like the few other survivors, by a severe wound in the leg.  There, on the fore-deck of the prau, old Lingard found her under a heap of dead and dying pirates, and had her carried on the poop of the Flash before the Malay craft was set on fire and sent adrift.  She was conscious, and in the great peace and stillness of the tropical evening succeeding the turmoil of the battle, she watched all she held dear on earth after her own savage manner, drift away into the gloom in a great roar of flame and smoke.  She lay there unheeding the careful hands attending to her wound, silent and absorbed in gazing at the funeral pile of those brave men she had so much admired and so well helped in their contest with the redoubtable “Rajah-Laut.”

* * * * *

 

The light night breeze fanned the brig gently to the southward, and the great blaze of light got smaller and smaller till it twinkled only on the horizon like a setting star.  It set: the heavy canopy of smoke reflected the glare of hidden flames for a short time and then disappeared also.

She realised that with this vanishing gleam her old life departed too.  Thenceforth there was slavery in the far countries, amongst strangers, in unknown and perhaps terrible surroundings.  Being fourteen years old, she realised her position and came to that conclusion, the only one possible to a Malay girl, soon ripened under a tropical sun, and not unaware of her personal charms, of which she heard many a young brave warrior of her father’s crew express an appreciative admiration.  There was in her the dread of the unknown; otherwise she accepted her position calmly, after the manner of her people, and even considered it quite natural; for was she not a daughter of warriors, conquered in battle, and did she not belong rightfully to the victorious Rajah?  Even the evident kindness of the terrible old man must spring, she thought, from admiration for his captive, and the flattered vanity eased for her the pangs of sorrow after such an awful calamity.  Perhaps had she known of the high walls, the quiet gardens, and the silent nuns of the Samarang convent, where her destiny was leading her, she would have sought death in her dread and hate of such a restraint.  But in imagination she pictured to herself the usual life of a Malay girl — the usual succession of heavy work and fierce love, of intrigues, gold ornaments, of domestic drudgery, and of that great but occult influence which is one of the few rights of half-savage womankind.  But her destiny in the rough hands of the old sea-dog, acting under unreasoning impulses of the heart, took a strange and to her a terrible shape.  She bore it all — the restraint and the teaching and the new faith — with calm submission, concealing her hate and contempt for all that new life.  She learned the language very easily, yet understood but little of the new faith the good sisters taught her, assimilating quickly only the superstitious elements of the religion.  She called Lingard father, gently and caressingly, at each of his short and noisy visits, under the clear impression that he was a great and dangerous power it was good to propitiate.  Was he not now her master?  And during those long four years she nourished a hope of finding favour in his eyes and ultimately becoming his wife, counsellor, and guide.

Those dreams of the future were dispelled by the Rajah Laut’s “fiat,” which made Almayer’s fortune, as that young man fondly hoped.  And dressed in the hateful finery of Europe, the centre of an interested circle of Batavian society, the young convert stood before the altar with an unknown and sulky-looking white man.  For Almayer was uneasy, a little disgusted, and greatly inclined to run away.  A judicious fear of the adopted father-in-law and a just regard for his own material welfare prevented him from making a scandal; yet, while swearing fidelity, he was concocting plans for getting rid of the pretty Malay girl in a more or less distant future.  She, however, had retained enough of conventual teaching to understand well that according to white men’s laws she was going to be Almayer’s companion and not his slave, and promised to herself to act accordingly.

So when the Flash freighted with materials for building a new house left the harbour of Batavia, taking away the young couple into the unknown Borneo, she did not carry on her deck so much love and happiness as old Lingard was wont to boast of before his casual friends in the verandahs of various hotels.  The old seaman himself was perfectly happy.  Now he had done his duty by the girl.  “You know I made her an orphan,” he often concluded solemnly, when talking about his own affairs to a scratch audience of shore loafers — as it was his habit to do.  And the approbative shouts of his half-intoxicated auditors filled his simple soul with delight and pride.  “I carry everything right through,” was another of his sayings, and in pursuance of that principle he pushed the building of house and godowns on the PantaiRiver with feverish haste.  The house for the young couple; the godowns for the big trade Almayer was going to develop while he (Lingard) would be able to give himself up to some mysterious work which was only spoken of in hints, but was understood to relate to gold and diamonds in the interior of the island.  Almayer was impatient too.  Had he known what was before him he might not have been so eager and full of hope as he stood watching the last canoe of the Lingard expedition disappear in the bend up the river.  When, turning round, he beheld the pretty little house, the big godowns built neatly by an army of Chinese carpenters, the new jetty round which were clustered the trading canoes, he felt a sudden elation in the thought that the world was his.

But the world had to be conquered first, and its conquest was not so easy as he thought.  He was very soon made to understand that he was not wanted in that corner of it where old Lingard and his own weak will placed him, in the midst of unscrupulous intrigues and of a fierce trade competition.  The Arabs had found out the river, had established a trading post in Sambir, and where they traded they would be masters and suffer no rival.  Lingard returned unsuccessful from his first expedition, and departed again spending all the profits of the legitimate trade on his mysterious journeys.  Almayer struggled with the difficulties of his position, friendless and unaided, save for the protection given to him for Lingard’s sake by the old Rajah, the predecessor of Lakamba.  Lakamba himself, then living as a private individual on a rice clearing, seven miles down the river, exercised all his influence towards the help of the white man’s enemies, plotting against the old Rajah and Almayer with a certainty of combination, pointing clearly to a profound knowledge of their most secret affairs.  Outwardly friendly, his portly form was often to be seen on Almayer’s verandah; his green turban and gold-embroidered jacket shone in the front rank of the decorous throng of Malays coming to greet Lingard on his returns from the interior; his salaams were of the lowest, and his hand-shakings of the heartiest, when welcoming the old trader.  But his small eyes took in the signs of the times, and he departed from those interviews with a satisfied and furtive smile to hold long consultations with his friend and ally, Syed Abdulla, the chief of the Arab trading post, a man of great wealth and of great influence in the islands.

It was currently believed at that time in the settlement that Lakamba’s visits to Almayer’s house were not limited to those official interviews.  Often on moonlight nights the belated fishermen of Sambira saw a small canoe shooting out from the narrow creek at the back of the white man’s house, and the solitary occupant paddle cautiously down the river in the deep shadows of the bank; and those events, duly reported, were discussed round the evening fires far into the night with the cynicism of expression common to aristocratic Malays, and with a malicious pleasure in the domestic misfortunes of the Orang Blando — the hated Dutchman.  Almayer went on struggling desperately, but with a feebleness of purpose depriving him of all chance of success against men so unscrupulous and resolute as his rivals the Arabs.  The trade fell away from the large godowns, and the godowns themselves rotted piecemeal.  The old man’s banker, Hudig of Macassar, failed, and with this went the whole available capital.  The profits of past years had been swallowed up in Lingard’s exploring craze.  Lingard was in the interior — perhaps dead — at all events giving no sign of life.  Almayer stood alone in the midst of those adverse circumstances, deriving only a little comfort from the companionship of his little daughter, born two years after the marriage, and at the time some six years old.  His wife had soon commenced to treat him with a savage contempt expressed by sulky silence, only occasionally varied by a flood of savage invective.  He felt she hated him, and saw her jealous eyes watching himself and the child with almost an expression of hate.  She was jealous of the little girl’s evident preference for the father, and Almayer felt he was not safe with that woman in the house.  While she was burning the furniture, and tearing down the pretty curtains in her unreasoning hate of those signs of civilisation, Almayer, cowed by these outbursts of savage nature, meditated in silence on the best way of getting rid of her.  He thought of everything; even planned murder in an undecided and feeble sort of way, but dared do nothing — expecting every day the return of Lingard with news of some immense good fortune.  He returned indeed, but aged, ill, a ghost of his former self, with the fire of fever burning in his sunken eyes, almost the only survivor of the numerous expedition.  But he was successful at last!  Untold riches were in his grasp; he wanted more money — only a little more torealise a dream of fabulous fortune.  And Hudig had failed!  Almayer scraped all he could together, but the old man wanted more.  If Almayer could not get it he would go to Singapore — to Europe even, but before all to Singapore; and he would take the little Nina with him.  The child must be brought up decently.  He had good friends in Singapore who would take care of her and have her taught properly.  All would be well, and that girl, upon whom the old seaman seemed to have transferred all his former affection for the mother, would be the richest woman in the East — in the world even.  So old Lingard shouted, pacing the verandah with his heavy quarter-deck step, gesticulating with a smouldering cheroot; ragged, dishevelled, enthusiastic; and Almayer, sitting huddled up on a pile of mats, thought with dread of the separation with the only human being he loved — with greater dread still, perhaps, of the scene with his wife, the savage tigress deprived of her young.  She will poison me, thought the poor wretch, well aware of that easy and final manner of solving the social, political, or family problems in Malay life.

To his great surprise she took the news very quietly, giving only him and Lingard a furtive glance, and saying not a word.  This, however, did not prevent her the next day from jumping into the river and swimming after the boat in which Lingard was carrying away the nurse with the screaming child.  Almayer had to give chase with his whale-boat and drag her in by the hair in the midst of cries and curses enough to make heaven fall.  Yet after two days spent in wailing, she returned to her former mode of life, chewing betel-nut, and sitting all day amongst her women in stupefied idleness.  She aged very rapidly after that, and only roused herself from her apathy to acknowledge by a scathing remark or an insulting exclamation the accidental presence of her husband.  He had built for her a riverside hut in the compound where she dwelt in perfect seclusion.  Lakamba’s visits had ceased when, by a convenient decree of Providence and the help of a little scientific manipulation, the old ruler of Sambir departed this life.  Lakamba reigned in his stead now, having been well served by his Arab friends with the Dutch authorities.  Syed Abdulla was the great man and trader of the Pantai.  Almayer lay ruined and helpless under the close-meshed net of their intrigues, owing his life only to his supposed knowledge of Lingard’s valuable secret.  Lingard had disappeared.  He wrote once from Singapore saying the child was well, and under the care of a Mrs. Vinck, and that he himself was going to Europe to raise money for the great enterprise.  “He was coming back soon.  There would be no difficulties,” he wrote; “people would rush in with their money.”  Evidently they did not, for there was only one letter more from him saying he was ill, had found no relation living, but little else besides.  Then came a complete silence.  Europe had swallowed up the Rajah Laut apparently, and Almayer looked vainly westward for a ray of light out of the gloom of his shattered hopes.  Years passed, and the rare letters from Mrs. Vinck, later on from the girl herself, were the only thing to be looked to to make life bearable amongst the triumphant savagery of the river.  Almayer lived now alone, having even ceased to visit his debtors who would not pay, sure of Lakamba’s protection.  The faithful Sumatrese Ali cooked his rice and made his coffee, for he dared not trust any one else, and least of all his wife.  He killed time wandering sadly in the overgrown paths round the house, visiting the ruined godowns where a few brass guns covered with verdigris and only a few broken cases of mouldering Manchester goods reminded him of the good early times when all this was full of life and merchandise, and he overlooked a busy scene on the river bank, his little daughter by his side.  Now the up-country canoes glided past the little rotten wharf of Lingard and Co., to paddle up the Pantai branch, and cluster round the new jetty belonging to Abdulla.  Not that they loved Abdulla, but they dared not trade with the man whose star had set.  Had they done so they knew there was no mercy to be expected from Arab or Rajah; no rice to be got on credit in the times of scarcity from either; and Almayer could not help them, having at times hardly enough for himself.  Almayer, in his isolation and despair, often envied his near neighbour the Chinaman, Jim-Eng, whom he could see stretched on a pile of cool mats, a wooden pillow under his head, an opium pipe in his nerveless fingers.  He did not seek, however, consolation in opium — perhaps it was too expensive — perhaps his white man’s pride saved him from that degradation; but most likely it was the thought of his little daughter in the far-off Straits Settlements.  He heard from her oftener since Abdulla bought a steamer, which ran now between Singapore and the Pantai settlement every three months or so.  Almayer felt himself nearer his daughter.  He longed to see her, and planned a voyage to Singapore, but put off his departure from year to year, always expecting some favourable turn of fortune.  He did not want to meet her with empty hands and with no words of hope on his lips.  He could not take her back into that savage life to which he was condemned himself.  He was also a little afraid of her.  What would she think of him?  He reckoned the years.  A grown woman.  A civilised woman, young and hopeful; while he felt old and hopeless, and very much like those savages round him.  He asked himself what was going to be her future.  He could not answer that question yet, and he dared not face her.  And yet he longed after her.  He hesitated for years.

BOOK: Complete Works of Joseph Conrad (Illustrated)
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