The Rescue by Joseph Conrad
Part VI. The Claim of Life and the Toll of Death
And now, stoical in the cold and darkness of his regained life, Lingard had to listen to the voice of Wasub telling him Jaffir's story. The old serang's face expressed a profound dejection and there was infinite sadness in the flowing murmur of his words.
"Yes, by Allah! They were all there: that tyrannical Tengga, noisy like a fool; the Rajah Hassim, a ruler without a country; Daman, the wandering chief, and the three Pangerans of the sea-robbers. They came on board boldly, for Tuan Jorgenson had given them permission, and their talk was that you, Tuan, were a willing captive in Belarab's stockade. They said they had waited all night for a message of peace from you or from Belarab. But there was nothing, and with the first sign of day they put out on the lagoon to make friends with Tuan Jorgenson; for, they said, you, Tuan, were as if you had not been, possessing no more power than a dead man, the mere slave of these strange white people, and Belarab's prisoner. Thus Tengga talked. God had taken from him all wisdom and all fear. And then he must have thought he was safe while Rajah Hassim and the lady Immada were on board. I tell you they sat there in the midst of your enemies, captive! The lady Immada, with her face covered, mourned to herself. The Rajah Hassim made a sign to Jaffir and Jaffir came to stand by his side and talked to his lord. The main hatch was open and many of the Illanuns crowded there to look down at the goods that were inside the ship. They had never seen so much loot in their lives. Jaffir and his lord could hear plainly Tuan Jorgenson and Tengga talking together. Tengga discoursed loudly and his words were the words of a doomed man, for he was asking Tuan Jorgenson to give up the arms and everything that was on board the Emma to himself and to Daman. And then, he said, 'We shall fight Belarab and make friends with these strange white people by behaving generously to them and letting them sail away unharmed to their own country. We don't want them here. You, Tuan Jorgenson, are the only white man I care for.' They heard Tuan Jorgenson say to Tengga: 'Now you have told me everything there is in your mind you had better go ashore with your friends and return to-morrow.' And Tengga asked: 'Why! would you fight me to-morrow rather than live many days in peace with me?' and he laughed and slapped his thigh. And Tuan Jorgenson answered:
"'No, I won't fight you. But even a spider will give the fly time to say its prayers.'
"Tuan Jorgenson's voice sounded very strange and louder than ever anybody had heard it before. O Rajah Laut, Jaffir and the white man had been waiting, too, all night for some sign from you; a shot fired or a signal-fire, lighted to strengthen their hearts. There had been nothing. Rajah Hassim, whispering, ordered Jaffir to take the first opportunity to leap overboard and take to you his message of friendship and good-bye. Did the Rajah and Jaffir know what was coming? Who can tell? But what else could they see than calamity for all Wajo men, whatever Tuan Jorgenson had made up his mind to do? Jaffir prepared to obey his lord, and yet with so many enemies' boats in the water he did not think he would ever reach the shore; and as to yourself he was not at all sure that you were still alive. But he said nothing of this to his Rajah. Nobody was looking their way. Jaffir pressed his lord's hand to his breast and waited his opportunity. The fog began to blow away and presently everything was disclosed to the sight. Jorgenson was on his feet, he was holding a lighted cigar between his fingers. Tengga was sitting in front of him on one of the chairs the white people had used. His followers were pressing round him, with Daman and Sentot, who were muttering incantations; and even the Pangerans had moved closer to the hatchway. Jaffir's opportunity had come but he lingered by the side of his Rajah. In the clear air the sun shone with great force. Tuan Jorgenson looked once more toward Belarab's stockade, O Rajah Laut! But there was nothing there, not even a flag displayed that had not been there before. Jaffir looked that way, too, and as he turned his head he saw Tuan Jorgenson, in the midst of twenty spear-blades that could in an instant have been driven into his breast, put the cigar in his mouth and jump down the hatchway. At that moment Rajah Hassim gave Jaffir a push toward the side and Jaffir leaped overboard.
"He was still in the water when all the world was darkened round him as if the life of the sun had been blown out of it in a crash. A great wave came along and washed him on shore, while pieces of wood, iron, and the limbs of torn men were splashing round him in the water. He managed to crawl out of the mud. Something had hit him while he was swimming and he thought he would die. But life stirred in him. He had a message for you. For a long time he went on crawling under the big trees on his hands and knees, for there is no rest for a messenger till the message is delivered. At last he found himself on the left bank of the creek.
And still he felt life stir in him. So he started to swim across, for if you were in this world you were on the other side. While he swam he felt his strength abandoning him. He managed to scramble on to a drifting log and lay on it like one who is dead, till we pulled him into one of our boats."
Wasub ceased. It seemed to Lingard that it was impossible for mortal man to suffer more than he suffered in the succeeding moment of silence crowded by the mute images as of universal destruction. He felt himself gone to pieces as though the violent expression of Jorgenson's intolerable mistrust of the life of men had shattered his soul, leaving his body robbed of all power of resistance and of all fortitude, a prey forever to infinite remorse and endless regrets.
"Leave me, Wasub," he said. "They are all dead--but I would sleep."
Wasub raised his dumb old eyes to the white man's face.
"Tuan, it is necessary that you should hear Jaffir," he said, patiently.
"Is he going to die?" asked Lingard in a low, cautious tone as though he were afraid of the sound of his own voice.
"Who can tell?" Wasub's voice sounded more patient than ever. "There is no wound on his body but, O Tuan, he does not wish to live."
"Abandoned by his God," muttered Lingard to himself.
Wasub waited a little before he went on, "And, Tuan, he has a message for you."
"Of course. Well, I don't want to hear it."
"It is from those who will never speak to you again," Wasub persevered, sadly. "It is a great trust. A Rajah's own words. It is difficult for Jaffir to die. He keeps on muttering about a ring that was for you, and that he let pass out of his care. It was a great talisman!"
"Yes. But it did not work this time. And if I go and tell Jaffir why he will be able to tell his Rajah, O Wasub, since you say that he is going to die. . . . I wonder where they will meet," he muttered to himself.
Once more Wasub raised his eyes to Lingard's face. "Paradise is the lot of all True Believers," he whispered, firm in his simple faith.
The man who had been undone by a glimpse of Paradise exchanged a profound look with the old Malay. Then he got up. On his passage to the main hatchway the commander of the brig met no one on the decks, as if all mankind had given him up except the old man who preceded him and that other man dying in the deepening twilight, who was awaiting his coming. Below, in the light of the hatchway, he saw a young Calash with a broad yellow face and his wiry hair sticking up in stiff wisps through the folds of his head-kerchief, holding an earthenware water-jar to the lips of Jaffir extended on his back on a pile of mats.
A languid roll of the already glazed eyeballs, a mere stir of black and white in the gathering dusk showed that the faithful messenger of princes was aware of the presence of the man who had been so long known to him and his people as the King of the Sea. Lingard knelt down close to Jaffir's head, which rolled a little from side to side and then became still, staring at a beam of the upper deck. Lingard bent his ear to the dark lips. "Deliver your message" he said in a gentle tone.
"The Rajah wished to hold your hand once more," whispered Jaffir so faintly that Lingard had to guess the words rather than hear them. "I was to tell you," he went on--and stopped suddenly.
"What were you to tell me?"
"To forget everything," said Jaffir with a loud effort as if beginning a long speech. After that he said nothing more till Lingard murmured, "And the lady Immada?"
Jaffir collected all his strength. "She hoped no more," he uttered, distinctly. "The order came to her while she mourned, veiled, apart. I didn't even see her face."
Lingard swayed over the dying man so heavily that Wasub, standing near by, hastened to catch him by the shoulder. Jaffir seemed unaware of anything, and went on staring at the beam.
"Can you hear me, O Jaffir?" asked Lingard.
"I never had the ring. Who could bring it to me?"
"We gave it to the white woman--may Jehannum be her lot!"
"No! It shall be my lot," said Lingard with despairing force, while Wasub raised both his hands in dismay. "For, listen, Jaffir, if she had given the ring to me it would have been to one that was dumb, deaf, and robbed of all courage."
It was impossible to say whether Jaffir had heard. He made no sound, there was no change in his awful stare, but his prone body moved under the cotton sheet as if to get further away from the white man. Lingard got up slowly and making a sign to Wasub to remain where he was, went up on deck without giving another glance to the dying man. Again it seemed to him that he was pacing the quarter-deck of a deserted ship. The mulatto steward, watching through the crack of the pantry door, saw the Captain stagger into the cuddy and fling-to the door behind him with a crash. For more than an hour nobody approached that closed door till Carter coming down the companion stairs spoke without attempting to open it.
"Are you there, sir?" The answer, "You may come in," comforted the young man by its strong resonance. He went in.
"Jaffir is dead. This moment. I thought you would want to know."
Lingard looked persistently at Carter, thinking that now Jaffir was dead there was no one left on the empty earth to speak to him a word of reproach; no one to know the greatness of his intentions, the bond of fidelity between him and Hassim and Immada, the depth of his affection for those people, the earnestness of his visions, and the unbounded trust that was his reward. By the mad scorn of Jorgenson flaming up against the life of men, all this was as if it had never been. It had become a secret locked up in his own breast forever.
"Tell Wasub to open one of the long-cloth bales in the hold, Mr. Carter, and give the crew a cotton sheet to bury him decently according to their faith. Let it be done to-night. They must have the boats, too. I suppose they will want to take him on the sandbank."
"Yes, sir," said Carter.
"Let them have what they want, spades, torches. . . . Wasub will chant the right words. Paradise is the lot of all True Believers. Do you understand me, Mr. Carter? Paradise! I wonder what it will be for him! Unless he gets messages to carry through the jungle, avoiding ambushes, swimming in storms and knowing no rest, he won't like it."
Carter listened with an unmoved face. It seemed to him that the Captain had forgotten his presence.
"And all the time he will be sleeping on that sandbank," Lingard began again, sitting in his old place under the gilt thunderbolts suspended over his head with his elbows on the table and his hands to his temples. "If they want a board to set up at the grave let them have a piece of an oak plank. It will stay there--till the next monsoon. Perhaps."
Carter felt uncomfortable before that tense stare which just missed him and in that confined cabin seemed awful in its piercing and far-off expression. But as he had not been dismissed he did not like to go away.
"Everything will be done as you wish it, sir," he said. "I suppose the yacht will be leaving the first thing to-morrow morning, sir."
"If she doesn't we must give her a solid shot or two to liven her up--eh, Mr. Carter?"
Carter did not know whether to smile or to look horrified. In the end he did both, but as to saying anything he found it impossible. But Lingard did not expect an answer.
"I believe you are going to stay with me, Mr. Carter?"
"I told you, sir, I am your man if you want me."
"The trouble is, Mr. Carter, that I am no longer the man to whom you spoke that night in Carimata."
"Neither am I, sir, in a manner of speaking."
Lingard, relaxing the tenseness of his stare, looked at the young man, thoughtfully.
"After all, it is the brig that will want you. She will never change. The finest craft afloat in these seas. She will carry me about as she did before, but . . ."
He unclasped his hands, made a sweeping gesture.
Carter gave all his naive sympathy to that man who had certainly rescued the white people but seemed to have lost his own soul in the attempt. Carter had heard something from Wasub. He had made out enough of this story from the old serang's pidgin English to know that the Captain's native friends, one of them a woman, had perished in a mysterious catastrophe. But the why of it, and how it came about, remained still quite incomprehensible to him. Of course, a man like the Captain would feel terribly cut up. . . .
"You will be soon yourself again, sir," he said in the kindest possible tone.
With the same simplicity Lingard shook his head. He was thinking of the dead Jaffir with his last message delivered and untroubled now by all these matters of the earth. He had been ordered to tell him to forget everything. Lingard had an inward shudder. In the dismay of his heart he might have believed his brig to lie under the very wing of the Angel of Desolation--so oppressive, so final, and hopeless seemed the silence in which he and Carter looked at each other, wistfully.
Lingard reached for a sheet of paper amongst several lying on the table, took up a pen, hesitated a moment, and then wrote:
"Meet me at day-break on the sandbank."
He addressed the envelope to Mrs. Travers, Yacht Hermit, and pushed it across the table.
"Send this on board the schooner at once, Mr. Carter. Wait a moment. When our boats shove off for the sandbank have the forecastle gun fired. I want to know when that dead man has left the ship."
He sat alone, leaning his head on his hand, listening, listening endlessly, for the report of the gun. Would it never come? When it came at last muffled, distant, with a slight shock through the body of the brig he remained still with his head leaning on his hand but with a distinct conviction, with an almost physical certitude, that under the cotton sheet shrouding the dead man something of himself, too, had left the ship.