An Outcast of the Islands by Joseph Conrad
The light and heat fell upon the settlement, the clearings, and the river as if flung down by an angry hand. The land lay silent, still, and brilliant under the avalanche of burning rays that had destroyed all sound and all motion, had buried all shadows, had choked every breath. No living thing dared to affront the serenity of this cloudless sky, dared to revolt against the oppression of this glorious and cruel sunshine. Strength and resolution, body and mind alike were helpless, and tried to hide before the rush of the fire from heaven. Only the frail butterflies, the fearless children of the sun, the capricious tyrants of the flowers, fluttered audaciously in the open, and their minute shadows hovered in swarms over the drooping blossoms, ran lightly on the withering grass, or glided on the dry and cracked earth. No voice was heard in this hot noontide but the faint murmur of the river that hurried on in swirls and eddies, its sparkling wavelets chasing each other in their joyous course to the sheltering depths, to the cool refuge of the sea.
Almayer had dismissed his workmen for the midday rest, and, his little daughter on his shoulder, ran quickly across the courtyard, making for the shade of the verandah of his house. He laid the sleepy child on the seat of the big rocking-chair, on a pillow which he took out of his own hammock, and stood for a while looking down at her with tender and pensive eyes. The child, tired and hot, moved uneasily, sighed, and looked up at him with the veiled look of sleepy fatigue. He picked up from the floor a broken palm-leaf fan, and began fanning gently the flushed little face. Her eyelids fluttered and Almayer smiled. A responsive smile brightened for a second her heavy eyes, broke with a dimple the soft outline of her cheek; then the eyelids dropped suddenly, she drew a long breath through the parted lips--and was in a deep sleep before the fleeting smile could vanish from her face.
Almayer moved lightly off, took one of the wooden armchairs, and placing it close to the balustrade of the verandah sat down with a sigh of relief. He spread his elbows on the top rail and resting his chin on his clasped hands looked absently at the river, at the dance of sunlight on the flowing water. Gradually the forest of the further bank became smaller, as if sinking below the level of the river. The outlines wavered, grew thin, dissolved in the air. Before his eyes there was now only a space of undulating blue--one big, empty sky growing dark at times. . . . Where was the sunshine? . . . He felt soothed and happy, as if some gentle and invisible hand had removed from his soul the burden of his body. In another second he seemed to float out into a cool brightness where there was no such thing as memory or pain. Delicious. His eyes closed--opened--closed again.
With a sudden jerk of his whole body he sat up, grasping the front rail with both his hands, and blinked stupidly.
"What? What's that?" he muttered, looking round vaguely.
"Here! Down here, Almayer."
Half rising in his chair, Almayer looked over the rail at the foot of the verandah, and fell back with a low whistle of astonishment.
"A ghost, by heavens!" he exclaimed softly to himself.
"Will you listen to me?" went on the husky voice from the courtyard. "May I come up, Almayer?"
Almayer stood up and leaned over the rail. "Don't you dare," he said, in a voice subdued but distinct. "Don't you dare! The child sleeps here. And I don't want to hear you--or speak to you either."
"You must listen to me! It's something important."
"Not to me, surely."
"Yes! To you. Very important."
"You were always a humbug," said Almayer, after a short silence, in an indulgent tone. "Always! I remember the old days. Some fellows used to say there was no one like you for smartness--but you never took me in. Not quite. I never quite believed in you, Mr. Willems."
"I admit your superior intelligence," retorted Willems, with scornful impatience, from below. "Listening to me would be a further proof of it. You will be sorry if you don't."
"Oh, you funny fellow!" said Almayer, banteringly. "Well, come up. Don't make a noise, but come up. You'll catch a sunstroke down there and die on my doorstep perhaps. I don't want any tragedy here. Come on!"
Before he finished speaking Willems' head appeared above the level of the floor, then his shoulders rose gradually and he stood at last before Almayer--a masquerading spectre of the once so very confidential clerk of the richest merchant in the islands. His jacket was soiled and torn; below the waist he was clothed in a worn-out and faded sarong. He flung off his hat, uncovering his long, tangled hair that stuck in wisps on his perspiring forehead and straggled over his eyes, which glittered deep down in the sockets like the last sparks amongst the black embers of a burnt-out fire. An unclean beard grew out of the caverns of his sunburnt cheeks. The hand he put out towards Almayer was very unsteady. The once firm mouth had the tell-tale droop of mental suffering and physical exhaustion. He was barefooted. Almayer surveyed him with leisurely composure.
"Well!" he said at last, without taking the extended hand which dropped slowly along Willems' body.
"I am come," began Willems.
"So I see," interrupted Almayer. "You might have spared me this treat without making me unhappy. You have been away five weeks, if I am not mistaken. I got on very well without you--and now you are here you are not pretty to look at."
"Let me speak, will you!" exclaimed Willems.
"Don't shout like this. Do you think yourself in the forest with your . . . your friends? This is a civilized man's house. A white man's. Understand?"
"I am come," began Willems again; "I am come for your good and mine."
"You look as if you had come for a good feed," chimed in the irrepressible Almayer, while Willems waved his hand in a discouraged gesture. "Don't they give you enough to eat," went on Almayer, in a tone of easy banter, "those--what am I to call them--those new relations of yours? That old blind scoundrel must be delighted with your company. You know, he was the greatest thief and murderer of those seas. Say! do you exchange confidences? Tell me, Willems, did you kill somebody in Macassar or did you only steal something?"
"It is not true!" exclaimed Willems, hotly. "I only borrowed. . . . They all lied! I . . ."
"Sh-sh!" hissed Almayer, warningly, with a look at the sleeping child. "So you did steal," he went on, with repressed exultation. "I thought there was something of the kind. And now, here, you steal again."
For the first time Willems raised his eyes to Almayer's face.
"Oh, I don't mean from me. I haven't missed anything," said Almayer, with mocking haste. "But that girl. Hey! You stole her. You did not pay the old fellow. She is no good to him now, is she?"
"Stop that. Almayer!"
Something in Willems' tone caused Almayer to pause. He looked narrowly at the man before him, and could not help being shocked at his appearance.
"Almayer," went on Willems, "listen to me. If you are a human being you will. I suffer horribly--and for your sake."
Almayer lifted his eyebrows. "Indeed! How? But you are raving," he added, negligently.
"Ah! You don't know," whispered Willems. "She is gone. Gone," he repeated, with tears in his voice, "gone two days ago."
"No!" exclaimed the surprised Almayer. "Gone! I haven't heard that news yet." He burst into a subdued laugh. "How funny! Had enough of you already? You know it's not flattering for you, my superior countryman."
Willems--as if not hearing him--leaned against one of the columns of the roof and looked over the river. "At first," he whispered, dreamily, "my life was like a vision of heaven--or hell; I didn't know which. Since she went I know what perdition means; what darkness is. I know what it is to be torn to pieces alive. That's how I feel."
"You may come and live with me again," said Almayer, coldly. "After all, Lingard--whom I call my father and respect as such--left you under my care. You pleased yourself by going away. Very good. Now you want to come back. Be it so. I am no friend of yours. I act for Captain Lingard."
"Come back?" repeated Willems, passionately. "Come back to you and abandon her? Do you think I am mad? Without her! Man! what are you made of? To think that she moves, lives, breathes out of my sight. I am jealous of the wind that fans her, of the air she breathes, of the earth that receives the caress of her foot, of the sun that looks at her now while I . . . I haven't seen her for two days--two days."
The intensity of Willems' feeling moved Almayer somewhat, but he affected to yawn elaborately
"You do bore me," he muttered. "Why don't you go after her instead of coming here?"
"Don't you know where she is? She can't be very far. No native craft has left this river for the last fortnight."
"No! not very far--and I will tell you where she is. She is in Lakamba's campong." And Willems fixed his eyes steadily on Almayer's face.
"Phew! Patalolo never sent to let me know. Strange," said Almayer, thoughtfully. "Are you afraid of that lot?" he added, after a short pause.
"Then is it the care of your dignity which prevents you from following her there, my high-minded friend?" asked Almayer, with mock solicitude. "How noble of you!"
There was a short silence; then Willems said, quietly, "You are a fool. I should like to kick you."
"No fear," answered Almayer, carelessly; "you are too weak for that. You look starved."
"I don't think I have eaten anything for the last two days; perhaps more--I don't remember. It does not matter. I am full of live embers," said Willems, gloomily. "Look!" and he bared an arm covered with fresh scars. "I have been biting myself to forget in that pain the fire that hurts me there!" He struck his breast violently with his fist, reeled under his own blow, fell into a chair that stood near and closed his eyes slowly.
"Disgusting exhibition," said Almayer, loftily. "What could father ever see in you? You are as estimable as a heap of garbage."
"You talk like that! You, who sold your soul for a few guilders," muttered Willems, wearily, without opening his eyes.
"Not so few," said Almayer, with instinctive readiness, and stopped confused for a moment. He recovered himself quickly, however, and went on: "But you--you have thrown yours away for nothing; flung it under the feet of a damned savage woman who has made you already the thing you are, and will kill you very soon, one way or another, with her love or with her hate. You spoke just now about guilders. You meant Lingard's money, I suppose. Well, whatever I have sold, and for whatever price, I never meant you--you of all people--to spoil my bargain. I feel pretty safe though. Even father, even Captain Lingard, would not touch you now with a pair of tongs; not with a ten-foot pole. . . ."
He spoke excitedly, all in one breath, and, ceasing suddenly, glared at Willems and breathed hard through his nose in sulky resentment. Willems looked at him steadily for a moment, then got up.
"Almayer," he said resolutely, "I want to become a trader in this place."
Almayer shrugged his shoulders.
"Yes. And you shall set me up. I want a house and trade goods--perhaps a little money. I ask you for it."
"Anything else you want? Perhaps this coat?" and here Almayer unbuttoned his jacket--"or my house--or my boots?"
"After all it's natural," went on Willems, without paying any attention to Almayer--"it's natural that she should expect the advantages which . . . and then I could shut up that old wretch and then . . ."
He paused, his face brightened with the soft light of dreamy enthusiasm, and he turned his eyes upwards. With his gaunt figure and dilapidated appearance he looked like some ascetic dweller in a wilderness, finding the reward of a self-denying life in a vision of dazzling glory. He went on in an impassioned murmur--
"And then I would have her all to myself away from her people--all to myself--under my own influence--to fashion--to mould--to adore--to soften--to . . . Oh! Delight! And then--then go away to some distant place where, far from all she knew, I would be all the world to her! All the world to her!"
His face changed suddenly. His eyes wandered for awhile and then became steady all at once.
"I would repay every cent, of course," he said, in a business-like tone, with something of his old assurance, of his old belief in himself, in it. "Every cent. I need not interfere with your business. I shall cut out the small native traders. I have ideas--but never mind that now. And Captain Lingard would approve, I feel sure. After all it's a loan, and I shall be at hand. Safe thing for you."
"Ah! Captain Lingard would approve! He would app . . ." Almayer choked. The notion of Lingard doing something for Willems enraged him. His face was purple. He spluttered insulting words. Willems looked at him coolly.
"I assure you, Almayer," he said, gently, "that I have good grounds for my demand."
"Your cursed impudence!"
"Believe me, Almayer, your position here is not so safe as you may think. An unscrupulous rival here would destroy your trade in a year. It would be ruin. Now Lingard's long absence gives courage to certain individuals. You know?--I have heard much lately. They made proposals to me . . . You are very much alone here. Even Patalolo . . ."
"Damn Patalolo! I am master in this place."
"But, Almayer, don't you see . . ."
"Yes, I see. I see a mysterious ass," interrupted Almayer, violently. "What is the meaning of your veiled threats? Don't you think I know something also? They have been intriguing for years--and nothing has happened. The Arabs have been hanging about outside this river for years--and I am still the only trader here; the master here. Do you bring me a declaration of war? Then it's from yourself only. I know all my other enemies.
I ought to knock you on the head. You are not worth powder and shot though. You ought to be destroyed with a stick--like a snake."
Almayer's voice woke up the little girl, who sat up on the pillow with a sharp cry. He rushed over to the chair, caught up the child in his arms, walked back blindly, stumbled against Willems' hat which lay on the floor, and kicked it furiously down the steps.
"Clear out of this! Clear out!" he shouted.
Willems made an attempt to speak, but Almayer howled him down.
"Take yourself off! Don't you see you frighten the child--you scarecrow! No, no! dear," he went on to his little daughter, soothingly, while Willems walked down the steps slowly. "No. Don't cry. See! Bad man going away. Look! He is afraid of your papa. Nasty, bad man. Never come back again. He shall live in the woods and never come near my little girl. If he comes papa will kill him--so!" He struck his fist on the rail of the balustrade to show how he would kill Willems, and, perching the consoled child on his shoulder held her with one hand, while he pointed toward the retreating figure of his visitor.
"Look how he runs away, dearest," he said, coaxingly. "Isn't he funny. Call 'pig' after him, dearest. Call after him."
The seriousness of her face vanished into dimples. Under the long eyelashes, glistening with recent tears, her big eyes sparkled and danced with fun. She took firm hold of Almayer's hair with one hand, while she waved the other joyously and called out with all her might, in a clear note, soft and distinct like the pipe of a bird:--
"Pig! Pig! Pig!"