Joseph Conrad.

Almayer's folly : a story of an eastern river online

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" Close here. It was like a breath long drawn.
I wish I had burnt the paper over the body before
it was buried."

" Yes," assented Babalatchi. " But the white
men had him thrown into a hole at once. You
know he found his death on the river," he added
cheerfully, " and his ghost may hail the canoes,
but would leave the land alone."

Mrs. Almayer, who had been craning her neck
to look round the corner of the shed, drew back
her head.

" There is nobody there," she said, reassured.
" Is it not time for the Rajah war-canoe to go to
the clearing?"



Almayers Folly, 205

" I have been waiting for it here, for I myself
must go," explained Babalatchi. " I think I will
go over and see what makes them late. When
will you come ? The Rajah gives you refuge."

" I shall paddle over before the break of day. I
cannot leave my dollars behind," muttered Mrs.
Almayer.

They separated. Babalatchi crossed the court-
yard towards the creek to get his canoe, and Mrs.
Almayer walked slowly to the house, ascended the
plankway, and passing through the back verandah
entered the passage leading to the front of the
house ; but before going in she turned in the door-
way and looked back at the empty and silent
courtyard, now lit up by the rays of the rising
moon. No sooner she had disappeared, however,
than a vague shape flitted out from amongst the
stalks of the banana plantation, darted over the
moonlit space, and fell in the darkness at the foot
of the verandah. It might have been the shadow
of a driving cloud, so noiseless and rapid was its
passage, but for the trail of disturbed grass, whose
feathery heads trembled and swayed for a long
time in the moonlight before they rested motion-
less and gleaming, like a design of silver sprays
embroidered on a sombre background.

Mrs. Almayer lighted the cocoanut lamp, and
lifting cautiously the red curtain, gazed upon her
husband, shading the light with her hand.
Almayer, huddled up in the chair, one of his arms



2o6 Almayers Folly,

hanging down, the other thrown across the lower
part of his face as if to ward off an invisible enemy,
his legs stretched straight out, slept heavily, un-
conscious of the unfriendly eyes that looked upon
him in disparaging criticism. At his feet lay the
overturned table, amongst a wreck of crockery and
broken bottles. The appearance as of traces left
by a desperate struggle was accentuated by the
chairs, which seemed to have been scattered
violently all over the place, and now lay about the
verandah with a lamentable aspect of inebriety in
their helpless attitudes. Only Nina's big rocking-
chair, standing black and motionless on its high
runners, towered above the chaos of demoralised
furniture, unflinchingly dignified and patient,
waiting for its burden.

With a last scornful look towards the sleeper,
Mrs. Almayer passed behind the curtain into her
own room. A couple of bats, encouraged by the
darkness and the peaceful state of affairs, resumed
their silent and oblique gambols above Almayer's
head, and for a long time the profound quiet of the
house was unbroken, save for the deep breathing
of the sleeping man and the faint tinkle of silver
in the hands of the woman preparing for flight.
In the increasing light of the moon that had risen
now above the night mist, the objects on the
verandah came out strongly outlined in black
splashes of shadow with all the uncompromising
ugliness of their disorder, and a caricature of the



Almayer's Folly. 207

sleeping Almayer appeared on the dirty whitewash
of the wall behind him in a grotesquely ex-
aggerated detail of attitude and feature enlarged
to a heroic size. The discontented bats departed
in quest of darker places, and a lizard came out in
short, nervous rushes, and, pleased with the white
table-cloth, stopped on it in breathless immobility
that would have suggested sudden death had it
not been for the melodious call he exchanged with
a less adventurous friend hiding amongst the
lumber in the courtyard. Then the boards in the
passage creaked, the lizard vanished, and Almayer
stirred uneasily with a sigh : slowly, out of the
senseless annihilation of drunken sleep, he was
returning, through the land of dreams, to waking
consciousness. Almayer's head rolled from
shoulder to shoulder in the oppression of his
dream ; the heavens had descended upon him
like a heavy mantle, and trailed in starred folds
far uhder him. Stars above, stars all round him ;
and from the stars under his feet rose a whisper
full of entreaties and tears, and sorrowful faces
flitted amongst the clusters of light filling the
infinite space below. How escape from the im-
portunity of lamentable cries and from the look
of staring, sad eyes in the faces which pressed
round him till he gasped for breath under the
crushing weight of worlds that hung over his
aching shoulders ? Get away ! But how ? If he
attempted to move he would step off into nothing.



2o8 Almayers Folly.

and perish in the crashing fall of that universe of
which he was the only support. And what were
the voices saying ? Urging him to move ! Why ?
Move to destruction ! Not likely ! The absurdity
of the thing filled him with indignation. He got a
firmer foothold and stiffened his muscles in heroic
resolve to carry his burden to all eternity. And
ages passed in the superhuman labour, amidst the
rush of circling worlds ; in the plaintive murmur
of sorrowful voices urging him to desist before it
was too late — till the mysterious power that had
laid upon him the giant task seemed at last to
seek his destruction. With terror he felt an irresis-
tible hand shaking him by the shoulder, while the
chorus of voices swelled louder into an agonised
prayer to go, go before it is too late. He felt
himself slipping, losing his balance, as something
dragged at his legs, and he fell. With a faint cry
he glided out of the anguish of perishing creation
into an imperfect waking that seemed to be still
under the spell of his dream.

" What ? What } " he murmured sleepily, with-
out moving or opening his eyes. His head still
felt heavy, and he had not the courage to raise his
eyelids. In his ears there still lingered the sound
of entreating whisper. — "Am I awake ? — Why do I
hear the voices ? " he argued to himself, hazily. — " I
cannot get rid of the horrible nightmare yet. — I
have been very drunk. — What is that shaking me ?
I am dreaming yet. — I must open my eyes and



Almayers Folly, 209

be done with it. I am only half awake, it is
evident."

He made an effort to shake off his stupor and
saw a face close to his, glaring at him with staring
eyeballs. He closed his eyes again in amazed
horror and sat up straight in the chair, trembling
in every limb. What was this apparition ? — His
own fancy, no doubt. — His nerves had been much
tried the day before — and then the drink ! He
would not see it again if he had the courage to
look. — He would look directly. — Get a little
steadier first. — So. — Now.

He looked. The figure of a woman standing in
the steely light, her hands stretched forth in a
suppliant gesture, confronted him from the far-off
end of the verandah ; and in the space between
him and the obstinate phantom floated the murmur
of words that fell on his ears in a jumble of tor-
turing sentences, the meaning of which escaped the
utmost efforts of his brain. Who spoke the Malay
words } Who ran away ? Why too late — and too
late for what ? What meant those words of hate
and love mixed so strangely together, the ever-
recurring names falling on his ears again and
again — Nina, Dain ; Dain, Nina? Dain was dead,
and Nina was sleeping, unaware of the terrible
experience through which he was now passing.
Was he going to be tormented for ever, sleeping
or waking, and have no peace either night or day ?
What was the meaning of this?

14



2IO Almayer's Folly.

He shouted the last words aloud. The shadowy
woman seemed to shrink and recede a little from
him towards the doorway, and there was a shriek.
Exasperated by the incomprehensible nature of
his torment, Almayer made a rush upon the
apparition, which eluded his grasp, and he brought
up heavily against the wall. Quick as lightning he
turned round and pursued fiercely the mysterious
figure fleeing from him with piercing shrieks that
were like fuel to the flames of his anger. Over
the furniture, round the overturned table, and now
he had it cornered behind Nina's chair. To the
left, to the right they dodged, the chair rocking
madly between them, she sending out shriek after
shriek at every feint, and he growling meaningless
curses through his hard set teeth. " Oh ! the
fiendish noise that split his head and seemed to
choke his breath. — It would kill him. — It must be
stopped ! " An insane desire to crush that yelling
thing induced him to cast himself recklessly over
the chair with a desperate grab, and they came
down together in a cloud of dust amongst the
splintered wood. The last shriek died out under
him in a faint gurgle, and he had secured the relief
of absolute silence.

He looked at the woman's face under him. A
real woman ! He knew her. By all that is wonderful !
Taminah! He jumped up ashamed of his fury
and stood perplexed, wiping his forehead. The
girl struggled to a kneeling posture and embraced
his legs in a frenzied prayer for mercy.



Aimayer's Folly. 211

" Don't be afraid," he said, raising her. " I
shall not hurt you. Why do you come to my
house in the night? And if you had to come,
why not go behind the curtain where the women
sleep ? "

"The place behind the curtain is empty," gasped
Taminah, catching her breath between the words.
"There are no women in your house any more,
Tuan. I saw the old Mem go away before I tried
to wake you. I did not want your women, I wanted
you."

" Old Mem ! " repeated Almayer. "Do you mean
my wife ? "

She nodded her head.

" But of my daughter you are not afraid 1 " said
Almayer.

" Have you not heard me .? " she exclaimed.
" Have I not spoken for a long time when you
lay there with eyes half open ? She is gone too."

" I was asleep. Can you not tell when a man is
sleeping and when awake ? "

" Sometimes," answered Taminah in a low voice ;
" sometimes the spirit lingers close to a sleeping
body and may hear. I spoke a long time before
I touched you, and I spoke softly for fear it would
depart at a sudden noise and leave you sleeping
for ever. I took you by the shoulder only when
you began to mutter words I could not under-
stand. Have you not heard, then, and do you
know nothing?"



212 Almayers Folly.

" Nothing of what you said. What is it ? Tell
again if you want me to know."

He took her by the shoulder and led her un-
resisting to the front of the verandah into a
stronger light. She wrung her hands with such
an appearance of grief that he began to be alarmed.

" Speak," he said. " You made noise enough to
wake even dead men. And yet nobody living
came," he added to himself in an uneasy whisper.
" Are you mute > Speak ! " he repeated.

In a rush of words which broke out after a short
struggle from her trembling lips she told him the
tale of Nina's love and her own jealousy. Several
times he looked angrily into her face and told her
to be silent ; but he could not stop the sounds
that seemed to him to run out in a hot stream,
swirl about his feet, and rise in scalding waves
about him, higher, higher, drowning his heart,
touching his lips with a feel of molten lead,
blotting out his sight in scorching vapour, closing
over his head, merciless and deadly. When she
spoke of the deception as to Dain's death of which
he had been the victim only that day, he glanced
again at her with terrible eyes, and made her falter
for a second, but he turned away directly, and his
face suddenly lost all expression in a stony stare
far away over the river. Ah ! the river ! His old
friend and his old enemy, speaking always with the
same voice as he runs from year to year bringing
fortune or disappointment happiness or pain, upon



Almayers Folly, 213

the same varying but unchanged surface of glancing
currents and swirling eddies. For many years he
had listened to the passionless and soothing
murmur that sometimes was the song of hope,
at times the song of triumph, of encouragement ;
more often the whisper of consolation that spoke
of better days to come. For so many years ! So
many years ! And now to the accompaniment of
that murmur he listened to the slow and painful
beating of his heart. He listened attentively,
wondering at the regularity of its beats. He
began to count mechanically. One, two. Why
count ? At the next beat it must stop. No heart
could suffer so and beat so steadily for long.
Those regular strokes as of a muffled hammer
that rang in his ears must stop soon. Still beating
unceasing and cruel. No man can bear this ; and
is this the last, or will the next one be the last } —
How much longer ? O God ! how much longer ?
His hand weighed heavier unconsciously on the
girl's shoulder, and she spoke the last words of her
story crouching at his feet with tears of pain and
shame and anger. Was her revenge to fail her ?
This white man was like a senseless stone. Too
late ! Too late !

" And you saw her go ? " Almayer's voice
sounded harshly above her head.

" Did I not tell you ? " she sobbed, trying to
wriggle gently out from under his grip. " Did I
not tell you that I saw the witchwoman push the



214 Almayer' s Foiiy.

canoe? I lay hidden in the grass and heard all
the words. She that [we used to call the white
Mem wanted to return to look at your face, but the
witchwoman forbade her, and "

She sank lower yet on her elbow, turning half
round under the downward push of the heavy hand,
her face lifted up to him with spiteful eyes.

" And she obeyed," she shouted out in a
half-laugh, half-cry of pain. "Let me go, Tuan.
Why are you angry with me? Hasten, or you
shall be too late to show your anger to the deceitful
woman."

Almayer dragged her up to her feet and looked
close into her face while she struggled, turning her
head away from his wild stare.

" Who sent you here to torment me ? " he asked,
violently. " I do not believe you. You lie."

He straightened his arm suddenly and flung her
across the verandah towards the doorway, where
she lay immobile and silent, as if she had left her
life in his grasp, a dark heap, without a sound or a
stir.

" Oh ! Nina ! " whispered Almayer, in a voice in
which reproach and love spoke together in pained
tenderness. " Oh ! Nina ! I do not believe."

A light draught from the river ran over the
courtyard in a wave of bowing grass and, entering
the verandah, touched Almayer's forehead with its
cool breath, in a caress of infinite pity. The
curtain in the women's doorway blew out and



Almayer's Folly, 215

instantly collapsed with startling helplessness. He
stared at the fluttering stuff.

" Nina ! " cried Almayer. " Where are you,
Nina?"

The wind passed out of the empty house in a
tremulous sigh, and all was still.

Almayer hid his face in his hands as if to shut
out a loathsome sight. When, hearing a slight
rustle, he uncovered his eyes, the dark heap by the
door was gone.



CHAPTER XL

In the middle of a shadowless square of moonlight,
shining on a smooth and level expanse of young
rice-shoots, a little shelter-hut perched on high
posts, the pile of brushwood near by and the
glowing embers of a fire with a man stretched
before it, seemed very small and as if lost in the
pale green iridescence reflected from the ground.
On three sides of the clearing, appearing very far
away in the deceptive light, the big trees of the
forest, lashed together with manifold bonds by a
mass of tangled creepers, looked down at the
growing young life at their feet with the sombre
resignation of giants that had lost faith in their
strength. And in the midst of them the merciless
creepers clung to the big trunks in cable-like coils,
leaped from tree to tree, hung in thorny festoons
from the lower boughs, and, sending slender ten-
drils on high to seek out the smallest branches,
carried death to their victims in an exulting riot of
silent destruction.

On the fourth side, following the curve of the

216



Almayer's Folly, 217

bank of that branch of the Pantai that formed
the only access to the clearing, ran a black line
of young trees, bushes, and thick second growth,
unbroken save for a small gap chopped out in one
place. At that gap began the narrow footpath
leading from the water's edge to the grass-built
shelter used by the night watchers when the ripen-
ing crop had to be protected from the wild pigs.
The pathway ended at the foot of the piles on
which the hut was built, in a circular space covered
with ashes and bits of burnt wood. In the middle
of that space, by the dim fire, lay Dain.

He turned over on his side with an impatient
sigh, and, pillowing his head on his bent arm, lay
quietly with his face to the dying fire. The glow-
ing embers shone redly in a small circle, throwing
a gleam into his wide-open eyes, and at every deep
breath the fine white ash of bygone fires rose in a
light cloud before his parted lips, and danced away
from the warm glow into the moonbeams pouring
down upon Bulangi's clearing. His body was
weary with the exertion of the past few days, his
mind more weary still with the strain of solitary
waiting for his fate. Never before had he felt so
helpless. He had heard the report of the gun
fired on board the launch, and he knew that his
life was in untrustworthy hands, and that his
enemies were very near. During the slow hours
of the afternoon he roamed about on the edge of
the forest, or, hiding in the bushes, watched the



21 8 Almayer's Folly,

creek with unquiet eyes for some sign of danger.
He feared not death, yet he desired ardently to
live, for life to him was Nina. She had promised
to come, to follow him, to share his danger and his
splendour. But with her by his side he cared not
for danger, and without her there could be no
splendour and no joy in existence. Crouching in
his shady hiding-place, he closed his eyes, trying
to evoke the gracious and charming image of the
white figure that for him was the beginning and
the end of life. With eyes shut tight, his teeth
hard set, he tried in a great effort of passionate
will to keep his hold on that vision of supreme
delight. In vain ! His heart grew heavy as the
figure of Nina faded away to be replaced by
another vision this time — a vision of armed men,
of angry faces, of glittering arms — and he seemed
to hear the hum of excited and triumphant voices
as they discovered him in his hiding-place. Startled
by the vividness of his fancy, he would open his
eyes, and, leaping out into the sunlight, resume his
aimless wanderings around the clearing. As he
skirted in his weary march the edge of the forest
he glanced now and then into its dark shade, so
enticing in its deceptive appearance of coolness, so
repellent with its unrelieved gloom, where lay,
entombed and rotting, countless generations of
trees, and where their successors stood as if
mourning, in dark green foliage, immense and
helpless, awaiting their turn. Only the parasites



Almayer's Folly, 219

seemed to live there in a sinuous rush upwards into
the air and sunshine, feeding on the dead and the
dying alike, and crowning their victims with pink
and blue flowers that gleamed amongst the boughs,
incongruous and cruel, like a strident and mocking
note in the solemn harmony of the doomed trees.

A man could hide there, thought Dain, as he
approached a place where the creepers had been
torn and hacked into an archway that might have
been the beginning of a path. As he bent down
to look through he heard angry grunting, and a
sounder of wild pig crashed away in the under-
growth. An acrid smell of damp earth and of
decaying leaves took him by the throat, and he
drew back with a scared face, as if he had been
touched by the breath of Death itself. The very
air seemed dead in there — heavy and stagnating,
poisoned with the corruption of countless ages.
He went on, staggering on his way, urged by the
nervous restlessness that made him feel tired yet
caused him to loathe the very idea of immobility
and repose. Was he a wild man to hide in the
woods and perhaps be killed there — in the dark-
ness — where there was no room to breathe? He
would wait for his enemies in the sunlight, where
he could see the sky and feel the breeze. He knew
how a Malay chief should die. The sombre and
desperate fury, that peculiar inheritance of his race,
took possession of him, and he glared savagely
across the clearing towards the gap in the bushes



220 Almayers Folly,

by the riverside. They would come from there.
In imagination he saw them now. He saw the
bearded faces and the white jackets of the officers,
the light on the levelled barrels of the rifles. What
is the bravery of the greatest warrior before the
firearms in the hand of a slave ? He would walk
toward them with a smiling face, with his hands
held out in a sign of submission till he was very
near them. He would speak friendly words —
come nearer yet — yet nearer — so near that they
could touch him with their hands and stretch
them out to make him a captive. That would
be the time : with a shout and a leap he would
be in the midst of them, kriss in hand, killing,
killing, killing, and would die with the shouts of
his enemies in his ears, their warm blood spurting
before his eyes.

Carried away by his excitement, he snatched the
kriss hidden in his sarong, and, drawing a long
breath, rushed forward, struck at the empty air,
and fell on his face. He lay as if stunned in the
sudden reaction from his exaltation, thinking that,
even if he died thus gloriously, it would have to be
before he saw Nina. Better so. If he saw her
again he felt that death would be too terrible.
With horror he, the descendant of Rajahs and of
conquerors, had to face the doubt of his own
bravery. His desire of life tormented him in a
paroxysm of agonising remorse. He had not the
courage to stir a limb. He had lost faith in



Almayers Folly. 221

himself, and there was nothing else in him of
what makes a man. The suffering remained, for
it is ordered that it should abide in the human
body even to the last breath, and fear remained.
Dimly he could look into the depths of his
passionate love, see its strength and its weakness,
and felt afraid.

The sun went down slowly. The shadow of the
western forest marched over the clearing, covered
the man's scorched shoulders with its cool mantle,
and went on hurriedly to mingle with the shadows
of other forests on the eastern side. The sun
lingered for a while amongst the light tracery of
the higher branches, as if in friendly reluctance to
abandon the body stretched in the green paddy-
field. Then Dain, revived by the cool of the
evening breeze, sat up and stared round him.
As he did so the sun dipped sharply, as if ashamed
of being detected in a sympathising attitude, and
the clearing, which during the day was all light,
became suddenly all darkness, where the fire
gleamed like an eye. Dain walked slowly towards
the creek, and, divesting himself of his torn sarong,
his only garment, entered the water cautiously.
He had had nothing to eat that day, and had not
dared show himself in daylight by the water-side
to drink. Now, as he swam silently, he swallowed
a few mouthfuls of water that lapped about his
lips. This did him good, and he walked with
greater confidence in himself and others as he



222 Almayers Folly.

returned towards the fire. Had he been betrayed
by Lakamba all would have been over by this.
He made up a big blaze, and while it lasted dried
himself, and then lay down by the embers. He
could not sleep, but he felt a great numbness in
all his limbs. His restlessness was gone, and he
was content to lay still, measuring the time by
watching the stars that rose in endless succession
above the forests, while the slight puffs of wind
under the cloudless sky seemed to fan their twinkle
into a greater brightness. Dreamily he assured
himself over and over again that she would come,
till the certitude crept into his heart and filled him
with a great peace. Yes, when the next day broke,
they would be together on the great blue sea that
was like life — away from the forests that were like
death. He murmured the name of Nina into the
silent space with a tender smile : this seemed to
break the spell of stillness, and far away by the


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Online LibraryJoseph ConradAlmayer's folly : a story of an eastern river → online text (page 12 of 15)