Joseph Conrad.

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

. (page 15 of 15)
Online LibraryJoseph ConradAlmayer's folly : a story of an eastern river → online text (page 15 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

both eating greedily and showering the skins
round them recklessly, in the trusting silence of
perfect friendship. Ali went away, grumbling, to
cook some rice himself, for all the women about
the house had disappeared ; he did not know
where. Almayer did not seem to care, and, after
he finished eating, he sat on the table swinging his
legs and staring at the river as if lost in thought.

After some time he got up and went to the door
of a room on the right of the verandah. That was
the office. The office of Lingard and Co. He
very seldom went in there. There was no business
now, and he did not want an office. The door was
locked, and he stood biting his lower lip, trying to
think of the place where the key could be. Sud-
denly he remembered : in the women's room hung
upon a nail. He went over to the doorway where
the red curtain hung down in motionless folds, and
hesitated for a moment before pushing it aside
with his shoulder as if breaking down some solid
obstacle. A great square of sunshine entering
through the window lay on the floor. On the left
he saw Mrs. Almayer's big wooden chest, the lid
thrown back, empty ; near it the brass nails of
Nina's European trunk shone in the large initials

Almayers Folly. 259

N. A. on the cover. A few of Nina's dresses hung
on wooden pegs, stiffened in a look of offended
dignity at their abandonment. He remembered
making the pegs himself and noticed that they
were very good pegs. Where was the key ? He
looked round and saw it near the door where he
stood. It was red with rust. He felt very much
annoyed at that, and directly afterwards wondered
at his own feeling. What did it matter? There
soon would be no key — no door — nothing ! He
paused, key in hand, and asked himself whether
he knew well what he was about. He went out
again on the verandah and stood by the table
thinking. The monkey jumped down, and, snatch-
ing a banana skin, absorbed itself in picking it to
shreds industriously.

"Forget!" muttered Almayer, and that word
started before him a sequence of events, a detailed
programme of things to do. He knew perfectly
well what was to be done now. First this, then
that, and then forgetfulness would come easy.
Very easy. He had a fixed idea that if he should
not forget before he died he would have to re-
member to all eternity. Certain things had to be
taken out of his life, stamped out of sight, destroyed,
forgotten. For a long time he stood in deep
thought, lost in the alarming possibilities of un-
conquerable memory, with the fear of death and
eternity before him. "Eternity!" he said aloud,
and the sound of that word recalled him out of his

26o Almayers Folly,

reverie. The monkey started, dropped the skin,
and grinned up at him amicably.

He went towards the office door and with some
difficulty managed to open it. He entered in a
cloud of dust that rose under his feet. Books open
with torn pages bestrewed the floor ; other books
lay about grimy and black, looking as if they had
never been opened. Account books. In those
books he had intended to keep day by day a record
of his rising fortunes. Long time ago. A very
long time. For many years there has been no
record to keep on the blue and red ruled pages !
In the middle of the room the big office desk, with
one of its legs broken, careened over like the hull
of a stranded ship ; most of the drawers had fallen
out, disclosing heaps of paper yellow with age and
dirt. The revolving office chair stood in its place,
but he found the pivot set fast when he tried to
turn it. No matter. He desisted, and his eyes
wandered slowly from object to object. All those
things had cost a lot of money at the time. The
desk, the paper, the torn books, and the broken
shelves, all under a thick coat of dust. The very
dust and bones of a dead and gone business. He
looked at all these things, all that was left after so
many years of work, of strife, of weariness, of
discouragement, conquered so many times. And
all for what ? He stood thinking mournfully of his
past life till he heard distinctly the clear voice of
a child speaking amongst all this wreck, ruin, and

Almayer's Folly, 261

waste. He started with a great fear in his heart,
and feverishly began to rake in the papers scattered
on the floor, broke the chair into bits, splintered
the drawers by banging them against the desk,
and made a big heap of all that rubbish in one
corner of the room.

He came out quickly, slammed the door after
him, turned the key, and, taking it out, ran to the
front rail of the verandah, and, with a great swing
of his arm, sent the key whizzing into the river.
This done he went back slowly to the table, called
the monkey down, unhooked its chain, and induced
it to remain quiet in the breast of his jacket. Then
he sat again on the table and looked fixedly at the
door of the room he had just left. He listened
also intently. He heard a dry sound of rustling ;
sharp cracks as of dry wood snapping ; a whirr
like of a bird's wings when it rises suddenly, and
then he saw a thin stream of smoke come through
the keyhole. The monkey struggled under his
coat. Ali appeared with his eyes starting out of
his head.

" Master ! House burn ! " he shouted.

Almayer stood up holding by the table. He
could hear the yells of alarm and surprise in
the settlement. Ali wrung his hands, lamenting

" Stop this noise, fool ! " said Almayer, quietly.
" Pick up my hammock and blankets and take
them to the other house. Quick, now ! "

262 Almayer^s Folly.

The smoke burst through the crevices of the
door, and AH, with the hammock in his arms,
cleared in one bound the steps of the verandah.

"It has caught well," muttered Almayer to
himself. " Be quiet. Jack," he added, as the
monkey made a frantic effort to escape from its

The door split from top to bottom, and a rush
of flame and smoke drove Almayer away from the
table to the front rail of the verandah. He held
on there till a great roar overhead assured him
that the roof was ablaze. Then he ran down the
steps of the verandah, coughing, half choked with
the smoke that pursued him in bluish wreaths
curling about his head.

On the other side of the ditch, separating
Almayer's courtyard from the settlement, a crowd
of the inhabitants of Sambir looked at the burning
house of the white man. In the calm air the
flames rushed up on high, coloured pale brick-red,
with violet gleams in the strong sunshine. The
thin column of smoke ascended straight and un-
wavering till it lost itself in the clear blue of the
sky, and in the great empty space between the two
houses the interested spectators could see the tall
figure of the Tuan Putih, with bowed head and
dragging feet, walking slowly away from the fire
towards the shelter of " Almayer's Folly."

In that manner did Almayer move into his new
house. He took possession of the new ruin, and

Almayer's Folly. 263

in the undying folly of his heart set himself to
wait in anxiety and pain for that forgetfulness
which was so slow to come. He had done all he
could. Every vestige of Nina's existence had
been destroyed ; and now with every sunrise he
asked himself whether the longed-for oblivion
would come before sunset, whether it would come
before he died } He wanted to live only long
enough to be able to forget, and the tenacity
of his memory filled him with dread and horror
of death ; for should it come before he could
accomplish the purpose of his life he would
have to remember for ever! He also longed
for loneliness. He wanted to be alone. But
he was not. In the dim light of the rooms with
their closed shutters, in the bright sunshine of
the verandah, wherever he went, whichever way
he turned, he saw the small figure of a little
maiden with pretty olive face, with long black hair,
her little pink robe slipping off her shoulders, her big
eyes looking up at him in the tender trustfulness
of a petted child. Ali did not see anything, but
he also was aware of the presence of a child in the
house. In his long talks by the evening fires of
the settlement he used to tell his intimate friends
of Almayer's strange doings. His master had
turned sorcerer in his old age. Ali said that often
when Tuan Putih had retired for the night he
could hear him talking to something in his room.
Ali thought that it was a spirit in the shape of a

264 Almayer^s Folly,

child. He knew his master spoke to a child from
certain expressions and words his master used.
His master spoke in Malay a little, but mostly in
English, which he, Ali, could understand. Master
spoke to the child at times tenderly, then he would
weep over it, laugh at it, scold it, beg of it to go
away; curse it. It was a bad and stubborn
spirit. Ali thought his master had imprudently
called it up, and now could not get rid of it. His
master was very brave ; he was not afraid to curse
this spirit in the very Presence ; and once he
fought with it. Ali had heard a great noise as of
running about inside the room and groans. His
master groaned. Spirits do not groan. His master
was brave, but foolish. You cannot hurt a spirit.
Ali expected to find his master dead next morn-
ing, but he came out very early, looking much
older than the day before, and had no food all

So far Ali to the settlement. To Captain Ford
he was much more communicative, for the good
reason that Captain Ford had the purse and gave
orders. On each of Ford's monthly visits to
Sambir Ali had to go on board with a report
about the inhabitant of " Almayer's Folly." On
his first visit to Sambir, after Nina's departure.
Ford had taken charge of Almayer's affairs. They
were not cumbersome. The shed for the storage
of goods was empty, the boats had disappeared,
appropriated — generally in night-time — by various

A/mayer*s Folly. 265

citizens of Sambir in need of means of transport.
During a great flood the jetty of Lingard and Co.
left the bank and floated down the river, probably
in search of more cheerful surroundings ; even the
flock of geese — " the only geese on the east coast "
— departed somewhere, preferring the unknown
dangers of the bush to the desolation of their old
home. As time went on the grass grew over the
black patch of ground where the old house used
to stand, and nothing remained to mark the place
of the dwelling that had sheltered Almayer's
young hopes, his foolish dream of splendid future
his awakening, and his despair.

Ford did not often visit Almayer, for visiting
Almayer was not a pleasant task. At first he
used to respond listlessly to the old seaman's
boisterous inquiries about his health ; he even
made efforts to talk, asking for news in a voice
that made it perfectly clear that no news from this
world had any interest for him. Then gradually
he became more silent — not sulkily — but as if he
was forgetting how to speak. He used also to
hide in the darkest rooms of the house, where
Ford had to seek him out guided by the patter of
the monkey galloping before him. The monkey
was always there to receive and introduce Ford.
The little animal seemed to have taken complete
charge of its master, and whenever it wished for
his presence on the verandah it would tug perse-
veringly at his jacket, till Almayer obediently

266 Almayers Folly,

came out into the sunshine, which he seemed to
dislike so much.

One morning Ford found him sitting on the
floor of the verandah, his back against the wall,
his legs stretched stiffly out, his arms hanging by
his side. His expressionless face, his eyes open
wide with immobile pupils, and the rigidity of his
pose, made him look like an immense man-doll
broken and flung there out of the way. As Ford
came up the steps he turned his head slowly.

" Ford," he murmured from the floor, " I cannot

" Can't you ? " said Ford, innocently, with an
attempt at joviality : " I wish I was like you I
am losing my memory — age, I suppose ; only the
other day my mate "

He stopped, for Almayer had got up, stumbled,
and steadied himself on his friend's arm.

" Hallo ! You are better to-day. Soon be all
right," said Ford, cheerfully, but feeling rather

Almayer let go his arm and stood very straight
with his head up and shoulders thrown back, look-
ing stonily at the multitude of suns shining in
ripples of the river. His jacket and his loose
trousers flapped in the breeze on his thin limbs.

" Let her go ! " he whispered in a grating voice.
" Let her go. To-morrow I shall forget. I am a
firm man, . . . firm as a . . . rock, . . . firm . . ."

Ford looked at his face — and fled. The skipper

Almayers Folly. 267

was a tolerably firm man himself — as those who
had sailed with him could testify — but Almayer's
firmness was altogether too much for his fortitude.

Next time the steamer called in Sambir Ali
came on board early with a grievance. He com-
plained to Ford that Jim-Eng the Chinaman had
invaded Almayer's house, and actually had lived
there for the last month.

"And they both smoke," added Ali.

" Phew ! Opium, you mean ? "

Ali nodded, and Ford remained thoughtful ; then
he muttered to himself, " Poor devil ! The sooner
the better now." In the afternoon he walked up to
the house.

" What are you doing here ? " he asked of Jim-
Eng, whom he found strolling about on the

Jim-Eng explained in bad Malay, and speaking
in that monotonous, uninterested voice of an opium
smoker pretty far gone, that his house was old, the
roof leaked, and the floor was rotten. So, being
an old friend for many, many years, he took his
money, his opium, and two pipes, and came to live
in this big house.

" There is plenty of room. He smokes, and I
live here. He will not smoke long," he concluded.

" Where is he now ? " asked Ford.

" Inside. He sleeps," answered Jim-Eng, wearily.

Ford glanced in through the doorway. In the
dim light of the room he could see Almayer lying

268 Almayer's Folly.

on his back on the floor, his head on a wooden
pillow, the long white beard scattered over his
breast, the yellow skin of the face, the half-closed
eyelids showing the whites of the eye only. . . .

He shuddered and turned away. As he was
leaving he noticed a long strip of faded red silk,
with some Chinese letters on it, which Jim-Eng
had just fastened to one of the pillars.

"What's that?" he asked.

" That," said Jim-Eng, in his colourless voice,
" that is the name of the house. All the same
like my house. Very good name."

Ford looked at him for awhile and went away.
He did not know what the crazy-looking maze of
the Chinese inscription on the red silk meant.
Had he asked Jim-Eng, that patient Chinaman
would have informed him with proper pride that
its meaning was : " House of heavenly delight."

In the evening of the same day Babalatchi
called on Captain Ford. The captain's cabin
opened on deck, and Babalatchi sat astride on the
high step, while Ford smoked his pipe on the
settee inside. The steamer was leaving next
morning, and the old statesman came as usual for
a last chat.

"We had news from Bali last moon," re-
marked Babalatchi. " A grandson is born to the
old Rajah, and there is great rejoicing."

Ford sat up interested.

" Yes," went on Babalatchi, in answer to Ford's

Almayers Folly, 269

look. " I told him. That was before he began to

" Well, and what ? " asked Ford.

*• I escaped with my life," said Babalatchi, with
perfect gravity, " because the white man is very
weak and fell as he rushed upon me." Then, after
a pause, he added, " She is mad with joy."

" Mrs. Almayer, you mean ? "

" Yes, she lives in our Rajah's house. She will
not die soon. Such women live a long time," said
Babalatchi, with a slight tinge of regret in his
voice. " She has dollars, and she has buried them,
but we know where. We had much trouble with
those people. We had to pay a fine and listen to
threats from the white men, and now we have
to be careful." He sighed and remained silent
for a long while. Then with energy :

"There will be fighting. There is a breath ot
war on the islands. Shall I live long enough to
see ? . . . Ah, Tuan ! " he went on, more quietly,
"the old times were best. Even I have sailed
with Lanun men, and boarded in the night silent
ships with white sails. That was before an English
Rajah ruled in Kuching. Then we fought amongst
ourselves and were happy. Now when we fight
with you we can only die ! "

He rose to go. " Tuan," he said, "you remember
the girl that man Bulangi had ? Her that caused
all the trouble > "

" Yes," said Ford. « What of her ? "

270 Almayer*s Folly.

"She grew thin and could not work. Then
Bulangi, who is a thief and a pig-eater, gave her
to me for fifty dollars. I sent, her amongst my
women to grow fat. I wanted to hear the sound
of her laughter, but she must have been bewitched,
and . . . she died two days ago. Nay, Tuan.
Why do you speak bad words? I am old — that
is true — but why should I not like the sight of a
young face and the sound of a young voice in my
house ? " He paused, and then added with a little
mournful laugh, " I am like a white man talking
too much of what is not men's talk when they
speak to one another."

And he went off looking very sad.

'ik if: *

The crowd massed in a semicircle before the
steps of " Almayer's Folly," swayed silently back-
wards and forwards, and opened out before the
group of white-robed and turbaned men advancing
through the grass towards the house. Abdulla
walked first, supported by Reshid and followed by
all the Arabs in Sambir. As they entered the
lane made by the respectful throng there was a
subdued murmur of voices, where the word " Mati "
was the only one distinctly audible. Abdulla
stopped and looked round slowly.

"Is he dead ? " he asked.

" May you live ! " answered the crowd in one
shout, and then there succeeded a breathless

Almayer's Folly, 27 1

Abdulla made a few paces forward and found
himself for the last time face to face with his old
enemy. Whatever he might have been once he
was not dangerous now, lying stiff and lifeless in
the tender light of the early day. The only white
man on the east coast was dead, and his soul,
delivered from the trammels of his earthly folly,
stood now in the presence of Infinite Wisdom. On
the upturned face there was that serene look which
follows the sudden relief from anguish and pain,
and it testified silently before the cloudless heaven
that the man lying there under the gaze of in-
different eyes had been permitted to forget before
he died.

Abdulla looked down sadly at this Infidel he
had fought so long and had bested so many times.
Such was the reward of the Faithful ! Yet in the
Arab's old heart there was a feeling of regret for
that thing gone out of his life. He was leaving
fast behind him friendships, and enmities, successes,
and disappointments — all that makes up a life ;
and before him was only the end. Prayer would
fill up the remainder of the days allotted to the
True Believer! He took in his hand the beads
that hung at his waist.

" I found him here, like this, in the morning,"
said Ali, in a low and awed voice.

Abdulla glanced coldly once more at the serene

" Let us go," he said, addressing Reshid.

272 Almayer's Folly.

And as they passed through the crowd that fell
back before them, the beads in Abdulla's hand
clicked, while in a solemn whisper he breathed
out piously the name of Allah ! The Merciful !
The Compassionate !




a -"^



1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15

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