Joseph Conrad.

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

. (page 3 of 15)
Online LibraryJoseph ConradAlmayer's folly : a story of an eastern river → online text (page 3 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


and now stood clustered by the palings with
half-covered faces in a chatter of curious specula-
tion. He forgot himself there trying to catch a
stray word through the bamboo walls, till the
captain of the steamer, who had walked up with
the girl, fearing a sunstroke, took him under the
arm and led him into the shade of his own
verandah where Nina's trunk stood already, having
been landed by the steamer's men. As soon as
Captain Ford had his glass before him and his
cheroot lighted, Almayer asked for the explanation
of his daughter's unexpected arrival. Ford said
little beyond generalising in vague but violent
terms upon the foolishness of women in general,
and of Mrs. Vinck in particular.

" You know, Kaspar," said he, in conclusion, to
the excited Almayer, " it is deuced ly awkward to



Almayers Folly 43

have a half-caste girl in the house. There's such
a lot of fools about. There was that young fellow
from the bank who used to ride to the Vinck
bungalow early and late. That old woman thought
it was for that Emma of hers. When she found
out what he wanted exactly, there was a row, I
can tell you. She would not have Nina — not
an hour longer — in the house. Fact is, I heard
of this affair and took the girl to my wife. My
wife is a pretty good woman — as women go — and
upon my word we would have kept the girl for
you, only she would not stay. Now, then ! Don't
flare up, Kaspar. Sit still. What can you do t
It is better so. Let her stay with you. She was
never happy over there. Those two Vinck girls
are no better than dressed-up monkeys. They
slighted her. You can't make her white. It's
no use you swearing at me. You can't. She is
a good girl for all that, but she would not tell
my wife anything. If you want to know, ask
her yourself; but if I was you I would leave
her alone. You are welcome to her passage
money, old fellow, if you are short now." And
the skipper, throwing away his cigar, walked off
to " wake them up on board," as he expressed it.
Almayer vainly expected to hear of the cause
of his daughter's return from his daughter's lips.
Not that day, not on any other day did she ever
allude to her Singapore life. He did not care
to ask, awed by the calm impassiveness of her



44 Almayer's Folly.

face, by those solemn eyes looking past him on
the great, still forests sleeping in majestic repose
to the murmur of the broad river. He accepted
the situation, happy in the gentle and protecting
affection the girl showed him, fitfully enough,
for she had, as she called it, her bad days when
she used to visit her mother and remain long hours
in the riverside hut, coming out as inscrutable as
ever, but with a contemptuous look and a short
word ready to answer any of his speeches. He
got used even to that, and on those days kept
quiet, although greatly alarmed by his wife's in-
fluence upon the girl. Otherwise Nina adapted
herself wonderfully to the circumstances of a half-
savage and miserable life. She accepted without
question or apparent disgust the neglect, the decay,
the poverty of the household, the absence of
furniture, and the preponderance of rice diet on
the family table. She lived with Almayer in the
little house (now sadly decaying) built originally
by Lingard for the young couple. The Malays
eagerly discussed her arrival. There were at the
beginning crowded levees of Malay women with
their children, seeking eagerly after " Ubat " for
all the ills of the flesh from the young Mem Putih.
In the cool of the evening grave Arabs in long
white shirts and yellow sleeveless jackets walked
slowly on the dusty path by the riverside towards
Almayer's gate, and made solemn calls upon that
Unbeliever under shallow pretences of business,



Almayers Folly. 45

only to get a glimpse of the young girl in a highly
decorous manner. Even Lakamba came out of
his stockade in a great pomp of war canoes and
red umbrellas, and landed on the rotten little jetty
of Lingard and Co. He came, he said, to buy a
couple of brass guns as a present to his friend the
chief of Sambir Dyaks ; and while Almayer, sus-
picious but polite, busied himself in unearthing
the old popguns in the godowns, the Rajah sat on
an armchair in the verandah, surrounded by his
respectful retinue waiting in vain for Nina's ap-
pearance. She was in one of her bad days, and
remained in her mother's hut watching with her
the ceremonious proceedings on the verandah.
The Rajah departed, baffled but courteous, and
soon Almayer began to reap the benefit of im-
proved relations with the ruler in the shape of the
recovery of some debts, paid to him with many
apologies and many a low salaam by debtors
till then considered hopelessly insolvent. Under
these improving circumstances Almayer brightened
up a little. All was not lost perhaps. Those
Arabs and Malays saw at last that he was a man
of some ability, he thought. And he began,
after his manner, to plan great things, to dream
of great fortunes for himself and Nina. Especially
for Nina ! Under these vivifying impulses he
asked Captain Ford to write to his friends in
England making inquiries after Lingard. Was he
alive or dead? If dead, had he left any papers,



46 Almayer's Folly,

documents ; any indications or hints as to his
great enterprise? Meantime he had found amongst
the rubbish in one of the empty rooms a note-
book belonging to the old adventurer. He studied
the crabbed handwriting of its pages and often grew
meditative over it. Other things also woke him up
from his apathy. The stir made in the whole of the
island by the establishment of the British Borneo
Company affected even the sluggish flow of the
Pantai life. Great changes were expected ; annex-
ation was talked of; the Arabs grew civil. Almayer
began building his new house for the use of the
future engineers, agents, or settlers of the new
Company. He spent every available guilder on
it with a confiding heart. One thing only disturbed
his happiness : his wife came out of her seclusion,
importing her green jacket, scant sarongs, shrill
voice, and witch-like appearance, into his quiet life
in the small bungalow. And his daughter seemed
to accept that savage intrusion into their daily
existence with wonderful equanimity. He did not
like it, but dared say nothing.



CHAPTER III.

The deliberations conducted in London have a
far-reaching importance, and so the decision
issued from the fog-veiled offices of the Borneo
Company darkened for Almayer the brilliant
sunshine of the Tropics, and added another drop
of bitterness to the cup of his disenchantments.
The claim to that part of the East Coast was
abandoned, leaving the Pantai river under the
nominal power of Holland. In Sambir there was
joy and excitement. The slaves were hurried out
of sight into the forest and jungle, and the flags
were run up to tall poles in the Rajah's compound
in expectation of a visit from Dutch man-of-war
boats.

The frigate remained anchored outside the mouth
of the river, and the boats came up in tow of
the steam launch, threading their way cautiously
amongst a crowd of canoes filled with gaily dressed
Malays. The officer in command listened gravely
to the loyal speeches of Lakamba, returned the
salaams of Abdulla, and assured those gentlemen

47



48 Almayer's Folly,

in choice Malay of the great Rajah's— down in
Batavia — friendship and goodwill towards the
ruler and inhabitants of this model state of
Sambir.

Almayer from his verandah watched across
the river the festive proceedings, heard the report
of brass guns saluting the new flag presented to
Lakamba, and the deep murmur of the crowd of
spectators surging round the stockade. The smoke
of the firing rose in white clouds on the green
background of the forests, and he could not help
comparing his own fleeting hopes to the rapidly
disappearing vapour. He was by no means
patriotically elated by the event, yet he had to
force himself into a gracious behaviour when, the
official reception being over, the naval officers of
the Commission crossed the river to pay a visit
to the solitary white man of whom they had
heard, no doubt wishing also to catch a glimpse
of his daughter. In that they were disappointed,
Nina refusing to show herself; but they seemed
easily consoled by the gin and cheroots set before
them by the hospitable Almayer; and sprawling
comfortably on the lame armchairs under the
shade of the verandah, while the blazing sunshine
outside seemed to set the great river simmering
in the heat, they filled the little bungalow with
the unusual sounds of European languages, with
noise and laughter produced by naval witticisms
at the expense of the fat Lakamba whom they



Almayer's Folly, 49

had been complimenting so much that very morn-
ing. The younger men in an access of good
fellowship made their host talk, and Almayer,
excited by the sight of European faces, by the
sound of European voices, opened his heart before
the sympathising strangers, unaware of the amuse-
ment the recital of his many misfortunes caused
to those future admirals. They drank his health,
wished him many big diamonds and a mountain
of gold, expressed even an envy of the high
destinies awaiting him yet. Encouraged by so
much friendliness, the grey-headed and foolish
dreamer invited his guests to visit his new house.
They went there through the long grass in a
straggling procession while their boats were got
ready for the return down the river in the cool of
the evening. And in the great empty rooms
where the tepid wind entering through the sashless
windows whirled gently the dried leaves and the
dust of many days of neglect, Almayer in his
white jacket and flowered sarong, surrounded by
a circle of glittering uniforms, stamped his foot
to show the solidity of the neatly-fitting floors and
expatiated upon the beauties and convenience of
the building. They listened and assented, amazed
by the wonderful simplicity and the foolish hope-
fulness of the man, till Almayer, carried away by
his excitement, disclosed his regret at the non-
arrival of the English, " who knew how to develop
a rich country," as he expressed it. There was

4



so Almayers Folly,

a general laugh amongst the Dutch officers at
that unsophisticated statement, and a move was
made towards the boats ; but when Almayer,
stepping cautiously on the rotten boards of the
Lingard jetty, tried to approach the chief of the
Commission with some timid hints anent the pro-
tection required by the Dutch subject against the
wily Arabs, that salt water diplomat told him
significantly that the Arabs were better subjects
than Hollanders who dealt illegally in gunpowder
with the Malays. The innocent Almayer recog-
nised there at ^once the oily tongue of Abdulla
and the solemn persuasiveness of Lakamba, but
ere he had time to frame an indignant protest
the steam launch and the string of boats moved
rapidly down the river leaving him on the jetty,
standing open-mouthed in his surprise and anger.
There are thirty miles of river from Sambir to the
gem-like islands of the estuary where the frigate
was awaiting the return of the boats. The moon
rose long before the boats had traversed half that
distance, and the black forest sleeping peacefully
under her cold rays woke up that night to the
ringing laughter in the small flotilla provoked by
some reminiscence of Almayer's lamentable narra-
tive. Salt-water jests at the poor man's expense
were passed from boat to boat, the non-appearance
of his daughter was commented upon with severe
displeasure, and the half-finished house built for
the reception of Englishmen received on that



Almayers Folly, 51

joyous night the name of " Almayer's Folly " by
the unanimous vote of the lighthearted seamen.

For many weeks after this visit life in Sambir
resumed its even and uneventful flow. Each day's
sun shooting its morning rays above the tree-tops
lit up the usual scene of daily activity. Nina
walking on the path that formed the only street in
the settlement saw the accustomed sight of men
lolling on the shady side of the houses, on the high
platforms ; of women busily engaged in husking
the daily rice ; of naked brown children racing
along the shady and narrow paths leading to the
clearings. Jim-Eng, strolling before his house,
greeted her with a friendly nod before climbing up
indoors to seek his beloved opium pipe. The elder
children clustered round her, daring from long
acquaintance, pulling the skirts of her white robe
with their dark fingers, and showing their brilliant
teeth in expectation of a shower of glass beads.
She greeted them with a quiet smile, but always
had a few friendly words for a Siamese girl,
a slave owned by Bulangi, whose numerous wives
were said to be of a violent temper. Well-
founded rumour said also that the domestic
squabbles of that industrious cultivator ended
generally in a combined assault of all his wives
upon the Siamese slave. The girl herself never
complained — perhaps from dictates of prudence,
but more likely through the strange, resigned
apathy of half-savage womankind. From early



52 Almayers Folly,

morning she was to be seen on the paths amongst
the houses — by the riverside or on the jetties, the
tray of pastry, it was her mission to sell, skilfully
balanced on her head. During the great heat of
the day she usually sought refuge in Almayer's
campong, often finding shelter in a shady corner
of the verandah, where she squatted with her tray
before her, when invited by Nina. For " Mem
Putih " she had always a smile, but the presence of
Mrs. Almayer, the very sound of her shrill voice,
was the signal for a hurried departure.

To this girl Nina often spoke ; the other in-
habitants of Sambir seldom or never heard the
sound of her voice. They got used to the silent
figure moving in their midst calm and white-robed,
a being from another world and incomprehensible
to them. Yet Nina's life for all her outward com-
posure, for all the seeming detachment from the
things and people surrounding her, was far from
quiet, in consequence of Mrs. Almayer being much
too active for the happiness and even safety of the
household. She had resumed some intercourse
with Lakamba, not personally, it is true (for
the dignity of that potentate kept him inside his
stockade), but through the agency of that poten-
tate's prime minister, harbour master, financial
adviser, and general factotum. That gentleman —
of Sulu origin — was certainly endowed with states-
manlike qualities, although he was totally devoid
of personal charms. In truth he was perfectly



Almayers Folly. 53

repulsive, possessing only one eye and a pock-
marked face, with nose and lips horribly disfigured
by the small-pox. This unengaging individual
often strolled into Almayer's garden in unofficial
costume, composed of a piece of pink calico
round his waist. There at the back of the
house, squatting on his heels on scattered embers,
in close proximity to the great iron boiler, where
the family daily rice was being cooked by the
women under Mrs. Almayer's superintendence,
did that astute negotiator carry on long conversa-
tions in Sulu language with Almayer's wife.
What the subject of their discourses was might
have been guessed from the subsequent domestic
scenes by Almayer's hearthstone.

Of late Almayer had taken to excursions up the
river. In a small canoe with two paddlers and the
faithful Ali for a steersman he would disappear
for a few days at a time. All his movements were
no doubt closely watched by Lakamba and
Abdulla, for the man once in the confidence of
Rajah Laut was supposed to be in possession of
valuable secrets. The coast population of Borneo
believes implicitly in diamonds of fabulous value,
in gold mines of enormous richness in the interior.
And all those imaginings are heightened by the
difficulty of penetrating far inland, especially on
the north-east coast, where the Malays and the
river tribes of Dyaks or Head - hunters are
eternally quarrelling. It is true enough that some



54 Almayers Folly.

gold reaches the coast in the hands of those
Dyaks when, during short periods of truce in the
desultory warfare, they visit the coast settlements
of Malays. And so the wildest exaggerations are
built up and added to on the slight basis of that
fact.

Almayer in his quality of white man — as
Lingard before him — had somewhat better re-
lations with the up-river tribes. Yet even his
excursions were not without danger, and his re-
turns were eagerly looked for by the impatient
Lakamba. But every time the Rajah was dis-
appointed. Vain were the conferences by the
rice-pot of his factotum Babalatchi with the
white man's wife. The white man himself was
impenetrable — impenetrable to persuasion, coax-
ing, abuse ; to soft words and shrill revilings ; to
desperate beseechings or murderous threats ; for
Mrs. Almayer, in her extreme desire to persuade
her husband into an alliance with Lakamba, played
upon the whole gamut of passion. With her soiled
robe wound tightly under the armpits across her
lean bosom, her scant grayish hair tumbled in
disorder over her projecting cheek-bones, in sup-
pliant attitude, she depicted with shrill volubility
the advantages of close union with a man so good
and so fair dealing.

"Why don't you go to the Rajah?" she
screamed. " Why do you go back to those Dyaks
in the great forest ? They should be killed. You



Almayers Folly, ^$

cannot kill them, you cannot ; but our Rajah's
men are brave ! You tell the Rajah where the old
white man's treasure is. Our Rajah is good ! He
is our very grandfather, Datu Besar ! He will
kill those wretched Dyaks, and you shall have
half the treasure. Oh, Kaspar, tell where the
treasure is ! Tell me ! Tell me out of the old
man's surat where you read so often at night"

On those occasions Almayer sat with rounded
shoulders bending to the blast of this domestic
tempest, accentuating only each pause in the
torrent of his wife's eloquence by an angry growl,
"There is no treasure! Go away, woman!"
Exasperated by the sight of his patiently bent
back, she would at last walk round so as to face
him across the table, and clasping her robe with
one hand she stretched the other lean arm and
claw-like hand to emphasise, in a passion of anger
and contempt, the rapid rush of scathing remarks
and bitter cursings heaped on the head of the man
unworthy to associate with brave Malay chiefs.
It ended generally by Almayer rising slowly, his
long pipe in hand, his face set into a look of
inward pain, and walking away in silence. He
descended the steps and plunged into the long
grass on his way to the solitude of his new
house, dragging his feet in a state of physical
collapse from disgust and fear before that fury.
She followed to the head of the steps, and sent
the shafts of indiscriminate abuse after the re-



56 Almayers Folly,

treating form. And each of those scenes was
concluded by a piercing shriek, reaching him far
away. " You know, Kaspar, I am your wife ! your
own Christian wife after your own Blanda law ! "
For she knew that this was the bitterest thing of
all ; the greatest regret of that man's life.

All these scenes Nina witnessed unmoved. She
might have been deaf, dumb, without any feeling
as far as any expression of opinion went. Yet oft
when her father had sought the refuge of the great
dusty rooms of " Almayer's Folly," and her mother,
exhausted by rhetorical efforts, squatted wearily on
her heels with her back against the leg of the
table, Nina would approach her curiously, guarding
her skirts from betel juice besprinkling the floor,
and gaze down upon her as one might look into
the quiescent crater of a volcano after a destructive
eruption. Mrs. Almayer's thoughts, after these
scenes, were usually turned into a channel of
childhood reminiscences, and she gave them utter-
ance in a kind of monotonous recitative — slightly
disconnected, but generally describing the glories
of the Sultan of Sulu, his great splendour, his
power, his great prowess ; the fear which
benumbed the hearts of white men at the sight
of his swift piratical praus. And these muttered
statements of her grandfather's might were mixed
up with bits of later recollections, where the great
fight with the "White Devil's" brig and the
convent life in Samarang occupied the principal



Almayer*s Folly, 57

place. At that point she usually dropped the
thread of her narrative, and pulling out the little
brass cross, always suspended round her neck, she
contemplated it with superstitious awe. That
superstitious feeling connected with some vague
talismanic properties of the little bit of metal, and
the still more hazy but terrible notion of some bad
Djinns and horrible torments invented, as she
thought, for her especial punishment by the good
Mother Superior in case of the loss of the above
charm, were Mrs. Almayer's only theological
luggage for the stormy road of life. Mrs.
Almayer had at least something tangible to
cling to, but Nina, brought up under the
Protestant wing of the proper Mrs. Vinck, had
not even a little piece of brass to remind her of
past teaching. And listening to the recital of
those savage glories, those barbarous fights and
savage feasting, to the story of deeds valorous,
albeit somewhat bloodthirsty, where men of her
mother's race shone far above the Orang Blanda,
she felt herself irresistibly fascinated, and saw with
vague surprise the narrow mantle of civilised
morality, in which good - meaning people had
wrapped her young soul, fall away and leave her
shivering and helpless as if on the edge of some
deep and unknown abyss. Strangest of all, this
abyss did not frighten her when she was under the
influence of the witch-like being she called her
mother. She seemed to have forgotten in civi-



58 Almayers Folly,

Used surroundings her life before the time when
Lingard had, so to speak, kidnapped her from
Brow. Since then she had had Christian teaching,
social education, and a good glimpse of civilised
life. Unfortunately her teachers did not under-
stand her nature, and the education ended in a
scene of humiliation, in an outburst of contempt
from white people for her mixed blood. She had
tasted the whole bitterness of it and remembered
distinctly that the virtuous Mrs. Vinck's indigna-
tion was not so much directed against the young
man from the bank as against the innocent cause
of that young man's infatuation. And there was
also no doubt in her mind that the principal cause
of Mrs. Vinck's indignation was the thought that
such a thing should happen in a white nest, where
her snow-white doves, the two Misses Vinck, had
just returned from Europe, to find shelter under
the maternal wing, and there await the coming of
irreproachable men of their destiny. Not even
the thought of the money so painfully scraped
together by Almayer, and so punctually sent for
Nina's expenses, could dissuade Mrs. Vinck from
her virtuous resolve. Nina was sent away, and in
truth the girl herself wanted to go, although a
little frightened by the impending change. And
now she had lived on the river for three years with
a savage mother and a father walking about
amongst pitfalls, with his head in the clouds,
weak, irresolute, and unhappy. She had lived a



Almayer^s Folly, 59

life devoid of all the decencies of civilisation, in
miserable domestic conditions ; she had breathed
in the atmosphere of sordid plottings for gain,
of the no less disgusting intrigues and crimes for
lust or money ; and those things, together with the
domestic quarrels, were the only events of her three
years' existence. She ! did not die from despair
and disgust the first month, as she expected and
almost hoped for. On the contrary, at the end
of half a year it had seemed to her that she had
known no other life. Her^' young mind having
been unskilfully permitted to glance at better
things, and then thrown back again into the
hopeless quagmire of barbarism, full of strong' and
uncontrolled passions, had lost the power to
discriminate. It seemed to Nina that there was
no change and no difference. Whether they
traded in brick godowns or on the muddy river
bank ; whether they reached after much or little ;
whether they made love under the shadows of the
great trees or in the shadow of the cathedral on
the Singapore promenade ; whether they plotted
for their own ends under the protection of laws
and according to the rules of Christian conduct,
or whether they sought the gratification of their
desires with the savage cunning and the un-
restrained fierceness of natures as innocent of


1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryJoseph ConradAlmayer's folly : a story of an eastern river → online text (page 3 of 15)