Joseph Conrad.

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

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he was a match for any of them — went on Baba-
latchi, with all the confidence of deficient expe-

1 1 4 Almayer's Folly.

rience. Probably the Dutch would seek Almayer.
Maybe they would take away their countryman
if they were suspicious of him. That would be
good. After the Dutch went away Lakamba and
Dain would get the treasure without any trouble,
and there would be one person less to share it.
Did he not speak wisdom ? Will Tuan Dain go
to Bulangi's house till the danger^is over, go at

Dain accepted this suggestion of going into
hiding with a certain sense of conferring a favour
upon Lakamba and the anxious statesman, but he
met the proposal of going at once with a decided
no, looking Babalatchi meaningly in the eye.
The statesman sighed as a man accepting the
inevitable would do, and pointed silently towards
the other bank of the river. Dain bent his head

" Yes, I am going there," he said.

" Before the day comes } " asked Babalatchi.

" I am going there now," answered Dain, de-
cisively. " The Orang Blanda will not be here
before to-morrow night, perhaps, and I must tell
Almayer of our arrangements."

" No, Tuan. No ; say nothing," protested Baba-
latchi. " I will go over myself at sunrise and let
him know."

" I will see," said Dain, preparing to go.

The thunderstorm was recommencing outside,
the heavy clouds hanging low overhead now.

Almayer's Folly. 1 1 5

There was a constant rumble of distant thunder
punctuated by the nearer sharp crashes, and in the
continuous play of blue lightning the woods and
the river showed fitfully, with all the elusive
distinctness of detail characteristic of such a
scene. Outside the door of the Rajah's house
Dain and Babalatchi stood on the shaking verandah
as if dazed and stunned by the violence of the
storm. They stood there amongst the cowering
forms of the Rajah's slaves and retainers seeking
shelter from the rain, and Dain called aloud to
his boatmen, who responded with an unanimous
" Ada ! Tuan ! " while they looked uneasily at the

" This is a great flood ! " shouted Babalatchi into
Dain's ear. " The river is very angry. Look !
Look at the drifting logs ! Can you go } "

Dain glanced doubtfully on the livid expanse
of seething water bounded far away on the other
side by the narrow black line of the forests.
Suddenly, in a vivid white flash, the low point of
land with the bending trees on it and Almayer's
house, leaped into view, flickered and disappeared.
Dain pushed Babalatchi aside and ran down to
the water-gate followed by his shivering boatmen.

Babalatchi backed slowly in and closed the
door, then turned round and looked silently upon
Lakamba. The Rajah sat still, glaring stonily
upon the table, and Babalatchi gazed curiously
at the perplexed mood of the man he had served

1 1 6 Almayers Folly,

so many years through good and evil fortune.
No doubt the one-eyed statesman felt within his
slavage and much sophisticated breast the un-
wonted feelings of sympathy with, and perhaps
even pity for, the man he called his master.
From the safe position of a confidential adviser, he
could, in the dim vista of past years, see himself —
a casual cut-throat — finding shelter under that
man's roof in the modest rice-clearing of early
beginnings. Then came a long period of unbroken
success, of wise counsels, and deep plottings
resolutely carried out by the fearless Lakamba, till
the whole east coast from Poulo Laut to Tanjong
Batu listened to Babalatchi's wisdom speaking
through the mouth of the ruler of Sambir. In
those long years how many dangers escaped, how
many enemies bravely faced, how many white
men successfully circumvented ! And now he
looked upon the result of so many years of
patient toil : the fearless Lakamba cowed by the
shadow of an impending trouble. The ruler was
growing old, and Babalatchi, aware of an uneasy
feeling at the pit of his stomach, put both his
hands there with a suddenly vivid and sad per-
ception of the fact that he himself was growing
old too ; that the time of reckless daring was
past for both of them, and that they had to seek
refuge in prudent cunning. They wanted peace ;
they were disposed to reform ; they were ready
even to retrench, so as to have the wherewithal to

Almayer's Folly, 1 1 7

bribe the evil days away, if bribed away they could
be. Babalatchi sighed for the second time that
night as he squatted again at his master's feet and
tendered him his betel-nut box in mute sympathy.
And they sat there in close yet silent communion
of betel-nut chewers, moving their jaws slowly,
expectorating decorously into the wide-mouthed
brass vessel they passed to one another, and
listening to the awful din of the battling elem»ents

" There is a very great flood," remarked Baba-
latchi, sadly.

" Yes," said Lakamba. " Did Dain go ? "

" He went, Tuan. He ran down to the river like
a man possessed of the Sheitan himself."

There was another long pause.

" He may get drowned," suggested Lakamba
at last, with some show of interest.

" The floating logs are many," answered Baba-
latchi, " but he is a good swimmer," he added

" He ought to live," said Lakamba ; " he knows
where the treasure is."

Babalatchi assented with an ill-humoured grunt.
His want of success in penetrating the white man's
secret as to the locality where the gold was to be
found was a sore point with the statesman of
Sambir, as the only conspicuous failure in an
otherwise brilliant career.

A great peace had now succeeded the turmoil

1 1 8 Almayer's Folly.

of the storm. Only the little belated clouds, which
hurried past overhead to catch up the main body
flashing silently in the distance, sent down short
showers that pattered softly with a soothing hiss
over the palm-leaf roof.

Lakamba roused himself from his apathy with an
appearance of having grasped the situation at last.

" Babalatchi," he called briskly, giving him a
slight kick.

" Ada Tuan ! I am listening."

" If the Orang Blanda come here, Babalatchi,
and take Almayer to Batavia to punish him for
smuggling gunpowder, what will he do, you

" I do not know, Tuan."

" You are a fool," commented Lakamba, exult-
ingly. " He will tell them where the treasure is,
so as to find mercy. He will."

Babalatchi looked up at his master and nodded
his head with by no means a joyful surprise.
He had not thought of this ; there was a new

" Almayer must die," said Lakamba, decisively,
" to make our secret safe. He must die quietly,
Babalatchi. You must do it."

Babalatchi assented, and rose wearily to his feet.
" To-morrow ? " he asked.

" Yes ; before the Dutch come. He drinks
much coffee," answered Lakamba, with seeming

Almayer's Folly ^ 119

Babalatchi stretched himself yawning, but
Lakamba, in the flattering consciousness of a
knotty problem solved by his own unaided in-
tellectual efforts, grew suddenly very wakeful.

"Babalatchi," he said to the exhausted states-
man, " fetch the box of music the white captain
gave me. I cannot sleep."

At this order a deep shade of melancholy
settled upon Babalatchi's features. He went
reluctantly behind the curtain and soon reappeared
carrying in his arms a small hand-organ, which
he put down on the table with an air of deep
dejection. Lakamba settled himself comfortably
in his arm-chair.

"Turn, Babalatchi, turn," he murmured, with
closed eyes.

Babalatchi's hand grasped the handle with the
energy of despair, and as he turned, the deep gloom
on his countenance changed into an expression of
hopeless resignation. Through the open shutter
the notes of Verdi's music floated out on the
great silence over the river and forest. Lakamba
listened with closed eyes and a delighted smile ;
Babalatchi turned, at times dozing off and swaying
over, then catching himself up in a great fright
with a few quick turns of the handle. Nature
slept in an exhausted repose after the fierce turmoil,
while under the unsteady hand of the statesman
of Sambir the Trovatore fitfully wept, wailed, and
bade good-bye to his Leonore again and again in
a mournful round of tearful and endless iteration.


The bright sunshine of the clear mistless morning,
after the stormy night, flooded the main path of
the settlement leading from the low shore of
the Pantai branch of the river to the gate of
Abdulla's compound. The path was deserted
this morning ; it stretched its dark yellow surface,
hard beaten by the tramp of many bare feet,
between the clusters of palm trees, whose tall
trunks barred it with strong black lines at irregular
intervals, while the newly risen sun threw the
shadows of their leafy heads far away over the
roofs of the buildings lining the river, even over
the river itself as it flowed swiftly and silently
past the deserted houses. For the houses were
deserted too. On the narrow strip of trodden
grass intervening between their open doors and
the road, the morning fires smouldered untended,
sending thin fluted columns of smoke into the
cool air, and spreading the thinnest veil of myste-
rious blue haze over the sunlit solitude of the
settlement. Almayer, just out of his hammock,

Almayer's Folly. 121

gazed sleepily at the unwonted appearance of
Sambir, wondering vaguely at the absence of life.
His own house was very quiet ; he could not
hear his wife's voice, nor the sound of Nina's
footsteps in the big room, opening on the verandah,
which he called his sitting-room, whenever, in the
company of white men, he wished to assert his
claims to the commonplace decencies of civilisa-
tion. Nobody ever sat there ; there was nothing
there to sit upon, for Mrs. Almayer in her savage
moods, when excited by the reminiscences of the
piratical period of her life, had torn off the curtains
to make sarongs for the slave-girls, and had burnt
the showy furniture piecemeal to cook the family
rice. But Almayer was not thinking of his
furniture now. He was thinking of Dain's return,
of Dain's nocturnal interview with Lakamba, of
its possible influence on his long-matured plans,
now nearing the period of their execution. He
was also uneasy at the non-appearance of Dain
who had promised him an early visit. " The fellow
had plenty of time to cross the river," he mused,
" and there was so much to be done to-day. The
settling of details for the early start on the morrow ;
the launching of the boats ; the thousand and one
finishing touches. For the expedition must start
complete, nothing should be forgotten, nothing

should "

The sense of the unwonted solitude grew upon
him suddenly, and in the unusual silence he

122 Almayers Folly,

caught himself longing even for the usually un-
welcome sound of his wife's voice to break the
oppressive stillness which seemed, to his frightened
fancy, to portend the advent of some new mis-
fortune. " What has happened ? " he muttered
half aloud, as he shuffled in his imperfectly
adjusted slippers towards the balustrade of the
verandah. " Is everybody asleep or dead ? "

The settlement was alive and very much awake.
It was awake ever since the early break of day,
when Mahmat Banjer, in a fit of unheard-of
energy, arose and, taking up his hatchet, stepped
over the sleeping forms of his two wives and
walked shivering to the water's edge to make sure
that the new house he was building had not floated
away during the night.

The house was being built by the enterprising
Mahmat on a large raft, and he had securely
moored it just inside the muddy point of land
at the junction of the two branches of the Pantai
so as to be out of the way of drifting logs that
would no doubt strand on the point during the
freshet. Mahmat walked through the wet grass
saying bourrouh, and cursing softly to himself the
hard necessities of active life that drove him from
his warm couch into the cold of the morning. A
glance showed him that his house was still there,
and he congratulated himself on his foresight in
hauling it out of harm's way, for the increasing
light showed him a confused wrack of drift-logs,

Almayer's Folly. 123

half-stranded on the muddy flat, interlocked into
a shapeless raft by their branches, tossing to and
fro and grinding together in the eddy caused by
the meeting currents of the two branches of the
river. Mahmat walked down to the water's edge
to examine the rattan moorings of his house just
as the sun cleared the trees of the forest on the
opposite shore. As he bent over the fastenings he
glanced again carelessly at the unquiet jumble of
logs and saw there something that caused him to
drop his hatchet and stand up, shading his eyes
with his hand from the rays of the rising sun. It
was something red, and the logs rolled over it, at
times closing round it, sometimes hiding it. It
looked to him at first like a strip of red cloth.
The next moment Mahmat had made it out and
raised a great shout.

" Ah ya 1 There ! " yelled Mahmat. " There's a
man amongst the logs." He put the palms of his
hand to his lips and shouted, enunciating distinctly,
his face turned towards the settlement : " There's
a body of a man in the river ! Come and see 1
A dead — stranger ! "

The women of the nearest house were already
outside kindling the fires and husking the morning
rice. They took up the cry shrilly, and it travelled
so from house to house, dying away in the distance.
The men rushed out excited but silent, and ran
towards the muddy point where the unconscious
logs tossed and ground and bumped and rolled

124 Almayer^s Folly.

over the dead stranger with the stupid persistency
of inanimate things. The women followed, neglect-
ing their domestic duties and disregarding the
possibilities of domestic discontent, while groups
of children brought up the rear, warbling joyously,
in the delight of unexpected excitement.

Almayer called aloud for his wife and daughter,
but receiving no response, stood listening intently.
The murmur of the crowd reached him faintly,
bringing with it the assurance of some unusual
event. He glanced at the river just as he was
going to leave the verandah and checked himself
at the sight of a small canoe crossing over from
the Rajah's landing-place. The solitary occupant
(in whom Almayer soon recognised Babalatchi)
effected the crossing a little below the house and
paddled up to the Lingard jetty in the dead water
under the bank. Babalatchi clambered out slowly
and went on fastening his canoe with fastidious
care, as if not in a hurry to meet Almayer, whom
he saw looking at him from the verandah. This
delay gave Almayer time to notice and greatly
wonder at Babalatchi's official get-up. The states-
man of Sambir was clad in a costume befitting his
high rank. A loudly checkered sarong encircled
his waist, and from its many folds peeped out the
silver hilt of the kriss that saw the light only on
great festivals or during official receptions. Over
the left shoulder and across the otherwise unclad
breast of the aged diplomatist glistened a patent

Almayer's Folly. 125

leather belt bearing a brass plate with the arms
of Netherlands under the inscription, " Sultan of
Sambir." Babalatchi's head was covered by a red
turban, whose fringed ends falling over the left
cheek and shoulder gave to his aged face a
ludicrous expression of joyous recklessness. When
the canoe was at last fastened to his satisfaction
he straightened himself up, shaking down the folds
of his sarong, and moved with long strides towards
Almayer's house, swinging regularly his long
ebony staff, whose gold head ornamented with
precious stones flashed in the morning sun.
Almayer waved his hand to the right towards
the point of land, to him invisible, but in full
view from the jetty.

"Oh, Babalatchi! oh!" he called out; "what
is the matter there ? can you see ? "

Babalatchi stopped and gazed intently at the
crowd on the river bank, and after a little while
the astonished Almayer saw him leave the path,
gather up his sarong in one hand, and break into
a trot through the grass towards the muddy point.
Almayer, now greatly interested, ran down the
steps of the verandah. The murmur of men's
voices and the shrill cries of women reached
him quite distinctly now, and as soon as he turned
the corner of his house he could see the crowd on
the low promontory swaying and pushing round
some object of interest. He could indistinctly
hear Babalatchi's voice, then the crowd opened

126 Almayers Folly,

before the aged statesman and closed after him
with an excited hum, ending in a loud shout.

As Almayer approached the throng a man ran
out and rushed past him towards the settlement,
unheeding his call to stop and explain the cause
of this excitement. On the very outskirts of the
crowd Almayer found himself arrested by an
unyielding mass of humanity, regardless of his
entreaties for a passage, insensible to his gentle
pushes as he tried to work his way through it
towards the riverside.

In the midst of his gentle and slow progress
he fancied suddenly he had heard his wife's voice
in the thickest of the throng. He could not
mistake very well Mrs. Almayer's high-pitched
tones, yet the words were too indistinct for him
to understand their purport. He paused in his
endeavours to make a passage for himself, intend-
ing to get some intelligence from those around
him, when a long and piercing shriek rent the air,
silencing the murmurs of the crowd and the voices
of his informants. For a moment Almayer
remained as if turned into stone with astonish-
ment and horror, for he was certain now that he
had heard his wife wailing for the dead. He
remembered Nina's unusual absence, and maddened
by his apprehensions as to her safety, he pushed
blindly and violently forward, the crowd falling
back with cries of surprise and pain before his
frantic advance.

Almayer's Folly. 127

On the point of land in a little clear space lay
the body of the stranger just hauled out from
amongst the logs. On one side stood Babalatchi,
his chin resting on the head of his staff and his
one eye gazing steadily at the shapeless mass of
broken limbs, torn flesh, and bloodstained rags.
As Almayer burst through the ring of horrified
spectators, Mrs. Almayer threw her own head-veil
over the upturned face of the drowned man, and,
squatting by it, with another mournful howl, sent
a shiver through the now silent crowd. Mahmat,
dripping wet, turned to Almayer, eager to tell
his tale.

In the first moment of reaction from the anguish
of his fear the sunshine seemed to waver before
Almayer's eyes, and he listened to words spoken
around him without comprehending their meaning.
When, by a strong effort of will, he regained the
possession of his senses, Mahmat was saying —

"That is the way, Tuan. His sarong was
caught in the broken branch, and he hung with
his head under water. When I saw what it was
I did not want it here. I wanted it to get clear
and drift away. Why should we bury a stranger
in the midst of our houses for his ghost to frighten
our women and children? Have we not enough
ghosts about this place?"

A murmur of approval interrupted him here.
Mahmat looked reproachfully at Babalatchi.

" But the Tuan Babalatchi ordered me to drag

128 Almayers Folly.

the body ashore " — he went on looking round at
his audience, but addressing himself only to
Almayer — " and I dragged him by the feet ; in
through the mud I have dragged him, although
my heart longed to see him float down the river
to strand perchance on Bulangi*s clearing — may
his father's grave be defiled ! "

There was subdued laughter at this, for the
enmity of Mahmat and Bulangi was a matter of
common notoriety and of undying interest to the
inhabitants of Sambir. In the midst of that mirth
Mrs. Almayer wailed suddenly again.

" Allah ! What ails the woman ! " exclaimed
Mahmat, angrily. " Here, I have touched this
carcass which came from nobody knows where,
and have most likely defiled myself before eating
rice. By orders of Tuan Babalatchi I did this
thing to please the white man. Are you pleased,
O Tuan Almayer ? And what will be my recom-
pense } Tuan Babalatchi said a recompense there
will be, and from you. Now consider. I have
been defiled, and if not defiled I may be under
the spell. Look at his anklets ! Who ever heard
of a corpse appearing during the night amongst
the logs with gold anklets on its legs ? There is
witchcraft there. However," added Mahmat, after
a reflective pause, " I will have the anklet if there
is permission, for I have a charm against the
ghosts and am not afraid. God is great!"

A fresh outburst of noisy grief from Mrs. Almayer

Almayers Folly, 129

checked the flow of Mahmat's eloquence. Almayer,
bewildered, looked in turn at his wife, at Mahmat,
at Babalatchi, and at last arrested his fascinated
gaze on the body lying on the mud with covered
face in a grotesquely unnatural contortion of
mangled and broken limbs, one twisted and lacer-
ated arm, with white bones protruding in many
places through the torn flesh, stretched out ; the
hand with outspread fingers nearly touching his

" Do you know who this is ? " he asked of
Babalatchi, in a low voice.

Babalatchi, staring straight before him, hardly
moved his lips, while Mrs. Almayer's persistent
lamentations drowned the whisper of his mur-
mured reply intended only for Almayer's ear.

" It was fate. Look at your feet, white man. I
can see a ring on those torn fingers which I know

Saying this, Babalatchi stepped carelessly for-
ward, putting his foot as if accidentally on the
hand of the corpse and pressing it into the soft
mud. He swung his staff menacingly towards the
crowd, which fell back a little.

" Go away," he said sternly, " and send your
women to their cooking fires, which they ought not
to have left to run after a dead stranger. This is
men's work here. I take him now in the name of
the Rajah. Let no man remain here but Tuan
Almayer's slaves. Now go ! "


130 Almayer's Folly,

The crowd reluctantly began to disperse. The
women went first, dragging away the children that
hung back with all their weight on the maternal
hand. The men strolled slowly after them in ever
forming and changing groups that gradually dis-
solved as they neared the settlement and every
man regained his own house with steps quickened
by the hungry anticipation of the morning rice.
Only on the slight elevation where the land sloped
down towards the muddy point a few men, either
friends or enemies of Mahmat, remained gazing
curiously for some time longer at the small group
standing around the body on the river bank.

" I do not understand what you mean, Babalatchi,"
said Almayer. " What is the ring you are talking
about? Whoever he is, you have trodden the
poor fellow's hand right into the mud. Uncover
his face," he went on, addressing Mrs. Almayer,
who, squatting by the head of the corpse, rocked
herself to and fro, shaking from time to time her
dishevelled grey locks, and muttering mournfully.

" Hai ! " exclaimed Mahmat, who had lingered
close by. " Look, Tuan ; the logs came together
so," and here he pressed the palms of his hands
together, " and his head must have been between
them, and now there is no face for you to look at.
There are his flesh and his bones, the nose, and
the lips, and maybe his eyes, but nobody could
tell the one from the other. It was written the
day he was born that no man could look at him in

Almayers Folly. 131

death and be able to say, *This is my friend's

" Silence, Mahmat ; enough ! " said Babalatchi,
"and take thy eyes off his anklet, thou eater of
pigs flesh. Tuan Almayer," he went on, lowering
his voice, " have you seen Dain this morning } "

Almayer opened his eyes wide and looked
alarmed. " No," he said quickly ; " haven't you
seen him ? Is he not with the Rajah ? I am
waiting ; why does he not come ? "

Babalatchi nodded his head sadly.

"He is come, Tuan. He left last night when
the storm was great and the river spoke angrily.
The night was very black, but he had within him
a light that showed the way to your house as
smooth as a narrow backwater, and the many logs
no bigger than wisps of dried grass. Therefore he
went ; and now he lies here." And Babalatchi
nodded his head towards the body.

" How can you tell } " said Almayer, excitedly,
pushing his wife aside. He snatched the cover off
and looked at the formless mass of flesh, hair, and
drying mud, where the face of the drowned man
should have been. " Nobody can tell," he added,
turning away with a shudder.

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Online LibraryJoseph ConradAlmayer's folly : a story of an eastern river → online text (page 7 of 15)