Joseph Conrad.

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

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Babalatchi was on his knees wiping the mud
from the stiffened fingers of the outstretched hand.
He rose to his feet and flashed before Almayer's
eyes a gold ring set with a large green stone.

" You know this well," he said. " This never left



132 Almayer's Folly,

Dain's hand. I had to tear the flesh now to get it
off. Do you believe now ? "

Almayer raised his hands to his head and let
them fall listlessly by his side in the utter aban-
donment of despair. Babalatchi, looking at him
curiously, was astonished to see him smile. A
strange fancy had taken possession of Almayer's
brain, distracted by this new misfortune. It seemed
to him that for many years he had been falling into
a deep precipice. Day after day, month after
month, year after year, he had been falling, falling,
falling ; it was a smooth, round, black thing, and
the black walls had been rushing upwards with
wearisome rapidity. A great rush, the noise of
which he fancied he could hear yet ; and now,
with an awful shock, he had reached the bottom,
and behold ! he was alive and whole, and Dain
was dead with all his bones broken. It struck
him as funny. A dead Malay ; he had seen many
dead Malays without any emotion ; and now he
felt inclined to weep, but it was over the fate of a
white man he knew ; a man that fell over a deep
precipice and did not die. He seemed somehow
to himself to be standing on one side, a little way
off, looking at a certain Almayer who was in great
trouble. Poor, poor fellow ! Why doesn't he cut
his throat } He wished to encourage him ; he was
very anxious to see him lying dead over that other
corpse. Why does he not die and end this suffering?
He groaned aloud unconsciously and started with



Almayers Folly. 133

affright at the sound of his own voice. Was he
going mad ? Terrified by the thought he turned
away and ran towards his house repeating to
himself, " I am not going mad ; of course not, no,
no, no ! " He tried to keep a firm hold of the idea.
Not mad, not mad. He stumbled as he ran
blindly up the steps repeating fast and ever faster
those words wherein seemed to lie his salvation.
He saw Nina standing there, and wished to say
something to her, but could not remember what,
in his extreme anxiety not to forget that he was
not going mad, which he still kept repeating men-
tally as he ran round the table, till he stumbled
against one of the arm-chairs and dropped into it
exhausted. He sat staring wildly at Nina, still
assuring himself mentally of his own sanity and
wondering why the girl shrank from him in open-
eyed alarm. What was the matter with her ? This
was foolish. He struck the table violently with
his clenched fist and shouted hoarsely, " Give me
some gin ! Run ! " Then, while Nina ran off, he
remained in the chair, very still and quiet, astonished
at the noise he had made.

Nina returned with a tumbler half filled with
gin, and found her father staring absently before
him. Almayer felt very tired now, as if he had
come from a long journey. He felt as if he had
walked miles and miles that morning and now
wanted to rest very much. He took the tumbler
with a shaking hand, and as he drank his teeth



134 Almayer's Folly,

chattered against the glass which he drained and
set down heavily on the table. He turned his eyes
slowly towards Nina standing beside him, and said
steadily —

" Now all is over, Nina. He is dead, and I may
as well burn all my boats."

He felt very proud of being able to speak so
calmly. Decidedly he was not going mad. This
certitude was very comforting, and he went on
talking about the finding of the body, listening to
his own voice complacently. Nina stood quietly,
her hand resting lightly on her father's shoulder,
her face unmoved, but every line of her features,
the attitude of her whole body expressing the most
keen and anxious attention.

"And so Dain is dead," she said coldly, when
her father ceased speaking.

Almayer's elaborately calm demeanour gave
way in a moment to an outburst of violent
indignation.

" You stand there as if you were only half alive,
and talk to me," he exclaimed angrily, "as if it
was a matter of no importance. Yes, he is
dead ! Do you understand } Dead ! What do
you care ? You never cared ; you saw me struggle,
and work, and strive, unmoved ; and my suffering
you could never see. No, never. You have no
heart, and you have no mind, or you would have
understood that it was for you, for your happiness
I was working. I wanted to be rich ; I wanted to



Almayers Folly, 135

get away from here. I wanted to see white men
bowing low before the power of your beauty and
your wealth. Old as I am I wished to seek a
strange land, a civilisation to which I am a stranger,
so as to find a new life in the contemplation of
your high fortunes, of your triumphs, of your
happiness. For that I bore patiently the burden
of work, of disappointment, of humiliation amongst
these savages here, and I had it all nearly in my
grasp."

He looked at his daughter's attentive face and
jumped to his feet upsetting the chair.

" Do you hear ? I had it all there ; so ; within
reach of my hand."

He paused, trying to keep down his rising
anger, and failed.

" Have you no feeling ? " he went on. " Have you
lived without hope?" Nina's silence exasperated
him ; his voice rose, although he tried to master his
feelings.

" Are you content to live in this misery and die
in this wretched hole } Say something, Nina ;
have you no sympathy ? Have you no word of
comfort for me? I that loved you so."

He waited for a while for an answer, and re-
ceiving none shook his fist in his daughter's face.

" I believe you are an idiot ! " he yelled.

He looked round for the chair, picked it up and
sat down stiffly. His anger was dead within him,
and he felt ashamed of his outburst, yet relieved



136 Almayer's Folly.

to think that now he had laid clear before his
daughter the inner meaning of his life. He thought
so in perfect good faith, deceived by the emotional
estimate of his motives, unable to see the crooked-
ness of his ways, the unreality of his aims, the
futility of his regrets. And now his heart was
filled only with a great tenderness and love for his
daughter. He wanted to see her miserable, and
to share with her his despair ; but he wanted it
only as all weak natures long for a companion-
ship in misfortune with beings innocent of its cause.
If she suffered herself she would understand and
pity him ; but now she would not, or could not,
find one word of comfort or love for him in his
dire extremity. The sense of his absolute loneli-
ness came home to his heart with a force that
made him shudder. He swayed and fell forward
with his face on the table, his arms stretched
straight out, extended and rigid. Nina made a
quick movement towards her father and stood
looking at the grey head, on the broad shoulders
shaken convulsively by the violence of feelings that
found relief at last in sobs and tears.

Nina sighed deeply and moved away from the
table. Her features lost the appearance of stony
indifference that had exasperated her father into
his outburst of anger and sorrow. The expression
of her face, now unseen by her father, underwent a
rapid change. She had listened to Almayer's appeal
for sympathy, for one word of comfort, apparently



Almayer's Folly, 137

indifferent, yet with her breast torn by conflicting
impulses raised unexpectedly by events she had
not foreseen, or at least did not expect to happen so
soon. With her heart deeply moved by the sight
of Almayer's misery, knowing it in her power to
end it with a word, longing to bring peace to that
troubled heart, she heard with terror the voice of
her overpowering love commanding her to be
silent. And she submitted after a short and fierce
struggle of her old self against the new principle of
her life. She wrapped herself up in absolute silence,
the only safeguard against some fatal admission.
She could not trust herself to make a sign, to
murmur a word for fear of saying too much ; and
the very violence of the feelings that stirred the
innermost recesses of her soul seemed to turn her
person into a stone. The dilated nostrils and the
flashing eyes were the only signs of the storm
raging within, and those signs of his daughter's
emotion Almayer did not see, for his sight was
dimmed by self-pity, by anger, and by despair.

Had Almayer looked at his daughter as she
leant over the front rail of the verandah he could
have seen the expression of indifference give way
to a look of pain, and that again pass away, leaving
the glorious beauty of her face marred by deep-
drawn lines of watchful anxiety. The long grass
in the neglected courtyard stood very straight
before her eyes in the noonday heat. From the
river-bank there were voices and a shuffle of bare



138 Almayer's Folly.

feet approaching the house ; Babalatchi could be
heard giving directions to Almayer's men, and
Mrs. Almayer's subdued wailing became audible
as the small procession bearing the body of the
drowned man and headed by that sorrowful matron
turned the corner of the house. Babalatchi had
taken the broken anklet off the man's leg, and now
held it in his hand as he moved by the side of the
bearers, while Mahmat lingered behind timidly, in
the hopes of the promised reward.

" Lay him there," said Babalatchi to Almayer's
men, pointing to a pile of drying planks in front
of the verandah. " Lay him there. He was a
Kaffir and the son of a dog, and he was the white
man's friend. He drank the white man's strong
water," he added, with affected horror. " That I
have seen myself"

The men stretched out the broken limbs on two
planks they had laid level, while Mrs. Almayer
covered the body with a piece of white cotton cloth,
and after whispering for some time with Babalatchi
departed to her domestic duties. Almayer's men,
after laying down their burden, dispersed them-
selves in quest of shady spots wherein to idle the
day away. Babalatchi was left alone by the corpse
that laid rigid under the white cloth in the bright
sunshine.

Nina came down the steps and joined Babalatchi,
who put his hand to his forehead, and squatted
down with great deference.



Almayers Folly, 139

" You have a bangle there," said Nina, looking
down on Babalatchi's upturned face and into his
solitary eye.

" I have, Mem Putih," returned the polite states-
man. Then turning towards Mahmat he beckoned
him closer, calling out, " Come here ! "

Mahmat approached with some hesitation. He
avoided looking at Nina, but fixed his eyes on
Babalatchi.

" Now, listen," said Babalatchi, sharply. " The
ring and the anklet you have seen, and you know
they belonged to Dain the trader, and to no other.
Dain returned last night in a canoe. He spoke
with the Rajah, and in the middle of the night left
to cross over to the white man's house. There was
a great flood, and this morning you found him
in the river."

" By his feet I dragged him out," muttered
Mahmat under his breath. " Tuan Babalatchi,
there will be a recompense ! " he exclaimed aloud.

Babalatchi held up the gold bangle before
Mahmat's eyes. " What I have told you, Mahmat,
is for all ears. What I give you now is for your
eyes only. Take."

Mahmat took the bangle eagerly and hid it
in the folds of his waist-cloth. " Am I a fool
to show this thing in a house with three women in
it ? " he growled. " But I shall tell them about
Dain the trader, and there will be talk enough."

He turned and went away, increasing his pace



140 Almayer's Folly,

as soon as he was outside Almayer's com-
pound.

Babalatchi looked after him till he disappeared
behind the bushes. " Have I done well, Mem
Putih ? " he asked, humbly addressing Nina.

" You have," answered Nina. " The ring you
may keep yourself."

Babalatchi touched his lips and forehead, and
scrambled to his feet. He looked at Nina, as if
expecting her to say something more, but Nina
turned towards the house and went up the steps,
motioning him away with her hand.

Babalatchi picked up his staff and prepared to
go. It was very warm, and he did not care for the
long pull to the Rajah's house. Yet he must go
and tell the Rajah — tell of the event ; of the
change in his plans ; of all his suspicions. He
walked to the jetty and began casting off the
rattan painter of his canoe.

The broad expanse of the lower reach, with its
shimmering surface dotted by the black specks of
the fishing canoes, lay before his eyes. The fisher-
men seemed to be racing. Babalatchi paused in
his work, and looked on with sudden interest.
The man in the foremost canoe, now within hail of
the first houses of Sambir, laid in his paddle and
stood up shouting —

"The boats! the boats! The man-of-war's boats
are coming ! They are here ! "

In a moment the settlement was again alive



Almayer's Folly. 141

with people rushing to the riverside. The men
began to unfasten their boats, the women stood in
groups looking towards the bend down the river.
Above the trees lining the reach a slight puff of
smoke appeared like a black stain on the brilliant
blue of the cloudless sky.

Babalatchi stood perplexed, the painter in his
hand. He looked down the reach, then up towards
Almayer's house, and back again at the river as if
undecided what to do. At last he made the canoe
fast again hastily, and ran towards the house and
up the steps of the verandah.

" Tuan ! Tuan ! " he called, eagerly. " The boats
are coming. The man-of-war's boats. You had
better get ready. The officers will come here, I
know."

Almayer lifted his head slowly from the table,
and looked at him stupidly.

" Mem Putih ! " exclaimed Babalatchi to Nina,
" look at him. He does not hear. You must take
care," he added meaningly.

Nina nodded to him with an uncertain smile,
and was going to speak, when a sharp report from
the gun mounted in the bow of the steam launch
that was just then coming into view arrested the
words on her parted lips. The smile died out, and
was replaced by the old look of anxious attention.
From the hills far away the echo came back like a
long-drawn and mournful sigh, as if the land had
sent it in answer to the voice of its masters.



CHAPTER VIII.

The news as to the identity of the body lying
now in Almayer's compound spread rapidly over
the settlement. During the forenoon most of the
inhabitants remained in the long street discussing
the mysterious return and the unexpected death of
the man who had become known to them as the
trader. His arrival during the north-east monsoon,
his long sojourn in their midst, his sudden departure
with his brig, and, above all, the mysterious appear-
ance of the body, said to be his, amongst the logs,
were subjects to wonder at and to talk over and
over again with undiminished interest. Mahmat
moved from house to house and from group to
group, always ready to repeat his tale : how he
saw the body caught by the sarong in a forked
log ; how Mrs. Almayer coming, one of the first,
at his cries, recognised it, even before he had it
hauled on shore ; how Babalatchi ordered him to
bring it out of the water. " By the feet I dragged
him in, and there was no head," exclaimed
Mahmat, " and how could the white man's wife



Almayers Folly. 143

know who it was ? She was a witch, it was well
known. And did you see how the white man
himself ran away at the sight of the body ? Like
a deer he ran ! " And here Mahmat imitated
Almayer's long strides, to the great joy of the
beholders. And for all his trouble he had nothing.
The ring with the green stone Tuan Babalatchi
kept. " Nothing ! Nothing ! " He spat down at
his feet in sign of disgust, and left that group to
seek further on a fresh audience.

The news spreading to the furthermost parts of
the settlement found out Abdulla in the cool recess
of his godown, where he sat overlooking his Arab
clerks and the men loading and unloading the up-
country canoes. Reshid, who was busy on the
jetty, was summoned into his uncle's presence and
found him, as usual, very calm and even cheerful,
but very much surprised. The rumour of the
capture or destruction of Dain's brig had reached
the Arab's ears three days before from the sea-
fishermen and through the dwellers on the lower
reaches of the river. It had been passed up-
stream from neighbour to neighbour till Bulangi,
whose clearing was nearest to the settlement, had
brought that news himself to Abdulla whose
favour he courted. But rumour also spoke of
a fight and of Dain's death on board his own
vessel. And now all the settlement talked of
Dain's visit to the Rajah and of his death when
crossing the river in the dark to see Almayer,



144 Almayers Folly,

They could not understand this. Reshid thought
that it was very strange. He felt uneasy and
doubtful. But Abdulla, after the first shock of
surprise, with the old age's dislike for solving
riddles, showed a becoming resignation. He
remarked that the man was dead now at all
events, and consequently no more dangerous.
Where was the use to wonder at the decrees of
Fate, especially if they were propitious to the True
Believers ? And with a pious ejaculation to Allah
the Merciful, the Compassionate, Abdulla seemed
to regard the incident as closed for the present.

Not so Reshid. He lingered by his uncle,
pulling thoughtfully his neatly trimmed beard.

" There are many lies," he murmured. " He has
been dead once before, and came to life to die
again now. The Dutch will be here before many
days and clamour for the man. Shall I not
believe my eyes sooner than the tongues of
women and idle men ? "

"They say that the body is being taken to
Almayer's compound," said Abdulla. " If you
want to go there you must go before the Dutch
arrive here. Go late. It should not be said that
we have been seen inside that man's enclosure
lately."

Reshid assented to the truth of this last remark
and left his uncle's side. He leaned against the
lintel of the big doorway and looked idly across
the courtyard through the open gate on to the



Almayers Folly, 145

main road of the settlement. It lay empty,
straight, and yellow under the flood of light. In
the hot noontide the smooth trunks of palm trees,
the outlines of the houses, and away there at the
other end of the road the roof of Almayer's house
visible over the bushes on the dark background of
forest, seemed to quiver in the heat radiating from
the steaming earth. Swarms of yellow butterflies
rose, and settled to rise again in short flights
before Reshid's half-closed eyes. From under his
feet arose the dull hum of insects in the long grass
of the courtyard. He looked on sleepily.

From one of the side paths amongst the houses
a woman stepped out on the road, a slight
girlish figure walking under the shade of a large
tray balanced on its head. The consciousness of
something moving stirred Reshid's half-sleeping
senses into a comparative wakefulness. He recog-
nised Taminah, Bulangi's slave-girl, with her tray
of cakes for sale — an apparition of daily re-
currence and of no importance whatever. She
was going towards Almayer's house. She could
be made useful. He roused himself up and ran
towards the gate calling out, " Taminah O ! " The
girl stopped, hesitated, and came back slowly.
Reshid waited, signing to her impatiently to come
nearer.

When near Reshid Taminah stood with down-
cast eyes. Reshid looked at her a while before
he asked —

10



146 Almayers Folly.

" Are you going to Almayer's house ? They
say in the settlement that Dain the trader, he that
was found drowned this morning, is lying in the
white man's campong."

" I have heard this talk," whispered Taminah ;
" and this morning by the riverside I saw the body.
Where it is now I do not know."

" So you have seen it ? " asked Reshid, eagerly.
" Is it Dain } You have seen him many times.
You would know him."

The girl's lips quivered and she remained silent
for a while, breathing quickly.

" I have seen him, not a long time ago," she
said at last. " The talk is true ; he is dead. What
do you want from me, Tuan ? I must go."

Just then the report of the gun fired on board
the steam launch was heard, interrupting Reshid's
reply. Leaving the girl he ran to the house, and
met in the courtyard Abdulla coming towards the
gate.

" The Orang Blanda are come," said Reshid,
"and now we shall have our reward."

Abdulla shook his head doubtfully. " The
white men's rewards are long in coming," he said.
" White men are quick in anger and slow in
gratitude. We shall see."

He stood at the gate stroking his grey beard
and listening to the distant cries of greeting at the
other end of the settlement. As Taminah was
turning to go he called her back.



Almayer^s Folly, 147

" Listen, girl," he said : " there will be many white
men in Almayer's house. You shall be there
selling your cakes to the men of the sea. What
you see and what you hear you may tell me.
Come here before the sun sets and I will give you
a blue handkerchief with red spots. Now go, and
forget not to return."

He gave her a push with the end of his long
staff as she was going away and made her stumble.

" This slave is very slow," he remarked to his
nephew, looking after the girl with great disfavour.

Taminah walked on, her tray on the head, her
eyes fixed on the ground. From the open doors
of the houses were heard, as she passed, friendly
calls inviting her within for business purposes, but
she never heeded them, neglecting her sales in the
preoccupation of intense thinking. Since the very
early morning she had heard much, she had also
seen much that filled her heart with a joy mingled
with great suffering and fear. Before the dawn,
before she left Bulangi's house to paddle up to
Sambir she had heard voices outside the house
when all in it but herself were asleep. And now,
with her knowledge of the words spoken in the
darkness, she held in her hand a life and carried in
her breast a great sorrow. Yet from her springy
step, erect figure, and face veiled over by the every-
day look of apathetic indifference, nobody could
have guessed of the double load she carried under
the visible burden of the tray piled up high with



148 Almayer's Folly,

cakes manufactured by the thrifty hands of
Bulangi's wives. In that supple figure straight
as an arrow, so graceful and free in its walk,
behind those soft eyes that spoke of nothing but
of unconscious resignation, there slept all feelings
and all passions, all hopes and all fears, the
curse of life and the consolation of death. And
she knew nothing of it all. She lived like the tall
palms amongst whom she was passing now,
seeking the light, desiring the sunshine, fearing the
storm, unconscious of either. The slave had no
hope, and knew of no change. She knew of no
other sky, no other water, no other forest, no other
world, no other life. She had no wish, no hope,
no love, no fear except of a blow, and no vivid
feeling but that of occasional hunger, which was
seldom, for Bulangi was rich and rice was plentiful
in the solitary house in his clearing. The absence
of pain and hunger was her happiness, and when
she felt unhappy she was simply tired, more than
usual, after the day's labour. Then in the hot nights
of the south-west monsoon she slept dreamlessly
under the bright stars on the platform built outside
the house and over the river. Inside they slept
too : Bulangi by the door ; his wives further in ;
the children with their mothers. She could hear
their breathing ; Bulangi's sleepy voice ; the sharp
cry of a child soon hushed with tender words.
And she closed her eyes to the murmur of the
water below her, to the whisper of the warm wind



Almayers Folly. 149

above, ignorant of the never-ceasing life of that
tropical nature that spoke to her in vain with the
thousand faint voices of the near forest, vi^ith the
breath of tepid wind ; in the heavy scents that
lingered around her head ; in the white wraiths of
morning mist that hung over her in the solemn
hush of all creation before the dawn.

Such had been her existence before the coming
of the brig with the strangers. She remembered
well that time ; the uproar in the settlement, the
never-ending wonder, the days and nights of talk
and excitement. She remembered her own
timidity with the strange men, till the brig
moored to the bank became in a manner part
of the settlement, and the fear wore off in the
familiarity of constant intercourse. The call on
board then became part of her daily round. She
walked hesitatingly up the slanting planks of the
gangway amidst the encouraging shouts and more


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Online LibraryJoseph ConradAlmayer's folly : a story of an eastern river → online text (page 8 of 15)