Transcribed from the 1915 T. Fisher Unwin Ltd. edition by David Price,
email [email protected]
ALMAYER'S FOLLY: A STORY OF AN EASTERN RIVER
by Joseph Conrad
Qui de nous n'a eu sa terre promise, son jour d'extase et sa fin en
exil? - AMIEL.
_LONDON_: T. FISHER UNWIN, LTD.
_First Edition_ . . . 1895
_Second Impression_, 1907
_Third_ ,, 1914
_Fourth_ ,, 1915
To the memory of T. B.
The well-known shrill voice startled Almayer from his dream of splendid
future into the unpleasant realities of the present hour. An unpleasant
voice too. He had heard it for many years, and with every year he liked
it less. No matter; there would be an end to all this soon.
He shuffled uneasily, but took no further notice of the call. Leaning
with both his elbows on the balustrade of the verandah, he went on
looking fixedly at the great river that flowed - indifferent and
hurried - before his eyes. He liked to look at it about the time of
sunset; perhaps because at that time the sinking sun would spread a
glowing gold tinge on the waters of the Pantai, and Almayer's thoughts
were often busy with gold; gold he had failed to secure; gold the others
had secured - dishonestly, of course - or gold he meant to secure yet,
through his own honest exertions, for himself and Nina. He absorbed
himself in his dream of wealth and power away from this coast where he
had dwelt for so many years, forgetting the bitterness of toil and strife
in the vision of a great and splendid reward. They would live in Europe,
he and his daughter. They would be rich and respected. Nobody would
think of her mixed blood in the presence of her great beauty and of his
immense wealth. Witnessing her triumphs he would grow young again, he
would forget the twenty-five years of heart-breaking struggle on this
coast where he felt like a prisoner. All this was nearly within his
reach. Let only Dain return! And return soon he must - in his own
interest, for his own share. He was now more than a week late! Perhaps
he would return to-night. Such were Almayer's thoughts as, standing on
the verandah of his new but already decaying house - that last failure of
his life - he looked on the broad river. There was no tinge of gold on it
this evening, for it had been swollen by the rains, and rolled an angry
and muddy flood under his inattentive eyes, carrying small drift-wood and
big dead logs, and whole uprooted trees with branches and foliage,
amongst which the water swirled and roared angrily.
One of those drifting trees grounded on the shelving shore, just by the
house, and Almayer, neglecting his dream, watched it with languid
interest. The tree swung slowly round, amid the hiss and foam of the
water, and soon getting free of the obstruction began to move down stream
again, rolling slowly over, raising upwards a long, denuded branch, like
a hand lifted in mute appeal to heaven against the river's brutal and
unnecessary violence. Almayer's interest in the fate of that tree
increased rapidly. He leaned over to see if it would clear the low point
below. It did; then he drew back, thinking that now its course was free
down to the sea, and he envied the lot of that inanimate thing now
growing small and indistinct in the deepening darkness. As he lost sight
of it altogether he began to wonder how far out to sea it would drift.
Would the current carry it north or south? South, probably, till it
drifted in sight of Celebes, as far as Macassar, perhaps!
Macassar! Almayer's quickened fancy distanced the tree on its imaginary
voyage, but his memory lagging behind some twenty years or more in point
of time saw a young and slim Almayer, clad all in white and
modest-looking, landing from the Dutch mail-boat on the dusty jetty of
Macassar, coming to woo fortune in the godowns of old Hudig. It was an
important epoch in his life, the beginning of a new existence for him.
His father, a subordinate official employed in the Botanical Gardens of
Buitenzorg, was no doubt delighted to place his son in such a firm. The
young man himself too was nothing loth to leave the poisonous shores of
Java, and the meagre comforts of the parental bungalow, where the father
grumbled all day at the stupidity of native gardeners, and the mother
from the depths of her long easy-chair bewailed the lost glories of
Amsterdam, where she had been brought up, and of her position as the
daughter of a cigar dealer there.
Almayer had left his home with a light heart and a lighter pocket,
speaking English well, and strong in arithmetic; ready to conquer the
world, never doubting that he would.
After those twenty years, standing in the close and stifling heat of a
Bornean evening, he recalled with pleasurable regret the image of Hudig's
lofty and cool warehouses with their long and straight avenues of gin
cases and bales of Manchester goods; the big door swinging noiselessly;
the dim light of the place, so delightful after the glare of the streets;
the little railed-off spaces amongst piles of merchandise where the
Chinese clerks, neat, cool, and sad-eyed, wrote rapidly and in silence
amidst the din of the working gangs rolling casks or shifting cases to a
muttered song, ending with a desperate yell. At the upper end, facing
the great door, there was a larger space railed off, well lighted; there
the noise was subdued by distance, and above it rose the soft and
continuous clink of silver guilders which other discreet Chinamen were
counting and piling up under the supervision of Mr. Vinck, the cashier,
the genius presiding in the place - the right hand of the Master.
In that clear space Almayer worked at his table not far from a little
green painted door, by which always stood a Malay in a red sash and
turban, and whose hand, holding a small string dangling from above, moved
up and down with the regularity of a machine. The string worked a punkah
on the other side of the green door, where the so-called private office
was, and where old Hudig - the Master - sat enthroned, holding noisy
receptions. Sometimes the little door would fly open disclosing to the
outer world, through the bluish haze of tobacco smoke, a long table
loaded with bottles of various shapes and tall water-pitchers, rattan
easy-chairs occupied by noisy men in sprawling attitudes, while the
Master would put his head through and, holding by the handle, would grunt
confidentially to Vinck; perhaps send an order thundering down the
warehouse, or spy a hesitating stranger and greet him with a friendly
roar, "Welgome, Gapitan! ver' you gome vrom? Bali, eh? Got bonies? I
vant bonies! Vant all you got; ha! ha! ha! Gome in!" Then the stranger
was dragged in, in a tempest of yells, the door was shut, and the usual
noises refilled the place; the song of the workmen, the rumble of
barrels, the scratch of rapid pens; while above all rose the musical
chink of broad silver pieces streaming ceaselessly through the yellow
fingers of the attentive Chinamen.
At that time Macassar was teeming with life and commerce. It was the
point in the islands where tended all those bold spirits who, fitting out
schooners on the Australian coast, invaded the Malay Archipelago in
search of money and adventure. Bold, reckless, keen in business, not
disinclined for a brush with the pirates that were to be found on many a
coast as yet, making money fast, they used to have a general "rendezvous"
in the bay for purposes of trade and dissipation. The Dutch merchants
called those men English pedlars; some of them were undoubtedly gentlemen
for whom that kind of life had a charm; most were seamen; the
acknowledged king of them all was Tom Lingard, he whom the Malays, honest
or dishonest, quiet fishermen or desperate cut-throats, recognised as
"the Rajah-Laut" - the King of the Sea.
Almayer had heard of him before he had been three days in Macassar, had
heard the stories of his smart business transactions, his loves, and also
of his desperate fights with the Sulu pirates, together with the romantic
tale of some child - a girl - found in a piratical prau by the victorious
Lingard, when, after a long contest, he boarded the craft, driving the
crew overboard. This girl, it was generally known, Lingard had adopted,
was having her educated in some convent in Java, and spoke of her as "my
daughter." He had sworn a mighty oath to marry her to a white man before
he went home and to leave her all his money. "And Captain Lingard has
lots of money," would say Mr. Vinck solemnly, with his head on one side,
"lots of money; more than Hudig!" And after a pause - just to let his
hearers recover from their astonishment at such an incredible
assertion - he would add in an explanatory whisper, "You know, he has
discovered a river."
That was it! He had discovered a river! That was the fact placing old
Lingard so much above the common crowd of sea-going adventurers who
traded with Hudig in the daytime and drank champagne, gambled, sang noisy
songs, and made love to half-caste girls under the broad verandah of the
Sunda Hotel at night. Into that river, whose entrances himself only
knew, Lingard used to take his assorted cargo of Manchester goods, brass
gongs, rifles and gunpowder. His brig _Flash_, which he commanded
himself, would on those occasions disappear quietly during the night from
the roadstead while his companions were sleeping off the effects of the
midnight carouse, Lingard seeing them drunk under the table before going
on board, himself unaffected by any amount of liquor. Many tried to
follow him and find that land of plenty for gutta-percha and rattans,
pearl shells and birds' nests, wax and gum-dammar, but the little _Flash_
could outsail every craft in those seas. A few of them came to grief on
hidden sandbanks and coral reefs, losing their all and barely escaping
with life from the cruel grip of this sunny and smiling sea; others got
discouraged; and for many years the green and peaceful-looking islands
guarding the entrances to the promised land kept their secret with all
the merciless serenity of tropical nature. And so Lingard came and went
on his secret or open expeditions, becoming a hero in Almayer's eyes by
the boldness and enormous profits of his ventures, seeming to Almayer a
very great man indeed as he saw him marching up the warehouse, grunting a
"how are you?" to Vinck, or greeting Hudig, the Master, with a boisterous
"Hallo, old pirate! Alive yet?" as a preliminary to transacting business
behind the little green door. Often of an evening, in the silence of the
then deserted warehouse, Almayer putting away his papers before driving
home with Mr. Vinck, in whose household he lived, would pause listening
to the noise of a hot discussion in the private office, would hear the
deep and monotonous growl of the Master, and the roared-out interruptions
of Lingard - two mastiffs fighting over a marrowy bone. But to Almayer's
ears it sounded like a quarrel of Titans - a battle of the gods.
After a year or so Lingard, having been brought often in contact with
Almayer in the course of business, took a sudden and, to the onlookers, a
rather inexplicable fancy to the young man. He sang his praises, late at
night, over a convivial glass to his cronies in the Sunda Hotel, and one
fine morning electrified Vinck by declaring that he must have "that young
fellow for a supercargo. Kind of captain's clerk. Do all my
quill-driving for me." Hudig consented. Almayer, with youth's natural
craving for change, was nothing loth, and packing his few belongings,
started in the _Flash_ on one of those long cruises when the old seaman
was wont to visit almost every island in the archipelago. Months slipped
by, and Lingard's friendship seemed to increase. Often pacing the deck
with Almayer, when the faint night breeze, heavy with aromatic
exhalations of the islands, shoved the brig gently along under the
peaceful and sparkling sky, did the old seaman open his heart to his
entranced listener. He spoke of his past life, of escaped dangers, of
big profits in his trade, of new combinations that were in the future to
bring profits bigger still. Often he had mentioned his daughter, the
girl found in the pirate prau, speaking of her with a strange assumption
of fatherly tenderness. "She must be a big girl now," he used to say.
"It's nigh unto four years since I have seen her! Damme, Almayer, if I
don't think we will run into Sourabaya this trip." And after such a
declaration he always dived into his cabin muttering to himself,
"Something must be done - must be done." More than once he would astonish
Almayer by walking up to him rapidly, clearing his throat with a powerful
"Hem!" as if he was going to say something, and then turning abruptly
away to lean over the bulwarks in silence, and watch, motionless, for
hours, the gleam and sparkle of the phosphorescent sea along the ship's
side. It was the night before arriving in Sourabaya when one of those
attempts at confidential communication succeeded. After clearing his
throat he spoke. He spoke to some purpose. He wanted Almayer to marry
his adopted daughter. "And don't you kick because you're white!" he
shouted, suddenly, not giving the surprised young man the time to say a
word. "None of that with me! Nobody will see the colour of your wife's
skin. The dollars are too thick for that, I tell you! And mind you,
they will be thicker yet before I die. There will be millions, Kaspar!
Millions I say! And all for her - and for you, if you do what you are
Startled by the unexpected proposal, Almayer hesitated, and remained
silent for a minute. He was gifted with a strong and active imagination,
and in that short space of time he saw, as in a flash of dazzling light,
great piles of shining guilders, and realised all the possibilities of an
opulent existence. The consideration, the indolent ease of life - for
which he felt himself so well fitted - his ships, his warehouses, his
merchandise (old Lingard would not live for ever), and, crowning all, in
the far future gleamed like a fairy palace the big mansion in Amsterdam,
that earthly paradise of his dreams, where, made king amongst men by old
Lingard's money, he would pass the evening of his days in inexpressible
splendour. As to the other side of the picture - the companionship for
life of a Malay girl, that legacy of a boatful of pirates - there was only
within him a confused consciousness of shame that he a white man - Still,
a convent education of four years! - and then she may mercifully die. He
was always lucky, and money is powerful! Go through it. Why not? He
had a vague idea of shutting her up somewhere, anywhere, out of his
gorgeous future. Easy enough to dispose of a Malay woman, a slave, after
all, to his Eastern mind, convent or no convent, ceremony or no ceremony.
He lifted his head and confronted the anxious yet irate seaman.
"I - of course - anything you wish, Captain Lingard."
"Call me father, my boy. She does," said the mollified old adventurer.
"Damme, though, if I didn't think you were going to refuse. Mind you,
Kaspar, I always get my way, so it would have been no use. But you are
He remembered well that time - the look, the accent, the words, the effect
they produced on him, his very surroundings. He remembered the narrow
slanting deck of the brig, the silent sleeping coast, the smooth black
surface of the sea with a great bar of gold laid on it by the rising
moon. He remembered it all, and he remembered his feelings of mad
exultation at the thought of that fortune thrown into his hands. He was
no fool then, and he was no fool now. Circumstances had been against
him; the fortune was gone, but hope remained.
He shivered in the night air, and suddenly became aware of the intense
darkness which, on the sun's departure, had closed in upon the river,
blotting out the outlines of the opposite shore. Only the fire of dry
branches lit outside the stockade of the Rajah's compound called fitfully
into view the ragged trunks of the surrounding trees, putting a stain of
glowing red half-way across the river where the drifting logs were
hurrying towards the sea through the impenetrable gloom. He had a hazy
recollection of having been called some time during the evening by his
wife. To his dinner probably. But a man busy contemplating the wreckage
of his past in the dawn of new hopes cannot be hungry whenever his rice
is ready. Time he went home, though; it was getting late.
He stepped cautiously on the loose planks towards the ladder. A lizard,
disturbed by the noise, emitted a plaintive note and scurried through the
long grass growing on the bank. Almayer descended the ladder carefully,
now thoroughly recalled to the realities of life by the care necessary to
prevent a fall on the uneven ground where the stones, decaying planks,
and half-sawn beams were piled up in inextricable confusion. As he
turned towards the house where he lived - "my old house" he called it - his
ear detected the splash of paddles away in the darkness of the river. He
stood still in the path, attentive and surprised at anybody being on the
river at this late hour during such a heavy freshet. Now he could hear
the paddles distinctly, and even a rapidly exchanged word in low tones,
the heavy breathing of men fighting with the current, and hugging the
bank on which he stood. Quite close, too, but it was too dark to
distinguish anything under the overhanging bushes.
"Arabs, no doubt," muttered Almayer to himself, peering into the solid
blackness. "What are they up to now? Some of Abdulla's business; curse
The boat was very close now.
"Oh, ya! Man!" hailed Almayer.
The sound of voices ceased, but the paddles worked as furiously as
before. Then the bush in front of Almayer shook, and the sharp sound of
the paddles falling into the canoe rang in the quiet night. They were
holding on to the bush now; but Almayer could hardly make out an
indistinct dark shape of a man's head and shoulders above the bank.
"You Abdulla?" said Almayer, doubtfully.
A grave voice answered -
"Tuan Almayer is speaking to a friend. There is no Arab here."
Almayer's heart gave a great leap.
"Dain!" he exclaimed. "At last! at last! I have been waiting for you
every day and every night. I had nearly given you up."
"Nothing could have stopped me from coming back here," said the other,
almost violently. "Not even death," he whispered to himself.
"This is a friend's talk, and is very good," said Almayer, heartily. "But
you are too far here. Drop down to the jetty and let your men cook their
rice in my campong while we talk in the house."
There was no answer to that invitation.
"What is it?" asked Almayer, uneasily. "There is nothing wrong with the
brig, I hope?"
"The brig is where no Orang Blanda can lay his hands on her," said Dain,
with a gloomy tone in his voice, which Almayer, in his elation, failed to
"Right," he said. "But where are all your men? There are only two with
"Listen, Tuan Almayer," said Dain. "To-morrow's sun shall see me in your
house, and then we will talk. Now I must go to the Rajah."
"To the Rajah! Why? What do you want with Lakamba?"
"Tuan, to-morrow we talk like friends. I must see Lakamba to-night."
"Dain, you are not going to abandon me now, when all is ready?" asked
Almayer, in a pleading voice.
"Have I not returned? But I must see Lakamba first for your good and
The shadowy head disappeared abruptly. The bush, released from the grasp
of the bowman, sprung back with a swish, scattering a shower of muddy
water over Almayer, as he bent forward, trying to see.
In a little while the canoe shot into the streak of light that streamed
on the river from the big fire on the opposite shore, disclosing the
outline of two men bending to their work, and a third figure in the stern
flourishing the steering paddle, his head covered with an enormous round
hat, like a fantastically exaggerated mushroom.
Almayer watched the canoe till it passed out of the line of light.
Shortly after the murmur of many voices reached him across the water. He
could see the torches being snatched out of the burning pile, and
rendering visible for a moment the gate in the stockade round which they
crowded. Then they went in apparently. The torches disappeared, and the
scattered fire sent out only a dim and fitful glare.
Almayer stepped homewards with long strides and mind uneasy. Surely Dain
was not thinking of playing him false. It was absurd. Dain and Lakamba
were both too much interested in the success of his scheme. Trusting to
Malays was poor work; but then even Malays have some sense and understand
their own interest. All would be well - must be well. At this point in
his meditation he found himself at the foot of the steps leading to the
verandah of his home. From the low point of land where he stood he could
see both branches of the river. The main branch of the Pantai was lost
in complete darkness, for the fire at the Rajah's had gone out
altogether; but up the Sambir reach his eye could follow the long line of
Malay houses crowding the bank, with here and there a dim light twinkling
through bamboo walls, or a smoky torch burning on the platforms built out
over the river. Further away, where the island ended in a low cliff,
rose a dark mass of buildings towering above the Malay structures.
Founded solidly on a firm ground with plenty of space, starred by many
lights burning strong and white, with a suggestion of paraffin and lamp-
glasses, stood the house and the godowns of Abdulla bin Selim, the great
trader of Sambir. To Almayer the sight was very distasteful, and he
shook his fist towards the buildings that in their evident prosperity
looked to him cold and insolent, and contemptuous of his own fallen
He mounted the steps of his house slowly.
In the middle of the verandah there was a round table. On it a paraffin
lamp without a globe shed a hard glare on the three inner sides. The
fourth side was open, and faced the river. Between the rough supports of
the high-pitched roof hung torn rattan screens. There was no ceiling,
and the harsh brilliance of the lamp was toned above into a soft half-
light that lost itself in the obscurity amongst the rafters. The front
wall was cut in two by the doorway of a central passage closed by a red
curtain. The women's room opened into that passage, which led to the
back courtyard and to the cooking shed. In one of the side walls there
was a doorway. Half obliterated words - "Office: Lingard and Co." - were
still legible on the dusty door, which looked as if it had not been
opened for a very long time. Close to the other side wall stood a bent-
wood rocking-chair, and by the table and about the verandah four wooden
armchairs straggled forlornly, as if ashamed of their shabby
surroundings. A heap of common mats lay in one corner, with an old
hammock slung diagonally above. In the other corner, his head wrapped in
a piece of red calico, huddled into a shapeless heap, slept a Malay, one
of Almayer's domestic slaves - "my own people," he used to call them. A
numerous and representative assembly of moths were holding high revels
round the lamp to the spirited music of swarming mosquitoes. Under the
palm-leaf thatch lizards raced on the beams calling softly. A monkey,
chained to one of the verandah supports - retired for the night under the
eaves - peered and grinned at Almayer, as it swung to one of the bamboo
roof sticks and caused a shower of dust and bits of dried leaves to
settle on the shabby table. The floor was uneven, with many withered
plants and dried earth scattered about. A general air of squalid neglect
pervaded the place. Great red stains on the floor and walls testified to
frequent and indiscriminate betel-nut chewing. The light breeze from the
river swayed gently the tattered blinds, sending from the woods opposite
a faint and sickly perfume as of decaying flowers.
Under Almayer's heavy tread the boards of the verandah creaked loudly.
The sleeper in the corner moved uneasily, muttering indistinct words.
There was a slight rustle behind the curtained doorway, and a soft voice
asked in Malay, "Is it you, father?"
"Yes, Nina. I am hungry. Is everybody asleep in this house?"
Almayer spoke jovially and dropped with a contented sigh into the
armchair nearest to the table. Nina Almayer came through the curtained
doorway followed by an old Malay woman, who busied herself in setting