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Produced by Judith Boss and David Widger





AMY FOSTER

By Joseph Conrad



Kennedy is a country doctor, and lives in Colebrook, on the shores of
Eastbay. The high ground rising abruptly behind the red roofs of the
little town crowds the quaint High Street against the wall which defends
it from the sea. Beyond the sea-wall there curves for miles in a vast
and regular sweep the barren beach of shingle, with the village of
Brenzett standing out darkly across the water, a spire in a clump of
trees; and still further out the perpendicular column of a lighthouse,
looking in the distance no bigger than a lead pencil, marks the
vanishing-point of the land. The country at the back of Brenzett is
low and flat, but the bay is fairly well sheltered from the seas, and
occasionally a big ship, windbound or through stress of weather, makes
use of the anchoring ground a mile and a half due north from you as
you stand at the back door of the "Ship Inn" in Brenzett. A dilapidated
windmill near by lifting its shattered arms from a mound no loftier than
a rubbish heap, and a Martello tower squatting at the water's edge half
a mile to the south of the Coastguard cottages, are familiar to the
skippers of small craft. These are the official seamarks for the
patch of trustworthy bottom represented on the Admiralty charts by an
irregular oval of dots enclosing several figures six, with a tiny anchor
engraved among them, and the legend "mud and shells" over all.

The brow of the upland overtops the square tower of the Colebrook
Church. The slope is green and looped by a white road. Ascending along
this road, you open a valley broad and shallow, a wide green trough
of pastures and hedges merging inland into a vista of purple tints and
flowing lines closing the view.

In this valley down to Brenzett and Colebrook and up to Darnford, the
market town fourteen miles away, lies the practice of my friend Kennedy.
He had begun life as surgeon in the Navy, and afterwards had been the
companion of a famous traveller, in the days when there were continents
with unexplored interiors. His papers on the fauna and flora made him
known to scientific societies. And now he had come to a country
practice - from choice. The penetrating power of his mind, acting like
a corrosive fluid, had destroyed his ambition, I fancy. His intelligence
is of a scientific order, of an investigating habit, and of that
unappeasable curiosity which believes that there is a particle of a
general truth in every mystery.

A good many years ago now, on my return from abroad, he invited me to
stay with him. I came readily enough, and as he could not neglect his
patients to keep me company, he took me on his rounds - thirty miles or
so of an afternoon, sometimes. I waited for him on the roads; the horse
reached after the leafy twigs, and, sitting in the dogcart, I could hear
Kennedy's laugh through the half-open door left open of some cottage. He
had a big, hearty laugh that would have fitted a man twice his size, a
brisk manner, a bronzed face, and a pair of grey, profoundly attentive
eyes. He had the talent of making people talk to him freely, and an
inexhaustible patience in listening to their tales.

One day, as we trotted out of a large village into a shady bit of road,
I saw on our left hand a low, black cottage, with diamond panes in the
windows, a creeper on the end wall, a roof of shingle, and some roses
climbing on the rickety trellis-work of the tiny porch. Kennedy pulled
up to a walk. A woman, in full sunlight, was throwing a dripping blanket
over a line stretched between two old apple-trees. And as the bobtailed,
long-necked chestnut, trying to get his head, jerked the left hand,
covered by a thick dog-skin glove, the doctor raised his voice over the
hedge: "How's your child, Amy?"

I had the time to see her dull face, red, not with a mantling blush, but
as if her flat cheeks had been vigorously slapped, and to take in the
squat figure, the scanty, dusty brown hair drawn into a tight knot at
the back of the head. She looked quite young. With a distinct catch in
her breath, her voice sounded low and timid.

"He's well, thank you."

We trotted again. "A young patient of yours," I said; and the doctor,
flicking the chestnut absently, muttered, "Her husband used to be."

"She seems a dull creature," I remarked listlessly.

"Precisely," said Kennedy. "She is very passive. It's enough to look
at the red hands hanging at the end of those short arms, at those slow,
prominent brown eyes, to know the inertness of her mind - an inertness
that one would think made it everlastingly safe from all the surprises
of imagination. And yet which of us is safe? At any rate, such as you
see her, she had enough imagination to fall in love. She's the daughter
of one Isaac Foster, who from a small farmer has sunk into a shepherd;
the beginning of his misfortunes dating from his runaway marriage with
the cook of his widowed father - a well-to-do, apoplectic grazier, who
passionately struck his name off his will, and had been heard to utter
threats against his life. But this old affair, scandalous enough to
serve as a motive for a Greek tragedy, arose from the similarity of
their characters. There are other tragedies, less scandalous and of a
subtler poignancy, arising from irreconcilable differences and from that
fear of the Incomprehensible that hangs over all our heads - over all our
heads...."

The tired chestnut dropped into a walk; and the rim of the sun, all red
in a speckless sky, touched familiarly the smooth top of a ploughed
rise near the road as I had seen it times innumerable touch the distant
horizon of the sea. The uniform brownness of the harrowed field glowed
with a rosy tinge, as though the powdered clods had sweated out in
minute pearls of blood the toil of uncounted ploughmen. From the edge
of a copse a waggon with two horses was rolling gently along the ridge.
Raised above our heads upon the sky-line, it loomed up against the red
sun, triumphantly big, enormous, like a chariot of giants drawn by two
slow-stepping steeds of legendary proportions. And the clumsy figure of
the man plodding at the head of the leading horse projected itself on
the background of the Infinite with a heroic uncouthness. The end of his
carter's whip quivered high up in the blue. Kennedy discoursed.

"She's the eldest of a large family. At the age of fifteen they put
her out to service at the New Barns Farm. I attended Mrs. Smith, the
tenant's wife, and saw that girl there for the first time. Mrs. Smith,
a genteel person with a sharp nose, made her put on a black dress every
afternoon. I don't know what induced me to notice her at all. There
are faces that call your attention by a curious want of definiteness
in their whole aspect, as, walking in a mist, you peer attentively at
a vague shape which, after all, may be nothing more curious or strange
than a signpost. The only peculiarity I perceived in her was a slight
hesitation in her utterance, a sort of preliminary stammer which passes
away with the first word. When sharply spoken to, she was apt to lose
her head at once; but her heart was of the kindest. She had never been
heard to express a dislike for a single human being, and she was tender
to every living creature. She was devoted to Mrs. Smith, to Mr. Smith,
to their dogs, cats, canaries; and as to Mrs. Smith's grey parrot, its
peculiarities exercised upon her a positive fascination. Nevertheless,
when that outlandish bird, attacked by the cat, shrieked for help in
human accents, she ran out into the yard stopping her ears, and did
not prevent the crime. For Mrs. Smith this was another evidence of her
stupidity; on the other hand, her want of charm, in view of Smith's
well-known frivolousness, was a great recommendation. Her short-sighted
eyes would swim with pity for a poor mouse in a trap, and she had been
seen once by some boys on her knees in the wet grass helping a toad in
difficulties. If it's true, as some German fellow has said, that without
phosphorus there is no thought, it is still more true that there is no
kindness of heart without a certain amount of imagination. She had some.
She had even more than is necessary to understand suffering and to be
moved by pity. She fell in love under circumstances that leave no room
for doubt in the matter; for you need imagination to form a notion of
beauty at all, and still more to discover your ideal in an unfamiliar
shape.

"How this aptitude came to her, what it did feed upon, is an inscrutable
mystery. She was born in the village, and had never been further away
from it than Colebrook or perhaps Darnford. She lived for four years
with the Smiths. New Barns is an isolated farmhouse a mile away from
the road, and she was content to look day after day at the same fields,
hollows, rises; at the trees and the hedgerows; at the faces of the four
men about the farm, always the same - day after day, month after month,
year after year. She never showed a desire for conversation, and, as it
seemed to me, she did not know how to smile. Sometimes of a fine Sunday
afternoon she would put on her best dress, a pair of stout boots, a
large grey hat trimmed with a black feather (I've seen her in that
finery), seize an absurdly slender parasol, climb over two stiles, tramp
over three fields and along two hundred yards of road - never further.
There stood Foster's cottage. She would help her mother to give their
tea to the younger children, wash up the crockery, kiss the little ones,
and go back to the farm. That was all. All the rest, all the change, all
the relaxation. She never seemed to wish for anything more. And then
she fell in love. She fell in love silently, obstinately - perhaps
helplessly. It came slowly, but when it came it worked like a powerful
spell; it was love as the Ancients understood it: an irresistible and
fateful impulse - a possession! Yes, it was in her to become haunted and
possessed by a face, by a presence, fatally, as though she had been a
pagan worshipper of form under a joyous sky - and to be awakened at last
from that mysterious forgetfulness of self, from that enchantment,
from that transport, by a fear resembling the unaccountable terror of a
brute...."

With the sun hanging low on its western limit, the expanse of the
grass-lands framed in the counter-scarps of the rising ground took on
a gorgeous and sombre aspect. A sense of penetrating sadness, like that
inspired by a grave strain of music, disengaged itself from the silence
of the fields. The men we met walked past slow, unsmiling, with downcast
eyes, as if the melancholy of an over-burdened earth had weighted their
feet, bowed their shoulders, borne down their glances.

"Yes," said the doctor to my remark, "one would think the earth is under
a curse, since of all her children these that cling to her the closest
are uncouth in body and as leaden of gait as if their very hearts were
loaded with chains. But here on this same road you might have seen
amongst these heavy men a being lithe, supple, and long-limbed, straight
like a pine with something striving upwards in his appearance as though
the heart within him had been buoyant. Perhaps it was only the force of
the contrast, but when he was passing one of these villagers here, the
soles of his feet did not seem to me to touch the dust of the road. He
vaulted over the stiles, paced these slopes with a long elastic stride
that made him noticeable at a great distance, and had lustrous black
eyes. He was so different from the mankind around that, with his freedom
of movement, his soft - a little startled, glance, his olive complexion
and graceful bearing, his humanity suggested to me the nature of a
woodland creature. He came from there."

The doctor pointed with his whip, and from the summit of the descent
seen over the rolling tops of the trees in a park by the side of the
road, appeared the level sea far below us, like the floor of an immense
edifice inlaid with bands of dark ripple, with still trails of glitter,
ending in a belt of glassy water at the foot of the sky. The light blur
of smoke, from an invisible steamer, faded on the great clearness of the
horizon like the mist of a breath on a mirror; and, inshore, the white
sails of a coaster, with the appearance of disentangling themselves
slowly from under the branches, floated clear of the foliage of the
trees.

"Shipwrecked in the bay?" I said.

"Yes; he was a castaway. A poor emigrant from Central Europe bound to
America and washed ashore here in a storm. And for him, who knew nothing
of the earth, England was an undiscovered country. It was some time
before he learned its name; and for all I know he might have expected to
find wild beasts or wild men here, when, crawling in the dark over
the sea-wall, he rolled down the other side into a dyke, where it was
another miracle he didn't get drowned. But he struggled instinctively
like an animal under a net, and this blind struggle threw him out into
a field. He must have been, indeed, of a tougher fibre than he looked
to withstand without expiring such buffetings, the violence of his
exertions, and so much fear. Later on, in his broken English that
resembled curiously the speech of a young child, he told me himself that
he put his trust in God, believing he was no longer in this world. And
truly - he would add - how was he to know? He fought his way against the
rain and the gale on all fours, and crawled at last among some sheep
huddled close under the lee of a hedge. They ran off in all directions,
bleating in the darkness, and he welcomed the first familiar sound he
heard on these shores. It must have been two in the morning then. And
this is all we know of the manner of his landing, though he did not
arrive unattended by any means. Only his grisly company did not begin to
come ashore till much later in the day...."

The doctor gathered the reins, clicked his tongue; we trotted down
the hill. Then turning, almost directly, a sharp corner into the High
Street, we rattled over the stones and were home.

Late in the evening Kennedy, breaking a spell of moodiness that had come
over him, returned to the story. Smoking his pipe, he paced the long
room from end to end. A reading-lamp concentrated all its light upon the
papers on his desk; and, sitting by the open window, I saw, after
the windless, scorching day, the frigid splendour of a hazy sea lying
motionless under the moon. Not a whisper, not a splash, not a stir
of the shingle, not a footstep, not a sigh came up from the earth
below - never a sign of life but the scent of climbing jasmine; and
Kennedy's voice, speaking behind me, passed through the wide casement,
to vanish outside in a chill and sumptuous stillness.

"... The relations of shipwrecks in the olden time tell us of much
suffering. Often the castaways were only saved from drowning to die
miserably from starvation on a barren coast; others suffered violent
death or else slavery, passing through years of precarious existence
with people to whom their strangeness was an object of suspicion,
dislike or fear. We read about these things, and they are very pitiful.
It is indeed hard upon a man to find himself a lost stranger, helpless,
incomprehensible, and of a mysterious origin, in some obscure corner of
the earth. Yet amongst all the adventurers shipwrecked in all the wild
parts of the world there is not one, it seems to me, that ever had to
suffer a fate so simply tragic as the man I am speaking of, the most
innocent of adventurers cast out by the sea in the bight of this bay,
almost within sight from this very window.

"He did not know the name of his ship. Indeed, in the course of time we
discovered he did not even know that ships had names - 'like Christian
people'; and when, one day, from the top of the Talfourd Hill, he beheld
the sea lying open to his view, his eyes roamed afar, lost in an air
of wild surprise, as though he had never seen such a sight before. And
probably he had not. As far as I could make out, he had been hustled
together with many others on board an emigrant-ship lying at the mouth
of the Elbe, too bewildered to take note of his surroundings, too weary
to see anything, too anxious to care. They were driven below into the
'tweendeck and battened down from the very start. It was a low timber
dwelling - he would say - with wooden beams overhead, like the houses in
his country, but you went into it down a ladder. It was very large, very
cold, damp and sombre, with places in the manner of wooden boxes where
people had to sleep, one above another, and it kept on rocking all ways
at once all the time. He crept into one of these boxes and laid down
there in the clothes in which he had left his home many days before,
keeping his bundle and his stick by his side. People groaned, children
cried, water dripped, the lights went out, the walls of the place
creaked, and everything was being shaken so that in one's little box one
dared not lift one's head. He had lost touch with his only companion (a
young man from the same valley, he said), and all the time a great
noise of wind went on outside and heavy blows fell - boom! boom! An awful
sickness overcame him, even to the point of making him neglect his
prayers. Besides, one could not tell whether it was morning or evening.
It seemed always to be night in that place.

"Before that he had been travelling a long, long time on the iron track.
He looked out of the window, which had a wonderfully clear glass in it,
and the trees, the houses, the fields, and the long roads seemed to fly
round and round about him till his head swam. He gave me to understand
that he had on his passage beheld uncounted multitudes of people - whole
nations - all dressed in such clothes as the rich wear. Once he was made
to get out of the carriage, and slept through a night on a bench in a
house of bricks with his bundle under his head; and once for many hours
he had to sit on a floor of flat stones dozing, with his knees up and
with his bundle between his feet. There was a roof over him, which
seemed made of glass, and was so high that the tallest mountain-pine
he had ever seen would have had room to grow under it. Steam-machines
rolled in at one end and out at the other. People swarmed more than you
can see on a feast-day round the miraculous Holy Image in the yard of
the Carmelite Convent down in the plains where, before he left his home,
he drove his mother in a wooden cart - a pious old woman who wanted to
offer prayers and make a vow for his safety. He could not give me an
idea of how large and lofty and full of noise and smoke and gloom, and
clang of iron, the place was, but some one had told him it was called
Berlin. Then they rang a bell, and another steam-machine came in, and
again he was taken on and on through a land that wearied his eyes by its
flatness without a single bit of a hill to be seen anywhere. One more
night he spent shut up in a building like a good stable with a litter
of straw on the floor, guarding his bundle amongst a lot of men, of whom
not one could understand a single word he said. In the morning they
were all led down to the stony shores of an extremely broad muddy river,
flowing not between hills but between houses that seemed immense. There
was a steam-machine that went on the water, and they all stood upon it
packed tight, only now there were with them many women and children who
made much noise. A cold rain fell, the wind blew in his face; he was
wet through, and his teeth chattered. He and the young man from the same
valley took each other by the hand.

"They thought they were being taken to America straight away, but
suddenly the steam-machine bumped against the side of a thing like a
house on the water. The walls were smooth and black, and there uprose,
growing from the roof as it were, bare trees in the shape of crosses,
extremely high. That's how it appeared to him then, for he had never
seen a ship before. This was the ship that was going to swim all the
way to America. Voices shouted, everything swayed; there was a ladder
dipping up and down. He went up on his hands and knees in mortal fear
of falling into the water below, which made a great splashing. He got
separated from his companion, and when he descended into the bottom of
that ship his heart seemed to melt suddenly within him.

"It was then also, as he told me, that he lost contact for good and all
with one of those three men who the summer before had been going about
through all the little towns in the foothills of his country. They would
arrive on market days driving in a peasant's cart, and would set up an
office in an inn or some other Jew's house. There were three of them,
of whom one with a long beard looked venerable; and they had red cloth
collars round their necks and gold lace on their sleeves like Government
officials. They sat proudly behind a long table; and in the next room,
so that the common people shouldn't hear, they kept a cunning telegraph
machine, through which they could talk to the Emperor of America. The
fathers hung about the door, but the young men of the mountains would
crowd up to the table asking many questions, for there was work to
be got all the year round at three dollars a day in America, and no
military service to do.

"But the American Kaiser would not take everybody. Oh, no! He himself
had a great difficulty in getting accepted, and the venerable man in
uniform had to go out of the room several times to work the telegraph on
his behalf. The American Kaiser engaged him at last at three dollars, he
being young and strong. However, many able young men backed out, afraid
of the great distance; besides, those only who had some money could be
taken. There were some who sold their huts and their land because it
cost a lot of money to get to America; but then, once there, you had
three dollars a day, and if you were clever you could find places where
true gold could be picked up on the ground. His father's house was
getting over full. Two of his brothers were married and had children.
He promised to send money home from America by post twice a year. His
father sold an old cow, a pair of piebald mountain ponies of his own
raising, and a cleared plot of fair pasture land on the sunny slope of
a pine-clad pass to a Jew inn-keeper in order to pay the people of the
ship that took men to America to get rich in a short time.

"He must have been a real adventurer at heart, for how many of the
greatest enterprises in the conquest of the earth had for their
beginning just such a bargaining away of the paternal cow for the mirage
or true gold far away! I have been telling you more or less in my own
words what I learned fragmentarily in the course of two or three years,
during which I seldom missed an opportunity of a friendly chat with him.
He told me this story of his adventure with many flashes of white
teeth and lively glances of black eyes, at first in a sort of anxious
baby-talk, then, as he acquired the language, with great fluency,
but always with that singing, soft, and at the same time vibrating
intonation that instilled a strangely penetrating power into the sound
of the most familiar English words, as if they had been the words of
an unearthly language. And he always would come to an end, with many
emphatic shakes of his head, upon that awful sensation of his heart
melting within him directly he set foot on board that ship. Afterwards
there seemed to come for him a period of blank ignorance, at any rate as
to facts. No doubt he must have been abominably sea-sick and abominably
unhappy - this soft and passionate adventurer, taken thus out of his
knowledge, and feeling bitterly as he lay in his emigrant bunk his utter
loneliness; for his was a highly sensitive nature. The next thing
we know of him for certain is that he had been hiding in Hammond's
pig-pound by the side of the road to Norton six miles, as the crow
flies, from the sea. Of these experiences he was unwilling to speak:
they seemed to have seared into his soul a sombre sort of wonder and
indignation. Through the rumours of the country-side, which lasted for
a good many days after his arrival, we know that the fishermen of West
Colebrook had been disturbed and startled by heavy knocks against the
walls of weatherboard cottages, and by a voice crying piercingly strange
words in the night. Several of them turned out even, but, no doubt, he
had fled in sudden alarm at their rough angry tones hailing each other
in the darkness. A sort of frenzy must have helped him up the steep
Norton hill. It was he, no doubt, who early the following morning had


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Online LibraryJoseph ConradAmy Foster → online text (page 1 of 3)