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Produced by Judith Boss and David Widger


by Joseph Conrad

_Pues el delito mayor Del hombre es haber nacito_ CALDERON



"An Outcast of the Islands" is my second novel in the absolute sense of
the word; second in conception, second in execution, second as it were
in its essence. There was no hesitation, half-formed plan, vague idea,
or the vaguest reverie of anything else between it and "Almayer's
Folly." The only doubt I suffered from, after the publication of
"Almayer's Folly," was whether I should write another line for print.
Those days, now grown so dim, had their poignant moments. Neither in
my mind nor in my heart had I then given up the sea. In truth I was
clinging to it desperately, all the more desperately because, against
my will, I could not help feeling that there was something changed in my
relation to it. "Almayer's Folly," had been finished and done with. The
mood itself was gone. But it had left the memory of an experience that,
both in thought and emotion was unconnected with the sea, and I suppose
that part of my moral being which is rooted in consistency was badly
shaken. I was a victim of contrary stresses which produced a state of
immobility. I gave myself up to indolence. Since it was impossible for
me to face both ways I had elected to face nothing. The discovery of
new values in life is a very chaotic experience; there is a tremendous
amount of jostling and confusion and a momentary feeling of darkness. I
let my spirit float supine over that chaos.

A phrase of Edward Garnett's is, as a matter of fact, responsible for
this book. The first of the friends I made for myself by my pen it
was but natural that he should be the recipient, at that time, of my
confidences. One evening when we had dined together and he had listened
to the account of my perplexities (I fear he must have been growing a
little tired of them) he pointed out that there was no need to determine
my future absolutely. Then he added: "You have the style, you have the
temperament; why not write another?" I believe that as far as one man
may wish to influence another man's life Edward Garnett had a great
desire that I should go on writing. At that time, and I may say, ever
afterwards, he was always very patient and gentle with me. What strikes
me most however in the phrase quoted above which was offered to me in a
tone of detachment is not its gentleness but its effective wisdom. Had
he said, "Why not go on writing," it is very probable he would have
scared me away from pen and ink for ever; but there was nothing either
to frighten one or arouse one's antagonism in the mere suggestion to
"write another." And thus a dead point in the revolution of my affairs
was insidiously got over. The word "another" did it. At about eleven
o'clock of a nice London night, Edward and I walked along interminable
streets talking of many things, and I remember that on getting home
I sat down and wrote about half a page of "An Outcast of the Islands"
before I slept. This was committing myself definitely, I won't say to
another life, but to another book. There is apparently something in my
character which will not allow me to abandon for good any piece of work
I have begun. I have laid aside many beginnings. I have laid them aside
with sorrow, with disgust, with rage, with melancholy and even with
self-contempt; but even at the worst I had an uneasy consciousness that
I would have to go back to them.

"An Outcast of the Islands" belongs to those novels of mine that were
never laid aside; and though it brought me the qualification of "exotic
writer" I don't think the charge was at all justified.

For the life of me I don't see that there is the slightest exotic spirit
in the conception or style of that novel. It is certainly the most
_tropical_ of my eastern tales. The mere scenery got a great hold on
me as I went on, perhaps because (I may just as well confess that) the
story itself was never very near my heart.

It engaged my imagination much more than my affection. As to my feeling
for Willems it was but the regard one cannot help having for one's own
creation. Obviously I could not be indifferent to a man on whose head I
had brought so much evil simply by imagining him such as he appears in
the novel - and that, too, on a very slight foundation.

The man who suggested Willems to me was not particularly interesting in
himself. My interest was aroused by his dependent position, his strange,
dubious status of a mistrusted, disliked, worn-out European living on
the reluctant toleration of that Settlement hidden in the heart of the
forest-land, up that sombre stream which our ship was the only white
men's ship to visit. With his hollow, clean-shaved cheeks, a heavy grey
moustache and eyes without any expression whatever, clad always in a
spotless sleeping suit much be-frogged in front, which left his lean
neck wholly uncovered, and with his bare feet in a pair of straw
slippers, he wandered silently amongst the houses in daylight, almost as
dumb as an animal and apparently much more homeless. I don't know
what he did with himself at night. He must have had a place, a hut,
a palm-leaf shed, some sort of hovel where he kept his razor and his
change of sleeping suits. An air of futile mystery hung over him,
something not exactly dark but obviously ugly. The only definite
statement I could extract from anybody was that it was he who had
"brought the Arabs into the river." That must have happened many years
before. But how did he bring them into the river? He could hardly have
done it in his arms like a lot of kittens. I knew that Almayer founded
the chronology of all his misfortunes on the date of that fateful
advent; and yet the very first time we dined with Almayer there was
Willems sitting at table with us in the manner of the skeleton at the
feast, obviously shunned by everybody, never addressed by any one, and
for all recognition of his existence getting now and then from Almayer
a venomous glance which I observed with great surprise. In the course
of the whole evening he ventured one single remark which I didn't catch
because his articulation was imperfect, as of a man who had forgotten
how to speak. I was the only person who seemed aware of the sound.
Willems subsided. Presently he retired, pointedly unnoticed - into the
forest maybe? Its immensity was there, within three hundred yards of
the verandah, ready to swallow up anything. Almayer conversing with my
captain did not stop talking while he glared angrily at the retreating
back. Didn't that fellow bring the Arabs into the river! Nevertheless
Willems turned up next morning on Almayer's verandah. From the bridge of
the steamer I could see plainly these two, breakfasting together, tete
a tete and, I suppose, in dead silence, one with his air of being no
longer interested in this world and the other raising his eyes now and
then with intense dislike.

It was clear that in those days Willems lived on Almayer's charity. Yet
on returning two months later to Sambir I heard that he had gone on an
expedition up the river in charge of a steam-launch belonging to the
Arabs, to make some discovery or other. On account of the strange
reluctance that everyone manifested to talk about Willems it was
impossible for me to get at the rights of that transaction. Moreover, I
was a newcomer, the youngest of the company, and, I suspect, not judged
quite fit as yet for a full confidence. I was not much concerned about
that exclusion. The faint suggestion of plots and mysteries pertaining
to all matters touching Almayer's affairs amused me vastly. Almayer was
obviously very much affected. I believe he missed Willems immensely. He
wore an air of sinister preoccupation and talked confidentially with
my captain. I could catch only snatches of mumbled sentences. Then one
morning as I came along the deck to take my place at the breakfast table
Almayer checked himself in his low-toned discourse. My captain's face
was perfectly impenetrable. There was a moment of profound silence and
then as if unable to contain himself Almayer burst out in a loud vicious

"One thing's certain; if he finds anything worth having up there they
will poison him like a dog."

Disconnected though it was, that phrase, as food for thought, was
distinctly worth hearing. We left the river three days afterwards and I
never returned to Sambir; but whatever happened to the protagonist of
my Willems nobody can deny that I have recorded for him a less squalid

J. C. 1919.




When he stepped off the straight and narrow path of his peculiar
honesty, it was with an inward assertion of unflinching resolve to fall
back again into the monotonous but safe stride of virtue as soon as his
little excursion into the wayside quagmires had produced the desired
effect. It was going to be a short episode - a sentence in brackets, so
to speak - in the flowing tale of his life: a thing of no moment, to be
done unwillingly, yet neatly, and to be quickly forgotten. He imagined
that he could go on afterwards looking at the sunshine, enjoying the
shade, breathing in the perfume of flowers in the small garden before
his house. He fancied that nothing would be changed, that he would be
able as heretofore to tyrannize good-humouredly over his half-caste
wife, to notice with tender contempt his pale yellow child, to patronize
loftily his dark-skinned brother-in-law, who loved pink neckties and
wore patent-leather boots on his little feet, and was so humble before
the white husband of the lucky sister. Those were the delights of his
life, and he was unable to conceive that the moral significance of any
act of his could interfere with the very nature of things, could dim
the light of the sun, could destroy the perfume of the flowers, the
submission of his wife, the smile of his child, the awe-struck respect
of Leonard da Souza and of all the Da Souza family. That family's
admiration was the great luxury of his life. It rounded and completed
his existence in a perpetual assurance of unquestionable superiority.
He loved to breathe the coarse incense they offered before the shrine of
the successful white man; the man that had done them the honour to marry
their daughter, sister, cousin; the rising man sure to climb very
high; the confidential clerk of Hudig & Co. They were a numerous and an
unclean crowd, living in ruined bamboo houses, surrounded by neglected
compounds, on the outskirts of Macassar. He kept them at arm's length
and even further off, perhaps, having no illusions as to their worth.
They were a half-caste, lazy lot, and he saw them as they were - ragged,
lean, unwashed, undersized men of various ages, shuffling about
aimlessly in slippers; motionless old women who looked like monstrous
bags of pink calico stuffed with shapeless lumps of fat, and deposited
askew upon decaying rattan chairs in shady corners of dusty verandahs;
young women, slim and yellow, big-eyed, long-haired, moving languidly
amongst the dirt and rubbish of their dwellings as if every step
they took was going to be their very last. He heard their shrill
quarrellings, the squalling of their children, the grunting of their
pigs; he smelt the odours of the heaps of garbage in their courtyards:
and he was greatly disgusted. But he fed and clothed that shabby
multitude; those degenerate descendants of Portuguese conquerors; he was
their providence; he kept them singing his praises in the midst of their
laziness, of their dirt, of their immense and hopeless squalor: and he
was greatly delighted. They wanted much, but he could give them all they
wanted without ruining himself. In exchange he had their silent fear,
their loquacious love, their noisy veneration. It is a fine thing to be
a providence, and to be told so on every day of one's life. It gives one
a feeling of enormously remote superiority, and Willems revelled in
it. He did not analyze the state of his mind, but probably his greatest
delight lay in the unexpressed but intimate conviction that, should
he close his hand, all those admiring human beings would starve. His
munificence had demoralized them. An easy task. Since he descended
amongst them and married Joanna they had lost the little aptitude and
strength for work they might have had to put forth under the stress of
extreme necessity. They lived now by the grace of his will. This was
power. Willems loved it. In another, and perhaps a lower plane, his days
did not want for their less complex but more obvious pleasures. He liked
the simple games of skill - billiards; also games not so simple, and
calling for quite another kind of skill - poker. He had been the
aptest pupil of a steady-eyed, sententious American, who had drifted
mysteriously into Macassar from the wastes of the Pacific, and, after
knocking about for a time in the eddies of town life, had drifted out
enigmatically into the sunny solitudes of the Indian Ocean. The memory
of the Californian stranger was perpetuated in the game of poker - which
became popular in the capital of Celebes from that time - and in
a powerful cocktail, the recipe for which is transmitted - in the
Kwang-tung dialect - from head boy to head boy of the Chinese servants in
the Sunda Hotel even to this day. Willems was a connoisseur in the drink
and an adept at the game. Of those accomplishments he was moderately
proud. Of the confidence reposed in him by Hudig - the master - he was
boastfully and obtrusively proud. This arose from his great benevolence,
and from an exalted sense of his duty to himself and the world at large.
He experienced that irresistible impulse to impart information which is
inseparable from gross ignorance. There is always some one thing which
the ignorant man knows, and that thing is the only thing worth knowing;
it fills the ignorant man's universe. Willems knew all about himself.
On the day when, with many misgivings, he ran away from a Dutch
East-Indiaman in Samarang roads, he had commenced that study of
himself, of his own ways, of his own abilities, of those fate-compelling
qualities of his which led him toward that lucrative position which
he now filled. Being of a modest and diffident nature, his successes
amazed, almost frightened him, and ended - as he got over the succeeding
shocks of surprise - by making him ferociously conceited. He believed in
his genius and in his knowledge of the world. Others should know of it
also; for their own good and for his greater glory. All those friendly
men who slapped him on the back and greeted him noisily should have
the benefit of his example. For that he must talk. He talked to them
conscientiously. In the afternoon he expounded his theory of success
over the little tables, dipping now and then his moustache in the
crushed ice of the cocktails; in the evening he would often hold forth,
cue in hand, to a young listener across the billiard table. The billiard
balls stood still as if listening also, under the vivid brilliance of
the shaded oil lamps hung low over the cloth; while away in the shadows
of the big room the Chinaman marker would lean wearily against the
wall, the blank mask of his face looking pale under the mahogany
marking-board; his eyelids dropped in the drowsy fatigue of late hours
and in the buzzing monotony of the unintelligible stream of words poured
out by the white man. In a sudden pause of the talk the game would
recommence with a sharp click and go on for a time in the flowing soft
whirr and the subdued thuds as the balls rolled zig-zagging towards the
inevitably successful cannon. Through the big windows and the open doors
the salt dampness of the sea, the vague smell of mould and flowers from
the garden of the hotel drifted in and mingled with the odour of lamp
oil, growing heavier as the night advanced. The players' heads dived
into the light as they bent down for the stroke, springing back again
smartly into the greenish gloom of broad lamp-shades; the clock ticked
methodically; the unmoved Chinaman continuously repeated the score in a
lifeless voice, like a big talking doll - and Willems would win the game.
With a remark that it was getting late, and that he was a married man,
he would say a patronizing good-night and step out into the long,
empty street. At that hour its white dust was like a dazzling streak of
moonlight where the eye sought repose in the dimmer gleam of rare oil
lamps. Willems walked homewards, following the line of walls overtopped
by the luxuriant vegetation of the front gardens. The houses right and
left were hidden behind the black masses of flowering shrubs. Willems
had the street to himself. He would walk in the middle, his shadow
gliding obsequiously before him. He looked down on it complacently.
The shadow of a successful man! He would be slightly dizzy with the
cocktails and with the intoxication of his own glory. As he often told
people, he came east fourteen years ago - a cabin boy. A small boy. His
shadow must have been very small at that time; he thought with a smile
that he was not aware then he had anything - even a shadow - which
he dared call his own. And now he was looking at the shadow of the
confidential clerk of Hudig & Co. going home. How glorious! How good
was life for those that were on the winning side! He had won the game
of life; also the game of billiards. He walked faster, jingling his
winnings, and thinking of the white stone days that had marked the path
of his existence. He thought of the trip to Lombok for ponies - that
first important transaction confided to him by Hudig; then he reviewed
the more important affairs: the quiet deal in opium; the illegal traffic
in gunpowder; the great affair of smuggled firearms, the difficult
business of the Rajah of Goak. He carried that last through by sheer
pluck; he had bearded the savage old ruler in his council room; he had
bribed him with a gilt glass coach, which, rumour said, was used as a
hen-coop now; he had over-persuaded him; he had bested him in every way.
That was the way to get on. He disapproved of the elementary dishonesty
that dips the hand in the cash-box, but one could evade the laws and
push the principles of trade to their furthest consequences. Some call
that cheating. Those are the fools, the weak, the contemptible. The
wise, the strong, the respected, have no scruples. Where there are
scruples there can be no power. On that text he preached often to the
young men. It was his doctrine, and he, himself, was a shining example
of its truth.

Night after night he went home thus, after a day of toil and pleasure,
drunk with the sound of his own voice celebrating his own prosperity. On
his thirtieth birthday he went home thus. He had spent in good company
a nice, noisy evening, and, as he walked along the empty street, the
feeling of his own greatness grew upon him, lifted him above the white
dust of the road, and filled him with exultation and regrets. He had not
done himself justice over there in the hotel, he had not talked enough
about himself, he had not impressed his hearers enough. Never mind. Some
other time. Now he would go home and make his wife get up and listen to
him. Why should she not get up? - and mix a cocktail for him - and listen
patiently. Just so. She shall. If he wanted he could make all the Da
Souza family get up. He had only to say a word and they would all come
and sit silently in their night vestments on the hard, cold ground of
his compound and listen, as long as he wished to go on explaining to
them from the top of the stairs, how great and good he was. They would.
However, his wife would do - for to-night.

His wife! He winced inwardly. A dismal woman with startled eyes and
dolorously drooping mouth, that would listen to him in pained wonder
and mute stillness. She was used to those night-discourses now. She had
rebelled once - at the beginning. Only once. Now, while he sprawled in
the long chair and drank and talked, she would stand at the further
end of the table, her hands resting on the edge, her frightened eyes
watching his lips, without a sound, without a stir, hardly breathing,
till he dismissed her with a contemptuous: "Go to bed, dummy." She would
draw a long breath then and trail out of the room, relieved but unmoved.
Nothing could startle her, make her scold or make her cry. She did
not complain, she did not rebel. That first difference of theirs
was decisive. Too decisive, thought Willems, discontentedly. It had
frightened the soul out of her body apparently. A dismal woman! A
damn'd business altogether! What the devil did he want to go and saddle
himself. . . . Ah! Well! he wanted a home, and the match seemed to
please Hudig, and Hudig gave him the bungalow, that flower-bowered house
to which he was wending his way in the cool moonlight. And he had
the worship of the Da Souza tribe. A man of his stamp could carry off
anything, do anything, aspire to anything. In another five years those
white people who attended the Sunday card-parties of the Governor would
accept him - half-caste wife and all! Hooray! He saw his shadow dart
forward and wave a hat, as big as a rum barrel, at the end of an
arm several yards long. . . . Who shouted hooray? . . . He smiled
shamefacedly to himself, and, pushing his hands deep into his pockets,
walked faster with a suddenly grave face. Behind him - to the left - a
cigar end glowed in the gateway of Mr. Vinck's front yard. Leaning
against one of the brick pillars, Mr. Vinck, the cashier of Hudig &
Co., smoked the last cheroot of the evening. Amongst the shadows of
the trimmed bushes Mrs. Vinck crunched slowly, with measured steps, the
gravel of the circular path before the house.

"There's Willems going home on foot - and drunk I fancy," said Mr. Vinck
over his shoulder. "I saw him jump and wave his hat."

The crunching of the gravel stopped.

"Horrid man," said Mrs. Vinck, calmly. "I have heard he beats his wife."

"Oh no, my dear, no," muttered absently Mr. Vinck, with a vague gesture.
The aspect of Willems as a wife-beater presented to him no interest. How
women do misjudge! If Willems wanted to torture his wife he would have
recourse to less primitive methods. Mr. Vinck knew Willems well, and
believed him to be very able, very smart - objectionably so. As he took
the last quick draws at the stump of his cheroot, Mr. Vinck reflected
that the confidence accorded by Hudig to Willems was open, under the
circumstances, to loyal criticism from Hudig's cashier.

"He is becoming dangerous; he knows too much. He will have to be got rid
of," said Mr. Vinck aloud. But Mrs. Vinck had gone in already, and after
shaking his head he threw away his cheroot and followed her slowly.

Willems walked on homeward weaving the splendid web of his future. The
road to greatness lay plainly before his eyes, straight and shining,
without any obstacle that he could see. He had stepped off the path
of honesty, as he understood it, but he would soon regain it, never
to leave it any more! It was a very small matter. He would soon put it
right again. Meantime his duty was not to be found out, and he trusted
in his skill, in his luck, in his well-established reputation that would
disarm suspicion if anybody dared to suspect. But nobody would dare!
True, he was conscious of a slight deterioration. He had appropriated
temporarily some of Hudig's money. A deplorable necessity. But he judged
himself with the indulgence that should be extended to the weaknesses
of genius. He would make reparation and all would be as before; nobody
would be the loser for it, and he would go on unchecked toward the
brilliant goal of his ambition.

Hudig's partner!

Before going up the steps of his house he stood for awhile, his feet
well apart, chin in hand, contemplating mentally Hudig's future partner.
A glorious occupation. He saw him quite safe; solid as the hills;
deep - deep as an abyss; discreet as the grave.


The sea, perhaps because of its saltness, roughens the outside but keeps
sweet the kernel of its servants' soul. The old sea; the sea of many
years ago, whose servants were devoted slaves and went from youth to age
or to a sudden grave without needing to open the book of life, because
they could look at eternity reflected on the element that gave the life
and dealt the death. Like a beautiful and unscrupulous woman, the sea
of the past was glorious in its smiles, irresistible in its anger,
capricious, enticing, illogical, irresponsible; a thing to love, a thing
to fear. It cast a spell, it gave joy, it lulled gently into boundless

Online LibraryJoseph ConradAn Outcast of the Islands → online text (page 1 of 25)