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Chapter 1

A PERSONAL RECORD

I

Books may be written in all sorts of places. Verbal inspiration may
enter the berth of a mariner on board a ship frozen fast in a river in
the middle of a town; and since saints are supposed to look benignantly
on humble believers, I indulge in the pleasant fancy that the shade
of old Flaubert--who imagined himself to be (among other things) a
descendant of Vikings--might have hovered with amused interest over
the docks of a 2,000-ton steamer called the Adowa, on board of which,
gripped by the inclement winter alongside a quay in Rouen, the tenth
chapter of "Almayer's Folly" was begun. With interest, I say, for was
not the kind Norman giant with enormous mustaches and a thundering voice
the last of the Romantics? Was he not, in his unworldly, almost ascetic,
devotion to his art, a sort of literary, saint-like hermit?

"'It has set at last,' said Nina to her mother, pointing to the hills
behind which the sun had sunk." . . . These words of Almayer's romantic
daughter I remember tracing on the gray paper of a pad which rested on
the blanket of my bed-place. They referred to a sunset in Malayan Isles
and shaped themselves in my mind, in a hallucinated vision of forests
and rivers and seas, far removed from a commercial and yet romantic town
of the northern hemisphere. But at that moment the mood of visions and
words was cut short by the third officer, a cheerful and casual youth,
coming in with a bang of the door and the exclamation: "You've made it
jolly warm in here."

It was warm. I had turned on the steam heater after placing a tin under
the leaky water-cock--for perhaps you do not know that water will leak
where steam will not. I am not aware of what my young friend had
been doing on deck all that morning, but the hands he rubbed together
vigorously were very red and imparted to me a chilly feeling by their
mere aspect. He has remained the only banjoist of my acquaintance, and
being also a younger son of a retired colonel, the poem of Mr. Kipling,
by a strange aberration of associated ideas, always seems to me to have
been written with an exclusive view to his person. When he did not
play the banjo he loved to sit and look at it. He proceeded to this
sentimental inspection, and after meditating a while over the strings
under my silent scrutiny inquired, airily:

"What are you always scribbling there, if it's fair to ask?"

It was a fair enough question, but I did not answer him, and simply
turned the pad over with a movement of instinctive secrecy: I could not
have told him he had put to flight the psychology of Nina Almayer, her
opening speech of the tenth chapter, and the words of Mrs. Almayer's
wisdom which were to follow in the ominous oncoming of a tropical night.
I could not have told him that Nina had said, "It has set at last."
He would have been extremely surprised and perhaps have dropped his
precious banjo. Neither could I have told him that the sun of my
sea-going was setting, too, even as I wrote the words expressing the
impatience of passionate youth bent on its desire. I did not know this
myself, and it is safe to say he would not have cared, though he was an
excellent young fellow and treated me with more deference than, in our
relative positions, I was strictly entitled to.

He lowered a tender gaze on his banjo, and I went on looking through the
port-hole. The round opening framed in its brass rim a fragment of the
quays, with a row of casks ranged on the frozen ground and the tail end
of a great cart. A red-nosed carter in a blouse and a woollen night-cap
leaned against the wheel. An idle, strolling custom house guard, belted
over his blue capote, had the air of being depressed by exposure to the
weather and the monotony of official existence. The background of grimy
houses found a place in the picture framed by my port-hole, across a
wide stretch of paved quay brown with frozen mud. The colouring
was sombre, and the most conspicuous feature was a little cafe with
curtained windows and a shabby front of white woodwork, corresponding
with the squalor of these poorer quarters bordering the river. We had
been shifted down there from another berth in the neighbourhood of the
Opera House, where that same port-hole gave me a view of quite another
soft of cafe--the best in the town, I believe, and the very one where
the worthy Bovary and his wife, the romantic daughter of old Pere
Renault, had some refreshment after the memorable performance of an
opera which was the tragic story of Lucia di Lammermoor in a setting of
light music.

I could recall no more the hallucination of the Eastern Archipelago
which I certainly hoped to see again. The story of "Almayer's Folly"
got put away under the pillow for that day. I do not know that I had any
occupation to keep me away from it; the truth of the matter is that on
board that ship we were leading just then a contemplative life. I
will not say anything of my privileged position. I was there "just to
oblige," as an actor of standing may take a small part in the benefit
performance of a friend.

As far as my feelings were concerned I did not wish to be in that
steamer at that time and in those circumstances. And perhaps I was not
even wanted there in the usual sense in which a ship "wants" an
officer. It was the first and last instance in my sea life when I served
ship-owners who have remained completely shadowy to my apprehension. I
do not mean this for the well-known firm of London ship-brokers which
had chartered the ship to the, I will not say short-lived, but ephemeral
Franco-Canadian Transport Company. A death leaves something behind,
but there was never anything tangible left from the F. C. T. C. It
flourished no longer than roses live, and unlike the roses it blossomed
in the dead of winter, emitted a sort of faint perfume of adventure, and
died before spring set in. But indubitably it was a company, it had even
a house-flag, all white with the letters F. C. T. C. artfully tangled
up in a complicated monogram. We flew it at our mainmast head, and now
I have come to the conclusion that it was the only flag of its kind in
existence. All the same we on board, for many days, had the impression
of being a unit of a large fleet with fortnightly departures for
Montreal and Quebec as advertised in pamphlets and prospectuses which
came aboard in a large package in Victoria Dock, London, just before we
started for Rouen, France. And in the shadowy life of the F. C. T. C.
lies the secret of that, my last employment in my calling, which in a
remote sense interrupted the rhythmical development of Nina Almayer's
story.

The then secretary of the London Shipmasters' Society, with its modest
rooms in Fenchurch Street, was a man of indefatigable activity and the
greatest devotion to his task. He is responsible for what was my last
association with a ship. I call it that be cause it can hardly be called
a sea-going experience. Dear Captain Froud--it is impossible not to
pay him the tribute of affectionate familiarity at this distance of
years--had very sound views as to the advancement of knowledge and
status for the whole body of the officers of the mercantile marine. He
organized for us courses of professional lectures, St. John ambulance
classes, corresponded industriously with public bodies and members of
Parliament on subjects touching the interests of the service; and as to
the oncoming of some inquiry or commission relating to matters of the
sea and to the work of seamen, it was a perfect godsend to his need of
exerting himself on our corporate behalf. Together with this high sense
of his official duties he had in him a vein of personal kindness, a
strong disposition to do what good he could to the individual members of
that craft of which in his time he had been a very excellent master. And
what greater kindness can one do to a seaman than to put him in the way
of employment? Captain Froud did not see why the Shipmasters' Society,
besides its general guardianship of our interests, should not be
unofficially an employment agency of the very highest class.

"I am trying to persuade all our great ship-owning firms to come to
us for their men. There is nothing of a trade-union spirit about our
society, and I really don't see why they should not," he said once
to me. "I am always telling the captains, too, that, all things being
equal, they ought to give preference to the members of the society.
In my position I can generally find for them what they want among our
members or our associate members."

In my wanderings about London from west to east and back again (I was
very idle then) the two little rooms in Fenchurch Street were a sort
of resting-place where my spirit, hankering after the sea, could feel
itself nearer to the ships, the men, and the life of its choice--nearer
there than on any other spot of the solid earth. This resting-place used
to be, at about five o'clock in the afternoon, full of men and tobacco
smoke, but Captain Froud had the smaller room to himself and there
he granted private interviews, whose principal motive was to render
service. Thus, one murky November afternoon he beckoned me in with a
crooked finger and that peculiar glance above his spectacles which is
perhaps my strongest physical recollection of the man.

"I have had in here a shipmaster, this morning," he said, getting back
to his desk and motioning me to a chair, "who is in want of an officer.
It's for a steamship. You know, nothing pleases me more than to be
asked, but, unfortunately, I do not quite see my way . . ."

As the outer room was full of men I cast a wondering glance at the
closed door; but he shook his head.

"Oh, yes, I should be only too glad to get that berth for one of them.
But the fact of the matter is, the captain of that ship wants an officer
who can speak French fluently, and that's not so easy to find. I do
not know anybody myself but you. It's a second officer's berth and, of
course, you would not care . . . would you now? I know that it isn't
what you are looking for."

It was not. I had given myself up to the idleness of a haunted man who
looks for nothing but words wherein to capture his visions. But I admit
that outwardly I resembled sufficiently a man who could make a second
officer for a steamer chartered by a French company. I showed no sign
of being haunted by the fate of Nina and by the murmurs of tropical
forests; and even my intimate intercourse with Almayer (a person of weak
character) had not put a visible mark upon my features. For many years
he and the world of his story had been the companions of my imagination
without, I hope, impairing my ability to deal with the realities of
sea life. I had had the man and his surroundings with me ever since my
return from the eastern waters--some four years before the day of which
I speak.

It was in the front sitting-room of furnished apartments in a Pimlico
square that they first began to live again with a vividness and
poignancy quite foreign to our former real intercourse. I had been
treating myself to a long stay on shore, and in the necessity of
occupying my mornings Almayer (that old acquaintance) came nobly to the
rescue.

Before long, as was only proper, his wife and daughter joined him round
my table, and then the rest of that Pantai band came full of words
and gestures. Unknown to my respectable landlady, it was my practice
directly after my breakfast to hold animated receptions of Malays,
Arabs, and half-castes. They did not clamour aloud for my attention.
They came with a silent and irresistible appeal--and the appeal, I
affirm here, was not to my self-love or my vanity. It seems now to have
had a moral character, for why should the memory of these beings, seen
in their obscure, sun-bathed existence, demand to express itself in the
shape of a novel, except on the ground of that mysterious fellowship
which unites in a community of hopes and fears all the dwellers on this
earth?

I did not receive my visitors with boisterous rapture as the bearers
of any gifts of profit or fame. There was no vision of a printed book
before me as I sat writing at that table, situated in a decayed part of
Belgravia. After all these years, each leaving its evidence of slowly
blackened pages, I can honestly say that it is a sentiment akin to pity
which prompted me to render in words assembled with conscientious care
the memory of things far distant and of men who had lived.

But, coming back to Captain Froud and his fixed idea of never
disappointing ship owners or ship-captains, it was not likely that I
should fail him in his ambition--to satisfy at a few hours' notice the
unusual demand for a French-speaking officer. He explained to me that
the ship was chartered by a French company intending to establish a
regular monthly line of sailings from Rouen, for the transport of French
emigrants to Canada. But, frankly, this sort of thing did not interest
me very much. I said gravely that if it were really a matter of keeping
up the reputation of the Shipmasters' Society I would consider it. But
the consideration was just for form's sake. The next day I interviewed
the captain, and I believe we were impressed favourably with each other.
He explained that his chief mate was an excellent man in every respect
and that he could not think of dismissing him so as to give me the
higher position; but that if I consented to come as second officer I
would be given certain special advantages--and so on.

I told him that if I came at all the rank really did not matter.

"I am sure," he insisted, "you will get on first rate with Mr. Paramor."

I promised faithfully to stay for two trips at least, and it was in
those circumstances that what was to be my last connection with a ship
began. And after all there was not even one single trip. It may be
that it was simply the fulfilment of a fate, of that written word on my
forehead which apparently for bade me, through all my sea wanderings,
ever to achieve the crossing of the Western Ocean--using the words in
that special sense in which sailors speak of Western Ocean trade,
of Western Ocean packets, of Western Ocean hard cases. The new life
attended closely upon the old, and the nine chapters of "Almayer's
Folly" went with me to the Victoria Dock, whence in a few days we
started for Rouen. I won't go so far as saying that the engaging of a
man fated never to cross the Western Ocean was the absolute cause of
the Franco-Canadian Transport Company's failure to achieve even a single
passage. It might have been that of course; but the obvious, gross
obstacle was clearly the want of money. Four hundred and sixty bunks
for emigrants were put together in the 'tween decks by industrious
carpenters while we lay in the Victoria Dock, but never an emigrant
turned up in Rouen--of which, being a humane person, I confess I was
glad. Some gentlemen from Paris--I think there were three of them, and
one was said to be the chairman--turned up, indeed, and went from end
to end of the ship, knocking their silk hats cruelly against the deck
beams. I attended them personally, and I can vouch for it that the
interest they took in things was intelligent enough, though, obviously,
they had never seen anything of the sort before. Their faces as they
went ashore wore a cheerfully inconclusive expression. Notwithstanding
that this inspecting ceremony was supposed to be a preliminary to
immediate sailing, it was then, as they filed down our gangway, that I
received the inward monition that no sailing within the meaning of our
charter party would ever take place.

It must be said that in less than three weeks a move took place. When
we first arrived we had been taken up with much ceremony well toward the
centre of the town, and, all the street corners being placarded with
the tricolor posters announcing the birth of our company, the petit
bourgeois with his wife and family made a Sunday holiday from the
inspection of the ship. I was always in evidence in my best uniform to
give information as though I had been a Cook's tourists' interpreter,
while our quartermasters reaped a harvest of small change from
personally conducted parties. But when the move was made--that move
which carried us some mile and a half down the stream to be tied up to
an altogether muddier and shabbier quay--then indeed the desolation of
solitude became our lot. It was a complete and soundless stagnation; for
as we had the ship ready for sea to the smallest detail, as the frost
was hard and the days short, we were absolutely idle--idle to the point
of blushing with shame when the thought struck us that all the time our
salaries went on. Young Cole was aggrieved because, as he said, we could
not enjoy any sort of fun in the evening after loafing like this all
day; even the banjo lost its charm since there was nothing to prevent
his strumming on it all the time between the meals. The good Paramor--he
was really a most excellent fellow--became unhappy as far as was
possible to his cheery nature, till one dreary day I suggested, out of
sheer mischief, that he should employ the dormant energies of the crew
in hauling both cables up on deck and turning them end for end.

For a moment Mr. Paramor was radiant. "Excellent idea!" but directly
his face fell. "Why . . . Yes! But we can't make that job last more
than three days," he muttered, discontentedly. I don't know how long he
expected us to be stuck on the riverside outskirts of Rouen, but I know
that the cables got hauled up and turned end for end according to my
satanic suggestion, put down again, and their very existence utterly
forgotten, I believe, before a French river pilot came on board to take
our ship down, empty as she came, into the Havre roads. You may think
that this state of forced idleness favoured some advance in the fortunes
of Almayer and his daughter. Yet it was not so. As if it were some sort
of evil spell, my banjoist cabin mate's interruption, as related above,
had arrested them short at the point of that fateful sunset for many
weeks together. It was always thus with this book, begun in '89 and
finished in '94--with that shortest of all the novels which it was to be
my lot to write. Between its opening exclamation calling Almayer to his
dinner in his wife's voice and Abdullah's (his enemy) mental reference
to the God of Islam--"The Merciful, the Compassionate"--which closes the
book, there were to come several long sea passages, a visit (to use the
elevated phraseology suitable to the occasion) to the scenes (some of
them) of my childhood and the realization of childhood's vain words,
expressing a light-hearted and romantic whim.

It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while looking
at a map of Africa of the time and putting my finger on the blank space
then representing the unsolved mystery of that continent, I said to
myself, with absolute assurance and an amazing audacity which are no
longer in my character now:

"When I grow up I shall go _there_."

And of course I thought no more about it till after a quarter of a
century or so an opportunity offered to go there--as if the sin of
childish audacity were to be visited on my mature head. Yes. I did go
there: _there_ being the region of Stanley Falls, which in '68 was the
blankest of blank spaces on the earth's figured surface. And the MS.
of "Almayer's Folly," carried about me as if it were a talisman or a
treasure, went _there_, too. That it ever came out of _there_ seems
a special dispensation of Providence, because a good many of my other
properties, infinitely more valuable and useful to me, remained behind
through unfortunate accidents of transportation. I call to mind, for
instance, a specially awkward turn of the Congo between Kinchassa and
Leopoldsville--more particularly when one had to take it at night in
a big canoe with only half the proper number of paddlers. I failed in
being the second white man on record drowned at that interesting spot
through the upsetting of a canoe. The first was a young Belgian officer,
but the accident happened some months before my time, and he, too, I
believe, was going home; not perhaps quite so ill as myself--but still
he was going home. I got round the turn more or less alive, though I
was too sick to care whether I did or not, and, always with "Almayer's
Folly" among my diminishing baggage, I arrived at that delectable
capital, Boma, where, before the departure of the steamer which was to
take me home, I had the time to wish myself dead over and over again
with perfect sincerity. At that date there were in existence only seven
chapters of "Almayer's Folly," but the chapter in my history which
followed was that of a long, long illness and very dismal convalescence.
Geneva, or more precisely the hydropathic establishment of Champel, is
rendered forever famous by the termination of the eighth chapter in
the history of Almayer's decline and fall. The events of the ninth are
inextricably mixed up with the details of the proper management of a
waterside warehouse owned by a certain city firm whose name does not
matter. But that work, undertaken to accustom myself again to the
activities of a healthy existence, soon came to an end. The earth had
nothing to hold me with for very long. And then that memorable story,
like a cask of choice Madeira, got carried for three years to and fro
upon the sea. Whether this treatment improved its flavour or not, of
course I would not like to say. As far as appearance is concerned it
certainly did nothing of the kind. The whole MS. acquired a faded look
and an ancient, yellowish complexion. It became at last unreasonable
to suppose that anything in the world would ever happen to Almayer and
Nina. And yet something most unlikely to happen on the high seas was to
wake them up from their state of suspended animation.

What is it that Novalis says: "It is certain my conviction gains
infinitely the moment an other soul will believe in it." And what is a
novel if not a conviction of our fellow-men's existence strong enough to
take upon itself a form of imagined life clearer than reality and whose
accumulated verisimilitude of selected episodes puts to shame the pride
of documentary history. Providence which saved my MS. from the Congo
rapids brought it to the knowledge of a helpful soul far out on the open
sea. It would be on my part the greatest ingratitude ever to forget the
sallow, sunken face and the deep-set, dark eyes of the young Cambridge
man (he was a "passenger for his health" on board the good ship Torrens
outward bound to Australia) who was the first reader of "Almayer's
Folly"--the very first reader I ever had.

"Would it bore you very much in reading a MS. in a handwriting like
mine?" I asked him one evening, on a sudden impulse at the end of a
longish conversation whose subject was Gibbon's History.

Jacques (that was his name) was sitting in my cabin one stormy dog-watch
below, after bring me a book to read from his own travelling store.

"Not at all," he answered, with his courteous intonation and a faint
smile. As I pulled a drawer open his suddenly aroused curiosity gave him
a watchful expression. I wonder what he expected to see. A poem, maybe.
All that's beyond guessing now.

He was not a cold, but a calm man, still more subdued by disease--a man
of few words and of an unassuming modesty in general intercourse, but
with something uncommon in the whole of his person which set him apart
from the undistinguished lot of our sixty passengers. His eyes had a
thoughtful, introspective look. In his attractive reserved manner and in
a veiled sympathetic voice he asked:

"What is this?" "It is a sort of tale," I answered, with an effort. "It
is not even finished yet. Nevertheless, I would like to know what you
think of it." He put the MS. in the breast-pocket of his jacket; I
remember perfectly his thin, brown fingers folding it lengthwise. "I
will read it to-morrow," he remarked, seizing the door handle; and then
watching the roll of the ship for a propitious moment, he opened the
door and was gone. In the moment of his exit I heard the sustained
booming of the wind, the swish of the water on the decks of the Torrens,
and the subdued, as if distant, roar of the rising sea. I noted the
growing disquiet in the great restlessness of the ocean, and responded
professionally to it with the thought that at eight o'clock, in another
half hour or so at the farthest, the topgallant sails would have to come
off the ship.

Next day, but this time in the first dog watch, Jacques entered my
cabin. He had a thick woollen muffler round his throat, and the MS.
was in his hand. He tendered it to me with a steady look, but without
a word. I took it in silence. He sat down on the couch and still said
nothing. I opened and shut a drawer under my desk, on which a filled-up
log-slate lay wide open in its wooden frame waiting to be copied neatly
into the sort of book I was accustomed to write with care, the ship's
log-book. I turned my back squarely on the desk. And even then Jacques
never offered a word. "Well, what do you say?" I asked at last. "Is
it worth finishing?" This question expressed exactly the whole of my
thoughts.

"Distinctly," he answered, in his sedate, veiled voice, and then coughed
a little.

"Were you interested?" I inquired further, almost in a whisper.

"Very much!"

In a pause I went on meeting instinctively the heavy rolling of the
ship, and Jacques put his feet upon the couch. The curtain of my
bed-place swung to and fro as if it were a punkah, the bulkhead lamp
circled in its gimbals, and now and then the cabin door rattled slightly
in the gusts of wind. It was in latitude 40 south, and nearly in the
longitude of Greenwich, as far as I can remember, that these quiet rites
of Almayer's and Nina's resurrection were taking place. In the prolonged
silence it occurred to me that there was a good deal of retrospective
writing in the story as far as it went. Was it intelligible in its
action, I asked myself, as if already the story-teller were being
born into the body of a seaman. But I heard on deck the whistle of the
officer of the watch and remained on the alert to catch the order that
was to follow this call to attention. It reached me as a faint, fierce
shout to "Square the yards." "Aha!" I thought to myself, "a westerly
blow coming on." Then I turned to my very first reader, who, alas! was
not to live long enough to know the end of the tale.

"Now let me ask you one more thing: is the story quite clear to you as
it stands?"

He raised his dark, gentle eyes to my face and seemed surprised.

"Yes! Perfectly."

This was all I was to hear from his lips concerning the merits of
"Almayer's Folly." We never spoke together of the book again. A long
period of bad weather set in and I had no thoughts left but for my
duties, while poor Jacques caught a fatal cold and had to keep close in
his cabin. When we arrived in Adelaide the first reader of my prose
went at once up-country, and died rather suddenly in the end, either in
Australia or it may be on the passage while going home through the Suez
Canal. I am not sure which it was now, and I do not think I ever heard
precisely; though I made inquiries about him from some of our return
passengers who, wandering about to "see the country" during the ship's
stay in port, had come upon him here and there. At last we sailed,
homeward bound, and still not one line was added to the careless scrawl
of the many pages which poor Jacques had had the patience to read with
the very shadows of Eternity gathering already in the hollows of his
kind, steadfast eyes.

The purpose instilled into me by his simple and final "Distinctly"
remained dormant, yet alive to await its opportunity. I dare say I am
compelled--unconsciously compelled--now to write volume after volume, as
in past years I was compelled to go to sea voyage after voyage. Leaves
must follow upon one an other as leagues used to follow in the days
gone by, on and on to the appointed end, which, being Truth itself, is
One--one for all men and for all occupations.

I do not know which of the two impulses has appeared more mysterious and
more wonderful to me. Still, in writing, as in going to sea, I had to
wait my opportunity. Let me confess here that I was never one of those
wonderful fellows that would go afloat in a wash-tub for the sake of the
fun, and if I may pride myself upon my consistency, it was ever just
the same with my writing. Some men, I have heard, write in railway
carriages, and could do it, perhaps, sitting crossed-legged on a
clothes-line; but I must confess that my sybaritic disposition will not
consent to write without something at least resembling a chair. Line by
line, rather than page by page, was the growth of "Almayer's Folly."

And so it happened that I very nearly lost the MS., advanced now to the
first words of the ninth chapter, in the Friedrichstrasse Poland, or
more precisely to Ukraine. On an early, sleepy morning changing trains
in a hurry I left my Gladstone bag in a refreshment-room. A worthy
and intelligent Koffertrager rescued it. Yet in my anxiety I was not
thinking of the MS., but of all the other things that were packed in the
bag.

In Warsaw, where I spent two days, those wandering pages were never
exposed to the light, except once to candle-light, while the bag lay
open on the chair. I was dressing hurriedly to dine at a sporting club.
A friend of my childhood (he had been in the Diplomatic Service, but
had turned to growing wheat on paternal acres, and we had not seen each
other for over twenty years) was sitting on the hotel sofa waiting to
carry me off there.

"You might tell me something of your life while you are dressing," he
suggested, kindly.

I do not think I told him much of my life story either then or later.
The talk of the select little party with which he made me dine was
extremely animated and embraced most subjects under heaven, from
big-game shooting in Africa to the last poem published in a very
modernist review, edited by the very young and patronized by the highest
society. But it never touched upon "Almayer's Folly," and next morning,
in uninterrupted obscurity, this inseparable companion went on rolling
with me in the southeast direction toward the government of Kiev.

At that time there was an eight hours' drive, if not more, from the
railway station to the country-house which was my destination.

"Dear boy" (these words were always written in English), so ran the last
letter from that house received in London--"Get yourself driven to the
only inn in the place, dine as well as you can, and some time in the
evening my own confidential servant, factotum and majordomo, a Mr. V. S.
(I warn you he is of noble extraction), will present himself before you,
reporting the arrival of the small sledge which will take you here on
the next day. I send with him my heaviest fur, which I suppose with such
overcoats as you may have with you will keep you from freezing on the
road."

Sure enough, as I was dining, served by a Hebrew waiter, in an enormous
barn-like bedroom with a freshly painted floor, the door opened and, in
a travelling costume of long boots, big sheepskin cap, and a short coat
girt with a leather belt, the Mr. V. S. (of noble extraction), a man of
about thirty-five, appeared with an air of perplexity on his open
and mustached countenance. I got up from the table and greeted him in
Polish, with, I hope, the right shade of consideration demanded by his
noble blood and his confidential position. His face cleared up in a
wonderful way. It appeared that, notwithstanding my uncle's earnest
assurances, the good fellow had remained in doubt of our understanding
each other. He imagined I would talk to him in some foreign language.

I was told that his last words on getting into the sledge to come to
meet me shaped an anxious exclamation:

"Well! Well! Here I am going, but God only knows how I am to make myself
understood to our master's nephew."

We understood each other very well from the first. He took charge of
me as if I were not quite of age. I had a delightful boyish feeling
of coming home from school when he muffled me up next morning in an
enormous bearskin travelling-coat and took his seat protectively by
my side. The sledge was a very small one, and it looked utterly
insignificant, almost like a toy behind the four big bays harnessed two
and two. We three, counting the coachman, filled it completely. He was
a young fellow with clear blue eyes; the high collar of his livery fur
coat framed his cheery countenance and stood all round level with the
top of his head.

"Now, Joseph," my companion addressed him, "do you think we shall manage
to get home before six?" His answer was that we would surely, with
God's help, and providing there were no heavy drifts in the long stretch
between certain villages whose names came with an extremely familiar
sound to my ears. He turned out an excellent coachman, with an instinct
for keeping the road among the snow-covered fields and a natural gift of
getting the best out of his horses.

"He is the son of that Joseph that I suppose the Captain remembers.
He who used to drive the Captain's late grandmother of holy memory,"
remarked V. S., busy tucking fur rugs about my feet.

I remembered perfectly the trusty Joseph who used to drive my
grandmother. Why! he it was who let me hold the reins for the first
time in my life and allowed me to play with the great four-in-hand whip
outside the doors of the coach-house.

"What became of him?" I asked. "He is no longer serving, I suppose."

"He served our master," was the reply. "But he died of cholera ten years
ago now--that great epidemic that we had. And his wife died at the same
time--the whole houseful of them, and this is the only boy that was
left."

The MS. of "Almayer's Folly" was reposing in the bag under our feet.

I saw again the sun setting on the plains as I saw it in the travels of
my childhood. It set, clear and red, dipping into the snow in full view
as if it were setting on the sea. It was twenty-three years since I had
seen the sun set over that land; and we drove on in the darkness which
fell swiftly upon the livid expanse of snows till, out of the waste of a
white earth joining a bestarred sky, surged up black shapes, the clumps
of trees about a village of the Ukrainian plain. A cottage or two glided
by, a low interminable wall, and then, glimmering and winking through a
screen of fir-trees, the lights of the master's house.

That very evening the wandering MS. of "Almayer's Folly" was unpacked
and unostentatiously laid on the writing-table in my room, the
guest-room which had been, I was informed in an affectionately careless
tone, awaiting me for some fifteen years or so. It attracted no
attention from the affectionate presence hovering round the son of the
favourite sister.

"You won't have many hours to yourself while you are staying with me,
brother," he said--this form of address borrowed from the speech of
our peasants being the usual expression of the highest good humour in
a moment of affectionate elation. "I shall be always coming in for a
chat."

As a matter of fact, we had the whole house to chat in, and were
everlastingly intruding upon each other. I invaded the retirement of
his study where the principal feature was a colossal silver inkstand
presented to him on his fiftieth year by a subscription of all his
wards then living. He had been guardian of many orphans of land-owning
families from the three southern provinces--ever since the year 1860.
Some of them had been my school fellows and playmates, but not one of
them, girls or boys, that I know of has ever written a novel. One or two
were older than myself--considerably older, too. One of them, a visitor
I remember in my early years, was the man who first put me on horseback,
and his four-horse bachelor turnout, his perfect horsemanship and
general skill in manly exercises, was one of my earliest admirations. I
seem to remember my mother looking on from a colonnade in front of the
dining-room windows as I was lifted upon the pony, held, for all I know,
by the very Joseph--the groom attached specially to my grandmother's
service--who died of cholera. It was certainly a young man in a
dark-blue, tailless coat and huge Cossack trousers, that being the
livery of the men about the stables. It must have been in 1864, but
reckoning by another mode of calculating time, it was certainly in the
year in which my mother obtained permission to travel south and visit
her family, from the exile into which she had followed my father. For
that, too, she had had to ask permission, and I know that one of the
conditions of that favour was that she should be treated exactly as a
condemned exile herself. Yet a couple of years later, in memory of her
eldest brother, who had served in the Guards and dying early left hosts
of friends and a loved memory in the great world of St. Petersburg,
some influential personages procured for her this permission--it was
officially called the "Highest Grace"--of a four months' leave from
exile.

This is also the year in which I first begin to remember my mother with
more distinctness than a mere loving, wide-browed, silent, protecting
presence, whose eyes had a sort of commanding sweetness; and I also
remember the great gathering of all the relations from near and far, and
the gray heads of the family friends paying her the homage of respect
and love in the house of her favourite brother, who, a few years later,
was to take the place for me of both my parents.

I did not understand the tragic significance of it all at the time,
though, indeed, I remember that doctors also came. There were no signs
of invalidism about her--but I think that already they had pronounced
her doom unless perhaps the change to a southern climate could
re-establish her declining strength. For me it seems the very
happiest period of my existence. There was my cousin, a delightful,
quick-tempered little girl, some months younger than myself, whose life,
lovingly watched over as if she were a royal princess, came to an end
with her fifteenth year. There were other children, too, many of whom
are dead now, and not a few whose very names I have forgotten. Over all
this hung the oppressive shadow of the great Russian empire--the shadow
lowering with the darkness of a new-born national hatred fostered by
the Moscow school of journalists against the Poles after the ill-omened
rising of 1863.

This is a far cry back from the MS. of "Almayer's Folly," but the public
record of these formative impressions is not the whim of an uneasy
egotism. These, too, are things human, already distant in their appeal.
It is meet that something more should be left for the novelist's
children than the colours and figures of his own hard-won creation. That
which in their grown-up years may appear to the world about them as the
most enigmatic side of their natures and perhaps must remain forever
obscure even to themselves, will be their unconscious response to the
still voice of that inexorable past from which his work of fiction and
their personalities are remotely derived.

Only in men's imagination does every truth find an effective and
undeniable existence. Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master
of art as of life. An imaginative and exact rendering of authentic
memories may serve worthily that spirit of piety toward all things human
which sanctions the conceptions of a writer of tales, and the emotions
of the man reviewing his own experience.

Joseph Conrad

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