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Chapter 3

The deliberations conducted in London have a far-reaching importance, and
so the decision issued from the fog-veiled offices of the Borneo Company
darkened for Almayer the brilliant sunshine of the Tropics, and added
another drop of bitterness to the cup of his disenchantments. The claim
to that part of the East Coast was abandoned, leaving the Pantai river
under the nominal power of Holland. In Sambir there was joy and
excitement. The slaves were hurried out of sight into the forest and
jungle, and the flags were run up to tall poles in the Rajah's compound
in expectation of a visit from Dutch man-of-war boats.

The frigate remained anchored outside the mouth of the river, and the
boats came up in tow of the steam launch, threading their way cautiously
amongst a crowd of canoes filled with gaily dressed Malays. The officer
in command listened gravely to the loyal speeches of Lakamba, returned
the salaams of Abdulla, and assured those gentlemen in choice Malay of
the great Rajah's--down in Batavia--friendship and goodwill towards the
ruler and inhabitants of this model state of Sambir.

Almayer from his verandah watched across the river the festive
proceedings, heard the report of brass guns saluting the new flag
presented to Lakamba, and the deep murmur of the crowd of spectators
surging round the stockade. The smoke of the firing rose in white clouds
on the green background of the forests, and he could not help comparing
his own fleeting hopes to the rapidly disappearing vapour. He was by no
means patriotically elated by the event, yet he had to force himself into
a gracious behaviour when, the official reception being over, the naval
officers of the Commission crossed the river to pay a visit to the
solitary white man of whom they had heard, no doubt wishing also to catch
a glimpse of his daughter. In that they were disappointed, Nina refusing
to show herself; but they seemed easily consoled by the gin and cheroots
set before them by the hospitable Almayer; and sprawling comfortably on
the lame armchairs under the shade of the verandah, while the blazing
sunshine outside seemed to set the great river simmering in the heat,
they filled the little bungalow with the unusual sounds of European
languages, with noise and laughter produced by naval witticisms at the
expense of the fat Lakamba whom they had been complimenting so much that
very morning. The younger men in an access of good fellowship made their
host talk, and Almayer, excited by the sight of European faces, by the
sound of European voices, opened his heart before the sympathising
strangers, unaware of the amusement the recital of his many misfortunes
caused to those future admirals. They drank his health, wished him many
big diamonds and a mountain of gold, expressed even an envy of the high
destinies awaiting him yet. Encouraged by so much friendliness, the grey-
headed and foolish dreamer invited his guests to visit his new house.
They went there through the long grass in a straggling procession while
their boats were got ready for the return down the river in the cool of
the evening. And in the great empty rooms where the tepid wind entering
through the sashless windows whirled gently the dried leaves and the dust
of many days of neglect, Almayer in his white jacket and flowered sarong,
surrounded by a circle of glittering uniforms, stamped his foot to show
the solidity of the neatly-fitting floors and expatiated upon the
beauties and convenience of the building. They listened and assented,
amazed by the wonderful simplicity and the foolish hopefulness of the
man, till Almayer, carried away by his excitement, disclosed his regret
at the non-arrival of the English, "who knew how to develop a rich
country," as he expressed it. There was a general laugh amongst the
Dutch officers at that unsophisticated statement, and a move was made
towards the boats; but when Almayer, stepping cautiously on the rotten
boards of the Lingard jetty, tried to approach the chief of the
Commission with some timid hints anent the protection required by the
Dutch subject against the wily Arabs, that salt water diplomat told him
significantly that the Arabs were better subjects than Hollanders who
dealt illegally in gunpowder with the Malays. The innocent Almayer
recognised there at once the oily tongue of Abdulla and the solemn
persuasiveness of Lakamba, but ere he had time to frame an indignant
protest the steam launch and the string of boats moved rapidly down the
river leaving him on the jetty, standing open-mouthed in his surprise and
anger. There are thirty miles of river from Sambir to the gem-like
islands of the estuary where the frigate was awaiting the return of the
boats. The moon rose long before the boats had traversed half that
distance, and the black forest sleeping peacefully under her cold rays
woke up that night to the ringing laughter in the small flotilla provoked
by some reminiscence of Almayer's lamentable narrative. Salt-water jests
at the poor man's expense were passed from boat to boat, the
non-appearance of his daughter was commented upon with severe
displeasure, and the half-finished house built for the reception of
Englishmen received on that joyous night the name of "Almayer's Folly" by
the unanimous vote of the lighthearted seamen.

For many weeks after this visit life in Sambir resumed its even and
uneventful flow. Each day's sun shooting its morning rays above the tree-
tops lit up the usual scene of daily activity. Nina walking on the path
that formed the only street in the settlement saw the accustomed sight of
men lolling on the shady side of the houses, on the high platforms; of
women busily engaged in husking the daily rice; of naked brown children
racing along the shady and narrow paths leading to the clearings. Jim-
Eng, strolling before his house, greeted her with a friendly nod before
climbing up indoors to seek his beloved opium pipe. The elder children
clustered round her, daring from long acquaintance, pulling the skirts of
her white robe with their dark fingers, and showing their brilliant teeth
in expectation of a shower of glass beads. She greeted them with a quiet
smile, but always had a few friendly words for a Siamese girl, a slave
owned by Bulangi, whose numerous wives were said to be of a violent
temper. Well-founded rumour said also that the domestic squabbles of
that industrious cultivator ended generally in a combined assault of all
his wives upon the Siamese slave. The girl herself never
complained--perhaps from dictates of prudence, but more likely through
the strange, resigned apathy of half-savage womankind. From early
morning she was to be seen on the paths amongst the houses--by the
riverside or on the jetties, the tray of pastry, it was her mission to
sell, skilfully balanced on her head. During the great heat of the day
she usually sought refuge in Almayer's campong, often finding shelter in
a shady corner of the verandah, where she squatted with her tray before
her, when invited by Nina. For "Mem Putih" she had always a smile, but
the presence of Mrs. Almayer, the very sound of her shrill voice, was the
signal for a hurried departure.

To this girl Nina often spoke; the other inhabitants of Sambir seldom or
never heard the sound of her voice. They got used to the silent figure
moving in their midst calm and white-robed, a being from another world
and incomprehensible to them. Yet Nina's life for all her outward
composure, for all the seeming detachment from the things and people
surrounding her, was far from quiet, in consequence of Mrs. Almayer being
much too active for the happiness and even safety of the household. She
had resumed some intercourse with Lakamba, not personally, it is true
(for the dignity of that potentate kept him inside his stockade), but
through the agency of that potentate's prime minister, harbour master,
financial adviser, and general factotum. That gentleman--of Sulu
origin--was certainly endowed with statesmanlike qualities, although he
was totally devoid of personal charms. In truth he was perfectly
repulsive, possessing only one eye and a pockmarked face, with nose and
lips horribly disfigured by the small-pox. This unengaging individual
often strolled into Almayer's garden in unofficial costume, composed of a
piece of pink calico round his waist. There at the back of the house,
squatting on his heels on scattered embers, in close proximity to the
great iron boiler, where the family daily rice was being cooked by the
women under Mrs. Almayer's superintendence, did that astute negotiator
carry on long conversations in Sulu language with Almayer's wife. What
the subject of their discourses was might have been guessed from the
subsequent domestic scenes by Almayer's hearthstone.

Of late Almayer had taken to excursions up the river. In a small canoe
with two paddlers and the faithful Ali for a steersman he would disappear
for a few days at a time. All his movements were no doubt closely
watched by Lakamba and Abdulla, for the man once in the confidence of
Rajah Laut was supposed to be in possession of valuable secrets. The
coast population of Borneo believes implicitly in diamonds of fabulous
value, in gold mines of enormous richness in the interior. And all those
imaginings are heightened by the difficulty of penetrating far inland,
especially on the north-east coast, where the Malays and the river tribes
of Dyaks or Head-hunters are eternally quarrelling. It is true enough
that some gold reaches the coast in the hands of those Dyaks when, during
short periods of truce in the desultory warfare, they visit the coast
settlements of Malays. And so the wildest exaggerations are built up and
added to on the slight basis of that fact.

Almayer in his quality of white man--as Lingard before him--had somewhat
better relations with the up-river tribes. Yet even his excursions were
not without danger, and his returns were eagerly looked for by the
impatient Lakamba. But every time the Rajah was disappointed. Vain were
the conferences by the rice-pot of his factotum Babalatchi with the white
man's wife. The white man himself was impenetrable--impenetrable to
persuasion, coaxing, abuse; to soft words and shrill revilings; to
desperate beseechings or murderous threats; for Mrs. Almayer, in her
extreme desire to persuade her husband into an alliance with Lakamba,
played upon the whole gamut of passion. With her soiled robe wound
tightly under the armpits across her lean bosom, her scant grayish hair
tumbled in disorder over her projecting cheek-bones, in suppliant
attitude, she depicted with shrill volubility the advantages of close
union with a man so good and so fair dealing.

"Why don't you go to the Rajah?" she screamed. "Why do you go back to
those Dyaks in the great forest? They should be killed. You cannot kill
them, you cannot; but our Rajah's men are brave! You tell the Rajah
where the old white man's treasure is. Our Rajah is good! He is our
very grandfather, Datu Besar! He will kill those wretched Dyaks, and you
shall have half the treasure. Oh, Kaspar, tell where the treasure is!
Tell me! Tell me out of the old man's surat where you read so often at
night."

On those occasions Almayer sat with rounded shoulders bending to the
blast of this domestic tempest, accentuating only each pause in the
torrent of his wife's eloquence by an angry growl, "There is no treasure!
Go away, woman!" Exasperated by the sight of his patiently bent back,
she would at last walk round so as to face him across the table, and
clasping her robe with one hand she stretched the other lean arm and claw-
like hand to emphasise, in a passion of anger and contempt, the rapid
rush of scathing remarks and bitter cursings heaped on the head of the
man unworthy to associate with brave Malay chiefs. It ended generally by
Almayer rising slowly, his long pipe in hand, his face set into a look of
inward pain, and walking away in silence. He descended the steps and
plunged into the long grass on his way to the solitude of his new house,
dragging his feet in a state of physical collapse from disgust and fear
before that fury. She followed to the head of the steps, and sent the
shafts of indiscriminate abuse after the retreating form. And each of
those scenes was concluded by a piercing shriek, reaching him far away.
"You know, Kaspar, I am your wife! your own Christian wife after your own
Blanda law!" For she knew that this was the bitterest thing of all; the
greatest regret of that man's life.

All these scenes Nina witnessed unmoved. She might have been deaf, dumb,
without any feeling as far as any expression of opinion went. Yet oft
when her father had sought the refuge of the great dusty rooms of
"Almayer's Folly," and her mother, exhausted by rhetorical efforts,
squatted wearily on her heels with her back against the leg of the table,
Nina would approach her curiously, guarding her skirts from betel juice
besprinkling the floor, and gaze down upon her as one might look into the
quiescent crater of a volcano after a destructive eruption. Mrs.
Almayer's thoughts, after these scenes, were usually turned into a
channel of childhood reminiscences, and she gave them utterance in a kind
of monotonous recitative--slightly disconnected, but generally describing
the glories of the Sultan of Sulu, his great splendour, his power, his
great prowess; the fear which benumbed the hearts of white men at the
sight of his swift piratical praus. And these muttered statements of her
grandfather's might were mixed up with bits of later recollections, where
the great fight with the "White Devil's" brig and the convent life in
Samarang occupied the principal place. At that point she usually dropped
the thread of her narrative, and pulling out the little brass cross,
always suspended round her neck, she contemplated it with superstitious
awe. That superstitious feeling connected with some vague talismanic
properties of the little bit of metal, and the still more hazy but
terrible notion of some bad Djinns and horrible torments invented, as she
thought, for her especial punishment by the good Mother Superior in case
of the loss of the above charm, were Mrs. Almayer's only theological
luggage for the stormy road of life. Mrs. Almayer had at least something
tangible to cling to, but Nina, brought up under the Protestant wing of
the proper Mrs. Vinck, had not even a little piece of brass to remind her
of past teaching. And listening to the recital of those savage glories,
those barbarous fights and savage feasting, to the story of deeds
valorous, albeit somewhat bloodthirsty, where men of her mother's race
shone far above the Orang Blanda, she felt herself irresistibly
fascinated, and saw with vague surprise the narrow mantle of civilised
morality, in which good-meaning people had wrapped her young soul, fall
away and leave her shivering and helpless as if on the edge of some deep
and unknown abyss. Strangest of all, this abyss did not frighten her
when she was under the influence of the witch-like being she called her
mother. She seemed to have forgotten in civilised surroundings her life
before the time when Lingard had, so to speak, kidnapped her from Brow.
Since then she had had Christian teaching, social education, and a good
glimpse of civilised life. Unfortunately her teachers did not understand
her nature, and the education ended in a scene of humiliation, in an
outburst of contempt from white people for her mixed blood. She had
tasted the whole bitterness of it and remembered distinctly that the
virtuous Mrs. Vinck's indignation was not so much directed against the
young man from the bank as against the innocent cause of that young man's
infatuation. And there was also no doubt in her mind that the principal
cause of Mrs. Vinck's indignation was the thought that such a thing
should happen in a white nest, where her snow-white doves, the two Misses
Vinck, had just returned from Europe, to find shelter under the maternal
wing, and there await the coming of irreproachable men of their destiny.
Not even the thought of the money so painfully scraped together by
Almayer, and so punctually sent for Nina's expenses, could dissuade Mrs.
Vinck from her virtuous resolve. Nina was sent away, and in truth the
girl herself wanted to go, although a little frightened by the impending
change. And now she had lived on the river for three years with a savage
mother and a father walking about amongst pitfalls, with his head in the
clouds, weak, irresolute, and unhappy. She had lived a life devoid of
all the decencies of civilisation, in miserable domestic conditions; she
had breathed in the atmosphere of sordid plottings for gain, of the no
less disgusting intrigues and crimes for lust or money; and those things,
together with the domestic quarrels, were the only events of her three
years' existence. She did not die from despair and disgust the first
month, as she expected and almost hoped for. On the contrary, at the end
of half a year it had seemed to her that she had known no other life. Her
young mind having been unskilfully permitted to glance at better things,
and then thrown back again into the hopeless quagmire of barbarism, full
of strong and uncontrolled passions, had lost the power to discriminate.
It seemed to Nina that there was no change and no difference. Whether
they traded in brick godowns or on the muddy river bank; whether they
reached after much or little; whether they made love under the shadows of
the great trees or in the shadow of the cathedral on the Singapore
promenade; whether they plotted for their own ends under the protection
of laws and according to the rules of Christian conduct, or whether they
sought the gratification of their desires with the savage cunning and the
unrestrained fierceness of natures as innocent of culture as their own
immense and gloomy forests, Nina saw only the same manifestations of love
and hate and of sordid greed chasing the uncertain dollar in all its
multifarious and vanishing shapes. To her resolute nature, however,
after all these years, the savage and uncompromising sincerity of purpose
shown by her Malay kinsmen seemed at last preferable to the sleek
hypocrisy, to the polite disguises, to the virtuous pretences of such
white people as she had had the misfortune to come in contact with. After
all it was her life; it was going to be her life, and so thinking she
fell more and more under the influence of her mother. Seeking, in her
ignorance, a better side to that life, she listened with avidity to the
old woman's tales of the departed glories of the Rajahs, from whose race
she had sprung, and she became gradually more indifferent, more
contemptuous of the white side of her descent represented by a feeble and
traditionless father.

Almayer's difficulties were by no means diminished by the girl's presence
in Sambir. The stir caused by her arrival had died out, it is true, and
Lakamba had not renewed his visits; but about a year after the departure
of the man-of-war boats the nephew of Abdulla, Syed Reshid, returned from
his pilgrimage to Mecca, rejoicing in a green jacket and the proud title
of Hadji. There was a great letting off of rockets on board the steamer
which brought him in, and a great beating of drums all night in Abdulla's
compound, while the feast of welcome was prolonged far into the small
hours of the morning. Reshid was the favourite nephew and heir of
Abdulla, and that loving uncle, meeting Almayer one day by the riverside,
stopped politely to exchange civilities and to ask solemnly for an
interview. Almayer suspected some attempt at a swindle, or at any rate
something unpleasant, but of course consented with a great show of
rejoicing. Accordingly the next evening, after sunset, Abdulla came,
accompanied by several other grey-beards and by his nephew. That young
man--of a very rakish and dissipated appearance--affected the greatest
indifference as to the whole of the proceedings. When the torch-bearers
had grouped themselves below the steps, and the visitors had seated
themselves on various lame chairs, Reshid stood apart in the shadow,
examining his aristocratically small hands with great attention. Almayer,
surprised by the great solemnity of his visitors, perched himself on the
corner of the table with a characteristic want of dignity quickly noted
by the Arabs with grave disapproval. But Abdulla spoke now, looking
straight past Almayer at the red curtain hanging in the doorway, where a
slight tremor disclosed the presence of women on the other side. He
began by neatly complimenting Almayer upon the long years they had dwelt
together in cordial neighbourhood, and called upon Allah to give him many
more years to gladden the eyes of his friends by his welcome presence. He
made a polite allusion to the great consideration shown him (Almayer) by
the Dutch "Commissie," and drew thence the flattering inference of
Almayer's great importance amongst his own people. He--Abdulla--was also
important amongst all the Arabs, and his nephew Reshid would be heir of
that social position and of great riches. Now Reshid was a Hadji. He
was possessor of several Malay women, went on Abdulla, but it was time he
had a favourite wife, the first of the four allowed by the Prophet. And,
speaking with well-bred politeness, he explained further to the
dumbfounded Almayer that, if he would consent to the alliance of his
offspring with that true believer and virtuous man Reshid, she would be
the mistress of all the splendours of Reshid's house, and first wife of
the first Arab in the Islands, when he--Abdulla--was called to the joys
of Paradise by Allah the All-merciful. "You know, Tuan," he said, in
conclusion, "the other women would be her slaves, and Reshid's house is
great. From Bombay he has brought great divans, and costly carpets, and
European furniture. There is also a great looking-glass in a frame
shining like gold. What could a girl want more?" And while Almayer
looked upon him in silent dismay Abdulla spoke in a more confidential
tone, waving his attendants away, and finished his speech by pointing out
the material advantages of such an alliance, and offering to settle upon
Almayer three thousand dollars as a sign of his sincere friendship and
the price of the girl.

Poor Almayer was nearly having a fit. Burning with the desire of taking
Abdulla by the throat, he had but to think of his helpless position in
the midst of lawless men to comprehend the necessity of diplomatic
conciliation. He mastered his impulses, and spoke politely and coldly,
saying the girl was young and as the apple of his eye. Tuan Reshid, a
Faithful and a Hadji, would not want an infidel woman in his harem; and,
seeing Abdulla smile sceptically at that last objection, he remained
silent, not trusting himself to speak more, not daring to refuse point-
blank, nor yet to say anything compromising. Abdulla understood the
meaning of that silence, and rose to take leave with a grave salaam. He
wished his friend Almayer "a thousand years," and moved down the steps,
helped dutifully by Reshid. The torch-bearers shook their torches,
scattering a shower of sparks into the river, and the cortege moved off,
leaving Almayer agitated but greatly relieved by their departure. He
dropped into a chair and watched the glimmer of the lights amongst the
tree trunks till they disappeared and complete silence succeeded the
tramp of feet and the murmur of voices. He did not move till the curtain
rustled and Nina came out on the verandah and sat in the rocking-chair,
where she used to spend many hours every day. She gave a slight rocking
motion to her seat, leaning back with half-closed eyes, her long hair
shading her face from the smoky light of the lamp on the table. Almayer
looked at her furtively, but the face was as impassible as ever. She
turned her head slightly towards her father, and, speaking, to his great
surprise, in English, asked--

"Was that Abdulla here?"

"Yes," said Almayer--"just gone."

"And what did he want, father?"

"He wanted to buy you for Reshid," answered Almayer, brutally, his anger
getting the better of him, and looking at the girl as if in expectation
of some outbreak of feeling. But Nina remained apparently unmoved,
gazing dreamily into the black night outside.

"Be careful, Nina," said Almayer, after a short silence and rising from
his chair, "when you go paddling alone into the creeks in your canoe.
That Reshid is a violent scoundrel, and there is no saying what he may
do. Do you hear me?"

She was standing now, ready to go in, one hand grasping the curtain in
the doorway. She turned round, throwing her heavy tresses back by a
sudden gesture.

"Do you think he would dare?" she asked, quickly, and then turned again
to go in, adding in a lower tone, "He would not dare. Arabs are all
cowards."

Almayer looked after her, astonished. He did not seek the repose of his
hammock. He walked the floor absently, sometimes stopping by the
balustrade to think. The lamp went out. The first streak of dawn broke
over the forest; Almayer shivered in the damp air. "I give it up," he
muttered to himself, lying down wearily. "Damn those women! Well! If
the girl did not look as if she wanted to be kidnapped!"

And he felt a nameless fear creep into his heart, making him shiver
again.


Joseph Conrad

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