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Chapter 7

The bright sunshine of the clear mistless morning, after the stormy
night, flooded the main path of the settlement leading from the low shore
of the Pantai branch of the river to the gate of Abdulla's compound. The
path was deserted this morning; it stretched its dark yellow surface,
hard beaten by the tramp of many bare feet, between the clusters of palm
trees, whose tall trunks barred it with strong black lines at irregular
intervals, while the newly risen sun threw the shadows of their leafy
heads far away over the roofs of the buildings lining the river, even
over the river itself as it flowed swiftly and silently past the deserted
houses. For the houses were deserted too. On the narrow strip of
trodden grass intervening between their open doors and the road, the
morning fires smouldered untended, sending thin fluted columns of smoke
into the cool air, and spreading the thinnest veil of mysterious blue
haze over the sunlit solitude of the settlement. Almayer, just out of
his hammock, gazed sleepily at the unwonted appearance of Sambir,
wondering vaguely at the absence of life. His own house was very quiet;
he could not hear his wife's voice, nor the sound of Nina's footsteps in
the big room, opening on the verandah, which he called his sitting-room,
whenever, in the company of white men, he wished to assert his claims to
the commonplace decencies of civilisation. Nobody ever sat there; there
was nothing there to sit upon, for Mrs. Almayer in her savage moods, when
excited by the reminiscences of the piratical period of her life, had
torn off the curtains to make sarongs for the slave-girls, and had burnt
the showy furniture piecemeal to cook the family rice. But Almayer was
not thinking of his furniture now. He was thinking of Dain's return, of
Dain's nocturnal interview with Lakamba, of its possible influence on his
long-matured plans, now nearing the period of their execution. He was
also uneasy at the non-appearance of Dain who had promised him an early
visit. "The fellow had plenty of time to cross the river," he mused,
"and there was so much to be done to-day. The settling of details for
the early start on the morrow; the launching of the boats; the thousand
and one finishing touches. For the expedition must start complete,
nothing should be forgotten, nothing should--"

The sense of the unwonted solitude grew upon him suddenly, and in the
unusual silence he caught himself longing even for the usually unwelcome
sound of his wife's voice to break the oppressive stillness which seemed,
to his frightened fancy, to portend the advent of some new misfortune.
"What has happened?" he muttered half aloud, as he shuffled in his
imperfectly adjusted slippers towards the balustrade of the verandah. "Is
everybody asleep or dead?"

The settlement was alive and very much awake. It was awake ever since
the early break of day, when Mahmat Banjer, in a fit of unheard-of
energy, arose and, taking up his hatchet, stepped over the sleeping forms
of his two wives and walked shivering to the water's edge to make sure
that the new house he was building had not floated away during the night.

The house was being built by the enterprising Mahmat on a large raft, and
he had securely moored it just inside the muddy point of land at the
junction of the two branches of the Pantai so as to be out of the way of
drifting logs that would no doubt strand on the point during the freshet.
Mahmat walked through the wet grass saying bourrouh, and cursing softly
to himself the hard necessities of active life that drove him from his
warm couch into the cold of the morning. A glance showed him that his
house was still there, and he congratulated himself on his foresight in
hauling it out of harm's way, for the increasing light showed him a
confused wrack of drift-logs, half-stranded on the muddy flat,
interlocked into a shapeless raft by their branches, tossing to and fro
and grinding together in the eddy caused by the meeting currents of the
two branches of the river. Mahmat walked down to the water's edge to
examine the rattan moorings of his house just as the sun cleared the
trees of the forest on the opposite shore. As he bent over the
fastenings he glanced again carelessly at the unquiet jumble of logs and
saw there something that caused him to drop his hatchet and stand up,
shading his eyes with his hand from the rays of the rising sun. It was
something red, and the logs rolled over it, at times closing round it,
sometimes hiding it. It looked to him at first like a strip of red
cloth. The next moment Mahmat had made it out and raised a great shout.

"Ah ya! There!" yelled Mahmat. "There's a man amongst the logs." He
put the palms of his hand to his lips and shouted, enunciating
distinctly, his face turned towards the settlement: "There's a body of a
man in the river! Come and see! A dead--stranger!"

The women of the nearest house were already outside kindling the fires
and husking the morning rice. They took up the cry shrilly, and it
travelled so from house to house, dying away in the distance. The men
rushed out excited but silent, and ran towards the muddy point where the
unconscious logs tossed and ground and bumped and rolled over the dead
stranger with the stupid persistency of inanimate things. The women
followed, neglecting their domestic duties and disregarding the
possibilities of domestic discontent, while groups of children brought up
the rear, warbling joyously, in the delight of unexpected excitement.

Almayer called aloud for his wife and daughter, but receiving no
response, stood listening intently. The murmur of the crowd reached him
faintly, bringing with it the assurance of some unusual event. He
glanced at the river just as he was going to leave the verandah and
checked himself at the sight of a small canoe crossing over from the
Rajah's landing-place. The solitary occupant (in whom Almayer soon
recognised Babalatchi) effected the crossing a little below the house and
paddled up to the Lingard jetty in the dead water under the bank.
Babalatchi clambered out slowly and went on fastening his canoe with
fastidious care, as if not in a hurry to meet Almayer, whom he saw
looking at him from the verandah. This delay gave Almayer time to notice
and greatly wonder at Babalatchi's official get-up. The statesman of
Sambir was clad in a costume befitting his high rank. A loudly checkered
sarong encircled his waist, and from its many folds peeped out the silver
hilt of the kriss that saw the light only on great festivals or during
official receptions. Over the left shoulder and across the otherwise
unclad breast of the aged diplomatist glistened a patent leather belt
bearing a brass plate with the arms of Netherlands under the inscription,
"Sultan of Sambir." Babalatchi's head was covered by a red turban, whose
fringed ends falling over the left cheek and shoulder gave to his aged
face a ludicrous expression of joyous recklessness. When the canoe was
at last fastened to his satisfaction he straightened himself up, shaking
down the folds of his sarong, and moved with long strides towards
Almayer's house, swinging regularly his long ebony staff, whose gold head
ornamented with precious stones flashed in the morning sun. Almayer
waved his hand to the right towards the point of land, to him invisible,
but in full view from the jetty.

"Oh, Babalatchi! oh!" he called out; "what is the matter there? can you

Babalatchi stopped and gazed intently at the crowd on the river bank, and
after a little while the astonished Almayer saw him leave the path,
gather up his sarong in one hand, and break into a trot through the grass
towards the muddy point. Almayer, now greatly interested, ran down the
steps of the verandah. The murmur of men's voices and the shrill cries
of women reached him quite distinctly now, and as soon as he turned the
corner of his house he could see the crowd on the low promontory swaying
and pushing round some object of interest. He could indistinctly hear
Babalatchi's voice, then the crowd opened before the aged statesman and
closed after him with an excited hum, ending in a loud shout.

As Almayer approached the throng a man ran out and rushed past him
towards the settlement, unheeding his call to stop and explain the cause
of this excitement. On the very outskirts of the crowd Almayer found
himself arrested by an unyielding mass of humanity, regardless of his
entreaties for a passage, insensible to his gentle pushes as he tried to
work his way through it towards the riverside.

In the midst of his gentle and slow progress he fancied suddenly he had
heard his wife's voice in the thickest of the throng. He could not
mistake very well Mrs. Almayer's high-pitched tones, yet the words were
too indistinct for him to understand their purport. He paused in his
endeavours to make a passage for himself, intending to get some
intelligence from those around him, when a long and piercing shriek rent
the air, silencing the murmurs of the crowd and the voices of his
informants. For a moment Almayer remained as if turned into stone with
astonishment and horror, for he was certain now that he had heard his
wife wailing for the dead. He remembered Nina's unusual absence, and
maddened by his apprehensions as to her safety, he pushed blindly and
violently forward, the crowd falling back with cries of surprise and pain
before his frantic advance.

On the point of land in a little clear space lay the body of the stranger
just hauled out from amongst the logs. On one side stood Babalatchi, his
chin resting on the head of his staff and his one eye gazing steadily at
the shapeless mass of broken limbs, torn flesh, and bloodstained rags. As
Almayer burst through the ring of horrified spectators, Mrs. Almayer
threw her own head-veil over the upturned face of the drowned man, and,
squatting by it, with another mournful howl, sent a shiver through the
now silent crowd. Mahmat, dripping wet, turned to Almayer, eager to tell
his tale.

In the first moment of reaction from the anguish of his fear the sunshine
seemed to waver before Almayer's eyes, and he listened to words spoken
around him without comprehending their meaning. When, by a strong effort
of will, he regained the possession of his senses, Mahmat was saying--

"That is the way, Tuan. His sarong was caught in the broken branch, and
he hung with his head under water. When I saw what it was I did not want
it here. I wanted it to get clear and drift away. Why should we bury a
stranger in the midst of our houses for his ghost to frighten our women
and children? Have we not enough ghosts about this place?"

A murmur of approval interrupted him here. Mahmat looked reproachfully
at Babalatchi.

"But the Tuan Babalatchi ordered me to drag the body ashore"--he went on
looking round at his audience, but addressing himself only to
Almayer--"and I dragged him by the feet; in through the mud I have
dragged him, although my heart longed to see him float down the river to
strand perchance on Bulangi's clearing--may his father's grave be

There was subdued laughter at this, for the enmity of Mahmat and Bulangi
was a matter of common notoriety and of undying interest to the
inhabitants of Sambir. In the midst of that mirth Mrs. Almayer wailed
suddenly again.

"Allah! What ails the woman!" exclaimed Mahmat, angrily. "Here, I have
touched this carcass which came from nobody knows where, and have most
likely defiled myself before eating rice. By orders of Tuan Babalatchi I
did this thing to please the white man. Are you pleased, O Tuan Almayer?
And what will be my recompense? Tuan Babalatchi said a recompense there
will be, and from you. Now consider. I have been defiled, and if not
defiled I may be under the spell. Look at his anklets! Who ever heard
of a corpse appearing during the night amongst the logs with gold anklets
on its legs? There is witchcraft there. However," added Mahmat, after a
reflective pause, "I will have the anklet if there is permission, for I
have a charm against the ghosts and am not afraid. God is great!"

A fresh outburst of noisy grief from Mrs. Almayer checked the flow of
Mahmat's eloquence. Almayer, bewildered, looked in turn at his wife, at
Mahmat, at Babalatchi, and at last arrested his fascinated gaze on the
body lying on the mud with covered face in a grotesquely unnatural
contortion of mangled and broken limbs, one twisted and lacerated arm,
with white bones protruding in many places through the torn flesh,
stretched out; the hand with outspread fingers nearly touching his foot.

"Do you know who this is?" he asked of Babalatchi, in a low voice.

Babalatchi, staring straight before him, hardly moved his lips, while
Mrs. Almayer's persistent lamentations drowned the whisper of his
murmured reply intended only for Almayer's ear.

"It was fate. Look at your feet, white man. I can see a ring on those
torn fingers which I know well."

Saying this, Babalatchi stepped carelessly forward, putting his foot as
if accidentally on the hand of the corpse and pressing it into the soft
mud. He swung his staff menacingly towards the crowd, which fell back a

"Go away," he said sternly, "and send your women to their cooking fires,
which they ought not to have left to run after a dead stranger. This is
men's work here. I take him now in the name of the Rajah. Let no man
remain here but Tuan Almayer's slaves. Now go!"

The crowd reluctantly began to disperse. The women went first, dragging
away the children that hung back with all their weight on the maternal
hand. The men strolled slowly after them in ever forming and changing
groups that gradually dissolved as they neared the settlement and every
man regained his own house with steps quickened by the hungry
anticipation of the morning rice. Only on the slight elevation where the
land sloped down towards the muddy point a few men, either friends or
enemies of Mahmat, remained gazing curiously for some time longer at the
small group standing around the body on the river bank.

"I do not understand what you mean, Babalatchi," said Almayer. "What is
the ring you are talking about? Whoever he is, you have trodden the poor
fellow's hand right into the mud. Uncover his face," he went on,
addressing Mrs. Almayer, who, squatting by the head of the corpse, rocked
herself to and fro, shaking from time to time her dishevelled grey locks,
and muttering mournfully.

"Hai!" exclaimed Mahmat, who had lingered close by. "Look, Tuan; the
logs came together so," and here he pressed the palms of his hands
together, "and his head must have been between them, and now there is no
face for you to look at. There are his flesh and his bones, the nose,
and the lips, and maybe his eyes, but nobody could tell the one from the
other. It was written the day he was born that no man could look at him
in death and be able to say, 'This is my friend's face.'"

"Silence, Mahmat; enough!" said Babalatchi, "and take thy eyes off his
anklet, thou eater of pigs flesh. Tuan Almayer," he went on, lowering
his voice, "have you seen Dain this morning?"

Almayer opened his eyes wide and looked alarmed. "No," he said quickly;
"haven't you seen him? Is he not with the Rajah? I am waiting; why does
he not come?"

Babalatchi nodded his head sadly.

"He is come, Tuan. He left last night when the storm was great and the
river spoke angrily. The night was very black, but he had within him a
light that showed the way to your house as smooth as a narrow backwater,
and the many logs no bigger than wisps of dried grass. Therefore he
went; and now he lies here." And Babalatchi nodded his head towards the

"How can you tell?" said Almayer, excitedly, pushing his wife aside. He
snatched the cover off and looked at the formless mass of flesh, hair,
and drying mud, where the face of the drowned man should have been.
"Nobody can tell," he added, turning away with a shudder.

Babalatchi was on his knees wiping the mud from the stiffened fingers of
the outstretched hand. He rose to his feet and flashed before Almayer's
eyes a gold ring set with a large green stone.

"You know this well," he said. "This never left Dain's hand. I had to
tear the flesh now to get it off. Do you believe now?"

Almayer raised his hands to his head and let them fall listlessly by his
side in the utter abandonment of despair. Babalatchi, looking at him
curiously, was astonished to see him smile. A strange fancy had taken
possession of Almayer's brain, distracted by this new misfortune. It
seemed to him that for many years he had been falling into a deep
precipice. Day after day, month after month, year after year, he had
been falling, falling, falling; it was a smooth, round, black thing, and
the black walls had been rushing upwards with wearisome rapidity. A
great rush, the noise of which he fancied he could hear yet; and now,
with an awful shock, he had reached the bottom, and behold! he was alive
and whole, and Dain was dead with all his bones broken. It struck him as
funny. A dead Malay; he had seen many dead Malays without any emotion;
and now he felt inclined to weep, but it was over the fate of a white man
he knew; a man that fell over a deep precipice and did not die. He
seemed somehow to himself to be standing on one side, a little way off,
looking at a certain Almayer who was in great trouble. Poor, poor
fellow! Why doesn't he cut his throat? He wished to encourage him; he
was very anxious to see him lying dead over that other corpse. Why does
he not die and end this suffering? He groaned aloud unconsciously and
started with affright at the sound of his own voice. Was he going mad?
Terrified by the thought he turned away and ran towards his house
repeating to himself, I am not going mad; of course not, no, no, no! He
tried to keep a firm hold of the idea.

Not mad, not mad. He stumbled as he ran blindly up the steps repeating
fast and ever faster those words wherein seemed to lie his salvation. He
saw Nina standing there, and wished to say something to her, but could
not remember what, in his extreme anxiety not to forget that he was not
going mad, which he still kept repeating mentally as he ran round the
table, till he stumbled against one of the arm-chairs and dropped into it
exhausted. He sat staring wildly at Nina, still assuring himself
mentally of his own sanity and wondering why the girl shrank from him in
open-eyed alarm. What was the matter with her? This was foolish. He
struck the table violently with his clenched fist and shouted hoarsely,
"Give me some gin! Run!" Then, while Nina ran off, he remained in the
chair, very still and quiet, astonished at the noise he had made.

Nina returned with a tumbler half filled with gin, and found her father
staring absently before him. Almayer felt very tired now, as if he had
come from a long journey. He felt as if he had walked miles and miles
that morning and now wanted to rest very much. He took the tumbler with
a shaking hand, and as he drank his teeth chattered against the glass
which he drained and set down heavily on the table. He turned his eyes
slowly towards Nina standing beside him, and said steadily--

"Now all is over, Nina. He is dead, and I may as well burn all my

He felt very proud of being able to speak so calmly. Decidedly he was
not going mad. This certitude was very comforting, and he went on
talking about the finding of the body, listening to his own voice
complacently. Nina stood quietly, her hand resting lightly on her
father's shoulder, her face unmoved, but every line of her features, the
attitude of her whole body expressing the most keen and anxious

"And so Dain is dead," she said coldly, when her father ceased speaking.

Almayer's elaborately calm demeanour gave way in a moment to an outburst
of violent indignation.

"You stand there as if you were only half alive, and talk to me," he
exclaimed angrily, "as if it was a matter of no importance. Yes, he is
dead! Do you understand? Dead! What do you care? You never cared; you
saw me struggle, and work, and strive, unmoved; and my suffering you
could never see. No, never. You have no heart, and you have no mind, or
you would have understood that it was for you, for your happiness I was
working. I wanted to be rich; I wanted to get away from here. I wanted
to see white men bowing low before the power of your beauty and your
wealth. Old as I am I wished to seek a strange land, a civilisation to
which I am a stranger, so as to find a new life in the contemplation of
your high fortunes, of your triumphs, of your happiness. For that I bore
patiently the burden of work, of disappointment, of humiliation amongst
these savages here, and I had it all nearly in my grasp."

He looked at his daughter's attentive face and jumped to his feet
upsetting the chair.

"Do you hear? I had it all there; so; within reach of my hand."

He paused, trying to keep down his rising anger, and failed.

"Have you no feeling?" he went on. "Have you lived without hope?" Nina's
silence exasperated him; his voice rose, although he tried to master his

"Are you content to live in this misery and die in this wretched hole?
Say something, Nina; have you no sympathy? Have you no word of comfort
for me? I that loved you so."

He waited for a while for an answer, and receiving none shook his fist in
his daughter's face.

"I believe you are an idiot!" he yelled.

He looked round for the chair, picked it up and sat down stiffly. His
anger was dead within him, and he felt ashamed of his outburst, yet
relieved to think that now he had laid clear before his daughter the
inner meaning of his life. He thought so in perfect good faith, deceived
by the emotional estimate of his motives, unable to see the crookedness
of his ways, the unreality of his aims, the futility of his regrets. And
now his heart was filled only with a great tenderness and love for his
daughter. He wanted to see her miserable, and to share with her his
despair; but he wanted it only as all weak natures long for a
companionship in misfortune with beings innocent of its cause. If she
suffered herself she would understand and pity him; but now she would
not, or could not, find one word of comfort or love for him in his dire
extremity. The sense of his absolute loneliness came home to his heart
with a force that made him shudder. He swayed and fell forward with his
face on the table, his arms stretched straight out, extended and rigid.
Nina made a quick movement towards her father and stood looking at the
grey head, on the broad shoulders shaken convulsively by the violence of
feelings that found relief at last in sobs and tears.

Nina sighed deeply and moved away from the table. Her features lost the
appearance of stony indifference that had exasperated her father into his
outburst of anger and sorrow. The expression of her face, now unseen by
her father, underwent a rapid change. She had listened to Almayer's
appeal for sympathy, for one word of comfort, apparently indifferent, yet
with her breast torn by conflicting impulses raised unexpectedly by
events she had not foreseen, or at least did not expect to happen so
soon. With her heart deeply moved by the sight of Almayer's misery,
knowing it in her power to end it with a word, longing to bring peace to
that troubled heart, she heard with terror the voice of her overpowering
love commanding her to be silent. And she submitted after a short and
fierce struggle of her old self against the new principle of her life.
She wrapped herself up in absolute silence, the only safeguard against
some fatal admission. She could not trust herself to make a sign, to
murmur a word for fear of saying too much; and the very violence of the
feelings that stirred the innermost recesses of her soul seemed to turn
her person into a stone. The dilated nostrils and the flashing eyes were
the only signs of the storm raging within, and those signs of his
daughter's emotion Almayer did not see, for his sight was dimmed by self-
pity, by anger, and by despair.

Had Almayer looked at his daughter as she leant over the front rail of
the verandah he could have seen the expression of indifference give way
to a look of pain, and that again pass away, leaving the glorious beauty
of her face marred by deep-drawn lines of watchful anxiety. The long
grass in the neglected courtyard stood very straight before her eyes in
the noonday heat. From the river-bank there were voices and a shuffle of
bare feet approaching the house; Babalatchi could be heard giving
directions to Almayer's men, and Mrs. Almayer's subdued wailing became
audible as the small procession bearing the body of the drowned man and
headed by that sorrowful matron turned the corner of the house.
Babalatchi had taken the broken anklet off the man's leg, and now held it
in his hand as he moved by the side of the bearers, while Mahmat lingered
behind timidly, in the hopes of the promised reward.

"Lay him there," said Babalatchi to Almayer's men, pointing to a pile of
drying planks in front of the verandah. "Lay him there. He was a Kaffir
and the son of a dog, and he was the white man's friend. He drank the
white man's strong water," he added, with affected horror. "That I have
seen myself."

The men stretched out the broken limbs on two planks they had laid level,
while Mrs. Almayer covered the body with a piece of white cotton cloth,
and after whispering for some time with Babalatchi departed to her
domestic duties. Almayer's men, after laying down their burden,
dispersed themselves in quest of shady spots wherein to idle the day
away. Babalatchi was left alone by the corpse that laid rigid under the
white cloth in the bright sunshine.

Nina came down the steps and joined Babalatchi, who put his hand to his
forehead, and squatted down with great deference.

"You have a bangle there," said Nina, looking down on Babalatchi's
upturned face and into his solitary eye.

"I have, Mem Putih," returned the polite statesman. Then turning towards
Mahmat he beckoned him closer, calling out, "Come here!"

Mahmat approached with some hesitation. He avoided looking at Nina, but
fixed his eyes on Babalatchi.

"Now, listen," said Babalatchi, sharply. "The ring and the anklet you
have seen, and you know they belonged to Dain the trader, and to no
other. Dain returned last night in a canoe. He spoke with the Rajah,
and in the middle of the night left to cross over to the white man's
house. There was a great flood, and this morning you found him in the

"By his feet I dragged him out," muttered Mahmat under his breath. "Tuan
Babalatchi, there will be a recompense!" he exclaimed aloud.

Babalatchi held up the gold bangle before Mahmat's eyes. "What I have
told you, Mahmat, is for all ears. What I give you now is for your eyes
only. Take."

Mahmat took the bangle eagerly and hid it in the folds of his
waist-cloth. "Am I a fool to show this thing in a house with three women
in it?" he growled. "But I shall tell them about Dain the trader, and
there will be talk enough."

He turned and went away, increasing his pace as soon as he was outside
Almayer's compound.

Babalatchi looked after him till he disappeared behind the bushes. "Have
I done well, Mem Putih?" he asked, humbly addressing Nina.

"You have," answered Nina. "The ring you may keep yourself."

Babalatchi touched his lips and forehead, and scrambled to his feet. He
looked at Nina, as if expecting her to say something more, but Nina
turned towards the house and went up the steps, motioning him away with
her hand.

Babalatchi picked up his staff and prepared to go. It was very warm, and
he did not care for the long pull to the Rajah's house. Yet he must go
and tell the Rajah--tell of the event; of the change in his plans; of all
his suspicions. He walked to the jetty and began casting off the rattan
painter of his canoe.

The broad expanse of the lower reach, with its shimmering surface dotted
by the black specks of the fishing canoes, lay before his eyes. The
fishermen seemed to be racing. Babalatchi paused in his work, and looked
on with sudden interest. The man in the foremost canoe, now within hail
of the first houses of Sambir, laid in his paddle and stood up shouting--

"The boats! the boats! The man-of-war's boats are coming! They are

In a moment the settlement was again alive with people rushing to the
riverside. The men began to unfasten their boats, the women stood in
groups looking towards the bend down the river. Above the trees lining
the reach a slight puff of smoke appeared like a black stain on the
brilliant blue of the cloudless sky.

Babalatchi stood perplexed, the painter in his hand. He looked down the
reach, then up towards Almayer's house, and back again at the river as if
undecided what to do. At last he made the canoe fast again hastily, and
ran towards the house and up the steps of the verandah.

"Tuan! Tuan!" he called, eagerly. "The boats are coming. The man-of-
war's boats. You had better get ready. The officers will come here, I

Almayer lifted his head slowly from the table, and looked at him

"Mem Putih!" exclaimed Babalatchi to Nina, "look at him. He does not
hear. You must take care," he added meaningly.

Nina nodded to him with an uncertain smile, and was going to speak, when
a sharp report from the gun mounted in the bow of the steam launch that
was just then coming into view arrested the words on her parted lips. The
smile died out, and was replaced by the old look of anxious attention.
From the hills far away the echo came back like a long-drawn and mournful
sigh, as if the land had sent it in answer to the voice of its masters.

Joseph Conrad

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