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Chapter 12

Mr. Van Wyk, the white man of Batu Beru, an ex-naval officer who,
for reasons best known to himself, had thrown away the promise of a
brilliant career to become the pioneer of tobacco-planting on that
remote part of the coast, had learned to like Captain Whalley. The
appearance of the new skipper had attracted his attention. Nothing more
unlike all the diverse types he had seen succeeding each other on the
bridge of the Sofala could be imagined.

At that time Batu Beru was not what it has become since: the center of
a prosperous tobacco-growing district, a tropically suburban-looking
little settlement of bungalows in one long street shaded with two rows
of trees, embowered by the flowering and trim luxuriance of the gardens,
with a three-mile-long carriage-road for the afternoon drives and a
first-class Resident with a fat, cheery wife to lead the society of
married estate-managers and unmarried young fellows in the service of the
big companies.

All this prosperity was not yet; and Mr. Van Wyk prospered alone on the
left bank on his deep clearing carved out of the forest, which came down
above and below to the water's edge. His lonely bungalow faced across
the river the houses of the Sultan: a restless and melancholy old ruler
who had done with love and war, for whom life no longer held any savor
(except of evil forebodings) and time never had any value. He was afraid
of death, and hoped he would die before the white men were ready to take
his country from him. He crossed the river frequently (with never
less than ten boats crammed full of people), in the wistful hope of
extracting some information on the subject from his own white man. There
was a certain chair on the veranda he always took: the dignitaries of
the court squatted on the rugs and skins between the furniture: the
inferior people remained below on the grass plot between the house and
the river in rows three or four deep all along the front. Not seldom the
visit began at daybreak. Mr. Van Wyk tolerated these inroads. He would
nod out of his bedroom window, tooth-brush or razor in hand, or pass
through the throng of courtiers in his bathing robe. He appeared and
disappeared humming a tune, polished his nails with attention, rubbed
his shaved face with _eau-de-Cologne_, drank his early tea, went out to
see his coolies at work: returned, looked through some papers on his
desk, read a page or two in a book or sat before his cottage piano
leaning back on the stool, his arms extended, fingers on the keys, his
body swaying slightly from side to side. When absolutely forced to speak
he gave evasive vaguely soothing answers out of pure compassion: the
same feeling perhaps made him so lavishly hospitable with the aerated
drinks that more than once he left himself without soda-water for a whole
week. That old man had granted him as much land as he cared to have
cleared: it was neither more nor less than a fortune.

Whether it was fortune or seclusion from his kind that Mr. Van Wyk
sought, he could not have pitched upon a better place. Even the
mail-boats of the subsidized company calling on the veriest clusters of
palm-thatched hovels along the coast steamed past the mouth of Batu Beru
river far away in the offing. The contract was old: perhaps in a few
years' time, when it had expired, Batu Beru would be included in the
service; meantime all Mr. Van Wyk's mail was addressed to Malacca,
whence his agent sent it across once a month by the Sofala. It followed
that whenever Massy had run short of money (through taking too many
lottery tickets), or got into a difficulty about a skipper, Mr. Van Wyk
was deprived of his letter and newspapers. In so far he had a personal
interest in the fortunes of the Sofala. Though he considered himself
a hermit (and for no passing whim evidently, since he had stood eight
years of it already), he liked to know what went on in the world.

Handy on the veranda upon a walnut _etagere_ (it had come last year by the
Sofala)--everything came by the Sofala there lay, piled up under bronze
weights, a pile of the Times' weekly edition, the large sheets of the
Rotterdam Courant, the Graphic in its world-wide green wrappers, an
illustrated Dutch publication without a cover, the numbers of a German
magazine with covers of the "_Bismarck malade_" color. There were also
parcels of new music--though the piano (it had come years ago by the
Sofala in the damp atmosphere of the forests was generally out of tune.)
It was vexing to be cut off from everything for sixty days at a stretch
sometimes, without any means of knowing what was the matter. And when
the Sofala reappeared Mr. Van Wyk would descend the steps of the veranda
and stroll over the grass plot in front of his house, down to the
waterside, with a frown on his white brow.

"You've been laid up after an accident, I presume."

He addressed the bridge, but before anybody could answer Massy was sure
to have already scrambled ashore over the rail and pushed in, squeezing
the palms of his hands together, bowing his sleek head as if gummed all
over the top with black threads and tapes. And he would be so enraged
at the necessity of having to offer such an explanation that his moaning
would be positively pitiful, while all the time he tried to compose his
big lips into a smile.

"No, Mr. Van Wyk. You would not believe it. I couldn't get one of those
wretches to take the ship out. Not a single one of the lazy beasts could
be induced, and the law, you know, Mr. Van Wyk . . ."

He moaned at great length apologetically; the words conspiracy, plot,
envy, came out prominently, whined with greater energy. Mr. Van Wyk,
examining with a faint grimace his polished finger-nails, would say,
"H'm. Very unfortunate," and turn his back on him.

Fastidious, clever, slightly skeptical, accustomed to the best society
(he had held a much-envied shore appointment at the Ministry of Marine
for a year preceding his retreat from his profession and from Europe),
he possessed a latent warmth of feeling and a capacity for sympathy
which were concealed by a sort of haughty, arbitrary indifference of
manner arising from his early training; and by a something an enemy
might have called foppish, in his aspect--like a distorted echo of past
elegance. He managed to keep an almost military discipline amongst the
coolies of the estate he had dragged into the light of day out of the
tangle and shadows of the jungle; and the white shirt he put on every
evening with its stiff glossy front and high collar looked as if he had
meant to preserve the decent ceremony of evening-dress, but had wound
a thick crimson sash above his hips as a concession to the wilderness,
once his adversary, now his vanquished companion.

Moreover, it was a hygienic precaution. Worn wide open in front, a short
jacket of some airy silken stuff floated from his shoulders. His fluffy,
fair hair, thin at the top, curled slightly at the sides; a carefully
arranged mustache, an ungarnished forehead, the gleam of low patent
shoes peeping under the wide bottom of trowsers cut straight from the
same stuff as the gossamer coat, completed a figure recalling, with its
sash, a pirate chief of romance, and at the same time the elegance of
a slightly bald dandy indulging, in seclusion, a taste for unorthodox
costume.

It was his evening get-up. The proper time for the Sofala to arrive
at Batu Beru was an hour before sunset, and he looked picturesque, and
somehow quite correct too, walking at the water's edge on the background
of grass slope crowned with a low long bungalow with an immensely steep
roof of palm thatch, and clad to the eaves in flowering creepers. While
the Sofala was being made fast he strolled in the shade of the few trees
left near the landing-place, waiting till he could go on board. Her
white men were not of his kind. The old Sultan (though his wistful
invasions were a nuisance) was really much more acceptable to his
fastidious taste. But still they were white; the periodical visits of
the ship made a break in the well-filled sameness of the days without
disturbing his privacy. Moreover, they were necessary from a business
point of view; and through a strain of preciseness in his nature he was
irritated when she failed to appear at the appointed time.

The cause of the irregularity was too absurd, and Massy, in his opinion,
was a contemptible idiot. The first time the Sofala reappeared under the
new agreement swinging out of the bend below, after he had almost given
up all hope of ever seeing her again, he felt so angry that he did not
go down at once to the landing-place. His servants had come running to
him with the news, and he had dragged a chair close against the front
rail of the veranda, spread his elbows out, rested his chin on his
hands, and went on glaring at her fixedly while she was being made fast
opposite his house. He could make out easily all the white faces on
board. Who on earth was that kind of patriarch they had got there on the
bridge now?

At last he sprang up and walked down the gravel path. It was a fact
that the very gravel for his paths had been imported by the Sofala.
Exasperated out of his quiet superciliousness, without looking at anyone
right or left, he accosted Massy straightway in so determined a manner
that the engineer, taken aback, began to stammer unintelligibly. Nothing
could be heard but the words: "Mr. Van Wyk . . . Indeed, Mr. Van Wyk
. . . For the future, Mr. Van Wyk"--and by the suffusion of blood Massy's
vast bilious face acquired an unnatural orange tint, out of which the
disconcerted coal-black eyes shone in an extraordinary manner.

"Nonsense. I am tired of this. I wonder you have the impudence to come
alongside my jetty as if I had it made for your convenience alone."

Massy tried to protest earnestly. Mr. Van Wyk was very angry. He had
a good mind to ask that German firm--those people in Malacca--what was
their name?--boats with green funnels. They would be only too glad
of the opening to put one of their small steamers on the run. Yes;
Schnitzler, Jacob Schnitzler, would in a moment. Yes. He had decided to
write without delay.

In his agitation Massy caught up his falling pipe.

"You don't mean it, sir!" he shrieked.

"You shouldn't mismanage your business in this ridiculous manner."

Mr. Van Wyk turned on his heel. The other three whites on the bridge had
not stirred during the scene. Massy walked hastily from side to side,
puffed out his cheeks, suffocated.

"Stuck up Dutchman!"

And he moaned out feverishly a long tale of griefs. The efforts he had
made for all these years to please that man. This was the return you
got for it, eh? Pretty. Write to Schnitzler--let in the green-funnel
boats--get an old Hamburg Jew to ruin him. No, really he could laugh.
. . . He laughed sobbingly. . . . Ha! ha! ha! And make him carry the
letter in his own ship presumably.

He stumbled across a grating and swore. He would not hesitate to fling
the Dutchman's correspondence overboard--the whole confounded bundle.
He had never, never made any charge for that accommodation. But Captain
Whalley, his new partner, would not let him probably; besides, it would
be only putting off the evil day. For his own part he would make a hole
in the water rather than look on tamely at the green funnels overrunning
his trade.

He raved aloud. The China boys hung back with the dishes at the foot of
the ladder. He yelled from the bridge down at the deck, "Aren't we going
to have any chow this evening at all?" then turned violently to Captain
Whalley, who waited, grave and patient, at the head of the table,
smoothing his beard in silence now and then with a forbearing gesture.

"You don't seem to care what happens to me. Don't you see that this
affects your interests as much as mine? It's no joking matter."

He took the foot of the table growling between his teeth.

"Unless you have a few thousands put away somewhere. I haven't."

Mr. Van Wyk dined in his thoroughly lit-up bungalow, putting a point of
splendor in the night of his clearing above the dark bank of the river.
Afterwards he sat down to his piano, and in a pause he became aware
of slow footsteps passing on the path along the front. A plank or two
creaked under a heavy tread; he swung half round on the music-stool,
listening with his fingertips at rest on the keyboard. His little
terrier barked violently, backing in from the veranda. A deep voice
apologized gravely for "this intrusion." He walked out quickly.

At the head of the steps the patriarchal figure, who was the new captain
of the Sofala apparently (he had seen a round dozen of them, but not
one of that sort), towered without advancing. The little dog barked
unceasingly, till a flick of Mr. Van Wyk's handkerchief made him spring
aside into silence. Captain Whalley, opening the matter, was met by a
punctiliously polite but determined opposition.

They carried on their discussion standing where they had come face to
face. Mr. Van Wyk observed his visitor with attention. Then at last, as
if forced out of his reserve--

"I am surprised that you should intercede for such a confounded fool."

This outbreak was almost complimentary, as if its meaning had been,
"That such a man as you should intercede!" Captain Whalley let it pass
by without flinching. One would have thought he had heard nothing. He
simply went on to state that he was personally interested in putting
things straight between them. Personally . . .

But Mr. Van Wyk, really carried away by his disgust with Massy, became
very incisive--

"Indeed--if I am to be frank with you--his whole character does not seem
to me particularly estimable or trustworthy . . ."

Captain Whalley, always straight, seemed to grow an inch taller and
broader, as if the girth of his chest had suddenly expanded under his
beard.

"My dear sir, you don't think I came here to discuss a man with whom I
am--I am--h'm--closely associated."

A sort of solemn silence lasted for a moment. He was not used to asking
favors, but the importance he attached to this affair had made him
willing to try. . . . Mr. Van Wyk, favorably impressed, and suddenly
mollified by a desire to laugh, interrupted--

"That's all right if you make it a personal matter; but you can do no
less than sit down and smoke a cigar with me."

A slight pause, then Captain Whalley stepped forward heavily. As to the
regularity of the service, for the future he made himself responsible
for it; and his name was Whalley--perhaps to a sailor (he was speaking
to a sailor, was he not?) not altogether unfamiliar. There was a
lighthouse now, on an island. Maybe Mr. Van Wyk himself . . .

"Oh yes. Oh indeed." Mr. Van Wyk caught on at once. He indicated a
chair. How very interesting. For his own part he had seen some service
in the last Acheen War, but had never been so far East. Whalley Island?
Of course. Now that was very interesting. What changes his guest must
have seen since.

"I can look further back even--on a whole half-century."

Captain Whalley expanded a bit. The flavor of a good cigar (it was a
weakness) had gone straight to his heart, also the civility of that
young man. There was something in that accidental contact of which he
had been starved in his years of struggle.

The front wall retreating made a square recess furnished like a room.
A lamp with a milky glass shade, suspended below the slope of the high
roof at the end of a slender brass chain, threw a bright round of light
upon a little table bearing an open book and an ivory paper-knife. And,
in the translucent shadows beyond, other tables could be seen, a number
of easy-chairs of various shapes, with a great profusion of skin rugs
strewn on the teakwood planking all over the veranda. The flowering
creepers scented the air. Their foliage clipped out between the uprights
made as if several frames of thick unstirring leaves reflecting the
lamplight in a green glow. Through the opening at his elbow Captain
Whalley could see the gangway lantern of the Sofala burning dim by the
shore, the shadowy masses of the town beyond the open lustrous darkness
of the river, and, as if hung along the straight edge of the projecting
eaves, a narrow black strip of the night sky full of stars--resplendent.
The famous cigar in hand he had a moment of complacency.

"A trifle. Somebody must lead the way. I just showed that the thing
could be done; but you men brought up to the use of steam cannot
conceive the vast importance of my bit of venturesomeness to the Eastern
trade of the time. Why, that new route reduced the average time of a
southern passage by eleven days for more than half the year. Eleven
days! It's on record. But the remarkable thing--speaking to a sailor--I
should say was . . ."

He talked well, without egotism, professionally. The powerful voice,
produced without effort, filled the bungalow even into the empty rooms
with a deep and limpid resonance, seemed to make a stillness outside;
and Mr. Van Wyk was surprised by the serene quality of its tone, like
the perfection of manly gentleness. Nursing one small foot, in a
silk sock and a patent leather shoe, on his knee, he was immensely
entertained. It was as if nobody could talk like this now, and the
overshadowed eyes, the flowing white beard, the big frame, the
serenity, the whole temper of the man, were an amazing survival from the
prehistoric times of the world coming up to him out of the sea.

Captain Whalley had been also the pioneer of the early trade in the Gulf
of Pe-tchi-li. He even found occasion to mention that he had buried
his "dear wife" there six-and-twenty years ago. Mr. Van Wyk, impassive,
could not help speculating in his mind swiftly as to the sort of woman
that would mate with such a man. Did they make an adventurous and
well-matched pair? No. Very possible she had been small, frail, no
doubt very feminine--or most likely commonplace with domestic instincts,
utterly insignificant. But Captain Whalley was no garrulous bore, and
shaking his head as if to dissipate the momentary gloom that had settled
on his handsome old face, he alluded conversationally to Mr. Van Wyk's
solitude.

Mr. Van Wyk affirmed that sometimes he had more company than he wanted.
He mentioned smilingly some of the peculiarities of his intercourse with
"My Sultan." He made his visits in force. Those people damaged his grass
plot in front (it was not easy to obtain some approach to a lawn in
the tropics) and the other day had broken down some rare bushes he had
planted over there. And Captain Whalley remembered immediately that,
in 'forty-seven, the then Sultan, "this man's grandfather," had been
notorious as a great protector of the piratical fleets of praus from
farther East. They had a safe refuge in the river at Batu Beru. He
financed more especially a Balinini chief called Haji Daman. Captain
Whalley, nodding significantly his bushy white eyebrows, had very good
reason to know something of that. The world had progressed since that
time.

Mr. Van Wyk demurred with unexpected acrimony. Progressed in what? he
wanted to know.

Why, in knowledge of truth, in decency, in justice, in order--in honesty
too, since men harmed each other mostly from ignorance. It was, Captain
Whalley concluded quaintly, more pleasant to live in.

Mr. Van Wyk whimsically would not admit that Mr. Massy, for instance,
was more pleasant naturally than the Balinini pirates.

The river had not gained much by the change. They were in their way
every bit as honest. Massy was less ferocious than Haji Daman no doubt,
but . . .

"And what about you, my good sir?" Captain Whalley laughed a deep soft
laugh. "_You_ are an improvement, surely."

He continued in a vein of pleasantry. A good cigar was better than a
knock on the head--the sort of welcome he would have found on this
river forty or fifty years ago. Then leaning forward slightly, he became
earnestly serious. It seems as if, outside their own sea-gypsy
tribes, these rovers had hated all mankind with an incomprehensible,
bloodthirsty hatred. Meantime their depredations had been stopped, and
what was the consequence? The new generation was orderly, peaceable,
settled in prosperous villages. He could speak from personal knowledge.
And even the few survivors of that time--old men now--had changed so
much, that it would have been unkind to remember against them that they
had ever slit a throat in their lives. He had one especially in his
mind's eye: a dignified, venerable headman of a certain large coast
village about sixty miles sou'west of Tampasuk. It did one's heart
good to see him--to hear that man speak. He might have been a ferocious
savage once. What men wanted was to be checked by superior intelligence,
by superior knowledge, by superior force too--yes, by force held in
trust from God and sanctified by its use in accordance with His declared
will. Captain Whalley believed a disposition for good existed in every
man, even if the world were not a very happy place as a whole. In the
wisdom of men he had not so much confidence. The disposition had to be
helped up pretty sharply sometimes, he admitted. They might be silly,
wrongheaded, unhappy; but naturally evil--no. There was at bottom a
complete harmlessness at least . . .

"Is there?" Mr. Van Wyk snapped acrimoniously.

Captain Whalley laughed at the interjection, in the good humor of large,
tolerating certitude. He could look back at half a century, he pointed
out. The smoke oozed placidly through the white hairs hiding his kindly
lips.

"At all events," he resumed after a pause, "I am glad that they've had
no time to do you much harm as yet."

This allusion to his comparative youthfulness did not offend Mr. Van
Wyk, who got up and wriggled his shoulders with an enigmatic half-smile.
They walked out together amicably into the starry night towards the
river-side. Their footsteps resounded unequally on the dark path. At the
shore end of the gangway the lantern, hung low to the handrail, threw
a vivid light on the white legs and the big black feet of Mr. Massy
waiting about anxiously. From the waist upwards he remained shadowy,
with a row of buttons gleaming up to the vague outline of his chin.

"You may thank Captain Whalley for this," Mr. Van Wyk said curtly to him
before turning away.

The lamps on the veranda flung three long squares of light between
the uprights far over the grass. A bat flitted before his face like a
circling flake of velvety blackness. Along the jasmine hedge the night
air seemed heavy with the fall of perfumed dew; flowerbeds bordered the
path; the clipped bushes uprose in dark rounded clumps here and there
before the house; the dense foliage of creepers filtered the sheen of
the lamplight within in a soft glow all along the front; and everything
near and far stood still in a great immobility, in a great sweetness.

Mr. Van Wyk (a few years before he had had occasion to imagine himself
treated more badly than anybody alive had ever been by a woman) felt
for Captain Whalley's optimistic views the disdain of a man who had once
been credulous himself. His disgust with the world (the woman for a
time had filled it for him completely) had taken the form of activity
in retirement, because, though capable of great depth of feeling, he was
energetic and essentially practical. But there was in that uncommon old
sailor, drifting on the outskirts of his busy solitude, something that
fascinated his skepticism. His very simplicity (amusing enough) was like
a delicate refinement of an upright character. The striking dignity
of manner could be nothing else, in a man reduced to such a humble
position, but the expression of something essentially noble in the
character. With all his trust in mankind he was no fool; the serenity
of his temper at the end of so many years, since it could not obviously
have been appeased by success, wore an air of profound wisdom. Mr. Van
Wyk was amused at it sometimes. Even the very physical traits of the
old captain of the Sofala, his powerful frame, his reposeful mien, his
intelligent, handsome face, the big limbs, the benign courtesy, the
touch of rugged severity in the shaggy eyebrows, made up a seductive
personality. Mr. Van Wyk disliked littleness of every kind, but there
was nothing small about that man, and in the exemplary regularity of
many trips an intimacy had grown up between them, a warm feeling
at bottom under a kindly stateliness of forms agreeable to his
fastidiousness.

They kept their respective opinions on all worldly matters. His other
convictions Captain Whalley never intruded. The difference of their
ages was like another bond between them. Once, when twitted with the
uncharitableness of his youth, Mr. Van Wyk, running his eye over the
vast proportions of his interlocutor, retorted in friendly banter--

"Oh. You'll come to my way of thinking yet. You'll have plenty of time.
Don't call yourself old: you look good for a round hundred."

But he could not help his stinging incisiveness, and though moderating
it by an almost affectionate smile, he added--

"And by then you will probably consent to die from sheer disgust."

Captain Whalley, smiling too, shook his head. "God forbid!"

He thought that perhaps on the whole he deserved something better than
to die in such sentiments. The time of course would have to come, and he
trusted to his Maker to provide a manner of going out of which he need
not be ashamed. For the rest he hoped he would live to a hundred if need
be: other men had been known; it would be no miracle. He expected no
miracles.

The pronounced, argumentative tone caused Mr. Van Wyk to raise his head
and look at him steadily. Captain Whalley was gazing fixedly with a rapt
expression, as though he had seen his Creator's favorable decree written
in mysterious characters on the wall. He kept perfectly motionless for
a few seconds, then got his vast bulk on to his feet so impetuously that
Mr. Van Wyk was startled.

He struck first a heavy blow on his inflated chest: and, throwing out
horizontally a big arm that remained steady, extended in the air like
the limb of a tree on a windless day--

"Not a pain or an ache there. Can you see this shake in the least?"

His voice was low, in an awing, confident contrast with the headlong
emphasis of his movements. He sat down abruptly.

"This isn't to boast of it, you know. I am nothing," he said in his
effortless strong voice, that seemed to come out as naturally as a river
flows. He picked up the stump of the cigar he had laid aside, and added
peacefully, with a slight nod, "As it happens, my life is necessary; it
isn't my own, it isn't--God knows."

He did not say much for the rest of the evening, but several times Mr.
Van Wyk detected a faint smile of assurance flitting under the heavy
mustache.

Later on Captain Whalley would now and then consent to dine "at the
house." He could even be induced to drink a glass of wine. "Don't think
I am afraid of it, my good sir," he explained. "There was a very good
reason why I should give it up."

On another occasion, leaning back at ease, he remarked, "You have
treated me most--most humanely, my dear Mr. Van Wyk, from the very
first."

"You'll admit there was some merit," Mr. Van Wyk hinted slyly. "An
associate of that excellent Massy. . . . Well, well, my dear captain, I
won't say a word against him."

"It would be no use your saying anything against him," Captain Whalley
affirmed a little moodily. "As I've told you before, my life--my work,
is necessary, not for myself alone. I can't choose" . . . He paused,
turned the glass before him right round. . . . "I have an only child--a
daughter."

The ample downward sweep of his arm over the table seemed to suggest
a small girl at a vast distance. "I hope to see her once more before I
die. Meantime it's enough to know that she has me sound and solid, thank
God. You can't understand how one feels. Bone of my bone, flesh of my
flesh; the very image of my poor wife. Well, she . . ."

Again he paused, then pronounced stoically the words, "She has a hard
struggle."

And his head fell on his breast, his eyebrows remained knitted, as by
an effort of meditation. But generally his mind seemed steeped in the
serenity of boundless trust in a higher power. Mr. Van Wyk wondered
sometimes how much of it was due to the splendid vitality of the man,
to the bodily vigor which seems to impart something of its force to the
soul. But he had learned to like him very much.


Joseph Conrad

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