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Chapter 6

The sun had set. And when, after drilling a deep hole with his stick, he
moved from that spot the night had massed its army of shadows under the
trees. They filled the eastern ends of the avenues as if only waiting
the signal for a general advance upon the open spaces of the world; they
were gathering low between the deep stone-faced banks of the canal. The
Malay prau, half-concealed under the arch of the bridge, had not altered
its position a quarter of an inch. For a long time Captain Whalley
stared down over the parapet, till at last the floating immobility
of that beshrouded thing seemed to grow upon him into something
inexplicable and alarming. The twilight abandoned the zenith; its
reflected gleams left the world below, and the water of the canal seemed
to turn into pitch. Captain Whalley crossed it.

The turning to the right, which was his way to his hotel, was only
a very few steps farther. He stopped again (all the houses of the
sea-front were shut up, the quayside was deserted, but for one or two
figures of natives walking in the distance) and began to reckon the
amount of his bill. So many days in the hotel at so many dollars a
day. To count the days he used his fingers: plunging one hand into his
pocket, he jingled a few silver coins. All right for three days more;
and then, unless something turned up, he must break into the five
hundred--Ivy's money--invested in her father. It seemed to him that
the first meal coming out of that reserve would choke him--for certain.
Reason was of no use. It was a matter of feeling. His feelings had never
played him false.

He did not turn to the right. He walked on, as if there still had been
a ship in the roadstead to which he could get himself pulled off in
the evening. Far away, beyond the houses, on the slope of an indigo
promontory closing the view of the quays, the slim column of a
factory-chimney smoked quietly straight up into the clear air. A
Chinaman, curled down in the stern of one of the half-dozen sampans
floating off the end of the jetty, caught sight of a beckoning hand.
He jumped up, rolled his pigtail round his head swiftly, tucked in two
rapid movements his wide dark trousers high up his yellow thighs, and
by a single, noiseless, finlike stir of the oars, sheered the sampan
alongside the steps with the ease and precision of a swimming fish.

"Sofala," articulated Captain Whalley from above; and the Chinaman,
a new emigrant probably, stared upwards with a tense attention as if
waiting to see the queer word fall visibly from the white man's lips.
"Sofala," Captain Whalley repeated; and suddenly his heart failed him.
He paused. The shores, the islets, the high ground, the low points, were
dark: the horizon had grown somber; and across the eastern sweep of
the shore the white obelisk, marking the landing-place of the
telegraph-cable, stood like a pale ghost on the beach before the dark
spread of uneven roofs, intermingled with palms, of the native town.
Captain Whalley began again.

"Sofala. Savee So-fa-la, John?"

This time the Chinaman made out that bizarre sound, and grunted his
assent uncouthly, low down in his bare throat. With the first yellow
twinkle of a star that appeared like the head of a pin stabbed deep into
the smooth, pale, shimmering fabric of the sky, the edge of a keen chill
seemed to cleave through the warm air of the earth. At the moment of
stepping into the sampan to go and try for the command of the Sofala
Captain Whalley shivered a little.


When on his return he landed on the quay again Venus, like a choice
jewel set low on the hem of the sky, cast a faint gold trail behind him
upon the roadstead, as level as a floor made of one dark and
polished stone. The lofty vaults of the avenues were black--all
black overhead--and the porcelain globes on the lamp-posts resembled
egg-shaped pearls, gigantic and luminous, displayed in a row whose
farther end seemed to sink in the distance, down to the level of his
knees. He put his hands behind his back. He would now consider calmly
the discretion of it before saying the final word to-morrow. His feet
scrunched the gravel loudly--the discretion of it. It would have been
easier to appraise had there been a workable alternative. The honesty
of it was indubitable: he meant well by the fellow; and periodically
his shadow leaped up intense by his side on the trunks of the trees,
to lengthen itself, oblique and dim, far over the grass--repeating his
stride.

The discretion of it. Was there a choice? He seemed already to have lost
something of himself; to have given up to a hungry specter something of
his truth and dignity in order to live. But his life was necessary. Let
poverty do its worst in exacting its toll of humiliation. It was certain
that Ned Eliott had rendered him, without knowing it, a service for
which it would have been impossible to ask. He hoped Ned would not think
there had been something underhand in his action. He supposed that now
when he heard of it he would understand--or perhaps he would only think
Whalley an eccentric old fool. What would have been the good of telling
him--any more than of blurting the whole tale to that man Massy? Five
hundred pounds ready to invest. Let him make the best of that. Let him
wonder. You want a captain--I want a ship. That's enough. B-r-r-r-r.
What a disagreeable impression that empty, dark, echoing steamer had
made upon him. . . .

A laid-up steamer was a dead thing and no mistake; a sailing-ship
somehow seems always ready to spring into life with the breath of the
incorruptible heaven; but a teamer, thought Captain Whalley, with her
fires out, without the warm whiffs from below meeting you on her decks,
without the hiss of steam, the clangs of iron in her breast--lies there
as cold and still and pulseless as a corpse.

In the solitude of the avenue, all black above and lighted below,
Captain Whalley, considering the discretion of his course, met, as it
were incidentally, the thought of death. He pushed it aside with dislike
and contempt. He almost laughed at it; and in the unquenchable vitality
of his age only thought with a kind of exultation how little he needed
to keep body and soul together. Not a bad investment for the poor
woman this solid carcass of her father. And for the rest--in case of
anything--the agreement should be clear: the whole five hundred to
be paid back to her integrally within three months. Integrally. Every
penny. He was not to lose any of her money whatever else had to go--a
little dignity--some of his self-respect. He had never before allowed
anybody to remain under any sort of false impression as to himself.
Well, let that go--for her sake. After all, he had never _said_ anything
misleading--and Captain Whalley felt himself corrupt to the marrow of
his bones. He laughed a little with the intimate scorn of his worldly
prudence. Clearly, with a fellow of that sort, and in the peculiar
relation they were to stand to each other, it would not have done to
blurt out everything. He did not like the fellow. He did not like his
spells of fawning loquacity and bursts of resentfulness. In the end--a
poor devil. He would not have liked to stand in his shoes. Men were
not evil, after all. He did not like his sleek hair, his queer way of
standing at right angles, with his nose in the air, and glancing along
his shoulder at you. No. On the whole, men were not bad--they were only
silly or unhappy.

Captain Whalley had finished considering the discretion of that
step--and there was the whole long night before him. In the full light
his long beard would glisten like a silver breastplate covering his
heart; in the spaces between the lamps his burly figure passed less
distinct, loomed very big, wandering, and mysterious. No; there was
not much real harm in men: and all the time a shadow marched with him,
slanting on his left hand--which in the East is a presage of evil.

. . . . . . .

"Can you make out the clump of palms yet, Serang?" asked Captain Whalley
from his chair on the bridge of the Sofala approaching the bar of Batu
Beru.

"No, Tuan. By-and-by see." The old Malay, in a blue dungaree suit,
planted on his bony dark feet under the bridge awning, put his hands
behind his back and stared ahead out of the innumerable wrinkles at the
corners of his eyes.

Captain Whalley sat still, without lifting his head to look for himself.
Three years--thirty-six times. He had made these palms thirty-six times
from the southward. They would come into view at the proper time. Thank
God, the old ship made her courses and distances trip after trip, as
correct as clockwork. At last he murmured again--

"In sight yet?"

"The sun makes a very great glare, Tuan."

"Watch well, Serang."

"Ya, Tuan."

A white man had ascended the ladder from the deck noiselessly, and had
listened quietly to this short colloquy. Then he stepped out on the
bridge and began to walk from end to end, holding up the long cherrywood
stem of a pipe. His black hair lay plastered in long lanky wisps
across the bald summit of his head; he had a furrowed brow, a yellow
complexion, and a thick shapeless nose. A scanty growth of whisker did
not conceal the contour of his jaw. His aspect was of brooding care;
and sucking at a curved black mouthpiece, he presented such a heavy
overhanging profile that even the Serang could not help reflecting
sometimes upon the extreme unloveliness of some white men.

Captain Whalley seemed to brace himself up in his chair, but gave no
recognition whatever to his presence. The other puffed jets of smoke;
then suddenly--

"I could never understand that new mania of yours of having this Malay
here for your shadow, partner."

Captain Whalley got up from the chair in all his imposing stature and
walked across to the binnacle, holding such an unswerving course that
the other had to back away hurriedly, and remained as if intimidated,
with the pipe trembling in his hand. "Walk over me now," he muttered in
a sort of astounded and discomfited whisper. Then slowly and distinctly
he said--

"I--am--not--dirt." And then added defiantly, "As you seem to think."

The Serang jerked out--

"See the palms now, Tuan."

Captain Whalley strode forward to the rail; but his eyes, instead of
going straight to the point, with the assured keen glance of a sailor,
wandered irresolutely in space, as though he, the discoverer of new
routes, had lost his way upon this narrow sea.

Another white man, the mate, came up on the bridge. He was tall, young,
lean, with a mustache like a trooper, and something malicious in the
eye. He took up a position beside the engineer. Captain Whalley, with
his back to them, inquired--

"What's on the log?"

"Eighty-five," answered the mate quickly, and nudged the engineer with
his elbow.

Captain Whalley's muscular hands squeezed the iron rail with an
extraordinary force; his eyes glared with an enormous effort; he knitted
his eyebrows, the perspiration fell from under his hat,--and in a
faint voice he murmured, "Steady her, Serang--when she is on the proper
bearing."

The silent Malay stepped back, waited a little, and lifted his arm
warningly to the helmsman. The wheel revolved rapidly to meet the swing
of the ship. Again the made nudged the engineer. But Massy turned upon
him.

"Mr. Sterne," he said violently, "let me tell you--as a shipowner--that
you are no better than a confounded fool."

Joseph Conrad

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