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Victory


On approaching the task of writing this Note for "Victory" the first
thing I am conscious of is the actual nearness of the book, its
nearness to me personally, to the vanished mood in which it was written
and to the mixed feelings aroused by the critical notices the book
obtained when first published almost exactly a year after the beginning
of the great war. The writing of it was finished in 1914 long before the
murder of an Austrian Archduke sounded the first note of warning for a
world already full of doubts and fears.

The contemporaneous very short Author's Note which is preserved in this
edition bears sufficient witness to the feelings with which I consented
to the publication of the book. The fact of the book having been
published in the United States early in the year made it difficult to
delay its appearance in England any longer. It came out in the
thirteenth month of the war, and my conscience was troubled by the awful
incongruity of throwing this bit of imagined drama into the welter of
reality, tragic enough in all conscience but even more cruel than tragic
and more inspiring than cruel. It seemed awfully presumptuous to think
there would be eyes to spare for those pages in a community which in the
crash of the big guns and in the din of brave words expressing the
truth of an indomitable faith could not but feel the edge of a sharp
knife at its throat.

The unchanging Man of history is wonderfully adaptable both by his power
of endurance and in his capacity for detachment. The fact seems to be
that the play of his destiny is too great for his fears and too
mysterious for his understanding. Were the trump of the Last Judgment to
sound suddenly on a working day the musician at his piano would go on
with his performance of Beethoven's Sonata and the cobbler at his stall
stick to his last in undisturbed confidence in the virtues of the
leather. And with perfect propriety. For what are we to let ourselves be
disturbed by an angel's vengeful music too mighty for our ears and too
awful for our terrors? Thus it happens to us to be struck suddenly by
the lightning of wrath. The reader will go on reading if the book
pleases him and the critic will go on criticizing with that faculty of
detachment born perhaps from a sense of infinite littleness and which is
yet the only faculty that seems to assimilate man to the immortal gods.

It is only when the catastrophe matches the natural obscurity of our
fate that even the best representative of the race is liable to lose his
detachment. It is very obvious that on the arrival of the gentlemanly
Mr. Jones, the single-minded Ricardo and the faithful Pedro, Heyst, the
man of universal detachment, loses his mental self-possession, that fine
attitude before the universally irremediable which wears the name of
stoicism. It is all a matter of proportion. There should have been a
remedy for that sort of thing. And yet there is no remedy. Behind this
minute instance of life's hazards Heyst sees the power of blind destiny.
Besides, Heyst in his fine detachment had lost the habit of asserting
himself. I don't mean the courage of self-assertion, either moral or
physical, but the mere way of it, the trick of the thing, the readiness
of mind and the turn of the hand that come without reflection and lead
the man to excellence in life, in art, in crime, in virtue and for the
matter of that, even in love. Thinking is the great enemy of perfection.
The habit of profound reflection, I am compelled to say, is the most
pernicious of all the habits formed by the civilized man.

But I wouldn't be suspected even remotely of making fun of Axel Heyst.
I have always liked him. The flesh and blood individual who stands
behind the infinitely more familiar figure of the book I remember as a
mysterious Swede right enough. Whether he was a baron, too, I am not so
certain. He himself never laid a claim to that distinction. His
detachment was too great to make any claims big or small on one's
credulity. I will not say where I met him because I fear to give my
readers a wrong impression, since a marked incongruity between a man and
his surroundings is often a very misleading circumstance. We became very
friendly for a time and I would not like to expose him to unpleasant
suspicions though, personally, I am sure he would have been indifferent
to suspicions as he was indifferent to all the other disadvantages of
life. He was not the whole Heyst of course; he is only the physical and
moral foundation of my Heyst laid on the ground of a short acquaintance.
That it was short is certainly not my fault for he had charmed me by the
mere amenity of his detachment which, in this case, I cannot help
thinking he had carried to excess. He went away from his rooms without
leaving a trace. I wondered where he had gone to--but now I know. He
vanished from my ken only to drift into this adventure that,
unavoidable, waited for him in a world which he persisted in looking
upon as a malevolent shadow spinning in the sunlight. Often in the
course of years an expressed sentiment, the particular sense of a phrase
heard casually, would recall him to my mind so that I have fastened on
to him many words heard on other men's lips and belonging to other men's
less perfect, less pathetic moods.

The same observation will apply _mutatis mutandis_ to Mr. Jones, who is
built on a much slenderer connection. Mr. Jones (or whatever his name
was) did not drift away from me. He turned his back on me and walked out
of the room. It was in a little hotel in the Island of St. Thomas in the
West Indies (in the year '75) where we found him one hot afternoon
extended on three chairs, all alone in the loud buzzing of flies to
which his immobility and his cadaverous aspect gave an almost gruesome
significance. Our invasion must have displeased him because he got off
the chairs brusquely and walked out leaving with me an indelibly weird
impression of his thin shanks. One of the men with me said that the
fellow was the most desperate gambler he had ever come across. I said:
"A professional sharper?" and got for answer: "He's a terror; but I must
say that up to a certain point he will play fair...." I wonder what the
point was. I never saw him again because I believe he went straight on
board a mail-boat which left within the hour for other ports of call in
the direction of Aspinall. Mr. Jones' characteristic insolence belongs
to another man of a quite different type. I will say nothing as to the
origins of his mentality because I don't intend to make any damaging
admissions.

It so happened that the very same year Ricardo--the physical
Ricardo--was a fellow passenger of mine on board an extremely small and
extremely dirty little schooner, during a four days' passage between two
places in the Gulf of Mexico whose names don't matter. For the most part
he lay on deck aft as it were at my feet, and raising himself from time
to time on his elbow would talk about himself and go on talking, not
exactly to me or even at me (he would not even look up but kept his eyes
fixed on the deck) but more as if communing in a low voice with his
familiar devil. Now and then he would give me a glance and make the
hairs of his stiff little moustache stir quaintly. His eyes were green
and every cat I see to this day reminds me of the exact contour of his
face. What he was travelling for or what was his business in life he
never confided to me. Truth to say the only passenger on board that
schooner who could have talked openly about his activities and purposes
was a very snuffy and conversationally delightful friar, the Superior of
a convent, attended by a very young lay brother, of a particularly
ferocious countenance. We had with us also, lying prostrate in the dark
and unspeakable cuddy of that schooner, an old Spanish gentleman, owner
of much luggage and, as Ricardo assured me, very ill indeed. Ricardo
seemed to be either a servant or the confidant of that aged and
distinguished-looking invalid, who early on the passage held a long
murmured conversation with the friar, and after that did nothing but
groan feebly, smoke cigarettes and now and then call for Martin in a
voice full of pain. Then he who had become Ricardo in the book would go
below into that beastly and noisome hole, remain there mysteriously,
and coming up on deck again with a face on which nothing could be read,
would as likely as not resume for my edification the exposition of his
moral attitude toward life illustrated by striking particular instances
of the most atrocious complexion. Did he mean to frighten me? Or seduce
me? Or astonish me? Or arouse my admiration? All he did was to arouse my
amused incredulity. As scoundrels go he was far from being a bore. For
the rest my innocence was so great then that I could not take his
philosophy seriously. All the time he kept one ear turned to the cuddy
in the manner of a devoted servant, but I had the idea that in some way
or other he had imposed the connection on the invalid for some end of
his own. The reader therefore won't be surprised to hear that one
morning I was told without any particular emotion by the padrone of the
schooner that the "Rich man" down there was dead: He had died in the
night. I don't remember ever being so moved by the desolate end of a
complete stranger. I looked down the skylight, and there was the devoted
Martin busy cording cowhide trunks belonging to the deceased whose
white beard and hooked nose were the only parts I could make out in the
dark depths of a horrible stuffy bunk.

As it fell calm in the course of the afternoon and continued calm during
all that night and the terrible, flaming day, the late Rich man had to
be thrown overboard at sunset, though as a matter of fact we were in
sight of the low pestilential mangrove-lined coast of our destination.
The excellent Father Superior mentioned to me with an air of immense
commiseration: "The poor man has left a young daughter." Who was to look
after her I don't know, but I saw the devoted Martin taking the trunks
ashore with great care just before I landed myself. I would perhaps have
tracked the ways of that man of immense sincerity for a little while but
I had some of my own very pressing business to attend to, which in the
end got mixed up with an earthquake and so I had no time to give to
Ricardo. The reader need not be told that I have not forgotten him,
though.

My contact with the faithful Pedro was much shorter and my observation
of him was less complete but incomparably more anxious. It ended in a
sudden inspiration to get out of his way. It was in a hovel of sticks
and mats by the side of a path. As I went in there only to ask for a
bottle of lemonade I have not to this day the slightest idea what in my
appearance or actions could have roused his terrible ire. It became
manifest to me less than two minutes after I had set eyes on him for the
first time, and though immensely surprised of course I didn't stop to
think it out. I took the nearest short cut--through the wall. This
bestial apparition and a certain enormous buck nigger encountered in
Haiti only a couple of months afterwards have fixed my conception of
blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal, to
the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards.
Of Pedro never. The impression was less vivid. I got away from him too
quickly.

It seems to me but natural that those three buried in a corner of my
memory should suddenly get out into the light of the world--so natural
that I offer no excuse for their existence. They were there, they had to
come out; and this is a sufficient excuse for a writer of tales who had
taken to his trade without preparation or premeditation and without any
moral intention but that which pervades the whole scheme of this world
of senses.

Since this Note is mostly concerned with personal contacts and the
origins of the persons in the tale, I am bound also to speak of Lena,
because if I were to leave her out it would look like a slight; and
nothing would be further from my thoughts than putting a slight on Lena.
If of all the personages involved in the "mystery of Samburan" I have
lived longest with Heyst (or with him I call Heyst) it was at her, whom
I call Lena, that I have looked the longest and with a most sustained
attention. This attention originated in idleness for which I have a
natural talent. One evening I wandered into a café, in a town not of the
tropics but of the South of France. It was filled with tobacco smoke,
the hum of voices, the rattling of dominoes and the sounds of strident
music. The orchestra was rather smaller than the one that performed at
Schomberg's hotel, had the air more of a family party than of an
enlisted band, and, I must confess, seemed rather more respectable than
the Zangiacomo musical enterprise. It was less pretentious also, more
homely and familiar, so to speak, insomuch that in the intervals when
all the performers left the platform one of them went amongst the marble
tables collecting offerings of sous and francs in a battered tin
receptacle recalling the shape of a sauceboat. It was a girl. Her
detachment from her task seems to me now to have equalled or even
surpassed Heyst's aloofness from all the mental degradations to which a
man's intelligence is exposed in its way through life. Silent and
wide-eyed she went from table to table with the air of a sleep-walker
and with no other sound but the slight rattle of the coins to attract
attention. It was long after the sea-chapter of my life had been closed
but it is difficult to discard completely the characteristics of half a
life-time, and it was in something of the jack-ashore spirit that I
dropped a five-franc piece into the sauceboat; whereupon the
sleep-walker turned her head to gaze at me and said "Merci, Monsieur,"
in a tone in which there was no gratitude but only surprise. I must have
been idle indeed to take the trouble to remark on such slight evidence
that the voice was very charming and when the performers resumed their
seats I shifted my position slightly in order not to have that
particular performer hidden from me by the little man with the beard who
conducted, and who might for all I know have been her father, but whose
real mission in life was to be a model for the Zangiacomo of "Victory."
Having got a clear line of sight I naturally (being idle) continued to
look at the girl through all the second part of the programme. The shape
of her dark head inclined over the violin was fascinating, and, while
resting between the pieces of that interminable programme she was, in
her white dress and with her brown hands reposing in her lap, the very
image of dreamy innocence. The mature, bad-tempered woman at the piano
might have been her mother, though there was not the slightest
resemblance between them. All I am certain of in their personal relation
to each other is that cruel pinch on the upper part of the arm. That I
am sure I have seen! There could be no mistake. I was in a too idle mood
to imagine such a gratuitous barbarity. It may have been playfulness,
yet the girl jumped up as if she had been stung by a wasp. It may have
been playfulness. Yet I saw plainly poor "dreamy innocence" rub gently
the affected place as she filed off with the other performers down the
middle aisle between the marble tables in the uproar of voices, the
rattling of dominoes, through a blue atmosphere of tobacco smoke. I
believe that those people left the town next day.

Or perhaps they had only migrated to the other big café, on the other
side of the Place de la Comedie. It is very possible. I did not go
across to find out. It was my perfect idleness that had invested the
girl with a peculiar charm, and I did not want to destroy it by any
superfluous exertion. The receptivity of my indolence made the
impression so permanent that when the moment came for her meeting with
Heyst I felt that she would be heroically equal to every demand of the
risky and uncertain future. I was so convinced of it that I let her go
with Heyst, I won't say without a pang but certainly without misgivings.
And in view of her triumphant end what more could I have done for her
rehabilitation and her happiness?

J. C.

1920.

Joseph Conrad

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