A Personal Record/Chapter IV
It must not be supposed that, in setting forth the memories of this half-hour between the moment my uncle left my room till we met again at dinner, I am losing sight of "Almayer's Folly." Having confessed that my first novel was begun in idleness--a holiday task--I think I have also given the impression that it was a much-delayed book. It was never dismissed from my mind, even when the hope of ever finishing it was very faint. Many things came in its way: daily duties, new impressions, old memories. It was not the outcome of a need--the famous need of self-expression which artists find in their search for motives. The necessity which impelled me was a hidden, obscure necessity, a completely masked and unaccountable phenomenon. Or perhaps some idle and frivolous magician (there must be magicians in London) had cast a spell over me through his parlour window as I explored the maze of streets east and west in solitary leisurely walks without chart and compass. Till I began to write that novel I had written nothing but letters, and not very many of these. I never made a note of a fact, of an impression, or of an anecdote in my life. The conception of a planned book was entirely outside my mental range when I sat down to write; the ambition of being an author had never turned up among those gracious imaginary existences one creates fondly for oneself at times in the stillness and immobility of a day-dream: yet it stands clear as the sun at noonday that from the moment I had done blackening over the first manuscript page of "Almayer's Folly" (it contained about two hundred words and this proportion of words to a page has remained with me through the fifteen years of my writing life), from the moment I had, in the simplicity of my heart and the amazing ignorance of my mind, written that page the die was cast. Never had Rubicon been more blindly forded without invocation to the gods, without fear of men.
That morning I got up from my breakfast, pushing the chair back, and rang the bell violently, or perhaps I should say resolutely, or perhaps I should say eagerly--I do not know. But manifestly it must have been a special ring of the bell, a common sound made impressive, like the ringing of a bell for the raising of the curtain upon a new scene. It was an unusual thing for me to do. Generally, I dawdled over my breakfast and I seldom took the trouble to ring the bell for the table to be cleared away; but on that morning, for some reason hidden in the general mysteriousness of the event, I did not dawdle. And yet I was not in a hurry. I pulled the cord casually, and while the faint tinkling somewhere down in the basement went on, I charged my pipe in the usual way and I looked for the match-box with glances distraught indeed, but exhibiting, I am ready to swear, no signs of a fine frenzy. I was composed enough to perceive after some considerable time the match-box lying there on the mantelpiece right under my nose. And all this was beautifully and safely usual. Before I had thrown down the match my landlady's daughter appeared with her calm, pale face and an inquisitive look, in the doorway. Of late it was the landlady's daughter who answered my bell. I mention this little fact with pride, because it proves that during the thirty or forty days of my tenancy I had produced a favourable impression. For a fortnight past I had been spared the unattractive sight of the domestic slave. The girls in that Bessborough Gardens house were often changed, but whether short or long, fair or dark, they were always untidy and particularly bedraggled, as if in a sordid version of the fairy tale the ash-bin cat had been changed into a maid. I was infinitely sensible of the privilege of being waited on by my landlady's daughter. She was neat if anemic.
"Will you please clear away all this at once?" I addressed her in convulsive accents, being at the same time engaged in getting my pipe to draw. This, I admit, was an unusual request. Generally, on getting up from breakfast I would sit down in the window with a book and let them clear the table when they liked; but if you think that on that morning I was in the least impatient, you are mistaken. I remember that I was perfectly calm. As a matter of fact I was not at all certain that I wanted to write, or that I meant to write, or that I had anything to write about. No, I was not impatient. I lounged between the mantelpiece and the window, not even consciously waiting for the table to be cleared. It was ten to one that before my landlady's daughter was done I would pick up a book and sit down with it all the morning in a spirit of enjoyable indolence. I affirm it with assurance, and I don't even know now what were the books then lying about the room. What ever they were, they were not the works of great masters, where the secret of clear thought and exact expression can be found. Since the age of five I have been a great reader, as is not perhaps wonderful in a child who was never aware of learning to read. At ten years of age I had read much of Victor Hugo and other romantics. I had read in Polish and in French, history, voyages, novels; I knew "Gil Blas" and "Don Quixote" in abridged editions; I had read in early boyhood Polish poets and some French poets, but I cannot say what I read on the evening before I began to write myself. I believe it was a novel, and it is quite possible that it was one of Anthony Trollope's novels. It is very likely. My acquaintance with him was then very recent. He is one of the English novelists whose works I read for the first time in English. With men of European reputation, with Dickens and Walter Scott and Thackeray, it was otherwise. My first introduction to English imaginative literature was "Nicholas Nickleby." It is extraordinary how well Mrs. Nickleby could chatter disconnectedly in Polish and the sinister Ralph rage in that language. As to the Crummles family and the family of the learned Squeers it seemed as natural to them as their native speech. It was, I have no doubt, an excellent translation. This must have been in the year '70. But I really believe that I am wrong. That book was not my first introduction to English literature. My first acquaintance was (or were) the "Two Gentlemen of Verona," and that in the very MS. of my father's translation. It was during our exile in Russia, and it must have been less than a year after my mother's death, because I remember myself in the black blouse with a white border of my heavy mourning. We were living together, quite alone, in a small house on the outskirts of the town of T----. That afternoon, instead of going out to play in the large yard which we shared with our landlord, I had lingered in the room in which my father generally wrote. What emboldened me to clamber into his chair I am sure I don't know, but a couple of hours afterward he discovered me kneeling in it with my elbows on the table and my head held in both hands over the MS. of loose pages. I was greatly confused, expecting to get into trouble. He stood in the doorway looking at me with some surprise, but the only thing he said after a moment of silence was:
"Read the page aloud."
Luckily the page lying before me was not overblotted with erasures and corrections, and my father's handwriting was otherwise extremely legible. When I got to the end he nodded, and I flew out-of-doors, thinking myself lucky to have escaped reproof for that piece of impulsive audacity. I have tried to discover since the reason for this mildness, and I imagine that all unknown to myself I had earned, in my father's mind, the right to some latitude in my relations with his writing-table. It was only a month before--or perhaps it was only a week before--that I had read to him aloud from beginning to end, and to his perfect satisfaction, as he lay on his bed, not being very well at the time, the proofs of his translation of Victor Hugo's "Toilers of the Sea." Such was my title to consideration, I believe, and also my first introduction to the sea in literature.
If I do not remember where, how, and when I learned to read, I am not likely to forget the process of being trained in the art of reading aloud. My poor father, an admirable reader himself, was the most exacting of masters. I reflect proudly that I must have read that page of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" tolerably well at the age of eight. The next time I met them was in a 5s. one-volume edition of the dramatic works of William Shakespeare, read in Falmouth, at odd moments of the day, to the noisy accompaniment of calkers' mallets driving oakum into the deck-seams of a ship in dry-dock. We had run in, in a sinking condition and with the crew refusing duty after a month of weary battling with the gales of the North Atlantic. Books are an integral part of one's life, and my Shakespearian associations are with that first year of our bereavement, the last I spent with my father in exile (he sent me away to Poland to my mother's brother directly he could brace himself up for the separation), and with the year of hard gales, the year in which I came nearest to death at sea, first by water and then by fire.
Those things I remember, but what I was reading the day before my writing life began I have forgotten. I have only a vague notion that it might have been one of Trollope's political novels. And I remember, too, the character of the day. It was an autumn day with an opaline atmosphere, a veiled, semi-opaque, lustrous day, with fiery points and flashes of red sunlight on the roofs and windows opposite, while the trees of the square, with all their leaves gone, were like the tracings of India ink on a sheet of tissue-paper. It was one of those London days that have the charm of mysterious amenity, of fascinating softness. The effect of opaline mist was often repeated at Bessborough Gardens on account of the nearness to the river.
There is no reason why I should remember that effect more on that day than on any other day, except that I stood for a long time looking out of the window after the landlady's daughter was gone with her spoil of cups and saucers. I heard her put the tray down in the passage and finally shut the door; and still I remained smoking, with my back to the room. It is very clear that I was in no haste to take the plunge into my writing life, if as plunge this first attempt may be described. My whole being was steeped deep in the indolence of a sailor away from the sea, the scene of never-ending labour and of unceasing duty. For utter surrender to in indolence you cannot beat a sailor ashore when that mood is on him--the mood of absolute irresponsibility tasted to the full. It seems to me that I thought of nothing whatever, but this is an impression which is hardly to be believed at this distance of years. What I am certain of is that I was very far from thinking of writing a story, though it is possible and even likely that I was thinking of the man Almayer.
I had seen him for the first time, some four years before, from the bridge of a steamer moored to a rickety little wharf forty miles up, more or less, a Bornean river. It was very early morning, and a slight mist--an opaline mist as in Bessborough Gardens, only without the fiery flicks on roof and chimney-pot from the rays of the red London sun--promised to turn presently into a woolly fog. Barring a small dug-out canoe on the river there was nothing moving within sight. I had just come up yawning from my cabin. The serang and the Malay crew were overhauling the cargo chains and trying the winches; their voices sounded subdued on the deck below, and their movements were languid. That tropical daybreak was chilly. The Malay quartermaster, coming up to get something from the lockers on the bridge, shivered visibly. The forests above and below and on the opposite bank looked black and dank; wet dripped from the rigging upon the tightly stretched deck awnings, and it was in the middle of a shuddering yawn that I caught sight of Almayer. He was moving across a patch of burned grass, a blurred, shadowy shape with the blurred bulk of a house behind him, a low house of mats, bamboos, and palm leaves, with a high-pitched roof of grass.
He stepped upon the jetty. He was clad simply in flapping pajamas of cretonne pattern (enormous flowers with yellow petals on a disagreeable blue ground) and a thin cotton singlet with short sleeves. His arms, bare to the elbow, were crossed on his chest. His black hair looked as if it had not been cut for a very long time, and a curly wisp of it strayed across his forehead. I had heard of him at Singapore; I had heard of him on board; I had heard of him early in the morning and late at night; I had heard of him at tiffin and at dinner; I had heard of him in a place called Pulo Laut from a half-caste gentleman there, who described himself as the manager of a coal-mine; which sounded civilized and progressive till you heard that the mine could not be worked at present because it was haunted by some particularly atrocious ghosts. I had heard of him in a place called Dongola, in the Island of Celebes, when the Rajah of that little-known seaport (you can get no anchorage there in less than fifteen fathom, which is extremely inconvenient) came on board in a friendly way, with only two attendants, and drank bottle after bottle of soda-water on the after-sky light with my good friend and commander, Captain C----. At least I heard his name distinctly pronounced several times in a lot of talk in Malay language. Oh, yes, I heard it quite distinctly--Almayer, Almayer--and saw Captain C---- smile, while the fat, dingy Rajah laughed audibly. To hear a Malay Rajah laugh outright is a rare experience, I can as sure you. And I overheard more of Almayer's name among our deck passengers (mostly wandering traders of good repute) as they sat all over the ship--each man fenced round with bundles and boxes--on mats, on pillows, on quilts, on billets of wood, conversing of Island affairs. Upon my word, I heard the mutter of Almayer's name faintly at midnight, while making my way aft from the bridge to look at the patent taffrail-log tinkling its quarter miles in the great silence of the sea. I don't mean to say that our passengers dreamed aloud of Almayer, but it is indubitable that two of them at least, who could not sleep, apparently, and were trying to charm away the trouble of insomnia by a little whispered talk at that ghostly hour, were referring in some way or other to Almayer. It was really impossible on board that ship to get away definitely from Almayer; and a very small pony tied up forward and whisking its tail inside the galley, to the great embarrassment of our Chinaman cook, was destined for Almayer. What he wanted with a pony goodness only knows, since I am perfectly certain he could not ride it; but here you have the man, ambitious, aiming at the grandiose, importing a pony, whereas in the whole settlement at which he used to shake daily his impotent fist there was only one path that was practicable for a pony: a quarter of a mile at most, hedged in by hundreds of square leagues of virgin forest. But who knows? The importation of that Bali pony might have been part of some deep scheme, of some diplomatic plan, of some hopeful intrigue. With Almayer one could never tell. He governed his conduct by considerations removed from the obvious, by incredible assumptions, which rendered his logic impenetrable to any reasonable person. I learned all this later. That morning, seeing the figure in pajamas moving in the mist, I said to myself, "That's the man."
He came quite close to the ship's side and raised a harassed countenance, round and flat, with that curl of black hair over the forehead and a heavy, pained glance.
He looked hard at me: I was a new face, having just replaced the chief mate he was accustomed to see; and I think that this novelty inspired him, as things generally did, with deep-seated mistrust.
"Didn't expect you till this evening," he remarked, suspiciously.
I didn't know why he should have been aggrieved, but he seemed to be. I took pains to explain to him that, having picked up the beacon at the mouth of the river just before dark and the tide serving, Captain C---- was enabled to cross the bar and there was nothing to prevent him going up the river at night.
"Captain C---- knows this river like his own pocket," I concluded, discursively, trying to get on terms.
"Better," said Almayer.
Leaning over the rail of the bridge, I looked at Almayer, who looked down at the wharf in aggrieved thought. He shuffled his feet a little; he wore straw slippers with thick soles. The morning fog had thickened considerably. Everything round us dripped--the derricks, the rails, every single rope in the ship--as if a fit of crying had come upon the universe.
Almayer again raised his head and, in the accents of a man accustomed to the buffets of evil fortune, asked, hardly audibly:
"I suppose you haven't got such a thing as a pony on board?"
I told him, almost in a whisper, for he attuned my communications to his minor key, that we had such a thing as a pony, and I hinted, as gently as I could, that he was confoundedly in the way, too. I was very anxious to have him landed before I began to handle the cargo. Almayer remained looking up at me for a long while, with incredulous and melancholy eyes, as though it were not a safe thing to believe in my statement. This pathetic mistrust in the favourable issue of any sort of affair touched me deeply, and I added:
"He doesn't seem a bit the worse for the passage. He's a nice pony, too."
Almayer was not to be cheered up; for all answer he cleared his throat and looked down again at his feet. I tried to close with him on another tack.
"By Jove!" I said. "Aren't you afraid of catching pneumonia or bronchitis or some thing, walking about in a singlet in such a wet fog?"
He was not to be propitiated by a show of interest in his health.
His answer was a sinister "No fear," as much as to say that even that way of escape from inclement fortune was closed to him.
"I just came down . . ." he mumbled after a while.
"Well, then, now you're here I will land that pony for you at once, and you can lead him home. I really don't want him on deck. He's in the way."
Almayer seemed doubtful. I insisted:
"Why, I will just swing him out and land him on the wharf right in front of you. I'd much rather do it before the hatches are off. The little devil may jump down the hold or do some other deadly thing."
"There's a halter?" postulated Almayer.
"Yes, of course there's a halter." And without waiting any more I leaned over the bridge rail.
"Serang, land Tuan Almayer's pony."
The cook hastened to shut the door of the galley, and a moment later a great scuffle began on deck. The pony kicked with extreme energy, the kalashes skipped out of the way, the serang issued many orders in a cracked voice. Suddenly the pony leaped upon the fore-hatch. His little hoofs thundered tremendously; he plunged and reared. He had tossed his mane and his forelock into a state of amazing wildness, he dilated his nostrils, bits of foam flecked his broad little chest, his eyes blazed. He was something under eleven hands; he was fierce, terrible, angry, warlike; he said ha! ha! distinctly; he raged and thumped--and sixteen able-bodied kalashes stood round him like disconcerted nurses round a spoiled and passionate child. He whisked his tail incessantly; he arched his pretty neck; he was perfectly delightful; he was charmingly naughty. There was not an atom of vice in that performance; no savage baring of teeth and laying back of ears. On the contrary, he pricked them forward in a comically aggressive manner. He was totally unmoral and lovable; I would have liked to give him bread, sugar, carrots. But life is a stern thing and the sense of duty the only safe guide. So I steeled my heart, and from my elevated position on the bridge I ordered the men to fling themselves upon him in a body.
The elderly serang, emitting a strange, inarticulate cry, gave the example. He was an excellent petty officer--very competent, indeed, and a moderate opium-smoker. The rest of them in one great rush smothered that pony. They hung on to his ears, to his mane, to his tail; they lay in piles across his back, seventeen in all. The carpenter, seizing the hook of the cargo-chain, flung himself on the top of them. A very satisfactory petty officer, too, but he stuttered. Have you ever heard a light-yellow, lean, sad, earnest Chinaman stutter in Pidgin-English? It's very weird, indeed. He made the eighteenth. I could not see the pony at all; but from the swaying and heaving of that heap of men I knew that there was something alive inside.
From the wharf Almayer hailed, in quavering tones:
"Oh, I say!"
Where he stood he could not see what was going on on deck, unless, perhaps, the tops of the men's heads; he could only hear the scuffle, the mighty thuds, as if the ship were being knocked to pieces. I looked over: "What is it?"
"Don't let them break his legs," he entreated me, plaintively.
"Oh, nonsense! He's all right now. He can't move."
By that time the cargo-chain had been hooked to the broad canvas belt round the pony's body; the kalashes sprang off simultaneously in all directions, rolling over each other; and the worthy serang, making a dash behind the winch, turned the steam on.
"Steady!" I yelled, in great apprehension of seeing the animal snatched up to the very head of the derrick.
On the wharf Almayer shuffled his straw slippers uneasily. The rattle of the winch stopped, and in a tense, impressive silence that pony began to swing across the deck.
How limp he was! Directly he felt himself in the air he relaxed every muscle in a most wonderful manner. His four hoofs knocked together in a bunch, his head hung down, and his tail remained pendent in a nerveless and absolute immobility. He reminded me vividly of the pathetic little sheep which hangs on the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece. I had no idea that anything in the shape of a horse could be so limp as that, either living or dead. His wild mane hung down lumpily, a mere mass of inanimate horsehair; his aggressive ears had collapsed, but as he went swaying slowly across the front of the bridge I noticed an astute gleam in his dreamy, half-closed eye. A trustworthy quartermaster, his glance anxious and his mouth on the broad grin, was easing over the derrick watchfully. I superintended, greatly interested.
"So! That will do."
The derrick-head stopped. The kalashes lined the rail. The rope of the halter hung perpendicular and motionless like a bell-pull in front of Almayer. Everything was very still. I suggested amicably that he should catch hold of the rope and mind what he was about. He extended a provokingly casual and superior hand.
"Look out, then! Lower away!"
Almayer gathered in the rope intelligently enough, but when the pony's hoofs touched the wharf he gave way all at once to a most foolish optimism. Without pausing, without thinking, almost without looking, he disengaged the hook suddenly from the sling, and the cargo-chain, after hitting the pony's quarters, swung back against the ship's side with a noisy, rattling slap. I suppose I must have blinked. I know I missed something, because the next thing I saw was Almayer lying flat on his back on the jetty. He was alone.
Astonishment deprived me of speech long enough to give Almayer time to pick himself up in a leisurely and painful manner. The kalashes lining the rail all had their mouths open. The mist flew in the light breeze, and it had come over quite thick enough to hide the shore completely.
"How on earth did you manage to let him get away?" I asked, scandalized.
Almayer looked into the smarting palm of his right hand, but did not answer my inquiry.
"Where do you think he will get to?" I cried. "Are there any fences anywhere in this fog? Can he bolt into the forest? What's to be done now?"
Almayer shrugged his shoulders.
"Some of my men are sure to be about. They will get hold of him sooner or later."
"Sooner or later! That's all very fine, but what about my canvas sling?--he's carried it off. I want it now, at once, to land two Celebes cows."
Since Dongola we had on board a pair of the pretty little island cattle in addition to the pony. Tied up on the other side of the fore-deck they had been whisking their tails into the other door of the galley. These cows were not for Almayer, however; they were invoiced to Abdullah bin Selim, his enemy. Almayer's disregard of my requirements was complete.
"If I were you I would try to find out where he's gone," I insisted. "Hadn't you better call your men together or something? He will throw himself down and cut his knees. He may even break a leg, you know."
But Almayer, plunged in abstracted thought, did not seem to want that pony any more. Amazed at this sudden indifference, I turned all hands out on shore to hunt for him on my own account, or, at any rate, to hunt for the canvas sling which he had round his body. The whole crew of the steamer, with the exception of firemen and engineers, rushed up the jetty, past the thoughtful Almayer, and vanished from my sight. The white fog swallowed them up; and again there was a deep silence that seemed to extend for miles up and down the stream. Still taciturn, Almayer started to climb on board, and I went down from the bridge to meet him on the after-deck.
"Would you mind telling the captain that I want to see him very particularly?" he asked me, in a low tone, letting his eyes stray all over the place.
"Very well. I will go and see."
With the door of his cabin wide open, Captain C----, just back from the bath-room, big and broad-chested, was brushing his thick, damp, iron-gray hair with two large brushes.
"Mr. Almayer told me he wanted to see you very particularly, sir."
Saying these words, I smiled. I don't know why I smiled, except that it seemed absolutely impossible to mention Almayer's name without a smile of a sort. It had not to be necessarily a mirthful smile. Turning his head toward me, Captain C---- smiled, too, rather joylessly.
"The pony got away from him--eh?"
"Yes, sir. He did."
"Where is he?"
"Goodness only knows."
"No. I mean Almayer. Let him come along."
The captain's stateroom opening straight on deck under the bridge, I had only to beckon from the doorway to Almayer, who had remained aft, with downcast eyes, on the very spot where I had left him. He strolled up moodily, shook hands, and at once asked permission to shut the cabin door.
"I have a pretty story to tell you," were the last words I heard.
The bitterness of tone was remarkable.
I went away from the door, of course. For the moment I had no crew on board; only the Chinaman carpenter, with a canvas bag hung round his neck and a hammer in his hand, roamed about the empty decks, knocking out the wedges of the hatches and dropping them into the bag conscientiously. Having nothing to do I joined our two engineers at the door of the engine-room. It was near breakfast-time.
"He's turned up early, hasn't he?" commented the second engineer, and smiled indifferently. He was an abstemious man, with a good digestion and a placid, reasonable view of life even when hungry.
"Yes," I said. "Shut up with the old man. Some very particular business."
"He will spin him a damned endless yarn," observed the chief engineer.
He smiled rather sourly. He was dyspeptic, and suffered from gnawing hunger in the morning. The second smiled broadly, a smile that made two vertical folds on his shaven cheeks. And I smiled, too, but I was not exactly amused. In that man, whose name apparently could not be uttered anywhere in the Malay Archipelago without a smile, there was nothing amusing whatever. That morning he breakfasted with us silently, looking mostly into his cup. I informed him that my men came upon his pony capering in the fog on the very brink of the eight-foot-deep well in which he kept his store of guttah. The cover was off, with no one near by, and the whole of my crew just missed going heels over head into that beastly hole. Jurumudi Itam, our best quartermaster, deft at fine needlework, he who mended the ship's flags and sewed buttons on our coats, was disabled by a kick on the shoulder.
Both remorse and gratitude seemed foreign to Almayer's character.
"Do you mean that pirate fellow?"
"What pirate fellow? The man has been in the ship eleven years," I said, indignantly.
"It's his looks," Almayer muttered, for all apology.
The sun had eaten up the fog. From where we sat under the after-awning we could see in the distance the pony tied up, in front of Almayer's house, to a post of the veranda. We were silent for a long time. All at once Almayer, alluding evidently to the subject of his conversation in the captain's cabin, exclaimed anxiously across the table:
"I really don't know what I can do now!"
Captain C---- only raised his eyebrows at him, and got up from his chair. We dispersed to our duties, but Almayer, half dressed as he was in his cretonne pajamas and the thin cotton singlet, remained on board, lingering near the gangway, as though he could not make up his mind whether to go home or stay with us for good.
Our Chinamen boys gave him side glances as they went to and fro; and Ah Sing, our chief steward, the handsomest and most sympathetic of Chinamen, catching my eye, nodded knowingly at his burly back. In the course of the morning I approached him for a moment.
"Well, Mr. Almayer," I addressed him, easily, "you haven't started on your letters yet."
We had brought him his mail, and he had held the bundle in his hand ever since we got up from breakfast. He glanced at it when I spoke, and for a moment it looked as if he were on the point of opening his fingers and letting the whole lot fall overboard. I believe he was tempted to do so. I shall never forget that man afraid of his letters.
"Have you been long out from Europe?" he asked me.
"Not very. Not quite eight months," I told him. "I left a ship in Samarang with a hurt back, and have been in the hospital in Singapore some weeks."
"Trade is very bad here."
"Hopeless! . . . See these geese?"
With the hand holding the letters he pointed out to me what resembled a patch of snow creeping and swaying across the distant part of his compound. It disappeared behind some bushes.
"The only geese on the East Coast," Almayer informed me, in a perfunctory mutter without a spark of faith, hope, or pride. Thereupon, with the same absence of any sort of sustaining spirit, he declared his intention to select a fat bird and send him on board for us not later than next day.
I had heard of these largesses before. He conferred a goose as if it were a sort of court decoration given only to the tried friends of the house. I had expected more pomp in the ceremony. The gift had surely its special quality, multiple and rare. From the only flock on the East Coast! He did not make half enough of it. That man did not understand his opportunities. However, I thanked him at some length.
"You see," he interrupted, abruptly, in a very peculiar tone, "the worst of this country is that one is not able to realize . . . it's impossible to realize. . . ." His voice sank into a languid mutter. "And when one has very large interests . . . very important interests . . ." he finished, faintly . . . "up the river."
We looked at each other. He astonished me by giving a start and making a very queer grimace.
"Well, I must be off," he burst out, hurriedly. "So long!"
At the moment of stepping over the gang way he checked himself, though, to give me a mumbled invitation to dine at his house that evening with my captain, an invitation which I accepted. I don't think it could have been possible for me to refuse.
I like the worthy folk who will talk to you of the exercise of free-will, "at any rate for practical purposes." Free, is it? For practical purposes! Bosh! How could I have refused to dine with that man? I did not refuse, simply because I could not refuse. Curiosity, a healthy desire for a change of cooking, common civility, the talk and the smiles of the previous twenty days, every condition of my existence at that moment and place made irresistibly for acceptance; and, crowning all that, there was the ignorance--the ignorance, I say--the fatal want of fore knowledge to counterbalance these imperative conditions of the problem. A refusal would have appeared perverse and insane. Nobody, unless a surly lunatic, would have refused. But if I had not got to know Almayer pretty well it is almost certain there would never have been a line of mine in print.
I accepted then--and I am paying yet the price of my sanity. The possessor of the only flock of geese on the East Coast is responsible for the existence of some fourteen volumes, so far. The number of geese he had called into being under adverse climatic conditions was considerably more than fourteen. The tale of volumes will never overtake the counting of heads, I am safe to say; but my ambitions point not exactly that way, and whatever the pangs the toil of writing has cost me I have always thought kindly of Almayer.
I wonder, had he known anything of it, what his attitude would have been? This is something not to be discovered in this world.
But if we ever meet in the Elysian Fields--where I cannot depict him to myself otherwise than attended in the distance by his flock of geese (birds sacred to Jupiter)--and he addresses me in the stillness of that passionless region, neither light nor darkness, neither sound nor silence, and heaving endlessly with billowy mists from the impalpable multitudes of the swarming dead, I think I know what answer to make.
I would say, after listening courteously to the unvibrating tone of his measured remonstrances, which should not disturb, of course, the solemn eternity of stillness in the least--I would say something like this:
"It is true, Almayer, that in the world below I have converted your name to my own uses. But that is a very small larceny. What's in a name, O Shade? If so much of your old mortal weakness clings to you yet as to make you feel aggrieved (it was the note of your earthly voice, Almayer), then, I entreat you, seek speech without delay with our sublime fellow-Shade--with him who, in his transient existence as a poet, commented upon the smell of the rose. He will comfort you. You came to me stripped of all prestige by men's queer smiles and the disrespectful chatter of every vagrant trader in the Islands. Your name was the common property of the winds; it, as it were, floated naked over the waters about the equator. I wrapped round its unhonoured form the royal mantle of the tropics, and have essayed to put into the hollow sound the very anguish of paternity--feats which you did not demand from me--but remember that all the toil and all the pain were mine. In your earthly life you haunted me, Almayer. Consider that this was taking a great liberty. Since you were always complaining of being lost to the world, you should remember that if I had not believed enough in your existence to let you haunt my rooms in Bessborough Gardens, you would have been much more lost. You affirm that had I been capable of looking at you with a more perfect detachment and a greater simplicity, I might have perceived better the inward marvellousness which, you insist, attended your career upon that tiny pin-point of light, hardly visible far, far below us, where both our graves lie. No doubt! But reflect, O complaining Shade! that this was not so much my fault as your crowning misfortune. I believed in you in the only way it was possible for me to believe. It was not worthy of your merits? So be it. But you were always an unlucky man, Almayer. Nothing was ever quite worthy of you. What made you so real to me was that you held this lofty theory with some force of conviction and with an admirable consistency."
It is with some such words translated into the proper shadowy expressions that I am prepared to placate Almayer in the Elysian Abode of Shades, since it has come to pass that, having parted many years ago, we are never to meet again in this world.