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Of the five stories in this volume, "The Lagoon," the last in order, is the earliest in date. It is the first short story I ever wrote and marks, in a manner of speaking, the end of my first phase, the Malayan phase with its special subject and its verbal suggestions. Conceived in the same mood which produced "Almayer's Folly" and "An Outcast of the Islands," it is told in the same breath (with what was left of it, that is, after the end of "An Outcast"), seen with the same vision, rendered in the same method—if such a thing as method did exist then in my conscious relation to this new adventure of writing for print. I doubt it very much. One does one's work first and theorises about it afterwards. It is a very amusing and egotistical occupation of no use whatever to any one and just as likely as not to lead to false conclusions. Anybody can see that between the last paragraph of "An Outcast" and the first of "The Lagoon" there has been no change of pen, figuratively speaking. It happened also to be literally true. It was the same pen: a common steel pen. Having been charged with a certain lack of emotional faculty I am glad to be able to say that on one occasion at least I did give way to a sentimental impulse. I thought the pen had been a good pen and that it had done enough for me, and so, with the idea of keeping it for a sort of memento on which I could look later with tender eyes, I put it into my waistcoat pocket. Afterwards it used to turn up in all sorts of places—at the bottom of small drawers, among my studs in cardboard boxes—till at last it found permanent rest in a large wooden bowl containing some loose keys, bits of sealing wax, bits of string, small broken chains, a few buttons, and similar minute wreckage that washes out of a man's life into such receptacles. I would catch sight of it from time to time with a distinct feeling of satisfaction till, one day, I perceived with horror that there were two old pens in there. How the other pen found its way into the bowl instead of the fireplace or wastepaper basket I can't imagine, but there the two were, lying side by side, both encrusted with ink and completely undistinguishable from each other. It was very distressing, but being determined not to share my sentiment between two pens or run the risk of sentimentalising over a mere stranger, I threw them both out of the window into a flower bed—which strikes me now as a poetical grave for the remnants of one's past.
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Table of Contents
KARAIN, A MEMORY
AN OUTPOST OF PROGRESS
Tales of Unrest
First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri
Of the five stories in this volume, “The Lagoon,” the last in order, is the earliest in date. It is the first short story I ever wrote and marks, in a mannerof speaking, the end of my first phase, the Malayan phase with its special subject and its verbal suggestions. Conceived in the same mood which produced “Almayer’s Folly” and “An Outcast of the Islands,” it is told in the same breath (with what was left of it, that is, after the end of “An Outcast”), seen with the same vision, rendered in the same method—if such a thing as method did exist then in my conscious relation to this new adventure of writing for print. I doubt it very much. One does one’s work first and theorises about it afterwards. It is a very amusing and egotistical occupation of no use whatever to any one and just as likely as not to lead to false conclusions.
Anybody can see that between the last paragraph of “An Outcast” and the first of “The Lagoon” there has been no change of pen, figuratively speaking. It happened also to be literally true. It was the same pen: a common steel pen. Having been charged with a certain lack of emotional faculty I am glad to be able to say that on one occasionat least I did give way to a sentimental impulse. I thought the pen had been a good pen and that it had done enough for me, and so, with the idea of keeping it for a sort of memento on which I could look later with tender eyes, I put it into my waistcoatpocket. Afterwards it used to turn up in all sorts of places—at the bottom of small drawers, among my studs in cardboard boxes—till at last it found permanent rest in a large wooden bowl containing some loose keys, bits of sealing wax, bits of string, small broken chains, a few buttons, and similar minute wreckage that washes out of a man’s life into such receptacles. I would catch sight of it from time to time with a distinct feeling of satisfaction till, one day, I perceived with horror that there were two old pens in there. How the other pen found its way into the bowl instead of the fireplace or wastepaper basket I can’t imagine, but there the two were, lying side by side, both encrusted with ink and completely undistinguishable from each other. It was very distressing, but being determined not to share my sentiment between two pens or run the risk of sentimentalising over a mere stranger, I threw them both out of the window into a flower bed—which strikes me now as a poetical grave for the remnants of one’s past.
But the tale remained. It was first fixed in print in the “Cornhill Magazine”, being my first appearance in a serial of any kind; and I have lived long enough to see it guyed most agreeably by Mr. Max Beerbohm in a volume of parodies entitled “AChristmas Garland,” where I found myself in very good company. I was immensely gratified. I began to believe in my public existence. I have much to thank “The Lagoon” for.
My next effort in short-story writing was a departure—I mean a departure from the Malay Archipelago. Without premeditation, without sorrow, without rejoicing, and almost without noticing it, I stepped into the very different atmosphere of “An Outpost of Progress.” I found there a different moral attitude. I seemed able to capture new reactions, new suggestions, and even new rhythms for my paragraphs. For a moment I fancied myself a new man—a most exciting illusion. It clung to me for some time, monstrous, halfconviction and half hope as to its body, with an iridescent tail of dreams and with a changeable head like a plastic mask. It was only later that I perceived that in common with the rest of men nothing could deliver me from my fatal consistency. We cannot escape from ourselves.
“An Outpost of Progress” is the lightest part of the lootI carried off from Central Africa, the main portion being of course “The Heart of Darkness.” Other men have found a lot of quite different things there and I have the comfortable conviction that what I took would not have been of much use to anybody else.And it must be said that it was but a very small amount of plunder. All of it could go into one’s breast pocket when folded neatly. As for the story itself it is true enough in its essentials. The sustained invention of a really telling lie demands a talent which I do not possess.
“The Idiots” is such an obviously derivative piece of work that it is impossible for me to say anything about it here. The suggestion of it was not mental but visual: the actual idiots. It was after an interval of long groping amongst vague impulses and hesitations which ended in the production of “The Nigger” that I turned to my third short story in the order of time, the first in this volume: “Karain: A Memory.”
Reading it after many years “Karain” produced on me the effect of something seen through a pair of glasses from a rather advantageous position. In that story I had not gone back to the Archipelago, I had only turned for another look at it. I admit that I was absorbed by the distant view, so absorbed that I didn’t notice then that the motif of the story is almost identical with the motif of “The Lagoon.” However, the idea at the back is very different; but the story is mainly made memorable to me by the fact that it was my first contribution to “Blackwood’s Magazine” and that it led to my personal acquaintance with Mr. William Blackwood whose guarded appreciation I felt nevertheless to be genuine, and prized accordingly. “Karain” was begun on a sudden impulse only three days after I wrote the last line of “The Nigger,” and the recollection of its difficulties is mixed up with the worries of the unfinished “Return,” the last pages of which I took up again at the time; the only instance in my life when I made an attempt to write with both hands at once as it were.
Indeed my innermost feeling, now, is that “The Return” is a left-handed production. Looking through that story lately I had the material impression of sitting under a large and expensive umbrella in the loud drumming of a heavy rain-shower. It was very distracting. Inthe general uproar one could hear every individual drop strike on the stout and distended silk. Mentally, the reading rendered me dumb for the remainder of the day, not exactly with astonishment but with a sort of dismal wonder. I don’t want to talk disrespectfully of any pages of mine. Psychologically there were no doubt good reasons for my attempt; and it was worth while, if only to see of what excesses I was capable in that sort of virtuosity. In this connection I should like to confess my surprise on finding that notwithstanding all its apparatus of analysis the story consists for the most part of physical impressions; impressions of sound and sight, railway station, streets, a trotting horse, reflections in mirrors and so on, rendered as if for their own sake and combined with a sublimated description of a desirable middle-class town-residence which somehow manages to produce a sinister effect. For the rest any kind word about “The Return” (and there have been such words said at different times) awakensin me the liveliest gratitude,for I know how much the writing of that fantasy has cost me in sheer toil, in temper, and in disillusion.
We knew him in those unprotected days when we were content tohold inour hands our lives and our property. None of us, I believe,has any property now, and I hear that many, negligently, have losttheir lives; but I am sure that the few who survive are not yet sodim-eyed as to miss in the befogged respectability oftheirnewspapers the intelligence of various native risings in theEastern Archipelago. Sunshine gleams between the lines of thoseshort paragraphs—sunshine and the glitter of the sea. Astrange name wakes up memories; the printed words scent the smokyatmosphere of to-day faintly, with the subtle and penetratingperfume as of land breezes breathing through the starlight ofbygone nights; a signal fire gleams like a jewel on the high browof a sombre cliff; great trees, the advanced sentries of immenseforests, stand watchful and still over sleeping stretches of openwater; a line of white surf thunders on an empty beach, the shallowwater foams on the reefs; and green islets scattered through thecalm of noonday lie upon the level of a polished sea, like ahandful of emeralds on a buckler of steel.
There are faces too—faces dark, truculent, and smiling;the frank audacious faces of men barefooted, well armed andnoiseless. They thronged the narrow length of our schooner’sdecks with their ornamented and barbarouscrowd, with the variegatedcolours of checkered sarongs, red turbans, white jackets,embroideries; with the gleam of scabbards, gold rings, charms,armlets, lance blades, and jewelled handles of their weapons. Theyhad an independent bearing, resolute eyes, a restrained manner; andwe seem yet to hear their soft voices speaking of battles, travels,and escapes; boasting with composure, joking quietly; sometimes inwell-bred murmurs extolling their own valour, our generosity; orcelebrating with loyal enthusiasm the virtues of their ruler. Weremember the faces, the eyes, the voices, we see again the gleam ofsilk and metal; the murmuring stir of that crowd, brilliant,festive, and martial; and we seem to feel the touch of friendlybrown hands that, after oneshort grasp, return to rest on a chasedhilt. They were Karain’s people—a devoted following.Their movements hung on his lips; they read their thoughts in hiseyes; he murmured to them nonchalantly of life and death, and theyaccepted his words humbly, like gifts of fate. They were all freemen, and when speaking to him said, “Your slave.” Onhis passage voices died out as though he had walked guarded bysilence; awed whispers followed him. They called him theirwar-chief. He was the ruler of three villages on a narrow plain;the master of an insignificant foothold on the earth—of aconquered foothold that, shaped like a young moon, lay ignoredbetween the hills and the sea.
From the deck of our schooner, anchored in the middle of thebay, he indicated by atheatrical sweep of his arm along the jaggedoutline of the hills the whole of his domain; and the amplemovement seemed to drive back its limits, augmenting it suddenlyinto something so immense and vague that for a moment it appearedto be bounded onlyby the sky. And really, looking at that place,landlocked from the sea and shut off from the land by theprecipitous slopes of mountains, it was difficult to believe in theexistence of any neighbourhood. It was still, complete, unknown,and full of a lifethat went on stealthilywith a troubling effect ofsolitude; of a life that seemed unaccountably empty of anythingthat would stir the thought, touch the heart, give a hint of theominous sequence of days. It appeared to us a land withoutmemories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survivethe coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzlingact of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and themorrow.
Karain swept his hand over it. “All mine!” He struckthe deck with hislong staff; the gold head flashed like a fallingstar; very close behind him a silent old fellow in a richlyembroidered black jacket alone of all the Malays around did notfollow the masterful gesture with a look. He did not even lift hiseyelids. He bowed his head behind his master, and without stirringheld hilt up over his right shoulder a long blade in a silverscabbard. He was there on duty, but without curiosity, and seemedweary, not with age, but with the possession of a burdensome secretof existence. Karain, heavy and proud, had a lofty pose andbreathed calmly. It was our first visit, and we looked aboutcuriously.
The bay was like a bottomless pit of intense light. The circularsheet of water reflected a luminous sky, and the shores enclosingitmade an opaque ring of earth floating in an emptiness oftransparent blue. The hills, purple and arid, stood out heavily onthe sky: their summits seemed to fade into a coloured tremble as ofascending vapour; their steep sides were streaked with the green ofnarrow ravines; at their foot lay rice-fields, plantain-patches,yellow sands. A torrent wound about like a dropped thread. Clumpsof fruit-trees marked the villages; slim palms put their noddingheads together above the low houses; dried palm-leaf roofs shoneafar, like roofs of gold, behind the dark colonnades oftree-trunks; figures passed vivid and vanishing; the smoke of firesstood upright above the masses of flowering bushes; bamboo fencesglittered, running away in broken lines between the fields. Asudden cry on the shore sounded plaintive in the distance, andceased abruptly, as if stifled in the downpour of sunshine. A puffof breeze made a flash of darkness on the smooth water, touched ourfaces, and became forgotten. Nothing moved. The sunblazed down intoa shadowless hollow of colours and stillness.
It was the stage where, dressed splendidly for his part, hestrutted, incomparably dignified, made important by the power hehad to awaken an absurd expectation of something heroic going totake place—a burst of action or song—upon the vibratingtone of a wonderful sunshine. He was ornate and disturbing, for onecould not imagine what depth of horrible void such an elaboratefront could be worthy to hide. He was not masked—there wastoo much life in him, and a mask is only a lifeless thing; but hepresented himself essentially as an actor, as a human beingaggressively disguised. His smallest acts were prepared andunexpected, his speeches grave, his sentences ominous like hintsand complicated like arabesques. He was treated with a solemnrespect accorded in the irreverent West only to the monarchs of thestage, and he accepted the profound homage with a sustained dignityseen nowhere else but behind the footlights and in the condensedfalsenessof some grossly tragic situation. It was almost impossibleto remember who he was—only a petty chief of a convenientlyisolated corner of Mindanao, where we could in comparative safetybreak the law against the traffic in firearms and ammunition withthe natives. What would happen should one of the moribund Spanishgun-boats be suddenly galvanized into a flicker of active life didnot trouble us, once we were inside the bay—so completely didit appear out of the reach of a meddling world; andbesides, inthose days we were imaginative enough to look with a kind of joyousequanimity on any chance there was of being quietly hangedsomewhere out of the way of diplomatic remonstrance. As to Karain,nothing could happen to him unless what happens toall—failure and death; but his quality was to appear clothedin the illusion of unavoidable success. He seemed too effective,too necessary there, too much of an essential condition for theexistence of his land and his people, to be destroyed by anythingshort of an earthquake. He summed up his race, his country, theelemental force of ardent life, of tropical nature. He had itsluxuriant strength, its fascination; and, like it, he carried theseed of peril within.
In many successive visits we came to know his stagewell—the purple semicircle of hills, the slim trees leaningover houses, the yellow sands, the streaming green of ravines. Allthat had the crude and blended colouring, the appropriatenessalmost excessive, the suspicious immobility of a painted scene; andit enclosed so perfectly the accomplished acting of his amazingpretences that the rest of the world seemed shut out forever fromthe gorgeous spectacle. There could be nothing outside. It was asif the earth had gone on spinning, and had left that crumb ofitssurface alone in space. He appeared utterly cut off from everythingbut the sunshine, and that even seemed to be made for him alone.Once when asked what was on the other side of the hills, he said,with a meaning smile, “Friends and enemies—manyenemies; else why should I buy your rifles and powder?” Hewas always like this—word-perfect in his part, playing upfaithfully to the mysteries and certitudes of his surroundings.“Friends and enemies”—nothing else. It wasimpalpable and vast. The earth had indeed rolled away from underhis land, and he, with his handful of people, stood surrounded by asilent tumult as of contending shades. Certainly no sound came fromoutside. “Friends and enemies!” He might have added,“and memories,” at least as far as hehimself wasconcerned; but he neglected to make that point then. It made itselflater on, though; but it was after the daily performance—inthe wings, so to speak, and with the lights out. Meantime he filledthe stage with barbarous dignity. Some ten yearsago he had led hispeople—a scratch lot of wandering Bugis—to the conquestof the bay, and now in his august care they had forgotten all thepast, and had lost all concern for the future. He gave them wisdom,advice, reward, punishment, life or death, with the same serenityof attitude and voice. He understood irrigation and the art ofwar—the qualities of weapons and the craft of boat-building.He could conceal his heart; had more endurance; he could swimlonger, and steer a canoe better than any of his people; he couldshoot straighter, and negotiate more tortuously than any man of hisrace I knew. He was an adventurer of the sea, an outcast, aruler—and my very good friend. I wish him a quick death in astand-up fight, a death in sunshine; for he had known remorse andpower, and no man can demand more from life. Day after day heappeared before us, incomparably faithful to the illusions of thestage, and at sunset the night descended upon him quickly, like afalling curtain. The seamed hills became blackshadows towering highupon a clear sky; above them the glittering confusion of starsresembled a mad turmoil stilled by a gesture; sounds ceased, menslept, forms vanished—and the reality of the universe aloneremained—a marvellous thing of darkness and glimmers.
But it was at night that he talked openly, forgetting theexactions of his stage. In the daytime there were affairs to bediscussed in state. There were at first between him and me his ownsplendour, my shabby suspicions, and the scenic landscape thatintruded upon the reality of our lives by its motionless fantasy ofoutline and colour. His followers thronged round him; above hishead the broad blades of their spears made a spiked halo of ironpoints, and they hedged him from humanity by the shimmer of silks,the gleam of weapons, the excited and respectful hum of eagervoices. Before sunset he would take leave with ceremony, and go offsitting under a red umbrella, and escorted by a score of boats. Allthe paddles flashed and struck together with a mighty splash thatreverberated loudly in the monumental amphitheatre of hills. Abroad stream of dazzling foam trailed behind the flotilla. Thecanoes appeared very black on the white hiss of water; turbanedheads swayed back and forth; a multitude ofarms in crimson andyellow rose and fell with one movement; the spearmen upright in thebows of canoes had variegated sarongs and gleaming shoulders likebronze statues; the muttered strophes of the paddlers’ songended periodically in a plaintive shout.They diminished in thedistance; the song ceased; they swarmed on the beach in the longshadows of the western hills. The sunlight lingered on the purplecrests, and we could see him leading the way to his stockade, aburly bareheaded figure walking far inadvance of a stragglingcortege, and swinging regularly an ebony staff taller than himself.The darkness deepened fast; torches gleamed fitfully, passingbehind bushes; a long hail or two trailed in the silence of theevening; and at last the night stretched its smooth veil over theshore, the lights, and the voices.
Then, just as we were thinking of repose, the watchmen of theschooner would hail a splash of paddles away in the starlit gloomof the bay; a voice would respond in cautious tones, and ourserang, putting his head down the open skylight, would inform uswithout surprise, “That Rajah, he coming. He here now.”Karain appeared noiselessly in the doorway of the little cabin. Hewas simplicity itself then; all in white; muffled about his head;for arms only a kriss with a plain buffalo-horn handle, which hewould politely conceal within a fold of his sarong before steppingover the threshold. The old sword-bearer’s face, the worn-outand mournful face so covered with wrinkles that it seemed to lookout through the meshes of a fine dark net, could be seen closeabove his shoulders. Karain never moved without that attendant, whostood or squatted close at his back. He had a dislike of an openspace behind him. It was more than a dislike—it resembledfear, a nervous preoccupation of what went on where he could notsee. This, in view of the evident and fierce loyalty thatsurrounded him, was inexplicable. He was there alone in the midstof devoted men; he was safe from neighbourly ambushes, fromfraternalambitions; and yet more than one of our visitors hadassured us that their ruler could not bear to be alone. They said,“Even when he eats and sleeps there is always one on thewatch near him who has strength and weapons.” There wasindeed always one nearhim, though our informants had no conceptionof that watcher’s strength and weapons, which were bothshadowy and terrible. We knew, but only later on, when we had heardthe story. Meantime we noticed that, even during the most importantinterviews, Karainwould often give a start, and interrupting hisdiscourse, would sweep his arm back with a sudden movement, to feelwhether the old fellow was there. The old fellow, impenetrable andweary, was always there. He shared his food, his repose, and histhoughts;he knew his plans, guarded hissecrets; and, impassivebehind his master’s agitation, without stirring the leastbit, murmured above his head in a soothing tone some wordsdifficult to catch.
It was only on board the schooner, when surrounded bywhitefaces, by unfamiliar sights and sounds, that Karain seemed toforget the strange obsession that wound like a black thread throughthe gorgeous pomp of his public life. At night we treated him in afree and easy manner, which just stopped short of slappinghim onthe back, for there are liberties one must not take with a Malay.He said himself that on such occasions he was only a privategentleman coming to see other gentlemen whom he supposed as wellborn as himself. I fancy that to the last he believed usto beemissaries of Government, darkly official persons furthering by ourillegal traffic some dark scheme of high statecraft. Our denialsand protestations were unavailing. He only smiled with discreetpoliteness and inquired about the Queen. Every visitbegan with thatinquiry; he was insatiable of details; he was fascinated by theholder of a sceptre the shadow of which, stretching from thewestward over the earth and over the seas, passed far beyond hisown hand’s-breadth of conquered land. He multipliedquestions; he could never know enough of the Monarch of whom hespoke with wonder and chivalrous respect—with a kind ofaffectionate awe! Afterwards, when we had learned that he was theson of a woman who had many years ago ruled a small Bugis state,wecame to suspect that the memory of his mother (of whom he spokewith enthusiasm) mingled somehow in his mind with the image hetried to form for himself of the far-off Queen whom he calledGreat, Invincible, Pious, and Fortunate. We had to invent detailsat last to satisfy his craving curiosity; and our loyalty must bepardoned, for we tried to make them fit for his august andresplendent ideal. We talked. The night slipped over us, over thestill schooner, over the sleeping land, and over the sleeplessseathat thundered amongst the reefs outside the bay. His paddlers,two trustworthy men, slept in the canoe at the foot of ourside-ladder. The old confidant, relieved from duty, dozed on hisheels, with his back against the companion-doorway; and Karainsatsquarely in the ship’s wooden armchair, under the slightsway of the cabin lamp, a cheroot between his dark fingers, and aglass of lemonade before him. He was amused by the fizz of thething, but after a sip or two would let it get flat, and with acourteous wave of his hand ask for a fresh bottle. He decimated ourslender stock; but we did not begrudge it to him, for, when hebegan, he talked well. He must have been a great Bugis dandy in histime, for even then (and when we knew him he was no longer young)his splendour was spotlessly neat, and he dyed his hair a lightshade of brown. The quiet dignity of his bearing transformed thedim-lit cuddy of the schooner into an audience-hall. He talked ofinter-island politics with an ironic and melancholy shrewdness. Hehad travelled much, suffered not a little, intrigued, fought. Heknew native Courts, European Settlements, the forests, the sea,and, as he said himself, had spoken in his time to many great men.He liked to talk with me because I had known some of these men: heseemed to think that I could understand him, and, with a fineconfidence, assumed that I, at least, could appreciate how muchgreater he was himself. But he preferred to talk of his nativecountry—a small Bugis state on the island of Celebes. I hadvisited it some time before, and he asked eagerly for news. Asmen’s names came up in conversation he would say, “Weswam against one another when we were boys”; or, “Wehunted the deer together—he could use the noose and the spearas well as I.”Now and then his big dreamy eyes would rollrestlessly; he frowned or smiled, or hewould become pensive, and,staring in silence, would nod slightly for a time at some regrettedvision of the past.
His mother had been the ruler of a small semi-independentstateon the sea-coast at the head of the Gulf of Boni. He spoke of herwith pride. She had been a woman resolute in affairs of state andof her own heart. After the death of her first husband, undismayedby the turbulent opposition of the chiefs, she married a richtrader, a Korinchi man of no family. Karain was her son by thatsecond marriage, but his unfortunate descent had apparently nothingto do with his exile. He said nothing as to its cause, though oncehe let slip with a sigh, “Ha! my land will not feel any morethe weight of my body.” But he related willingly the story ofhis wanderings, and told us all about the conquest of the bay.Alluding to the people beyond the hills, he would murmur gently,with a careless wave of the hand, “They came overthe hillsonce to fight us, but those who got away never came again.”He thought for a while, smiling to himself. “Very few gotaway,” he added, with proud serenity. He cherished therecollections of his successes; he had an exulting eagerness forendeavour; when he talked, his aspect was warlike, chivalrous, anduplifting. No wonder his people admired him. We saw him oncewalking in daylight amongst the houses of the settlement. At thedoors of huts groups of women turned to look after him, warblingsoftly, and with gleaming eyes; armed men stood out of the way,submissive and erect; others approached from the side, bendingtheir backs to address him humbly; an old woman stretched out adraped lean arm—“Blessings on thy head!” shecried from a dark doorway;a fiery-eyed man showed above the lowfence of a plantain-patch a streaming face, a bare breast scarredin two places, and bellowed out pantingly after him, “Godgive victory to our master!” Karain walked fast, and withfirm long strides; he answered greetings right and left by quickpiercing glances. Children ran forward between the houses, peepedfearfully round corners; young boys kept up with him, glidingbetween bushes: their eyes gleamed through the dark leaves. The oldsword-bearer, shouldering thesilver scabbard, shuffled hastily athis heels with bowed head, and his eyes on the ground. And in themidst of a great stir they passed swift and absorbed, like two menhurrying through a great solitude.
In his council hall he was surrounded by the gravity of armedchiefs, while two long rows of old headmen dressed in cotton stuffssquatted on their heels, with idle arms hanging over their knees.Under the thatch roof supported by smooth columns, of which eachone had cost the life of a straight-stemmed young palm, the scentof flowering hedges drifted in warm waves. The sun was sinking. Inthe open courtyard suppliants walked through the gate, raising,when yet far off, their joined hands above bowed heads, and bendinglow in the bright stream of sunlight.Young girls, with flowers intheir laps, sat under the wide-spreading boughs of a big tree. Theblue smoke of wood fires spread in a thin mist above thehigh-pitched roofs of houses that had glistening walls of wovenreeds, and all round them rough woodenpillars under the slopingeaves. He dispensed justice in the shade; from a high seat he gaveorders, advice, reproof. Now and then the hum of approbation roselouder, and idle spearmen that lounged listlessly against theposts, looking at the girls, wouldturn their heads slowly. To noman had been given the shelter of so much respect, confidence, andawe. Yet at times he would lean forward and appear to listen as fora far-off note of discord, as if expecting to hear some faintvoice, the sound of light footsteps; or he would start half up inhis seat, as though he had been familiarly touched on theshoulder.He glanced back with apprehension; his aged followerwhispered inaudibly at his ear; the chiefs turned their eyes awayin silence, for the old wizard, the man who could command ghostsand send evil spirits against enemies, was speaking low to theirruler. Around the short stillness of the open place the treesrustled faintly, the soft laughter of girls playing with theflowers rose in clear bursts of joyous sound. At the end of uprightspear-shafts the long tufts of dyed horse-hair waved crimson andfilmy in the gust of wind; and beyond the blaze of hedges the brookof limpid quick water ran invisible and loud under the droopinggrass of the bank, witha great murmur, passionate and gentle.
After sunset, far across the fields and over the bay, clustersof torches could be seen burning under the high roofs of thecouncil shed. Smoky red flames swayed on high poles, and the fieryblaze flickered over faces, clung to the smooth trunks ofpalm-trees, kindled bright sparks on the rims of metal dishesstanding on fine floor-mats. That obscure adventurer feasted like aking. Small groups of men crouched in tight circles round thewooden platters; brown hands hovered over snowy heaps of rice.Sitting upon a rough couch apart from the others, he leaned on hiselbow with inclined head; and near him a youth improvised in a hightone a song that celebrated his valour and wisdom. The singerrocked himself to and fro, rolling frenzied eyes; old women hobbledabout with dishes, and men, squatting low, lifted their heads tolisten gravely without ceasing to eat. The song of triumph vibratedin the night, and the stanzas rolled out mournful and fiery likethe thoughts of ahermit. He silenced it with a sign,“Enough!” An owl hooted far away, exulting in thedelight of deep gloom in dense foliage; overhead lizards ran in theattap thatch, calling softly; the dry leaves of the roof rustled;the rumour of mingled voices grew louder suddenly. After a circularand startled glance, as of a man waking up abruptly to the sense ofdanger, he would throw himself back, and under the downward gaze ofthe old sorcerer take up, wide-eyed, the slender thread of hisdream. They watched his moods; the swelling rumour of animated talksubsided like a wave on a sloping beach. The chief is pensive. Andabove the spreading whisper of lowered voices only a little rattleof weapons would be heard, a single louder word distinct and alone,or the grave ring of a big brass tray.
For two years at short intervals we visited him. We came to likehim, to trust him, almost to admire him. He was plotting andpreparing a war with patience, with foresight—with a fidelityto his purpose and with a steadfastness of which I would havethought him racially incapable. He seemed fearless of the future,and in his plans displayed a sagacity that was only limited by hisprofound ignorance of the rest of the world. We tried to enlightenhim, but our attempts to makeclear the irresistible nature of theforces which he desired to arrest failed to discourage hiseagerness to strike a blow for his own primitive ideas. He did notunderstand us, and replied by arguments that almost drove one todesperation by their childish shrewdness. He was absurd andunanswerable. Sometimes we caught glimpses of a sombre, glowingfury within him—a brooding and vague sense of wrong, and aconcentrated lust of violence which is dangerous in a native. Heraved like one inspired. On one occasion, after we had been talkingto him late in his campong, he jumped up. A great, clear fireblazed in the grove; lights and shadows danced together between thetrees; in the still night bats flitted in and out of the boughslike fluttering flakes of denser darkness. He snatched the swordfrom the old man, whizzed it out of the scabbard, and thrust thepointinto the earth. Upon the thin, upright blade the silver hilt,released, swayed before him like something alive. He stepped back apace, and in a deadened tone spoke fiercely to the vibrating steel:“If there is virtue in the fire, in the iron, in the handthat forged thee, in the words spoken over thee, in the desire ofmy heart, and in the wisdom of thy makers,—then we shall bevictorious together!” Hedrew it out, looked along the edge.“Take,” he said over his shoulder to the oldsword-bearer. The other, unmoved on his hams, wiped the point witha corner of his sarong, and returning the weapon to its scabbard,sat nursing it on his knees without a single look upwards. Karain,suddenly very calm, reseated himself with dignity. We gave upremonstrating after this, and let him go his way to an honourabledisaster. All we could do for him was to see to it that the powderwas good for the money and the rifles serviceable, if old.
But the game was becoming at last too dangerous; and if we, whohad faced it pretty often, thought little of the danger, it wasdecided for us by some very respectable people sitting safely incounting-houses that the risks were toogreat, and that only onemore trip could be made. After giving in the usual way manymisleading hints as to our destination, we slipped away quietly,and after a very quick passage entered the bay. It was earlymorning, and even before the anchor went tothe bottom the schoonerwas surrounded by boats.
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