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An Outcast of the Islands by Conrad, Joseph - Chapter 1

An Outcast of the Islands

by Joseph Conrad

Pues el delito mayor

Del hombre es haber nacito





"An Outcast of the Islands" is my second novel in the absolute

sense of the word; second in conception, second in execution,

second as it were in its essence. There was no hesitation,

half-formed plan, vague idea, or the vaguest reverie of anything

else between it and "Almayer's Folly." The only doubt I suffered

from, after the publication of "Almayer's Folly," was whether I

should write another line for print. Those days, now grown so

dim, had their poignant moments. Neither in my mind nor in my

heart had I then given up the sea. In truth I was clinging to it

desperately, all the more desperately because, against my will, I

could not help feeling that there was something changed in my

relation to it. "Almayer's Folly," had been finished and done

with. The mood itself was gone. But it had left the memory of

an experience that, both in thought and emotion was unconnected

with the sea, and I suppose that part of my moral being which is

rooted in consistency was badly shaken. I was a victim of

contrary stresses which produced a state of immobility. I gave

myself up to indolence. Since it was impossible for me to face

both ways I had elected to face nothing. The discovery of new

values in life is a very chaotic experience; there is a

tremendous amount of jostling and confusion and a momentary

feeling of darkness. I let my spirit float supine over that


A phrase of Edward Garnett's is, as a matter of fact, responsible

for this book. The first of the friends I made for myself by my

pen it was but natural that he should be the recipient, at that

time, of my confidences. One evening when we had dined together

and he had listened to the account of my perplexities (I fear he

must have been growing a little tired of them) he pointed out

that there was no need to determine my future absolutely. Then

he added: "You have the style, you have the temperament; why not

write another?" I believe that as far as one man may wish to

influence another man's life Edward Garnett had a great desire

that I should go on writing. At that time, and I may say, ever

afterwards, he was always very patient and gentle with me. What

strikes me most however in the phrase quoted above which was

offered to me in a tone of detachment is not its gentleness but

its effective wisdom. Had he said, "Why not go on writing," it

is very probable he would have scared me away from pen and ink

for ever; but there was nothing either to frighten one or arouse

one's antagonism in the mere suggestion to "write another." And

thus a dead point in the revolution of my affairs was insidiously

got over. The word "another" did it. At about eleven o'clock of

a nice London night, Edward and I walked along interminable

streets talking of many things, and I remember that on getting

home I sat down and wrote about half a page of "An Outcast of the

Islands" before I slept. This was committing myself definitely,

I won't say to another life, but to another book. There is

apparently something in my character which will not allow me to

abandon for good any piece of work I have begun. I have laid

aside many beginnings. I have laid them aside with sorrow, with

disgust, with rage, with melancholy and even with self-contempt;

but even at the worst I had an uneasy consciousness that I would

have to go back to them.

"An Outcast of the Islands" belongs to those novels of mine that

were never laid aside; and though it brought me the qualification

of "exotic writer" I don't think the charge was at all justified.

For the life of me I don't see that there is the slightest exotic

spirit in the conception or style of that novel. It is certainly

the most TROPICAL of my eastern tales. The mere scenery got a

great hold on me as I went on, perhaps because (I may just as

well confess that) the story itself was never very near my heart.

It engaged my imagination much more than my affection. As to my

feeling for Willems it was but the regard one cannot help having

for one's own creation. Obviously I could not be indifferent to

a man on whose head I had brought so much evil simply by

imagining him such as he appears in the novel--and that, too, on

a very slight foundation.

The man who suggested Willems to me was not particularly

interesting in himself. My interest was aroused by his dependent

position, his strange, dubious status of a mistrusted, disliked,

worn-out European living on the reluctant toleration of that

Settlement hidden in the heart of the forest-land, up that sombre

stream which our ship was the only white men's ship to visit.

With his hollow, clean-shaved cheeks, a heavy grey moustache and

eyes without any expression whatever, clad always in a spotless

sleeping suit much be-frogged in front, which left his lean neck

wholly uncovered, and with his bare feet in a pair of straw

slippers, he wandered silently amongst the houses in daylight,

almost as dumb as an animal and apparently much more homeless. I

don't know what he did with himself at night. He must have had a

place, a hut, a palm-leaf shed, some sort of hovel where he kept

his razor and his change of sleeping suits. An air of futile

mystery hung over him, something not exactly dark but obviously

ugly. The only definite statement I could extract from anybody

was that it was he who had "brought the Arabs into the river."

That must have happened many years before. But how did he bring

them into the river? He could hardly have done it in his arms

like a lot of kittens. I knew that Almayer founded the

chronology of all his misfortunes on the date of that fateful

advent; and yet the very first time we dined with Almayer there

was Willems sitting at table with us in the manner of the

skeleton at the feast, obviously shunned by everybody, never

addressed by any one, and for all recognition of his existence

getting now and then from Almayer a venomous glance which I

observed with great surprise. In the course of the whole evening

he ventured one single remark which I didn't catch because his

articulation was imperfect, as of a man who had forgotten how to

speak. I was the only person who seemed aware of the sound.

Willems subsided. Presently he retired, pointedly

unnoticed--into the forest maybe? Its immensity was there,

within three hundred yards of the verandah, ready to swallow up

anything. Almayer conversing with my captain did not stop talking

while he glared angrily at the retreating back. Didn't that

fellow bring the Arabs into the river! Nevertheless Willems

turned up next morning on Almayer's verandah. From the bridge of

the steamer I could see plainly these two, breakfasting together,

tete a tete and, I suppose, in dead silence, one with his air of

being no longer interested in this world and the other raising

his eyes now and then with intense dislike.

It was clear that in those days Willems lived on Almayer's

charity. Yet on returning two months later to Sambir I heard

that he had gone on an expedition up the river in charge of a

steam-launch belonging to the Arabs, to make some discovery or

other. On account of the strange reluctance that everyone

manifested to talk about Willems it was impossible for me to get

at the rights of that transaction. Moreover, I was a newcomer,

the youngest of the company, and, I suspect, not judged quite fit

as yet for a full confidence. I was not much concerned about

that exclusion. The faint suggestion of plots and mysteries

pertaining to all matters touching Almayer's affairs amused me

vastly. Almayer was obviously very much affected. I believe he

missed Willems immensely. He wore an air of sinister

preoccupation and talked confidentially with my captain. I could

catch only snatches of mumbled sentences. Then one morning as I

came along the deck to take my place at the breakfast table

Almayer checked himself in his low-toned discourse. My captain's

face was perfectly impenetrable. There was a moment of profound

silence and then as if unable to contain himself Almayer burst

out in a loud vicious tone:

"One thing's certain; if he finds anything worth having up there

they will poison him like a dog."

Disconnected though it was, that phrase, as food for thought, was

distinctly worth hearing. We left the river three days

afterwards and I never returned to Sambir; but whatever happened

to the protagonist of my Willems nobody can deny that I have

recorded for him a less squalid fate.

J. C.





When he stepped off the straight and narrow path of his peculiar

honesty, it was with an inward assertion of unflinching resolve

to fall back again into the monotonous but safe stride of virtue

as soon as his little excursion into the wayside quagmires had

produced the desired effect. It was going to be a short

episode--a sentence in brackets, so to speak--in the flowing tale

of his life: a thing of no moment, to be done unwillingly, yet

neatly, and to be quickly forgotten. He imagined that he could

go on afterwards looking at the sunshine, enjoying the shade,

breathing in the perfume of flowers in the small garden before

his house. He fancied that nothing would be changed, that he

would be able as heretofore to tyrannize good-humouredly over his

half-caste wife, to notice with tender contempt his pale yellow

child, to patronize loftily his dark-skinned brother-in-law, who

loved pink neckties and wore patent-leather boots on his little

feet, and was so humble before the white husband of the lucky

sister. Those were the delights of his life, and he was unable to

conceive that the moral significance of any act of his could

interfere with the very nature of things, could dim the light of

the sun, could destroy the perfume of the flowers, the submission

of his wife, the smile of his child, the awe-struck respect of

Leonard da Souza and of all the Da Souza family. That family's

admiration was the great luxury of his life. It rounded and

completed his existence in a perpetual assurance of

unquestionable superiority. He loved to breathe the coarse

incense they offered before the shrine of the successful white

man; the man that had done them the honour to marry their

daughter, sister, cousin; the rising man sure to climb very high;

the confidential clerk of Hudig & Co. They were a numerous and

an unclean crowd, living in ruined bamboo houses, surrounded by

neglected compounds, on the outskirts of Macassar. He kept them

at arm's length and even further off, perhaps, having no

illusions as to their worth. They were a half-caste, lazy lot,

and he saw them as they were--ragged, lean, unwashed, undersized

men of various ages, shuffling about aimlessly in slippers;

motionless old women who looked like monstrous bags of pink

calico stuffed with shapeless lumps of fat, and deposited askew

upon decaying rattan chairs in shady corners of dusty verandahs;

young women, slim and yellow, big-eyed, long-haired, moving

languidly amongst the dirt and rubbish of their dwellings as if

every step they took was going to be their very last. He heard

their shrill quarrellings, the squalling of their children, the

grunting of their pigs; he smelt the odours of the heaps of

garbage in their courtyards: and he was greatly disgusted. But

he fed and clothed that shabby multitude; those degenerate

descendants of Portuguese conquerors; he was their providence; he

kept them singing his praises in the midst of their laziness, of

their dirt, of their immense and hopeless squalor: and he was

greatly delighted. They wanted much, but he could give them all

they wanted without ruining himself. In exchange he had their

silent fear, their loquacious love, their noisy veneration. It

is a fine thing to be a providence, and to be told so on every

day of one's life. It gives one a feeling of enormously remote

superiority, and Willems revelled in it. He did not analyze the

state of his mind, but probably his greatest delight lay in the

unexpressed but intimate conviction that, should he close his

hand, all those admiring human beings would starve. His

munificence had demoralized them. An easy task. Since he

descended amongst them and married Joanna they had lost the

little aptitude and strength for work they might have had to put

forth under the stress of extreme necessity. They lived now by

the grace of his will. This was power. Willems loved it.

In another, and perhaps a lower plane, his days did not want for

their less complex but more obvious pleasures. He liked the

simple games of skill--billiards; also games not so simple, and

calling for quite another kind of skill--poker. He had been the

aptest pupil of a steady-eyed, sententious American, who had

drifted mysteriously into Macassar from the wastes of the

Pacific, and, after knocking about for a time in the eddies of

town life, had drifted out enigmatically into the sunny solitudes

of the Indian Ocean. The memory of the Californian stranger was

perpetuated in the game of poker--which became popular in the

capital of Celebes from that time--and in a powerful cocktail,

the recipe for which is transmitted--in the Kwang-tung

dialect--from head boy to head boy of the Chinese servants in the

Sunda Hotel even to this day. Willems was a connoisseur in the

drink and an adept at the game. Of those accomplishments he was

moderately proud. Of the confidence reposed in him by Hudig--the

master--he was boastfully and obtrusively proud. This arose from

his great benevolence, and from an exalted sense of his duty to

himself and the world at large. He experienced that irresistible

impulse to impart information which is inseparable from gross

ignorance. There is always some one thing which the ignorant man

knows, and that thing is the only thing worth knowing; it fills

the ignorant man's universe. Willems knew all about himself. On

the day when, with many misgivings, he ran away from a Dutch

East-Indiaman in Samarang roads, he had commenced that study of

himself, of his own ways, of his own abilities, of those

fate-compelling qualities of his which led him toward that

lucrative position which he now filled. Being of a modest and

diffident nature, his successes amazed, almost frightened him,

and ended--as he got over the succeeding shocks of surprise--by

making him ferociously conceited. He believed in his genius and

in his knowledge of the world. Others should know of it also;

for their own good and for his greater glory. All those friendly

men who slapped him on the back and greeted him noisily should

have the benefit of his example. For that he must talk. He

talked to them conscientiously. In the afternoon he expounded his

theory of success over the little tables, dipping now and then

his moustache in the crushed ice of the cocktails; in the evening

he would often hold forth, cue in hand, to a young listener

across the billiard table. The billiard balls stood still as if

listening also, under the vivid brilliance of the shaded oil

lamps hung low over the cloth; while away in the shadows of the

big room the Chinaman marker would lean wearily against the wall,

the blank mask of his face looking pale under the mahogany

marking-board; his eyelids dropped in the drowsy fatigue of late

hours and in the buzzing monotony of the unintelligible stream of

words poured out by the white man. In a sudden pause of the talk

the game would recommence with a sharp click and go on for a time

in the flowing soft whirr and the subdued thuds as the balls

rolled zig-zagging towards the inevitably successful cannon.

Through the big windows and the open doors the salt dampness of

the sea, the vague smell of mould and flowers from the garden of

the hotel drifted in and mingled with the odour of lamp oil,

growing heavier as the night advanced. The players' heads dived

into the light as they bent down for the stroke, springing back

again smartly into the greenish gloom of broad lamp-shades; the

clock ticked methodically; the unmoved Chinaman continuously

repeated the score in a lifeless voice, like a big talking

doll--and Willems would win the game. With a remark that it was

getting late, and that he was a married man, he would say a

patronizing good-night and step out into the long, empty street.

At that hour its white dust was like a dazzling streak of

moonlight where the eye sought repose in the dimmer gleam of rare

oil lamps. Willems walked homewards, following the line of walls

overtopped by the luxuriant vegetation of the front gardens. The

houses right and left were hidden behind the black masses of

flowering shrubs. Willems had the street to himself. He would

walk in the middle, his shadow gliding obsequiously before him.

He looked down on it complacently. The shadow of a successful

man! He would be slightly dizzy with the cocktails and with the

intoxication of his own glory. As he often told people, he came

east fourteen years ago--a cabin boy. A small boy. His shadow

must have been very small at that time; he thought with a smile

that he was not aware then he had anything--even a shadow--which

he dared call his own. And now he was looking at the shadow of

the confidential clerk of Hudig & Co. going home. How glorious!

How good was life for those that were on the winning side! He

had won the game of life; also the game of billiards. He walked

faster, jingling his winnings, and thinking of the white stone

days that had marked the path of his existence. He thought of the

trip to Lombok for ponies--that first important transaction

confided to him by Hudig; then he reviewed the more important

affairs: the quiet deal in opium; the illegal traffic in

gunpowder; the great affair of smuggled firearms, the difficult

business of the Rajah of Goak. He carried that last through by

sheer pluck; he had bearded the savage old ruler in his council

room; he had bribed him with a gilt glass coach, which, rumour

said, was used as a hen-coop now; he had over-persuaded him; he

had bested him in every way. That was the way to get on. He

disapproved of the elementary dishonesty that dips the hand in

the cash-box, but one could evade the laws and push the

principles of trade to their furthest consequences. Some call

that cheating. Those are the fools, the weak, the contemptible.

The wise, the strong, the respected, have no scruples. Where

there are scruples there can be no power. On that text he

preached often to the young men. It was his doctrine, and he,

himself, was a shining example of its truth.

Night after night he went home thus, after a day of toil and

pleasure, drunk with the sound of his own voice celebrating his

own prosperity. On his thirtieth birthday he went home thus. He

had spent in good company a nice, noisy evening, and, as he

walked along the empty street, the feeling of his own greatness

grew upon him, lifted him above the white dust of the road, and

filled him with exultation and regrets. He had not done himself

justice over there in the hotel, he had not talked enough about

himself, he had not impressed his hearers enough. Never mind.

Some other time. Now he would go home and make his wife get up

and listen to him. Why should she not get up?--and mix a

cocktail for him--and listen patiently. Just so. She shall. If

he wanted he could make all the Da Souza family get up. He had

only to say a word and they would all come and sit silently in

their night vestments on the hard, cold ground of his compound

and listen, as long as he wished to go on explaining to them from

the top of the stairs, how great and good he was. They would.

However, his wife would do--for to-night.

His wife! He winced inwardly. A dismal woman with startled eyes

and dolorously drooping mouth, that would listen to him in pained

wonder and mute stillness. She was used to those night-discourses

now. She had rebelled once--at the beginning. Only once. Now,

while he sprawled in the long chair and drank and talked, she

would stand at the further end of the table, her hands resting on

the edge, her frightened eyes watching his lips, without a sound,

without a stir, hardly breathing, till he dismissed her with a

contemptuous: "Go to bed, dummy." She would draw a long breath

then and trail out of the room, relieved but unmoved. Nothing

could startle her, make her scold or make her cry. She did not

complain, she did not rebel. That first difference of theirs was

decisive. Too decisive, thought Willems, discontentedly. It had

frightened the soul out of her body apparently. A dismal woman!

A damn'd business altogether! What the devil did he want to go

and saddle himself. . . . Ah! Well! he wanted a home, and the

match seemed to please Hudig, and Hudig gave him the bungalow,

that flower-bowered house to which he was wending his way in the

cool moonlight. And he had the worship of the Da Souza tribe. A

man of his stamp could carry off anything, do anything, aspire to

anything. In another five years those white people who attended

the Sunday card-parties of the Governor would accept

him--half-caste wife and all! Hooray! He saw his shadow dart

forward and wave a hat, as big as a rum barrel, at the end of an

arm several yards long. . . . Who shouted hooray? . . . He

smiled shamefacedly to himself, and, pushing his hands deep into

his pockets, walked faster with a suddenly grave face.

Behind him--to the left--a cigar end glowed in the gateway of Mr.

Vinck's front yard. Leaning against one of the brick pillars,

Mr. Vinck, the cashier of Hudig & Co., smoked the last cheroot of

the evening. Amongst the shadows of the trimmed bushes Mrs.

Vinck crunched slowly, with measured steps, the gravel of the

circular path before the house.

"There's Willems going home on foot--and drunk I fancy," said Mr.

Vinck over his shoulder. "I saw him jump and wave his hat."

The crunching of the gravel stopped.

"Horrid man," said Mrs. Vinck, calmly. "I have heard he beats

his wife."

"Oh no, my dear, no," muttered absently Mr. Vinck, with a vague

gesture. The aspect of Willems as a wife-beater presented to him

no interest. How women do misjudge! If Willems wanted to

torture his wife he would have recourse to less primitive

methods. Mr. Vinck knew Willems well, and believed him to be

very able, very smart--objectionably so. As he took the last

quick draws at the stump of his cheroot, Mr. Vinck reflected that

the confidence accorded by Hudig to Willems was open, under the

circumstances, to loyal criticism from Hudig's cashier.

"He is becoming dangerous; he knows too much. He will have to be

got rid of," said Mr. Vinck aloud. But Mrs. Vinck had gone in

already, and after shaking his head he threw away his cheroot and

followed her slowly.

Willems walked on homeward weaving the splendid web of his

future. The road to greatness lay plainly before his eyes,

straight and shining, without any obstacle that he could see. He

had stepped off the path of honesty, as he understood it, but he

would soon regain it, never to leave it any more! It was a very

small matter. He would soon put it right again. Meantime his

duty was not to be found out, and he trusted in his skill, in his

luck, in his well-established reputation that would disarm

suspicion if anybody dared to suspect. But nobody would dare!

True, he was conscious of a slight deterioration. He had

appropriated temporarily some of Hudig's money. A deplorable

necessity. But he judged himself with the indulgence that should

be extended to the weaknesses of genius. He would make

reparation and all would be as before; nobody would be the loser

for it, and he would go on unchecked toward the brilliant goal of

his ambition.

Hudig's partner!

Before going up the steps of his house he stood for awhile, his

feet well apart, chin in hand, contemplating mentally Hudig's

future partner. A glorious occupation. He saw him quite safe;

solid as the hills; deep--deep as an abyss; discreet as the