Literature Post > Conrad, Joseph > Tales of Unrest > Chapter 1

Tales of Unrest by Conrad, Joseph - Chapter 1




"Be it thy course to being giddy minds
With foreign quarrels."





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

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

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 "A Christmas 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, half conviction 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 loot I 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. In
the 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) awakens in 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.

J. C.




We knew him in those unprotected days when we were content to hold in
our hands our lives and our property. None of us, I believe, has any
property now, and I hear that many, negligently, have lost their
lives; but I am sure that the few who survive are not yet so dim-eyed
as to miss in the befogged respectability of their newspapers the
intelligence of various native risings in the Eastern Archipelago.
Sunshine gleams between the lines of those short paragraphs--sunshine
and the glitter of the sea. A strange name wakes up memories; the
printed words scent the smoky atmosphere of to-day faintly, with the
subtle and penetrating perfume as of land breezes breathing through
the starlight of bygone nights; a signal fire gleams like a jewel on
the high brow of a sombre cliff; great trees, the advanced sentries of
immense forests, stand watchful and still over sleeping stretches of
open water; a line of white surf thunders on an empty beach, the
shallow water foams on the reefs; and green islets scattered through
the calm of noonday lie upon the level of a polished sea, like a
handful 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 and noiseless. They
thronged the narrow length of our schooner's decks with their
ornamented and barbarous crowd, with the variegated colours 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. They had an independent bearing,
resolute eyes, a restrained manner; and we seem yet to hear their
soft voices speaking of battles, travels, and escapes; boasting with
composure, joking quietly; sometimes in well-bred murmurs extolling
their own valour, our generosity; or celebrating with loyal
enthusiasm the virtues of their ruler. We remember the faces, the
eyes, the voices, we see again the gleam of silk and metal; the
murmuring stir of that crowd, brilliant, festive, and martial; and we
seem to feel the touch of friendly brown hands that, after one short
grasp, return to rest on a chased hilt. They were Karain's people--a
devoted following. Their movements hung on his lips; they read their
thoughts in his eyes; he murmured to them nonchalantly of life and
death, and they accepted his words humbly, like gifts of fate. They
were all free men, and when speaking to him said, "Your slave." On his
passage voices died out as though he had walked guarded by silence;
awed whispers followed him. They called him their war-chief. He was
the ruler of three villages on a narrow plain; the master of an
insignificant foothold on the earth--of a conquered foothold that,
shaped like a young moon, lay ignored between the hills and the sea.

From the deck of our schooner, anchored in the middle of the bay, he
indicated by a theatrical sweep of his arm along the jagged outline of
the hills the whole of his domain; and the ample movement seemed to
drive back its limits, augmenting it suddenly into something so
immense and vague that for a moment it appeared to be bounded only by
the sky. And really, looking at that place, landlocked from the sea
and shut off from the land by the precipitous slopes of mountains,
it was difficult to believe in the existence of any neighbourhood. It
was still, complete, unknown, and full of a life that went on
stealthily with a troubling effect of solitude; of a life that seemed
unaccountably empty of anything that would stir the thought, touch the
heart, give a hint of the ominous sequence of days. It appeared to us
a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing
could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a
dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and
the morrow.

Karain swept his hand over it. "All mine!" He struck the deck with his
long staff; the gold head flashed like a falling star; very close
behind him a silent old fellow in a richly embroidered black jacket
alone of all the Malays around did not follow the masterful gesture
with a look. He did not even lift his eyelids. He bowed his head
behind his master, and without stirring held hilt up over his right
shoulder a long blade in a silver scabbard. He was there on duty, but
without curiosity, and seemed weary, not with age, but with the
possession of a burdensome secret of existence. Karain, heavy and
proud, had a lofty pose and breathed calmly. It was our first visit,
and we looked about curiously.

The bay was like a bottomless pit of intense light. The circular sheet
of water reflected a luminous sky, and the shores enclosing it made an
opaque ring of earth floating in an emptiness of transparent blue. The
hills, purple and arid, stood out heavily on the sky: their summits
seemed to fade into a coloured tremble as of ascending vapour; their
steep sides were streaked with the green of narrow ravines; at their
foot lay rice-fields, plantain-patches, yellow sands. A torrent wound
about like a dropped thread. Clumps of fruit-trees marked the
villages; slim palms put their nodding heads together above the low
houses; dried palm-leaf roofs shone afar, like roofs of gold, behind
the dark colonnades of tree-trunks; figures passed vivid and
vanishing; the smoke of fires stood upright above the masses of
flowering bushes; bamboo fences glittered, running away in broken
lines between the fields. A sudden cry on the shore sounded plaintive
in the distance, and ceased abruptly, as if stifled in the downpour of
sunshine. A puff of breeze made a flash of darkness on the smooth
water, touched our faces, and became forgotten. Nothing moved. The sun
blazed down into a shadowless hollow of colours and stillness.

It was the stage where, dressed splendidly for his part, he strutted,
incomparably dignified, made important by the power he had to awaken
an absurd expectation of something heroic going to take place--a
burst of action or song--upon the vibrating tone of a wonderful
sunshine. He was ornate and disturbing, for one could not imagine what
depth of horrible void such an elaborate front could be worthy to
hide. He was not masked--there was too much life in him, and a mask is
only a lifeless thing; but he presented himself essentially as an
actor, as a human being aggressively disguised. His smallest acts
were prepared and unexpected, his speeches grave, his sentences
ominous like hints and complicated like arabesques. He was treated
with a solemn respect accorded in the irreverent West only to the
monarchs of the stage, and he accepted the profound homage with a
sustained dignity seen nowhere else but behind the footlights and in
the condensed falseness of some grossly tragic situation. It was
almost impossible to remember who he was--only a petty chief of a
conveniently isolated corner of Mindanao, where we could in
comparative safety break the law against the traffic in firearms and
ammunition with the natives. What would happen should one of the
moribund Spanish gun-boats be suddenly galvanized into a flicker of
active life did not trouble us, once we were inside the bay--so
completely did it appear out of the reach of a meddling world; and
besides, in those days we were imaginative enough to look with a kind
of joyous equanimity on any chance there was of being quietly hanged
somewhere out of the way of diplomatic remonstrance. As to Karain,
nothing could happen to him unless what happens to all--failure and
death; but his quality was to appear clothed in the illusion of
unavoidable success. He seemed too effective, too necessary there,
too much of an essential condition for the existence of his land and
his people, to be destroyed by anything short of an earthquake. He
summed up his race, his country, the elemental force of ardent life,
of tropical nature. He had its luxuriant strength, its fascination;
and, like it, he carried the seed of peril within.

In many successive visits we came to know his stage well--the purple
semicircle of hills, the slim trees leaning over houses, the yellow
sands, the streaming green of ravines. All that had the crude and
blended colouring, the appropriateness almost excessive, the
suspicious immobility of a painted scene; and it enclosed so
perfectly the accomplished acting of his amazing pretences that the
rest of the world seemed shut out forever from the gorgeous spectacle.
There could be nothing outside. It was as if the earth had gone on
spinning, and had left that crumb of its surface alone in space. He
appeared utterly cut off from everything but 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--many enemies; else why should I buy your rifles and powder?"
He was always like this--word-perfect in his part, playing up
faithfully to the mysteries and certitudes of his surroundings.
"Friends and enemies"--nothing else. It was impalpable and vast. The
earth had indeed rolled away from under his land, and he, with his
handful of people, stood surrounded by a silent tumult as of
contending shades. Certainly no sound came from outside. "Friends and
enemies!" He might have added, "and memories," at least as far as he
himself was concerned; but he neglected to make that point then. It
made itself later on, though; but it was after the daily performance--
in the wings, so to speak, and with the lights out. Meantime he filled
the stage with barbarous dignity. Some ten years ago he had led his
people--a scratch lot of wandering Bugis--to the conquest of the bay,
and now in his august care they had forgotten all the past, and had
lost all concern for the future. He gave them wisdom, advice, reward,
punishment, life or death, with the same serenity of attitude and
voice. He understood irrigation and the art of war--the qualities of
weapons and the craft of boat-building. He could conceal his heart;
had more endurance; he could swim longer, and steer a canoe better
than any of his people; he could shoot straighter, and negotiate more
tortuously than any man of his race I knew. He was an adventurer of
the sea, an outcast, a ruler--and my very good friend. I wish him a
quick death in a stand-up fight, a death in sunshine; for he had known
remorse and power, and no man can demand more from life. Day after day
he appeared before us, incomparably faithful to the illusions of the
stage, and at sunset the night descended upon him quickly, like a
falling curtain. The seamed hills became black shadows towering high
upon a clear sky; above them the glittering confusion of stars
resembled a mad turmoil stilled by a gesture; sounds ceased, men
slept, forms vanished--and the reality of the universe alone
remained--a marvellous thing of darkness and glimmers.