Literature Post > Conrad, Joseph > Victory An Island Tale > Chapter 1

Victory An Island Tale by Conrad, Joseph - Chapter 1



The last word of this novel was written on 29 May 1914. And that
last word was the single word of the title.

Those were the times of peace. Now that the moment of publication
approaches I have been considering the discretion of altering the
title-page. The word "Victory" the shining and tragic goal of noble
effort, appeared too great, too august, to stand at the head of a
mere novel. There was also the possibility of falling under the
suspicion of commercial astuteness deceiving the public into the
belief that the book had something to do with war.

Of that, however, I was not afraid very much. What influenced my
decision most were the obscure promptings of that pagan residuum of
awe and wonder which lurks still at the bottom of our old humanity.
"Victory" was the last word I had written in peace-time. It was the
last literary thought which had occurred to me before the doors of
the Temple of Janus flying open with a crash shook the minds, the
hearts, the consciences of men all over the world. Such coincidence
could not be treated lightly. And I made up my mind to let the word
stand, in the same hopeful spirit in which some simple citizen of
Old Rome would have "accepted the Omen."

The second point on which I wish to offer a remark is the existence
(in the novel) of a person named Schomberg.

That I believe him to be true goes without saying. I am not likely
to offer pinchbeck wares to my public consciously. Schomberg is an
old member of my company. A very subordinate personage in Lord Jim
as far back as the year 1899, he became notably active in a certain
short story of mine published in 1902. Here he appears in a still
larger part, true to life (I hope), but also true to himself. Only,
in this instance, his deeper passions come into play, and thus his
grotesque psychology is completed at last.

I don't pretend to say that this is the entire Teutonic psychology;
but it is indubitably the psychology of a Teuton. My object in
mentioning him here is to bring out the fact that, far from being
the incarnation of recent animosities, he is the creature of my old
deep-seated, and, as it were, impartial conviction.

J. C.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J. C.



There is, as every schoolboy knows in this scientific age, a very
close chemical relation between coal and diamonds. It is the
reason, I believe, why some people allude to coal as "black
diamonds." Both these commodities represent wealth; but coal is a
much less portable form of property. There is, from that point of
view, a deplorable lack of concentration in coal. Now, if a coal-
mine could be put into one's waistcoat pocket--but it can't! At the
same time, there is a fascination in coal, the supreme commodity of
the age in which we are camped like bewildered travellers in a
garish, unrestful hotel. And I suppose those two considerations,
the practical and the mystical, prevented Heyst--Axel Heyst--from
going away.

The Tropical Belt Coal Company went into liquidation. The world of
finance is a mysterious world in which, incredible as the fact may
appear, evaporation precedes liquidation. First the capital
evaporates, and then the company goes into liquidation. These are
very unnatural physics, but they account for the persistent inertia
of Heyst, at which we "out there" used to laugh among ourselves--but
not inimically. An inert body can do no harm to anyone, provokes no
hostility, is scarcely worth derision. It may, indeed, be in the
way sometimes; but this could not be said of Axel Heyst. He was out
of everybody's way, as if he were perched on the highest peak of the
Himalayas, and in a sense as conspicuous. Everyone in that part of
the world knew of him, dwelling on his little island. An island is
but the top of a mountain. Axel Heyst, perched on it immovably, was
surrounded, instead of the imponderable stormy and transparent ocean
of air merging into infinity, by a tepid, shallow sea; a passionless
offshoot of the great waters which embrace the continents of this
globe. His most frequent visitors were shadows, the shadows of
clouds, relieving the monotony of the inanimate, brooding sunshine
of the tropics. His nearest neighbour--I am speaking now of things
showing some sort of animation--was an indolent volcano which smoked
faintly all day with its head just above the northern horizon, and
at night levelled at him, from amongst the clear stars, a dull red
glow, expanding and collapsing spasmodically like the end of a
gigantic cigar puffed at intermittently in the dark. Axel Heyst was
also a smoker; and when he lounged out on his veranda with his
cheroot, the last thing before going to bed, he made in the night
the same sort of glow and of the same size as that other one so many
miles away.

In a sense, the volcano was company to him in the shades of the
night--which were often too thick, one would think, to let a breath
of air through. There was seldom enough wind to blow a feather
along. On most evenings of the year Heyst could have sat outside
with a naked candle to read one of the books left him by his late
father. It was not a mean store. But he never did that. Afraid of
mosquitoes, very likely. Neither was he ever tempted by the silence
to address any casual remarks to the companion glow of the volcano.
He was not mad. Queer chap--yes, that may have been said, and in
fact was said; but there is a tremendous difference between the two,
you will allow.

On the nights of full moon the silence around Samburan--the "Round
Island" of the charts--was dazzling; and in the flood of cold light
Heyst could see his immediate surroundings, which had the aspect of
an abandoned settlement invaded by the jungle: vague roofs above
low vegetation, broken shadows of bamboo fences in the sheen of long
grass, something like an overgrown bit of road slanting among ragged
thickets towards the shore only a couple of hundred yards away, with
a black jetty and a mound of some sort, quite inky on its unlighted
side. But the most conspicuous object was a gigantic blackboard
raised on two posts and presenting to Heyst, when the moon got over
that side, the white letters "T. B. C. Co." in a row at least two
feet high. These were the initials of the Tropical Belt Coal
Company, his employers--his late employers, to be precise.

According to the unnatural mysteries of the financial world, the T.
B. C. Company's capital having evaporated in the course of two
years, the company went into liquidation--forced, I believe, not
voluntary. There was nothing forcible in the process, however. It
was slow; and while the liquidation--in London and Amsterdam--
pursued its languid course, Axel Heyst, styled in the prospectus
"manager in the tropics," remained at his post on Samburan, the No.
1 coaling-station of the company.

And it was not merely a coaling-station. There was a coal-mine
there, with an outcrop in the hillside less than five hundred yards
from the rickety wharf and the imposing blackboard. The company's
object had been to get hold of all the outcrops on tropical islands
and exploit them locally. And, Lord knows, there were any amount of
outcrops. It was Heyst who had located most of them in this part of
the tropical belt during his rather aimless wanderings, and being a
ready letter-writer had written pages and pages about them to his
friends in Europe. At least, so it was said.

We doubted whether he had any visions of wealth--for himself, at any
rate. What he seemed mostly concerned for was the "stride forward,"
as he expressed it, in the general organization of the universe,
apparently. He was heard by more than a hundred persons in the
islands talking of a "great stride forward for these regions." The
convinced wave of the hand which accompanied the phrase suggested
tropical distances being impelled onward. In connection with the
finished courtesy of his manner, it was persuasive, or at any rate
silencing--for a time, at least. Nobody cared to argue with him
when he talked in this strain. His earnestness could do no harm to
anybody. There was no danger of anyone taking seriously his dream
of tropical coal, so what was the use of hurting his feelings?

Thus reasoned men in reputable business offices where he had his
entree as a person who came out East with letters of introduction--
and modest letters of credit, too--some years before these coal-
outcrops began to crop up in his playfully courteous talk. From the
first there was some difficulty in making him out. He was not a
traveller. A traveller arrives and departs, goes on somewhere.
Heyst did not depart. I met a man once--the manager of the branch
of the Oriental Banking Corporation in Malacca--to whom Heyst
exclaimed, in no connection with anything in particular (it was in
the billiard-room of the club):

"I am enchanted with these islands!"

He shot it out suddenly, a propos des bottes, as the French say, and
while chalking his cue. And perhaps it was some sort of
enchantment. There are more spells than your commonplace magicians
ever dreamed of.

Roughly speaking, a circle with a radius of eight hundred miles
drawn round a point in North Borneo was in Heyst's case a magic
circle. It just touched Manila, and he had been seen there. It
just touched Saigon, and he was likewise seen there once. Perhaps
these were his attempts to break out. If so, they were failures.
The enchantment must have been an unbreakable one. The manager--the
man who heard the exclamation--had been so impressed by the tone,
fervour, rapture, what you will, or perhaps by the incongruity of it
that he had related the experience to more than one person.

"Queer chap, that Swede," was his only comment; but this is the
origin of the name "Enchanted Heyst" which some fellows fastened on
our man.

He also had other names. In his early years, long before he got so
becomingly bald on the top, he went to present a letter of
introduction to Mr. Tesman of Tesman Brothers, a Sourabaya firm--
tip-top house. Well, Mr. Tesman was a kindly, benevolent old
gentleman. He did not know what to make of that caller. After
telling him that they wished to render his stay among the islands as
pleasant as possible, and that they were ready to assist him in his
plans, and so on, and after receiving Heyst's thanks--you know the
usual kind of conversation--he proceeded to query in a slow,
paternal tone:

"And you are interested in--?"

"Facts," broke in Heyst in his courtly voice. "There's nothing
worth knowing but facts. Hard facts! Facts alone, Mr. Tesman."

I don't know if old Tesman agreed with him or not, but he must have
spoken about it, because, for a time, our man got the name of "Hard
Facts." He had the singular good fortune that his sayings stuck to
him and became part of his name. Thereafter he mooned about the
Java Sea in some of the Tesmans' trading schooners, and then
vanished, on board an Arab ship, in the direction of New Guinea. He
remained so long in that outlying part of his enchanted circle that
he was nearly forgotten before he swam into view again in a native
proa full of Goram vagabonds, burnt black by the sun, very lean, his
hair much thinned, and a portfolio of sketches under his arm. He
showed these willingly, but was very reserved as to anything else.
He had had an "amusing time," he said. A man who will go to New
Guinea for fun--well!

Later, years afterwards, when the last vestiges of youth had gone
off his face and all the hair off the top of his head, and his red-
gold pair of horizontal moustaches had grown to really noble
proportions, a certain disreputable white man fastened upon him an
epithet. Putting down with a shaking hand a long glass emptied of
its contents--paid for by Heyst--he said, with that deliberate
sagacity which no mere water-drinker ever attained:

"Heyst's a puffect g'n'lman. Puffect! But he's a ut-uto-utopist."

Heyst had just gone out of the place of public refreshment where
this pronouncement was voiced. Utopist, eh? Upon my word, the only
thing I heard him say which might have had a bearing on the point
was his invitation to old McNab himself. Turning with that finished
courtesy of attitude, movement voice, which was his obvious
characteristic, he had said with delicate playfulness:

"Come along and quench your thirst with us, Mr. McNab!"

Perhaps that was it. A man who could propose, even playfully, to
quench old McNab's thirst must have been a utopist, a pursuer of
chimeras; for of downright irony Heyst was not prodigal. And, may
be, this was the reason why he was generally liked. At that epoch
in his life, in the fulness of his physical development, of a broad,
martial presence, with his bald head and long moustaches, he
resembled the portraits of Charles XII, of adventurous memory.
However, there was no reason to think that Heyst was in any way a
fighting man.