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Within The Tides by Conrad, Joseph - Chapter 1

Within the Tides




Contents:

The Planter of Malata
The Partner
The Inn of the Two Witches
Because of the Dollars




THE PLANTER OF MALATA




CHAPTER I



In the private editorial office of the principal newspaper in a
great colonial city two men were talking. They were both young.
The stouter of the two, fair, and with more of an urban look about
him, was the editor and part-owner of the important newspaper.

The other's name was Renouard. That he was exercised in his mind
about something was evident on his fine bronzed face. He was a
lean, lounging, active man. The journalist continued the
conversation.

"And so you were dining yesterday at old Dunster's."

He used the word old not in the endearing sense in which it is
sometimes applied to intimates, but as a matter of sober fact. The
Dunster in question was old. He had been an eminent colonial
statesman, but had now retired from active politics after a tour in
Europe and a lengthy stay in England, during which he had had a
very good press indeed. The colony was proud of him.

"Yes. I dined there," said Renouard. "Young Dunster asked me just
as I was going out of his office. It seemed to be like a sudden
thought. And yet I can't help suspecting some purpose behind it.
He was very pressing. He swore that his uncle would be very
pleased to see me. Said his uncle had mentioned lately that the
granting to me of the Malata concession was the last act of his
official life."

"Very touching. The old boy sentimentalises over the past now and
then."

"I really don't know why I accepted," continued the other.
"Sentiment does not move me very easily. Old Dunster was civil to
me of course, but he did not even inquire how I was getting on with
my silk plants. Forgot there was such a thing probably. I must
say there were more people there than I expected to meet. Quite a
big party."

"I was asked," remarked the newspaper man. "Only I couldn't go.
But when did you arrive from Malata?"

"I arrived yesterday at daylight. I am anchored out there in the
bay--off Garden Point. I was in Dunster's office before he had
finished reading his letters. Have you ever seen young Dunster
reading his letters? I had a glimpse of him through the open door.
He holds the paper in both hands, hunches his shoulders up to his
ugly ears, and brings his long nose and his thick lips on to it
like a sucking apparatus. A commercial monster."

"Here we don't consider him a monster," said the newspaper man
looking at his visitor thoughtfully.

"Probably not. You are used to see his face and to see other
faces. I don't know how it is that, when I come to town, the
appearance of the people in the street strike me with such force.
They seem so awfully expressive."

"And not charming."

"Well--no. Not as a rule. The effect is forcible without being
clear. . . . I know that you think it's because of my solitary
manner of life away there."

"Yes. I do think so. It is demoralising. You don't see any one
for months at a stretch. You're leading an unhealthy life."

The other hardly smiled and murmured the admission that true enough
it was a good eleven months since he had been in town last.

"You see," insisted the other. "Solitude works like a sort of
poison. And then you perceive suggestions in faces--mysterious and
forcible, that no sound man would be bothered with. Of course you
do."

Geoffrey Renouard did not tell his journalist friend that the
suggestions of his own face, the face of a friend, bothered him as
much as the others. He detected a degrading quality in the touches
of age which every day adds to a human countenance. They moved and
disturbed him, like the signs of a horrible inward travail which
was frightfully apparent to the fresh eye he had brought from his
isolation in Malata, where he had settled after five strenuous
years of adventure and exploration.

"It's a fact," he said, "that when I am at home in Malata I see no
one consciously. I take the plantation boys for granted."

"Well, and we here take the people in the streets for granted. And
that's sanity."

The visitor said nothing to this for fear of engaging a discussion.
What he had come to seek in the editorial office was not
controversy, but information. Yet somehow he hesitated to approach
the subject. Solitary life makes a man reticent in respect of
anything in the nature of gossip, which those to whom chatting
about their kind is an everyday exercise regard as the commonest
use of speech.

"You very busy?" he asked.

The Editor making red marks on a long slip of printed paper threw
the pencil down.

"No. I am done. Social paragraphs. This office is the place
where everything is known about everybody--including even a great
deal of nobodies. Queer fellows drift in and out of this room.
Waifs and strays from home, from up-country, from the Pacific.
And, by the way, last time you were here you picked up one of that
sort for your assistant--didn't you?"

"I engaged an assistant only to stop your preaching about the evils
of solitude," said Renouard hastily; and the pressman laughed at
the half-resentful tone. His laugh was not very loud, but his
plump person shook all over. He was aware that his younger
friend's deference to his advice was based only on an imperfect
belief in his wisdom--or his sagacity. But it was he who had first
helped Renouard in his plans of exploration: the five-years'
programme of scientific adventure, of work, of danger and
endurance, carried out with such distinction and rewarded modestly
with the lease of Malata island by the frugal colonial government.
And this reward, too, had been due to the journalist's advocacy
with word and pen--for he was an influential man in the community.
Doubting very much if Renouard really liked him, he was himself
without great sympathy for a certain side of that man which he
could not quite make out. He only felt it obscurely to be his real
personality--the true--and, perhaps, the absurd. As, for instance,
in that case of the assistant. Renouard had given way to the
arguments of his friend and backer--the argument against the
unwholesome effect of solitude, the argument for the safety of
companionship even if quarrelsome. Very well. In this docility he
was sensible and even likeable. But what did he do next? Instead
of taking counsel as to the choice with his old backer and friend,
and a man, besides, knowing everybody employed and unemployed on
the pavements of the town, this extraordinary Renouard suddenly and
almost surreptitiously picked up a fellow--God knows who--and
sailed away with him back to Malata in a hurry; a proceeding
obviously rash and at the same time not quite straight. That was
the sort of thing. The secretly unforgiving journalist laughed a
little longer and then ceased to shake all over.

"Oh, yes. About that assistant of yours. . . ."

"What about him," said Renouard, after waiting a while, with a
shadow of uneasiness on his face.

"Have you nothing to tell me of him?"

"Nothing except. . . ." Incipient grimness vanished out of
Renouard's aspect and his voice, while he hesitated as if
reflecting seriously before he changed his mind. "No. Nothing
whatever."

"You haven't brought him along with you by chance--for a change."

The Planter of Malata stared, then shook his head, and finally
murmured carelessly: "I think he's very well where he is. But I
wish you could tell me why young Dunster insisted so much on my
dining with his uncle last night. Everybody knows I am not a
society man."

The Editor exclaimed at so much modesty. Didn't his friend know
that he was their one and only explorer--that he was the man
experimenting with the silk plant. . . .

"Still, that doesn't tell me why I was invited yesterday. For
young Dunster never thought of this civility before. . . ."

"Our Willie," said the popular journalist, "never does anything
without a purpose, that's a fact."

"And to his uncle's house too!"

"He lives there."

"Yes. But he might have given me a feed somewhere else. The
extraordinary part is that the old man did not seem to have
anything special to say. He smiled kindly on me once or twice, and
that was all. It was quite a party, sixteen people."

The Editor then, after expressing his regret that he had not been
able to come, wanted to know if the party had been entertaining.

Renouard regretted that his friend had not been there. Being a man
whose business or at least whose profession was to know everything
that went on in this part of the globe, he could probably have told
him something of some people lately arrived from home, who were
amongst the guests. Young Dunster (Willie), with his large shirt-
front and streaks of white skin shining unpleasantly through the
thin black hair plastered over the top of his head, bore down on
him and introduced him to that party, as if he had been a trained
dog or a child phenomenon. Decidedly, he said, he disliked Willie-
-one of these large oppressive men. . . .

A silence fell, and it was as if Renouard were not going to say
anything more when, suddenly, he came out with the real object of
his visit to the editorial room.

"They looked to me like people under a spell."

The Editor gazed at him appreciatively, thinking that, whether the
effect of solitude or not, this was a proof of a sensitive
perception of the expression of faces.

"You omitted to tell me their name, but I can make a guess. You
mean Professor Moorsom, his daughter and sister--don't you?"

Renouard assented. Yes, a white-haired lady. But from his
silence, with his eyes fixed, yet avoiding his friend, it was easy
to guess that it was not in the white-haired lady that he was
interested.

"Upon my word," he said, recovering his usual bearing. "It looks
to me as if I had been asked there only for the daughter to talk to
me."

He did not conceal that he had been greatly struck by her
appearance. Nobody could have helped being impressed. She was
different from everybody else in that house, and it was not only
the effect of her London clothes. He did not take her down to
dinner. Willie did that. It was afterwards, on the terrace. . . .

The evening was delightfully calm. He was sitting apart and alone,
and wishing himself somewhere else--on board the schooner for
choice, with the dinner-harness off. He hadn't exchanged forty
words altogether during the evening with the other guests. He saw
her suddenly all by herself coming towards him along the dimly
lighted terrace, quite from a distance.

She was tall and supple, carrying nobly on her straight body a head
of a character which to him appeared peculiar, something--well--
pagan, crowned with a great wealth of hair. He had been about to
rise, but her decided approach caused him to remain on the seat.
He had not looked much at her that evening. He had not that
freedom of gaze acquired by the habit of society and the frequent
meetings with strangers. It was not shyness, but the reserve of a
man not used to the world and to the practice of covert staring,
with careless curiosity. All he had captured by his first, keen,
instantly lowered, glance was the impression that her hair was
magnificently red and her eyes very black. It was a troubling
effect, but it had been evanescent; he had forgotten it almost till
very unexpectedly he saw her coming down the terrace slow and
eager, as if she were restraining herself, and with a rhythmic
upward undulation of her whole figure. The light from an open
window fell across her path, and suddenly all that mass of arranged
hair appeared incandescent, chiselled and fluid, with the daring
suggestion of a helmet of burnished copper and the flowing lines of
molten metal. It kindled in him an astonished admiration. But he
said nothing of it to his friend the Editor. Neither did he tell
him that her approach woke up in his brain the image of love's
infinite grace and the sense of the inexhaustible joy that lives in
beauty. No! What he imparted to the Editor were no emotions, but
mere facts conveyed in a deliberate voice and in uninspired words.

"That young lady came and sat down by me. She said: 'Are you
French, Mr. Renouard?'"

He had breathed a whiff of perfume of which he said nothing either-
-of some perfume he did not know. Her voice was low and distinct.
Her shoulders and her bare arms gleamed with an extraordinary
splendour, and when she advanced her head into the light he saw the
admirable contour of the face, the straight fine nose with delicate
nostrils, the exquisite crimson brushstroke of the lips on this
oval without colour. The expression of the eyes was lost in a
shadowy mysterious play of jet and silver, stirring under the red
coppery gold of the hair as though she had been a being made of
ivory and precious metals changed into living tissue.

". . . I told her my people were living in Canada, but that I was
brought up in England before coming out here. I can't imagine what
interest she could have in my history."

"And you complain of her interest?"

The accent of the all-knowing journalist seemed to jar on the
Planter of Malata.

"No!" he said, in a deadened voice that was almost sullen. But
after a short silence he went on. "Very extraordinary. I told her
I came out to wander at large in the world when I was nineteen,
almost directly after I left school. It seems that her late
brother was in the same school a couple of years before me. She
wanted me to tell her what I did at first when I came out here;
what other men found to do when they came out--where they went,
what was likely to happen to them--as if I could guess and foretell
from my experience the fates of men who come out here with a
hundred different projects, for hundreds of different reasons--for
no reason but restlessness--who come, and go, and disappear!
Preposterous. She seemed to want to hear their histories. I told
her that most of them were not worth telling."

The distinguished journalist leaning on his elbow, his head resting
against the knuckles of his left hand, listened with great
attention, but gave no sign of that surprise which Renouard,
pausing, seemed to expect.

"You know something," the latter said brusquely. The all-knowing
man moved his head slightly and said, "Yes. But go on."

"It's just this. There is no more to it. I found myself talking
to her of my adventures, of my early days. It couldn't possibly
have interested her. Really," he cried, "this is most
extraordinary. Those people have something on their minds. We sat
in the light of the window, and her father prowled about the
terrace, with his hands behind his back and his head drooping. The
white-haired lady came to the dining-room window twice--to look at
us I am certain. The other guests began to go away--and still we
sat there. Apparently these people are staying with the Dunsters.
It was old Mrs. Dunster who put an end to the thing. The father
and the aunt circled about as if they were afraid of interfering
with the girl. Then she got up all at once, gave me her hand, and
said she hoped she would see me again."

While he was speaking Renouard saw again the sway of her figure in
a movement of grace and strength--felt the pressure of her hand--
heard the last accents of the deep murmur that came from her throat
so white in the light of the window, and remembered the black rays
of her steady eyes passing off his face when she turned away. He
remembered all this visually, and it was not exactly pleasurable.
It was rather startling like the discovery of a new faculty in
himself. There are faculties one would rather do without--such,
for instance, as seeing through a stone wall or remembering a
person with this uncanny vividness. And what about those two
people belonging to her with their air of expectant solicitude!
Really, those figures from home got in front of one. In fact,
their persistence in getting between him and the solid forms of the
everyday material world had driven Renouard to call on his friend
at the office. He hoped that a little common, gossipy information
would lay the ghost of that unexpected dinner-party. Of course the
proper person to go to would have been young Dunster, but, he
couldn't stand Willie Dunster--not at any price.

In the pause the Editor had changed his attitude, faced his desk,
and smiled a faint knowing smile.

"Striking girl--eh?" he said.

The incongruity of the word was enough to make one jump out of the
chair. Striking! That girl striking! Stri . . .! But Renouard
restrained his feelings. His friend was not a person to give
oneself away to. And, after all, this sort of speech was what he
had come there to hear. As, however, he had made a movement he re-
settled himself comfortably and said, with very creditable
indifference, that yes--she was, rather. Especially amongst a lot
of over-dressed frumps. There wasn't one woman under forty there.

"Is that the way to speak of the cream of our society; the 'top of
the basket,' as the French say," the Editor remonstrated with mock
indignation. "You aren't moderate in your expressions--you know."

"I express myself very little," interjected Renouard seriously.

"I will tell you what you are. You are a fellow that doesn't count
the cost. Of course you are safe with me, but will you never
learn. . . ."

"What struck me most," interrupted the other, "is that she should
pick me out for such a long conversation."

"That's perhaps because you were the most remarkable of the men
there."

Renouard shook his head.

"This shot doesn't seem to me to hit the mark," he said calmly.
"Try again."

"Don't you believe me? Oh, you modest creature. Well, let me
assure you that under ordinary circumstances it would have been a
good shot. You are sufficiently remarkable. But you seem a pretty
acute customer too. The circumstances are extraordinary. By Jove
they are!"

He mused. After a time the Planter of Malata dropped a negligent -

"And you know them."

"And I know them," assented the all-knowing Editor, soberly, as
though the occasion were too special for a display of professional
vanity; a vanity so well known to Renouard that its absence
augmented his wonder and almost made him uneasy as if portending
bad news of some sort.

"You have met those people?" he asked.

"No. I was to have met them last night, but I had to send an
apology to Willie in the morning. It was then that he had the
bright idea to invite you to fill the place, from a muddled notion
that you could be of use. Willie is stupid sometimes. For it is
clear that you are the last man able to help."

"How on earth do I come to be mixed up in this--whatever it is?"
Renouard's voice was slightly altered by nervous irritation. "I
only arrived here yesterday morning."