Books may be written in all sorts of places. Verbal inspiration may enter the berth of a mariner on board a ship frozen fast in a river in the middle of a town; and since saints are supposed to look benignantly on humble believers, I indulge in the pleasant fancy that the shade of old Flaubert—who imagined himself to be (among other things) a descendant of Vikings—might have hovered with amused interest over the docks of a 2,000-ton steamer called the Adowa, on board of which, gripped by the inclement winter alongside a quay in Rouen, the tenth chapter of “Almayer’s Folly” was begun. With interest, I say, for was not the kind Norman giant with enormous mustaches and a thundering voice the last of the Romantics? Was he not, in his unworldly, almost ascetic, devotion to his art, a sort of literary, saint-like hermit?
“‘It has set at last,’ said Nina to her mother, pointing to the hills behind which the sun had sunk.” . . . These words of Almayer’s romantic daughter I remember tracing on the gray paper of a pad which rested on the blanket of my bed-place. They referred to a sunset in Malayan Isles and shaped themselves in my mind, in a hallucinated vision of forests and rivers and seas, far removed from a commercial and yet romantic town of the northern hemisphere. But at that moment the mood of visions and words was cut short by the third officer, a cheerful and casual youth, coming in with a bang of the door and the exclamation: “You’ve made it jolly warm in here.”
It was warm. I had turned on the steam heater after placing a tin under the leaky water-cock—for perhaps you do not know that water will leak where steam will not. I am not aware of what my young friend had been doing on deck all that morning, but the hands he rubbed together vigorously were very red and imparted to me a chilly feeling by their mere aspect. He has remained the only banjoist of my acquaintance, and being also a younger son of a retired colonel, the poem of Mr. Kipling, by a strange aberration of associated ideas, always seems to me to have been written with an exclusive view to his person. When he did not play the banjo he loved to sit and look at it. He proceeded to this sentimental inspection, and after meditating a while over the strings under my silent scrutiny inquired, airily:
“What are you always scribbling there, if it’s fair to ask?”
It was a fair enough question, but I did not answer him, and simply turned the pad over with a movement of instinctive secrecy: I could not have told him he had put to flight the psychology of Nina Almayer, her opening speech of the tenth chapter, and the words of Mrs. Almayer’s wisdom which were to follow in the ominous oncoming of a tropical night. I could not have told him that Nina had said, “It has set at last.” He would have been extremely surprised and perhaps have dropped his precious banjo. Neither could I have told him that the sun of my sea-going was setting, too, even as I wrote the words expressing the impatience of passionate youth bent on its desire. I did not know this myself, and it is safe to say he would not have cared, though he was an excellent young fellow and treated me with more deference than, in our relative positions, I was strictly entitled to.
He lowered a tender gaze on his banjo, and I went on looking through the port-hole. The round opening framed in its brass rim a fragment of the quays, with a row of casks ranged on the frozen ground and the tail end of a great cart. A red-nosed carter in a blouse and a woollen night-cap leaned against the wheel. An idle, strolling custom house guard, belted over his blue capote, had the air of being depressed by exposure to the weather and the monotony of official existence. The background of grimy houses found a place in the picture framed by my port-hole, across a wide stretch of paved quay brown with frozen mud. The colouring was sombre, and the most conspicuous feature was a little cafe with curtained windows and a shabby front of white woodwork, corresponding with the squalor of these poorer quarters bordering the river. We had been shifted down there from another berth in the neighbourhood of the Opera House, where that same port-hole gave me a view of quite another sort of cafe—the best in the town, I believe, and the very one where the worthy Bovary and his wife, the romantic daughter of old Pere Renault, had some refreshment after the memorable performance of an opera which was the tragic story of Lucia di Lammermoor in a setting of light music.
I could recall no more the hallucination of the Eastern Archipelago which I certainly hoped to see again. The story of “Almayer’s Folly” got put away under the pillow for that day. I do not know that I had any occupation to keep me away from it; the truth of the matter is that on board that ship we were leading just then a contemplative life. I will not say anything of my privileged position. I was there “just to oblige,” as an actor of standing may take a small part in the benefit performance of a friend.
As far as my feelings were concerned I did not wish to be in that steamer at that time and in those circumstances. And perhaps I was not even wanted there in the usual sense in which a ship “wants” an officer. It was the first and last instance in my sea life when I served ship-owners who have remained completely shadowy to my apprehension. I do not mean this for the well-known firm of London ship-brokers which had chartered the ship to the, I will not say short-lived, but ephemeral Franco-Canadian Transport Company. A death leaves something behind, but there was never anything tangible left from the F. C. T. C. It flourished no longer than roses live, and unlike the roses it blossomed in the dead of winter, emitted a sort of faint perfume of adventure, and died before spring set in. But indubitably it was a company, it had even a house-flag, all white with the letters F. C. T. C. artfully tangled up in a complicated monogram. We flew it at our mainmast head, and now I have come to the conclusion that it was the only flag of its kind in existence. All the same we on board, for many days, had the impression of being a unit of a large fleet with fortnightly departures for Montreal and Quebec as advertised in pamphlets and prospectuses which came aboard in a large package in Victoria Dock, London, just before we started for Rouen, France. And in the shadowy life of the F. C. T. C. lies the secret of that, my last employment in my calling, which in a remote sense interrupted the rhythmical development of Nina Almayer’s story.
The then secretary of the London Shipmasters’ Society, with its modest rooms in Fenchurch Street, was a man of indefatigable activity and the greatest devotion to his task. He is responsible for what was my last association with a ship. I call it that because it can hardly be called a sea-going experience. Dear Captain Froud—it is impossible not to pay him the tribute of affectionate familiarity at this distance of years—had very sound views as to the advancement of knowledge and status for the whole body of the officers of the mercantile marine. He organized for us courses of professional lectures, St. John ambulance classes, corresponded industriously with public bodies and members of Parliament on subjects touching the interests of the service; and as to the oncoming of some inquiry or commission relating to matters of the sea and to the work of seamen, it was a perfect godsend to his need of exerting himself on our corporate behalf. Together with this high sense of his official duties he had in him a vein of personal kindness, a strong disposition to do what good he could to the individual members of that craft of which in his time he had been a very excellent master. And what greater kindness can one do to a seaman than to put him in the way of employment? Captain Froud did not see why the Shipmasters’ Society, besides its general guardianship of our interests, should not be unofficially an employment agency of the very highest class.
“I am trying to persuade all our great ship-owning firms to come to us for their men. There is nothing of a trade-union spirit about our society, and I really don’t see why they should not,” he said once to me. “I am always telling the captains, too, that, all things being equal, they ought to give preference to the members of the society. In my position I can generally find for them what they want among our members or our associate members.”
In my wanderings about London from west to east and back again (I was very idle then) the two little rooms in Fenchurch Street were a sort of resting-place where my spirit, hankering after the sea, could feel itself nearer to the ships, the men, and the life of its choice—nearer there than on any other spot of the solid earth. This resting-place used to be, at about five o’clock in the afternoon, full of men and tobacco smoke, but Captain Froud had the smaller room to himself and there he granted private interviews, whose principal motive was to render service. Thus, one murky November afternoon he beckoned me in with a crooked finger and that peculiar glance above his spectacles which is perhaps my strongest physical recollection of the man.
“I have had in here a shipmaster, this morning,” he said, getting back to his desk and motioning me to a chair, “who is in want of an officer. It’s for a steamship. You know, nothing pleases me more than to be asked, but, unfortunately, I do not quite see my way . . .”
As the outer room was full of men I cast a wondering glance at the closed door; but he shook his head.
“Oh, yes, I should be only too glad to get that berth for one of them. But the fact of the matter is, the captain of that ship wants an officer who can speak French fluently, and that’s not so easy to find. I do not know anybody myself but you. It’s a second officer’s berth and, of course, you would not care . . . would you now? I know that it isn’t what you are looking for.”
It was not. I had given myself up to the idleness of a haunted man who looks for nothing but words wherein to capture his visions. But I admit that outwardly I resembled sufficiently a man who could make a second officer for a steamer chartered by a French company. I showed no sign of being haunted by the fate of Nina and by the murmurs of tropical forests; and even my intimate intercourse with Almayer (a person of weak character) had not put a visible mark upon my features. For many years he and the world of his story had been the companions of my imagination without, I hope, impairing my ability to deal with the realities of sea life. I had had the man and his surroundings with me ever since my return from the eastern waters—some four years before the day of which I speak.
It was in the front sitting-room of furnished apartments in a Pimlico square that they first began to live again with a vividness and poignancy quite foreign to our former real intercourse. I had been treating myself to a long stay on shore, and in the necessity of occupying my mornings Almayer (that old acquaintance) came nobly to the rescue.
Before long, as was only proper, his wife and daughter joined him round my table, and then the rest of that Pantai band came full of words and gestures. Unknown to my respectable landlady, it was my practice directly after my breakfast to hold animated receptions of Malays, Arabs, and half-castes. They did not clamour aloud for my attention. They came with a silent and irresistible appeal—and the appeal, I affirm here, was not to my self-love or my vanity. It seems now to have had a moral character, for why should the memory of these beings, seen in their obscure, sun-bathed existence, demand to express itself in the shape of a novel, except on the ground of that mysterious fellowship which unites in a community of hopes and fears all the dwellers on this earth?
I did not receive my visitors with boisterous rapture as the bearers of any gifts of profit or fame. There was no vision of a printed book before me as I sat writing at that table, situated in a decayed part of Belgravia. After all these years, each leaving its evidence of slowly blackened pages, I can honestly say that it is a sentiment akin to pity which prompted me to render in words assembled with conscientious care the memory of things far distant and of men who had lived.
But, coming back to Captain Froud and his fixed idea of never disappointing ship owners or ship-captains, it was not likely that I should fail him in his ambition—to satisfy at a few hours’ notice the unusual demand for a French-speaking officer. He explained to me that the ship was chartered by a French company intending to establish a regular monthly line of sailings from Rouen, for the transport of French emigrants to Canada. But, frankly, this sort of thing did not interest me very much. I said gravely that if it were really a matter of keeping up the reputation of the Shipmasters’ Society I would consider it. But the consideration was just for form’s sake. The next day I interviewed the captain, and I believe we were impressed favourably with each other. He explained that his chief mate was an excellent man in every respect and that he could not think of dismissing him so as to give me the higher position; but that if I consented to come as second officer I would be given certain special advantages—and so on.
I told him that if I came at all the rank really did not matter.
“I am sure,” he insisted, “you will get on first rate with Mr. Paramor.”
I promised faithfully to stay for two trips at least, and it was in those circumstances that what was to be my last connection with a ship began. And after all there was not even one single trip. It may be that it was simply the fulfilment of a fate, of that written word on my forehead which apparently forbade me, through all my sea wanderings, ever to achieve the crossing of the Western Ocean—using the words in that special sense in which sailors speak of Western Ocean trade, of Western Ocean packets, of Western Ocean hard cases. The new life attended closely upon the old, and the nine chapters of “Almayer’s Folly” went with me to the Victoria Dock, whence in a few days we started for Rouen. I won’t go so far as saying that the engaging of a man fated never to cross the Western Ocean was the absolute cause of the Franco-Canadian Transport Company’s failure to achieve even a single passage. It might have been that of course; but the obvious, gross obstacle was clearly the want of money. Four hundred and sixty bunks for emigrants were put together in the ‘tween decks by industrious carpenters while we lay in the Victoria Dock, but never an emigrant turned up in Rouen—of which, being a humane person, I confess I was glad. Some gentlemen from Paris—I think there were three of them, and one was said to be the chairman—turned up, indeed, and went from end to end of the ship, knocking their silk hats cruelly against the deck beams. I attended them personally, and I can vouch for it that the interest they took in things was intelligent enough, though, obviously, they had never seen anything of the sort before. Their faces as they went ashore wore a cheerfully inconclusive expression. Notwithstanding that this inspecting ceremony was supposed to be a preliminary to immediate sailing, it was then, as they filed down our gangway, that I received the inward monition that no sailing within the meaning of our charter party would ever take place.
It must be said that in less than three weeks a move took place. When we first arrived we had been taken up with much ceremony well toward the centre of the town, and, all the street corners being placarded with the tricolor posters announcing the birth of our company, the petit bourgeois with his wife and family made a Sunday holiday from the inspection of the ship. I was always in evidence in my best uniform to give information as though I had been a Cook’s tourists’ interpreter, while our quartermasters reaped a harvest of small change from personally conducted parties. But when the move was made—that move which carried us some mile and a half down the stream to be tied up to an altogether muddier and shabbier quay—then indeed the desolation of solitude became our lot. It was a complete and soundless stagnation; for as we had the ship ready for sea to the smallest detail, as the frost was hard and the days short, we were absolutely idle—idle to the point of blushing with shame when the thought struck us that all the time our salaries went on. Young Cole was aggrieved because, as he said, we could not enjoy any sort of fun in the evening after loafing like this all day; even the banjo lost its charm since there was nothing to prevent his strumming on it all the time between the meals. The good Paramor—he was really a most excellent fellow—became unhappy as far as was possible to his cheery nature, till one dreary day I suggested, out of sheer mischief, that he should employ the dormant energies of the crew in hauling both cables up on deck and turning them end for end.
For a moment Mr. Paramor was radiant. “Excellent idea!” but directly his face fell. “Why . . . Yes! But we can’t make that job last more than three days,” he muttered, discontentedly. I don’t know how long he expected us to be stuck on the riverside outskirts of Rouen, but I know that the cables got hauled up and turned end for end according to my satanic suggestion, put down again, and their very existence utterly forgotten, I believe, before a French river pilot came on board to take our ship down, empty as she came, into the Havre roads. You may think that this state of forced idleness favoured some advance in the fortunes of Almayer and his daughter. Yet it was not so. As if it were some sort of evil spell, my banjoist cabin mate’s interruption, as related above, had arrested them short at the point of that fateful sunset for many weeks together. It was always thus with this book, begun in ‘89 and finished in ‘94—with that shortest of all the novels which it was to be my lot to write. Between its opening exclamation calling Almayer to his dinner in his wife’s voice and Abdullah’s (his enemy) mental reference to the God of Islam—“The Merciful, the Compassionate”—which closes the book, there were to come several long sea passages, a visit (to use the elevated phraseology suitable to the occasion) to the scenes (some of them) of my childhood and the realization of childhood’s vain words, expressing a light-hearted and romantic whim.
It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while looking at a map of Africa of the time and putting my finger on the blank space then representing the unsolved mystery of that continent, I said to myself, with absolute assurance and an amazing audacity which are no longer in my character now:
“When I grow up I shall go there.”
And of course I thought no more about it till after a quarter of a century or so an opportunity offered to go there—as if the sin of childish audacity were to be visited on my mature head. Yes. I did go there: there being the region of Stanley Falls, which in ‘68 was the blankest of blank spaces on the earth’s figured surface. And the MS. of “Almayer’s Folly,” carried about me as if it were a talisman or a treasure, went there, too. That it ever came out of there seems a special dispensation of Providence, because a good many of my other properties, infinitely more valuable and useful to me, remained behind through unfortunate accidents of transportation. I call to mind, for instance, a specially awkward turn of the Congo between Kinchassa and Leopoldsville—more particularly when one had to take it at night in a big canoe with only half the proper number of paddlers. I failed in being the second white man on record drowned at that interesting spot through the upsetting of a canoe. The first was a young Belgian officer, but the accident happened some months before my time, and he, too, I believe, was going home; not perhaps quite so ill as myself—but still he was going home. I got round the turn more or less alive, though I was too sick to care whether I did or not, and, always with “Almayer’s Folly” among my diminishing baggage, I arrived at that delectable capital, Boma, where, before the departure of the steamer which was to take me home, I had the time to wish myself dead over and over again with perfect sincerity. At that date there were in existence only seven chapters of “Almayer’s Folly,” but the chapter in my history which followed was that of a long, long illness and very dismal convalescence. Geneva, or more precisely the hydropathic establishment of Champel, is rendered forever famous by the termination of the eighth chapter in the history of Almayer’s decline and fall. The events of the ninth are inextricably mixed up with the details of the proper management of a waterside warehouse owned by a certain city firm whose name does not matter. But that work, undertaken to accustom myself again to the activities of a healthy existence, soon came to an end. The earth had nothing to hold me with for very long. And then that memorable story, like a cask of choice Madeira, got carried for three years to and fro upon the sea. Whether this treatment improved its flavour or not, of course I would not like to say. As far as appearance is concerned it certainly did nothing of the kind. The whole MS. acquired a faded look and an ancient, yellowish complexion. It became at last unreasonable to suppose that anything in the world would ever happen to Almayer and Nina. And yet something most unlikely to happen on the high seas was to wake them up from their state of suspended animation.
What is it that Novalis says: “It is certain my conviction gains infinitely the moment an other soul will believe in it.” And what is a novel if not a conviction of our fellow-men’s existence strong enough to take upon itself a form of imagined life clearer than reality and whose accumulated verisimilitude of selected episodes puts to shame the pride of documentary history. Providence which saved my MS. from the Congo rapids brought it to the knowledge of a helpful soul far out on the open sea. It would be on my part the greatest ingratitude ever to forget the sallow, sunken face and the deep-set, dark eyes of the young Cambridge man (he was a “passenger for his health” on board the good ship Torrens outward bound to Australia) who was the first reader of “Almayer’s Folly”—the very first reader I ever had.
“Would it bore you very much in reading a MS. in a handwriting like mine?” I asked him one evening, on a sudden impulse at the end of a longish conversation whose subject was Gibbon’s History.
Jacques (that was his name) was sitting in my cabin one stormy dog-watch below, after bring me a book to read from his own travelling store.
“Not at all,” he answered, with his courteous intonation and a faint smile. As I pulled a drawer open his suddenly aroused curiosity gave him a watchful expression. I wonder what he expected to see. A poem, maybe. All that’s beyond guessing now.
He was not a cold, but a calm man, still more subdued by disease—a man of few words and of an unassuming modesty in general intercourse, but with something uncommon in the whole of his person which set him apart from the undistinguished lot of our sixty passengers. His eyes had a thoughtful, introspective look. In his attractive reserved manner and in a veiled sympathetic voice he asked:
“What is this?” “It is a sort of tale,” I answered, with an effort. “It is not even finished yet. Nevertheless, I would like to know what you think of it.” He put the MS. in the breast-pocket of his jacket; I remember perfectly his thin, brown fingers folding it lengthwise. “I will read it to-morrow,” he remarked, seizing the door handle; and then watching the roll of the ship for a propitious moment, he opened the door and was gone. In the moment of his exit I heard the sustained booming of the wind, the swish of the water on the decks of the Torrens, and the subdued, as if distant, roar of the rising sea. I noted the growing disquiet in the great restlessness of the ocean, and responded professionally to it with the thought that at eight o’clock, in another half hour or so at the farthest, the topgallant sails would have to come off the ship.
Next day, but this time in the first dog watch, Jacques entered my cabin. He had a thick woollen muffler round his throat, and the MS. was in his hand. He tendered it to me with a steady look, but without a word. I took it in silence. He sat down on the couch and still said nothing. I opened and shut a drawer under my desk, on which a filled-up log-slate lay wide open in its wooden frame waiting to be copied neatly into the sort of book I was accustomed to write with care, the ship’s log-book. I turned my back squarely on the desk. And even then Jacques never offered a word. “Well, what do you say?” I asked at last. “Is it worth finishing?” This question expressed exactly the whole of my thoughts.
“Distinctly,” he answered, in his sedate, veiled voice, and then coughed a little.
“Were you interested?” I inquired further, almost in a whisper.
In a pause I went on meeting instinctively the heavy rolling of the ship, and Jacques put his feet upon the couch. The curtain of my bed-place swung to and fro as if it were a punkah, the bulkhead lamp circled in its gimbals, and now and then the cabin door rattled slightly in the gusts of wind. It was in latitude 40 south, and nearly in the longitude of Greenwich, as far as I can remember, that these quiet rites of Almayer’s and Nina’s resurrection were taking place. In the prolonged silence it occurred to me that there was a good deal of retrospective writing in the story as far as it went. Was it intelligible in its action, I asked myself, as if already the story-teller were being born into the body of a seaman. But I heard on deck the whistle of the officer of the watch and remained on the alert to catch the order that was to follow this call to attention. It reached me as a faint, fierce shout to “Square the yards.” “Aha!” I thought to myself, “a westerly blow coming on.” Then I turned to my very first reader, who, alas! was not to live long enough to know the end of the tale.
“Now let me ask you one more thing: is the story quite clear to you as it stands?”
He raised his dark, gentle eyes to my face and seemed surprised.
This was all I was to hear from his lips concerning the merits of “Almayer’s Folly.” We never spoke together of the book again. A long period of bad weather set in and I had no thoughts left but for my duties, while poor Jacques caught a fatal cold and had to keep close in his cabin. When we arrived in Adelaide the first reader of my prose went at once up-country, and died rather suddenly in the end, either in Australia or it may be on the passage while going home through the Suez Canal. I am not sure which it was now, and I do not think I ever heard precisely; though I made inquiries about him from some of our return passengers who, wandering about to “see the country” during the ship’s stay in port, had come upon him here and there. At last we sailed, homeward bound, and still not one line was added to the careless scrawl of the many pages which poor Jacques had had the patience to read with the very shadows of Eternity gathering already in the hollows of his kind, steadfast eyes.
The purpose instilled into me by his simple and final “Distinctly” remained dormant, yet alive to await its opportunity. I dare say I am compelled—unconsciously compelled—now to write volume after volume, as in past years I was compelled to go to sea voyage after voyage. Leaves must follow upon one an other as leagues used to follow in the days gone by, on and on to the appointed end, which, being Truth itself, is One—one for all men and for all occupations.
I do not know which of the two impulses has appeared more mysterious and more wonderful to me. Still, in writing, as in going to sea, I had to wait my opportunity. Let me confess here that I was never one of those wonderful fellows that would go afloat in a wash-tub for the sake of the fun, and if I may pride myself upon my consistency, it was ever just the same with my writing. Some men, I have heard, write in railway carriages, and could do it, perhaps, sitting crossed-legged on a clothes-line; but I must confess that my sybaritic disposition will not consent to write without something at least resembling a chair. Line by line, rather than page by page, was the growth of “Almayer’s Folly.”
And so it happened that I very nearly lost the MS., advanced now to the first words of the ninth chapter, in the Friedrichstrasse Poland, or more precisely to Ukraine. On an early, sleepy morning changing trains in a hurry I left my Gladstone bag in a refreshment-room. A worthy and intelligent Koffertrager rescued it. Yet in my anxiety I was not thinking of the MS., but of all the other things that were packed in the bag.
In Warsaw, where I spent two days, those wandering pages were never exposed to the light, except once to candle-light, while the bag lay open on the chair. I was dressing hurriedly to dine at a sporting club. A friend of my childhood (he had been in the Diplomatic Service, but had turned to growing wheat on paternal acres, and we had not seen each other for over twenty years) was sitting on the hotel sofa waiting to carry me off there.
“You might tell me something of your life while you are dressing,” he suggested, kindly.
I do not think I told him much of my life story either then or later. The talk of the select little party with which he made me dine was extremely animated and embraced most subjects under heaven, from big-game shooting in Africa to the last poem published in a very modernist review, edited by the very young and patronized by the highest society. But it never touched upon “Almayer’s Folly,” and next morning, in uninterrupted obscurity, this inseparable companion went on rolling with me in the southeast direction toward the government of Kiev.
At that time there was an eight hours’ drive, if not more, from the railway station to the country-house which was my destination.
“Dear boy” (these words were always written in English), so ran the last letter from that house received in London—“Get yourself driven to the only inn in the place, dine as well as you can, and some time in the evening my own confidential servant, factotum and majordomo, a Mr. V. S. (I warn you he is of noble extraction), will present himself before you, reporting the arrival of the small sledge which will take you here on the next day. I send with him my heaviest fur, which I suppose with such overcoats as you may have with you will keep you from freezing on the road.”
Sure enough, as I was dining, served by a Hebrew waiter, in an enormous barn-like bedroom with a freshly painted floor, the door opened and, in a travelling costume of long boots, big sheepskin cap, and a short coat girt with a leather belt, the Mr. V. S. (of noble extraction), a man of about thirty-five, appeared with an air of perplexity on his open and mustached countenance. I got up from the table and greeted him in Polish, with, I hope, the right shade of consideration demanded by his noble blood and his confidential position. His face cleared up in a wonderful way. It appeared that, notwithstanding my uncle’s earnest assurances, the good fellow had remained in doubt of our understanding each other. He imagined I would talk to him in some foreign language.
I was told that his last words on getting into the sledge to come to meet me shaped an anxious exclamation:
“Well! Well! Here I am going, but God only knows how I am to make myself understood to our master’s nephew.”
We understood each other very well from the first. He took charge of me as if I were not quite of age. I had a delightful boyish feeling of coming home from school when he muffled me up next morning in an enormous bearskin travelling-coat and took his seat protectively by my side. The sledge was a very small one, and it looked utterly insignificant, almost like a toy behind the four big bays harnessed two and two. We three, counting the coachman, filled it completely. He was a young fellow with clear blue eyes; the high collar of his livery fur coat framed his cheery countenance and stood all round level with the top of his head.
“Now, Joseph,” my companion addressed him, “do you think we shall manage to get home before six?” His answer was that we would surely, with God’s help, and providing there were no heavy drifts in the long stretch between certain villages whose names came with an extremely familiar sound to my ears. He turned out an excellent coachman, with an instinct for keeping the road among the snow-covered fields and a natural gift of getting the best out of his horses.
“He is the son of that Joseph that I suppose the Captain remembers. He who used to drive the Captain’s late grandmother of holy memory,” remarked V. S., busy tucking fur rugs about my feet.
I remembered perfectly the trusty Joseph who used to drive my grandmother. Why! he it was who let me hold the reins for the first time in my life and allowed me to play with the great four-in-hand whip outside the doors of the coach-house.
“What became of him?” I asked. “He is no longer serving, I suppose.”
“He served our master,” was the reply. “But he died of cholera ten years ago now—that great epidemic that we had. And his wife died at the same time—the whole houseful of them, and this is the only boy that was left.”
The MS. of “Almayer’s Folly” was reposing in the bag under our feet.
I saw again the sun setting on the plains as I saw it in the travels of my childhood. It set, clear and red, dipping into the snow in full view as if it were setting on the sea. It was twenty-three years since I had seen the sun set over that land; and we drove on in the darkness which fell swiftly upon the livid expanse of snows till, out of the waste of a white earth joining a bestarred sky, surged up black shapes, the clumps of trees about a village of the Ukrainian plain. A cottage or two glided by, a low interminable wall, and then, glimmering and winking through a screen of fir-trees, the lights of the master’s house.
That very evening the wandering MS. of “Almayer’s Folly” was unpacked and unostentatiously laid on the writing-table in my room, the guest-room which had been, I was informed in an affectionately careless tone, awaiting me for some fifteen years or so. It attracted no attention from the affectionate presence hovering round the son of the favourite sister.
“You won’t have many hours to yourself while you are staying with me, brother,” he said—this form of address borrowed from the speech of our peasants being the usual expression of the highest good humour in a moment of affectionate elation. “I shall be always coming in for a chat.”
As a matter of fact, we had the whole house to chat in, and were everlastingly intruding upon each other. I invaded the retirement of his study where the principal feature was a colossal silver inkstand presented to him on his fiftieth year by a subscription of all his wards then living. He had been guardian of many orphans of land-owning families from the three southern provinces—ever since the year 1860. Some of them had been my school fellows and playmates, but not one of them, girls or boys, that I know of has ever written a novel. One or two were older than myself—considerably older, too. One of them, a visitor I remember in my early years, was the man who first put me on horseback, and his four-horse bachelor turnout, his perfect horsemanship and general skill in manly exercises, was one of my earliest admirations. I seem to remember my mother looking on from a colonnade in front of the dining-room windows as I was lifted upon the pony, held, for all I know, by the very Joseph—the groom attached specially to my grandmother’s service—who died of cholera. It was certainly a young man in a dark-blue, tailless coat and huge Cossack trousers, that being the livery of the men about the stables. It must have been in 1864, but reckoning by another mode of calculating time, it was certainly in the year in which my mother obtained permission to travel south and visit her family, from the exile into which she had followed my father. For that, too, she had had to ask permission, and I know that one of the conditions of that favour was that she should be treated exactly as a condemned exile herself. Yet a couple of years later, in memory of her eldest brother, who had served in the Guards and dying early left hosts of friends and a loved memory in the great world of St. Petersburg, some influential personages procured for her this permission—it was officially called the “Highest Grace”—of a four months’ leave from exile.
This is also the year in which I first begin to remember my mother with more distinctness than a mere loving, wide-browed, silent, protecting presence, whose eyes had a sort of commanding sweetness; and I also remember the great gathering of all the relations from near and far, and the gray heads of the family friends paying her the homage of respect and love in the house of her favourite brother, who, a few years later, was to take the place for me of both my parents.
I did not understand the tragic significance of it all at the time, though, indeed, I remember that doctors also came. There were no signs of invalidism about her—but I think that already they had pronounced her doom unless perhaps the change to a southern climate could re-establish her declining strength. For me it seems the very happiest period of my existence. There was my cousin, a delightful, quick-tempered little girl, some months younger than myself, whose life, lovingly watched over as if she were a royal princess, came to an end with her fifteenth year. There were other children, too, many of whom are dead now, and not a few whose very names I have forgotten. Over all this hung the oppressive shadow of the great Russian empire—the shadow lowering with the darkness of a new-born national hatred fostered by the Moscow school of journalists against the Poles after the ill-omened rising of 1863.
This is a far cry back from the MS. of “Almayer’s Folly,” but the public record of these formative impressions is not the whim of an uneasy egotism. These, too, are things human, already distant in their appeal. It is meet that something more should be left for the novelist’s children than the colours and figures of his own hard-won creation. That which in their grown-up years may appear to the world about them as the most enigmatic side of their natures and perhaps must remain forever obscure even to themselves, will be their unconscious response to the still voice of that inexorable past from which his work of fiction and their personalities are remotely derived.
Only in men’s imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence. Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art as of life. An imaginative and exact rendering of authentic memories may serve worthily that spirit of piety toward all things human which sanctions the conceptions of a writer of tales, and the emotions of the man reviewing his own experience.
Categories: English Literature