Lord Jim By Joseph Conrad Chapter 14

'An emaciated patriarch in a suit of white drill, a solah topi with a green-lined rim on a head trembling with age, joined us after crossing the street in a trotting shuffle, and stood propped with both hands on the handle of an umbrella. A white beard with amber streaks hung lumpily down to his waist. He blinked his creased eyelids at me in a bewildered way. "How do you do? how do you do?" he piped amiably, and tottered. "A little deaf," said Chester aside. "Did you drag him over six thousand miles to get a cheap steamer?" I asked. "I would have taken him twice round the world as soon as look at him," said Chester with immense energy. "The steamer will be the making of us, my lad. Is it my fault that every skipper and shipowner in the whole of blessed Australasia turns out a blamed fool? Once I talked for three hours to a man in Auckland. 'Send a ship,' I said, 'send a ship. I'll give you half of the first cargo for yourself, free gratis for nothing — just to make a good start.' Says he, 'I wouldn't do it if there was no other place on earth to send a ship to.' Perfect ass, of course. Rocks, currents, no anchorage, sheer cliff to lay to, no insurance company would take the risk, didn't see how he could get loaded under three years. Ass! I nearly went on my knees to him. 'But look at the thing as it is,' says I. 'Damn rocks and hurricanes. Look at it as it is. There's guano there Queensland sugar-planters would fight for — fight for on the quay, I tell you.' . . . What can you do with a fool? . . . 'That's one of your little jokes, Chester,' he says. . . . Joke! I could have wept. Ask Captain Robinson here. . . . And there was another shipowning fellow — a fat chap in a white waistcoat in Wellington, who seemed to think I was up to some swindle or other. 'I don't know what sort of fool you're looking for,' he says, 'but I am busy just now. Good morning.' I longed to take him in my two hands and smash him through the window of his own office. But I didn't. I was as mild as a curate. 'Think of it,' says I. 'Do think it over. I'll call to-morrow.' He grunted something about being 'out all day.' On the stairs I felt ready to beat my head against the wall from vexation. Captain Robinson here can tell you. It was awful to think of all that lovely stuff lying waste under the sun — stuff that would send the sugar-cane shooting sky-high. The making of Queensland! The making of Queensland! And in Brisbane, where I went to have a last try, they gave me the name of a lunatic. Idiots! The only sensible man I came across was the cabman who drove me about. A broken-down swell he was, I fancy. Hey! Captain Robinson? You remember I told you about my cabby in Brisbane — don't you? The chap had a wonderful eye for things. He saw it all in a jiffy. It was a real pleasure to talk with him. One evening after a devil of a day amongst shipowners I felt so bad that, says I, 'I must get drunk. Come along; I must get drunk, or I'll go mad.' 'I am your man,' he says; 'go ahead.' I don't know what I would have done without him. Hey! Captain Robinson."

'He poked the ribs of his partner. "He! he! he!" laughed the Ancient, looked aimlessly down the street, then peered at me doubtfully with sad, dim pupils. . . . "He! he! he!" . . . He leaned heavier on the umbrella, and dropped his gaze on the ground. I needn't tell you I had tried to get away several times, but Chester had foiled every attempt by simply catching hold of my coat. "One minute. I've a notion." "What's your infernal notion?" I exploded at last. "If you think I am going in with you . . ." "No, no, my boy. Too late, if you wanted ever so much. We've got a steamer." "You've got the ghost of a steamer," I said. "Good enough for a start — there's no superior nonsense about us. Is there, Captain Robinson?" "No! no! no!" croaked the old man without lifting his eyes, and the senile tremble of his head became almost fierce with determination. "I understand you know that young chap," said Chester, with a nod at the street from which Jim had disappeared long ago. "He's been having grub with you in the Malabar last night — so I was told."

'I said that was true, and after remarking that he too liked to live well and in style, only that, for the present, he had to be saving of every penny — "none too many for the business! Isn't that so, Captain Robinson?" — he squared his shoulders and stroked his dumpy moustache, while the notorious Robinson, coughing at his side, clung more than ever to the handle of the umbrella, and seemed ready to subside passively into a heap of old bones. "You see, the old chap has all the money," whispered Chester confidentially. "I've been cleaned out trying to engineer the dratted thing. But wait a bit, wait a bit. The good time is coming." . . . He seemed suddenly astonished at the signs of impatience I gave. "Oh, crakee!" he cried; "I am telling you of the biggest thing that ever was, and you . . ." "I have an appointment," I pleaded mildly. "What of that?" he asked with genuine surprise; "let it wait." "That's exactly what I am doing now," I remarked; "hadn't you better tell me what it is you want?" "Buy twenty hotels like that," he growled to himself; "and every joker boarding in them too — twenty times over." He lifted his head smartly "I want that young chap." "I don't understand," I said. "He's no good, is he?" said Chester crisply. "I know nothing about it," I protested. "Why, you told me yourself he was taking it to heart," argued Chester. "Well, in my opinion a chap who . . . Anyhow, he can't be much good; but then you see I am on the look-out for somebody, and I've just got a thing that will suit him. I'll give him a job on my island." He nodded significantly. "I'm going to dump forty coolies there — if I've to steal 'em. Somebody must work the stuff. Oh! I mean to act square: wooden shed, corrugated-iron roof — I know a man in Hobart who will take my bill at six months for the materials. I do. Honour bright. Then there's the water-supply. I'll have to fly round and get somebody to trust me for half-a-dozen second-hand iron tanks. Catch rain-water, hey? Let him take charge. Make him supreme boss over the coolies. Good idea, isn't it? What do you say?" "There are whole years when not a drop of rain falls on Walpole," I said, too amazed to laugh. He bit his lip and seemed bothered. "Oh, well, I will fix up something for them — or land a supply. Hang it all! That's not the question."

'I said nothing. I had a rapid vision of Jim perched on a shadowless rock, up to his knees in guano, with the screams of sea-birds in his ears, the incandescent ball of the sun above his head; the empty sky and the empty ocean all a-quiver, simmering together in the heat as far as the eye could reach. "I wouldn't advise my worst enemy . . ." I began. "What's the matter with you?" cried Chester; "I mean to give him a good screw — that is, as soon as the thing is set going, of course. It's as easy as falling off a log. Simply nothing to do; two six-shooters in his belt . . . Surely he wouldn't be afraid of anything forty coolies could do — with two six-shooters and he the only armed man too! It's much better than it looks. I want you to help me to talk him over." "No!" I shouted. Old Robinson lifted his bleared eyes dismally for a moment, Chester looked at me with infinite contempt. "So you wouldn't advise him?" he uttered slowly. "Certainly not," I answered, as indignant as though he had requested me to help murder somebody; "moreover, I am sure he wouldn't. He is badly cut up, but he isn't mad as far as I know." "He is no earthly good for anything," Chester mused aloud. "He would just have done for me. If you only could see a thing as it is, you would see it's the very thing for him. And besides . . . Why! it's the most splendid, sure chance . . ." He got angry suddenly. "I must have a man. There! . . ." He stamped his foot and smiled unpleasantly. "Anyhow, I could guarantee the island wouldn't sink under him — and I believe he is a bit particular on that point." "Good morning," I said curtly. He looked at me as though I had been an incomprehensible fool. . . . "Must be moving, Captain Robinson," he yelled suddenly into the old man's ear. "These Parsee Johnnies are waiting for us to clinch the bargain." He took his partner under the arm with a firm grip, swung him round, and, unexpectedly, leered at me over his shoulder. "I was trying to do him a kindness," he asserted, with an air and tone that made my blood boil. "Thank you for nothing — in his name," I rejoined. "Oh! you are devilish smart," he sneered; "but you are like the rest of them. Too much in the clouds. See what you will do with him." "I don't know that I want to do anything with him." "Don't you?" he spluttered; his grey moustache bristled with anger, and by his side the notorious Robinson, propped on the umbrella, stood with his back to me, as patient and still as a worn-out cab-horse. "I haven't found a guano island," I said. "It's my belief you wouldn't know one if you were led right up to it by the hand," he riposted quickly; "and in this world you've got to see a thing first, before you can make use of it. Got to see it through and through at that, neither more nor less." "And get others to see it, too," I insinuated, with a glance at the bowed back by his side. Chester snorted at me. "His eyes are right enough — don't you worry. He ain't a puppy." "Oh, dear, no!" I said. "Come along, Captain Robinson," he shouted, with a sort of bullying deference under the rim of the old man's hat; the Holy Terror gave a submissive little jump. The ghost of a steamer was waiting for them, Fortune on that fair isle! They made a curious pair of Argonauts. Chester strode on leisurely, well set up, portly, and of conquering mien; the other, long, wasted, drooping, and hooked to his arm, shuffled his withered shanks with desperate haste.'

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