Lord Jim By Joseph Conrad Chapters 12-13


'After these words, and without a change of attitude, he, so to speak, submitted himself passively to a state of silence. I kept him company; and suddenly, but not abruptly, as if the appointed time had arrived for his moderate and husky voice to come out of his immobility, he pronounced, "Mon Dieu! how the time passes!" Nothing could have been more commonplace than this remark; but its utterance coincided for me with a moment of vision. It's extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. Perhaps it's just as well; and it may be that it is this very dullness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome. Nevertheless, there can be but few of us who had never known one of these rare moments of awakening when we see, hear, understand ever so much — everything — in a flash — before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence. I raised my eyes when he spoke, and I saw him as though I had never seen him before. I saw his chin sunk on his breast, the clumsy folds of his coat, his clasped hands, his motionless pose, so curiously suggestive of his having been simply left there. Time had passed indeed: it had overtaken him and gone ahead. It had left him hopelessly behind with a few poor gifts: the iron-grey hair, the heavy fatigue of the tanned face, two scars, a pair of tarnished shoulder-straps; one of those steady, reliable men who are the raw material of great reputations, one of those uncounted lives that are buried without drums and trumpets under the foundations of monumental successes. "I am now third lieutenant of the Victorieuse" (she was the flagship of the French Pacific squadron at the time), he said, detaching his shoulders from the wall a couple of inches to introduce himself. I bowed slightly on my side of the table, and told him I commanded a merchant vessel at present anchored in Rushcutters' Bay. He had "remarked" her, — a pretty little craft. He was very civil about it in his impassive way. I even fancy he went the length of tilting his head in compliment as he repeated, breathing visibly the while, "Ah, yes. A little craft painted black — very pretty — very pretty (tres coquet)." After a time he twisted his body slowly to face the glass door on our right. "A dull town (triste ville)," he observed, staring into the street. It was a brilliant day; a southerly buster was raging, and we could see the passers-by, men and women, buffeted by the wind on the sidewalks, the sunlit fronts of the houses across the road blurred by the tall whirls of dust. "I descended on shore," he said, "to stretch my legs a little, but . . ." He didn't finish, and sank into the depths of his repose. "Pray — tell me," he began, coming up ponderously, "what was there at the bottom of this affair — precisely (au juste)? It is curious. That dead man, for instance — and so on."

'"There were living men too," I said; "much more curious."

'"No doubt, no doubt," he agreed half audibly, then, as if after mature consideration, murmured, "Evidently." I made no difficulty in communicating to him what had interested me most in this affair. It seemed as though he had a right to know: hadn't he spent thirty hours on board the Palna — had he not taken the succession, so to speak, had he not done "his possible"? He listened to me, looking more priest-like than ever, and with what — probably on account of his downcast eyes — had the appearance of devout concentration. Once or twice he elevated his eyebrows (but without raising his eyelids), as one would say "The devil!" Once he calmly exclaimed, "Ah, bah!" under his breath, and when I had finished he pursed his lips in a deliberate way and emitted a sort of sorrowful whistle.

'In any one else it might have been an evidence of boredom, a sign of indifference; but he, in his occult way, managed to make his immobility appear profoundly responsive, and as full of valuable thoughts as an egg is of meat. What he said at last was nothing more than a "Very interesting," pronounced politely, and not much above a whisper. Before I got over my disappointment he added, but as if speaking to himself, "That's it. That is it." His chin seemed to sink lower on his breast, his body to weigh heavier on his seat. I was about to ask him what he meant, when a sort of preparatory tremor passed over his whole person, as a faint ripple may be seen upon stagnant water even before the wind is felt. "And so that poor young man ran away along with the others," he said, with grave tranquillity.

'I don't know what made me smile: it is the only genuine smile of mine I can remember in connection with Jim's affair. But somehow this simple statement of the matter sounded funny in French. . . . "S'est enfui avec les autres," had said the lieutenant. And suddenly I began to admire the discrimination of the man. He had made out the point at once: he did get hold of the only thing I cared about. I felt as though I were taking professional opinion on the case. His imperturbable and mature calmness was that of an expert in possession of the facts, and to whom one's perplexities are mere child's-play. "Ah! The young, the young," he said indulgently. "And after all, one does not die of it." "Die of what?" I asked swiftly. "Of being afraid." He elucidated his meaning and sipped his drink.

'I perceived that the three last fingers of his wounded hand were stiff and could not move independently of each other, so that he took up his tumbler with an ungainly clutch. "One is always afraid. One may talk, but . . ." He put down the glass awkwardly. . . . "The fear, the fear — look you — it is always there." . . . He touched his breast near a brass button, on the very spot where Jim had given a thump to his own when protesting that there was nothing the matter with his heart. I suppose I made some sign of dissent, because he insisted, "Yes! yes! One talks, one talks; this is all very fine; but at the end of the reckoning one is no cleverer than the next man — and no more brave. Brave! This is always to be seen. I have rolled my hump (roule ma bosse)," he said, using the slang expression with imperturbable seriousness, "in all parts of the world; I have known brave men — famous ones! Allez!" . . . He drank carelessly. . . . "Brave — you conceive — in the Service — one has got to be — the trade demands it (le metier veut ca). Is it not so?" he appealed to me reasonably. "Eh bien! Each of them — I say each of them, if he were an honest man — bien entendu — would confess that there is a point — there is a point — for the best of us — there is somewhere a point when you let go everything (vous lachez tout). And you have got to live with that truth — do you see? Given a certain combination of circumstances, fear is sure to come. Abominable funk (un trac epouvantable). And even for those who do not believe this truth there is fear all the same — the fear of themselves. Absolutely so. Trust me. Yes. Yes. . . . At my age one knows what one is talking about — que diable!" . . . He had delivered himself of all this as immovably as though he had been the mouthpiece of abstract wisdom, but at this point he heightened the effect of detachment by beginning to twirl his thumbs slowly. "It's evident — parbleu!" he continued; "for, make up your mind as much as you like, even a simple headache or a fit of indigestion (un derangement d'estomac) is enough to . . . Take me, for instance — I have made my proofs. Eh bien! I, who am speaking to you, once . . ."

'He drained his glass and returned to his twirling. "No, no; one does not die of it," he pronounced finally, and when I found he did not mean to proceed with the personal anecdote, I was extremely disappointed; the more so as it was not the sort of story, you know, one could very well press him for. I sat silent, and he too, as if nothing could please him better. Even his thumbs were still now. Suddenly his lips began to move. "That is so," he resumed placidly. "Man is born a coward (L'homme est ne poltron). It is a difficulty — parbleu! It would be too easy other vise. But habit — habit — necessity — do you see? — the eye of others — voila. One puts up with it. And then the example of others who are no better than yourself, and yet make good countenance. . . ."

'His voice ceased.

'"That young man — you will observe — had none of these inducements — at least at the moment," I remarked.

'He raised his eyebrows forgivingly: "I don't say; I don't say. The young man in question might have had the best dispositions — the best dispositions," he repeated, wheezing a little.

'"I am glad to see you taking a lenient view," I said. "His own feeling in the matter was — ah! — hopeful, and . . ."

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