26 December 2013

Xmas Reading: The Feast by J*s*ph C*nr*d

[Sir Max Beerbohm imagines how Joseph Conrad might tell a Christmas story]

The hut in which slept the white man was on a clearing between the forest and the river. Silence, the silence murmurous and unquiet of a tropical night, brooded over the hut that, baked through by the sun, sweated a vapour beneath the cynical light of the stars. Mahamo lay rigid and watchful at the hut’s mouth. In his upturned eyes, and along the polished surface of his lean body black and immobile, the stars were reflected, creating an illusion of themselves who are illusions.

The roofs of the congested trees, writhing in some kind of agony private and eternal, made tenebrous and shifty silhouettes against the sky, like shapes cut out of black paper by a maniac who pushes them with his thumb this way and that, irritably, on a concave surface of blue steel. Resin oozed unseen from the upper branches to the trunks swathed in creepers that clutched and interlocked with tendrils venomous, frantic and faint. Down below, by force of habit, the lush herbage went through the farce of growth—that farce old and screaming, whose trite end is decomposition.

Within the hut the form of the white man, corpulent and pale, was covered with a mosquito-net that was itself illusory like everything else, only more so. Flying squadrons of mosquitoes inside its meshes flickered and darted over him, working hard, but keeping silence so as not to excite him from sleep. Cohorts of yellow ants disputed him against cohorts of purple ants, the two kinds slaying one another in thousands. The battle was undecided when suddenly, with no such warning as it gives in some parts of the world, the sun blazed up over the horizon, turning night into day, and the insects vanished back into their camps.

The white man ground his knuckles into the corners of his eyes, emitting that snore final and querulous of a middle-aged man awakened rudely. With a gesture brusque but flaccid he plucked aside the net and peered around. The bales of cotton cloth, the beads, the brass wire, the bottles of rum, had not been spirited away in the night. So far so good. The faithful servant of his employers was now at liberty to care for his own interests. He regarded himself, passing his hands over his skin.

“Hi! Mahamo!” he shouted. “I’ve been eaten up.”

The islander, with one sinuous motion, sprang from the ground, through the mouth of the hut. Then, after a glance, he threw high his hands in thanks to such good and evil spirits as had charge of his concerns. In a tone half of reproach, half of apology, he murmured—

“You white men sometimes say strange things that deceive the heart.”

“Reach me that ammonia bottle, d’you hear?” answered the white man. “This is a pretty place you’ve brought me to!” He took a draught. “Christmas Day, too! Of all the— But I suppose it seems all right to you, you funny blackamoor, to be here on Christmas Day?”

“We are here on the day appointed, Mr. Williams. It is a feast-day of your people?”

Mr. Williams had lain back, with closed eyes, on his mat. Nostalgia was doing duty to him for imagination. He was wafted to a bedroom in Marylebone, where in honour of the Day he lay late dozing, with great contentment; outside, a slush of snow in the street, the sound of churchbells; from below a savour of especial cookery. “Yes,” he said, “it’s a feast-day of my people.”

“Of mine also,” said the islander humbly.

“Is it though? But they'll do business first?”

“They must first do that.”

“And they’ll bring their ivory with them?”

“Every man will bring ivory,” answered the islander, with a smile gleaming and wide.

“How soon’ll they be here?”

“Has not the sun risen? They are on their way.”

“Well, I hope they’ll hurry. The sooner we’re off this cursed island of yours the better. Take all those things out,” Mr. Williams added, pointing to the merchandise, “and arrange them—neatly, mind you!”

In certain circumstances it is right that a man be humoured in trifles. Mahamo, having borne out the merchandise, arranged it very neatly.

While Mr. Williams made his toilet, the sun and the forest, careless of the doings of white and black men alike, waged their warfare implacable and daily. The forest from its inmost depths sent forth perpetually its legions of shadows that fell dead in the instant of exposure to the enemy whose rays heroic and absurd its outposts annihilated. There came from those inilluminable depths the equable rumour of myriads of winged things and crawling things newly roused to the task of killing and being killed. Thence detached itself, little by little, an insidious sound of a drum beaten. This sound drew more near.

Mr. Williams, issuing from the hut, heard it, and stood gaping towards it.

“Is that them?” he asked.

“That is they,” the islander murmured, moving away towards the edge of the forest.

Sounds of chanting were a now audible accompanient to the drum.

“What’s that they’re singing?” asked Mr. Williams.

“They sing of their business,” said Mahamo.

“Oh!” Mr. Williams was slightly shocked. “I’d have thought they’d be singing of their feast.”

“It is of their feast they sing.”

It has been stated that Mr. Williams was not imaginative. But a few years of life in climates alien and intemperate had disordered his nerves. There was that in the rhythms of the hymn which made bristle his flesh.

Suddenly, when they were very near, the voices ceased, leaving a legacy of silence more sinister than themselves. And now the black spaces between the trees were relieved by bits of white that were the eyeballs and teeth of Mahamo’s brethren.

“It was of their feast, it was of you, they sang,” said Mahamo.

“Look here,” cried Mr. Williams in his voice of a man not to be trifled with. “Look here, if you've—”

He was silenced by sight of what seemed to be a young sapling sprung up from the ground within a yard of him—a young sapling tremulous, with a root of steel. Then a thread-like shadow skimmed the air, and another spear came impinging the ground within an inch of his feet.

As he turned in his flight he saw the goods so neatly arranged at his orders, and there flashed through him, even in the thick of the spears, the thought that he would be a grave loss to his employers. This—for Mr. Williams was, not less than the goods, of a kind easily replaced—was an illusion. It was the last of Mr. Williams’ illusions.

[from A Christmas Garland (1912)]

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