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The Rescue — By Joseph Conrad
Reviewed by KATHERINE MANSFIELD
The writer who has achieved more than a common popularity, who has been recognized as one of the very few whose place is not in the crowded and jostled front rank but a delightful airy perch among the mountains, is to be envied—and not to be envied. The distinguished position has its special drawbacks. Whether it is the effect upon him of the rarefied air, or of the dignified solitude, or of the cloud interposing and obscuring the smaller eminences, the valleys and the plains from his, at one time, eager gaze, we do not know, but the books which come down to us from the mountains are no longer the books they were. They are variations upon the theme that made him famous; they are ‘safe’ books, guaranteed to leave unchallenged the masterpiece that put him there. Who would tempt Providence twice? And so from timidity or pride, from poverty of imagination, or a high sense of his ‘unique’ duty, he continues to repeat himself, and it is only his memory which is in our flowing cups richly remembered.
Mr. Joseph Conrad is a remarkable exception to this lamentable case. Although he has long been recognized as one of our first writers to-day, he has never yet succeeded in satisfying our curiosity. We are always waiting for the next book, always imagining that in the new book he will reveal himself fully; there will come floating in, on a full tide, his passion for the sea, his sense of style, his spectacular view of the universe, his romantic vision of the hearts of men, and we shall have the whole of Conrad—his measure—the bounds of his experience. These are large demands, but we do not think there is any doubt that they are more than satisfied by the appearance of ‘The Rescue.’ This fascinating book revives in us the youthful feeling that we are not so much reading a story of adventure as living in and through it, absorbing it, making it our own. This feeling is not wholly the result of the method, the style which the author has chosen; it arises more truly from the quality of the emotion in which the book is steeped. What that emotion is it were hard to define; it is, perhaps, a peculiar responsive sensitiveness to the significance of everything, down to the slightest detail that has a place in his vision. Even in the sober low-toned beginning the author succeeds in conveying a warning as of an approaching storm; it is as though the silence was made to bear a mysterious implication. And in this heightened, quickened state of awareness we are made conscious of his passionate insistence upon the importance of extracting from the moment every drop of life that it contains, wherewith to nourish his adventure.
For ‘The Rescue’ is supremely a novel of adventure in which Mr. Conrad has succeeded in blending the thrilling narrative of why Captain Tom Lingard of the brig ‘Lightning’ fails to keep his promise to recapture for the young Rajah Hassim and his sister Immada their stolen kingdom, and the equally thrilling narrative of the capture of Tom Lingard’s soul by a white woman. The scene is ‘the shallow sea that foams and murmurs on the PAGE 215shores of the thousand islands, big and little, which make up the Malay Archipelago,’ and the strip of coast-line where the rival chiefs, Belareb and Tengga, have their settlements. We cannot but remark how shadowy the land appears throughout this book; it is as though the water were the natural element of man. We see the line of the coast like a dark wing; it is land ‘seen faintly under the grey sky, black and with a blurred outline like the straight edge of a dissolving shore’; or it is the dazzling vision of the settlements seen from the lagoon by Edith Travers…. ‘the flutter of the streamers above the brown roofs … the stir of palm groves, the black shadows inland and the dazzling white beach of coral strand all ablaze in its formidable mystery.’ Only on one occasion when Jaffir, the servant of princes, the messenger of great men, is described gliding and dodging through the jungle, ‘between the trees, through the undergrowth, his brown body glistening with sweat, his firm limbs gleaming like limbs of imperishable bronze through the mass of green leaves,’ do we lose the sensation that all is seen from the deck of the brig ‘Lightning,’ or of the old derelict vessel, the ‘Emma.’ As the sea appears to the landsman menacing and threatening, so does the land appear to Lingard. His strength depends upon his perfect knowledge of his little brig and upon a way of life which is, as it were, ruled by the tides.
The friendship that existed between Lingard and the Rajah Hassim was the result of a fight ashore when the young chief came to the rescue just in time to save disaster. Both these noble natures recognized the bond that must exist for ever after between them. For their characters, and that of the Lady Immada, sister to Hassim, are such as to give to their adventure a richness and splendour far beyond success or failure. It is right that they should have become united, that the chivalry in Lingard should have responded to the shadowy call of high romance, for King Tom or Rajah Tulla, as he is known to Belareb and his followers, could not have PAGE 216remained a trader. He is the embodiment of that virtue which—we are tempted to believe—Mr. Conrad ranks highest, Fidelity, and the world, even the world of sixty years ago, has no use for such a man.
The drama, the conflict begins when an English yacht runs ashore upon some outlying shoals off the coast of Borneo and appeals to Lingard for help. It is, at this moment, most important to his enterprise that nothing shall interfere with his rendezvous with the chief Belareb, who has promised his aid in return for arms and ammunition. Moreover, he realizes that a yacht stranded on a mud-bank is in great danger from the natives. And so he sails to their rescue and offers to take the owner, Mr. Travers, his wife and solitary passenger on board until the danger is past. But Mr. Travers treats him as an impertinent adventurer and orders him off. That same night the two gentlemen, while taking a constitutional on a sandbank, are captured, and there is nothing for Edith Travers to do but to place herself in the hands of Lingard. These three English people are ‘the sort of people that pass without leaving footprints’; they are of the world, worldly. Travers himself is almost the Englishman of caricature, the bald-headed, red-faced, blustering, snobbish fool who imagines he can carry his castle on his back; D’Alcacer is a diplomatist, refined and dispassionate with an emptiness, a reserve that hides nothing at his heart. Each of them is in his way a falsity, an appearance, not a man, and when they are captured, in the magnificently decorative scenes where Lingard parleys with the Malays, the barbarians, in their mingled state and squalor and savagery, seem to blot them out of existence. But the woman, who is more false than either of them and emptier, is powerful. She is exceedingly beautiful. Tall, slender, all white and gold, with her strange air of aloofness and strength, with her strange silences, her gift for conveying with a glance an understanding and a sympathy which is almost god-like, she might herself represent Romance, but Romance in her world and not in PAGE 217Lingard’s. She is the flower of corruption, the poisonous vine that can only feed upon the life of another. And Lingard is her perfect, willing prey. The only one who recognizes her for what she is, is the Lady Immada, but it is, from the very first glance that Lingard gives her, too late. Life, Fate chose that she should come sailing out of the blue, that she should wreck his desires and his ambitions and sail away again, leaving no trace upon the sky and sea.
Why should this disaster have happened? It is to put the seal of greatness on ‘The Rescue’ that the author gives us no answer.
(July 2, 1920)